On the last full day in the woods, we hiked back to the beginning of the trail, knowing we would have to find a spot to sleep before dark, something preferably a half-hour before sundown, since we needed time to set up our tent. We passed wide paths, sprinkled with fallen or crooked trees on the sides, staying alert for a chance to see birds; we could hear them, but we couldn’t see them. The trail blended in with the wide forest and the undulating hills, at times going upward or downward. I wondered if sundown would be upon us soon, too lazy to check my phone, which was buried in my backpack.
I grew bored watching the trail, which had turned narrow again with lengthy trees on both sides, producing a type of tunnel vision. Sometimes one of us would trip on a cleverly hidden hole, covered by dry twigs. What followed were steep hills (though not so steep in retrospect), and since I had two sticks, I didn’t tumble down like a fat rock, considering I was carrying a heavy backpack, weighing 30 pounds. The walking sticks I found were surprisingly the right size, and sturdy enough for my weight. We walked quickly, set on finding a camping spot. We passed a decent area, but since we still have enough time, we decided to hike a little more. If we made up the distance there would be less walking the next day, which I was hoping for. Back at the tree trunk bridge I saw a flat, elevated spot just next to a small creek. The first time I walked over the tree trunk sitting above a creek with mostly pointy rocks, I thought how dangerous that people had to cross a makeshift bridge, though firmly in place, it did not give much confidence, since there was only a rope to hold onto. We settled our stuff and set up our tent on a flat area was surrounded by tall trees that didn’t overcrowd us, so we could still walk around and we had enough open space to peek at the sky. Further down there was a sandy spot, closer to the creek.
It was building up to be a cold night under the stars. Not even the canister’s fire kept us warm. There was a fire ban in De Soto National Forest because of the recent wildfires in nearby states so we couldn’t build a campfire. After much preparation my lentil soup was warm enough to eat. I could finally hide inside my sleeping bag. After dinner we walked through twigs, ducking under the trees, using our flashlights to illuminate the way. Finally we arrived at a spot where a tree trunk lay across the ground, allowing us to sit down and stare at the dark blue sky. I felt cold despite my gloves and sweater. I had lost all my winter resilience thanks to the warm days in New Orleans.
The sky was dotted with an unending number of stars. I tried to connect the dots in my mind to imagine a constellation of my own. I thought about the Pleiades or Seven Sister star cluster I had learned about recently. To the Incan and Andean people of Peru, the rising of the star cluster signaled the beginning of the Incan Year, but also the dimness of the stars hinted at the amount of rainfall in the next months following the month of June, which would let farmers know when to plant crops. When the thickness of the clouds obscured the Pleiades, it informed the farmers a dry season would follow, forcing them to wait. Scientists have correlated the weather pattern to El Niño. I wondered where Pleiades was now, during our fall season. Somehow with these observations of nature and Astronomy, I felt more grounded and lucid. Something as simple as sleeping in the woods under a tent allowed for a feeling of meaning and place.
I’m sitting out on the balcony with the view of the surrounding mountains. The air is fresh and the skies are endless. Yesterday, the land stretched out to me for the first time when I was on a bus heading to Boulder, Colorado.
Outside the bus, the undulating hills gave way to a row of mountains under a misty blue sky. It made me think about the Adirondacks or Peru, my home country with its soft but sometimes jagged peaks. The houses often had a subdued western style, but in other areas, modern buildings blended with the fall colors. The roads were flat and endless, and the trees small. Black cows grazed the dry beige grass. It was almost like someone had painted them on the neutral landscape. They seemed small from where I was, and I didn’t see a barn nearby, so perhaps the cows were wandering freely.
From the balcony of the apartment, I noticed a squirrel on a tree, standing there with its fluffy tail, eating a morsel of food. The cool breeze moved through wide spaces then whirled around my hair. It was strange to be in a progressive city, blooming with marijuana establishments, environmentally conscious city planning and sport activities, despite the consensus of less than half the country, saying this wasn’t working. I kept telling myself this kind of place does exist, so why can’t it exist elsewhere, but it’s possible we were ignoring the rest of this country’s inability to move forward.
In all its isolation, Boulder seemingly untouched by the results of the election, while the rest of the country seemed to be in ruins (according to twitter)—at least in the NYC and California, where people were protesting as they should. I saw a protest on Pearl St. a few days later, but not like the ones being shown on T.V. No one was rioting or burning things here, but a lot of young and older folks showed up with signs and drums.
The next day at the start of the Mt. Sanitas Trail, the altitude suddenly hit me, and I slowed down, realizing it was going to take some time getting to the top. I kept stopping every now and then doubting myself. But I had enough water and chapstick; my lips kept turning dry and parched. The air was thin and cool, but the sun was still out, falling on my face, and making it too hot to keep a sweater on. I told myself I had to work through it, through the rocks, the broken ground, the steep climbs and twisting paths that sometimes weren’t clear. I said hello to some folks walking down. I asked them how far away the top was. Many of them downplayed their estimations, but there were smiling me on, so I kept going. I had briefly talked to a guy at the beginning of the trail, but I stayed behind, feeling quite content to take my time. I never did understand why people wanted to race to the top and then race back down. I guess for some this was common place, to hike up this trail as a workout. But I wanted to enjoy the sights, and take in every twisting corner and dusty path, because who knows when I would return.
In a way, the trail helped the anger and disappointment of the election fade away, slowly taking away its stubborn hold on my thoughts, and the “What ifs?” or “What is wrong with people?” Why had this election felt like the biggest devastation? It was clearly out of my control. The only important matter was the steps in front of me and the surrounding pine trees. From the top I saw Boulder and its tiny homes; the red, orange trees, the layers of sky. I rested for a while, contemplating the landscape, knowing that this feeling was eternal, being close to mountain and sky.
Some weekends ago I took a bus to Alabama to visit a friend. It was an eventful weekend of driving to the beach, hiking, and exploring what is left of downtown Mobile. I say what is left because the downtown area appeared mostly empty. People are not lying when they say there’s nothing to do out here. I don’t know much about Mobile’s history. I think of it as a mini New Orleans that the founders wanted to turn into a busting place, but left undone and adopted New Orleans instead. Mobile shares some of Nola’s streets, the oak trees and architecture. Walking around, I realized downtown could be a community for artists and families, but from the looks of it, a lot of shops have shut down—also it was Monday when I visited, but still, it appeared desolate.
We met a family who was equally puzzled trying to find something to do. The main museum was closed. The family of three: a mother, dad and their daughter were passing by for the day, and they used some of their afternoon hours to sit under the shade in Bienville Square Park and complain about the heat. “We’re from up North.” They were from Massachusetts and they were sweating. “I could use a drink right about now,” said the dad, chuckling. When I told them, I moved from NYC to live in New Orleans, he said, “Oh I know about those New York folks.” “Be careful, they can destroy you with their thumbs,” he said looking at my friend.
I laughed innocently, as if agreeing but not really. I hardly think of myself as a tough New Yorker. My friend and I sat down to rest then walked around quickly to get ice-cold water. We passed a bank that had a large thermometer on the outside; it measured 93 F. We passed an old bookstore that seemed to have only hardcover books about baseball and old white men. There wasn’t much shade and I was getting a headache from being in the heat, so we settled on eating pizza, which was surprisingly good. I took some quick photos, so as not to stay outside for too long. There was a mural painted over the bottom part of an abandoned building and a small peanut shop where I bought Spanish peanuts. The walls inside were decorated with memorabilia, plaques, and newspaper articles recounting their glory days.
The day before we drove to the Gulf Shores beaches where we hid from the sun under a small umbrella. When that didn’t work we ran to the beach and stayed there for a long time, floating with the waves. We dove down to the bottom to see the fish. My friend saw gray and blue fish. I couldn’t believe they were right below me and I refused to participate, but after many tries I finally saw one. I didn’t take many photos that day, but I do remember loosing an earing after taking off my goggles. It fell right by the shore, and it was tiny and black, resembling many of the broken shell pieces on the sand. It was gone forever.
The next day we headed to the Historic Blakeley State Park, which has nature trails, cabins, and historic sites. In the 1820s the Town of Blakeley had a population of 4,000, more than Mobile at the time. But with the yellow fever epidemic and land speculation, people starting flocking to Mobile. During the Civil War it became a fort housing soldiers and weapons. The last battle after the Confederate general surrendered took place here in 1865. Now it’s considered the “loveliest ghost town.” The town’s center was part of the trail with only one structure remaining (most likely reconstructed) but plenty of witchery trees, crooked and dark.
We could hear the birds, but we couldn’t see them. We hiked about 7 miles but it was only in the second half that we saw the beautiful bulbous trees and the Tensaw River where we stopped to rest on a bench. Yellow black butterflies passed our vision and flew behind the trees. We walked along a boardwalk and that headed back to hiking path. The walk wasn’t all that rigorous but the heat made it hard at times. For lunch we went to a Cajun restaurant that had an outdoor balcony facing a long expanse of swampy terrain and skinny trees (which was only temporarily ruined by the highway in the distance). Lunch included a mysterious waitress from Minnesota with black eyeliner and a singer with purple hair streaks, who had a nice voice but was singing kitsch songs. It was contrary to an otherwise swampy afternoon in the south. At least two twin boys with matching pink shirts had their eyes glued to the stage.
Upon returning to New Orleans, I asked my uber driver, how the weather had been for the past few days. “Mostly hot; we haven’t received much rain lately,” she said. I thought about my plants, and their probable deaths. I doubt anyone in my house had remembered to water the garden.
I was always drawn to the idea of packing up and leaving everything behind. To leave is a powerful statement, especially when there’s nothing left for you to stay, as in the case of Cheryl Strayed, and her memoir, Wild: From Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. For Strayed, staying meant being trapped by her mother’s death, a failed marriage, and heavy drug use.
It was when she saw a traveler’s book with the photo of a lake in the Pacific Crest Trail that she decided to leave. Sometimes the only place to cure you, to make you whole again, is nature. At 26, Strayed left all that was familiar for the arduous PCT, a long-distance hike of 2,663 mi, passing California, Oregon and Washington, through the highest areas of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.
I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And most surprisingly of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realization about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm.
Often our emotional afflictions are so unbearable that we see no way out. Hiking teaches us that you can adapt, be flexible and most of all endure what seems impossible at first. Knowing that you are able to withstand the heaviness of a backpack, means that you can carry your vulnerabilities and fears and make them yours, and still triumph.
It’s not common to see hiking movies depicting women surviving in the wilderness. It seems women are always being advised against traveling alone. Sometimes the fears of others stick to us, making us think the world is too dangerous for us to explore, so we leave it to others to write our journeys. But there’s nothing more enriching than traveling alone and figuring out your place in the world.
It was my life– like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
As a film, Wild is a study of landscape with subtle dialogue and a mix of flashbacks and reveries. While the film did well to encapsulate the movie, it left out some scenes and changed characters. Reading the book along with watching the film gives you a better understanding of the story. The film is a version of the book; it’s one aspect of it, but the book documents in full scope Cheryl’s good fortunes, near disasters, the kindness of strangers, and learning the hard truths.
Strayed’s prose is energetic, often filled with tense anger. Walking those grueling miles is a way to face her grief. When she finds herself on a rocky cliff, overlooking a valley of trees, high in the sierra, one of her hiking boots falls down. She has blisters on her feet and bruises on her hips from the heavy backpack, and she manages to lose a boot. She yells at her surroundings and throws the other shoe in the same direction.
You’re doing fine, Cheryl, he said. Don’t worry about it too much. You’re green, but you’re tough. And tough is what matters the most out here. Not just anyone could do what you’re doing.
Strayed is not an expert hiker which makes her story all the more unlikely and impossible. There’s suspense as she camps alone, trying to cook food, find clean water, and a place to sleep. There’s always a doubtful voice in her head, saying, go home. We know she wasn’t prepared from day one when she decided to pack too many supplies, or when she decided not to take the ice ax, or when her shoes were giving her blister since they were too small. The lack of preparation forces her to cover a lot more ground compared to the other experienced hikers. Strayed is a human who makes mistakes, and even more amazing for completing the PCT. We’re all humans who forget to be prepared and have to improvise, doing courageous tasks we wouldn’t normally attempt.
Strayed spends much of her time describing her internal, emotional conflicts and physical pain in powerful language that gives us a sense anguish and profound sadness, but her language often feels empty when describing the natural landscape. The quickness of her language is freeing and flows naturally as it lends itself to the adventure. There’s a connection between Strayed’s love for writing and the openness of the PCT. The trail allows her the time to read and to think about her favorite writers. At every trail point she leaves a quote. During the nights she burns a book when she’s finished reading it, almost as if the words are being returned to the wilderness.
Of all the things I’d done in my life, of all the versions of myself I’d lived out, there was one that never changed: I was a writer.
Towards the end when she’s on a narrow trail, entering a dense forest and mist is falling over her face, she sees a llama, then a boy and her grandmother. The boy sings, Red River Valley. He says, his mother has passed too. The silence of the forest contained life itself, the possibility of change, what Strayed needed to make this things right, and be the woman her mother raised.
It had been so silent in the wake of that commotion, a kind of potent silence that seemed to contain everything.
I was heading to Woodland on the 4 train with less passengers at every stop—a clear sign of traveling away from Manhattan. By the end of the ride I was finally breathing Bronx air, and it felt wide and endless. Once off the stop, me and a friend searched for the Van Cortlandt Park entrance. The east of side of the park didn’t have a marked entrance like the west side, so we decided for the closest entry point.
When I tell people about the park, they follow with “that’s way up there.” No I’m not going off to the moon just yet. By train it takes hour if you’re coming from Queens, but by car, only 20 minutes (with one toll), even less from Manhattan. Van Cortlandt has 1,146 acres and is one of NYC’s last relic native woodlands, and the third largest park in the metro area. It’s home to a freshwater lake, marshland, a forest with 100-year-old oak trees. Also sports fields, running/biking trails, a pool, and the Riverdale Stables— so if you see a horse in the park, it’s totally normal. On this particular Saturday, we had the whole space to ourselves—well, almost: people were scattered around but not in abundance as is the case for Central Park, where you’re elbow to elbow searching for a proper place to relax.
We made it our goal to walk to the John Muir trail (1.5 miles). At times we didn’t know if we were walking the right way. We consulted the online map, but after a while that got tiring, and why ruin nature with our cellphones? I figure we just follow our sense of direction. The park was covered in thick trees and ground shrubs, and the trails were kept clean except for a few fallen trees likely from hurricane Sandy. At the onset of the trail to our left we saw the roots of a huge tree over on its trunk. It was the grandmother of all trees, fat and large. We kept walking, and stopped every so often when we heard bird sounds. We saw Red-winged blackbirds, and plenty of American robins. At some point the trail cut off and we were left in the middle of a highway, but then we found the entrance to next part of the trail and kept walking. The trails here were farther away from the road, deeper into the woodland. For the most part it was flat with some incline. It’s best to wear your hiking shoes since you’re bound to find rocky paths ahead. We inspected nooks and crannies for inhabitants. At some point we saw a nest of what appeared to be small Blue Jays, but we couldn’t be sure, since it was way up on a tall tree, and my binoculars couldn’t see that far.
The spring air was still lovely underneath the canopy of trees. When we peaked out from the green fullness, the heat fell on us, with the balmy wind coming and going. Though most of the trails are clean, I was disappointed to see pieces of candy wrappers on the floor. Several trees had plastic bags hanging down like abandoned ghosts. Random bottles were floating in the lake and marshes. It’s awful to be in nature and have the reminder of our addiction to plastic (it always creeps up). Plastic doesn’t magically disappears in secluded forests. When plastic breaks down it creepy toxins harming the environment, wildlife and humans. Animals confuse plastic for food, and since it can’t be digested they eventually die a low death, and there’s more. At once I thought, let’s start picking up garbage, but neither of us had any bags, and who knows where the next garbage container would appear. This summer I want to volunteer in the park or just go around picking garbage if no one wants to join me.
The noises from Common Grackles and unseen warblers made me slip back into the walk. We began crossing over to the west side. The trails were wider and rockier than the flatter counterpart of the east. The trees had also grown taller. Throughout the trail we fussed over finding the John Muir Trail, and once we were on it, we couldn’t wait to get out. Now we were following some pink trail marks. We stopped suddenly when we saw a brown-colored butterfly with eyespots on its wings. To avoid us it blended successfully with the dry brown leaves on the floor.
Farther ahead, tall grass reached above our height: an unlikely marshland in the middle of this “urban” park. I tried to take a peek through the gaps of grass, but it was too dense. Some of the edges were outlined by a fence, preventing people from walking straight through the marshes. Even without the gate, common sense dictates that you won’t find easy footing, and what’s worse is invading protected areas. Up ahead where the forest took over again, we peeked through a small opening out to the pond. I was a sniper browsing the distant landscape. On some branches over the water were a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds, Catbirds, and Tree Swallows making their rounds in the sky, and eventually confusing us with their mad disarray. On my far right, a white egret was playing along the reeds. Some weeks later in the same pond, I would see a group of turtles on a fallen tree truck basking in hot weather.
Once we saw the view in the photo above, we decided to take a well-deserved rest. I’m not sure how long we walked but now it was close to lunch time. All I had to eat were some meager cashew nuts. In front of us were lanky, thin trees with yellow flowers swaying to the wind. That’s when I saw something flicker; it was a tiny fat warbler. I couldn’t believe it! A yellow warbler came to visit our chosen rest stop. It was flying restlessly from branch to branch, sometimes staying still, enough for me to see it through the binoculars. When it heard us make a fuss, it was gone! Knowing how to properly use binoculars comes in handy with these tiny birds. And with that we started making our way out. Close to the end of Van Corlandt some adult Blue Jays bade us farewell with their loud jeers.
Some weeks ago I went to Floyd Bennett Field and Marine Park with the Brooklyn Birding Club. Apart from the mad journey of getting there, hiking in the area was relaxing. It was my first time birding in a big group. Usually I bird alone or with 2 or 3 people at most. I don’t know many birders, so it’s all the more reason why being there was a necessary learning experience.
The initial trip was hectic thanks to an email confusion that made me late. Once I arrived to Floyd Bennett and stepped off the bus, I was in the middle of nowhere. Some part of me asked: is this still NYC? It was no man’s land at the edge of Brooklyn. I felt far away from urban life. Only the road with the fast cars on the side reminded me. Up ahead was the aviator building followed by a parking lot. I asked a park ranger which way was North 40 and he directed me to walk past the circus tents. I advise anyone going to Floyd Bennett, to get there by car.
I walked to the entrance of North 40 where I was greeted by Red-winged Black birds and a large group of Canadian Geese. I was in the right area. The sun was hitting the cement, getting hotter, but up ahead near the foliage it was cool. I walked to a small trail up ahead, as I waited for the group behind some tall trees for a short while. My phone was without service, so I decided to take a peek out, and there I saw a large group of people in the field with binoculars, large cameras and binocular tripods. I used by binoculars to inspect them and they did the same in my direction. It was the Brooklyn Birding Club. I greeted the organizer and smiled as I walked toward her. Someone from a far said, ” I don’t think I would have made it this far.” I was starting to feel like a soldier coming from Queens. The driver introduced me to the other guy in our car—“this is our lost passenger.” Would I go by that nickname the whole way through the hike?
We headed to the surrounding areas. First a community garden where I saw a goldfinch, plenty of house sparrows, a Northern-flicker and a Kestrel later during lunch, which no one took a picture of since it wouldn’t let you get near. There were rows of gardens separated by gray and white fences. The people working on them smiled at us as they kept fixing their small land. At some point, I got too excited thinking I saw a strange bird, and one of the experienced birders looked at it, and said “A robin.” It felt like someone had dropped a cement block on me. I only saw the bird’s backside, and the mix of bird noises confused me.
I realize for experience birders some birds don’t excite them anymore, since they see them repeatedly, so they search for the rarest. I see this with myself too, but I also don’t want to completely ignore the common birds that may need conservation. Ideally you should first get comfortable with the birds around your neighborhood and in your backyard, studying them (shape, size, color, behavior and sound), and then progress to rare birds outside your comfort zone. I’m at that level where I can easily recognize birds near my house and those at local parks. Also using binoculars doesn’t come naturally, so adjust, take your time, and don’t get too overly excited when you can’t spot a bird.
We took a drive to the nearby beach. The sun was in all its glory, raining down, without the shade of trees. We stopped at the walkway before the shore. The air was still breezy here. It was hard to concentrate just on one side of the beach. Some birders were looking far into the distance with their tripod lenses while us binocular-users concentrated on the ducks close by. Duck species are the hardest to determine for me, since I rarely see them. But luckily some of the other birders knew, and they were nice enough to share. In the distance we saw: wood ducks, American coot, buffleheads, among others.
I looked to the blue sky and these black birds were circling. They were vultures searching for a high post to perch from. When they flew closer to us we could distinguish their pink-red naked heads. I believe someone caught a good shot with their long lens camera. Looking around the area, I saw what appeared to be an abandoned airplane facility. It was wide, beige and filled with flying dust. Some of the windows were cracked and broken, rusty from old age. A vulture descended down on the roof of the building and faced us, only as a detective would.
We later headed to a marshy area. We came upon an almost barren beach marsh. Without inspecting much of the area, it appeared empty and dead. But there was life in the waters beyond: mallard ducks, American black ducks… The leader of the trip let me use her tripod binoculars, and I was able to see a kill deer. To the side there was an old building with graffiti with random drawing and letters. Nothing too discernible except for a quote about the seconds being wasted in sadness. The breeze later blended with the meaning of those words.
At the last spot in Marina Park, everyone was searching for the Pin-tailed Ducks. In the meantime we saw the hooded merganser, oystercatchers, forster terns, parakeets (someone released them in the 1970s), among others. After walking through the trail, I saw an osprey sitting on a nest above a long pole. And just as half the group was leaving the trail, I slowed down a bit, turned around thinking maybe the Pin-tailed duck would be there. A couple of minutes later my blind faith paid off. The few who stayed behind were able to see this cute duck.
I heard some rumors about the Prothonotary Warbler roaming Prospect Park. I had not seen any warblers in Floyd Bennett Field or in the marina. About half of the group went to Prospect Park, and I followed them. After a quick pizza slice, I trotted down to the park, running from one corner to another based on rumors from other birders. I caught the bird craziness, and now I was looking for a Prothonotary Warbler. A guy on a bike was trying to get a photo with his long lens camera, going from one site to another, meanwhile the rest of us were still trailing on foot, feeling slow as ever.
I had no clue what I was searching for until I saw a glimmer of yellow between some branches near a pond. The little Prothonotary was a quick fellow, but we were able to see it clearly when it perched from a branch sticking out of the dense foliage. Then it was gone. We hurried across to the other side of the pond where it was rumored to be. Just for our luck, the feisty bird was gone again; it went back to the other side. From this new angle we could clearly see it without other branches in the way. About 5-6 birders were looking at this tiny yellow bird across the pond, and right in front was a guy lounging—not fazed one bit by the bird. One of the birders later said, “2015 still life: bird and park lounger.” Birding is all about patience and going back for seconds. Just when I thought the warbler left us for good, it flew directly to the tree in front of us, and we all had a front row view and a good laugh. In all the Brooklyn Bird Club counted 60 species during this trip.