Finding a Magical Japanese Dragon & a Cupcake on the Appalachian Trail

Appalachia can be a magical place – often when you least expect it. For example, a few months ago, while hiking in the Smokies, Tom and I unexpectedly stumbled upon a collection of woodland trolls.

But on today’s hike – roughly 1969 miles south of Katahdin, Maine – the magical encounter was with a burly hiker with the unlikely name of “Cupcake.”

"Cupcake"

Does this man look like a cupcake to you?

No matter. Experienced AT thru-hiker and blogger Evans Prater explains that trail names often describe a quirk, habit, or funny mishap a hiker has endured. These nicknames add to the sense of uniqueness of each hiker – to the sense of escape, personal discovery and soul-searching each individual is on the Trail to experience. Hikers are are given the freedom of a new life and a new identity by the simple act of changing their names.

In the wisdom of Eckhart Tolle, there is a split second when you first look at something, a moment when all you experience is the form the universe has created. And it is in this gap of thought that the key to presence, awareness, and peace exists – an acceptance of the universe just as it actually is – nameless, formless.

And so it was with “Cupcake.” I did not ask him how he got his name or who gave it to him. It didn’t matter.

I was more interested in the stories in his trail weary skin – especially the fantastic, colorful creature crawling up his leg, baring its sharp fangs at me.

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“It’s a Kirin,” Cupcake explained, “a Japanese mythological creature.”

Japanese? I asked.

“I’m a quarter Japanese,” replied the burly, red-haired, Scottish, lumberjack-looking dude matter-of-factly, as if I was unable to tell from his appearance.

Research later revealed that Kirin is the Japanese form of the Chinese “qilin.” The kirin is often depicted as a dragon shaped like a deer with an ox’s tail instead of the tail of a lion. It is also often portrayed as partially unicorn-like in appearance, but with a backwards curving horn.

In the Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, the qilin is ranked as the third most powerful creature (after the dragon and phoenix), but in Japan, the kirin occupies the top spot.

Kirins are said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. They are usually depicted with raised forelegs, flames around their bodies and wings to help them fly across the sky – all of which may help inspire weary hikers on a 2,190 mile trek.

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They are extremely gentle creatures and never step on grass and insects as they move around – very much in keeping with the philosophy of nature-respecting, long distance hikers.

A Kirin is also a good omen – thought to occasion prosperity or serenity. They appear when all is right with the world.

And so it was this afternoon, as we briefly crossed paths on the Appalachian Trail and compared body art – one, a day-hiker with flowers inked on her leg; the other, a thru-hiker committed to months on the AT with a Japanese dragon on his.

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A brief exchange stories, the sighting of a magical creature, hours spent in fresh air and the ancient beauty of the Smokies.

Moments when all was right with the world.

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Wishing Cupcake good trail karma over his next two thousand miles …

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… and whatever lies beyond.

 

 

Naked in Denmark (part two) ~ The Magic of Not Being in Control

Come to the edge, he said.
They said, we are afraid.


Come to the edge, he said.
And so they came.


And he pushed them.
And they flew…

Guillaume Apollinaire

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The edge I was standing on that morning was the coast of Denmark. I could just barely make out the silhouette of Sweden across the dark waters.

Be not afraid, I thought to myself. Then, in the midst of a small gathering of people, I took off all my clothes and jumped into the water.

Ohmygod … so very cold.

No breath.

A few long moments later, I emerged from the water.

My skin felt astonishing –

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– like it was lit from within by a thousand fairy lights. A Scandinavian mermaid.

According to Karen (my Danish cousin who does this all the time), I can now say that I am a Viking – and not just genetically – but by virtue of having experienced the polar opposite of Danish hygge (roughly translated as coziness) when I jumped into an icy cold sea completely naked.

Why naked, you might ask? Because, as Karen explains it, it is so cold here in the winter that if you wore a bathing suit, it would freeze to your skin the moment you immerse in the frigid waters, and the only way to remove your suit would be to have it cut off. Being the egalitarian and practical people they are, the Danes therefore decided to do away with bathing suits altogether.

The day I became a Viking began innocently enough with cups of hot, dark coffee and fresh bread with cheese and jam in the kitchen of Karen’s cosy farmhouse –

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one of my favorite places in the world.

Karen looked at me and said – Okay, is this the morning you become a Viking?

I have been coming to this beautiful old family farmhouse since I was a kid. The first time, my mother left me there for several days on my own and not knowing a word of Danish other than the basics – chocolade (chocolate)
kransekage (a delicious almond cake)
farvel (goodbye) and tak (thanks.)

Kristin & karen @ sandbjerg 1963

Karen taught me a few more Danish words – farm, cat, rock, house.

Each morning, we rode bicycles across the countryside to attend Karen’s school – a completely bewildering experience for me, isolated as I was by the language.

At night, I lay in bed in a tiny bedroom up under the thatched eaves of the farmhouse, warm under a Danish dyne (down comforter), listening in the dark to hushed voices murmuring in the kitchen below.

I felt like a Danish version of Heidi.

That was my first experience ‘soloing’ – on my own, immersed in another culture where I didn’t speak or understand the language.

But I was hooked by the exhilaration of the new; by the mysteries and strangeness of it all, and (most importantly) by coming out okay at the end. Ever since, I have looked for opportunities to travel beyond the complacent zone of my normal everyday existence.

The year before I officially became “a Viking,” I had soloed to Ethiopia on a somewhat innocently radical quest to track down some stories for a book I was writing.

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It was an experience that initially scared me to pieces (especially the first night, which involved unexpected encounters with a monkey, a leper and a prostitute.)

But I survived and came back changed in many ways. (You can read more about these adventures @ TheRedMoonLetters.com)

So jumping into the cold sea in Denmark – uden toj, as they say over there – shouldn’t have been something I would hesitate to do.

But I did – at least until I remembered the mantra I had adopted back home in the mountains of Appalachia.

Be not afraid.

And so, when Karen repeated, Kristin – is this the morning you become a Viking?

I said yes.

Off we went to the edge of the sea. It was a small challenge, but I did it, surprising myself in the process.

After it was over and I was reveling in the skin tingling loveliness and the high that accompanies an unexpected flirtation with dare devilishness, it occurred to me that perhaps the magic is really in not feeling in control.

I let that intriguing thought – the relationship between the fear of not being able to control things vs the magic of unexpected outcomes – ruminate in my head for awhile before challenging myself again.

A few years later I tested this idea by signing up for ten days of hiking in Iceland – an adventure just extreme enough to feel I was testing my limits without a reasonable expectation of dying in the process. I didn’t know a soul in the country, or on the trip, and I don’t speak Icelandic. I would definitely not be in control. Of anything.

I booked onto an REI trip –

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and then spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying that I might not be able to keep up with the others.

Visions of twenty-somethings scaling the landscape in athletic leaps and bounds with me slowly trudging through ice and volcanic ash, some distance behind, haunted and taunted me.

Rather than face this humiliation, I nearly backed out of the trip. But just in time, I remembered –  Be not afraid.

Inside my head, an interesting dialog unfolded as the logical, rational part of me was able to calm the emotional, irrational part of me by framing the trip as a photography assignment.

And for some reason, the ruse worked.

Which is a good thing, for had I succumbed to my fears –

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I would have missed ten days of astonishing adventures and new friendships.

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Much to my surprise, I was out-hiked each and every day – not by twenty-somethings (there were none on the trip) – but by three sixty-somethings.

There was also the flat out exhilaration of being a part of a group of intrepid souls hiking an active volcano – each of us hoping we would be able to make a 2.5 hr descent through fields of snow and razor sharp lava rocks in a breathtakingly inadequate half hour window, should it happen to erupt.

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These Icelandic experiences, and others, turned many of my fears and concerns on their heads. My pre-trip jitters had been total rubbish.

A recent post from The North Face outerwear company reminded me of what I had gained from hiking in Iceland: the truest version of ourselves stands well beyond comfort’s perimeter.

Thanks to the encouragement I received from a winter’s night message in Appalachia to be not afraid –

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– I have been pushed at the edge, in the words of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and found I am able to fly.

*****

If you need an image to help you remember to be not afraid, how about this one of my Danish cousin, Karen proving her true Viking ancestry with an icy plunge –

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– something she does nearly every day, even during the cold Scandinavian winters.

*****

photo of me with Óliver & Kjartan in Iceland by Anne-Marie Davidson.
photo credit for the shot of Karen unknown.

Hiking with Puffins – on the Appalachian Trail?

Would you hike with these guys?

If you are an Appalachian Trail hiker, you might be able to do just that if the International Appalachian Trail, a multinational committee, gets its way!

Would you hike with these guys?

If you are an Appalachian Trail hiker, you might be able to do just that if the International Appalachian Trail, a multinational committee, gets its way.

And, if they are successful in extending the path from Maine to Iceland, the additional miles will raise the bar considerably for through-hikers.

At 2180 miles, the AT is already one of the longest footpaths in the world.

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Beginning at Springer Mountain in Georgia, it traverses the crests and valleys of the entire Appalachian mountain range which meanders through fourteen states before ending in Katahdin, Maine.

Geological evidence suggests, however, that the mountains that are home to Appalachia were once part of the Central Pangean Mountains – back when North America and Western Europe were one continent (about 250 million years ago.)

With the break-up of Pangaea, the various mountain ranges drifted apart, eventually becoming different continents and countries.

Fueled by the desire to build mutual understanding between people of different nationalities, IAT enthusiasts propose an extended hiking path that would hop scotch along the ridges of the former Central Pangean Mountains, passing through Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and into Iceland –

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before continuing on through Norway, Denmark, Scotland, and beyond.

Which means, that in addition to looking like this…

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the AT will now also look …

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like this.

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And, in addition to black bears, elk, moose, porcupines, snakes, foxes, and salamanders –

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IAT hikers may also be sharing their trek with puffins and wild Icelandic horses.

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They may even have to scramble across a glacier or two – and camp out on beds of hardened lava.

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But one advantage of having the IAT run through Iceland is the opportunity for 20-hour long hike days –

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because this is what midnight looks like in Iceland – at least during summer months.

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Is this a good idea? Let us hear your thoughts!

Gorilla in the Mist ~ Kayaking Appalachia

You can hear the Gorilla long before you see it. It has a mighty roar, as if waiting to claim its next victim.

For hikers, there’s only one way to reach the Gorilla –

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a not-for-the-faint-of-heart scramble down 1600 feet of steep mountainside, clinging to exposed roots and frayed ropes –

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in order to reach the “Garden of the Gods” and the Green River Narrows, through which Gorilla flows.

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And that is how I spent this past Saturday, scrambling down a steep mountainside in the company of good friends.

But hikers like us have it easy compared with what awaits kayakers.

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Just 35 miles south of Asheville, the Green River Narrows was first successfully navigated in 1988. One of the most extreme kayaking runs in the Eastern US, it is now a rite of passage for serious paddlers.

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Because for kayakers, the opportunity to “huck” themselves off the Gorilla – a Class V rapids with five segments (Pencil Sharpener, The Notch, The Flume, Scream Machine, and Nies’ Pieces) –

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is just irresistible.

So irresistible, it made National Geographic’s Ultimate Adventure Bucket List in 2014.

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The source of the Green River Narrows’ ferociousness is the Tuxedo Power station, which lies upstream. The Tuxedo periodically releases water at a rate of up to 216 cubic feet per second over this canyon of ancient Appalachian bedrock, creating a fierce playground for paddlers.

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Gorilla, one of the “Big Three” rapids on the river, is perhaps the most visually impressive.

It starts with a narrow 4-foot slot that is immediately followed by two waterfalls –

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“The Flume” and the “Scream Machine” – for a total drop of 28 feet.

A famous training ground for extreme kayaking, the Green River is legendary and the pinnacle of many kayakers’ careers.

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Each November, many of the world’s best paddlers descend on the Green to participate in the annual Green Race, considered by many to be the most competitive and coveted whitewater race on the planet. Kayaker Grady Kellog describes the experience:

“The Green is a river where anyone can have a bad day –

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(but) it’s a magnificent run that will have you high on adrenaline for days.”

For hikers, the adrenaline rush is also there –

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and can be safely appreciated (and photographed) from solid ground.

Curious to know more?  Check out the following videos and websites ~

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsHMeGDpxQk

http://alltrails.com/trail/us/south-carolina/green-river-narrows

In memory of Boyce Greer of LiquidLogic ~ friend & kayak enthusiast.

© dating appalachia dot com & kristin fellows photography

Bears Everywhere!

You don’t have to be able to outrun a bear, Tom once told me –

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you just have to be able to run faster than your friends.

He threw his head back and laughed. (He often finds his jokes a lot funnier than I do.)

Here’s another piece of advice: “It’s important to be able to distinguish the difference between the skat of black bears and the skat of grizzlies,” he says. “Black bear poop has nuts & seeds & smells like berries.”

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“Grizzly bear skat has little bells & smells like pepper spray.”

Mountain humor.

DSC01138 (Not quite so funny to hikers, though.)

Bears are everywhere in Asheville, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Mike Carraway was recently quoted in the local paper as saying. “If we gave you a map showing the bears’ movements, it would be a solid map of Asheville. The east and northeast and south have more bears, but there are pretty much bears everywhere.”

But running into one often happens when you least expect it.

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Like the afternoon I happened to glance out my living room windows and saw a large black shape that wasn’t normally in the garden.

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A black cub had sauntered into my yard to snack on fallen apples. I grabbed my camera and sat on the back deck, listening to him as he snuffled and munched contentedly, taking photographs with shaky and cold fingers.

Or the time I was gardening, and happened to turn around in time to see a large black dog run down my neighbors’ driveway. But then I realized, oh right,

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they don’t have a dog.

Watching out for bears is something to ponder here when you ride bikes – just ask Tom, who once had to fend one off while out riding along a mountain ridge.

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Or jog on the local roads.

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And even when (and how) you put out the trash.

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You may even need to yield to a family of bears when driving.

But folks around here weren’t always that accommodating. Years ago, bear pens were built in areas or gaps where bears had been seen. Bear hunters would stack up logs and rig a trip line attached to bait. When a bear pulled at the bait the logs would fall on the bear, killing it.

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These days, bears are, for the most part, respected and tolerated and many of these areas have since been put to better use as scenic overlooks and trail heads. People have learned to give bears a respectful amount of distance for co-existence and “a lot of people are pretty much OK with it,” Carraway says.

So has Asheville become a bear mecca?

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“We have bears moving in and bears moving out,” Carraway says. “Some are staying in a small area, and some are moving around.  And “some young bears born in the city wind up leaving.” Pretty much like human offspring.

This recent bear study – a collaboration between NC State University and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission – also found that town bears generally are healthier and better fed than their country cousins because they are supplementing their natural food with food from human sources.

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But then, anyone who’s accidentally discovered that Asheville bears like coconut water,

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 already knew that.

© dating appalachia & kristin fellows photography

Mistletoe Misadventures

When you live in the southern Appalachian mountains, you don’t buy mistletoe in a store.  You go out in the woods and blast it out of the treetops with a shotgun.

“Seriously?!” I asked Tom when he told me.

“Yes,” he said, seriously.  “It’s called harvesting.”

Mistletoe is a lazy and opportunistic plant.  It’s capable of creating its own food through photosynthesis, but it much prefers to wriggle its roots down into the bark of a host tree and freeload nutrients, often harming or killing the tree in the process.

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Once I learned this, I didn’t feel so badly to hear that it sometimes gets shot out of the sky.

Mistletoe is most often found in the top branches of apple and oak trees.  And while it tends to be more common in the Piedmont and low-country of the Carolinas,

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 Tom says he sees it from time to time up in the mountains.

“Oh, please take me with you to find some!” I begged him.

This is exactly the kind of Appalachian adventure I am always looking to capture in photographs. Tom wanted an excuse for kissing and so the hunt for mistletoe was on.

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By now I have lived here long enough to know that life in Appalachia can be a tease – any time you assume you are in control of your own adventures, you may quickly find out how very wrong you can be.

You may discover, for example, that the search for a seemingly innocent plant leads you down a trail that instead reveals a romantic encounter from your boyfriend’s past.  (This should hardly come as a surprise, though, considering Celtic Druids thought mistletoe represented the oak tree’s heart or soul and Greeks considered it a symbol of sexuality and fertility.)  But to get back to the story –

Tom began looking for mistletoe each day as he drove around for work.  On the weekends, he scanned the trees in the mountains surrounding his parents’ farm.

Nothing.  No luck. The upper branches held nothing but the occasional squirrel’s nest.

So the Sunday before Christmas, I decided to drive out through the countryside myself.

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Rural areas surround Asheville and it takes only a few moments to find yourself in a completely different world.

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A world where you still see mailboxes piled up alongside the road, like baby birds waiting to be fed.

A world where you might have to be a little careful if you are an outsider who happens to wander onto someone’s property….

Just as I was rounding a curve, a bundle of green hanging on a nearly porch caught my eye.  Was that a bunch of mistletoe, I wondered?

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I pulled the car over and got out to take a closer look.

(Upon closer inspection, as you can see, it turned out to be a fuchsia plant.)

But it was a pretty scene and I had already taken a quick photograph when I heard the front door open and a gruff voice say, “Can I help you, ma’am?”

I froze.

The man attached to the voice was perhaps in his early 70s.  His piercing grey eyes looked at me from underneath his cap, sizing me up.

Trying to think fast, I introduced myself, then asked if he knew where I might be able to find any mistletoe.

“Charlie might have some up the road,” he said at last.  His house was near the mailboxes and the intersection of several rural roads.  I had no idea where he was suggesting I go, much less who Charlie was.

“Up Bear Creek Road,” he added helpfully.

I was still in the dark, but somehow we got to talking.  We talked about life.  We talked about raising kids.  He told me about his grown son and daughter.  I told him I lived in the old Giezentanner house, hoping it would help him to see me as someone interested in local people and history.  In turn, I heard stories from the old days in Asheville (stories about his life that I can’t even repeat here.)  After an hour or so, I got up to leave.

“About that mistletoe,” he said, remembering.  “Take a left up Bear Creek and look for the end of the fence.  See if there’s any up around there.”

I found Bear Creek Road and I found many fences.  I didn’t, however, find any mistletoe.

That night, I told Tom about my adventures “out in the counties,” as they sometimes say around here,

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miles and miles away from home.  And I mentioned the name of the gentleman whose stories I had listened to for an hour.

Tom looked at me.

“Old brick house on the right?” he asked after a moment.

“Yes!” I said, incredulously.  “How did you know?”

He laughed, then told me, “I used to date his daughter!”

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“Many years ago,” he added, thoughtfully.

I tried to calculate the odds of Tom knowing the one person I had randomly encountered that day, let alone having dated that person’s daughter.

 One out of the 16,000 possible residents I could have run into.

A man living in the only house I stopped at in the 66.8 square miles area once known as Turkey Creek (that is, until a frontiersman by the name of Leicester Chapman renamed it in 1859 for the Earl of Leicester, for whom he himself was named.)

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Unbelievably unlikely.

I decided to give up on the math, the search for mistletoe, and the opportunity to see Tom “harvest” it.

Who needs a excuse to kiss, anyway?

The day after Christmas, we decided to work off our holiday excesses

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by hiking ten miles through a national forest with a group of friends.

About an hour into our climb, Tom turned around and said to me,

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“Look up!”

And there, high up in the trees, was a lovely lacing of green leaves.

Mistletoe.

These Appalachian mountains have a lot of personality and sometimes it seems as if they are messing with us just for the sheer fun of it.

We couldn’t find mistletoe in time for Christmas, but its location was revealed – on mountain time – the day after.  

I could almost hear the mountains laughing at us….

127 Hours before Christmas

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the movie house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

That’s because my son and I, along with dozens of other movie-goers, were sitting in stunned silence watching “127 Hours.”

This took place back in 2010, but Christmas still brings back memories of Danny Boyle’s film for me.

And why is that, you might ask?

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Given that we live in the mountains, and often go hiking, I thought I’d use “127 Hours” to drive home a lesson to my twenty-year-old son –

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Never hike alone!

Or, if you do, to at least take the time to file a flight plan with someone – anyone – regarding your anticipated whereabouts.

“127 Hours” is a grueling film, and not for the faint of heart.

Based on canyoneer Aron Ralston’s memoir, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” it’s a biographical, survival drama about five days in the life of a young man whose arm has been pinned between boulders after a fall. James Franco portrays Ralston, making video logs of his ordeal and wrestling with the excruciating decision either to die alone, or cut off his own arm in order to free himself.

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I was fairly certain it might teach both of us an important lesson.

Leif loved how the film portrayed Ralston’s interior mental and emotional journey.  On the way home, he appeared to be lost in thought, as I yattered away about safety issues.

I slept peacefully that night, happy my point had been made.  Another item off the list of the potential perils of living in the Appalachia mountains, I thought.

A few days later, Leif asked me to hang up my Christmas stocking.

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What for?  I asked, unable to remember the last time anything had been put into it.

Just do it, he advised.

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We open our presents, in the Danish tradition, by candlelight on Christmas Eve.

Start with your stocking!  Leif said to me as soon as we gathered in the living room.

I took it down from the mantle and was surprised to feel several small packages inside.

Leif watched as, one by one, I opened them up.

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First, the ever-useful bear bell – a bright and cheery jingle to warn of your approach in the woods, hopefully scaring off any nearby bears before you actually see them.

Next, an emergency poncho, followed by a thermal blanket.

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The forth little package turned out to be a magnesium fire-starter.

I was super impressed by his thoughtfulness, and started to tell him so.

“Wait,” he said. “Open the last one!”

I undid the wrapping.

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Inside was a small commando saw, capable, I noticed, of cutting through bone.

“In case you’re ever stuck between rocks,” Leif said cheerfully.  “You’ll be able to saw your arm off!”

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