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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Hiking in this kind of cold does things to a body that are counterproductive. Unlike say… hot yoga (for example) where heat is used to softens things, in below zero tempts everything seizes up and within 10 minutes my hip flexers feel like frozen elastics and my legs are like lead. I am confused by what is happening to my body and taken back by how incredibly hard this hike is feeling so far. 20 minutes in, I am relieved to find myself finally warming up and I begin the delayering process. After a handful of costume changes and stops and starts we finally find our groove and fall into rhythm stopping to eat and drink every 20-30 minutes. Our water bottles keep freezing shut even though we keep them upside down in our packs but the ice keeps forming around the top so every time I manage to just barely get mine open I drink a little extra just in case I won’t get it open the next time.
We reach the final cut-off and cross through a very cold steep section. There are some snow drifts but nothing too deep that requires more than our spikes. It was here that I have my first thoughts of turning around. I can’t remember the last time I considered turning around but I am just so cold we are headed towards an exposed ridge line where things will only get colder and more windy. I am concerned so I let go of the expectation that we will summit anything today and I shift my focus to simply taking in the frozen forest atmosphere. It is truly magnificent and I relax into it all.
We start to see some blue through the trees. The frosty moss glistens and we begin to bliss out. There is this magic that happens when the trail starts to shift from a constant steep grade into a mellow foot path. We have reached the ridge and we are now comfortably walking thru an eerily quiet alpine forest just before we will soon reach the tree line and cross this threshold onto a new planet. Our endorphins are pumping and we know we are close but not sure how close. We pause a few times to look at each other and smile and we suddenly know why we are here and what this is all about. Its not about the summit anymore, its ALL about this last bit of alpine forest before the alpine zone.
As we come around a last corner of scraggly snow caked trees, I pull on my shell, tighten up my straps and we head up and out onto the exposed ridge. This is my first time above tree line in winter in the White Mountains and my mind is blown. With each step forward I remind myself where I am. I am following Studs footsteps when she suddenly stops and turns around to ask if we are still on the trail. I glance around and say yes. We go a little further and realize we are not on the trail, have not been on the trail and are not sure where the even trail is.
This is how things can start to go downhill. This is how the infamous stories start. There are no blazes because its winter and they are covered. All you have are footsteps which can quickly disappear if the wind were to blow a snow drift over them. A compass can help if you have taken the time to set that up before being exposed.
We pause, we look around, we take note of where we came from. We both realize we need to climb to higher ground to see where we are but we aren’t sure. We both have the same thought that one of us should stay put while the other goes up a little ways to take a look around when Stud says it aloud and asks if I will stay where I am while she climbs ahead. I say yes. Stud hesitates and we process this for a second and debate if this is the right thing to do. I announce that I feel good and that I have all my faculties and it makes sense and I am clear on where we came in from and that she should go up and look while I stay here so we don’t both get lost. I watch her climb up ahead and then she keeps going a little further until just like that, she’s out of my sight. We hadn’t processed this possibility. And now I am alone. My stomach drops and I can feel the invitation to panic but I don’t. I look around and I say a little prayer and I think about my girlfriend and I decide that I will stay safe, be smart and not do anything too stupid. I want to run after Stud but I don’t. I decide that if I don’t see Stud’s head pop back into view in about 30 seconds that I will run after her. Meanwhile Stud realizes that she has gone farther then she intended and turns around only to realize she can’t see me. She races back into view and waves for me to come up. I run towards her up the rime ice digging my micro spikes in as my adrenaline is shooting through the roof. We find the trail and charge towards the summit. Stud says she too freaked out when she realized she had gone just beyond being able to see me. We acknowledge this two minute moment of terror and we hug. We are relieved to be okay and we’ve made it to the top. We’ve summitted Pierce and its so dang beautiful! We look across the ridge at Mount Eisenhower. Originally we had planned on trying to summit this today as well. But this ridge is way too intense to hang out on for any longer so we snap some pics and then run back down towards the shelter of the trees.
Once we are below tree line we are high on adrenaline and we can not stop screaming. We half jog down the mountain for maybe two miles before finally collapsing on the trail for a break. Stud’s water bottle is now completely frozen at the top and I can just barely get mine open but I have plenty to share and we take turns chugging the icy water. I take my gloves off for about two seconds to open a bar and just like that I can feel the threat of frostbite grazing my finger tips and quickly put my gloves back on. I lay down in the middle of the trail letting my legs recharge before we continue down. We pass a total of 4 hikers by the time we reach the windswept parking lot of the Highland Center where we are so grateful head inside to a heated shelter to change. Cotton has never felt so good.
What is Reciprocity?
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
I’ll refer to this tree by the name ‘Ash,’ and I will use ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ pronouns for Ash since we don’t have an animate word for “it” in the English language. Using inclusive language helps me pay closer attention. My path towards creating an ongoing practice of land reciprocity started in a human-centric world exploring race, class, gender, privilege, and the various -isms and phobias that perpetuate views of superiority and inferiority. As I continue to unpack my Western conditioning as a white American of Eastern and Western European descent, I find myself peeling back the layers of human dominance. By referring to Ash as ‘it,’ I fail to acknowledge that Ash is a living, breathing, animate being.
-David Abram, The Spell of The Sensuous
Respectfully, I began to introduce myself to Ash in my own quiet way without spoken language. I acknowledged Ash’s place in the forest and looked around, taking in the mushrooms and leaves and dry stream bed nearby. I reached my hand out and explored the woven textures of Ash’s bark, following the pattern with my gaze up into the impossibly high canopy, ablaze in sunlight. I then looked down and wondered how deep Ash’s roots went below the surface. Were they as deep as Ash was tall? Was Ash photosynthesizing right in front of my very eyes?
I stopped critiquing my conversation with Ash and began asking for support in bringing my best self to this training by being an active participant and not hiding in the shadows of self-doubt. I had been anxious about the training and meeting a group of strangers, an issue that only arises in the human world. In the forest, no one questions my gender or identity and I am reminded that I am natural and connected to the earth. Part of what drew me to wanting to become a Forest Therapy Guide is to be able to hold space for others who have internalized feelings of being unnatural, separate from, or even wrong.
I stepped back from Ash looking up and down and around, wondering what I could possibly offer and if it would be good enough. I leaned in and exhaled purposefully into the weave of Ash’s bark, offering a few dozen concentrated blasts of my carbon dioxide. I felt my heart rate slow and thanked Ash in my own way until the sound of a crow call told me it was time to say goodbye.
Guiding a Forest Therapy Walk is a practice of reciprocity in and of itself. From start to finish, there are many opportunities to listen, notice, acknowledge, ask, and give. I always ask the land for support before I guide a walk. I might ask for qualities like self-assurance, clarity, openness and patience. I recently asked an elder Cedar of Lebanon evergreen for support in remembering all the informational details I intended to share with my walk participants. As I asked for this clarity of mind, a small sprig dropped down from high up in the canopy, bouncing off on my head and onto the ground. I picked them up and tucked the little one into the fold of my hat, offering back a personal gesture of gratitude in the form of a bow. During that walk, whenever I found myself nervous or lost, I touched my hat, feeling for the cedar sprig. Later that day, I had a strong urge to pass on this little cedar sprig to another human. I listened to the message and gave the offering.
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
For more information about Tam, visit her website: ToadstoolWalks.com
I recently wrote this blog piece for the Arnold Arboretum:
by Guest Writer: Tam Willey, Forest Therapy Guide in Practicum
October 31, 2017
When is the last time you took a long leisurely walk in a natural setting? Or sat under a tree and observed the many stories playing out in nature? Have you ever considered that when you touch a tree, perhaps this tree is simultaneously touching you? As humans industrialize at lightning speed, we have become more and more disconnected from the natural world – to the point where the term “tree hugger” is a derogatory put down.
Living in our urban, modern, industrialized civilization can be stressful. The cacophony of our phones, cars, computers, planes, trucks, barking dogs, crying babies, construction vehicles, machinery, yelling, and sirens can wreak havoc on our nervous systems. When we are stressed on a regular basis, we increase our risk for stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, headaches, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, moodiness and other mental impairments. Walking leisurely and sitting under trees not only helps us unplug and catch our breath, but it has also been medically proven to treat stress-related illnesses.
“Shinrin-Yoku” which translates to “Forest Bathing”, was coined in Japan in the 1980’s where infrastructure has been developed around specific forested trails to support wellness. Shinrin-Yoku is a prominent feature of preventative medicine and healing in Japan. It is practiced at designated Forest Therapy trails where visitors are met by medical and research teams that keep track of blood pressure and collect other data during the walk in order to show concrete evidence of the healing and preventative benefits.” Over thirty years later, there is a plethora of research studies showing how spending time relaxing in nature reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels, increases natural killer disease-fighting cells, increases energy, improves sleep and supports overall well-being. You can find a list of these studies here:http://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/the-science.html
I first learned about Forest Bathing/Shinrin-yoku on a day-long outdoor retreat I had signed up for through a local meditation center in Boston. I had no idea what to expect. We walked into the forest slower than I had ever walked and as we were guided through a series of gentle sensory opening prompts, I found my awareness expanding in profound ways. Even though I had previously spent extensive time outside, I had never experienced such the gamut of emotion and immersion within 15 minutes of entering a forest. I have sought plenty of refuge in the mountains and forests on many a hiking, camping, canoeing, and cross-country ski adventure. While it was apparent that these adventures would leave me feeling clear-headed, chilled out, restored, empowered, and strong, I hadn’t before had this context for what was happening to me physiologically from spending extended time in the woods.
“Walking slowly in the wide forest with Tam, a relaxed and knowledgeable guide, opened my senses and brought out the peace waiting within”
-Lea, 90, Boston
I began familiarizing myself with the science and research studies describing the many health benefits of connecting with nature. I came to understand that the healthfulness of what I was experiencing had less to do with the number of miles I could hike in a day or the views on top of a rugged mountain. My restorative healing and sense of well-being was a product of deep intentional reconnection with nature in a reciprocal way.
I come from a lineage of railroad and factory workers. I see the effects of industrialized civilization on my family, friends, and community in various forms of stress-related illnesses, diseases and oppressions passed down from generation to generation. It is my intention to do what I can on my micro level to work towards breaking these cycles and bringing awareness to how we can heal ourselves, the earth, and support the wellbeing of all beings. I am committed to deepening my own practice of nature and forest therapy so that I can share it with whomever wants it.
“During the forest bathing walk with Tam, I felt like I was discovering an entirely new part of the world around me. The experience was one of peaceful calm and exploration.”
– Tyler aka “TofuPup”, 16, FL
I am trained through the Association Of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides & Programs. This training both supports my growing nature connection and teaches me how to guide professionally. I am doing the bulk of my practicum work at the Arnold Arboretum. It involves a lot of observation, sketching, mapping, sitting and meandering. It also includes guiding a series of Forest Bathing Walks in collaboration with the Arboretum’s Event Programming. These walks have been well received and attendance has been full. If you have been unable to sign up for a fall walk I encourage you to sign up for one of my spring walks that will begin in March. I have had folks on my walks who have never been to the Arboretum before as well as those who have been regular visitors for years but have never experienced the collections in this way. One study I read showed that Forest Bathing is effective even for those who strongly dislike nature and don’t want to be outside. Studies show that it still works even if one is resistant while doing it. I find this an inspiring concept to sit with as a guide.
“This was the safest and most joyful I have felt in a long time. Tam’s facilitation is confident, kind, grounded in authentic presence. I live with the effects of complex PTSD and often don’t have an easy time relaxing or connecting in group activities. The miraculous support of nature and the skillful guidance of Tam made it so that I was able to be fully present and engage in each activity in a way that felt healing and nourishing to my heart and body.”
As I unpack my Western-conditioning and embrace my relationship with the more than human world, I find I am able to deepen my compassion, empathy and gratitude for not only my fellow humans but also for our waters, our trees, our animals, our bugs, my own self, and all the beings that I never really noticed or connected with before. My name is Tam, and if you feel so inclined, I invite you to hug trees with me.
Forest Therapy Guide
- Elevation: North Peak: 4,380 Feet, South Peak: 4,278 Feet
- Location: Lincoln, NH
- Dates Hiked: October 23, 2017
- Companions: Stud
- Trails: Hancock Notch, Cedar Brook, Hancock Loop
Stud and I debate whether or not we can motivate ourselves to get up and out early enough to see the sunrise on top of the Hancocks. We have just hiked the Osceolas the day before and we are staying in a tiny cabin just 20 minutes from the trailhead. We decide to get up early but not THAT early and we are at the trailhead by 6:45am. The parking area is tucked inside the crook of the tightest hairpin turn on the Kancamagus Highway. Its dark and spooky and we have to cross the highway but its easy cause no one is coming. We don our headlamps and we are off! My headlamp is SIGNIFICANTLY dimmer than Studs. I really got to change those batteries…
Not long after we make our way into the woods, the trail lightens up enough to put away our headlamps…and since mine isn’t really working that great anyway., I happily tuck it away in my pack. The trail is lovely and fairly flat and wide. We walk along the North Fork of the Hancock River. There are some great camp sites and I take notes in my head about revisiting this area. We quietly pass some sleepy tents followed by their trash and food tied in a low hanging bush up the trail that basically yelled “come n get it bears and other ground dwellers!”
We pass by these bright red berries and I wonder about them. Stud says “gut berries” referencing the youth novel Hatchet where this kid gets in a plane crash and has to survive in the wild and eats these “gut berries” that make him sick but hes so hungry that he continues to eat them until he figures out how to sustain himself.
We check the map at the upcoming intersections and make our way deeper in towards the edges of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. We take a big break when we arrive at the Hancock Loop Trail where the real ascent begins. We eat and pee and hydrate and then start making our way up. Its an intense .7 of a mile with over a thousand feet of elevation gain and we are feelin it! Since we got such an early start, we take our time and take long breaks soakin up the balsams and the spruce.We push up and up until boom! We see this sign!We make our way over to the outlook for North Peak and the clouds sit below in the valleys and its all just almost too much to bear. We exclaim and curse and jump around trying to not fall off the mountain. I take lots of pictures of a stick that I found along the way up and then lay it to rest near north peak as a gift.
We then head towards South Peak which looks impossibly far away. I am always amazed how far away a mountain will look across a valley and can’t imagine that I could ever just walk there in an hour or so but we do.
We dip into a scraggly mountain spruce forest and the morning light flickers between the trees like a film strip. Its not even 11 and we’ve already had our lunch break and I feel so peaceful and present in this mountain.
Almost too soon we pop out on South Peak. I am not ready to descend but that is whats next. We sit and look out and talk about Mount Carrigain which looms off to the east. We talk about maybe saving that one for last on our NH48 list. We try to distinguish the many peaks and then start our descent.
The descent is steep and brutal and we grunt and take breaks to rest our knees. By the time we are back down it is only 2pm and we take a long leisurely rest on some benches at the scenic parking area where we are parked. It overlooks the Osceolas where we were the day before and there are some informational stories and pictures about the history of peak baggers and hikers who use to be called Mountain Trampers who came up from the city just like us to find adventure and wonder in the White Mountains. Many of these mountain trampers were women. I would like to read their journals.
We head back to the cabin for a rest and then back into Lincoln to explore the gear shops. We check out some hiking boots. I ask to try on a pair of mens boots and the clerk ignores my request and tells me that she will go get the women’s equivalent boots. I say I am not interested in that boot and she tells me not to worry because the color is very “neutral”. I cringe a little at her assumption and then I ask again, politely, for the mens size. She asks about my foot width. I ignore her question and I ask her again for the boot I want to try on until I am exhausted by the exchange and we decide to leave. In these moments I wish I had an index card to hand out that just lays it all out for people who just don’t get it. Also, dear world, when you see a pair of butch dykes, tomboys, masculine appearing women, whatever, please don’t call us ladies. Just don’t. Here are some alternatives: ya’ll, folks, or just “hello” will do. This slight effort will go so much farther and deeper than you can ever know.
- Elevation: 4,315 Feet (Mount Osceola) 4,156 (East Peak)
- Location: Lincoln, NH
- Date Hiked: October 22, 2017
- Companions: Stud
- Trails: Mt Osceola Trail
Stud and I make a spontaneous decision to turn off of 93 and head up Tripoli Road, a long and winding dirt road that neither of us are familiar with. It will be closed for the winter and it feels exciting and unknown. The foliage is blowing our minds and we spot all these stealthy campsites along the road with cute little fire rings tucked into the woods by streams.
We are ultimately headed to a tiny cabin in Lincoln for a couple nights with the intention to hike some 4,000 footers for a few days. But we’ve been busy and we haven’t had time to plan or look at the maps before now. All that was certain was the cabin reservation that Stud made for us. The day is young and we are dressed for hiking and our packs are full and ready to go with water, snacks and the essentials. As we cross from Massachusetts into New Hampshire we start tossing the question back and forth about what we want to do first. Stud pours over the maps in the passenger seat and we talk through our options deciding to hike the Osceolas. There are 2 approaches. We decide at the last minute to hike in from Thornton Gap which is suddenly our next exit. The tiny dirt lot is full and cars have started to park on the side of the road and we do the same. Its a beautiful mild fall Sunday in the whites and this is a fairly moderate hike and there are lots of people out but we manage to not get caught up in a big leap frog situation. The trail is well maintained and full of switchbacks which seem like a rarity in the northeast. I love a switchback and am always delighted when they appear. We climb steadily popping out on Mount Osceola within two hours. The summit is packed so we don’t stop. We snap a quick pick and keep moving. The trail heads down from here over to the summit of Mount Osceola’s East Peak.We reach a fork and it looks to us to be a little rocky outcropping off to the side of the trail so we plop down and dig into our snacks thinking we are well enough out of the way. We don’t realize that we are sitting on top of a section of the trail between the two summits known as the “Chimney”. And there are 2 ways up or down the Chimney: the steep way and the steeper way. Just as we are getting comfortable and shoving food in our mouths, a couple hikers are coming up this steeper side of the chimney which happens to be just below us. Its sort of around a bend which is why we didn’t notice and the hikers rising up catch me off guard. We cut our break short and move out of the way and decide to just keep moving. We start our decent down the chimney. There is a mom and her 2 young boys ahead of us and one of them is pretty nervous, hesitating for a long time before climbing down. The mom gets nervous about us and keeps apologizing to Stud and I who are stuck behind this little guy while she tries to coax him down. We don’t mind and I feel for the kid.
We climb down slowly finding the foot and hand holds and taking our time with it. Once at the base its a leisurely stroll to the other summit and we arrive at Mount Osceola’s East Peak maybe an hour after having left the first summit. The summit is in the trees and marked by a cairn and there is a really funny pair of women lingering. We sit and eat and take in the scenery. The funny pair move along and yet again we are blessed with a summit to ourselves. We enjoy our quiet afternoon up here. I have come to really love a summit in the trees. I love the way the scraggly mountain firs fragment the sky letting in streams of light.
Now we have to go back the way we came and we catch up with the funny pair of women climbing up the Chimney. Its looks wicked steep from below. We decide to go up the “steeper” way just for kicks. Stud goes first and as I climb up behind her she acknowledges this one tricky step which I then name the “Step Of Truth” and we think this is hilarious.
I hereby dub this the “Step Of Truth”
Just as I make my way to the top of the Chimney and am able to lift my gaze up again, I spot this perfect little toadstool under the mossy underside of the rocky trail.
We pass some hikers who ask about the Chimney ahead and I really want to make some kind of comment about the “Step Of Truth” but I can’t figure out how to do it without being obnoxious but we joke about it after. Once back at Mount Osceola’s summit we sit for a long time enjoying he views and enduring the little crowd of fellow city slickers and dogs. We start to feel uneasy about some hikers getting too close to the edge so we make our way down to the car. We feel great and its not very late so we head to our cabin and take hot showers flip on the TV and get lost in a marathon of American Ninja Warrior and become immediately attached to who we want to win. We head into Lincoln for dinner at the Gypsy Cafe where I have the most aesthetically pleasing cup of tea ever. Back at our tiny cabin we get sucked back into American Ninja Warrior until our eye lids get heavy. We each have our own little tiny room connected by a screened-in porch that hangs right over the Pemigewasset River which lulls us to sleep.
- Elevation: 4,025 feet
- Location: Franconia, NH
- Date Hiked: September, 23 2017
- Companions: Stud % 5e
- Trails: Lincoln Woods, Franconia Brook, Lincoln Brook
What makes Owl’s Head the Holy Grail of the NH48? For starters, it is set deep in the middle of the Pemigewasset Wilderness on unmaintained trails far from any parking lot, established campsites or huts and sits far off the beaten path of the many other popular hikes in this region. It requires multiple river crossings that can be seriously hazardous during high water. One has be prepared to spend a night in the backcountry OR be able to hike big miles to summit this mountain. The actual “trail” or “path” up Owl’s Head is basically a super steep exposed rock slide of sand and loose gravel and boulders that basically crumble under foot. Once you get up top, you are in the trees and have to climb over and under downed trees to find the summit cairn which has been moved in the last decade to the “true” summit making the whole trip .4 miles further than it already was. Because of all these features, Owl’s Head is often put off and left last on people’s list who are attempting the NH48.
After much perseverating over routes and options, Stud I finally came to the conclusion that we would attempt to reach the elusive Owl’s Head summit as an out and back 19-mile day hike in late summer/early fall when the water levels were low. This way we wouldn’t have to cross the rivers with full packs and just have a lighter carry overall. Typically I have zero interest in hiking big miles. For me, anything over 15 miles is what I consider big miles and I prefer a nice 8-12 mile hike in the mountains where I can have time for extended breaks to take in the forest atmosphere and notice as much as possible beyond the ground in front of me. I knew this hike would be hard and different from other hikes.
5e, Stud and I head into the Lincoln Woods at 7am wearing most of our layers and start hiking at a pretty good clip to warm up. We figure that we have about 14 hours of daylight and we guess that our hike will take about 12 hours. We have our headlamps, water treatment, extra food and all our essentials. We are hiking on an old logging railroad so the terrain is very flat and the leaves are just starting to change and it is magical. Our first 2 river crossing are over bridges and we scope the water and keep our anticipatory talk about the upcoming river crossings to a minimum but we know we are all nervous about them. We leapfrog with a few other hikers. Its a clear day and the parking lot had been pretty full but most hikers are not headed to Owl’s Head. That said, we are not the only ones on this adventure and we are relieved to meet others headed that way knowing we will not be completely alone out there.
The walk is lovely. A true walk in the woods. Unlike other hikes that just head straight up, we are hiking many miles over the course of many hours just to get close to this mountain. We reach the first river crossing and I feel super anxious. Stud rock hops across like its nothing and 5e and I follow suit. But I don’t feel relieved when I make it to the other side cuz I know there is more to come. We reach the next crossing. Same thing. And the next. By our fourth crossing we are cheering and finally feeling relief about the water. We keep our breaks short and eat often. We are walking and weaving along the river and its so pretty and peaceful and its flowing babble just lulls me into a rhythm. The few hikers we pass are very friendly and humble and the vibe on the trail is one that I really love. Owl’s Head starts to come into view on our right and we figure we must be getting close to the slide path that goes straight up it and we start to look for it knowing it may not be well marked having read this in the guidebooks.
We manage our last crossing just before reaching a pair of cairns marking the Owl’s Head Path and I consider them a threshold to this myth of a mountain. We pause and take a short break before heading up. We chug our water and refill our liters and have a last snack. As we start our ascent, I am very aware of how deep in the woods we are and how late it feels to just be starting up a mountain and how we’ve already been hiking for over 4 hours and the toughest part is yet to come. We reach the slidy stuff and each step up sort of slides back a bit. It is profoundly steep and the gravel and loose rocks crumble under foot and we are all scared. Stud panic hikes ahead and 5e expresses her fear just below me while I try to keep steadily moving up. We do our best to not loosen the rocks so that they don’t fall on each other but they fall everywhere. I grunt and laugh nervously and we encourage each other until alas we reach the top of the slide and find ourselves on more of a trail with more solid rock scrambles which are fun and a relief. The steepness starts to level out and we have entered the mossy greenery and we can see the blue sky start to peak thru the wind blown spruces ahead of us.
We climb over and under and around the downed trees towards the “new” summit and reach the cairn and it feels fricken awesome. It reminds me of how I felt when I reached the summits of Mansfield and Camel’s Hump on the Long Trail. I can’t believe I am standing on Owl’s Head. It is surreal. It feels amazing. We collapse and eat and chug water and then we are joined by another hiker who asks us if we would help him cheer for his friend who is coming along behind him. He tells us that this is his friends 48th and final mountain in completing his NH48 goal. We are pumped! We hear him coming and we all stand up and start clapping. He is shocked to hear us as we start cheering for him and I almost get emotional. He looks to be in his late 50’s and I find out later that he’s from NY and has been chipping away at the NH48 for the past 7 years. Its my first time being on a NH48 summit with someone celebrating their final peak and he is touched and humble about it. His friend’s final mountain is Madison and they plan to hike that the next day. We congratulate them and end our summit break a little early to give them some time alone on the summit.
Walking back Stud spots a big brown rabbit. Its was huge and hopping around on top of this mossy summit and something about that rabbit just really got to me. A message for sure. As we begin our descent down the slide trail we are pretty freaked out about going down but its okay. We slip and slide and we loosen rocks that knock each other behind foot and I even have a dramatic fall at one point but we are fine and we just take our time and talk each other down it and when we reach the bottom and cross back over the threshold between the cairns, we collapse by the river. We lay on the soft pine floor and chug our liters, eat snacks, refill water and rest. Its mid afternoon and we have a long hike out. We feel great and we manage to get across all the river crossings just fine. A couple hours later the light starts to fade and so do we. We are exhausted and things start to hurt. The last 2 miles are brutal and I just want to collapse but I just keep walking and we all start to just drag ourselves forward. I keep drawing my attention away from my physical discomfort and try to focus the trees, the river, the leaves, the beings and I a, so grateful to be on this land. I am delighted to see so much Balsam Fir.
We reach the suspension bridge at 6:30PM, exactly 11.5 hours and 18.5 miles later and we climb down underneath it to soak our feet in the cold river. I attempt to get all the way in but its too cold and the light is fading and I don’t want to get over cold. But I wash the dirt off my calves and splash water on my face and arms. We hobble to the car and change into jeans and flannel and it feels so good. We drive away from the Lincoln Woods as the sun sets over the misty blue mountains and we feel incredibly accomplished, exhausted, sore, and content.
For the past 15 years I have been self-employed as a Handy Person. Lately, its not my favorite thing to talk about. Its not that I am not proud of my business and its not just that I’m burnt out on lugging my tools around and climbing up and down my step ladder. There’s a lot to like about being Handy Tam and I am deeply grateful for having been able to learn handy skills and acquire tools. I try to not take my strong able body for granted. My favorite thing about my job has always been the connections I’ve made with folks in my neighborhood and around Boston. As my neighborhood changes and as rental units turn into million dollar condos, these connections seem to be harder to find. As the industrial revolution amps up, as people move faster and faster, I have found that this culture moves way too fast for me. I suddenly have found that I actually can’t keep up. Its not a new realization…I’ve always moved fairly slow and even had the nickname Tam Turtle as a kid. But lately, this fast-paced disconnecting flailing energy is becoming unbearable for me. I find us humans to be way too loud and I often have to put my hands over my ears when I walk down the street amongst the sirens and truck engines. I try to do what I can on my micro level to not add to the “noise”. I try to practice vigilant discernment about who I will work for, who I will spend time with and how I will engage online, in person, and in nature. As I retreat further, I am finding deeper connections, healing, and restoration among and with the more-than-human world.
I started this blog when I decided to hike the Long Trail of Vermont. My main impetus for hiking the Long Trail was to find quiet. When I started this hike (at Journeys End by the Canadian/Vermont Border) my ears strained to hear in the muffled quiet of the deep northern forest. My ears rang constantly and I heard sounds and chatter that my brain created. I heard lots of music in the distance that wasn’t there. I knew it wasn’t there but I still listened to it. This is what damaged hearing sounds like. But in everyday urban life, it seems impossible to distinguish this ringing in our ears for those of us who don’t experience a break from the constant buzz of our industrial civilization. As I write this, I notice the cacophony outside my window of planes, cars, car horns, yell-talking, leaf blowers, and the low hum of my computer.
I am always asking what I can do, what I can bring and how I can stay alive in this one magical blink of an eye life that we have without causing inevitable harm and without adding to the “noise”. My western conditioning once had led me to believe that the earth and nature is here merely as a resource for humans. I don’t like to come out as Handy Tam because sometimes I can see the desperation on people’s faces as well as the flicker of people’s brains waves as they scan their files for their list of broken things in their homes and stop seeing me as a fellow being but as a product they need to buy.
When I was young, I would foam at the mouth to help fix anything anytime for anyone no matter how condescending, entitled or unappreciative they were. I worked in homes that maybe weren’t safe for me to be in. I just wanted to make as much money as I could so that I could be free. Ironic. But now I’m so sensitive to being perceived as simply a resource. A cash transaction is no longer enough for me. Having worked in giant homes where the kitchens are filled with untouched stainless steel appliances, I feel lost and disconnected. I work for people who have full time staff in their houses. I work for families who don’t walk their own dogs, or mow their own lawns, or do their own laundry, or cook their own meals, or barely hold their own babies because they are too busy making as much money as possible. Some folks are too busy to simply acknowledge me a being in their home. I find I am less able to work in these environments. They feel toxic and my brain literally stops being able to read a tape measure. So part of my self care has been to mostly just work for friends at lower rates where there is connection present. I say “no” to many Handy Tam inquiries. I think I’m just listening to my intuition but I don’t trust myself completely. I am currently trying to not stress out financially and trust in the trees that I will be okay and this will all work out. I keep asking the earth for support. I know I have the skills to make money but my heart is not on board with Handy Tam right now so I’m trying to be gentle cause I absolutely need Handy Tam in order to support this next cycle of life as I continue to ask what can I bring and how can I be of service and live authentically.
In April 2016 I discovered Shinrin-yoku and wrote about it in this post. After returning from the Long Trail one year ago, a series of challenging life events led to me to pursue a deeper understanding of Forest Bathing and I started to imagine how I could incorporate this into my life. I decided I wanted to be able to offer this healing and restorative practice to as many people as possible from all perspectives and upon looking for community and resources about this, I found a Certification Program with an Association. This program is less than five years old has felt completely out of my budget. I have taken a risk and invested all my money and a huge amount of my time into this. I attended a week-long Intensive Training in the Berkshires this past July that was completely life altering and broke me open in profound ways. I am now currently in month two of a six month Practicum working on a series of monthly assignments with the support of my fellow cohort that I trained with, a mentor, a co-mentor and a private facebook group of other Guides. Last week I was invited to speak with my LGBTQ Elders about Forest Therapy at Rainbow Lifelong Learning Institute which offers free educational programs and social activities for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender seniors to build and strengthen community. I got to present about Forest Therapy with one of my amazing trainers from the Association. It gave me so much validation that I am on this path now.
I am going to start guiding Forest Therapy Walks this Saturday.
My New Website is Toadstoolwalks.com
I hope you will join me for a walk sometime!
We awake at first light on the front porch of Mount Cardigan’s High Cabin. We tiptoe inside and quietly make coffee, trying not to wake the exhausted youth asleep in their bunks. We bring our coffee back to the porch and sit in our sleeping bags. The youth start to stir. I venture off the porch to study the spruces and firs with this new tree identification book I got.
The youth are pretty wrecked from yesterday’s climb and adjusting to the backpacking gear and the late night of chatter and giggling. Movement is slow. Bear Bait encourages their packing up process along by frying up pancakes.
We make our way down Mount Cardigan chatting about family, gender, oppression, identity and all the isms and social justice stuff that queers talk about.
It was hot, and when we get to the base there is a pond and some of us go swimming. Swimming can be complicated for trans and gender nonconforming folks. Fortunately we have the pond to ourselves, but even in a queer bubble, undressing and swimming can be loaded. Having a body can just be an edgy thing. That’s all I’ll say about that.
We dry off, eat snacks, refill water bottles, load up and drive north into the White Mountains. Its a two hour ride to Jackson, NH, and we take the scenic Kancamagus Highway with its mountainous views and windy curves. We find our next trail head and eat lunch on the side of a dirt road before heading up.
We start climbing Doublehead Mountain, and despite our best efforts to keep our youth hiking together as a group, they start to fall apart. We sense the agitation and it becomes clear that our facilitation isn’t working. We take a big pause and circle up on the trail. Perry gracefully facilitates an honest check-in about feelings and it all comes out. That beautiful moment has arrived whereas the adults (Perry, Bear Bait, and myself) must step back and pass the leadership baton to the youth who will then come up with their own plan for getting themselves up the mountain together as a group.
Perry, Bear Bait, and I linger behind giving them the time and space they need to figure it out. We reunite with them at the Doublehead Cabin at the top and the morale is good. There is a universal feeling of accomplishment and connectedness. We enjoy a celebratory dinner of backcountry pita pizza.
The thing about queer youth is that they are so fricken compassionate, caring and patient with each other. I’ve been hanging out in queer youth spaces for the past 8 years and its downright heart melting to watch how a group will open their hearts and circles to make room for that wild card who maybe was rejected everywhere else. On this hike I watched folks slow down so that no one had to feel like they couldn’t keep up and I watched folks listen to stories that maybe weren’t welcome at school or at home. When I say I feel inspired by queer youth and feel hopeful it’s cuz the youth are the future. I feel pretty awesome about the future knowing some of the queer youth leaders I know will grow into adult leadership roles. I was also inspired watching my fellow TVOP Instructors navigate that space between nurture, leadership, and letting go.
On our last afternoon I guided a Forest Bathing Walk on a flat stretch of trail between the summit of Black Mountain and the Black Mountain Cabin. I invited all of us to take in the forest atmosphere just a little more deeply. We moved very slowly thru an alpine conifer forest, circling up along the way, sharing our observations thru our opened senses and our tree companions. We found metaphors in the forest reflecting our strengths and our deepening connections to each other and the more than human world. We closed with a tea ceremony where I offered an infusion of Purslane Tea that I had brought from Jamaica Plain. Purslane is a rugged and relentless plant that grows between sidewalk cracks and has the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids among all plants. It’s also got iron and vitamin C. We smelled and drank our tea, taking the forest into our bodies and then made our way back down to our cabin.
Its been a few days since we got off the trail. I miss our incredible group and I wonder how their transitions home have been and if and when I may get to see them again. Grateful.