Backyard Magic (and a “Comfortable Runabout”)

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February is the month of introspection and restlessness. Typically winter lolls about like a tantrumming toddler, beating its fists and creating headaches all around.

This year feels different. Perhaps it’s the mild weather (78° anyone???), or maybe it’s due to the plethera of random activities in which I’ve been dabbling.* In any case, I’ve been venturing outdoors more than usual, exploring nearby places with a renewed sense of vigor.

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Calm and (relatively) clean.

A metaphorical stone’s throw from my abode, The Cross County Trail cuts 40 miles through the entire county of Fairfax. This fascinating path crosses around and under surburbia, including well-populated areas and interstates. What a feat!

My walk/hike was muddy, sunshine-y, and friendly. People smiled at me in passing. I felt protected by a little envelope of trees, grass, running water, logs, and rocks. It was amazing to discover natural wonders so close to my own backyard.

And when it’s time to journey further, I’ve got a new set of wheels.

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Honda CR V (Comfortable Runabout Vehicle). His name is Sherwin… it means “swift like wind”.

Unfortunately, my dear Honda Civic hydroplaned, spun-out, and then became a total loss. It’s been a rough year for him (see Accident of the Deer #1), I mourn his passing.

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Cray-zee, right?

In the meantime, near or far, I am confident that I will continue engaging with all things beautiful in our natural world!

* Axe-throwing, roller skating, etc.

 

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Fever of the Cabin

 

Cabin fever: irritability, listlessness, and similar symptoms resulting from long confinement or isolation indoors during the winter.

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This season has been a strange one, vacillating between cold-frigid-dry and mild-breezy-moist. The sun has peeked out for days at a time, and then retreated back to its cloud cover, refusing to dish out Vitamin D.

I was feeling the mid-winter blahs, so I rooted around for my hiking boots, and dug out my day-pack. It was time to hit the trails.

Enter: Prince William National Forest.

This gem is only a 30 minute drive from my house, assuming that I-95 is not a slogging mess of traffic. It wasn’t (hooray).

Things were quiet and closed down for the season. A few families were milling about, taking advantage of the higher temps, and letting their little rugrats release some pent-up winter energy. I took a peek at the trail map, and set out.

The landscape was a blend of white, blue, and shades of brown. The air smelled delicious, and I enjoyed clomping along the mucky trail. My favorite part was the semi-frozen creek along which I traipsed. Pretty is too nominal a word to describe the glistening snow covering, the icy edges, and the brave trickling stream that I followed for the majority of my day.

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I spy some green!

I got up close, taking pictures to help me truly see and understanding this unassuming body of water. I hunched down with my face near the ice cover, noticing the lattice work of the frozen water reflecting the winter sun. Fellow hikers gave me friendly nods, probably assuming I had lost an earring, or a piece of my mind.

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Ice, ice baby

I walked.

I hiked.

I skipped (for just a small portion).

I was glad to be alone, and glad to have my senses ignited.

Fast forward a week: I now sit inside, once again, lamenting the rain that ebbs and flows.

Perhaps I’ll root around for my waterproof jacket and beat the winter blahs once again.

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Sky Time

Throughout my travels near and far, I have experienced nature in the forests, mountains, valleys, rivers, oceans, and even underground in caves.

It was high-time that I took to the skies.*

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Me. Happy.

When my pilot friend (who also happens to be a flight instructor) said, “Let’s go flying”, I was 100% onboard – literally.

It was a crisp, clear day with views for miles. I observed the lacy patterns on the semi-frozen Potomac River that lay surrounded by snow-dusted grounds. The deciduous trees stood as tiny skeletons while pockets of deep green marked the clusters of their evergreen friends. The Chesapeake Bay was a sight to behold with its glossy surface reflecting the sun, making the light dance as we flew lazy eights above.

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The view from above, including the Potomac

I was experiencing my world from a completely new perspective, and thoroughly enjoying it. Things looked prettier from up high, away from the concrete and busyness on the ground. My birds-eye-perspective rendered everything as smaller, simpler, yet somehow even more beautiful.

And yes, getting a chance to take-off and actually fly a bit myself added to my sense of awe.

I was surrounded by air, far from the world as I know it, yet still experiencing the natural world in a phenomenal way.

I cherished every minute of it.

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Our plane

 

* The commercial flights I’ve taken wherein I share elbow space with other humans and have just a peek of blue sky out a too-small window don’t truly count as a “nature experience”

Billy Goat

The crowds of people were easy to maneuver: a hop here, a jump here. I skittered across the rocky portions of the trail, surefooted like its namesake. Those whom I jauntily passed by were scrambling slowly and uneasily through simple sections of uneven rock. One lady had a mild panic attack; I coached her through a slick section of rock amidst her protests and cries of despair. While I was helping her move sluggishly along, the trail built up quite a bottle-neck. A round of applause greeted the poor lady when she finally made it through, those in the crowd cheering their own eventual headway rather than a stranger’s actual progress.

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On my way to the Great Falls overlook

I had managed my expectations before setting out to the Maryland side of Great Falls to hike Section A of the Billy Goat trail. And rightly so – one of the most popular hikes in the Northern Virginia area can take hours to complete due to the hoards of well-meaning individuals who underestimate their own abilities. Given the immaculate fall weather, it was worth it. Solid hiking boots allowed me to trek around the crowds on the path less-traveled when necessary.

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Soaking up some sun

There were numerous overlooks, all of them involving moving water. The cascading Potomac made me think of my hikes in the Smokies. The trail portion along the canal was reminiscent of my time biking the towpath in Cuyahogo Valley National Park. And the general autumn weather? Definitely à la Tetons. With that being said, Great Falls and the Billy Goat trail had its own special feel. The leisurely views filled me with a warm-fuzzy feeling, the intense sunlight adding to the overall effect. I breathed deeply, soaking up this natural place and relishing the feeling of being outside.

Yes, there was lots of chatter I overheard.

Yes, there were people who didn’t follow proper trail etiquette.

But this view definitely made it worth it.

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Just Another Muddy Monday

We were foraging for sticks – good ones that were both sturdy and sized correctly.

“How’s this one? And look at the pine needles I found for the brush part!”

I couldn’t help but smile, relishing the contentment I felt at spending time outside with a league of children. Our current project: creating paintbrushes using natural items we uncovered in a nearby wooded area. My young charges were very intentional in their scavenge, and eagerly helped each other construct their art tools.

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Paintbrushes my students created using natural objects

The best part? This was just another Muddy Monday at my new place of employment: Lorien Wood School.

During the latter part of my 47 Parks trip, I began the onerous task of finding a new job. I vacillated between curriculum writing careers, outdoor education positions, and returning to elementary education. I was ecstatic when I stumbled upon an opening at an occupation that combined all three.

Lorien Wood is a private school located in Northern Virginia. The curriculum is integral, arranged in thematic units that incorporate multiple subjects, among which is outdoor studies. After spending so much time outside during my travels, I was pleased to be offered a position at a school that encourages joyful discovery of natural spaces and wild places.

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Autumn mural using our handmade nature brushes

Every Monday is a designated Muddy Monday. Small groups of students rotate through various stations designed to promote a spirit of discovery as children interact with the outdoors. As the designated STEAM* director, I get to design engineering and art projects for the students to undertake. I am looking forward to building forts, making miniature rafts, and exploring solar energy over the course of the year.

I look back over my national parks tour fondly, but relish in my new job that combines my passion for nature with my love of all things teaching/learning.

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Students design and construct representations of the 4 seasons.

Rain, snow, or sleet, I treasure the opportunity I have to share this passion with my students.

Mondays just couldn’t get any better.

 

* STEAM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math

Botanic Day Adventure

I studied the plant. It looked simple enough – full glossy leaves splayed open with a thin but sturdy stalk running along the length. I peeked closely, searching for the pod-like fruit, knowing full-well that I was staring at the most toxic plant in the world.

The Castor Oil Plant was just one of the truly interesting things I saw at the United States Botanic Gardens. I was expecting pretty flowers and lots of color, but not so much intriguing vegetation with unique stories.

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Just hanging out (in the heat) in a rose garden

I wandered around the Conservatory, taking in the beauty and diversity of the flora. The World Deserts room brought back fond memories of my time in the Southwest. I marveled at the cactuses, saying hello to old friends that I had encountered during my miles of desert hiking. The Mediterranean room was crisp and refreshing, reminiscent of my visit to the southern coast of California.

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Cactus gathering

The Garden Court featured commerce plants – cacao, bananas, citrus, cotton, and many others. I enjoyed reading each placard, soaking up the information about each unique tree or stalk. When I joined up with a tour, my curiosity about economy-based plants was satiated; lots of questions = lots of answers!

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This endangered plant is nicknamed Cabbage On A Stick.

The heat finally started to get to me, so I ate a sushi burrito for lunch and hopped on the metro to go home.

Day adventures can be fun and I still get to sleep in a real bed in a real house.

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Don’t know what these are called, but they’re quite nice-looking. 🙂

Sugarloaf Mountain

Nothing quite beats climbing on real rock. While I thoroughly enjoy my local rock climbing gym, gripping raw granite while puzzling my way up a cliff face is a whole other type of adventure.

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Taking a break and scrambling around off-rope

During my year of travels, I only climbed a handful of times. Getting back into climbing shape has been a gradual process, so Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland seemed like the perfect place. This local crag is short-ish (35 feet?) with easy routes and a simple approach. It was supposed to be hot, so Lauren, my climbing buddy, and I headed out early to avoid the heat.

On the hike to our spot, we passed a wild raspberry bush. I couldn’t help but pause for a little taste. They were cool, tart, and delicious – one of nature’s little surprises.

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The next couple of hours passed along quickly; time was eclipsed by the flaking of rope, placement of gear, and the motion of scurrying up the rock. There is something so beautifully methodical about climbing outside. At the same time, the climbs I did at Sugarloaf felt so natural and rhythmic. I let myself relax, happy for the shade provided by the tree cover.

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Look at all those fabulous cracks.

I was reluctant to leave, but knew that the high heat of the day was fast approaching. This trip rekindled by love for outdoor trad climbing. Over the past year, I’ve put in quite a few miles hiking in the wilderness – over 320 to be exact. Now, I feel like it’s time I put in some vertical miles. There’s simply so much rock to conquer!