For those who seek the lonely places of the earth

Posts by Jennifer Santiago

Into Autumn

Fall is upon us, and it is bittersweet. The weather broke overnight after the last official day of summer, dropping from the high nineties to the sixties, and I write this while wishing I were outside; those who have followed and supported As We Wander for a while, though, may have noticed my tendency to disappear this time of the year. It’s not that I stop caring about nature at that point, or the blog, or my fellow wanderers; but it’s now, around the start of fall every year, that time really becomes a commodity, and 2018 is no exception. The day job, being retail, has begun its end of year ramp-up and I’m knee-deep into my final semester for my first undergrad degree- and then I will graduate again, at about the same time next year, with my second. Meanwhile, I’ve just completed First Aid/ CPR/ AED/ Oxygen Provider certification as I look toward both dive and cave rescue. It’s been a busy season already, for having just started. This weekend, though, I get to escape to Lookout Mountain for one of our favorite yearly events, namely, TAG, a caving event in the area where Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia intersect, and we hope to be able to get Alison on rope for the first time at Iron Hoop on this trip.

Axsom Loop fern

Meanwhile, though, I’m just doing my best to keep it all together, and to fit in some exploration whenever I find a chance. I had a rare Saturday off a few weeks ago and we headed to the Charles Deam Wilderness to hike along the Axsom Loop Trail, with the trailhead found behind the same fire tower where I found the Sycamore Loop, previously written up as the Land of the Spiders. It was one of those hikes where little actually went wrong; Arwyn, the teenager, decided she didn’t like how her shoes fit, but in a nod to our friend Stephanie who hiked part of the Appalachian Trail barefoot, she pulled off her shoes, tied the laces together and slung them over her shoulder, and we continued on.

The middle of the week is when I’m most likely to find a few free hours, though, which makes for short solo adventures. One particular place that I have meant to visit for some time is Wolf Park, a non-profit organization that focuses on research, education and conservation matters in regards to the amazing creatures. I remember going there once when I was a child, no older than five, and somewhere I still have a postcard purchased on that day, a quarter of a century ago. So Tuesday I grabbed my camera and hopped in the car to make the about hour drive north to Battle Ground, Indiana, named for the Battle of Tippecanoe, whose memorial stands only a mile or two away from the park.
I arrived about two o’clock, having come from class in downtown Indianapolis; I hadn’t lost much time, though, as the park is only open for a few hours each day, specifically 1-5 pm. I shelled out my $8 for the tour when I got there, which conveniently was scheduled to begin only a few minutes later, and we began our three-quarter mile walk around the park.
The first enclosure we approached was also the only one whose name I learned that day- Turtle Island was the name of it, and the guide explained that the founder of the park had originally intended to research birds instead of wolves, before learning that he was apparently allergic to all of them. Before this unfortunate discovery, though, he had already started to implement this plan and designed Turtle Island to appeal to waterfowl, with a large pond contained within the enclosure. The guide pointed out Turtle Island itself, a small patch of land in the pond, and explained that wolves build their dens there. At that moment, a wolf loped by, and with her tongue lolling from her mouth, she seemed to be grinning.

Wolf Park’s “Butterscotch Boys”

At next enclosure, we met a fat coyote, then two wolves, apparently brothers, lounging in the shade. On around were some more unlikely litter-mates; two of the three were nearly identical, bearing yellow coloration from their Arctic Wolf grandmother, but their sister Fiona’s fur was much darker. The guide explained how the three were all born with juvenile cataracts, which led to the difficult decision of sterilizing them due to the possibility of it being a genetic issue; this has apparently been difficult on Fiona, who has experienced several pseudopregnancies, although of course they have come to nothing. Last year, though, the tenant of Turtle Island had a litter of pups for whom she was unable to provide proper care, so Fiona was given the opportunity to adopt them and was happy to provide that care. Those pups, now yearlings, have mostly remained in the park, although two were traded with another organization in order to maintain genetic diversity for future breeding.

As we finished our tour and headed back toward the gift shop, I tried to think back to the visit that I’d made so many years before. I can’t reconcile the two trips with the little memory I have of that first time- but my love for wolves and for the wild has remained.
Now, I must sign off. As I finish this, we’re in Alabama about to go caving. We will talk soon, but meanwhile, adventure awaits.

Seeing Stars

A jaunt in the mountains teaches a six-year-old about the sky she thought she knew.

This post is a throw-back to one of my earliest trips with Alison, about a year before meeting Carl; I wrote this shortly after we returned home from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but then I set it aside and never ended up doing anything with it, since As We Wander did not yet exist. As I re-read this now, I’m amazed by the differences in my point of view. Tennessee no longer seems so far away, and the fragile-seeming six-year-old who accompanied me there is now an adventurer of her own right. The fears that plagued me on that trip have turned out to be irrelevant- meltdowns have definitely occurred and surely will again, but the travel bug has taken firm hold; as long as there are places to explore, we will be there to explore them.

October 2015- Cosby, Tennessee
We weren’t far from camp, where we had spent a terrible night before. It wasn’t a problem with the campsite; it was clean, the trails were close, and the neighbors were friendly. Problem was, we’d lingered too long in Gatlinburg. As we walked down the crowded sidewalk of the Parkway, I was caught in a memory of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where a sixteen-year-old me landed half a lifetime ago to go backpacking in the Rockies. The first night we’d spent in the open air. It was awful, too, and the problem was the same one that we ran into in mid-October Tennessee: the cold bit and I was woefully unprepared for it. As I lay on my back in the sleeping bag that had seemed so warm at home, I stared at the sky, shivering and dreading the long night ahead; but suddenly I understood why we hadn’t put the tents up. Above me stretched vistas that I’d never before seen. In my hometown, the night sky consisted of the Big Dipper, a handful of other scattered stars, and the moon. But here was the entire Milky Way, laid out for my analysis and my leisure on that long cold night.

Hanging out at the Gatlinburg aquarium

We finally left Gatlinburg and headed toward our campsite in Cosby, Tennessee. It was late, and camp still needed to be set up. With my six-year-old asleep in the car, I set up the tent using my headlamp. Alison woke up in the car, crying, and I couldn’t find the front of the rain fly, so finally I haphazardly threw it on the tent and secured it as it lay, intending to fix it in the morning. I grabbed the sleeping bags and a couple of blankets out of the car and we both fell asleep fast, tired after our full day. This trip was a first, of sorts. We had gone on a camping trip at Mammoth Cave earlier that year, which was a closer to home location and a much more forgiving itinerary (see Returning to the Wild, the website’s very first post), but otherwise, Alison had not traveled since visiting my sister in Colorado by air in her infancy and had never spent so long in the car, especially as we would have to make it a round trip in only two more days and drive the eight hours back again. We were also on a strict budget, mostly allotted to gas, as I explained to her: we were going to do things, not buy things. If she could get through those, then we’d be able to travel often – even as a working single mom with a first grader.

I found myself suddenly awake at about two o’clock that morning. The chilly evening had turned downright cold, and I could now see that the fly I’d struggled with was on the tent backwards, leaving several inches of window mesh uncovered. I got the extra blankets out of the car, threw one over Alison, and one over myself. It was another hour or so later that I awoke again to the sound of crying: my daughter, still mostly asleep, had rolled out of her sleeping bag and blankets and was shivering in her nightgown against the tent floor and the cold ground. I gathered up the blankets, pulled her close to me, and fought back the idea that I’d taken her too far from home.

When we awoke again, sore and chilled, it was daylight. Alison looked tired, but cheerful. It was forty-six degrees that morning, the trees just beginning to shed their green and expose their flamboyant alter egos. The mountains towered around us, clouds hanging from their peaks. This was our only full day in town; the next morning we would be back on the road toward home, rounding out a thousand miles with the round trip, and then back to work the next morning. Hypothermia was now a non-issue, but another anxiety hung over me: What if she refused to sleep in the tent again? The hard ground in the cold woods admittedly didn’t have much draw. Or if she wanted a toy left back at home, or her friend, or a tablet, or any of a plethora of things that can make a tired six-year-old go nuclear? What if she wanted to go home, right now?

Hiking in Cosby

It was afternoon. We’d gone into town for breakfast, but had soon found ourselves back in the woods. One reason I’d picked the Cosby campground was the fact that it abutted the Appalachian Trail; I looked forward to possibly hiking a piece of it, although I had already accepted the fact that we would not get particularly far. We set out from camp down the connecting trail. It went steadily uphill, and after only half a mile or so we both were tiring. Alison was becoming voluble, so we took a break; she sat on my lap, and instantly fell asleep on my shoulder. Part of me wanted to march on to the scenic overpass that was only about a mile ahead but my heart went out to the sleeping child and we headed back to camp, where we stayed at the fire in our camp chairs until evening. She sat coloring, with a barbecue fork holding a hot dog balanced over the fire, then staring dreamily into the distance. Again the thought came to me. What if, at the end, she decided she didn’t like to travel- How would I relate, when I rarely dream of anything else? If I had to decide between the road, and the little girl with the big brown eyes whose forgotten hot dog I rescued from the flames, I would forever regret the loss of whichever one ended up left behind.

Cozy at camp

Dark was falling, then. This was my last chance to make an impression. In the morning we’d be packing up and headed home- there would be no more time for exploring. I put everything away, then spoke to her.

“Put your shoes on, kiddo,” I said, “we’ve got one more thing to see.”

I went to a good school, but the finer points of my education came from the road. Some skills, like patience and perseverance, aren’t things that can be learned well in a classroom; they require uncomfortable situations. And one starlit night in the Rockies, I learned to love the journey, with all its discomforts, for the mysteries it can reveal.

We walked in silence. Alison trotted along next to me with her own headlamp bobbing with every step, her small hand clutching mine. She had asked where we were going, and I responded, a night hike; looking up, I could see the diamonds we sought, peeking out from the negative space between the branches of the trees around us.

We reached a clearing, away from camp and cars and lights, and sat on a rock in the center. “Turn off your headlamp,” I told her, “and look up.”

There was a moment of fumbling as she tried to find the switch. I turned mine off too. I heard a gasp.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathed. Her arms stole around me and we watched the sky together. As I hugged her back, I knew that all my worries had been unfounded- she was in as much awe as I. We drove a thousand miles to see the stars, and it was worth every foot.

Junior Ranger Ali

We returned the next day, as planned, and in the car, she colored, watched videos, then we sang along to the radio together. We were both belting out Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” one thousand miles under us, as we pulled up to the house. She ran to put on pajamas while I unpacked the essentials, and as I put her to bed, I couldn’t help but smile.

The world calls to us, and we will answer.

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