Sequins and buoys

Full of nerves, I slunk into my outfit for the ZACC benefit gala. Why oh why did I sign up to attend a fancy dinner and art auction all by myself?

Because I’d meet more people without J. at my side to whisper with all night, that’s why. And because not going was not an option: venturing past the edge of social comfort is important, just to remind us that we never really outgrow adolescence. Awkwardness means something’s happening. I had donated a piece of art that they had accepted into the silent auction, and wanted to see its destiny. And I wanted to learn a bit more about the Missoula art world. (Little did I know that not long after, I’d have another opportunity to feel socially inept, this time meeting one of my art idols, totally unannounced and serendipitously… but more on that next time!)

So far, I’ve mostly steered clear of the gallery scene, except for looking at other people’s art. Trying to “get in,” navigating egos at play, networking in loud, small spaces, knowing the vocabulary that makes one sound with-it… not my forté nor my interest. To boot, it’s an incredibly hard way to make a living as an artist, probably even harder than hawking one’s goods alongside fifty other people hawking goods at the People’s Market every summer Saturday. Supply and demand: the former far outstrips the latter.

But community is important. The fellowship of other artists and lovers of the arts is a string of buoys in a choppy sea. I believe we can all help one another, and rejoice at each other’s successes. Community, feedback, collaboration: antidotes to burnout and other ills. So I signed up. And suited up.

Emi from work loaned me a fabulous dress that she owns thanks to her second career as a blueswoman, and Secret Seconds, the best thrift store in town (it benefits the programs of the YWCA), provided the accessories: my very first clutch, and a pair of remarkably comfy heels. From JoAnn Fabrics I obtained a length of silver cord for a headband, and sewed a fake poppy over one ear. And there it was: flapper for less than $15.


J. said I looked like Olive Oyl, in an affectionate way, and he was nice enough to be my chauffeur. It occurred to me as we neared the Wilma Theater that perhaps this was not a dress-up event. Was I gonna be the only person in sequins? I had just resolved to let my freak flag fly, when I saw people in expensive-looking outfits headed for the door. Whew.

Like a benevolent fairy godmother, whoever did the seating arrangement put all the artists together. This way, the high rollers who wanted to bid on sumptuous dessert platters as a table wouldn’t be dragged down by people trying to stretch dimes… and by people who have enough dimes, but still could think of several better uses for 400 of them than as a trade for a couple of Le Petit Outre blueberry tartlets with spun sugar bird’s-nests on top, delicious as those might be. Even better, the clustering of artists, each of whom had donated a work to the silent auction, allowed us to meet one another. So, may I introduce my tablemates…

Ashley Mitchell, who crafted an adorable monster party scene made of felted animals sharing a felted pizza in the felted woods. The Clay Studio of Missoula sculptor Richard Smith, also unrepentantly attending alone. Candice Haster, whose date was her mother, and who seems to work in every medium, from clay to paper to cake:

candice_hasterAnd Lillian Nelson, who paints along wood grain to stunning effect:


I managed to stay detached from the fate of my piece– another prerequisite for stepping near the flames of competitive fine art. It did sell, to Candice, who bought it as a surprise for her mother, who had expressed a yen for it just before we met. Very sweet. I observed that whether a work sold, or whether a bidding war erupted over it, didn’t necessarily correlate with its quality. A gorgeous painting of light-shot glass marbles, mounted in a shadow box with a real marble, did not receive a single bid. And of course anything with a bison on it or in the shape of Montana sold easily. That is the artistic equivalent of the culinary shortcut of smothering something in cheese or bacon: not every dish employing such tricks is bad, but even if it is, nobody can resist it.

So we ate catered dinner (tastefully not smothered in cheese or bacon) and watched other folks bid on artwork, desserts, and vacation getaways. Lillian’s fellow held up his paddle for the first bid a few times, just for the thrill. He was bound to be outbid, but why not play the game? I wandered upstairs and found a photobooth where happy couples were mugging. And why not play that game too? Who cares if it’s just me – I’ll celebrate the empty space to my left:


And then the volunteers whisked away the dishes, and the artworks were packed up and paid for and taken away to their new homes, and that was that. I texted J. to collect me, and was glad to kick off my heels and put on a sweater. Charity gala auctions aren’t my idea of fun, but I’m glad I went. I don’t know that I made any unsinkable friends, but the energy’s flowing in the right direction. Baby steps into the uncomfortable, sequins and all.

Free spirits and spectators

There’s a Sesame Street segment from back in the 1970s, maybe even the early 60s:

Children paint alphabet letters and animals on glass, and enthusiastically discuss the results. The camera films from the other side of the glass, so the kid watching from home sees not only the painting, but the child’s face and arm painting it.

As a five-year-old, I was entranced. (As an adult, I am also in love with that girl’s awesome cat-eye specs.) The transparency, watching forms appear midair, brush bristles wet and creamy with color, sliding around, only mostly controlled. I loved art already, but assumed that painting on glass was a craft reserved for children who lived in the magical world of TV.

That skit didn’t cross my mind for years, until the day I was gliding a rigger loaded with One-Shot in loops across a wide, clean, plate-glass window, and saw a kid looking through from the inside, transfixed. This happens all the time now… and not just with kids.

The spectator sport element is one of my favorite parts of being a window artist. It’s immediately rewarding, as passersby exclaim approval, strike up conversations, or watch quietly while trying to avoid my noticing that they are watching. (Doesn’t work, guys: glass reflects!)

This last foggy Friday, I was painting a Valentine’s scene of bluebirds unfurling heart-shaped ribbons around the jewelry display cases at R.P. Ellis Fine Jewelry. The store is right downtown, next to a peculiarly Missoulian institution, the coffeehouse/tchotchke shop/alterna-hangout, Butterfly Herbs. It was the perfect spot for engaging the early morning culture of Higgins Ave.

First came Paris, a Deadhead-looking guy in his sixties, sharing stories of traveling the USA with his buddies. “Just a couple of Fitch brushes in my pocket, and when we ran outta money, we’d find a store, say ‘Hey man, your sign looks like hell,’ and fix it up.” Paid by the acre, his friend would joke. “Like Woody Guthrie,” I replied. “Did you know that he was a sign painter during the Depression?” “No joke?” said Paris. Nope, no joke.

One of his drawings, I think an illustration in his autobiography
One of Woody’s drawings, an illustration in his autobiography, I think.

From there it was a string of commuters, wanderers and homeless people trying to stay warm via walking and coffee, and people with ideas for future window designs. You’d be surprised how many people know about this supposedly dying art form. “Isn’t it supposed to be 54 degrees out to put that stuff up?” (Yes, but if it’s seasonal, it’ll last just fine.) I’ve met pinstripers, tattoo artists, other signpainters, and lots of regular folks. In Americus, Georgia, I loved the company of older folks who had plenty of time to watch and chat. Sometimes it seemed they didn’t have many people to talk with, and it was good to listen to them as I worked.

After putting the finishing touches on the ribbons, I popped into the shop to check in with Rich, the owner. When I came back outside, a guy was pushing a shopping cart away up Higgins. Piled atop his load of possessions, probably all he had to his name, was my dropcloth, my mallet, and a quarter pint of red One-Shot. I went into autopilot: caught up to him, said “That’s my stuff,” and grabbed my supplies. He began hollering at me, called me every four letter word known to humankind, including, bizarrely, racial slurs: “You should be ashamed of yourself, you *@&^#! Stealing from a homeless person!”

The sad part was that, as a parting shot, he yelled, “You took my blanket!” And I realized he was talking about the dropcloth: damp, paint-spattered, none-too-soft. I almost gave it back to him, then reflected that he was cussing me out and had tried to make off with my gear– not behavior I would like to encourage. I don’t know what he wanted with the oil paint or the mallet, but no good could have come of it. He certainly was not in the frame of mind for a rational conversation. This was the first time in six years I’ve had any trouble. I dunno, friends… would there have been a better way to handle this?

As it was, I packed up my stuff and stepped inside Butterfly Herbs to thaw my bones. Their staff was kind enough to let me keep my paints warm behind the counter while I worked out in the cold. I wanted to give them a little business as thanks, and get something to warm me up en route to my other job. Lucas Phelan– an inventive, talented artist himself, also apparently at his other job– toasted a delicious cream cheese sesame bagel. Everything tastes better when you’ve been out all morning doing something you love. That’s a lesson learned hiking, but widely applicable!

Oh, and without further ado, here are the cavorting bluebirds:

r_p_ellis_fine_jewelry2 r_p_ellis_fine_jewelry

P.S. If you can’t get enough of the adorable children of Sesame Street giggling at glass, there’s another video here. Enjoy.

P.P.S. This blog has been brought to you today by the letter B.

The one beautiful thing in Reno

The bus diesels out of the McDonald’s parking lot in Lone Pine, CA at six am, minutes after I creep out of the room of sleeping women in the Whitney Portal Hostel. The first driver wears a cowboy hat and listens to classical guitar. The second driver growls at pit stop requests. “I think he has a case of the Mondays,” another rider whispers. Oh yeah. It is Monday. We are reentering the world where the day of the week can foretell mood, and heart attack likelihood. Because we are going home: a passel of assorted hikers, plus a few locals headed north a stop or two.

The bus dumps its passengers in Reno, Nevada, which is the ugliest city I have ever seen. Still, looking at a six-hour layover, I am not just going to hang out in the airport. Here’s the mission: find one Beautiful Thing here in Reno. Surely there is a redeeming sculpture, tree, mosaic… something beautiful both inside and out. Three weeks of natural beauty have spoiled me, and my tolerance for the products of profit-driven construction is low. With a $2 city bus pass in my pocket, the quest begins.

The riverwalk is concrete, decorated with trash. The river itself flows strangled and brown. Down-and-out people lie on the curb or push along on canes. Bad junctions, hard living. The neighborhoods struggle. I pace the streets with a few tourists, the ones who can’t afford Vegas, shuffling between tacky casinos. The synthetic facades have not been renovated since the seventies, which looks awful, but I may actually support this neglect: isn’t it preferable to the endless facelifts of swankier towns, unneeded, superficial? You know what you are getting here. You can see all the way to the core.

NOT the One Beautiful Thing.
This goofball is not the One Beautiful Thing in Reno

I think about my trail trust that the right paths will unfold. They always have, if not immediately. But why? Reno is a reminder that this is not the case for everyone. I am not sure why I have been so fortunate. Having money helps, as well as other kinds of privilege, but some people still find themselves in bind after bind. There is no guarantee. How do the people of Reno see their town? Do they find beauty here? They must. You must find it where you are. Where is it? Can I see with Reno eyes?

The bus driver is kind, advising me on the best place to get off, but it’s not beauty. The begging man is kind, but it’s not quite beauty. In line at the post office to mail home my sharp objects, which cannot be checked through airport security, two people burst in singing happy birthday, carrying helium balloons and neon cupcakes to a postal clerk’s counter. She reddens and won’t meet their eyes. Her manager bounces on tiptoe as she belts the refrain over-enthusiastically, and some of us in line faintly join in.

None of it is beauty, but all of it is human. Maybe human will have to do. So after my wanderings and a couple of street tacos, I surrender beauty and retreat to the airport sidewalk. I lean my pack on a bench near the taxi lot, and pull out a book to kill time.

But then: with minutes to spare, in peripheral vision, brightly colored cloth. A man’s voice, chanting. On the grass by the road, three cabbies are praying toward Mecca. Their voices rise and fall over the traffic. They sing for fifteen minutes, then rise and walk back to work, the older man with his arm around a younger man’s shoulder.

Okay, Reno, there is your One Beautiful Thing. The color, the song, the reverence, the brotherly love, the willingness to pause profit for spirit. It goes all the way through. Well done. You win.

And god knows, if Reno wins, we all do.



The women’s dorm at the Whitney Portal Hostel in Lone Pine, California could have been a dingy, crowded bunk house à la Little Orphan Annie. Happily, it is instead a cozy room with half a dozen bunks, a mini-fridge, plenty of outlets, an air conditioner, and a clean bathroom stacked with furry white towels. Astonishing. How does a hiker hostel keep towels white?
The six of us are certainly no help. We take turns in the shower, dirt streaming down the drain, and gear hangs from every fixture, clean and drying off. In and out we go, scratching all our town itches: Rebecca, whom I’ve met twice before on the trail and am thrilled to finally spend time with. Two British students tramping their way through a gap year. One astrophysicist from Stanford. A weekend warrior whose car broke down in this little town, stranded until a part arrives in the mail. And me.
Lots of Americana, not many auto parts.
Lots of Americana, not many auto parts.


Before the hike, I joined several hike-centric Facebook groups, including Ladies of the JMT and Women of the PCT, mainly to research weather and gear. The general JMT and PCT groups have more typical internet snark, criticism, and the occasional sexist comment, but the women’s group is almost wholly positive, patient and supportive. On the regular forum, you might see a woman post something like “I am wondering about hitching a ride from X campground to Y town, I hear it’s pretty safe. Do you think that’ll work?” and some guy replying “Only if your hot lol”. No thank you. But the ladies– the ladies will encourage the hiker whose shin splints are devastating, whose partner dumped her a week before Day 1, who is plus-size or new or nervous or older, as well as the confident, exuberant and experienced.
Thanks to the women’s forums, a gal can also show up at the trailhead already equipped with friends and contacts, the social network as applied to roughing it. I didn’t connect in that way, partly because I didn’t want to feel tied down. Also, let’s hear it for the old-fashioned method of just walking into the woods, trusting that good paths will cross.

I did meet several Ladies of the JMT on the trail, often identifiable by the group’s signature purple paisley gaiters, designed by Dirty Girl. Cherry Bounce hikes in a colorful bonnet. Angelina swears abundantly and sews her own gear. I loved talking with anybody on the trail, but it’s extra cool to meet other solo women. So what a treat to find myself among all these hikers tonight. Crossing good paths.


Laundered and clean, I pony up to the bar of the Alabama Hills Café and order a mushroom and avocado omelette, which turns out to be not only lunch, but most of dinner, even with a hiker appetite.

Lunch... and dinner. The biscuit alone is the size of two fists.
The biscuit alone is the size of two fists.
I text everyone: I’m out! I’m coming home tomorrow! I phone my brother from the shade of the hostel balcony. While we talk about birds, I watch the mountains, my stone friends, high-flung anchors in the sky. An old friend says mountains provide a reference point, a constant reminder of the scale of the world and the smallness of his human problems, not present on the plains. Each time I glance back, it’s a different scene. Clouds tumble and shift, shroud and split over Whitney. Change has come.
Wistful view back up to the mountains...
Late arrivals tell of a dusting of snow on the summit.


A flask of Maker’s Mark, several six-packs of the local brew, and a half-gallon of Rocky Road. The Ladies of the JMT sit cross-legged on the floor, passing everything around, barefoot with funny tan lines, wearing comfy pants. The mini-fridge bulges with leftovers, the outlets are crammed with phone cords, and the air conditioner labors to keep the room merely not-hot. It is a grown-up sleepover party. I’m not much of a drinker, but I splash whiskey on my ice cream and feel right at home, which is rare in a group of strangers– but we are not strangers. Conversation flows from living in a town where everyone is different from you, to racism and sexism on the trail and off, uncertainty about children and the future, and dreams about the Next Big Hike.

The Brits decide to keep hiking south on the PCT, not stopping until Mexico if the weather holds. The weekend warrior realizes that she’s not gonna make it to jury duty on Tuesday. The astrophysicist tells us that she comes to the woods when work leaves her feeling so abstract and small that she doesn’t see the point of doing good. She meets other travelers and remembers why it matters. She sleeps under the stars, without a tent, and becomes part of the cosmos again.

It is the perfect last night. I couldn’t have imagined better. Let’s hear it for sisterhood!

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.


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!

Sorpresas / Surprises

Not surprisingly, life in el extranjero is full of surprises. Like: despite the hundreds of brilliantly plumed pájaros here, the national bird is… the clay colored robin.

And some things that one would never imagine would differ from place to place… do. Corn on the cob, for instance, doesn’t translate well. It is as tough and tasteless as field corn. (Maybe it is intended only for tortilla making?) Also, supermarket pickles. The verduras encurtido en vinagre were thrown into the compost due to overtones of corn syrup and burnt plastic.

On the other hand: before Dr. Oz ever touted it, before trendy athletes swore by it, even before it was a pet…  centroamericanos were suspending chilla (or as we know it: chia) in icy sugar water and drinking the delicious floating seeds on hot afternoons.

Speaking of which, today Gerbacio surprised me by giving the lie to the truism that Costa Ricans will not tell you the straight truth if they think it might be unpleasant to hear. He was talking a break from chapeando (weed whacking) under our sun shade. “Do you want a glass of cold water?” I asked in Spanish. “Do you have a refresco?” he replied. “No, but I could make limeade.” This sounded good to him, so I squeezed the juice of a ripe key lime, melted shavings of cane sugar in hot water, and mixed it with lots of ice in a mug. He took a swig and grimaced as politely as possible. “Whoo, this is sour! I think you put in enough lime for three mugs full. And it needs about twice the sugar. Otherwise it’ll rot my teeth!” (Another surprise: Gerbacio and most of his countryfolk have excellent white teeth, and swear it is from gnawing on raw sugarcane.) So I did as he suggested, handed him the improved limeade, and thanked him for letting me know.

Then later, I was sweeping the kitchen and poked the broom at an errant leaf. The leaf blew under a crate. A series of pursuing broom swipes were met by strange evasions, as if a fluke breeze cooled the floorboards. Then the leaf slowly bent in half, on its own, possessed. OK, so some insects look like leaves or twigs. But this thing was a leaf. And then it was a bug. It flexed to reveal a soft yellow abdomen. Unfortunately, its convincing disguise had proven fatal, and it is now, like certain distasteful pickles, compost.

But the most serious surprise: it is dry. In the rainforest. The stream makes no sound; there is no more water on the farm. Only the contents of a few barrels. I am not sure what the plan is if we don’t get an aguacero soon. It makes me think about how most of us depend on someone else to supply our water, and whether that dependence or trust is wise. For now, the well refills slowly, and we enjoy our cold beverages that much more conscientiously.


After writing so much about wildlife, atmosphere, and fascinating experiences culinary, historic, and geological, perhaps it is time to write about just folks. Who lives on this chicken farm, and in this funky little town on the Caribbean coast?

Let’s start with the four guard dogs, as they have enough personality to qualify in my book: brave Lassie, overbearing Max, skinny White Dog, and the outcast, Osa, who in her loneliness plays with stones as if she is daft. They bark at us every morning, but know us and stop. They have their own soap opera of intercanine relations; currently Lassie is wearing a veterinary Elizabethan cone from her machete wound, and limping due to an attack from Osa, who saw her moment to be top dog for once.

As for the four human residents, one is a child. Some people like all children just because children are young. I don’t. But I like her. She sings a lot and likes dolphins and pipas. She is not spoiled. The other three are grownups: the couple who own the farm, and another volunteer. We enjoy the company and all that we learn from our hosts about sustainability and living in a foreign country. We also have weekly potlucks with Mike and Yvonne. Last time there was pejibaye hummus, roast chicken (of course), and butternut squash. We brought the (north) American classic, s’mores, and everyone toasted marshmallows over the fire. Their neighbor Cedric, from France, had never had this delicacy before. He thought the melty white puffs looked “like goat nuts,” and I don’t know whether he thought they tasted much better, but he tried it all in good humor.

But even with just five adults in residence, the question arises: is community living possible with a minimal amount of drama? Because I haven’t seen it yet, with the exception of certain tight, religious communities that are wonderful and peaceful but always have some unfortunate, face-palm dealbreaker, like women’s rights or gay rights. Or even just being Christian, which is great for them, but I’m not, so it would not work.

I mention this because drama is here too, not only among dogs. Two of the grownups have a mismatch in chemistry, and are badly at odds in every interaction. J and I are trying to stay a million miles away from it, despite living just ten feet from one party. We have lots more experience than we want in this sort of thing. But still we yearn for community. Is it possible?

All the folks on the farm speak primarily English, but I get Spanish practice when interacting with the two day employees. I talk with Gerbacio, a friendly teenager devoid of teen attitude, who weed-whacks the grounds with impressive speed. He’s hoping to get into la universidad in San José, despite having no money. And there’s Johnathan, a young farmer with mad skills in concrete, construction, chickens, just about anything, especially making repairs despite the frequent absence of supplies.

In town, we have been introduced to dozens of our host family’s friends and acquaintances, most of whom are fellow expats. We have met people from South Africa, Israel, France, Spain, the US, Holland, Italy, Germany, and Canada. It is a vibrant, affectionate group. Most are small business owners and either retirees or parents of a young child or two. (The ways to get residency here are as follows: put $100,000 in a Costa Rican bank; start a business; or give birth to a Costa Rican citizen. QED.) They congregate at the Caribeans coffee shop on Saturdays to socialize, pick up CSA shares and buy free range chickens.

Ex-pats are effusive about the tranquility and beauty of the tropics. And about the freedoms of their new country. The ones most spoken of are minor freedoms, however: being able to build a fire on the beach, or drink wine in a car. I can’t get too bent out of shape about restrictive beach regulations in the States… I save my ire for governments that refuse to prosecute rapists, for instance.

There is also some complaining about infrastructure from those who grew up in Europe or the States. Sometimes they critique Tico governance: corruption, inefficiency, and the difficulty of getting straight answers. (It is a culture where people so dislike disappointing others that they would rather make up an answer than admit to not having one, so I hear.) This is true, but again: the government isn’t invading or bombing anyone, and indeed, has no sabers to rattle. There has been no military here for sixty years. I think that’s worth a lot.

The town in general is lively and diverse. There are indigenous people, Afro-Caribbeans, Costa Ricans of Spanish descent, and most people fall into multiple categories. Plus many travelers; el turismo is the main industry. Our neighbor from Arizona says there’s no separation or prejudice among the people here. That has to be an exaggeration, but it seems much better than a lot of places. The African Americans were the first non-indigenous settlers to the Caribbean coast; they came as low-paid workers from Jamaica when the big fruit companies came, Dole and Chiquita. They have great pride, and must, because the citizens from the west have a history of legislating without their input.

Wages are very low by our standards, but still coveted enough that Nicaraguans cross illegally to work the fruit plantations. There is free education (including college) and public health care. The poorest Costa Ricans are not as poor as those in many other countries. I wonder about income inequality… it can’t possibly touch that of the USA, with its CEOs and bankers, can it?

Around town, people are friendly. There are many offers of taxis and weed and souvenirs. There are hippies, vagabonds, rastas, and just plain citizens. There are more restaurants and lodgings than anything else. There are more good restaurants than in all of Missoula. Tonight, we are spending the night here, as it is our “weekend.” We will walk along the beach, swim in the pool, and I will get a drink of Nicaraguan rum, Flor de Cana, which is extremely good and also sentimental for me. Maybe we will find some live calypso music. Tomorrow we will go snorkeling. It is like a vacation from our vacation. Then we will go back to the farm, our little community, and see what new wrinkle will have emerged.

The ghosts of Shenandoah

Dusk was settling in as Zippy and I hiked the long spur trail down a steep hill to the cozy shelter, tucked in a draw under the high ridge we’d been walking all day. We leaned our packs and poles against the wooden picnic table and introduced ourselves to Gummi Bear and Clark Kent, who had also just called it a day. Gummi Bear and I pulled out our bottles and headed down to the water source along a blue blazed trail.

The trail wound even further down the mountainside, but before we reached the quietly trickling spring, the waxing moon lighting our path, we unexpectely entered a mysterious and mostly lost history. “This is eerie,” said Gummi Bear. We had stumbled upon the relics of the Displaced.

In the 1930s, hundreds of Appalachian families were forced off their land, many in what is now Shenandoah National Park (which we have not yet reached), and others from lands that are now National Forests. In many instances, untouched “nature” was recreated from these lands, with workers destroying buildings and trying to hide the marks of people’s livelihoods. But they were not entirely successful.

As we two women walked down the hill, we saw a square well, still full of water. Then a falling-down, one-room building. Then a larger building of which all that remained were two stone chimneys, like sentries. The woods looked different. We imagined children running across the land, collecting water, learning the plants and their uses, shouting and playing. We imagined men and women living here, above everyone down in the valleys, living and dying, woven into the fabric of the wilderness.

Since then, Zippy and I have passed decomposing wooden fences, low rock walls, and old, lichened trees that looked like they may have once borne fruit, growing along the ridgetops in what looked like order; former orchards perhaps? And we spied giant piles of stacked rocks on the ridge, like a scattered Stonehenge. We wondered who had put them there, and why. Were they clearing tiny plots of arable land?

When we got to town, I looked for the history behind what we had seen. When I learned, I imagined the communities’ anguish and anger when they were forced to leave. I wondered whether they rebelled, or if they saw the tourism industry and the car and the road coming and knew they could not win.

We pilgrims are witnesses, and must honor the people who were here. We must also ask where such forced displacements may be happening today, and what we can do about it. There is a group called Children of Shenandoah – the descendants of the displaced – that does so. For the rest of us, here are a few articles I found illuminating on this subject. Let us remember:




Despite the last post going out on April Fool’s Day, Zippy and I really did get back on the trail for three days just now, between the winter storm and the wedding. J.’s dad generously loaned us his blue Del Rio, which we left at the Greasy Creek Friendly (as opposed to Hostel, get it? …oh, and it’s pronounced Greazy, if you want to sound like a local). The kind proprietor, Connie, shuttled us to the trail, and thus commenced some of the most pleasurable, beautiful hiking we’ve yet enjoyed… long, sunny days over terrain hinting enticingly at spring: magnolia buds, tiny yellow violets, the post-rain smell of ozone. We climbed over Unaka Mountain, its dense spruce summit holding in a last inch of fresh-smelling snow, making the name apt (Unaka is Cherokee for white). And we felt for the first time the true community of the trail.

I should explain. For our first three weeks, we passed probably between a hundred to a hundred and fifty people. On day three, we’d checked in to Neels Gap as northbound thru-hikers #198 and #199. (Dan got a free candy bar for being #200, so we were just a hair early.) Until mile 317, we knew of no one who had passed us, though surely some did, maybe while we were in town resupplying.

So though we met lots of hikers, we didn’t stay with them long, never more than three days, and then they were gone, behind us. We passed various “bubbles” of people–little groups among whom bonds form due to similar paces and personalities, and from which miniature cultures arise. Some are mellow and friendly. Some brim with testosterone. Others are quiet. Some look forward to town trips (“We’re gonna get wasted! $3.99 wine at Walgreens!”) and others always yearn for the woods. Some religiously hang their food bags and leave no trace; others leave ribbons of TP in their wake. One group glommed around a guy ceaselessly strumming a small, purple guitar. Most groups, and hikers in general, are encouraging and positive, and also rich in dark humor. (One morning I shuffled to the moldering privy, tipped open the lid with a knuckle, and found that someone had taped a scrap of wrapper to the inside: “Making Warm Chocolate Memories”.) But despite all the interesting anthropological aspects of passing by bubbles, we didn’t feel an overall fellowship. Our hike was a couple’s hike, not a community’s.

Due to our six-day hiatus, these past fifty miles felt different. We’re further back in the pack, and are meeting up with folks we’ve met before. Two women and their dog, Roscoe. Dan, the famous #200. Leprechaun and Moxie from the Locust Cove campground, who were with us the night everyone’s food bags crashed to the ground at 4 am since we’d all thrown our goodies over a branch that was not as strong as it looked. And Fresh Grounds, a trail magic guy we met before the Smokies. He’s an energetic and hospitable man who sets up a massive spread, complete with folding chairs and a tarped shelter, for hikers passing through. (When we ran into him yesterday just past Indian Grave Gap, he ruthlessly pushed on us the following: two chili dogs for J., a can of Progresso vegetable soup for me, Fritos, bread, about twenty Hershey’s Minis, four Hydrox cookies, a can of Coca-Cola, and refills for our water bottles. Though I have to admit, it didn’t take much pushing. Fresh Grounds takes donations and will follow the hikers north as long as the money lasts. He calls his setup the Leap Frog Cafe.) And every time we see a hiker again, it seems that another thread of solidarity is stitched. We are excited to see them still here, still walking.

So we now feel more connected. The people we see now have been through the same weather, the same terrain. They have grown tougher, fitter, wiser, and better able to see the humor in adverse circumstances. We are all each other’s cheerleaders. It is wonderful.

I write this from a Knoxville hotel… we came down the mountain this morning through a few hours of freezing rain, and tomorrow, I’ll  be flying out to a Texas wedding, sunshine, and lots of family love! Time to print some boarding passes. See you on the trail on Monday…


I have long been thankful that humans – and most creatures – require sleep. No matter how determined, how frantic, how executive, controlling, even insomniac a person may be, eventually, sleep’s gonna win. Every pesky little doer is going to be taken out of commission, made vulnerable, and rejuvenated through a host of mysterious mental and physical processes. And on a regular basis. So… may as well find a dark nest and accept it.

I love that it’s mostly unconscious, but still one is aware of time having passed afterward. A solid chunk of relief from I, from thought – and the awareness that it happened, even though there’s really nothing to remember. Long hours of simple bodily being, practically without effort. As a sucky meditator, but one who loves it on the rare instances when it “works,” this is a spectacular reprieve. Being in a body is a strange experience, so damn particular all the time, bounded and defined. But when it gets dark– the sublime melt. Good practice for death, though who knows what that’s like. Good practice for surrender, for succumbing, for giving over what doesn’t belong to me, not permanently anyway.

Of course, it is interrupted by absurdities, which are in turn laced with archetypes – two of the most interesting things around, really. But even without dreams, there is no boredom. Thank the powers of evolution that it’s not possible to lie asleep bored for a third of one’s life.

And arguably, humankind does the least damage while hitting the sack. Arlo Guthrie has said that he prefers a sleeping president. After all, who can you bomb while you’re sawing logs? On a smaller scale, I know I do the world no favors when I am sleep-deprived. Even a few missed hours on a single night, and I’m beastly. This is why statistics on the ever-decreasing average nightly conk-out time of American citizens so alarms me. People of the nation, save yourselves and the world. Hear my impassioned cry for more sleep: (yawns)

Sleep makes wakefulness beautiful, or at least bearable. In these dark days, sleep is even more a confidant, a lover, a land to be explored.  So good morning. I hope it was lovely. And, in not so long – good night.