The whirlwind of the Christmas season has caught me again.
One crazy day, earlier this week, made quite a contrast with the twinkling lights, o come all ye faithful spirit that one hopes for during Advent.
It all began with one of my hiking boots.
Worn down by a month-long cold and sinus infection, I decided to cheer myself up by dressing down for school in the middle of the week. Jeans, a comfy fleece, and the boots, last worn on a walk back in the woods.
You know that I love animal signs, the tracks and even the other less savory evidence left behind by my woodland friends. Just not on my shoe. By the time I noticed a certain aroma, I was already at school. Nothing would get that stuff off, and, believe me, I tried.
My phone was almost dead, a blog post published itself way before it was finished, you get the idea!
Later that evening, though, I read the day’s accumulated email messages, and there it was. The best gift of Christmas, a surprise, and one to be treasured. After writing a book like Upwards, honestly sharing from the depths of your innermost self, you kind of hold your breath. You await the response, and sometimes the waiting isn’t easy.
As the months pass, the book continues to gain momentum, to open doors, to connect people. And yet, still you wonder sometimes if you got the words right. Now, at last, I believe that I did.
So, this Christmas, remember that your best gift to give might simply be words that someone has been waiting and hoping for. Words of encouragement or understanding, forgiveness or love. The best gift of Christmas.
They are treasured old friends, those forest places that we walk until we know them with every fabric of our body, and soul. We return, unbidden, adding layers of memory as the seasons pass. On the blank canvas of a place, we paint the story of our time together.
So it is with the trail behind our house, the less-than-two-miles out and back that I walk most often. Late one fall afternoon, not long ago, I followed the path through a gap in the mossy old stone wall, to an opening under a few magnificent hemlocks. This spot has always drawn me, and I often pause there.
My thoughts rushed back from wherever they’d been wandering when something moved, close beside the path. A spiky hummock of quills, its back turned toward me. This was my first porcupine in “my” woods and deceptively quick despite its cumbersome gait. It wasted no time reaching a tree and climbing steadily to safety.
This encounter will forever enliven this bend in the trail. No matter the season, on my homeward way, I’ll conjure up a prickly ball in the crotch of that tree, framed by the yellow leaves of fall. Just as I’ll remember the night I looked up into the surprising face of the full moon, shining white behind the firs. And farther along, the hill where an owl had snatched a mouse, leaving only the marks of its broad sweeping wings.
Since that fall afternoon, the snows have come, early for our part of Maine, and we’ve embraced the turning of the seasons to this time of gratitude. I think how our lives, too, consist of layers upon layers.
This Thanksgiving, we will gather in another log cabin, in Virginia, for the first Thanksgiving hosted by the new generation. Megan and Jacob will fill their home to bursting, stretching the seating and sleeping and serving, with the aesthetic creativity of two graphic designers.
As we paint new memories, they will never replace those that went before. The years of Dad’s rousing voice singing Over the River and Through the Woods. Searching for hazelnuts in a worn wooden bowl heaped with nuts that you had to crack yourself. Grandma Searls, urging everyone to “eat some turnips for the Pilgrims.” New on old, forever and ever, or at least for today.
This then is my prayer for all of you, that you paint memories anew this Thanksgiving. That you embrace the turning of the seasons, from prickly porcupines to the frosting of the forest, and that this season of gratitude brings you joy. Happy Thanksgiving!
Hello from your long-lost writer and many apologies for the months of silence. I last left you in France, an eternity ago, and certainly have some catching up to do.
After spending most of the summer of 2017 shepherding Upwards from tender manuscript to the polished published version, I promised myself that the summer of 2018 would be for travel and adventure. Let’s see if my promise came true!
John Meader snapped this picture of me during his photography workshop at the Maine Canoe Symposium. Nursing some bruised ribs, I did not get out on the water, but enjoyed both presenting and learning, as well as trying out my new camera, a Canon point and shoot that can zoom to 25X.
As school ended, I headed south, to camp in Shenandoah National Park with my kids and extend my book tour into the Adirondacks. Waterfalls in full torrent joined several bears in making this a memorable visit. Driving in along the Skyline Drive, a curious cub stood watching from some tall grass, just a quick connection, then I was past. A mother with two cubs, in steadily growing rain above Dark Hollow Falls, and later a lumbering, unconcerned young bear right on the manicured gravel-and-bench civilization of the Limberlost Trail made my week. We hiked, made pizza and peach cobbler in the reflector oven, and wisely retreated home one night when it simply poured.
Our family has not been blessed with any babies for around a decade, so we were thrilled to discover we had a new little cousin on the way. Stopping to see the mother-to-be in NJ in June, I brought some of my family’s favorite books, of course!
Epilogue – We welcomed Emmett Archer into the family on September 22, 2018!
July was intense. At last, after three long years, another expedition was on the calendar. A combination backpacking and canoeing challenge, it would prove to be the heart of my next writing project. Off the grid most of the time, I chose not to blog, but promise to share the story in detail with everyone who has been hoping for another book.
Then, of course, there is the thrill and pull of the author life. I’m still in love with it and there’s no end to the stories that I could tell. Meeting thru-paddlers and people who’ve climbed Everest, famous authors and readers with heart-wrenching stories of challenge and loss. I loved my recent review in the Adirondack magazine LOCALadk, by J.T. Hall, whom I met at the Adirondack Paddlefest back in May.
(Proving that my life is way too busy, I had scheduled this post and not quite finished it, when it posted itself right on schedule this morning. I promise…more soon!)
It’s never hard to feel grateful at Thanksgiving time. Beyond the blessings of family, friends, and the start of the Christmas season, there are five days off from school. This year, added in are a mellow black Lab named Kiah sleeping at my feet while I write and the sun washing the frosty fields of the farm where I’m staying for a few days. Soon I will pull on my boots and saunter out to open the chicken door and count 1, 2, 3…10, as the chickens march out in a parade, of white, russet, and speckled black. And they’re even still laying, so I get to gather eggs!
On the book front, there is also a lot happening. This Sunday, Nov. 26, will be my first radio talk show appearance, on “Maine Outdoors” with V. Paul Reynolds. Tune your dial to WVOM FM 101.3/103.9 or AM 1450 around 7:30 p.m. to listen in. Our first book review posts Nov. 27 on “George’s Outdoor News,” a Bangor Daily News blog by George Smith.
We also continue to have new press coverage, including this article about an upcoming book signing with Thomas Jamrog, a new author friend, who wrote In the Path of Young Bulls about his Continental Divide Trail thru-hike. We’ll be at Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockport (where I purchased my canoe) from 1 to 4 PM on Sat., Dec. 2. Love this photo!
In closing, may your blessings be many and your home be warm and filled with a spirit of true thankfulness, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day!
The summer of 2014 was Dad’s time for a grand adventure, a 200-mile section paddle from Spencer Rips on the Moose River to the village of Allagash on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. He had started out alone and was planning to meet me, so we could do the Allagash together. Our rendezvous hour at the Umbazooksus Stream bridge came and went, though, with no sign of him out on the water. I decided to go exploring.
It turns out that you can drive into the last campsite on the east shore of that wide stream, really an arm of Chesuncook Lake. Down through the potholes and brush I went, until suddenly emerging right next to an ancient picnic table complete with roof. Set up next to the table was a roomy canvas cabin tent looking lived in and loved.
It was too late to escape without being seen. I stopped and walked down to the shore to say hello to a friendly-looking man sprawled in a camp chair. Mike Messick, from Missouri, had many a story to share and a history of long, adventurous road trips following wherever the spirit would lead.
That morning, it had led him to us or, rather, us to him. After Dad arrived, over a cup of Mike’s freshly brewed coffee, we found ourselves inviting him to join us on the Allagash. This was a bit beyond the boundaries of our usual behavior, but it turned out to be the birth of a strong friendship.
Hastily, knowing the day was moving along, we spread out maps, jotted down the name and number of our favorite outfitter (Tylor Kellys Camps in the village of Allagash), and agreed to meet a few days later at Umsaskis Bridge.
Even though we were a bit late in arriving there, Mike was waiting for us with a campfire crackling…and the rest is history, part of which made it into the pages of my new adventure memoir, Upwards.
I’ve been thinking this week that our lives flow along as glistening threads in an almost unfathomable web, their intersections our places of decision or serendipity. My author’s walk, still in its infancy, has been strewn with crossings, some joyful surprises, others the fruit of grasping courage with both hands and making them happen.
I’ve met trail founders, penned prayerful inscriptions for friends and strangers battling cancer, and sent copies of Upwards to stores hundreds of miles away. Through it all, the abiding kindness of people and the strength of their stories has filled me with new energy. On Thursday, I came in from my morning bus ride with the students of Bus #14 to discover that my school was celebrating ME, with snacks and speeches and lots of love! The handmade card below, created by Karen Hight, is one I will always treasure.
I’ve found there is something in those who go to the rivers and forests of the north that reflects those places and their intrinsic character. These are souls who live by the rhythm of the seasons, who know gratitude and peace. Rooted in the land, they love hearty meals and heartier laughs, have simple stuff, but complex thoughts. They are people like Mike, who quickly become dear to the heart. If you have gone there, you know. If you haven’t, I hope you will!
School’s begun, but the long weekend gave us the chance to head north to the NFCT once more before summer ends. It was the usual cast of characters for a stay at The Birches in Rockwood: my parents, aunt, uncle, and me, plus one canoe, two kayaks, and Dad’s motorized skiff. Name the weather and we had it. From bathing suits to the woodstove, it all felt good at some point.
Dad’s hand, which he broke back in July on Little Spencer Stream, is almost healed. At the tiller, he motored us up Tomhegan Creek a couple of mornings in search of wildlife. Moose, really, but they must have missed the memo. In place of moose, we got herons, kingfishers, and a bald eagle.
Sunday was the day of wildest weather, winds, and whitecaps, but at dawn the lake still slept. Some confusion of dream woke me, ready for adventure even as my eyes opened. Two cups of quick-brewed coffee, some of Sue’s banana bread, a whisper of my plans to Mom, and I was gone. Mist still clung to the rocky shores as my canoe began the 8-mile journey around Farm Island.
Rounding the north end of the island, I turned toward home and breakfast, warmth and bacon. The risen sun threw a path of wave-tossed sunlight straight to me. As I paddled south, it followed, for miles. I paused a moment and the canoe turned to face the sun. In the distance, a loon cruised through the shimmering light, and then moved on.
The morning solitude allowed my thoughts to flow freer than they had in many days.
Nature, I thought, embraces us. It’s unpredictable at times, perhaps, but never judging. Nature listens more than talks. Nature simply is, a continuity fading backward into the mists of time, and carrying the promise of a future long after we are gone.
What meaning there is in nature is for us to find, and maybe, each one of us finds what it is we need just then. That morning, I needed rest and found it.
There’s plenty of time for reflection when you’re making a wild Maine blueberry pie from scratch. Up on the hill behind our house, at least this summer, there’s a good patch of berries, at the peak of ripeness. Dad’s been wishing for a pie, so I pulled out the cookbook to see how many berries it would take – five cups – then started picking.
Big berries, tiny berries, blue ones and black, they slowly began to fill my bucket. My hands fell into a rhythm, getting less fussy about stripping off a cluster at a time, including a few that were less than perfect. After all, they were soon going to be bubbling in a piecrust. My mind drifted. Long ago, people had harvested the summer’s bounty just as I was. Not concerned about perfection, but about feeding their families.
Later, I washed the berries, then picked them over, a handful at a time, pulling out the leaves, finding stubborn stems still clinging here and there. I felt proud to be baking my first blueberry pie from my own berries. The sun and heat had gotten me tired, so I sat for a few minutes rereading the recipe. Sugar, flour, lemon juice, and cinnamon would all go in with the berries, then I’d make the same homemade crust as for my apple pie.
As I measured out the sugar, I happened to glance into the bowl.
“Oh, I missed a couple of stems!’ was my first thought. Then those stems, thin and reddish-green, began to wiggle and crawl across the glistening blue berries. Two tiny worms, hunching their way across my pretty bowl of blueberries! After close examination, I think I found seven, enough to make me hesitate before blithely dumping in the sugar. Mom and Dad didn’t seem concerned, though, so I plunged ahead.
I cut the shortening into the flour, still thinking about long-ago pies. My great-grandmother, Grandma Searls, had lived in the Jersey Pine Barrens, with blueberries in her yard. I remember picking them there. For her pie crusts, way back when, she’d collected fat from cooking, her favorite being chicken fat. It wouldn’t have looked anything like the pure white uniformity of my can of Crisco, but her pies were delicious.
Then it was time to roll out the piecrust, and I knew from experience not to even hope for perfection there. The bottom crust cooperated and was soon filled with berries dotted with pats of butter. The top crust bore a much closer resemblance to a patchwork quilt. Tomorrow, though, when we have it for breakfast, that pie will be perfect!