One Night in a Cave

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Goldfield Mountains, A. Sato

This was the first time I had backpacked in years, and I could feel it. These muscles haven’t been in use in some time and, while I consider myself to be a decent hiker with good stamina, one mile with 30 pounds strapped to my back felt like ten. It didn’t help much since I had been impatient and packed quickly, and, of course, hauled in the water I would need for the night. I felt terribly inept, but stubborn enough to press on.

The cave wasn’t too far from the truck, maybe a mile or so. Besides, I had included my day pack for canyon exploration and would have time to trek around the side washes and rock outcrops I have come to know. The Goldfields are surprisingly isolated for being so close to the city and adjacent to the popular western Superstitions.

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Still Life, A. Sato

I am a wilderness snob, preferring wilderness to actually be wilderness. The western Supes feel much like the National Park atrocity of eager hikers waiting to break in their REI accoutrements and the endless number of Subarus and souped up jeeps in the parking lots. In a way, I kind of prefer the miners and ranchers. It’s sad to know that wilderness areas must be regulated now. Great efforts to keep their wilderness criteria intact is all but lacking. I have a feeling we’ll see ticket purchases and cotton candy at the gates soon.

Enough of my curmudgeon speculations…I am here and the sun is a strange orb of orange behind a microwavey cloud. This light makes it feel hotter than the 82 degrees, but I press on down the wash, careful to not tumble over with this damned pack. Lizards dart across hilltops and rest their one-two, one-two positions on hot rocks. A single red-tailed hawk floats overhead and behind Blue Ridge. A lone ATV sits parked in the wash. This, unlike the Superstition Wilderness, is strictly public land and there are numerous old jeep trails and abandoned mines all around. I’ve found that the OHV riders tend to stick to the popular roads and ignore much of the rest of the range.

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Mesquites, A. Sato

The Goldfields span from Usery Pass to the west to the Apache Trail to the east, north to Canyon Lake and south to the city of Apache Junction. To traverse the Goldfields, it’s approximately 14 miles in distance, east to west, which you can hike in a full day if you’re motivated to do so. I prefer to take my time here.

Winds and rain have swept out great crevices in the rhyolite and conglomerate along the canyon walls. The walls also contain polished chalcedony that shines in the right light, making an ordinary sandy wash quite lovely. Once into the canyon, the only noise you can hear is the jets going over. It is quiet in terms of man-made noise, but the ever-present songbirds and occasional raptor give way to another music.

Here, I am most content. The mindless chatter of my own thoughts dissipates and I settle in to noticing everything around me: small traces of a snake’s journey, the patterns of a thistle plant in full bloom, the intricacy of ironwood roots. I could get lost in reverie here, but know that this is not my place. It has its own hardships.

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Home for the Night

The desire to live outdoors is often fairytale. Realistically, after a few nights sleeping on rock, I am all too happy to return to my cozy bed. The voyeur in me is short-lived and the romance of the simple, off grid life is too often laced in self-deception. We are animals used to dependency, and rightly so. We need each other and the help that a community provides against our ego bravado that says otherwise. We die on our own. Sometimes horrible deaths. And being simple isn’t going to change the course of this civilization’s rush to destruction. It’s illusory, at best.

I lean down to inspect a piece of rusted pipe from former gold mining efforts. They must have pumped water down the wash for their operations. I suppose you could learn more about the short boom here at that little tourist town, Goldfields, along the Apache Trail. You know I won’t go.

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The sun is starting to set so I make my way back to the cave. It’s not really a cave, in all respects, but an overhang with a considerable amount of room in its three distinct caverns. I choose the one that is most exposed because it is dry and because I can actually see the floor. Of course, I will be sleeping amid mouse turds and guano, but it appears dry and I have my ground cloth. I chose the lightest pad and can feel the stone beneath me as I crouch down to make my dinner. The evening wind picks up and I feel chilled and grab my flannel. Heating up my soup, I hear the low murmur of an owl and see antelope squirrels emerge and run alongside the cliffs above me. They use the small holes in the rock as refuge during the day and are now out comically inching along the vertical steppes. I wish I was so agile and swift.

I had  plans to write tonight, but pick up a well worn copy of Plants of the Sonoran Desert field guide instead. I settle in as the wind picks up and moves around the contours of the cave. The thermals bring warmth from the sun-touched stones below. Could I live here? It seems like a viable option. I have little money and no plans, which is a combination that can lead to great adventure, or a deeper level of despair.

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I once gambled my life on bottles of whiskey and beer. A life that seemed well spent at the time, but now that I have emerged from that…I am chagrined to accept that I like a hot shower and a nice bed.

The night is a calm force. The bats resonate as they come into the cave and back out, devouring mosquitoes. I hear the soft hoof-steps of deer.

Oh, and crickets.

What do I know of sleeping in caves? It’s an easy venture when you know a truck awaits. I can dream of danger. Danger like a whisper, a concept I am not afraid of. In a few hours, after restless sleep, I will boil my coffee and head out. A night of quiet solitude, I can say, is as soothing as the touch of a lover, and just as fleeting.

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The author’s feet

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Solitude in the Goldfields

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Exploring new terrain is always exciting, but sometimes you only have a few hours to kill. The Superstitions seemed like a good bet, but I still shy away from the crowds and on Veterans Day, there was sure to be a crowd.

The Goldfield range, near Usery Pass and Saguaro Lake, is something I have always wanted to explore. Not as glamorous as the Supes, the Goldfields offer many of the same wonders of the volcanic complex to its east, but with less of an allure. It’s unusual for people to know the range, unless they’re outdoor enthusiasts from Apache Junction, or those who prefer solitude, even in the city.

Since the terrain is easy to explore with a topo, I decided to jump out around Willow Springs Wash and cross country my way southwest to the middle of the range, just north of Dome Mountain.

Here is what I experienced…

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I arrived just as the sun was starting to crest over the ridge, and – of course – it was insanely cold. I’ve never felt so cold in my life as I have in the desert in the fall and winter months. There is a quality to the cold unlike any of the humid places I’ve been during the winter. It’s like touching frozen metal.

Thankfully, I was quick to warm up by hiking up a steep ridge to gaze into the eye of the sun. Its warmth was immediate.

I looked around at the awaiting cacti, jojoba, and creosote. Everyone seemed to be waiting for this precise moment of sunlight splendor.

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It was a windy day and it seemed to drown out the few ATVs I could hear, probably over in the Bulldog Canyon OHV area. There are many jeep roads that transect much of the range. Relics of old mining roads, mines, pits, and former camps and equipment are what you can expect here. The sort of place you’d see burros and a rusted out Model T. I sadly saw neither.

As a matter of fact, I wondered why I hadn’t seen a soul, even a coyote, in over 3-4 miles. All I had for company was the wind.

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And more wind… and the eerie sense of knowing there were plenty of critters all around, but I couldn’t see them. I was able to spot a Cooper’s Hawk flying high above the tuff pinnacles. Seeing him added to the absolute hush of the morning. Even my footsteps were silent.

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Nearing the end of the jeep road, I decided to scramble down a side canyon. I had to bushwhack a bit to get down into the wash where former rains pooled in the deep sand and the grasses gave the path a rare delicacy that no desert ever really offers.

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Farther into the canyon, the walls began to narrow. I came across some old wildlife caches that have long since dried up. Moisture from the shade and rains produced unknown ferns, mosses, and lichens along the ground and canyon walls. Bobcat, coyote, and javelina tracks were visible, as well as skunk.

Dropping onto the canyon floor and over a large pool of murky water, I realized I probably wouldn’t be going any farther without technical gear to assist. The vertical drops were more than I could manage and more water to deal with. A good problem.

I already had a long trek of boulder hopping and butt sliding, so I was ready to climb back up to the ridge. (It’s interesting, if you are a rock nerd, to note that the canyon walls were smooth with chalcedony. Very pretty in the morning light.)

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Before making my way back to the car, I had a chance to take it all in. From Gonzales Needle to Golden Dome to Razorback Ridge. What a view. What beauty.

And NO PEOPLE.

My kind of hiking.

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So long, Goldfield range! I will be back in February for the wildflowers, and maybe an overnight somewhere down the canyons.

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Shooting Stars in the Sierra Ancha

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I recently returned from an overnight trip to the Sierra Ancha. This is a range that is close to my heart, because it was one I visited briefly during my first trip to Arizona after being gone for nearly 15 years.

As my friend Ellen likes to say, this place is special, sacred. You can feel it when you are here. Something of the ethereal is close to the skin. No wonder there are many sightings of monsters and ghosts, of messages on the wind and in strange dreams beneath glowing stars.

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We arrived in late morning, so I decided to hike down Rose Creek. Little did I expect, I encountered a small female bear. I was as stunned as she was. I have a certain level of fear about bears; they seem so unpredictable. Their demeanor can quickly change from aloof to threatening, and within seconds.

The bear looked at me, then Lily, my 13 pound dog. I realized that the only way out was to back up since we were surrounded by thick, thorny berry bushes. Lifting Lily high, we eased away, watching the coal black eyes look back at us. Thankfully, we escaped safely through the berry corridor.

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Roaming the back roads is always a part of any adventure that I consider an adventure, and Ellen and I set off for Buzzard Roost Canyon the next day. Rocking through the boulders and slopes, and down, down, down into the mouth of the canyon, we went far away from any human activity. Spotting perfect primitive camp sites and canyon songbirds lifting off of the schist and gneiss, what else is there but this?

 

Lying awake at midnight in my tent, listening to the soft steps of skunks along the creek, I am here. The immensity of the night sky overwhelms me. I wish for one star to fall. Minutes later, the blaze and the descent.

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Water in the desert is precious, and to find a flowing creek in the Sonoran is a magical thing. After miles of climbing and bumping down forest roads, we were delighted to find Spring Creek by way of Jerky Butte.

Even a shallow swimming hole can relieve a tired, hot traveler. I am a longtime traveler.

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Waking up at sunrise, I hiked along a new road that leads to a development that’s in an in-holding of the national forest. The illuminated cliffs of the Sierra Ancha Mountains caught first light. Being in deep canyons feels like I am returning to the quiet, still place where my true self emerges. The light shines on these places, but it occurs one hour at a time.

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If you pay close attention on any walk, you will notice things. Small things that can make you wonder why you ever thought you were alone.

 


Fall is my favorite season, which feels like a mere two weeks in AZ. I do love the winter months here, but sometimes I miss those real two-three months of serious autumn that I experienced in Indiana. The kind that reminds me of the fall foliage of my birthplace, the sound of the wood stove’s cracks-and-pops, feeling chilly enough to put on an extra big flannel shirt when the sun sets, and that deep, pungent odor of decay.

I savor it when I am in the mountains.

 

As with any range, a person can spend an entire lifetime exploring and never fully get a complete picture of all of its secrets. And, isn’t that the point, really, to know that a place is composed of so much enchantment it is impossible to contain?

When the disciples asked Jesus when the new world will come, he replied, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it.” There is no outside heaven or planetary escape of tech fantasy. This is it. This is the kingdom.

I hope to continue to recognize it for years to come.

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Guerrilla Budgeting, Desert Dreaming, and Other Life Changes

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Colcord Mountain – A. Sato

If happiness is the absence of suffering, then the end of summer here in Phoenix means I am a slap happy fool.

The mornings are now in the high 60s-70 degree range. The birds are back to joyous morning arias. The oleander outside my window is heavy with white blossoms. And, here I am with all of my desert topographic maps spread across the floor, finally feeling like sweaty is no longer my daily adjective.

There are plans on the horizon to trek across some formidable volcanic landscapes, to befriend a few places unknown. I look forward to getting into solo backpacking and hiking again – both a tinge unnerving and blissfully unblemished by “company”.

Somewhere out there - A. Sato
Somewhere out there – A. Sato

I’ll admit to being a curmudgeon. I find it harder these days to find consistent company I enjoy when I am outdoors – and forget about hiking groups. Of course, being alone comes with its risks – a twisted ankle, a wacko on the trail, being dragged off by the Mogollon Monster (now, that would be a story). Still, I have made it this far, and there are precautions I always take.IMG_4698

But, when I am alone I notice things – things I might not notice otherwise. I am more aware, more alive in my senses.

I’ve learned to be content with my isolation, so that when I can share my time with others, it feels right, not forced.

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Along with planning upcoming desert adventures, I have revived my voluntary simplicity group here in the Valley of the Sun. I’ve done this for a few reasons – first, I like idea-sharing, especially when it comes to cheap/free resources – and second, I need to be motivated on order to make next spring’s plans come to fruition.

Really, next spring is a carry-over from last spring’s dead-in-the-water plan to get out of Phoenix by way of some type of off-grid or nomadic lifestyle. This entails quite a bit of planning and the purchase of a truck. Ideally, I would like to find a group of other off-grid, low impact types to form a resource-sharing community of sorts.

Knowing others who share my approach to living is important. And, I recognize this and grapple with being a contrary isolationist (see above) versus someone who longs for a community and family.

I also have accepted that I need some initial seed money.

I mean, I could go live in a cave somewhere (and, I could – see below), but that wouldn’t allow me to participate in a land purchase, buy building materials, take care of my furry companions who count on me for food, vet care, etc., and gather together the resources to get out of here and reestablish elsewhere.

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Despite being fascinated with those who choose a cash-free existence, I also acknowledge that supreme sacrifice as being counterproductive to my objectives and responsibilities. I recognize some cash flow is necessary and also will help get me to the point of greater self-sufficiency.

So, I need to look at this time in Phoenix as an incubation period.

My options are to go back to corporate marketing (stabs self in neck) or I could split time between maintaining my freelancing workload and adding PT nonprofit hours.

The quandary I have been pondering is how to do what I would like to do as cheaply as possible while continuing to freelance and wander around (what I love).

I have lived on $12-15K before and without trying all that hard (I am my Depression era grandparents’ granddaughter, for sure).

Looking at my low impact life plans, I can see where my $ is going:

* Higher cost of living in a downtown urban center
* Convenience foods/specialty foods
* Entertainment/eating out
* Healthcare/insurance for self, cat, and dog
* Car maintenance and gas (no car payment, but an old car needs lots of TLC)

Given there is room for cost reduction in each of these, I’m hoping to get a solid group of low impact-minded individuals together to share those important ideas and resources, and perhaps even do a little bit of bartering.

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Imagination is free – a child’s offering to the forest fey

All of this is to say, The Wild Muse will be a place where I will share my experiences going as low impact, off-grid, and feral-girl as possible, along with stories of my usual shenanigans in the wild.

If you are interested in tagging along for the ride, follow my blog or bookmark for future tales of joy and foibles.

Reframing Belief and Prosperity

 

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I am standing on a rhyolite cliff looking at a fresh pile of bear dung. Not a pretty way to start a story, I know, but this is where it begins. It’s 8am and the sun has started to burn away the clouds that line the canyons and valleys below. A lone Steller’s Jay decides to announce his presence, then his displeasure with mine. His streak of black-tipped feathers against a strikingly cobalt body remind me of clubs in Toronto where hair and body never quite took on the proper colors and textures. I bend down to survey the pile before me… the bear must have been here within the last hour. It’s not that ominous a scene, however. The Sierra Ancha mountain range is full of black bears, deer, mountain lions and other woodland mammals. Although I have never actually seen a bear here, I have seen their tracks, their scat and their tell-tale scratch marks. It’s an honest place to be.

For three hours, I sat in my tent looking at a deluge that washed over the ridge. There wasn’t much to do in those moments but kick back, read or think. In this case, I opted for the latter. Looking out on damp pine needles, my mind wandered to the themes that are most pressing in my life. Those themes that keep me up at night in the city, but are soon diminished in the cold, damp and windy confines of these high cliffs. It isn’t like they disappear entirely… no, but they don’t suffocate me. They are like the damp pine needles. I just see them and notice their presence. For the past two years, I have felt a building ache in my heart. It started as a married woman. I had dreams of escaping the city with my partner, reluctant dreams. Now, as I am – alone and in flux – I want to do things that I have never before attempted to do.

For one, I am done trying to live my life by anyone’s measuring stick – friend, companion or otherwise. I am also done carrying secrets – mine or any else’s. I do not wish to control or judge; I simply want to be free to live as honestly as I can. I understand that I will lose friends over this. I know it will be uncomfortable for some to accept what I am about to embark upon. Frankly, I am old enough to know it isn’t passive-aggression or rebellious behavior. I just decided I am tired of being a part of an assembly line lifestyle I don’t and never did want.

None of these statements are particularly revolutionary. Many more choose the off grid or simple life: activists, Buddhists, seekers, iconoclasts, etc.. For some reason, though, I have found it difficult to find those who relate to my vision. I meet many people who are on a spiritual path or a path to recovery or healing, yet they still seek the same societal end-means that the rest seek. I am not a believer in the Promise. I do believe that our thoughts impact our perceptions and experiences, and possibly even our outcomes, if external factors align and we are blessed to reside in a country and time that upholds these principles. I still believe in work, direction, movement and animal truth.

This brings me to prosperity. One of the pinnacle reasons I avoid “abundance” as a movement is that it is rooted in the outward rather than how one feels and the quality of experience and character. Plenty of people buy into the idea that if they “positive think” everything, they will be gifted material rewards – usually in the form of entrepreneurial endeavors or independence from wage slavery. The focus is on the monetary compensation that will arrive if they magic-think it so. Abundance thinking has never been outlaw thinking. If anything, it upholds the systems that demand us to believe poor people or those who have experienced hardship haven’t opened up to the power of the universe or simply have a bad attitude. It does not question why some people acquire yet abuse their possessions and power. It also is nation-centric in that the basic premise is that an individual naturally is equipped with a wide variety of choices. It ignores famine, captivity, disease, oppression, slavery and war. By logical deduction, if blessings are created by positive thoughts than hardships must be equated with negative thoughts. If one has control over prosperity than one must also have mastery over poverty. Hmm… sounds like familiar rhetoric, doesn’t it?

One of the reasons I love being in wild places is how it brings me down to the most basic element of being alive: I want to bJuly13dump 319e alive. If I believe I am the most powerful animal in the forest and go about my delusion foolishly, I may get injured or die. It doesn’t matter how much I believe I am the master of my universe, or that Christ or some other deity will protect me; life soon finds a way to subterfuge my beliefs with a mortality wheel I have no means of stopping. In this state of utter surrender, one can be truly prosperous and totally authentic. By understanding the limits of my beliefs and ideas, feelings and thoughts, I can work within a larger framework that includes everything around me: other life, stone, earth, stories. In including everything around me as abundance, I also embrace death and disease, the occasional let-down, loss and missed opportunity.

One of the most fundamental ways of cultivating abundance is through connection. My desire to disengage in the “game of getting ahead” is largely informed by a very human desire to connect. Being a part of a career puts me in isolated odds, whereas serving the community relates to the larger whole. Abundance, ultimately, is rooted in contentment and happiness, comfort and safety. False ideologies will have us believe these can be attained through competition and cultivating our authentic selves. But what are we without others?

Whether we shroud ourselves in an illusion of isolation and self-sufficiency or we desperately seek validation from others, we are still suffering from the same malady to validate our time here on earth. But the most basic beauty is that we all are alive and a part of this life. Just by going outside and noticing the plants and animals in our yard, we can understand that our goals are just as basic as the those of birds and the plants. We are a part of the whole of this dying process, despite our thinking lives, and are here for a very short time. It really doesn’t matter what we believe. The reality is, we are not that unique. Our creature sense wants the same basic things: warmth, food, shelter, the softness of other animals.

What is comes down to is making peace with a lack of control and uniqueness. Imagine the possibilities of being with rather than against. What would our lives feel like if we were more communal than opposing? If we walked among the trees and moss and felt no need to stand apart.

Life is fragile; our own lives are rife with threat and potential. Maybe there is less to do than we think. Maybe sitting on the edge of a cliff and watching the sun rise is a fine way to live. Let us embrace our commonalities and know abundance lives in the place where understanding meets fearlessness, where enough is good, really good.

Lessons in Awareness

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I was about to write this particular blog post for a separate, intermittent poetry journal to keep it from going completely dormant. I thought, because this post is about INTUITION and the SENSES and how I have come to a deeper awareness of both when in the wild, these topics would somehow seem too esoteric, too emotional, and God forbid, too poetic for an environmental blog. I thought there must be some figurative border wall between writing passionately and writing logically.

But I stopped myself from indulging this undue separation of wild lands and wild feeling. After all, isn’t it that we are drawn to the wild because it sings to us and coaxes us out, so we can enjoy its peace, its healing, its sensory gifts?
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I have had several dreams recently of a fox. Usually, the fox in question is running through trees, alongside my car, or in thick brush. When I notice him; I wake up…

This past Saturday night was spent winter camping in the Sierra Ancha’s, a range just northeast of Phoenix, above the Tonto Basin. Winter camping in Arizona isn’t quite as intense an experience as in areas with lots of snow and threat of avalanche, but certainly a winter camper in the mountains here will meet nights of below freezing temps and winds, snow hugging north-facing slopes, and an icy dampness across the earth. I knew the experience of camping in the Ancha’s would be uncomfortable and in that discomfort, I dreamed of connecting more, sensing more, and physically challenging myself to make adjustments or adapt.

Our arrival on Saturday morning was pleasant. The thermometer read mid-50s and sunshine poured through winter branches and warmed rocks. Few people were on trails or forest roads. So, into the perimeter of the Sierra Ancha Wilderness we went – a friend and I – seeking solitude in the hidden joys of the low season. As we hiked up to a waterfall — just a ridge away from where Edward Abbey spent time in a fire lookout during the late 60s — the air filled our lungs and nostrils with the metallic scent of snow.  And, yes, snow has a scent. I never thought of this before, but it does: a mixture of soil and decomposed rock (minerals). This was the first lesson in sensory perception.

Making our way back to camp, the puddles and creeks bore the impression of the impending night and subsequent coldness ahead of us. Ice crystals clung to the banks and fractured layers of ice topped Rose Creek. With our fire lit and our bellies full, we watched the western light diminish above us, as we prepared for the night and took an extra sweep across the site to ensure no crumbs or bits of food remained.

Deep under the covers, I listened; first, to the sound of running water, and then to the careful steps of small hooves passing near the tents. Reading and journaling, I noticed the chill of the air on my exposed face and fingers. My breath fogged my glasses. Condensation dampened my wool blanket, above another blanket and my winter grade bag. How infrequent it is that I should feel this cold. A night unprepared in the woods leaves an indelible impression. ( I never camp without back up blankets and layers this time of year. ) Some time later, I would crawl out and seek gloves and a hat… and much later, another pair of socks.

As I dreamed beneath the pines, the forest remained alive, vigilant, and pulsing. Some animals roamed and rooted; some animals were sleeping also. The creek fell to a quiet murmur as the night passed.
 
Around 6am, I awoke to the proud yaps and eventual serenade of a coyote above the ridge. Within seconds of his finale, the sun broke the darkness. Did he sense the coming break of dawn? Peering out into the morning, I noticed fox tracks near my tent and I recollected the sounds of the night. Deer was identified, as was the bravado of coyote. But fox… no sounds, no sighting. Clever fox, slipping between day and night, never loses awareness, yet eludes us in our lack thereof.

A night of winter camping brings me into myself, tingles my skin, and perks up my ears. Fox sense can be described as the ability to discernibly perceive, to see but not be seen. Fox teaches the importance of blending in and remaining aware. I can think of no greater lesson in perception and adaptability. I humbly give thanks to both teachers: Winter Season and Fox.