Walking into Writing

Morning Walk Jerry and Linda on road

Jerry and I step lively when we begin our after-breakfast walk to the mailbox on the highway, smiling as we march along, even when our feet slide on the roughly graveled road. Whenever our road through the pasture gets too muddy, we haul pickup loads of gravel from one of the small quarries in the neighborhood, so the gravel varies in size and shape. Several times during the summer, Jerry mows the tallest grass at the edge of this two-track trail, so we are in less danger from lurking rattlesnakes, but we always wear heavy shoes and long pants as protection against snakes, wasps, and other critters that might bite or sting.

Morning Walk writing while walkingI tuck a small notebook in my pocket with a pen, but it doesn’t stay there long. I soon discover that I can take notes while walking. No one else could read them, but if I take the notebook back to the computer as soon as our walk is over, I have an abundance of writing material as I start the day.

Jerry, probably wisely, just walks and enjoys our conversation and the things we see as we stroll. Sometimes we talk political news, because we’ve both looked at our computers before breakfast. Or we might exchange comments on our plans for the day. We notice the traffic, and marvel at how many people are probably headed to jobs in Rapid City at 7:30 in the morning.

Our first challenge is an autogate, also called a cattle guard: a gate with round metal pipes across a 4-foot deep hole. Cattle don’t like the void they can see between the bars, so we can keep them out without having a gate we have to get out of a vehicle to open and shut. But the gates can be tricky to navigate, especially if the pipes are slick with water or snow.

Morning Walk autogate with bypass bridge

As we tiptoe across the first set of pipes, a killdeer runs ahead of us shrieking what sounds like KILLDEER! KILLDEER! The bird runs along on its thin legs for a few feet and then begins to stagger, dragging one wing in the gravel and crying piteously. This is a well-known broken-wing act created by nature to fool predators into chasing the supposedly injured bird. The parent bird stays just out of reach, feigning injury, until some distance from the nest.

Morning Walk KilldeerThen with a strident cry– mocking? triumphant?– she flies off, having successfully lured the pursuers away from her eggs or babies.  Every morning she does the same thing, never believing we will not harm her.

And all the while, we hear a nighthawk or two calling overhead. We lean back, looking up, and Jerry has to listen to me recite what I’ve learned about these wonderful birds. Two of them make great looping circles overhead, alternating flapping with long glides and dives. When they plummet, they make a roaring sound authorities liken to “a truck rushing past.” Some say the sound is produced by their wings; others aren’t sure, and the dive that produces the sound is difficult or impossible to study in a laboratory.

This Common Nighthawk is strangely misnamed, since it is not a hawk, and it usually hunts at dawn and dusk, but never at night. Its method of hunting accounts for the second part of the name: catching flying insects on the wing is called “hawking.” Though it has a tiny beak, its mouth is huge, perhaps one of the reasons it was nicknamed “goatsucker.” (The mouth is definitely not large enough to milk goats, though the superstition persists in some areas.) The bird eats by flying into clouds of insects, opening its mouth, and swallowing flying ants, wasps, crickets, flies, grasshoppers, mosquitoes or anything else that lands inside.

Researchers say that the parent birds feed their chicks regurgitated insects until the babies are able to hunt for themselves. The nighthawk seems poorly designed for survival: its feet are small and weak, and the sides of its mouth are flexible. The bird can only swallow prey whole in flight, so if a bird is confined to the ground by injury, it is unable to feed itself, because it has an ineffectual beak and claws.

Yet when it flies at dawn and dusk, it seems to be master of the skies.

Just ahead, another killdeer begins to limp along the edge of the road, crying and dragging a wing. Even when we have this sure sign that we are close to a nest, we don’t look for it. Killdeer nests, like those of the nighthawk, are barely respectable, usually a little divot in the gravel, with the eggs laid among similar-looking stones, and devilishly hard to see. We have spent hours tiptoeing around on the hillside watching killdeer or nighthawks fly up, going directly to the spot– and still not being able to see the eggs.

Morning Walk Russian thistle photo from govt websiteBeside the trail we begin to notice something that looks like broad snowflakes, sparkling as they melt. Looking closer, we see they are puffs of cottonwood down, damp with dew. Taller weeds are thick this year: not only alfalfa that has escaped from the hayfield, but poverty weed, brome grass, kochia and Russian thistle. I abruptly remember that my uncle Harold always called it “Rooshan thistle,” laughing at his own pronunciation, and reminded me to mow it before it could go to seed. For years we never saw it here, but suddenly it’s back, and it’s everywhere.

The second cattle guard is choked with thistles that grow from the bottom through the bars. Since the gate is set solidly on railroad ties and is extremely heavy, we can’t move it to mow the weeds, but we always hope that the cars zipping over it will destroy the seed heads before they can spread their menace.

 

Morning Walk thistles in autogate

A bird I’ve been trying to identify for days trills from deep in the grass: chirpchirpchirpchirpchirp CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP! I keep the bird identification book on the dining room table, and have also searched for the bird call online, but the closest I can some to identifying this winsome singer is “some kind of sparrow.” The song pattern seems to follow those of sparrows that are likely to be here, though I haven’t found the exact song.  I haven’t been able to get a good look at it through the binoculars since it stays low in the grass. (Please—if anyone knows what it is, tell me!)

Morning Walk three colors of alfalfaA redwing blackbird alights on a dried mullein and trills like a tiny waterfall. A mourning dove coos and darts away. A robin chirps raucously and meadowlarks gargle melodiously from fence posts. Minuscule yellow butterflies drift among the brome grass heads and sweet clover blooms in the borrow ditch. The trumpet-shaped pink and white blooms of creeping jenny wind around alfalfa stalks carrying yellow, purple and lilac blossoms.

On our left as we top the last rise before the highway is the headquarters of the Great Plains Native Plant Society’s Botanic Garden, a nonprofit organization that has established a collection of native plants on property I’ve loaned to the group. The garden will soon be open to the public, so that we can educate visitors on the excellent qualities of native plants and grasses. Members put out pink flags to mark particular plants for a recent tour; they still flutter in the pale green prairie grass. A huge prickly pear cactus holds four lush yellow blooms big as a dinner plate. Dew sparkles in the hairy leaves of a mullein. Headed downhill, we walk a little faster, a quarter finished with our walk.

Morning Walk Great Plains Botanic Garden HQ

Then a nighthawk sweeps low over us and then up, where it meets another and the two spiral around and around until we are dizzy. Playing follow the leader? Disagreeing over territory? Sources say the bird can fly at least 500 feet high; I don’t doubt the figure because a few nights ago I watched one fly higher and higher until it went into a storm cloud.

Nighthawk nests are even cruder than those of the killdeer, with two eggs about an inch long laid directly on gravel, sand, rock or occasionally vegetation like the rosette of a dandelion. I’ve seen eggs that were ivory or pale gray, and speckled with gray, brown or black. Nighthawks nest not only in prairie but on buildings in urban areas; they love flat roofs covered with tarpaper held in place by rocks.

morning-walk-nighthawk-nest-at-ranch-2018.jpg

The chicks are similarly nearly invisible in their chosen habitat, with darker gray feathers that seem to mimic their background. Their partly open eyes are just tiny slits. I’ve found nests once or twice, and the chicks are nearly invisible when you are staring directly at them, completely still except for a breeze fluttering their downy feathers. Like the parents, the defenseless chick relies mostly on its coloration for protection from predators.

Morning Walk nighthawk photo from govt website

The Cornell Lab All About Birds website says nighthawks have declined more than sixty percent since the 1960s. Further, recent studies show dramatic declines in many insects, especially in Europe and the U.S.

No bugs means no birds.

But that’s not all the disappearance of bugs means. The Guardian newspaper reported that many entomologists say “an insect Armageddon” is underway, the result of multiple environmental causes: pollution, habitat changes, overuse of pesticides, and global warming. These changes will no doubt have crucial consequences. The distinguished Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson once observed that “If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

I’m willing to put up with a lot of mosquitoes and flies to keep nighthawks. We never spray to kill bugs, but rely on repellent, with long sleeves and net masks if the critters are really bad. My hand is still my favorite weapon against flying insects.

Morning Walk Dangerous Hwy Crossing

We hike up the steep slope to the highway and take a long look to our left, uphill. If a car has started down, we don’t try to cross until it passes. The speed limit is 70 miles per hour, which means most cars are traveling at least 75. Often two cars are traveling abreast; none slow down at the sight of two people standing at the roadside.

We cross the first two lanes, and then pause in the median, looking north, to the right, where the approaching cars travel only a half mile before reaching us. They’ve just come up a hill, but that hasn’t slowed them down, and they, too, go screaming past at 75 miles an hour. We cross the two lanes safely, and Jerry tucks the newspaper under his arm before we turn to cross all four lanes back to the safety of our gravel road. I wonder how many of those folks have seen what can happen when something goes wrong with the car– a blowout, say– at that speed.

Morning Walk gravelAs we cross the first gully on our road back, we see something we missed the first time: the tracks of deer or antelope in the damp gravel. We saw three deer on our hillside while drinking our first cups of coffee this morning, so these are undoubtedly their tracks, all headed toward the big ridge south of our house.

A few steps farther, though, we see the tracks of a deer or antelope going north; perhaps one of them turned back at the fence. On other occasions we’ve seen them cross these fences; deer tend to jump over them, dangerous if they catch a leg or don’t jump high enough. Antelope look for a place where the bottom wire is a little higher than usual and duck under. My theory is that they use their horns to raise the wire a little while their bodies scurry under it, all at warp speed.

Morning Walk poison ivy at rocksAs we top the second hill on our walk back, we notice that the outcropping of limestone in the pasture beside the fence is nearly buried in this year’s lush grasses. Generations of rabbits have lived under these tumbled rocks, which are covered with lime green lichen and surrounded by poison ivy. Apparently the rabbits are immune to the poison that keeps me from exploring the cavities in the limestone more thoroughly. I pick a leaf of silver sage, growing among the greener plants along the road, to inhale its sharp scent.

Morning Walk Jerry and LindaI’ve filled several pages in my tiny notebook, so I stick it in my back pocket and settle into the rhythm of our return walk, inhaling the scents of the prairie, listening to birdsong, and thinking about what I’ll fix for lunch. Fifteen minutes of paying attention and taking notes has given me inspiration for writing, and motivated me to do further research. Jerry’s ready for his day, too, so he often turns off the trail and heads for his shop, anxious to get back to whatever he is building.

Inspiration, writing, research, more writing: that’s how it’s done. Every day.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Some of the information here was provided by: birdwatchingdaily.com, The Cornell Lab www.allaboutbirds.org and www.birds.cornell.edu.

 

In the U.S., Common Nighthawk populations declined by almost 2% per year between 1966 and 2014, amounting to a cumulative decline of 61%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Canadian populations experienced declines of over 4% and recent data suggest the species’ numbers may have dropped more than half in Canada since the mid-1960s.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Nighthawk/lifehistory

 

“An insect Armageddon is under way, say many entomologists, the result of a multiple whammy of environmental impacts: pollution, habitat changes, overuse of pesticides, and global warming. And it is a decline that could have crucial consequences. . . .

“The best illustration of the ecological importance of insects is provided by our birdlife. Without insects, hundreds of species face starvation and some ornithologists believe this lack of food is already causing serious declines in bird numbers . . .”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/17/where-have-insects-gone-climate-change-population-decline

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The Truth About The Bogus Jim Burl Failure

Recently, Jerry and I drove into a bright fall day on a mission; only after our trip began did I realize he had a covert aim as well.

Jerry’s primary task was to gather interesting pieces of pine that he could use in furniture and other wood-working. He lured me into accompanying him in a clever move to take my mind off my frustration.

The day before, I’d been disappointed to receive the finished product for a project I’d been working on for a couple of years, and found it did not meet my specifications or my expectations. Angry and hurt, I’d talked– no doubt too much– about the betrayal of my confidence and my contract, berating myself for being so trusting.

Jerry’s paid permit allowed him to search particular piles of trees and brush chopped and stacked for burning by the U.S. Forest Service. The map of our permit area led us north and west into the Black Hills, into steep valleys echoing with running streams. High above us, grassy slopes tilted toward cliffs layered in broken rock. The sun shone, but the fall air was like cool silk on our skin. Birds flashed in the underbrush, busily gobbling seeds to fatten themselves for winter.

Names on the map always hint at stories we may never know: Wild Irishman Gulch, Loveland Canyon, Hat Mountain, Steamboat Rock, and Paradise Valley. According to South Dakota Geographic Names, Bogus Jim Creek, which rises just south of Buck Mountain in northern Pennington County, lets the explorer choose which history to believe. The rivulet may have been named for a prospector, Francis Calabogus, known as Bogus Jim, who located a claim on its banks. Alternatively, it may have been named by gold seekers who thought they had reached Jim Creek, farther northwest; discovering they were trying to mine gold on a dry creek, perhaps they named it Bogus Jim.

Bogus Jim LMH knothead 2015--9-6
Not a burl, just a knot-head.


The story of our day found us parking beside a huge slash pile with hundreds of dead pine trees waiting for winter’s torch; they’ll be burned by the Forest Service if enough deep snow accumulates around them.  If winter is dry, they’ll dehydrate and rot for another year or two, available to firewood seekers and artists. Jerry took a hand saw and went along the front of the pile, while I went around the back.

First I inhaled the tart smell of sun-warmed pine which always reminds me of my grandmother and her house in a southern Black Hills canyon. My second breath included a more pungent stink; at my feet was a low-growing plant that spreads into branches with yellow blooms: fetid marigold. Plant books describe its odor as “foul” and the genus name, Dyssodia papposa means “evil-scented.” I’d call it bitter but invigorating, somewhat like eucalyptus. Authorities say the Lakota used the powdered leaves to relieve difficult breathing and European settlers brewed tea from the leaves to settle the stomach, stop vomiting and to treat diarrhea. I wouldn’t make a bouquet of it, but I find the odor invites me to breathe deeply.

Sunlight lit up a few brownish-gold leaves on the oaks, reminding me summer is over. Lush green plants were growing up through the furrows and tracks left by the heavy machinery used to cut and pile the trees. White yarrow bloomed, and kochia thrived in the gouges. Purple asters shivered on slender stems, and patches of bee balm were going to seed. Along the edges of one slash pile raspberry bushes stood knee-deep.

Noting how many chunks of wood had been scattered down the hill by the machinery bringing gulps of trees to the pile, I kept angling upward. As I climbed the hill, reaching to pull myself up by protruding rocks and branches, the sun warmed my back. My leg muscles knotted and flexed and my feet felt as if they were digging into the soil for purchase. I’d find one or two nicely torqued branches and carry them back down the hill, stepping carefully so as not to fall. Then I’d start uphill again in a slightly different place, looking carefully at each piece of wood, tugging at buried limbs, pushing some aside to get at the deeper ones. As I worked my body, I began to feel the tension in my shoulders ease.  My vision narrowed; I focused on the purple flowers and the light slipping between the tree trunks, and how the pines stood against the sky.

At home, I would have been seated at my computer, with notes on scraps of paper covering every inch of two desks, working on several jobs as I kept an eye on the clock so I’d remember to get lunch on the table at noon. I’d be re-running email arguments in my head and muttering to myself about perfidy and ignorance.

Now I reminded myself that all I had to do was peer into the tangled dead tree branches and brown needles, searching for twisty pieces of pine. That’s all. Tomorrow I might consider the best remedy for my dissatisfaction, but today I had no responsibilities to anyone or anything but the wish of this good man for wood that would inspire his creativity.

I leaned close to the slash pile and began to really see the way the branches wound among each other. When I carried a couple of twisted branches back to the pickup, Jerry happily pointed out a burl he’d found, a rounded knotty growth of wood. Handcrafters love these wood variations, polish them, and work them ingeniously into furniture, picture frames and other useful and beautiful objects. This one was no more than three inches across, but would make a fine addition to anything he built. A table beside his rocking chair in our bedroom features several burls among the braces for its legs.

At once I was galvanized! A quest! I’d find a burl! I dashed back around the slash pile.

Bogus Jim moss 2015--9-6
The twisted, mossy old root.


Again I was distracted: a gleam of gold was a cluster of the type of sunflower that thrives in sunny spots in the hills. Poison ivy grew abundantly around several stumps. For myself, I collected a beautifully twisted old root fragment with green moss growing on its top edge, and slender white stems in a little hollow. I put the piece on a stump so I could find it easily.

As if the old root had led me to treasure, I immediately started finding beautifully twisted, sturdy pine branches scattered down the hill, all in lengths I could carry. I piled them by my stump until it was surrounded. As I started downhill carrying an armload of pine branches that writhed over and under one another, my rear ankle caught between two branches. I could picture myself falling, twisting my damaged knee or breaking an ankle or arm. I lunged hard, jerked free and staggered until I regained my balance. Jerry helped me load my finds, generously praising the collection. Sweating and happy, we drove back to the gravel road to locate another couple of slash piles.

Even this fairly remote area was busy with four-wheelers, pickups hauling trailer loads of four-wheelers, pickups hauling campers, and the occasional jogger or bicyclist headed somewhere. Around us stood Crystal Mountain (with many crystal formations), the Lucky Strike Mine, Pilot Knob, and more. Dust hung in the air, sparkling in the sunlight. Marks on the map drew people along the trails and through the trees: Benchmark, Silver City, Thrall Mountain.

Bogus Jim pine collection 2015--9-6
The twisty pine branches we collected.


Some of the piles we searched were so tangled that even if we spotted a promising branch, I couldn’t dislodge it, though Jerry might be able to cut it loose with the hand saw. Sometimes he was in sight, and sometimes I seemed to be alone in the woods. We’d work our way around a hoard and then wander down the road to the next. Picking at the edges of the mounds, we muttered about the beautiful pieces of pine we just knew were hidden deep inside. As the sun grew warmer, we collected dozens of pine branches in fascinating shapes, tangled, entwined, twisted, tortured: all material for beautiful furniture or picture frames or something amazing Jerry will make during the winter to come, or in some future winter.

Though I stared among the branches until my eyeballs ached, I found no burl. But the burl hunt failure was a triumph in the most important way for me: I didn’t once think of incoherent emails, whining phone calls or broken promises.

Instead, searching for wood, I began to see the writing metaphor: a slash pile is a draft, logs, branches and discarded soft drink cans all piled in an untidy mess on the edge of the forest. A careful writer must tiptoe around it, peering close and reaching into the web for the ideas that will polish up nicely. Somewhere in that jumble is a burl, a beautiful knot of meaning but only patience will tease it out.

Bogus Jim LMH maze tunnel 2015--9-6
Rock Maze passage.


At nearly noon, Jerry declared we’d collected enough, and tied down our load. We drove to the Rock Maze, a geological marvel near Steamboat Rock. All morning, we had noticed giant slabs and boulders marching along the cliff edges high above the roads we traveled. At the Rock Maze, these great stones swoop low enough to lie near the road, accessible with an easy stroll. Most of the stones are at least ten feet high, cracked and tumbled so they offer places to squeeze between. Trails lead deeper into the maze, or out to the top of the rocks, or into a corner so small you cannot go on. We could look down into massive cracks and wave to people staring up at us, or leap small crevices leading to pockets of bushes growing from a fissure where we heard voices. The fractured rock led us around corners, into dead ends, up walls and into gaps we had to bend to slip through. Jumbled among the stones were massive charred stumps and lengths of pines that had fallen across gaps and dived into fissures. The sarsen stones reminded me of Stonehenge in their immensity and the way they lured people to walk among them. Several young men stood on the edge of one precipice, holding their cameras out on poles to take pictures of themselves in that precarious position.  We saw a man with a heavy back pack, watchfully leading a girl and boy no more than six years old. All three carried hiking sticks and the children chattered happily to each other. One couple disagreed gently over whether to leap over a gap between rocks; he did, and she went to a spot where the rocks were closer together.

My search for a burl was a failure in the sense of finding a gloriously snarled piece of wood for Jerry to turn into art.  Still, in going into the woods to avoid my anger, I worked my way through the tangled heaps of trash and the maze of choices to find not only relaxation but a writing idea. I failed to find a burl, but I found a tranquil day with a bonus writing inspiration. In so doing, I let go of my fury and turned my attention to how I might cope with the fact that my creation was not as good as I had planned.  My wise father used to ask me: “Will it matter in a year? In ten years?”

By the end of the day, I had realized that, while the work done by others didn’t satisfy me, I could still feel proud of my own accomplishment. Anger at something I can’t change is like the burl that might have become a branch. A burl could vanish into the burn pile, or become part of something beautiful. And the burl is not the tree’s whole story.

Bogus Jim peeled branch
A peeled branch.


A day or two later, Jerry had peeled one of the most convoluted branches, displaying the white inner core and the brown middle layer. Seeing what he had made of the discarded branch made me see more clearly the substance of the wood as well as my own situation.

I was the casualty of a born victim: an individual who is never responsible for his or her own actions. Unsatisfactory results are always the fault of someone else. Misunderstanding follows these folks everywhere.

But they are not evil. The only sensible response to these folks is pity for their perpetual confusion. If I refused to be drawn into an exchange of incivilities, I could go on to more important work.

I failed to find a burl, but I found something more valuable. I learned from my own errors in judgment. I have devised ways to handle the next creation differently so as to avoid the problems this one encountered. This is the precise process that should be followed by a writer in revising each succeeding draft.

Oh yes– Wild Irishman Gulch may have been named either for a single genial, boisterous Irishman who once lived there, or several Irish prospectors. Sadly, Loveland Canyon was not named for romance, but for a couple of ranchers who arrived in the late 1870s, Ed and Charles Loveland.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

Lovers’ Leap, Pussytoes, and Poison Ivy

Custer State Park sign 2014I didn’t want to go on the Lover’s Leap hike in Custer State Park that morning. I wanted to be writing, but I hadn’t written anything significant for weeks, so I couldn’t see much point in going to the computer.

The description of the hike made me nervous because my left knee is unreliable after numerous injuries, so sometimes it’s painful or causes me dangerous stumbles on rough surfaces. Since the proposed hike was described as “strenuous,” with “many” creek crossings, I was afraid of the consequences.

I also believe in exercise and in testing my limits. This spring’s stormy weather has kept us away from our usual weekend hiking regimen. Flash floods have occurred in many areas of the Black Hills, and trails have been soggy. Since the morning’s weather looked dry, I was anxious to inaugurate summer the day before the solstice with a good hike.

So we drove into CusterLovers Leap rock climbing LMH State Park on U.S. Highway 16A and tucked our car into the lot behind the old schoolhouse slightly north and across the highway from the Norbeck Visitor Center. We looked at the topographic map on the sign, and started up the well-marked trail.

Jerry set a slow but steady pace, and we climbed gradually upward on the rocky ridge. The trail switched back and forth along the steep slope, so that we were not climbing straight up, but at an angle. Rains had washed out a lot of the dirt cushioning the rocks underlying the trail, so I was wary of ankle-turning narrow clefts. Still, the trail is wide enough to offer a variety of footing choices, and solid wooden water bars are placed every few feet to channel runoff away. I used my stout walking stick to provide a solid tripod stance whenever a foot slipped.

As I walked, I remembered the accident that made me what my father later referred to as “a crippled girl.”

When I was about twelve, my friend Mikkey and I formed a horseback drill team made up of about twenty of our 4-H friends with horses.  Today I can find some of the forms we ran by searching the Internet for “horseback drill team patterns,” but we made our own diagrams and led our team into intricate maneuvers: figure eights, double circles, cloverleaves, loops and whirls. Each horse had to work with every other to perform at speeds that varied from a walk to a gallop.

A light breeze ruffled my hair. I set each foot solidly before taking the next step, leaning forward into the hill the way I had leaned with the horse as we circled the arena. Dust rose behind Jerry’s steps, smelling just like the dust the horses kicked up as they trotted.

When we worked out the drill team patterns, each horse and rider had to know precisely where each horse’s foot was at every moment. If we were riding a wheel pattern, the horses on the inside might be barely moving while the horses on the outside were cantering.  None of us had fancy horses, just mounts who spent most of their time moving cattle. Like us, they seemed to enjoy the variety of working together to create these intricate configurations, and they all seemed to enjoy the applause.   

The sun shone high above us as we walked, and the ponderosa pine trees close to the trail had been thinned, so we could see between them a few feet into the mottled shade. Occasionally, though, an oak tree stood in a column of light, as if standing center stage. I paused to take deeper breaths and noticed prairie grasses under the oaks, among sage, yarrow and salsify plants. Diamond-shaped blue markers appeared at head height every now and then to show us the trail.

Our hike settled into the slow process of lifting each foot and setting it down as I recalled the day I first hurt my knee.

As leaders, Mikkey and I carried flags on tall poles which we set into our stirrups just ahead of our legs. For the pinwheel, we formed a long line which eventually split in the middle. As the two halves of the line rode toward each other, the horses on the inside turned in place but Mikkey’s Firefly and my Rebel, on the outside of the circle, first walked, then trotted, and then galloped as the riders crossed for the third time. We’d done this maneuver many times before and always grinned at each other as our horses swept past each other, the flags snapping over our heads.  

On that occasion, we were too close together. Our flags crossed. Her flagpole struck my knee.

Firefly was slightly bigger than my little Arab, so the impact of the opposing flag slamming into me wrenched my hip sideways. I did the important thing for a horsewoman: I stayed on the horse. We finished our set and dipped our flags to the applause. I even got off the horse by myself, though I immediately collapsed and had to pull myself up by my stirrup. The next day my knee was the size of a basketball. My mother probably wanted me to see a doctor, but since I could walk, my father said my leg wasn’t broken. I limped for weeks.

Remembering kept me marching up the trail behind Jerry, and even at our slow pace, we passed the steepest and most strenuous part of the trail within forty-five minutes. We paused at that height to listen to the traffic far below. Once in awhile, we glimpsed a car or two zipping along the hot asphalt, with no idea of the cool breeze on the ridge. Though the trail is marked for hikers only, we saw bicycle tracks, but met only other hikers. We strolled along the top looking at the crunchy pale green lichen on the limestone. I saw a line of magenta flowers, like beads on a string, and could tell only that they belonged to the vetch family.

Lovers Leap Cairn 2015--6-20Jerry spotted a tall pile of stones twenty feet off the trail, artfully arranged and balanced like the stone johnnies used by early travelers as trail markers. While he took a picture, I sat on a rock and realized a tiny spring was seeping out from under it– not enough for a human drink, but a trickle that might allow small mammals– voles, mice, even birds– to sip delicately.

Birds I couldn’t identify sang high above us, hidden in the pine branches. Along the trail stood the furry blooms of the Rocky Mountain pussytoes, or antennaria media, one of my favorite Hills plants since I identified it after reading Ed Abbey’s comment in Desert Solitaire that he liked it, “if only for the name.” The delicate flowers are white and clustered in a way that does remind one of a kitten’s toes– but what amuses me even more is thinking how some serious field botanist probably chuckled as he or she submitted the name to officialdom.

Both above and below the trail, we saw depressions in the earth surrounded by stones and softened by a century of rain, evidence that the discovery of gold in 1874 not far from here brought hundreds of gold-seekers who probably climbed every ridge overlooking a creek to dig for treasure. They could not have imagined that we would be able to see where they worked almost 150 years later. We stopped to rest by a huge outcropping of pink and white quartz where someone had been breaking rocks; glittering chips littered the trailside– perhaps a modern gold hunter, or someone illegally stealing the beautiful quartzite.

Lovers Leap Trail SignAt the trail’s highest point, 4,780 feet, is a sign, regularly painted afresh, that describes the park as “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.” While the comment sounds like it might have been made by Charles Badger Clark, the state’s first poet laureate whose “Badger Hole” homestead is within park boundaries, no citation is given, and I have found no evidence it’s his.

“Lovers’ Leap,” says another sign. The legend preserves the romantic tale that the promontory was named for two Indians who were in love but for some reason unable to be together, so they leapt to their deaths here. I wish my home state and nearest state park wouldn’t participate in such an embarrassing, prejudiced, and unlikely cliché. Wikipedia describes Lovers’ Leaps names in several other countries as well as 27 similarly named sites in the U.S.– not including this one. As Mark Twain sarcastically wrote in Life on the Mississippi, “There are fifty Lover’s Leaps along the Mississippi from whose summits disappointed Indian girls have jumped.” Did disappointed lovers among the settlers manage their heartbreak some other way? And couldn’t any of the early climbers of this summit think of another way to describe it?

One could leap to a painful death from the top of the 200-foot cliff, but you might just provide practice for our well-trained search and rescue teams. I’m uncomfortable with heights, too, but I had no trouble following a sloping path upward on rough conglomerate rock worn nearly smooth by zillions of climbers. At the top, I stood in a circle of taller rocks with narrow openings between them; I had to lean out to see the broad sweep of the 1988 Galena fire, the Cathedral Spires, Harney Peak and Mount Coolidge. Tucked into crevices in the convoluted rock were the dead stalks of mullein, and tiny yellow rosebushes. A nighthawk circled and called above. The bowl formed by the rock lay sunny and warm; surely most pairs of lovers who visited it might find something to do other than leaping to their deaths. But I suppose someone would object to renaming the place Lovers’ Love Nest.

Lovers Leap Trail rest LMHWhile we rested, I sipped water, nibbled lemon-pepper chocolate, and flexed my knee, pleased to feel no pain. Jerry spotted a buzzard circling overhead just as I noticed another couple coming up the trail.  As we headed down the west side of the ridge, we could hear Galena Creek bubbling below. I used my walking stick to keep my pace steady and smooth.

Once we reached the creek, the trailside vegetation became lush, a tangled jungle of dewy foliage including birch and ash trees, blackberry bushes, Bicknell’s geranium, wild pink roses and many species I couldn’t identify. I did see Queen Anne’s Lace, which is really poison hemlock and resembles wild carrot closely enough to have killed a fair number of folks who forage for wild food. But it took me an inexcusably long time to identify the most striking plant along the creek, because the unusual moisture had created monstrous plants. The poison ivy was knee high in many places, lining both sides of the trail.

The creek’s water spilled out of its banks everywhere, so sometimes we walked in soggy areas or detoured around piles of dead trees and other debris left by flooding. Watching the rushing water reminded me of the second reason I’d been nervous about this trail: I was afraid that in one of the numerous creek crossings, I’d reinjure my abused knee.

I was in my second marriage on this second occasion, and my husband George and I were moving cattle to our winter pasture in January, when Battle Creek was partially frozen. I let the cattle move slowly, watching as they paced through the water and up the bank. When I tried to ride my horse, another Arab, named Oliver, into the freezing water, he balked and spun and sidestepped– dangerous moves on icy ground. So I debated. I did not want to walk into that freezing water wearing my riding boots, but the horse and I would both be safer if I led him through the creek. I dismounted and waded into the knee-deep water, cringing as the icy flow filled my boots. The horse followed quietly until I got to the narrow trail on the bank, worn three feet deep by generations of cattle hooves. I was looking at the slick mud of the trail, considering just stepping aside to let the horse climb out, when Oliver must have slipped on a rock and scared himself. He jerked back, so I let go of the reins and tried to scramble out of his way.  

While I was picturing that day, we’d arrived at the first creek crossing. To my delight, it was bridged with two stout planks set solidly into the mud, so I didn’t have to wade in the creek wearing my new hiking shoes.

I tried to leap aside, but my boots were full of water and I fell in the path. I raised my arms up over my head, remembering I’d been told that a horse won’t walk on a human being. This horse was terrified, and he climbed over me. Later we found five distinct blue hoof prints on my left leg, plus a few more on my back and shoulders. The pain was terrific, but I could put weight on the leg so I assumed it wasn’t broken. While I sat on the ground recovering my wits, my leg flooded with warmth as broken blood vessels exploded. The warmth almost made up for the pain.

I hobbled around for a couple of days before George insisted I see a doctor. He yanked on my leg a couple of times, said no bones were cracked or broken but that I had torn most of the ligaments in the leg– “much more painful than a break,” he assured me with a grin. He put my leg in a splint and gave me crutches and painkiller. Years later, after the leg had collapsed on me a couple of times, dropping me into an embarrassed heap, another doctor suggested an operation to repair the kneecap, but I declined.

The second creek crossing was bridged as well, though we could see that the bridge had been moved because its previous location was under water. I practically skipped across it, carrying my hiking stick and thinking of Little John and Robin Hood.

Lovers Leap bridge LMH 2015--6-20Sometimes, in order to get to the bridge crossing, we had to walk around flood debris that had been cut out of the creek and dragged away from the path. After crossing several of the bridges, we realized that these are a brilliantly engineered answer to a creek that hosts frequent floods. Most hiking bridges we’ve seen in other areas consist of two heavy planks laid across the creek. Each time the creek floods, trail crews have to find the planks and return them to the proper place, or haul in new lumber if the first bridge can’t be recovered. But not on Galena Creek. These bridges didn’t wash away because of their ingenious construction: one end of each bridge is chained to something solid, like a tree or rock. Floodwaters may lift one end of the bridge and swing it downstream, but workers won’t have to chase it; they can lift it back into place.

Still, clearing the trail after every flood during a wet spring like this must be a terrific job; we were amazed and delighted by how easy the trail made our walk through this rugged country.

After bridge number five, the creek passes below a soaring black cliff with water springing from a dozen cracks on its face. From the cliff’s top to the bottom where it plunges into a dark pool, several ecosystems, varying from ferns to sagebrush, thrive in niches. In this gorgeous place, I finally admitted to Jerry and to myself that making this hike was a good idea not only for my physical health but for my mental state. Still, it was several days before I understood how important the hike had been to my writing.

All together, we crossed the creek ten times, marveling at evidence of the work it takes to keep up the trail. Anyone hiking immediately after a heavy rain might have a harder time before the trail crew gets there.  Once we climbed over flood debris to reach a bridge, but several trees had been cut and moved aside and the maintenance crew probably planned to return. We never got in mud or water over our shoe tops.

The end of the trail, after three miles, was confusing and a little disappointing. As the trail sloped downhill, we slowed down, sensing we were about to step out of the serene woods into the chaos of tourism in summer. But we still weren’t ready when the trail turned into a graveled, then a paved road among park cabins. We walked past several houses, feeling like intruders, until we saw a blue triangular marker. Soon we were engulfed in families hustling into the Coolidge Inn store, and laying out lunches on picnic tables; we followed the busy highway to the correct parking lot.

As we finished the walk, we discovered and discarded the ticks we’d collected during the leisurely four-hour walk, and I made notes for this article.

LMH Maine sunrise 2013--6-15The next day I resolved to get myself back into my usual routine. During our vacation, I’d wondered whether it’s wise for me to insist on writing every day, but I constantly noted what we were doing and seeing. Some of my favorite vacation hours had been at dawn when I sat on the deck with my first cup of coffee, looking at the moving ocean instead of the waving prairie grass, letting my mind tell my fingers what to write with no limits. With no specific project in mind, I’d simply recorded my delight in the smooth oval white and round red stones of the beach. I’d tried to find a way to describe the way the water seems to flow out of the land, the way the cardinal sounded in the bush beside the deck.

But when we returned home, I became immersed in the daily busy-ness that can overwhelm anyone, and let it carry me along. I told myself I need to take my writing less seriously, that with my experience, I didn’t need to write every day to keep my interest up. I kept busy with jobs I usually fit around my writing. I told myself each night that tomorrow I would write, until many tomorrows had passed. When I returned to my trip notes, I found them lifeless. Maybe, I thought, I’m finished. Perhaps I’ve said all I need to say.

My husband George used to say, “Linda’s not happy when she’s not writing. And when Linda’s not happy, nobody’s happy.” After a couple of weeks of not writing, I found myself waking up grouchy, so I knew I had to do something.

That’s when Jerry proposed the hike. I made myself do it, told myself it would be good for me. Of course, there may be good reasons we don’t want to do something. But sometimes we need to go ahead and do it anyway. The delight I felt in walking and taking notes on the hike reminded me why I write, but just enjoying the hike and taking notes wasn’t enough.

The next morning I followed my own rule: I organized my day around writing and produced a draft of this article. As I re-read it that night, my mood dropped again: it was flat, listless, comatose, limp, tedious and a few more synonyms for lifeless.

Wild rose buds 2014--6-9I went back, mentally, to that black cliff face, and looked up at the vibrant color of the plants that grew because they somehow tucked hair-like roots into granite slits. Writing something, and then perhaps getting it published, requires the same patient persistence as the feathery blue sagebrush needs to grow on that inch-wide ledge. Sitting around telling myself I might be finished writing was synonymous with telling myself I was dead. And apparently no matter how experienced a writer I am, I still need the discipline of a daily schedule.

Some writers begin each day with a particular assignment, such as a haiku. I’ve never done that, but have advised my students to begin each day with writing something. It doesn’t matter what it is, I said; it’s the discipline of the writing that will carry them on to the next step. A person who writes a letter every day will be a better writer after a year. I believe that the simple act of writing makes us see what we might miss. As Norman Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It, “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t visible.” Seeing is writing. I can’t write if I can’t see.

I broke my own rule.

Over the next day or two, I made this essay my first priority of each day, revising and revising and revising. Perhaps in giving myself time off from writing I had just been lazy, avoiding what is, after all, hard work. My goal as a writer is to discover something in each writing I do, and to be able to communicate my discovery to a variety of readers. Even writing about a stroll through the woods requires patience and attention to detail if the goal is, as it should be, to help the readers visualize the action and gain something from the writing to enhance their own lives.

Bill Kloefkorn, the late Nebraska State Poet, began his writing classes with an exercise he called “Finding the bulls eye inside the epiphany.” With his permission, I copied down his directions to use with my own students.

First, write down a word or phrase that reminds you of a painful experience; possibilities for pain are not necessarily physical.

If you can’t do that, then guess at it.
If you can’t do that, lie.
“If lying bothers your conscience, you will never be a writer,” says Bill Kloefkorn.

Then ask questions about the word you’ve written down.

What country were you in?
What cosmos?
How old were you?
What town were you near?
How far were you from (insert nearby town name)
Were there any lower animals with you?   Any people?
What were you wearing?
Was it too big?
If it wasn’t too big, where was it tight?
Were you outside or inside?
If you were inside, what color was the wallpaper?
What were you walking on‑‑ pavement, or another human being?
Did it smell?
Does it smell now?

After answering these questions, you should free-write on what you’ve come up with for 45 minutes or so. That is, put pencil to paper and don’t lift it for 45 minutes. It’s best to time this, because if you think you can estimate the time, you will be surprised how long it can be, and you don’t want to stop writing to look. From this writing comes material from which you might write almost indefinitely.

This is torture, of course, even if you are writing on a computer.  Work up to it: set a timer and write for 10 minutes without stopping, or even five.

Kloefkorn said that the mind, pressured in this way, might begin by spewing nonsense: “This is ridiculous, I can’t do this, and there is nothing in my brain.” But after a few minutes of gibberish, the mind realizes it cannot abide a vacuum and it will begin to dredge up something serious, something more important than the student would have discovered if asked simply to “think of a bad day in your life.”

Bill told me his students sometimes spent the entire semester writing about whatever emerged from their writing on this day in class. They continued to break it down, and kept discovering “the bull’s eye inside the epiphany.” If you write enough on one topic, you eventually begin to dig down into subjects that are hard to write about, and that therefore matter.

Another result is that the more specific sensory detail you include, the more the reader will identify with what you have written. This is an odd fact, but true: even if the dress you wore to your first day of school was long and blue while mine was red and short; even if your hair was long and black and mine was short and blonde– your specific memories will bring mine back to me, and I will then identify with what you have written.

On days when you don’t have a specific writing goal in mind, write anyway. Put the pencil or pen to the paper, or your fingers on the keyboard and begin. Write through the gibberish and the advertising slogans; write until something more important begins to arrive from the depths of your mind.

Only the discipline of writing was enough to lift me from the doldrums of not writing. I’ll try not to forget that rule again.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015