Tuesday, June 30, 2015


I heard them yesterday for the first time this summer and realized what had been missing.

There was warmth, stickiness, day lilies, cobwebs in the woods, ground fog in the morning and red-winged blackbirds in the cattails.

There were industrial strength lawnmowers next door; they made a fine whirring sound. And traffic noise, always more prevalent this season because I'm outside to hear it.

But these weren't what I was looking for. It was the high-pitched keening, the happy crescendo, the sultry lullaby. I was waiting for cicadas. Now that they're here, summer can begin.

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Monday, June 29, 2015


I had to stifle a laugh last week when on a hike through the Rocky Mountains I came across a fellow hiker in awe over a deer. In northern Virginia deer are pests — I have to spray my day lilies with deer repellant every night to be sure the buds aren't eaten — and there are fox, racoons, owls and much more wildlife. A neighbor swears she saw a coyote in her backyard.

Over the weekend I got the most unwelcome of wildlife visits. Saturday night a skunk sprayed Copper, and before I realized what had happened, the dog had come inside and rubbed his back all over the living room carpet.

This was followed by me chasing Copper around the house, finally corralling him in the garage and bathing him in a hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish detergent solution. At which point I set off to deskunk the house.

I dowsed the carpet with baking soda and there are now bowls of vinegar in every room. The good news is the house smells less like skunk. The bad news is it smells more like vinegar.

I guess this is the price I pay to live in a suburban wilderness.

(Photo: Wikipedia; nope, I didn't take this picture!)

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Walker in the West

Back home now with newspaper headlines and Metro commutes, deadlines and responsibilities. Gone are the open road and limitless horizon, the buffalo and prairie dogs, the thin air and snow-covered peaks.

I took almost 800 pictures, my notebook is full of little things I want to remember: Potato Museum and Miss National Teenage Rodeo Queen. Gentian, Indian Paintbrush and other wildflowers spied on a hike. The rocks labeled on the drive through Powder River Pass: Granite Gneiss, Pre Cambrian, three billion years old, Bighorn Dolomite, 450 to 500 million years old.

But what I most remember isn't in the notebook. It's the view of Lone Peak from 8,500 feet. It's the TR Park ridge trail on a perfect summer morning. It's looking out over a huge emptiness, buttes in the distance, no roads, no cars, nothing but sagebrush and scrub land.

How different it would be to walk in the west. How various the views and insights. Travel, like walking, is a great restorative. Travel and walking — well, that is hard to beat.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Prairie Dog Companion

First of all, I'm a sucker for animals that sit on their hind legs in cute poses. This is why Copper scores so many doggie treats from me. He learned early on that if he assumes this position his begging yield goes way up.

I would never think of feeding a prairie dog, of course, even without a sign to remind me. But that doesn't stop me from admiring the little critters, their high-pitched territorial squeals, their fat little bottoms disappearing down almost-too-small burrows, their industriousness and sociability.

True, if you remove the bushy tail you have little more than a rat, but prairie dogs do have tails, which they shake like crazy when a stranger appears.

When I was young I wanted a prairie dog for a pet. This was before I learned that prairie dogs live together in colonies and to take a singleton away from this happy habitat would be to doom it for sure. So I settled for a white mouse. But every time I spot a prairie dog I have a secret desire to bring it home with me. It could be my prairie dog companion.

(No animals were harmed — or fed — in the taking of these photographs.)


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Little Walk on the Prairie

It wasn't hard to find the Buffalo Gap trail. Just step out of the Buffalo Gap Guest Ranch, walk around the semi parked by the fence and start strolling. You can turn either left or right, the ranch owner, Olie, said. You'll find 75 miles of trail in either direction.

I didn't make 75 miles, barely two. But I walked long enough to pick up some ticks and a little sunburn on my shoulders. Long enough to grab some wild sage and rub it between my fingers. Long enough to look around and see grass, grass, grass, and feel a part of that buzzing, blowing world of vegetation.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Of Buttes and Badlands

Theodore Roosevelt Park, North Unit

Theodore Roosevelt Park, South Unit (panorama shot)
View from TR's cabin
Yesterday's adventure was Theodore Roosevelt Park, visiting the cabin where the 26th president lived and wrote and seeing the places that inspired him to become an ardent conservationist. 

The buttes and buffalo, the badlands and the grasslands. It was a perfect, blue-sky day with fluffs of cottonwood floating through the air. The parks (both sections, north and south) were relatively empty.

I'm writing this from the deck of a working ranch as chickens peck beneath the boards and vast hills of green stretch to the horizon. I'm thinking about how profoundly the environment shaped TR. How profoundly it affects us all.


Monday, June 22, 2015


It was after 7 yesterday and shadows were already softening the North Dakota badlands when I finally entered this state. I've wanted to come here for years, had missed it on other cross-country vacations. And no wonder. It's up here. And out there. It feels both otherworldly and strangely familiar.

The familiar part comes from the 10-gallon hats and the moose heads on the wall. The cowboy culture I'd just seen in Montana. And after driving much of the width of that state yesterday, I would be hard pressed to pick pictures of North Dakota out of a lineup if a bunch of Montana shots were thrown in.

Still, there is a difference here, a roof-of-the-country feeling. And a quaintness, too.

And then there is this: North Dakota is my 49th state. I've visited every other but Hawaii. All I can say is, it was worth the wait.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

A River Runs Through It

A family wedding brought us to Montana, so yesterday we gathered on the banks of the Gallatin River (of A River Runs Through It fame) to celebrate the bride and groom as they begin their life together. The vows were handwritten and heartfelt. I've known the bride since she was born, and her parents since before they were married.

Later, in a tent under the vast northern sky, we ate and drank and danced until the band stopped playing. The bride had hauled her couch down to the meadow for photographs, and the sight of that familiar piece (I've seen it in Indianapolis and Missoula and now here, in Big Sky) and the bride's father's toast likening marriage to a river brought all the circle-of-life feelings to an intense and memorable pitch.

The professional photographer didn't want us snapping many shots of our own, but I couldn't not take this picture. To me, it says it all.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Looking Closer

Yesterday I met a wee Scotswoman who has lived in the western United States for more than 40 years but still has a lovely brogue'ish lilt to her speech. She lost her husband almost a year ago and since then, she said, has found great comfort in walking. "It's when I think," she said.

She lives in Spokane and strolls through neighborhoods, but putting her comment together with the spectacular mountain scenery we hiked through yesterday made me ponder what it would be like to have the Rockies at your disposal as a walking/thinking landscape.

At first it would distract. Hard to ponder anything in the face of such beauty. Hard to do much of anything but marvel. But in time, I suppose, even great beauty becomes ordinary. And then one's eye would wander from the grand vistas to the small beauties: a swath of fog wrapped around a hillside in the morning chill or a stand of lupine beside a weathered tree stump. In time, these would be the prompts of productive ambling; these little things, small and lovely.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Drinking It In

Yesterday I couldn't stop taking pictures. Today I have at least 25 photos of the same vista. It was the photographic equivalent of drinking it in. I couldn't sit and absorb the beauty then and there so I snapped shot after shot to do it later.

Today, I'm in the midst of great scenery but with the chance to hike into it. But before taking off I had to download the photographs, look at them and conjure up the sights we saw yesterday. The Grand Tetons, some of the youngest mountains on the continent; jagged, snow-topped peaks. Alpine meadows for contrast, easy on the eye. A cold, clear lake.

What to say? Only that sometimes it's enough just to know such splendor exists.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Road to Big Sky

Yesterday I was in three time zones, two airplanes, two cars, one bus and the tail end of a tropical storm. I landed in God's country.

Tall firs reaching to heaven. A mountain pass that made my ears pop. Blue, blue skies. Motorists that allow safe following distances. And, at the end of the road, the town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The air was delicious, the scenery divine.  We thought we'd walk to town to stay awake. How long, I asked the desk clerk. Twenty minutes, she chirped.

You know how this story goes. It was double that. But with the good luck that can sometimes befall the hapless traveler, we found a free shuttle bus that brought us home.

We had ice cream for dinner. We haven't eaten a real meal in 40 hours. But we are here, on the road to Montana. Next stop, Big Sky!


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Montana Bound

Starting today I'll be trading tree canopy for big sky, hot and humid for crisp and cool, Eastern Daylight for Mountain Time.

It's been a while since I've been out west, and sitting in my living room now, with still some packing left to do, it hardly seems possible I'll be there this time tomorrow.

But I'm already seeing the vast expanses, buttes in the distance, red rocks and sage. I'm already tasting the air out there, and feeling the altitude in my lungs and head.

The walking may be slower but the views go on forever.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

High Bar

Some walks have a higher bar than others, more is asked of them. This is not because of anything they've done wrong. They just have the bad luck to come after a restless night or a crazy morning.

Such was yesterday's stroll around the Capitol. I left the office a little shell shocked, wanting just to escape, that's all, the pavement beneath my feet, locomotion.

And that, at first, is what revived me. The rhythm, the pace of the walk. Step begets step, movement triggers movement. Soon you are blocks away from where you started, which is the whole idea, of course. You are strolling by the hotel with its sweeping driveway and its busy taxis pulling in and out, and then by a green park with a bell tower.

The people I passed — and there were many, this is high tourist season in the District — had faces to read and scrutinize, had snippets of conversation to offer, words in the wind. The humidity bore down on us, slowed us and held us up.

I saw a bomb-sniffing dog and a troop of high school students on a field trip. I saw a bounty of day lilies in front of the grotto. A Chinese lady motioned for my help, pointed to the Capitol and asked if it was the Library of Congress. That was one question I could answer. "Look for the fountain," I said, pointing behind the scaffolded dome.

Wending my way back to the office, I passed a sandwich shop, tried to remember what I'd brought for lunch. Nothing special. But it didn't matter. I was already full.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Outside In

I missed National Trails Day (June 6) but am not too late for Great Outdoors Month (all of June). The idea behind  these celebrations is to get people outside. No problem for a walker in the suburbs. I'm outside as often as possible.

But Great Outdoors Month is a good time to ponder the great divide between outside and in, between natural light and its artificial cousin, between the elements and our shelter from them.

Thinking back to Benin,  open doors, the colorful cloths hung where screens would be. There the line between outside and in is far more blurred than it is here. There people sleep on their little verandas in the hot season. They cook outside, eat outside and often wash their clothes outside, too. They do not need a Great Outdoors Month. 

Not to romanticize this, though. The Beninese are in a constant battle to keep their houses clean and dust-free, not an easy proposition with unpaved roads and meager sidewalks. They live with a degree of discomfort most of us cannot imagine.

Still, in so many ways, including this one, they remind me of simple truths we seem to have forgotten. One of them is this: That before we became creatures of climate-controlled comfort, we lived in tune with the wind and the rain and the sun. We belonged to our world in a way we don't anymore. And it's good to remember that.

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Market Walk

It was my first market walk of the season, visiting Reston's farmer's market before 9 so I could be fast-walking before 10. The paths are pleasant around Lake Anne, and homes are easy to fantasize about. Lake views, kayaks at the ready, dining and shopping within strolling distance.

But the best part was first milling around the market before the walk, choosing strawberries, zucchini and tomatoes; eying cherries, cabbages and asparagus. Taking the fruit and vegetables to the car and then trotting off down the cool, shady sidewalk.

A quarter-mile down the road I dodged off into the woods, where the path skirts the lake and runs alongside tall marsh grasses. Up a hill, down a hill. Looping back to the plaza and the market, which was in much fuller swing an hour later. All the while thinking of the tomatoes for lunch, the zucchini for dinner and the strawberries for breakfast.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

Attention Deficit

We interrupt our normal blogging schedule to bring you ... summer!

All other post ideas disappeared from my brain this morning as I stepped out into the humid morning, already beading up the outside of the glass before 8 a.m. Yes, it will be almost 100 today, and I finally turned on the air-conditioning. But it's time.

So I left the house early, walked quickly and found myself striding on a paved path through a meadow, tall grasses waving, not a breeze to stir them except the one I made in passing.

Later, almost home, I pushed through more tall grasses, daisies, Virginia creeper, weeds with minds of their own. The low grass was wet from the morning dew. The climbing roses have climbed another half foot. The day lilies are ready to pop.

How hard it is to sit still on a day like this. One wants to always be moving, pulling weeds, airing linens, scrubbing the sink. But sit I must. So I compromise with a rocking chair. Today, I'll rock and write.

The days are long, the attention span is short.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

On Top of Tap

For months I've felt lost at tap class. The steps have been complicated and I've been slow to learn them. "The thing is," I've admitted to my teacher, Candy, "I tend to think of a foot as a foot — not a toe, ball and heel."

"Oh, that's not good for tap," Candy said.

For some reason though, I was on last night. I did back-ups and push-backs and even mastered a bit of the not-so-aptly named Happy Warmup.

I can explain my sudden improvement. This was the last class for several weeks. Our annual break is coming up. My feet obviously knew this. They were putting on a show, the final volley of fireworks, throwing it all up in the air before taking a well-earned rest.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Last evening Copper and I ran down Folkstone Drive, reversed course at Blue Robin Court and returned via the woods trail. The path was still damp from last week's rains, and I was glad I wore my old tennis shoes.

It didn't take long for the woods to work its magic, for my shoulders to drop and my breathing to slow, for my pace to adjust to a non-asphalt stride. I thought about the woods of my childhood, building forts, feeling vaguely disobedient, straying too far, staying too long.

I thought about how long the natural world has brought me comfort, a lifetime of solace in the out-of-doors.

It was as if I had always been walking, always been inhaling the fragrance of smooth, clay-packed soil and marshy creek water. The aromas had been closer to my nose then, since my nose had been closer to the ground. But if I inhaled deeply enough, I could smell them still.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015


The daisy has all the simplicity of summer, and all the cheerfulness, too.

Daisies lined the roadsides of my drive to Kentucky last weekend. They clustered and nodded. They brightened and bobbed.

They softened the shaggy limestone cliffs of that part of the world, proof of the soil's richness, a mantle for the ground, a bright penny for its thoughts.


Monday, June 8, 2015

"Long Live the King"

A quick trip to Kentucky last weekend plopped me down squarely in horse country on the big day. I watched American Pharoah clinch the Triple Crown only an hour away from the racetrack where he won the Derby.

There was a certain inevitability about the win, not just the odds and the sportscasters' predictions but the three-year-old leading the entire race, his second-only-to-Secretariat pace, his supple gallop, his champion's heart.

Only a few minutes before the race, the televised coverage took what I considered an unusual but  heartening turn. It showed a printing press whirring out a newspaper and speculated on what tomorrow's headline would be.

Was I imagining this? A print newspaper? A headline? Not a click, a tweet or a post?

So yesterday, before I left Lexington, I picked up the newspaper. The Lexington Herald Leader's headline, which I regret I did not photograph, was "Long Live the King." The Washington Post's, which I regret I could not photograph better, was "American History."

American History in more ways than one.

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Ninety-Three Percent

Just back from a walk in the mist, the air filled with moisture. Good for the skin, bad for the hair (I've given up this week) and, when one is out in it, good for the soul.

How can this be?  It's the first week of June, a time when blossoms should be bursting from the branch, a time of blue skies and not yet broiling temperatures. This year a week of steady rain and heavy mist, of sodden soil and fallen petals.

Look carefully at the air and you can see the droplets there, a drizzle so fine it surprises itself.

I originally titled this post "Ninety-Nine Percent," because I couldn't imagine how air could hold more moisture than it's holding today. But I checked the weather and found that it's ninety-three.

Six percent more? No way.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

June Channeling April

It is June channeling April. Rain is pounding the roof, bouncing off the deck, making those musical gutter sounds it does when it means business.  It is weighing down the bamboo and darkening the deck.

The plants love it, so do people who prefer their summers on the cool side.

But for those of us who like our summers hazy, hot and humid, this weather seems out of place, to say the least. Where is the whirring fan, the glass of iced tea with almost all of its ice melted?

About three days away, that's all. And so, since there is little to do about it, I'll put on my tennis shoes and raincoat and float away into the day.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015


We used to search for glasses, keys and phone numbers. Now we also search for passwords.  And yesterday my password search took me here, to the most undigital of places, my old Rolodex, where I used to keep a card with those pesky open sesames.

I never found the card, but I did spend a few minutes flipping through the Rolodex. It's dusty and neglected, poor thing. I haven't touched it for months, haven't used it for years. But oh, the memories it holds, the connections it made possible, the worlds it opened up.

There are editors' phone numbers, the contact information of long-forgotten sources, strings of numbers I once knew as well as my own. Each card tells a story. There's that infant sleep expert who took to calling me at all hours, including when I was in labor with my first child! There's a phone number for the Population Reference Bureau, which I just Googled to find a ticking world population clock (7, 718, 240, 013 — I mean 014, 015, 016 ...). 

Before we swiped and tapped, we paged through and wore out. Most of these cards are bent and softened from frequent touching, tangible proof that they were used and treasured.

No one I know uses a Rolodex anymore. Now our contacts are scattered on various media, social and personal. Are we more connected now than we were then? The funny thing is, I don't think we are.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

First Draft

Thinking of yesterday's title, "First Walk," and of the difficulty of pinning down the precise rush of feeling from Sunday's stroll.

What helped was scribbling a few phrases in my journal as soon as I came in. Those crabbed words led me back to the feelings of that walk. They were the rushed but essential first draft.

It's the perennial problem, letting the words flow enough in the beginning to get you (more or less) where you want to go. Care too little about the final destination and you'll muddle yourself from the start. Care too much and you won't be able to put one syllable in front of the other.

Word processing has made the first draft a rare document indeed. How difficult it is to push forward without using the delete key; to hold in mind the perfect image while valuing the imperfect one that materializes in its place.

In so many ways, a first draft is more precious than the final draft it makes possible: rare, ephemeral, a product of struggle, a product of doubt.


Monday, June 1, 2015

First Walk

Yesterday, the walk came first. I strolled out into the morning, the first day of my new year, and felt a sort of awe.

The headphones, they would remain in my hand. There were birds to listen to, morning music free for the taking. There was a bird that seemed to be saying "Judy, Judy, Judy," a poor imitation of Cary Grant. There were crickets in the woods, chirping as if it were still night.

And then there were sights that made sounds unnecessary: banked clouds that seemed lit from inside, a wind stirring the high oak branches. Most of all there was a hush to the morning, a holding of breath.

I felt a sort of wonder at this new day, at the sheer gift of existence, of being alive. Beyond people and expectations. Part of the natural world for which we surely were made.

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