If you are a first-time visitor to The Owl Journal, you may be wondering what all this Owl business is about. So, if you’re interested in its raison d’être, you are more than welcome to start at the beginning of the story.
It Was All Going So Well…
It may seem odd — given the fact that I can barely walk the few steps from my wheelchair to the toilet, wheelchair to armchair, wheelchair to bed, etc. — that I’d ask my family and friends to build a trail through the wooded portion of our property.
Ok, I’ll explain.
That property, as I wrote in Chapter 1 of my memoir, I, Too, Heard The Owl, was something of a dream come true for my wife and I. And, passionate treehugger, nature worshiper, and hiker that I was, when I first saw this satellite view of the property:
…one of my first thoughts was how wonderful it would be to have a trail meandering through those woods. No, obviously not for the purposes of a serious, challenging hike — the property was only two acres, after all — but rather, to serve as a peaceful refuge, a place to stroll, an easy route for a walking meditation perhaps, along a path swaddled in a blanket of diverse life, everchanging and impermanent.
As the title of the aforementioned chapter indicated, It Was All Going So Well, until…
We closed on the property in the spring of 2017, moved in and nearly immediately broke ground on a significant, all-consuming remodel, during which my earliest ALS symptoms began to occasionally show up, very mild at first, curiosities mostly, a little scary, but truly, there was simply no time and space to dwell on it, and/or plenty of opportunity to hide out in distraction and denial. I was still working full-time at the university, I was playing in a band and gigging regularly, it all went on like that through the end of the year, until I experienced, for the first time, the developing weakness in my hands and fingers beginning to slightly affect my ability to play guitar, which finally motivated me to seek the medical attention that, by July 2018, eventually led to my diagnosis.
Needless to say, amidst all of that, the trail building project never made it anywhere near the top of my personal To-Do list.
From Chaos, Order
When the prognosis for the terminal disease you’ve been diagnosed with includes an average life expectancy of 2-5 years, the fact that you’ll have so much time to contemplate the always inevitable, but now-actually-impending, end of your life can alternately feel like a blessing or a curse.
Stating the obvious, the subject of death and dying is one of the biggies, an unavoidable topic of contemplation for us sentient beings, historically examined from every conceivable perspective: philosophical, theological, metaphysical, mythological, anthropological, sociological, psychological, ethical, etc., and it’s nearly impossible to avoid being sucked into its gravity well. Needless to say, this natural tendency to contemplate the mysteries of death is amplified up to 11 when the end is relatively imminent.
Add on the more mundane — yet potentially confounding in their own ways — demands that reside under the ‘Getting Your Affairs In Order’ umbrella, and 2-5 years might seem proportional. From legal and financial matters, to caregiving and adaptive measures for activities of daily living; from emotionally processing the whole tremendously sad mess with family and friends, to making choices regarding the day of death, cremation/burial, funeral/memorial, etc., considering and attending to the logistics of dying is, frankly, freaking exhausting!
Me? I’m a writer, so I’ve now used the 3+ years since I was diagnosed to publish, as of and including this writing, 130,244 words here on this website, in part to help me figure some of this stuff out, and yet there are a number of items that remain unresolved, potentially never to be resolved, rather fitting — don’t you think? — of one of humanity’s most enduring mysteries.
In the spring of this year, my wife and I were having the latest in a running series of discussions concerning possible end of life rituals.
Unlike stories I’ve heard — of people who have very explicit, emphatic wishes for what happens after they die, perhaps a service in a specific place, with a list of invitees and absolutely-not-invitees, where this or that specific reading must be read, or special music must be played, followed by instructions for burial, with text chosen for the headstone inscription, or in the case of cremation, the exact location(s) where ashes must be spread, etc. — yeah, quite, quite unlike that, I was having a very difficult time deciding what I’d like along these lines, because, mainly, I knew I wasn’t going to be there, so, I thought, why should I care?
However, I’d also had several friends who have lost loved ones tell me how rituals like these were incredibly helpful in that earliest, tenderest stage of grieving, so, right, it’s not all about you, Howard!
Getting back to that discussion this past spring, I was thinking specifically about how deeply meaningful, even comforting, a cemetery gravesite can be for some people, how it’s a common tradition amongst a variety of cultures and faith traditions to visit the gravesite of lost loved ones, for some simply an occasion to reminisce and honor memories, and for others to even communicate. And, with that on my mind, somehow I remembered the notion I’d had to build a trail in the woods on our property, I blurted out something, and the exchange went something like this:
Me: What if, instead of or in addition to a gravesite, we finally build that trail through our woods!
The Mrs.: Yeah! We could organize a series of trail building work parties, invite family and friends to build the trail together, to create a place where folks can visit anytime to think of you, but also to simply commune with nature, including a bench or two in particularly lovely spots that are especially conducive to such contemplative time?
Me: I LOVE it!!!
The Mrs.: We could call it something like, The Howard Muhlberg Memorial Trail?
Me: Right! Or, more simply, The Owl Trail!
The Mrs.: I LOVE it!!!
The Trail Is Born!
I could go on at length about the actual trail building that ensued, even though I was never able to set foot in the woods, because my wife did her usual remarkable job of documenting meaningful moments with numerous, heartwarming photos like these:
I am beyond moved with gratitude for the love represented in these images, and it gives me great waves of joy to think of the trail being visited by one and all. Already, we’ve had friends come over specifically to walk the Owl Trail, and I’ve gotten a particular thrill at catching our neighbors, who have a pair of adorable towhead twin boys, 4-years of age, regularly crossing our yard after emerging from the far end of the trail.
Additionally, this past Sunday — on Halloween to be exact, our son Julian’s 24th birthday to be even more exact, a Halloween and birthday that, as I mentioned last year, I really didn’t think I’d be alive for — we had an intimate, informal gathering of friends, intended to add a touch of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos holiday tradition to our annual rituals, celebrating lost loved ones rather than somberly mourning, a refreshing if temporary antidote for the sadness we’ve been experiencing as a family given my impending departure.
A highlight of the event … a walk on the Owl Trail!
Putting the ‘Owl’ In ‘Owl Trail’
All that said, there’s one anecdote from the Owl Trail story that transcends everything else.
While my wife and I both recall having had — at one time, certainly at the time we purchased the property — an official county map showing our property lines, when it came time to scout out the actual path for the trail, the map was nowhere to be found. As a result, the route — though established partly by following the contours of the land, and by meandering snake-like to maximize the length of the trail given the meager acreage available — was otherwise chosen blind, with no idea whether or not, or how many times, it crossed over into a neighbor’s property.
But then, a few weeks ago, months after the trail was completed, and purely out of curiosity, my wife found and downloaded an app on her phone that allowed her to view a map of our property (the green parcel in the screenshot below), and then, using GPS, she walked the property with phone in hand, observing the blue dot that showed where she was as she walked the trail.
As she first approached the trailhead, she noticed with relief that right out of the gate she was clearly on our property. Then, as she proceeded on the trail, to her astonishment, about 4-5 times along the route, as she seemed to be heading for the property line, right before reaching it the trail just happened to change directions abruptly, avoiding trespass. Again, these were changes in direction that were not consciously made to avoid our neighbors’ properties, because we had no map then, nor did we have any intuitive sense of the boundaries of our property. Ours were woods surrounded by more woods, our trees no different than the neighbors’ trees, and there were absolutely no manmade boundary markers anywhere to be seen.
That the owl — my beloved spirit animal, the actual resident Barred Owl who lives in our woods — somehow guided us and kept us from venturing where we shouldn’t go, was as viable an explanation as any other we could come up with, and certainly it was the most fun and meaningful.
On Trails & Journeys
So, a trail was built at the request of someone who can no longer walk.
It doesn’t necessarily make immediate sense, but if you consider that perhaps the best metaphor for life is that of a journey, life consisting, at the very least, of this inevitable and unstoppable voyage through the time allotted to us, and that this journey may or may not begin long before we’re born or continue long after we die, I’ve no doubt about the source of immense gratification I feel knowing that the Owl Trail now exists.
Throughout those 130,244 words here on this site, I’ve referenced numerous subjourneys that I was privileged to be able to enjoy along the journey of my life, including the many and varied journeys I continued to embark on just since contracting ALS: Portugal about a month prior to the July 2018 confirmation of diagnosis, Hawaii in November 2018, a guided shamanic magic mushroom journey in January 2019, New York in October 2019 to see Dead & Company with my son, and those were just the ones involving airplanes and psychedelics!
So, here I am, on the cusp of the journey that we call death, and wouldn’t it just be the coolest thing, if, freed from the brokedown palace of my ALS-ridden body — who knows, perhaps as a ghost, or a being of light, or maybe I’ll take flight in the form of an owl — I’ll venture down the Owl Trail whenever I want?!