“Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees.
Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts…”
– John Muir: Naturalist.
The explosion of light and sound was unexpectedly bright and loud. It was so close we could smell it. The signature odor result of the electrical charge separating two bonded oxygen molecules that quickly form a three-oxygen-molecule bond, emitting the pungent, chlorine-like smell of ozone. Yep, the lightening-strike was close enough to excite three of our five senses. In the spirit of full disclosure, it pretty much emptied our sinuses from the instant overflow of adrenalin. It was sudden and breathtaking!
It had been raining cats and dogs creating that wonderful sense of isolation and connectedness that happens when one experiences storms from a dry and protected space. For me, there is something primitive about being in the middle of a raging storm as a shielded observer. We had been chatting about how much we enjoyed this kind of weather when the lightning hit close by.
There was a millisecond pause where we froze like two deer in headlights as our protective instincts sent warning electrical impulses buzzing down our neuro pathways. This was quickly followed by him saying, “We had better unplug everything.” He immediately began crawling the floor by the edges of the walls pulling cords and shutting things down.
The ‘he’ is my friend Clayton. I was sharing a weekend at his hideaway in Pinetop, nestled at 7,200 feet in the White Mountains of Arizona. This is tall pine country on eastern edges of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forrest, and just north of the Fort Apache Reservation, seventy-miles or so as the crow flies from the New Mexico border.
The two of us are in a writer’s co-op in Tucson that meets weekly to review each other’s manuscripts. For the past two summer’s he has invited me to leave the triple digit temperatures of the Sonoran Desert floor and take the three-and-a -half hour drive ‘to altitude.’ This past weekend it happened.
I was privileged to grow up spending summer holidays in the hardwood forests of Central Ontario. In addition to the oak and maple, there were white/silver birch and a variety of evergreens – pine and cedar. Those summer days were idyllic and almost fairy-tale like in their moments. Our cottage on the family property was tucked away on the northeastern shores of Lake Joseph in the Parry Sound/Muskoka regions of the province. Those annual visits were soul cleansing before I knew anything about the importance of disconnecting from the treadmill of life to recharge one’s internal engines.
Back to Pinetop…
When we arrived Friday afternoon, he announced, “Two rules while you are up here. The first is that if it’s solid, flush twice (for the sake of the septic tank), and the second is that you are here to vacation.”
“Sounds pretty fair to me,” I responded. In truth, the first instruction would be easier than the second…there had been a lot going on.
The first morning I was out for an early walking exploration of the wooded neighborhood. As I walked the ‘summer home’ lined streets, I was transported to the Canadian woods of my youth. Smell is a powerful evoker of memory. I can’t really describe how the tall pine-scented woods pulled me so powerfully back to those Muskoka days. Any number of people and experiences emerged as welcome guests from long neglected memory banks. Some were so real, I could feel their presence as though they were with me…Of course, they were as only I could have known them.
I would be remiss not to note these walks were not just amongst the pine and oak and birch and other living fauna. There were squirrels, humming birds, large blue jays, robins, and black birds that looked as if they had been on steroids. None of them seemed intimidated by me. If I passed by them in relatively close proximity, they simply ignored me and went about their business.
In the middle to late afternoon, it started to rain as a thunderstorm came our way. When rain is falling in the woods, it has a curious sound and unique smell. It is not the water hitting the street or the tops of buildings, but its pelting of the tree leaves and branches as gravity pulls it to earth. If there truly is holy water, it is the movement of cloud dispensing liquid falling through the trees to the forest floor. The smell is one of refreshing cleanliness. When closing my eyes and taking deep breaths, I was overtaken by a timelessness connecting me to the universe in ways unachievable by any method of prayer or meditation I have ever practiced.
As it turns out Clayton also loves thunderstorms. Once the electricity had been shut down, He said, “Let’s sit outside on the porch and watch this thing.” I grabbed a couple of chairs, and we settled in. As the rain encased our little-covered area, we were provided a cocoon of intimacy…a place of safety. We talked until dusk emerged. Clayton and I have enjoyed each other's company since we first met. He is one of the more unique people I have known. He has an ‘in the moment' personality with a serious dose of intellectual curiosity. The time we spend together is always thought-provoking. We are also both old enough to have tolerance for one another's idiosyncrasies – which each has in abundance.
The rest of the weekend was spent watching a little football, a few episodes of Game of Thrones (I had not seen any of it) and writing. Clayton is an extraordinary cook, and so the food was spectacular.
When Monday rolled around, it was time to return to Oro Valley leaving Clayton and the woods behind. The early morning walks, the thunderstorms, the comradery of a man with whom I resonate made the weekend trip to the mountains cleansing and refreshing. I hit the road, energized and looking forward to the week ahead.
As it turns out, I was also successful at following both Clayton's instructions.