Journeys of the Spirit

Not all journeys are physical.

This is not an earth-shattering thought.  And I of course am not the first or only one to make that observation.  But here it is, February.  The sky is gray; and our new snow, the first real snow of this Connecticut winter, is melting in 40 degree temperatures.  There is time to reflect.

We have reached mid-winter.  The daylight hours are noticeably longer.  I am happy for this slow melt of the 8 or so inches of snow we have just received.  I can almost hear the water soaking deep into the ground, hopefully delivering much needed water to the deep roots of our trees.  Occasionally an icicle breaks free from the roofline and tumbles to the porch stones below, shattering itself into little ice shards, and left to melt.

Christians have just entered their Lent season.  I am quite sure that other of the world’s religions have a similar spiritual/ritualistic approach to spring.  Forgive me for not knowing them or stopping to research them.  Looking fundamentally at the period between now and the time when spring will bring its promises to that same doorstep that just broke up an icicle – roughly 40 days, a significant time period in the Bible and I suspect elsewhere – now always seems to me a good time to go inward, while staying attentive to outward.  To dig deeper below the surface of our daily lives.  To postpone spring wet dreams and open our eyes to the wonders of the life cycle.

I have been studying with a small group at my church, the nature of spirituality in a secular world.  Those who know me well know that I have spent a good amount of on and off time over the past years delving inward, exploring my beliefs, seeking ways to find (and spread) peace, forgiveness, love, sacredness.  My nature has always been to explore – whether it is the world around me, both near and far, or the depths of the (my) human soul.

The period between now and “Easter”, known in Christendom as Lent, is a fine time to look more closely to what is not only inside of us, but around us.  To see details and fineries that are obscured by the rich layers of color, smell, and texture of the other three seasons.  It is a wonderful time to explore the underlying structures, laid bare by winter’s cold.

I share with you here, “The Journey To Spring,”* a 40-day reflection on those structures.  I would be delighted to think that many of my jasjourney friends may be going along on this adventure with me!  If you are coming in ‘late’ to the schedule, just tack the early days onto the end – as we here in the Northeast know, spring never arrives on the calendar day, March 20.

*Reprinted from The Touchstones Project, edited by Rev. Nancy Bowen and Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland.

Being Mindful at Ivan Wilson Park

Under the guidance of a yoga instructor named Tammy and a couple of DOC* resource guides, a handful of seekers gathered on a perfect summer afternoon to experience mindfulness on a walk through this little jewel on the southern edge of TeAnau in New Zealand’s Southland.  I think we were successful.  Enjoy.

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*Department of Conservation

Cairns and the Elusive Starfish of Monkey Island

“Monkey Island?” WHAT is Monkey Island?!

monkey-islandThere’s a beach way down on the west coast of Southland – almost to the end of the South Island of New Zealand.  Just beyond the southern reach of Fiordland.  And at low tide you can walk out to a little bump, reaching maybe 30 feet above sea level and a bit more than that around.
The island is surrounded by rocks: big rocks, little rocks, medium size rocks, egg shaped rocks, flat rocks, rocks in transition, in shades and textures of green, mustard, brilliant yellow, brown, black and any number of striation patterns (speckled my favorite, and the Tide-pools-monkey-islandgreen ones with a fine yellow line running through) –  tossed by tides and glaciers, forming tide pools teaming with the life of the seashore. The bigger rocks, I guess the ones that don’t move around much,  sport patchy coats of seaweeds, from short soft curly bits to long rubbery strands of wide flat opalescent green.

My young friend, a budding marine biologist readying Starfish-Hunter, Monkey Islandherself for “uni” (kiwi slang for university), walks barefoot and confident through the boulders, nimbly squatting to peer at the lower edges of the largest rocks, the ones still wet, their bases submerged in swirls of sea water that gently wash the area.  She has found any number of starfish on past visits to Monkey Island. But alas, today we come up empty handed, spotting “merely” a small sea cucumber, a few orange anemones, and heeps of snails and hermit crabs.

I am more tentative. Unfamiliar with balancing myself from one rock to the next, with their uneven pitches and the wind blowing mightily, trying to knock me to my tender knees.  The water is cold but not too cold to step into it, ankle deep, to walk on soft sand and smooth rocks to explore the collections of smaller rocks that shine with color when wet but grow dull as they dry. My pockets grow heavy and pull at my pants, threatening to pull them down so that I have to stop and hitch them up every few steps. I know I can’t take all these rocks, especially the larger ones, home in my bags. What to do? Build a few cairns of course!

Here’s a cool blogpost I found about Monkey Island.

Auld Lang Syne

Queenstown-New-ZealandThe time to say good-bye to 2015 is drawing down here in New Zealand.  Summertime.  Queenstown: gave birth to bungi jumping, playground of the Southern Alps.  A perfect day with sunshine, shorts, ice cream, everywhere green save the blue water of Lake Wakatipu and the sky.  Mountain peaks bare of their winter snowcover, deep shadows where glaciers have carved deep gashes over tens of thousands years.

Central-Otago-New-ZealandI began today’s celebration of the passing year lunching with a dear friend at a quaint winery in the Gibbston Valley, in the South Island’s Central Otago region.  We stopped here 12 years ago, on the first day of my first visit to this splendid country, soon after she had moved here to raise her family in the small town of TeAnau.

Waitiri-Creek-WineryWaitiri Creek Winery.  On our first visit it had only just begun to bottle wine from its small vineyards.  They set up a small tasting room and kitchen in an old church building and a few tables in the yard under a huge cottonwood, with a grand view of the valley floor and surrounding hillsides.  Today not much has changed.  Their wines have matured and they remain a small operation with, I suspect, a growing reputation.

waitiri-creek-pinot-grisWe were lucky to grab one a handfull of reservations for lunch, and blessed with a picture perfect day.  We enjoyed a lovely Pinot Gris, perfect with the entres we chose: me a delicately grilled salmon with a beautiful whipped horseradish sauce, and she a melt-in-your-mouth grilled eggplant with a miso whipped butter and crunchy cous cous.  We took our time, enjoying each bite, the laid back atmosphere with wee ones playing on the open lawn, and especially, each other’s company.  Nothing much has changed in that department either.

Later tonight we will join the celebration in town; toast the new year with perhaps some fresh oysters and green lipped mussels.  No doubt topped off with the traditional glass of bubbly and a few fireworks as we look to 2016 and wonder where it will lead us.

Happy New Year my friends! May the coming year be filled with old friends, fine wine, and wondrous adventure.

I invite you to stick around a few moments longer to share some of my favorites from 2015, and check back as I add more in the coming days:

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24 Hours to the Salamanca Groove


Salamanca [Spain] is known for its ornate sandstone architecture and for the Universidad de Salamanca. Founded in the 1100s and an important intellectual center in the 15th-16th centuries, the university continues to contribute to the city’s vibrancy with its international student population. (

On my second visit to Salamanca, I  found its groove.  I can’t be in a hurry.  I can’t have a schedule. I have to stay loose and let it come to me. Summertime is for finding the Salamanca groove.

August is generally very… very hot in Salamanca… dry heat.  But hot is hot when temperatures soar into the high 90s.

SalamancaThere’s a lot of stone in Salamanca. It soaks up the heat then sends it back to you in merciless radiating sweat-drenching waves.  There comes a time when you just don’t want to be out on the streets.

Finding the Salamanca groove starts with seeking shelter.  With little to no air conditioning and most shops and museums closed anyway from 2-6 pm (for what is commonly called siesta), wise Salamancans retreat home.  With shades drawn and floor fans pressing a cool breeze from nothing, it’s a time to relax, or better, nap.

Salamanca sunsetFor night owls this must be bliss.  To rise refreshed from an afternoon nap, shower, and make for outdoor cafes as the sun sets and night’s breeze stirs the air like a chilled martini.

SalamancaHaving taken the main meal in mid afternoon, night hours are for leisurely sipping wine and dining lightly on tapas – small plates of specialty foods like patatas importantes (important potatoes!), crispy pancetta, razor thin slices of Iberian jamome (ham), garlicky salmon wrapped asparagus spears, hamburgsita Americana (like a slider with fries, but strangely served with a sauce of what tasted like raspberry jam), pork kabobs, muscles served two at a time topped with a relish of finely diced peppers and onion then sprinkled with a light oil and vinegar. It’s an endless list of delights. This time, though, is more about life than dining.

Plaza Mayor Salamanca

Night is when Salamanca blooms. Its intellectual tradition sparking to life as the city awakens to enjoy the last hours of each day with family, conversation and laughter. Short strolls link a maze of sidewalk cafes dotting the city’s inner core – Old Town, the heavy stone of its past now shimmering golden yellow under night’s lights. The heat has finally given way. And I’ve found the Salamanca groove.

Salamanca groove

Photos (top to bottom): University of Salamanca, Salamanca summer day (adapted from a street mural), Salamanca sunset, Salamanca full moon, Plaza Mayor at night, Salamanca’s old town skyline as the sun begins to rise

Finding My Heart on a Low Altitude Tundra

Rondane National Park: Norway’s first national park, Rondane was established in 1962 to protect the wild reindeer herds.

Norways Rondane National ParkI am trying to wrap my head around all that I saw and experienced in Norway’s Rondane National Park. First off, apparently few Americans visit there. I can’t figure this out. It is one of the most beautiful places I could have imagined. Delicate alpine wilderness under 6,000 ft. altitude. In my book that’s a no-brainer.

Norways Rondane National ParkAs a former Colorado Rocky Mountain resident and very occasional high altitude hiker (like I can count them on one hand), I don’t expect to see tundra and snow fields like this below about 11,000 feet. And up in the clouds it is hard to breathe.  But so far north as Norway, “alpine tundra” occurs at much lower altitudes. So my initial impression was, “this is GREAT!  I can hike through pristine tundra, take in its exquisite beauty, and breathe alpine-fresh air, all without finding myself completely breathless every dozen steps!”  Not so fast…

Norway Rondane National Park imageThis was a humbling hiking experience, or as the Norwegians call it “walking.” I did not fully comprehend the daily distances (up to 18 km), rugged terrain (rocky, with immense boulder fields long-ago pushed by glaciers into our modern-day path), and elevations (1,000 meters/day with at least one steep incline/decline each day). The inclines I can handle.  The declines are knee killers. The distances and terrain are just plain exhausting. Thankfully, the huts where we stayed always provided a delicious and plentiful dinner and breakfast the following morning, a warm bed and a hot shower.  The latter at a price of 10-20 NOK (about 2-3 USD) for 3-4 minutes of hot running water.

Norway Rondane National Park
DNT Tour Leader Hans, “Today is an easy walk.”

I’m not sure how I missed this in the itinerary, but it is fair to say that the Norwegians and Americans have a wide disparity in their understandings of the term “moderate.” (As in our tour-leader, Hans, exclaiming on all but one day: “Today we have an easy walk.” To his credit, the day of endless boulder fields he readily described as “very hard.”)

Rondane is not for the weak of heart or legs. It brought me to my knees in a way that frightened me more than once. “In over my head” came to mind daily. I am proud of our group of 16 American-born Appalachian Mountain Club adventurers for hanging in there and making it through with nothing worse than a few scrapes and bruises. It was truly magical. We were blessed with perfect weather and instant camaraderie. Anything less could have been disasterous.

Norways Rondane National ParkI can’t say I would return to Rondane.  I am happy to let it sift through the memory cells of my brain, along with a fondness for the Scandanavian peoples, while my legs begin the process of repairing themselves.

Norwegians are perhaps the most unique of all who hail from the Northern reaches of our planet. They keep themselves more bottled up than we boisterous Americans. But their hospitality and kindness are exceeded by none. They are perhaps the most fit and hardy of the Scandanavians. To Norwegians, this “walking” (or in wintertime, Nordic skiing) is a lifestyle.

I can say that I hope to return to Scandanavia – perhaps even farther north next time.  Where herds of domesticated reindeer roam the frozen tundra and the daylight is either ever-present or non-existentent altogether.  And of course the Northern Lights beckon… Til then!

Watery Worlds, Ferries, and One Kindly Gnome

20,000 islands means a lot of water.  In the watery world of Finland’s Turku Archipelago, ferries serve as bridges.  Also in this watery world of dark forests and fickle wild flowers, fabled mythical creatures may just step out to help you find your way.

One day, 60 kilometers of riding, 5 island crossings, six ferries.  Sometimes the ferry is a small single floating deck fastened to a cable drawing it across the channel.  Some ferries cross only when called by pressing a button on the opposite shore, or when the pilot spots a car on the other side.

Other times the ferry is a monstrous yellow thing, deisel powered, looming high above us like something out of “War of the Worlds.”  These behemoths have two big pointed arms sticking out in front that are skillfully fitted by the pilot into slots on the dock to secure it for loading and unloading a long stand of cars, buses, repair vehicles and heavy-equipment.  These ferries leave right. on. time.

The larger ferries have cafes with coffee, beer, pastries, sandwiches and ice cream.  And on one, freshly made salmon soup.  My favorite.

On our final day of a 6-day bike tour, we returned to the mainland.  Where the islands had been easy to navigate, as they were small with few road choices and clear directional signs, the maze of cycle paths criss-crossing the City of Turku’s countryside and suburbs proved that our “route notes” were not well constructed, and in fact were probably just downright wrong in places.  (We suspect that our touring company staff are not cycling specialists…)

Things went right for the first 10k or so.  But as we got further into the congested city-scape, we got crossed up and found ourselves stopping at each intersection scratching our heads over Finnish street names of unprouncable words with long streams of vowels.  Our directions bore no relation to the landmarks in site.

We asked locals, all but one who spoke more than adequate English, who would say “yes, yes, just stay on this path and continue straight ahead,” pointing up the road (which was decidedly NOT constructed of yellow bricks).   And we would ride on with a sigh of relief.  Soon enough though, we would approach another intersection with no clear sense of “straight ahead.”  And again we were scratching our heads.

In a while, we spied a figure up the path, peering over a fence.  Again we asked for help.  Uncurling himself from his task, we saw a disheveled man dressed in a faded yellow jacket, sloppy denim pants and well worn sneakers (no socks).  He had a shock of thick tangled lightish hair, long past having seen a barber’s chair, or even a comb.  The raggedy man repeated the now-familiar instructions “just stay on this path,” and pointed ‘straight ahead.’  We must have looked dubious.

The raggedy man climbed on a bicycle as old as myself, which until that moment I had not noticed.  It was a single speed contraption, the style favored by locals.  His appeared to be held together by rust.  His manner though was thoughtful and kind.  “Why don’t I show you,” he said. “I’m going there anyway.  I will take you the shortest route.” (I’m sure he sensed our fatigue and frustration.)

He then led us into town, skillfully maneuvering through streets now crowded with afternoon traffic and pedestrians.  We rode right up to the block where our hotel sat, and right next to the town square market.  He veered off with a friendly wave of his hand.  I noticed a dingy shopping bag in his other hand.  I hadn’t seen it before.

Yes, this land is filled with magical creatures, and I think this day we met a kindly gnome.

Dark Forest Floor

A bike tour is a slow-motion view of the big picture.  But to really explore the details, I have to get off the bike and single out my subject.  I admit that I often, though only on a lonely country road, pull my phone out of my pocket flick it on with my thumb, swipe up for the camera, point and shoot off a picture or two.  All while steering with the other hand and peeking over my shoulder at what I want to capture.

I am working my way from Turku, on the Baltic Sea in southwest Finland, through a few of the Turku Archipelago islands. The first thing I notice is the dark forest floor, surrounded by a perimeter of wildflowers in every color, shape and texture.  This is a land of trolls, fairies and elves, where strips of land jut out of the Sea, carved by glaciers.  Only their very tops are visible above the water line – a cross between Maine’s North Woods, perhaps, and the lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains.  But this is the Old Country and there is no question that these deep lush woods house mythical creatures.

Tomorrow we leave the islands.  I am sad to leave this inquiry behind.  The watery world of an archipelago, where ferries serve as bridges to keep the islands’ traffic moving mostly year-round, and local residents swell from 800 to 5,000 for a few short weeks when the weather turns to “summer.” The long days of the sun’s northernmost-most angle reaches high into our hemisphere.  Fair haired people, always friendly, go-out-of-their-way friendly.  And so hospitable, eager to share their bounty – from their sea and from their land and from their heritage. Proud to share their culture.  They know they live in a magical, protected place.

It is August and the Finns are already talking of the end of summer.  This one was cooler than usual, after a warmer than usual winter.  I get the sense that there is an uneasiness about this in their islands.  Our group of 14 explorers were lucky to have hit the first good week of weather – temperatures mild, if cooler than normal, and mostly sunny skies.  (Perfect biking weather!) From the sound of things, it may be among their last.

I wonder, where do those mythical creatures go when the weather again turns bad?

A few of my favorite places

When you journey to a lot of places you generally have a lot of photographs.  So I begin this blog by pulling a few of my favorites from the files to get things going.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I have enjoyed taking and sharing them.  Stay tuned for lots of photos and stories as I skip, trip and journey through life.

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