Rest Along the Way

Switchback

We sprinted up the switchbacked trail, pausing occasionally to measure how far we’d come, to rest our already used-up legs, to fill our lungs with as much oxygen as the mountain air would give. In previous years, I would have decided that it wasn’t worth it. Not the rush. Not the climb. Not even the destination. But over a lifetime, I’d come to embrace hiking, to believe that forest trails led to worthwhile places, to want to finish what we’d started. So we pressed on, putting one foot in front of the other, making painfully slow progress toward the solitude of one of Yellowstone’s backcountry thermal areas.

We’d tried this trail eighteen years before, on our first trip to the mountains together, just a couple of years into our marriage. We’d left our little red Plymouth Sundance in the pullout and approached the trail. Well, we walked to where the trail was supposed to be, just beyond the sign nestled in the pines, but no inviting packed-dirt path beckoned us deeper into the woods. The only indication that we were near the trail was a slender opening through the trees and a line of footprints in the snow.

That was May. After eight years away from Yellowstone, I’d forgotten about winter’s lingering ways. We’d set off into the snow in jeans and tennis shoes. One hundred yards later, soaked from the knees down, we turned back.

Now we were trying the trail to Monument Geyser Basin again. In September. On a dry trail. In hiking boots.

The intervening years had taught us some things.

The trail was short. Just a mile. Still, the steady string of switchbacks which climbed over 500 feet in that short distance earned it a classification of strenuous.

Under clear skies and over an open trail, this could have been a pleasant, though thigh-burning, hike but we’d chosen to squeeze it in between an already finished long trek and an appointment for a tour at the Old Faithful Inn.

In other words, we had to be quick. We had to hurry. Hurry and strenuous make a bad match. Hurry and hiking are poor companions. We knew this, but in our desire to get to Monument, we ignored it. So we raced up the trail, intent only on getting there in time to get back down again in time to make our appointment.

The trail ended at an opening in the trees, a doorway into a barren landscape of haunting shapes and the familiar scent of sulfur suspended in the air.

I perused the ghostly scene with its grey silhouettes and its gurgles and felt a strange disappointment settle over me. After all of that effort, I was expecting something different, something more. Something more spectacular. Something more worth the climb.

We’d pushed to get to this place. We’d rushed. We’d risked.  And here I stood, dissatisfied.

I knew the problem wasn’t the geyser basin. It was me. In my rush I’d burst through the opening in the trees as a consumer expecting to be entertained rather than as a visitor willing to be surprised by creation’s hospitality.

With the hour of our impending meeting with the Old Faithful Inn bellman driving us on, we didn’t linger long.

On our descent, we noticed another opening in the trees, one we’d missed on our way up. Even in our hurry, we turned toward it rather than following the trail to the car. Stepping through the trees we found ourselves above a wide meadow. A bison herd, brown dots scattered among the tattered grasses of fall, grazed near the Gibbon River. Standing above the river and the road which followed its course, we let our rush, our race with time slip away and I found rest for my disquieted mind and a reminder for my soul that it is possible–and good–to be still.

Monument was our destination. It drew us up the mountain, reminded me again that we miss out when we hurry, and then it offered the gracious hospitality of rest along the road, even though I showed up as an ill-mannered guest. That was its gift. Someday I’d like to return to Monument with a less entitled eye, to see it for what it is, a quiet marvel that God declared to be good. But for now, I’m grateful for the time on the trail, for what I learned, and the rest along the way.

SwitchbackAnd you? What unexpected discoveries have you made when you’ve paused along the way?

 

Sharing at Small Wonder.

 

 

 

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. 

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.

08-09 pictures 467 - Version 4

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.

Winter in Yellowstone: Things to Do

IMG_1432 Because of our Yellowstone habit, people often ask us what they should do when they are planning a visit to the park. It’s a hard question to answer, not just because of all there is to do, but because we have so many favorites. We have favorite hikes. We have favorite geysers. We have favorite picnic areas. It’s weird. I know.DSC00328

Yellowstone’s winter is an adventure in comparatives. It is more beautiful and less crowded than it is in other seasons. It is more difficult to get around. Even the animals take the road. It is more difficult to do simple and necessary tasks: consider a visit to an unheated vault “comfort station” at nineteen degrees below zero. There are fewer places to go, just two places to stay, and only one picnic area open. This makes it easier to answer the question of what to do in Yellowstone in winter.

Important to Know:

IMG_1485 Of Yellowstone’s 310 miles of paved roadway, only the fifty-two mile stretch between the North and Northeast entrances is open to wheeled vehicles in the winter. All other park roads are either closed or open to over-snow vehicles only.

Things to Do:

IMG_1280 Drive the open road. This will take you through the Lamar Valley, sometimes called the American Serengeti because of its abundant and varied wildlife. Thirty-one grey wolves from western Canada were released in the valley in the 1990s. While some stayed and made it their home, others move in for a share in winter’s prey. Our drive through the Lamar brought us within good viewing distance of  bison, elk, big horn sheep, and even two wolves feasting on a bull elk carcass. The road will take you over the Yellowstone River, along the Lamar River, Soda Butte Creek and Ice Box Canyon, and to the foot of Baronette Peak.

Take a walk. Explore Mammoth Hot Spring’s Lower Terrace; meander through the Mammoth Hot Springs community; along Officer’s Row, named for the homes which housed army officers when the Mammoth area was Fort Yellowstone. The Old Faithful Area has walkable paths between the Snow Lodge and its cabins, the Visitors Center, and the Old Faithful boardwalk. You can watch Old Faithful erupt from the boardwalk or the warmth of the Visitors Center.

Undine Falls Yellowstone National Park

Undine Falls
Yellowstone National Park

Listen. My dad has said that Yellowstone’s winter silence almost sucks the sound out of your head. You don’t have to get far from a building or your vehicle to hear the sound of silence, but you do have to stop. You even have to stop walking: shoes, skis, and snowshoes all squeak on the snow. If you stop, not only will you hear the immense silence, you may hear something you can’t hear in another season. We heard Lava Creek’s water flow below Undine Falls, something we’ve never heard in the autumn.

Nothing. Really. The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel lobby has chairs drawn up cozily around a fire. Its Map Room, named for the grand inlaid map of the United States, has a wall of windows and a gracious bay, a lending library for games and books, and comfortable seating to enjoy it all, as well as musical entertainment in the evening. (See below.) Those and the Snow Lodge’s chair-lined fire, game tables, and snug seating areas are great spaces to spend an hour or even a day reading and thinking or watching the humanity around you.

Devote an evening to live music and Yellowstone history. Randy Ingersoll came to Yellowstone during the 1970s and knew he wanted to stay there forever. Thirty-six years later, he’s still in the park and most evenings can be found in the Mammoth Hot Springs Map Room, where he welcomes and entertains guests not only with the music that comes from the grand piano he plays, but also his warmth and love for Yellowstone. He closes his evening with one of several programs about Yellowstone’s history, including his riveting story of being mauled by a bear. For our family, an evening in the Map Room, visiting with Randy and listening to his music and presentation is a highlight in any season. If you have a chance to hear him, ask him to play one of his original pieces. They are delightful.

Ice skate. Both the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel  and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge have outdoor skating rinks for their guests to use, as well as skates in all sizes. They are lit, well-maintained, sheltered from the wind, and have an inviting fire each evening. Even if you aren’t a skater, it’s worth an evening stroll to sit for a few moments by the fire.

Snowshoe. Snowshoes are available for rent in the park, as are cross-country skis and lessons for beginners. I’ve done both and prefer snowshoeing. We take trails that we can reach from the road or our lodging: Observation Point above Old Faithful, the Upper Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs, the confluence of the Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers, and the Upper Geyser Basin at Old Faithful.

Upper Geyser Basin from Observation Point, Yellowstone National Park

Upper Geyser Basin from Observation Point,
Yellowstone National Park

 More information on planning a visit to Yellowstone National Park can be found here and here.

On Feeling Lost

String Lake Teton National Park

String Lake Teton National Park

Because I inherited my zeal for vacation planning from my dad, it wasn’t long after he invited me to go to the writing class that we began to plot the hikes we would take along the way. He charted our route, one that would take us into Yellowstone through the Tetons where we would revisit the trail to Hidden Falls. We’d hiked it the first time he and mom took my brother and me to Yellowstone back when we were the ages that our own children are today. Six years later, I hiked the same trail with an Old Faithful coworker. Five years ago, I hiked it with my husband and the next year we returned with our children.

I am familiar with the trail to Hidden Falls.

This time our destination was beyond Hidden Falls and past Inspiration Point. We were going to Cascade Canyon,  further in and closer to the craggy Teton summits than I ever imagined I would get.

Inspiration Point Teton National Park

Inspiration Point National Park

Morning people by nature, we were on the road before our 4:00 a.m. alarm sounded.  Dreary but rising interstate intersected with dawn and mountain highway where the sun broke through the clouds, revealing western homesteads nestled in fog-filled valleys. We drove in behind a dust-settling rain that released the pungent aroma of sage, freeing it to reach into the van to cleanse the air.

We were in the Tetons by ten. By eleven we had landed one of three remaining campsites at the heavily wooded Jenny Lake Campground, disappointing a van full of guys who hoped it would be theirs. We made camp, brunched facing Mount Moran, packed our gear and were on the trail by noon. By on the trail I mean on the boat which ferried us across Jenny Lake. We could have hiked around the lake. Usually we do. Today we hoarded our hours and our footsteps for the trail beyond.

I was lost from the moment we stepped off the boat.

I grew up in the middle of Iowa where the land is parceled into neat one mile squares wrapped with ribbons of asphalt and gravel. Even without a working knowledge of the four directions and a weak grasp on right and left, I could find my way. I drove by feel.

It worked. Then we moved. We live right now in Iowa’s southern third, where the gravel wears on for miles without paved interruption. It curves and follows deep rolling hills. No squares. No ribbons. I drive these roads with an unnerving sense of disorientation.

The approach to Hidden Falls from the boat landing is different than from the trailhead. I’d hiked down to the boat, but never up from it. What should have been easy–a climb up familiar stone steps too tall and irregular to meet the civilized code–felt wrong, leaving me to wander behind Dad and the other hikers and worry that were all on the wrong trail. I eyed the landscape for landmarks and mentally superimposed where I thought we were over where we actually were in an attempt to understand the trail.

I didn’t.

When we arrived at Hidden Falls it was, according to the map in my mind,  from the wrong direction. But there was the boulder field that my son had climbed years before. There were the falls,  and the flat spot where we had seen the bear rooting out his lunch as hikers passed within feet of his perch, oblivious to his magnificent and potentially dangerous presence. Finally, I knew where we were.

It was here that the weight of the dangers of my navigational habits descended on me. I don’t just drive by feel. Sometimes it’s how I navigate my life. Every now and then I end up lost, superimposing where I want to be over where I actually am, and searching for landmarks that just aren’t there.

Henry the Navigator and Christopher Columbus and their great cadre of explorers navigated by the heavens and not by feel for a reason. In the face of mutiny and superstition, malnutrition and sickness, their feelings would have failed them. They would have been lost.

Feelings have their place. That place just isn’t for the navigation of a trail. Or the road. Or a life.

Not until after college did I fully master right and left. Only in the past few years have I learned how to reckon the cardinal directions. Now when I encounter those people who call on them like old friends and expect me to do the same, I can, in my awkward way. If those can be learned, so can a better way to navigate life.

My start is to pay more attention, to the trail, to the road, to my life, and understand where I am so that I can get to where I am supposed to be. I could learn from the explorers of old. Christopher Columbus wrote, “Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.” He knew where he was going and what he was following to get there. So do I. To explore my world, I move forward with my eyes toward He who does not change and leave my inadequate navigational habits behind.

Teton National Park

Teton National Park

Bear Bells and Binoculars

The store was closed when we arrived, so we couldn’t buy our little girl a bear bell. The rest of us had bear bells and it was time for her to get one, too. Our plan to remedy that in the morning failed when morning found us up and ready to go before the store opened. We would have to pick one up later in the day.

“But how will we find any bears?” she wailed.

Clearly, she didn’t understand the point of a bear bell, which is to help hikers create noise as they traverse the trail. Bears will supposedly move away to avoid the noise, so bear bells do not attract bears. They repel them.

She wanted to see a bear.

Later that day, before we hiked a spectacular trail with a sad name, the Yellowstone Picnic Area Trail, we had a picnic lunch. J and I made lunch while the kids played and climbed rocks. They told us about their adventures as we ate. Our daughter was particularly excited to tell us about a stick they found that was perfect for fighting bears.

As we set off, we instructed them to stay close because we were in the wilderness and there might be bears. Our daughter looked at us incredulously and informed us in her sing-song voice, “We have our stick.” Meaning, of course, that they would be perfectly safe without us because she could obviously fight a bear off with her stick.

Clearly, she knew nothing about bears and had not read the hiking books which advise against hitting or kicking them.

Bear Bells, Bear Stick, and Binoculars

Bear Bells, Bear Stick, and Binoculars

 

We managed to get to our destination and back without needing the bear-fighting stick, but we did later pull over into an area that a ranger said might reward us with a glimpse of a bear. And there he was, foraging at the foot of the sharp roadside drop-off. We hadn’t seen many bears before this so we settled in to watch him. My daughter and I sat side by side, legs dangling over the ledge that led down to the meadow where the bear was nosing his way through the grass.

“When are we going down?” she asked. “Down there, to the bear.”

Clearly, she didn’t understand about bears. At all. She was, however, willing to settle for binoculars.

She is our nature girl, our animal girl, and she’s brave. It’s not that she’s never afraid. I’ve seen her scared. She was scared about her proximity to the RV that my dad was turning around in our yard, so she silently reached out for her brother’s hand. She was scared about starting her new preschool when we moved, but accepted an invitation to stay for the morning when she had only planned to stop in for a visit. She’s courageous according to John Wayne’s definition. “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

She’s courageous, but too young to grasp the nature of a bear. I understand her difficulty. Occupying the wild space near bears is hard to deal with mentally. I want bears to be there and I want to see them, but I want to see them where I want to see them, which is from the road, where I am close to the safety of my car.

I want to see bears in the same way I want adventure of all types: my way, my terms,  my timing. Adventure doesn’t operate that way. It will never consider my terms, my calendar, or the location of my car.

“Adventure,” according to adventure travel writer Tim Cahill, “is never an adventure when it’s happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment, and an adventure is simply physical or emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.”

Adventure is life, meant to be lived; watching for the bear, carrying the stick, sometimes looking through binoculars when you’d rather be up close, reaching for the hand of your companions, and staying when it would be so much easier to go.

What’s your perspective on adventure?