A tortoise-adjacent Gandalf

After we lost our dog last month, we decided as a family to take a short trip, to get the hell out of Dodge for a quick minute, where “Dodge” is the large, silent house with the tufts of fur I still can’t bring myself to vacuum up. My son and I are interested in skywatching, and the Perseid meteor shower was supposed to be in full swing, so I spent a few hours looking for a precisely located, contact-free Airbnb in a sufficiently dark place.

I found one nestled close to the Green River in a remote part of central Kentucky. No matter how old I get, and despite all my experience to the contrary, I’m still silly enough to think that trips like this are going to unfold in some magical, uplifting, healing way. Nope. It’s not wrong to think that travel contributes to healing. It can! It’s just that it’s so much messier than I ever fully anticipate. It’s a jagged, uneven, sometimes downright weird process. If I’m not careful, I could mistake some trips for a complete failure.

The entire enterprise was a comedy of errors from the beginning: They had forgotten about our reservation so the place wasn’t ready. While we were waiting in the driveway for the owner and his employee to clean the place, we decided to get some food out of the cooler, and I went to open a plastic package with my husband’s knife. Somehow, mistaking my own fingers for the summer sausage I was trying to open, I thoroughly slashed my thumb and index finger, and began dripping copious amounts of blood on the gravel while my husband frantically looked for something to wrap my wounds.

Fishing, one of the primary attractions of the trip for my husband and son, was a wash. Rains came and flooded the river, lines got tangled, and tempers flared. Until the last night, the meteor shower was invisible, thanks to the cloud cover. Each of our worst traits was on display and chafing everyone else. We were all in different stages of the grief we were feeling, both for our longtime canine friend and the losses inflicted by the pandemic. As for myself, the routines I experience at home that serve as a silo for my emotions were completely gone, and the entire range of feelings swept in on me.

Circumstances were demanding my complete, unconditional surrender.  I didn’t fully comply — I never do right away — but I sort of dropped the rope. Sometimes we do things, like take a trip, because we want to feel better. But we don’t need to feel better; we need to engage with the process. When I was home, the demands of daily existence limited my ability to truly feel things that needed to be adjusted or addressed. Curiously, just being uncomfortable in a different place, in the middle of Kentucky in August, with its humidity and rain, and the same three people I’ve been with since March, brought some things into clearer focus.

The last night, the clouds parted a bit and we were able to make a fire and do some stargazing. Four meteors. Not bad.

The next morning as we were packing the car to leave, I was redistributing a few of the fallen twigs we’d gathered that we didn’t use for the fire the night before. Walking around the side of the house that backs up to the forest, my eye was drawn downward to a broad rock underfoot, scattered with broken nut shells. There I encountered the highlight of my trip, a tiny Eastern Box Turtle.

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Box turtles grow slowly, so this one might be a year old or more. Although they are members of the pond turtle family, box turtles tend to stay on land, and are therefore somewhat tortoise-adjacent. We spent a little time together, and I just sat with the privilege of getting to meet this youngster.

I think a lot about the part of Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey that involves magical helpers — think Yoda, Obi-Wan, Galadriel, Gandalf, etc. The creatures I meet on trips feel like my magical helpers. They aren’t mentors, exactly. More like faith-restorers.

After awhile I called my family over, and we all enjoyed the encounter. Then, I told my turtle helper to stay off the roads, and I climbed into the car and headed home to the tangled mess of things to sit with and work out.

More than a week later, my fingers are healing, talks have been had, steps have been taken, and I still enjoy thinking about my young turtle friend. So by that measure, it was a good trip.

Sunday Before Christmas, 2007

From my old blog from out west. The principle holds in Indiana in December, 2018.

Cloudy, 32 degrees. There are about six inches of snow on the ground. Thomas and I took our walk this morning, crunching companionably through the snow crust together.

Snow tells a tale of the mountain that’s hidden the rest of the year. It reveals the intensely, almost manically nomadic nature of deer, and records the passage of other animals. This morning we saw rabbit tracks interspersed with bobcat tracks, a drama written in the snow, but with no discernible ending. Did the bobcat get dinner? Or did the rabbit live another day?

Snow tells part of the tale, but doesn’t promise more than that.

View over the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana
View over the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana, Christmas Eve 2007

 

The snapping turtles of ecstatic experience

My young neighbor is fond of playing in the narrow seasonal creek that bisects my property and his parents’. At any given time of day I might look out from my writing perch in my sunroom and see him crouched over, examining a dead fish, fistful of mud, or any number of objects from the creek that make the mother in me want to insist that he wash his hands immediately.

However, my inner kid is apparently as strong as my inner mom, because I can do nothing but approve of this behavior — so much that last week I found myself by the creek with him, along with my husband and son, after he’d found two baby snapping turtle hatchlings.

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I have to admit I was very impressed with this find. I went to work on documenting it immediately, before encouraging him to release his new friends back into the wild to enjoy their natural lives.  And as I edited the photos, I realized that the creek sessions that have been unfolding beyond my writing perch are live-action ecstatic experiences of childhood.

Ecstatic childhood memory is a concept I’ve been fixated on since I first encountered it several years ago in a piece by environmental psychologist Louise Chawla. The idea is this: children lose themselves in particular places in the natural world, either places their families literally own or the children can feel some kind of ownership of, such as public lands. And as they play, fondling dead fish and whatnot, their child’s sense of wonder starts to wire memories into their brains — ecstatic memories. Chawla characterizes these ecstatic memories as “radioactive jewels” that continue to fuel creativity for the rest of their lives.

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It’s lovely to get to watch it happening just beyond my window.

 

(Prairie Dog) Pup collage

I took my son to the Badlands in South Dakota in late May, and it shook up my routine a little. Sean is avidly interested in snakes, and plans to work in venomous herpetology, so we spent fully one day and half of the next at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City.  So instead of sitting for a long time in front of a wild prairie dog town as I might have on my own, I spent a long time in front of Reptile Gardens’ prairie dog town. There was a real upside to this: this years’ pups were out, and they weren’t concerned with my presence. Here’s the collage.

Peeled Onions and Prairie Dogs

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Sego Lily. 

A good friend died this winter, as I’ve written before. He and I shared a common trait – you might even call it a value, or at least an organizing principle for our lives: we were both restless, driven, never-satisfied seekers of place. During his lifetime, he traveled widely. I have traveled widely in the U.S. and outside it four times, but my focus has been more on traveling deeply. As my writings show, I like to go back to familiar places many times to gain a deeper understanding of their people and natural features. We both believed that for us at least, a good life means not smothering your passions under the weight of others’ expectations. We understood that it’s a balance; but we also understood that given our countervailing traits – chief among them to pay too much attention to the expectations of others – we would have to err on the side of our dreams.

We were very alike in this way and many others. As he once put it, we “wash our laundry in the same machine.” We dated for awhile in high school, one of those sharp, youthful connections you sometimes have that marks you well into adulthood. My view is that our similarities both brought about that connection and, ultimately, severed it almost thirty years ago. We both chose to spend our lives with people who knew how to file down those edges, one way or another. My husband strikes the best kind of balance for me; we share the same passion for outdoor activities and travel, but he’s had a series of life experiences that apply subtle counter-pressure to my driven nature, without smothering it. And in turn, my driven nature has upended his assumptions about what is and isn’t possible. We keep each other on the balance beam. I’m endlessly grateful for that; that something is at the core of our marriage, and it’s what keeps my feet planted on the ground through the storms of long-term relationship.

But as it turns out, the similarities that snuff out an adolescent spark sometimes make for a deep friendship in midlife. My friend and I had no conscious awareness of any of this at 17 or 18; but when we reconnected seven years ago – on social media, of course – we couldn’t help but laugh at the similarities of the lives we’d crafted over the previous quarter century. And the mantra of our friendship was based in that shared sense of urgency about seeking, seeing, and recording the places we’d been, particularly in nature. We each enjoyed the other’s travels vicariously, and exchanged strategies and stories. I told him about the times I’d had in Montana and Oregon, and he shared his love for the Appalachian wilderness. Live now! Time is short! That was the common value underlying our friendship, and it only strengthened when he became terminally ill.

But even then, we understood the paradox of travel. As we sat at lunch one day, we discussed the reality I’ve long understood, which is that whether something is exotic is purely a matter of where you’re sitting. Travel is often about finding a thrill in another person – or creature’s – everyday surroundings. As we were talking, he said the first time he realized this was in Russia. “I looked down at my feet for some reason on Red Square in Russia,” he said, “and I saw the same damn weed I see in my yard.”

Still, there’s something about seeing as many everdays as we can during as many everydays as we are allotted.

But then, his death pulled me to the other side of that balance beam. The day after he died, I tried to do something in honor of our shared value of living and validating our passions; I took the day off, determined to go to the zoo and photograph the baby orangutan, perhaps. But I was moving through quicksand from the moment I woke up. I slept all afternoon instead. Not till ten days later was I able to get back to the work of nature and hiking, when I took yet another day off and went to Goose Pond, a restored wetland area, to photograph the migrating white pelicans.

When I went back to the Silver River in Florida a month later, everything felt flat. Things that used to send me into states of wonder felt out of reach. I couldn’t have the neat, predictable moment of feeling that thrill and remembering my friend; there would be no nicely, predictably constructed emotional moment. I did the things I usually do; I just felt like someone else was doing them.  So I went home, feeling strange and drained, which is how I usually feel before a trip. I felt a little – not a lot, but a little – unable to live up to the ethic of a friendship I now occupied alone.

And then came the Badlands. I had put those feelings largely out of my mind, but the sense of flatness and indifference came roaring back to me, and I even panicked a little at them. It is unusual for me to feel most alive at a captive prairie dog town instead of a wild one, but that is what happened. Ordinarily I would be drawn to immersing myself in the vastness of the Badlands, but I wasn’t. It was as beautiful as always, but it felt like something I was watching on TV. In contrast, I stood for hours in front of the prairie dog town at Reptile Gardens, feeling like myself again – interested, engaged, amused, grateful; swimming in the stream of life and nature instead of blandly watching it.  But even that wore me out, and Sean and I went home a day early.

The next week, I broke down and saw my therapist. True to form, what I saw as alarming, she thought was in line with the bumps and bruises of life. I’m always strangely surprised when something painful really, really hurts, and I guess this is no exception.

“You were exactly where you should’ve been in the Badlands,” she said. “The lessons of all this will become apparent later. But for now, it all just feels like loss.”

This makes sense to me, now, even as it didn’t while I was traveling through that magnificent landscape, seeing only a blur. My travels aren’t just about ticking off bucket list items, and they never have been. The reason I travel as much as I can, when I can, is because these trips peel my life’s onion in a way that almost nothing else does. They show me who I am, they teach me lessons, loosen up knots. Trips surprise me. They make me think when they pull the rug from under me. They remind me I’m human.

So I was living well, after all, when I drove all the way to the Badlands to find out I was hurting, still. And the friendship that reminded me of and encouraged the best parts of me is still showing me things, even as I carry it forward alone.

And the prairie dogs saw it all.

Interspecies maternal solidarity: It’s a thing.

I’m in western South Dakota right now. A few weeks ago, I asked my son if he wanted to go with me on one of my trips. He said, “Sure. I’d like to see the Badlands.” That was more than all right with me, so off we went.
 
Of my child and step-children, the only one that comes close to being as comfortable in the outdoors as Travis and I are is my stepson, Deryk, who entered the Army last year and now sleeps in foxholes occasionally for a living — and therefore may now be disinclined to do it for pleasure. I don’t know; we’ll have to see.
 
But the other two, though they don’t subscribe to the “Shower? What’s that?” philosophy of trip-taking that Travis and I do, both focus their ambitions and passions on nature. My stepdaughter, Taylor, is an entomologist working at EPCOT’s greenhouses at Disney, and Sean, at 14, is obsessed with venomous herpetology.
 
I knew I wasn’t going to have my typical trip if I took Sean. There would be hotels mixed in with the tent-sleeping, which is how I am typing this up on my laptop right now. But it’s up-ended me a little bit, and I’ve felt somewhat disoriented and unable to get into my groove. That’s okay. It just means it’s time to expand my habits, and loosen up. This is good for everyone occasionally.
 
I took him to Reptile Gardens in Rapid City yesterday, where he zinged back and forth, fast as a black mamba, marveling over his favorite snakes: juvenile Gaboon Vipers (longest fangs and biggest venom payload in the snake world!); a calm and measured King Cobra; and a Coastal Taipan daintily dunking its entire head under the water for a drink. I mean, the kid knows a LOT about snakes for his age. He asked one of the interns if the Burmese Python was “gravid” and when she looked at him quizzically, he walked away in disgust in search of someone who knew the term. (It turns out the answer is no; the python is merely overweight, and used to be even more so before arriving at Reptile Gardens.)
 
After we examined every single snake and attended the snake show twice, I wandered out to — where else? The prairie dog town.
 
As I’ve written before, I’ll photograph animals everywhere I find them. I have a ton of wild prairie dog images, and many captive prairie dog images. But in addition to ease of access, this captive town offered a few more opportunities and props for the photographer.
 
As soon as I poked my head over the lip of the wall, I saw several miniature prairie dogs zipping about in much the same youthful way my son was taking in the “Death Row” exhibit of deadly snakes. Prairie dogs are born underground, and stay there for the first few weeks of their lives. Then they come topside to terrorize their mothers — much like human children who declare they are someday going to be the curator allowed to handle the mentally unstable Monocled Cobras.
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Hang in there, prairie dog mom. It gets better. I’m just not sure when.
 
We’re going back again this morning. And then we go back to the Badlands.

The Relaxation Consultant

I photograph and write about my dog, Thomas, a lot. (The most popular post on this entire blog is about my dog.)

For most part Thomas is your standard, neurotic half-Border Collie. But when he’s relaxed — which is often, at least when he is not barking at the neighbor’s reindeer made of Christmas lights — Thomas has a kind of liquidity to him. We call him the Relaxation Consultant. He will teach you how.

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