River of Grass: Three Days in the Everglades

A patch of moonlight, shining through the tent door, falls on my foot. 6:11 am. Last night's star tapestry — a blinking reminder of how far I've come from New York city's reaches — has rolled away, swallowed by the lunar orb. 

I stretch and wince, feeling the usual ache from side-sleeping on a slowly deflating discount air pad. Turning to the other side of the tent, I steal a glimpse through the mesh vent pocket: the Florida Bay shoreline is a slim strip of indigo, broken by a pale lemon slice of the sun's first moments.

Life begins to wake up. The vultures who haunt the hardgrass field come alive, screeching and swooping overhead. I curse their rude interruptions. Waves from the bay break in rushed succession. 

With a long drive ahead, I reluctantly begin to pack up. First, the flimsy sleeping pad, compressed into a neat roll. Next, blanket, rain jacket, hat, and long sleeve shirt stuffed into my backpack. Then flashlight, solar lantern, book, journal, pen, maps, knife. Keys and phone tucked in my pocket.

Daybreak at Flamingo, Everglades National Park.

Daybreak at Flamingo, Everglades National Park.

6:35. At the edge of the bay, a royal palm tree stands in silhouette, black on orange, and in this light, I watch a spider suspend itself on the outside of the tent, working its way up and down invisible thread.

The vultures are now corralling on the picnic tables, searching for food scraps and screeching in increasingly loud decibels. If you're unlucky, you'll find the windshield wipers and siding on your car pecked to death; vultures have an affinity for attacking cars and ripping the black rubber and plastic right off.

Wary of the birds all around, I unzip the tent door, tossing my backpack and sleeping pad outside, then emerge to greet the day. The underbelly of the clouds warms to pink, a slash across sea and sky. I admire it for a moment, but the ever-present buzz of mosquitoes reminds me that not all nature is beautiful.

They are on me instantly, at my ankles, neck, wrists, any thin-skinned place where blood courses close beneath. When I pulled into the Everglades two days ago to secure my campsite— a walk-in spot in an open field adjoining the bay— the camp host cautioned that most people flee after the first night, plagued by bites. Comforted by the powerful bay breezes carrying the flitting, infuriating insects away, I paid it little mind. Now, in the still-damp grasses of dawn, my skin fit for feast, I understand his warning.

I scurry to break down the tent, unclipping the rain fly from the main shell, pulling up stakes, disconnecting the metal skeleton of poles, and vigorously shaking off dew and bugs and dirt from the ground cloth. I stuff the tent loosely in its sack, throw on my pack, and hustle to the car, parked 100 yards away.

7:03. I plop into the drivers' side of the car, slamming the door quickly, but still bringing a few industrious skeeters with me. I spend a few minutes eliminating them, and am on my way. I watch the sun burst into view, commanding the eastern sky and throwing an unexpectedly radiant January light over the sunshine state.

I drive east, then south, for 170 miles, barreling to the end of the country, the southernmost point, as far as you can go with four wheels and two feet.


Day One: Sunday January 15

I begin my south Florida journey not on the bay, but at the Hertz rental car counter at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, 1:30 am. I deplane in winter gear, having left the snowy husk of New York after a three hour delay, but when I exit baggage claim and hop the shuttle bus to the rental car area, a humid Florida haze settles around me, making my jacket, sweatshirt, wool hat, and long pants unnecessarily sweat-inducing.

The lights are too bright and the rental car waiting area is maddeningly devoid of white noise. Two Hertz representatives are trying to accommodate the odd-hour influx of car-seekers, so things are moving slowly. My credit card is declined (the joys of forgetting to add a travel notification) but somehow debit passes.

At 2:30, I finally arrive at my AirBnB for the night (now, for the wee hours before dawn) and crash. I wake up a little over six hours later, shower, and take my host up on her offer for coffee. We sit and chat for a bit, but anxious to get on, I pack up the car at 10:00, ready to leave.

But what is a Sunday morning without a dead car battery and a check engine light? I sheepishly trudge back inside and ask if my host's boyfriend will jump it. I call Hertz, they allow me to trade it in, and eventually, long after I'd intended, I'm like a bat out of hell in a red Nissan Altima.

Cruising down the Tamiami Trail, on old Highway 41 that connects the west and east coasts, I settle into a Florida state of mind. I drive past ramshackle tourist traps hawking glass-bottom boat tours and gator wrestling shows. In the tall grasses along the highway, birds crouch unseen before bursting up in a flurry of flight. Windows down, 80 degrees. I finger-tap the steering wheel to delightfully tacky and familiar classic rock.

I cross into Big Cypress National Preserve just before 3:00. Big Cypress, established in 1974, is part of the greater Everglades system. Indeed, almost all of south Florida is part of the Everglades watershed.

Big Cypress is, in fact, quite big: it encompasses 729,000 acres and spans five freshwater ecosystems: hardwood hammocks, pinelands, prairies, cypress swamps, and estuaries. Plenty of animals call it home, including  obvious ones: gators, 200 species of birds, and 20 kinds of snakes (four venomous) and the less obvious, like the black bear, or the elusive and endangered Florida panther. There are an estimated 100-130 remaining panthers, and perhaps 30-35 live in Big Cypress.

I quickly set up camp, and wander about. The presence of gators is immediate along the Florida Scenic Trail, (the southern terminus of the 1,000 mile trail actually ends here, at Big Cypress.) The gators pay me no mind, simply sunning themselves on rocks or the canal shore. Still, I keep one eye on the rows of teeth glinting in the sun.

I wander the trail for about an hour, but decide to tuck in early just after sundown. I read several excerpts from The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2015.

Big Cypress is a certified International Dark Sky Park, and it earns the distinction. I am startled by the clarity, the closeness of the stars. It is a familiar feeling, when you've been city-dwelling for too long. The sky confronts in an awkward way, right against your eyelids. The moon hangs like a stage prop, suspended on a wire. You question what you know to be true, authentic, earthly night.

The bright, revealing corners of New York could not be further away. The only place to find dark there is a movie theater, and even then it is constructed darkness. Temporary absence of light, turn a switch to off-- and then false light is broadcast out of the screen. Blue light is drilled into retinas, flinching, receiving images in still observance next to other silent movie-watchers.

How different it is, here, or really, anywhere I flee. Because I do, flee.

It's not that I run, ragged and spent and desperate for solitude or nature. It is a quiet thing. I feel restless, so I turn feet, eyes, mind to somewhere wild. I go, I do, I breathe, I look, I walk. It is recalibration. A continual baptism. The reason for escape is essential to the process as the escape itself. 

As will become customary in evenings to come, the bugs are relentlessly loud. I sleep poorly, as I always do on my first night camping in a new place.


Day Two: Monday January 16

9:45 am. Ranger Dave leads a gang of thirteen through the Big Cypress swamp. Our long wooden poles squelch into the soggy bottom and our boots plunge into mud. We are suctioned in, lifting one leg out, then the other, with comical force as we try to trudge our way through. We walk deeper, and mud gives way to water.

In the south Florida floodplains, estuaries, and swamps, a difference of a few feet or even a few inches in elevation heralds a change in environment. It occurs to me that this may be more impressive than we give credit. Out west this summer, I gaped at mountains over 10,000 feet, spent weeks at elevations above my accustomed sea-level, and observed dramatic landscape differences over hundreds of miles of trail and road.

Here, the differences are subtle but immediate: a new wildflower appears in slightly drier grasses but a few feet uphill from water tracks; scattered snail shells form a mollusk graveyard in the mud, but are absent in deeper water only moments ahead. To pay attention to small things, to favor simplicity over grandeur, to understand scale and scope— lessons I am learning.

While it feels strange to be voluntarily standing in knee deep water, knowing your shoes and socks will not dry out for days, the water is remarkably clear and refreshingly cool. We observe air-growing plants called bromeliads, which are related to the pineapple. Many of them grow on the surface of other plants, like the big cypress trees themselves, without causing harm. We also spy rare ghost orchids, but no reptiles, thankfully. 

Our swamp walk ends at a deep water basin, almost a pond, that is covered in lily pads. Dave asks us to stand silently for one full minute and identify every sound we can. Cacophony of birds and insects, splashes of frogs. Ripples of water. 

We emerge just before noon, sodden and feeling adventurous. It was certainly unlike any "hike" I've ever done. I rinse my gear of mud and consult my map. Almost a straight shot to my next destination, a little over one hundred miles. Keys in the ignition, I shove beef jerky in my mouth, chomp on an apple, and ramble on.


The Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi River. It is the third largest national park in the Lower 48 (after Death Valley and Yellowstone).

And it is, indisputably, a different kind of park. It was the first park to protect a damaged, endangered ecosystem and specific creatures that inhabit it, not to protect and glorify beautiful mountains or dramatic western landscapes, like many early, iconic national parks. 

It is known as the "river of grass"— an expanse of shifting, savannah-like sawgrass, the slow-moving water rises and falls, day by day, throughout the year.

The drive into the park is flat, which serves to heighten the impact of that now inescapable river of grass. It fans out in all directions, broad and wide, low, seemingly still. Some swaths look like tufted wheat stalks, a prairie vision. Other parts are vibrantly, sickly yellow-green, the way water-born plants appear.

I catch the winter sun at 3:00, when it is still bright but beginning to sink, setting alight the tips of trees and grasses. I've had the windows down each moment I've been in the car, and now I savor it even more, with the warmest air I've felt in months settling on my (heavily sunscreened) skin. I'm calm to the point of lethargy.

This is what restoration feels like. Eyes ahead. All around, the promise of escape.


Everglades National Park was established in 1947. Today, it encompasses 1.5 million acres of wetlands, and is home to both the American crocodile and the American alligator. Indeed, south Florida is the only place in the world where the two co-exist.

I spend some time on the elevated boardwalks on the Anhinga Trail and get a good look at some gators (apparently, Big Cypress had not shown me enough.) There is a nefarious nest of about a dozen, some half-submerged in the water, others sunning themselves on flattened grass, a few touching or laying on top of one another. In the way that all messes do-  tangles and twists and a creeping sense of everything eating itself-  it makes me uncomfortable. But I stand engrossed. The gators, muscular and surprisingly lean, sit unperturbed. 

Toward the end of my walk, I watch a blue heron stalk a fish for nearly five minutes. The heron, perhaps aware of its audience, perhaps not, moved with precision and a beady eye. But he never struck.

Later, I chat with the camp host when I pull into the Flamingo campground. He offers me a spot with more amenities, and apparently, fewer mosquitoes, but I'm set on the bayside.

Flamingo is one of the least-busy areas of Everglades. Most people enjoy Shark Valley, up north, or Gulf Coast, on the western side of the state. Being entirely coastal on Florida's southern tip, Flamingo susceptible to major weather events, and parts that were damaged in Hurricane Katrina were never rebuilt. Earlier structures were totally wipes out in the great storms of the 1930s. The remaining buildings or the ones that were rebuilt include a visitor center, a small cafe, and a marina. Most major national parks have a thriving mini-metropolis, with lodges, multiple food vendors, and dozens of auxiliary buildings to support whatever activities visitors may desire. Not so here. Flamingo's buildings are painted (and peeling) in an on-the-nose shade of pink. I see maybe 20 cars for the duration of my visit. 

It's an ordeal to set up my tent, fighting fierce day's-end winds off the bay. I manage to essentially pole vault the tent into place and chuck some gear inside to weigh it down.  I eye the vultures. They eye me.

Night falls early, 6:30. I read for a few hours, journal, wait for the stars to blink.

One critical, and entirely preventable error, I made in packing: purposefully leaving my sleeping bag at home, and instead bringing only a thin blanket. I reasoned with myself that it would be hot, no need. A 30 degree bag would be unreasonably heavy for the climate. This is true in theory, less so in actuality. A 50 degree night can chill you. Can kill you, actually, if you are wet, unable to dry off or warm yourself. Conditions were not quite that desperate, but I would not say it was my most comfortable camping experience.

Maybe it is that I've been separated from water, from coasts, for so long. I forgot the way the sea forces cold into the bones, unfurling salted air over everything, blotting your skin and every surface with a clammy cold, like a damp cloth applied to feverish forehead. In ink-night, I shiver, mummifying myself in the blanket. I wake every three hours or so to readjust, cover up a bit of exposed ankle, swat an errant mosquito who wormed his way in. 


Day Three: Tuesday January 17

I wake up early and catch my first sunrise on the Florida Bay. It's glorious, but I don't have much time to enjoy it. I secured a spot on a morning canoe trip, and need to hustle to Nine Mile Pond, a twenty-five minute drive away.

Everything is wet. Grass, windshield, feet. Windows down to air out. Dressed in an attractive outfit of synthetic shorts, long sleeve swim top, Tevas, and a wide-brimmed straw hat, I roll up to the launch site a half hour early and am able to catch the last moments of sunrise over the pond.

While I wait, I munch a banana and spoon some peanut butter onto a dry wheat bagel. The other canoers trickle in, and after describing the 3.5 hour paddle we are about to embark on, our guide organizes us into boats.

There are three couples, and one older gentleman, Eric, who is also alone. I recognize him, since we camped in the same field. We are paired up: me in the front of the canoe, Eric in the rear steering position. This arrangement will prove difficult, but having no knowledge of the waterways nor a desire to solo paddle myself into a situation, it's a better option. Our guide, JP, takes a solo kayak, in order to more easily corral straggling paddlers. 

Incredibly clear water, with clumps of periphyton floating. 

Incredibly clear water, with clumps of periphyton floating. 

We launch at 8:30, gliding easily across open water, before entering thick tangles of mangroves. Eric and I struggle with sharp turns, and often nose our canoe into the mangroves' knotted roots that protrude from the water. Eric barely speaks, and I have neither heart nor canoe knowledge to try to correct the situation. Turns out it is hard to captain a canoe with someone you don't know.

Despite our paddling blunders, it's a beautiful time. The sun is warm, but not yet stifling. Large white birds perch on thin branches, masters of the trees. Being off the coast, and therefore safe from tides and fierce wind, Nine Mile Pond is an ideal spot for enjoying a leisurely paddle through the Everglades, and getting up close to the flora and fauna.

We coast through a three mile loop, following markers wedged deep in the muck. Patches of periphyton--  algae-like organic matter crucial to the ecosystem--  shift with the movements of our canoes, revealing shockingly clear, shallow waters beneath. We spy about eight gators along our route. They are often propped up on clumps of grasses, trying to warm their cold-blooded bodies with morning sun. They appear asleep, but I assume they have one eye out. One of them blends in exceptionally well, for algae has grown along his tail, offering a slick disguise.

Nine Mile Pond

Nine Mile Pond

The paddling begins to get tough around 10:30, two hours in. While I love one of the open water stretches through a savannah plain of grasses, I'm fairly exhausted. Around this time we emerge into an open inlet, where we get a good look at "Croczilla," the 13 foot crocodile who calls the pond home. A breeze begins to pick up as we enter his territory, and we are frighteningly blown in toward him, but he pays us no mind.

We return to land right at the three hour mark. My arms are sore, in that good way, when you've worked your body. I grab some lunch and attempt a short hike along the Snake Bight trail, but the mosquitoes are voracious, despite my long pants and top. I abandon the hike, walk some boardwalks, and do a scenic drive.

While buying an ice cream at the marina later in the afternoon, I impulsively sign up for a 4:30 sunset cruise on the bay. Besides camping (and the ice cream) it's the one expense I make in the park. 

To kill time, I pop into the visitor center for a ranger talk on the hurricanes that have destroyed or shaped the park over the years. This explains why Flamingo is so...forgotten. It is more of a relic to what has survived, than thrived.

The sunset cruise is, simply, sublime. I buy two Coronas from the marina (beer on a boat is, perhaps, one of life's best pleasures) and settle in. Another couple, in the midst of a long RV trip, is aboard, as are two foreign tourists.

I chat with the captain and his partner, who actually works at the marina store and sold me the boat ticket earlier. They are seasonal park workers, and just arrived two days prior. We get to talking and discover so much in common. 

We tool around for about 90 minutes, taking an easy sweep of the bay. It's perfectly warm with a good breeze. Dolphins jump out of the water. The beer mixes with the salt and the air and the bug spray and the sunscreen in that deliciously dirty, scrubby way of the beach. How rare it is to feel truly at peace.


Another star-strewn, sleep-deprived night. I wake, Wednesday, to that full sunrise, start to finish, through the mesh of the tent. I rip myself from the river of grass, on the promise of cerulean islands strung together, stones on a necklace, that await me in the southern Keys. I spend the next two days there, beached, buzzed, trying (failing) to approximate Hemingway. And I run into the ocean, buoyant, arms circling, face to sky, mermaid hair.

And I remember why I am an essential creature of water. I am a Pisces. I was the child who was forcibly plucked from the ocean, pruned and waterlogged, at day's end. I am still the first in and out of the water, refusing to be supine on the beach. I jump, never ease in. I cannot resist any shade of blue, and no matter how cold, I always dip more than a toe into pond, lake, ocean, pool, river, swimming hole. It is not platitude. It is observable truth: in the water, I become ebullient. I am elemental, returned to what I am.

The Everglades, too, are defined by water. What part of life isn't? It is a simple thing, one I need reminding of. To feel yourself raw on the earth, cleaved from your own life, beaten by wind, by water. Clean again.

Beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Key West.

Beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Key West.

A Record Year


January

I wake up on New Year's Day in a hostel in Asheville, North Carolina, with the customary headache. It should not be how we start the year-  blurred, regretful, squinting against light-  but we never learn.

Mid-month, I summit Crowder's Mountain, a near-vertical ascent up shark-toothed rock faces that jut in every direction. Out of breath on the trail, but out of place off it. The relatively warm Carolina winter keeps me outside, moving, one foot in front of the other.

I continue freelancing for three Vermont newspapers, and it keeps me connected to my old life. I write about last year's real estate trends, women's economic inequality, and interview a few local authors. 

Late in the month, I drive the 200 miles to Charleston to see my aunt, and I whip my face red in the coastal wind. We eat crabcakes and walk the cobblestone streets. The Old Slave Mart on Chalmers Street still stands, amidst restaurants and shops and well-dressed southerners. How easy it is to fade and fold tragedy and trauma into just buildings and textbooks. How we forget that they seep into everything, pores and minds and hearts and all. Seven months prior, a white 21 year old took nine black lives inside a church, less than one mile from this old market. As I write this post, a year after my visit to this broken city, he has been convicted on all 33 federal counts. The country waits for his sentence. 

I leave Charleston under cloud cover and snake along Highway 17, tracing the lowcountry with my tires, and cross into Georgia. I've been accepted to the Savannah School of Art and Design for an MFA in Writing. I will visit, determine if this is the place. 

I camp at an RV park on Tybee Island for two nights, with the snowbirds who set up shop for the winter, outdoor carpets and tiki lights and signs saying "The Johnsons" and all. 

I am the only tent camper. I lay parallel to the ground in the 40 degree night, my body a line curling in on itself.

I sit in on a class, talk with a professor, attend an admitted students day. Savannah is dreamlike. Live-oaks bend their branches to the ground, elegant lashes of leaves. It is warm and sunny, brisk walk through historic squares. I end the day on the beach, PBR in hand, flirting with seagulls and listening to "Georgia on My Mind."


February 

On the first day of the month, I am offered a writing residency in western Colorado for the month of May. I'd nearly forgotten about it, having applied the previous August in a flurry of getting my life in order. I eagerly accept, and when the studio extends the offer to two months, for May and June, a plan takes shape.

I spend the month freelancing aggressively. The usual slate of album reviews, plus the community news that I've come to love, the kind where you dig into something small. Stories of quilt guilds, of art-based education, of a cancer survivor, and a blood donor who has given over 100 gallons of blood in his life. I feel lucky to hear their stories.

I play the waiting game with schools. NYU invites me to visit, then Berkeley calls. I book flights.

Leap year, February 29, I sit in on an NYU class and the impression is immediate. I meet with the program director, have lunch with a college newspaper friend, and grab beers with an former editor and friend from Vermont. I slip into the rhythm of the city. 


March

Straight from New York to Vermont for a few days. I buy my undergrad thesis advisor lunch, and she tells me to shed the formality and call her Lisa. I will try.

I see a slew of old friends and colleagues. You leave a place with your reasons and your memories, but distance and days can dull your love. You need to be reminded.

Burlington will always be the place where I became who I am. It is changing, and I no longer fit as cleanly, like two pieces of broken glass whose edges don't line up like they used to. People leave and that leaving carves a space, a sliver for the wind to get in. You steel yourself against it but you break, too. 

Still, over a pitcher and popcorn at The OP, I am home again for a few hours.

---

But nostalgia is short-lived, for it's off to Berkeley next, on this grand sweep of graduate school visits. California is a balm. It's been two years since I was here last, under very different circumstances. For work, fresh out of college, shoulders bent under responsibility, flush with how adult I was. If only. 

This time I stay in a cramped Airbnb with the toilet in a closet down the hall, the sink in another closet at the other end of the hall, and an Airstream trailer parked in the yard.

UC Berkeley is very official, precise, and efficient, intimidatingly so. But is has the most gorgeous campus, streams and redwood and steep hills. The people here are unflinchingly focused and qualified. I can see myself here, without a doubt. I do math and miles. It is far, it is expensive.

I spend a free day exploring, dodging rain, picking up volumes of poetry, catching a Colombian movie, mailing postcards with Muir quotes stamped on them. A missed connection that occasionally pops into my mind, even now.

Next, I slink to Michigan in a series of delayed, bedraggled, sleep-deprived flights. Another behemoth of a university, another college town that isn't mine but I'm glad to be here. A few days with a college roommate, restorative after the sprint of cross-country travel, admissions visits, forced-conversation mixers and an avalanche of papers and newsletters and materials.

She takes me to the wildlife refuge she volunteers at. Where abandoned reindeer, cougars, albino pythons, warthogs, and peacocks go when people don't want or can't keep them, or when animals are rescued from environmental disasters.

I end my travel sprint in Massachusetts, staying with several other friends (at this point I should extend a large, digital thank-you to everyone who housed me that month. I owe you.) I visit Boston University and meet someone who has applied to the same schools as I have. We chit chat over a pile of appetizers and agree to stay in touch.

After three weeks of cities and transit, I return south. The decision makes itself. It is the school that made me want to apply to journalism school in the first place. I'd thrown it out of my mind, said it wasn't for me, too big, too pretentious, I could do this a million other places. Those lies we tell ourselves come clean in the end. In the circular way of things, I've been there before, when I was twenty-one, dipping a toe into this world. I'll return, twenty-five, both feet in now.

With purposeful calm, I send in my deposit to NYU and head immediately to the woods. Oconee State Park in upstate South Carolina. I hike and build fires and eat jerky and turn my mind toward spring.


April

I prepare for my western summer: two months in Colorado and one month on the road. All-weather clothes, film and cameras, road atlas, books, camping gear. I load my father's orange 48 L Osprey Kestrel backpack (larger than my own green 38 L) and a canvas sail duffel. 

I find out Prince dies when I'm driving my grandfather's car, listening to the radio. The station queues up Kiss, Purple Rain, Raspberry Beret, Let's Go Crazy.

I finish freelance assignments and make a semi-spontaneous weekend trip to Kentucky to see an old friend, one of the oldest. Order of the day: whiskey distillery and Daniel Boone National Forest. The Red River Gorge is thick backcountry, and I am white-knuckled at the wheel, teetering on switchback roads. We leave our cars at the trailhead, snap a photo, all smiles and catching up, packs jangling, our strides wide.

We struggle, packs loaded with unnecessarily ambitious provisions for the night (sweet potatoes, sausage, corn, beer) and lose our way on the Wildcat Trail. Light leaves us and we are grumpy and spent. We finally crest a ridge and tuck into a hollow, cook up a mess of food, and crack beers. Only one night. Too short but you take the time you have.

In the morning, eight hours back to Carolina, through brilliant sunshine and rolling, green Kentucky hills. 

In four days, I am gone. I fly to Denver on April 29 and won't return until August. I am filled to the brim with anticipation. After years of daydreaming, months of planning, my western odyssey is in sight. Hand to brow, I eye it down.


May

The train ride from Denver to Glenwood Springs is a visual feast. Raptured rush of Colorado River and the deepest red dirt. I make it to Paonia late in the day.

My new home for two months is a painted green mystery house of artists and writers. It's a town of characters whom I will come to know like family, endless orchards of stone fruit (cherry, apricot) plus pear, apple, even peach. It's an orange cat named Tomatoes who teaches me how to love cats, despite a life defined by dogs.

I meet three incredible ladies, my fellow residents. We put on a workshop series at the library and go on the local radio station. We read at the monthly open mic night at the pizza joint, and frequent the writer's workshop in town. The annual fashion show is a fête for all times.

There's a tension in the town, in much of the west, between the old-timers, the coal miners, the ranchers, and the new-comers, the artists, the east-coasters. Paonia is both a hippie enclave and a conservative stalwart, part of mining country. 

Cider at a barn dance, VW buses parked in orchards. I hike the Black Canyon of the Gunnison over Memorial Day. I shoot pool in the town dive. I bike until my lungs and legs scream, but these mountain roads are unlike any I've traversed before. I read like mad and write like it too. At the foot of Mount Lamborn, at the backyard brewery or in this tilt-a-whirl artists' haven, writing creek-side with purpose, I no longer feel like I'm running.


June

The May ladies depart and three new residents arrive. My second day meeting them, I flay several layers of flesh off of my palms and fingers in a miscalculated rope swing leap.

I almost pass out from the strips of skin hanging like wet paper, the searing sting of iodine. I bandage my marbled red and white hands and don't write or type for days.

Summer arrives early and the days quickly heat to 90 and above. We discover Montucky beer, a delightful portmanteau of Montana and Kentucky.

There are a series of events: Orlando, Brexit. We're isolated out here in this mountain valley and I start to feel guilty. How can we be reasonable citizens, how can one possibly keep a pulse on everything? 

I deal with a series of bureaucratic nightmares with NYU and make myself sick with worry. Lessons I will learn: there is always an answer, you or someone else will find it. 

I hike a spectacular three lake loop with a new musician friend, and we picnic by one of the lakes. Alpine trees, piercing cold water, 10,000 feet. Sublime. That evening, the residents attend a baby shower for the residency director. Half the town is there. And, two days later we host our final open studio, everyone drinks too much, and we leave riding a June heatwave.


July 

On July 4,  my roadtrip companion and I set out from Denver in our rented Kia Rio, The White Whale, and the dream is underway. She'd been abroad for two years, and this was making up for lost time. It was more than that, too. When you've known someone for over a decade, you know the running narrative of their life. You miss small things. So when you have a stretch of time, you start to fill that in.

Eleven national parks in five weeks. Nine states. In total, forty-one national park units visited. 6,800 miles driven. About 135 miles hiked and walked.

Temperatures from 32 to 100 Fahrenheit. Elevations from 1,000 to 12,000 feet. Mountains to deserts to canyons to caves to glaciers, and rivers to lakes to hot-springs. Dozens of full-fat ice creams. Watching sunrise and sunset at the Grand Canyon, rainbow geothermals at Yellowstone, swimming at Grand Teton, complete solitude at a backcountry ski hut on Ophir Pass, endless beauty that I could never enumerate or name. Five weeks for which I will be forever grateful.


August

My friend and I part ways in Minnesota and I begin to drive solo back to Denver, across the impossibly flat land of Iowa and Nebraska. I make it to Omaha, watch half of Dead Presidents at a bar and bed down for the night.

I rise at 6:00 to crank out the remaining 500 miles, zipping past field after field of hay-bales at 80 mph. When I pull into a rest stop for gas and a snack, an Amish woman in the bathroom asks me where we are, what number exit on the highway.  I tell her and watch, astonished, as she whips out a cell phone and places a call to convey this information.

I reach Denver mid-afternoon, jumping back an hour in time, drop off the car and begin the loathsome task of repacking my gear, which has been strewn about the car for 30 days. I eat dinner at 5:30, at a Ruby Tuesday's down the road from the hotel, and pass out at 8:00. I catch the airport shuttle at 3:45 am, and am back in Carolina before the end of the day.

Just like that, it's over. The book closes. My western summer snaps into the past. 

I begin a new life. I cut off five inches of hair, pack two large suitcases, and move to Brooklyn on a hot Saturday in mid August. I meet two of my new roommates; I already know the other, the one from college that I had lunch with in February, when I knew nothing about where I was going and feared it would never work out. It did.

The skyline from our roof centers me on that first night. So big, so blue. So mine.

The next two weeks are a blur of bootcamp, orientation, and finding my way around. I am always sweating. I am always walking. I have a new student ID card, burgeoning friendships with classmates, and a favorite dog at home. I fumble my subway route and learn my streets. I get a mattress and a bookshelf. I make a home.


September

The roommates and I quickly settle into a groove. There are weekend outings, a day hike in Mohonk Preserve, a swim at Coney Island, karaoke nights, beer after beer. 

School picks up. Chasing interviews, spot-reporting, dreading audio software. Data journalism workshops, guest speakers, editor talks, summer internship info sessions (how can it be time for this already, I think.) I have my hands in everything and every day is new.

I befriend two people outside my program, one a fellow J-schooler whom I met in Boston at BU's admitted student's weekend. We are all excited, bubbling over to be discovering the city.

My college roommate also lives here. Having a seven-year familiar face is like going home without having to. Whatever forces bring people to a place, it always surprises and humbles me.

I look through old film that just got developed. Images of previous Septembers, smudges of blue ponds, thick pine. I always miss things, always carry a torch. I thought New York would make me frantic, make me crave space and familiarity. It does, sometimes, but most of all it makes me feel boundless. Strange to throw your arms wide open in this cramped city, to catch all you can.


October

More reporting and more outings makes this an eclectic month: pop-up ballet, the Gowanus canal, a Supreme Court case on trademark law and free speech, following a slam poet who suffered a serious concussion. School has settled into a groove. Much of it feels banal, routine, but I put foot to pavement and pen to paper and keep going.

My roommate asks me to be her bridesmaid in the sweetest way possible. We've only known each other two months, but there's no question.

One Friday night, I journey to DUMBO to work a professor's daughter's bat mitzvah for some cash, waitressing and bartending. I've never witnessed a mitzvah, and the ceremony is truly beautiful. It is gratifying to watch a young girl talk about herself, her faith, her values, with authority, with poise. I wish we saw more of that.

A few days later, we watch the final debate, heckling and cheering with the rest of the crowd. How many young girls watched it, I'm not sure. 

I still have no idea what I want my thesis project to be, and I feel like I'm chasing loose ends of stories. Nothing of consequence. But, I have inklings, a skeletal outline. It's not enough but it has to be, for now.

I post up at a college friend's country-show in lower Manhattan, sipping beers and crooning along to Marshall Tucker Band, Johnny Cash, The Band. Flashbacks to Burlington bar nights.

My first New York Halloween is appropriately wild, with costume and face paint and double 4:00 ams, and we turn the corner toward the last half of the semester.


November

My roadtrip friend, who is now at Harvard, visits the first weekend of the month and we have fun taking the East River Ferry under the three bridges, catching up and remarking about how different life was three months ago, when we were five or six days without a shower, chasing the next big national park adventure. Now, we are grad students plagued by deadlines. I go to Prospect Park for the first time, in all its autumnal glory, with two new friends. They keep me grounded, give me good, no-bullshit advice. Usually, I'm the one dispensing it. Sometime you need to have it dished right back at you. 

Election Day starts off like any other Tuesday: two three-hour classes, separated by a three hour chunk of free time. I walk with a classmate to her voting station. We talk about life, we're buoyant for the day ahead. At 7:00, class lets out and everyone goes off to find a television. I'm already tired by the time my roommates and I head to the bar to watch the results.

As it unfolds state by state I become more and more awake. Everything is both sharpened and surreal. Laser like focus on the numbers, dreamlike insistence that something is wrong, this is not real. We leave the bar at 1:00 in denial. I am feverishly texting our other roommate, who is in Chicago for work, that this can't be happening. 

Two of us stay up until the bitter end, watch the 3:30 acceptance speech, trudge to bed. I wake at 6:30, check headlines, fall back asleep and get up to watch her concession. I shower and walk the streets of Williamsburg for a while. Heads down, it's raining, and no one knows where to go from here.

Afterwards, I start thinking about what kind of journalism I want to do, what kind of writer I want to be. I'm still considering that.

There is a wall of post it notes, neon and abundant, in the Union Square subway station. People write messages of love, compassion, sometimes politics. It is one of those affirming New York moments when you remember why you love this place, why you love stories. 

I go to a female motorcycle club party out of curiosity and connection, and just before Thanksgiving break, I go to my first New York concert at Webster Hall. The Brooklyn indie-R&B trio is called Wet, and their songs are strangely salient to what's been kicking around in my head. It's cathartic, collective, cleansing to be in the crowd. 

Thanksgiving is brief, but I get out for a hike and remind myself of the shape of my homeland.

I can see through the trees now, leaves have fallen, obscuring the trail. I follow as best I can from memory, and maybe a little bit from hope, from wanting it to be this way.


December

Classes wrap up early, but we are not released until all assignments and edits are turned in. I work quickly to get everything done, done, out of my hands, out of my mind. I am not particularly proud of any of my pieces, but I am still glad to be in the program, and I start to look forward to spring semester, to digging in. I haven't found my groove yet. It is a source of some concern but others tell me they feel the same. Roommate Christmas brunch and classmate Secret Santa party remind me of the amazing people I've met here.

The last two weeks are here-and-there, everywhere. I head to Carolina and visit my 13th National Park: Congaree, on the solstice. I love the beginning and ends of things, marking the seasons. I am stubbornly temporal. It is warm everyday, despite technically being winter, and I feel lighter.

My grandfather and I make a pilgrimage to Ike's for burgers and he tells me his stories, as always. He's got a new truck, finally gave up on his 1999 F-150 with the duct-taped seats. Christmas is small and easy. My father is in good spirits and leaves a handwritten note for our place-cards. 

I pop up to Boston for a few days and return to New York for New Years. My college roommates and I have a mellow eve-  dinner out, a few drinks. We let the year fizzle out. It feels appropriate to share it with close friends, relaxed, conversational, not in a crowded bar pounding drinks. I wake up New Years Day without last year's headache, and smile. Sometimes, you do learn.

What was 2016? 365 days of adventure, discovery, exploration, escapism, and learning. A year of uprootedness. Hikes and roadtrips, mountains and deserts, friends new and old. Buses and trains and planes and cars and my own boots. Living semi-nomadically in South Carolina and Colorado, and a dozen places in between, before landing in New York. Indelible moments, snapshots in the wheel of my mind, gathered here. 

We walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in the 50 degree sun. I look up and down the river, follow the narrowing needle of skyscrapers. Crossings, thresholds, impossibly blue sky opening up.

Pop-up Ballet, Canoeing the Gowanus Canal, and More: A Look Back at October

October has been a month of exploration. Most of my expeditions have been for "spot assignments" for my traditional reporting class. While we have long-form assignments throughout the semester (in the style of literary journalism) we also do one-off pieces, coming to class with fresh reporting... and one hour to write the piece.

The first assignment was to attend an event and write a brief "Talk of the Town" style piece of cultural commentary. The second was to infiltrate a New York subculture. The third, due soon, will be to profile a dead or dying business (New Yorkers know the crushing disappointment when a beloved deli, coffee shop, or laundromat closes.) Read on for a taste of reporting life.


A Night at the Ballet...In Bushwick

While throngs of eager young art-goers pressed into cramped artists’ studios off of Cypress and Flushing Avenues in Bushwick with sweating cans of event-sponsored Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand   a quiet marriage of ballet and color theory was taking place only twenty minutes away.

Located in a wide-windowed, well-lit building on Cook Street, the contemporary fine art gallery Odetta staged a one-night inter-disciplinary performance of ballet and visual art, offering a quiet take on the annual tradition of Bushwick’s Open Studios.

The premier of choreographer Julia Gleich’s ballet, “a white room,” was co-sponsored by Odetta and Norte Maar, a non-profit founded by well-known Bushwick art guru Jason Andrew. The ballet also accompanied gallery artist Debra Ramsey’s site-specific installation, “Hue[s]pace.”

“Hue[s]pace” displays four seasons of colors, represented on thick strips of painted paper spilled across three low, wooden tables. Between the first and second tables, a serene column of painted ribbons hung from the ceiling. The work is largely horizontal and parallel to the ground, save for the one arresting vertical line. Ramsey’s colors are warm, restrained, and matte, favoring earthy reds, oranges, and greens. As the only objects in an otherwise white, bare room, these strips of color stood out, yet did not command attention.

On this misty Saturday evening, a small crowd of about thirty on-lookers had gathered for the ballet. Promptly at 7:00, Odetta gallery director Ellen Hackl Fagan introduced the concept behind the ballet and invited guests to linger afterwards and admire Ramsey’s work.

Quickly, three dancers — Kara Chan, Tiffany Mangulabman, and Isabella Szylinska —appeared from the far back of the gallery. Dressed in simple gray and black outfits, they presented a monochromatic contrast to Ramsey’s color palette.

Though each performed quick solo movements, the three dancers intertwined and interacted with one another throughout most of the brief performance. Alternating between elongation and contraction, their bodies took on the shapes that Ramsey had constructed, the lines in the choreography echoing the folds in the painted strips of ribbon that tumble, unfurl, and fall through space.

Speaking after the ballet, Norte Maar director Jason Andrew explained more about the relationship between Ramsey and Gleich. The two artists exchanged images and notes throughout the process, and Gleich choreographed the ballet to suit Ramsey’s existing body of work and artistic sensibilities. Andrew also described Ramsey’s color sensibility as neither opaque nor subdued. In fact, her choices are highly technical and digital.

As Ramsey described it, she selected her colors systematically, rather than impressionistically, undertaking her process with precision and intent. It was clear that she viewed the installation in concrete, not emotional, terms. The tagline on her business card reads, “an idiosyncratic engagement with rule-based systems to make art.”

Ramsey began by returning to the same hiking trail over the four seasons. She took 18 photos on each hike, one photo for every 100 steps. After a year, she compiled the photos and chose one color from each photograph—either the most unique color, or the most ubiquitous.

Ramsey ran those selected colors through a translation program that outputs a paint formula. Once she had the color metrics, she began to paint her ribbons and arrange them in order of the seasons. Accordingly, from left to right in the gallery, the blocks are arranged as spring, summer, fall, and winter.

When asked why she chose to elevate summer in the vertical ribbon column, rather than leave it on the low level like the other seasons, Ramsey said it was purely a design choice to add visual interest. While viewers might be tempted to think of summer as ascendant or supreme, it seems Ramsey does not place such value judgments.

Ramsey’s process is certainly unusual and intriguing. But, since her technical process was obscured from the viewer, the intention and painstaking detail in the piece was lost in translation. The ballet did illuminate the physical attributes of “Hue[s]pace,” but it was unable to convey her rigid methodology.

In that sense, the dancers lifted up the visual art, bringing movement and life into an otherwise calculated endeavor. Similarly, Ramsey’s precision fits with ballet’s control of the body and emphasis on clean lines. This joint presentation masked the particularities of each discipline, lending grace and an appearance of effortlessness to both works. [check out a video here!]


Canoeing the Gowanus Canal: An Evening with The Dredgers

“Ahoy, welcome to the Gowanus Canal.”

That’s a phrase I’ll hear many times on this Saturday night, as the October harvest moon gradually rises over a motley crew of canoes cutting through the oil slicked channel. When I told friends that I would be paddling on the Gowanus Canal, by my own free volition, many an eyebrow was raised. “Don’t fall in,” I was warned.

The Gowanus is a 1.8 mile strip of water connecting Upper New York Bay with Brooklyn. It is also one of the most polluted waterways in the nation. Decades of industrialization have dumped chemical and industrial waste into the canal, while improper sewage treatment has diverted wastewater, and inadequate rainwater collection systems unleash a torrent of trash after every storm.

The canal is home to heavy metals, pesticides, bacteria like E. Coli, raw sewage, and a monstrous, ten-foot thick layer of trash somewhat affectionately dubbed “black mayonnaise” that rests at the bottom. The canal’s smell is familiar and inescapable— brackish and vaguely salty, like a receding low tide.

Having been designated a Superfund site— a source of intense local contention— in 2010, the Gowanus has received federal funding for a cleanup that will cost approximately $500 million.

Owen captaining his canoe.

Owen captaining his canoe.

Needless to say, Gowanus Canal’s reputation is amusingly notorious at best, ecologically apocalyptic at worst. A dedicated group of people— wielding paddles, not picket signs— is trying to change that.

Owen Foote, founder and organizer of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, says, perhaps referring to an infamously grim incident from April 2014, “if you want pleasant things to happen, stop talking about dead bodies and negative things, start talking about positive things.”

The Dredgers, a 501 c3 nonprofit, have been operational since 1999 and after 16 years, is still going strong, with 1000 members. Membership includes unlimited equipment access, but anyone can participate in Dredgers events or schedule a voyage. The club is active from May to October, and offers “open-paddle” nights on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

It is easy to forget that Brooklyn is a part of an island, Owen says. City life in New York is largely removed from the waterways that once defined commerce and transportation. The Dredgers are in the not-so-profitable businesses of neighborhood revitalization from the ground (or in this case, water) up. If you bring more people to the waterfront, more people will be passionate about preserving it, Owen says.

Cheers, Gowanus Canal.

Cheers, Gowanus Canal.

After some initial chatter and the buckling of life-vests, we slip off the shore and into the canal just after 5:30. My canoe partner, a chipper landscape architect named Cecil, captains the front. She paddles with grace and ease, while I sit at the rear of the boat and attempt to steer without splashing too much canal water onto myself.

Behind us, Owen paddles solo. As is his custom, he greets passerby or gawkers with a friendly, yet slightly sardonic, “ahoy, welcome to the Gowanus Canal.”

A third canoe joins us downstream. Eymund Driegal— an environmental planner, Dredger member, and Gowanus hydrology expert— and Andrea Parker, executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, are co-captaining, and also coordinating with a group of artists on shore.

You see, not only am I cautiously canoeing what I have been told is one of the most disgusting bodies of water in the country— I’m doing it during Gowanus Open Studios, a night when a flotilla of reclaimed “trash-art” will sail down the canal.

It would be charitable to call these art pieces true “boats,” but they are sea-worthy. Some are traditional, with makeshift sails, sleek designs, and glimmering candles or Christmas lights. Other vessels take the form of “everything but the kitchen sink,” made with Styrofoam, old ski boots, tin-foil, balloons, colored paper, or— a crowd favorite—Ken and Barbie dolls (life vests included) sitting on a bed of fake one-hundred dollar bills.

The idea is to repurpose discarded or useless objects and question the notion of art, but also to highlight one of the biggest problems the canal faces—the inevitable barrage of trash that washes into the canal after a heavy rain.

A crowd gathers on a bridge overlooking the Gowanus art flotilla.

A crowd gathers on a bridge overlooking the Gowanus art flotilla.

In this vein, Owen and Andrea make several short speeches throughout the night, tossing off nuggets of sustainability activism to the crowd. Try not to shower, do laundry, or run the dishwasher when it rains, Owen says. That way, you can prevent the waterlines from becoming overtaxed, and exacerbating the sewage and trash problem.

We spend about an hour testing the floatation abilities of the art-boat hybrids. Beers are handed out to the canoers. Amicable chatter increases as a crowd of about one hundred curious passerby and loyal Gowanus residents gathers along the bridge to watch the action.

In between, Owen feeds me tidbits of information about the Dredgers, the canal, or his efforts to de-horrify the canal’s reputation. Owen is aware of the waterway’s problems and has no intention of glossing over them. Yet, he is also indefatigable in his citizen-activist mentality and, simply, espousing his love of aquatic recreation. 

Finally, at 6:18 pm, the moment of high tide, we release the fleet.

There are some cheers of excitement as the flotilla begins, but as water is wont to do, it goes wherever it pleases. The tide seems to reverse course every few minutes. We find ourselves scurrying to fish out stray boats from the reedy edges of the canal, or paddling in formation to corral the fleet, nudging them under the bridge in one direction so that onlookers might cheer for their favorites. We lose one brave soul—a delicate and gorgeous candlelit orb that looks like a beehive— to the sewer pipe, watching it drift in blissful ignorance toward an unknown fate.

I've had plenty of off-the-clock fun, too. Here are some snippets from a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a fall day at Storm King outdoor sculpture park,  and of course, a photo of Franklin.

 

If You Can Make It Here...

It's a slow-moving Friday afternoon. The kind where you are buzzing with anticipation for the weekend, but the minute hand on the clock seems to only inch backward from 5:00. I've been holed up in my apartment, working through readings, deciphering class notes, tooling around with thesis ideas, cringing over rough audio cuts, and biting nails over unanswered emails for interview requests. In other words, living the life of a graduate student of journalism. The life I will lead for two years as a member of NYU's Literary Reportage program.

Hello, Brooklyn.

Hello, Brooklyn.

This weekend marks my first full month in New York. On August 20, I left my father's house in South Carolina at 5:30 am. Four hours later, I was standing outside the door to my new apartment in south Williamsburg, Brooklyn, two suitcases in hand. I placed my bags on the curb and looked up. Home.

Minutes later, and with a jolly, crinkle-eared dog— a half-basset hound, half-cocker spaniel mix named Franklin —in tow, my new roommate Dan ushered me up our fifth floor walk-up. 

It was a Saturday, and all of Williamsburg was ours for the taking. I dropped my bags and Dan and I took Franklin to the dog park, chatting and getting to know each other over coffees, and then lunch. Later that night, we shared a rooftop beer and waited for Kerry and Claire, my other two roommates, to return from Colorado. They landed at 9, and by 10, we were all at a bar catching up.

The magic of New York is such that, in twelve hours, I had flown to the city, partially unpacked, explored the neighborhood, and settled into a chummy rapport with my roommates. We sat outside, grateful for the cool night, drinking and munching and talking over one another.

That night, in a completely cliché moment that surely thousands of others have experienced, I looked at the city skyline from our roof and thought, "I've arrived."
When night falls, take to the roof, and feast your eyes.

When night falls, take to the roof, and feast your eyes.

While it was a joy to get to know my new roommates, I also got to see some familiar faces during my first few weeks here, including my cousin Hillary who lives in Queens, as well as my college roommate and good friend, Annie, who now attends law school in Brooklyn. It has been a relief to have friends and acquaintances in the city, and to see them early on in my adjustment to New York.

In a testament to the intensity of grad school, it wasn't all fun and games at first. There were forms to fill out, equipment and software to download, orientations to attend, readings and preparations to be made. The first week of the program constituted a crash course in Audio Reporting. From 10:00-5:00, Monday through Friday, we learned the basics of recording, interviewing, and mixing an audio segment. Our regular classes began in earnest after Labor Day.

Labor Day weekend brought a chance to escape the city with a dayhike. We took the Metro North to Manitou and, along with a small crowd of city-slickers, walked into the forest. The hike was confusing, to put it mildly, but we teamed up with a mother and her eight-year old son, also from Brooklyn, and enjoyed the day. We hiked over train tracks, along serpentine, knee-high grass trails, and skirted the Hudson Rive. We unpacked our lunches and took in the views. The outdoorsy side of me had been craving trees, dirt, space. Leaving the city for even a few hours was cathartic, physically relieving. 

Having spent most of the last three months hiking, camping, and being semi-off the grid out west, making my home in tents and on mountain trails and in alpine lakes, it has been a total 180 degree change to move to the busiest city on the planet.

It's past 5:00 now. As I type out this post, Franklin, my new favorite animal, is snoozing away on the futon. I've settled into a comfortable rhythm within the apartment, the neighborhood, and, increasingly, with school. I'll be in my third week of class this Monday.

Time accelerates when you least want it to, when you want to ease into a moment, to take a long sip of something sweet. The harvest moon will rise later this evening, the autumnal arrival I have long been waiting for during these humid days of summer's last stand. Fall is my essential season. I thrive in it. 

I'm not sure if it's a contradiction to feel simultaneously at home and away in this city, but I do. I miss the gritty earth and the sheer space of the west, of all that I saw this summer. How luxurious to spread your arms and not touch anything, to feel your feet moving toward a summit or a horizon, instead of toward a subway platform.

At the same time, I am gratified by the promise of New York, of the work I will do here, the people I will meet, the stories I will share. One month in, no doubts and no regrets. 

The Home Stretch & Reflections

Week 4: July 25-31 The Old West

Week four brought us into some of the classic Western parks. We got up close to bison, felt the heat rise from geothermal springs, roamed across prairies, glimpsed iconic sculptures, and cooled off in a true-blue glacial lake, under the best mountain scenery of our trip.
The Cowboy State, "Forever West."

The Cowboy State, "Forever West."

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho

Established in 1872, Yellowstone was the world's first national park. 96% of Yellowstone is located within Wyoming, but Montana lays claim to 3%, and Idaho trails along with 1% of the park in its boundaries.

Yellowstone sits on top of an active volcano, and there are over 10,000 geothermal features in the park, including hot springs, geysers, mudpots, and fumeroles. At least 22 people are known to have died from hot spring-related injuries in and around Yellowstone since 1890, according to the NPS.

We walked among the hot springs at Lower Geyser Basin, which is the largest in the park, covering 18 square miles. It is also the area with the largest volume of water discharged. The NPS website states that measurements made in 1930 indicated a volume of about 15,300 gallons per minute!

We also went to the most spectacular of the hot springs: the Grand Prismatic Spring, located in Midway Geyser Basin. At 370 feet across and 121 feet deep,  it is the park’s largest hot spring, with a temperature of about 160 degrees. Its rainbow appearance is due to thermal-loving microbes that live on its surface. Here is a description from Smithsonian Magazine that describes this phenomenon:

"Hot springs form when heated water emerges through cracks in the Earth's surface. Unlike geysers, which have obstructions near the surface (hence their eruptions), water from hot springs flows unobstructed, creating a nonstop cycle of hot water rising, cooling and falling. In the Grand Prismatic Spring, this constant cycle creates rings of distinct temperatures around the center: very, very hot water bubbles up from the middle and gradually cools as it spreads out..."
Grand Prismatic Hot Spring: 160 degrees. By far the most striking. 

Grand Prismatic Hot Spring: 160 degrees. By far the most striking. 

"Water at the center of the spring... can reach temperatures around 189 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it too hot to sustain most life...Because there's very little living in the center of the pool, the water looks extremely clear, and has a beautiful, deep-blue color (thanks to the scattering of blue wavelengths—the same reason oceans and lakes appear blue to the naked eye). But as the water spreads out and cools, it creates concentric circles of varying temperatures...And these distinct temperature rings are key, because each ring creates a very different environment inhabited by different types of bacteria. And it's the different types of bacteria that give the spring its prismatic colors."

Of course, we paid a visit to Old Faithful to watch the world's most famous geyser erupt. The NPS says, "Old Faithful can vary in height from 106-184 feet (32–56 m) with an average near 130 feet (40 m). This has been the historical range of its recorded height. Eruptions normally last between 1.5 to 5 minutes." Old Faithful erupts around 17 times a day and can be predicted with a 90 percent confidence rate within a 10 minute variation. Sure enough, we saw it erupt 10 minutes before schedule!

The eruption was as impressive as we had been lead to believe. Old Faithful did not disappoint!

Besides geothermal activities, we also did a little hiking and scenic driving (aka looking for wolves) in Yellowstone. Wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995, 69 years after the last wolf was killed there in 1926. The Lamar Valley, in the northeast section of the park, is the best place to view wolves. We drove through the valley, but given that it was midday, the notoriously skittish and mostly nocturnal wolves were not out for us to see.

Yellowstone's features were very beautiful, but to be honest, our experience was marred by the crowds. We expected crowds. It was summer, it was the centennial, it was Yellowstone, one of the crown jewels of the NPS. But we were definitely not prepared for just how busy it was. 

Even on a Sunday morning, at one of the campgrounds that had sites open, we waited in line for three hours to get a campsite. There were people in line who had waited for two hours, only to be told that they didn't make the cut. We got very lucky. Most of the park's campgrounds were first come, first served, and we just had to deal with this because we switched our itinerary around and were playing things by ear. The park does have privately-operated campgrounds that are reservable, and this may be worth doing if you know your dates months in advance.

The roads will be packed, and you will wait in line for everything you want to do or see (unless you go hiking, which we did.) But, if you want to see Old Faithful, the hot springs, or animals, you're going to experience massive crowding, traffic congestion, etc. hen you visit the hot springs and mudpots, you have to travel along a raised boardwalk for safety. When a long line of hundreds of people are clamoring to walk, stop, and take a picture in exactly the same place, shoving and bumping is bound to occur. Watch out! You don't want someone's selfie stick to knock you into a 150 degree hotspring... 

Word to the wise: don't go to Yellowstone in July and August. If you must, try to go to the major attractions early (before 9 am) or late (after 6 pm), or go in for the day and camp outside the park. Even consider backcountry camping to get off the grid and away from the masses. 


Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The Tetons were simply sublime. The morning of Tuesday July 26, we broke camp at Yellowstone and headed to the gateway town of West Yellowstone, then dipped south through the Targee National Forest of Idaho. Soon, we curved back southeast to re-enter Wyoming.

The drive was stunning. As you approach the border, the Teton Range gradually comes into view, and eventually dominates the skyline. The Tetons are an unusual mountain range, because they do not have foothills. The peaks are straight up, shaped like a jackknife, and very rocky.

By mid-afternoon we were trailing the gorgeous Snake River, searching for a campsite in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. We easily found one, set up, and decided to head into the town of Jackson for some old-west cowboy sightseeing. Jackson is the gateway to both Yellowstone and Grand Tetons (which are only 45 minutes apart.) We enjoyed some of the touristy kitsch before heading back to camp. The Snake River at sunset was truly something.

Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, Jackson, WY, in operation since the 1890s. The likes of Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, and Willie Nelson have performed here.

Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, Jackson, WY, in operation since the 1890s. The likes of Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, and Willie Nelson have performed here.

The next morning we headed into the park and easily snagged a campsite at Signal Mountain by 8:00. We wandered over to the Jackson Lake Marina, and rented a tandem kayak for two hours. It was the perfect time of day to be out, mid-morning, sun warming the water, but still refreshing.

Jackson Lake, view from Colter Bay swimming area. No pictures from kayaking, unfortunately!

Jackson Lake, view from Colter Bay swimming area. No pictures from kayaking, unfortunately!

Jagged and defiant, the Teton Range seems to rise directly from the lakeshore. Ribbons of blue and green water give way to pebbled shores. We snaked through little island channels, soaking it all in.

After kayaking, we did a quick one hour hike on the Christian Ponds Trail, which wound through scrubby meadows and took us to some overlooks of Emma Matilda Lake. It was an easy 3.5 mile loop that definitely delivered on the Tetons views:

View from Christian Ponds Trail

View from Christian Ponds Trail

Liz enjoys a lake splash.

Liz enjoys a lake splash.

After working up a little sweat, we had to take a dip in Jackson Lake. It's no exaggeration to say it was the best swim of our lives. The water was certainly not warm, but it was far better than most mountain lakes. Dozens of families were out that day enjoying the water.

We lounged on the "beach" at Colter Bay for two hours, before enjoying an ice cream and an NPS movie at the visitor center on wolves in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

This is an under-appreciated aspect of the National Parks: the ranger-led talks and visitor center videos. Occasionally you get a lone ranger who doesn't have the best public speaking skills and drones on an on, or cracks bad jokes. But we did a number of these talks and videos, and for the most part, they were exceptional and interesting. 

We heard talks on: the California condor (the largest bird in North America with a 9 foot wingspan, way larger than Michael Phelps); Mesa Verde archaeology; the geology of the Grand canyon; the history of bison at Yellowstone; wolves and grizzly bears in the Tetons; and various types of "animal senses" at Capitol Reef. Don't miss out on these! It gives you a whole new depth of understanding about the park.
View from Jenny Lake hike.

View from Jenny Lake hike.

Looking up Cascade Canyon

Looking up Cascade Canyon

On our last full day, we wanted to do a classic Teton hike, so we hoofed it on a nine mile loop trail around Jenny Lake. Starting at String Lake, we worked our way toward Cascade Canyon, decided not to go that route, and checked out Inspiration Point before heading back on the return leg.

This hike was our favorite of the entire trip. Long miles, outstanding views.


South Dakota, “Great Faces, Great Places”

Post-Tetons, it was time to head east across the plains of Wyoming to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We set up at Comanche Park Campground and went into the town of Custer for a few hours, before checking out the Crazy Horse Memorial light show at night.

Very blurry shot of the Crazy Horse light show, Legends in Light

Very blurry shot of the Crazy Horse light show, Legends in Light

The Crazy Horse Memorial depicts Crazy Horse, a Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Interestingly, it is still under construction. 

In the 1930s, Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, was searching for a sculptor to build monument to a Native American hero. After learning that Korczak Ziolkowski had won a prize for sculpting at the World's Fair, he wrote to Ziolkowski, "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too."

Ziolkowski agreed, and work began in 1948. Though he died in 1982, his wife and children continue to work on the monument and operate the memorial museum. The sculpture's final dimensions are planned to be 641 feet wide and 563 feet. Crazy Horse's head will be 87 feet. The monument and museum are run by a non-profit foundation and do not accept any state or federal funding.

The night show, Legends in Light, depicted Lakota traditions and history in colorful, 3D light displays. It was incredible! We couldn't get clear photos or video, but this link gives you an idea:


George, Tom, Teddy, and Abe.

George, Tom, Teddy, and Abe.

In the morning, we saw Mount Rushmore National Monument. Each head is 60 feet high. This means Crazy Horse is taller than Rushmore, a little known fact.

Kara poses with our favorite sign of the trip: Ice cream= Thomas Jefferson. Apparently he was the first person in America to write down a recipe for vanilla ice cream?

Kara poses with our favorite sign of the trip: Ice cream= Thomas Jefferson. Apparently he was the first person in America to write down a recipe for vanilla ice cream?

The monument has a couple of cinematic claims to fame. Parts of National Treasure were filmed here, and it was also the location of the chase scene in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

The four presidents represent different era in American history:

  • George Washington: the struggle for independence & birth of the nation
  • Thomas Jefferson: territorial expansion
  • Abraham Lincoln: permanent union of the states & equality for all citizens
  • Teddy Roosevelt: 20th Century role in world affairs and rights of the common man

Later that afternoon, we toured Jewel Cave National Monument, which is the third longest cave in the world (181 miles.) It is also unique because, unlike many other caves, it was not carved by underground rivers. Instead, it was formed by the movement of acidic groundwater.

The cave has a constant, cool temperature of 49 degrees, so it provided nice relief from the hot day! We explored some of the passageways and famous cave formations.

Bison!

Bison!

The next day, we hit Wind Cave National Park intending to explore more caves. Unfortunately, the cave tours were booked for the morning, so we had to continue on. But, we did get to enjoy the scenic drive through Wind Cave. The park actually features two divergent ecosystems: the underground world of caves, and the above-ground world of the prairies. We saw plenty of bison roaming about.

 

Badlands National Park, established 1978

Wind Cave was only a few hours from the Badlands, so we continued east to our final national park. Badlands National Park was formed over the millennia by the dual process of sedimentary rock deposits and subsequent erosion, resulting in light-colored, striated buttes and pinnacles.

We arrived just before noon on a 100 degree day, not the ideal conditions for a long hike. So, unfortunately, we only got a 30 minute taste of the Badlands. We walked a boardwalk trail and, once we got to the "continue at your own risk" sign, veered off onto the rocks for some close-up exploration.

We wandered through some of the eroding, chalky buttes that stretch on in harsh, bleached out layers. The Badlands are a rugged place, to be sure. Dry, cracked, harsh, and seemingly inhospitable...

While the landscape seems totally barren at first blush, the Badlands are home to a surprising array of wildlife. Bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, mule deer, coyotes, foxes, and rattlesnakes are some of the usual suspects. The Badlands also includes a stretch of grassy prairie where bison can be found.


Week 5: August 1-6- The Home Stretch

Delicious ice-cream pitstop in Pierre, SD.

Delicious ice-cream pitstop in Pierre, SD.

Fargo: more than just the Coen brothers' flick.

Fargo: more than just the Coen brothers' flick.

On our last week, we said goodbye to the national parks and spent a few days driving and doing some city exploring.

We stayed in Pierre (the capital) and Sioux Falls (a major city) in South Dakota to grab a shower and some laundry. 

We drove through fields of sunflowers in North Dakota, the “Peace Garden State,” and enjoyed a night in Fargo, complete with tacos, margaritas, and a really horrible (-ly awesome) $5 Zac Efron movie, "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates." Sometimes you just need popcorn and AC...

On August 3, we crossed into Minnesota, the land of “10,000 Lakes,” and drove to Perham to meet up with Kara’s boyfriend Justin. We toured the cute downtown, and while they had dinner with his family, I checked out the surrounding area.

I caught the cornfields at sunset and snapped a few polaroids. This rural part of Minnesota reminded me of the South. Dusty roads, endless waves of crops, quaint small-town charm.

Cornfields outside Perham, MN.

Cornfields outside Perham, MN.

Hay fields in Nebraska, "The Good Life."

Hay fields in Nebraska, "The Good Life."

The next day we drove to Minneapolis, and, unfortunately said our goodbyes! Just like that, one month to the day on August 4, our trip was over.

Kara and Justin were set to attend a wedding that weekend, and I was set to drive the car back to Denver. But not before I passed through Iowa (corn, hay fields, and cows) and Nebraska (more corn, more hay, you guessed it- more cows!) On Friday August 5, I returned to Denver and dropped off our trusty Kia Rio, which we had lovingly named "the white whale." The next day I flew back to South Carolina.

I could offer many platitude to sum up our trip. I could try to encapsulate all that we saw, felt, and experienced in a neat, polished sentiment. Such a task is impossible.

Yet, there is one quote that has stuck with me since I began researching and exploring the parks. So, I will leave it to Wallace Stegner — Pulitzer Prize winning author, environmentalist, professor, and perhaps "the" Western writer: 

"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."

Grand Total

  • National Parks: 11
  • National Forests: 16
  • National Recreation Areas/Grasslands: 5
  • National Monuments: 9
  • Total NPS Units visited: 41 / 412

NPS Units Visited

  1. Arapahoe National Forest
  2. Pike National Forest
  3. Mount Evans Wilderness Area
  4. San Isabel National Forest
  5. Uncompahgre National Forest
  6. Florissant-Fossil Beds National Monument 
  7. San Juan National Forest
  8. Curecanti National Recreation Area
  9. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  10. Mesa Verde National Park
  11. Canyon of the Ancients National Monument
  12. Four Corners National Monument 
  13. Navajo National Monument 
  14. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Navajo Bridge) 
  15. Kaibab National Forest
  16. Grand Canyon National Park
  17. Pipe Springs National Monument
  18. Dixie National Forest (Red Canyon)
  19. Zion National Park
  20. Bryce Canyon National Park
  21. Capitol Reef National Park
  22. Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument 
  23. Fishlake National Forest
  24. Craters of the Moon National Monument
  25. Caribou-Targee National Forest
  26. Flathead National Forest
  27. Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
  28. Glacier National Park
  29. Helena National Forest
  30. Bridger-Teton National Forest
  31. Yellowstone National Park
  32. Grand Teton National Park
  33. Shoshone National Forest
  34. Thunder Basin National Grassland 
  35. Buffalo Gap National Grassland
  36. Black Hills National Forest
  37. Mount Rushmore National Monument
  38. Jewel Cave National Monument
  39. Wind Cave National Park
  40. Badlands National Park
  41. Fort Pierre National Grassland

Three Lakes Trail: A Classic Colorado Hike

My first splash into an alpine lake was chilly, but not as cold as expected. When I came up for air, I felt all the nerves on my skin protesting, warning me to get out of this frigid basin of recently melted-snow. But I wanted to stay suspended for just a moment longer. Blue water, blue sky, blue veins. All around me was this color of life, and I drank it all in.

I couldn't leave Paonia without one last hike. It had been a month since Patrice and I hiked the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and I was itching for the trail. I happened to run into Sam, one of my Paonia pals, and he asked if I had any bucket-list items for my last few days. Immediately, I said "a hike." Sam suggested Lost Lake, up Kebler Pass heading toward Crested Butte. Off we went on Sunday, three days before my time at Elsewhere expired.

Entering Gunnison National Forest.

Entering Gunnison National Forest.

Along the Kebler Pass Drive.

Along the Kebler Pass Drive.

The drive was half the thrill. We took the same route that Patrice and I did on our first hike to Dark Canyon, two months ago. We started north on Highway 133 out of town, and after 15 miles, banked right onto Colorado Road 12 and into the Gunnison National Forest.

Patrice and I were only able to go as far as Erickson Springs, but now Sam and I were able to continue onto Kebler Pass.

Due to its high elevation of 10,000 feet, Kebler is closed until June, when the snowpack finally recedes. I can imagine how different it would be in winter, but this road of twists and turns was breathtaking. Every ridge delivered new mountain views. To our left was Marcinella Mountain, to our right were the Beckwith Peaks and Mount Gunnison.

Driving along Kebler.

Driving along Kebler.

Aspen grove.

Aspen grove.

Another 15 miles took us to the junction of  C.O. Road 706, the last stretch. We drove alongside aspen groves, my first up-close glimpse at this remarkable tree. Aspens typically grow in large colonies and are derived from a single seedling. The trees grow an interconnected root system that can survive forest fires, allowing aspens to grow and thrive despite adverse conditions. There is an aspen grove in Utah called “Pando” that is estimated to be 80,000 years old, making it possibly the oldest colony of aspens. It is also the largest living organism in the world. 

Hitting the trail!

Hitting the trail!

The last few miles to Lost Lake Campground were bumpy, but we made it. We decided on the Three Lakes Loop, which begins right from the campground on the shore of Lost Lake Slough. The campground is rated one of the most scenic in the state, and it's easy to see why.

Right from the trail, we were blown away. The trail begins in a wildflower meadow, with views of the Ruby Range, before entering a forest of aspen grove and spruce firs.

At 9,600 feet elevation, the temperature was cooler than in Paonia, but the sun was stronger, so we appreciated the tree cover.

Sam admires the view at the start of the trail.

Sam admires the view at the start of the trail.

Sam vs. the mountain.

Sam vs. the mountain.

We switchbacked for the first little while and got some good views of the aspens. I was disappointed to see so many of the trees defaced with lovers' initials and other markings that had stripped away the beautiful, white-brown bark.

We spied a small log dam, and looking upstream, we could see Lost Lake, the first of the three. We hurried along.

When we reached the shore, I thought, "this is what I came for." It was a classic Colorado vista: a green-blue lake with a gentle sandy shore, jaybird sky, and two mountain peaks framing the scene.

We took off our packs and walked along the shore, snapping pictures. I was already in awe, but Sam reminded me we had two lakes ahead of us.

Apparently there are backcountry campsites on the far side of the lake, but we didn't venture to explore them. These lakes are also quite popular for fishing, and one woman was casting her line a-ways down the lake. 

To hook up with the trail again, we had to make a log crossing. It was a fun obstacle to slip and slide along. Once over the logjam, we continued to climb through dense forest and spied some baby aspen growing in.

New bright-green growth on a young aspen.

New bright-green growth on a young aspen.

Middle Creek Falls.

Middle Creek Falls.

We also came to a small waterfall, Middle Creek Falls. There wasn't a clear trail, and climbing would have involved a lot of wet-rock scrambling, so we opted to admire rather than scale the falls.

Save for the fisherwoman at Lost Lake, we had total solitude during this part of the trail. It was quiet and still beneath the trees, and easy to get lost in our own thoughts. But every now and then, we would break into a clearing, eyes drawn to the treetops.

Very dense forest covered much of the trail, but we also got some nice sweeping ridge-line views every once in a while.

Very dense forest covered much of the trail, but we also got some nice sweeping ridge-line views every once in a while.

We soon reached an overlook with magnificent views of the West Elks, and the blue speck of Lost Lake Slough below. It became my favorite view of the whole trek. It was like a postcard, perfectly framed, with receding peaks in the background and tall trees in the foreground, buoyed by a blue sky.

One of the best overlooks I've ever seen. And this wasn't even a summit!

One of the best overlooks I've ever seen. And this wasn't even a summit!

At this point, we were quite close to Dollar Lake, and once we broke through to the clearing, the lake all to ourselves, we knew we'd found the perfect picnic and swim spot. We were greeted with a perfect mirror-image of the mountain on the lake's blue-green surface. The mountain sloped gently, in a perfect bird's wing plane, to the shore, which was dotted with pockets of sandy beach and thickets of spruce or pine.

Panorama of Dollar Lake.

Panorama of Dollar Lake.

We skipped over to the far side of the lake, unfurled a blanket, and unpacked our lunch spread. Sam had brought tortillas, beans & rice, tomato, and avocado. I had packed apples, peaches, and cheese. We made some trail tacos and sliced up some fruit, enjoying the break and chatting about the journey so far.

A perfect, glassy reflection at Dollar Lake. We dove in. Cold, but worth it!

A perfect, glassy reflection at Dollar Lake. We dove in. Cold, but worth it!

Mountain views, and a sliver of snow to the left! 

Mountain views, and a sliver of snow to the left! 

We couldn't pass up the opportunity to swim in these pristine waters, so we skirted the lake's circumference looking for the perfect spot, eventually ending up back where we started (of course.) It would have been hypothermic in May or even early June, since snow would still be melting, so we were unsure what we were in for.

I went in first, misled by the relatively warm shallows, and was rudely awakened by the snap of cold, alpine water when I dove under a little further out.

As I rushed back out, flailing and screaming, Sam took off for the middle of the lake, windmilling his arms to try to keep some semblance of warmth. It didn't last long, and he soon joined me back on shore. We were dripping wet, but totally invigorated. 

We dried off and began the descent to Lost Lake Slough, which would complete our loop. This part of the trail was much steeper and rockier, serpentining its way down. We eventually crossed Middle Creek again before briefly joining up with the Beckwith Pass Trail. Here, we got one of our best shots of the day:

Photo credit goes to Sam for this epic shot of the Beckwith mountains and Lost Lake Slough leading into a little creek crossing. What a way to end the trail!

Photo credit goes to Sam for this epic shot of the Beckwith mountains and Lost Lake Slough leading into a little creek crossing. What a way to end the trail!

We made our way back to the parking lot, giddy and all smiles. While the trail was only a little over 3 miles, and was generally flat and easy, it still felt like a grand accomplishment. This was a perfect hike to end my time in Paonia. A beautiful and breathtaking (literally...hello 10,000 feet!) trail to high alpine lakes, and my first Colorado swim.

Goodbye, Elsewhere

My time at Elsewhere has drawn to a close, and tomorrow, I leave the little hamlet of Paonia that has been my home for two months. Here's a recap of the last few weeks!

New Faces

With incoming and outgoing residents, each month at Elsewhere brings transitions and a chance to meet new artists. My fellow May ladies- Janet, Patrice, and Elyse- were replaced by three new June residents. This month, I have been getting to know Nick CollierHannah Sepúlveda-Davis, and RY King.

Nick, RY, Hannah, and me before our June Open Studio!

Nick, RY, Hannah, and me before our June Open Studio!

Nick is a sculptor and photographer from Florida. He served as an Afghanistan combat veteran in the Marine Corps and later earned his BFA and MFA. Drawing on his military experience (and sometimes subverting it) Nick's work investigates the American socio-political landscape, at home and abroad. It's been very interesting and inspiring to listen to his experiences and perspectives about not just the military, but also about veterans and art as a tool for communicating war experiences.

Hannah is a drawer and painter from Texas, who got her BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art. She manipulates images from fashion ads, music videos, and celebrity photography to subvert the popular depictions of the female body. She uses a lot of bright color, glitter, flashy materials, and contorted or strange body positions. I've been poking my head into the studio to check her stuff out and it's always cool to see what she's working on.

RY is a writer, translator, and photographer. She has a PhD in experimental creative writing and is also a scholar who works with German philosophy translations. RY has been making some wacky cameras out of beer cans and experimenting with long-exposure photographs (as in, exposing the film between one and thirty days!) She still has another month at Elsewhere but so far it's been neat to watch her construct these rough-and-tumble cameras and set up pseduo-darkrooms in the studio closet.

Town Happenings

Gesturing dramatically during Open Mic.

Gesturing dramatically during Open Mic.

Keeping up the traditions of last month, I went to two writers' workshops to get feedback on works-in-progress. The workshop is hosted by Jeanine Devlin, a local woman who owns a vintage and consignment collectible store called the Green Cottage, and is also an occasional bartender at Louie's Pizza (she happens to be engaged to Louie himself.) The workshop meets bi-weekly on Monday afternoons. Usually we are a small group of four or five people. Everyone brings a short piece of prose or a poem to share.

This workshop has helped keep me accountable for my work, but it also reminds me how much I have missed the Burlington Writers' Workshop (where much of this journey to a life of writing began.) Discussing and dissecting writing (whether my own or someone else's) is so cathartic, and often leads to broader conversations. 

I felt like I really got to know the people in my workshop here, even though we only met a few times.

I also went to the monthly open mic nights at Louie's, because who doesn't love sharing your soul with slightly inebriated strangers? Again, Jeanine is our host, and she often shares her own poetry or songs. Open mic is a medley of original songwriting/music, poetry, and prose. Everyone gets about seven minutes to show what they've got. It's a fun night out, and a good place to practice your reading.

Another staple of my evenings has been playing pool. This might sound unremarkable, but if you saw my pool game prior to coming to Paonia, you'd understand. I've never been a pool shark (or even a minnow) but recently, I've been playing once or twice a weekend at Waldo's, the town dive that is literally across the alley from Elsewhere. The games are free, the pitchers are cheap, and the jukebox is (sometimes) decent. Waldo's is the only true watering hole in town, and it's open till 1:00 on weekends, so people tend to post up.

Larry getting ready to sink the 8-ball.

Larry getting ready to sink the 8-ball.

What is really special about these pool nights, however, is the person who has been teaching me the game. I met Larry at the brewery on one of my first nights in Paonia. Larry is an old-timer, not a native Paonian, but someone who has lived here for many years. He volunteers at the town museum (indeed, he is the only volunteer) and is active in a lot of town events. He hasn't missed an Elsewhere event since I've been here, and is always happy to support the new artists.

Larry has quite the life story. He's served in the Navy, traveled to 40 countries, ridden the Trans-Siberian railway, camped at the base of Kilimanjaro, swam in the Galapagos Islands, raced streetcars and been pulled over doing 95 during a 1,000 mile drive from Vegas to Tulsa... and probably countless other things I haven't heard yet.

He is also a mean pool player, and has been imparting his wisdom onto me. We usually play Friday or Saturday nights (or both) and rotate games with other locals. It has been such a joy to get to know Larry and learn about his life. And I'll admit, it felt good when I finally beat him in pool (just one game though, before he reclaimed his crown as king of the tables...)

A Contemplative Month

Affectionately dubbed "the ditch," this little mudbath creek runs behind Elsewhere. I've spent a few afternoons reading and writing here, under the shade. It's a peaceful spot. 

Affectionately dubbed "the ditch," this little mudbath creek runs behind Elsewhere. I've spent a few afternoons reading and writing here, under the shade. It's a peaceful spot. 

Besides these fun outings in town, I haven't been up to my usual outdoor adventuring and have been feeling restless for the trail. I was able to do one last hike at Lost Lake (blog post to follow!) and it was sublime.

However, staying closer to home has allowed for more exploration of Elsewhere's charms and time to write and consider my upcoming plans.

Grad school is right around the corner, and I've been attending to some of those formalities (forms, health insurance, immunizations, syllabi and reading lists, the never-ending avalanche of bureaucracy, etc.) I've also been giving thought to the substance of what I'll be doing at school and trying to get back in that studious mindset.

My writing the last month has shifted from poetry (which is mostly what I wrote in May) to short snippets of non-fiction. Scenes from my hikes, my travels, my relationships. Little storybooks of life.

I've been trying to work on propelling a scene, rather than merely describing it in a lyrical, often vague, way. Trying to tease out meaning from something that has, inexplicably, stuck with me for years. Sometimes I become so intent on describing the physicality of a memory, the literal senses and surroundings, that I fail to give emotion its proper place.

A dark mist settles over the Gingerbread House after a thunderstorm. It's been hot this month  (90+ and sunny nearly every day) so any rain is a welcome relief. I love the afternoon storms that pass through.

A dark mist settles over the Gingerbread House after a thunderstorm. It's been hot this month  (90+ and sunny nearly every day) so any rain is a welcome relief. I love the afternoon storms that pass through.

Then again, maybe the things that remain on my mind, those tactile qualities of land and air and water and space, are what make the memory. The weight of the piece becomes how distant I am from this memory. Whether intentional or unknown, I carve a separation, cleave myself clean, exist as a third-party, eyeing from above. I think my writing tends to reveal that distance, expose my reluctance to enter my own thoughts or emotions. I'm trying to resist that impulse, to peel back the curtain just enough.

I still struggle with fiction and have made inchworm progress on some stories that are constantly idling in my brain.

But I doubt I'll ever call myself a short-story writer.

Cat on a hot tin roof.

Cat on a hot tin roof.

At my core, I find more meaning in exploring the world that already exists, not one that I have yet to imagine. I'm drawn to non-fiction because there are so many shocking, incredible, raw, visceral, intelligent, unbelievable, beautiful, human stories waiting to be told. It's why I want to pursue journalism, albeit with a literary, narrative bent.

So, this last month at Elsewhere has helped me cement these interests.

It is with a full and happy heart that I leave this little town behind. I've met so many characters in Paonia. This town is rich in quirky people, but it's the cheer and spirit of those people that makes this place sink into your skin. I can say with some certainty that I'll keep in touch with a few of the Elsewhere residents, and some of the townsfolk, in the years to come. And I know I'll be back to this valley one day.

Until then, I'll miss so many things. I'll miss Elsewhere's bizarre and charming property, from the off-kilter Gingerbread House, to the half-string of Christmas lights that brighten up my little loft room, to the hidden pieces of art carved into floors and walls and ceilings. I'll miss Tomatoes, who is more than a cat. He's a companion, a mouse-hunter, and a heart-stealer. I'll miss conversations with fellow residents, over coffee or beer or both, gathered in the studio or relaxing in the living room. I'll miss the rush of peering into canyons, the awe of eyeing the distant red desert horizon, or the calm of watching rivers cascade past me.

I'll miss quiet things, too. The babble of ditchwater running behind the house; the contrast of scorched days and chilled nights; the cradle of mountains that rise around you like a cupped pair of hands; the ubiquity of fruits and ciders and juices from the valley's orchards, always ripe and ready to delight your tongue. 
Goodbye, Elsewhere. Goodbye, Paonia. Thank you.

Summertime Tunes: Three Albums to Press Play

Ah, summer. We love to love you.

On the cusp of a golden summer, I am really feeling these three albums.

Elements of 80s New Romanticism and synth pop abound.  But so do modern movements like downtempo electro and hazy dreampop. I like the blend of nostalgia and innovation. These tunes recall the feeling of things that are just beginning but are somehow familiar. 

Not all of these are current or "trending" albums, but they all came out in the last few years. I think they're perfect for summer —shimmering, irresistible, and a bit melancholy. 

Because while summer is beautiful, it always ends.

There's a bittersweet element to this season, and these songs.

 

Craft Spells, Idle Labor, 2011 

Romantic 80s nostalgia. It's got the synth beats you crave and the ear-worm melodies that speak your mind. At times abundantly joyful, at others deep and dark, this album is sublime. 

Fave tracks: "Scandinavian Crush," "After the Moment," "You Should Close the Door." 

For fans of: New Order (does that album cover look familiar?), Beach Fossils, Crystal Stilts, unrequited love.

 

DIANA, Perpetual Surrender, 2013

Lush female vocals and unhurried, textural instrumentals make this an ideal chillwave album. These tracks are for lounging —the most summer of pastimes.

Fave tracks: "That Feeling," "Strange Attraction" "New House."

For fans of: Lana Del Ray, Wet, Washed Out, spending lazy days by the pool.

 

 

 

Com Truise, Silicon Tare EP, 2016

Propulsive, neon electronica gets you grooving and brooding. Animatronic, warped sounds and plenty of space-industrial synth will bring out the audiophile in you. Plus how can you not love the name Com Truise?

Fave tracks: "Sunspots," "Diffraction." 

For fans of: Tycho, Neon Indian, Chromatics, 80s video games.

 

Hitting the Road

The phrase "on the road" has several literal connotations. Jack Kerouac's novel, Willie Nelson's song. Beyond these familiar titles, the phrase has a place in the American consciousness. It signifies freedom, exploration, and discovery.

I read On the Road a few times in college for class assignments, and honestly (and perhaps, blasphemously to other millennials)- I didn't get much out of it. I was frustrated by the wild, rambling prose and put off by the debauchery, the antics. 

As a sophomore at UVM, I took a class called "Individualism & Its Dangers." One of our assignments was to write a paper comparing and contrasting Kerouac's vision of "the good life," based on On the Road, with Thoreau's vision, based on Walden. They both believed in individualism and non-conformity, but their approaches to such a lifestyle were hardly in sync.

One of the many covers. This is a neat site showing the various covers & international editions.

One of the many covers. This is a neat site showing the various covers & international editions.

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out and organizing old computer files. I found that essay and read it over. While I didn't care for either of those books at the time— perhaps it had something to do with Thoreau's obnoxious self-aggrandizement, the fact that he didn't really live as isolated as he claimed, or his obsession with cataloging every row of beans he planted at Walden and every dime he spent— parts of it stuck when reading it with fresh, twenty-five year old eyes. I started thinking about these well-known and well-worn works, considered to be two of the "Books That Shaped America" by the Library of Congress.

Kerouac championed a carefree, pleasure-filled existence, often through the twin pillars of drugs and sex. Kerouac's vision of "the good life" is external. It is achieved through adventure and constant movement from town to town, brothel to bar.

In case you're wondering, yes, five times is four times too may to read Walden. 

In case you're wondering, yes, five times is four times too may to read Walden

Thoreau pretty much lived in opposition to Kerouac's wild ways. Thoreau emphasized internal reflection, discipline, and purity. He urged people to abandon their daily cares and the frantic rituals of urban living, and instead, to seek stillness in nature. Where Thoreau extolled the virtues of moderation, Kerouac abhorred the middle-of-the-road approach.

Thoreau believed in creating an individual niche, in achieving total self-actualization through contemplation and soul-searching. Kerouac was more concerned with rebelling against the general mold of 1950s society and eschewing conformity through radical acts of pleasure-seeking.

After stumbling across that essay, I've been reevaluating these two works. I still think On the Road has problems, and I doubt I'll ever read Walden again (having read it five, yes, five full times, I think I've had enough of ole' Henry David Thoreau.) I'm nowhere near as extreme as Kerouac (I can appreciate a healthy dose of punctuation) and I think Walden is over-analyzed in high-school English classrooms.

But the themes in these books are ones that I return to again and again in my own life. What does it mean to live an individual, but not a selfish, life? How can we seek adventure without disregard for others, or the land we travel on? 

From Elsewhere website.

From Elsewhere website.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying: I will be soon on the road myself. I'm packing my bags and heading west for the summer. I'm doing a two month (May & June) writing residency at Elsewhere Studios in Paonia, Colorado. After that, I hit the road on a National Parks loop.

Paonia is a tiny town in the western part of the state, in the North Fork Valley. It has a population of 1,400 and zero stoplights. It looks like the quintessential Colorado mountain town, with sweeping views and all the things you need in a small town- a pizza place, a bar, a trading post, a cafe, a movie theater, nearby state and national parks and forests... plus all the charm you can handle.

Soon, I will be on "Mountain Time," which feels appropriate. I'll be posting along the way about my experience, but I'll largely be off-internet.

I leave tomorrow with a one-way ticket. I fly to Denver, stay two nights, and then hop a train (the famed California Zephyr) to Glenwood Springs. Though Paonia is about an hour and a half away, it's the closest station, and I have to be picked up by someone from Elsewhere. There ain't no public transit in those parts. Time to ramble on...

Welcome sign, from Elsewhere website.

Welcome sign, from Elsewhere website.


What am I bringing?

Books

  • All the Wild That Remains- David Gessner- An examination of Wallace Stegner & Edward Abbey's approaches to conservation, environmentalism, and travel. Like Keroauc and Thoreau, these two famous writers couldn't be more different. Yet, both are canonical in the literature of the West.
  • The Names- N. Scott Nomady- Autobiography/memoir by the Pulitzer Prize winning Native American author. It's about his childhood growing up in Oklahoma and the Southwest.
  • Best American Science & Nature Writing 2015- I've read some of these yearly anthologies, mostly the Travel Writing ones. I thought I'd turn to the nature & science writing this time. 
  • In Southern Light: Trekking Through Zaire and the Amazon- Alex Shoumatoff- The title is pretty self explanatory. Shoumatoff is a famed adventurer and literary journalist.
  • Crow Fair- Thomas McGuare- Short stories set in Montana, Big Sky country. 
  • Eureka Mill, and Waking- Ron Rash: two volumes of poetry by North Carolina poet Ron Rash. Rash is known as an "Appalachian" writer who brought this area of the country to broader recognition. He's also a winning novelist and short-story writer.
  • Girl in a Band- Kim Gordon: this one is an outlier from the travel/outdoor/landscape theme, but I'm still jazzed to read it. The rise and fall of a rock and roll love story and the trajectory of one of the extraordinary bands of our time.

Paonia has a town library, so I'm hoping to pick up some things there as well, including Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. Hoping to see Arches National Park and to consult Abbey's seminal work about his experience as a ranger at the park.

Clothes

  • hiking shoes
  • Teva's
  • cowboy boots (naturally)
  • long & short athletic leggings
  • athletic shorts
  • trusty jean shorts
  • long & short-sleeve athletic shirts
  • a few regular shirts & tank tops
  • a sundress (ya never know)
  • flannel shirt (miss you, Vermont)
  • denim shirt
  • athletic fleece zip-up
  • light sweater
  • rain jacket
  • pair o' jeans
  • baseball hat
  • sun hat (looking at you, pale skin)
  • bandana 
  • bathing suit
  • short & mid-height wool socks

Gear

  • large Osprey hiking backpack
  • small REI daypack
  • tent
  • sleeping bag
  • sleeping pad
  • blanket
  • towel
  • backpacking stove
  • cookware & utensils
  • headlamp & flashlight
  • camelbak & water bottle
  • travel toiletries
  • first aid kit
  • flask (never a dull, or dry, moment)

Other

  • 35 mm film camera & film
  • Instax polaroid camera & film
  • notebooks
  • National Geographic road atlas
  • laptop
  • phone
  • GoPro
  • deck o' cards
  • the golden ticket- America the Beautiful pass

Finally, here's a playlist to get in the road trip mood. A little old school country, a little classic rock, some modern tracks, and a few tunes from my Vermont honky-tonk friends: Reverend Ben Donovan and the Congregation. The last song is even about Colorado...

 

 

National Poetry Month- Does poetry matter?

"Does poetry matter?"

That was the title of a NYT Opinion Pages "Room for Debate" special in 2014. They featured seven commentators, all of whom were poets (you couldn't have picked unbiased non-poets, eh, NYT?) discussing the merits of poetry and the genre's place in today's world. Unsurprisingly, all seven landed on the side of "yes, it matters." But why does it matter? 

April is National Poetry Month. A time to debate and celebrate poetry. I'm sure there are, or will be, numerous articles and posts that continue to examine poetry's place and purpose. More than any other art form- whether it be photography, painting, or even other genres of writing-  it seems like poetry is always thrust into the "relevancy" conversation. 

Some people say, "I just don't get poetry." Maybe they were taught complex poems in high school that are from a different era, filled with precise rhyming schemes and lots of arcane historical or mythological references. It can be hard for a casual reader to understand, or even make it through, a poem that is loaded with images and references that the reader has never heard of.

Others may dislike poetry because some poets are purposefully obscure, in an attempt to seem "deep." Poetry is sometimes labeled "pretentious."  I think that's a fair criticism in some cases. Reaching for a thesaurus to replace "easy" words in your poems is a pitfall. Of course, a poet should use precise language. But that doesn't mean a poet has to use fussy or overwrought language.

To categorically say you don't "get poetry," and therefore to write it off, is a missed opportunity. I might be naive in believing that anyone, regardless of education or training, can appreciate some form of poetry. But I do believe that.

Every civilization has had poetry, even ones without written language. Oral traditions are a form of poetry. The sound of the words is critical in poetry; that's why poetry and music are closely related. Poetry can, and has been, used as a shorthand for larger themes and stories.

David Biespiel's response is spot-on, I think. He writes:

"In the same way that poems illuminate our individual lives, poems also help us understand ourselves as a culture. Or at least they spur us to ask the questions...
If we care about the deepest aspirations of men and women across every community and culture, language and race, then poetry is always relevant because it is the art of the utterance of what we share in our innermost psyches. 

Since culture and society existed both before we live and after we die, poetry is a link to our passage through our own time and a record of poets’ perspectives throughout time. 

We know that human beings are intrinsically connected to one another in how we assert our being. When we read a poem, we are in the presence of this link. We are open to the metaphors of our shared natures." 

So, to answer the NYT question: yes, I think poetry matters. But not because it's some grand artistic expression that requires the reader to have a PhD in literature. At its best, poetry is for everyone who wants to sit down and read it.

One last note - - - Though they were novelists, not poets, I think the famous exchange between William Faulkner & Ernest Hemingway gets at the heart of how we should think about poetry, and all writing.

Faulkner wrote, in reference to Hemingway, "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."

Hemingway's response? “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"


A few of my favorite poetry collections:

Lake-of-Two-Mountains-cover-with-sticker.jpg

Arleene Paré, Lake of Two Mountains

This volume is stunning. This Canadian poet's collection is "a portrait of a lake, a relationship to a lake, of a network of relationships around a lake." Paré's use of language is just perfect. She pairs words that I never imagined together. The way she describes nature, so seemingly banal and overdone in poetry, is somehow fresh. Here's the synopsis from the cover:  "It maps, probes and applauds the riparian region of central Canadian geography that lies between the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence Rivers. The poems portray this territory, its contested human presences and natural history: the 1990 Oka Crisis, Pleistocene shifts and dislocations, the feather-shaped Ile Cadieux, a Trappist monastery on the lake’s northern shore. As we are drawn into experience of the lake and its environs, we also enter an intricate interleaving of landscape and memory, a reflection on how a place comes to inhabit us even as we inhabit it."

Adrienne Rich, Dream of a Common Language

No list of major poets of the 20th Century would be complete without Rich. The content of this collection may not seem scandalous to modern eyes, but it was extremely controversial when it was published.

In 1953, Rich, who was educated at Radcliffe,  married a Harvard economist and ultimately had three children with him.

But, Rich was secretly a lesbian. She and her husband separated in 1970, and he committed suicide later that year. When Twenty-One Love Poems was published in 1976, it was her effective "coming out." The series addresses her lesbian desires, but the poems go beyond just describing a same-sex relationship. They are simply sublime.

Dreams of a Common Language was published shortly thereafter in 1978 and incorporates three parts; first, Power (which is also incredible, and which every woman should read;) second, the previously published Twenty-One Love Poems; and third, Not Somewhere Else, but Here. Rich eventually became not only a lauded poet, but one of the leading radical feminist activists of her time. 

William Carlos Williams

One of the best known American modernists. This is a good primer on his works. I like the selections from Sour Grapes, Spring and All, An Early Martyr, and The Wedge. Williams is more than just "The Red Wheelbarrow" or "This is just to say" (though those are both lovely, and good examples.)

 

 

 

Diane Wakowski- Dancing on the grave of a son of a bitch

My favorites are the series of "Astronomer Poems." They are a little "far-out" from things I would normally read. Wakowski is a "deep image" poet (yes, I had to Google that too...)

This volume is a little more accessible than some of her other stuff, but I still feel like I only half-grasp what she's talking about half the time. It feels like weird daydreaming (or sometimes, nightmares.)

But the title poem is so badass. It's a searing middle-finger to her "motorcycle betrayer." Hell hath no fury...

 

 

In the Heat of Shadows: South African Poetry 1996-2013, edited by Denis Hirson.

I bought this in Cape Town, South Africa in January 2015 when I was visiting a good friend who was serving in the Peace Corps in Lesotho (which is landlocked by South Africa.) It's a collection of post-apartheid poetry that shows a nation still grappling with identity, politics, and relationships to land and community- but from a different angle. 

The collection features poetry in English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, and Xitsonga- some of the many languages spoken in South Africa. I haven't made it through the whole anthology (there are multiple works by 33 poets) but some of my favorite poets from it are: Karen Press, Robert Berold, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Ronelda Kamfer, and David Wa Maahlamela. 

 

On my "to-read" list:

  • Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars- Smith won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for this collection. Her father was an engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope, so the themes of "space" and "science" run throughout. This is the lead-off on the back cover: "With allusions to David Bowie and interplanetary travel, Life on Mars imagines a soundtrack for the universe to accompany the discoveries, failures, and oddities of human existence." If that doesn't pique your interest, nothing else will.

  • Rebecca Dinerstein, Lofoten- A bilingual collection of a year spent in the gorgeous archipelago of Lofoten, Norway.

  • Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise- Jones received pretty much unanimous praise for this debut collection in 2014. He writes about violence, race, sexuality, and living in the South, using a central figure (simply named "boy") and descriptions of "the body" to illuminate these topics. 

 

Spring Refresh: Tunes & Reads

Spring means all things new, fresh, and exciting. If you live in a place that actually experiences spring, that is. In Vermont, mud season doesn't exactly lend itself to feeling awakened. There is usually one gloriously warm burst in March, but then we slide back into almost-not--but-basically-winter. But down here in the Carolinas, the trees are green, the flowers have bloomed, and the weather is balmy. This is the first real spring I've experienced in years, and I am loving it ...

I thought I'd share some things I've been listening to, reading, etc recently. Not all of them are related to the South, but some are. Where I am physically or geographically in life usually influences what music and books I gravitate towards. When I head to Colorado in one month (coming up fast!) I am excited to look under to hood of the music & arts scene there and post my findings.


Tunes

Since I do album reviews for Seven Days, I am fortunate to get to hear a lot of new Vermont tunes. I love being able to keep a finger on the pulse of the VT music scene, even from afar. I just submitted a review for Burlington duo Cricket Blue's new EP, Io. I loved it. It is a stunning, complex piece of folk music that weaves tales old and new. It's not just a standard, boy-girl pair strumming their guitars. It's dark and rich. And man, those voices... The EP goes live on April 9th, so look for the review in next week's issue!

One thing I've learned is wherever you go, there is quality local music being made. You just have to find it. Read alternative newspapers and publications for the goings-on, hang out in coffee shops for open mic nights, or post up at a bar for late-night jams (or just post up at a bar in general, because why not?) 

Since I've relocated down south, I've been consulting Blue Ridge Outdoors, an outdoor adventure magazine and website focused on the Southeast & Mid-Atlantic. The online version offers a free monthly playlist called "Trail Mix" (clever, clever.) The site also profiles up-and-coming musicians, focusing on Americana-inspired sounds. Have a listen to March's mix here. They even featured one of my favorite artists, The Suitcase Junket (one-man band made up of the weird-instrument wielding Matt Lorenz.) He performed at Otis Mountain Get Down last year, and he killed it. He recently released a new album, Dying Star. Check it! 

Switching gears from rustic, rootsy sounds--- I've also been grooving to the polished, romantic beats on Fleurie's EP, Arrows. It was released in September, but I think it's perfectly dreamy for spring. Listen to the lead-off track, "Fire in My Bones." Yes, it was featured during a steamy scene on Pretty Little Liars. Yes I watch that show...moving on.

Last one. If you like 70s rock, you need to know Philly-based group,  Sheer Mag. Their don't-give-a-shit attitude and infectious riffs will keep you rocking all spring. Plus, lead singer Tina Halladay is as bad-ass as they come. The band leans toward the scruffier side of punk-rock rather than the aggressive end, so their tunes are still approachable for non-head bangers. A month ago they released a third EP, sequentially titled III, which is just as catchy as their earlier ones.


Reads

I always have a rotation of three or four books that I'm reading simultaneously. I usually read half of one, put it down, pick up another, get distracted, then open another, and so on. I always get around to finishing them but it's never in a linear, normal fashion. Oh well. I like having my brain engaged in a lot of different things and switching it up.

Here are some books currently on my shelf (or, more accurately, my floor, since I don't have a bookcase...)

  • 1959: The Year Everything Changed- Fred Kaplan. The mid 1960s are usually assumed to be the years of great upheaval in 20th Century American culture, politics, and life. But Slate writer Fred Kaplan posits that the seeds for the "revolution" were actually planted and nurtured in the last year of the 50s. Some of the major happenings in the year include: the invention of the microchip and the birth control pill; the advent of the space race; the rise of New Journalism, Motown, and free Jazz; the beginnings of school integration; the debate over publication of "obscene material" and banned books; the emergence of Fidel Castro and Malcolm X; the beginning of the "nuclear age" and the fallout-shelter phenomenon; the start of the Cold War; and the first casualties of the Vietnam War. All of these events would shape the latter half of the century. It's a fascinating read. Kaplan traces the circumstances of individual people, movements and events, tying them all together to make his case for why 1959 heralded a new age.

 

  • American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation- Erik Rutkow. Rutkow is a Yale scholar who is obsessed with trees. I'm not being cheeky when I say that. His book is, literally, a treatise on how trees shaped the history of the United States, from pre-colonial times to present. He discusses everything from early stripping of the forests for timber for home construction; to Liberty Trees and the American Revolution; to the Industrial Revolution and the need for wood for mills, trains, and coal production; to Transcendentalism and other literary movements focused on nature ; to the ubiquity of paper and pulp products; to the construction of city parks; to diasters like major fires and the chestnut blight; to the national parks movement and the creation of the federal bureaucracy of the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior; to the rise of modern environmentalism. He also explains how trees were important to major historical figures like Jefferson, Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt. For such a specific topic, Rutkow keeps the writing surprisingly engaging. It flows like a story---filled with eccentric characters, power struggles, and big themes.

 

  • Judgment Ridge: The True Story Behind the Dartmouth Murders- Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff. Dick Lehr is a renowned journalist and professor at BU, and I actually got to meet him a few weeks ago. He kindly gave me his book, co-authored with another BU professor and former Boston Globe staffer, Mitch Zuckoff. The community of Hanover, New Hampshire was rocked by the brutal slaying of two beloved professors in 2001. When it was discovered that two teenagers from Chelsea, Vermont had committed the crime, the shock extended into the sleepy, presumably safe confines of the Green Mountain State. The authors delve into the lives of everyone involved, describing the crime and subsequent investigation and trials, ultimately painting a vivid and disturbing portrait of the events. It's a true crime book, but it's more than just a simple thriller. 

Another recommendation from a book I read this fall: Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West- Bryce Andrews. I love this book. It's a memoir about Andrews' time on a Montana ranch. But it's more than just a simple meditation on "western living." Parts of the memoir deal with Andrews' daily life as a ranch hand, fixing fences, roping cattle, and tending to the land. He elegantly describes the fierce weather and often unforgiving, but undeniably breathtaking, landscape. The central focus, however, is on Andrews' relationship to one specific animal, a wolf. During his time there, wolves began to pick off members of the ranch's cattle herd. After much back-and-forth, the ranch is ultimately issued a "kill order" to eliminate the wolves responsible. Andrews dwells on his hesitant pursuit of this one wolf, interspersing his own narrative with that of the wolf's. It's haunting. The book is technically about the life-and-death dance of one man and one animal, but more broadly, it raises questions (and not simply new age platitude-ridden ones) of humanity, conservation, land-use, and our relationship to our environment.

Last note. I just picked up Kim Gordon's music autobiography, Girl in a Band, and I am looking forward to digging in! But first, I'll finish the others...