Category Archives: Personal

Timeless in Alaska

Along the Mat-su Valley between Glenallen and Palmer, Alaska

Along the Mat-su Valley between Glenallen and Palmer, Alaska

The first thing that happened in Alaska was that we lost our sense of time. There were three of us at that point. George and I had picked up our friend, Guy, in Whitehorse, in the Yukon, where he’d flown up from Vancouver. We drove to Destruction Bay the same day, staying the night on a large, windswept gravel field owned by a character named Loren, who informed us, apropos of various plumbing challenges he runs into, that we were standing two feet above permafrost, which then went down another 65 feet. The next day, after driving through the sublime Yukon landscape, we entered the sublime Alaskan landscape, and drove toward Valdez, on the southern coast, staying a night in Gakana on the way.

Matsu-valley-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Lakes and bogs in the Mat-Su Valley

By the time we’d spent one of our two nights in Valdez, we all realized that we not only couldn’t figure out what day it was, but it seemed we’d been traveling for weeks. Occasionally, when I’ve driven long distances over a relatively short time, I need to get reoriented to time. And, over the course of our adventures, my relationship to time has changed. After a life governed by calendars, clocks, appointments, I stopped wearing a watch at some point. It often takes me a second to figure out what day of the week it is. But this was different, and has lasted the whole time we’ve been here, as if a spell was cast somewhere along the Yukon highway, or as we crossed the Alaskan border. If I really think about it, and check my phone for the day and date, I realize we’ve been here three weeks, but without that effort, it feels like we’ve been in Alaska for ages.

Horsetail Falls, Valdez, Alaska

Horsetail Falls, Valdez, Alaska

In stories, it’s usually the witch or the evil magus, not the good fairy, that casts the spell that makes you lose your sense of time, your memory of the past, an interesting way to look at the importance we place on both. And not just in our busy, technological present. Ageless oral traditions speak to the fear that peoples who forget their history and their stories lose their sense of who they are. But for individuals, it’s often a relief to leave the deafening clatter of the past behind, and it’s the good fairy that places us in the expansive present.

I haven’t figured out what accounts for this sense of timelessness, but it may be part of what makes people unwilling to leave Alaska once they get here. There are lots of stories that start with “I came for …. and never left.” There’s a ‘here-ness’ to Alaska, a sense of its remoteness from so much else, of its being its own place, apart from all other places, apart from other times. I can see how appealing this would be, how you would want to live with this sense of not only being far away from everything, but out of the common understanding of time, in the endless summer days, the long silver twilight of winter, in all this vastness.

Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, seen from Kenai, Alaska

Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, seen from Kenai, Alaska, across the Cook Inlet

And surrounded by unbelievable natural beauty, literally everywhere. The towns and cities aren’t beautiful, but they are all set in great beauty, and driving along the roads is awe inspiring, in sunshine or rain, which is good, because there’s a lot of rain. There are not, however, a lot of roads. There’s a loop of two lane highways linking Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Tok, and Anchorage. From that loop roads split off south to Valdez, Seward and Homer at different points on the coast. Two roads lead in and out of the state. There’s a rough road up to the Arctic Ocean because of the pipeline. Communities have local roads. That’s it. A total of 32,000 ‘lane miles’ in a state of 663,300 square miles. In contrast, New York has 242,400 lane miles in a state of 54,500 square miles.

Matsu-valley-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

Fireweed, beautiful and ubiquitous, lights up Alaska all summer

So, everywhere you look you know that the beauty you see goes on and on beyond your vision, mountain after mountain, waterfalls cascading down their sides, enormous ice shields spilling glaciers over their tops, valleys of meadows and bogs, vast stretches of green forest reaching to the next mountain, the next glacier. The constant presence of shimmering water, in bodies large and small. Vivid magenta fireweed lighting up the landscape. Yesterday is already rapidly receding. Last month is gone. Your whole history is somewhere way off in the distance.

Alaska-highway-to-Tok-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Along the Alaskan Highway between the border and Tok, Alaska

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

Life, tilted

Idaho wildflowers-shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum) taken on Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchelum)

There are moments that tilt life, even if we don’t know it at the time. Not the big moments, when our paths take sudden and dramatic turns, like locking eyes with the stranger who will become a great love, or taking your child in your arms for the first time. The quiet ones. Moments that say, from now on, your path will change. It may not be a dramatic shift, just a tilt, but it may make all the difference. The photos accompanying this post are from one such tilt.

Idaho wildflowers-fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum) taken at Cougar Bay, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum)

One tilt can lead to another, even eleven years later. When my dog, Splash, came into my life in 2001, she created a tilt, for the simple reason that she never understood cars, and I couldn’t let her off leash anywhere a car was conceivable. I started taking her on trails, mostly through the woods of Montauk, at the eastern tip of Long Island, and so started an entirely unexpected chapter of my life. The most important aspect of that chapter, for this post, is that I began taking my camera with me everywhere we went.

I wasn’t new to photography, but up until then it had been about things — my son, trips taken, gardens I designed, flowers I wanted clients to see. In the woods it became aimless. As my eyes lit on something that touched me, I took a picture of it.

Idaho wildflowers-chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) taken on Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis)

This produced a bunch of very uninteresting photos. It took a while to convince me that the camera and I see the world differently. My eyes can pick out the truncated branches and twisting trunk of the dead tree that looks like a rough-hewn angel. The camera records every branch and trunk in the neighborhood, so the fascinating dead tree is barely evident. One spring I was convinced that I could convey the castle-like qualities of aging stumps, with their upper edges worn into crenellations and their ramparts of moss. The camera, lacking my imagination, recorded a bunch of old stumps.

Idaho wildflowers-a wild rose (Rosa woodsii) taken in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Woods rose (Rosa woodsii)

I kept going. There were delicate wild azaleas and cascades of mountain laurel in the spring, sweet-scented clethra in early summer, gold grasses and red sumac in the fall, light glimmering on the water, tracery of branches in the winter. It was part of the meditation and the fun of being in the woods season after season. The camera and I began to come to grips with each other’s strengths and limitations.

Idaho wildflowers-yellow pond lily (Nuphar polysepalum) taken at Fernan Lake, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Yellow pond lily (Nuphar polysepalum)

When we left on our journey in 2011, I had been making mandalas for a few years and was still working on them as we traveled. The easiest art to practice on the road, however, was photography, since it involved no supplies, no setting out or cleaning up. I could just grab my camera and go, and it went everywhere with me, recording our adventures.

That didn’t change dramatically in May, 2012, but it tilted. I came to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, for a month off. My partner, George, had had complicated surgery in February. In April we’d made a trip to the east coast to see friends and family and to finalize the sale of his boat. He stayed in the east to do that, and I came to Coeur d’Alene. It wasn’t a happy time. We were both exhausted and out of kilter. My son, Luke, the main draw in this neighborhood, was going through his own challenges. I spent an unusual amount of time, for me, just sitting and watching the Spokane River go by.

Idaho wildflowers-Ninebark (Physocarpus malvaceus) taken on Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Ninebark (Physocarpus malvaceus)

But something wonderful was happening on Tubbs Hill, a promontory into Lake Couer d’Alene, a wild place, full of trails, right in the middle of town. It was a banner year for wildflowers. Everything was blooming in full force. Once I saw this, off I went, morning and evening, taking pictures of the whole show, starting with a patch of shooting stars, out on a small ledge over the lake, their vivid pink glowing in the late afternoon sunlight.

I left the trail and got down on the ground with them, taking picture after picture, day after day, as they bloomed, faded, and went to seed. Lying in the golden sunlight, in the cool May evenings, with my dog Splash settled near my feet, was heaven, and as flower succeeded blooming flower, a heaven that lasted for weeks.

Idaho wildflowers-Shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum) ready to shoot its seeds, taken in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum) ready to shoot its seeds

One day, a few weeks into the season, I was lying on the ground taking pictures, just off a little-used path. After a while, I sat up and looked around. I’d forgotten where I was, and everything rushed into my heart at once — the cool, dense earth I was sitting on, the trees soaring above me, the sun showering through the leaves like ethereal gold coins. The lake glinting off to my right, the green breath of plants surrounding me. The delicate beauty of the wildflowers. My passion for them.

Let the heart love what it loves, says my favorite sutra. Life tilted, and the tilt has made all the difference.

Idaho wildflowers-Bruneau mariposa lily (Calochortus bruneaunis) taken on Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Bruneau mariposa lily (Calochortus bruneaunis)

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Moving hearts

bow-tie-arch-moan-utah-by-betsey-crawford

Bow Tie Arch, Moab, Utah

If places were men, Portland, Oregon would be the guy I met at a farmers market. We both like to hike, and read, and travel. He talks about his feelings. He recycles. It’s all very satisfying, but a bit damp. Moab, Utah would be running away with the cowboy who comes to town occasionally, never says a word, looks at me out of the corner of his eyes, and one day shows up with an extra horse so I can ride away with him. Hot, but after a while the dryness would get to you.

If home is where the heart is, then southern Utah is one of my homes. But I don’t see myself living there. Moab, the most likely candidate in practical terms, like a thriving library and access to foods I like, is indeed a cowboy town, dealing with a constant avalanche of people, tons of whom fan out into the wilderness on all-terrain vehicles instead of horses, making Moab the ATV capital of Utah. It’s a lot of hubbub, and there are only two months of the year — cold January and blistering July — when it calms down.

silver-fleabane-erigeron-argentatus-Snow-Canyon-Utah-by-Betsey-Crawford

Silver fleabane (Erigeron argentatus) Snow Canyon, Utah

For most of my life home was a physical place, a building, both shelter and oasis. Now, taking my home with me, and discovering that there are places that are home even if I have never known them, expands the idea, makes it clearer that home is resonance rather than space, however suitable and even wonderful the space is.

Take California and South Dakota, for examples. California is a place of great compatibility for me — incredible beauty, a constant avalanche of fruits and vegetables, acupuncture easier to get than a slice of (artisanal) pizza. I know and love wonderful people there. There are thirty times more wildflowers blooming there than, say, Utah. You can have desert, mountains, meadows, cities, small towns, valleys, vast lakes, ocean, all without leaving the state.

fort-pierre-national-grasslands-south-dakota-by-betsey-crawford

Fort Pierre National Grasslands, central South Dakota

But I’ve never felt in California the way I felt driving into southeastern Utah for the first time, or the way I felt one hot July day in South Dakota, when I stopped the car on a lonely road along the Native American Scenic Byway and stepped into the prairie, the sun overhead, the sky cobalt, the grasses flowing over my feet, calves, tickling my knees in the constant wind, the heat pressed against my skin, almost dizzy with the sense that this was my place on earth. That the curves of my body were part of those vast rolling hills, with their waving oceans of  green and tan grass, their endless breathing of air.

I doubt I’ll ever choose either Utah or South Dakota as a place to live permanently. But they are home, because my heart was already there, waiting for me. This is a great mystery. Many of us, including me, say casually of these experiences, ‘I must have had another life there.’ We feel that we’re walking into echoes. I have no clear vision of how our energies mix in this universe as they come in and out of the plane we call life. Perhaps we’re part of a universal consciousness, potentially making all histories and stories our own. Though, if so, why do some places, people, situations so reverberate with us, while others don’t at all? Why do I find echoes in the prairie of South Dakota and the desert of southern Utah, but not in the mountains of neighbors Montana and Colorado?

fernan-lake-coeur-d'alene-idaho-by-betsey-crawford

Fernan Lake, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

In the past, I had the old saying backwards. I made a home I loved, and put my heart there. Now I see that enduring phrase also acknowledges the heart’s ‘homing’ ability — the resonance that tells us where home is, where our heart belongs. Right now I’m at home in Couer d’Alene, Idaho, because this where my son lives, and so part of my heart is always here.

kalientoI’m privileged to be able to live this mystery, to wander from place to place, finding echoes, surprises, beauty, wildflowers, companions. It’s both mildly antic and quite wonderful to travel through the world towing chairs and forks and my favorite rug, making home wherever I feel like it, wherever I’m drawn.

But I have a lot of company on this journey, whether on wheels or not, because we’re all living in moving homes, as we carry our hearts from place to place.

Camas-lily_Tubbs-Hill_Coeur-d'Alene-Idaho_by-Betsey-Crawford-

Idaho’s camas lily (Camassia quamash)

 

 

Moses in Utah

Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah by Betsey CrawfordMoses would have had a confusing time of it in southern Utah. Not only is every bush burning, but every rock and cliff face is on fire. The divine voice is everywhere in this extraordinary place. Moses’ question, ‘Who are you?’ would have had a thousand answers echoing off the canyon walls.

When I first drove into Utah, at the age of forty-six, it was a burning bush moment. I took one look at the red rocks, the cobalt sky, the silver sage, and said, ‘I will be back.’ I had no idea what I meant. I was living a life I held dear, raising the beloved 10-year-old boy who was with me, running a business I enjoyed much of the time, in a relationship I cherished, in a house I loved. Life was full of complications and challenges, as all lives are, but also rich and rewarding.

I was living roles that, by and large, worked for me at that point — mother, partner, lover, friend, daughter, creator — living by rules that I either accepted willingly (be a good mother) or tolerated (keep up with paperwork) or hoped soon to transcend (be nice all the time.) I was aware that there were more and more rules that were falling into the hope-to-transcend category, but it took ten years for the full roar to come through — I’m done! And another few years before I actually left a lot of it behind. Storm coming along roadside in southeastern Utah by Betsey CrawfordNow I’m here in Utah. I’ve driven through several times since 1997, but never stayed long enough to wander through the canyons day after day, smelling the deep, spicy, earthy scent of sage and juniper, having shadows from high, fluffy, bright white clouds wash over me, feet kicking up puffs of red dust as I walk, watching the bushes and rock walls burn.

When I was little I wondered why God chose a bush. Why not a tree? A mountain? A gigantic rock? I’d never seen a desert, where trees can be almost non-existent and bushes rare enough to make them extra holy. But there are tons of towering rocks.

Perhaps God was trying for scale. The God of the Old Testament seems undecided about his methods — tyranny? accessibility?  — and this approach to Moses conveniently combined the two: laying an enormous burden on him from a lowly bush.

Comb Ridge along Butler Wash, Bluff to Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordI’ve never had much truck for this God, the one with the personality of a Bronze Age warlord — vengeful, ferocious, completely unpredictable in both rare moments of tenderness and much more common moments of mayhem. But I will say this for him, those tablets had ten, just ten, pretty straightforward rules. A little self-serving, but overall, he did a good job at keeping it simple.

Then came Leviticus, an entire compendium of laws, 247 of them. Not content with that, various parts of the Old Testament added another 366 rules. Jesus handily reduced all this to two, but everyone completely ignored that part, because then Christianity began its own list, building on the earlier ones.

Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah by Betsey CrawfordCatholicism, the tradition I grew up in, had a lot of rules. The culture of the suburban 1950’s had their own set. My parents had a bunch to add to that. All of this made the squealing, giggling, mud-flinging, part piglet, part goddess energies of young girlhood seem increasingly dangerous, and I began to invent rules myself. I was a firecracker as a tiny girl, but after six I wasn’t a rebel. I wanted to be loved by my sad mother, not free of her. Love and safety seemed to lie in adopting the roles others asked of me. I stepped into my own shackles and turned the key.

Some of those roles — mother, sister, friend — made life worth living, even with their inevitable ups and downs. Some — daughter, good girl, caretaker — weighed heavily. Caretaker took over my life once my youngest sister was born, when I was ten, and my mother went to bed, loving, lost, depressed. It was the hardest of the roles to bear, and, since I defined myself by it, the hardest to allow myself to release.

Burning bush in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey CrawfordIf we are lucky, and live long enough, many of us can leave some of our roles and rules behind. Our children grow up. The aging parents we cared for pass beyond us. We leave work behind, houses behind. We go out into the desert, into the fires of southern Utah. The question changes. We have spent many years loving, caring, tending all the ‘you’s’ in our life. Now, when we see the burning bush, we take off our shoes, approach, and ask, “Who am I?’

Like God, we answer, ‘I am who I am.’ I am simply me. And now, after all this time, that is enough.

Butler Wash with a rainbow near Bluff, Utah by Betsey Crawford

There are more pictures of Utah in the Utah landscapes gallery.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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