Fragrance Lake Reconstructed

As mentioned several times in I, Too, Heard The Owl, ALS has robbed me of one of my greatest passions, hiking, and it’s been over two years since the last time I laced up my boots.

Well, it’s been particularly sunny and — except in the shade — warm here in Bellingham for the past week, a small but deeply welcome consolation during our Coronavirus quaratine. Normally, I would take even more advantage of this weather, seeking refuge from outbreak anxiety and cabin fever out on some hiking trail or another.

As a writing experiment, then, I thought it would be interesting to try heading out on one of my favorite hikes virtually, completely reconstructed from memory. For a bit of added challenge, I’ll shift between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-person narrative. 


Fragrance Lake

After all of the amazing places I’ve hiked over my 26 yeas living in Bellingham, my first hike upon arrival in 1993, Fragrance Lake, a relatively brief but beautiful 5.5 miles roundtrip, remains one of my absolute favorites.

Just 5 miles from my first home in town, 8 miles from my current domicile, by way of meandering Chuckanut Drive, hugging the coastline, foothills to the east, the Salish Sea and San Juan Islands to the west, is Larrabee State Park. While the primary attraction of the park is the campground and access to the rock and tree-lined coast, on the other side of the road is an equally beloved natural playground for hikers, trailrunners, mountain bikers, rock climbers, etc.: the trail-laced Chuckanuts, the only foothills in the entire Cascade Mountain range that reach all the way east to the sea.

You access the Fragrance Lake trailhead directly across the road from the state park entrance, and within the very first moments on the very first of many switchbacks, previewing the modest 950 ft. total elevation gain, the road and its cars quickly fade away. In a minute, you cross the intersecting Interurban Trail, which parallels Chuckanut Drive all the way into town, and a minute later you’ll find yourself standing in a cathedral of sorts, a combination of old and second growth forest, where even the second-growth Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir tower so high above they bring to mind the glorious Redwoods of coastal Northern California.

You’ll need no clergy in this cathedral. Just relax into the dense blanket of moss, lichen, bark, fungi, salal and fern in which you are gently wrapped. Take in the sunlight, dappled even on the sunniest of days as it shines through the canopy. Listen to the choir of birds singing a hymn, it seems, composed just for you. And, whether you are aiming to commune with God, or a god, or gods and goddesses, or sainted souls or spirits, there’s a very good chance that contact of some kind can happen.

There’s a brief little ritual that Howard invokes when out hiking on his own. See, he’s a mostly extroverted fellow, which is not a problem when accompanied on the trail by a friend or two, but when alone he finds it helpful to get into a different headspace, and so he stops before the big push up the first proper switchback, and he takes a moment and summons a quote from Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, a quote he has committed to memory.

Ray Smith (Kerouac) and Japhy Ryder (the poet Gary Snyder) were hiking and camping through Muir Woods, on past Mt. Tamalpais, on their way to Stinson Beach, and at one point Japhy, always in better physical condition and consistently ahead of Ray on the trail, shouts back at him:

“Try the meditation of the trail, just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don’t look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by.”

And the simple memory of that passage, from that book that had been so instrumental in leading Howard to the Pacific Northwest, was enough to reorient him to the simple pleasures of solo hiking. And as he started upward, he remembered, as he always does, that he’s not alone after all, that he is surrounded by fellow lifeforms, he might not be able to converse with them about music, books, movies, politics, etc., but then, he has absolutely no need to do so.

In my experience, when a hike destination is a ridge or summit, some kind of warp in spacetime occurs. The effect — the ridge/summit seems to visually get closer and closer, however small the increments, while actual progress is minimal — intensifies on trails with lots of switchbacks. My guess, from my layman’s perspective, is that it has something to do with how the switchbacks cause the hiker to change directions every few minutes, this pattern of movement triggers responses from the earth’s polarized magnetic field, which then interacts with various characteristics of earth’s gravity, thus causing confusion in the areas of the brain involved in time perception: frontal cortex, basal ganglia, parietal cortex, cerebellum, and hippocampus.

About two thirds of the way up the Fragrance Lake trail, no matter how many times I’ve completed the hike (actual number = many), I am convinced I’m VERY close to the ridge, just a turn or two to go, where the trail ceases its climb and continues level a short distance to its namesake lake. Instead, I come upon a sign for a short spur trail that leads, in a matter of feet rather than miles, to a lookout spot affording an expansive and gorgeous view of the sea and the islands, as well as, on a clear day, the Olympic Mountains to the southwest and the Canadian Coast Mountains to the northwest.

It may be a compulsion, the good kind I’d argue, but I can never walk this trail without taking the short detour to the viewpoint, even if for the briefest of glimpses and a few deep breaths, before returning upward and onward.

As captivating as the eye-level perspective is, you’ll want to be sure to check out a forest feature oft overlooked and underappreciated: roots.

Roots, you see, hold it all together. Slowing erosion, they simultaneously feed all of the trees, from saplings to mighty adults.

But, to the hiker, the most interesting thing you should notice is that the roots, most noticeable at the hairpin turns in the switchbacks, form a kind of staircase, up and down which you and your fellow trail travelers make your way. A root crosses a trail, soil up-slope settles in and compacts behind the root, and down-slope the soil erodes away, resulting in an elegant step, perfectly integrated, not always an easy stride, but many’s the time you’ll prefer an awkward stride stair-to-stair to no stair at all.

Back on the main trail, Howard approached the last set of switchbacks with a little more spring in his step. Passing the occasional hiker or two or three, smiles and greetings were exchanged as these comrades in boots made their way back down from the lake. When he approached a small wooden footbridge, Howard knew he was very close, and sure enough, through the trees he began to see glimpses of Fragrance Lake, that usually placid body of water, more of a pond than a lake, which is ironic, because it always reminded him of Walden Pond, despite the fact that Walden is considerably larger and surrounded mostly by deciduous trees.

The trail completes a 0.6-mile loop around the lake, never far from the shore, and occasionally, on the north side, following the contours of massive sandstone boulders, some 40-50 feet high. Another Howard ritual: Find this one spot on the shore on the far side of the lake, where there’s a small zig-zaggy path from the trail to the water, and right at the water a large rock serves as a perfect picnic spot.

Over the years, I’ve logged quite a lot of time sitting beside and thinking about this pond of a lake. It’s a VERY popular hike, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if it was regularly too crowded to serve as a place of quiet contemplation. But somehow, against the odds, there’s always some little nook to be found, a private little cove at the water’s edge, a perch atop a boulder, a secret vestibule under a latticed roof of moss-laden branches.

So I’d take out my journal or a book I’m in the middle of, and I’d try to make the most of these stolen moments by letting go of the pull to do anything else, to simply be there, no need for accomplishment, no need to establish or pursue goals or parameters, 15 minutes, an hour and a half, I’d know it was time to move on. I always knew.

If you are sitting on a rock beside a lake left behind many years ago by a retreating glacier, perhaps you’re eating an apple, some trail mix, hydrating, if you’re real quiet and look out across the surface of the water long enough you’ll observe much more than what you’d expect from such a simple composition.

There’s the various strata: the shore near your feet meets the water, the water meets the trees reflected in the water, the reflected tree trunks meet the real tree trunks at the edge of the lake, and finally the jagged line where the tops of the conifer trees meet the sky. Then, you could conduct a methodical inventory of all the details you notice if you focus on one stratum at a time, like the tadpoles scurrying in the rocks near the shore, or the wake on the surface of the lake left behind by three ducks taking flight, or the dog plunging into the water after a tossed ball.

There’s always that twinge of melancholy, Howard notices, when it’s time to break away and head back downhill, but it’s quickly accompanied and then overtaken by that familiar feeling, a feeling that, he decides, is much like mild intoxication. His legs and feet initially seem heavier, but in a good way, until he gets his circulation pumping again, delivering fresh, oxygenated blood to those muscles that did all their awesome ambulatory magic getting him to the lake. Then, the euphoria kicks in, that feeling that he could very well just keep going and walk around the entire planet if he really wanted to, and often there was no trivial amount of serious consideration.

His shirt, wet with sweat, serves as another reminder of the worthwhile effort required to do this hiking thing. To call it a workout cheapens it, reducing the experience to some prescription from a doctor or a self-driven vanity pursuit.

Howard was never a runner. He either never mastered good technique or he just didn’t have the knees for it. Still, there was always that moment coming down the hill when, for just a few minutes he’d let gravity do its thing, allowing himself to transition from walk to trot to gallup. And there was always this flash of a smile that would overtake him, sometimes he’d feel the desire to let out one of those Walt Whitman barbaric yawps, occasionally he actually did. But, rather than barbaric, he concludes, he feels the yawp comes from that place deep inside where the child retreated as the man emerged.

Go Toward The Light…or Don’t? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

“How many people have you heard about who returned from what is called a near-death experience, having gone toward an amazing light that they said was Jesus, Buddha, Pearly Gates, but never realized that they themselves were that pure light?”

–Stephen Levine, from A Year to Live

Keeping track of my age was never very important to me, and once I reached 50, as I’ve  mentioned, the only function it seemed to serve was to remind me that I was growing old.

Oh, the decade milestones seemed momentous enough to warrant a special celebration, but my 54th birthday, for instance, was a good candidate for skipping any kind of acknowledgement whatsoever.

But then:

  • July 13, 2018: I’m diagnosed with ALS.
  • August 28, 2018: My 54th birthday.
  • September 1, 2018: Party for my birthday, AND bon voyage for…
  • September 27, 2018: 20-year old son, Julian, scheduled to fly to Japan for 6-month visit.

There was a lot of light the day of the party. It was gloriously sunny beneath a cloudless sky, with the French doors opened guests could seamlessly move between indoors and out, and with all of the windows we added during the remodel, and with the walls we removed to create an open floor plan, there was nearly as much sunlight inside as out.

I was mingling through, when I was stopped by my friends Tom & Nicole, aglow and eager to give me something. Tom handed me a small gift, and I opened it. It was a sweet little bracelet with a piece of ceramic stamped with one word:


Tom, with a glint in his eyes, looked me in mine and said, “Because you do.”

You know, if ever there was a time when it should, by some system of justice, get easier to discover, to experience, to believe that humans have a light within them, that we’ve been wasting a lot of time and energy chasing lights — love, lessons, accomplishments, rewards, etc. — outside of ourselves, and that simply exchanging the external search for an internal one can lead to peace, contentment, equanimity…well, upon being diagnosed with a terminal illness, especially something like ALS, which greatly restricts ones ability to physically engage in that external search, yeah, that would be a good time.

Otherwise, we may end up learning the hard way that some of those external lights we long for can be extremely dangerous.

Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, develops in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin — the pigment that gives your skin its color.
The exact cause of all melanomas isn’t clear, but exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps and beds increases your risk of developing melanoma.

I see the light at the end of the tunnel now
Someone please tell me it’s not a train.

–Cracker, from their song I See The Light

Solar Eclipse
You would think that there would be no time safer to view the sun without eye protection than when the moon is between it and Earth. Ironically, however, when the moon blocks a substantial amount of the sun’s eye-damaging rays, resulting in that eerie temporary midday darkness, humans are easily lulled into a false sense of safety and will look with bare eyes at the eclipse far too long. Because there’s no pain response when the sun burns our retinas, it can take hours, sometimes days, before we notice the damage that’s been done.


Solar Eclipse, August 21, 2017

Dear Owl: Vol. 1

owl-profileDear Owl,

We need to talk. See, I really like hearing your call on our property nearly every night: hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo.

It’s lovely, comforting.

But, sometime before the sun goes down each day, I scan the trees for a glimpse of you, and I’ve only ever spotted you that one time nearly three years ago.

Back in January 2019, during my psilocybin trip, it seemed to me that we had a special connection, you and I. I was facing my last ever journey, was pretty scared about it, you seemed to be assuring me that you’d be right there with me, and I even opened up to the idea that I might take the form of an owl when I was all done with my human body.

Well, as it turns out, though I appreciate hearing your nightly reminders that you are here with me, I would like to deepen our friendship. So, I thought I’d initiate this correspondence of sorts. No need for you to reply. I’ll just be checking in with you from time to time, sharing thoughts about this last journey I’m on, keeping you apprised of my progress.

I could just continue listening and looking out for you, Owl, but I thought it would be nicer for you to get to know me better. This way, with these periodic letters, you’ll be able to see how you’ve claimed a place in my heart, and hopefully I can lay claim to a place in yours.

Warm regards,


A Contradiction in Terms

To Everything A Season, A Time To Every Purpose

A Time To Be Born

32% of all U.S. births are via Cesarean Section, a surgical method that often results in the scheduling, in advance, of the actual day and time a baby will be born.

A Time To Die

As of this writing, for the purpose of ending the suffering of people with terminal medical conditions, it is only legal to choose and schedule the day/time of one’s own death in nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia.


Zen & the Art of Fire Maintenance


The Upside-Down Fire


DISCLAIMER: The following is NOT a How-To kinda thing, UNLESS what you’re wanting to know how to do is anticipate and hopefully navigate the various philosophical issues encountered by owning and trying to master an old-school, Rumford-style, wood-burning fireplace.

The operative phrase here is “trying to master,” since, as we are nearing the end of our third season with this charming-if-maddening relic, actual mastery has been elusive at best.

Nevertheless, I’ll endeavor to evoke the Zen referenced in the title, I’ll breathe as best as I can under the circumstances, and we’ll see if we can at least have some fun with this topic.

noun [my emphasis added in bold]

1. an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.
2. an object, custom, or belief that has survived from an earlier time but is now outmoded.

Sentimental Interest
So, you know all those historical dramas you see on the BBC and PBS and elsewhere; it’s wintertime, and there’s always those scenes in the drawing room, often very large, open rooms with tall ceilings, and yet the few people in the room are clustered close around the massive fire burning in the massive fireplace, the opening of which, beginning at floor-level, is nearly as tall as the people. As soon as another character enters the room, they make a beeline for the warmth of the fire, because the rest of the room, and presumably most of the house, is ice cold, free of heat ducting, radiators, and thermostats.

In the absence of modern distractions, refreshingly simple pleasures are enjoyed together in the drawing room: tea, gossip, reading, needlepoint, piano, cards, chess, etc.

It’s thoroughly charming, right?

Object Now Outmoded

As we were browsing around the fireplace store — yes, there are fireplace stores — we were adamant with the salesperson that we wanted a wood-burning fireplace, that it would be a fantasy come true, that we didn’t mind the work involved or the impact of smoke on the house, etc.

Even so, this person sold these things for a living, and it wasn’t just a way for them to make more money off of us when they said, “I totally understand, but how about a compromise that many customers make: during the fireplace installation have a gas line plumbed in. At first you can just use it as a quick way to start your wood-burning fires, but then, after a bunch of years of burning wood and dealing with the work involved, say you’re tired of hauling wood, chopping kindling, getting down on your knees to build and start a fire, perhaps you sustain an injury at some point making this work much more difficult or even impossible, it will be a very simple matter to install a gas-burning insert.”


If you watch enough of those period-piece movies and TV shows and don’t simply escape into denial, it gradually occurs to you that, except in the homes of the poorest people, you never see anyone but servants building or stoking the fire, much less cleaning up cinders.

Those Who Can, Do

Robert Pirsig, in his 1974 fictionalized autobiography, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, tells the story of a road trip by motorcycle that he, his son, and two friends undertook, riding from Minnesota to Northern California. Along the way, he explores what he observes as two differing approaches to owning and operating motorcycles.

  • The Romantic loves the idea of owning a motorcycle and the sensual pleasure of riding it. They do not care about how a motorcycle works, they are quick to frustrate should the mechanisms fail and their riding pleasure is impeded. They pay other people to maintain and repair their bikes. [Pirsig’s friends, the Sutherlands, are unapologetic Romantics.]
  • The Classicist sees the pursuit of understanding and mastering motorcycle maintenance and repair, in itself, to be romantic, admirable self-sufficiency, a kind of renaissance way of being in the world. [Pirsig, himself, was a Classicist, though he came to believe that a combination of the two perspectives would be ideal.]

I am a Master of Fire!

Oh, I started out such the Classicist!

My excitement over having a wood-burning fireplace propelled me to learn all about wood: soft, hard, useless; how to source and store it; how long it takes for wood to be seasoned and ready to burn; I researched various techniques for building fires: the log cabin, the tipi, even the counterintuitive, yet surprisingly effective, upside-down method; and finally, I needed to be reminded that sustaining fire requires two things: fuel and air, the latter of which, in our house, as it happens, can only be consistently and sufficiently supplied if a certain sequence of interior doors and one window are open or closed.

Those Who Can’t Do…Are Romantics!

Listen, I just want to sit by the fire with my glass of wine or bourbon, listening to piano chamber music or jazz, book in hand, reading lamp on, the fire casting its fluttering glow about the room, the crackle of the fire piercing the quiet as it consumes the wood, the companionship of the cats and the dog and sometimes The Mrs.

[Fire burns down and requires stoking.]
[Peel myself off the sofa.]
[More firewood needs to be added.]
[Peel myself off the sofa.]
[Repeat ad nauseum.]

But, it’s romantic!

The Breathing Paradox

Ain’t nobody slowing down no way
Everybody’s stepping on their accelerator
Don’t matter where you are
Everybody’s gonna need a ventilator
Some kind of ventilator

–Rolling Stones, Ventilator Blues

To Breathe


How do you cultivate mindfulness? One way is to meditate. A basic method is to focus your attention on your own breathing—a practice simply called “mindful breathing.” After setting aside time to practice mindful breathing, you’ll find it easier to focus attention on your breath in your daily life—an important skill to help you deal with stress, anxiety, and negative emotions, cool yourself down when your temper flares, and sharpen your ability to concentrate.

Or Not To Breathe

From ALS News Today (my emphasis added in bold):

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a neurodegenerative condition characterized by progressive muscle weakness and wasting. Breathing difficulties arise as the chest muscles and diaphragm that control breathing become affected by the disease.

Common symptoms of breathing problems reported in ALS patients are:

    • Increased breathlessness
    • Shortness of breath
    • Shallow breathing at night causing sleep interruptions
    • Breathing discomfort while speaking, sitting, or doing other activities
    • Weak cough
    • Excessive saliva production
    • Difficulty clearing mucus from the lungs and throat causing buildup and recurrent infections
    • Respiratory failure

(Author’s Note: I currently experience the first five symptoms on this list.)

To Breathe

I’ve dabbled in meditation off and on for many years, and despite having tried more advanced practices, the vast majority of my experience has been with the most basic: a technique common across many schools of meditation, both secular and non.

  • Focus on the breath
  • Start counting breaths
  • Whenever you are lost in thought, gently, non-judgmentally acknowledge it happened, and return your attention to the breath
  • Rinse, repeat ad infinitum

For me, it is often difficult to reach a count of 10 or more breaths before my monkey mind is off somewhere not in the room, focusing on something other than the breath and the present moment.

And so, as if the simple act of paying attention to one’s breathing wasn’t ironically difficult enough for me, along came ALS.

Or Not To Breathe

Medical science says that the muscles involved in breathing are controlled by both the involuntary (autonomic) AND voluntary (somatic) nervous systems.

Translation: We breathe automatically, without having to consciously send signals to the muscles, but we can also slow breathing down or speed it up on demand as needed.

More Translation: Of all of the muscles affected by ALS, those involved in breathing are the only ones associated with the autonomic nervous system, AND, because these muscles are both voluntary and involuntary, they serve as a kind of backdoor for the most common ALS coup de grâce: respiratory failure

Staving Off The Inevitable: Without a cure available, the best medical science can offer me is a ventilator to help with the symptoms until full respiratory failure occurs. The time a patient has left at this point can vary widely from person to person. I’ve been issued a noninvasive AVAPS machine, similar to the CPAP device that folks with apnea use to sleep without snoring. It’s awkward and intrusive (noise and tubes and masks), and it can take a month or more to get used to.

I’m almost there.

That Is The Question

So yeah, kinda difficult to practice mindful breathing meditation, or really any meditation method at all, under normal circumstances, much less with respiratory function slowly failing and tethered via breathing tubes to a machine for a portion of each day.

Nevertheless, for now, I’ve answered the question of whether or not to breathe with a firm, stubborn YES.