Comic strip, freebie, + 7 things people say to painters

Here’s a web extra for everyone: my comic strip for the Missoula Independent’s annual Comix Issue. It’s in last week’s paper, plus it’s on display at Zootown Brew for the rest of May, along with a dozen or so others. But if you live far away:

I had a hard time with the theme, “Alternative Missoula Facts,” because 1) Must everything always be about Missoula? and 2) Must everything always be about politics? But eventually, I came up with the idea of creating an alternative female-centric history of a few local place names, illustrated it, and sent it in. It’s not my greatest idea ever, but I tried to make up for it with execution.

I urge y’all to check out all the comics in this issue. There are some great ones! Whimsical, unexpected and super-well-drawn. They’re online here.

Next up:

Potsketch is a benefit auction for the Clay Studio of Missoula. They really have fun with this event. They dress up in costumes and auction off big ceramic pieces– terrifyingly, volunteers prance between the tables, often in high heels, carrying the invaluable vase or whatever raised high above their heads. They also commission fifty or so local artists to create 5″ x 5″ drawings vaguely centered on the theme of pottery. These “potsketches” are sold in a silent auction while everyone’s munching crudites. (You can view this year’s amazing potsketches here.)

This year, I was excited to contribute a piece, a watercolor I called Lil Guy with Teacup:

I was painting at another job all day before the gala, and ran into the women’s room in the fifteen minutes between events, to speed-change and hope that nobody actually needed to use it for, say, peeing. I shucked off my paint-spattered grubbies and slipped into my wedding dress (hey, it’s multipurpose), a cardigan, and some flats, Cinderella-style but without the flowing locks. Then I hopped into the F150 and zoomed over to the University Ballroom.

I’ve been practicing detachment when I give items to charity events, ever since the humiliating experience of watching EVERY. OTHER. THING. sell except my art and some decrepit printer from 1994. But I do let myself enjoy it when things go well. That night, my little art piece got three bids, topping off at a $70 donation to the Clay Studio. So Lil Guy is now in an unknown person’s home, which is a satisfying mystery.

I thought that was it for my Potsketch contribution, but then the woman I randomly sat next to turned out to be a friendly, cool teacher at Willard, our town’s alternative high school. She had fallen for Lil Guy, but didn’t bid in time. “You know, I painted a bunch of studies for that piece,” I said. “Would you like one?” Yes! And that’s how Lil Guy #2 found a home. Bonus: the teacher wanted to pay me, but I demurred, so instead, she donated some money to the Clay Studio. I brought the painting to her classroom and had the chance to meet her students, who were the most welcoming group of teens I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. They even showed me their own artwork. 

A couple of days later, I got an email from her, mentioning that her friend, who was also at Potsketch, also loved Lil Guy. I’ve got more, I replied, let’s keep this diaspora flowing! So Lil Guy #3 went to live with the friend, and may eventually lead to an illustration gig down the road… fingers crossed. ūüôā

J. had also spoken for one of the Lil Guys, the one that I call Accidental Milhouse. See if you can spot him:

That Lil Guy is going to be framed and hang out on J.’s desk at Scariano Construction.

But did you notice: there’s still one more, the blue-hued Guy in the upper left. Want him? First person to contact me gets him for free!


On a similarly light note… I spend a lot of time on ladders and dropcloths in public places where people walk by and speak their minds. 99% of the time, I love this public element of window painting. The most common utterances are along the lines of “Good job!” and “Wow!” –gratifying, but uninteresting as list items. So I bring you…

Things people say to me, or about me, while I’m painting

(Responses, spoken or only imagined, in parentheses.)

  1. Do you ever misspell a word? (#1 most common question. Answer: not yet.)
  2. Mommy, what’s that boy doing? (This one makes me grin.)
  3. Can I help? (I would love to let you, little girl, but your parents would not enjoy the laundry afterward.)
  4. Can I touch it? [pretends to stick a finger in the paint] Ha ha ha! (You are a real Seinfeld, buddy.)
  5. Are you gonna make it look just like the pattern, little lady? (Yes. Yes, I am. And I doubt you would have questioned my ability if I were a man holding this paintbrush.)
  6. Careful on that ladder! (Again, something I doubt anybody would say to a man.)
  7. Did you know you smile when you paint? (Aww, that’s great! It’s partly squinting, but I’ll take it as a compliment.)


Lastly, some exciting news: I’m going to San Francisco next week, to take the Introduction to Brush Lettering workshop at New Bohemia Signs,!

Ughhhh, I want to be able to do this! So beautiful…

I applied for and received a grant from the Montana Department of Labor, via the Small Business Development Center, to help me take this trip. (Small businesspeople, I highly recommend meeting up with these folks! It’s free and so helpful!)

It may surprise you to learn that I know next to nothing about brush lettering, despite having done it professionally for years. Back in Georgia, when Jo Knox was teaching me her craft of window and sign art, she tried to teach me lettering with the quill brush, but I couldn’t get it somehow, so my lettering is completely self-taught. I don’t know how to mix the paints… how to palette the brush… how to draw a perfect circle, make a layout, what to hold my mineral spirits in, how to store my brushes in motor oil without getting grease on everything… the list is very long!

So I’m going to unlearn a bunch of habits, and try to pick up some new ones, plus absorb as many tricks of the trade as possible. It’s going to be challenging, and fun! I’ll come home with a new brush and a few beginner signs… and, I promise, photos to follow.

Enjoy spring, everyone!

Starstruck / the path from here

Disclaimer:¬†It turns out I did not actually meet R Crumb! In a¬†bizarre case of mistaken identity, I was¬†fully convinced for several weeks that Montana artist Rich Lande was R Crumb. You can read about that foolishness here. But you should still totally check out Crumb! He’s awesome!


When you unexpectedly meet a celebrity, do you immediately think of what not to say? Such as…

  1. Can I take your picture?
  2. Can I have your autograph?
  3. Oh my god, you are just so great, I can’t even believe¬†you’re standing here, like, you’re unreal, gush gush gush…
  4. Oh man, I love [that long-distant thing that the person is known for and that they are probably extremely tired of hearing about].
  5. Hey, will you [sing/do an impression/perform like a trained monkey]?

It is much harder to think of what would not be stupid and annoying. This is on my mind because on April Fool’s Day, I met R Crumb. (If you are also my Facebook friend, you may have witnessed my explosive gushing about the evening. Sorry.) If you are not familiar with R Crumb, well, you surprise me – I thought everyone knew his work. He’s one of the founders of the underground comics movement, and a fine illustrator and artist. You may remember him as the creator of Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and that ubiquitous “Keep on truckin'” t-shirt (the mention of which would probably fall under What Not to Say #4).

Everybody’s seen this, right?


In fact, the gigantic, locally owned health food store where I work was originally a tiny, hippie, health food¬†co-op known as Mr. Natural’s Good Food Store. His illustrations of Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang” are sheer perfection, if you can find a rare copy – most editions, inexplicably, are text only. Lately he has made a serious graphic art version of the entire Book of Genesis. If you are curious, DO NOT google his images¬†at work, because a lot of¬†it is obscene. Do, however,¬†watch the movies Crumb and¬†American Splendor.

So, on First Friday, April 1, I was strolling past the Downtown Dance Collective and noticed that the lights were on and the place was¬†full of R Crumb original ink portraits of jazz and blues musicians. Weird. That venue wasn’t even listed as having an opening this month. There were only about seven people inside.

I spotted a guy I know¬†and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be wild if R Crumb were here?” …and John says, “He’s right over there.”

I have to scrape myself off the ceiling. He is one of my art idols. I will kick myself forever if I don’t say hello, but all I can think of is What Not to Say. So¬†I just¬†look at the drawings¬†and pretend not to be having an aneurysm.

When I finally¬†summon the courage, he is very nice. “Hi, I’m Rich,” he says. He looks nothing like his self portraits, which often depict him as miserable. He’s laughing and talking with friends. We¬†talk about art and paper and jazz and hand-made stuff. I ask him about some thin goop on his portraits¬†that looks like white-out. He uses fine point Sharpies, nothing fancy. On a large scale, india ink with sable brushes. Sonny Boy Williamson’s¬†portrait, he shows me, is drawn on the back of the piece of glossy paper that comes with a ready-made frame – the page with the happy family printed on it. That kind of paper is less porous. Why let it go to waste?

He drew these musicians’ portraits so people will know where¬†the music came from. Everything comes back around, he says. We just don’t know how long it’ll take. I tell him that I paint windows and I have noticed that although vinyl sticker signs are convenient and popular, a lot of people want something that looks like a person actually touched it at some point. “Yes! Human¬†DNA!” he says. He’s hopeful for the future of hand-made. “Never give up!” he says. Awesome.

So perhaps R Crumb is not a celebrity by most standards.¬†But it was a thrilling evening for me.¬†And if you’re in town, his work is up for the rest of April and May – worth a look!


In other news, within two weeks, my main squeeze J. will be hitting the trail. Heading from the Mexican border to the Canadian border via the Continental Divide Trail. It’ll take him about four months, god willin’. He is¬†so excited and¬†ready to go, it is nearly intolerable. But it is also hard to give him up!

Deep in the planning stages.

Maybe I should include a bit about his progress when I write. It is likely that he won’t be keeping a trail journal of his own. He loves the privacy and undiluted solitude of long-distance, wilderness hiking. I think it is a joy for him to just live it, and a chore for him to write, though his writing is fine. So¬†perhaps I will spill what I hear. And he has promised to photograph some wildflowers…

Thus I’ll be¬†on a journey of my own this summer. My own solitude, albeit surrounded by friends and cityfolk. Missing one’s sweetheart sounds like great fodder for art, no?

Also a chance to hog the kitchen table even more than I already do.
Plus a chance to hog the kitchen table even more than I already do.

I plan to join him for two weeks along the way, as well as personally deliver a passel of delicious care packages once he hits Yellowstone and points north.

Au revoir, intrepid Zippy Morocco! May your hike be beautiful and amazing.


P.S. One more goodbye: the Brink Gallery is closing. What a gem it was! Not intimidating or stuffy or jargony, just friendly and fresh, and whoever chose the exhibitors was willing to go out on limbs. A person may not always like what’s in the Brink, but it is always interesting. I guess the woman who runs it wants to do art of her own, and now she will get her chance. I had very privately dreamed of one day having a piece in a group show there. That will not be happening – except that in a very minor way, it will: If you visit the Brink this month, you’ll see stacks of self-addressed, blank postcards. Take one, make something, send it back. All the returned postcards (Postcards to the Brink, ha ha) hang in the window, spinning slowly as the air moves.¬†So I took one home and inked a panther slinking off the edge, out from behind bars of dripped watercolor paint. “Slink off to stalk your passions.”

It’s not too late for you to get in on the action!

Statistics buffet

And now,¬†the long-awaited feast of JMT stats¬†you didn’t know you needed¬†to know,¬†dished up¬†for your edification and entertainment… and including a compare/contrast with the AT at the end. Bon app√©tit!

By the numbers:

    • 210, 211, 212, or¬†220 miles: Length¬†of the John Muir Trail… it¬†depends on who’s calculating.
    • 2 feet: Width of the JMT, on average. (It’s a lot easier to thru-hike the width than the length.)
    • 43,600: Total feet of elevation gain on the JMT.
    • 176.4: Miles of the Pacific Crest Trail I hiked this summer, most of which overlapped with the JMT.
    • 355: Total miles hiked, including side trips.
    • 12: Rain drops, seven of which technically¬†made contact¬†after I had finished the trail.
    • 2: Times I soaked my shoes, both due to clumsiness,¬†not abundance of¬†water.
    • 19: Pounds of backpack base weight at¬†trail’s end (base weight =¬†everything but¬†food and water).
Proof of base weight: scale provided at Whitney Portal
Scale at¬†Whitney Portal (2 pounds heavier thanks to food… totally worth it).
  • 20: Tampons carried needlessly along the entire route.
  • 84.6 miles: Distance from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States¬†at¬†14,505 feet above sea level, to the lowest point in the continental United States: Badwater at Death Valley,¬†279¬†feet below sea level.
  • 45: Hikers allowed to start the JMT southbound, per day. This quota¬†was instituted¬†due to drastically rising¬†demand, from about 400 people per year in 1998 to almost¬†3,500 people per year in 2014. This chart¬†gives the visual.
  • 20: People who have died while hiking or climbing¬†Half Dome.
  • Probably more than 20: People who have died lying on the couch¬†while fearing¬†the risks of¬†hiking or climbing.
  • 0: Number of “zero days” (days with no hiking), despite sincere intentions to take¬†one. Daily miles ranged from 5 to 24.7.
  • 6: Bear scat sightings.
  • 0:¬†Bear sightings. (Closest thing¬†to a bear encounter:¬†Shining¬†my headlamp at full glare into a dude’s eyes from my tent one night because he was grunting noisily¬†as he walked. Honestly, he really sounded ursine.)
  • 4: Nights requiring¬†earplugs. Basically, only when¬†people camped nearby. Usually it’s critters who keep me up, as they investigate crumbs and gnaw on gear,¬†but in the Sierras the mice¬†were¬†oddly diurnal.

Items lost:

  1. A tent stake left at Rosemarie Meadows… the burly one I used for digging holes, know what I mean?
  2. Dropper bottle of bleach, probably still lying next to the brook where I left it.
  3. Dropper bottle of¬†Dr Bronner’s soap, accidentally mailed home (so, not technically lost?).
  4. One earplug, which¬†disappeared¬†at the Whitney Portal campground. I must’ve pulled the earplugs¬†out in my sleep, because one was inside my shoe the next morning. The other one had¬†to be somewhere within the zipped confines of my tent, BUT IT WAS GONE.

Most prepared tree: This one:

Come and get me, forest fire, I dare ya!
Come and get me, forest fire, I dare ya!

Unlikeliest carnivore: A chipmunk plucking and eating a dead bird. (Sorry, no photo.)

Best support guy: One guess.

He sent me a cartoon self-portrait in the last resupply box. Awwww.
He even included a cartoon self-portrait, and fragments of a waffle cone from Sweet Peaks, in the last resupply box.

Most annoying earworm: a¬†nameless, featureless rockabilly tune¬†that accompanied every climb, something like this, on endless loop. Followed closely by “I Fall to Pieces” by Patsy Cline, which debuted after I started losing gear. Great song, discouraging message.

The one¬†place on earth where the men’s bathroom has a line and the women’s bathroom doesn’t:¬†A¬†trail resupply stop. Thanks, male:female hiker ratio!

Books read by Kindle light:

  1. Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
  2. You can’t get lost in Cape Town РZoe Wicomb
  3. You can’t be neutral on a moving train РHoward Zinn
  4. The unknown masterpiece – Honore de Balzac
  5. On the road: the original scroll – Jack Kerouac
  6. The children’s book РA. S. Byatt (but only the first half)

A brief comparison of the JMT to the AT

  • Pro: No gross¬†shelters on the JMT. Con: No shelters¬†at all¬†on the JMT.
  • The JMT’s most feared¬†menaces: the plague and overly assertive bears. The AT’s most feared¬†menaces: norovirus and Lyme-diseased ticks. Pick your poison!
  • Much less precipitation. Karmically, the arid JMT balanced out¬†the saturated¬†AT.
  • Corollary:¬†If you¬†hang clothes out overnight on the JMT, they will¬†be drier, not wetter, when you wake up.
  • Nobody aspires to be “hiker trash” on the JMT. Then again, a couple of weeks may not be long enough to become hiker trash or develop a taste for the lifestyle.
  • Less vegetation, fewer wildflowers, approximately one million percent more¬†exposure.

    But the few are wondrous.
    But the few blooms are at once tough and delicate.
  • 75% less swearing. Exception: PCT thru-hiker Angeline.
  • Much more diversity among hikers.¬†Far¬†more Asians and Asian-Americans, plus a few Latinos, including a wonderful¬†gentleman¬†who tipped his cowboy hat to me, walking behind his family near Devils Postpile¬†in pointy black cowboy boots, a classy Wrangler shirt tucked tightly into jeans¬†with a wide leather belt and¬†a large silver buckle. Equally few¬†African-Americans, though hopefully that is slowly¬†changing… rock on, Elyse “Chardonnay”!
  • Fewer¬†bragging rights. It’s just not as hard a trail.
  • Equally friendly townsfolk and fellow hikers.

The Appalachian Trail, by percentage:


(The full post, “Statistics Junkies,” has the rest of the stats on the Zippy & Diddo AT thru-hiking journey of 2013.)

The John Muir Trail, by percentage:

jmt stats

La extranjera (the stranger)

After eleven days, it’s time for¬†a shower. I would rather wash up than eat a hot restaurant dinner tonight, and that’s saying something. This is the menu of my dreams:

Locally sourced shower with nine minutes of hot water, full-size terry towel, side of soap ……. $5

I step into the bathroom like Encino Man. Oh god, a bench to sit on. A furry floor mat. And it’s clean. I put the token in the slot¬†and gasp as hot — hot — hot¬†water shoots from the nozzle. How to describe the shocking bliss? It’s¬†pretty much the video from Outkast’s So Fresh, So Clean, minus getting busy and getting high. Are¬†Andr√© 3000 and Big Boi¬†closet hikers? Cuz they really get it.

After lathering everything at least twice, I stand hypnotized in the hot water for another thirty seconds. How quickly I have become a stranger to such amenities! Still, I err on the short side. This experience is not gonna end with me yelping in freezing water at nine minutes and three seconds.



Vermilion Valley Resort, on¬†the shore of Lake Thomas Edison, is not a picture postcard¬†resort.¬†It’s humble and relaxed. A diverse assemblage¬†of campers and vans, primitively girded for wintering, houses those employed there. Though they sweep, hammer, clean, and cook,¬†I suspect the resort is more essentially¬†a tolerant place to live an unusual¬†life in relative privacy. This season, due to drought, the lake reservoir is¬†drained¬†low, the dock a plank into¬†nothingness, eliminating a major source of tourism. The place is off grid, powered by¬†a generator that runs from 7 am to 9 pm. No electricity overnight. No cell reception. Two old¬†dogs and the kind proprietor’s little daughter run underfoot through the camp store.


I almost didn’t make it here tonight.¬†Certainly there was no confidence from the¬†guy who asked my plans this morning. He clearly thought¬†I was¬†crazy, or at least sub par at math, for choosing the long way in: I’m aimed for a cutoff five miles beyond and six miles longer than the easy route, which is a flat¬†two-mile¬†spur to the lake, then¬†the rest of the¬†way by¬†ferry. I hear the Bear Creek Trail is¬†prettier, I tell him in vain. He may have been swayed¬†had I instead said,¬†“I’d rather climb this hill carrying¬†one day of food on my back than five,” though¬†practicality was not a major consideration. Oh well, why do I need to please¬†his logic? I put my engine in low gear and power up the switchbacks (sixty-seven, says another hiker, who also regrets having counted). A 2,000-foot ascent in seventy¬†minutes, bisected by a one-minute break to stuff a pemmican bar down my gullet. It’s¬†unexpectedly¬†satisfying to plod relentlessly, mind detached from chugging body, watching the forest floor¬†fade farther below with each minute. I hum along, a little full of myself.

Five hours later, still hoofing, I reflect that¬†maybe the guy had some justification. It’s more like ten off-trail miles, not eight, and the last two ain’t pretty. They abut the dam around¬†the lake on a gritty forest service road. By the time I get to VVR, dusk is nigh, my legs are weary, and I am READY.


Which may have made the¬†shower even better. Back in the bathroom, I touch my stomach in wonder, a stomach I hadn’t seen in days. Clean skin feels like an amazing foreign planet. In the mirror, I discover welts on both hips. I had no idea. Why would I have bothered to look back there?¬†(Hiking¬†makes you¬†kind of a Nevernude.) Then it’s on to the joys of the towel, followed by the joys of combing and drying and clipping and just sitting inside a room.


What¬†I actively miss while I’m hiking makes a very short list:

  1. J.
  2. Family

But the list of mostly absent things that unexpectedly thrill me is longer:

  1. Fresh fruit and veg
  2. Hot running water
  3. Soft towels
  4. The option of walls and a roof
  5. Technology. By which I mean things like chairs. When I spy¬†a dingy cushioned back, a seat, and two arms, somewhat levelly raised off the floor, I’m agog. It’s genius.

Almost as much¬†as I love being¬†in the woods, I love coming out¬†and intoxicating myself with the mundane. I think Spanish does a better job at describing both these lists in a single verb: extra√Īar. Technically “to miss,” it means¬†at once¬†a heart-in-the-throat, mariachi-melancholy personal¬†estrangement¬†(List A), and experiencing¬†its object¬†as foreign, faraway, alien, surprising,¬†extranjero, even if it isn’t (List B).

[Aside:¬†my Espa√Īol¬†is extra¬†rusty, rather extranjero itself, so apologies for any errors.]


Emerging at last from the bathhouse, I pitch my tent next to Dan and Rose and cook¬†beans in the dark.¬†There’s free camping for hikers, and a fire ring. When the stars come out, someone stokes a¬†fire, and a bag of jumbo marshmallows appears. We find sticks and roast sweet, white lumps until they are caramelized¬†and flaming. We talk hiker talk. I learn from¬†those¬†who took the ferry that its narrow¬†path¬†ends short of¬†VVR. They walked the last mile across the dry moonscape lakebed, following orange traffic cones. Warm and clean and fed, I don’t regret¬†taking the long way in. Bear Creek,¬†in dappled sun, alternately flowed wide¬†and shallow along sandy rocks and¬†cascaded¬†into deep¬†clear pools perfect for soaking weary feet. Most of us will take that path out.

Ahh, beautiful Lake Thomas Edison.
Ahh, beautiful Lake Thomas Edison.

In the chilly morning, before the generator kicks on, I luxuriate¬†in the laundry room. My throne is a¬†dusty upholstered chair, and I boil water for chai on¬†my camp stove, balanced¬†on the clothes-folding table. Rose and Dan and I pile our dirties into the machine¬†and coo when socks and long johns tumble hot out of the dryer. In the dining room, I invite myself to the breakfast table of a friendly couple from Massachusetts. As a newly minted extrovert, I kind of don’t give them a choice about it: “Hi, mind if I join you, or is this a date?” And¬†I buy half an hour of internet to¬†assure loved ones of¬†my continued existence. I don’t¬†miss Facebook, but it’s awfully¬†damned convenient.

Thus pass¬†fifteen hours at VVR, seven of them horizontal,¬†before I walk away from lo que he extra√Īado: both what¬†I miss and what I¬†thrill to find. But I walk toward the¬†irresistible lure¬†of what is¬†extranjero¬†in regular life: simple needs, few¬†distractions, natural rhythms, and the¬†immediate, constant awareness of being among¬†the¬†infinity¬†of tiny travelers¬†in¬†a¬†vast and¬†swirling¬†world.


Sorpresas / Surprises

Not surprisingly, life in el extranjero is full of surprises. Like: despite the hundreds of brilliantly plumed p√°jaros 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.

Small gifts

…are constant and accumulate like welcome raindrops.

For one, we are officially acculturated: we have a machete by the door. It is for harvesting and opening a way through the woods, but I use it to crack open pieces of sugar cane to chew. I don’t know how to wield it, but it sure looks authentic leaning against the wall.

Two: the old cabina is now square and stable. It used to both tilt downhill and sag in the middle, supported by posts of dubious durability. So one hot afternoon, Johnathan jacked it up with hand tools. We stood in the yard and watched; we obviously couldn’t be inside at this point, and to watch someone else work skillfully while you do nothing is very satisfying. Replacing a rotting beam with a massive hardwood trunk from the forest, Johnathan tugged the green tarp out of his way and let it fall to the ground. I didn’t have time to stop him; now the good wren and her babies were homeless. But another gift: instantly, she was about her business. She flitted around the house two or three times. When we peeked into the fold where the nest had been, it was empty but for one dead chick, who must have hatched too late from the last egg. Mama Wren had carried her brood in her beak, one by one, to a safer spot, which she had chosen in a split second. We see less of them now, but that is probably better. So, three.

And four, five, six, why even count: electric fans, hummingbirds, shy blue crabs, morning rain.

Recreating the images on promotional literature by walking barefoot at sunset on the beach.

Glimpsing a basilisk lizard sprinting across the road on its hind legs, which spin like frantic pinwheels, like a cartoon. (It is also called the Jesus Christ lizard, because it can run the same way across rivers.)

The tile mosaics that festoon any surface in need of bright color. They are declarations of the worthiness of humble spaces. Assertions that one doesn’t need to be professional to make objects beautiful. Visual exclamations of positivity, reuse, and attention to small things.

This gift, described by J.: “I made an iced mocha this morning and realized everything I put in it was local: Milk, Sugar, Chocolate, Coffee, Ice. I actually know the farmers that produced the milk and chocolate. That’s pretty neat, I think.” It was not only neat in terms of sustainability, it was the most frothy and delicious drink ever. Thanks, mi amor!

And finally, the friendly Nicaraguan family whose soda (diner) we love. The little boy watched “Cars” dubbed into Spanish from the lunch counter while his mother cooked on the other side. His father returned home from errands and we spoke of his homeland and its thick, grainy drinks, tiste, pinolillo, points of national pride. After our meal was served, the parents sat at the other table (yes, there were just two tables) and bowed their heads for a minute before eating their own lunches. It felt familial and intimate. If it happens again I think I might ask if we could push our tables together. They wished us well, and we promised to come back someday for a slice of tres leches queque and a glass of tiste. We did not say so, but we will also come back for their gift of kindness.

Flora y fauna de Costa Rica

You knew this was coming… here’s the list of flora and fauna we’ve seen so far. We are very much enjoying the proximity of wildlife!

Los Animales

Anole: little lizards of different colors that cohabit with us and eat moths
Ant: regular, biting, leaf cutter, cleaner, and bullet
Bee, including blue orchid bees and giant ones
Beetles, including the tortoise beetle (red)
Brain coral… that’s an animal, right?
Butterfly, including heliconious, owl eye, and blue morpho
Chickens, of course
Coati, white nosed
Crab, including hermit
Cucaracha, including a four-inch silvery behemoth
Damselfly, giant helicopter
Flies, and maggots
Frogs: green and black poison dart frog
Gecko, yellow headed
Grasshoppers: regular, with red knees, and ginormous
Great kiskadee, a yellow-headed bird
Green stinkbug
Hummingbirds, including the violet sabrewing, purple throated mountain gem, and about 10 others
Kinkajou (dead of unknown cause)
Monkey: howler, spider and capuchin
Oropendola, a bird with an amazing, pendulous nest
Parrot, screeching and larger green
Scarlet rumped tanager (Passerini’s tanager)
Sloth, three toed
Snakes, including a small boa constrictor!
Spider, including banana, crablike spiny orb weaver, and some huge brown carapaced thing in the woodshed
Tick… darnit
Toucans, chestnut mandibled and keel-billed, always in pairs
Violaceous Trogon, the bird with the best name!
Vultures, both turkey and black
Wasps, mostly stingless
Woodpecker, lineated
Wren, with her nest right by our house

Las plantas

Air potato… the spuds actually grow in the air on a vine!
Balsa (with feather duster looking dried pods)
Bamboo, halves of which are used for water and food troughs for the chickens
Banano, including cuadrales (four-sided), and seedy ones for the birds to eat… did you know that banana plants are herbs?
Beach grape, after which Punta Uva, or Grape Point, is named
Berry, furry and purple, of unknown name but tasty in panqueques (pancakes)
Cas (sour guava)
Coconut palms, including pipas
Cranberry hibiscus, a delicious purple leaf
Culantro (cilantro but with big leaves)
Firebush, I think: dark berries and coral colored flowers
Ginger: red, white and torch
Golden trumpet
Guava, which I enjoyed until learning the fruits are often full of maggots
Kapok / ceiba (the sacred tree of the indigenous Bribri)
Katuk (a nutty tasting green)
Lilies: spider, peace, and regular
Limes with an orange center… what the…?
Little milk star, with hallucinogenic properties
Mamón chino (aka rambutan)
Mandarino (actually lemons)
Miracle fruit (I didn’t get to taste it, unfortunately)
Morning glory
“Naked Indian” tree (or burnt gringo, if you prefer)
Palms, including traveler’s, chunta, sweeta (spelling?), pejibaye (the little round fruits of which can be made into delicious hummus), and panama hat
Passionfruit (maracuya)
Peppers, including Panamanian habanero, and sweet
Porterweed (strange, its small purple flower is at the middle of the stem)
Rattlesnake plant
Red dracaena
Root beer plant, which smells like it! Shampoo plant! The bracts can be squeezed for aromatic soap.
Soursop aka guan√°bana, which rot before ripening
Spinach, including Malabar, Pacific, and Brazilian
Sugar cane
Sweet potato, with edible leaves
Turmeric, the deep orange root
Water apple, not blooming
Yellow oleander


There are a few minor superpowers that one gains by walking long enough through the woods.

Your sense of smell will sharpen. You will be able to tell which approaching hikers are only out for the day: they will smell like Bath & Body Works, Irish Spring, cologne, and/or dryer sheets. You will be able to smell a campfire (or even what’s cooking on it) a mile away–just remember, it might be someone’s backyard barbeque, far off the trail, that you will never reach. There is one exception to your new supernose, however, which is both a blessing and a curse: you won’t usually be able to smell yourself. You might forget this until you go into a fine dining establishment in a nice little town and catch people with vinegary expressions backing away from you.

You will rarely fall. But you will stumble every day. You will make inadvisable foot placements, neglect to notice a sharp rock or root, flail your arms and grasp for balance. I’ve fallen fewer than five times out here, and most involved mud, ice, or snow (the last of which is best: cushioned and non-staining). Your most embarrassing slips, however, will be in town. You will stride mile after mile through difficult terrain all day, then arrive in town and trip up the front steps of some well-populated establishment. Passerby will wonder how the hell you made it to New Hampshire from Georgia if you can’t even climb stairs.


(This is one of J’s photos, and bears no relation to anything in this post. It’s just cool.)

You will develop knowledge that is completely inapplicable in the “real” world, but that is indispensable in the woods. Such as: if the temperature is going to be near freezing overnight, loosen your shoelaces and tuck your shoes inside your tent, where they will stay a few degrees warmer thanks to your body heat. Otherwise, you will be unable to put them in the morning. The laces will stick straight out like Pippi Longstocking’s braids, and you will have to boil water to thaw your shoes… which means you have to get your stove out in your stocking feet on frozen ground.


You will be able to tell when you are the first person to use a trail on any given day, and where another person ahead of you began their trek that morning. How? Through dozens of invisible spiderwebs you will break each mile until another person has taken up the honor. It’s like winning several hundred tiny marathons daily, except the ribbons don’t gracefully fly free as you stretch your arms in the air triumphantly–they cling around you, tickling, and occasionally deliver a small, frightened spider somewhere on your person.

You will develop amazing, giant, slightly revolting leg muscles. However, your arm muscles will wither away, and if you ever did ab work, the benefits of it will disappear. It is the superpower of the T. Rex training plan.

Finally, you will become friends with the plants and animals. Over the months, my wildlife sighting list has grown dramatically. There are still many creatures in the woods that you will not know, but every time you recognize a maidenhair fern, a wild rose, or a chattering chipmunk, you will greet it, and feel more at home.

(Speaking of which, anybody know what this plant is? I’ve been watching the leaves grow for months, awaiting the blooms… and now the green flower bunches are mystifying me.)

PS. Here’s what you might look like once you gain these special powers:


Yeah, yeah, but I can explain: it was cold out, hence the rain chaps, the hoodie, and the gloves… but it was sunny, so I had to wear the ballcap backwards so I could get maximum Vitamin D. See?

Wildflowers along the way


(Pictured, a trio of trillium, plus a bit of my finger.)

As we make our way through Virginia, as spring slowly overtakes winter, the flora and fauna make me giddy. For years, plant identification has been a passion of mine. It began when I lived at Koinonia Farm and walked the Peace Trail nearly every day. I would draw the leaves and petals in a sketchbook, or try to memorize them if I had none, and then run back to the farm library or office to look for its image and name. After a few years, many of the plants names are buried below consciousness, but out here, seeing them again and re-finding their names is like remembering and reuniting with old friends. Each species makes its appearance, first at the lower elevations, then higher and higher. Not to anthropomorphize, but the flowers encourage, and pull me forward out of curiosity and desire to learn more. Just yesterday a plucky, perfectly formed Jack-in-the-Pulpit perched right on the edge of the trail, and a white-spotted adolescent rabbit crouched in the fog with its eye glowing in fear. Each one is a gift. A passerby can touch all the felty mosses, wonder over the strange fungi, and watch fields of trillium perk as the sun breaks through clouds.

Don’t know if anyone but me will find this interesting, but I have started a list, which will live on¬†this page. I’ll update it every so often, but below I have cut-and-pasted my current inventory. Question marks mean it’s not a certain identification… yet. Enjoy!

Rue anemone?
Wood sorrel
May apple
Spring beauty
Squaw root, a parasite of oaks.
Bedstraw, a sticky grass
Showy orchis, blooming soon?
Wild mustards
Flea bane?
Poor man’s pepper
Fire pinks
Wild bleeding heart
Dutchman’s breeches
Partridgeberry (two flowers needed to make one berry, which has two navels)
Bloodroot (a leaf unfolding wildly folded)
Violets: violet, halberdleaf yellow, white, and bicolor
Trillium, pink and white
Rhododendron aka azalea, Catawba variety blooming late April!
Mountain laurel
False strawberry?
Iris, dwarf
Poison ivy
Virginia creeper
Trailing arbutus?
Pipsissewa? Or striped wintergreen?
Field pansy?
Jack in the pulpit


King snake
Rat snake?
Whitetail deer
Fire salamander, a tiny wild orange

Ten pound mobile home

Things are going really well. Spring temps make everything so much easier. It’s a huge difference from wintry hiking, and I love it. We are in Virginia, which is of course for lovers, and just did our first 30 mile day. I had no idea that was possible for me. More good stretching, though not something we’ll do often.

I thought folks might be wondering, so here’s an entry for the wonks who wonder what’s inside our mobile homes. And how we got them to fulfill our every need (note: need, not want) and still weigh fewer than ten pounds.

(Water and food aren’t included in this weight, which is called “base weight.” The pantry and Culligan functions of our homes constitute another ten pounds when we leave town restocked, fewer when we’re cruising along three days later, eating the cupboards bare, so to speak.)

Let’s start with the house itself. I have a no-frills, frameless backpack: one large compartment, and three mesh pockets on the outside. Instead of a frame, I use two folds of a Thermarest pad inside the bag to keep it firm against my back. Instead of a rain cover, I have a dry bag: a plastic bag inside the pack that I goose-neck after filling with anything I want to keep 100% moisture-free. That’s the foundation.

Then the bedroom. (Here’s where hiking with your sweetheart pays off big-time: only one of us has to carry a tent, toiletries, pot and pan, stove, etc. There’s a lot of weight we can split, though there are also items we duplicate in case we ever got separated–both of us need water treatment drops, a fire starting implement, and some food.) We’ve got a cheery blue Hexamid Twin tent, just big enough for the two of us and all our gear. It doesn’t have a rain fly or use any poles–just a groundsheet, seven titanium stakes, dipped in orange paint so they show up on the ground, and two of our adjustable trekking poles. There’s a fluffy, 15-degree down sleeping bag (though they lie, they lie so bad: that bag will keep me warm in fifteen degree weather only if I am also wearing all my clothes, and possibly also clutching a packet of Hot Hands). An eighth-inch foam pad to go under the inflatable sleeping pad, and luxury of luxuries, an inflatable pillow. Also, earplugs, and a silver space blanket for cold nights.

How about the clothes closet? In cold times, my torso can sport up to seven layers (like any good Midwestern dip!). My legs have two pair of long undies, rain pants (which also work in wind and snow, I’ve discovered), and hiking pants that can roll up into shorts. There are three pair of socks: two of Darn Tough merino wool, and one of Gore-Tex that comes up to my calf and has saved my chilly toes many a time. I’ve got trail running shoes, and a pair of camp shoes I made from a cutout piece of nylon flooring threaded with cord, a la Chacos. There is a fleece hat and mittens, possum down gloves, and waterproof mitten covers. Soon, weather permitting, we’ll have less clothing, hence less weight.

Accoutrements for the bathroom: half a comb, a toothbrush sawed off and sanded down, a quick-drying pocket towel, tampons, a holy roll of toilet paper. There is a shower: it’s the cap of a plastic Coke bottle, drilled with holes and compatible with our water bladders… just boil water, fill ‘er up, and find a private spot to scrub off under its spray. Itsy-bitsy bottles of powdered toothpaste, sanitizer, Dr. Bronner’s soap, lip balm, tea tree oil, floss, sunscreen, Body Glide (it’s like moleskin in a cream, and also does a chapped nose good). Nail clippers, because I refuse to trim my nails with a knife. A vial of Anti-Monkey-Butt (shut up, it’s good for feet). A wee first aid kit, a wee compass, a wee patch kit. The medicine cabinet is a pill bottle containing Vitamin I (hiker-speak for ibuprofen), melatonin, Imodium, Benadryl, and a few tablets of Azythromycin.

The kitchen is a bottle of denatured alcohol for cooking fuel, a lighter and a few waterproof matches. The stove is the bottom third of a soda can, ingeniously punched with holes, around which is set a windscreen that also supports the pot over the flame. There’s a quarter of a green scrubby for washing the pot, lid and two spoons. The tiny pocketknife also boasts tweezers, a file, and a toothpick (which I wouldn’t use in my mouth for any amount of money). And there’s a neon yellow bear line, for hanging our food and odiferous items far out of reach.

The rec room consists of a Kindle Paperwhite, a three-by-five sketchpad, a guitar pick, a pencil, a pen, scratch paper for ideas and shopping lists, and my credit card and driver’s license and cash rubber-banded together. Zippy carries the smartphone.

Speaking of Zippy, let me interrupt this list for a shout-out to him. Without his painstaking research, I’m sure I’d be carrying a much heavier and less clever load. Also, he has absolutely wondrous MYOG (Make Your Own Gear) skills. Of all we carry, here are the things he made: wind shirts, rain jackets, rain skirts, stuff sacks, food bags, toiletry bags, mittens, mitten covers, his hiking pants, and small waterproof pockets that fit on our waist belts and can double as wallets in town. Last winter, he caught the DIY bug, taught himself by trolling Backpacking Light and the local sewing store, bought an old German Pfaff sewing machine, and got busy. Kudos, baby!)

Onward to utilities. Electricity? A headlamp. Plumbing? A liter soda bottle, a two-liter collapsible water bladder, and a set of Aqua Mira water treatment drops. Heat? …Heat? You must be kidding. That will come about June, I reckon. Then we’ll use chilly streams and cool drinks of water as AC. And perhaps institute la siesta.

That’s it.

My mobile home may be very, very small. But the living room is the whole world. And it’s so lovely right now.