An Ambleside Spring

imagesI wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils,

Beside the lake, beneath the trees

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 —  I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, William Wordsworth, April, 1804

Springtime in Northern England is a time of inspired renewal.  Lavender crocus and sun kissed daffodils peek from under moss-covered rocks and along the tufts of broken heather that interrupt the fells, crags, scars, hows and pastures of the Lake District.  The weather is a fickle, undependable companion with four seasons visiting every day.  The wind sweeps down from the northwest unfurling great banners of rain and swirling mist.  Suddenly, a swath of cornflower blue appears and expands into a great chasm of sky bursting with unfiltered spring sun.  The verdant landscape comes alive in a kaleidoscope of painter’s palette color accentuated by the natural light.

The shadows move slowly whispering and creeping toward you as the light stretches out of abbreviated winter hibernation.   Each spring day is a reward for the incarceration of a bleak midwinter.  It is a time for poets, writers and artists.

Dove Cottage is situated on the edge of Grasmere in the Lake District.  William Wordsworth, his wife and his sister Dorothy, occupied the cottage in 1799.  It was on a day of broken clouds and rambling near Lake Ullswater, that Wordsworth’s sister recorded in her diary the simple perfection of daffodils peeking through the muddy ground to welcome the sun. As he reflected on her entries later that evening by blazing firelight, the poet was inspired to record his famous serenade to the citrine harbingers of spring.   The Lake District was Wordsworth’s joy. Until his family had literally outgrown their beloved cottage, increasing by three Wordsworth children in four years, they would not entertain leaving this mystical Eden.   Ultimately, the family moved a few kilometers away to Rydal Mount where they remained for 37 years

Behind the cascading slate roofed cottage, John’s Wood stands silent – named for Wordsworth’s brother John, a sea captain who had perished at sea. The hill climbs sharply up the rock strewn Loughrigg Fell, a thousand foot outcrop of bracken-clad knoll.  From the fell, poets looked north on the magnificent River Rothay that cascaded down through villages of Grasmere and Rydal Water.  To the south, more midnight ribbons of blue water converge before feeding Lake Windermere.

The Lakes are terraced here with footpaths and low slate walls, hemming in great flocks of Swaledale sheep.  It is lambing season.  A restless knot of cotton white ewes swirls in a pasture disguising scores of small unsteady legs that stumble and stretch to catch their mothers for a morning meal. Hill fog spills into the steep draws and ridges that form like tendons bracing the massifs and peaks.  With names like Scafell Pike, Great End, Skiddaw Little Man and Great Gable, the mountains draw thousands of hikers and ramblers each year. The Lakes derive their ubiquitous greenery from annual rainfall of over 80 inches but only an average of 2.5 hours of sun per day.   When the sun appears, it is cause for celebration.  Villagers and locals are suddenly still.  They smile, squinting up to the heavens, basking in the precious warmth.  Suddenly, everything is still again as shadows move like islands in the stream of a great malachite ocean.

Across the valley, lies Near Sawrey and Hill Top House – the summer farm of Beatrix Potter for 37 years.  Aside the simple gardens, massive hedgerows climb, obscuring adjacent fields and tarns.  Rabbits dart in and out of the thickets reminding us of a young girl who watched out a bedroom window sketching mice, geese, ducks and rabbits, meticulously weaving their shapes and movements into stories that would captivate an eternity of children.

There is something in the flat light that falls in this northeastern corner of the Western hemisphere –the emerald broken land above the 54th parallel.   Pastoral artists like Constable, Watson and Cozzens labored across rock-strewn fields to paint in open air a soft palette of spring and summer colors.  As the daylight advances, twilight suspends the day in a chrome blue light lasting for hours. Dusk finally yields to a black galaxy of night interrupted by the twinkling solitary lights of remote inns, pubs and small farms.  For any artist, The Lakes are a compulsory corner of the Great maker’s garden, a watercolor combination of elements constantly combining to create new shades of rain, mist, mountains and sun.

If you travel to the Lakes to wrap yourself in an English Spring, consider stopping at the edges of Lake Windermere.  On its southern edge, sits the Rothay Manor Hotel – an elegant country house run by the Nixon family for over 40 years.  In a reassuring mahogany pub, springtime hikers and travelers recovering from their journeys among the scores of lakes and tumbling rivers can drink a pint of lager and contemplate a framed poem, The Ambleside Weather Glass, that hangs next to a gabled picture window:

When Wansfell weaves a cap of cloud,

The roar of Brathay will be loud.

When mists come down from Loughrigg fell,

A drenching day gray heads foretell.

 

When breezes blow from Coniston,

Twere best a mackintosh put on.

If down from Kirkstone pass they come,

You better go not far from home.

 

When Redscree frowns on Ambleside,

The rain will pour both far and wide.

When Wansfell smiles and Loughrigg’s bright,

Twill surely rain before the night.

 

Yet should in nets on Windermere,

Twelve pickled salmon do appear.

No rain will fall upon that day,

And men may safely make their way.

Wordsworth considered the Lake District a spiritual Mecca and a paradox of the highest order – a living, breathing place that never ceased to change and through its constant motion, like the sea and the seasons, it’s ceaseless energy was in itself a reassuring symbol of a divine hand that moved across the land.  Spring it seemed was and remains a time when for a brief moment, the sun appears, breaking through the chill of winter and isolation.  In its cascading beams of light, one might spy the face of God smiling in the swaying grace of a canary yellow daffodil or in the solitary journey of a single cloud.

Wide Open Spaces

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out To find a dream and a life of their own A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone Many precede and many will follow A young girl’s dream no longer hollow It takes the shape of a place out West But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed She needs wide open spaces — Wide Open Spaces, The Dixie Chicks

 

My summer journey is always the same. The trail climbs through deep forests of conifers, pines, birch and aspen into mountains that heave out of the ancient earth and cut across an entire horizon with jagged, saber-gray lines. The air is thin here, as elevations soar from 4,000 feet to heights almost three miles above half mile. Below these eagle’s nests of granite, an endless steppe of prairie grass sighs. It is a gulf stream of constant motion, bending and bowing to relentless winds that bullwhip down from lonely ridges and high passes. It seems that a benevolent, shadowed hand is constantly caressing this hard, muscular place.

To walk in these blue shadows is to be a character in a Russian novel, dwarfed by circumstances beyond your control, mesmerized by the sheer magnitude of nature and seduced by a relentless drumbeat whose percussion of life and death creates an irresistible cadence for every living thing.

 

I pass along a rapidly moving creek that disappears around a quivering stand of cottonwoods and aspen. It is a glorious day. It is a moment in time where the brief promise of wide open spaces and a chance to live more deeply intermingle and move the soul. I consider a time where there are no roads or people. It is not too hard to imagine anything here. It is the cradle of possibility.

Out west, a day is a sinewed, maverick roan that is impossible to fully tame. It is not enough just to hold on. A true westerner must dig in his spurs and bring each moment to heel. It is a land of tall tales and pregnant exaggeration that constantly antagonizes the imagination. It inspires, engulfs and transforms everything while never really changing its own relentless cycle of life.

 

Each summer pilgrimage to the Western mountains is a drink from the deepest and coldest of natural springs. It reminds me that I will barely bend a blade of grass in the years that I walk this earth. The great sculpted mountains endure as silent sentinels indifferent to the foibles of governments, business and individuals. When the last financial instrument or currency crumbles into dust, these massive displaced plates of earth will remain unmoved.

The West remains my reckless, wild-haired companion relentlessly tugging at my spirit and whispering to me to follow her into a twilight of mountains and high alpine meadows. Lavender lupine, blood-red paintbrush and soft purple columbine color the edges of this world. I always return to her and find myself wrapped in her swirling hot breath and relentless gaze. She is my oxygen and my midwife. Each summer, she delivers me into the world and I am reborn.

 

Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life. — John Muir

I am not alone in my love for the West. For centuries, people have found redemption, resurrection and rebirth in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges. The Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana remain the grand portal that all Americans must navigate to find the Eden of opportunity that awaits somewhere off to the west. The Teton Valley is, by all definitions, the front door to Mother Earth herself. The cathedral of peaks known as Le Grand Teton literally translate from French to mean “the large bosom.” It is a sacred place — a gateway to Yellowstone and the northern wilderness of Montana and Canada. To the south, the peaks are called the Sangre de Cristo — the “Blood of Christ.” Native Americans drew deep satisfaction from their connections to the mountains, rivers and forests. There was a common belief that these places brought sacred connection to the Great Spirit and healed the People. The prominent Tetons were called “The Four Grandmothers Standing Tall” by the Shoshone, who saw the mountains and wide open spaces as a centerpiece to a connected ecosystem where man and nature lived in symbiotic harmony.

What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. — Eagle Chief Letakos-Lesa of the Pawnee

There are those who come to the West wanting to become someone else and those who make a living off of being exactly who they are. A real cowboy loathes talk, loves action and speaks in grand hyperbole. “That canyon was so big, why I could yell Good morning’ at 9 o’clock at night and nine hours later, my echo would return to wake me up.” It is a kingdom of balance and diversity. The equilibrium is found in the eddies, channels and cut banks of Wyoming’s ancient Snake River that changes each day as water levels rise or fall. Balance is heard in the cries of osprey and bald eagles as they clasp cutthroat trout with black razor talons. It is fields of sage and wheat grass which move rhythmically in hot mistral winds while great moose, elk and bison move like phantoms across the grand plateau. It is the serene silence of a glacial lake fed by a thousand silver veins of frigid water as it cascades through stands of blue spruce, aspen and cottonwoods. A great owl swoops across an open marsh in search of an early dinner. A trout rises to a mayfly as the river becomes a boiling cauldron of feeding fish. A bison bays a lonely cry across an open plain. It is an anthem of renewal and return. The Tetons are the bones, skin and sinew of mother earth herself.

No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied — it speaks in silence to the very core of your being. — Ansel Adams

If a person finds cause or passage beyond the spectacular Rockies, he or she will encounter the Sierra Nevada, which stands as a serrated knife-edge before gently sloping to the San Joaquin valley and the Pacific Ocean. The Sierras explode into view from the bleak high deserts of eastern California’s Owens Valley. They are the spine of California and its headstone, marking the deep fissure of earth which was its birthplace and perhaps one day might be its epicenter of destruction, the San Andreas Fault.

The heart of this magnificent expanse of mountains is Yosemite. One of the United States’ first national parks, Yosemite is a massive national monument of polished glacial domes, snow-fed waterfalls and meadows of white-tailed deer, black bear and beaver falling like celestial steps to the deep gorges carved over thousands of millennia to become the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Photographer Ansel Adams captured the essence of this “range of light” giving physical form to the words and journals of Scottish naturalist John Muir, who viewed these mountains as his living companion.

Each western summer eventually loses its vitality and slips into a deep, frigid sleep. The first snow comes surreptitiously, scratching at cabin doors in late September, early October. Winter lingers until the rebirth of the people and the land the following June. The mountain summer never really goes away. It hangs in the air, a dusty perfume of sage and smoke that instantly reminds of warmer days and greener grass. She is our past, present and future all intertwined across a horizon of wide open spaces.

A Pirate King

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depict...
Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Pirate King Henry Lytton denounces Major-Gener...
Pirate King Henry Lytton denounces Major-General C. H. Workman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King!

The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert & Sullivan

 

After 25 years of laboring on the great, sweaty iron dreadnoughts of insurance and healthcare, I recently decided to jump ship.  My plan was several months in the making and every step had to be meticulously detailed.  Yet, even with maps, charts, compass and provisions, it would require a leap of faith to relinquish my role as first mate in a for profit navy to become an adventurer.  Like most fair weather sailors, I was unnerved by sailing solo and tended to lose my emotional nerve when the economic seas got too rough or my ship drifted too far from the shore.  Yet, the lure of new ports of call and the thrill of no longer being under the yoke of a distant monarchy compelled me to resign my station.  I would leave my decks in good order to embark on a summer as a ronin privateer.  For three months, I would be beholding to no master.  I would wait until the Fall when the days shortened and the winds shifted to seek out a new fleet.

 

I made a log of everything I wanted to accomplish in ninety days.  Upon further review, I realized I was being a bit delusional in thinking that in a mere three months I could explore the vast open ocean of my life’s unfulfilled ambitions.   My first mate/chief petty officer gently suggested a course correction.  It was clear she did not want me rooting around the galley every day disrupting the routines of the other sailors.  She had enlisted with me for breakfast and dinner, not for lunch.  “Why don’t you just spend the time fishing, hiking, writing, golfing and spending time with the troops.” She was on to something.  Why could I not reinvent myself from ship’s captain to pirate king.

 

“NOW his future lay plain before him, and glowing with unimaginable splendor. …How gloriously he would go plowing the dancing seas, in his long, low, black-hulled racer, the Spirit of the Storm, with his grisly flag flying at the fore! And at the zenith of his fame, how he would suddenly appear at the old village and stalk into church, brown and weather-beaten, in his black velvet doublet and trunks, his great jack-boots, his crimson sash, his belt bristling with horse-pistols, his crime-rusted at his side, his slouch hat with waving plumes, his black flag unfurled, with the skull and crossbones on it, and hear with swelling ecstasy the whisperings, “It’s Tom Sawyer the Pirate!—the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main!” The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain

 

My first official week of being a pirate king was a blend of seasickness and excitement.  I was still gaining my sea legs learning the first mate’s regimen of feeding the crew, cleaning the main sails and delighting in the endless archipelago of activities that a pirate king could explore. I watched as the shoreline disappeared and was amazed at how quickly the breach that I had left in my old ship’s lines had closed.  I felt guilty for leaving my station but knew this was a rare opportunity to be in the company of adventurers.  It was summer with long lingering twilights and warm sunny days.  I had to adjust my senses from constant battle and hand to hand fighting to once again being in touch with the subtle indulgences of life – the distant slap of a fish as it rose in the afternoon shallows, the youthful ambition to explore a deserted island or the patience to rest quietly in a hammock buffeted by an early morning breeze.  My time was limited.  I knew September was out there, hunting me like an English Man of War.  My first mate wisely suggested that I needed a star to steer by.  She suggested a special “ Pirate King and Me“ trip that might forge a lifetime memory and conveniently get me out of the way.

 

 

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late,  
Jimmy Buffet, A Pirate Looks at Forty

 

My youngest son was the first beneficiary of Operation Pirate King.  I suggested that we drive up to the White Mountains in Northern New Hampshire to attempt to climb Mt. Washington.  Over the course of four days, we would become Long John Silver and Captain Kidd, modern day buccaneers – – pillaging pop tarts, tossing back pints of Sprite grog, raiding room service, playing poker, and recklessly racing past our bedtime like hobos easily eluding a one legged rail yard policeman.  The spontaneity of the adventure took us both by surprise as we suddenly graduated from maps and graphs to sailing up Highway 93 past signs alerting us to watch for moose, bear and deer.  The Presidential Range loomed above us atop a great sea of pine trees.  We anchored in the harbor of the Mountain View Grand, a 19th century hotel gilded with a rich history of generational reunions, presidential visits and simpler times.  On our first full day, we attacked the “Tuck” trail, a 2200 foot vertical ascent to Tuckerman’s ravine, the most vertical route up Mt Washington. At the base camp, a 700 foot headwall climbed above the timber line to a serpentine spine of rock trail that gained another 1000 feet to the summit. To these two free-booting pirates, the gray gathering rain clouds and the fact that we had consumed our last Pop Tart an hour earlier proved too daunting.  The tallest peak in New England would not hoist our flag today but we would be return to take the granite citadel.

 

Over the next three days, we competed as only plunderers can, fighting for bragging rights in fishing, swimming, billiards, gin rummy, poker, golf, and ping pong.  The hotel staff negotiated a détente with us, giving us free reign in the restaurant and assigning us stature by allowing us the same table each evening where we inventoried our spoils and mapped out our plans to loot the following day for all that it was worth.  Our expedition was quickly coming to an end. While bike riding on a trail in Franconia Notch State Park, we saw a large black dog running toward us, presumably off leash with no owner in sight.  My fellow buccaneer excitedly turned to me, “Dad, I think that is a bear”.  Lacking a spyglass and unencumbered by our matriarchal risk manager, we inched closer, watching the bear cub as he ambled towards us and then disappeared into the wild north woods.  It was a classic moment — wild kindred spirits coursing past one another in a great ocean of forest and woods, hurdling toward some unknown fate. That last evening, we sat in the dark talking, in glorious violation of our bedtime curfew sharing tales of treasure, murder and betrayal.  He asked me to once again tell him the story of black hearted pirates.  When we got to the part about the blood thirsty Blackbeard, my son became very still.  I presumed that he was contemplating a misshapen, seven foot, hulking sociopath who robbed, pillaged and killed his confederates for the slightest infraction.  As with all scary summertime stories, the conclusion brought a long pregnant pause and the timeless question:

 

 

“Dad, where did Blackbeard live?”

 

 

“I think……right….. around……. HERE!”

 

 

“Sure” he laughed with the bravado of the unconvinced.  He laid motionless, a still, frozen shadow on an adjacent bunk.

 

 

“Don’t worry pal.  The pirate king won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

 

 

He relaxed. “ ‘Night dad.  I had a fun day”…As my sailor slipped off into the land of nigh, I smiled.  It was a wonderful thing to be a pirate king….