Monthly Archives: July 2015

A beautiful life

Splash in back seat of carI so hoped it would be another year, even a few more months, before I wrote this. But great spirits come in their own time, and leave in their own time, and Splash, my companion and spirit guide, has left in hers. She turned 14 in April, and then, in May, we found out that she had a ferocious tumor on her heart. The vet gave her two months to live, and she died almost to the day. It was still a surprise, if only because she was so lively and herself in her last days, even in the last hours before she collapsed.

Luke holding Splash as a puppyWhen she came into our lives in 2001 I could not have imagined that I would be writing this in Valdez, Alaska, in an RV that is my home, after a day of hiking and photographing wildflowers. I was living the relatively normal, way-too-busy life of mother, partner, friend, daughter, sister. Taking care of my elderly father, seeing my son, Luke, into high school in a world that was about to include 9/11. Running a business I valued, living a life I cherished. But she led me out of that path and onto another one entirely.

She started the process by not understanding cars, ever. To the end of her life she would have blithely stood — if allowed — in the middle of a road of oncoming cars and wondered, tail up, why we weren’t all joining her. But, in her wild puppy-ness, she needed time off leash, so I took her to the Hither Woods trails in Montauk, where she bounced ecstatically all over the place, responding only to calls of ‘cookie,’ which would bring her back to my side, eager for a treat.

Splash and cow in KansasAs time passed, I noticed that she would occasionally, of her own accord, come and walk right next to me for a stretch of the trail. After a while I saw that there were places where she would routinely do this. It occurred to me that she was seeing, or sensing, spirits, and that she came when they were around, whether for her own protection, or mine, or simply out of a sense of the unusual, the mysterious.

Today, after years of studying with shamans and living through lots of wild happenings, I assume the woods are full of all kinds of energies. But at that point, in the midst of my practical life, chugging through to-do lists, I hadn’t given much thought to such spirits. It wasn’t an alien idea, it just didn’t seem like the kind of thing that would happen to me. But I became increasingly convinced that she was tuned into something I couldn’t yet apprehend. As she so often did with literal doors, she was nosing this one open.

Splash at Big Reed Pond, MontaukFollowing Splash into the woods meant spending stretches of quiet time, a special gift in those busy days. There, surrounded by the patient wisdom of trees, I could listen to my own inner voices. There was nothing sudden in this process. We walked those trails for four years before the change began to be obvious, ten years before leaving that whole life behind. In the meantime, with her presence and comfort, I mothered through the storms of adolescence, helped my father cope with his last years, lived my full life. But in the woods I was opening to mystery, beginning to relate differently to spirits, and Spirit. A profound shift was underway, and not, in any way I was used to thinking about such things, directed by me.

Splash in UtahAlways at least slightly ahead of me on the path, Splash was leading me each step of the way, ever herself: smart, deeply intuitive, enthusiastic, loving, flexible, patient. My black and white spirit guide. We were inseparable. When we began our travels, with several long road trips between 2007 and 2010, and then leaving on our journey in 2011, she jumped right in, taking her spot in the back seat, where I could see her over my right shoulder, and sometimes find her wet nose near my ear. Except when Luke — whose puppy she had been, and whom she adored — was around, she slept by my bed for part of each night, though usually went to her cushy spot on the couch at some point.

Splash & Luke reindeer selfieIn the last few months she slept all night next to my bed. I could feel her tiredness; a calm, end-of-life tired. A life beautifully lived, where she did a wonderful job at the loving she came here to do. The energy that animated her was winding down. When we got the diagnosis in May I sensed that she didn’t want me to hold on, to put her through risky surgery that would only buy a short time more. It’s hard for me not to want to fix and solve things, but that’s part of what I learned in her company — to allow, to release. To trust. That our love for each other will survive her leaving. That her spirit will be with me, doing exactly what she has been doing all along: guiding me, through her heart, deeper and deeper into my own.Splash on the Oregon coast

Latitude 49º 6′ 33.63″, Longitude -113º 50′ 58.92″

Waterton-Lakes-National-Park-by-Betsey-CrawfordI have located heaven. It’s relatively easy to find, right at the end of a beautiful drive through the prairies of southwestern Alberta, just into Canada north of the Montana border. The latitude and longitude above are the gates. Not pearly, as one was led to expect, though perfectly nice examples of the rather odd Tudor/rustic combination favored by Parks Canada, since on the terrestrial plane heaven calls itself Waterton Lakes National Park. Once inside you drive alongside lovely blue lakes on the left, where, late one evening, I dimly saw a large herd of black-headed elk moving softly in the green dusk, some swimming in the luminous twilit water.  On the right, rolling, windswept prairie flows into mountains.

Western blue clematis (Clematis occidentalis)

Western blue clematis (Clematis occidentalis)

Eventually you come to a small village on the edge of the largest lake, and a campground right off the beach, surrounded by mountains. The entire town could, I suspect, fit into a New York City block. There are hotels and inns, private homes, a few restaurants, some galleries and gift shops. All very low key. In a nod to nutrition, there’s one small grocery store, but the main food in heaven, judging by the number of people eating it all the time, is ice cream, supplied by no less than four shops devoted to it.

Munching bear wandering by

Munching bear wandering by

There you are perfectly willing to stay for the rest of existence. Though, I have to admit, you may change your mind as the local gas station becomes completely covered by ten feet of snow.

Glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum)

Glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum)

I came for the Waterton Lakes Wildflower Festival. The first time I was here, in September, 2012, I saw a poster for it, and have been waiting to get back ever since. There were various events, and I took part in several. All were fun, and one, a walk up Rowe Mt. with a man named Edwin Knox, who has worked at the park for 30 years, was so sublime it’s now the touchstone for such days: walk up a beautiful, not-too-steep-in-any-one-place mountain trail with a fun and knowledgeable guide, keying wildflowers on the way up. Eat lunch at a tiny, gorgeous alpine lake. Climb to an alpine meadow full of glacier lilies. (Let the three hardiest members of the group climb all the way to the top.) Wander down slowly enough to take lots of pictures along the way.

Edwin, wildflower ID book in hand, leading the way up Mt. Rowe

Edwin, wildflower ID book in hand, leading the way

In a world full of spectacular beauty, Waterton Lakes is still a place apart. Part of it is the confluence of its elements: the prairie rolls from the Great Plains in the east into the Rocky Mountains to the north and west. The spruce, fir  and pine clad mountains cradle eighty lakes and ponds, as well as more than sixty miles of rivers and streams, within the park’s 195 square miles.  There are 1,000 species of plants in this small area, from minute unicellular algae to towering Douglas firs. Of those species, 179 are considered rare; 22 of those occur in Waterton and nowhere else on earth.

Mountain lady's slipper (Cypripedium montanum)

Mountain lady’s slipper (Cypripedium montanum)

Other creatures love it, too. Bears cross the street as you take pictures of orchids, pulling up roots to munch on. Hummingbirds pollinate paintbrush. Butterflies meet up on lovely purple fleabane. Wild sheep rest in the shade on the road as you drive, while a mother and baby pass by, so close you could reach out and feel the mother’s horns.

Big horn sheep resting in the handiest shade

Big horn sheep resting in the handiest shade

The sheer exuberance of this profusion is breathtaking. But there’s more than beauty here. With neighboring Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, Waterton Lakes forms what is called the Crown of the Continent, one of the last truly vast preserved wild places in our two countries. The Blackfoot people call it the ‘Backbone of the World.’ Its peaks reach to nearly 10,000 feet. Its wildlife can roam they way they always have. It holds the headwaters of several major river systems. A drop of water that falls on the crown can end up in the Arctic Ocean via the McKenzie River watershed system, the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia or Fraser system, the Atlantic via the Sasketchewan system that flows into Hudson Bay, or the Gulf of Mexico via the Missouri River, making tiny Waterton an integral part of a vast arterial network.

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) hosting butterflies

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) hosting butterflies

Thus, many beautiful and powerful forces both meet and spread out from here: water, rocks, mountains, sky, trees, meadows, waterfalls, flowers, wind, elk, bear, eagle, big horn sheep, bison. On the ground, where I spent a great deal of time, all was quiet and beautiful beyond measure. But though I was dealing with the gentlest of elements — wildflowers, grasses, leaves — the exhilarating sense of sitting among these immense energies was very strong. The world living as it was meant to live.

Heaven is within us, the sages say. A lovely, challenging idea. But there’s no denying that some earthly places are more heavenly than others, and Waterton Lakes, the beautiful blooming bowl held in the mountains, is one of the heavenliest.

(More images are in the Waterton wildflowers gallery, which is here.)

Waterton-Lakes-National-Park-by-Betsey-Crawford