Zippy Morocco & Diddo in Montana

Leland tucked his business card into the door of our pickup truck at the Rattlesnake trailhead. He’d seen our hiking bumper stickers and recognized kindred spirits. That’s how we met our local hiking buddy last summer. Now, he’s also our trail angel: on August 17, he shuttles me to the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness to join Zippy for the last 230 miles of the Continental Divide Trail. 

We get a sleepy start that Saturday, drive a couple hours to quiet Augusta on the mountains’ eastern edge. At the general store, Leland buys a tea bag,and I use a flush toilet for the last time in the foreseeable future. He smokes a cigarette on the one, deserted street, then we get back in his little hoopty car and rumble the 30-mile gravel road to Benchmark Airstrip, the trailhead to the Bob. (If only he had a little airplane, Leland thinks.)

We spot J. on the side of the road, waiting for us. At last! Let’s do this! …but not without a feast first: Zippy needs some town food. So we sit in the gravel of the parking cul-de-sac and spread out a picnic: sodas, fresh grapes, homemade zucchini brownies, bagelwiches stuffed with farmer’s market tomatoes and smoked tempeh, and Leland’s mother’s leftover chicken curry.

We hike out fast and energized. Leland joins us for the first day, to visit the Chinese Wall, which he missed during his own CDT thru-hike, due to a fire closure. Under the warm sun, we talk about religion and politics and all the things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite company. 

J & Leland & Bob (the Bob Marshall, that is)
J & Leland & the Bob

I am amazed that there’s been no discernible growth in this area since we were last here in 2012. With its short growing season, the Bob recovers very slowly from the burn, which happened the year of Leland’s birth. He and all the little trees rising out of the charcoal and fireweed date from 1988. 

Late afternoon rumbles of thunder hint that it’s time to pitch camp. Leland starts a fire near our little clearing by the river. He brought a pack of sausages, which the omnivores roast on sticks. The weiners drip fat into the flames as darkness fills the sky. The boys cannot eat them all. Soon, the bear line hangs, not far off, containing three raw, aromatic tubes of meat. The doused campfire probably reeks of pig too, and when J. comes into the tent I turn to kiss him and exclaim, “Your head smells like sausage!”

It’s a little hard to fall asleep.

Day 2

The Chinese Wall is named as a reference to the Great Wall of China, but it’s not manmade. It’s a geologic feature ten miles long.  We reach its crest at late morning, saying goodbye to Leland, who heads back toward his car and his phone full of messages, back to the life of a realtor. Zippy and I descend deeper into the wilderness, using an alternate CDT route that promises more dramatic scenery. The trail is thick and green, traversing ridges, and feels for all the world like the Appalachian Trail. Also AT-like: increasing clouds and ominous thunder. Then we notice a distinctly western touch: green signs stapled to tree trunks, ordering us not to camp here, as “the US Forest Service is in in the process of catching and removing grizzly bears from this area between 8/16-8/28.” Which is now. So we keep on, pitching the tent a short way after the signs stop. We dive inside just as a cold rain pours down around us. Narrowly avoiding being caught in a storm is one of hiking’s finest pleasures.

Day 3

Next morning, the rain’s gone, but it’s still chilly and damp. I holler my way across the frigid river, thinking we’re so remote that I couldn’t possibly awaken anybody, but there is a ranger station right across the river. Oops. Fortunately, the three scientists inside are already up frying pancakes. They are the folks behind the green signs. In order to study grizzly bear DNA, they’ve been scattering cow blood in the restricted area to attract griz to capture. Don’t camp there, indeed!

Once we warm up, it is a magnificent day’s hike, all alpine ridges and little basins filled with wildflowers and berries. Only, Zippy has this thing where he doesn’t take sit-down breaks. Doing so is a waste of time, he believes. (As is carrying a stove to heat coffee and meals. He even hikes while brushing his teeth.) I decide to be open-minded and try his approach. Fortunately, visiting with another hiker (our friend Carlos again), changing out clothing layers, and digging through one’s snacks are all acceptable, functional reasons to stop, so I do get a few– well, don’t call them breaks– pauses, shall we say?

After trying Zippy’s approach to lunch, which is to pour water into a Ziploc containing dried potato mix, then carry it in your hand while hiking for the next 20 minutes as the grub rehydrates, then spoon it into your face while continuing to hike… I decide I’ll wait today for one of his functional breaks. At 4 pm, we arrive at an unmanned ranger station. Lucky for me, J. needs to make a privy stop, so I have a luxurious fifteen minutes to swing my feet off the porch and eat my potatoes and stuffing while resting on my backside, as God intended.

Day 4

breakfast

And now, for the gourmands, here are the best instant breakfast recipes on trail:

  1. From Leland: Grapenuts and powdered milk. Oh man. Those little crunchies stick with you.
  2. From Carlos: Instant oatmeal, a spoonful of sugar, and tons of dried milk. It’s almost like pudding the way he makes it. Damn. Thank you, amigo!
  3. And from us: Granola, cold Starbucks Via coffee in place of milk, and fresh huckleberries. The perfect combination of sweet, bitter, and tart.

There are so many berries here, including the fattest huckleberries we have ever seen. It’s an amazing year for berries! Which means it is also an amazing year for bears. We spot our first, a black bear, near another ranger station. We whoop and holler and it flees like two conjoined black balls bouncing along together, its front and rear halves, adorable especially given its trajectory in the opposite direction.

(All told, we will see nine bears on our two-week trip, and probably three hundred colorful bear scat right on the trail– bears use trails too! The scat consists almost entirely of hucks, thimbleberries, raspberries, whortleberries… you get the idea. Later this month I’ll step over an almost delectable-looking apple scat. All of these encounters are comfortably far-off, unlike our Jewel Basin experience. Even far away, however, the two grizzlies we spot are hair-raising. You can just tell they are grumpier and more assertive than the others. We carry bear spray and make noise as we go, and that’s all we can do… a risk we accept in exchange for living in such a beautiful place.)

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Our heartbeats quicken as the first glimpses of Glacier rise on the horizon. Then we take an alternate that turns out rutted and muddy thanks to some recent erosion-preventive bulldozing, the kind that has to look worse before it looks better, I guess. The trail’s not scenic, and it crosses the same big river at least eight times. No bridges, of course – such luxuries await us in the national park, but here in the Bob we’ll keep our feet wet. 

Day 5 

Excited to be headed to town today. How quickly five days have flown!

Nearing Highway 2, it’s strange to hear traffic again. Whooshes and rumbles that we first try to parse as natural sounds, then realize our beautiful, unusual error. The campground by the highway sports a handwritten sign: “CDT Hikers, See Campground Host.” So we walk the loop past all the RVs, but we don’t even reach the host before she crows out to us in welcome. Janet pulls out two chairs, a lap blanket for chilly me, some blue Gatorade, and a Tupperware full of homemade chocolate oatmeal cookies. We chat and enjoy her cheerful company for half an hour, as her tiny dog patrols the area. She loves to talk with travelers, and we tell her about our dream to be campground hosts ourselves when we retire. Her kindness extends to all the people she meets, and she calls out to each guest who walks by. What a natural. Thank you, Janet!

janet

It’s nice to have that kindness in my tank as we cross windy Marias Pass, entering Glacier at last – the crown of the Triple Crown – because the trail up and over into East Glacier, cutting through the park, is incredibly brushy. Zippy’s legs are calloused and tough, so he barely feels the knapweed and other scratchy plants that hog the trail, seeking more light for their sustenance. My legs, however, are fresh and soft, and before we’re done, they’ll be etched with red and white and drops of blood. I make Chewbacca noises as we descend through a recently logged forest. It is a bit depressing: all the trees are the same age and growing so close together, it is a tinderbox without canopy or understory. We pass into Reservation lands and notice that thinning has taken place. It looks a little better. I guess that is the next step, and hope that thoughtful management continues. If we have clearcut, the least we can do is shepherd the land back into healthy forest, and harvest sustainably next time.

Late afternoon brings us to the town of East Glacier, Montana. J. buys a pound of Red Vines to hold him through the wait for a dinner table at Serrano’s. Then we dump our gear at Brownie’s Hostel, which we are relieved to find wonderfully quiet after 10 pm. J. and I have a room with two single beds, which we drag together so we can snuggle. It is worth the effort.

Day 6

Dawn on a day so windy and smoky, we can barely see the mountains from town. It’s a great day for a Zero – a day where you just rest, you don’t hike at all. We head over to Luna’s for breakfast, past a woman conked out right on the roadside, her head lolling on a tiny pink backpack, her boots an uncomfortable-looking black witchy type. 

Over breakfast, we wonder about her story. She’s going to sunburn out there… why doesn’t she move a few feet off the road, into the grove of pines? Is it desperation, depression, loss of hope?

We pick up our hiker box from the grumpy lady at the post office, who seems to want us to grovel before we claim it, to admit her power over such things. We’d addressed it to ourselves, c/o Brownie’s Hostel, so technically she can refuse to release it to us, instead requiring one of their staff to show up. But I am an excellent suck-up when need be, and make a big show of gratitude for her generosity in giving us our package. I’m not too proud to beg.

You can see the smoke even inside the lodge.
A bit of smoke is visible even inside the lodge.

Then we relax in the East Glacier Lodge for an hour. J. manages to doze with a cup of coffee in his hand while I call my folks. 50 years ago, my mom spent a summer working as a housemaid at this lodge. She tells me that she used to spend a lot of time sitting and reading in the lodge, as it was more comfortable and pleasant than the worker dorms, and I wonder if she’d curled up on the very same couch we occupy now. 

A historical kiosk in town displays photos of young park workers a hundred years ago. Women in overalls, men raising their arms, everyone completely smashed and hanging out riotously in the clapboard building that is now Brownie’s Hostel, festooned with signs proclaiming it a 24-Hour Dance Hall. The way we envision gender roles in the past– they obviously didn’t apply here. The kids look like they could have been cavorting yesterday at some jolly punk concert. All dead now. How strange, wave upon wave of generations, each taking a turn, then unwinding into foam. It is our turn, through no choice of our own. So we take it, wandering outside when we can, just as they did. How strange! 

Day 7

After another breakfast at Luna’s, we buy tribal recreation permits and head back into the mountains. (Huckleberry pie counts as breakfast… right?) I get a bit of navigation practice as we wind among cattle trails toward the Glacier Park boundary, at which point everything becomes clear and there is only one trail. At the boundary, we meet the woman who was sleeping on the side of the road yesterday, whom I dismissed as despairing. In fact, she is just a super-low-budget hiker. She cannot possibly have a tent in that little backpack! But she spent last night out here… She is a bit turned around, but we point her in the right direction and she should be good to get back to town. Unprepared and eccentric as she is, she’s out here living the life, so good for her.

We’re joyful because the smoke has blown away, and the wind has mostly died down.

Except on top.
Except on top.

We climb to Scenic Point with gusto, passing other hikers left and right. “Get out the shovels!” J. teaches me to think, when we spot day hikers ripe for passing (er, “burying”)– all in good fun, of course. Heading down the other side, I make J. trek a tenth of a mile off-trail to a waterfall vista. (Did you know that hiking even a single step off-trail is anathema to a thru-hiker? By their logic, it is better to hike six thirsty miles to on-trail water rather than walking 0.2 off-trail to a nearby source. So getting Zippy to agree to this is a major coup, testament to his generosity.)

We switchback down to Two Medicine, a beautiful spot on a lake with a very nice campground. The walk-in backpacker site feels deluxe after our time in the backcountry: food storage boxes, flush toilets, potable water at every turn… and ranger programs to geek out on! Tonight we will learn fun facts about wolverines from a woman in an awesome ranger hat… heaven!

Day 8

Good morning from Two Medicine Lake
Good morning from Two Medicine Lake

Leaving Two Medicine, the hike is beautiful and gentle up toward Pitamakin Pass, the morning air wonderfully clear. Little blue lakes, like gems, glow turquoise in the holes poked out by glaciers…

4-view-from-pitamakin

We don’t have many miles to go, and we reach camp by 4:30. Fortunately, there are two other couples there, and we hang out until dark at the food prep area, sitting on logs and chatting with Becky, Mike, Sly, and Sandra. Mike and Becky are ex-smokers who became hikers, to the bewilderment of their friends. They are fiftysomethings, proudly “child-free,” and recommend the movie Sausage Party. Sandra and Sly are Quebecois, and we discover that Sly did the AT in 2010 and the JMT last year, just a few days ahead of me!

Sand, a firefighter, makes a handy little campfire for us all to enjoy. As darkness descends, she pulls out a pedometer she found on the trail earlier… it is Becky’s, which she thought was lost forever! Sly and Sand tell us they left a knife on the pass we will be climbing tomorrow. Maybe we will find it and can return it to them, completing the circle…

Day 9

We meant to set the alarm so we could get a jump on our longest day in Glacier, 26 miles. But oops, we forgot! Oh well. Plus, if we’d gotten up sooner, would we have seen the two silly yet regal moose on our way toward Triple Divide Pass? We also find Sly’s knife, right where they said it would be, blade still out, fresh from slicing cheese. An extra six ounces we will gladly tote for the rest of our trip, for the pleasure of mailing it to them later. 

We do a bushwhack to cut off two useless miles of trail, and it is very satisfying: less than a quarter mile, just a wade across the creek and there we are! Haha! Zing!

Interestingly, this is totally legit on the CDT, though it would be taboo on the AT. Thru-hiker culture varies by trail. The CDT is more a route than an exact path. No blazes to dictate the way, so hikers are free to choose the path that suits them best. Only thing is, no hitchhiking or skipping sections, though most hikers do it periodically and still might consider themselves true thru-hikers. Zippy is a bit of a purist in this regard, and I hear many on-trail discourses about The Definition of Thru-Hiking during these two weeks. Needless to say, Zippy has not skipped one bit. Not even when the trail’s on fire… but that’s a story for another time.

We begin to descend toward St Mary Lake. Clouds pool over the mountains on the other side. Despite what looks like rain coming, perhaps a cold rain, we set a piece of driftwood on two rocks and have a sit-down lunch for ten luxurious minutes. I don’t regret it, even as fog socks in the mountains, and a bit of what looks like snow. It begins to sprinkle and we pull out our umbrellas, shrinking from the wet bushes along the path. 

Then we finally enter tourist territory: Virginia Falls and St Mary Falls. It is chilly, but with rain gloves and hoods, we are comfortable enough. The tourists look at us and our strange clothing. We must look funny. We are out for days in our sil-nylon and Cuben fiber gear with umbrellas in funny colors, whereas they are only out for an hour, so they can afford to wear cotton.

After a few hours of rainy hiking, we are happy to spot our camp across the suspension bridge. I collect water while J. puts up the tent, then we get cozy and dry inside, with our food bags in the vestibule. We snack on Pringles and nap until the rain lets up, canoodling and watching TV on J.’s phone. Maybe this is an odd idea for a romantic date, but it suits us perfectly.

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Day 10

It dawns chilly, wet, brushy… but with clear skies! From Piegan Pass, we see a dusting of snow at 8,000 feet, left over from last night’s precip. The views in Glacier get more and more astonishing. We have hiked in this park so many times, but it keeps revealing new delights. There is a seemingly endless supply, even as the glaciers subside. If only we humans could treat the land as generously as it treats us!

We descend to a lake beneath Grinnell Glacier, and find a private spot to have what thru-hikers call a “yard sale.” That’s when you spread out every piece of gear you own, weighed down by rocks or sticks, to dry out the past day’s moisture. It’s a laughably cluttered sight in contrast with the backdrop:

yardsale

We arrive at the Many Glacier Lodge between meals but are able to order sandwiches in the dining hall. I kick off my stinky shoes and we sit at a corner table so as not to be scent-offensive to other guests.

By the time we get to our campsite at Swiftcurrent Campground, I am pooped. Today was not a long hike, but my body’s not used to these sustained miles. J. is kind enough to do all the work of pitching the tent while I lay on the groundcloth in the dappled sun beneath a swaying tree. It’s another night of “deluxe” campground camping, complete with soft serve machines at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, and heated bathrooms with coin-op showers that spurt hot water so long that even taking our slowest showers ever, we can’t use all the time allotted. I wash out my gaiters and socks and hang them in a tree to dry.

Good night!

Day 11

The power’s out on the east side of Glacier this morning, making us glad we didn’t splurge on a hotel or cabin. Everyone’s a camper now! We make tea and coffee using the last of the hot water from the general store, then hike out.

It’s our one day to hike in wind and smoke. We’re nearly blown up Swiftcurrent Pass. The clouds look mean and grumbly, and we doubt the “Accu” portion of the Accuweather forecast (0% chance of precipitation?). But oh we of little faith: once we cross the pass, we notice that the clouds are all stacked on the eastern edge of the Divide. Some unknown force of the high ridge keeps them stacked harmlessly on the other side all day.

We turn our gaze westward to the Granite Chalet, adorably nestled among a 360-degree range of wonderful peaks:

Find the chalet!
See it?

From there, the CDT’s path is one of neverending, gradual ascents and descents traversing the Garden Wall: it’s PCT-like hiking in that one can see the next six miles of trail at any point, thin straight lines drawn across the mountains. Still, there are surprises: a waterfall that bursts out of a rock (fed by a glacial lake far above), and five bighorn sheep that browse, nonplussed, as we pass:

8-bighorn-near-ahern-pass

A family of four bears trundles down-canyon when we walk near, probably bummed to be put off their berries for a few minutes. And as we weave in and out of exposed windy areas, the lee sides of the range are lush and dense with the season’s last wildflowers, ferns, and mosses. We stop on a sheltered rock near a cool spring, sick of junk food snacks, and heat a pot of hearty corn chowder for a late lunch. I insisted upon carrying a stove for the second half of the trek, and I stand by my decision. You can’t beat hot lunch!

Then, a historic moment: we realize that the next little rise is the last time J. will cross the Continental Divide in his 2,800 mile trek. Uncharacteristically, he drags his feet toward the top. “Feeling sentimental?” “Yup.” Ah, the eloquence of a mountain man.

Our destination tonight is Fifty Mountain Campground. It’s 2000 feet higher than any of our other camps, and with today’s wind chill, we wonder how it’ll feel. Will this be a frigid night to remember? We look down on the bench with little glistening pools– springs– sparkling across the terrain, but we don’t see our home for the night. Is it nestled in the pines on the edge of the bench? Or will we be out in the open? Finally, we spot colorful squares: tents! And four men lying comfortably on their backs in the sunshine, reading books, spread out in the meadow. They look extremely content. I think we’re going to be fine.

In the camp circle that night, everyone’s dinners bubbling away on Jet-Boils and Whisper-Lites, we trade stories with the men, as well as a couple of the palest Floridians we have ever met, and a strapping Texan who strides up at dusk. One guy tells us that he counted to find out if one could really see fifty mountains from Fifty Mountain, “but it was only forty-three, if I’m being generous. I guess Forty-Three Mountain doesn’t have the same ring to it!”

Day 12… the Last Day

It’s gonna be a great day. The dawn is blue and friendly. We slept surprisingly warm. And, like the Hanukah miracle, our fuel canister sputters empty only after steaming the water for this morning’s coffee and chai. Tonight we eat in town… in Canada!

A watched pot, etc.
A watched pot never boils?

But what happens as we descend into Waterton Valley, where signs are noted in both miles and kilometers, to the Canadian border, is a story for another day. 

The Last Day
Into the fog. You can see Canada from here!

Zippy Morocco in New Mexico

The intrepid Zippy Morocco is hiking northward from the Mexican border. After three weeks, he’s almost through New Mexico. Want stories and photos? He’s got no interest in blogging or writing. So I’m all you get: secondhand, better than nothing…

zippy_starts_cdt

On April 30, he took a plane to Tucson, an Uber to the bus station, a Greyhound to Lordsburg, and on May 1, an ATV shuttle to the border. He started with all these folks but they are likely far behind him by now. He’s excited, doing thirty and forty mile days. He says he doesn’t get physically tired, just sleepy, and that’s when he stops and makes camp. That’s all he does: walk and sleep. He loves it. He loves being alone. Loves walking, walking forever.

Here, he pitched his tarp by a windmill water spigot.

It’s a desert. The middle six hours of the day are darn hot, and nary a sliver of shade. But it is less hard on him than the desert of the PCT was. He credits that to better electrolytes. He’s taking Hammer Endurolytes every day, and eating better – no gag-inducing peanut butter tortillas, he’s getting high quality Good Food Store bulk grub for every meal. Corn chowder, split pea soup, couscous pilaf, refried black beans with tomato powder, mashed potatoes with stuffing and dried herbs, freeze-dried veggies, Pro Bars, granola with organic coconut milk powder… fella is set up.

The CDT isn’t really a trail, usually. It’s a route. Map and compass all the way. Even when there’s a sign, it’s not exactly clear…

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…or else, in New Mexico anyway, it’s just walking along the side of a road.

0512160656a
Sometimes for seventy miles.

It’s flat in most of the state, so he’s had a lot of cell phone reception. We sometimes chat while he’s hiking. He freaked out his mom by texting her a photo of a rattlesnake in real-time, mid-call, as it shook its tail at him and she urgently reminded him exactly how many times its body length a rattler can spring:

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Despite the desert, water caches and pumps and streams – even a beautiful hot spring – crop up occasionally. One day he called to tell me about his latest water source: a big water tower with a spigot at the bottom. But he didn’t want the water from the dirty ol’ spigot. He wanted the water that was shooting out of what looked like a bullet hole in the side of the tank: higher water, better water. He tried to catch the stream as it shot every which way, and got a refreshing shower in the process.

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He skirted El Malpais National Monument, the famous arch of which he viewed from above, and not below, as in most photos you see…

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And he takes photos of wildflowers, only because he knows I like them. Otherwise, he registers that flowers exist, but pays them no mind.

0514160845
But this cannot be ignored!

At night, we look at the moon. We both see the same white globe, thousands of miles apart, but it is as if we are close.

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So he’s closing in on Colorado. Snowpack in the San Juans is at 144% of normal. This is the point where I get nervous and he gets excited. Our friend Samson is plowing through, ten days ahead. It’s heartening to hear that it is possible. And there’ll be one more week, at least, of snow melt (we hope) before Zippy’s turn to posthole his way into the highlands. I’ll keep you posted.

 

A riot of spring windows

Spring has sprung in Montana: yellowbells bloom on the stark crown of Waterworks Hill, western meadowlarks trill from every country fencepost. Baby lupine leaves and baby bluebell buds unfurl toward the sun.

To go along with this, here’s a crop of new art, made much kinder to paint by the longer days. Somehow every window I’ve painted in the past month has been botanical in one way or another. I think Montanans are thirsting for life after the winter…

cloth_crown_bothCloth & Crown is an upscale, downtown clothing boutique. The staff is 100% lithe, long-limbed and glossy-haired, to which I am an amusing contrast, blundering around with dropcloths and step ladders, bundled in four layers of baggy, spattered clothing. The owner adores succulents – there are clever pots of them all about the store, and a window box hanging outside – so I had real models for these borders.

(As a glimpse into the process, here are the sketches I gave her for this job:

Please ignore the inkblot. Darn leaky Rapidograph...
Please ignore the inkblot.

Four possibilities, each depicted in half a window. I always give options, even if the client has something very specific in mind. At least half the time, they end up going with something slightly different, or upgrading to a more whimsical or elaborate design. The client can pick one option, or combine favorite elements from multiple panels– in this case, she chose the inner contour of design #1, but with the dense coverage of design #2. Sketching isn’t public or glamorous, but I enjoy the brainstorming and detail work it involves.)

Then Rich at R. P. Ellis Fine Jewelry asked me to springify his displays. It began snowing half an hour in, and intensified to the point of soaking by the end. Brrr! But these glacier lilies, violets, bunchberries and trillium can’t possibly freeze:

That’s a trick I learned from Jo Knox: always paint in particular. No generic forms. Though it requires more research and time, three joys result. One, those who know biology will appreciate the references, little inside jokes, wink wink! Two, even those who don’t recognize the forms will still perceive greater quality and variety. And three, it is a chance for me as an amateur naturalist to study and remember each kind. Bingo.

Next, it was time for my winter painting on the following window, a snowlady with a bluebird on her branch, to come down. Janae at Très Chic wanted something floral but not green, as her interiors are already extremely limey. So: stylized poppies, outlined in metallic silver.

Poppies... poppies will make her chic!
Poppies… poppies will make her chic!

And finally, a couple Grand Opening windows for the new store Copperopolis, which is an interior decorating store bursting with elaborate, ever-blooming (that is to say, faux) floral arrangements. So I painted a few more faux flora to add to the deception: arrowleaf balsamroot, which will perhaps be blooming somewhere by April 15-16.

copperopolis_grand_opening2

For my own pleasure, I’ve been painting little watercolors of flowers from that thrilling read, the Alfred A. Knopf National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers, Western Region:

Desert poppy
Desert poppy
Shooting star, sierra primrose
Shooting star, sierra primrose

Having done six of them, I decided that much more field research is in order. Meaning… get out there and hike around, breathe it in, stare at the sky, and the dirt, and everything in between! Olé!

P.S. One more spring exuberance, though the painting is not new… here’s the ZWAP! logo put to good use as a backdrop for a crop of freshly trained Zero Waste Ambassadors. They all get to sign the wall after the class.

zwapkids
Also, goofballs.

Nature loves a hexagon

Devils Postpile National Monument. It’s hot and shadeless here, all scrub and sunshine, so it seems natural to spot three Burners taking a walk en route to Burning Man, basking in the rays. They’re easy to peg: lacy, ragged, multicolored clothes, taut tanned skin, murmuring about the Playa, Havasupai, Bali and other hip destinations. I take a photo for them as they swing from the National Monument sign. I suppose it would be weird to take a photo with my phone too. They are so colorful and happy, I would love to record it.

I’m a tourist for a day too. There’s a lot to see: Upper and Lower Rainbow Falls (named for the prismatic effects of the spray), Minaret Falls (less aptly named, it is completely dry at present), and the Devils Postpile itself:

Whee, cooling lava!
Whee, cooling lava!

Soap bubbles, honeycombs, even the cloud swirling around the north pole of Saturn: nature loves a hexagon. A six-sided polygon tesselates, meaning no wasted space, and compared with the triangle and square, it yields more area (for packing full of honey, say?) with less perimeter. It is also the shape of the basalt columns of Devils Postpile National Monument, where a lava lake, dammed by a glacier, cooled in the simplest way it found possible: long tubular hexagons.

Eroding from earthquakes, freeze/thaw cycles, and glacial action... see it now!
Eroding from earthquakes, freeze/thaw cycles, and glacial action… see it now!

I like to believe that Mama Nature doesn’t choose hexagons for efficiency alone. The arrays are beautiful and unexpected. Walking on the top of the monument is like dancing on a natural keyboard. Wouldn’t it be fun to be a tree improbably growing between the tesserae?

Mosaic atop the Postpile
Mosaic atop the Postpile

I geek out at interpretive signs explaining the gadgetry at the ranger station, a valuable weather observation point measuring a thousand variables, including snowpack in a habitat where summer lasts only two months. This tells us what kind of flow (or lack of) to expect in rivers hundreds of miles away, how scrimpy people and animals and industry will be in the coming season.

Weatherbot says: Take me to your meter
Weatherbot says: Take me to your meter

And I taste my first Sierra gooseberry, which comes in a wickedly spiked package: it looks as alien as the weather robot. It hurts to pluck a fat ribes roezlii berry off the bush – that name must be onomatopoeic, because that’s roughly what I mutter while trying. To unlock the sweet pulp inside, I squish it under a dubiously clean sneaker, but it’s worthwhile for aesthetics alone.

Sierra gooseberry, pre-attack
Sierra gooseberry, pre-attack

Design is the name of the game today. There’s also charred wood, falling water, twisted trunks, and red volcanic cones made of swiss-cheese pumice. What boundless creativity. Nature may love a hexagon, but she also dreams a spiky sphere, an airy rock, an orange bubbling spring, and even a plain old s-curve river. Well done, original architect!

The spray blows my kerchief into Kewpie Doll formation: nature is such a punk
Nature sprays my kerchief into the rare Kewpie Doll formation.

 

Yes, I am alive

…and well! Only the edges of my ears are sunburnt, and knock on wood, I have managed not yet to forget my hiking poles by the side of a cool stream. I am near Devils Postpile National Monument, heading south. Chipmunks, flamboyant California bluejays, and other kind travelers have been keeping me company.

I have been writing, but in order to keep things chronological, will hold off posting full entries until I’m done. To keep folks amused, here are a few photos, and an interview I did for my friend Michael’s podcast. He wanted to talk with me about the JMT, and I was honored to be his guest.

May we all find good paths.

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The green temple

My friend Jane often misses church in summer… and fall… and spring. “We were worshipping in the green temple,” she’ll say later. Meaning, of course, that she and Garon were outside on Sunday morning. In which case, I’ve been church-shopping vigorously: in the Rattlesnake, on Mount Jumbo, on Sentinel, in the Elkhorns, up to Glacier Park. I am fickle and can’t commit to any particular congregation. I aim to join them all.

Strange to say, I can walk all day and not feel bored. Training for the JMT is a perfect excuse to do a lot of that, loaded up with gear or not. It’s not always pleasant in all ways, but that’s what it’s like in the green temple. Especially when I let go of counting miles and hours, of dreaming about my next snack, of caring that a fly’s circling my head with missionary zeal… and listen:

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Ambling down an unmarked trail as the temperature rises into the hundreds and sweat slicks my neck, the unmistakable sound of moving water comes softly, from underneath all the other sounds of the woods: a tiny spring, hidden by ferns and old branches. Zamzam, I think.

Zamzam is the name of a friend I met when working in refugee resettlement many years ago. In the break room one day, she told me the Muslim tale: Hagar and her infant son Ishmael were left in a desert valley without water. Hagar scoured the valley, climbing every mountain, praying, until in exhaustion she set her child on the hot ground. Then, miracle: fresh water sprang out where his feet touched. Zamzam explained that her name is really more like “Zam! Zam!” (“Stop! Stop!”), for the spring flooded with such generosity that it overwhelmed even parched Hagar. The awe that elicits Zam! Zam! is understandable: even a slow trickle in midsummer, water purified by earth and brought back to us to carefully enjoy and revere, is a miracle indeed.

Zamzam in the Elkhorns
A little zamzam in the Elkhorns

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It’s not something I’m exactly proud of: I find the divine spark more easily in inanimate objects than in people. There is no such thing as an ill-tempered rock or an unlikable tree. There are no moods, only endless variety of forms. There is no love, conditional or otherwise, wanted or wanting. There is nothing to do but observe and appreciate.

My favorite way to do this, alone in the woods, is comedic impressions of trees. They jut, they creep, they rocket, they burl, peel and clench. I want to point at their dramatic survivalism. (Rocks also have character, but they’re much harder to impersonate– er, impetronate). The trees are doing what they were born to do, shaped by the shade and the fire and the wind, and with what flair they manage it. My mimics aren’t anthropomorphism, but the other way round: dendromorphism, let’s say. Homage to foliage: well done, good and faithful servants!

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Early morning, before the heat comes into the air, I jog a few miles up the trail at Logging Creek. The path passes in and out of burned zones springing back into the life cycle: aspen, fireweed, small firs amid the hulls of old growth and deadfall. The unburned forest smells of vanilla, another thing I learned from Jane: the smell from the bark of old ponderosas means one can identify a stand with eyes closed. What is it about this intimate knowledge that feels like memorizing a book, a Good Book, the Good Book of learning that will never end? The world is a small and perishable place, but everything stands for something else. Ponderosas may well stand for eternity, fire cycle notwithstanding.

Morning sun at Logging CreekMorning sun at Logging Creek in Glacier National Park

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From the sunny ridge of Waterworks Hill overlooking Missoula, I drop into the sheltered ravine on the far side, lined with shrubs, spike mullein, and a few meadowlarks. The white noise of interstate traffic and the busy town dies as quickly as I step below. My ears hadn’t realized they were deadened. Now they hear the muted dance of grasses, and though the world has shrunk, it feels at once endless and holy. It’s divine. No matter how much I think or read or even pray, god has always been to me only a sense of wonder and unknowing amid vastness. Lots of folks feel certain (or convicted, as they say) about religious matters, but not me. I think I’ll never feel secure that way. But that’s OK. Mystery is underrated, and no amount of scientific or philosophical investigation, while worthwhile, can diminish the mystery of the world and all that is beyond. Tucked into the pocket of Waterworks, I sit in the trail and listen thirstily to less, drinking in the space, one clueless and content iota.

The quiet side of Waterworks Hill
The quiet side of Waterworks Hill

Bird Identification for the Hyperactive American

Birds move too fast.

So do most of us.

Up until now, my naturalist streak has been limited to things that have roots. A flower stays put long enough to get a good, close look. A person can walk right up to it without scaring it away. (Well, it may be scared, but it can’t run.)

But birds require both stillness and swiftness. Unless the observer is motionless—not even walking slowly—her perspective will constantly change, eliminating a static background from which a moving creature might stand out. She who would notice birds must be still as a stone. But unless the observer is also quick at the draw, the bird will fly away before revealing its distinguishing marks. She who would know birds must be like a camera with a quick shutter.

I am neither still as a stone nor swift as a snapshot. Precisely the opposite: I move quickly and draw slowly. My typical birding excursion consists of me, wearing crinkly neon outerwear, stomping through the woods until I hear chirping. I fumble with my binoculars, look into the wrong end, cuss, cross my eyes until I remember the focus knob, and scan branches in nauseating circles until it’s obvious that the bird has long since flown. When I do catch a glimpse, I flip through the field guide, only to find six pages of birds that all look just like the one that used to be in that tree.

So, I suck. But I want to get better. Because learning the local creatures is a step toward being at home. In a nation of immigrants, bred to be conquerors on a rapidly changing planet, we’ve got to know our place: what is beneath our feet, who else is breathing the air, what’s growing where, what’s gone, what’s left over. Learning about our vast array of cohabitors acknowledges interdependence, and our proportional insignificance.

Also, on a wholly unphilosophical level: bird names are a riot. Bananaquit, bobolink, bufflehead—who named these things? Some carnival barker, proclaiming the attractions of the violaceous trogon, the olivaceous cormorant, the magnificent frigatebird? Some randy schoolkid, passing notes about bushtits, dickcissels and boobies? Some magician, incanting into being the long-billed dowitcher, the buff-collared nightjar, the flammulated owl?

Miraculously, I got a blurry photo of this violaceous trogon in Costa Rica.
Miraculously, I got a blurry photo of this violaceous trogon in Costa Rica.

But I want to know them better than an index of unforgettable names followed by unchecked boxes at the end of the field guide. How satisfying to match them to flying drops of indigo, curlique tophats, and outfits that simultaneously boast stripes, spots, chevrons and primary colors. (Surely drag queens and fashion designers have taken inspiration from the avian world.)

Will I succeed? Two things work in my favor. First is my theory that as I get older, especially if I lose some physical mobility along the way, I’ll compensate for what’s lost by reaping the harvest of stillness. This bounty shall include meditation, naps, total enlightenment… and unflappable (d’oh) bird identification skills. Second, I have a few pointers, gleaned through experience and advice. They’re nothing advanced, but they help me even now, pre-aged-paralytic nirvana:

1) Get a good bird book, like the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. If you stay in one part of the country, however, you might want a guide that focuses on a smaller region, so it’s lighter and easier to narrow down choices. And get some good binoculars. It’s rewarding to see a creature in detail, to feel close even when you are far away. Jot down where and when you see each bird, and a few characteristics, even if you don’t know what it is.

Demonstrating the correct use of binoculars.
Demonstrating the correct use of binoculars.

2) Practice sighting stuff that’s not moving much, if at all: a lazy squirrel, a fencepost. Look at the thing with your naked eye, and then, with an unbroken gaze, stick the binoculars in front of your face. Your aim should be right, and now it should just be a matter of focusing. You can move on to fluttering, swooping, and deviously hiding objects later.

3) Make friends with birdbrains. Some people willingly stand in frigid cold, sometimes also soaked and/or wiping falling snow off their lenses every twenty seconds, their eyes sparking with the predatory zeal of a hunter. After a day of stalking, they come home empty-handed, bedraggled, and happy. These are the people you want to hang out with (when the weather’s nice, anyway). They can familiarize you with some basic species. Once you know a few and can authoritatively say, “Hey, check out that cinnamon teal,” you’ll feel like less of a dope. These people can also tell you which end of a blurry shape is the beak end, and help you remember to take the lens caps off your binocs. But when you go with them, bring a book, in case you get bored before they do. (Hint: you will get bored before they do.)

Or you could just play with the cat.
Or you could just play with the cat.

And finally, 4) Let the birds come to you. Put a feeder or a caged lump of suet on a post in your backyard, or hang it from the eaves of your apartment. Then you can practice with house finches and robins and hummingbirds without even having to be fully clothed or fully awake. Great, right?

May the tyrant flycatcher, the noddy and the water pipit be yours for the sighting!

Little ole cabin in the woods

Last weekend, we fell in love with the Appalachians again.

Paul and Lara's cabin
Paul and Lara’s cabin

The cabin was built in the 1840s. Our friends, an older couple named Paul and Lara, live there. Lara is a storyteller, folklorist, and knower of the natural: birds, animals, plants, trees, and how to make everything out of them. How to build a hearth out of river rocks, how to milk sheep, how to heal ailments with herbs. Paul is a teacher, woodworker, and alternative energy expert. He rigs up electric cars, teaches middle school kids how to make wood crafts, and builds just about anything. Together, they run the Coweeta Heritage Center on their property.

These people have more projects going than can be imagined. They have interns and volunteers to assist sometimes, but it is often just the two of them, and they are not spring chickens. The land is strewn with partly born ideas: a gutted van, a camper, lumber carefully milled from felled trees and stacked under tin roofing with cement blocks. A fish pond, a small waterfall. A clay oven now riddled with holes from mud-loving insects. The barn where the sheep used to be. (Have you ever tried to milk a sheep? It’s hard.) Lara tends the goats and makes goat’s-milk cheese, buttermilk, butter, and milk. She works in the small permaculture garden she has begun. As she does, she thinks of stories.

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So it was time to visit. Saturday morning, we dragged the poor, low-riding Mazda 3 an hour and a half out of the city and up the alarmingly rutted Coweeta Gap Road, into a narrow valley with a stream running through it, to their 52-acre plot of hilly land.

The rigors of the Trail, the fresh memory of the majesty of the West, and our rough start in Asheville had erected a barrier between us and the Appalachian mountains we’d loved so long. They were my first mountains. I interned for a summer at the Twin Oaks commune in Virginia during college, and the hazy Blue Ridge rose from the western horizon. They were maternal, mysterious, ancient, abundant. They provided orientation, perspective, grounding, and a reminder that the earth is a moving, shifting creature. I loved them immediately.

Thus, it had been unsettling to find myself disenchanted. But here at last was an opening, between two narrow ridges, through which to begin to love them again.

As we had hoped, Paul and Lara had set out projects: J. would help Paul build a sauna behind one of the cabins, and I would paint a small case fridge for them to sell their cabbages and mustard greens at market. After a few hours of work in the chill afternoon, we went down the hill to the cabin for dinner. One skinny-necked guinea screeched ceaselessly at our approach, while the flock of hens calmly clucked out of our way.

As we sat around the table in the tiny, hearth-heated room, Lara put out cornbread from a cast-iron skillet, a bowl of butter beans, roast turkey, and fruit salad. Rusks and rinds were strewn upon the wooden floor, crumbs on the table, and a thick layer of history on each wooden chair. The kitchen table legs stood in teacups. Tapestries, woven wicker baskets, and tools hung on the walls. Every corner was packed with books, jars, and dust. The cabin’s interior is as enveloping as the womb of the Appalachian Mountains themselves. It is a one-room museum of the people who come from these mountains.

Red glass bottles

After dinner, Paul poured us mugs of pocahickra: hickory nut milk, flavored with both nuts and shells. It is a brown milk that, served warm with a spoon of maple syrup, smells and tastes wonderful. Perhaps the proof of its countryness is that no spelling of its name elicits results from Google. However, I am reading the excellent book 1491 by Thomas Mann, and it had just mentioned hickory milk, as part of a thesis that the Indians had strategically planted chestnut and hickory all along the East, in natural, life-giving orchards, far from the stereotype of savages in untouched wilderness. Mann’s first cup of the milk was as pleasurable as mine. His was served by St. EOM, an eccentric artist from rural Georgia who claimed Creek ancestry. (J. and I once visited St. EOM’s rambling, strange estate, Pasaquan, as a day trip from Koinonia Farm. The saint died years ago, but his compulsive mosaics remain. You can also find a roomful of it at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.)

As we talked, Paul showed us the ingenious but simple pattern for making a wooden spoon. J. ran his hands over it, satisfied. He had wondered how those spoons were made ever since our first visit, five years before. We had volunteered for ten days, and afterward, Paul presented us with a cooking spoon made of cherry that we treasured and used for years. This time he gave us an ash.

After saying goodnight, J. and I climbed the hill to the visitors’ cabin. No computer, no internet, no cell phone reception. While these are useful tools, we were satisfied gazing at the fire and peeping into a few of the hundreds of books on botany, construction, and the like. When it was time to sleep, we unrolled the futon by the hearth, and J. loaded the fire so hot that there was no need to feed it overnight. It rumbled and blazed and, citified as I am, I kept thinking I heard a log roll out onto the floor, or smelt smoke pouring through some vent to asphyxiate us. But we slept.

In the morning it was goats’-buttermilk pancakes with blueberries that had been picked nearby and then frozen. When you stay in a place so long, you know where to find the hickory nuts (the tree behind the library), yellow raspberries (an open field of brambles near town), and everything else (the woods, usually). For tea, Paul set out dried herbs, a strainer, and a pot of boiling water. Choose your elixir: will it be chamomile flowers, spearmint leaves, clover flowers, whole cloves, or even catnip?

Then it was back to work. J. was in paradise. Working on an off-grid construction project outdoors in the woods gladdened his soul. They got out the ol’ post-hole diggers to sink four big posts upon which they built a platform for the sauna. They did have power, and power tools, but the power flowed from the creek, not from electric lines. A long wooden track, built by Paul, diverts a bit of the water temporarily, where it runs downhill and spins a little wheel, which fills batteries. So they have such luxuries as hot water and lights and tools, without a power bill. What a gift, a stream on one’s land.

talkin rock fridge

After I finished painting the fridge and listening to NPR on the scratchy radio, I put on my running clothes and headed up the mountain. It entailed big, confidence-boosting jumps over several not inconsequential streams that ran right across the road. The sunlight through the bare trees evoked the season we started our hike: generous, brilliant in the winter air, soon-to-set. I knew the Appalachian Trail ran along the nearest ridge, which looked so close but was too far to reach on a jaunt. I pined for the magical line, even though I never need to hike the whole thing again.

Lara’s grandparents had made their homeplace not far away, one valley over, but high on the hillside–they could not afford the flatter land below. She told me how to find their homestead next time–I was just one turn away. Next time I’ll find it.

So we will be back. For many reasons. But especially because something somewhat like this is part of our dream, no matter where we find it.

Old things.
Old things.

P.S. Based on the comments left on my last post, I ought to make two quick notes:

1. I did not actually visit the Isle of Man.

2. I am doing fine. My intention was to show the rise from (certain shallow) depths. I’m not staying down there. I’m lucky, and I’m also not built for that. Thanks to everyone for the kind and heartfelt words!

The care and feeding of transplants

Who could be calling from outside? Nobody knows us here yet…

But I opened the screen door of the attic apartment and saw Carolyn, our next-door neighbor, standing on the driveway below with a brown bag in her arms. We had met her the day before, our first full day in Asheville. Already, here she was, a one-woman welcome wagon of Southern hospitality, with two ripe tomatoes, a boxed loaf of pumpkin bread, a giant container of mixed nuts, and four gold apples obviously from a real tree nearby. She had noticed the Montana plates on our car, and told us how much she wished she could move there. Not only her gesture but her timing was perfect. We had just finished carrying our most basic possessions into the loft of the peeling old house, and it felt like being on a lifeboat at sea. As if the world were fluid beneath us, and our munitions were few. And here she was, a friendly little craft who knew our port of departure.

It had been hard to leave J.’s parents’ house, much as we were ready for a place of our own. This despite the fact that the primary occupation of our week and a half visit was neurotically cleaning, disassembling, reupholstering and reassembling our Mazda, in which green nasties had sprouted during the wet spring months of our absence. Between bouts of scrubbing, we took humble excursions to remind us that beauty is nearby, and so is peace, even when we return to the daily grind. You wouldn’t know to drive along the Cleveland Highway that just a few hundred meters away is the blue hole spring at Red Clay, the water source of the last home of the Cherokee people before the Trail of Tears (upon which the Cleveland Highway was later built).

We also took care of the animals while J.’s folks were away: two hypersensitive daschunds, one bouncy mutt, an elderly cat, fifteen chickens, five chicks, plus everything that the hummingbird feeder attracts. The hens were a small-scale throwback to our chores at Nuestra Finca, enjoyably so. Flo’s birds are the only truly happy ones I’ve met. They roam free in the big, green backyard, and have roosting barns with protective netting at night. Every other day, with a plastic extension claw, one of us retrieves eggs from underneath the power saw, where they nestle in a bit of straw next to a hollow green Easter egg, unless a hen has decided to sit on a batch, in which case she is allowed to hatch them. When their laying years are over, no axe awaits, only a long, verdant retirement. Hence they feel entitled to develop outsized personalities, like the rest of us. The animal scene at Fawa’s Cottage made us remember a deeper purpose than a life spent among only televisions or newspapers or websites can convey: to care for creatures, as we ourselves are cared-for creatures, and to see them through their shorter lives.

The day before we left, a beautiful chill entered the air. I walked the perimeter and snipped leaves and berries and dried bits of blooms past, and put them in jars of water around the house. Symbols of fall: of the brilliant energy of change and death and transformation. We all, but travelers especially, must perform such minor rituals to remind ourselves of the season, to remain grounded in cycles despite constant uprooting.

Despite the repeated transplants, from the Montana bed to the Appalachian Trail vine to the Costa Rican forest to the Georgia sanctuary to, finally, the rocky soil of Asheville, we ought not fret. The city is a new nut to crack, jobs and housing and culture and people, and our lifeboat, though cozy, contains a leaky toilet but not a smoke detector… but the drive to North Carolina was beautiful, valleys of trees inhaling the warm blue afternoon, deep gulps in preparation for the impending costume change. It’s an autumn transplant, both in the sense of it being hopefully the last one for a good long while, and in a more urgent sense of wanting to get situated before snow flies. But the world is full of surprises, and we sometimes remember to trust our higher power. We have reinvented our lives before. Sometimes I feel ancient, but we ain’t that old yet.

I miss awakening to dawns full of toucan cries and monkey talk, to air redolent of fruits and flowers. I miss knowing my task for the day is simple, the rhythm steady, the subtle variations pleasures to be savored. I miss feeling secure and content within the boundaries of a miniature existence, one wherein the Future and Income and Lodging are not concerns. But of course the seasons turn, and all things end, and we are living in a different chapter now. Carolyn’s gesture of hospitality spurred me to another small ritual: baking. Symbol of taking up residence, filling a small space with heat and domestic aroma. Which means acknowledging that yes, this is where we are now, might as well make banana bread. Might as well make connections: give a loaf to Carolyn, two big pieces for our downstairs roommates (whose oven we use, our upstairs having only a two-burner and a nuker), a slice for our landlord, and some for ourselves, a communion, however haltingly granted, of place and nourishment.

Perhaps in the next few days I will even see fit to snip some bouquets of wild, scraggly plants from the yard, to adorn our lifeboat, to mark it as, for now, home.

Freakout

Nature wants everything here. It encroaches, dissolves, stains. It eats and shits and dies. It is no respecter of efforts toward tidiness and preservation. I know I wrote about liking the lines being blurred between wilderness and civilization, but it is like being under siege sometimes. Just in case anyone is under the impression that this is tropical paradise (though it is)… this post’s for you. Gentle reader, I advise against reading this while eating.

Yesterday, I found Yvonne and India laughing and chatting in the threshold of the big house, puzzle pieces spread out between them, each holding a rag and a cup of hot water. It was not over-the-top house cleaning; it was the logical response to opening the puzzle box and having roaches fly out. New game: erase fecal dots from each piece! To their credit, they really were having a good time.

Yvonne says she has given up on the concept of clean. That probably helps.

There is gecko poo everywhere. You find it by the stove, on the table, or, while lying in bed, you may even see the gecko himself in the rafters above, slowly emitting it, until it drops onto the cover of your book, “Wildlife of Costa Rica.” Touche. Still, they eat the moths that eat my merino wool shirts, so they are friends.

Everything goes in the fridge: raisins, sugar, water bottles. Otherwise, tight twist ties and double bags, or your beans go moldy, or get bugs, or nothing, but you imagine the worst and psych yourself out.

In the yard, I nearly stepped on what J. believes was a small fer-de-lance, a venomous snake, but it was astute and slid into its hole just in time.

I did step on a gecko friend on the kitchen floor, amazed I hadn’t done so earlier, since there are probably three dozen in the house. The tail bolted up and writhed away down a hole, but the body just lay there, bending in agony. Once I’d gotten the bile to recede down my throat, I used the broom to push the body back into the shadows where I wouldn’t squash it again. That’s a silver lining: ants come and take care of anything dead, or any dropped crumb, so cleanup’s a cinch.

There may be a giant grasshopper licking your “clean” dinner plates. There may be three bees diving at your sweaty face while you try to chop cold fruit. There may be maggots wiggling in that fruit, if it’s a guava (upon which, despite their abundance, I have given up entirely for that reason). There may be a kamikaze beetle veering into the light bulb, buzzing and clanking its exoskeleton. There may be biting ants in your sheets each night. Your pillow and mattress will turn black with mold. Par for the course. No biggie.

It was one smooth, white oval the size of a baby tooth that finally got me to shriek. I found it on a shelf under my folded “clean” shirts. It looked like a plastic game piece, or a mint. “What is this?” I called to J. “What is what?” he asked from the other room. I carried it over in my palm. “It’s a gecko egg, ” he said. “There’re more in the wall.” “Ehh,” I replied, rolling it, and then it fell. It made a tiny, disgusting splat on the floorboard, a Pollock amoeba of white embryonic jelly.

And then I freaked out. At last.

Nature wins again!