Although leaning towards more wild and rugged places, I’m usually excited about visiting both remote locations and the more iconic tourist destinations. Joshua Tree National Park has it all; this pristine high-desert wilderness is also one of the most energetic locations on the planet.
To paraphrase Minor White, when looking at the landscapes within the Joshua Tree National Park, I see them not only for what they are, but also for what else they are.
They are pure magic.
Earth is bursting with a special energy there. For some, it will manifest as a happy feeling, for others – a sense of mystery or even awe, as in a heightened state of being. It’s a sacred land, and it will magnify whatever we bring. For a deserted place, it may be crowded with hikers and visitors sightseeing from their cars, yet it’s still spacious enough to make us feel lost in a wilderness. Conducive to those seeking seclusion or a transformational journey, a touch of ruggedness in the beauty of nature, a scenic landscape from a popular travel destination, or a test in difficult conditions, this park - where two different desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together - is also worth visiting if you want to find out what does it mean to survive despite all odds. Although we are not speaking about your survival.
Joshua Tree Park is a habitat for many species: juniper, pine, and cacti, raven, woodpecker, rabbit, fox, snake, and rat… I read somewhere that you can find over 700 species of various plants in the park (hence the original proposed name "Desert Plant National Park") as well as 55 species of mammal and over 250 species of bird.
Yet when it comes to park’s magic, nothing compares to a Joshua trees. They’re one of the most iconic plants of the American Southwest. To many, they’re a symbol of the Mojave Desert. Their wide branches and soft wood provide important shelter for a variety of desert animals. Called grotesque and ugly by the first American settlers, they emanate extraordinary vitality and have something so playful, smart, and serene about them that it completely changes the nature of this desert land.
After a few days on the Mojave Desert we arrive at the gates of Joshua Tree National Park (only three hours from the Pacific), and a feeling of emptiness and desolation is starting to take hold of us, when these unique trees and gracefully rounded gigantic rocks come into the scene. As soon as we pass Twentynine Palms, the landscape feels more comforting and warm, and we feel energized.
We start our exploration by simply responding to a call from the Joshua tree – just randomly park on the side of the road and go for a long walk amongst the rocks and the vividly "gesticulating" trees. At some point, I notice a blue bird, its intense plumage contrasting with the background of yellow-brown sands and rocks. I snap a photo and the bird starts playing with photographer: flying away after each click and perching in a new seat. It looks at me with curiosity and encouragement. I do not spoil the fun and run after him every time. Along the way, I notice a sign about different forms of desert life, including little blue birds (Mountain Bluebird) - all depending on Joshua tree (the Tree of Life) for survival.
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains - beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken. ~ John Muir
Joshua trees - in turn - depend on our human instinct of connection with nature and respect for all its forms. Because they unfortunately are one of thousands of endangered species. Wildfire, drought, and a noticeable rise in annual mean temperature do not help, and it’s quite possible that in the year 2100 Joshua trees will completely disappear from the surface of Earth. What will happen to the blue bird, to a desert mouse, and mountain goat then? We are all connected by invisible threads, everything in the Universe, as John Muir said, is tied to everything else, so something will then happen to us, too.
The desert blue bird disappears as suddenly as it appeared, but stays with me on a few photos that prove I did not dream it. Maybe it had something to do with the elusive blue bird of happiness… Life is sweet, tender and complete, when you find the bluebird of happiness. Maybe it came to teach me about our human happiness being dependent on the survival of the world of trees.
Our second stop has stunning panoramas and a horizon of mountains surrounding a field of 3-4 meters tall Cholla cactus. We are at the border of two deserts; spread around in majesty, the garden of succulents grew here naturally. "Jumping" cacti (also affectionately called “Teddy bear”) look beautiful, but it’s a treacherous beauty. It’s an earned nickname from its legendary grip. "Plush" and innocent in appearance, Chollas have millions of sharp needles (so thick they look like fur) that literally "jump" on those who pass too close - together with a piece of cactus that detaches from the trunk along with the needles that stick to the object and immediately dug into the skin and clothes. It’s very difficult to get rid of a Cholla ball bristling with needles (we learned that the hard way from my husband’s trekking shoe). The needles stick into an object, swell, and absorb water, which means that pulling them out requires a lot of force and often causes pain. Many climbers report finding Cholla needles on their clothes only after returning from a hike.
A detached piece of cactus, landing on the ground, takes root, and grows as a clone of the original trunk. Interestingly, Cholla cacti retain huge amounts of water. Some animals, such as mountain desert chamois and rams, have learned to handle needles to get to the succulent cactus trunk. Their horns help a thirsty animal remove the needle and eat a tasty and nutritious meal. The Sonoran Desert can go months without rain, so every drop of liquid here is worth its weight in gold. Back to the trail: it’s spectacular, but be careful.
A few more stops and climbs that are ecstatic, now at the end of this eventful day, we arrive at the last itinerary trail, through a Hidden Valley. Before us stands a portal of giant granite monoliths, which loop around huge rock formations, and the Barker Dam. Barker dam is a partly a human creation - the achievement of Bill Keys the "Edison of the Mojave Desert", who strengthened and extended the natural rock barrier to stop winter’s rainwater (creating an amazing lake in the middle of a dry desert). Although the water level during our visit is not high, the desert pool surrounded by huge rocks is impressive.
There are five water oases in Joshua Tree National Park, and water plays an important part in the park’s history: millions of years ago it carved its landscapes (and proved to be an artist). The area of today's park - formerly part of the now non-existent continent called Rodinia - was under ocean’s surface for 250 million years.
Water in the desert is not only a symbol of life - it is life, it ensures survival. Longing for it (metaphorically taken as longing for life and knowledge about the source of life) is an inseparable element of every desert’s story.
As we reach the "stone circle" on the Barker Dam trail, the daylight fades to pink, and the first stars ignite. This rocky Wonderland entertained us with huge bright boulders, rock doors, gates, and breaks, and unexpected panoramas dotted with Joshua trees and cacti, a glistening lake, even a strange mandrola-spiral rock (the origin and purpose has not been revealed in my research).
Standing in silence in a sacred circle of Joshua trees surrounded by a circle of rocks, we contemplate the drawings in a shallow cave - shadowy, yet still too clear for their age. The original message - in the form of petroglyphs - was colored by the producers of a Disney film in 1961 (today we call it vandalism), but perhaps if we stand here long enough in the gathering dusk, its meaning will reach us? These petroglyphs date back more than 2,000 years. If we, as fair representatives of our great civilization, were not so completely blind and deaf, they would surely have something important to tell us... for example, as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, that in the past we ourselves were there as a cloud, water, boulder, air. It is not a belief in reincarnation - it is the story of life on Earth.
We leave the park after dark, rocks illuminated for a moment by headlights. A drive through the sea of Mojave’s darkness feels adventurous. Joshua trees stretch out their arms to the coal black sky, and there is an entire field of Joshua trees - as in the vision of Mormons – right in front of us. Praying prophets. Maybe they are praying for us.
Driving through deserted roads at night, if not for the car's engine, it would be deafeningly quiet. We glide through the dark silence on high beam, wishing to know what’s around us, what awaits us, what lies ahead. Darkness does not have the best connotations in our culture (although without the alternating cycle of night and day nothing on the planet would survive), nor does the desert; they are considered dangerous, unfriendly, treacherous. It is easy to feel lost in the dark. One can even start to feel that it is over - the world, as we know it; one can almost see “no future” sign. Some say, we are living in the Dark Age. Yet who knows, maybe we have not been buried as a civilization yet; maybe... we have been planted?
APPENDIX: A FEW NOTES ON JOSHUA TREES (AND THE UNIVERSE)
What if we loved ourselves so much we wouldn’t feel we need to gain anything (ex. more love, sympathy, appreciation, friends, better job or car) in order to feel complete and lovable, and deeply satisfied?
What if one day we would wake up feeling completely peaceful, joyful, loving, and content (and bursting with energy and life)?
Maybe we would take a leisurely walk outside and truly notice everything is connected and we live in a world filled with wonders. Maybe we would take a good care for whatever is in front of us, maybe we would appreciate our interdependence.
We hear this phrase “Love yourself” yet falling in love with ourselves feels like a hyper-egoistic thing, impossibility, or naiveté, a slogan from a self-help book. What is this self we are supposed to love, and how do we know it?
A doorway leads to an experience of a desert. Where another voice will make itself known, and I don’t have to struggle to sound like anything in particular as this is not about my voice – which guides you only to this doorway. What is behind? Bright, intense desert light. Cheerful Joshua trees in their trance, their prayer, their dialogue with this rough terrain and everything else in the Universe. Inviting you to join more consciously this dance of creation and survival.
I speak for Joshua tree (and a little blue bird that depends on its branches). I know the distance from one desert to another, and the underground current that connects all of Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert, in spite of great distances. There is a current that flows through our roots and branches, and little wings of a blue bird, and his perfectly round and shiny eye; the current that moves his wings and beats his heart. It flows through our trunks, roots, to the ground.
And then it flies back to heaven on these blue wings, with a winter song asking how long will I sleep, and will I be there when grandchildren of the bluebird will want to rest in branches of a desert tree.
Don’t ask me.
Desert wind wraps its arms around us… as we walk among rocks and cacti, and Joshua trees; they nod with approval to this brief air hug.
A shell of language cracks opens and the space inside is silent, translucent, and light.
In this short window between one thought and another – so much life.
Following the path of a breath, the path of a heart, I reach the edge of a cliff and look down at the strange plant, rocky spiral or mandrola, and a distant mountains dotted by Joshua Trees like a panther’s skin… I feel this landscape is looking at me. I want to know what it sees.
Do not go off somewhere else – stay there. Traveler inside the body - like in a vehicle that transports you with your feet on the ground. Strong, firm moves, from one boulder to another. I see the horizon fogged by a hazy air, with dots of Joshua Trees, hundreds of them, in the distance. Do not go off somewhere else – stay on this rock. Sense your feet and stand there knowing that you stand on Earth, take it in and allow yourself to be taken in until you become a part of it. Your ground being a globe moving through space, spinning at the incredible speed. Sense the gravity. Maybe you will hear your name – whispered through the wind; maybe by your own consciousness, you are surrounded by it: there is no place to go and there is nowhere else.
I am offering this beauty to you, as I know we all want our globe to turn without any disturbance. Alive, with all the beings on it living happily and aware of a sacred thread we may remember from our childhood days – that binds us together. Joshua trees, hikers in their flashy jackets, knocking to the stone’s door in search of their home or a treasure hidden in the sesame of their own heart, rock, blue bird, cacti, creosote bush… things normally kept apart. Distant fields many miles away from the desert… your parents, dead or alive, my parents, our grand- and great-grandparents, our earthly ancestors, and their great-grandchild… the ocean that has been there on this desert before we all came… the ocean that will come.
I close my eyes and listen to the voices of the rain.
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer
As I gaze out toward an impossibly foggy ocean, the soft suggestion of sharp rocks gets my attention. Like in a dream - I try to make sense of incomplete shapes, imagine the missing parts. I long to grasp something that maintains its form while we look at it. Maybe that’s something our brain does all the time when it translates impulses and light into something recognizable and known as “the world outside”. Maybe we never see things clearly (or as they really are)? Maybe we try to see them being steady while they’re constantly in a movement, to become something else? Maybe losing sight of what’s outside can sharpen inner eye?
Perhaps there is something unexpected to see from this invisible cliff...
I realize how weather parallels our inner experience of yet another pandemic summer: isolation, lack of clarity, lack of direction, an invisible threat. Hoping for a change of scenery and for clarity, I do find them in being here and now, on this woodsy, rocky, peaceful Mount Desert Island, in Maine. The trees, the grass, and the moss whisper in the wind, the rain softens to a drizzle, the nearby rocks shine darkly.
The color of the sky as far as I can see is coal grey….
Because it’s Acadia, there’s no bad time to visit. Summers tend to be more crowded, and for a good reason, yet even in the summer this coastal vacation-land may suddenly welcome you with a freezing cold morning. Well, it’s Maine, and the weather forecast couldn’t be more clear: all Memorial Day Weekend it will rain. I thought, rain is okay. My husband didn’t think so, yet we went. There was a song playing in my head...
…What a cold and rainy day. Where on earth is the sun hid away…
…With a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather…
When we find ourselves in a foggy, rainy landscape, we can try to escape back to our comfort zone – or we may become appreciative of the invisible and unknown (and of questions that come along). Curiosity and attention will deepen the engagement with our internal weather and the living world, and may add a new dimension to our brief vacation or our afternoon.
What comes into focus in a fog?
On our first evening in Acadia National Park it was an unexpected presence on the Eagle Lake Carriage Road Trail. We froze, the deer froze. A graceful runner, the nocturnal whitetail. It felt almost like Acadia’s spirit of the forest spoke. What was his quiet message about?
In Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer
They say: pay attention when plants or animals come to you. They bring their message for you, something that you need to learn. And it’s not an accident that on our last day at Bar Harbor I visit a Native Arts Gallery (run by Navajo people), and I am attracted to a book:
Animal Energies. Interpreting the Messages and Warnings of Animals by Gary Buffalo Horn Man and Sherry Firedancer.
So what does the deer say?
Be more aware of all things in your environment. (…) Deer’s medicine gifts are gentleness and sensitivity. Very few people who are in tune with life can see Deer’s sweet face and not be moved.
True, our hearts and temperament soften immediately upon this unexpected greeting. A gift of the forest’s tenderness and mystery.
Carriage trails are not challenging, but mysterious and long enough to feel like it was worthwhile and sufficient elevation to keep it interesting. So they make you feel rewarded for your persistence, especially when the evening colors of a setting sun over blue-green hills warm up the whole sky. But these were not the only trails we went onto.
When using granite steps from the asphalt road, the landscape resembled nineteenth century illustrations from a fairy-tale. Crossed streams, granite stairs, and intersections with other trails… the fern looked very healthy, the rock work felt so intricate, the mossy grounds glistened with water and light. Acadia’s spirits of the forest spoke also through the rocks, ferns, moss (and its whole miniature world: peat moss, hair-cap moss, broom and curly-leaved, plum and white moss…).
There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents. This is what has been called the "dialect of moss on stone - an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present, softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy, yin and yan.
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer
Gentle whispers, ancient voices surrounded us and made us feel alert. I cannot say if we were looking at the trees or if the trees were looking at us? And whether some other presence was also there, not of an author of this fairy-tale (looking for elves and fairies, and tales to be told to the moss), but something big, breathing out-and-in in the mist, and holding us within. It was as if walking through a living organism.
It felt good to end the day at the Aunt Betty shallow, marshy pond. Much of it is only 3-4 feet deep, and contains dense aquatic vegetation. This is where one may see a perfect reflection of a hill of pines and hear the loudest frogs. “Who are they?” – I can almost hear their talk. - “I have no idea; they don’t seem to have bikes…” “It’s too late to be out there, on the trails, and it showers, what are they doing here?”.
I don’t know if they figured it out, but it surely was a long and interesting conversation, consisting of a few different calls that were traced with a camera over the smooth mirror of the pond. In America frogs may say “ribit ribit”, in France “croac croac”, whereas in my native Poland they seem to be more eloquent by adding “re re” to every “kum kum” - but that’s not the point. One of them was making the very loudest noise we’ve ever heard before, and it was enchanting in its own way. What does my book say about meeting a weird sounding frog?
Take the time to heal your emotions.
Well... being carried (away) by different calls in my day-to-day world, by words… finding the rhythm of how to speak about rainy Acadia trail, another foggy day of overcast light in Acadia’s forests… about the meaning of the meeting with the deer or a bunch of frogs… listening to the raindrops when hiding under a canopy of wisteria next to Acadia’s deepest lake (carved by glaciers Jordan Pond)...
These stories come to be understood not by the ordinary mind, but in a way that will transform... yet it is still worth while to learn the symbolism of the beautiful cascading purple plant: its flower carries the meaning of good luck and devotion. And sometimes one needs a few years to fully understand the message that was received.
In some Native languages the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us”.
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer
On another gloomy day, when driving along the coastal cliffs in the pouring rain, the latest arrivals to the inter-glacial happenings… we arrive to the nice secluded Little Hunters Beach with its smoothly and perfectly rounded stones (some say they have healing properties). Here it is - a little tower of stacked rocks to signify that we are on the right track: practicing patience and balance when contemplating the environment in the fog and rain. It’s good to ponder on the way water wears away the edge of the land.
The rate of sea level rise on the rocky coast of Acadia is about an inch per decade now. Over the last decade the global sea level has risen faster than at any time in the last 3,000 years. Glaciers are melting and adding water… the volume of the ocean expands as the water warms. The Gulf of Maine which surrounds Acadia National Park has risen 3F over the last century which means it warms faster than most of world’s oceans… There are many more facts, stories, and numbers for those who have ears to hear (and hearts that won’t get discouraged but will be touched).
Also, the mountains of Acadia are being eroded by rain, and one day they will be worn away…
The ocean roars during our drive (Thunder Hole provides the sound).
Sand Beach is brown and sticky like a clay… even the gigantic rocks that dwarf us will be gone one day. Beautiful coves with sand beaches, pebbles and cobblestones will disappear – like they’re in fog, but for good… and, as I read in the “Field Guide to Acadia National Park, Maine” by Russell D. Butcher, new geological events will shape this land… Will our race of careless humans still be around?
The lighthouse on the cliff welcomes us with a bell of awakening, silent over the silent sea.
Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer
In Acadia, the beauty, the mystery, and the simplicity of the natural world can be found effortlessly. The park, product of thousands of years of sculpting by glacial ice and other geological processes, is a true Nature’s artwork. Its rugged coastline, rocky summits and hills, deep lakes, ponds, and forests have been enchanting visitors for over a century: park’s land, previously inhabited by Native American Wabanaki people for 11,000 years, has been first set aside in 1916 as national monument, and in 1929 became Acadia National Park. With growing popularity of all national parks, and recognized healing properties of forest bathing, it is to be expected that Acadia will attract even more visitors in the years to come. How long will we be able to enjoy it, before the conditions on our planet become too extreme?
Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer
On our last day in Bar Harbor rays of sunshine break through the spell of dark gloom into hotel space. The weather outside is perfect for a walk to the harbor. Suddenly it is so bright, gold and grace pour out from the sky at the rate of the previous rain.
On the way home we stop by Pretty Marsh on the northwest tip of Mount Desert Island, and enjoy the shoreline view from picnic gazebo perched up on the rocks. There is a long stretch of gravel beach to accompany our silent walks there, and the large driftwood, ideal for a meditative rest.
Looking at the gorgeous forest setting with tall evergreens (soft pine trees) along the shore I’m reminded of a quote from Thoreau (“The Maine Woods”):
There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. (…) Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose, and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it…
There is so much life around that so very few people on this planet really care about.
When thinking about the weather…
I hear the sound of a noon bell chime.
Now I'm far behind.
I shiver, quiver, and try to wake.
…yet, in my everyday life I still don’t see the burning forest, the drying river, the melting glacier, and the flooded desert land… the polluted ocean, and the abundance of fish that died in the Odra river in my native Poland this year. Even though we visited the fastest melting glacier in Iceland and crossed that Polish river during our summer trip. My sleep is that deep.
I wish I could really hear the whispers of the forest or cries of the Earth… yet all I hear is my own little cry - of its child tired of a race created by the civilization based on the idea of economic growth that fuels our climate catastrophe more and more.
Is it too late?
My photo from the “Weather” exhibit (curated by Alyssa Coppelman) at the Photo Place Gallery, VT.
Joanna Macy writes that until we can grieve for our planet we cannot love it – grieving is a sign of spiritual health. But it is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair.
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer
What brings me home?
What kind of light brings me home?
What brings me freedom to be the one that I am?
Struggling with the waves, the storms of life, am I able to see the light?
These are maybe strange questions to ask on a beach, any beach, but Sanibel’s beach especially – this calm, almost empty, bathed in salty air, and warmed by afternoon light. But they’re end-of-a-year kind of questions, emerging from the darkness of the season, from the depths of this strange year, and from my own unknown inner space that resembles a deep dark well, so I allow them to surface.
When asking a real question, we don’t really look for an answer from the mind. If the answer will emerge, it will come from life. Yet the act of asking is still more important than this answer. Allowing our mind to relax and not be on guard may bring out interesting things. We may even start to feel more alive…
What is it like to stop trying to direct life all the time?
This past year has been a deep inward curl for some, and I’m among those who are slow to emerge from that place. So even when landing in Florida, I’m not that eager to go out, I just want to see Sanibel.
It’s good to start a trip to this island from visiting a lighthouse. It’s been a year of looking for a lighthouse (or a light) for my husband and me. We’ve been visiting lighthouses nearby, and called it “A Lighthouse Project” as it was a nice name for our weekend wanders. It gave us a sense of purpose and continuity, and served as a symbol of constant guidance in the year of changes and adaptations. It was also a theme of my photography project (that debuted - in miniature - during “Hope” exhibit launched by local artists).
Sanibel Island Light feels like it would make a good picture. It was one of the first lighthouses on Florida’s Gulf north of Key West, and it’s an iron skeletal tower, about 100 feet tall. Christmas decorations give it a cheerful feel. When we look down, the grounds and beach nearby are covered tightly in seashells. This 120-year-old lighthouse sits on a wildlife refuge (Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation manages over 1200 acres of conserved land and is the largest private landowner on this island).
We hope to spot some interesting birds, aside from the surprising pair of little ospreys nested in the chimney of the oil house next to the lighthouse, yet the beach here is pretty crowded, so we just stay little longer to capture the silvery glare of water from the midday sun.
Walking from the beach back toward the parking lot, I notice some activity along the road. The line of cars stopped in front of something causing a little traffic jam. People gather around.
- A perfect one! – says someone when noticing the camera around my neck. Others who watch and cheer have to rely on their cellphones.
I can see the reason for this cheerful gathering and prepare to become a wildlife photographer… will I be quick enough?... well… it’s a turtle. Turtle crossing, in his natural rhythm, and with unobscured dignity.
Why, a perfect illustration of being in a Sanibel… frame of being.
Every year hundreds of sea turtles nest on Sanibel’s and Captiva’s beaches. They’ve been around for about 110 million years. This turtle… he may be old. Older than me, older than all of us. He may be even carrying our world on his shell. Sadly, he is among endangered species.
Sanibel may be experienced in many ways. One can tailor the degree of immersion to suit one’s temper and explore, or cocoon to one’s comfort level. You may find a pristine beach with multitudes of shells – and there are beaches all around this island - and stay there forever (or for most of your time) soaking in vitamin D until the sun dives into the silky golden honey-like ocean depths, and disappears for the rest of the day, while you wonder at the beauty and mastery of the sky painter’s creations, and don’t ask how many more sunsets like that would be given to you. Others may come up with their own plan, or just allow the right leisure tour to unfold before their eyes.
The wintry weather is right for all that, and you’ll be wearing your bathing suit most of the time. After a year of hardship and worry, you deserve some comfort. Finally, you may even feel like a butterfly, leave your cocoon, and fly back to snowy Boston.
Sanibel will stay with you – the perfect “beat the winter blues with subtropical weather and sky-ocean blue” memory.
Winter blues on Sanibel felt good. At the end of a long day it stretched before our eyes in this pristine almost empty beach.
It was a special time of a special year, when everything changed pretty much for everyone, and we all acquired a feeling of certainty that the change is something permanent, perhaps the only permanent thing?... Nature breathed with a relief and a new depth. Cleaner, purer, happier without constant disturbance from us…accordingly, something purified inside.
I wanted to find some shells for my mom, yet this wish was not very active in my mind, and I completely forgot about it after a long day, which we decided to end on a beach that looked good enough for us to stay there for the last sunset of this memorable year.
After a short walk I found a little “cove” surrounded by bushes and sat down, my back resting on a palm tree trunk. I opened the “Secrets” issue of Parabola Magazine (Winter 2020) and started to read The Gospel of Thomas. I was drawn to this non-canonical tale of an inner world that Christ had access to (and therefore was called Christ – as this wasn’t exactly his last name). Christ, who – as Thomas Merton says – always comes uninvited into this “demented inn”, our world. Disturbing us, when we want to sleep peacefully in temporary shell, on some beach, in this hotel that we call home. With illusions based on the main illusion that this visible world is the only one that exists, and that it will last for us alone permanently.
I had this thought about sea shells for my mom somewhere at the back of my mind. But I was too busy sunbathing and reading, and thinking of where we’ve all been this past year, and how much it was an awakening from this sleep that all gospels speak about… I was too busy to notice that I forgot.
Suddenly a Hindu man stopped by, accompanied by his wife and a child.
- May I take some of these shells, or did you collect them? – he pointed out a meaningful pile of beautiful and quite large shells that were obviously carefully picked, gathered, and abandoned there by someone. On the sand, about 6 feet from where I sat. Some were broken, but most were not. I must have been blind, and at the same time something in me (instinct?) had a pretty good sense of where I should be.
- Yes, please – I replied. – They’re not mine. But may I also take a few?...
“for my mom”, added humbly a tiny voice in my head. How could I forget? He didn’t mind. We shared this unexpected discovery, and it felt like I was presented with an unusual gift. Maybe even more than one.
(As I write now, I look at the shell from my mom that arrived with her Christmas gift for us this year, from her most recent trip to the Baltic sea.)
She would love Sanibel.
This island is just the right mix of shell beaches (15 miles, 250 kinds of shells) and wildlife refuges (230 types of birds – and you may have even more luck than us). People call Sanibel a quiet kingdom of shells. Quiet - as the only buildings on the island taller than two stories are from before 1974, and there are no fast food or chain restaurants there (except a Dairy Queen and Subway, opened before the new law was enacted, as I read). Sanibel’s shells are famous across the United States, some are considered rare and precious, and one of the reasons why they’re here in such abundance is that Sanibel is a barrier island sanctuary, and part of a plateau that extends far out into the Gulf of Mexico. The plateau serves as a ground for accumulation of shells. Many tourist practice what locals call “shelling” here.
And one of the most popular beaches for “Sanibel Stoop” as they also call this shelling - is Blind Pass Beach that connects Sanibel with Captiva with a bridge. This was exactly the beach where we found ourselves at the end of that day, although we didn’t plan on it and didn’t know it at the time.
If you love shelling, or hunting for treasures that wash up, and nurture some harmless addictions like collecting shiny shells, this is where you should go.
Islands in our culture have always been associated with a secret: be it an escape, secluded paradise, buried treasure or a prison. This narrative changes, when our mobility allows accessing every possible escape and all secrets fade, when shared on social media. Or when a secluded paradise becomes more and more threatened by climate change and traveling becomes a risky business or a way of escaping this strange island that we have created in our homes during the pandemic.
Yet there are still secrets to discover on Sanibel (or elsewhere, if you have the right attitude and time). A little easier to do that, when you contemplate setting sun (and when it comes to sunsets, Florida has almost no competition). So if you’re ready, here’s one:
There’s light buried in you. The same light that gives life to everything around you.
Nice sentiment? Yes, but also truth.
For a few brief moments I don’t think about anything, but it’s not that mindless and numb state in which we usually distance ourselves from our present moment. I acknowledge the reality of the body: the breath, the sense of warm sand between my toes, the distant laughs of happy children, the rhythmical sound of waves crashing, the smell of salt coming with the ocean’s breeze. I narrow my eyes as the sun is still bright, and my jaw is almost relaxed. I have a sense of something upright supporting my spine from inside, while my back is supported by the palm tree trunk. My body responds with gratitude to this moment of being more present, more receptive.
The mind alone—the mind that is not nourished by the silence of the fertile void of pure Being—as such is incapable of guiding human life. - writes Jacob Needleman in his preface to the translation of The Gospel of Thomas that I started to read on Sanibel. - The ordinary, isolated intellect, no matter how brilliant or inspired, has not the energy to command our thoughts, words, impulses, memories and experiences in a way that conforms to truth and the Good. This, in sum, is the tragedy of our era, of our knowledge in the modern world. All that science has brought us—the phenomenal, wondrous discoveries it has brought us about life, matter and the universe—will eventually bring us nothing but destruction because we have forgotten that the mind alone cannot direct itself or the whole of ourselves. It does not have the energy for this. It is an energy that must come from another, higher level within the human psyche, a level that is experienced as silence.
So, this peaceful ending of the year, this silence and magic of the sun feel appropriate, and at the same time – a gift. The quiet deepens as the orange ball comes closer to the water and the air cools. Suddenly, everything has more space, more depth. It feels like our own interiors have a second bottom, where things fall, as poet Rainer Maria Rilke once observed. Sorrow-like slow pulse of this old, tired world. Depth requires stillness, hardship, time... Waves come and go, filled with grace of movement, moment, of the wind. We listen to the world outside and within.
There’s this golden light above my head that I can breathe in, I can open myself to it, and maybe it can even open my heart, rest in my belly, make me feel - for a moment - like a being of light. Like someone who knows that all is right and all will be right. Feeling the void.
As the sun kisses the ocean, and their union is sweet and liquid, and golden, I feel like carrying something heavy and shiny to the waves. I recreate on the sand the writing that years ago I saw on some shore online. “Love yourself”.
And, later on, “Happy New Year”.
A wave in the ocean thinks that it is separated from the rest of the ocean. One sunbeam thinks it is separated from all the other sunbeams. Yet no one knows where one wave ends and another starts, and no one knows whether there are separating lines between the beams of light.
I could have written “Love your Self”, I realize as the ocean comes to take my writing in.
Maybe it’s a gift, but it requires something of me. It’s like the wind, but I have to put my sails for it ~ John Pentland
There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them. ~ Navarette Scott Momaday
"When we’ll come back here...” - I don’t know how many times I had this thought during our travels. We humans love repetition, repeating is so comforting. We love to repeat our great experiences or pleasant experiences... well, we even seem to like repeating our bad experiences (one can’t deny that these repetitions happen). And yet, as the Polish Nobel Prize Winner Wislawa Szymborska wrote in her poem Nic dwa razy (Nothing Twice): Nothing can ever happen twice. In consequence, the sorry fact is that we arrive here improvised and leave without the chance to practice (…). And yet, we constantly forget and live our lives as if one day was an exact copy of another: in some endless gap of thinking. Somewhere in-between our present, future, and the past. Under the spell of memories, fears, and wishes. Captivated by time. Except for these rare moments when we are fully present here and now. In these moments we know that this precious time, so vibrant and alive, will never happen twice. We know it without thinking. Our body knows it. We know it in our heart. And as soon as we start to think about it, it’s gone.
During our close encounter with Mato Tipila (the Bear’s Tipi, the Bear’s Lodge) we feel very much immersed in the present moment. Climbing the base area, walking around this most unusual giant formation rising from the plains, we hear nothing but the sound of our steps on the ground and silence of the forest. The presence of the tower is so strong that it almost produces its own deep sound that emanates through the trees. Prayer bundles remind us of a sacredness of this site. Eagles circle above our heads as if checking what Indigenous tribe’s believe brought us here. A memory of a Cheyenne Bear-Woman who made this site her home? Our reverence for the Kiowa’s seven sisters who ran away from the Bear to find a shelter in the sky as the Pleiades? (This beautiful story brings to mind vivid images of a wild unequal struggle that ends somewhere among the stars.) A pity on Arapahoe’s two sisters who had to compete over bison’s bone? Or an admiration for the Lakota warrior who in his dream found himself suddenly on the top of the rock?
We are a very small tribe of two, and yet: like Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota, and Kiowa, we too have our own beliefs associated with this place. Maybe not in the shape of myths, legends, or oral stories, but in a form of silent feelings such as awe, which is our western way of communicating with the Great Spirit, whose presence is almost palpable there.
The ugly name "Devils Tower" appeared as a result of a misunderstanding by interpreters who were mapping the Black Hills region in 1875. On the Devils Tower National Monument website we find also more “polished” answer to the question of the origins of the tower’s name: During a celebration in 1932 on the Crow Agency in Montana, Max Big Man was questioned about the Tower. He explained: The Indians called the Devils Tower "Bear's Tipi" or "Bear Lodge," because so many bears lived there. They believed it was put there by the Great Spirit for a special reason, because it was different from the other rocks, rising high up in the air, instead of being on the ground. For this reason, it was looked upon as a holy place, and the Indians went there to worship and fast.
According to the Cheyenne, it was there, where Sweet Medicine had a vision that predicted the disappearance of buffalo and the impact of white men (as Larry J. Zimmerman notes in his book The Sacred Wisdom of the Native Americans). There is also a story of The Great Bear, who introduced the sacred language and ceremonies of healing to Lakota shamans at Bear Lodge. In this way, the tower became the birthplace of Lakota’s wisdom.
And, as Cibecue Apache say, wisdom sits in places.
Like many, I’ve seen this mountain - with its characteristic columns, as if sculpted by a giant hand - for the first time years ago in Steven Spielberg’s movie, and like many characters from this movie I felt a need to go there... but I lived in Poland at that time, and it was very unlikely that I would ever visit the USA.
Once you’re close to the tower, you can feel the sacredness of this place. At the base of the tower, among the tress, where columns crumble, you can see a lot of prayer flags. We are asked to not to touch them as this would rob them of their power. Each of these columns is a result of the gradual cooling of molten lava… the tower tells a story of the power of nature, and the times when humans did not inhabit this planet… can you imagine 45 million years before humans? Is it real or is it just an idea, our mind’s construct? How can we know that this time even existed? And could anything have existed before us?
For some, time is not linear. They say that we live in cycles (similar to a lunar or a solar cycle). Ancient cultures’ prophecies say that everything endlessly repeats, and that humanity will make a circle, turn around, and start over. Ouroburos – a snake or dragon that eats its own tail – speaks of an eternal cycle of destruction and rebirth, of a repetition on a giant scale. According to these prophecies we seem to live in the age of destruction, and the signs are visible not only to Indigenous People. Yet we always seem to have a chance to emerge from this endless repetition, to hear a tiny voice of awareness and conscience, and to rescue ourselves. To restore harmony within and in the world, and to fix our relationship with the Earth. Forgiveness, compassion, and tranquility are not cheap, but this is a decent price for the gift of being here. Will we make it this time? Will we realize that this is what can be done? Will we have enough wisdom, strength, and time?...
We know that even if we’ll travel here again, the place won’t be the same, and the traveler will be someone else.
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
to speak your
to the living walls.
Who are you?
~ Thomas Merton
We made a circle around the Devils Tower. It’s time to go back home. Our car is the only one that’s left in the parking lot, and we depart from these sacred grounds (just a short stop in a Prairie Dog Town for a few photos of the cutest animals in Wyoming) as the darkening sky begins to announce an upcoming gale. A strange light appears on a side of the rock, over the hill. We leave behind tower’s wisdom and all of its stories, whispers coming to us from unknown times – a very distant future or an ancient past - as we drive back to Rapid City, through an electric storm.
Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library and its books were stones, leaves, grass, brooks and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of the earth.
~ Luther Standing Bear, Lakota tribe
Before I was six years old, my grandparents and my mother had thought me that if all the green things that grow were taken from the earth, there could be no life. If all the four-legged creatures were taken from the earth, there could be no life. If all the winged creatures were taken from the earth, there could be no life. If all our relatives who crawl and swim and live within the earth were taken away, there could be no life. But if all the human beings were taken away, life on earth would flourish. That is how insignificant we are.
~ Russell Means, Oglala Lakota Nation (1939-1912)
And yet we are so obsessed with ourselves. We bring absolutely everything to our own: very narrow viewpoint. To us, everything is telling our story. Everything is about us: weather, changes of season, joys and miseries of our lives. Even the pandemic. We are the very center of our own universe and all the planets turn around us, celebrating our sorrows and happy moments, likes, dislikes, our desires and our needs. We’re living in a self-centered world, and even when we say that we want to belong, it is about us. Not about the belonging. We do not even see it as strange.
The goodness of the Badlands is that they take you away from this obsession with yourself to some alien, timeless, selfless space, where nothing is about you. The Badlands are also the perfect vehicle for time travelers: one can almost see the planet the way it looked like before our ancestors were born. But you would never call the Badlands “home”.
This is where the Earth says “I really don’t need you, humans. I did without you for over 4 billion years. You’ve been with me for a few seconds of my time. This land is not yours, it's mine."
And yet, visiting the Badlands feels like landing on another planet, and it was for good reason that someone proposed naming this nature park "Wonderland National Park". It also makes perfect sense that the Badlands are called one of the most wonderful and underrated American national parks.
I've been around the world a lot, and pretty much over our own country, but I was totally unprepared for the revelation called the Dakota Badlands – wrote Frank Lloyd Wright. - What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere - a distant architecture... an endless supernatural world more spiritual than Earth but created out of it.
75 million years ago the Badlands were a shallow sea, and after eons a land under it rose, pushing the water away. After another few millions years, the subtropical forest changed into savanna, and today the Badlands are an area of colorful cliffs and hills, and a home to the largest mixed-grass prairie in the park system.
The hills change with the weather, light, and time of day. Every moment, every curve on the road, a completely new landscape unfolds before us, and a play of light creates new patterns. Each view is new, although millions of years old. Every year wind and rain erodes the soft rocks (at a rate of about one inch per year), and the erosion slightly changes the shape of the formations, creating new pinnacles, spires, caves, and jagged edging, which makes Badlands an even more fascinating place.
The Badlands is an open-hike park, so you are free to explore the features of numerous trails and overlooks, but you can also park in the middle of nowhere and go off the beaten path to wander (cautiously) among the rocks like the first European travelers, looking for a passage. Maybe stop by one of the impressive geologic vistas, a bizarre “ancient castle” or a “city in ruins”? Maybe rest under the lustrous leaves of a cottonwood tree?
What scenic marvels we will see if we come back here next year?
Sioux called this land Mako Sica, or the bad lands, as the climate here is very harsh: from brutal cold, wind, and the snows of winter, to the extreme heat, dryness, and frequent fires in summer. The water is almost undrinkable. Steep slopes, deep canyons, and sudden precipices still make travel difficult. The French-Canadian trappers also called it “les mauvaises terres” (bad lands). Geologists visiting the land in the 19th century were often troubled, and some would lament that the “animate and inanimate nature in Badlands was against them”. Some travelers admired these landscapes as “solitary, grand, chaotic, as it came from the hands of Him” (Captain John Todd, as quoted in the book “Badlands National Park” by Jan Cerney), some were terrified: “No words of mine can describe these Bad Lands. They are somewhat as Dore pictured hell” (artist Frederic Remington).
The Badlands prairie looks alive, but life here needs to persist. Seeds that fall among the rocks may not thrive. Ground water may be too deep for shallow roots.
Grasslands are divided by rocky formations, like the famous Badlands Wall that separates the lower prairie in the south and upper prairie to the north. Without today's roads moving through the Badlands it must have been really difficult, or almost impossible.
Traveling in the times of pandemic can be seen as irresponsible and unjustified (except for travels that are obviously purposeful, like visiting family or someone in need), it may also be a way of approaching healing from within. Even in our culture, where travel became a form of consumption, it still has a potential to be a medicine. Locked in our small worlds, small selves, small apartments, small or big houses, we yearn to experience more space, more relation, more belonging. And after going within: in shame of the realization that we have brought this disease upon ourselves through our irresponsible economy and false values (extensive traveling included), and after spending a considerable, painful, fruitful time indoors, we just want to go outside more. Ready to be touched (and perhaps transformed).
This time going outside may not be a sign of running away from our inner life to conquer the world and gain more self-worth; to feel better, look better or appear better, or to lose ourselves in whatever travel offers. It may be a sign of a wish to live a more meaningful and relational life. Then the Badlands becomes more than a commodity.
And if it is true that there is this deep symmetry between what’s inside and outside, our trip to the Badlands may be a journey to one of the most difficult and isolated parts of our own life. Our own inner hard passage, bad land… only to learn that even if it is a difficult place, the journey carries also beauty and potential of freeing us from our own barriers, expectations, images, and forms.
Our alien and abandoned places are a medicine for the soul. When we face them, the light pours.
Wandering through the Badlands during the pandemic, in a pioneering spirit, we take a 30-mile Badlands Loop that provides an opportunity for additional stops and explorations. The Badlands are never too crowded, especially during late spring (although I also read that they host about one million visitors annually), but this summer they are deserted. The austere, moon-like landscape and hot wind enter our senses like an intense dream. They empty our minds and deprive us of a sense of time and form. Their unfamiliarity creates in us more genuine response to whatever is this call.
When we see our global crisis as an opportunity to stay in a bad place long enough to really see and experience it, then we can grieve our losses, look for a way to heal, and emerge from within this bad land stronger, quieter, more peaceful and more real, equipped with new medicine, new feelings, a new map, and the will that may help us to unite, to become a more useful part of a greater whole.
The Badlands are not bad. They are quite beautiful. Their organic growth and metamorphoses make you feel like you’re facing some unknown creative impulse that's going on in Nature. The soil, heat, aroma, hills, shapes and colors create a link to some unknown creative part inside ourselves.
Frank Lloyd Wright touched upon that, when writing about the Badlands in 1935: Let sculptors come to the Badlands. Let painters come. But first of all the true architect should come. He who could interpret this vast gift of nature in terms of human habitation so that Americans on their own continent might glimpse a new and higher civilization certainly, and touch it and feel it as they lived in it and deserved to call it their own. Yes, I say the aspects of the Dakota Badlands have more spiritual quality to impart to the mind of America than anything else in it made by man's God.
And maybe the Badlands are not that otherworldly either. Perhaps they are rather inner-worldly – as Japanese Dakota native poet Lee Ann Roripaugh speaks of them in her intricate poem “Badlands”:
(…)some say moonscape, or otherworldy,
as if to mean something alien,
sandwiched between the banality
of kitschy Sinclair station dinosaurs
and Wall Drug’s ubiquitous billboards
I think not moonscape but earthscape,
not otherworldly, but innerworldy,
not alien, but indigenous, as in
always already from and of
as in sovereign, as in not ours(…)
There is only one mistake you are making: you take inner for the outer and the outer for the inner.
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
If we stay in Badlands long enough, we will feel that we do belong. Dizzying landscape, bison and pronghorn, the unexpected gaze of sunflowers from the tall grass, and unsettling curves on the road stop us but do not stop us from experiencing this great silence of a wilderness which is miles and miles long. This unwelcoming land actually supported humans for over 11 thousands years (being a home for mammoth hunters, nomadic tribes, and the Lakota Sioux).
This unusually beautiful land could even have been our home before we came to this world (if only we could see our original faces before our mothers and fathers were born...) and before we became these weird humans that we cannot live without and that we run away from.
And maybe like in this strange prophecy, the Badlands will one day become a land for what we may become?
Of all the things the wind-swept plains of South Dakota have to offer, Custer Park may not be the most spectacular, but it is definitely the place you wouldn’t want to miss if for no other reason then for this - buffalo!
We took a trip to Custer State Park from Rapid City. A well-known sign (famous for pictures – note that we didn’t even think of going there) reads “Custer State Park is a place where one can still be an unworried and unregimented individual and wear any old clothes and sit on a log and get his sanity back again” and this statement was true for us. We did wear old clothes, were unworried, and felt perfectly sane (which not always is the case). We came there because we have been in Dakota for a few days and we have seen just one bison: at the gate to the Badlands National Park, on our way out. Its majesty impressed us, and we were craving for more. In Custer State Park a close encounter with this beautiful animal is almost guaranteed as the park is home to 1,300 bison, one of the largest public, free-roaming herds. By “close” I mean safe distance, of course. The bison may seem very sweet, but are dangerous and can run up to 40 mph. Visitors can see roaming bison also near Bear Butte and the Wind Cave, but we decided to trek through the park for its scenic views and pristine trails. Early pioneers and ranchers created its trails and back country roads, and we were excited to explore them (though a little worried about the safety on the road - driving there can be tricky even if you don't go near the Needles).
Custer State Park is a 71,000-acre wilderness located in the southern part of the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, which Indigenous peoples consider sacred. The hills are named for their dark appearance from the distance (due to ponderosa pine). National Geographic's guidebook calls them "a geologic wonder" and the area that is hard to visit "without sensing a world of mystery and spirit". Custer presents its visitors with beautiful scenery but also plays an important role in the preservation of wildlife. Over the past 100 years this park has reintroduced into the preserve: elk, pronghorn antelope, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, and bison. If you’re looking for an up close personal experience of wildlife, head off-road and keep exploring. Or visit Wildlife Loop Road, as we did.
It is not far away from here that the legendary “Red Racetrack” invites you on a special tour. Lakota Sioux believed that it encircled the entire Black Hills – and it was the site of the “Great Race” between humans and buffalo. As written in a local bulletin, the story is associated with the origins of several traditional practices of the Sioux.
The Great Race is a story of a race for power of one animal (human) over the other (buffalo) that took place on the edge of Black Hills, in a place called Buffalo Gap. In the Lakota’s legend, humans have an incomprehensible advantage to choose four birds to run in the race for them, all four birds against slim and fast female buffalo. The bird that wins the race appears to be a common magpie, respected and never eaten by humans since then. This victory gives humans the power over buffalo.
It’s quite impossible to visit Dakota, and especially the Black Hills and Custer State Park, and not to think “Lakota” or "Dakota" most of the time. Both tribes are the two major divisions of the modern Sioux (based on language divisions). Lakota means "allies, friends or those who are united." Dakota comes from the words “Da” meaning "considered" and “Koda” - "friend." Their rich culture still lives there not only within the reservations, museums, stores, and cultural centers, but also in the landscape itself.
For Dakota and Lakota everything is a part of the Great Spirit - Wakan Tanka, the ancient spirit that encompasses sun, sky and winds. Before Christianity came to convert them, this sacred or divine spirit was understood as a mysterious way and presence of sacred entities, but also the holy aspect of all things. The voice of the Great Spirit may be heard not only in the wind.
The Great Spirit Prayer
Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind, whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others.
Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy, Myself.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes.
So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.
~ translated by Chief Yellow Lark
Out of this same Spirit emerges the White Buffalo (Tatanka Ska) – a holy woman from one of the legends that comes to Lakota Sioux in a human and rare white bison form to teach them living prayer, Mother Earth, the value of women, children, and buffalo. Side note: white buffalo exist, but they are one in 10 million.
To the Lakota the buffalo (the largest mammal in North America) is a symbol of the divine, because it sustained all life and as such must have been a gift from the Great Spirit. In today’s American culture it symbolizes strength, generosity, abundance, and freedom, but to the Lakota it was more. “Tatanka” were the givers of all life: food, clothes, shelters, weapons, pots, utensils, etc. Because of this a bison skull was present in sacred Lakota rituals, where it reminded people of an ability to be generous, to give to those in need, to sacrifice oneself for others. This is also the most highly respected way of living for a nomadic Lakota people, who never cared more for their possessions than for being close to the bison and sharing with others. Buffalo is seen as a relative and each sacrifice (killing) of an animal was honored as a blessing from the Tatanka Oyate.
The 19-mile long Wildlife Loop Road (about 45 minutes of drive) indeed appeared to be our best chance to see bison. It is hard to believe but before 1900 between 30 and 60 million bison roamed the Great Plains. By 1900 there were less that one thousand left. Since then, thanks to restoration efforts, this number increased up to 11 thousand. We’ve caught the King of the Plains in a beautiful, scenic setting, when he was crossing the road slowly with family and friends to rest in a tall grassy pasture. We divided ourselves into two teams: one stayed in the vehicle and the other remained about 100 yards away from the herd. Peaceful back roads, pine-speckled hills, and a group of bison: these views give you an immense sense of freedom and joy regardless of the option you choose. “May you get caught in many buffalo jams” proclaims a local advert, and we were blessed to get caught twice.
We stopped at French Creek Natural area for a short hike. Dispersed camping is allowed there and it looked like people were using the opportunity to stay in the wild as we saw a small tent on the way to the creek. This is a 12 mile (one way) trail that forces you to cross multiple creek. Hence the “moderate to strenuous” description. A large part of this trail isn’t even marked, but on the way to the creek we noticed the definite marks of buffalo crossing, and we felt the need to discuss a strategy (which could be summed up in two words: “just run”). After that, I became a little oversensitive to the sound of crickets. When a large grasshopper landed on my arm, I jumped.
From the top of the rock near the water, I attempted a conversation with the French Creek (in French). Or rather, a monologue consisting of a few phrases remembered from my time at college and a few trips to France. I expressed delight and gratitude. And I wondered how different our life would be if in every language we would only speak those few words: “Thank you”, “Wonderful”, “Beautiful view”, “I am very grateful”. Would our life be simpler? Would our experience adjust? Would something that we are unable to name still exist in the same way for us? I need to speak with a linguist! Does language create or guide our experience? Does our ability to name what we experience make us really conscious of it?...
In every language we have one additional life, as Goethe once said. My life in French feels so light and uncomplicated: “Salut!”, “Tres bien”, “Merci”, “Au Revoir”. The French Creek didn't say back much, and we both seemed to be well aligned.
* Since we’re now going deeper into the winter season here in New England, it may be good to know that in spite of Dakota snow being as deep as in Massachusetts, you can still enter Custer State Park in the winter season, and snowshoe hike to beat the winter blues. During December the Visitor Center prepares the Festival of Trees to put you in a Christmas mood.
Or if you want to go deeper into the spirit of Christmas, read the words of Black Elk, a holy man, traditional healer, and visionary of the Oglala Lakota Sioux from the Black Hills of South Dakota (but also a Catholic teacher and preacher):
The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.
This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals, and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is known that true peace, which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.
~ Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux
Before leaving Custer Park, we look around – this vast and unique wild space, rolling hills and grasslands with the grass moved by the wind, in all four directions of our dream. A good moment to pray.
Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice. You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer. All things belong to you - the two-legged, the four-legged, the wings of the air, and all green things that live.
You have set the powers of the four quarters of the earth to cross each other. You have made me cross the good road and road of difficulties, and where they cross, the place is holy. Day in, day out, forevermore, you are the life of things.
~ Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux
*Source of the prayers: Akta Lakota Musemum & Cultural Center Website
The only journey is the one within ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Remote and pristine, Virgin Islands National Park keeps its secret of being one of the last earthly paradises. A stretch of white sand, tall wavy palm trees, and as many shades of turquoise and blue as your eye can see welcome us with tropical warmth. The breeze carries sweet scent of jasmine, rainbow of flowers colors forest-green hills, but it must be the sapphire of the sea and the wind in palm trees that makes us feel so peaceful and at ease.
Apparently one day in Paradise was all that we’ve deserved, but if you have a choice, it is worth to drop your anchor there for longer. We traded our New England snow shoes for sandals for a few days, but the majority of that time was spent wandering through the maze of colorful Charlotte Amalie streets and indulging in white beaches of Saint Thomas.
On small emerald Saint John Island your eye level is mostly above sea level. One almost always looks downward, into the green hills, at the reflections of light onto mirror of the Caribbean Sea. The bright-colored blocks of buildings seated peacefully among the lush greenery give you a sense of being abroad. Only when you are on the beach, you look up in the sky as well, tracing cormorants that dive into turquoise waters one by one in their endless sky-water-sky ballet.
Two-thirds of St. John was donated in 1956 to the United States by Laurance Rockefeller for use as a National Park. Today you can hike along the most popular trails, and there are 20 of them on the island, but you can also head out to Virgin Islands National Park on your own. We were advised (by a Park Ranger) to take a taxi, and that advice was politely ignored. But we were also advised by the owners of a beautiful B&B in Charlotte Amalie (At Home in The Tropics) to visit the annual Folk Festival on Saint John first, and that advice was welcome. Plan to attend one if you can.
The park itself extends over 60 percent of Saint John Island. This is the place which is truly America the Beautiful. Tranquil beaches, moist forests, sleepy lagoons, scenic roads, archeological sites, mysterious ancient petroglyphs, underwater coral gardens… We started at Cruz Bay Visitor Center and took Lind Point Trail to Salomon Bay and Honeymoon Beach (“exclusive & secluded” according to the brochures). Hiking in the rain forest was a new experience for me. We stopped at vista points. We admired the plants. St. John is supposed to have more than 800 subtropical plant species. The island is also supposed to be home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
I almost hurt myself when I take a dip in the sea. Invisible coral is sharp. I swim in the emerald water – clear, barely touched with salt. We watch a regatta in a distance. Sailboats silhouettes against the sun align under the clouds that look like giant white balloons attached to the boats by invisible strings. Quiet, peaceful afternoon passes slowly, there is sweetness in the air and in your heart that feels like honey. If you took this trip to the Caribbean to reset and recharge, this is your sequence of moments. Office is a world away.
After dusk Saint John starts to sing a more mysterious and melancholic tune. A dreamy counterpoint to the daytime rainbow of colors and festival crowds. We visit Mongoose Junction shopping plaza (north of the pier) for a quick meal and a stroll through galleries. The beauty and tranquility of the island attracts artists and other free spirits, and you can find a few galleries with artwork of local artists here. Caribbean inspired original art, prints, jewelry, ceramics… bright colors and intense, bold patterns. As usual, we buy something from a local ceramics artist. Being a ceramics artist myself, I feel that this kind of mutual support among artists is a special way of giving back. Carefully chosen by my husband, a mug with a blueish wavy pattern and a golden rim has a lightness to it that represents more than its physical weight
Then we go to a ferry dock where a few steps from the sea an old man weaves palm tree leaves into crosses, baskets, and birds. He says that these birds are Phoenixes, mythical creatures that burn and rise from their own ashes.
Like on a strange symbolic pastoral painting, death appears in paradise in a memory of hurricanes Irma and Maria that swept through the Caribbean in 2017. And the memory of the times of plantations and waves of colonialism. The world hurricane comes from the indigenous Taino Indians word hurakan that means “a god of the storm”. Both Category Five storms flogged St. John, ripping apart structures and flooding what remained. The hurricanes brought to light the climate crisis threat and the region’s deeper issues with economies overly dependent on tourism. The island suffered damage to its housing, businesses, beaches, and the national parkland. Found in Virgil's fifth eclogue, Latin phrase that translates literally as "Even in Arcady, there am I” comes to mind. Some say that there’s a secret message behind the source of that phrase that speaks of necessity to change in order to be able to enter ‘Arcadia’ (state of being or place). It could be the necessity of change within.
The phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” is also present for explorers like Claude Levi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques), as a theme. A melancholy - being far from home - distracts the author from being in archetypical tropical paradise. He has a feeling of having lost something that cannot be found. Today, in our modern life lived through and based on electronic representations of reality, we lose touch or deep connection with ourselves, nature, Mother Earth, and we feel that we cannot find, rebuild or restore this vital connection on a global scale.
Some lost things can be found only within. Yet this, sometimes, is the furthest and the most remote place to travel to.
Beauty is before me. Beauty is behind me. Above and below me hovers the beautiful. I am surrounded by it. I am immersed in it. In my youth I am aware of it. And in old age I shall walk quietly the beautiful trail ~ Navajo
One of the most iconic places in the United States. Well, there is also New York, but New York is overrated (fairly, Boston is so much nicer). Maybe even one of the most iconic places on Earth, definitely its natural wonder. The Grand Canyon. When planning your trip, do not skip the Yavapai Point at the South Rim, Grandview Point, and the Desert View Drive. The whole canyon is spectacular, with its ever-shifting light patterns, colorful layers of rocks that encode 2 billion years of Earth’s history, cleanest air, shadow theater of the clouds, and circling crows, but these three mentioned above were my personal highlights. Most of the park is maintained as wilderness, so please be respectful and careful on the roads and trails.
The mountains, I become a part of it… The morning mist, the clouds, the gathering waters, I become a part of it ~ Navajo
Driving through Nevada and Arizona after an evening flight to Las Vegas, we arrived at the Grand Canyon National Park’s Visitor Center early in the morning. It was cold and windy there. Two silent deer greeted us at the entrance. Then more deer came, announcing gracefully the 277 miles of Beauty that is a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide, and awaits our visit. We didn’t believe them. We were not prepared for what was being revealed to us, and what was about to unfold. We haven't realized yet that Grand Canyon is far different from anything than you could ever imagine. Seeing it in a movie or looking at the photograph does not compare at all to the experience of standing in front of its grandeur. The Grand Canyon that we saw was much more grand, spectacular, and mysterious. For Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Dine, and for other Native American tribes it has been a sacred place for centuries. The waters of Colorado River that carved the canyon 6 million years ago are viewed by them as the lifelines of Mother Earth. A lot of Indigenous Peoples’ deities live there, and a lot of ceremonies were and still are conducted there. The Grand Canyon is actually a holy place. An unbelievable unearthly cathedral. We felt that.
Be still and the earth will speak to you ~ Navajo
Life is here and now. If we don’t feel that, it is only because we are elsewhere: in endless chatter of the mind, in our non-existing future, in our played over and over past. Dead thoughts and repetitive emotions, huge appetites of the body, they cover our sense of life with thick rust. To escape our rusty lives, we travel. We meditate. We fall in love and build our lives together. We make new friends with animals, with humans, and with plants. We go outside ourselves and silently ask Nature for help, not even knowing that we do that, and why.
But we should be able to look at Grand Canyon as it is and not as a comment to our lives. There, in front of this incredible cathedral of time and space, our lives would feel exactly as important as they are: not very much. Too bad that Grand Canyon cannot see itself. It would be in awe.
So we were tired and still when we arrived at the grounds of South Rim.
And the Earth spoke.
She didn’t complain. She didn’t tell us how much we have hurt her, how much we exploited her, how much we have wounded her, and not listened to her. Instead, she told us that she is happy that we came. That she’s been always waiting for us because we are not from the Earth, we are of the Earth. We are a small, but indispensable part of her, like tigers, dolphins, pine trees, and the bees. She told us that she doesn’t mind us to be there longer with her. Actually, if we knew what to do, we would be very helpful. The cells know what to do to keep the organism alive. She said she will always help us to feel inspired and renewed, and alive. “This is us”, she said. “Yes, you too. This vastness, this ancient world”.
We felt humbled. We felt renewed.
Or perhaps it was just a dream about somebody else speaking and listening to the Earth. I believe that one day, if I will be quiet enough, it may happen to me.
We do not walk alone. Great Being walks beside us. Know this and be grateful. ~ Hopi
The Grand Canyon teaches us about the resilience, nourishment, geologic history of self-maintenance, and about incredible beginnings of people’s lives here. They were Native peoples, and they are still here today. Let’s be mindful of that when we’re walking in their Beauty paths.
Meanwhile, go where you feel the most alive.
There is no other place on Earth like Sedona. Some consider it to be the most beautiful city in the United States. A home for artists, yogis, healers, countless spas and galleries with signature southwest art and souvenirs, Sedona sits among majestic red rock formations surrounded by almost two million acres of evergreen forest, and shines like Arizona’s biggest diamond. It is famous for its vortex sites that supposedly emanate a concentrated energy from within the Earth. Many people experience a lift just by coming into Sedona. The photogenic Cathedral Rock towers over the city like a stone cathedral. A day after our visit to the Grand Canyon we drove to Sedona from Flagstaff with no plan and even less preparation.
If, like me, you have a strange impulse to google "the most spiritual places on Earth", you won’t find Notre Dame Cathedral on this list, but Sedona will be there. Some guides recommend a visit to Sedona alongside trekking in Tibet, studying yoga in India or meditating with monks in Bhutan, if you are looking for enlightenment. The city is happy to use this new age propaganda. Local website states that Sedona is a cathedral without walls that has been a holy place for centuries, and that it possesses cosmic powers. Apparently people feel inspired after visiting this city. You can find stories online about being renewed, energetically charged, and uplifted by Sedona. We should not be surprised if on the trail we encounter people meditating, stretching in asanas, or listening to healing vibrations from crystals. To our surprise, we encounter only a few hikers. And that is just fine.
Because, still, so far it’s the only place on Earth where a roadside suburban cafe offered us several types of freshly baked vegan gluten free cookies and exotic vegan ice creams, and a local pottery shop next door wished us to “Have A Nice Clay”.
It is also the only place on Earth where we can see these particular red rocks as the rocks towering over Sedona and rising to over 4,000 feet are the only such formation in the world. They are formed by the unique Schnebly Hill Formation - a thick layer of red to orange-colored sandstone found only in the Sedona vicinity. They look incredible illuminated by the setting sun, and when you see them, you know that it is true, no other place on Earth compares to Sedona.
The journey from Flagstaff took us two hours. The landscape was definitely worthy of slow drive. When the giant red rocks gilded by the sun rose over the horizon, we felt that we were up to something quite different and adventurous. We entered Sedona as if entering Chirico’s paintings: the place felt remote, wild, hot, empty, and mysterious. Brown stone buildings were casting long shadows. Silent orange-red rocks gathered round like meditating monks.
The geology of the area makes it truly beautiful. The process of the iron oxide weathering turned the rock its signature red color. It is hard to imagine that rocks are a form of life and not inanimate matter, but if they were actually alive, that would explain why their presence around Sedona feels so striking. They rise above the city and look down as if watching us.
I don't think my native Polish language has a good word for "bliss". "Joy", "pleasure", "happiness", none of these feels right. English dictionaries define bliss as a state of perfect happiness or great joy. The less common definition speaks of a state of spiritual blessing. Sounds good. Achievable after death, the dictionary adds (famous "eternal bliss"). Okay, but what about the bliss while we are still alive? I notice “wedded bliss” - marital happiness despite the passage of time, and there is also "pure bliss" - a feeling of full happiness, without the slightest discomfort. A moment to cherish and to lock behind glass, in the museum of memory. Peace, inner peace, contentment.
I’ve also found a popular saying: "Ignorance is Bliss" (if this was true, our world would be a blessed place).
And last but not least, a phrase from Joseph Campbell: "follow your bliss."
" If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living."
And that's exactly how I feel when climbing Bell Rock in Sedona.
“I could fly”, I convince my husband (strangely, he does seem convinced). We are standing on one of several Bell Rock terraces in the amazing Red Rock State Park. The weather is beautiful, the sun is slowly sliding down the rocks, white clouds float above in the intense blue sky. The brick red ground below is covered by yellow grass and cacti, colors faded from the sun. A panoramic post card of pure beauty presents itself to us.
"I could fly", I repeat, despite the slightly uncomfortable feeling that it sounds like a scene from a kitschy movie.
I really believe I could.
Bell Rock (a powerful vortex) is located off of Route 179 between Sedona and Oak Creek. We visit it just because we've noticed the rock while entering the city, and it attracts us like a magnet. We don't have a route, agenda, we don't know anything about this place. And it is for better. Our minds are more free, our perception is more direct.
Our whole trip to Arizona is so spontaneous and packed among dozens of other important activities, that apart from reading National Geographic’s guide through National Parks, we’re not prepared for it. We hop on a plane right after work, and drive from Las Vegas through Nevada and Arizona to arrive at Flagstaff: a combination of trendy destination and Swiss mountain resort. And now I want to climb both Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock, and there are only a few hours left to twilight. We gaze at Sedona along the way: countless galleries, hotels, motels, cafeterias, spas, boutiques, yoga studios. The orange color of rocks around the city provides us with intense stimulation of neurons. The outwardly landscape delivers the feeling of awe.
Climbing is gentle and easy. Of course, it’s worth having an extra bottle of water, but we cannot complain. Late September has the best weather for exploring the 300 miles of trails winding among cliffs and terraces around Sedona. "Follow your happiness and the universe will open doors where there were only walls before," states Campbell's online paraphrase. The problem is that we can have a very different definition of happiness from the universe. Developing the habit of questioning our own thoughts and feelings helps, and we can ask ourselves: “Are you sure that this will make you happy?”
As for traveling, I'm sure that it makes me happy. Even if our trips are escapes from, they are also escapes to. And there is nothing embarrassing in the need to add some adventure and unpredictability into a structured life or the discipline and order of travel into a messy life. Seeing the world anew, with new eyes after returning from a trip makes me even happier.
Because opening to unknown experiences and traveling to places where you have never been before really opens up new spaces and helps to appreciate whatever comes your way. Traveling is magical, even if sometimes we need more than a travel to places. Traveling itself is a bliss.
I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn't have opened for anyone else.”
~ Joseph Campbell
What is the difference between a good place and a memorable one? Part of the answer lies in the atmosphere, the subtle distinctions of the feelings present in the place, the vibrations locked in the buildings, and whether or not the stories about that place have depth. They don’t necessarily need to be a good stories only, and they won’t be.
But there is also something else: a quality that makes you, a visitor or a guest, feel really fortunate. Something that is unique, warm, and distant at the same time. You will recognize this quality upon your arrival to Charleston. And you’ll be charmed by it in an instant, even if your journey, like ours, has taken over 20 hours, and you are so tired that you can hardly recognize yourself.
Charleston is considered a cultural capital of the South. Noble families with noble taste for architecture and gardening have built and rebuilt it after the wars and natural disasters. The city has that charm and noble grandeur unique to European historic cities like Paris, Vienna, or Venice (which I’ve visited some years ago). Historically and architecturally amazing, it has no tall buildings though, and this very characteristic feature of Charleston is directly related to the preservation efforts.
If you remember the movie "Notebook" based on best-selling Nicholas Sparks’ novel, there is an opportunity to take a stroll through the places filmed by Nick Cassaventes in and around Charleston. Unfortunately, a boat trip to the Cypress Gardens has yet to wait, because the place is undergoing renovation. But there is a different picturesque secret place outside Charleston. It is called Angel Oak – a giant oak tree which has survived the wars, the fires, the hurricanes, and all the tourists so far. It resides in the community of Johns Island and is its oldest native citizen (between 400-1,000 years old). On a hot day, the guardian oak provides a perfect shade.
As a tourist you are supposed to visit the Old City Market – a community gathering place, kitschy tourist trap, and a glimpse to the old South. Like us, you will find there all kinds of things, including rare beautiful objects of traditional craftsmanship. It’s the best place to admire traditional sweet grass basket-making skills of African Americans – the world’s foremost experts in the field. And remember, there was never slave auction here.
You probably wouldn’t also miss the French Quarter. Protestant in origin and flavor, it contains Charleston’s most historic buildings, most evocative old churches and graveyards, and most charming streets and art galleries. If you are a woman, you will also probably have your picture taken next to Rainbow Row – the most photographed place in the US. The nine bright pastel colors go back to Caribbean heritage, a legacy of English settlers from Barbados. These 1730-1750 houses were first to be renovated, and their restoration inspired Charleston Preservation Society (first such group in the United States).
There are so many “Charleston's things”: Charleston’s pineapple, Charleston’s iron work, and “Charleston’s green” (unique Charleston color – a few drops of yellow in black). They all have a story behind them, so let me tell you one. In this city of southern hospitality and charm, everyone knows that the pineapple stands for “welcome”. The symbol, as well as British imperial lions, can be seen all over Charleston, from doorknobs to the Pineapple Fountain in the Waterfront Park. Not everyone knows yet that pineapples do not grow in Charleston. A legend says that during the colonial times, when the sea captain was coming back home with the exotic gifts and stories from foreign land, he would spear a pineapple on his fence post to let everyone know that he came back safely. Friends would come over to try exotic pineapple and to listen about his journey.
Speaking of a sea… for those, who prefer to relax with a little salt, there is charming town of Folly Beach nearby, with a beach called “the edge of America”. It has a funky charm and fame of Gershwin who was to write here his score to “Porgy and Bess”. In May it is beautifully empty, and provides a perfect rest from the crowd.
Old architecture, friendly people, countless churches, carriages, famous southern cuisine, charming locally owned shops – all that makes you feel at home in Charleston. This paradise for nature and history lovers will stay in your memory like a steady soft sea breeze from the promenade.
The Everglades are one of the most unusual American national parks, the nation’s third largest, and the only one with a subtropical climate. Home of Indian Seminole and Miccosukee, wetland kingdom of flamingos, ibises, cormorants, turtles, snakes, black panthers, alligators and American crocodiles, this maze of channels and ponds between ubiquitous grass is in fact a huge, shallow, and extremely sluggish river which eventually reaches the sea.
When I close my eyes, I see a highway in a midst of endless fields of golden yellow grass. The sky is painted blue, the grass is moving slowly in a wind. It is empty and quiet here, like in a dream. The vision fades as I open my eyes and look up. We are still on a plane. In the flash that couldn’t have been a memory, because I have never been there, I've experienced this unbelievably remote place that waits for us just an hour from Miami's madness. The Everglades.
"There is no other place like the Everglades anywhere in the world. They are and have always been one of the most unique regions on Earth, isolated, never fully understood. Nowhere else is there anything like this: this vast, glittering openness, wider than the round horizon; this race of salt and the sweetness of massive winds under the dazzlingly blue high space”, wrote Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who, with her crusade to defend the lands of the future national park, deserved to be called “the mother of the Everglades".
Marjory was an ordinary girl from Minnesota. Maybe not quite ordinary - as a child she was crying when her father read her excerpts from "The Song of Hiawatha”. After a few years spent in New England, she moved to Miami, where she became a local journalist, writer, feminist, and environmental activist. She published stories as a freelancer, and became best known for her book "The Everglades: River of Grass", published in 1947.
Douglas lobbied for the conservation of Florida's nature for almost 30 years. As a 79-year Great Lady of the Everglades she took the lead role in saving Everglades from developers. At that time, she created an organization called The Friends of Everglades to prevent the construction of an airport on today's Big Cypress reservation area. I loved what she said about her involvement: that it's a woman's thing to be interested in the environment. It's like extending care over the house.
The Everglades are being called the most beautiful marshy meadow on Earth, and one can tell why when traveling through this region. In our trip we drove through the Indian nature reserve and Miccosukee Village, then the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Big Cypress Swamp. Giant swamps, grassy meadows, alligators resting in a sunny or swampy spots, and hundreds of birds tangled in the grass, bushes, and mangrove trees really resemble a dreamy vision.
In the summer, the Everglades are sometimes unbearably stuffy and humid. The best time to visit is from December to March, when it is colder here, and one doesn't need to fight mosquitoes. The best way of traveling through the Everglades is by jeep or by boat.
When visiting the Everglades, don’t miss the Indian village of the Miccosukee tribe: a successful tribal business. The authentic village lives off this artificially created “Indian Village” with its traditional arts and crafts demonstrations, and the crocodile timing shows. Travelers are offered a shopping experience in the gallery of traditional costumes, dolls, musical instruments, jewelry, and pottery. The quality of the objects is fine and colors are beautiful.
My affection for Native Americans was shaped during my Polish years. As a child, I would read every book about Native American heroes and their graceful way of life. Today I would rather like to learn something about Miccosukee’s real life than to see a performance with a crocodile. "Our real village is here, just around the corner, a few houses", says the girl behind the counter. She also shares with me that the life here is really good: Florida is a good place to live, the weather appeals to her, good business provides for the whole village.
I check out the real village, guided by mysterious cormorant. Yes, it does look sad. A river nearby is covered by a dense carpet of a water lilies. The sign requests "Do not feed the alligators".
We entered Prince Edward Island at dusk. The ride over the bridge seemed endless, the day before was long. After getting lost on narrow roads in the evening for another hour, we arrived to a quiet place near the woods, a country craft store, and a little white church. When the car engine stopped, in the darkness we heard an acoustic guitar and a voice singing from a nearby restaurant. It sounded like a local musician's concert, and the music was very familiar. “The Sound of Silence”.
The morning that followed was bright, and a view from the window, with silvery trees shining against red sands, and a calm blue water, felt breathtaking. Later light was bathing the water and the bushes in deepening gold. P.E.I appeared to be distractedly beautiful. After a few hours I was ready to stay there forever.
This island is for slow driving – about 40 mph, up and down the hills. Red sandstone cliffs, white sand beaches, blue lakes, flowery meadows, and rolling farm fields stretch as far as the eye can see. First, we explored P.E.I. National Park which hugs the north shore. The soil here had this intriguing color due to the high percentage of iron. Blue sky hanging over the reddish sand created energizing influence, and of course, a picturesque background for photography.
This is the land of farmers. The most popular crops here are potatoes, grown industrially, privately, and in many varieties. They became the official symbol and gadget of the island, and yes, we have brought back home a bag of P.E.I. potatoes, and they were wholesome.
P.E.I.'s red rocks create a landscape that feels unusual and sharp. Strangely wavy and really old, they are as beautiful as Earth’s memory should be.
Anne of Green Gables, one of the cutest children in English literature, and successful creation of Lucy Maud Montgomery, brings hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world to P.E.I. each year. Cavendish, Avonlea, Green Gables Heritage Place, Lovers Lane, and Haunted Wood were our next destination.
The atmosphere that prevails on the Green Gables in Cavendish is quite magical. No surprise that after leaving the island for her husband, Montgomery have always been missing her homeland, and portrayed it so fondly in her books.
The Canadian publishers repeatedly rejected the first novel of Lucy Maud Montgomery. The publisher who found it promising was from Boston. Montgomery herself was very welcomed and well received in Boston, as “Anne…” immediately became a bestseller there. Soon after, the authors' destiny, not as happy as the reader of her books would think, took Montgomery to Ontario.
There are more than 50 lighthouses on P.E.I. Our favorite, on Panmure Island, seemingly most beautiful and photogenic, is the Island’s oldest wooden lighthouse, and it served boat traffic since 1853. Painted in colors, surrounded by postcard views, P.E.I. lighthouses look cheerful and serene. Like a smile to the sailors from the land. They are often converted into little museums, gift shops and alike. The most famous, for her stripes and the interior, is West Point. The beach that it overlooks has its own unique charm.
One of the P.E I. lighthouses, Cape Bear Lighthouse, hides a sad story: it was the first Canadian land station to receive and forward the Titanic’s signal.
The islanders that we've met and talked to, were friendly and relaxed. Most of them are descendants of Europeans, however the first residents of the island were the Mi’kmaq. These Native Americans' name for P.E.I, about 2000 years ago, was “Epekwitk”: “resting on the waves”.
P.E.I. is proud to be the smallest and least populous province of Canada with the biggest meaning, as a historical cradle. It was in Charlottetown that the Canadian union began (conference in 1864). Like every capital, Charlottetown offers popular shopping and dining areas, old temples, and a vibrant crowd, but for us, spoiled by the places that we've visited there first, it lacked the unique rural beauty of the rest of the island.
What is the best time to visit P.E.I.? Your favorite season. We’ve chosen late summer, mid-September. The temperatures were around 70, the days felt warm and crisp. Trips through the hills and red clay roads (yes, correct, some roads have no asphalt) were pleasant. Farm animals walking in vibrant green pastures were a common view.
During scenic drives we often stopped, would it be a sunset, a river, a fishing port, or a craft store. The meeting of the tides was a good reason, too. In the town of Cardigan we made unexpected discovery: the smallest library in the world. It was 3.5 by 3.5 meters big, held 1,800 books, overlooked a nice quiet lake, and had the Huck Finn book opened for us in the window. A destitute vagabond and banished romantic, was a good character to greet us in the little nostalgic town, populated by Scottish descendants. As I heard in the store, more and more young people have been migrating from there every year, looking for a job.
I can't recall any other place where I felt that being there was so right, healthy, natural, and wholesome. Our very natures were cared for, and deeply satisfied there.
At the end of our time on the island we took a slow walk to the coast, to look at the Confederation Bridge, 8 miles long engineering miracle, perhaps the longest bridge across the Atlantic. This wonder connects an island with New Brunswick, and when seen from there, it disappears somewhere in the mist above the ocean, like a bridge between two worlds.
As soon as we were on it, I missed P.E.I.
Because we haven’t learn how to live every moment of our life as a new and unique (we don’t even remember that it is new and unique), in order to feel more alive we may need a change of decoration, company, or mindset. Depending on the strengths of our habits this change can be large or small, but it must be intense enough to let us open for the impressions. Traveling is a good way to help that opening to happen. If you need a destination, I may advise one.
Hopewell Rocks in the Bay of Fundy, Canada is a place where at a low tide you can walk along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and admire 12-22 meters high rocks of the strangest shape. They have earned various nicknames, such as Dinosaur Rock, Mother in Law, E.T., Lovers’ Arch, The Turtle, The Bear, Diamond Rock, Apple or Castle. The unique spectacle in which the gravitational attraction of the Sun and the Moon plays an important role takes place every day. The bay has a huge size and depth, unique funnel shape, and the water waves here (about 12-hour cycle) are almost perfectly synchronized with the natural phenomenon of the tides in this part of the Atlantic Ocean (12 hours and 26 minutes).
An extraordinary ecosystem, rich in food for the sea inhabitants and created by unusual tidal energy, has a dramatic setting: high cliffs, fanciful rock sculptures, piles of various materials deposited by water. Volcanic rocks washed away by ocean waters and red sandstone give the area a truly unearthly look, and the fossils that can be seen here are 300 million years old.
You can really feel like on a different planet here, and the experience of strangeness, astonishment and beauty is intensified by the awareness that soon the place where you stand will be completely flooded with sea water - up to a height of 16 meters. Every tide and outflow lasts an average of 6 hours, which allows one to view both high and low water at any time of the year. You can plan your visit and your walk on the bottom of the ocean with great accuracy thanks to the info at www.thehopewellrocks.ca
New Brunswick, the Canadian province where Hopewell Rocks are located, borders Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and the state of Maine. Traveling by car from the Boston area will take a few hours, but it might be worth it. Dense forests surrounding the highway, dark hills crisscrossed with rivers and lakes, and loud silence are a good preparation for unusual landscape.
Visiting places like Hopewell Rocks helps to acknowledge the beauty of a strangest worlds, and to tune into the rhythm of nature and of our own being. Here, I am reminded again that everything has its rhythm and frequency, and that every coming tide goes out.
"You're the child of this Earth, and you share its resilient spirit, its insistence on life, and its inevitable rhythm. The sea that rushes out will come in. And so will you." (Margaret B. Moss)
The beauty of nature in the United States still surprises me. I also admire how Americans have learned to care for their land, plants, and animals. They paid for it with the effort of pioneers of the ecological movement, and we are lucky to enjoy the fruits of their actions, but we also have responsibility.
The Florida Keys are a good example of such care. This chain of coral islands attracts exotic vegetation and numerous species of colorful butterflies, birds, reptiles and animals. Along this archipelago is a large coral reef known as the Florida Reef. Warm, shallow waters nourish the corals and support a delicate ecosystem: sponges, oysters, amoebae, crabs, sharks, turtles, snails... Tourism is important for the area, but not invasive. The islands, which stretch for 240 km, are connected by a chain of bridges across the ocean.
Clouds are getting darker while we move forward, although it’s impossible to see where we are going, because a torrential rain is pouring down, and even the lights of other cars are just a suggestion in a fog. It lasts for several minutes, during which I am praying and keeping myself busy with advising on lights and speed (in some situations I quickly become an expert), and the dispute keeps us on course, our rented jeep does not run into any obstacle, and somehow does not fall off the bridge.
Certainly we now deserve a reward: a lunch on a beautiful picture-perfect-paradise beach in a secluded lagoon. However, only lunch turns out to be real. And only because it was packed into the trunk in the morning. Islamorada’s first beach that we visit is a few square meters big and populated by three or four families, which creates a crowd. The second one looks better, and attracted by the wooden path among trees, we end up on a sort of patio, at the wooden table on the water, accompanied by two white ibis.
For the first time I see ibis so close! They stare at the camera's eye. Soon something in my brain will unconsciously decide that the ibis are not dazzling and unique anymore. Sadly, they will become commonplace. But for now two beautiful - and probably hungry - snowy ibis tilt their heads, looking at us these strange beings, when we eat.
It is hard to believe, but the Florida Keys archipelago has 1,700 coral islands and islets. Originally inhabited by Indians, it was later an important trade route from New Orleans to the Bahamas. Transactions also took place with nearby Cuba, from where the most immigrants arrived. At the beginning of the 20th century the islands were joined by a railway. Railway bridges over the ocean, up to Key West, were being constructed for a long time, because of hurricanes and tropical cyclones. Our rainy trip to Islamorada reminded me of how the history of this region blends incredible nature’s gentleness and peace with rage. Perhaps the forces of nature help Keys’ residents to realize that they are only a small part of this large fragile ecosystem that they need to care for.
Key West is the southernmost piece of land in the United States and the island with a landscape from travel catalogs. Paradise? It depends on the image we come here with. Huge traffic jams, high prices, decibel levels and cruise ships may not fit your ideal. Historically it was a place for pirates, preachers, slaves, fishermen and gay men – all living peacefully on these sandy miles of land, which is also the home for Cuban cigars and Ernest Hemingway’s best years.
The legendary Duval Street with its bars, galleries, restaurants and boutiques, looks like a hedonist's dream, indeed. Subtropical climate, emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a scent of sweat mixed with the scent of ocean air, huge banyan trees, immense mangrove trees, and metropolitan traffic create a colorful mixture. The wind brings to mind the dreams of fishermen and stories of tropical hurricanes, which from time to time haunt the region. And finally - the ubiquitous wild roosters and their crowing at all times of the day and night. They often fight each other on the streets, but they do not attack people.
Sunset Celebration on Mallory Square, in the picturesque Old Town of Key West, is a kind of public art - a theater without tickets, in which Cubans or inhabitants of the Caribbean present their musical skills, and - as I read in a guidebook and then see with my own eyes - always someone swallows fire or walks a rope. It never occurred to me that such an intimate romantic cliché like watching a sunset can be successfully turned into a mass event. And yet, the places are booked two hours before. The Key West motto is "One Human Family" and maybe that's the point in this spectacle of collective nostalgia with an orange ball of sunshine whose main role is to sink in the gold-and-white waters. Some guides suggest that Key West is one continuous event (or a constant hangover), but again: it depends on one’s inclinations and perceptions, which usually follow those first.
At the Southernmost Point of the continental United States, where every tourist has to take a photograph, street vendors sell fresh coconuts with a straw. They give me a lazy smile as if saying “Yes, we know, you don’t buy, you just take pictures”. Or maybe they acknowledge with their instinct that I will return in a few minutes to buy the coconut. Or maybe they do not smile at all, maybe it’s just an expression of relaxed faces? It's interesting how the temperature affects the muscles, and thus emotional behavior that has much to do with muscular tension. Like the exuberance and vitality of a tropical nature affects the vitality of thought, creativity, and local use of color. There are many creative people here who know how and what to create to please both poorer and richer tourists, and even connoisseurs. The galleries as well as little boutique shops are full of their works, and I believe that there, amongst the ugliest examples of modern art, ubiquitous kitsch, and t-shirts with the slogans that appreciate the most bizarre sense of humor, you can dig out a real gem.
It's also good to know that the dominant mental climate on this island is tolerance. Which seems to be a pretty good word to end this post with.
When we were making up our mind whether to choose Quebec or Niagara Falls, I didn’t know that Quebec could have a waterfall. That surprise was revealed when our stay in the heart of French Canada had been confirmed. It was exciting to learn that Montmorency Falls, one of Quebec Province’s most spectacular sites, was going to be the first stop.
The excitement was temporarily lost in getting up at 3 in the morning to drive through Vermont, Maine, and part of Canada before sunrise, but this part of the trip was actually quite magical. The forest and mountains along the highway looked mysterious, covered with fog, with a dark starry night above. The presence of silence was deafening. Gradually the colors started to rise from the foggy woods, fields and lakes in unexpected shades of violet, cobalt, emerald, and peach. The sun was coming up and at breakfast time we arrived to the open year-round Montmorency Falls Park filled with light and flowers, and uncrowded.
More photogenic and 30 meters higher than Niagara Falls, located just 13 km from the center of old Quebec City, this majestic waterfall invites you to admire the power of nature, and skillfulness of modest human engineering. It was also a picture-perfect scene for lunch. Although the meal was, as always, a mixture of carefully picked healthy goodies and accidentally delicious junk food, I don’t remember what I ate, but can recall in detail the view in front of the folded chairs.
Montmorency Falls dominates the landscape. Its dramatic view is reinforced by extreme sports - zip line rides over water. A wooden suspension bridge also looks impressive - from the viewpoints below as well as when entering it. Your legs may wobble, but only for a few steps. After that, you’ll run ahead freely and with joy, like other photographers.
From the bridge you can admire the falls, its surrounding cliffs, but also the beautiful panorama of Quebec, the Laurentian Hills, and the Saint Lawrence River. The wind and view literally take your breath away.
Looking at the rushing water, you may contemplate the glory of natural world and, perhaps, our humble chance to bear witness, and to rise every time we fall.
I never underestimate