Staying Wild with Cabin Fever

My boots crunch in the snow and I take a deep breath. My lungs filled with the sweet tinge of spring, but the bite of winter still plentiful. Little Leaf is snoring softly on my back. The joey that he is, he hadn’t napped outside of the carrier in days. Late night parties in his nest has caught up with him and the fresh air is almost always magical fairy dust. In the distance behind me, I hear Black Bird and Cheeky Monkey giggling while snow is flying back and forth between them. The snow is half-heartedly made into ammunition, mostly falling apart before it reaches their target. It didn’t matter to either of them – the moment was being fully experienced.

With every step I took, I could feel my stress, my tension, melting away. My days-old migraine moved down my body and out the soles of my feet; back to the Earth and absorbed by the Universe. Nature does that for me. It clears me, centers me, and gives me the space to absorb what I’m feeling and recycle it. The stress and tension is never gone these days, but Nature is always there to help me process it. Some people pray, some people meditate, but I immerse myself in nature. It’s where I find my answers. It’s where I find myself. It’s where I go when I have nowhere or no one else. Nature is the Constant. She does not judge. She both challenges us and comforts us in all of the right ways. Nature is all-knowing and all-seeing.

“I was born in the middle of a storm
You won’t find me under the sun
My feet are chaos
I belong to the wild things” 
― Evy Michaels

Michigan in the winter typically involves a stretch of extremely cold weather. I’m not talking 0 degrees – I’m talking double digits below zero. This winter was no exception. The windchill last week was -40 degrees. Schools and businesses closed for two and a half days. It was literally unsafe to be outside. Less than 24 hours being trapped inside and I had a serious case of cabin fever. Less than 36 hours and Little Leaf was banging at the sliding glass door and screeching. Less than 48 hours and Cheeky Monkey had ran out of projects to work on and was doing flips off the couch. The Crew was losing it and my tension and stress was bubbling over.

The Crew and I generally get out three or four times per week all year around. Even in the winter, when days are short and I’m working, we will do a night hike once or twice per week and a hike or two on the weekends. I’ve taken on a new fulltime career recently which has forced us to shift and we still need to ground ourselves in it. I am hoping as the weather improves and the days get longer, our outdoor time will increase naturally. We are a Get-Outside Family and these days being stuck inside creates a heavy weight – a feeling of being a wild animal in a zoo. Pacing, moody, irritable, erratic. Black Bird has a keen awareness of my behavior when I lack my outdoor time. He is so patient.

I am not a religious person, but I can imagine my feeling of being distant from Nature is similar to those that are lost in their spiritual journey. It’s lonely. You don’t have a direction. You have no idea where you’re going or what’s Right or Wrong. You’re sad, you’re angry, you’re frustrated. It’s scary to feel like you’ve lost your way.

“Some are born to play it safe 
Others are born to live it wild.” 
― Nikki Rowe

Thankfully, for me, the snow is starting to melt and the birds are chirping. Even squirrels have peeked their head out and the Groundhog says spring is around the corner. Our hike in the woods was exactly what brought me back to Earth. I meditated with every step – each one bringing me back to myself and back to my connection with the Earth. Mother Nature gave us a break from the cold snap with a little foreshadowing of spring. I turned my face up at the sun, spread my arms out as far as they could go, extended my fingers, and focused all of my energy from each fingertip. I spread my leaves. Like a fern frond being born, I stretched and felt wild again.

The Pain of Growth

A tiny seed nestles in the dirt, cozy and warm. Fed by the clean, cool water that filters through its blanket of darkness. Suddenly, he feels the urge deep within himself that there is something more out there for him. He isn’t sure what or where the urge is even coming from, but he quivers with excitement. He stretches and pulls. He nearly quits because the pain is unbearable, but the urge keeps coming and it overpowers his fear. He knows there is something bigger inside of him. He is not meant to be a seed forever. That wasn’t what the universe intended, but the pain. Oh, the pain. It crushes him, but he pushes on. He moves forward. He struggles to breathe, the pressure is building, and when he nearly suffocates himself – suddenly there is a beautiful release. He exhales and looks up at the sun with much eagerness. The world is ready, and so is he.

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today I start on a new journey. After 10 years of being in the same job, cozy and warm, I’m off to a new adventure. A part of me quivers with excitement, but it also feels suffocating. The pain is nearly unbearable, but I push forward hoping that I get that moment of beautiful release.

Like the seed, I can’t imagine the pain the caterpillar feels as she becomes a butterfly, or a bee as he sheds his exoskeleton, or the snake as he releases his skin. They are so much smaller than me and live much more delicate lives. If they can do it, so can I.

In 3 minutes, I will start a new adventure. The pressure has built and I’m ready for the sunshine.

So many lessons learned from nature. This is, yet, another.

My Compass

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “Not all those who wander are lost.” My entire adult life I was. I was wandering in the woods making the wrong turns at each fork. The compass I carried in my pocket was broken. I couldn’t figure out the right path. I tried to forge my own, only to completely disregard all Leave No Trace ethics and pay for it dearly – time and time again. On occasion, I’d see a beautiful overlook and sit and enjoy it for a moment, only to light a fire and burn the forest down. I was a bull in a china shop.

And then I found out Cheeky Monkey was on his way. I stopped in my tracks. I was terrified. The forest darkened. The path was dimly lit by a small flame and I followed it. It took me deeper into the forest and further into unknown territory – trails that I could barely make out and the only noise I could hear was the faint calling of a Black Bird. The Black Bird was comforting, but still unfamiliar. He made promises to keep me safe in the forest, but I didn’t trust it. I dug deep to find the compass in my pocket, but there wasn’t enough light to read it. I squinted and held the compass up to the flame, but it was no use. I couldn’t see a thing. The Black Bird called out and I hesitantly followed. I held the compass in the palm of my hand, hoping to find enough light so I could read it.

I finally reached a campsite lit by a warm fire. There, I found a small tent with warm comfy pillows and sleeping bags. There was enough space three of us.

Ludington State Park

Cheeky Monkey came to my life in the most inconvenient, but the most perfect time. He was an unexpected surprise, but one that quite literally saved my life. Being a mom wasn’t something I ever “dreamed” of. My mother was quite absent during my teenage years and even before that, I didn’t feel she was present in my life. I knew she loved me, of course, and I loved her, but beyond that, I hardly felt like I knew her. And once she fell into addiction, I was on my own, raising my little sister who was 7 years younger than me. I had no idea what I was doing and I was just trying to survive day-to-day.

So when I was on the path to being a mother, I was terrified. I was convinced I was going to leave the baby somewhere or forget it. I didn’t know what to do and I had, quite literally, no one to turn to talk about my fears. Black Bird was my biggest support. He kept me grounded. He worked hard to provide and save money for the upcoming new addition. And when Cheeky Monkey arrived, I cried. I cried a lot. I had no idea what I was doing. I tried breastfeeding and he wouldn’t latch and he cried. He cried a lot. When the midwife came after 4 days, Cheeky Monkey’s lips were dry and he was dehydrated. The midwife showed me how to pump and because I was so terrified that I would starve him, I stopped trying to get him to latch and exclusively pumped. He became a happy and energetic baby. And grew into a happy and energetic toddler. I was less than happy and energetic. In fact, I was likely at my worst. I was depressed. I had lost myself in being a mother. I had lost my entire identity. I was a good mom, but a horrible human.

Everything changed when Cheeky Monkey was 3 years old – I found Hike it Baby. Hike it Baby is an organization dedicated to getting families with children outside and on the trails. This was exactly what I had needed. Cheeky Monkey was a bundle of energy and being indoors was turning into a real challenge. Hike it Baby gave him the space to get his energy out and gave me the opportunity to get back outside where I spent my childhood.

Parker Mill County Park, Ann Arbor, MI

For the first year of Hike it Baby, Cheeky Monkey and I hiked alone a lot. But being outside allowed us the space to connect. I carried him on my back in an OnyaBaby baby carrier most of the time and this gave us the ability to have many adventures together. I will always remember his little voice in my ear, as we climbed a steep hill, “I believe in you, Mommy. I know you can do it.” And I did. We did. On hikes when no one would show, the same little voice would often say, “It’s OK, Mommy. We will always have each other.” And we did. Wind, cold, rain, snow, and sun, we had our adventures together. He made me fall in love with nature again. He made me love life. He made me a mom. And he made me a better a human.

Waterloo Recreation Area, Chelsea, MI

To this day, I look into his big beautiful blue eyes and I admire the little wild child he is – an old soul, but with so much enthusiasm for life. He squeezes every ounce of joy out of every day. He is kind and stands up for those that can’t or won’t stand up for themselves, even if that sometimes makes him a target. I will never forget, when at just over 2 years old, he asked if we could go to Alabama to visit Martin (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and how obsessed he was over the Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum. I am sure he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in a past life. I admire his willingness to forgive. If I yell at him or make him upset, I will apologize and he will always say “It’s OK, Mom, I forgive you.” He is a loyal friend and loves to learn new things.

But he is also a ball of energy which can sometimes be overwhelming. He is the child that will not test the pool water, but will cannonball right in. He will touch the stove, even after being warned that it is hot. He will talk and talk and talk about everything and nothing at all. His lust for life is something I long for. He looks just like me, but I hope I can be just like him some day.

Nichols Arboretum, Ann Arbor, MI
Photo by Amy Diebold

So when I finally reached that campsite with the tent, large enough for three, I sat inside, took the compass out of my pocket, and opened it up. Inside was a picture of a blonde-haired child with big round blue eyes and a toothy smile. I smiled to myself. The compass wasn’t broken. It was a locket – and inside was my future. It led me here, to the exact place where I am supposed to be. He is my compass. This little boy will change the world some day. After all, he’s already changed mine.

D. H. Day Campground near Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes

A Place Called Home and a Country Soul

Take me home, country road.

I grew up in the in the middle of farm country in extreme Southeast Michigan, where you could see for miles. I know people who live in the mountains probably think the landscape here in the flatlands is terribly boring. I find it poetic. The way that the clouds and crops dance in unison. The way the air smells at harvest-time. I can still hear the distant trains sounding their horns at night.

The country is where you can find peace and quiet – stillness. The hustle and bustle of traffic is a distant memory when you are enveloped in the softness of the country. It’s forgiving there and it will always be home to me. I’m lucky that I can still go back to the house that I grew up in – escape back to my childhood, if even for a moment.

In order to understand WHY I have a connection to nature and the outdoors, you have to understand HOW it came to be. Living in the “middle of nowhere”, you didn’t have friends nearby. There was never a knock on our door to see if I could come out to play; Brother Bear was 9 years older than me, so our interests were vastly different; and playdates were unheard of in the late 80’s. This meant that I was left to my own devices to create my own fun.

The infamous ponytail eating goat, Muffin

Although we didn’t have an official “farm”, we were surrounded by farmland and had a variety of animals. The animals were my best friends. We had a goat named Muffin that I adored. He shared a stall with Brother Bear’s pony, Turkey. Muffin ate the majority of the hair off of Turkey’s tail one year; we had to separate them after that. (As a backstory, this pony was an old fella and he was my brother’s from when he was preschool aged. When Brother Bear was little, he couldn’t say the pony’s actual name: “Cherokee”. It came out as Turkey – and the name stuck.) Turkey was a sweet guy and lived to be over 25 years old. Over the years, we also had countless barn cats with a variety of colorful names, ducks, and several cages of rabbits, which I later found out we would eat in our spaghetti. We also had a total of three Springer Spaniels throughout my childhood that we got as pups (I’m looking at you Buffy, Lottie, and Misty!) and a territorial toy poodle named Ace that only liked my mother and if you dare go near her, you will surely get nipped at.

I had formed relationships with all of these creatures. They were the only relationships that I could turn to when I was sad, lonely, or frustrated. They were a source of comfort and love.

“To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.” – Milan Kundera

Spending time in nature is primarily the only thing we did. We lived too far out for any cable or satellite TV. In the summer, I would walk down our rutty dirt road to the creek (Note: must be pronounced as “crick” and you are wrong if you pronounce it any other way.) to catch crayfish, tadpoles, and frogs. I wasn’t a fan of snakes, so I left those for Brother Bear. In the winter, we’d build snow tunnels in the canal-sized ditches and go ice skating on the tiny pond that pooled in the back corner of the yard. In the fall, we’d play in the leaves of the giant old cottonwood tree behind our house. And in the spring, we’d play in the muddy fields (farmer’s don’t like this, by the way).

After I turned 12, I moved in and out of my childhood home for various reasons and for various amounts of time. Usually to a city, and then back home, and then to a city, and then back home. The country continued to beckon me. When you spend your entire childhood outdoors in nature, you can’t help but love it. It is familiar and genuine. Cities will always feel phony to me. The country is an old friend that you can call and feel like no time has ever passed.

I now live in a subdivision on the edge of a large town, but just down the road from the wide-open fields. My dad, Papa P, still lives in my childhood home. The old cottonwood tree is still standing and there are still barn cats controlling the mice. Turkey is buried out back near the rusted posts of our old clothesline. The shed that Muffin lived in is still there and Misty, Papa P’s last Springer, her pen is now filled with cut wood for the wood burning stove.

My mind often drifts to the natural beauty of my childhood. In my mind’s eye I can see myself as a tiny little 5 year old with long chestnut brown hair blowing in the wind, my barefeet dug into the earth, my hands clutching one of our barn cats, and my eyes squinting up at the sun. That 5 year old still lives inside of me. You can take the girl out of the country, but it still lives in her soul.

At the Trailhead

Do you know the feeling when you approach a brand new trailhead? You’re not quite sure where you’re going; do I go right or left? Which way is the best view? Will I return before dark? How many miles is this trail? Is the water bottle full and do I have enough snacks for the Crew?

That’s how I feel as I embark on this trek – that feeling you have when you are at a trailhead. I’ve been musing on the trails for a long time, but the more I stay present in the moment, in partnership with the colorful life experiences I’ve had (and continue to have!), the more these musings become clear. I had a friend suggest I write a bit more formally and in a vision at a 3AM party with Little Leaf, Wild Little Ramblings was born.

I look forward to sharing this journey with you and I hope that you’ll stop and enjoy the view with me every once in awhile. I haven’t read the trail maps for this adventure, so I’m not quite sure what’s in store, but, as in everything in my life, it will surely be enlightening, powerful and occasionally bizarre.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu