Dog Days

I will not bore you with the details of N and I sussing out the best ice cream in Skagit Valley (Co-op, you know how I feel about your mint chip and chocolate cherry!) Instead, I will tell you about the last week of my summer, one that made heading back to work today almost bearable.

A friend invited me to her beach cabin on the Long Beach Peninsula. The fingerling of land boasts America’s longest stretch of beach–twenty-eight miles.

During one evening’s walk along several of those miles, we watched sandpipers, I think, fly down the coastline. For as far south and north as we could see, the plume of birds jetted by, hundreds, we figured, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands, because for the thirty minutes we gazed, they kept flapping by, now millions heading south on their winter migration. Some thousands of them formed an ebbing cloud, circling over the waves, some bobbing on top of the white-caps. It was like something on the Discovery Channel, all those birds and birds and birds and birds. I was reminded of two passages I teach where both James Audubon and Annie Dillard quake undercover of a skyful of birds. I don’t expect in my lifetime to ever see that magnitude of movement again.

Behind us,the grassy dunes–a far cry from the So Cal beaches of my youth–were the foreground of beautiful grey, purple and white clouds. I have a hunch one long winter’s night I will find myself hunkered over a canvas, capturing that landscape now lodged in my brain.

I rode an old pink Schwinn, much too small and  squeaking wearily under the weight of my bum, around the beach cabin lanes, to the market for chocolate and wine and to the bakery for still warm blueberry scones. It’s the kind of place where you can leave ‘ole trusty lodged up against a sand dune, take a stroll on the beach and come back to find your bike and baguette in the basket still there.

We went for a jog in Leadbetter Point Park, where we hoofed it over beach and forest, on a single track just wide enough for my shoe. Since the peninsula is home to more black bears per square foot than any other place, and since we curled around tight forested corners, I expected to stumble upon a salal-grazing bear at any minute. Instead I found a pristine sand dollar, a beach comber’s treasure, and clutched it gently in my hand for the run back.

Sand dollar secure on the dash, I scurried home to pick up my better half, a change of clothes and headed for the North Cascades. Way back in the spring, when we still had our right mind, my friend and I had signed up for the Cutthroat Classic, an eleven-mile race over a section of the PCT. I hadn’t really been training; the longest I’d run was seven miles, and I hadn’t run at elevation since, well–ever. But it’s amazing what a night of camping beneath an illuminated sky of stars, a Shimmer Sister of a running buddy and a bus ride to the base of Rainy Pass, elevation 4,700 feet, will do.

It’s also amazing what climbing 2,000 feet in five miles will do. Constrict  lungs and remind you that you are alive and reflect on your lack of preparation and conjure conversations with whatever spirits may be listening and emit awe that lungs and legs are still working  and suggest you not dwell on how far till the summit, but rather, how insightful the journey has been. And it will afford you sweeping views of Mother nature’s greatest wonders.

Reaching mountain tops–with a ragged breath and gracious heart–is a spiritual experience.  A six-mile descent allows recapture of your breath, your stride and your soul.

In the end, N and I found some inner tubes and Summer Solstices and floated down the Methow River. There is a town named Twisp. Twisp. Swallows that dart across the slow-moving water and a duck diving for rock scum while a trout, facing upstream, hovers over a gravel bar. The sun splashed across our shoulders, the water, across our legs. We drove home, exhausted, but happy, with just enough energy to taste samples of ice cream at the Methow store and Cascadia Farms. We were, after all, on a mission to declare a winner.


Rounding Rainier

Amidst visitors, jaunts to San Diego, A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed in a “black rock amphitheatre,”  fresh Frazier River sockeye at a “Happy Little Farm Party,” more home-grown produce than two people could possible consume (yes, zucchini and peas and beans, I’m talking about you) and soaking up as much Washington sun as humanly possible, N and I found a week to get away from it all.

It only took us two hours, but the drive ended where the trail began, the start of what we both consider the most epic backpacking trip we’ve ever taken–beating out even NZ, says N. These smiles should say it all:


And because words nor photos could do the trip justice, I’ll just dole out a bit of both, and tell you that this little 38 mile jaunt, with its snow-capped peaks and glacial tilled valleys, its wonderland of wildflowers and pockets of pristine forest is worth moving to Washington State for. Okay, a visit will do too. But be sure to pack your dehydrated food and your open-air tent; the weather is balmy and the mossies biting–the sweat and bite marks evidence of a journey well spent. The views don’t hurt either.

Fresh feet and smiles at the trail head of the Northern Loop

The carpet of wildflowers swayed with the wind and wafted sweet scents

Nikolai’s charming hat, Sam, is not only useful for fending off mossies but also for holding your trough when your hands are too tired.

Narrow trails through the forest floor conjure joy for the soul

And climbing 3,000 feet in one 14 miler of a day conjures wincing quads and lungs.

Water abounds for washing, pumping, and gazing

Another climb reveals another peek at the face of Rainier

Aptly named Mystic Lake

A suspension bridge that swings and squeaks with every step you take over the Carbon River

How can you not grin while trekking through fields of Glacier Lilies?

The wake of a mighty glacier

At 6,700 feet, we lunched while watching the specks that were climbers descending from the summit of Rainier

It’s not hard to figure out  why they call it the Wonderland Trail.

Settle In

Room With a View

We’re losing light up here fast, by almost three minutes a day. These final weeks of summer–brilliantly cloud-free summer–are pulling out all the stops to make up for its tardiness.

Soon, it will be dark by 5 p.m. Then 4:15. Mornings, I’ll watch the sun rise over the Cascades on my way to work. A few weeks later, headlights and coffee alone will signal morning. The geese sailing overhead are a harbinger of routines, rain and all.

Years ago, Erin (beloved teaching partner/running mate) and I developed mantras to get our asses up the hill behind Valhalla High School. It was glorious to run down the hill, then out into the brushland and scrub. But the way back–oh, the way back. A Goliath of a hill. I knew to put my head down and not look to the top of the hill. But the burning in my lungs and legs unnerved me. Then it dawned on me: that’s exactly where I was–running up hill, out of breath, about to die, blood pumping, pumping, pumping. And the feeling wasn’t going away unless I simply gave up on the running. My mantra was born: Settle in. I remember that moment of discovery: the hill did not shrink nor did my legs find some new source of power, but my mind did. For many agonizing blocks and minutes, I ran with my pain, not beside it.

And contrary to my belief in those moments, I did not die.

Erin soon found her own mantra: Easy. (As in eeeeaaaassssyyyyy. And there’s a hand gesture too, like a pushing down of the air with both hands.)

So we charged up hills, mantra in mind.

Years and continents and states later, Settle in has not left me. I summoned the saying while in India, riding the bus back to Kolkata in the sticky, swampy heat only India can manufacture. A herd of uniformed school girls sang songs in Hindi at the top of their lungs and the bus paused, then sat, then turned off its engine in the middle of a traffic jam. It had been a long day. Men in kurtai’s with scraggly beards peered into our parked bus. Despite the green light, not a single car moved across the intersection. The smell of too many pre-pubescent girls on one bus wafted down the aisle. Sweat beaded under my salwar kameez. The other white girl on our school expedition consulted her watch: “We’ve been sitting here for 27 minutes” she said. The bus windows only cracked open halfway. The nun on the bus wouldn’t let us open the door or let us out in the middle of the city. Undoubtedly, in an ironic twist of fate, I found myself in Dante’s Inferno while volunteering at a religious school. The girl in front of me kept checking her watch. And I thought about running the hill behind Valhalla–I decided to settle in. It was perhaps the second time in my life where I didn’t let the overwhelming nature of the situation consume me–where I found a bit of zen–nah, “zen” is too nirvana sounding, and believe me, there is not an ounce of nirvana to be found when 49 adolescent girls, rife with body odor squeal a rendition of Britany Spears at the top of their lungs for twenty minutes in stopped traffic. No, decidedly not zen. Peace? Acceptance? Yes, I found acceptance  with my surroundings.

So, up here in the PNW, I am getting ready to settle in. I am squeeing at the prospect of the rain forcing me inside to read a book, to graph out the raised garden beds, of researching and interviewing for the new book idea I’m so fired up about. I can’t wait to drive towards the sunrise. Can’t imagine how simple life might be: no moving! no monumental life-event to plan! no commuting via plane to see my honey! no world trip to plan! no world trip to pay off! For the first time in perhaps four years, I am ready to settle into serious routine.

Alley Berry Breakfast

But first, with what may be the final glory days of summer, I must pick the ripe blackberries down the alley and paint the garage.

Respirators always help while settling in--(before)

Remind me, will ya, when I start bitching (around the second coat) to settle in.