Darkness on the Edge of Town

November is the cruelest month. Darkness lingers long then settles in on the edges of day like tunnel-vision, grainy as sand. Gone is the retina piercing splendor of Autumn foliage. Images of November rarely find their way onto picture postcards of New England; the only bright colors left in the woods are those of hunters and the others that prefer not to be mistaken for a trophy buck. Shades of grey reign in the darkness on the edge of town.

Whatever snow tends to fall doesn’t last, yet the wind bites like shards of glass as I pause on the edge of the field. The trees along the perimeter stand waiting for snow wearing shorts with black socks and sandals over their roots like old men, veiny arms lifted skyward as if to surrender. Wheezing with the wind, they shiver and stretch for a thermostat that’s never quite within reach. It’s time to either suck it up and get tough or put your head down and dodge buckshot. Although I suppose hibernation may be another option.

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Not a very good option, of course. I prefer to be outside so I pedal over to the cove. While the season of darkness may be upon us there is still much to see and experience out here in the cold. Hibernation is for the bears! I choose to fight and resist the temptation of the woodstove and couch.

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Around me the world exhales with the spirits of sea smoke as the first arctic air of the season overruns the warm waters of the ocean. The rocks lay defiant and mute as always. Vapor, you may escape for now but you’ll be back. Try as you might to escape into the vacuum of night, we’ll see you again as snowfall – the sooner the better! You wraiths will be sliced with the ski edges of Norse gods someday.

With the days growing short the ocean and all beings between it and the sky draw one final receding wave of breath before settling in for the fight to come. The hemisphere inexorably tips away from the sun, the world freezes over and steels itself for winter.

I enjoy the cold burn of the wind upon my cheeks for a final moment before retreating into the shelter of the forest.

“… and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town” – Bruce Springsteen

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Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ Bathed in Foliaglow

It’s easy to love summer with its long, carefree and sunlit days. Who doesn’t like lobster devoured on a wharf plein air all washed down with cold beer? And when conditions are right (not wet and warm blehhh) winter is tough to beat for the wealth of recreational opportunities it affords. Nothing beats packing a day full of snow shoveling, skiing and fat biking, am I right? Of course Spring has a certain regenerative charm (no, slapping mosquitoes doesn’t count) once all the mud has subsided, but for pure enjoyment of living Fall is without question the king of the seasons.  Especially because of foliaglow.

Don’t bother looking for a definition of foliaglow, it doesn’t exist.  I made it up. And since it’s my word I can define it however I like. Part of me would like to be all mysterious and claim that it’s untranslatable from the original German, but if pressed I’d probably describe it to as “the incredible lightness of being that envelopes one upon entering a forest in Fall. See also: Eufolia” (yes, I made up another word – that gives me something to blog about later this winter when it’s 33 degrees and raining).

If you’ve ever walked into a forest on a crisp Autumn day and felt as if you were floating suspended by rays of light you know exactly what foliaglow is all about – no definition, real or imagined is required.

As far as I’m concerned those gaudy high mountain ranges can keep their snooty alpenglow.  For those of us here on the east coast with our old, grumpy and thoroughly worn out mountains more often than not we’re surrounded by trees. We only have alpenglow in our Instagram feed. But luckily in northern climes come Fall, under certain lighting conditions the forests begin to literally glow.

All summer long the forest floor may have been a grimey tableau of hummocks pockmarked with the occasional mosquito infested bog, but as the forests dry out from the spring and summer rains the mosquitoes begin to dissipate (somewhat), the leaves begin to turn and the world smiles for a blessed few weeks. It might even get dusty, but even dust can be smile inducing.

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Foliaglow begins gradually in the forest. At first it might go unnoticed, an alien force in the understory. Gradually it builds to a slight buzz in the high voltage wires of branches and stems that hint at the potential of what is to follow.

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Soon it’s inescapable. Autumn ascends astride its chariot trailing foliaglow though the forest whenever the sun is shining. Screw the chariot, let’s say a biking god pulls it across the sky in a BOB trailer. The god with the quads.

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Even moonlight of the proper intensity can set off the necessary chain of events to induce lunafoliaglow (really too complicated to define, perhaps more blog fodder for a night filled with dark and mysterious alcoholic beverages).  It is the best of times. Perhaps for a vampire it is the worst of times.

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Light – whether reflected, refracted or delivered via wave or particle – is alive with possibility. Immortality seems within reach. Politicians make sense. All of my sentence structure is correct. It slices, it dices and makes julienne fries golden and brown with each sunrise and sunset. Alpenglow eat your heart out.

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Of course all good things must come to an end. After all, if Fall never ceased we’d never have a ski season <cold shudder>. The days shorten and the leaves begin to shrivel and fall. The woodstove groggily awakens and smokes with a yawn and a puff into the cold night sky. Late fall is still glorious, mind you, but the end is near.

With the advent of shorter days it’s time to embrace the darkness that lurks on the horizon. With one last look over the shoulder with headlamp attached, it’s time to leave the realm of foliaglow behind and ride off into the gloaming.

Fat bike season is right around the corner!

 

 

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A Descent into the Maelstrom

Just in time for Halloween, a massive storm arrived this morning and let us know who is really in charge around here (a hint: it is neither you nor I). After spending a little time walking around Portland Head Light this morning my clothes reek of salt spray and whenever I close my eyes I can hear the booming of the surf. I live for moments like this. Just the jolt I needed to get a bleary Monday started off right.

Since we’re talking about funky odors, does anyone else get nauseous when they read this?  I do. That is some masterful writing, Mr. Poe. I’d take my hat off to you but it blew away this morning and is probably somewhere in New Hampshire by now.

OK, we’ve waited long enough. Let’s get this winter started.

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Forgive Me, Great Bike Commuting Father, for I Have Sinned

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The sun was a pale warm glow glinting off the emerging Spring leaves of the trees as I clicked into my pedals, shuffled into the confessional and made the sign of the chainring.

“Forgive me Great Bike Commuting Father for I have sinned. It has been over 2 years since my last bike commute to work”.

I’m not sure why I stopped riding my bike to work. Perhaps it was laziness or maybe it was not having ready access to a shower at the past two places I have worked, but for whatever reason I have fallen into my car coffin every morning and navigated into the office via internally combusted dinosaur guts.

Many years ago I was what some might term an “extreme” bike commuter. Riding anywhere from 25 to 90 miles a few times a week I elevated the voyage to work to a level I’m sure I’ll never be able to top. Frankly, I’m not sure why I’d ever want to do a 90 mile ride on a fixie ever again, let alone before work. I don’t miss it that much!

But what I have missed is that feeling of taking something as mundane as a commute and turning it into an adventure. Whether it was riding along the shoulder of a crowded California freeway in the dark on a rainy day (legal, but definitely not recommended for that stretch) or going many miles out of my way just to mix in a few miles of prime singletrack, I always found a way to take the stress of going to work (hey, I’m an introvert – dealing with people is stressful sometimes) and make it fun.

The past few years my adventures (commuting or otherwise) have diminished to a certain degree due to my nagging hip injury. I’m just not getting out there as much as I used to. Or maybe I’ve just become lazy? Or beaten down? Or just a little numb?

Today (fittingly enough on “National Bike to Work Day”) that all came to an end.

I was not lazy and woke up early. I felt the sun on my face and listened to the birds sing as I rode my bike to work along unfamiliar roads. I was not beaten down nor was I numb to the world around me. Pausing only to snap a photo I tapped out a constant act of contrition through my pedal strokes.

Hail bicycle, full of grace!

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Leaves of Grass

This morning I rose early and rode out into the darkness of the forest. It’s tough to get out of a warm bed this time of year but I felt like I needed to escape, if only for an hour before my busy day began. Most of the leaves are down by now so the technical bits are a little unnerving when riding in the dark. The surface may look soft when covered with leaves but the rocks still lay in wait beneath.

Halfway through the ride I popped out at a popular cove along the coast. A cold front is moving through today and at this early hour its vanguard had just begun to push off the land into the sea.

Behind me I heard footsteps so I turned to see an older man out for his morning walk. He greeted me as he popped out from the shadows into the light at the edge of the rocks.

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Waiting for the sun

“Wow, look at how those colors reflect in the water” he remarked from beneath his hunter orange cap, his eyes dancing across the scene. “Every morning it’s just a different shade of beautiful at this spot. I come here every day, rain or shine”.

We talked for a bit and as it turned out he had been a cyclist in his younger days. Naturally the conversation turned to bikes and places we had each explored via two wheels. As we talked a particularly strong gust of wind materialized from somewhere near the rising sun. With leaves s swirling beneath our feet he pulled his hat lower to a point just above his eyes.

“Well, I best be going before it gets too cold. Sure is a beautiful morning to be alive…”

He paused for a second then smiled as his eyes shifted toward the rising sun.

“But aren’t they all?”

Yes, they are.

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The Arc of Triumph

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” – Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves of Grass

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The Path That Circles the Graveyard

Over the past week my social media feeds exploded with pleas from many outdoor gear related concerns that were focused on the plight of Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson. They were getting the word out about how the pair had disappeared while attempting a climb in Pakistan’s Karakorum Range. Their families were attempting to raise funds for an emergency rescue attempt via a GoFundMe campaign. Based purely on the number of appeals from different sources it was apparent that these two had touched many lives during their climbing careers.

I’ve read a lot about that area of the world and have always wanted to visit but never had the balls to go for it, let alone go there and climb dangerous peaks. Like many others, I started following the story and began sending some positive vibes out into the universe with hope for a sunny outcome. I can only imagine how gut wrenching an emergency like this can be on the families of those left waiting behind.

As I read more about their lives it struck me: I sorta know Kyle Dempsey. Not personally, but in this vastly connected world of ours a couple years back I had come across an inspiring film he had created of his bike travels in Kyrgyzstan looking for peaks to climb: The Road From Karakol. If you’ve never seen the video please take the time to at least watch the opening sequence of him standing naked getting ready to cross a raging river. How can you not like this guy? Pure unadulterated living! What an amazing adventure he had detailed with his inspiring outlook on life.

In no small way had that little film inspired me to get up off my ass and go do something. I told myself (and still do) that it doesn’t have to be a grand adventure like Kyle’s it just has to be SOMETHING. Those like Kyle inspire the rest of us to get out and explore a new trail, learn a new sport or whatever – just try something new!  Get off your ass and go do something!

Which is why I was saddened to read the other day that while the fundraising had been successful,  the search had been called off. Feeling a little bummed I headed off into the afternoon sun for a bike ride. Somehow I wound up on a trail I don’t often ride.

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The winding trail around the abandoned cemetery (which is off to the right in this photo)

I ended up in a quiet patch of woods off on the far side of town. A trail winds though here along the edge of a tidal estuary as if it’s trying to find something, unsure of where it leads. It seems lost, but the trail eventually winds around a small wooded height of land that rises ever so slightly from the edge of the water. From here it returns to an open field where artists frequently gather to paint in the soft evening light. It’s a pretty spot.

Off to the south a church steeple juts into the sky barely within view, an unseen graveyard at the foot of the church Off to the west an open view of the marsh reaches toward the setting sun each night with fingers of swaying cattails and long grasses. I stopped for a second to take in the scene and listen to the calls of the birds and the buzz of late summer insects. Just then I noticed something jutting from the earth at the top of the rise.

Headstones, or as I realized as I drew closer: old, forgotten headstones from the early 1800’s. A handful of them. I had never noticed that this trail winds around the edge of sacred ground. I looked closer and realized that there were other stones arrayed in a discernible pattern throughout this overgrown height of land. They looked even older and more weather beaten than the handful at the crest of the hill, some of them broken at the base. I felt like I was intruding, so I left to continue my little journey homeward beneath the grand summer sky.

There’s no tidy little ending to this post, just a path that circles a graveyard. Someday I’ll return and find out more about the history of this forgotten land, but today I know nothing.

Let’s hope those guys can pull off a miracle in the Karakorum.

“Every adventure has both the light , the dark, the toil ,the reward. To experience that alone is to become absorbed by an activity, by a place , by its people. The wall of daily noise, the modern trappings that  define our identities give way.  Our mental defenses grow thin.  You no longer know where you end and the world begins. We become raw. This is why we take the trip.  That is what we’ve come for” – Kyle Dempster, from The Road From Karakol

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It’s Not My Fault

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Sunrise, headed to Northern Maine this past weekend

Really, it’s not my fault. I blame my fascination of getting up crazy early squarely on the shoulders of my Dad. When I was a kid we’d pile into the car (or in later years, the van) in the wee hours of the morning  and head off somewhere on what I remember as grand adventures. For a 5 year old kid driving across multiple state lines was like an expedition to Everest, our car the sherpa carrying the load. I think those trips and the early morning starts left a mark on me that persists until this day.

Like the time we drove non stop from New Jersey to St Louis, all four of us packed into a Ford Pinto (luckily no one rear-ended that bomb on wheels). Or the countless trips to various places in New England in our VW van, or to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Not to mention the ones I was too young to recall. Sure, I probably fussed a bit like any stupid kid, but in retrospect they are all great memories that stirred as I rolled out of bed at 3AM this past weekend and piled into my careworn escape pod (otherwise known as a VW Jetta Wagon) and headed off to face the dawn.

With the scent of fresh coffee rising from the mug and the inrush of dense, cool morning air through the slightly cracked window I drove onward. A symphonic, laconic drone of late summer insects over the cornfields all ears looming high over the shoulders of the road. It was road trip time again. Headed off on some grand adventure be it real or imagined, my reflection calmly watching over me in the windows of the world. The miles rolling and rising to meet my wheels.

More on my gravel grinding ride through the newly christened Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument that took place at the end of this trip down memory lane when I get around to uploading some photos!

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Sunrise, Sunset

“Some of us wake up, others roll over” – Mark Twight (legendary badass)

When they wake up they go down to the water for no particular reason. They bathe in the humid light of the new day and exchange briny  exhalations with the sea as it rises and falls with the swells. Meanwhile, photographers crawl like insects on the spine of the rocks in a pathetic attempt to capture the perfect shot: they’re clearly missing the point. It’s not the shot but the scene. It’s in the yearning, the desire to move with and become one with the diamond as it glitters in the pyrite of the sun. Shine on you crazy little insects.

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Sunrise, Portland Head Light

It’s in the play of clouds when everything is alright forever  and forever and forever until the light fades and you find yourself alone in the mist wondering why the hell your eyes are still open when there’s nothing left to see. It’s revealed in the paralysis of the sudden frown of realization that it’s all been seen and said anyway – why even bother to write about it or snap a photo to try and capture it? A snapshot of time on a summer evening – might as well try to grasp it in your fist – but here’s a vain attempt.

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Sunset, Kettle Cove State Park

The sun sets every night but will you rise in the morning? Most days you will, until… well never mind. Until then it will be glorious if you look at it in the right light.

It will be glorious when the light bends, transmutes and flares over the cove. It will be sizzling and alive overhead like the hands of angels reaching out to touch the soul as the beat of the waves lapping against the side of the lobster boat drives the scene. In the distance thunder will bellow a muffled roar then be heard no more. No rain will fall tonight as the storm is headed downeast on the wind.That’s when the scene will be complete, when it’s never ending and moving on into the depths of the night.

But until then there’s nothing to see here. Only the mist of a dream and the song of the sea.

“The page is long, blank, and full of truth. When I am through with it, it shall probably be long, full, and empty with words.” – Jack Kerouac

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Sunrise, Pond Cove

 

 

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The Forest for the Trees

“Most people are on the world, not in it” – John Muir

It’s easy to become overwhelmed while out riding your mountain bike. Concentrate too much on the roots and rocks that litter the trail and you miss reading the natural flow. On the other hand if you choose to just go with the flow and bang on over the rough stuff while chasing your ideal vision of a line those pesky obstacles can sending you flying over the bars… or perhaps less cinematically just sitting on a stump fixing a pinch flat alongside the trail.

As with metering light when trying to take a photograph, it’s all about finding balance.

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Early morning light and East Coast humidity can be magical (and surprisingly mosquitoey)

A few weeks ago I was out in Maine’s Carrabassett Valley doing a little scouting ride for the 100k race I’ll be attempting this weekend. I hesitate to say I’ll be “racing” as I’m just starting to get back into the swing of these bigger rides and “attempting” is clearly the best description of my plans, especially since I’ve been recovering from an achilles tendon/ankle problem that has slowed me down over the past month or so. Trust me, once you start pushing 50 years old you don’t want anything ELSE slowing you down!

However, one positive of being forced to ride slower is that you tend to have more time to see and experience the little things while you ride, not just the granny gear!

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Random trailside bog beauty near the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center

The constant interplay in nature between the micro and the macro endlessly fascinates me. On the one hand the wide world beckons with mountains that have stood the test of time, washed and ground to flour in the tides of glacial advances and retreats while continuing to stick their craggy necks into the sky like old turtles. Yet, they still stand proud – never defeated. The mountain majesty of the great high ranges of the world may be tough to beat, but give me a rugged Appalachian peak and I’ll show you a survivor. Them mofo’s got some scars!

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Sugarloaf USA, Maine’s best ski mountain (and where I learned to ski many years ago)

However, inevitably as I crawl up the mountainsides in my granny gear the vision turns to the micro where every blossom is life and death, a passion play performed upon petals while I sweat my ass toiling to spin the magic gear. Beauty can be dangerous and the benign can bite (and deer flies can take chunks of skin!)

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Beauty and the Beast

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Again, Beauty and the Beast (the Carver Bikes Ti O’Beast that is), this time on the Bigelow Mt Side of the valley

 

So perhaps it’s a blessing to be able to slow down and experience the highs and lows more deeply than those that can simply fly over the rough stuff with ease, those that never pause to concentrate on the pesky little details of this trail called Life. Although I suppose that’s what all of those starving, angst-ridden artists have been saying for years. They must like the rocks on the trails. “The doer and the thinker, no allowance for the other”, until race time this weekend that is – then it’s all about Time.

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“Dude, you almost ran me over back there – be careful”

Time to struggle to keep up with the pack and perform the calm calculus that occupies the pack fodder as they calculate how to stay one step ahead of the cut-off times for each stage of the race:

“Motivation” times “I wish I was in better shape” divided by “damn ankle is bugging me” multiplied by “I need to do more intervals” raised to the power of “hydration, nutrition” Eventually it all approaches some asymptote (theoretically the finish line) unless one crosses over into an alternate reality of post-race beer drinking and socializing before that point is reached. It all depends on the initial conditions.

And no, that’s not some lame self-defeating prophecy. That’s just seeing the forest for the trees. See ya on the other side!

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The path to riverside twisty heaven begins here

 

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Curious Attractiveness

On the face of it, this post is merely a few photos from a simple pre-work bike ride through one of my local riding areas, an area called Robinson’s Woods. Though surrounded by suburbia and within sight of the famous rocky coast of Maine, this area remains undeveloped. It was never farmed back when this area was being settled as it was deemed to be too rocky to be much good for anything. The colonial era farmers were not known for mountain biking so their loss was our gain.  It has since been conserved by the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust and a network of trails  developed to allow easy access to the wonders of the forest.

Hmmm maybe there’s more to it than a few pictures taken with my cell phone. Within such beautiful surroundings a simple bike ride can definitely expand one’s brain a bit – must be all that sea-level oxygen that helps get the old grey matter percolating. I may be a little biased as my entire blog is pretty much based on leaning my bike up against things and taking photos but the following passage pretty much captures my sentiments:

“It is well, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coalbins, barrels and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth … The used surface of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things – all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.” – Pablo Neruda

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A wayward lobster buoy, the glint of the rising sun off titanium and stormy skies over Pond Cove

Yup, if you’re an aficionado of muddy tires and crusty fishing gear washed up on shore you’ve come to the right place. Tell all your friends about the “bike-lean artiste”. One person’s muddy tire is another’s gold I guess, and instead of trash I see gold in that thar sunrise. The struggle is told through the tread of those tires and that bit of battered gear thrown upon the stones by a fearsome wave. The dents of a rim tell the story.

Perception is a funny thing. Sometimes I wonder what my neighbors may think of me as they peek out from behind curtains and watch me head off in the early morning for a ride on my cartoon bike with the balloon tires. Well, maybe for a moment or two I wonder, but mostly I really don’t care what they may think. Life is about exploration and self-fulfillment, even if the only adventure you can fit into your busy day is that hour before heading off for the day to do whatever pays your bills. You can live an entire day in an hour if you approach it as a child would: with wonder.

“The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” – Albert Einstein

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A somewhat rare terrestrial orchid known as a “Pink Lady Slipper”

Of course wonder must be nurtured in the right environment, much like a Lady Slipper needs exactly the right soil and conditions in order to bloom. That’s where the struggle comes in to play. These orchids don’t do well in “captivity” and often wither and die if transplanted. I find the same thing happens to me most Monday mornings as I head to work. A simple morning ride through the woods is a remarkable antidote for withering. Rage, rage against the dying of the inner child.

“Out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which sustains the little world of man as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous, then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on Earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.” – Edward Abbey

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An evening of thunderstorms provides an energized stream first thing in the morning

As I said at the beginning of this post, just a simple ride through the woods. Hope you enjoyed it!

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our self we find in the sea.” – E.E. Cummings

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