She Needed Me to Play

Dance FloorSometimes, when we head west, we land for a few days at a cabin. In a meadow in Custer National Forest, it’s far enough from civilization that the siren song of phone, internet, and television falls silent, replaced by the gentler sounds of wind in the trees and water dancing over boulders. There, the weather unfolds in the sky rather than on radar.

After a series of bright, high country autumn days, the sun succumbed to a veil of clouds which rolled in over the mountain, bringing with them a cold, splashy snow that blanketed everything it touched.

Fly-fishermen in the Snow

It fell through the afternoon and into the evening. As night closed in, we noticed a dark figure in the distance, a bull moose making his way across the meadow, an inky shadow plodding through the haze. We’d never seen a moose here before and we watched it until it disappeared into the trees.

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When morning came we threw on our coats and burst into the bright day, the snow already succumbing to the warmth of the air and the rays of the sun. Impressions in the snow revealed that the moose had not been the only wildlife to pass through in the night. Deer tracks meandered over the cabin’s wooden dance floor and a coyote left prints for us to follow down the driveway.

Deer Tracks on the Dance Floor

We’d known the animals were there. In the middle of a national forest how could they not be? But until that morning we’d seen only trout at the end of the line and an occasional deer.

Tracks in the snow proved their presence.

Down the Road

We headed to the meadow to search for the moose’s tracks. Unlike those at the cabin, his were gone, concealed by the snow that fell into the night. So we followed the road over the stream and between the frosted trees as it led higher up the mountain and deeper into the forest.  At a bend in the road, our son stopped and pointed down at a series of tracks across the road, fresh tracks, clear like those of the deer and the coyote back at the cabin.

Bear tracks.

The best bear defense is a good offense and a good offense is avoidance, so we retreated. And we let him know we were there by going back down the road in the same way we had come up: talking and laughing, planning for the day ahead, but always, always mindful of the presence of the bear in the forest.

After the snow

With the cabin in sight, I felt the familiar relief of having made it back from the wilds with the whole tribe intact, unharmed and uneaten. J must have felt the same, because he launched a snowball at our son just as our oldest girl, who’d been walking a little ahead of the rest of us, entered the cabin.

I paused, torn between heading in and staying out. Snowball fights aren’t my thing. Playing isn’t really my thing. At least, not playing the way kids like to play. I’ll play the game or work the easy puzzle for a while. I’ll hike. I’ll read a book. But play?

I walked to the door and called to my daughter, the one our littlest girl misses because they don’t play together much anymore, and we followed the laughter and squeals around the cabin to where the battle had spilled, and I bent to make a snowball of my own. It fell short. Woefully short. But every one of us was in the game.

Cabin in the Snow

In the midst of it, my girlie sidled up to me. “Thanks for telling me about the snowball fight,” she said.

“I didn’t think you’d want to miss it.”

“I knew there ‘d be a snowball fight,” she said, “but I didn’t know you would play.”

She needed me. She needed to see me play and laugh, to show her that even though growing up is serious business it isn’t all seriousness all the time. And she needed me to show her the way.

The next morning, the moose was back, a dark silhouette weaving in and out of the aspen and pine that bordered the yard, just one of a forest full of animals always present but rarely seen.

And like the woodland creatures that hint at their presence more than they show themselves, the wandering steps on the winding path between childhood and adulthood are easy to miss. They’re watching us, those kids, looking to us to show them the way.

Watching

Linking at Small WondersUnite, #RARA,  Thought Provoking Thursday and Weekend Whispers.

Sometimes the Road is Dark

Harney Peak, Custer State Park, South Dakota

Harney Peak, Custer State Park, South Dakota

We don’t always get it right out on the trail.

We knew it would be close. Still, we hopped out at the picnic area, grabbed a late lunch, and prepared to hit the trail to Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills.

My husband filled our camel paks while I reached into our well-stocked supply of nutritious and frivolous trail food. And then, at 3:00 in the afternoon, after an evening and part of a long day in the vehicle, we set out for Harney Peak. It was a six-mile loop, estimated to take four to five hours.  Sunset was four and a half-hours away.  We needed to hurry.

It was like we had never stepped off of a sidewalk.

Stops for snacks out on the trail were a big deal to all three kids. And from our stockpile of trail food what had I grabbed? Not trail mix. Not granola bars. Not fruit. No, I had chosen one tiny candy bar per person. One.

Our youngest was neither a hiker nor a hurrier. My husband and I were road-weary and stiff.

We were in trouble from the moment we set foot on the trail.

Yellowstone 2011 008In spite of our poor planning, it was a fabulous hike that took us over a sun-dappled path and along breathtaking drop-offs. We climbed the stone fire tower and explored the peak before we remembered that we needed to hurry and forced ourselves back to the trail. When we arrived at the fork in the trail, we decided not to return the way we had come, but to take the other section of the loop.

Down the trail, we stood for too long to watch a mule deer pair graze in the drying grass amidst the trees. While we lingered,  the sky took on the melancholy look it gets when it will soon give up the sun. Now we hurried.

At least, we hurried as much as tired, hungry, somewhat dehydrated hikers with youngsters can hurry.

The sky darkened and our pace slowed. My steps became small and timid as my eyes searched the barely visible, unfamiliar trail before me. Roots and gravel, rocks and holes, enemies to my stability under the best circumstances, transformed a pleasant day hike into a perilous evening journey.

While the eerie light of the closing darkness concealed whatever lurked ahead, behind, or beside of the trail, it revealed my place in the world and in its food chain. I began to envision us perched on a rock, shivering away the hours of the long night as we waited for dawn to light our way to the trailhead.

It was in this moment of desperation that my intrepid husband broke out a flashlight and two headlamps that he had stashed in his pack.

It wasn’t a lot of light, but it changed everything.

Where there had been darkness, now there was light—and right where I needed it—on the trail directly in front of my feet. Now, rather than taking one tiny, timid step after another, I hiked like I meant it. My pace matched our urgency to get out of those rocky hills where the mountain lion dwells. I strode with confidence, all because of a tiny pool of light on the path.

While I never relish distressing circumstances, I do appreciate the unmistakable intersection between the truth of scripture and the circumstances of my life. This night was one of those.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105

This is what I want those words to mean: That light will light up my path and the landscape on every side like a football field on a Friday night. One dark night on the trail is all it took to show me that this isn’t how it works.  A light like this cuts through just enough darkness to make the journey possible, one step at a time.

It isn’t a lot of light, but it can change everything.

Just as we don’t always get it right on the trail, I don’t always get it right in my life. I have forgotten the lesson of our hike in the dark. I’ve struggled against darkness on the path in a vain attempt to see the trail ahead. I’ve even ignored the light because it wasn’t where I wanted to walk.

I don’t want to ignore. Or struggle. Or forget.

I want to remember.  I’ll be in the dark again and I want to get it right, to recognize that I don’t have to know how far is the journey, what route the trail will take, or how deep it will take me into the darkness. I want to trust that there will be just enough light for each of my steps.

Our hike in the dark was a long series of steps. What is this life but a series of steps taken by faith?

And you? What guides you when the road ahead is dark?

Linking this week with Emily’s #imperfectprose.


 

This post is a revised version of one of my earliest posts, revised because bullet points are not my style and reposted because it’s one of my favorites. 

The Quiet Walk

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Photo by Adam Noll–Creative Commons

There is more to a hike than a pair of boots, a granola bar, and the trail. There’s technique. At least that’s what they taught in the hiking class I took to satisfy a  college P.E. requirement.

I was slow to come to a love of hiking and didn’t yet have it when my roommate and I drove to the Wisconsin Dells to learn everything we needed to know about hiking. Twenty five years later, of that everything, two stuck.

First–and because we hike in the mountains, most useful–how to hike up a hill: Tackle it like you would a staircase, with small steps, lifting your body with the quads rather than the calves. The quads are stronger. They can take it.

Second, how to establish hiking order: The slowest hiker stays up front and sets the pace so everyone stays together and insures that the slow one won’t get left behind if she has some sort of trouble. I suppose that makes sense in the case of a twisted ankle that occurs with a sudden onset of laryngitis.

It took almost twenty-five years of life on the trail before I actually wanted to be there. I was happy enough out hiking along with my parents and brother, and later my husband, and even later with our children, as long as I wasn’t tired or bored and the trail was reasonably flat. I didn’t understand the need to get off the road, away from the crowds, and into the backcountry.

I get it now. Finally. The hours and effort on the trail will take me somewhere worth going.

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Seven years ago we packed our children, then three, seven, and ten, and drove east instead of west.  On our way to the coast, we drove through new mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains. Along the curved, yellow leaf-lined roads, we saw a sign we’d never seen before: Quiet Walkway.

What in the world is a quiet walkway? 

That was my question as we wound our way through the park, passing sign after puzzling sign. Always curious and unafraid of the unknown, my husband eventually pulled over at one. There was no trail information, just a path into the woods.

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And down that path we started; no map, no guide, and no destination. It was mid-afternoon and I calculated how much this little stop would delay our arrival at our week’s home on the beach. Questions, the grumbling kind, whirled through my mind: Why are we doing this? How far will we go? How will we know when we get there?

A damp carpet of leaves muted our footfalls. Those which clung to their branches filtered the light that dappled the trail. The air hung with a rich tranquility which even playful young voices could not break. It was, indeed, quiet.

We walked and wandered until we discovered the mild rapids of a mountain stream. With boulders to climb, logs to cross, and rocks to throw, it was an unexpected paradise for our little tribe.

When we had set off it had seemed random, but we got to where we belonged along by a route that was deliberate.

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Life in a family can be like that. Why else would we play Don’t Break the Ice or read Thomas the Tank Engine hundreds of times? Those aren’t destinations. They’re the stops along the way, boulders and logs and rocks in the woods; worthwhile stops where we belong for a time. We stop with our little people—and our big ones—because we’re on the journey with them, not because we know where we’ll all end up.

A day with my grandma usually included a looking walk. She had a book about such walks. We would read it together and then we would go live it. Evening’s arrival brought Only a Boy Named David and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the rocking chair by the picture window in her living room. I still see the stars and hear her voice. Though hampered by rheumatoid arthritis and walking was hard for her, she took me on quiet walks long before the National Park Service did. She taught me the value of the quiet moment and the gifts which reside within.

Unlike a hike, there’s no technique for the quiet walk. There’s just a walk, a willingness to let go of destination and embrace–for a little while–the road for the sake of the road. It seems like it should be easy, but it’s not.

Just like it’s hard to put the slowest hiker out front, it’s hard to pause while our little people wander the trails of childhood or our big ones–our grownup friends and family–struggle with the switchbacks of adult life. It takes self-control and sacrifice to slow down long enough to wander with someone without knowing where, or why, or how long; but like the years it took to develop an appreciation for time on the trail, the effort is worth it.

And you? What are you more comfortable with–the hike with a specific destination or a quiet walkway?

 

 

 

Yeah, Little Girl, It Is

This is a revised version of one of my first and favorite posts. I’m revisiting it today because when it originally posted, Along This Road had all of five subscribers. (Thank you, by the way.) It’s different from the original because I’ve learned that no matter what the blogging experts say, bullet points are not my style.


When my oldest daughter was four, we loaded our life and our stuff into a semi and moved across the state. One morning, while I unpacked, my dad took her out to explore the neighborhood. As they investigated the curved and convoluted sidewalk system that made up our new world, he taught her the last stanza of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

Every time they came to an intersection they would recite together:

I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood,
And I, I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Then he would let her choose which way they would go. As they meandered along they became delightfully lost.

It was a great day in the life of a four-year old adventurer.

She learned a poem. She’d been the leader. She made it back from the brink of danger.

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Several months later, our family hiked the Natural Bridge trail in Yellowstone National Park. A section of that trail is a loop. We stood behind her at the fork. She recited her poem, chose our road, and set our course. After a few hundred feet down the trail she looked up and declared, “I think this is the road less traveled.”

Yeah, little girl, it is.

It is, literally.  Of the three million people who visit the park each year, most never set foot off of the boardwalk.

It is because she chose it. She stopped. She considered. She followed no crowd nor caved to a false sense of urgency. I have no idea what went on in her young mind, but I know that to stop and consider is too rare and will help her live well.

It is because she was willing, in more words from the same poem, to “keep the first for another day.” She let go of the good for what she thought would be best. I could learn from that girl.

It is because she stood in front.  In that moment she was the leader.  Leaders navigate uncharted roads.

That little girl is now a teenager and I hope she remembers.

I hope she remembers that day with her Pa and everything they discovered about the road less traveled. I hope she remembers that there might be another road to take and recognizes it when she sees it. I hope she knows when to take it and pray she’s strong enough to live with the fallout.

And if ever it seems that the world around her doesn’t quite fit with her or she with it, I hope she regards her road for what it is and declares to herself as she did to us out on the trail, “I think this is the road less traveled.”

Yeah, little girl it is. Enjoy your journey.

08-09 pictures 454Linking this week at  Still Saturday#imperfectprose and Thoughtful Thursday.

After the Rain

 

Artist Paint Pots Yellowstone National Park

Artist Paint Pots Yellowstone National Park

It was hot when we arrived in Montana. Ninety degrees hot. In October. After sweltering for a couple of days, we drove toward Yellowstone over the Beartooth Highway, where the balmy morning temperatures plummeted into winter, one degree at a time. By the time we made it to Mammoth, the front had chased away the heat. Second-summer had been usurped by cold and a grey, sunless sky.

With our eyes fixed more on our plans than on the forecast, we began our journey to the summit of Mount Washburn. Questionable clouds morphed ominously and delivered a biting wind that blew our cloak of warmth away and reminded me–again–of how frail we are in the face of weather. Rain followed the wind and drove the girls and me down the mountain to the dry interior of our car. The guys made it but were denied the view by misty clouds over the mountain.

Rain kept us in, or at least near, the car for the next several days. Our subdued moods matched the sky. It wasn’t that we didn’t have any fun. We did. Our plan, though, had focused on miles on the trail, not hours in the car.

We drove south through the rain to stay at the Old Faithful Inn. The rain stopped and the sky cleared as we approached Artist Paint Pots, a thermal basin made up primarily of chalky, thick, bubbling thermal features. Set among the trees, it’s a favorite, especially of our youngest, and we were itching to get out and hike, so we risked a soaking and set off into the woods. The rain held off almost–but not quite–long enough.

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Old Faithful from Lookout Point Yellowstone National Park

As we dried ourselves, we noticed snow on a nearby vehicle. And when we pulled onto the road to resume our journey south, the cars that were driving toward us were covered with snow. Covered. As we made our way toward Old Faithful we accumulated snow of our own. Our moods were no longer influenced by the clouds, they were buoyed by the swirling snow. By nightfall of the next day all five roads in to and out of the park were closed. The Inn’s cellist added Winter Wonderland to her evening’s program. We relished not only the snow but the surreal fact that we were snowed in. In October.

The Inn is a place of early activity, of quiet door closings and muffled footsteps, of subdued voices and idling tour buses. The next morning, though, we were among the few who ventured out. The high mountain passes had not yet been cleared, so the people who would usually be scurrying to their car to get to their day’s destination were probably either still asleep or prowling the halls as they waited to hear they were free to go.

We weren’t interested in going anywhere by car. We left on foot to walk Geyser Hill in solitude, swathed in the hush of a fresh blanket of snow.

I could have lived without the intense heat that greeted us when we arrived in Montana. I had no interest in the rainy, sunless days which followed. But without the rain, we would never have gotten the snow. We would have missed the warm excitement of being snowbound, not only in our beloved Inn, but in the park. We would have missed the sound of silence broken occasionally by the squeak of shoes on snow or the splash of water from a geyser. We would have missed a wonderful morning and a favorite memory.

 

And you? Has anything wonderful followed the rain in your life?

Sharing this week with AngieEmily and Lyli.

The Wrong Things

notefromdad2 In their quest to unearth my son’s Star Wars chess set, my kids discovered a bundle of cards and letters I’d saved–drawings and cards they had given me, cards from my husband, and a letter from my dad. It was twenty-five years old, written during the early days of the summer I worked in Yellowstone National Park.

Graduation was on Saturday afternoon and the party that evening. By midnight we were in the car, not just with what a family needs to travel 1,000 miles across the country, but with everything I thought I needed to live away from home for the summer. I was eighteen, self-absorbed and unaware of the pressure my parents were under to get us packed, loaded, celebrated, on the road, and to the employee processing center.

I was under contract.

We made it. I trained and stayed alone in a cabin at Mammoth Hot Springs. Mom, Dad, and my brother hiked and stayed at the hotel. We all drove to the Old Faithful area. I worked and moved into employee housing. They hiked and stayed at the Inn.

Eventually they had to go. I worked the mid-day shift and they stayed much later than they usually would have on departure day. They didn’t leave until I went to work. We said good-bye in my dorm parking lot, me wearing my dismal beige TW Services uniform and watching their maroon Oldsmobile station wagon disappear.

That was 1987. Communication was different. There was no television or radio reception in the park. The daily newspapers were yesterday’s news. And when I wanted to talk to my family, I had to wait my turn to use the one pay phone in my dorm.

I called home one night not long after my family drove away and couldn’t get through. I called my grandma’s house and found my brother, who informed my parents,  who discovered that there was a transformer problem in the neighborhood. My mom cried. Dad wrote me a letter.

He sent it tucked into his trail book and included a list of nine hikes that he thought I might enjoy, along with the page number where I would find the trail listed and why he included it on the list. Of the nine, I have hiked six, some repeatedly, because they’ve become favorites and I’ve been able to share them with my own children.

He ended with some fatherly advice: Please remember to observe all the precautions mentioned in the book–even in the summer, you are in more danger from hypothermia than bears. Be careful and have fun. Love– Dad

I folded the letter and thought about all the times my husband and I have set off unprepared, about all the times we don’t get it right on the trail. Oh, we carry food and water and make bear-deterring noise. We’re usually off the trail by dark and rarely hike alone. Our tendency, though, is to think more about what the weather is doing this minute than what it might do later. In the mountains the weather might do anything, anytime.

I’d read about afternoon mountain thunderstorms but I didn’t understand about the white-cap producing wind which ushers them in under blue skies until one rocked our red canoe on Leigh Lake during a previously tranquil September afternoon. It wasn’t the wind that nearly capsized us; it was my reaction to it. It wasn’t water from the lake that soaked me; it was the rain. It wasn’t how I got cold that mattered, only that I was, and that the remedy was a long way off–in the car.

As I tucked the letter into a new home in my desk I knew that it isn’t only on the trail that I focus on  the wrong things. On the trail, it’s bears. In life, it’s the what-ifs and what-thens instead of the right-heres and right-nows. And the tendency to push through obstacles so I can get out there plagues me as badly in my life as it does on the trail. Destination becomes my object at the cost of joy in the journey and compassion for my companions.

Attention to his two-sentence admonition for the trail could take care of all of that. Please remember to observe all the precautions mentioned in the books–even in the summer, you are in more danger from hypothermia than bears: Know what you need to know. Concern yourself with the right things. Don’t blow little things out of proportion and ignore the big ones. Be careful and have fun: Think about what you are doing and pay attention to the journey and your companions.

Two sentences for the trail. Thanks, Dad.

Sharing stories with LyliBarbie and Emily.