Sometime in April as the pandemic slowly ground the life I knew to a halt, and as I found myself in the midst of cancelling/rescheduling and then re-cancelling most of my work and spring, summer and fall plans, Stud called up Baxter State Park on a whim and was able to reserve us a lean-to at Chimney Pond for mid July. These lean-to campsites are highly coveted and very hard to get. I’ve been there a couple times but not in almost a decade and I recall having to mail in a reservation request with 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice dates exactly 4 months in advance to the day.
Stud just so happen to call in the exact right moment and speak with a ranger who was working from home and was able to book us a lean-to Chimney Pond for 3 nights in July. I could hardly take in the news and had no idea what July would look like and if we’d even be able to go under the pandemic circumstances. We watched the covid-19 cases and death toll rise and fall in Massachusetts as well as neighboring states while following along with protocol updates with the various trail systems in the state and national parks and forests of the northeast. We read about entitled AT hikers who defied all rules and protocols running from rangers into closed parks as we carefully deciphered whether or not we could ethically go to Katahdin in July in a safe-ish rule-abiding way. We processed the crap out of our potential plans with our partners and the four of us got together and talk it through in the 6 weeks leading up to it.
On July 1st Baxter State Park opened for day use and then a week later, they were open for camping. Maine issued a “Keep Maine Healthy” plan requiring all out-of-staters to either get tested for covid-19 before traveling to Maine and bring proof of a negative test result taken within 3 days of arrival (72 hours) or quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. We went and got tested together on a Wednesday afternoon so that our results would be valid for our Saturday afternoon check-in. Our negative test results came in on time and we rejoiced and started packing.
Stud picked me up early Saturday morning and we hugged for the first time since February which is likely the longest I’ve ever not hugged Stud since we met 15 years ago. This would be my first car ride with anyone other than my partner and it was very exciting. There was no traffic and we stopped at a few rest stops feeling nervous about how we might be perceived wearing masks since most people in New Hampshire in Maine were not wearing masks and we’ve heard stories about people getting harassed for wearing masks in some areas. But it was all very chill and no one bothered us and there were very few people traveling so our normal but extra elevated public bathroom anxiety lessened as our journey continued. We had a full cooler with all the food we needed for the next 5 days and thus avoided going into any of small towns only stopping at rest stops to use the bathroom.
Shortly after passing Millinocket, Maine, the last town before heading into the wilderness, I was delighted to see my phone no longer had service. As I put my phone on airplane mode, I vowed to not take for granted this gift and absolute privilege of being able to unplug for a few days in the backcountry.
We pulled into Baxter State Park in the early afternoon clutching our negative covid-19 test results along with our signed Certificate of Compliance as requested on Maine.gov but no one asked us for any of it. The masked ranger who checked us in at the toll gate’s only concern was our plan to hike North Brother Mountain the next day in the rain. He sent us on our way and we drove the 20 mile an hour dirt tote road counter clockwise thru the park towards Nesowadnehunk Field Campground where we’d be staying for 1 night before hiking North Brother Mountain and then making our way onward to Chimney Pond.
It was maybe 1pm as we drove past the trailhead for North Brother, I thew out the possibility of us maybe just going for it and hiking it right then. I did the math and calculated that if we started now, we’d be back down by 8 or 9pm and would maybe have to hike the last mile or 2 in by headlamp which seemed kinda fun. For a moment we looked at each other and tried to imagine it but it was kind of late for an unknown 9-miler and the weather was iffy for an exposed alpine summit and were a bit anxious and unsettled so we continued on to Nesowadnehunk as planned where we took a long walk before settling into our lean-to where we set up this massive bug net that Stud pulled out making a bug net box inside the lean-to and then we played a few rounds of yahtzee before having a 4pm dinner from our cooler and attempting to make a fire between the the rain showers. We were in our sleeping bags by 5pm processing about life, racial justice, social media, covid-19, work, queerness, relationships and like everything and anything that was occupying our minds. Then Stud read to me from Jurassic Park. We reminded each other that summiting mountains was not the most important thing and that we were just so happy to be in such a beautiful wild place that was quiet and smelled really good. We watched the lightening bugs light up the field as we wondered what tomorrow would bring before slowly drifting off to sleep.
In this interview with Boston Voyager I tell my story about discovering hiking as a form of healing and eventually becoming a Forest Therapy Guide: http://bostonvoyager.com/interview/meet-tam-willey-toadstool-walks-jamaica-plain/
I am now a Certified Forest Therapy Guide. I have successfully completed a six month practicum beginning with an 8-day training and followed by a list of assignments that included a bunch of practice Forest Therapy Walks, plants studies, mapping, drawing, journaling and writing. I had monthly phone meetings with my fellow cohorts, my mentor, my co-mentor and other mentor. I created a new website, business cards and joined social media (instagram and facebook) after being off-line for about 5 years. Thus I have reconnected with various folks I have known over the years and have been vigilantly networking, making new connections and trying to get the word out about Toadstool Walks and trying to find community and support around this new offering. The response has been amazing so far.
All the while, I’m still envisioning the who’s, what’s, why’s, how’s and where’s. I’m throwing myself off the cliff constantly catapulting myself forward without perfect clarity. I’m rewriting content after I’ve sent it. I’m approaching land managers and proposing imperfect pitches. I’m fighting my analysis paralysis and trying to trust the process. Meanwhile, I continue to support myself as Handy Tam and try to understand what that is all about and who I am and what is my purpose and how did I get here and what is possible. Its not been a super clean streamline process despite how it may look. It has ripped me open at times. I have been held up by my inner circle (my girlfriend, closest pals, and a few folks I’ve met thru my training.) I have poured my heart and soul into this…sometimes a little too much.
In conclusion, it has been a fun, challenging, and vulnerable process. I had a Threshold Ceremony a couple weeks ago to formalize things. I have a graduation call coming up and an actual Certificate being made and mailed which I will proudly frame and hang on my wall next to my End-To-End Long Trail Certificate. I am so so so grateful.
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Today I turned 39 years young. To celebrate I am getting Wilderness First Aid Certified! It’s a 16 hour long class broken into 2 days. The Nols instructors are talented make-up artists and cover us with bruises and cuts and fake blood. Then we do lots of simulated backcountry accident scenarios in which we practice newly learned wilderness medicine tools by assessing various circumstances, checking vital signs and determining injuries and arranging emergency evacuations.
It’s a weird thing to do on my birthday that was just when the timing worked. I wanted to do it close to home and this session takes place at the Boston Audubon Nature Preserve in Mattapan. It’s a beautiful place and we do lots of the training outside lying in the grass pretending to be disoriented and dehydrated. It’s pretty funny but also kinda stressful. It’s a lot to remember but I have to say I do feel empowered having the knowledge.
After my long first day of wilderness medicine training I came home to a festive birthday dinner with my dear ones and some really sweet gifts.
8 more hours of backcountry life saving skills tomorrow and then I’ll be certified!
Lets talk about “Monorail”. Not fast elevated train but rather the slow lingering snow and ice pack along mountain hiking trails that thaw and refreeze and thaw and refreeze creating a thin edge that one must walk on like a balance beam if one wants to hike in the White Mountains in May.
The White Mountain Trail reports are currently filled with descriptions of mud, ice, high water, and “unstable monorail” meaning that this snowy balance beam is melting and during this time, it is easy to fall off of it or sink in it. Its not like a huge cliff or anything but its like this weird added obstacle to trails to that are already seriously challenging in terms of rocks, roots, steepness, exposure, etc…
While there is still snow in New Hampshire, and while the summit of Mt Washington got a few new feet just last week, overall there is not enough snow for snow shoes yet whats left of the snow can be a little mushy so potholing is still a thing (meaning, when your foot sinks thru the snow).
Regardless, hikers are out there at all times of the year in all conditions and some of them write detailed trail reports daily describing the “monorail”, mud, ice, wet/slick/water on trail. I use these trail reports to help make decisions about whether or not to go for it and to get a sense of what to expect seasonally.. I try to avoid hiking in the spring because I don’t really enjoy taking my micro spikes on and off 100 times or sinking in deep mud and navigating melty monorail. I did enjoy some of the winter hikes I did this past season where there was a nice snow packed trail and I could just put on my spikes and keep them on. If theres fresh snow I prefer cross country skiing to snowshoe hiking. Once the snow melts I prefer to wait for a dryer trail which means late May but really June. I’ve also been waiting for the perfect combination of a warmer ocean, sunshine and waves to dust off my surfboard and flail around at sea.
In the meantime, while I keep a close eye on the surf reports and the New Hampshire Trail reports I take many walks in my local Arboretum and sometimes in the nearby Blue Hills. Spring in Boston is blowing my mind. I’ve been watching the buds break open, the conifers growing baby red pinecones, the bees pollenating, the ants eating the sugars, the hawks and cardinals and robins forage for food, the waters rise and fall. The changes are fast. If I miss too many days in a row of visiting the Arboretum I feel uneasy. I watched the lilacs bud and bloom day to day and enjoyed them under bright blue skies in full peak bloom before they quickly withered away. Oh impermanence! How you keep my eyes glassy!
The other thing I am doing right now is working as much as I can. I’m saving up for something big in addition to wanting to free myself up this summer in order to hike and surf and be outside enjoying beautiful New England for all its summer glory. As I climb up and down my ladder I imagine that I am training for the mountains.
On my lunch breaks I scroll thru my phone and live vicariously through a few long distance hiking blogs. More specifically, I am following Little Bear Stumbles who I met on the Long Trail last summer. Little Bear is currently hiking Northbound on the Appalachian Trail from Harpers Ferry. I’m hoping I might bump into Little Bear on the trail once she makes it up to New England!
I’m also following Scissors who I met in Portland Oregon on my recent visit. Scissors is hiking Northbound on the Pacific Crest Trail and writes from the experience of being queer, femme and having never gone backpacking before. She is totally entertaining and inspiring!
I got big plans in the works and a lot to look forward to. Trying to stay present and grounded even though my head wants to float up to outer space. Today I smeared some Norway Spruce sap all over my hat on a morning walk so I could take some coniferous goodness with me back to my many tasks to remind me to be grateful and here. Fortunately sap is very sticky.
For the past 18 years I have had the incredible privilege of living within walking distance to the Arnold Arboretum. As I grow and evolve I notice so much more and wonder how I never saw all that I see now. I’ve been watching closely as the buds bud and start to break into flowers and leaves. It’s amazing. I befriended a black oak tree and leaned against it resting the crown of my head under the thickest longest branch expressing my deepest gratitude for this old lonely-seeming tree that gave me so much comfort.
Street Magic #1:
I walk out to my car in the pouring rain and find a note under my windshield wiper carefully wrapped up in a plastic bag so it won’t get wet. It was from someone who believed they left a scratch on my rear left bumper. They apologized and left me their phone number in case it was an issue. I looked at my bumper and laughed cuz it has scratches all over it as a bumper should. I tend to think of my car like a skateboard. It’s a mode of transportation and I don’t care if it gets beat to shit so long it runs and can get me to the mountains and the ocean and get my tools to my jobs. I’ve just never really been into cars in that way. My dream car had always been more practical than shiny. For me it’s simply a tool…and truly incredible to own one. I am often awestruck that I get to own one of these machines…but I don’t really care that much what it looks like.
So I text the number and thank this brave and honest stranger. I explain that I am not at all concerned about scratches on my bumper. I thanked them for giving me a restored faith in humanity and asked if I could buy them a cup of coffee or something to express my gratitude.
They wrote back! They expressed a shared restored faith in humanity and agreed to let me buy them coffee. So we met up at a cafe a few days later and she turned out to be an herb farmer and brought me a jar of herbs which had all kinds of personal significance and relevance to various things going on in my life…particularly the oats that were in that jar…that were part of the tea…that when harvested early promote a calming a effect.
We sipped our coffee and talked about the trials and tribulations of being tiny business owners. We talked about the earth, farming, evolution and politics. We talked about other local farmers that we both know and we networked about ideas and dreams.
Street Magic #2:
My pal Stud’s birthday is coming up. We are going to attempt a huge hike on her actual birthday. In the meantime I had this thought hit me this weekend where I imagined how fun it would be to try to get her some Red Sox tickets as a birthday present. Stud enjoys a baseball game at Fenway Park and has been known to spontaneously buy herself a ticket and take herself to a game. I have been known to join Stud every couple of years for a game as well. I am not much of a Red Sox fan nor am I much of a sports fan in general but there is something really fun and magical and nostalgic about Fenway Park and I’ve had some fun moments in the bleachers. The last time I sat in the bleachers with Stud we watched this drunk dude being obnocious and yelling and waving his arms annoying all his neighbors. Finally some dude a few rows back yellws at him, “Hey! Sit down ya fuckin mahshmellow!” Drunk dude turns around in slow motion and comes back with, “You calling me a fuckin mahshmellow?!” Security was on that shit and escorted the guy out pretty quick.
Approximately two hours after thinking the thought of how fun it would be to get baseball tickets for Studs birthday, a random stranger approached me and asked me if I wanted some Red Sox tickets. Like literally the same morning I wondered if I could get tickets, they just appeared in my hand…This guy was traveling from out of town and bought really good seats for a game that got rained out and he had to leave town before the rescheduled game and he literally just walked by me sitting on my stoop and asked me if I wanted them. What?! They are first row lodge box seats at first base and I have definitely never sat that close to the action before. So Stud and I are going to go to this baseball game in the middle of the afternoon….and it’s suppose to be sunny.
Street Magic is real.