felting

Memories from Mount Isolation

Maybe it’s because I missed out on the experience in high school.  Maybe it’s because I come from a competitive family.  Maybe it’s just because I’m a millennial.

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Autumnal color palette

Whatever the reason, I appreciate superlatives.  They help me to remember things, to categorize experiences and file them neatly for retrieval even when Lyme reshuffles and upends up the files.  By this system, the summer that I spent “peak bagging” the high peaks of the White Mountains and sleeping in my old station wagon was the most fun.  And, of those peaks, Mount Isolation was my favorite.

The day I’d planned to hike Isolation, I’d almost chickened out.  In the valley where I’d spent the night, the day dawned gray and overcast; as my schedule was flexible, I considered whether it might be wiser to save the hike for another day.  But, my legs were too eager to get going; I decided that I might as well head out.

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Felting wild-blown evergreens

My ascent began through quiet, rain-soaked birch woods, where golden leaves were strewn all over the ground.  I was alone in the wet woods as I focused on climbing higher, walking quickly to warm myself – and for the shear fun of exertion.  I climbed through thick fog, feeling myself enveloped in mist, and then, just as I cleared treeline, I rose though the fog, too.

I found myself in paradise.

Below me, the day appeared undercast, and neighboring mountains rose through a sea of clouds.  Above me, the sky was that gorgeous Windex blue of northern fall days.  Isolation was adorned in all the brilliant colors of fall, and her Glen Boulder was now in view, perched on the edge of a shrub-covered false summit.

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Canadian gray jay

I don’t know whether I can attempt to describe the elation I felt, the buoyancy of my heart.  Just a few months before, still in bed with an undiagnosed illness and preparing for kidney surgery, I’d doubted whether I’d ever hike again.  And yet, there I was, climbing alone toward the summit of a mountain of a range I’d long considered a home, even while I lived 1000 miles away.  I didn’t want to blink for fear of missing a moment, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

When I reached the large, flat summit, I rested in solitude, enjoying the view of the Presidential Range across the valley.  At least, I did until my solitude was interrupted by a couple of gregarious Canadian gray jays.  Then, with good company, the day was truly perfect.

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“Companion in the Krumholtz”

“Companion in the Krumholtz” and my other felted works are available at wanderstruckstudio.storenvy.com.

Finding My Passion

Each time I go on a long hike I have a long time to think, a rare privilege in a fast-paced world.  A week or so into every walk, I find my thoughts slowing and relaxing, and I begin enjoying the opportunity to think a thought through to its completion, to follow a train of thought to the end of its tracks.

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Felting Rae Lakes

Perhaps as a result of my being in my 20s, this thinking eventually turns to jobs and careers and what I want to “do with my life.”  On the Appalachian Trail, I decided that I wanted to have a job in an environment that wasn’t stuffy or sterile; I wanted to come down from the ivory tower and inhabit the real world.  On the Pacific Crest Trail, I learned that making time for creative pursuits was important to me; I longed to stretch my brain in the way only creativity and imagination can.  Finally, on the Camino, I learned that I wanted a job that wasn’t self-serving, wasn’t just about making money and getting by; I needed to do something that was fulfilling and, in some small way, made the world a more beautiful place.

The idealism there is palpable, right?  But, all of my thoughts came from confronting, in some combination of my own experiences and those of others, how I didn’t want to live.  I wasn’t quite sure how to go about building the life I did want to live.

There is a common idea in our society – especially among my fellow millennials – that we should each find our passion and that, upon finding it, we must then dedicate our lives to it.  And, for those lucky few who seem to have always known which path they’d take – who, for example, loved science class in middle school, continued to study biology in college, and now work as veterinarians – this model makes perfect sense. But, for those of us who tend more toward the dilettante or polymath end of the spectrum, who enjoy experimenting with lots of things rather than focusing on any one, this notion of a singular Passion can be distressing. We expect something to come along that we love most of all, and I know I hoped it would ride in waving a flag to alert me to its presence; we despair when it alludes us.

On the Pacific Crest Trail, Pine Nut introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke by reading aloud parts of Letters to a Young Poet.  While Rilke’s letter full of sexual advice was bizarre, there were others that were insightful.  In addition to the oft-quoted advice to “love the questions themselves,” there was another line that I’ve taken to heart: Rilke’s insistence that, to be writers, people must want to write, must need to write so much that it keeps them up at night.

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Felting a white blaze

In discovering my love of fiber art (entirely by accident and partially thanks to Lyme Disease), I think I’ve experienced that feeling.  I find myself felting until I go to sleep and then again first thing in the morning, squeezing in moments of felting whenever I can manage it.  I notice my mind wandering to my latest project while I’m tree planting, and my weekends are consumed with creating fiber art.

Just when I gave up thinking I had a Passion, I seem to have found it – or maybe it’s just a burning interest, one that will extinguish itself in time.  I suppose it really doesn’t matter.  For the time being, felting is something I love just about as much as I love backpacking, and that’s saying something.

Beginning the Camino Aragones

First, if you’ll humor me a bit, I’d love to share my latest felt “painting”:

A felted wool painting of the valley of the Rio Aragones

West of the Pyrenees

In celebration of the wonderful time I had on the Camino Aragones, I needlefelted one of my favorite photographs from that section of my walk across Spain.  I’d taken the photo midway through the Aragones, as I enjoyed a last view of the snowcapped Pyrenees rising above arid grain fields.  Felting from photographs is my favorite kind of felt painting; I try to capture the details and mood of a photo by using a special needle to poke strands of dyed wool into place on a “canvas” of wool I’ve made from our pet sheep’s last haircut.  It always takes a while to get a wool painting just right, but the result has lots of color and texture.  I’m quite pleased with this “painting.”  (If it strikes your fancy, here’s a shameless plug:  Please feel free to check it out on the Etsy shop of our family’s fiber studio: https://www.etsy.com/shop/heartfeltfleecefiber.)

Anyway, the Camino Aragones was the second route I came to in my dabbler of Caminos.  Almost from the moment the Camino began descending the Pyrenees at the France-Spain border, it took on a different flavor.  The misty, muddy path gave way, on the other side of the rain-shadowed mountains, to a drier, hotter trail.  The wildflowers were different, and the forests of the French side disappeared.  The first few towns on the Aragones seemed more bustling than the sleepy French mountain villages I’d gotten used to.

But, as the PCT taught me, arid lands have a distinct beauty of their own, and I soon found myself appreciating the brushlands of eastern Spain.  Unlike on the PCT, water carries weren’t an issue, as it was easy to ask a kind baker or bartender for water in the towns along the way.

A sundog above the trees

A sundog above the trees

By the time I arrived in Jaca, the Spanish sun had already begun working a number on my skin, and I’d been lucky to be a witness to a spectacular sundog, a rainbow-like phenomenon seen on sunny days.  I hadn’t yet glimpsed the “lunar landscapes,” the badlands for which that region of Spain is known, and I was excited to think that they were just around the corner.  But first, it was time for a zero day — and a field trip to the cliffside monastery, San Juan de la Peña.

Panorama from a vista near San Juan de la Pena

Panorama from a vista near San Juan de la Pena

Impressions of the Chemin d’Arles

When I set out to walk the historic Camino de Santiago, I knew that I wanted to experience the primary route, the Camino Frances, but also other smaller, less traveled paths.  Spreading out guidebooks and maps all over the coffee table, I decided on a general route I would take, a dabbler of Caminos that together formed a continuous footpath from Pau, France, to the western coast of Spain.

Oloron St. Marie and the Pyrenees

Oloron St. Marie and the Pyrenees

First along my route was the Chemin d’Arles, known in Spain as the Via Tolosana.  This route stretches from its namesake in southeastern France up through the Pyrenees, where it crosses into Spain (and becomes the Camino Aragones) at the Col du Somport (Somport Pass).

The western portion of the Chemin d’Arles, which was my introduction to the Camino, was beautiful, and I’ve been told that the section from Arles to Pau is even more lovely.

Highlights of the walk included community and town forests, tiny French mountain towns, and sweeping views of vineyards and rolling valleys.  Especially memorable was the climb to Somport Pass through an evergreen forest and then the meadows, wildflowers, and mountain air that greeted me at the top.  But, it wasn’t just the natural settings that I loved about the Chemin d’Arles:  I also have fond memories of a night I spent in a monastery and the sweet, chocolatey scent of Oloron St. Marie, a town straight out of a fairy tale, where homes looked down on a chilly river and flower boxes adorned the windows.

A field of seedlings

A field of seedlings

Perhaps like some other Americans, I’d grown up conflating “France” with “Paris.”  I’d heard that French people were stuck up and obsessive about fashion and unwelcoming to foreigners.  While I had a difficult time reconciling that vision with the France of D’Artagnan’s boyhood, I suppose that, somewhere along the line, I’d just accepted it.  When I got to France, I was reminded of the fact that New York and Washington, D.C., are hardly representative of our entire country.  Perhaps rural people anywhere in the world have their own ways of being.

My least favorite portion of my time on the Chemin d’Arles was a rather death-defying roadwalk along a curvy mountain highway.  Naturally, the day I walked that section was a rainy, misty one.  I found myself clinging to the cliff face when I was on the inside of curves.

A little snail

A little snail

A simple, unexpected pleasure of the Chemin d’Arles — and, indeed, of much of my Camino — was the number of snail sightings it afforded me.  I’d read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, a precious musing on chronic illness and life’s little pleasures, before my pilgrimage, and the snails I saw on the path, on fence posts, and on flower stems made me smile.

My time on the Chemin d’Arles was brief, especially considering that pilgrims who walk from Arles walk for a month.  However, I walked along the path long enough to enjoy my time, look forward to the rest of the Camino, and decide that walking the entire route should happen someday.

In a tangentially related note, I wanted to share that I’ve begun felting wool paintings from sights I loved along my Camino.  First up is this scene from the Camino Aragones.  I added the cairn to the foreground this morning, and I’m looking forward to felting the snow-capped Pyrenees tomorrow!