"Reflections & Works of the Imagination" Archives

Jan 28 2017

The Power of Talismans: The Phoenix that Travels With Me by Tamia Nelson

Trekking — whether cycling, hiking, mountaineering, or paddling — are all guaranteed to make you thirsty, and as Jerome K. Jerome reminds us, “thirst is a dangerous thing.” That being the case, I wouldn’t go anywhere off the beaten track without carrying my blackened Sierra Club cup:

Constant Climbing Companion

This cup has history. It’s a phoenix. I took it into the Adirondacks on my first solo jaunts. I’d bought it on impulse, at a little shop in Keene Valley, just because the word EIGER was stamped on the bottom. I was climbing frozen waterfalls back then, and I had dreams of someday tackling the Mordwand, the aptly named “Killer Wall” of the infamous Bernese peak. (I never made it to the Eiger, and that’s probably just as well. The Mordwand’s malign reputation is well deserved.) Later, I carried the same steel cup up peaks in the North Cascades and down north-flowing rivers in the Québec and Ontario sub-arctic.

Then a Christmas Eve fire destroyed our apartment while we were out visiting relatives. Farwell and I came back on Christmas morning to find everything gone. Well, not quite everything. Two of our possessions survived: my Schwinn Traveler 10-speed bike, and my Sierra Club cup. I dug the cup out of the rubble myself, kneeling in fresh snow while I rubbed a thick crust of steaming soot and ash off the steel. I could still see the EIGER stamp. The heat of the fire had stained the steel an indelible blue-black and warped the cup’s bottom just enough that it rocked gently whenever it was set down. That didn’t matter. It had survived the fire.

Now, many years later, the cup has become burnished, and even the EIGER stamp has worn away. That doesn’t matter either. There are better cups. I own several. They’re all more stable. Most are more capacious. Many are lighter. But I’ll bet you can guess which one I reach for when I’m loading my pannier or pack. The old steel cup is a survivor. And so am I. We travel together.

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May 28 2015

Remembrance of Things Past

Into the Past

Tendrils of mist rose from the swift water, joining and parting like swirling dancers. Their numbers increased from minute to minute, until the river was all but hidden behind an undulating gray wall. Somewhere up ahead was the gravel bar marking the place where I’d make my camp for the night. But where was it? I could see nothing that looked familiar. Then a fluke of wind pushed the curtain of mist to one side. And there it was: Jack’s Point. I drew the pack canoe’s bow upriver and ferried toward it.

Years had passed since I last stopped here. Decades, in fact. But as the tendrils of mist twined around me, past and present became one. You can go home again, I thought. The bow of the canoe scraped against the bar. I threw a leg over the gunwale and staggered upright, leaning heavily on my paddle in lieu of a wading staff. Even here in the shallows, the current made its presence felt. It tugged gently at my ankles, urging me onward. But I was resolved to stay the night. So I freed the painter from its loop on the bow deck and sloshed ashore, pulling the little canoe behind me.

The journey that brought me to this point had not been an easy one. I’d struggled for miles against the flow of a powerful river, then plodded more weary miles carrying boat and baggage over a height of land, only to lose myself for hours in an unmapped maze of new beaver flows — the headwaters of the lively stream that carried me here. What looked easy on the map had proven to be a test of both muscle and mettle. The day now drawing to a close began long before sunrise, and I’d been on the river more than 13 hours. I was soaked, hungry, and exhausted. But none of these things mattered. I’d come home.

I emptied the canoe and made the painter fast to a solitary gray birch. After that, I scrambled inland, pushing my way through a tangle of spruce until I broke free and found myself standing in a birch wood. Years ago this had been a brushy glade. Before that, it was a logging town. Now pines were growing tall among the birch.

And there it was, just as I remembered it: a blackened fire ring, fashioned from cobbles quarried in the riverbed. Someone — I wondered who — had cleared a circle of ground around the stones, and a rusty wire grill lay nearby. I looked for a level spot to pitch my tent. I found it, and immediately set about making myself at home. I brushed needles and leaves away from the old hearth, gathered several armfuls of downed limbs, and lit a fire. Before long, a pot of pea soup bubbled on the grate, and not long after that, I went to bed. I slept well.


Morning came — a clear, still morning. Once again, I kindled a fire in the ring and made preparations to boil a pot of coffee. On this trip, I was making coffee like Grandad had made it: throwing a handful of coarse‑ground beans into freshly boiling water. The resulting brew was bitter, strong, and silty. Grandad wouldn’t drink it any other way. And as I drank my first cup of the day, I couldn’t get over the feeling that he was watching me. I often felt this way when I was in the woods, and I always hoped Grandad approved of what he saw. Today was no exception.

I’d just refilled my cup when I heard soft footfalls behind me.… Read more…

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