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.
My friend was inspired to write a poem after seeing this photo:
She visited New Orleans this past month. We drove to Lake Pontchartrain, and sat there for a while contemplating about our fast-moving day. I forgot how much I needed to slow down. Biking has made me a hopper, moving through moments without settling down to think about them. Suffice to say I miss being a walker. Staring out at the water, I thought: there is love and sadness in that lake. It’s almost like it’s saying, you are no one to the sea. That’s how I feel when I’m floating over an endless body of water.
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.
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.