As I look out my window just now, I see nothing but a dark tangle of black lines, crisscrossing and knotting up with each other, their shapes carved out by the softest shade of morning, of first light. First this light was pale grey. Now at the base where earth turns to sky, there’s a hint of gold — of softest peach bleeding upward into palest blue. And there now, in the deepest patches of darkness, faint shapes of leaves are revealing. Were I attempting to capture this scene with paint just now rather than with words, I would be struggling with how to convey the color of those leaves — leaves which by day are brilliant gold and crimson, but now are pale ghosts of leaves.
This is why I came here: To be in and observe the Vermont woods again. To breathe in their shifting moods, sifting light. To smell birch bark and beech leaves and pine needles. And maple, of course. To be reminded of the vertical thrust of tree trunks, the tangles of branches, the music of mossy streams. The utter brilliance of sunlit jewel-leaves against shadowed forest.
I came here because for two years I’ve been dreaming of creating a series of paintings based on my long walk across Vermont — a series of semi-abstract paintings inspired by my long solo walk along Vermont’s Long Trail. These imagined paintings would need to be paintings about trees. For the Long Trail is nothing if not a passage through the trees.
So I needed to come back to the forest to remind myself of forest in order to conjure the forest.
But this time, rather than sleeping each night under a thin piece of fabric or on a rustic wood floor after mile upon mile of strenuous hiking, my shelter is a gracious friend’s tiny apartment, tucked on the edge of a gorgeous Vermont wood. Where, each morning, for two weeks, I have watched the woods outside mature and cast away its cloak of autumn to lie in wait of winter. Where, just a few miles from here, I can step onto the very trail that lead me for 274 miles through similar forests and so much more.
But this trip is not what I expected it would be. It’s not the trip I planned.
The fact of this expression revealed its truth just two hours into my 2,000+ mile road trip from New Mexico to Vermont, when things went horribly, horribly wrong.
For that’s when my travel companion — Wilson, my sweet 10-year old “Taos purebread” — a female mutt laced with a good bit of black lab — and I made our first pit-stop 150 miles into New Mexico’s eastern desolation.
As Wilson cheerfully hopped out of the back seat of the car, I noticed something wasn’t right: her muzzle looked swollen, with what appeared to be a rash developing across the long bridge of her snout.
By evening — in the middle of Oklahoma — the entire surface of her nose was a ghastly eruption of an open, bleeding wound, the bridge so swollen that the bend of it — the “stop” — between the eyes and top of the snout, which is normally a handsome Labrador profile, was puffed up so badly there was no bend in the bridge at all.
I could spend a couple of blog posts and thousands of words detailing the next 216 hours, as my dog’s beautiful face transformed into a horrifying grotesque and festering wound. How I reached out to friends and family and veterinarians across the country, wondering, ever wondering, if, with every mile eastward I should just turn around and head back to New Mexico.
How I drove for 2000 miles in silence in a perpetual state of anxiety.
How the road became a blur as I choked back sobs of concern wondering if I was doing the right thing by continuing on this trip.
I could spend pages telling of how friends and family and acquaintances threw their doors open to welcome us — my physically wounded pup and my emotionally wounded self.
How people waved off my dog’s blood on their white carpets.
How “cat people” made their homes dog-friendly.
How even “dog haters” cooed at and petted my sweet girl, as she stumbled trying to navigate the world with a wide “cone of shame” around her head. How she leaned in and “hugged” everyone who looked kindly upon her, despite her revolting appearance.
The best veterinarians are good, good people, and we consulted with four across the country (including ours back home, via phone & email).
None had ever seen anything like Wilson’s rash. All were confounded. But all agreed that it was likely an extreme allergic reaction to something — quite possibly (probably?) her new tick medication. Something in the environment? A sign of underlying disease? The tick medication — which she had never had before and which we had applied a few days before our departure — just seemed the likely answer. But none of the vets felt certain about it. “This just isn’t presenting like a typical reaction to tick medication. And the timing of the reaction isn’t quite right… And yet it could be…” Yet what else could it be?
The mystery of it was as distressing as the wound itself.
Finally, after more than a week of concern over Wilson’s raging wound, frustration over the lack of answers, and inspired by a text from My Good Man — “could it be a bite of some sort?” — from my aunt’s kitchen in New Hampshire I did a web search.
If you’re really curious and you think you can stomach it, Google “spider bite on dog nose” and there you will find image after image of Wilson’s rash.
I feel 99% sure that Wilson was bit by a venomous spider on the morning of our departure. Likely by Loxosceler reclusa — a brown recluse.
Wilson now, is fine. Remarkably, extraordinarily fine. it’s really almost as if nothing happened at all.
But something did happen. And this unexpected happening just two-hours in to our 5-week journey upended my well-laid plans.
For what I imagined this trip to be and what this trip has become are completely different. When I imagined this journey, I imagined some part of each day — even the long driving days — would be spent making art. That at least once each day out on the road Wilson and I would pull over somewhere and I would spend a few minutes sketch or painting a bit of the landscapes we were driving through.
And that once in Vermont, I would spend some part of each day hiking among and communing with the forests and then an even larger part of each day painting and writing, inspired by and conjuring the forests. There would be only a little socializing, as most of my time would be spent in my “studio,” in blissful silence and solitude making art. The planned equation was rather simple:
Forest walks + time alone + deep reflection + quiet + no distractions + writing + painting + painting + painting + [hopefully, too (editing my Long Trail journal, + culling and editing my Long Trail photos)] = immense creative productivity.
But Wilson’s trauma threw me off. I had little energy or time for the kind of deep creative endeavors I originally intended to undertake .Instead the equation of my trip has evolved into this:
Pet needs + town walks + charming cafes + cool breweries + great bookstores + beautiful autumnal country roads + renewed knitting projects + good books + jigsaw puzzles + visits with veterinarians + visits with auto mechanics + conversations with baristas + conversations with barkeeps + conversations with young musicians + visits with dear elders + visits with Philmont friends + visits with childhood friends + visits with Long Trail friends + tea with Instagram friends + conversations with Wilson + conversations with the geese overhead + conversations with the crows overhead + the maple leaves + the birch bark + the river light and the forest light = little creative productivity.
The realization that, when I pack my car in a few days, there will be no sketchbook filled with drawings, no notebook filled with poems, no boxes bursting with plein air paintings…. That the huge sheets of primed painting papers will return home in their original packing…. That the stack of letters I intended to respond to will come home with me, still awaiting replies…. That my 90-page Long Trail Journal will remain unedited.. That the thousands of Vermont photos will remain, for now, largely unculled. And that my bank statements will reflect my weakness in the face of Vermont’s many sweet & savory & crafty temptations…. The realization of all of this — of not accomplishing most of what I had set out to do on this trip — has been gnawing at the back of my head, keeping me awake for some nights.
And yet, this morning, as Wilson and I walked Stowe’s serene river path, and I paused yet again to take yet another photo of the light through the birches…. and as I sit here in my temporary studio and watch gold leaves flit softly to the ground…. as I look over the few painting studies I HAVE done…. as I look through my hundreds of recent photos of the people and places I have connected with and have been enriched by, I realize this trip this autumn has indeed been about trees, about forests.
Some of those forests I’ve communed with this trip — just as I’d planned.
And even a few of those forests I’ve recalled from my long solo hike, and have begun to paint this trip — just as I’d planned.
But there’s a different kind of forest that has revealed itself to me — one that I hadn’t really set out to explore: The forest of friendships that link like branches across my journey’s and life’s map.
From the high desert of New Mexico, across the plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, to the green hills of western Missouri, the rolling farmland of the Finger Lakes, the steepled towns of Massachusetts, to the gold and crimson back roads of New England and Canada, boughs of friendship have reached out to my pup and me like a mighty embrace.
It turns out this journey has been about trees, after all. About a sacred forest filled with old and new growth, ever rooting, ever blooming, ever teaming with life and love.
The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. ~ John Muir