Cultivating “Beginner’s Mind” at Centennial Cone

Centennial Cone Park in Jefferson County, Colorado

Note: This activity can be fun for kids, as well.

Location: Jefferson County, near Golden.

Directions: From Highway 93 in Golden, take Golden Gate Canyon Drive west approximately 8 miles. Turn left on Robinson Hill Road. Continue to Camino Perdido, which is the north access road into the park. The trailhead is approximately one mile to the south. You’ll see brown county signs directing you to Centennial Cone shortly after you turn onto Golden Gate Canyon Drive.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours or as long as you’d like it to be.

Route: Take the Travois Trail from the parking lot. After ¼ mile you can take the Evening Sun Loop or continue left—both paths return and continue to the Travois Trail. You will want to make this an out-and-back hike.

Access Notes: Hikers are NOT allowed at Centennial Cone on even numbered weekend days, only odd-numbered days, and certain trails in the park are closed seasonally. Check the Jefferson County Parks and Open Space website for details here. There are pit toilets at the parking lot and space for at least 20 cars. Limited shade exists, which makes this a great hike on cooler or overcast days or in the winter. Dogs are allowed on leash and bicycles are allowed on even-numbered weekend days.  Horses are permitted at any time. This is a multi-use trail on weekdays.

The Hike

Centennial Cone Open Space Park is a large conservation area owned by Jefferson County – the Travois Trail encircles the park in more than 15 miles of hills, meadows and forest. Most of the area is moderately hilly, with grassy knolls, low shrubs, and ponderosa pines dotting the tops of hills that seem to stretch out for miles in all directions. Large, old narrow-leafed cottonwoods grow along the drainage between hills near the trailhead.

In spring when the grasses turn deep green, this landscape may make you want to run through the grass and sing “The hills are alive!”, a-la Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music (ok, I just dated myself and that’s not good). In the fall, the grass turns a dull shade of cornhusk and grasshoppers take over the area with their hissy calls. This is a relatively low-traffic trail in every season except summer, and the lack of nearby road or air traffic also makes it a particularly quiet place to hike. The ringing in your ears may be louder than any sounds you’ll hear coming from the land, especially on a chilly morning when the grasshoppers are still warming their bodies.

The dirt and gravel trail is narrow and winds around the round hills in loose, wavy shapes, sometimes in shade if the sun is lower on the horizon, or in hot, full exposure if it’s near high noon. The ponderosas and the altitude don’t seem to provide much relief from the intensity of the sun on a clear day. The trails climb up the sides of hills and up to the summits, where a view extending from Denver to Lookout Mountain to Mt. Evans and the mountains west of Blackhawk frame an ocean of forested hills and grassy ravines. At some points on the trail when you’re ascending up, you may have a sense of vertigo as you look down at least 1,000 feet or more down the steep slopes. It can also be a feeling of expansiveness and spaciousness when you’re walking on these sections. There are plenty of boulders and rocky outcroppings to sit on just a few feet off-trail and relax or contemplate, or simply take a break in the shade of a small tree. The trail is well-maintained and easy to negotiate when it’s dry.

Beginner’s Mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

In Buddhism, the term “beginner’s mind” refers to a state of openness and curiosity about a subject, devoid of judgment, expectations or preconceptions. It is about throwing out everything you think you know and allowing yourself to experience the world anew.

To illustrate this concept, there’s a well-known parable about a scholarly monk who was seeking a master teacher so he could become his student and learn more about enlightenment. The monk approached the master and during his interview, bragged about how intelligent and sharp he was and how he had showed up so many other teachers with his knowledge. The master teacher just sat and listened and went about making some tea.  As the monk was speaking, the teacher began pouring the tea into their cups. He kept pouring tea into the monk’s cup until it began to spill over the brim and onto the monk’s lap, burning him. The young monk jumped up and exclaimed, “What are you doing?!” The teacher simply smiled and replied, “Your mind is like this cup. It’s spilling over with ignorance and already too full to receive any new teaching. You are wasting your time here.” And he sent the young monk on his way.

The parable demonstrates that when we think we know everything there is to know—about a person, a thing, an idea or a place—then we lose the ability to receive new information and experiences. When we close ourselves off from the world by judging it and then dismissing it, we actually shrink our lives.

In reference to hiking, there may have been times in the past when you looked at an area or viewed a photo of a particular hiking trail and thought, “I don’t like that kind of landscape. That looks like a boring place to hike. I don’t want to go there.” Or, how many times have you met a person and decided you knew everything you needed to know about them within the first hour or even the first five minutes of saying, “Hello”?

The common term for this in the Western world is, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Or, “There’s more to that than meets the eye.” In Eastern teachings, beginner’s mind means there’s more to the world than you can ever know. Therefore, when you approach the world with an attitude of “not knowing,” you can be constantly, and sometimes pleasantly, delighted by what you experience.

When you make quick judgments about the world and close yourself off from truly experiencing life with beginner’s mind, you’re channel surfing. You are not fully engaged, not present, and unable to experience the joy of getting to know someone or something with the full breadth and depth of your soul. You sit in your car in rush hour, feeling aggravated and bored, not bothering to look around at the cars next to you or see the trees and plants that are growing on the side of the road, or the way the clouds look as they pass over the sky, not expecting to see anything new or interesting or worth your attention. But there is always something to new to see, experience and feel.

The Activity

Think about how long you’d like to hike on this trail and split your hike up into two halves. This activity is best when it’s done in the middle, at the turnaround point of an out-and-back walk. Find a place to sit comfortably for about 15 minutes with your journal and a pen.

Look around where you’re sitting and find an object to hold in your hand. This could be a rock, twig, plant, or pinecone. Whatever you’re drawn to. It doesn’t have to be a natural object, but it’s better if it’s something you don’t look at every day.

While you hold the object in your hand, pretend that you’re an alien that’s just landed on Earth. You know nothing about this planet or its inhabitants. Your planet is nothing like this planet. Therefore, you have no idea about this object is. You don’t know what it’s used for. You don’t know if it’s dangerous or benign, alive or dead, young or old.

Look at your object in this way, with “beginner’s mind” for a few minutes, until you feel ready to write something down about it. Spend time noting its texture, its weight, its smell, its integrity, its taste.

What do you notice about this object that surprises you?

Now, after a few minutes, you may reach a point of boredom. You may think you already know everything there is to know about this object. You’ve been looking at it for a couple of minutes and there’s nothing else to figure out. Or is there? This is the point at which we usually shut ourselves off from the world. Our minds are at first curious, then quickly become bored after reaching a conclusion after some analysis (sometimes this analysis takes microseconds).

Go back to your object and look at it deeper.  Ask it what its name is. Where did it come from? What does it do? Who are its friends?

What else comes up at this point for you when observing and experiencing this object with beginner’s mind?

When you’re ready to hike back to the trailhead, think about the way you’ve looked at this common, perhaps “mundane” object with beginner’s mind. Can you look at the land surrounding the trail, where you just hiked, with the same sort of beginner’s mind? You’ll be going in a different direction, so things will look a little different than they did in the last hour or two, but what else will you notice that’s different?

When I facilitated a hike with a small group and engaged in this activity, the participants reported that they noticed a keener, more heightened sense of presence and awareness on the return. Some noticed more color. Some noticed flowers and plants along the trail they couldn’t believe they didn’t see before. Some actually found themselves curious about textures, and touched many objects while walking. In general, most of the hikers said they felt more at peace on the hike back because their minds were not as filled with chatter.

Cultivating beginner’s mind is a practice—it’s something you need to do often to really get a sense of its power and potential. It’s not something you can do once and then expect to live your life differently. But fortunately, this activity can be done anywhere, on any trail, any time of year.

How to Raise Eco-Conscious Kids

You know that being “green” has become an official fad when you start seeing t-shirts for 12 year old girls at the department store imprinted with mantras like “Think Green” (on a green shirt) or “Do Something Good Today: Recycle”.

I was at a department store at the mall the other day, getting clothes for my 7th grader. We smelled perfumes. We looked at shiny new jewelry. We tried on trendy jackets. I commented at how it felt like 1982 all over again, with clunky boots, layered tank tops, cheap chain necklaces and skinny jeans, none of which I could fathom wearing at my ripe age. Yep, there’s nothing like walking through a department store to make you feel dumpy, fat, ugly or old. Almost everything you see is meant to make you feel like you’re lacking in some way.

Anyway, this is when I noticed the t-shirts. They were displayed prominently as we passed the children’s clothing section. “Think Green.” it blared in 150 point type across the flat chest of the manequin. Forget the fact that these shirts represent nothing uniquely sustainable– they’re just thin cotton shirts mass produced in China or Tawain. The idea that a 10 or 12 year old girl would want to advertise her eco-consciousness is saying something.

It’s telling me that her parents are probably making comments and judgments about their own eco-habits. Maybe they talk to their kids about the importance of doing the right thing and living more sustainably. I know, because I talk to my daughter about stuff like this. I tell her the importance of living in harmony with our environment. She knows about recycling and saving energy and reducing pollution. She is young and she is impressionable and she really wants to emulate her parents.

Maybe talking to our children about the importance of living in an ecologically sustainable way and actually putting some of our values into practice is a very important way of teaching them to be better Earth citizens. Making sustainability “cool” is one way of getting a kid to embrace the idea. But how do you get it to stick so it doesn’t go the way of other adolescent fads like break dancing, Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and feathered bangs?

Also, what about adults? Can going green become MORE than just a fad and actually become part of a person’s value system for the long-term?

The question of how a person makes a psychological shift from feeling detached from what’s happening to the environment to actually wanting to live sustainably and in harmony with it all comes down to one thing: ecopsychology.

Numerous studies have shown that people who care about the environment seem to have one very important thing in common. They identify with nature in some way. Their environment is a significant part of their lives. Perhaps they love to hike and spend time in the mountains every chance they get. Or they lovingly tend to a backyard garden and like to watch birds in their yard. Maybe they take daily walks on a beach to enjoy it’s vastness and to feel peaceful.

People who spend time in nature typically care more about what happens to it.

Ecopsychology studies why we persist in destroying their environment, and what it takes to change the way we think, so the protection and conservation of natural habitat is equal to the preservation of our OWN mental and physical well-being.

I know that the single best way to change the way a person perceives the environment and their place in it is to get them out in nature and connecting to some beautiful aspect of the wild. I also know the best way to bring up my child with the right values is to do things like going on walks with her in the woods, or taking her down to the lake with a field guide and watch the ducks make lazy circles in the water. Sure, it helps that I tell her about recycling and the importance of not being too materialistic and consumed by retail fads. Ultimately, though, the one thing that’s going to have long-lasting impact on her developing mind is the time she spent tending a campfire up in the mountains while watching the sun set over a peak, or standing among pack of mule deer, or having a camper jay land on her hand to swipe a piece of bread out of the palm of her hand.

Those are the moments she’ll refer to when someone asks her someday, “What do you care if they cut down that forest to make room for a new mall?” She’ll care, because she’ll know that no tchachke, trinket or t-shirt bought at that mall could ever take the same place in her heart as feeling that wild bird’s tiny feet grip the tips of her fingers in tender and hungry gratitude.

Hiking and the New Cosmology

Brainard Lake – Long Lake/Isabel Glacier Trail

Location: West of Boulder, between Nederland and Estes Park, near Ward

Directions: From Boulder there are two ways of getting to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area:

1. From central Boulder take Canyon Blvd. west to Nederland, turn right (north) on Highway 72 (the Peak-to-Peak Highway) and go 11.5 miles. Turn left at the brown sign indicating the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Once you enter the park, follow the signs to Brainard Lake, and then the Long Lake trailhead parking lot.

2. From north Boulder and I-36, take Left Hand Canyon Drive west through the small town of Ward. At the T-intersection at Highway 72, turn right (north) and make your first immediate left where you see a brown sign for Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Once you enter the park, follow the signs to Brainard Lake, and then the Long Lake trailhead parking lot.

Duration: 2-1/2 to 5 hours, depending on if you go just to Isabel Lake or all the way to the top of Pawnee Pass (elevation 12,943 ft.) and back.

Access Notes: If you’re planning this hike in summer and going as far as Pawnee Pass, which is above treeline and very exposed, it’s wise to get as early of a start as possible—before 8 a.m. This way, you’re more likely to be off the mountain when afternoon summer thunderstorms and lightning occur. The Brainard Lake Recreation Area and the Long Lake and Mitchell Creek trails are one of the most popular alpine hikes near Boulder, particularly in summer and on weekends. The parking lots fill up quickly, so arrive before 8 a.m. or even earlier if you can manage it. If one of the lots is full, try the other and walk to the trailhead. That will only add 15 minutes to your hike. There are limited spaces to park along the road.

Brainard is an hour’s drive from downtown Boulder.

The Forest Service may discourage hiking the Long Lake and Mitchell Creek trails as late as mid June due to snow drifts, slush or muddy conditions on the trail by closing the parking lots to the trailheads. Check before you go by calling ahead.

There are pit toilets in the parking lot and the road all the way to the trailhead is paved. Dogs are allowed on leash, and this is strictly enforced. As of 2010, there is a $9 entrance fee per passenger car that is good for five days.

The hike:

This hike is one of the most scenic alpine hikes near Boulder, and if you’re a fan of it, you can’t wait for the snow to melt and the mud to dry in early summer so you can go all the way to Isabel Lake or even the top of Pawnee Pass. Lush green forests of pine and fir are framed by the snow-covered Indian Peaks above: Pawnee Peak to the north, Shoshoni in the middle, Navajo and Arikaree Peak to its south, and the smoother-topped and grassy Mount Albion flanking the trail to the south. At the base of the mountains is Isabel Lake and Isabel Glacier, which fills in summer and cascades down in the form of small waterfalls and brooks lined with green grasses and wildflowers.

The Isabel Glacier trail, which is accessed at the Long Lake trailhead, ends at the glacier 2 miles from the parking lot and intersects with the Pawnee Pass trail at that point. The first 1-1/2 miles up the trail are easy, with little elevation gain and a sandy trail with the occasional tree roots to watch for. The trail passes through thick pine and fir forest whose floor is lush and green in mid-summer. Long Lake will be to the south next to the trail, then later a few small meadows afford a nice view of the Indian Peaks on your way up.

At the second wooden sign for the Isabel Glacier the trail begins to gain elevation and the path becomes rocky. You’ll have to cross a waterfall on a small bridge and a few hundred feet further up, you’ll be skipping wet rocks to cross another waterfall (bring waterproof boots). Lake Isabel is over the crest past the falls—deep, dark and flowing. You may see snow banks in the crevices of the mountain peaks as late as mid-July, and you may even walk across the slushy remains of the “glacier” as you reach the lake.

Beyond and above the lake is a long, rocky climb up to Pawnee Pass that is moderate in difficulty due to the elevation gain and switchbacks. You’ll pass a rock fall where you may spot pikas or marmots. At the top, you’ll be near the Continental Divide and rewarded with a view of the lake below, Boulder to the east, and believe it or not, Lake Granby directly west and below the Pass. It’s hard to believe that Lake Granby is so close to Nederland and Boulder, since the only two ways of getting there from the Front Range by car is a long drive up I-70 and Berthold Pass, or over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. As the crow flies, however, it’s closer than you may realize.

The New Cosmology

As you reach Lake Isabel, ponder the following essay on the evolutionary role of humans.

Scientific discoveries in the last two centuries have allowed us new and amazing insight into who we are as human beings and our role on Earth. These discoveries have necessitated the telling of a new story of our origins and the purpose of our presence in the world. The old story of creation, based on religious doctrine that’s thousands of years old and adapted by Western culture, is that humans are the pinnacle of existence on Earth, that all the world’s creatures were created for our use, enjoyment and “dominion.” We are told that we are God’s favored creation and that our role is to create a loving and compassionate society to serve God, so that we may further honor and worship Him in the afterlife.

In this old story, originating mostly in monotheistic religions, humans are favored creatures apart and separate from the rest of nature. We are tasked with either caring for our more-than-human friends (in the form of “management”) or we’re given authority to use natural resources for our livelihood and prosperity in order to “go forth, be fruitful and multiply.” This paradigm has resulted in placing human endeavors as a priority over the wellbeing and health of forests, animals and oceans. It elevates the economy as the ends to justify the means, with ecology in service to the human economy.

The consequences of such a paradigm have been disastrous. Species loss on the scale of 20,000 per year, world-wide soil degradation, fresh water shortages and climate change are just a few examples of evidence that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the picture.

The question then arises, why did human beings evolve in the first place? If our presence on Earth is so destructive, where have we gone wrong? What is really our true story and purpose? Perhaps the answers lie in the new story of creation, a story that places humans at the razor’s edge of evolution and reveals a greater directive—only if we have the courage and determination to face the truth squarely and accept responsibility.

Brian Swimme, mathematical cosmologist and author, tells a new story of creation based on the last century’s scientific discoveries. (See www.brianswimme.org)

The new story starts with a flash, an explosion. It starts with the birth of the known Universe during known time—13.6 billion years ago. That’s how long ago astronomers and physicists calculate the Big Bang took place. Shortly after that moment, all that existed in space was light and energy, which eventually coalesced into matter. This matter created stars, which in turn created their own source of light and energy.

Stars have a life cycle, just like anything else. Throughout their life cycle, stars actually create elements such as hydrogen, phosphorus and oxygen. In the later stages of their life cycles, stars create iron, and since iron can’t be burned up, the star no longer can hold back its gravity. It collapses in on itself. In a split second, it goes from being a massive cauldron of energy to a tiny spec, and then explodes outward. This is called a supernova. It is the death of a star, and it is at this exact moment that the star creates its last element—carbon.

For life to even exist on Earth, carbon had to be present. Therefore, a star had to die in order for life to evolve. All of life on earth contains carbon. Without carbon, not even bacteria would exist.  You can think of living forms on Earth as the further evolution of a star. The elements in our bodies, including oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, originated in space billions of years ago when stars formed, transformed and died. Stars created the building blocks to life itself.

The Earth reflects the evolutionary process of the Universe, a process of which we are a part. Humans are not elevated above all species as we were told in the old story of creation. We are simply at the tip of evolution’s arrow, the tip of the arrow of time, an arrow that has traveled the path of ever-increasing complexity and interconnectedness from its origins 13.6 billion years ago.

Here’s something else to think about: Life existed for 3.5 billion years before creatures evolved eyesight. The ability to see isn’t necessary for life. So why did life evolve eyes? Furthermore, why did it evolve a brain, or a consciousness?

This is the mystery that is endlessly fascinating and unanswerable. It is examined within the context of Brian Swimme’s writings and also in anthropologist Loren Eisley’s book, The Immense Journey. If life doesn’t need eyes or a brain to survive and thrive (bacteria and single-celled organisms don’t, for example), why is it that life developed refinements with respect to the senses? Some animals have hearing and eyesight ten or a hundred times more acute than ours. We have the largest mental capacity of all mammals. Other life forms may have evolved communication that is beyond our capacity to perceive or understand.

One might say that the imperative of life is to simply survive and reproduce, but if that were really the case, then wouldn’t evolution just stop at single-celled organisms or bacteria? They are very efficient at reproduction.

Perhaps life itself wanted to deepen its understanding and awareness of itself and its origins. It wanted to see more, hear more and sense more. Ultimately, in the form of humans on Earth, life is now able to contemplate itself, look light years beyond the boundaries of our solar system, ponder the past and future, touch and examine not just everything within our immediate grasp but also rocks and soil from the moon and nearby planets. We as humans have a capacity to care deeply for one another and for the Earth itself. We can have spiritual experiences and feel wonder and a communion with things beyond our immediate grasp.

One of the theories about why we developed and evolved as humans was that a genetic mutation in our evolutionary past slowed down our rate of development. We remain children much longer than any other mammal species. This makes us more dependent on our parents for guidance and education, but also prolongs the period during which we feel wonder and curiosity about the world. We aren’t born with instincts. We must learn everything we need to know about how to survive in the world from our parents and our society. We are who we are and we know what we know because of 200,000 years of human culture that has been passed down to each generation, through books, stories, art or tradition.

If stars evolved into humans in order to be self-aware, what is our purpose as human beings in the Universe? Right now we are living at a time of a great mass extinction, one that happens only once every 100 million years. In the past, these cataclysmic events took place because of external forces: asteroid impacts, super volcanoes, rapid climate change, advancing and receding glaciers. This time, however, humans are the primary driving force behind this latest extinction. We have displaced species, destroyed habitats and polluted our oceans, lakes and rivers. If the arrow of evolution has led to this moment, why is this happening? Is it because we are simply a transient species, soon to be extinct ourselves to make room for a more complex, even more perceptive beings?

There’s simply no reason to think that the “bucks stops here” (at humans) when it comes to evolution. Everything is constantly in flux. Millions of species of birds, insects, mammals and reptiles have come and gone since the dawn of creation. The only thing we can surmise from looking at the past is that things change constantly and evolution tended toward more complex, more aware life forms. Sometimes the experiments failed, and sometimes they persisted. Where evolution goes next is unknown.

Our challenge now is to identify our true role, thereby creating a new society of humans who live with the Earth community, not apart from it.

The Activity

Consider that you are the end result of the Universe attempting to know itself, to see itself, to perceive itself.

What do you think is human’s role in the Universe?

Do you think that because animals have evolved to be increasingly more complex and aware, evolution has a purpose? What do you think that purpose is?

Really think on the idea that YOU are the Universe, and that you are now seeing, feeling and hearing yourself for the first time. You are awakening to the end result of billions of years of change, upheaval, death, birth, and adaptation. You are perceiving creation, the force of life and change. How do you see the Earth and all its creatures and landscapes? What would you change in the future? What would you keep the same?

Knowing there are forces of destruction on Earth, whether man-made or natural, that are creating great changes in the ecology of the planet, how does it make you feel to know that you are living at such a time? Does it frighten you or empower you?

What do you think is your personal role in the evolution of the planet at this point in time? In other words, what do you think you’re supposed to do with your time on Earth?

Twilight in Forks, Washington

Bella's red truck
Bella's red truck (not actual?) in front of the Forks Chamber of Commerce

At the end of the 56-mile drive from Port Angeles to Forks, Washington, we came upon a large, wooden roadside sign:

“The City of Forks Welcomes You”

My sister pulled the rental car over and both she and my 12-year old daughter RAN out to take photos of themselves next to the sign. It was the culmination of months of anticipation for both of them. Forks, Washington! The setting for “Twilight”. My daughter proudly posed as my sister snapped a photo. Then they switched. Just then, a pickup truck drove by and a couple of teenaged girls stuck their head out the window and screamed, “Twilight whores!”

Yes, the city of Forks certainly did welcome us in so many ways.

Team Jacob
My daughter is on Team Jacob. You go girl!

My daughter is a big fan of the Twilight series. She’s read all the books and owns the DVDs of the first two movies. She has black and white laser printouts of Jacob scotch-taped above her dresser and even managed to stuff her Jacob/Edward throw pillow in her small suitcase for the trip. Make no mistake — she’s not obsessed or anything. She has a healthy perspective about things. “Bella” is a drama queen and sometimes the dialogue in the movie is “waaaay cheesy.” The hunky wolf guys are cute, and Edward is super dreamy, but she rolls her eyes at the part where Bella throws herself at the mercy of the Volturi, begging them to “take her” instead of her beloved Edward.

“Give me a break,” she says. “Like any guy is worth dying over.”

May I remind you she’s 12?! I can only guess that her hormones haven’t yet kicked in, so she still has some common sense about her. This is probably why we women start rolling our eyes at men when we hit pre-menopause, too. It’s just not worth it, we think, and roll our eyes much the same way, our emotions less influenced by hormones than they were ten or twenty years ago.

La Push stacks
The stacks at La Push

Knowing how much she liked the series, my sister offered to take my daughter to Forks, Washington to see the town where parts of the movie were filmed and where the story is set. I came along because, I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a Twilight whore myself. But mostly I’ve always wanted to see the Olympic Peninsula. I’ve been to Seattle and the Skaggit Valley a couple of times, but not to the O.P. I’ve wondered about it. The few times I’ve seen the snow-capped Olympic mountains from across the Puget Sound, they were shrouded in clouds and fog and mystery. I fantasized about what it must be like to hike the lush fir forest, dripping in moss and vegetation. I longed to explore the landscape and see the ocean from the most northwestern tip of the Continental United States.

Hiking the Hoh Rain Forest
Hiking the Hoh Rain Forest

Our trip took place in late June, and the weather was probably typical of early summer in the Olympics: temperatures in the low to mid-60s, heavy cloud cover most of the day, clearing in the afternoon, some drizzle and rain. A proprietor of a lavender farm we visited told us that in Port Angeles, where we were renting a vacation home, we were in the “rain shadow” of the Olympics and therefore didn’t get as much precipitation as the western side of the peninsula. She added that in Forks it rains every day. Every day. Fifteen FEET of precipitation a year. Yuck. I get depressed just thinking about it. No wonder Edward Cullen was such a sullen, pasty dude and Bella was cranky all the time.

Lupines, daisies and other wildflowers grew like weeds alongside roads and in meadows and clearings. Everywhere else were trees, trees, trees. Deciduous trees, fir trees, spruce trees. Some trees, like the ones in the Park, were grand beings at least 100 feet tall with trunks as big around as one of those 1970s above-ground swimming pools. Some, planted 20 years ago by logging companies, were smaller, only about 30 feet tall and still a young, fresh green. Those weren’t as grand and won’t be for at least another 100 years or more. Too bad. The area around Forks has really been scrapped and raped in service to our mail order catalogs, tract homes and phone books. My husband says that we’re experiencing “peak wood” at Home Depot and quality isn’t what it used to be ten years ago. It takes a long time for trees to grow to the girth and length of old growth, and we simply are too impatient to wait. As much as I hate sitting in front of the computer all the time, there are certain benefits to going completely “paperless” in the way we do business and entertain ourselves.

lupines
Lupines grow everywhere in Port Angeles, WA
mossy forest
Moss clings to trees in the Hoh

Forks has really cashed in on the Twilight mania. The Chamber of Commerce there has put up a Bella and Edward poster on the front door in case you’re worried about embarrassing yourself with stupid questions about the movie. Inside are life-sized cardboard cutouts of the characters one can stand next to and pretend. There are Hollywood-style maps the chamber employees dole out, indicating where certain landmarks are located: The Cullen House, the high school, the hospital. Granted, these are NOT the actual buildings that are featured in the movie, just pretend landmarks that one could take photos of and say, “Hey, I stood on the steps of the Forks high school!” Really?

We opted not to take the map and see the fake landmarks.

Instead, we walked the main drag (two blocks by two blocks) and shopped for Twilight souvenirs at one of a few stores set up especially for the occasion. Before the movie came out, Forks was just a sleepy (and rainy) logging town with a population of just over 3,000. It’s slightly less sleepy now because droves of teenaged girls and their families walk and drive up and down the streets, frequent the local eateries (like we did), and maybe even stay a day or two at one of the nearby hotels or B&Bs. Maybe some of the girls secretly hope to catch a glimpse of Jacob and Edward, the way I used to ache to see Santa Claus on Christmas or naively hope to run into Mark Hamill on the streets of Hollywood when I was twelve and vacationing in Los Angeles with my parents. The lady at the Chamber of Commerce told us that not everyone is happy with the sudden popularity of the town, but I’m sure in a few years after all the movies have come and gone from the big screen, Forks will get its town back and everything will get back to normal…whatever that is.

poisonous mushroom
This is the first poisonous mushroom I've seen in person!

After the excitement of celebrity—cardboard and imagined—we drove twenty minutes outside town to a trailhead along the Bogachiel River and hiked for a couple of hours in the magnificent pacific northwest rainforest. It’s like stepping into a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, with witches (ok, vampires), red-capped mushrooms, strange insects like banana slugs the size of sausages and the color of coal, berries that look edible but could be poisonous. Eating from a place like this seems insane. Everything in this forest looked fatally seductive. The only thing missing was Victoria running at lightspeed through the woods, chased by a pack of grizzly bear-sized wolves, to the soundtrack of Radiohead.

The lake formed by the Elwah River dam (soon to be drained)

One of my favorite stories from the trip was something I learned when visiting the Elwah River Park. I learned that due to a resolution passed in the 1990s requiring the restoration of certain watersheds, the Elwah dam will be demolished at the end of the year, allowing for the reparation of a watershed that hasn’t had salmon in 100 years due to the dam being built without proper fish channels. The US Dept of Fish and Wildlife will then bring in salmon fry and “seed” the river with salmon, so that once again, hopefully, the ecology of the river will contain the native fish that so many generations of indigenous people and native animals relied on for food. When I read about this and saw the river, I cried. I mean, this, to me, is progress. This is people waking up. This is people acknowledging that ecology cannot always be in service to the economy. That sometimes we need to fix that which we have broken, restore that which we have pillaged for our own benefit. Animals, plants and most of all, indigenous people, have a right to the pursuit of happiness as much as everyone else.

Port Angeles winery
Port Angeles on a sunny, clear afternoon. Yes, it happens.

I would like to have had something to say about Port Angeles, but we spent most of our time outside—hiking, looking at waterfalls, smelling lavender, picking strawberries, roasting marshmellows over a campfire, fishing— and we didn’t have much time to see the town. I’m sure it’s quaint and friendly, at least that’s the impression I got from driving through.

Our whirlwind trip had a little for everyone: pop movie culture for my daughter, nature and hiking for me, and some of both for my sister. I want to go back someday and stay longer, explore more, immerse myself in the environment there. No matter how long I stay next time, I’ll just have to keep movin, because if I sit too still for too long in the Olympic Peninsula, I’m bound to grow moss.

Lavender farm
Lost Mountain Lavender Farm

The Value and Sacredness of Land

Pawnee Buttes

(Note: This is a great hike and activity to do with kids aged 9 and up.)

Location: Northeast Colorado, approximately 55 miles north of Ft. Morgan

Directions: From Denver: Take I-76 to Ft. Morgan. From Ft. Morgan, exit on Main Street and CO 52 (exit number 75). Turn left (north) on CO 52. Go 25 miles to CO 14 and turn left (east) to road 390. Turn right (north) on 390. Weld County Road 105 is the first right angling off Road 390 just past Keota. Stay on it until it dead ends into County Road 112. Turn right, and when you cross a cattle guard, you’ll see the first sign directing you to the Pawnee Buttes. The signs for the Pawnee Buttes are small and brown and could be easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Follow the signs to the trailhead. It’s 18 miles trip from CO 14 to the Buttes, all on gravel roads.

To reach the Pawnee Buttes from Ft. Collins, Loveland or Boulder, consult a map to see the best route to CO 14 and go from there. You may need to take US 34 east to I-76 or CO 14 east.

Duration: 1-1/2 hours

Access Notes: The gravel roads to the Buttes are completely passable by passenger car. This hike is best done in late spring, around May 25- June 10th when it’s not too hot and prairie wildflowers are in bloom. This is a completely exposed hike with no real shade. Be mindful of forecasted thunderstorms, as this area is prone to hail and tornadoes in spring and summer. It’s best to go as early as possible in the morning to avoid the worst weather. There are no facilities at the Buttes, and the nearest food and gas is at least 20 miles away, so pack food and water for your hike. Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike
Although two of the trails are closed March 1- June 30 to protect nesting birds, the main Buttes Trail is open from the parking lot. This is an easy 1-1/2 mile hike each way with barely any elevation gain or loss, however, the first quarter mile descends down into a shallow canyon where water has eroded sandstone walls. Junipers, yucca and a variety of prairie grasses and wildflowers grow along the sandy trail. You’re very likely to see and hear several varieties of larks and grasshoppers from your car on the way to the Buttes and along the trail. You may also encounter pronghorns (a type of antelope), lizards, and snakes.

The grass prairies were referred to by early settlers as a “sea of grass”. If you come in spring or summer, you may feel as if you’re indeed afloat on an endless green sea as the wind creates undulating waves in the grass and there are no obvious signs of civilization for miles from certain vantage points. It’s just you, the green waves, and the vast sky above. If you come on a weekday morning, you may be the only person around for miles. This is a different kind of wilderness than the kind in the mountains and foothills of Denver and Boulder.

To the west and not far away, you will see a wind turbine farm with its graceful and towering white blades rising over the hills and rotating soundlessly. The juxtaposition of the prairie and the wind turbines is the intersection of the timeless and the modern, the past and future together.

Unlike the claustrophobic feel of a thickly-forested mountain trail, where you imagine predators such as cougars and bears silently watching, here you experience the opposite: an aloneness and quiet that is broken only by the tootee-tooteleedee of a meadowlark and the long swishhhhh of the wind combing the grass.

The Buttes rise up mysteriously out of these soft swells of grass. They’re steep, chalky and rough. The rock is brittle like pressed sand, so you have to be careful where you step as you approach the formations. You imagine these buttes having been tall dunes at some point in the past, or something softer that has since weathered and hardened, and then eroded into a steeper formation from wind and rain.

The beauty of this place is in its unbroken, green landscape and sense of expansiveness. The sky here is as wide as the ground, and invites you to imagine a time when there were no houses, no power lines, no cows and no cars—only grass, bison and small clusters of tee-pees where Plains Indians went about their lives. You almost expect to look up at the horizon and see a group of Pawnees sitting on horses, dressed for the hunt, feathers and ribbons of leather rippling in the breeze. You wonder what it must have been like to feel the deep rumble of a herd of a hundred thousand bison migrating across the hills instead of the distant rumble of an airplane. The solitude and silence was once unbroken for hundreds of square miles. When you visit the Pawnee National Grasslands or the Buttes, It’s easy to contemplate a different kind of life and a different relationship with the land here, both now and so many years ago.

The Value and Sacredness of Land
Before white settlers populated the west, there were at least 700 million acres of prairie in the western United States. Large grazing animals such as bison, elk and antelope roamed the grasslands. Native grasses such as switchgrass, buffalo grass and blue gamma grass grew thick and lush because they were species that evolved to need very little water in areas that get as little as 15 inches of precipitation per year.

Currently, untouched prairie represents a tiny fraction of what once was a “sea of grass” that extended from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains. In the last 200 years, the prairie has been turned into ranchland, agriculture, and urban areas covered by roads and strip malls. This conversion from land that once was legally owned by no one, not even the Native American tribes that populated the riverbanks and hunted in its expanses, to land that was plowed, covered and sold for profit originated with the way the law was constructed by America’s Founding Fathers. The last phrase contained in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” This paradigm that land could be bought and sold and owned privately was a construct that shaped the landscape of America.

Native Americans saw the land in terms of ecosystems and areas where bison would migrate, where rivers would flow, where grasses and timber could be gathered to make shelter and where they could count on sustaining their livelihood year after year. The animals that lived there were seen as spirit guides. If a young man saw a certain animal during a vision quest, that animal would become his source of wisdom and inspiration his entire life. Bison were viewed as sacred because their flesh enabled entire villages to thrive, clothe themselves and survive long, harsh winters.

While Native Americans saw the land as sacred—a place that could sustain generations of families with everything they needed to live and thrive, both physically and spiritually—white settlers and homesteaders saw the land as an economic opportunity.

When pioneers and homesteaders arrived in the West, they dreamed of converting the land they acquired into a personal fortune. The government and industry laid down a map of the West and divided the prairie into even squares, measuring one mile by one mile, or 640 acres. Each square was then subdivided into smaller squares and sold or given away. No consideration was given to the migration of animals or the viability of certain areas for farming or grazing. The question of whether there was enough rain each year to grow anything other than native grasses was dismissed, and acre after acre was plowed, wells and irrigation canals excavated, and non-native livestock brought in to graze. The value of the land was measured in how much profit it could generate and what could be extracted from it. It certainly didn’t hold the same value to pioneers and American industry that it held to Natives.

Native Americans saw this mathematical dissection of land as white people’s insanity. They didn’t understand how a person or a community could survive by limiting themselves to just a few acres, without the ability to track game or move to different regions in summer and winter. They didn’t understand how a person could claim to own a piece of land, to the exclusion of everyone else. While it’s true that they themselves fought over the best hunting and farming grounds, there were no such things as “For Sale” signs, realtors or title companies in Native American culture. The land belonged to all people, and the people belonged to the land.

This view of land as having economic, versus intrinsic or ecological value, is a notion that is ingrained in our Western culture. It is ingrained in our thinking whether we agree with it or not. We view colorful, lush lands with scenic vistas as having more value than arid lands with less-than-enchanting landscapes. We view cities with complex architecture as having more value than an empty lot covered in weeds. In fact, the mere notion that driving out to the Pawnee National Grasslands and thinking, “There’s nothing out here” is a symptom of our Western paradigm. What is the “something” that would make this area more valuable in our mind? Bustling industry? Large homes on manicured lawns? Stores and streets? Pump jacks?

A Native American of 300 years ago would look at this prairie and say that everything is here. Everything that he needs to survive and live happily is contained in this sea of grass. The value of land is not some arbitrary number a developer or government places on it, but its value to the animals, to the tribe, to the nation. It is the value of beauty and abundance and ecological balance. It is the value of all life that is sustained there. It is priceless.

The Activity
The first thing to do as you begin your hike is to ask yourself what kinds of thoughts were running through your head as you drove out to this area of Colorado. Did you find yourself placing value on the land in the sense of the Western paradigm or the indigenous paradigm? Or a little of both?

Consider the adjectives you would use to describe the area around the Pawnee Buttes. (Is it lush, vast, empty, quiet, economically depressed, abandoned, thriving?)

As you begin hiking down the canyon and toward the Buttes, imagine a time several hundred years ago when this wasn’t an established trail or land owned by the U.S. government. Imagine spending several days or weeks here by yourself, living in a leather tent with a generous ration of food and water. What relationship would you have to the land in that situation—meaning, how would you feel about your time here and what would you do?

Now imagine living here for the same period of time without a ration of supplies. How would your relationship to the land change?

Considering these differences, why do you think it’s so easy for most Americans to buy and sell property or move from place to place?

Can you see why the way we place value on land may have something to do with how we treat land and the animals that live there?

How to Do a Medicine Walk

Coulson Gulch Road/National Forest Trail #916

Location: West of Pinewood Springs, between Lyons and Estes Park

Directions: From Boulder take the 36 through Lyons toward Estes Park. Immediately past Pinewood Springs, turn left (south) on Cr-118, where you’ll see a brown sign for Big Elk Meadows and National Forest Access. Drive another 3 miles until you get to the “Y” fork in the road. Take the left fork, following the sign pointing toward National Forest Access. This last half mile is a very rutty dirt road best accessed by high-clearance vehicles. Park along the road in front of the metal barrier. Walk south past the metal barrier where the road continues and spreads out into a bigger area. Veer slightly east where there’s a second metal barrier and locate the narrow dirt trail directly west of it that descends into the trees below, indicated by a brown National Forest Service sign that states “Trail 916.”

Duration: 4 hours or longer

Access Notes: Camping is allowed at the trailhead in certain areas, so you may encounter a few cars already parked at the trailhead in summer. The last half mile of dirt road is not maintained in winter, so this hike is accessible when the roads are dry—after Memorial Day. Elk hunting is permitted in this National Forest area during the fall, and it is advised to wear bright orange during that time when hiking in National Forest. There are no facilities or restrooms at the trailhead. Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike

This is one of the trails within 30 minutes drive of Boulder that feels like you’re stepping into wilderness. It’s quiet, bucolic in summer, with no road noise (except maybe ATVs in nearby Big Elk Meadows and Johnny Camp) and long, green views of the valley between Pinewood Springs and the north Boulder foothills.

The start of the trail is a narrow slit in the dirt that cuts through a sloped, grassy meadow that descends into the trees. It then follows a small creek through a thicket of woods and brush at the bottom of a gully. In the spring and summer you’ll see a variety of wildflowers dotting the trail, including lupines, yellow peas, prairie chickweed, western dayflowers, columbines and others. The view of the meadow below (Higgin’s Park) is most spectacular the first portion of the hike, before you enter the woods.

After the cool and pleasant walk in the woods next to the stream, you’ll come to a more exposed section of the trail where you can look across the valley to the west and south. After a steep and sketchy descent down a section of trail with a lot of loose sand and gravel, you’ll come to an old abandoned log cabin—a relic of the earlier part of the last century. There’s no roof, but a rusted bed frame, mattress springs and headboard are propped up inside the decaying structure. There’s even a rusty skeleton of a wood-burning cookstove flung onto the forest floor nearby. It feels odd this far into the trail, and makes you wonder how people used to bring in such items this deep into a forest. A little further down, an old livestock enclosure fashioned out of logs borders what once was a home to someone who lived this close to nature.

As you come out of the woods past this abandoned homestead you come upon Higgins Park, a large, rolling meadow with views of Cook Mountain and North and South Sheep Mountain. As the trail turns east and away from the grassy hill, you have to make a decision—go another half hour toward Button Rock reservoir or another 20 minutes to a footbridge over the St. Vrain river, following the trail until it dead ends up the river.

There are many opportunities to view and listen to wildlife along the way—chirping and crowing birds, squirrels, elk, or deer. Sometimes the more open you are and in tune with the land, the more animals you notice.

The remote feel and peaceful setting make it an excellent location to do a Medicine Walk.

Medicine Walk

Native Americans believed that every animal or object in nature had a spirit and contained special powers that were beyond the normal ability of humans. The landscape and its inhabitants was not an inanimate object to be quantified and assessed for monetary value as it is in Western culture, but a place alive with mystery and purpose, omens and symbolism. The spirit, or wakan in Lakota, of hawks, coyotes, elk and other animals symbolized such qualities as courage, success in courtship, or a deep and clear seeing. When animals appeared to humans, whether in reality or in dreams and visions, it held special meaning. There was an intimate connection between the animal realm and the human realm, each one needing the other.

It was believed that every person had their own spirit guide from nature, represented by some animal or object. This spirit guide gave the person emotional strength to endure challenges in life and the insight to succeed in hunting, love or leadership.

Spirit guides were particularly important during vision quests. Vision quests were sacred rites of passage in Native American culture where adolescents (and sometimes adults, when seeking answers to difficult questions) would fast in the wilderness for three or four days, which helped incite hallucinations and an altered psychological state in order to get a vision to guide them in their life. The quester would bring along talismans of their spirit guide they carved or created on their journey, packed in a sacred medicine bag.

During their time in the wilderness, there was symbolic meaning from things they observed from the weather, animals and the landscape that they interpreted in relationship to their own life. The “messages” they received told them of their purpose in life, revealed their special gifts and talents, and instructed them how to use those gifts to benefit their tribe when they returned.

A medicine walk is like a short vision quest, during which you pay attention to the omens in nature in order to find your medicine, which in the Native American sense is anything that is healing  and positive to body and mind. During a medicine walk, you find a place where you can spend at least a half a day alone, walking, sitting and meditating in nature with as few distractions from civilization as possible. You focus on an important personal issue and seek wisdom and guidance in nature by looking for symbolic meaning from the things you observe.

Medicine walks can be undertaken in preparation for important transitions in life: a new job, a divorce, a new relationship. It can be a healing, insightful practice when you’re feeling stuck or confused about something in your life. The insights you receive from a medicine walk can be subtle or immensely profound, and sometimes the answers aren’t what you were expecting. But simply by embarking on a medicine walk, you invite a more mystical quality in your life. You acknowledge that the world is more than a collection of profane objects, but rather a world alive with both meaning and mystery.

To prepare for a medicine walk, you select a place where you will spend a half day or longer, a place where there aren’t too many people (preferably a trail that has little or no visitors on certain days of the week). If you have a favorite trail or a place that draws you in some mysterious way, that’s a good place to go. The key is to have a place where you’ll feel comfortable and unembarrassed to walk slowly, sit for long periods of time or even have a conversation with an animal or plant. The reason you want to be out for at least a half day is because you’ll naturally come with a lot of mental chatter, and it will take at least a few hours for that chatter to subside enough for you to be open to what the outside world is trying to say.

It can be a time during which you take water, but no food. The reasoning behind this is that because fasting can further eliminate distractions.  Personally, I think hunger is a bigger distraction and I prefer to take along a snack. In planning for your walk, be prepared for any weather possibility since the weather can be completely different at the end of your walk as it is when you embark. Or, try to plan your walk on a day when you know the weather will be as agreeable as possible. Be sure to tell someone exactly where you’re going and what time you expect to be back home, in case you get injured or something happens and you’re out longer than you want to be.

I selected the Coulson Gulch trail for this activity, because it is on National Forest land and has less visitors than other trails near the Front Range, especially on weekdays. It feels like you’re deeper in the wilderness than you actually are, and provides the solitude and quiet that you’ll need in order to benefit from this contemplative activity.

When you arrive at the trail, set an intention for your medicine walk. You’re here to ask guidance from nature and you want to stay open to all omens and signs. Perhaps you’re confused about the direction you’re going in life. Maybe you want guidance about what your true talents and gifts are, and what to do with them. Whatever the question, it should be of a personal nature.

Find an imaginary threshold that you will step over to begin your medicine walk and journey into dream time, or a period of time when everything that happens and everything you observe has special and sacred meaning. You will be stepping back over this same threshold upon your return. This threshold could be the metal barrier to the trail, or the trail sign, or a stand of trees.

Walk purposefully and slowly. Allow your curiosity to seek out things that capture your attention. Don’t analyze everything you observe for meaning, because sometimes the best guidance comes in subtle ways when you least expect it.

When I went on my first medicine walk, I wanted answers on how and when to transition my career. I had a hard time receiving the messages at first. I was looking at everything and assigning meaning. Did the stand of broken aspens mean that I was making changes before I was ready? Did the wind pick up and shake the leaves on the tree because it acknowledged what I just said? Did that deer symbolize something positive or negative? Nothing I was considering felt right. It was as if I was trying too hard and making up my own meaning instead of letting the mystery unfold.

After a few hours, I started to feel tired and hungry and turned around to head back. As I was thinking about my hunger, a strange thought came over me. I looked to the grass in the meadow and was convinced I could dive into it and find food in the form of insects. This wasn’t a logical thought or even a momentary musing. It felt visceral and real, and my body almost followed my eyesight into the grass.

I had no idea where the thought came from. It didn’t feel like any I had experienced before or since. It was as if, for a brief moment, I channeled the thoughts of a bird. The sensation felt wild, foreign, and intense.

Ironically, after all that analysis of every unusual thing I observer, I came away from my medicine walk with just one simple message: don’t try too hard. Stay open. Allow the spirit guide to come to me, instead of searching it out. This could mean staying open on contemplative hikes, or it could mean staying open to what happens in life and allowing opportunities and answers to unfold instead of forcing a direction.

I haven’t channeled any bird thoughts since that one time, but now, coincidentally or not, almost every time I go on a contemplative hike I see ravens. Ravens flying in ecstasy overhead. Ravens sqwaking at me. Once, I observed two ravens, one chasing the other one that had something in its beak. As they flew right above me, I willed the raven to drop his prize, and he did, and whatever it was landed just a few feet from me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find whatever it was since it was small and landed in the snow. But in that split second when I thought, “drop it” and the bird let go of what he was holding right as he flew overhead, there was a connection between us. Once, on a hike with my husband, I was telling him about the special symbolism of ravens and how I experienced the thought of getting food from the grass, and within moments of saying that, we came upon a big raven, pecking at the grass in front of us on the trail. Coincidence or not, I felt validated somehow. The raven then flew up into the trees and watched me. It was surreal.

But what does it all mean?

To me, ravens symbolize freedom and intelligence. Their croaky cry echoing across valleys or the way they seem to fly just for the fun of it is their way of and reminding me about my own freedom. They link me to my own wildness. They’re a reminder not to take life too seriously, but to stay curious and revel in the feeling of the wind in my wings, so to speak.

When you go on your medicine walk, you will find your own spirit guide and message. Remain open but don’t try too hard to read what you’re experiencing. The best guidance comes when you least expect it. Your spirit guide will find you. You don’t need to go looking for it.

To heighten your experience, stop and have a conversation with a being. Tell a tree about yourself. Ask a bird what his life is like. Sometimes it will seem like creatures want to communicate something to you. Birds will follow you. Deer will stare at you. Trees will tremble as you approach. What is it they’re trying to say?

When you complete your walk and step back over your threshold, take a minute to offer gratitude to the land for showing you its ancient and eternal wisdom. You can bow, say thank you, lay your hands on an object or tree and offer it positive energy. Record your impressions in a journal when you get home, when they’re still fresh in your mind.

More People On the Trail – Good or Bad?

View of Pike's Peak from the Devil's Head fire tower overlook

Devil’s Head Trail

Noticing Other People Enjoying Nature

Location: Between Sedalia and Deckers, in Douglas County

Directions: From Denver take I-25 South to Happy Canyon Road (west), then go proceed on Happy Canyon Road to Highway 85 and turn right (west) toward Sedalia. (From western suburbs take C-470 to Santa Fe Drive to Sedalia and Highway 67).

From Highway 85 turn left (southwest) onto Highway 67 heading toward Deckers. Then head west on highway 67 to the north entrance of the park at Rampart Range Road, 10 miles. Take this South for approximately 9 miles to Devil’s Head campground and the Fire Tower trailhead.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours

Route: There is only one trail up the mountain to the Devil’s Head overlook and tower from the parking lot.

Access Notes: Rampart Range Road is closed from December to April since the road is not maintained in winter. It’s best to go in the summer or late spring when roads are dry and clear.

The trail itself is a moderately steep walk 1.5 miles up to the summit and the fire tower overlook. There are picnic tables and restrooms (no running water) at the trailhead and parking lot. The lot fills up early on summer weekends, even though there are plenty of spaces. You don’t need a 4WD vehicle to access this trail since Rampart Range Road is gravel and fairly smooth with only a few areas of washboard. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive to Devil’s Head from most central and northern Denver suburbs, much less if you’re coming from Highlands Ranch or Castle Pines.

This is one hike I recommend doing on a summer weekend as opposed to attempting to come when it’s not crowded, such as mid-week or early in the morning. The point of this contemplative hike is to really experience the feeling of other people on the trail, what it means, and what the future holds for those wanting to experience the peace and tranquility of nature.

Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike

From the parking lot to the top of the trail where the fire tower is located is 940 feet of elevation gain and a mile and a half of long, sweeping switchbacks that wind their way through tall, erect aspen and then through spruce and pine. The trail zig zags the north face of the mountain, with distant or picturesque views of rock formations, Mount Evans, the eastern plains and the Black Forest, and the Lost Creek Wilderness Range to the west.

The hike starts off sheltered in the tall aspens and crosses a small creek (during spring meltoff). Mid-way up the mountain you’ll pass huge, smooth, egg- and spire-shaped boulders and scenic overlooks. Don’t get too close to the edge!

Once you reach the summit, you’ll encounter a small meadow, a cabin, more restrooms, and an old fire tower that is accessed by a very steep and long metal staircase. This is a good place to take a break and eat lunch. The final push to the fire tower is not for the faint of heart or people with vertigo or fear of heights. However, if you can manage it, it’s well-worth the effort. The views of Pikes Peak to the south and Denver and Mt. Evans to the north are so expansive it feels as if you’re in an airplane—much higher than you actually are. The tower is closed if there’s lightning or the danger of lightning. Ideally, you want to do this hike on clear, sunny days that aren’t too windy. The final elevation at the top is about 9,500 feet, so you may feel a little winded with all that climbing.

With so many people you pass on the trail, once you reach the tower you’ll enjoy the feeling of wilderness and space. Pike National Forest surrounds you to the south, west and east, and trees are all you can see for miles. To the west, you can see the 130,000-some acres that were burned during the 2002 Deckers wildfire. The hills there are still brown in comparison to the unburned areas.

More People On the Trail — Good or Bad?

One of the many scenic overlooks from Devil's Head trail

Before you even arrive at the parking lot for this trail, you’ll notice something unique about this entire area of Pike National Forest. The length of Rampart Range Road branches off into large alcoves and parking lots intended for trucks with trailers hauling ATVs, dirt bikes and quads. There are special trails that have been designated for off-road travel by ATVs only and these trails weave in loops through the forest, sometimes parallel to the main road. Families and groups pitch their tents, bring in their travel trailers and motorhomes and spend the day or longer riding their ATVs and enjoying time in the woods.

The high-pitched buzzing of small engines permeate the area and you may start to wonder, as you’re making your way up the road to the trailhead, how you’re going to enjoy this hike with all this racket going on. It’s actually not that bad once you get up onto the trail, as most of the noise is absorbed by the trees and wind.

When I was in my 20s I used to enjoy weekends camping with friends who’d bring along their small quad that we all took turns riding. We camped in BLM land near the Lost Creek Wilderness, and being young and stupid, we did some stupid things, like making a campfire that was way too hot and throwing out sparks, drinking too much, making too much noise and probably not being very kind to the land. I’m sure we probably pissed off some backpackers or hikers who may have wandered near our camp when they heard the growl of the ATV engine zipping up and down the hills.

I haven’t ridden in any ATVs since then and actually find their noisiness irritating now when I’m out hiking or trying to enjoy the peace of wilderness. I suppose I’m not the only one who feels this way, because I know there aren’t many places that allow the kind of activity one sees as one travels down Rampart Range Road.

Recently, the idea of too many people using natural areas has come up as a source of controversy among the National Forest Service, Boulder county residents and some of my friends. In October of 2009, The Boulder City Council and the Open Space and Mountain Parks Board of Trustees were considering a pilot program that would charge non-residents a fee to use some of the open space parks within Boulder county. The reason this was being considered was because City Council was looking to close a budget gap for Open Space programs. Around 40% of users of the open space park are non-Boulder (non-city tax paying) residents, according to City Council, and they felt those people needed to help pay for the cleaning and maintenance of the parks.

The walk up to the fire tower is 1-1/2 miles and nearly 1000 feet of elevation gain.

In May of 2010, an article appeared in the Gazette stating that the Forest Service was considering charging hikers $10 per day to summit the fourteeners in the South Colony Basin near Westcliffe, Colorado. As state and federal budgets are tightened, land managers are looking for alternative ways to both cover the cost of trail maintenance and to reduce the number of people using the trails.

This controversial proposal struck a nerve among some of my friends and family, who admit they, too, feel there are too many people crowding the Front Range hiking trails on any given weekend and wonder what the solutions are.

One person even told me that perhaps there ought to be less books telling people where to go hiking, because the information is just contributing to this “problem.” (This book, of course, being the target of such facetious banter.)

But is it a problem? And why is it a problem?

As an ecopsychologist, I can say that the worst thing federal, state and city authorities can do to solve budget problems is to start charging money for people to spend time in nature. Unless people have ample opportunities to enjoy nature and connect with the land where they live, they will no longer know how much wilderness is really left and therefore won’t care about what happens to wilderness. Human beings need some sort of connection to nature for optimum mental health. We cannot lock ourselves up in a concrete box with only more boxes such as television, cars and computers to interact with and think we can end up healthy, mentally or physically. We need a relationship to the land: whether that’s a garden, an animal, a tree, a park or a backyard. When that relationship is lacking, man’s consideration for his environment withers. The environment just becomes an abstract idea. The natural world becomes an object to be exploited and converted to human wealth. It becomes a mountain to be mined for coal, an ocean to be exploited for oil and seafood, a forest to be cut down to build tract homes.

If it’s going to cost money to experience wilderness, then only those people who can afford to spend the money will be able to enjoy time in nature. Many low-income people already don’t drive up to the mountains to go hiking or just enjoy the woods because they can barely afford the gas money for such trips, let alone if it cost them $10 per person or $5 to park their car each time. Enjoying nature becomes a luxury for those that can’t afford the fees and gas prices, and the best they can do is to go to a nearby park in the city and sit under a tree.

But the bigger question is, why are so many more people using the trails, visiting State and National Parks and putting a financial burden on the agencies who are working so hard to maintain these areas? Is it that there are so many more people moving to Colorado and the population is increasing in general? Perhaps — I certainly wouldn’t discount this obvious fact.

View from just below the fire tower

Perhaps the other reason more people are finding it necessary to drive some distance away from where they live to go enjoy nature is because nature is being continually pushed out from the city by development. There are fewer and fewer places to go in the city that afford the same kind of experience once gets from hiking in the woods—where it’s quiet and scenic and smells good. It’s not so much that population is increasing, it’s also that development is increasing around the Front Range, with fewer and fewer fields, prairies, stands of trees and what investors call “vacant land.”

Is charging fees and discouraging use of trails and parks the best solution? The problem is not that there are too many people using the trails. The industrial growth paradigm that creates this need in people is the problem. It stems from how we treat or value natural areas that already exist near the city. It’s not a vast meadow with some trees to be enjoyed by all creatures; it’s undeveloped land that has certain monetary value to investors, but only if it’s bulldozed, excavated and covered by buildings and parking lots. A prairie dog or coyote is not an animal; it’s a “nuisance” to be eliminated or relocated.

Therefore, charging fees to recoup the cost of human use of natural areas or to discourage use by making it only affordable to wealthy people is like putting a band aid on a headwound. It doesn’t address the core problem of industrial growth society’s attitude toward nature, and ignores the fact that keeping people distanced from nature only adds to the problem, because people will look to material wealth to fill that void; a void they could be filling through spiritual and contemplative practices, such as an opening up to feeling enchanted by nature’s beauty.

The Activity

The intention of this hike is not to be silent and withdrawn from others, but to connect not just to the mountain, but to the people who have come to enjoy it, too.

When I hiked this trail in late May, I noticed a lot of “sneaker hikers” enjoying the trail. This is what I call people who like to hike but don’t have the latest in technical clothing and gear, who aren’t racing to the top, who are stopping frequently to take breaks and enjoy the view and maybe even snap a few photos. They came with their kids, their dogs, their friends to enjoy a warm, sunny spring day in the woods with their loved ones.

People aren’t a “nuisance” on trails. They are individuals who value the land where they reside. They value what being in the woods or hiking up a mountain does for their bodies and souls. Human beings belong to the land, not the other way around.

I can’t imagine these hikers feeling that this particular trail is an object to be exploited to create products or build mansions for the select few. I’m almost positive that if I were to ask each person on the trail if they wouldn’t mind if this entire area was closed to the public and turned over to a mining and forestry company to extract resources for the manufacture of cellphones, coffee tables and televisions, they’d look at me in horror.

Take a look at the people you encounter on your hike. Consider why they’re here. Consider what would happen if they weren’t here, or if no one cared about coming up to the mountains for enjoyment.

These are people who have seen nature displaced where they live, in small ways, or perhaps in significant ways. Deep in their memory, they all have a story to tell about the displacement or destruction of natural areas.

In 1995 I moved to Broomfield. I bought a new house in an area that was previously just old farm fields and prairie. For at least the first two years I lived there, my still-small neighborhood was surrounded by these fields. I would go walking through those fields after work almost every day, enjoying the views of the mountains and the way everything felt so wide-open and spacious. I would observe many different birds flittering about from shrub to shrub. But all this came to an end after two years of development and expansion, and the fields were covered in tract homes and playgrounds.

What is your story about losing a favorite place to development or pollution?

While you’re making progress up to the tower, enjoy connecting to the people as well as the scenery. Say hello. Make eye contact. Strike up friendly conversations.

How does it feel to share these woods and this mountain with other people?

Were there any assumptions and attitudes about other people on the trail that were challenged by your observations?

When I began my descent down the steps of the fire tower, I ran into a man and his two children on their way up. I had passed them an hour earlier, as the father had stopped to point out some kind of plant to them.

His son, who looked to be about 12 or 13, had stopped halfway up the staircase, terrified and crying. His head was slung in shame as he was unable to move up or down. I slowed down as I passed them, and looked with empathy at the father as he tried to comfort his son.

“I remember feeling the same way about these kinds of places when I was his age.” I said.

“Yeah, it’s tough having a fear of heights.” The father answered. His eyes and voice were full of compassion and softness.

In that moment, we were more than just hikers. We connected as parents, as human beings, and as decent people wanting the same things for ourselves and our children.

The (Eco)Psychology of the Gulf Oil Spill

oil on handsI’ve been monitoring the heartbreaking developments of the Gulf of Mexico BP oil leak all weekend long on the internet. Other than learning about the possible cause and the plans for containment, I’ve also learned something about the (eco)psychology of this disaster from the perspective of the public who is reading these same articles. I’ve noticed that public sentiment, via the comment board postings below each article I read on CNN, Huffingtonpost, FoxNews and Mike Ruppert’s blog, has been swaying between blame and anger and a stronger demand for a wake-up call regarding safer, renewable energy sources. What’s missing, for the most part, from the public commentary is a shrug and dismissal of the catastrophe as a “necessary evil”. Everyone seems to feel this is a wake-up call, whether it’s a wake-up call to the way some corporations put profit over ecological concerns and safety, or a wake-up call that we have to begin stepping up our national efforts to diversify our energy needs to more renewable and less potentially deadly sources.

The latest headline, for example, suggests that the Gulf Coast oil spill has appeared to lessen the administration’s enthusiasm for future offshore oil drilling. What was previously deemed as “safe” by the oil industry is now in question. Is it really safe? If it was an accident of nature, then it’s unpredictable and not safe. If it was sabotage, then the very idea this sort of event can be manufactured to make a political statement makes deep water drilling unsafe. The only way it can be made safe is to put in redundant and over-the-top safeguards that can prevent any sort of foreseen and unforeseen incidents in the future, or eliminate off-shore oil drilling completely (yeah, that’s not going to happen anytime soon).

In an interview with a survivor of the oil rig explosion, it is apparent that this was an act of nature. The rig employees were conducting routine testing of the well, and everything was checking out o.k. when suddenly there was a blowback of natural gas that came up so fast and forcefully up the pipe from the well, it blew out the valve and spilled heavier-than-oxygen natural gas all over the platform in a matter of minutes. Something—perhaps even static electricity—ignited the dense gas (odorless and colorless) and set off the first of a series of explosions. Simply put, they hit a pocket of extremely high-pressure gas that their equipment couldn’t safely contain.

The survivor said that the balance of pressure from the rig and well at those depths are tenuous and a very delicate balance. It seems that the balance tipped, and now the entire Gulf region is facing an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions.

As Mike Ruppert wrote on his blog, “…maybe Mother Earth will have poisoned us with the substance we have so greedily raped her — and killed each other — for… “You want oil?… I’ll give you oil.”

The Blame Game

It’s difficult to fathom such a destructive situation and not want to blame somebody. It’s human nature and it’s a way to direct the anger and despair away from ourselves. Some are blaming the government for not having enough regulation of the oil industry. Some are blaming BP for not putting enough safeguards in place and spending the extra money for additional back-up systems. Some are already blaming the Obama administration for not acting quickly enough, even though the containment of the well has been likened to an Apollo 13 mission a mile underwater. Translation: a near impossible task, given the depth and the fact that the tangled metallic mess of the destroyed rig is laying on top of the well.

There are even those who are forming conspiracy theories. The North Koreans sent a secret torpedo from Cuba. Environmentalists rigged this disaster so that no new oil drilling platforms would be allowed. The government planned this so that they could control us better through more regulation and a nationalization of the oil industry. This sort of thinking is just one more way to deflect the anger and despair we’re feeling inside, but it isn’t productive or helpful.

Why do we want to deflect our anger? Because blaming someone and feeling angry feels much better than feeling despair and bone-deep sadness deep in our heart and soul. Blaming others means we don’t need to change what we’re doing because we feel above blame. Anger is invigorating and allows us to not have to feel responsible or face the truth.

So what is the truth? The truth is that we are all a party to this mess, because we live in a world that is utterly and completely dependent on oil for survival. The oil companies keep drilling wherever they viably can because the public demands cheap energy to run the economy. Unless we face that simple fact, we are doomed to keep repeating these sorts of ecological and economic disasters in the future.

Go Ahead, Feel Your Despair

Unfortunately, blaming others, corporations and political parties for this disaster won’t solve anything or keep this from destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions of animals and humans dependent on the Gulf of Mexico. Unless we all realize our own culpability in this, we won’t make any lasting or significant changes that will prevent this from ever happening again.

We have to embrace the fact that each time we get into a car or gas-powered public transportation, we are contributing to the oil industry. Each time we type on a keyboard, put on a piece of polyester or nylon clothing, eat non-local food, use plastic or any product that was transported by planes, trains, trucks or boats, we are using oil. As long as we continue to subsidize the oil industry with our oil-rich way of life, our environment will always take a back seat to Our Way of Life.

As helpless as you may feel about stopping the oil from infiltrating the ecology of the Gulf and possibly the Atlantic, you probably feel just as helpless about staying away from the very thing that is poisoning our environment. Our very survival is so intricately tied to oil. The helplessness I feel is so deep and profound. When I calm the anger and fear and resentment long enough and listen to what’s really in my heart, what I hear is utter despair for the world and all its inhabitants.

Therefore go ahead, feel your despair. It’s not easy to see something that’s so devastating unfold and know that in your small way, you too had a part in this drama. Denying your feelings or trying to stuff them down or deflect them away through blame and shame isn’t going to solve anything. It’ll just create more fodder for the mainstream media, more bickering and debate and then endless gridlock over details that are meaningless and counter-productive in the long run.

Now Do Something

Once you can admit to all your feelings and actually feel them, there is something you can do to actually make a difference for the future.

Besides directly participating in the efforts of the clean up through such organizations as the Nature Conservancy, or donating money to similar organizations, there are things you can do to lessen how much oil you use in your life:

• Bike or walk instead of driving if at all possible, to work, the grocery, to visit friends, to run errands.

• Buy local, organic produce instead of produce shipped from another state or country.

• Join a CSA or participate in a community garden to grow some of your own food. Locally grown, organic food takes a fraction of the oil to produce and transport conventionally-grown, imported food.

• Grow your own garden.

• Choose natural fibers like cotton, linen and wool instead of polyester or nylon, or better yet, buy your clothing from a thrift store whenever possible.

• Consider used before new, consider if you really need something before you buy it, especially if it’s not local and made from plastic.

• Be an advocate for more public transportation, especially the kind that runs more on an electricity grid fueled by renewable resources like wind.

• Write a letter to your government officials demanding more creative ideas, funding and projects related to renewable, safer energy sources.

• Invest in your local community by banking local, supporting your local community garden, shopping at independently-owned stores instead of big box retailers, and, if it’s in your means, be a venture capitalist to companies that have innovative solutions for sustainability.

The public sentiment I’ve observed online in the last few days tells me that people want to be less dependent on oil for energy, but they realize that it’s not an easy transition to make. Making small changes, combined with a mindful awareness of the paradigm that’s contributing to the pollution of our planet is the minimum we should all be doing. It all starts with examining our hearts and allowing ourselves to feel whatever we’re feeling, so that we can make thoughtful, intelligent choices about the future of our planet.

April Wildflowers

Prairie Chickweed

This is a great contemplative hike for children and families. It doesn’t need to be silent.

Location: Between Eldorado Springs and South Boulder.

Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on CO-170, go 1.7 miles to the South Mesa trailhead. Park on the north side.

Duration: Approximately 2 hours

Route: from the parking lot, start along the Mesa Trail to the South Boulder Creek Trail, which heads east.

Access Notes: The parking lot for this trailhead gets full early in the morning on weekends. Arrive before 8:30 a.m. to improve your chances of finding a parking spot. Otherwise, try parking on the south lot and walk over. Do not park on the road, you will get a ticket. Dogs are allowed. To avoid being trampled by other hikers or off-leash dogs while viewing delicate wildflowers, come very early or on weekdays.

(For this hike, you’ll want to bring a wildflower field guide, preferably one about Rocky Mountain or North American wildflowers).

The best time to do this hike is late April to early May, when the first delicate wildflowers appear after all the snow has melted. If it’s been a particularly mild winter, it may be better to come as early as mid-April.

Narrow Goldenrod

Starting out from the South Mesa Trail, it feels odd to veer to the east onto the South Boulder Creek trail and head back toward Boulder and away from the trees and quiet wilderness of the more western trails. The path is down a rocky, narrow gouge in the grass through the meadows and hills that slope gradually downward as you approach the rumble of Highway 93 and Marshall. There are large and small boulders throughout the meadow where you can sit and rest and listen to the birds.

Starting in March or April, you’ll hear the pretty song of the meadowlark, but good luck trying to spot him! He’s small and light brown and usually perches on a fencepost or tall reed of grass. He has the loudest voice in the meadow to attract mates, but camouflages himself well to avoid predators. You may also spot a stellar jay, a magpie, a crow or even some mountain bluebirds.

Closer to Highway 93 you’ll see a row of large cottonwoods and hear the creek. If you turn around before you get to the road, you’ll have walked about 2 hours, roundtrip.

This is the flower that turns embankments and fields purple this time of year. What is it called?

The Small and Quiet Voices of April

What is this flower called?

April isn’t typically the month that comes to mind when you think about wildflowers. A plethora of colorful prairie flowers bloom in May further east in the plains, like at the Pawnee National Grasslands. Mountain trails above 8,000 feet are almost always still covered in snow in April, so there aren’t many flowers there, not until June or July. But in fact, you can spot quite a few species of flowers this early in the spring, and close to town, if you slow down and actually search for them.

They’re not obvious. Like alpine and tundra flowers, they’re small and low to the ground to keep warm and sheltered from harsh storms and wind. They hug rocks or grow in disturbed areas close to the trail—maybe even right in the middle of the trail.

When I went out on a mission to search out and photograph these flowers, I was surprised at how many different types I found. In my usual non-contemplative “exercise” mode, I barely notice anything except the general landscape: the rolling green hills, the ponderosas, the rocky spires and flatirons to the west. But slowing down and getting closer to the ground brought a new awareness. These flowers are the small, quiet voices in April. They’re delicate and delightful, growing quickly and without much pomp or circumstance as soon as the snow melts. They attract the early crowd of flies and moths, perhaps some bees too on warmer days. They’re not revered or celebrated as much as their mid-summer cousins like the Indian paintbrush or the larkspur. They don’t bring in crowds of admirers. For this reason, I found them to be worthy of contemplation.

Caterpillar Hatch

If you brought your field guide on this hike, it’s fun to try to actually identify a few of the species by name. It requires a close inspection and careful comparison. The flowers may be the same as the photo, but the leaves may be different. Try to study one flower from the tip of its stamen all the way down to the base of its stem and leaves. Feel the petals, caress the leaves.

What do these early bloomers tell you about yourself, or nature, or the change in seasons?

Are there any species that seem to be blooming earlier than the field guide states? Later?

White Sand Lily

The April wildflowers are the small, quiet voices of the meadow—pretty but unassuming. They are easily overlooked when your attention is on the louder, more obvious beings, like melodious meadowlarks or the visually soothing carpet of green grass across the hills. What small and quiet voice inside you are you ignoring because it’s being upstaged by louder, more insistent messages?

Yellow Prairie Violet

5 (Free or Low-Cost) Things To Do on Earth Day

April 22, 2010, marks the 40th anniversary of a pivotal moment in time, when 20 million Americans took to the streets to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable relationship between humans and the planet. Earth Day founder, Senator Gaylord Nelson, proposed setting aside an official day on the calendar to commemorate the event. His efforts eventually led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Act.

This year, we have even more serious and global challenges in the form of climate change, peak oil and mass extinction of species. Although no one of us can solve the world’s problems all by ourselves, we can set aside the day to be mindful of our role on Earth, to think about how we may contribute to the healing of our planet, and to take small but important steps lesson our personal impact on the environment.

These steps don’t have to cost anything or contribute to further commoditization (solving problems with more STUFF instead of systematic changes). They can instead contribute to mindfulness, deeper relationships with our friends and family, healthier activities and an appreciation of what we already have. Here are six things you can do to celebrate Earth Day that cost little or nothing:

1. Reconnect with the land by going on a contemplative hike. Recently, a friend of mine told me that she’s met people who have lived in the Denver area their entire lives but never traveled up into the mountains or gone hiking in the foothills. I found this to be astounding and almost inconceivable. How can one look at the mesmerizing views to the west, which change not just seasonally but almost daily, and not want to explore its mysteries and beauty? Many hiking trails are within an hour’s drive of the Front Range suburbs, maybe even as little as 10-15 minutes away, depending on where you live. You don’t need any special equipment to hike most of the trails around town, just a small jug of water and some good walking shoes. If a person has lived along the Front Range and has never gone hiking or exploring in the mountains, they are missing out on blessed silence, the sound of birds that don’t typically reside in the suburbs, fresh air, a sense of peace or wonder or enchantment, or the fragrant whiff of a forest of pine and spruce trees. They are missing out on the access to something timeless, mysterious and wondrous. Nature is neither welcoming nor rejecting. It’s non-judgmental. For this reason, when you’re in the woods or walking through the meadows and canyons, you are free to be yourself and feel whatever you want to feel.

I’ve scheduled a free Earth Day group contemplative hike in Golden at the White Ranch Open Space Park starting at 9 a.m. from the Belcher Hill trailhead. Click here for more information.

2. Invite friends over to watch an uplifting or thought-provoking movie about nature or the environment. Whatever you feel about nature or animals, someone somewhere has already felt and expressed a similar sentiment. That’s why it’s inspiring to experience the visual arts, film, literature, poetry when they reflect our values and feelings, and share the experience with our friends and family.  Earth Day is a great day to go outside, but if you’ve spent the day hiking and just want to relax, pop in a good nature flick and invite some friends over for some local brew. If you plan ahead, you can order these films from Netflix or Blockbuster Home Delivery.

My personal Favorites are the Planet Earth series, Into the Wild, Winged Migration, The Yearling, and The Girl and the Fox, a French film from 2009.

3. Plant some hardy flower or vegetable seeds. Whether you have a garden where you live, or just enough room to put out a clay pot near your front door, late April is the perfect time for many hardy varieties of vegetables and flowers.  You can plant pansies, alyssum, peas, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, potatoes, spinach, turnips, cabbage and lettuce. If you can only do pots, then spinach, lettuce and hardy flowers seeds can be planted now. Gardening is relaxing and connects you to the weather and climate of the land, because when you’ve invested time and energy into the soil and into your seedlings. You know exactly when it will rain, how much precipitation your garden received, and ultimately rejoice in a good balance of sun and moisture. There’s nothing like gardening to make a rainy day seem welcome. You’ll become aware of when the nighttime temperatures get above freezing, when the date of the average last frost occurs, and how what exactly constitutes “normal” in terms of climate, from one year to the next.

4. Honor your land by picking up the trash around your neighborhood.

There’s a lot of trash that accumulates along the side of the road near where I live in Westminster. It’s not because people are necessarily littering out of their cars. It’s mostly because of what happens on windy days. Recyclables get blown down the street, paper products fly out of the backs of pickups, dumpsters, and parking lots. Plastic grocery bags get snagged on wire fences and in the branches of trees. It’s hideous, and someone ought to clean it up. Why not take an hour and let that “someone” be you? Who knows, you might inspire someone else to do the same thing.

5. If the weather is nice, eat dinner with your family outdoors, picnic-style, and enjoy the sunset. I actually enjoy eating outdoors this time of year, when it can be warm and pleasant but the bugs and wasps aren’t out in full-force yet. The sun will be setting around 7:40 p.m. on Earth Day in Colorado, so that affords plenty of time to pack a lite dinner and head off to the local park, your backyard, or a nearby picnic area. Challenge yourself and your family to spot at least 5 different kinds of birds or animals while you enjoy your meal.

6. Turn off the TV and computer and pay attention to the nature around you. Nature is everywhere. Your pets are nature. Your friends are nature. YOU are nature. Nature is not something “out there” to be either feared or revered. We are part of the circle of life. Contemplate this. Spend an evening unplugged and really see what you haven’t noticed lately. Ask your spouse or partner what has been troubling them lately or what’s given them joy in the last few days. Write a poem about what you see outside your window. Meditate under a tree. Take a walk around your neighborhood and say hello to the people you encounter. When you make a habit out of mindfulness and outdoor activities, pretty soon you’ll discover that you feel happy anticipating things that cost nothing and require nothing of you: longer and warmer days, trees budding out, the return of meadowlarks and other migratory birds, the smell of the air after a thunderstorm.

Commemorating Earth Day doesn’t have to be about protest, or doom-and-gloom, or angst over societal apathy or stalled political action. Those frustrations can be set aside for a day, while you actually listen to what the Earth is trying to say, what you’re working so hard to accomplish the other 364 days of the year, and why.