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.

The fellowship of feet

I camp with Cathy and Marianne on a flat patch of earth tucked above the meadows by the winding fork of a river. They’re scouting for a good tent spot, and I call out to them: there is space for yours next to mine. Middle-aged women in wool caps and down jackets, they rib each other as they pop up their big orange shelter. The company makes me glad.

Marianne carries a full-size teakettle and a large stove. Extra weight, but calculated to please: she gets that flame whooshing, and they have cocoa and tea before meals. She’s funny. “You’ll be happy to know: there’s a new river flowing in California!” she crows after taking a pee.

Marianne, Cathy & me
Marianne, Cathy & me

The next morning, they’re up early: they can’t be “burning daylight,” which is to say, wasting the precious fourteen hours when you don’t need a headlamp. They insist they are not bothered when I freak out for twenty minutes because I can’t find my patch kit. I retrace my steps, dump the contents of my pack twice to no avail, and finally at my wits’ end, walk to the creek and back, praying to Saint Anthony as my mother-in-law would suggest.

Marianne holds out a little tin of chocolate covered nibs and pushes a few into my hand. “They’re good!” I don’t feel like eating, but I accept, and seconds later, the patch kit falls out of the top of my pack where it was wedged despite lots of shaking, like a pillow into the corner of a pillowcase. “THE NIBS!” I shout. “They worked!” I feel stupid now, but that’s preferable to not having my kit. In the end, what did the trick was not the cocoa nibs themselves, nor the syllables of a saint’s name, but being able to accept kindness. This isn’t rationally sound… but it’s true.

We share one evening and one morning, and I never see them again: they head north, almost done with their journey. That’s typical of this linear community, this fleeting intimacy. When one meets another on the path, both have a sense for what the other is experiencing. Feet in common, probably more. And when one outpaces the other, or heads the opposite direction, why bother saying goodbye? Await the next pilgrim and pick the conversation up where it left off. As a person who relishes connection but is too private to easily achieve it, this is wonderful. Each human is less an individual than a verse in the long ballad of trailwalking. Less hangs on forming an identity, more on joining the choir.


This is not a solitary trail. People who exclaim, “You’re hiking aLONE?” must not realize how many folks are out here: 30 southbound JMT permits issued per day, plus day hikers and the occasional northbounder. Sometimes the trail is extremely full: descending from Donohue Pass, I probably met fifty people.


On the other hand, when I’m solo, I entertain the company of an imagined J. from last year. He hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014, a 2,650-mile trail spanning the United States from Mexico to Canada. Except for maybe thirty miles, the John Muir Trail follows the same route through the Sierras: it joins the PCT at Tuolumne Meadows, and hops away to end atop Mount Whitney, while the PCT dives south toward Mexico.

Of course, when J. was hiking here, it was just a wee bit colder...
Of course, when J. was hiking here, it was just a wee bit colder (photo from 2014).

Since J. hiked north, and I am heading south, if one ignores the minor detail of time, we are perpetually walking into each other’s arms. Sometimes I hold out my arms to him as I walk, and grin. I obviously miss the guy.


On personality tests, I lie on the cusp between extraversion and introversion. I need both equally, but daily routine nourishes my introvert much less than my extrovert. So I tend to withdraw when I have a choice. Before the hike, I write: “I am amiable, yet wordlessly send the message that there is a limit to my time, even when I’m not at work, just out in the world. What if I were more open to taking time with people, to listen and share? I’d like to experiment with this…”

The result of the experiment? In the woods, I am 100% extrovert. This is crazy.

Here’s the thing: a lot of days, I talk with maybe three to five people. Oh boy! A speck on the horizon! Where are they coming from? Where are they going? How do their feet feel, what have they seen? (And eaten. Food is an extremely popular topic of conversation.) I don’t have to rally. I really wanna know. Let’s chat!

So maybe introversion and extraversion are not fixed points. Instead, we slide along the spectrum depending on the surrounding population density. How many purported introverts are merely experiencing a higher than desirable number of interactions per day? How many extroverts just need a more crowded world to turn within?

The magical extroverter
The magical extraverter

Damon tells me about his love of old, giant trees, how they teach him the weight of history. Dan spins tales from days as a wilderness guide for young people, camping between the boys’ tent and the girls’ tent, eyes peeled for bears smelling the jam-sticky paws of children. Another guy and I, in rain gear while our laundry whirls in the dryer, compare weird things that are happening to our toes. “Whoa,” I say, “that looks like the trench foot I had in Massachusetts. Don’t worry, it’ll get better in a few weeks.” He reassures me that lots of people get the same pointy, triangular pinky toes that I’m sporting. This is not a conversation you would have with most people.

I’m not having super deep conversations with anyone. But it feels deep. The content of the conversations is irrelevant to their underlying truth: We are in the fellowship — we are the fellowship. Thousands of interchangeable lights that the trail draws to itself to illuminate itself, pinpoints that create a blazing line of energy. We say our destination is Mount Whitney, but our journey is through one another.

The luminous trail

Shake it up

We crouch in a cluster of rocks on a high ridge over a valley beyond which is Idaho, a wall of mountains in another time zone. We watch a cold front seep around the mountains’ shoulders and drop toward us, an unappealing cloud of precip and wind. Stuck into our pile of rocks is a long pole with a plastic owl tied at the end, making us look like children with a single, tattered puppet. Owl-on-a-stick is supposed to tempt birds of prey to dive within the range of visibility. Our chilled fingers grip binoculars, but there’s nary a bird in sight. Welcome to the raptor migration study.

I had not pictured my day this way. The birds are smarter than we are: they read the forecast and stayed wherever birds stay when they want to be out of the weather. Other days, volunteers report sighting up to 250 birds. Today, we wrap ourselves in plastic layers and train binoculars against the wind on a faraway spatter of wild ponies, or an intern crossing a field with her baby. After an hour, we give up and hunker in the truck, pretending to watch for the stray hawk as drizzle speckles the windshield. But, our lack of raptors notwithstanding, I think we are in exactly the right place. It was worth it to drive down the long, gravel road to be here today. Here is why:

As we sit in the truck comparing our brown-bag lunches, the guy in charge of the volunteer project, unexpectedly a George Clooney lookalike, explains the process of brain tanning to a twelve-year-old who just got back from India, where his mother translates Bibles into rare Indian languages. Apparently the brain is the best leftover part of a deer to use to seal its raw hide with a nice, oily, water-resistant finish. You can even drill out the brain plate and make a nice little decoration for your hat out of it, braided around the brim with some buckskin rope. Meanwhile, the mom tells me about life in Kerala.

How would I have ever found myself privy to such conversations had I not volunteered to count raptors today? Here on the MPG Ranch, we are situated in a migratory corridor: the perfect confluence of hills and valleys and wind currents for an avian interstate. And is it not possible that this is also the perfect place for all of us today, appearances to the contrary? If I weren’t here, I’d be, what, sitting at home doing what I usually do? Going on the same walk, making oatmeal, listening to the radio?

Nothing against the lovely habits of life, but it behooves a body to shake up the routine once in a while. Find the little events in the paper that always looked interesting, but were never the most important thing to do. Sometimes: do them.

You might end up picking trash out of the local river with a bunch of Kiwanis on a Saturday morning. Your crew might find a parking meter, a cat skull, and a full-size couch down there in the reeds, where you thought nobody ever walked, in addition to the usual beer cans and candy wrappers. When the shore’s all cleaned up, maybe you’ll be sitting in the sunshine when a mentally different man on a bicycle rolls by to tell everyone about his cow-charming skills. How he gently called the cow to his side, took his knife and cut away the barbed wire coil digging into her leg, and knew just the spot behind her ear to rub to make her feel even more glad. And you’d wonder afterwards how else you might have thanked the universe for all the good times you’d had on that river. Or how else you would have remembered the people who most days you passed by unthinking, unspeaking, unlistening, assuming you already knew what needed to be known about them.

Give yourself permission to do the less than necessary. I told my aunt that I felt spoiled, examining native flowers on Mount Sentinel, going to an Indian dance concert by myself, listening to people read their poetry at a bar. My aunt replied: “I object to your feeling spoiled. Where is it written that it’s not okay to have fun?”

Or you might stumble across a maypole on a mountaintop...
Or you might stumble across a maypole on a mountaintop… weaving us together

Plus, these outings can be good for everyone. What is less than necessary for one’s own survival is often beneficial to others’. Small acts of non-auto-pilot can knit us into a community. Friends sit with another friend after surgery, hold hands, say the serenity prayer. They save coins in baby bottles that go to teen mothers on Mother’s Day, and when they see the colored bottles on their counters every morning, they think of young women they won’t meet–or won’t they, maybe, someday, if they keep reaching out of their routines? These tiny gestures invite variables into our lives, bring us into unexpected contact with the world and each other.

What is the strangest small thing will you do this week?



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…