Reboot Day

Another trip around the sun brings us to “reboot day,” or as most know it, January 1.

Many people spend time today creating resolutions for the new year. It is not a practice I do anymore, and have not for more years than I can remember. Years past I did personal annual reviews to look back and look forward, and I suppose that is a resolutionary effort, but really more project planning.

I am not judging or putting down anyone who makes an annual resolutions list, just sharing that I do not. Instead, any day of my year can have an internal personal announcement of my intention to do this or that. And sometimes I even follow through and do it, but not always. For me, a traditional January 1 resolution list lasts about as long as Thanksgiving leftovers, yet not nearly as tasty across the short number of days it takes to become but a memory.

I enjoyed January 1, when I was still working full time, more as one of those rare, weekdays off. Now retired, every weekday is a day off, so the thrill of such days at home and not at the office are enjoyed throughout the week, the month, the year simply as days I no longer commute to an office and work a full eight (or more). That reason is enough to celebrate January 1 as I do all days of the year.

If making a list of resolutions works for you or helps you form the habits to make them sustainable, then go for it and more power to you. If other traditions, such as the southern one of eating black-eyed peas on this day for good luck, works for you then go for it, too. For all of us, there is the hope that 2022’s reboot day marks the beginning of a safer year and one getting us closer to the end of the pandemic. On that, I think we can all agree.

Desert Winter

When all is said and done, winter probably gets vote for favorite season. I say probably because it is a complicated concept to be definitive about.

A frequent topic here (eight blog posts so far), I enjoy exploring what winter means to me and how I embrace its annual season of renewal, rejuvenation, and quiet recharge of life’s batteries. Winter is not quite the same without the cold, the snow, the shift into staying inside more for warmth, often with blanket cuddling the lap, mug of hot cocoa in hand, and a good book to read despite the inevitable accidental nap encouraged by those three conspirators. Most years, it is a more subtle change of gears in the mind than a shift nudged into place by seasonal weather changes. This year, for me, winter is a season in the desert.

Don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter.
It’s quiet but the roots are down there riotous.

– Rumi

Winter for me typically means read more, relax more, or simply put, a slowed down pace of life to chill more (pun unintended). Most winters I embrace, without labeling it as such, the Danish tradition of hygge, or “coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.”

It is definitely a time when I give myself permission to do less, and ease through the days more than usual to sip each moment. And I must confess, to me the winter image is one of a blazing fire inside and white blankets outside with those endearing snowflakes easing to the ground with little urgency. This year the only blazing I see are the marvelous winter sunrises a desert delivers.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

– John Steinbeck

This year I am still in my zone of seasonal renewal, albeit without the pleasant fire and white visuals. In the desert this winter, relaxing and renewing inside my camper van, I still have cherished memories of special winters past, ones with a fireplace blazing while outside nature’s en plein living winter artwork continues through the day. Those winters were not better than others without those two, but remain my halcyon memories. Winter is, as I choose to embrace it, is a state of mind and easily transportable to wherever one is, not just when the view outside takes on the look of a classic Norman Rockwell winter scene.

Yet winter’s renewing grace,
Its universal task,
Revives us all,
If we wear its mask.

– Gary Varner

Desert Retreat

Being someone who enjoys his own company and likes to contemplate on things, spending quiet time in thought and mediation, the idea of a formal retreat appeals to me. While I have yet to do a formal monastery retreat, that is still on my bucket list.

Given the pandemic situation, now is not the best time for such a structured effort, but certainly is a great time to do a self-imposed desert retreat. That is essentially what I began on December 5 here in extreme southeast California, so close to Yuma and Mexico I could almost ride a bike there. I am at the Imperial Dam LTVA, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA), until late February when I begin the arduous task of a beeline five-day drive back to Ann Arbor. For two weeks before the 5th I bought my long-term permit ($180 lets you stay from September 15 to April 15 each year) and bounced around various LTVAs in the region until I discovered the Imperial Dam LTVA. Here I have all the right supports and resources in place or nearby, from the landscape, to services (showers, water, dump, trash, mail/package service, propane, etc.), and a thirty-minute drive to Yuma, a good-sized city for groceries, laundry, etc.

I am isolated here, visually seeing other RVs but none closer than several hundred feet. My days are my own to control, and other than the infrequent chore days for refilling water, dumping waste, or driving into Yuma the van does not move and I fill my days with quiet thinking time, journaling, meditating, yoga, walking, reading, writing, etc. All that is missing to make this spot seem monastic is the chanting of monks (but I have an iPhone playlist for those if I wish).

The weather is ultra-cooperative, with nearly every day sunny in the high 60s or low 70s, with nights falling into the 40s. And dry with low humidity, so much that my hair has never been this straight for this many days in a row in recent or even distant memory! Helpful, since I am still sporting a pandemic hair style (translation: have not cut my hair in nearly a year).

Such an environment and freedom of external tasks and forces also allows for undisturbed writing time. I would love to say I have never been so productive with writing before, but that would be a little fib. Well, a big one actually. Writing projects lay orphaned, yet expectations and sheer hope remain that I will kick-start into those any day now! Not going to beat myself up about that, since I spend the days in present-mindedness and pursuing these nourishing self-care routines.

Still, I get to enjoy relaxed and unpressured days until I point VanGeist (my camper van) roughly northeast toward Michigan to begin the long pounding of interstate roads to get home between weather events. Should be fun. For now, though, all focus is on the now, on this opportunity for a desert retreat and the soul-sustaining energy that brings.

Fabulous Feastivities

Growing up, Thanksgiving was always my family’s favorite holiday, and I think still is, despite my father and mother no longer part of the feastivities. Some of you might claim Christmas as your favorite family holiday, but for mine the highlight of the year was always the Thanksgiving feast and gathering. The days following found us enjoying leftovers and playing a variety of games or perhaps, lazily working a puzzle on the gaming table.

Raised always to be grateful and thankful throughout the year, not just one day a year, Thanksgiving was a culinary celebration. While the traditional mashed potatoes (real boiled potatoes mashed with heavy cream), gravy, cranberry sauce, yams, baked rolls, dressing, and pies of pumpkin and pecan persuasion were at the table every year, the main dish varied. Traditional butterball turkey made an appearance more than others, but sometimes we ventured into having a goose, individual cornish hens, honey baked ham (sometimes that was a second main dish), beef Wellington, or other non-traditional exotics.

But I will always remember my best eating came during the days after when I would craft my all-time favorite sandwich: turkey + mashed potatoes + dressing + cranberry sauce = bliss. To this day, I’ll grab one of those whenever I find one in the readymade section of a grocery store or on a restaurant’s menu (although never with mashed potatoes!). Of course, the store or restaurant versions pale by comparison in taste to the homemade kind, but still a treat that triggers past Thanksgiving memories.

As our family grew older and drifted apart, this November day rarely saw the whole family together but instead celebrating in our separate homes. I know a fond memory of my two adult sons during their years attending the University of Toledo were the Thanksgivings when I cooked a mega-fest and they took the short drive down to Findlay, Ohio, to enjoy the family’s traditional dinner. While they certainly enjoyed the meal time with Dad, I understood clearly their real mission that day was to take back most of the leftovers that would see them through the weekend. To that purpose, I always cooked way more than needed, and per their preference, always had a ham along with a main bird of some type (even duck one time). Ample leftover sides along with many slices of pumpkin and pecan pie also made the journey back to Toledo.

My highlight memory of this feast with them was always dessert, when they would take the can of whipping cream and bury their pie slice until it looked like a mini-igloo on the plate. We always laughed about that, from my traditional Dad joke of ”Want some pie with your whipped cream?” to the traditional first fork challenge to take away just enough whipping cream to reveal only the tip of the pie in that mountain of white.

This year, as I sit in my camper van in the warm sunshine of open land near Blythe, California, near the border of Arizona, I think of those feasting days and look forward to having more with my boys some day in the future. For now, I am thankful for the adventurous life I am leading, and for these fond memories of past family Thanksgiving days. I do have a somewhat festive mini feast of mine own planned today, courtesy of Trader Joe’s for the most part. Given that I eat healthy these days, this one decadent meal wisely does not include any traditional leftovers.

Hoping you are with yours on this day of marvelous feasting but if not, enjoy your own mini-feast while fondly remembering past times with family and friends.

Spiritual Cleansing: A Visit to Redwoods National Park

Long, long ago, I knew I wanted to visit the majestic redwoods on California’s northern coast. These have always been my favorite tree, despite never seeing one except in articles or photographs. I followed those early stories about tree-hugging hippies illegally camping high in a massive redwood tree to save it from the lumberjack’s chainsaw. I connected to their efforts but despite the peaceful protest, felt we would needlessly and eventually lose a special creation of nature.

Since back then, I have admired this amazing tree yet combined with shame and sadness at how our human race so quickly decimated the vast majority of these stately trees. Coastal California redwoods have been there for almost 20 million years and fossils of trees related to these coastal redwoods go back to the Jurassic Era, some 160 million years ago. Yet it took man less than one hundred years—from around 1850 on—to nearly wipe out these old-growth forests through relentless and uncontrolled harvesting.

Protection finally began around 1918 when a group began acquiring large acres of untouched old-growth forests. By the time national park designation came in 1968, what remained of the world’s old-growth redwood forests was a mere 5%. Scientists estimate the original coastal redwoods range was about two million acres. What’s left is about 116,000 acres. Over 95% of the world’s remaining old-growth redwoods are in California.

The history of these unbelievably huge and tall trees is both interesting and depressing, and serves to emphasize what a special privilege it is to walk among them and experience the spiritual cleansing that comes from being in wild, untouched nature such as these redwood forests. 

In mid-November, even though not the best time to visit, I had two days and three nights to immerse into the woods. That time of the year is unpredictably cool but predictably wet. Between the fog that rolls in and nourishes the forest, and the fronts that come in from over the ocean, the area is, in concept, basically a rain forest. One realizes this in a few minutes after hiking into the woods and seeing the predominance of ferns and mosses around these gigantic trees and also covering the fallen tree trunks and limbs.

One of my favorite quotes says it all about how I feel when in a place like the redwood forests:

I believe in God, only I spell it n-a-t-u-r-e.

– Frank Lloyd Wright

Anytime I visit natural places where the beauty, scale, and sheer variety of life and form exists without evidence of human interference, trash, etc., I have felt closer to something spiritual than in any man-made edifice. It is unusual, however, to hike into a place so void of humanness both in sight and sound as it was hiking two long trails in the Redwoods National Park.

Redwoods N.P. - The Big Tree
Redwoods N.P. – The Big Tree

I have been thinking about what to write about these silent denizens of a very special forest in the week since I was there. To say I was moved to be in their midst does not convey the punch I felt. To reiterate, it was both humbling and sad to realizing the vast numbers lost before conservation took place is obvious, and I think most everyone would feel that as well.

From the rangers I learned that most who venture into these old-growth forests mention it being a religious or spiritual moment, or did not know trees grew as big as these redwoods, or found the absolute quiet of the deep woods both amazing and disarming. For me, I can add the amazement of unrelenting natural beauty at every turn and dip and rise along the soft paths. I have had some amazing hikes in my life, but the 10-mile hike the second day that took me ever deeper into the redwood forest may be the best I have ever trekked, if not the top two or three. 

Photographically, I have never tried to capture the essence of tree like these before only to fail. Their immensity alone makes for difficult shots and lack of context or scale. Between the woods bathed in low light and the inability to back up to catch the enormity in the viewfinder, I managed to catch a few hikers beside trees and a few selfies of myself, but even these do not relate what my eyes were feasting on.

I will return and planning to spend at least a week there next summer, but I expect, because of crowds, my isolated experience will not be so easily repeatable. A helpful ranger, however, helped me understand the better trails to go on next time and the secret for better enjoyment in season: out walk the tourists. Most who visit rarely venture more than a mile or two into the popular trails. With over 75 miles of gorgeous, soft-pathed trails (from fallen ferns and redwood needles) throughout the park, hiking past most visitors should be doable.

I hope you enjoy the photos in the galleries below. I went a little crazy with the cameras (mix of Nikon and iPhone shots) but can assure you this is just a small selection of all the shots I took! If you are ever near the park, you will not regret stopping for a few days to wander amidst these giants who silently live out their lives (some to 2,000 years old) and quietly, spiritually, connect life and nature.

Click on any image below to begin a slide show.