The Peoples’ Glorious Revolutionary Wilderness

Without question, John Muir was a catch. Had I been alive in the late 1800s, when he was traipsing through Yosemite, I am positive that — if we met on a trail in view of Half Dome — I would have swooned.

I am, in a sense, swooning even now over Muir’s muscular legacy: how he founded the Sierra Club in 1892, and in 1905 led President Theodore Roosevelt on the backpacking trip that ultimately preserved Yosemite as the National Park we love today.

Struck as I am by the alpenglow of these great achievements, I’m equally charmed by the small details of his life: his literary leanings and the famed image of him wandering the Sierras with a crust of bread in his pocket. His priorities were clearly in order. A giddy romantic, he wasted no time on banalities such as dinner. Who has time to for food when there are so many mountains to climb, sunsets to watch, and streams to cross? Muir’s vision was too big for mincing garlic and peeling potatoes.

Obviously, I’m not the only one smitten by this Prince of the Mountains. It seems we cannot pay him enough homage. So many places are named in honor of Muir — hospitals, museums, hiking trails. In 2006, astronomer R.E. Jones even named a planet “Johnmuir.” So great is the temptation to honor him that the U.S, Geological Survey has had to discourage further attribution of his name to the landscape. If every place carries his namesake, how will we distinguish one place from another?

And, yet, as I wandered the John Muir Wilderness last week, scrambling over the famous blue granite, swimming in tule-lined lakes, and gawking at the wildflowers, I had the sensation that no person’s name—not even John Muirs’—was large enough to contain the magnificence around me. Nature, I find, is too timeless, too universal, and too irreducible for even the greatest pronoun.

And so, as my hiking companion and I followed the trails that led through the wilderness, we sought to rename it. “How about‘The Peoples’ Glorious Revolutionary Wilderness?’ he quipped.

It had a Soviet-era ring, but I liked it. I could imagine the sign arching across every trailhead:


I wonder if a title so grandiose and all-encompassing might broaden our concept of the place, might even change our relationship to it. I wonder if perhaps we would start treating wilderness less like a borrowed tent, and more like what it really is: a place of our own.

The Good Memory Page

Nine months have now passed since my grandmother moved into Milder Manor Nursing Home. One morning last September she was getting dressed, took a fall, and in that instant was transformed from a commanding, bridge-playing, globe-trotting golden girl into a disoriented elder in a wheel chair. With years of lively restaurant dinners and trans-Atlantic flights behind her, she must now learn to live for small things: the blooming rose at her bedside, the soft green fleece blanket she wears wrapped around her shoulders.

During my visit last month, I was determined to widen the breadth of her newly constricted routine. Between her rounds of medication and physical therapy sessions, I’d visit. Together, we nodded along to Frank Sinatra CDs, ate ice cream bars, and read the newspaper aloud. We cruised the nursing room hallways and studied the art on the walls. One night I stayed for dinner and engaged her dozing table mates, doing my best to celebrate the watery soup, hard cookies, and knuckles of translucent cauliflower set in front of me.

Except for a few doctor appointments, my grandmother–who still wears jewelry from Bangkok–has rarely left the nursing home. She is now so frail that the ordinary world has become a hazardous place, full of precipitous curbs, careening action, and unpredictable weather. Despite these dangers, one day during my visit–after we’d run out of things to do–I insisted on a walk. Living each day safely indoors was never her style, and with all the medications she is on–antidepressants, blood thinners–nothing could be better for her than fresh air.

I rolled my trusting grandmother out of the nursing home that afternoon. From the drab confines of the lobby with its caged cockatiels and synthetic greenery, we punched the “open” button. The door swung open, and we broke into a world of blazing sun and wild blue sky.

We wheeled around in front of the building, gushed over a patch of red-orange lilies and then, little by little, found ourselves on a slow cruise down the sidewalk. She seemed delighted.

For a second, I balked. “Do you think this is okay?” We hadn’t formally checked-out. I imagined the nurses discovering her empty bed, finding her usual hallway hangouts vacant, and initiating a panicked search.

“Who cares?” My normally law-abiding grandmother waved me onward. “No one pays attention. It’s good to be free.”

Now accomplices in this foray, we picked up speed, heading away from the nursing home grounds with an aire of defiance. As we cruised, I began to imagine myself a heroine who had returned to repay the many kindnesses my grandmother had shown me since birth. For all the hugs she gave me, for all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for the summers at horse camp, and for the Christmas presents, I would now even the balance by saving her from life in a nursing home.

Together we would embark another grand journey, rolling down the sidewalk forever, block after block, and never get tired. We’d cross streets, push through parking lots, and stop in libraries, art galleries, and museums. We’d dash inside grocery stores for ice cream bars and then continue on. Fields and miles would move underneath us, sunrises and sunsets would circle by. At night we would marvel at stars and planets, go to drive-in movies, and stay in hotels where in the morning we’d order up bacon, eggs, and coffee in bed. We would not live in the past, we would live in the now. We would meet new people. Find new places.

“I’m hot,” my grandmother complained, snapping me back to reality: it was 3:00 in the afternoon in Lincoln, Nebraska, and from where we stood on South 20th street, we’d only traveled a block.

It seemed too soon to take her back. A trail broke off the main sidewalk and wound through a small park. “Let’s go a little further,” I urged.

The park didn’t amount to much: a scattering of deciduous trees and a gesture toward landscaping that amounted to a few hydrangeas, a mowed and watered lawn, blue birds. I felt judgmental, thinking of how much better the trees are at home in Oregon, and how this humble neighborhood parcel was inadequate for my strong hikers’ legs: legs that wanted to stretch and stride up and down long grades. Worse: it was inadequate for my grandmother—a woman who in her life had seen the Pyramids, Africa, and the Taj Mahal.

But in truth, to my grandmother, the 100-yard path cutting across the park looked interminable. “Look at that long, hot stretch,” she droned. Her thin puff of dyed brown hair glinted red in the sun. I pushed the chair faster and coached: “Almost there. We can make it. Yes we can.” The path rejoined the sidewalk and we continued on down the shadier neighborhood street. My grandma grew concerned. “We’re getting a long ways away,” she fretted.

It was time to concede. My travel partner was getting homesick. We turned around, and re-crossed the hot arc of trail through the park. As the sun beat on us, I was forced to acknowledge that my fantasy where I was tireless and my grandmother still a free spirit might make a good screenplay, but that truly being the heroine would be far less glamorous. It’d entail moving back from the West Coast and living on her limited terms. It would require giving up my beloved mountains, my friends, my traveling, and settling for a while into this Midwestern eternity of humid corn fields. But could I really move here? This was a question I would have to tackle later. For now, since I could not save her, I would just do what I could: make life more interesting for a few days.

We rolled back down the block, her chair vibrating over the concrete. We passed the red-orange lilies and arrived at the nursing home door.

Before we went in, a breeze kicked up. “Feel that,” she observed, holding up an open palm. My grandmother has never before been a nature lover, tending only a few tulips in her lifetime and shooing “pests” that homesteaded on her patio. Suddenly, in her old age, she was an admirer of trees and of passing clouds.

“A perfect day,” she declared.

We’d only gone to the park at end of the block and back. For me, it was a rather dull outing. For her, it was plenty. Like anyone’s idea of a good journey, it seemed to strike the perfect balance between effort and payoff, and to contain just the right interval between departure and return.

My grandma was happy. “Let’s put this one on the good memory page,” she said aloud. I can only surmise she was imagining her reams of photo albums stuffed with snapshots of Africa, France, and Cuba. From where she now sat, it was clear that the perimeters of this wide world were drawing close, that the horizon no longer receded. I squeezed her delicate shoulders, grateful to have shared this late foray with her, and then rolled her back inside.

in memory of my grandmother, Dorothy Ammon, who embarked on the ultimate journey on August 10, 2008.

every day is an adventure

(pics of the parade line up:

I’ve always thrived on overwhelming last-minute ventures and so entering a float in Ashland’s 4th of July parade on a whim was like a big happy shot of adrenaline for me and my collection of free form friends who were up to the task late afternoon on July 3rd. Our flakiness even got us some publicity. The local newspaper broadcasted our lack of preparedness across the front page.

The float was to represent the Eagle Mill Farm Education Project ( so we needed to create a farmy ambiance. It would be a lot of work, but we had a jump start since the core of our float was already built. We would use the Moonshine Luv Shack, the art car I lived on at Burning Man last year. Rustic and whimsical, it proved to be the perfect canvass to showcase our vision (or lack of).

We parked the shack at the farm, opened a few beers, and started wandering the acreage in search of good junk. Decorations were everywhere: fencing wire, rusty tiller tines, shovels, flowers, dried peppers, old gourds. We pooled our odds and ends in a heap and got to work. Garth tinkered with the motor while I artfully positioned farm tools on the shack’s porch. Amanda hung signs, arranged flowers, and had ideas. Everyone cheered as Allison skillfully stapled pea vines along perimeter of the shack while holding a beer in one hand. By early evening, us slackers had a masterpiece on our hands.

The parade started at 10 a.m. the next morning and, by then, our friend Benny had set up a PA system for our float band, a trio comprised of myself and Chris Fowler on our guitars, Gary Schrodt on mandolin and blues harp. The plan was to sing John Prine’s Homegrown Tomatoes, definitely in tune and hopefully in harmony.

With the upper deck of the float filled with children, the lower decks with dogs and friends, we lurched forward and started the procession. A huge cheer erupted from the jammed sidewalks. It’s true that we are just a small nowhere town, but people in the Rogue Valley take the Ashland parade very seriously, placing blankets out to mark their spot several days before the 4th. The day is anticipated and debated: will the family-vibe be ruined with nudity? Will the entries be too political? Not political enough?

We crept down the street with a troupe of dancers ahead of us and the Animal Shelter entry behind us with their barking dogs straining from leashes and triggering a commotion among our float dogs. Chris, Gary, and I kicked off Homegrown Tomatoes. We hadn’t practiced, but our good musical chemistry pulled us along and Gary’s well-placed harmonica solos were a crowd pleaser. Friends Selene and Richard trailed behind the shack with a wheel barrow full of ice and carrots, which they tossed into the candy-filled crowd.

By the end of the 8 blocks, we had sung 30 rounds of Homegrown Tomatoes. Though I’ve played that song a hundred different times in my life, singing it back-to-back like that imprinted it onto my consciousness in a whole new way, causing it to take on all sorts of overblown meanings that I am sure John Prine never intended. I realized the lyrics were surprisingly political and apropo (‘cuz I know what this country needs, it’s homegrown tomatoes in every yard you see…”)

When we reached the end of the line, Garth cut the engine. My fingers were spent, my voice was hoarse, and I was dizzy. The children, arms weary from waving, climbed down the latter from the upper deck and I bid them farewell from my sprawling place, the shack couch.

After a few moments rest, Garth drove our tired bodies the back way through town to return us to our morning meeting spot. Gary plucked a lazy tune on his mando and the shack squeaked and rumbled underneath us. Above where Allison sat humming into the sky, the pea vines swayed from the upper deck, limp like the rest of us from too much sun. After all the commotion, the moment felt inordinately calm, like in that space of time after a great party ends an the clean up begins. And though it was only 11:00 am, it felt like the very end of the day.

But it wasn’t. Allison and I would end the 4th of July far away from the crowds: camped out atop Woodrat Mountain, with two folding chairs set in perfect view of the sliver moon, which would slide its way down through clouds and sink beautifully behind a ridge. Then to be traditional, we would observe a few firework displays before falling asleep with great happiness. Afterall, we had our own version of independence to anticipate which, at that moment, assumed the form of two paragliding wings, one green and one red, neatly folded and waiting under the night sky for us to wake.