Rugged Woman Meets Ragged Mountain

January is brilliant.  To hike in January, even more so:  it is divine.

The sun gods smile down on the snowscape that surrounds me while the snow keenly winks back with a blue glint in its eye.  Vistas open as I round bends on the rolling trail and follow snowshoe tracks and paw prints.  On the way up, I walk carefully, choosing my steps with caution as the week’s thaw and freeze has left an icy path in its wake.  A lean and deft trail runner, Alaskan malamute leading the way, appears suddenly and breezes past as fluidly as a taut sailor keeling along wind and water.  I gather his grace in deep draughts.

My lungs expand and empty, expand and empty, expand and empty into the hush of the forest.  A surefooted rhythm emerges.

Snow owls are rumored, but not seen.  Only the creaks of tree limbs call across the mountain, as if aching for their missing leaves, save for the oaks and beeches – their dried and tawny remnants from last year won’t molt until spring buds release them.  It is myth that winter is barren and colorless, for as the angle of afternoon rays travels with haste across the brumal sky, silvery grays and mushroomy browns creep into craw and crevasse until the white all but disappears.

I climb a nearly two-story boulder, then chuckle at the metaphor.  In woods there are no edifices of note, nests and dams aside.  I glance down.  Lichen curls like paint chips on the oversized rock, or, I guess – it curls like lichen.  How long until I can truly see this wonderland?  How long until the mountaintop stops laughing at me?

I pick my way on slippery rocks across a half-frozen stream, watching the pellucid waters swirl under shallow sheets that soon crack and fall into a tumbling current.  On the far side, I crouch to peer at myriad architectures of ice and earth and wonder what universes are captured in these tiny crystal castles.  Who reigns in these miniature kingdoms?

Like meditating, January quiets the mind.  Thoughts slow.  The cold focuses attention, the eyes narrow in scope and see with eagle-eye precision.  A world, otherwise masked by the flurry and flutter of fertility, is revealed.

Now, I am aware of nose hairs and that soft spot in my right ankle.

I begin to remember…exactly why I came here.

You Say You Want a Resolution?

Remember those toy pellets you could send away for in the back of comic books?  The ones that when you dropped them into a glass of water would instantly turn into little sponge creatures?  Well, that’s how quickly old habits disappeared since I moved here and how quickly new ones took shape.  I have just sprung into my true form!  And I didn’t even have to write up a list.

Apparently, Maine is my January first.

Back in the city, I ate out almost every day.  It was just easier – no deciding, shopping, prepping, cooking, cleaning… AY!  Such a fuss.  Plus, I could satisfy any craving.  Ethiopian sourdough & stew?  Cambodian sandwich?  Pugliese pasta?  Check, check and check.  But now that I’m here, I revel in the abundance of garden greens and farmstands.  There’s even a decent winemaker a mile down the road fermenting grapes in his barn.  I spend my days fully engaged – mulling recipes, chatting up farmers and cheesemakers and fishermen, picking chard and kale, gathering wildflowers for the table.  Pleasure abounds…

Oyster River Winegrowers
Cast Iron Chef

As well, my exercise routine in the city was anything but.  Classic avoidance behavior:  I’d sign up for an expensive membership, and go once or twice a month.  A yoga studio on every corner but I’d rather walk by on my way to the bakery.  Here, however, sun salutations take on a whole new meaning.  I begin each day, coffee in hand, circling through the garden, down to the pond and wandering back through the meadows and trees.  My skin tingles in the chilly air.  The grass feels dewy.  My senses are invigorated.  Afternoons can find me in the kayak, oar in hand, silently paddling the shoreline and learning birdsong.  Or climbing Mt. Battie, enveloped in the ethereal chartreuse of the changing trees.  With Mother Nature as my personal trainer, who needs a rowing machine?

The strangest part, though, is how easily this metamorphosis came about.  There was no effort at all, rather a gentle hand on my back, guiding me forward, whispering in my ear… “Don’t you know… everything’s gonna be all right?”  And it is.  More than I had imagined.

Camden Hills State Park, Mt. Battie
Stairmaster alfresco

Crouching Dragon…

From the top of the blueberry barrens on Clarry Hill I can see from North Haven Island clear across to the White Mountains that border New Hampshire.  An expansive vista like this is all the more dramatic when the morning thermometer declares 38°F and there are no trees to break the wind’s rush up and over the mountain.  Earmuffs get mentally placed on my wish list and I am glad I opted for a wool turtleneck.  I am warmed, also, by the idea of joining this hardy group of hikers, convened by the Georges River and Medomak Valley Land Trusts.  I am not usually deterred by hiking solo, but during hunting season, I prefer the comfort of a bevy of walkers.  We cross paths with a trio of pheasant hunters and their German short-haired pointers.  I have never seen bird dogs in action, and I am impressed with their single-minded focus.  I wonder if their pursuit will be successful;  I wonder if ours will.  Are we the chasers, or are they?  Aren’t we all seeking our own versions of life, liberty, happiness?

The Descent

We continue walking down along blueberry fields that were harvested this summer, and will lie fallow for the next year – allowing us more leeway to meander through them, not worried about trampling the plants underfoot.  Crossing diagonally, we come upon a huge stone dragon, lying silently mid-meadow, its tail snaking 100 or so feet down the hill.   A sort of New England Stonehenge, the assemblage recalls my childhood, hours spent picking rocks out of the garden.  My mother was captain of the ‘Two Birds with One Stone” drill team – teaching us why pioneer life was less preferable than going to college and why we should never declare our springtime boredom.   It never occurred to my sister and I to populate the garden perimeter with scary mythical creatures or even elegant, balancing sculptures, à la Andy Goldsworthy.  His mother may have used similar directives, but with better results.

Sleeping Monster

Rilke says that our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure.  It is true.  I have come face to face with dragons before and indeed have been rewarded with unlocked gems.  But it is no mistake that these mythical creatures breathe fire, for when we open the chest, sometimes the glare is so intense, we trip and stumble in our stunned blindness.  Eventually though our eyes adjust to the wider spectrum and we not only regain our footing, but see the dragon transformed and ourselves as well.  Now, we begin to gather and stack our own stones, the crucible giving solidity to our longings.

These are the daydreams I walk in my mind.  The brilliance of fall kindles my imagination, as it has also inspired the unknown artist who has left us this magical creation.  A simple rendering of stones;  a springboard for poetic ramblings.

Staring down the dragon

Most of us hiking today seem taken with The Clarry Hill dragon.  It is certainly the tamest I’ve come across, but not my first.  Since befriending a serpentine monster or three, I have learned some tools for navigation.  One, when you encounter a dragon, recognize its beneficence – it’s just a big pile of stones.  Two, you must approach it by yourself, but bring along others – you’ll feel better knowing you’re not alone.  Three, see the vast field of fruit in which it is crouching – wild blueberries will never taste so sweet.

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