I’m breathing deeply of the cool and clean air that blows off of Lake Michigan, while my friends at home in northern California are wearing masks against the smoke that has filled the skies for a week now. Months ago I’d planned a trip to visit my oldest daughter Pearl and her family in their new home here in Wisconsin, and though I felt it necessary to delay my departure by a couple of days, I was finally glad to get out of town.
As soon as I boarded the bus that would take me to the airport, I began to relax, and when I did, and began to drop the burdens I’d been carrying, I felt the ache I’d been unconscious of before, and almost wept from the relief.
My eyes stopped burning as soon as I boarded the airplane, and what peace to sleep in a quiet neighborhood that night, with nothing threatening anywhere.
I’ve been taking walks with Pearl, visiting Port Washington with everyone after church, and in particular enjoying the wind and rain. Today I took a solitary walk and found a convocation of geese assembling by the little lake I can see from my bedroom window.
Of the grandchildren in this family, only Maggie and the Philosopher are still at home these days, both in high school. They introduced me to cheese curds and shared a few hugs already. We played Apples to Apples and laughed and laughed.
Back at my home, housemate Susan has a box of my important papers and things that she will take for me if she has to evacuate; with so many firefighters on task now and no high winds, it seems unlikely for my neighborhood. But four families I know have had their houses burn to the ground, and scores of friends have been evacuated.
The first night in Wisconsin I didn’t sleep too well, but after a walk and a nap, the second night I logged ten hours of deep rest. Then I woke feeling brand new, or like my old self. I’ll be here a few more days, and maybe will write again before the next stage of this journey.
For five days and nights I drove here and there, a total of about 20 hours on the roads and highways so that I could visit with twelve family members and two dear friends in three places. There was a good deal of time spent at Pippin’s, where we went for a walk right away, to see if the aspens in the nearby grove were turning yet.
The aspens were still green, but as we looked up in the blue sky we saw several vultures flying in a line above us… and several more following close after them, and we began to count… eventually about 30 of the birds had streamed past, making us wonder what it could mean.
Little Jamie was thrilled when a long freight train passed close above us on the track.
In just a short time exploring the neighborhood we saw Showy Milkweed about to pop its pods, ruins of a concrete hut, and mullein, first and second year specimens growing close together. Scout has been studying herbs in his homeschool group program and I learned that if you can find some larger leaves on the younger plant they make good bandages for wounds, not least because they are absorbent.
Can you see why I called these Mrs. Tiggy Winkle Burrs?
The next day I drove a little farther north to my Oregon family and watched my oldest granddaughter Annie in her first cross country meet of the season. The setting and the weather were so perfect, most of my pictures show her as a soft shape blending into the golden landscape.
I reveled in more visits with those children and older grandchildren, hearing from them about an Italian sister-city, doula training, country music, 70’s Ford trucks grandson Walt is dreaming of restoring, and the same boy breaking an old horse for children to ride. Two of the grandsons have plans to fix up a truck to sleep in on upcoming ski trips. Most of my six older grandsons own or have owned or plan to buy a truck, or another truck! I love boys.
We picked apples at a farm, took walks to the library and post office, and ate tender pumpkin bread Walt decided to bake on the first day of fall. Sunday morning six of us made the short trip on foot to church, I being the only one of the family not wearing cowboy boots.
With my taste buds in mind, Pathfinder and Iris had bought some ginger beer — not the carbonated sweet and spicy kind, but this smooth alcoholic version. It was wonderful.
Then it was time to head back to Pippin’s, for the birthday of Ivy!!! Ivy is now five years old, and if my grandma were still alive, she would have turned 125 on the same day. Before the excitement of the evening, including an over-the-top leopard cake and oodles of presents, Pippin and Ivy and I had a quiet outing of the kind we all like, exploring a meadow and a creek, and feeding the fish at the hatchery.
A couple of weeks before my visit, Ivy had dictated a letter to me, including these lines: “I have new shoes…and they’re good for running, climbing, hiking, and also for walks. I really want to take a walk with you — I know you love them!”
We arrived at the fish hatchery just as a man was about to refill the fish food machines, so he filled our containers directly and to the top. We strolled along the ponds and tried to share equally among all the different sizes of trout.
Then Ivy fell in! She lost her usual cool and made a big fuss, because she thought the fish would bite her. The fish, however, cleared the area very fast, as Pippin and I hauled our girl out.
We exchanged her sopping shirt and fleece for my flannel and corduroy shirt, and that warmed her up enough that she was cheerful again, and happy to stay and scatter the remainder of the granules — in the next pond where the fish hadn’t been scared away — looking at the creatures with a new perspective.
I took the picture above because I’d never seen a trout with such severe scoliosis.
After a stop at home to get a whole new set of dry shoes and clothes, we went back to our exploring, in a meadow with a stream running through, where Pippin and I watched Ivy take risks climbing above a tiny waterfall where she might easily fall and get doused again, but she showed her usual grace and balance and came home dry.
Douglas Spirea fills the foreground above, its formerly hot pink flowers turned to rust. All the textures and scents, the variations on gold, beige and brown seemed especially rich and sweet, set off by the blue sky and evergreen shrubs and trees. The surrounding air was fresh and cool in the slanted sunlight of fall.
DAY 4: I set out walking alone before breakfast, for back therapy. Yarrow and pearly everlasting flowers line the road, which has recently been resurfaced in places with granite gravel in 2-4 inch chunks. Yesterday when Scout and Ivy walked back from the lake they stopped their father every few feet to exclaim about a new piece that they had picked up, with unique sparkles or shape.
On return, I fry a pound of bacon, because you always have to do that in the mountains when you’re in a cabin where the bears can’t get at you. Scout and Ivy grab a crispy slice in one hand and a pile of blueberries in the other, and go out on the deck to play, waiting interminably it seems for the adults to do something besides talk – like take them out in the boats.
While the other adults are still making plans I decide to walk again, and take Scout with me. We head down to the lake and on the way he schools me in conifers, showing me red firs and lodgepole pines (aka tamarack, his father tells me), the most numerous tree species in this area.
As we come up through the forest behind the cabin, I check on the puffball I saw last month — remember, it looked like this:
— and it has puffed itself and exploded into a pile of cocoa powder:
When the canoeing group finally embarks paddles in hand, two-year-old Jamie and I remain in the cabin. This is the first time I’ve ever taken care of him alone. We play with dominoes, and read Machines at Work a dozen times while eating nuts that he holds in little bowl on his lap.
Tonight Pippin, understanding how much star-gazing means to me, does most of the work to set up the chaise lounge on the deck. Mice have demolished the pad so she makes a sort of mattress with blankets and Thermarest pads. Soon all the lights in the cabin are extinguished, the family are in their beds, and I stretch out in the dark darkness, flat on my back staring up.
Black tops of the lodgepole pines ring the patch of sky like a wreath. My view of the heavens is not wide, but it is deep. The first thing that happens is that I feel the stars’ presence like angels hovering over me, and I almost begin to weep. I think about what my friend Art said, that the sky is not empty, but full of angels, and try to remember if that was a reason that C.S. Lewis wanted to call his trilogy not The Space Trilogy but Deep Heaven. Space sounds empty, but like all of Creation, it is filled with God’s presence.
The fullness is overwhelming, but soothing. Cool air blows on my face. I drink and am strengthened. After a long time I carry my sleeping bag into the cabin and soon am sailing into dreamland like Wynken, Blynken and Nod.
DAY 3: I wake in the wee hours on this day and can’t go back to sleep for several hours. Maybe my morning coffee was a little too strong?
After a while, I read on my Kindle Paperwhite, which has the kind of screen that is easy on the eyes and doesn’t stimulate the brain to stay awake. My Kindle book has most recently been The Haunted Bookshop, which Pippin and I discovered we’d both bought because it was 99 cents. It did not keep my interest so in these wee hours I decide to start The Romanovs by Virginia Cowles. Maybe I should have kept with the boring book, because reading about 17th century Russian rulers is gruesomely fascinating and not soothing.
Finally I do sleep a little, and wake up just a little later than the children. I abstain from coffee. The kids are scrambling all around the cabin and down to the lake in the morning, and in the afternoon Scout checks out the refrigerator and sees some lemons, decides to make lemonade. I find the ancient Joy of Cooking in the cupboard and show him how to multiply the lemonade recipe five times to make use of the amount of juice he has extracted. It makes a superb drink that we all share, even the men who are poring over maps planning their hike.
Scout in particular is impatient with the slow process of planning our activities for next couple of days, along with Mark and Jennie who are camping nearby and will be joining us. They have a truck, so our project of getting the boats down to the lake is made much easier. The kids help haul the canoe and kayak uphill from under the deck, and try them out while they wait still longer.
Finally they are ready to go, and to take “my” new kayak on its maiden voyage. I am so happy that so soon, someone else is interested in using it. I want it to belong to the cabin and the family, even though I bought it for times when I am at the lake by myself and can’t manage the large canoe.
But this time, because of my lack of sleep and my back pain, I stay in the cabin with other nappers and catch up on rest, and I hear the reports of the small expeditions when everyone returns and I have had a delicious sleep.
Our friends barbecue an ample steak for us tonight, and we keep talking and talking after dinner, much discussion about the history of water and dams and drought in the western U.S. I am inspired to download yet another book to my Kindle, Cadillac Desert by Mark Reisner. I started reading that with my husband when he was in chemo three years ago, but it got too depressing for that time of our life. Still, I think it would be good for every Californian to read, and I’m ready now to try again.
After everyone else has gone to bed, I remember to step out on the deck and watch the stars for a while. So cold, but alive and multitudinous, and comforting in their vastness. But I don’t have the right angle on them… I need a pad to lie on, or at least a chaise lounge, and maybe tomorrow I can remember my star friends earlier in the evening and make provision for an encounter.