We had just arrived and were still in the airport the first time I said, “It feels like we are in a futuristic city where they finally got everything right.” I mean. It was clean. Signage made sense. The bathroom stall walls and doors–each and every one of them–went all the way to the ground.
I want to share it all with you, every photo, every comment, every would youtake a look at that. It’s my first time in Southern California, a last minute trip we planned so we could visit Eliza during her months of work here. (You know Tim and I will go just about anywhere, just about any time. There is so much to see in this world.)
We spent a couple of days in charming Oceanside, then drove Highway 79 up to Palm Springs where we walked Palm Canyon Drive, found Dinah Shore Drive (you have to, right?), then made the incredible journey across the rough and rugged San Jacinto mountains to San Diego. It gave us an incredible view of the Coachella Desert Valley.
And now we are here in San Diego. Eliza arrived last night to spend the long weekend with us, and we are all excited to see what this fascinating city has in store.
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I DIDN’T GO WITH HER to the airport this time, an action easily justified with the cruel and early departure time. I did wake up, however, before the clock clicked over to our agreed-upon 4 am rise and shine. She wanted to shower; I wanted to be upstairs to check–for the ten thousandth time–that she had everything she needed for the long journey ahead.
It’s what we do as parents, right? Worry, and plan, and counsel, and cajole.
You’ll want some room in this suitcase to bring new things back. Let’s get a strategy for what to do when you feel lonely. Here’s my friend’s number. You can call her anytime, no matter what you need.
We’re so proud of their courage, but so worried for their safety. And happiness. And their comfort, for heaven’s sake.
That portable charger. Carry it in your purse. Is it in your purse?
“Yes, Mom,” she said. Over and over and over again. “Yes.”
And then we hugged, and waved goodbye, and just like that,
she was gone.
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It’s one of those things you wonder how you made it a lifetime not knowing.
We’d come to the mountains for a long weekend just the day before, arriving late and promising that since it would be Saturday, we really were going to sleep in. But morning came and our eyes opened and before you could say October we were out on that deck, coffee in hand.
There was the tiniest thread of light just along the ridge line.
We inhaled, exhaled, and gave thanks for another day.
But then I looked closer. There was also a rising crescent, a sliver so slight I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks. There, just above the mountain. What is that? I said to Tim. It looks like the moon.
I think it is, he said.
But it’s morning, I said. And that’s about where we expect the sun to rise.
I got my big lens, and this happened next.
It’s difficult to tell since the zoom changes from image to image, but just as the moon began to disappear, sure enough, right behind it (and just slightly west) came the sun.
It was the New Moon, I’ve since learned, one that all these years, from the beginning of time, has risen with the sun.
Wow. And thanks and praise!
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It’s been an interesting thing this year to get glimpses of autumn as it has made its way to these mountains. The very first sign was a single tree–I kid you not–among the thousands that crowd the Black Mountain range as it runs east to west behind our place. That spot of magnificent gold among the deep, deep greens of late summer held our interest for several days.
Then there came other changes, but subtle. They were most visible in early evening with the sun angled just right; its perfect rays spread across those ridges like a giant hand with long fingers of light stretching wide to reach them. The leaves still shown green, the mountains blanketed in a lush, dense carpet. But now there was something else, an undercolor. It was as if this was a canvas on which the artist laid down a burnt umber ground, the whole of the mountain transitioning in a slow, quiet flow. And it was all taking place below the surface.
Then the reds began to appear. Dotted here and there, their gorgeous color making an unmistakeable pronouncement:
It is time.
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THERE IS ANOTHER MOUNTAIN STORY I’ve yet to share, and one that deserves quite a crescendo. It happened the first day of our last trip, our climb to the top of that ridge one that is always filled with excitement as I scan the dirt road, the shadowy forest, the meadows ahead for bear. We’ve been rewarded with sightings two or three times from the safety of our car, my camera never able to get a good enough shot to share here. The best was the time the Mama and her babies crossed in front of us, then–I’m not kidding you–shimmied right up the trunk of a tree just a few yards into the woods. What a delight!
But on this arrival there were no such episodes as we made our way up the mountain and down the long drive to the house. We unloaded groceries, put our suitcases away, then poured ice cold beers into ice cold glasses and headed to the deck for our customary “we just got here” happy hour and sunset watch.
No bears that day, but a gorgeous, gorgeous view.
WE WERE EXPECTING FRIENDS for the weekend so the next morning I got up and before the day got away commenced to cooking. There were three giant packages of chicken to be dealt with–thighs and breasts, bones and not–and so it was an exercise that took me quite a bit of time. The windows were open, the skillets were smoking and sweet Tim had just come in, his morning having been filled with work on the roof rather than the meadow. He made a sandwich, stepped onto the screen porch then stuck his head back into the kitchen offering, ever-so-calmly, “Bear.”
I looked up. I was elbow-deep in chicken, so it took me a minute to wash up, grab my camera and join Tim on the deck where he pointed to the vines below and whispered, There. Eating the grapes.
Below us on the concrete walk was his bulky shadow, the leaves of the vine rustling. After a minute he heard us and glanced up, a little surprised, perhaps, but not very interested.
After a while he got up, ambled around to the bear path, and continued–we guessed–up toward the driveway.
I darted to the front door where I knew I could stand in the mudroom to watch. He came around the corner and good heavens continued walking right toward me.
There was plenty of glass between us, nevertheless I ducked inside, my heart beating fast.
The bear turned left and climbed the steps to the driveway. Tim alongside me now, we moved back to the front and I snap snap snapped with my camera.
What did he do? Lo and behold that bear came back down the embankment and returned to the grapes, shaking them this time with some significant intention. Then he stepped out from the shadows, looked up at us and–after a moment of careful consideration–raised up on his hind legs.
It occurs to me as I write this it sounds as if the bear was getting frustrated, or being aggressive, something that really wasn’t the case. He was more curious, that’s how it felt, rising up to get a little better view. (We can hardly blame him, focused as we were on chasing him around.) Nevertheless, I grabbed the bird feeders and ran back in the house, quick as a wink.
The bear? He came on around the other side of the house, up the steps, and according to Tim–who got a quick glimpse through the bedroom door while I cowered in the den–climbed right over the railing and on to our safe, sacred, happy-hour-viewing-spot deck.
At this point we were inside and he was outside, I should be clear about that. Still our hearts were racing like wildfire. The bear took his time, wandering about, looking around, smelling a bit. And then he lumbered back off, again climbing over the railing and heading in the direction of Tim’s workshop at the edge of the driveway. He made his way around the building’s back side and disappeared from our view. Then after a few minutes Tim ventured out and surmised the friendly fella had headed on up the mountain toward the Landl’s place.
IT WAS QUITE AN EXPERIENCE, I will give you that, one filled with so much excitement and fear the thrill hung on for days. We stayed on high alert and discussed, ad nauseam, what had prompted that bear to come so close, where we should keep the air horn (it was in the garage or we would have blown it simply to dissuade him from coming onto the deck), what would have happened had Tim been out clearing the meadow when the bear came to call. It was the smell of chicken that drew him, that’s what we believe, along with a genuine curiosity about the new folks in this pretty house with the big, berry-filled meadow.
I SHOULD ALSO SAY THIS. We have a great respect for these creatures, Tim and I both. We understand these are their mountains first and foremost. We also know black bears are not likely to become aggressive, although they do take food–and the promising smells thereof–very, very seriously.
We shall remain ever mindful.
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I’VE SEVERAL STORIES TO TELL YOU of our September days in the mountains, this being our first early Autumn here in the Blue Ridge. We come and go with great frequency as our primary lives are still lived in South Carolina’s midlands–work, precious friends, and a home with a demanding yard keep us rooted there.
But we do love it here. And even now, after a summer full of early mornings, we still climb out from under the covers, rise in the dark and most every day go out to greet the sun.
I mean. How could you not?
BEFORE I GET TO THOSE STORIES I want to mention something that’s been on my mind, a thought harbored there that brings so much else about this place into focus. I’ve been thinking about the many reasons, for me, these mountains have such a strong pull. There are my Southwestern Virginia roots, of course. Generations go back there on my mother’s side; my people are mountain people. But it feels as if there is more to it than that. There is the landscape itself, and our particular view of it here. A person can rather miraculously stand in one place, look to the left, and watch the sun rise. You need not move to see it traverse the sky–throwing spectacular and always-changing shadows across the ridges in font of you. Then at day’s end, from the same spot, simply look right for its magical sinking into the trees. The experience of this journey is different each time, the sun’s position, the clouds, the season and the weather creating a humbling show that quite literally takes your breath away.
How remarkable it is to watch the sun rise, then see the sun set, and to be aware–totally and completely aware–of the passing of another day. To be alive in it, yes. But to be conscious of it. To intentionally and gratefully mark it. To see the bookends and acknowledge a day has passed.
These mountains. They sure want me to notice.
I am grateful.
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I HAVE HAPPY NEWS, a great bit of so wonderful I can hardly wait to share it. But first I want to remind you of Parts 1 and 2 of this saga.
FIRST THERE WAS THE DISCOVERY of a ground nest of juncos, babies so tiny it was a miracle they survived at all, what with snakes and the whir of our (unknowing) weed eater as we cleared an overgrown slope on the side of our new-to-us mountain retreat. (You can read that story here.)
Then that one baby got so far over on the compromised nest he slipped out, and my goodness the others followed, so we reinforced their home and scooped them up, gently, gently placing them back in all safe and sound. But instead of hanging there to be properly fed by Mama and Daddy the one escaped and promptly headed up the hill, hop hop hopping since he was too little to have enough feathers to fly.
We rescued him again.
And again he ran, leaving me with nothing to do but fret all day keeping an eye out but knowing good and well night was coming and he would be alone and hungry and covered in dark and cold.
Finally, finally it was morning. I searched high and low but I didn’t see him, didn’t hear a peep from either that runaway baby or his parents, focused, as they were, on feeding the three good children at home. (You can read about that–and see photos of the cuties and that little stinker–here.) And it was time for us to go. So we drove away from the mountain raising prayers of protection for the one and hopes of proper fledging–once their wings were fully developed–for the others.
I’VE WORRIED EVER SINCE over that baby and his sensible siblings. I didn’t hold much hope for the renegade, to tell you the truth, who couldn’t fly and was on his own in territory that is already known to be fierce. But the other three? Oh, maybe.
WE’VE BEEN BACK TO THE MOUNTAINS, and the Junco parents have been around. We see them flitting in the trees and bushes behind the house; we hear their familiar click click clicks as they dart here and there. And then I got brave and hung a small bird feeder way high above the ground and not so high above the deck. It was a decision I came to carefully as knowledgable neighbors have warned us the Black Bears, which already like the blueberries in our meadow, will consider this an invitation we’ve extended for dinner. We are extremely somewhat careful to bring in the feeder at night, and–to date–the bears have not come. But the Goldfinches have. Goldfinches are very beautiful and equally picky, something the person paying for the seed and filling the feeder finds surprising, and they knock a good bit out and over the ledge of the feeder.
And then this different little bird showed up and commenced to hopping about on the deck absolutely thrilled to scavenge the leftovers. I didn’t pay him too much mind, truth be told, because he was a rather plain looking fellow.
But then it started to rain, and he got all puffed up and cute, and I decided to take some photos.
When I downloaded them I got more curious.
There was a photo match on Birdnote that said this:
This juvenile Dark-eyed Junco has the beginnings of white outer tail-feathers. But other than that, it doesn’t look much like its parents!
And do you know what happened the very next day?
Three more juveniles showed up.
YOU WON’T BELIEVE ME when I tell you this and I can’t much blame you, nevertheless it is gospel truth. Just about any time you look out that window and see those birds whether in the meadow or at that feeder there will only be three. And when the one shows up?
But don’t feel too sad for the little renegade. He is fully independent and looks to be doing just fine making his own happy way: perching on top of the hummingbird feeder; hanging around on the deck rail, surveying the meadow; peeking in through the window as I sit close by writing, as curious about me as I am about him.
He’s living his life on his own little bird terms, that’s what I think, out there making it happen the way he always has, the only way he knows how: living strong, living courageous, living free.
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