For Christmas this year, and for the sanity of the adults involved, we decided to buy my nephews presents as usual but draw names for each other. My dad was the lucky soul who drew me, and he won the day by getting me exactly what I most wanted: a camping hammock.
The only problem with getting a hammock for Christmas is that there’s still a lot of winter to wait through before you can use it. But, thanks to the temperate nature of the mid-Atlantic, my own temperance soon paid off, and I was able to set up my present last weekend during a hiking trip my partner and I took on Sugarloaf Mountain.
If you don’t have a hammock, get one. You can easily find inexpensive ones that do the job well; no need to get a super fancy one. Then all you have to do is learn a good knot or two, let tension and gravity do the rest, and you’ll be swinging in paradise in under five minutes.
sit under milky way sky
permitting the dark circle
beyond ember glow
* * *
This unseasonably warm weather has been taunting me almost more than I can bear. All I think about is the quiet crackle of firewood, crackle of frying eggs, crackle of leaves being stepped on gently by forest friends. When can I go back?
The event of the supermoon this past month was, I must admit, underwhelming. This is not entirely surprising, considering that widespread popular news tends to blow actual events way out of proportion by highlighting facts whose sole purpose is to raise your expectations unreasonably. Biggest Moon In 68 Years! Never Again!!* (*until 2034.) However, it cannot be denied that the moon was very bright and rather big and reddish at moonrise for almost a week, and where I live was lucky enough to have clear skies at the time.
Something I miss most about living in a rural area is the nighttime sky. Now that I’m surrounded by urban centers, all but a handful of the most prominent stars are allowed through the heavy light pollution, so when I do make it up north, I try to spend some time stargazing.
In winter this is easy because the sky gets dark there by around 4pm. I remember lying on the crusty top layer of snow in my back yard as a kid, staring up at the night sky. I can still feel the sharp air circulating through my nose and mouth and lungs and the chill of the air on my eyeballs with every hard blink. The surrounding woods make a frame around the northern sky, and the Big Dipper spins brightly within that frame throughout the year. The Dipper and Orion were – and are – like old friends, so easily recognizable even to a child, and so very bright when given the chance.
One of the drives between my house and church growing up brought you along a small ridge with an incredible view of the White Mountains. On really clear days you could even make out Mount Washington (especially identifiable if it had just snowed). But my favorite time to drive past that vista was at night. Sometimes in the winter we’d be driving back late from a church event, silently riding together in the car, maybe with Christmas music playing on the radio. I would press my forehead against the cold window so that I could see the huge, black expanse above me, unobscured by trees or streetlights, and scattered with thousands of visible stars. I say thousands – but how could I know? I would like to say a million, but I have no idea what a million of something looks like, so I compare those vivid pinpricks with the half dozen I can normally make out where I live today.
This past summer some friends and I went camping in New Hampshire and spent a long time lying on the beach. The sky was pitch black but for the stars, and we were completely alone, dwarfed by the sheer number of galaxies above us and grains of sand below.
Without looking up the science of it all, I always feel like I can see more stars when it’s cold out. I vaguely remember reading that the northern hemisphere faces more stars, or at least more bright stars, in the winter than it does in the summer. And I imagine there’s less interference from hot, hazy air, too. (I really am being very lazy by not verifying this for you. But you can do a bad google search just as well as I can.)
On the evening of the supermoon, my partner and I walked down to the water, to the end of a pier. The moon was bright and clear (just like most of the adjectives in this post) and cast a long, wavy reflection in the water, like a path across the bay’s surface. We identified Venus and Saturn.
A couple days later we went back again. The moon was still bright but waning at the top, as though it were looking down. Maybe it was the right time of year, or maybe the light pollution was less than usual, or maybe it was just cold, but we could see about a hundred stars – entire constellations – more than I had seen in months. And although I will always want more stars in my sky, it was wonderful to greet once again the Hunter and the Great Bear.
Yesterday, my partner and I took a day trip to Shenandoah National Park. I usually work Saturdays and often work Sundays, but I had this Sunday off and spent all week stalking the weather, hoping it would be a good day to drive through the mountains. We had rain earlier in the weekend, but Sunday’s forecast was perfect: sunny, windy (to keep the clouds away), and 50s.
The last time we made a trip to check out Shenandoah was last October. I mentioned before that this was our “hurricamping” trip – one very cold, wet, and gusty night at the Lewis Mountain campground, followed by about 60 miles of driving and stopping at every scenic overlook just to see a breathtaking wall of solid, white fog.
Here is a taste of what hurricamping looks like:
The one brilliant thing about hurricamping is that very few people want to do it. And that’s enough make me want to do it. However, most people do want to enjoy natural beauty when it’s sunny and clear (you know, when you can actually see what’s surrounding you), so we had to mentally prepare ourselves for a much more populated experience. But I was determined to see the vistas we had missed last year, so I got up (relatively) early, made coffee, packed a couple tuna sandwiches, and layered up, though not quite as dramatically this time.
Despite my best intentions and a moderate amount of effort, we didn’t arrive until nearly 11:00. By then, we had already been following a line of cars with the same day trip idea for about ten minutes. Within the first few miles, most of those cars had pulled off at one of the scenic overlooks, but we cruised by, hoping to find a spot with fewer people. Our plan worked fairly well, and we soon found some overlooks with enough wiggle room.I don’t want to sound snobby, but I honestly was disappointed. The drastic drops were pretty cool, but there was not nearly as much color as I expected for late October, and most of the overlooks overlooked shitty Virginian houses instead of wild land. The map said that there were rivers running throughout, but we didn’t see any water except a couple of irrigation ponds.
We decided swallow our distaste for crowds and find somewhere to take a short hike. We ended up at the Upper Hawksbill trail and parked in the grass on the side of the road because the lot was full. The hike really was short, and it should’ve been easy too, but being accustomed to the oxygen-rich life at around 39 feet above sea level, we huffed and puffed our way to the highest peak in the park, elevation 4,049′. Despite the lack of oxygen, the air was clean and smelled sweetly of decaying leaves. The view at the summit was nice, although again, disappointing foliage, but I pretended the town below was covered in a big lake, and that made it really quite beautiful. A daring Bichon Frise walked right up to the edge of the mountain and sniffed its approval.
Although I was generally unimpressed with the vistas, I must admit the drive itself was lovely. We saw many trees with bright yellow leaves along the way, and when the sun hit them just right, the effect was stunning. The sky was blue, the air was cold and fresh, and the ground wasn’t flat. There was ledge, there were trees, the milkweed was silky and putting to seed.
I refuse to lower my expectations for beauty, mostly because I do know it is out there, because I’ve seen it and I know others have, too. If it were at every turn, I would probably stop chasing it. But I don’t mind looking around, seeing the failures of what’s before me, but also accepting the triumphs.
I opened my eyes to slivers this morning and, despite already knowing the answer, mumbled, “Did it snow?”
It’s October 13th in coastal Mid Atlantic, so no, of course it didn’t snow. I doubt it even got as cold as 50 overnight, let alone freezing, but I imagined peeking through the blinds to see a white dusting covering the lawn and fence and branches. I’m about two months ahead of myself for my locale, and I’m guessing that many of you don’t want to hear about winter just yet (wasn’t my last post about savoring fall?), but it’s what’s on my mind now that the [somewhat] chilly mornings have arrived. Maybe my imagination was influenced by pulling my winter clothes out of storage the day before, or by buying two new sweaters, or by seeing pictures of first snows elsewhere in the country, or by hearing my mom report that the first frost is supposed to happen this week at my parents’ house in New England.
For the most part, I hated winter when I was younger. Layers were bulky and accentuated my flatchestedness, so I often ditched them in favor of being cold. Dressing for the elements could take up to fifteen minutes, and Lord help you if you realized you had to pee once the snowsuit was on. The harsh wind and blowing snow burned my cheeks and made my eyes water. My lips and hands would become cracked and scaly, and it didn’t matter how many times I applied lotion or Vaseline – they would still bleed. But perhaps worst of all, after breathing the bone-dry air all night, I would wake up every morning with a devastatingly sore throat, four to five months out of the year.
On school mornings, my mom would wake me up. Judging from the numbness of my nose, I knew the bedroom air was sharp and cold, and I dreaded leaving the covers because I knew all that was waiting for me was a cold wooden floor and a cold, stiff outfit. So my mom would stick my clothes for the day under the covers with me and come back again in a few minutes to persuade me to get up once the clothes were warmed.
My pre-waking brain this morning recognized an old and unwelcome sensation – that dry, raspy, uncomfortable feeling in my throat. But before I even realized I was in pain, my first reaction was to think, It snowed. I was simultaneously convinced of this as fact and cognizant of the near impossibility that this was indeed fact, but the association was powerful.
Setting aside the many nuisances of cold weather, I’m always happy to see a thick morning frost on the ground or to wake to find that it has snowed overnight. The phrase “blanket of snow” is fitting. Most obviously, it covers. But it also brings comfort to an otherwise bland and dead season. It softens the landscape. Yes, I’ll eventually have to shovel it. It’ll turn dull and grey. I’ll have to clear off my car with a poorly made tool and start the engine twenty minutes early. But when the snow is newly spread and untouched, I feel as though I have been tucked into bed with crisp, clean sheets.
A cup of black tea,
casserole, and open door –
at long last, Autumn.
* * *
Last Thursday marked another autumnal equinox. The weather we usually associate with fall doesn’t always correspond with the official beginning of the season; often the intensity of the summer persists despite the shortened days and lengthened nights. This year, however, the two lined up very nicely where I live, and I like to think I have embraced all the benefits that cooler weather brings with a grateful and opportunistic heart.
I wore a light jacket, walked to work, turned off the AC, and ate an in-season apple. I planned my Halloween costume (loosely, Bulma from Dragon Ball, in honor of having just finished the series on Hulu. Please, no spoilers for Dragon Ball Z, as we have not seen past the first ten episodes!). I drank a celebratory glass of Booker’s, which is one of the closest approximations of what autumn tastes like that I know of.
Autumn is the most elusive, the most skittish of the seasons. If you blink it will escape you altogether. If you’re fortunate enough to be outside, breathe deeply and pick up a bright leaf. If you must be indoors, throw open the windows. If you have no windows, bake a pie. If you have no oven, drink some Booker’s. If you don’t drink bourbon, brew yourself a nice cup of tea. Whatever you do, don’t let the fleeting season pass you by unnoticed this year.