This morning when I stepped out early, the grass was crispy with frost. I could see the squirrel’s nest in the tree down the driveway. A single crow perched at the top of the dying tree that threatens our car. My eyes find squirrels in the trees, movement more than color or shape in the skeletons of the stripped down trees.
It’s a month of paring back. Simplifying. Stripping down.
Apparently I’ve stripped away words. While one of my friends tries to write a novel for NaNoWriMo and another blogs daily for NaBloPoMo, I’ve been absent here, writing less, not more.
It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve finished an essay and, just this morning, an article. Both have been lingering in half-forgotten folders on my computer and dusty corners of my mind. But in the mornings when I’m up, I find myself just sitting. I crave stillness and quiet. I wrap my hands around a mug of ginger tea for warmth. I slowly breath in the steam rising from the cup. It is the closest I come to meditation.
I find myself standing outside feeling the sun on my back, watching the clouds scuttle across the sky or peering down at the bees crawling all over the pale pink mums with their yellowed centers, still working. Like the squirrels in the trees, it’s the motion first that catches my eye. And I watch.
There are leaves to get up, wood to move, flower pots to tuck away in the barn. There are stories to tell, words to get out, but right now, I’ve pared back. I get still. I watch. Getting quiet, noticing. This is my work too.
The words will come back, like the leaves, but right now is a time to find out how much there is to see when everything is stripped down.
“What happened?” my big girl asked from the seat behind me, her question mirroring my own momentary confusion.
“Somebody hit us,” I said stunned.
She was OK. I was OK, but shaken, badly. All week, I was tight and anxious. All week, my stomach has churned as I called the insurance company, filled out forms, waited for call backs, avoided thinking about what could have been.
All week, still off-kilter, I needed grounding, so I stepped outside. I welcomed the golden afternoon autumn sun, warm on my back. I breathed deep the cold smell of fall. While my kids jumped in piles of yellow and browning leaves, I pulled plants soft and straggling after our frost. I loosened the cold earth and dumped wheelbarrows of compost. And I planted garlic.
Garlic was the most satisfying thing I grew in my garden this year. I don’t know why I haven’t grown it before. I loved every step from the early green points poking out of the earth to the graceful curved scapes that I cut off for pesto to the bulbs themselves that I dug a few months ago and hung to dry.
I love this starting point too. It’s time to plant garlic again, now when everything else is wrapping up or just hanging on. Now while I’m pulling dead plants and putting the garden to bed for spring. I love the hope of planting, even if it means a long wait. All winter, I’ll know that my garlic is out there under the soil, under the snow, waiting for spring sun, ready to push up shoots and get going.
Garlic didn’t ask a lot of me. I picked the scapes and dug the bulbs. I ate the scapes quickly, and the bulbs will stick around for a while (though we go through garlic pretty quickly around here).
Garlic was simple in the garden and it’s simple in the kitchen. I’ve been making this easy garlic bread for more than 20 years now, since I first learned it in an Italian kitchen.
1 loaf good, firm bread
1–2 cloves garlic peeled and halved
kosher or sea salt
- Slice the bread and toast it under the broiler just until it starts to take on a little color. Flip the bread and toast the other side.
- Arrange the toast on a platter, and while it is still warm, rub one side of each slice with the garlic.
- Drizzle with olive oil.
- Sprinkle with salt.
One of my favorite fall dinners is this garlic bread served with greens (sauteed with more garlic) and white beans. Some nights I’ll add sausage (my favorite is garlic and cheese—yep, more garlic—from our local market) or mushrooms. Some nights I just keep it at beans, greens, and bread. Simple. Quick. Satisfying.
Last weekend we had a killing frost. In the Saturday morning chill while my big girl got ready for soccer, I trotted up to the garden. I filled a plastic grocery bag with jewel-toned chard, crimson and gold threading through deep green leaves. I picked a quart of green beans, a handful of jalapenos and miniature bell peppers. I left the carrots and the beets in the ground; they’d be fine. I considered the basil, but it was looking anemic.
Just before I got in the car to head out for the weekend, I cut flowers—bright red dahlias and zinnias—orange-red, pale to deep pink, more red—and filled an old canning jar. There will be mums still and asters, but it’s my last cutting of these brilliant hues.
It’s a time of endings in the garden. Wrapping up.
And yet, cilantro is sprouting all over. Johnny-jump-ups raise their little smiles. And garlic is ready to go into the ground, with hopes for the spring.
While I worked on clearing the limp, blackened plants from the garden, my girls raked the yellow leaves that blanketed the yard, hoping for a huge pile to jump in. The wood piles grow. Dinner is less about grilling and salad than something that can go in the oven—shepherd’s pie, pork and apple pie—or simmer for hours on the stove—pea soup, squash soup.
It’s a time of endings, but it’s a beginning of this next season too. Snow flew briefly on Sunday. The girls ran out to greet it. I didn’t welcome it, not yet. This season on golden and crimson leaves will end soon enough, shifting to the brown of oaks. Even the cilantro and parsley and mums, holding out for now, will succumb to the cold. And then I’ll welcome the snow (though maybe not too much of it?). Then I’ll shift from cider to cocoa.
But for now, I’m cleaning up from the summer I’ve already said good-bye to. I’m embracing the smell of chilly mornings and wood smoke, and rotting leaves. I’m soaking up the sun and watching the busy bees, knowing I have much to do too, but feeling lazy.
Last night I sautéed some of that chard with mushrooms and my own garlic. I added white beans and grilled eggplant and bright roasted squash. I toasted bread and rubbed it with more of my garlic, sprinkled it lightly with salt, drizzled thickly with olive oil. Bright colors, rich and earthy flavors. The last of my garden bounty becomes one of my favorite fall meals. An end, a beginning.
What’s wrapping up for you right now? What’s beginning? Write about a time of transition whether it’s seasonal or something shifting in your own life?
I loved this day with it’s golden glow, a last breath of summer wearing the colors of fall.
I loved this day with a pile of weeds culled and branches clipped as I slowly get ready to put the garden to rest for the year. I loved this day with cilantro from that garden even as everything else is winding down. I loved this day as I wondered when to plant my garlic. Is it time?
I loved this day with a fairy princess biking to pick apples, coming back with a bag of them in her bike basket. I loved this day of my girls whirling-spinning-climbing-sliding-flipping on the playground as I wrote two letters in the warm sun. I loved this day even as the chill of late afternoon crept in with a reminder that it is fall despite the glory it offered.
I loved this day with dinner offered, no need to cook.
I loved this day as I turned apples into sauce, cutting, simmering, watching white slices and red skin turn into a tawny rose puddle that pulsed and breathed as it came to a boil. I loved this day savoring warm apple sauce sprinkled thickly with crisp granola. I loved this day listening to the canning pot bubble and clatter for one of the last times this year.
I loved this day in this season I love. I loved this day with the ones I love. I loved this day doing the things I love.
I loved this day.
What ever you love, let’s write together. Write What You Love Starts tomorrow. You can still sign up here. (It’s free!)
Our first date was a hike. He proposed after we set up camp on a backpacking trip. My engagement picture shows us in fleece and headlamps. So for our tenth anniversary, a backpacking trip just made sense.
It’s been eight or nine years since I’ve carried my pack, a fact made clear by the layer of dust on it when we took it down from its hook on the wall. In those years, I’ve carried three babies. We’ve both carried the weight of grief. We’ve walked together and alone. But we hadn’t hefted these packs together, purple next to black, in a long time.
We bought packets of dehydrated food, granola bars, jerky, and cocoa. We pulled out sleeping bags and stuff sacks and the backpacking stove. We jumbled it all with Tevas and hiking boots and warm layers and somehow fit it all into packs.
Tuesday morning, after getting the kids off to school, we set out on an adventure. We left behind bills and homework and trying to figuring out what people would eat for dinner. We left behind a comfy bed and warm house. We headed out, just the two of us for three days.
When Brian said 6.4 miles for the first day, it didn’t sound so bad. I’ve run 6.1 in under an hour, with a “nobody runs the hill” hill in it. But that run wasn’t this steep the whole way. I wasn’t wearing a heavy pack, and the ground wasn’t broken rock. 6.4 miles in the mountains is different.
Still we set out hopeful that we’d make it to Mizpah hut where we could get water and set up in a nearby tent site. Briefly, the trail was easy. Then we went up and up and up. Brian listened to music. I got lost in my thoughts. We continued upward. We talked about music and books and the value of trekking poles. We climbed some more.
We stopped for a snack and checked our watches. As dusk settled into darkness, with no real idea how far we’d come, we realized we weren’t going to get to the hut. We started looking for water. Then a flat spot. Too wet, too wet, too wet.
Darker and colder. Brian was stumbling with his pack top-heavy with water. We were both stumbling tired.
Finally, we found an opening with a bed of moss, not too wet, just barely big enough for the tent. We got water boiling while we got the tent set up. Then quiet. Too quiet. The ever-reliable, but loud, backpacking stove had gone out. There was cursing and repeated attempts to restart it, and finally the consistent loud roar that meant that we’d get a hot meal that night.
While we waited for dinner to rehydrate, Brian poured hot water into our mugs, and I stirred up the cocoa, a cup of comfort, hot and sweet.
Wednesday morning, we fueled up on our backpacking staples of oatmeal and cocoa, and also hard-boiled eggs, homemade granola, coffee. Little luxuries.
About an hour later, the trail opened out to the hut we had been aiming for. We filled water bottles, used the bathroom, spread maps out on the broad tables. I noted that the weather, that as of the day before had looked glorious for this longest day of your trip, was now:
Mixed precip. High in the 40s. You will be walking through clouds.
Mixed precip (possibly some snow). Lows 20s
As we stepped out, we felt raindrops and put pack covers and rain gear on. It didn’t last long, and we were working hard enough that our rain coats came off soon. Still, wisps of hair slapped across my face, wet from the moisture in the air. We were walking through clouds, but even in that gray, we were surrounded by emerald, moss green, maroon, and scarlet—moss, lichen, alpine blueberries at our feet.
Above treeline, in that low visibility, I appreciated the cairns that kept us on track. Brian would periodically glance over his shoulder, make sure I wasn’t falling too far behind.
Above treeline, the wind whipped loose straps from my pack into my face. My pack cover rattled and ballooned in the gusts. I appreciated too, the scrubby stunted evergreens that blocked the wind a few steps down. We hunkered on a rock in one such windbreak and ate Granny Smith apples, crisp and tart with slices of creamy sharp cheddar. More luxuries shared.
We carried all we needed on our backs—food, water, shelter, more layers. We chose which non-essentials made the cut—weight vs. worth. Coffee, eggs, apples, cheese . . .
We went up and over Mount Monroe, where the wind tried to take us off course with each step. As we started down, the clouds suddenly opened. We saw blue sky for the first time that day, sunshine, and Lake of the Clouds.
The hut was closed for the year, but we entered The Dungeon, the always open emergency shelter, to eat lunch and check our maps out of the wind. As we ate, the sky grew darker. Clouds loomed closer, sprinting across the sky in a solid stream. We wouldn’t do any extra exploring above treeline. We’d just head down (6 more miles) and try to find a place for the night.
Descents are obstensibly easier, but my knees have never liked them. The trail was wet or mucky, and I found myself picking my steps carefully, deliberately. It was faster going than the day before, but still slow.
All around us, downed trees showed the damage of a storm a few years back. We climbed over and under some that still crossed the trail. Sometimes, I’d find myself straddling a log, willing my other leg to swing its way over so I could continue. M&Ms + salted peanuts + almonds + craisins kept me going. I wasn’t so sure about the M&Ms at home (I added chocolate chips to my own bag of trail mix instead), but out there I scarfed them. No luxury, quick energy.
With all the downed trees, there were no spots for tents, and this night was supposed to be colder than the last. Dusk was just starting to inch in around us. I didn’t want to be picking my way down this slippery, wet, rocky trail in a headlamp.
“How’re you doing?” Brian asked as I caught up to him resting on a rock. I slumped against my pack on one nearby, and he handed me the water bottle.
He nodded. “We’ve got to be close to the shelter.”
I hoped he was right though I had no sense of distance traveled. We didn’t sit long.
“Ready?” We lurched to our feet.
As dusk gathered more closely, I remembered the cocoa from the night before, and started this mantra: cocoa, lasagna, dry socks. This was my promise to myself once we found our home for the night. It had to be close. Maybe. The only thing to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Brian smelled it first. Wood smoke. Camp fire. The shelter.
He was stumbling into view of it when I made the last water crossing. Looking up, I saw trail leading either way. I barely saw it in the dark. So close and I felt lost. I called out. He answered, and I saw his headlamp.
And then I was stumbling in too, seeing the cheery fire, the three folks already there. We dropped our packs. Pulled out sleeping pads, sleeping bags, dinner.
While Brian boiled water, I put on those dry socks and fleece leggings and another layer. Brian poured the water and we had cocoa by the fire, while we waited for the lasagna to be ready. I ate out of the bag. So good.
“You make better lasagna,” he told me, but right then I wasn’t so sure. That lasagna tasted pretty damn good after our long day. Half-way down, I handed him the bag. Our romantic shared dinner.
Then we pulled on layers, zipped sleeping bags up tight and settled in for a cold night, grateful to have made it to this place where we could rest.
Thursday was our anniversary. We’d made it about 15 miles on that trip so far. We’d made it 10 years since we said “I do.”
We continued down together, talking about ways to start the girls out in these mountains with us and about dogs that would be good for hiking and barn restoration. The trail continued to challenge us with slippery mud pits and downed trees. At spots it seemed to peter out and disappear. We crossed a river once only to cross back when we realized we’d been mislead. We both cursed at separate times. And we navigated it together. We checked in on each other. We shared snacks and water.
We got back to the car in the warmth of a blue-sky October day. We donned new socks, dry underwear, cotton t-shirts. Ah.
Two hours later, we both hobbled out of the car for dinner, tired muscles stiff from sitting still. We devoured bacon burgers and fries at the Happy Hour Family Restaurant. It wasn’t a fancy dinner or a particularly romantic one, but we were there together 10 years later and in that moment it all felt easy.
I think about the slogging part of our trip, the tight lines on the map showing the hard work of the up-up-up, the mucky ground, the stumbling in the dark, the hard ground beneath us and the cold. And I think about the brilliant green and the exhilaration in the wind. I think about feeling small but part of something bigger. I am exhausted and sore, but I’m also refilled. We’re also reconnected to some part of who we were but also to some part of who we are, a part that might have gotten a little dusty like my pack.
There are moments when your pack is dialed in right and everything feels balanced, when the trail is almost flat and well marked. Enjoy those moments. Soak them in. Because even in the midst of an adventure, there’s a lot of slogging. You’ll feel your pack dig into your shoulders or your boot rubbing the wrong way. You’ll stumble in the dark and slip in the muck. You’ll wonder if you’re going the right way.
Turn around, make sure you’re still together.
Ask, “How are you doing?”
Offer each other trail mix, water, a spot next to you on the rock to rest.
Point out the fairy colors of the landscape, the sun brightening the sky, the leaves—you’re back to lower ground—crunching underfoot.
Keep each other going.
Keep going together.