Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lines of Travel

Path through a relic piece of urban prairie

There were two places back in Metro Detroit that I used to hang out in, two tiny little patches of woods (one makes do with what nature one has, in the city). One, Tenhave Woods, was right behind my old high school, a patch of trees about 22 acres, a relic somehow left alone when the area was suburbanized starting in the 40's. It felt larger because it was pretty thick with undergrowth in many places. Part of it (naturally the part where the gates both were) was swampy as hell in the spring, I'd have to wade, shin deep, through standing water and liquid, sucking mud, but it would dry out eventually. It had some really old, big trees in there, mostly maple, white oak, and beech, and a vast diversity of wildflowers and other plants. There was a decent little trail network constructed by local Boy Scouts, where people could walk or even jog. In one corner sat a little pond, and the whole wood was a helpful refuge for raccoon, opossum, even a little herd of deer, and probably by now, coyote. There were even remnants in there from the last Ice Age: Glacial Lake Erie had a shore running through those woods, visible to one who knows what to look for.

The other spot, at Douglas Evans Nature Preserve, was even better. It was a little smaller than the other, but the best part was that it had the very windy Main Fork of the River Rouge running through it. Half prairie (mowed once a year), half forest, a little trail along the river, a big tree fallen across the river serving as a bridge, even more wildlife, actual topography changes (the "deep" cut river banks, mainly, but it made it feel hilly). All surrounded by the nice homes of Beverly Hills-- which just there felt more like country homes, when I'd see deer browsing in their flower gardens. I remember one mild December evening, just before sunset, I got off work and I rode my bike out there, enjoyed maybe the best Christmas Eve in my life, even though I only stayed an hour. It was the right place to be on such a day. Nature truly became my church that evening. 

I visited both places pretty often, came to truly love them; but still I don't feel like I really knew them fully. The seasons made them feel constantly new, and because I couldn't really hike these places (which, in winter with the leaves down, you could stand in the middle and see houses in every direction), I was forced to sit still or walk very slowly, to simply watch and listen, to really see and hear and feel and maybe even begin to understand.

And yet, there is so much in that handful of acres that I never exhausted them. Twenty acres of woods or even a Zen garden could provide endless opportunities, if you are sensitive to depth. The hiker in me ridicules the notion and calls for whole mountain ranges, but this is true. A cubic foot of soil contains more life than you can even imagine, every tree's bark is different and is traveled by all manner of insects, every bend in a little stream holds interest to a sensitive eye, and all of them change over time.

Then I look at this map, a life history of my travels, most from the last several years. Part of me feels like, damn, there's still 7 states to hit, and huge areas even in states I've visited that remain unexplored-- I've only seen extreme southeast Idaho, for example, and in Washington State, just the Portland suburbs on the north side of the Colombia River. Huge circles of unexplored area can be drawn in the Northwest, the northern plains, the Southwest and even my native Midwest. But my point is, can I claim to have really seen much of even the parts these lines do transect?

I've spent so much time trying to see more, bitten by the travel bug...but most of the lines are just me driving the interstates on my way to somewhere; and you don't see much on an interstate, or from a car in general. Example: I've been the length and breadth of Kentucky, but only on the roads, so I can't say I've really seen it. And all the trees in the east don't help much; even when they're just a "beauty strip," they block the view.  And when you have long views, so what? It's all whizzing past you, you'd be better off just looking at a picture back home, if that's all you're doing.

Some of the lines are better. One, from Georgia to Maine, is a rough estimation of the Appalachian Trail, which I walked all in one go, slow travel, immersed. Segments in the Sierra Nevada and SoCal mountains are the Pacific Crest Trail, same deal. Some of the stuff in Utah are hikes or places I worked in. Naturally I've seen a lot more of Michigan than I've been able to draw here, being a native of the state. And many of the lines have explorations along the way or at their ends that are too small to draw on this map.

So, while many people's maps would have far fewer lines than mine, what a meager thing it really comes to! There is a ton more of New England I'd like to see: the Adirondacks, the Maine coast, Boston, Cape Cod, to name a few. It'd be great to see the Cascade Mountains. What I saw of the Pacific Coast was paltry, mainly from cars while hitchhiking, or else being stuck in places not much worth seeing. All in all, I didn't take my time, and blew that opportunity. Even in Michigan there are places I wish I'd visited: never made it to Isle Royale (yet!), nor to Tahquamenon Falls, and I could be pretty happy in some of those towns "up north," like Manistee or Petoskey, or Alpena. To say nothing of Canada, or Europe!

Thoreau said something wise in his essay Walking, "There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the three-score-years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you." And he was hiking around the rather gentle and tamed landscapes of eastern Massachusetts. I don't know how serious he was, since he took other trips, to Cape Cod, northern Maine, Canada, and even out to Minnesota. But he had his main stomping grounds, and was pretty much satisfied with them. 

The tree I call 
"Mother Oak,"
Tenhave Woods
How much space does it really take? Do we need to live next to Yellowstone to have a wilderness experience, or recreation in a natural area? The bigger the area, the less you get to know it, the more you miss and know you miss, and therefore the more restless you become, the more desirous. I remember many places along the AT, where I wished I wasn't thru-hiking, didn't have the need to push miles, and could hang around and explore, whether specific area like Smokey Mountains NP, various little towns along the way (especially in New England), even just random viewpoints where I'd have liked to just sit a few hours and bliss out.

I met a lady in Shennandoah National Park that summer of my hike; she lived nearby, and spent all the time she could hiking around in that one park, exploring, bushwhacking to places no one ever went to. She probably knows it better than anyone else alive, yet still finds more to keep her interested. My hike straight through was surely infinitely better than cruising Skyline Drive, but even so it was still just a tiny slice of the park, a fraction of what was there to be known. I'm starting to think she was on the right track.

I guess what I'm getting at is sort of an instance of the Little Way of St Therese. Clearly she wasn't talking about hiking or nature, but, "St Therese translated “the little way” in terms of a commitment to the tasks and to the people we meet in our everyday lives." It's rather Zen, and actually I wonder if having grown up in a parish where both my church and school were both named Shrine of the Little Flower, a nickname of hers, had anything to do with my Zen leanings. We did review her life in religion class, and I still remember her "little way" all these years later. Or maybe it's like Blake wrote, 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
I still hold those two tiny natural patches, all the way up in Michigan, in the midst of so much suburban sprawl, as sacred, at least in my own personal spiritual landscape. The hours I spent there, the poems I wrote there, the memories I created there, they are all still with me. Their 'placeness' still resonates in my soul. I am still inspired by them. 

Though on balance I'd prefer more nature than is available even in such plots, and I'd prefer a smaller town (but not too small), I think a diet of little patches of woods and wild, while occasionally taking a real retreat, would work. Because I do need the occasional real escape from urbanity, it's noise and inroads, which are not available in the little places, where traffic sounds penetrate. And sometimes you just need an adventure. But over all, the point of these major retreats shouldn't, it seems, be to see ever more places, a mere catalogue of new terrain, but to find the peace, beauty, and spirit of Nature. Kids (and everyone) should travel to expand their minds and views, not to pile up a bragging list of exotica; to draw a map not of distances, but one with lines that lead toward depth. 


  1. There is definitely something to be said for getting to know one place very well versus a lot of different places less well. There are subtle nuances you just can't pick up on with just one or two or even dozens of visits, mostly having to do with changes over longer periods of time. And there are things that can't be fully experienced or understood unless you're in the right frame of mind or worked through some set of prerequisite experiences to reach some level of awareness. One of those insights for me was when I realized that the San Francisco Peaks (my "Place") were in fact very, very small, but also very, very large, or that there were actually *two* mountains up there with vastly different personalities. I'm kind of dense - fighting hard against Jack Turner's "Abstract Wild" - so it probably took me longer to figure it out than some. And like the lady you met in Shennandoah there is still a lot to see and know. At least I know I haven't seen it all, unlike 90% of the people I talk to about that mountain.

    With that said, I think you can also get to that same sort of knowledge of "Place" by traveling widely and seeing lots and lots of different things. Eventually, after you've seen enough miles, bagged enough peaks, counted enough birds, etc, something clicks. My guess is that it takes the same effort and same amount of time. Just different paths to the same thing.

  2. "Without going out of your door,
    You can know the ways of the world.
    Without peeping through your window,
    You can see the way of Heaven.
    The farther you go,
    the less you know.

    Thus the Sage knows without traveling,
    Sees without looking,
    And achieves without Ado."

    Tao Te Ching, V.47, John C.H. Wu

  3. Don't you hate it when you write a long-ass post, only to find some crazy monk said the same thing 2500 years ago in 9 freakin' lines?

    jk, I knew about such TTC chapters, and that's pretty much where I'm coming from, I guess I'm just wordier than Lao Tzu.

    Del, you have a point, but it's kind of like how most people go out in the woods and never see any animals. They're moving too much. But I guess in the end, experience is experience, even though you miss some (animals) you'll get others.

  4. I don't think Lao Tzu was a monk. Of course, this verse has multiple meanings.

  5. You knew what I meant. Monk, sage, whatever. I was going for funny, not factual, so much. jk means just kidding.

  6. I'm too old, I don't know acronym-speak! Although occasionally I ROTFL.