Sunday, May 17, 2020

Nachusa {midwest wandering}

Sometimes, often times, when I walk, I am flooded with words.  My mind fills and describes in characters the space that surrounds me.  But here I was not.  My senses were flooded.  My eyes with bright colors and vast spaces.  My skin touched by warm sun and a fickle breeze and air cooled by the shade of oaks.  My nostrils were greeted at intervals by the soft aroma of flowers and grasses and mud.  Birdsong was with us constantly.  I used my camera to record what I saw until I gave my camera to my children and released my eyes to see and the rest of me to feel.  I want to know the character of the land as it was when it still belonged to itself.  I want to see what my ancestors saw before their dreams and their plows turned it under.  I want to know my place in the world as the world was; when it belonged to its own character.  This place offers the blessing of a glimpse and a blessing to the land itself and to all the tiny beings, me included who need the land for breath. 

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, Illinois, May 16, 2020

With gratitude,

Friday, January 17, 2020

St. Joseph

I pulled into the town of St. Joseph in southwestern Michigan on a chilly Wednesday afternoon in January to begin my search at the local Heritage Museum for a small chapter in the life of my great-great-great grandfather: the location of Alexander Voorhees’ early 20th century summer resort camp, Camp Voorhees at Ox Bow Bend on the Old St. Joe.  Less than two hours after arriving, I headed south out of town on the rural two-lane River Road using Google maps, and forcing the app to continuously recalculate to the route I sought.  I found the spot, as indicated by a caption in a local photo history book, at the end of Ox Bow road, just north of Tabor farm and pulled my car to the side of the road. 

The sky was low and gray as I put on winter boots and trekked across a small barren plot of plowed up farmland to a steep slope that descended to the St. Joseph River.  The hillside was barren except for a thick blanket of fallen leaves that had no doubt previously clung to the now bare branches of the deciduous trees that spotted the riverbank and for the sticky remains of the dormant underbrush. 

I managed my way through the scraggly brush to the river’s edge and stood for a long while listening to the flow of the water and looking out over the dramatic bend in the river known as an Oxbow.  This is Ox Bow Bend.  It would not be until later that evening while looking through turn of the century plat maps at the local library that I would know for sure where the camp had been located; that it indeed had not been under my feet but across the river on the sharp inner curve of the waterway. 

Nothing remains of him here, Alexander Voorhees, my great-great-great grandfather, Civil War veteran, man who lived to be nearly a century old.  The land has not recognized him.  A few photographs record the time he spent, outside among guests and cabins and modest canvas tents and trees and of course the river.  But I have brought something of him back, his genes are in mine.  This visit is a discovering and a returning.

I walked along the hillside crunching dry leaves beneath my boots and took many photos of the land and the waterway, now flowing solemn and solitary through the early winter landscape.  I recorded the sound of the water rushing through a collection of fallen branches and took a photograph looking down to where I stood on the coverlet of leaves.  This is all that could be done here – standing and looking and listening, feeling maybe.

After it seemed that I had spent enough time trespassing and that my eyes and senses had absorbed all that they could, I climbed back up the slope and walked across the small earthen field to my car.  This is exactly what I came for, and so much more.     

With gratitude,


I would like to offer a very sincere thank you to the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in St. Joseph Michigan for their research assistance and sharing of materials including the historic photograph included here.  Thank you also to the St. Joseph City Library for the use of resources in their local history room.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 the snow

Narrow is our vision to hold that it is the pleasant expressions of nature that hold the most treasure.  Narrow it is of us to wish her to share only those expressions that suit what we wish to feel – the warmth of summer on our face, the beauty of autumn in our eyes.  How can we believe these are the best of her offerings when the cold of winter ushers forth the birth of spring? 

Orange autumn leaves on crisp white snow. 

I am sitting in the cold writing these words just so I can be near her.  My fingers and toes falling victim to the temperature as I feel myself falling open to her wisdom, as I feel the fog clearing from my eyes, my heart.  She invited me to sit down beside her, glorified, humbled, resurrected. 

With gratitude,

Sunday, March 31, 2019

because here I am home

I heard their strong bugle and watched as the sandhill cranes landed on the soggy earth; earth recently revealed after months of frozen slumber.  On graceful legs they moved in unison searching the ridges and crevices of the ground for sustenance. 

Above me, clouds moved swiftly like the birds, constant and unchanging in their flow. 

On a distant slope four deer emerged from the tree line and crossed the field together at soft angles until they disappeared behind more distant trees. 

Almost beyond sight the sandhills continued to troll the earth together. 

Rain began to fall, and I heard its drops land on the roof of my car and on the soft ground outside my open window, and I heard the calls of secluded songbirds sound between them. 

I backed my car from bare road onto the paved one, hoping to prevent my tires from becoming stuck in the increasing softness of the soft earth. 

And as I turned to pull away from the view that grew me whole again, seeing it recede in my rear view mirror I knew why the presence of nature, even as found in patchy sections of tilled up farmland has always been my equanimity. 

Because outside was safer than inside, because peace is knowing your place among everything else.  Because here, I am not wrong or right, I carry no judgement or praise, no failure or success, because nature balances nature.  Because here I am not the scale, but a weight in the balance of all things.

Because here I am me and I am nothing.  Because here I am home. 

With gratitude,

Monday, February 25, 2019

I have long suspected...

I have long suspected that there is much more to see. 

Winter, my nemesis, hangs in the air and hardens the earth, it strips the trees and plays hide and seek with the sun. 

Winter, I count the days to your waning and my freedom.  But my scoffing has made me suspicious that you may possess a magic I am blind to see.  I have come to suspect it is possible that I am missing your wonder – blinded through my efforts to look beyond you.

I have worn the mask in your name.

I should venture into you, but I am uncomfortable.  I should venture outside of myself, but I am uncomfortable. 

I was given snowshoes in January.  For most of your season you have provided too much snow for me to use them, snow that fell on the wrong day of my week, frozen air rushing at its heels.  This week I answered your invitation.  I found myself in a park with a friend walking the banks of a river that I have not visited, even in the heat.  I was warm laboring across the frozen ground.  Everything around us was still.  We encountered only evidence that others had crossed before us, their tracks sealed in the crunchy white surface. 

Here it was.  Ice and water and wood and tan prairie grasses and no sound at all.  The magic I had come to wonder at. 

It was here after all, here, while I sat on the other side of closed windows, scolding.  A private world in plain sight that only those brave or insightful enough dare to see – the lucky ones.  I count myself lucky this week.  Put on shoes and go.

With gratitude,

Thursday, December 20, 2018

travel sketches, crossing the country in a few lines a day, part 2

Preparing for the coming summer's travel always spurs me to look back on our past trips.  In such a mood I recently read my travel journals from the last two summers.  For the most part my daily entries were brief and sketchy, written at night after the kids were asleep or scrolled in shaky pen, an attempt to get down a few lines during our days drive.  I recall that many of these entries felt too simple at the time of their writing and likely of little future interest.  But I wrote them anyway.  And as I read them more than a year later I discovered that recollections in any form have the power to transport.  Many passages were more eloquent than I had thought them to be; and those that were simple were poignant too because of their honesty and immediacy. Eloquent or slight - all of them meaningful because of the memories they conjured.  Below are a few lines from each day of our travels during the summer of 2017: the lines that speak to me now because of or despite their eloquence.

Summer 2017

June 17, 2017 (Poplar Grove, Illinois to Des Moines, Iowa)

Today is the day we head west again.  This is the day I wait for, plan for –  breathe a sigh of relief for. 

June 18, 2017 (Des Moines to Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, Omaha, Nebraska)

It is our first night in the pop-up – it feels so comfortable, like an old shirt.  Everyone is tucked in and sleeping as I sit up and write.  It is wonderful when newness and familiarity merge.  It is a wonderful kind of homecoming, like a surprise in your own living room. 

June 19, 2017 (Omaha to FT. Kearney State Recreation Area, Kearney, Nebraska)

In Fort Kearney, Nebraska we visited the 1840s fort, the first built along the route of the Oregon Trail and was later the headquarters for the Pony Express.  Everything on the grounds is a reconstruction, a simple representation that clearly communicates what was once there.  The kids raced each other to the corners of the fort – this is history  with children.

June 20, 2017 (Fort Kearney to Scottsbluff National Monument, Nebraska)

Our drive today was through prairie land that gradually faded into an undulating landscape reminiscent of last year’s passage though South Dakota and Wyoming.  We arrived at Scottsbluff National Monument at around 2:30 in the afternoon.  The air was hot and dry.  We took the last shuttle of the day to the top of the Bluff on the 1930s CCC road and enjoyed our own ranger lead tour up the half-mile trail to the lookout point. 


June 21, 2017 (Scotts Bluff, Nebraska to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado)

Today we reached the mountains.  Always, tears come to my eyes when I first enter the steep slopes.  Always they come again when I take in the smell of pine for the first time -  wet crisp pine or warm dry pine, they are equally distinct and equally they flush me with emotion. 

Tonight I sit up, as I often do, the only one awake taking in myself along with the rest of the day.  The wind, though it has calmed significantly, still blows against the soft sides of our camper, gently rocking and sometimes forcing the canvass inward.  Inside I hear only the sounds of breath heavy with sleep, and from the outside an occasional voice and a low and constant hum: a jet passes miles above us.  

June 22, 2017 (Rock Mountain National Park)

Our first morning in Rocky Mountain National Park found us on a ranger led nature walk in Moraine Park.  Afterward we stopped at a wayside on the Colorado River for a picnic lunch.  In the late afternoon we drove to Bear Lake.  We walked the mile long path around its shore and the kids delighted to run and climb and touch snow in June and throw bits of it into the lake. 

June 23, 2017 (Rocky Mountain National Park)

We spent today in Estes Park.  Coffee, candy, a playground at the edge of the river: there is nothing like the sound of rushing water, it flows directly through me.

June 24, 2017 (Rocky Mountain National Park)

Today we hiked Alberta Falls.

June 25, 2017 (Rocky Mountain National Park)

Today is Sunday and we spent our afternoon in Estes Park again.  I sat for an hour on a bolder at the edge of a playground: the jagged mountains before me, the rushing water behind me, my children playing in between.  This place feels comfortable, as if it is exactly as it should be, as if it invites us to be exactly as we should be.  These mountains are not a spectacle, they are their own wild place.

June 26, 2017 (Rocky Mountain National Park)

Today we drove Trail Ridge Road. At an elevation of 12,000 feet it climbs to be the highest road in the United States.  We spent three hours on the road, including our time at the visitor center and on the overlook trail.  The vistas are so broad and immense it is hard to comprehend them.  It is almost impossible to take in their distances and understand their vastness.  In the late afternoon Grace and I hiked the switchback trail to Bierstadt Lake.  This place was a serene and fulfilling as the road was raw and intimidating. It was a full day – as days should be, full to the limits of what we could do and take in – this is the reason for the experience, to fill us with understanding and wonder. 

June 27, 2017 (Rocky Mountain National Park)

Today is our last day in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Our seven days here have been wonderful, full of beauty and challenge and new experience.  Most of all they have brought us to the mountains. 

June 28, 2017 (Rocky Mountain National Park to Lander, Wyoming)

We pulled out of Glacier Basin campground at about ten o’clock this morning.  Our destination, one night in Lander, Wyoming on our way to Grand Teton National Park.  Crossing into Wyoming we entered Oregon Trail territory again.  As we drove I read aloud from the auto tour book.  We stopped at Split Rock and Ice Slew, both landmarks on the trail.  We parted from the trail just after Sweet Water Station and just to its north, entered an otherworldly expanse of geologic formations.   

June 29, 2017 (Lander to Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming)

We enjoyed our drive this morning.  We were out early, which is unusual for us.  But we reveled in the perfect morning encountering few others.  We drove through a landscape that surprised at every turn, constantly changing and yet consistent in its ability to awe.  We arrived at Grand Teton just before 10:00 am and achieved our goal of securing a first come first serve campsite inside the park. 

June 30, 2017 (Grand Teton National Park)

In mid afternoon we ventured to Jenny Lake and chose to walk the trail that leads past Moose Ponds.  To our delight we saw a Moose, our first in two years visiting this region.  He looked just as you would expect a moose to look, dark with a regal profile.  We watched him at a distance for sometime dipping his head in to graze in the water. He was oblivious to us; expect occasionally when he raised his head in clear recognition of some unknown sound.  And then he would go back, head to the water, raising and lowering, lowering and raising again, shifting slightly, but not stepping too far in any direction.

July 1, 2017(Grand Teton National Park)

We hiked to Inspiration Point: Jeffrey wants to move fast, Grace just wants to climb and Michael notices everything.  Dinner of sandwiches from the camp store and an early evening driving tour of the pull offs best known for wildlife viewing.  

July 2, 2017 (Grand Teton National Park)

Chapel of the Transfiguration

My pilgrimage was returning to the place where she had been.
For hundreds of miles it was on my mind and occasionally on my lips.
For more than a year it followed me:
 since I first learned of it, since I first visited.
Today I went for communion.
Today I went to join this place alive with human presence.
Today I carried raw anticipation in my heart.
Today I was overcome.

July 3, 2017 (Grand Teton National Park)

Jeff caught six trout in Jackson Lake.  We grilled three of them whole for dinner, drizzled with oil and draped and stuffed with lemon, they were beautiful.   But it was strange for the kids to see the whole fish dead and ready for eating.  It was interesting like that for me too, to consider my appreciation for a life that will feed my own.

July 4, 2017 (Grand Teton National Park)

Today is our last day in Grand Teton National Park.  The atmosphere is not festive as one would expect on this national holiday, but soft, almost quiet, they way I have wished the park would have been during the rest of our visit. 

July 5, 2017 (Grand Teton National Park to Casper, Wyoming)

For the first time in nearly three weeks we turned east.

July 6, 2017 (Casper to Hot Springs South Dakota)

We headed back toward the highway at just about six o’clock to be met by a dark storm on the horizon. We caught up with each other, us and the storm, a few hours later and what was planned as our first night in Custer State Park, South Dakota became the only night we have spent in a hotel in two years on the road.  

July 7, 2017 (Hot Springs to Custer State Park, Custer, South Dakota)

Prairie dog towns are abundant along the roadway that leads from Custer to Wind Cave National Park.  If you stop to near, the prairie dogs will call out in unison to pass along the signal of looming danger.  My son, the one who notices everything, loves them.

July 8, 2017 (Custer State Park)

In the afternoon we visited the cabin home of Badger Clark, onetime South Dakota poet laurite.  And we hiked about two miles round trip on the South Dakota Centennial Trail that passes just outside its doorway.

July 9, 2017 (Custer State Park)

I got up early this morning to prepare the last camp breakfast of our trip.  Camp breakfast is my favorite.

July 10, 2017 (Custer State Park to Sioux Falls, South Dakota)

Officially on our way home: today was a driving day and we took our time. We were through Rapid City by 3:00 and into the open plains.  The landscape had faded gradually from pine forested mountains to gentile hills to the bare rolling vistas of the badlands region.  I always feel a strong sense of remorse when the mountains have finally faded from our rearview.  And always I take in a deep breath of comfort as I realize I am fully surrounded by the plains once more. 

July 11, 2017 (Sioux Falls, South Dakota to home)

496 miles.

With gratitude,

Travel sketches part 1, here