The rain

By Amethyst

We stood, naked, arms outstretched, and waited for the summer storm. No, we did not seek a natural baptism from a perceived “original sin of civilization.” Rather, we simply sought to relieve ourselves of that uniquely human sense of being unclean after hours of work. Though covered in its iron-red clay and innumerable flakes of its trees’ detritus, the land had already refreshed our sense of accomplishment. We now sought the well known and comfortable refreshment of a shower.

And so we stood. We had run out of clean water (like we imagined real hippies also often did), and our resourcefulness and open mindedness told us to embrace the rain, not to hide from the storm clouds.

And so we stood.

As it winds eastward from Cumberland, carving equally well the soft shale of what is still called coal country and the white granite of the world’s most powerful city, the Potomac turns briefly northward before returning to its gradual southeasterly flow. It is along this northward diversion that our own little mountain to heaven, Parnassus, sits. It is inexplicably unconcerned with the timing of a summer storm. Just to the west of this part of the Potomac, troubled even less with the comings and goings of clouds, is a ridge of the great Appalachian mountains, half again as high above the distant ocean as is our little paradise. And though we call it a mountain, really it is a foothill to another ridge just to the east.

As they do over every paradise and hovel on this earth, the clouds move in from west to east. We see them in the afternoons, just over the ridge, threatening. We feel the winds flow across the Potomac, bringing cool air quickly across the valley as the weather changes. But our cumulonimbus friends, with hubris opposite that of Icarus, are too close to those ridges, and the winds squeeze them northeast, around the mountain. Route 40 is often very wet, have you noticed?

And so we stood. Half an hour, soaped up, ready. Our resourcefulness, open mindedness, and sense of adventure was not accompanied by anything resembling a degree in meteorology, nor even had we even briefly considered the above topography.

But then, the rains came. We lathered, danced, and were clean.

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Nature-Friends at Parnassus: End of Summer Update

By Amethyst

The forests on Parnassus are rich with life. The species come and go, with some appearing only briefly while migrating, or, in the case of mushrooms, for just a week while fruiting.

We are always finding new species. We’d love your help identifying more, either online or in person on Parnassus.

Newly Identified Friends:

New Mushroom Friends:

We find a new species of mushroom at least twice a week. Often they change colors over the course of their brief lives, making identification very difficult. We’ll only post those we’ve identified. That is, unless they are very cool. Like this one.

New Species: Orange Jelly Mushroom, Red Raspberry Slime, Turkey Tail, Russula Cremoricolor, Cat Dapperling, Ravenels Bolete, False Virgin’s Lepidella, Fly Agaric (below)

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New Tree Friends:

Amethyst continues to be fascinated by the diversity of tree life. He found what we believe are sugar maples- ones large enough that he can’t wrap his arms around. We won’t say they are sugar maples for sure until we tap them for sap.

Our wonderful book, “What Tree is That?”, from the Arbor Day Foundation, only includes some 100 species. So, we picked up the full Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region. We’ve identified many more trees as a result, and are revisiting some identifications we’d made earlier.

New Species: Sugar Maple, Hophornbeam, Serviceberry (two species), Witch Hazel, Table Mountain Pine (not Loblolly Pine), Pignut Hickory (not butternut), Shagbark/Shellbark Hickory (not pecan), Black Tupelo

New Fruiting/Flowering Plant Friends:

Morning Glory (below), American Burnweed

New Bird Friends: Our avian friends usually sit on the tops of the trees, so identification by sight is difficult. Learning to recognize birds’ voices, though, has its own rich rewards. Their calls are more varied and individual-specific than we ever realized.

New Species: Wild Turkey, Cedar Waxwing, Barred Owl, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Wood Pewee, American Goldfinch

New Reptile/Amphibian Friends:

Red Eft Salamander (below), Hog Nosed Snake, Ribbon Snake (see “scary things” post on Facebook for snake photos)

New Insect Friends:

Black Widow, Wolf Spider, Walking Stick, Puss Caterpillar (these ones are truly testing our resolve on the “nature is friends” refrain that Camp Gemstone has adopted), and this butterfly that we have been unable to identify but which is very abundant on Parnassus:

Previously-Discovered Friends at Parnassus:

Tree Friends: Chestnut Oak, Pin Oak, White Oak, Red Maple, Sassafras, Sycamore, Flowering Dogwood  (removed: Loblolly Pine, Butternut, Pecan, Chinkapin Oak)

Fruiting/Flowering Plant Friends: Blueberry, Blackberry, Raspberry, Concord Grape

Mammal Friends: White Tailed Deer (and fawns!), Squirrel, Chipmunk, Deer Mouse, Woodland Jumping Mouse

Bird Friends: Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Whippoorwill, Crow, Raven, Red Headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Robin, Great Horned Owl, Cardinal, Turkey Vulture

Reptile/Amphibian/Crustacean Friends: Eastern Box Turtle, Five-lined Skink, Fence Sitting Lizard, Common Toad, Crayfish

Insect Friends: Hoverfly, Honeybee, Bumblebee, White-Lipped Forest Snail (?)

Sideways Momentum

By Ruby 

I want to tell you the story of how I accidentally became a high-powered corporate litigator. This story is true.

After having spent a few years practicing architecture, and then interior design, in DC and Baltimore, I knew it wasn’t the right field for me. It turns out the feeling was mutual – architecture broke up with me. In the throes of the 2009 economic collapse, I was laid off two times in three months. I took it as a clear sign to move on, but I had no idea where to head next.

After some soul-searching (with a touch of depression), I decided on law school. I thought that I would be good at it, and that I would like it – I loved history, politics, logic, and debate. Everyone I consulted agreed: I was a great fit for the law. So, I started law school in September 2010. I didn’t know what I would do with a law degree once I was through, but I felt confident that at some point during my three years of law school, I would figure it out.

I was right – very right – about my hunch: I excelled in law school. After my first semester I learned that I had gotten the highest grade in two of my five classes. When class rank came out at the end of the first year, I was shocked to learn that I was number one in my class.  That’s when unexpected, un-planned-for opportunities started knocking on my door.

Law school is insane in many ways. For example: the law school recruitment process. In the summer after the first year of law school, large firms conduct on-campus interviews of the best and brightest first-year law students based upon class rank. These firms compete heavily to hire the cream of the crop at each law school across the country so that this upper crust of first year law students can join their firm the following summer (after the student’s second year) for a paid summer internship position – the “Summer Associate.” The standard goal of Summer Associates is to wow the firm during the summer program so as to secure an offer at the end of the summer to join the firm as an associate after law school graduation.  In sum – law students start interviewing for their first legal job two years before they would start, and with only a single year of law school under their belts.

As you have surely imagined by this point – I went through this process, I was recruited by a premier Mid-Atlantic law firm*, and the following summer I was a star Summer Associate. I received my offer to join the firm to my great excitement. Little old me? The failed architect from humble beginnings on the eastern shore of Maryland? – I was invited to join this glamorous, fast-paced world? I could not believe it. I was honored, flattered, and energized. This is not even mentioning the starting salary (I’m sure you can imagine that, too).

Upon accepting my offer, I knew that I was going to work very hard and would have a lot of demands and pressures placed upon me. I was ready and willing to accept these conditions. My life had felt so listless and dull before law school – even if I had to spend all of my time at the firm, the position felt something like a new identity I could assume – a prestigious part to play. I had never, ever imagined myself here, but here I was. How could I say no?

September 9, 2013: I became an associate litigation attorney for a big law firm. From then until I left on February 28, 2018, I worked hard. I lost myself in the work. I forgot what it was like to just be; I was constantly trying to maximize every moment in order to become the best attorney possible. I detached from the things I loved to do. I had no space in my mind for the stillness necessary for art, creation, self-reflection, or personal growth. And it worked – I was a superstar associate. My work was extremely well-respected and I was building a reputation as one of the future leaders of the firm. I was on the fast track to making partner, and to more, more, bigger, more…

I don’t tell you all of this to brag. Although I am proud of my accomplishments in law school and at the firm, I no longer attach my self-worth to those titles and accolades. I tell you this so that you can understand how a ball can start rolling down a hill before you notice it, and suddenly you are in a place you never planned for yourself. Sometimes, that experience is a godsend. Sometimes, it can just… happen. I didn’t mean to become a fancy lawyer at a big firm. But an opportunity arose and, because I was directionless, I let the prestige, the power, and the money act as a substitute for passion and authenticity.

I did escape (more on how I did that in another post), but I know in my bones that had things gone differently I would have never given myself the opportunity to stop and ask myself: is this really what I want for my life? Is this really who I am? Oh, and by the way – WHO AM I? I know there is a great likelihood I could be sitting in an office overlooking the Inner Harbor of Baltimore right now, counting the minutes I have worked that day (literally) and strategizing as to how to make partner – a goal I had never truly set for myself.

And now I turn to you, Camp Gemstone enthusiast, and I ask you: Are you driving the bus, or are you along for the ride? Are you living authentically, or did this life just… happen… to you?  If your answer is the latter, can you change?

That’s a false question – you absolutely can change. I promise. I believe in you.

 

* The firm I spent 5+ years working for was, by all standards with which one can measure a large law firm, fantastic. I made deep connections with lovely, thoughtful, fun people, was given tremendous opportunities to grow and learn, and was fostered through countless hours of mentorship and sponsorship. They did the best they could in a model that I have come to believe is deeply flawed. I do not blame these people for my story at all – I thank them for everything they have given me.

Getting more, wanting less: a pair of snowballs.

How much do you love your ritual hot shower? How soothing to massage the shampoo into your scalp, then to rinse, letting the warm water flow over your face and down your back? This ritual is an American obsession. We love it. We need it.

But you don’t. You know well you don’t. And not only that, but you may be aware of the potential harms of a daily hot shower.

We fight against even recognizing our national addiction. The morning ritual is too ingrained, too much a comfort, and the drawback (dry skin and hair) isn’t too great a price to pay.

There is a moment after people learn what Ruby and I are doing – that is, quitting the day jobs, living off the grid, traveling the world. After people hear that – right after telling us we’re living the dream they ask about money, and they ask about creature comforts. No, there are no twenty minute hot showers when we’re living in a tent on Parnassus. Yes, we are very fortunate that we are in a stable financial condition. No, we are not “glamping.” Yes, we have learned to go without. Yes, living in the woods is a big hassle.

What’s your big hassle? What are your comforts that you’ll have to give up to live as your truest self? Are they worth it? Like the shower, we make a calculation: which do we value more? These comforts, or our very essence, our sense of fulfillment, achieving our personal legend?

Sure, I can get all poetic and make it seem like an easy choice. But it isn’t easy. The lust for comfort lulls us to sleep*, makes us unaware that this is the very choice that we are making.

I am here to tell you that, yes, you have two options when it comes to being rich: you can get more, or you can want less. An old and simple idea, but what isn’t so simple is wanting less in a culture that tells us we need more, more, ever more. A lot of money advice is about how to “make do” with less. Life is not about making do. With a bit of self-reflection, the problem becomes psychological, not practical. You don’t have to “maple do” if you realize you didn’t really want it in the first place.

At some point, if you keep your eyes and mind open, something will happen and you will realize that getting more is a never ending snowball. Once you get that bit more, you will want yet a bit more. And more.

I can see you there. You’re nodding, you’re agreeing, you know that already, and frankly, I am repeating myself. How many blog posts can Amethyst write about freedom from material desire? Is he a monk yet?

Once you get it though, really get it that these things are not your key to happiness, that you’ve had the key all along, it gets into your bones, and it becomes your super power. The snowball starts rolling down a different hill altogether, and you start looking at things and saying, “You know, I don’t really need this. In fact, I don’t even want it.”

This isn’t “own one hundred things” minimalism. An obsession with cutting away can be almost as unhealthy as the obsession with getting more. Your latent superpower isn’t an active one, letting you identify excess and toss it merrily into the bin. No, it is passive, where you realize that your satisfaction as a human being passing through this world is no longer contingent on one of the things you are carrying.

“Ugh, I have so much stuff! I need to just get rid of half of this.”

Perhaps you should. Going through and purging can be a life-changing, almost holy experience. Attach, though, your purge to a new understanding of ownership. It is not the space the things take up in your home that prevents you from crossing the threshold, it is the space they take up in your mind. That space must be cleaned more regularly than your physical spaces. Things can occupy that space as ghosts: from the store, yet to be purchased, or from the junkyard, already dismissed but not cleansed.

Just as we get carried away in the energy of cleaning house, so too can the energy of clearing the mind of its possessions build upon itself, and we end up with a sparkling clean mental state before we realize.

*phrasing credit: Khalil Gibran

Nature-Friends at Parnassus: Can You Help Us Make More?

By Amethyst

Every time we visit Parnassus, we make new nature-friends. The more we make, the more about them we notice. For example, how different species of plants grow or how healthy [or unhealthy =( ] our trees are.  It took months of observation before I realized the reason for all the bunches of trees growing right together was a big forest fire many years ago – something a neighbor then confirmed.

Animals friends are the most exciting to meet, of course. No new ones in recent days, though. We are not always too great at identifying all species, but we are getting better. We’d love your help!

New Friends Recently Identified:

-About 100 mushroom friends, including…

Russula Silvicola  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russula_silvicola

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…this mushroom friend, which doesn’t exist according to our book (this is common, and probably not actually the book’s fault)

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…and these mushroom friends, for whom we haven’t had the time (or, frankly, the ability) to identify yet. Any ideas?

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Tree Friends…

…Black Maple (Red Maple?) and Mountain Maple: Hooray! We have maple trees! We’ll see if we can tap any of them for syrup, though…

Previously-Discovered Friends at Parnassus:

Tree Friends: Chestnut Oak, Pin Oak, Chinkapin Oak, White Oak, Loblolly Pine, Sassafras, Sycamore, White Walnut (Butternut), Pecan, Flowering Dogwood

Fruiting Plant Friends: Blueberry, Blackberry, Raspberry, Concord Grape

Mammal Friends: White Tailed Deer (and fawns!), Squirrel, Chipmunk, Deer Mouse, Woodland Jumping Mouse

Bird Friends: Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Whippoorwill, Crow, Raven, Red Headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Robin, Great Horned Owl, Cardinal, Turkey Vulture

Reptile/Amphibian/Crustacean Friends: Eastern Box Turtle, Five-lined Skink, Fence Sitting Lizard, Common Toad, Crayfish

Insect Friends: Hoverfly, Honeybee, Bumblebee, White-Lipped Forest Snail (?) (and a lot more buggies, but we aren’t really friends, if we’re being honest here)

On the road on the way out of Parnassus going toward Paw Paw, West Virginia (yes, that is a real place) is Vulture Manor (that’s not a real place, but we gave it that name even before this week). We have previously passed this creepy cracked-in-half house and seen several vultures perched on its roofline or circling above. When we drove past it last week, no fewer than fifteen full-sized turkey vultures emerged and flew away before we could snap this photo. These are the largest birds either of us has ever seen in the wild.

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It will take a village to catalog all the creatures on Parnassus. Clearly, mushrooms are abundant, but there are plenty of birds, snakes, and other animals we have seen evidence of but haven’t been able to identify. If you are a bird watcher, a snake-charmer, or just a casual friend of nature, we’d love your help. Building community of all kinds is what Parnassus is all about.

The Parnassus Vision

Parnassus, our sliver of daydreams, our gateway to Elysium, our muse, our five-acre plot of (no longer quite) raw forest land in the middle of nowhere, West Virginia, has been central to our plans for Camp Gemstone and our life in general. For you, friends, a primer and an introduction. For us, a place to get our ideas down.  

Where is Parnassus? What is Parnassus?

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A bit west of Berkeley Springs and just northeast of bustling downtown Paw Paw, in the eastern West Virginia panhandle lies Parnassus, soon to be a place of wonder, nature, and community. For now, though, it is this:

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Turns out, “wet-weather streams” means something different than what we thought. When we purchased Parnassus, those blue lines that meet on the left side of the image above and make the “point” of our property (the red shaded area) were dry and cracked. A wet weather stream, we thought, meant that when it rains, water flows through there for a few hours, like a sidewalk gutter.

Not so:

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For about the first half of each year, we are treated to streams that wax and wane from a babbling brook to a roaring river, complete with several waterfalls.

When we first camped on Parnassus, we noticed a little shrub growing all over the hill. Acres of the stuff. No big deal, but since we needed to start making some paths to connect our French kitchen (the fire pit) to our chauffeur’s stand (the parking circle), we began pulling the plant up, only to soon discover with great lamentation that it was all interconnected underground.

Onward we must go! We got our leather gloves, our cutting tools, and tore hundreds of these small but stubborn plants from the ground, covering the area around the path with their corpses as a warning to other weeds.

Several months later, it is Fourth of July weekend of 2017, and we are walking around Parnassus for the first time in the grandeur of summer. Amethyst, of course, is noticing every little thing. He notices under the leaves of the underground-running shrub is a peppercorn-sized, blackish berry.

“Don’t eat it,” says Ruby, immediately seeing what was on Amethyst’s mind.

“I just…” Amethyst pops it in his mouth anyway. “…These are blueberries.”

The camera zooms out. Ruby and Amethyst are standing in a giant mass of blueberry plants. Not hundred, but thousands.

Yes, there will be blueberry jam.

Anyway, enough gushing about the beauty and splendor of the land. Remind us some time, and we’ll tell you the stories of the discovery of pecans, of concord grapes, of (miles of) blackberries.

To get our construction chops, we built a pergola (the blue polygon on the map) right below the “parking area” (light gray under the big blue pin) on the private road that leads into the property (thick yellow line). There were a few missteps, but we think it turned out just great:

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Next, the green polygon is the raised garden, in which we have just planted our first crops, sweet potatoes:

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As you can see, the garden has quite a bit of space. The goal is for next year to have it provide fresh vegetables for us all summer and into the fall.

We have built the platform and the walls of our one-room outdoor shower and composting toilet, or “the bath house”. The platform went up easily and quickly after our experience with the pergola, giving us more confidence for the house. It isn’t on the map yet.

Finally, we’ve cleared a big campsite area at the very eastern point. That is where we host friends and, for now, where we stay. There’s enough space for at least twenty tents.

The Dream

That’s what we have now. What’s the dream? It is many parts, both physical (Tiny houses! Art in the woods!) and not (Build a community space?!).

The Physical:

First, we will build the Solarium, taking advantage of the view that we feature oh so often and that maybe you are tired of seeing (but how could you be?):

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You may know that Ruby has her undergraduate degree in architecture. As a result, we can share with you our very good idea of what the Solarium will look like:

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On a slope and raised above the hill, the house will be on a square platform, where one quarter is a deck, and the house is an “L” shape. The front part of the L’s three walls will be constructed entirely of salvaged windows. We imagine a bright and sunny space, with plants and light – hence, the Solarium. A large curtain will separate the window room from the rest of the house, as we will hardly be even trying to insulate that glass room.

A wood-burning stove will provide heat to the rest of the house. The corner square of the L will be a kitchen, and the remaining room will have a small dining table and four chairs. There will probably be some bookshelves. Above the kitchen area will be a lofted bedroom, accessible by ladder. Nothing more, nothing less, just right.

Up the hill, a small water tower will go up during or after the Solarium’s construction, piped from the streams. Yes, we’re hippies, but we don’t have to be dirty.

Next? The Library – another, as-yet-to-be-designed, tiny house. The focus, as perhaps evidenced by the name, will be books old and beautiful. The chairs will be leather, the area rug will be plush, the fireplace will be roaring.

There are dreams for a third tiny house in the distant future – its dream-name is the Provence House. This will be a place for Ruby to dedicate to the craft of cooking, with a big old farm table as the focal point, an herb garden in the window boxes, and a large open-air space for an outdoor kitchen and al-fresco dining.

And art! We have many artist friends who we hope will help us create surprises that we can hide around Parnassus, like fairy doors, sculptures, crystals, and anything else that will help to transform the land into something even more magical. An ornate lantern mounted on a tree in the middle of the woods? A piano hidden behind a big oak? Why not? We want coming to Parnassus to be like entering a sacred space. Which brings us to…

The Not:

Being out on the land has made us acutely aware of the need for connection and community. Because of the isolation, obviously, right? Actually, no – the internal challenge of changing the structure of our lives has made us realize even more the importance of not just friends, but connection and support. The goal has always been to have people on Parnassus, whether through renting out the tiny houses when we are traveling, or holding camping parties, we always knew we’d enjoy being hosts.

The clarity and stillness that nature has shown us, though, makes us want to do more, to bring more than a campfire and a few birds into people’s lives.

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We have the space and the perfect setting for a meditation weekend, a wilderness class, a yoga retreat. We have dear friends in Baltimore who have converted their warehouse apartment into what is now both their home as well as a community gathering place. Can we make Parnassus something similar in the forest?

We think we can, with your help. This part of the story is just beginning, and we need to hear your ideas and to borrow you, your old tools, and your experience. Building our dreams in the forest has been a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of work. We need our community to help us build a community.

Will you come out to Parnassus?

 

If you will: campgemstone@gmail.com

 

Ode to Parnassus

by Ruby

June 6, 2018, 7:30 pm. I am writing this from Parnassus, our 5-acre sliver of raw forest land and daydreams in West Virginia.  We have spent the last 3 days here working hard on projects. The physical work is good, it clears our minds of doubt and distraction. We feel at peace here. The calm is almost shocking, if is weren’t so, well, calming.

We wake up with the sun, to the sound of the birds greeting the daylight. Amethyst jumps from the tent and starts a campfire while I snooze. He comes to greet me a half hour later – “Coffee is ready!” We walk the property while enjoying a warm mug of lovingly-made coffee, and he tells me about all the early-morning delights he witnessed while I slept. We then begin our projects. It is barely eight am.

By ten we are hungry, so we stop for a late morning breakfast. Nothing extravagant – oats or granola. Then we continue until early afternoon, when Amethyst starts a campfire (all of our cooking is done by campfire) and nestles some foil-wrapped sweet potatoes in the coals. We wrap up our morning work as the potatoes bake in the fire, then unwrap them, top them with greek yogurt, and devour them.

Once we have eaten, we begin to slow down. We take stock of all we have accomplished thus far – it is amazing how much two inspired early-risers can complete in a morning. We set out for our afternoon work with less of a sense of urgency. The fuel we just supplied ourselves begins to burn quickly, however, and soon we have hit a second stride. We work with smiles. Suddenly it is 4:00. We realize we are tired and dirty and have done all we can do – it is usually a lot.

We rinse off with a camp shower, then crash into our tent, or onto the pergola, or any other patch of sun, and rest our weary bodies. Everything slows down, the air becomes thick. A deep sense of satisfaction of all we have accomplished and all we are surrounded with takes hold.

The sun begins to take on a glowing golden aura as we rise. We gather food for a feast and make our way to the fire pit once more. Amethyst prepares a fire while I prepare the food. Onto the grill go heaps of meat, vegetables, and other delicious morsels. We watch it, listen to it, and smell it all sizzle. Meanwhile, a glass of wine and a glorious sun embrace us. We dine surrounded by trees, birds, and our mutual love for this land.

Then, when the time is right and our bellies are full, we wander down the path we’ve made to where the cabin will sit. And we watch. We watch the most glorious sunsets over the mountain ridges, the view framed by pine trees. We stare at the horizon, and at each other, in pure amazement.

Once night falls, our neighbors sometimes gather with us here, or we make our way to their yards. We sit in a circle around a campfire, with bottles to drink and stories to tell. Other nights, we stumble into the tent before the sun has even really disappeared, and read books by a lantern until our eyelids can’t manage to open anymore.

We fall asleep, listening to whippoorwills and owls.

We want nothing more.

***

Mount Parnassus is to Ancient Greeks what Mount Ararat is to Christians: The point where life springs forth after a great disaster; the promise of a second chance. This land is, to me, much the same. It is the place where I come to learn who I am, what I want, and what I am capable of. It is the place where all my thoughts become clear. It is the place where I find stillness – my mind can finally stop its constant banter, its incessant efforts to find and solve all problems. There are no big problems here. Logistics become secondary. I can finally discover what has been waiting for me under all of the planning, the worrying, the fighting with myself.

It is from Parnassus that I spring forth.