"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wild, Slow-Burning Love

If you read my previous post, you know that Oldman and I went backpacking in the Smokies of North Carolina over spring break, and you know that we got caught in a thunderstorm.  Just after said thunderstorm, Oldman built a wonderful fire, despite the fact that all he had to use was wet wood and a little dryer lint we had brought from home.

He began by carefully making a 3-sided cave of larger, wet logs.  In the center of this cave, he placed a small pile of kindling, and a few pieces of dryer lint.  He lit the lint on fire.  It caught, and ignited one, tiny piece of kindling, which promptly went out from the moisture.  He tried again.  It lit again, burned a bit longer, and then also went out.

This lasted for about an hour.  Each time the fire lasted a bit longer, but inevitably gave way to the moisture in the wood.  He ever so patiently fed the little pile with fresh kindling, determined to get a fire going for us.  Meanwhile, I flitted about setting up the tent, cooking our dinner, and every now and then refurbishing his stock of kindling from what I could scavenge from the dark, wet ground around our camp.  And he sat patiently feeding and loving that little fire.

Finally, he got a flame to burn on its own for long enough to begin drying out the larger pieces of wood.  Before the night was through, we had a beautiful, roaring fire from which to warm up before tucking into our sleeping bags.

As I often do, I saw a metaphor in this act of nature.

That fire was like my relationship history.  It began with many intense, exciting bursts of flame.  Each one made me think, "Ooh!  He got a fire started!  This is gonna be great!" and then quickly, "Oh, it's out."  There was not enough fuel to keep those initial flames burning.  They were lit the "easy" way, with quickly-ignitable fuel like lint and paper.  They brought the instant gratification of a flame, but used up the fuel and died as briskly as they had flared up.

In the past, this is mostly how I have approached my relationships with men.  "Oooh, him!  Yes, him!  Wahoo, he's the one!  This is so fun!  We're so great!" and then, "Oh, it's over.  I'm bored/angry/offended/etc."

I've had a few "love at first sight" experiences in my life.  Being me, I ran headfirst into them, allowed my whole life to be consumed by their intensity, and never gave a thought to the lasting fuel it would take to keep them going.

Something I've noticed about this relationship with Oldman is that it has been a slow burn.  It was not love at first sight.  Not even love at second or third or fourth sight.  As you might remember from our how-we-met story, I was very much not looking for love.  And besides, Oldman was not even my type (meaning he was not a dirty, smelly, bearded, hippie/cowboy).  It took awhile for me to think of him as potential relationship material, and then to start spending time with him in that light.  Even then, it took awhile for me to think of us as anything other than a fun way to pass the winter until we both went our separate ways come June.

But once I opened up to the idea of us being US, that idea ignited another, bigger idea, which ignited another, bigger idea.  With patient tending, and no expectations, we have been slowly building a fire that is burning strongly on its own.  It is built from the real, sustainable fuel of experience, maturity, and selfless love.  There is very little ego, and very little drama.

I'm enjoying this experience of a slow burning relationship.  Can I keep myself from getting bored with the lack of Jerry Springer-like chaos?  I sure hope so.  Can I still feel like a strong, independent woman while loving a man?  Can any woman?  That is the big experiment in this relationship, I think.  How can I hold true to my identity, retain what is important to me, and make room for new, growing love?

I have long ago abandoned the idea of "The One," as has Oldman.  The lack of expectations about longevity or official titles gives us lots of room to breathe.  If we stop being an US today, or if we retain our US-ness until we are wrinkly and gray, living in some crazy commune in New Mexico with grown children named Rain and Ocean, I will chalk this up as a success.  Not looking for "The One" has given me the freedom to let Oldman be "the one for right now," and "right now" can be as long as we want it to be.

Here's to a slow burning love experiment.

Wild Smokies

I have hiked, camped, or backpacked in nearly every state in the northeast: Maine, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia - to name a few.  As soon as I made my decision to move west, I knew that there was just one place I needed to experience before leaving the beautiful Appalachians - the Great Smoky Mountains.

For spring break, Oldman and I dusted off our camping gear and headed south.  The weather forecast was  sunny and warm for days on end, we had enough dehydrated meals to last us a week of being stranded in the woods, and I was jumping out of my skin with excitement at the opportunity to sleep in my tent for the first time since November.

Upon reaching the ranger station near the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, we were surrounded by people.  Little, screaming people.  Big, slow people.  Swarms of people with fanny packs and cameras.  Our first question to the ranger was, "Where should we go to get away from all of these people?"

She gave us a great tip on a 16 mile loop completely on the other side of the park, where she promised we would see virtually no one but bears. We had to drive two and a half more hours through the park, out of the park, through the Cherokee reservation, and back into a remote corner of the park on the North Carolina side.  It was totally worth it.

As we started down the trail, the sun was shining, the breeze was blowing, and there were butterflies everywhere.  Yellow swallowtails, black butterflies with purple spots, and dozens of little, purple butterflies.  They flitted around us and rested on our packs, heads, and fingers when we stopped for breaks.  I felt a little like Snow White.  I sort of looked up towards the sky and asked, to no deity in particular, "Really?  Could you possibly drum up a more beautiful setting?"

There are also waterfalls.  Tons and tons of waterfalls.  The river was next to us the entire first day's hike, and the whole river is pretty much large, moss-covered rocks and clear water crashing over them.  The smell of the water and foam combined with the fresh buds coming out on the trees and all around on the ground was intoxicating.

After many distracted detours into the river, we reached camp with plenty of time to set up, build a fire, and make some dinner.

The next morning was another beautiful one.  We were leisurely about getting out of camp.  It was hard to move fast when the woods seemed to be in no hurry to get anywhere.  After about four hours of drinking coffee and tea, eating breakfast, filtering drinking water for the day, and packing up, we headed to our day's destination: Gregory Bald.

We hiked pretty hard all day (except for a long lunch break in which there might have been some very cold swimming in the river with very little clothes on. . . good thing the trail was so secluded. . .), including 3000 feet of elevation gain in about four miles.  Yikes.

About two miles from the summit, a monster thunderstorm hit.  On my various backpacking adventures, I've run into grizzly bears, moose, snakes, and getting lost, but never a thunderstorm.  We donned our rain gear, but began to reconsider hiking all the way up to the open bald on the top of a mountain to set up our tent with metal poles and sleep in it for shelter from the lightening. . . hmmm.

About a mile from the top, still pouring rain with lots of thunder and lightening, we found a flat area where we could set up a makeshift camp for the night.  Technically, you are only allowed to camp at pre-marked backcountry sites.  This was not one, but it would have to do for tonight.  The only problem was water. We were almost out, because we had been counting on the spring we heard ran through the campsite at the top of the bald.  We dropped our packs, covered them as best as possible, and ran ahead with just our bottles and filter pump in the hopes that we might find some water.

We came across a tiny trickle running down the mountain.  It was a viable source for filtering, but not nearly deep enough to even get our filter hose into.  Oldman set to work on a system of rocks and leaves that created a spout-type flow from which we could fill our bottles.  Then we simply filtered from one bottle to the next until we had debris-free water to boil for dinner and drink in the morning.  Brilliant!

By the time we got back to camp, it had stopped raining.  I set up camp while Oldman somehow magically made a fire out of completely wet wood.  We ate, dried off, warmed up, and were pretty happy campers.  We fell asleep reading Orson Scott Card fiction aloud to each other off of my kindle in the tent. What a great night.

The next day brought the return of the beautiful weather, and the enchanted forest came alive with buds, butterflies, and beauty once again.

We reached our goal - the summit and Gregory's Bald - and sauntered back down the mountain with aching feet and joyful hearts.  If this first trip of the season is any indication of what is to come this year in our backcountry adventures, we have much to look forward to!  Be blessed, my friends.  The earth is beautiful and the sun is on its way.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Last night, I picked up my copy of WILD, by Jay Griffiths, the book that inspired this blog and much of my journey west last summer.  It is also the book from which the quote at the top of my blog came.  WILD is a memoir of sorts, and a travel book of sorts.  This woman, Jay, travelled through some of the most wild places on earth, from northern Alaska to Papua New Guinea, living with the native people there, learning from them more about what it means to truly be wild.  This book took her seven years to write.  It is raw.  It is beautiful.  It is brave.

So last night I picked it up again, just to flip through and read some of the parts I had underlined in my first read.  I got chills once again, accompanied by the overwhelming desire to jump out of my chair and run, singing, from here to California and back - just to scratch my insatiable itch for wild adventure.

So here, for your pleasure, are some of what I say are the most inspirational parts to what I say is one of the most inspirational books:

"I know this chloroform world where human nature is well schooled, tamed from childhood on, where the radiators are permanently on mild and the windows are permanently closed."

"What is kind and what is wild do not contradict each other."

". . . an Inuktitut word, nuannaarpoq, as 'taking extravagant pleasure in being alive."

"The keen urge has never left us to take a flitting tent and fling it under the stars, then swing on, on at dawn, on an elemental journey.  That is how to burn most brightly.  That is how to catch like wildfire."

"Nothing in nature is suburban.  Nothing wild is phlegmatic and complacent.  Nothing compares to the grotesque infantilism of the suburbs, sucking the dummy of the supermarket and every week squirting out the waste into giant plastic nappies, the bulging trash bags by the closed gate.  In the suburbs, the alertness of all wild creatures is degraded into neurotic curtain-twitching."

"Sensible habits and good road safety skills will keep you alive till eighty.  So what?  If you didn't know freedom, you never lived, never knew that thrilling whisper, turning blood to quicksilver, reflecting sheer fear and pleasure - to be most alive is to be most free is to be most wild."

"There is no compromise.  Freedom is not polite.  It doesn't knock or telephone first.  It slams its hand down on your desk and says Dance - as the mad fiddler, his fingers bleeding on the strings, plays an elegy at the speed of a reckless waltz till the sky breaks down in tears."

"In the wilds, we cannot be controlled or policed or pacified.  In the wilds is our political autonomy.  Cry Freedom in all the mountains that have ever heard the rebel yell and suburbia, malleable clay to fascism, can go to hell."

"Europeans have long been fond of claiming that a paradise from which mankind was expelled is a universal truth.  But . . . Heaven is under our feet, wrote Thoreau; paradise can be here and now - in fact now is the only possible time to ransack paradise and suck up its juices.  We are not exiled from the garden of Eden but living in it still.  Paradise is not in the past or future but only in the present, this Earth an untamed heaven, a wild paradise garden."

"Just at the point when you can no longer speak, sing.  Just at the point when you can no longer get out of bed, fly.  Pain can give you wings."