Week 17: End of the road ...

On the final morning of my summer journey I woke up, stretched my limbs like a contented cat, cracked open an eye then immediately threw the other eye wide open to focus upon an unexpected threat. Through the transparent roof of my tent, I saw a huge widowmaker branch hanging like a pendulum from an oak tree directly above my head. The danger had gone unnoticed last night when I set up my forest campsite in the shadows of twilight. Thank goodness it hadn’t been a windy night, or my summer travels might have come to an extremely unpleasant conclusion!

I took out earplugs that had been blocking the incessant chatter of acorn woodpeckers, and took a moment to absorb the chirping of crickets and buzzing of hummingbirds. After encountering increasing amounts of traffic, noise, and technological distractions as I approached and traversed the metropolises of Sacramento and San Francisco, I simply felt grateful to have escaped the highways for a few hours. I expect it will be difficult to adjust to the pace of Southern California, even with the buffer of National Forest surrounding my home at the Rancho Alegre Outdoor School. The closer I come to civilization, the more I seem to covet the tranquility of nature.

While the wind was calm, I carefully packed up the tent and stowed it away in the back of the Jeep. Disabling the mousetraps under the passenger and driver’s seats reminded me that the line between nature and civilization had actually become blurred weeks ago as a result of having my vehicle parked for too long at backcountry trailheads. A family of mice had moved into the miniscule crawlspaces within the Jeep, and I was determined to pick them off before they could grow too fat upon my remaining stores of dried food.

I returned to my humble log cabin later that afternoon, after nearly four months of absence, and realized that the line had become blurred there as well, due to the lack of human activity and upkeep. The spiders had turned my house into something that resembled Dracula’s mansion, and I didn’t have the patience or the stomach to keep the cobwebs until Halloween, when they might have seemed like appropriate decoration. The resident pillbugs had multiplied and launched a full-scale invasion upon the household, creeping across the carpets with their dozen legs and curling into armored, defensive spheres like armadillos when disturbed. I couldn’t cross the kitchen tiles without scattering a cluster of the crustaceans and having them roll across the floor like tiny marbles.

During staff training I kept waking up and finding mysterious bites on my neck, which made me start to wonder if Dracula actually hadn’t moved into my house while I’d been away. But gradually, the human presence was reestablished and the tide of invasive invertebrates was turned, allowing me to focus more upon preparations for the 130 6th-graders coming to the Outdoor School next week. I reorganized the storeroom, brushed up on my astronomy and reptile lore, and accompanied the staff on a day of teambuilding training at neighboring Camp Whittier, which turned out to be scarier than anything I had faced in Norway or the Rockies this past summer.

That afternoon at the high ropes course, I found myself staring out across a narrow log suspended thirty-five feet above the ground, and waves of utter terror were surging through my brain at the thought of trying to cross to the opposite side. Sure, I wore a harness and would be caught by a safety line if I slipped, but my mind has a terrible time trusting ropes and anchors - that’s why I’ve always preferred scrambling to technical rock-climbing. I had hoped that all the hours spent on mountain ridges this summer would have immunized me from the heights, but the empty space between the wooden catwalk and the ground far below was shredding my nerves.

To complicate matters, I was also tethered to Star, the new staff intern, requiring us to perform the twenty-foot walk in tandem. Star was petrified, but to her credit she had earlier consented to have us to climb first, before all the other naturalists. “Okay,”? I told her, “we’re just going to start walking,” which felt like a complete lie, because I didn’t think I could force myself to take a single step away from the post we were currently clinging to.

It took ten minutes of coaxing, but Star finally placed both hands on my shoulders, and I shuffled forward the first few inches towards our goal. My arms were outstretched for balance, and once I realized that retreat was impossible, my sense of fear actually diminished by half. I couldn’t force myself to take bigger steps, but slowly we covered the seemingly endless distance.

Then the log began to shake. The opposite end of the catwalk was secured to a single telephone pole, which was now flexing from side to side from our weight. The more I tried to correct my balance, the more the log wobbled as a result. And as we came closer to the telephone pole, the vibrations became magnified. Now I was trying to compensate for myself, the weight and movements of the intern, the shuddering of the log, and the wind besides. My sense of balance has never been more tested.

I don’t know how I managed to keep from instinctually leaping forward and hugging the pole, yanking my tethered partner behind me; somehow I kept in control. Nor can I figure out how I convinced myself to leap from the top of the telephone pole to a trapeze bar without curling up into a fetal position out of sheer terror. But somehow, one by one, the Rancho Alegre staff and I overcame our fears, and I expect that the most obnoxious 6th-graders this year are going to seem far less intimidating by comparison.

Later on, I shook out my old hammock, strung it between my front porch and an oak tree, and stretched out inside it for the first time since June. Turkeys scuffled in the fields, and a few flies drifted lazily about. Tendrils of lace lichen hanging from forest branches stirred and gently twirled in the autumn breeze. It felt good to be home.

Since I saturated last week’s story with introspective moments, I will leave you with this image of tranquility until we meet again at the end of the school year. By then the car repairs will be finished, joints will be healed, bank accounts will be recharged, and new destinations will beckon to be explored. Thank you again for sharing in my journeys. May the mice never nibble upon your cache of ramen noodles, and may you always find time to spend in your own spaces of tranquility and peace.

Look for a special Photo Finish from Bryan’s trip in Tuesday’s Evening Sun.

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