Early this morning, I woke up and went to Houghton Pond with my best friend Miriam. She set off on a ten mile run and I sat by the water with my copy of John Muir’s “Wilderness Essays”. I had forgotten my phone at home but I knew that her run would afford me two hours or so to read. A welcome distraction from the news cycle on repeat on my palm and in my brain, I dove in.
And then I dove right out.
“Wilderness Essays” is a ten piece collection of Muir’s most famous pieces. In less than 300 pages, this book chronicles his adventures all the way from the peaks of Yosemite to the forests of Oregon. The first essay though, is a vivid description of Muir’s discovery of Alaska’s Glacier Bay, home to over a thousand glaciers spanning over five thousand miles.
His story is riveting. Muir’s ability to communicate natural beauty is unmatched and his commitment to noticing and celebrating minute details in the wilderness around him makes me wonder if I’ve been walking around the world with my eyes half-closed all this time. John Muir makes me want to love the Earth even more than I already do.
But after about twenty pages, I closed my book.
Reading Muir’s description of the towering glaciers dripping slowly over his party’s humble canoe took the breath right out of me. His company had packed more than enough food for the journey. They had pledged to each other’s wives that they would sacrifice their own lives for each other if that’s what the wilderness asked of them. They had done everything right.
But at the end of the day, their fate still belonged to the slow drip hanging over their heads. Like a liquid noose or a bullet made of ice, they spun the Bay’s revolver each time they set out for more adventure.
I closed my book because Muir’s adventures in Glacier Bay seemed eerily akin to this last week of confusion and hysteria. There was something similar in the tension - like being waterboarded with an eye-dropper.
No longer interested in my book, I decided to just take in the morning around me. Surely, Miriam only had an hour or so left to her run at this point.
Almost providentially, a father and his two sons came to the waterfront to satiate my hunger for people watching. The boys ran up and down the shore while the father looked on, smiling. And then suddenly, not smiling.
“MILO!” he screamed at the littlest one.
“Milo, what did I tell you? No touching the muddy water!”
I took in Milo’s soaking boots. He had indeed touched the muddy water.
“I said we could only come to the pond if you promised not to touch the dirty water! Now look at what you’ve done, you’re soaked and covered in mud.”
Milo hung his head in shame for an obligatory moment of silence and then gleefully hopped back in the water. I couldn’t tell why or how he was so unbothered by his father’s chastenings. It was either a deep anarcho-capitalist torch burning within him or just because he was four years old. Possibly both. Hard to tell all the way from my bench.
I saw what happened next coming but unfortunately, his father did not. Milo sprinted over to his brother, who had been obediently staying a foot away from the shore, and in one deft motion splashed him with an armful of pond water.
I guess some people just want to see the world burn.
“MILOOOOO”, his father bellowed. I wondered if he had chosen his son’s name with it’s bellowing potential in mind. While I wasn’t a huge fan of his parenting style, I give credit where credit is due and so I have to admit: the man had an ear for acoustics.
Now Milo and his brother were both wet and muddy. Despite his father’s howls, Milo seemed delighted with himself and his day at the beach. If I’m being honest, his brother seemed alright too.
But as their father announced that their day at the pond was officially cancelled, Milo’s face fell. It seemed that he had only considered the consequence of getting dirty, and not the possibility that he might lose out on mud altogether.
People of all walks of life passed by my bench as my stomach began to grumble. I knew Miriam would come soon but without my phone, I had no idea when “soon” would be.
The pond seemed to draw in every possible type of person. White, black, asian, hispanic. Straight couples, gay couples, single people, friend groups. People from all different socio-economic groups and geographic origins.
Here’s what I noticed: those who have, by nature of their very existence, walked with injustice their whole lives are now more emotionally prepared to jog in step with her step-sister: uncertainty.
There was a very sweet, young asian couple that asked me to take a picture of them and their baby by the water. There was a black mother walking laps around the pond with her children. There were two fathers and their toddler daughter playing in the sand. None of them were being unsafe, but none of them showed any signs of being upset when their children inevitably ended up in the muddy water.
It seemed to me, that they had known muddy water before.
I began to suspect that there may be a positive correlation between being brave with mud and being brave with the world. As I write this, I suspect even further that being both those types of brave will prove to be a huge asset in the coming weeks.
Abandoning my post for a few minutes, I headed to the bathroom in the park’s visitor center. I was nervous, as I have been every time I have used a public bathroom this past week. As I wrapped my sweater around my hand before turning the bathroom’s door knob, a sign on the park’s announcement billboard caught my eye. The sign was there to remind visitors to look out for ticks.
As someone who grew up in New England, I’ve always been on the lookout for ticks. My childhood was colored with long socks and complaints when my mother insisted on checking the back of my thighs for the little bastards. Lyme’s disease is an evil I was made aware of from a very young age and despite my mother’s best efforts to keep it out of my life, it came anyway.
It came in arguably the most heart-wrenching way, which is to say that it came for my very best friend. And if we’re all being honest, that’s the real fear with disease, isn’t it? Not that it’ll come for us, but it’ll come for the ones we love most. She has suffered and conquered and suffered and conquered and suffered and conquered. She has done so bravely and will continue to do so for the rest of her life.
Not unlike those mentioned before, her braveness will be an asset not only to her, but to her community. It will be an asset through the next few weeks, and hopefully for the next sixty years.
Seeing that sign reminded me that despite the scandal of this past week, I’ve been running from disease since forever.
Returning to my bench to wait as Miriam finished running ten damn miles reminded me that even when disease does catch you, you can still run.
I whispered a prayer, thanking the bulletin board and my best friend for making me less afraid.
It’s worth mentioning that in my two hours at the beach, close to a hundred dogs walked by me. I am happy to report that our nation’s canines seem valiantly unphased.
I sat on the bench and wondered what time it was. Mir had to have been gone at least two hours now. I knew it wasn’t just ten easy miles she was running today - she had chosen to run her miles on the Skyline trail, with a total of over 2,500ft of elevation gain. No wonder she had been gone so long. But how much longer would I have to sit on this bench alone?
I was bored, despite not really having done anything all morning.
Actually, maybe I was bored because I hadn’t done anything all morning.
I thought about asking someone what time it was, but decided not to. Knowing how long something will last doesn’t make it go any faster. Miriam would take as long as the trails took.
There is, as I’m sure Muir would agree, no use in trying to measure the relationship between man and nature. He was after all, a poet. Nature will always be bigger and more powerful, but man will always have more skin in the game. And if that isn’t poetry, then I guess I don’t know what is.
Man versus nature is really anybody’s game. Who will come out on top, the glaciers or the explorers, is entirely dependent on who works the best as a team. Impossible to tell in the first half, this eternal struggle is at its core: a slow-drip.
Miriam arrived. I stood on top of my bench and jumped up and down, cheering her on. I didn’t ask her what time it was because it didn’t matter. All that matters was that she had arrived.
As I picked up my book and patted my bench an affectionate goodbye, a white bird swooped over the muddy water and then headed back into the sky. The introduction of his imagery was too sudden, too fleeting. I couldn’t tell if he was a white flag waving in surrender or a symbol of hope. Maybe both.
“But it is in the darkest nights, when storms are blowing and and the agitated waves are phosphorescent, that the most impressive displays are made.”
- John Muir, “The Discovery of Glacier Bay”