Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAYS 240-241 Pennsylvania Part II


May 27-28, 2013

From the dispersed camping in the Allegheny National Forest we headed to an ANF rustic campground appealingly called “Hearts Content”. I chose it because it is next to a small track of old-growth forest of the same name. On the way we stopped in the small town of Kane to pick up a few supplies. At the Rite Aid we asked the cashier if there was a spot for wifi in town. She stared at us for a while with an unmoving expression of bewilderment and disbelief. Then she said, “I wouldn’t know a computer if it hit me in the head!” But suggested the small library in town, although it was closed for the day. When I asked if there was a McDonald’s there (they usually have wifi) she laughed and said to us, “You are funny people!” The closest one was 40 miles away. Kane was one of those too common rundown Pennsylvania mountain towns that in better days had an attractive main street of brick buildings. Now shops were closed and boarded and the pall of a poor economy and few opportunities hung in the air.

By the time we got to Hearts Content it was late afternoon. The Memorial Weekend vacationers had vanished and we were the only ones there. After exploring the campground and the wildflowers there, I walked to the old growth forest about a half mile away. Light was waning so I decided to wait until the next morning to hike the mile long loop trail.

It rained all night and through the morning, sometimes coming in random sparse drops and at other times in a frantic explosion of loud splatters. It became hard to know what was rain from the clouds and what was excess water shaken loose from the wet leaves overhead. Although climate has shifted everywhere (people comment on this in all parts of the country we’ve visited), these Northeast rains are the usual downpours at the end of May. It’s as if the sudden massive spring growth makes the forest extra thirsty and the sky obliges with heavy warm rain. Although it is hard to imagine that it could be possible, everything seems even more verdant and fecund after each shower.

The rain made Chris impatient to move on; he has yet to fully comprehend that this the way of weather in the East, an ongoing mix of dry, wet, warm, cool, changing quickly, day to day, all year round. We hiked the Hearts Content trail before heading on to Cook Forest State Park, also well-known for its old growth tracts. By noon the rain had stopped but the air was still misty, damp and the clouds hung low and dark. This atmosphere actually deepened the silence, mystery and beauty of these ancient woods.

I’ve known for a long time that there were virgin forests in Pennsylvania but had never seen them. Even though we traveled throughout PA as a child we never visited these woods. With old growth rare in the Northeast, the preserved patches have captivated my imagination for decades. I had hiked to Dunbar Brook in Massachusetts where old growth eastern hemlock and a variety of hardwoods still remain.

The idea of unlogged forests evoke images of something primordial, untouched and ancient, as though they offer time travel to a pre-Columbian America. Huge trees, thick mosses, unfurling ferns, darkened forest floors, deep silence. This isn’t exactly what you find partly because of the enormous change since the arrival of Europeans and modern development. (Read Charles Mann’s, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, for more on this!). But it’s as close to a living window into nature’s past as we will find. Sadly, insect infestations due to climate change and other causes are killing the oldest trees. Within a few years they may be gone forever.

I also realized that my perspective on trees had permanently changed since living in the redwoods of California for ten years. Some of the second-growth redwoods on our property in the Santa Cruz Mountains are larger, taller than almost any tree left in the East. We also have two state parks nearby with old-growth. Those trees are truly magnificent and begin to resemble the Ewok’s home world in Star Wars (which was filmed in Northern California) and also my original fantasy of what virgin wilderness should look like. On my visits to New England since moving to California, the woods there now look like they are made up of thin, lanky juvenile trees.

Despite my skewed perception of what a large tree is, the old growth of Pennsylvania were beautiful and a delight to visit.


NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at

NOTE TWO: It’s great getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It encourages me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.

This gallery contains 17 photos

DAYS 238 – 240 Pennsylvania, Part 1

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May 25-27, 2013
From Allegany State Park in New York we crossed the border into the large Allegheny National Forest of Pennsylvania. (Yes, the Alleghenies are spelled differently.) Fortunately, we soon stumbled upon the Visitor’s Center and were supplied with information and maps. A helpful ranger explained that dispersed camping was allowed throughout most of the park, which meant you can find your own spot and camp there for free. They also host a variety of fee-based campgrounds, some with electricity and showers and others remote and primitive.

We followed a promising dirt forest service road that ran along a trout-filled stream but all the good camping sites were taken. This was Saturday of Memorial Weekend. After returning to a paved road we spied a narrow dirt road that was not even on our detailed park map. Along it we found a pullout to camp for the night. It wasn’t perfect – a little too close to the traffic noise of Rt. 219 which skirts the national forest – but it was pleasant and a short walk to a stream. The path led to a small beach along what looked like a good swimming hole to me, and probably a good fishing hole to others. (It was too chilly that weekend to be tempted to swim, however.) We were alone for two days except for the fisherfolk who came and went all weekend. A rose-breasted grosbeak sang its cheerful loud refrain throughout the day.

You might be surprised to know that we passed numerous oil wells with see-saw type pumps as we drove through the national forest. Along with the pumps were elaborate piping systems, valves, meters and storage tanks. Unless you grew up in Pennsylvania – as I did – you might not be aware that the first commercial oil well in the U.S. (and debatably the world) was at Titusville, PA, not far from where we were camped. As we continued to drive through western Pennsylvania, oil wells dotted the landscape, in woods, fields and backyards. Few of the pumps were operating which may mean that all usable oil has already been harvested.

We spent two nights along the forest service road, waiting out the holiday weekend until the majority of people returned home. The road continued uphill and deeper into the woods; I hiked it several times while Chris took a long bike ride. Absorbing the beauty of the forest, I found wildflowers such as mayapples, violets, large-flowered white trillium, wild lily-of-the-valley, starflowers, and false solomon’s seal. Birds, deer, squirrels and butterflies went about their daily chores.

In the early evening I sat in the vast woods taking in the smells, the chorus of random birdsong, the innumerable varieties of green, the softness of the air. Around me were giant boulders, stone outcroppings, ferns, and maples, all so familiar, as if imprinted on my soul long ago. To imprint means “to recognize something as an object of habitual trust”. A good description of the ease and confidence I feel in nature, especially in the forests of the Northeast.

The forest I live in now, the redwood forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains in California, is different. The fragrance is different, the sounds have a muted quality, the greens are darker and the red of redwood and madrone deeper. At first, I couldn’t smell the forest. As much as I tried, I couldn’t pick its particular essence out of the air. But now, years later, it is becoming another familiar fragrance of home. The imprinting of the redwood forest on my soul is slower and more conscious – not like the natural and instinctual bonding I developed in childhood for the woods of Pennsylvania – but it is gradually taking place.

NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at

NOTE TWO: It’s great getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It encourages me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.

This gallery contains 16 photos


DAYS 235-238 Upstate New York

May 22-24, 2013

We had considered crossing the mid-section of New York State and visiting Niagara Falls. Both Chris and I had seen it in our youth but we were interested in enjoying it as seasoned adults. I wanted to ride the Maid of the Mist right into the roar and spray. But as I studied the map, I saw that a large deep yellow splotch, called Buffalo, lay between us and it. After 5 weeks in Boston, we couldn’t muster the energy to face another urban landscape and the commercialization of the Falls. So we traversed New York farther south passing small towns, woodlands and farms, stopping near Binghamton, NY.

The campsites at Oquaga Creek State Park were completely carpeted with dense lush grass. We were part of this year’s first wave of campers; it felt almost sacrilegious to mar the pristine beauty of the fresh lawn by driving over it. There were only three other people in the whole campground, this being the short season where the weather is mild but the vacationers are few. In several weeks children will be let out of school and the summer flood of travelers will overflow onto the roads and campgrounds. Our next weekend – Memorial Weekend – would likely give us a taste of what is to come.

The air was sweet and thick with the fragrance of dirt, cut grass and blossoms. Fruit trees from long-abandoned farms were now included in groves of wild trees. The apple trees burst with white flowers, their fragrance infusing the breeze, their petals fluttering down like blessings. Puffs of fluff of unknown origin (no cottonwoods here) slowly rode the invisible currents of air. The humid breeze was palpable, caressing the skin with its velvety touch in a way that dry air cannot.

Below us was a large mowed meadow, with wetland shrubs a little farther out and  forests beyond them. Occasionally a large – very large – groundhog would sneak into the meadow to munch on tasty green sprouts. Chris is very curious about groundhogs since they don’t exist in California. The closest animal in CA is its relative, the small and scrawny (in comparison) gopher. I sometimes describe groundhogs as gophers on steroids. Chris was duly impressed by the size and heft of this rodent and can now understand how just one groundhog can quickly devastate a vegetable garden. (I know this from experience.)

After several days of warm and stormy weather, the cold front finally arrived bringing heavier skies and and a very chill rain. It was the Friday of Memorial Weekend and we used this unpleasant weather as an excuse to drive across the rest of New York. It was unseasonably bleak for the opening day of the summer vacation season. We arrived about 6 PM at Allegany State Park, a large park in western NY bordering Pennsylvania. The raw, dank weather may have influenced our opinions, but the campground was unappealing to us. Too tired to continue we spent the night there. The campers were less quiet than most other places we’ve been, with plentiful beer drinking, radios playing and whoops and hollers. Late at night after we’d gone to bed, a group of drummers thumped their way into our consciousness and we awoke. I explained to Chris that summer begins in the Northeast on Memorial Weekend. By then people are chomping at the bit for time outdoors after months of cabin fever, an illness that a native coastal Californian can’t really appreciate.

The next day was cold and windy but bright with sun. We drove south to the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania to seek another place to camp.

DAY 234 – Beartown State Forest, MA

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May 21, 2013

It was hot and humid; storms were predicted. For the previous several days I had been going through boxes left in attic storage, culling them and re-boxing the remains to ship back to California. Chris was hurriedly listing his latest collection of used books to sell on Amazon and packing them to send to the their warehouse near Seattle. Although we relished the idea of being on the road again, we were both exhausted and short-tempered. Resupplying ourselves with cash, gas, and a cart full of goods from Trader Joe’s we finally slipped away from the Boston area by mid-afternoon.

We were aiming for Taconic State Park in Copake, NY, just over the border from the western edge of MA. Large patches of rain and lightening traveled east as we drove west. By the time we reached Great Barrington, MA, it was late and we were in the midst of another blinding downpour. I felt spent, my body buzzing from fatigue and my mind dull. Nearby was a campground in Beartown State Forest and we headed there, unable to find the energy to drive farther. After some confusion and wrong turns we made our way to the primitive campground on Benedict Pond. Drained of enthusiasm and pleasure, we sullenly ate prepared food and got ready for bed. The rains stopped but everything was still dripping and damp, the earth pock-marked with puddles. We were unclear how to register since there were no iron rangers or registration forms so we left it for the morning when our heads would be clearer.

In the middle of the night a terrific thunderstorm rolled through; heralding its arrival were strong gusty winds that buffeted the camper. Rain and lightening soon followed. The thunder was exceptionally loud and long, as though giant boulders were crashing and shattering down a mountain slope – BANG! – CRASH! – BOOM! – KABOOM! I was unsettled by its intensity. Eventually the storm passed and sleep returned.

We were looking forward to a quiet morning and to lazily sleeping late. Then, much earlier than we planned to rise, there was a knock-knock-knock at our door. The ranger was there to collect our fee. Chris stumbled out, explained our confusion and payed the $10. Unlike anywhere else we’ve been, you can only register at Beartown by phone or online; there is no official way to register in person. The ranger apologized for waking us and recommended a local restaurant for breakfast. He also informed us that a tornado was reported nearby the previous night, in Copake NY, . . . where we had originally planned to be!

Up and dressed, I wandered the wet, dripping woods with my camera and saw a variety of wild flowers (battered by the hard rain), numerous red efts on the move, and an abundance of black flies.  I will no longer have alligators and a plenitude of large wading birds to photograph. I missed them already! Most of the birds here are small and difficult to see much less photograph (although I was given a new pair of Nikon binoculars for my birthday!). I will have to settle for landscapes, wildflowers and other small interesting discoveries. But they all seem so much less dramatic and compelling than the super-sized birds and lizards of the South!

PS. BTW, the red eft is the terrestrial juvenile form of the Eastern Newt. The red signifies poison (to potential predators)!  These cute little guys can be seen migrating throughout the wet woodlands.

This gallery contains 27 photos

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The Beginning of Part III of The Big Trip

(Apologies to those who already read this, I am posting this again for technical reasons I won’t go into.)

After a five week stay, Chris and I left the Boston area on Tuesday, May 21st. As we waved good-bye to my sister, we felt the fatigue from working hard to complete everything before we departed. Now we’re on the road again, back in the saddle and down the trail.

(P.S. I still have blog entries to complete and post about our month in Florida, but I wanted to begin this blog anew with more current events.)

As we return to our camping, meandering lifestyle, it feels like we are beginning a new trip rather than continuing the old. We have about four months left before our expected return to Santa Cruz. A long stretch by ordinary vacation standards – longer than most people will ever take (between college and retirement) – but we are painfully aware that our initial 365 days of vagabonding freedom have greatly diminished. Eight months have slipped through our fingers becoming nothing more than memories, stories, and photographs. Time is the ultimate illusion and a trickster.

Our hiatus in Boston – what I am calling Part II – was an unplanned part of our journey but not an entirely unexpected possibility. I was called to Boston after my 91-year-old mother broke her arm. She lives in an assisted living facility near my sister west of Boston. The facility offers some care assistance but my mother’s new incapacity meant she needed extra help they could not provide. My sister oversees my mother’s care and was now overburdened by the additional demands. We also needed to make decisions about moving her to a smaller (i.e. safer) apartment and arranging for more long term daily care. During my stay, my sister and I alternated nights sleeping in my mom’s apartment. We felt she was particularly vulnerable to falling again then.

After considering a variety of options including other eldercare facilities, we settled on moving my mother to a smaller apartment in the same place she’s been living and bringing in a private care person every morning to help her get started for the day. This meant doing a significant downsizing of her possessions once again; it was the fourth move and fourth down-size since my parents left their large cluttered home in Pittsburgh in 2004. Our decision was not the perfect solution but it seems to be the best one for right now.

Two days after I arrived, the Boston Marathon Bombing saga began on April 15th. The violence of the attacks felt surprisingly personal. So many other disasters that have occurred in my lifetime have been in places far away or unfamiliar to me. Or they have happened while I was on a silent meditation retreat, so that my knowledge of the events was delayed and I missed the resulting media firestorms. On September 11, 2001, for example, I was into the third week of a four week solo wilderness retreat in the Sangre de Christo mountains near Crestone, CO. The Marathon bombings, in contrast, were nearby and events unfolded at places and streets I knew well. I had watched the Boston Marathon the year before with my mother and sister along the route in Natick, MA.

Local TV stations broadcast non-stop coverage without commercials for days. The “lockdown” order (which instructed everyone in certain communities to stay at home) was not issued for where I was (the town of Wayland) but it was enforced nearby. My brother-in-law stayed home from his workplace in Waltham while the manhunt was on for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Stories quickly emerged about people who had been near the finish line or had left shortly before the explosions, just barely being spared. Other tales circulated about people who knew the suspected bombers or knew someone who knew them. On that Friday of the final manhunt my sister went to the nearly large Natick Mall. In a shoe store, she discovered a sales clerk there knew Dzhokhar because her boyfriend was his roommate at UMass Darmouth. The boyfriend was being detained and questioned by the FBI.

The week’s events were surreal, dramatic, sad, incomprehensible and disturbing. It is hard now to imagine that they happened only six weeks ago. The magnitude of the dismay makes it seem like another time, not part of the continuum of recent life.

On May 8th I turned 60. Hmmm, such a big number, don’t you think? Now I have to get used to my age staring with a big fat 6. I was just starting to feel comfortable with 5s.

Because I was in Massachusetts instead of on the road, I was able to enjoy the warmth and generosity of family and friends for this momentous birthday. A group of old compadres gathered in Amherst, MA, on the 7th for an evening of shared food and reflections on aging. Some I had known since my 20‘s. Each friend offered a personal story, poem or quote about the mysterious process of getting older.

One brought a basket filled with folded paper slips with quotes inside and then, one-by-one, we each read our random selection. I started the round with the famous quote by Robert Browning, “Come grow old with me, the best is yet to be.” The perfect sentiment with which to embrace friends with whom I had already grown considerable older.

Is the best yet to be? My time at my mother’s assisted living facility recently, did not paint an attractive picture for one’s most elderly years. Certainly by 60 the best of my body’s attractiveness, energy and strength is gone and the best of my ability to remember details and to have access to my lifetime storehouse of knowledge is past. Of course, the only best moment of life there can ever be is happening right now, otherwise we are just living in memory and imagination.

I think if you are on a dedicated path toward greater presence and open-heartedness, then the bests yet to come in old age are limitless. Admittedly, some pretty big painful, scary worsts are probably in store, too. Fortunately, the worsts can sometimes become wake-up calls to understand what is truly most important, to seek who we are at the deepest levels, to discover where freedom and peace actually are and to forego the rest. My future bests might be: a heart completely relieved of the weight of judgement, worry and expectation; more awestruck moments connecting intimately with the breath-taking mystery and wonder of life; stepping into a profound acceptance of myself, of those around me and of this crazy, incredible place we’ve found ourselves; and finally, relaxing fully into the quiet joy and unflappable contentment that comes with the surrender into the here and now. I could go on . . . why not come grow old with me?

Astrologically speaking, 60 is the start of becoming an elder. It is the end of the second Saturn Cycle, one of the great sweeps of repeating cosmic time. Saturn returns to the position it had at one’s birth about every 29 years, marking a new stage and a new beginning. Going on The Big Trip during my 2nd Saturn Cycle has been the perfect way to explore the inner journey demanded by the Return. Old routines have been shaken up or thrown out the window. There is time to ask questions about my purpose and direction. Am I living in alignment with the deepest rumblings of my heart? Chris and I are the same age so we are traveling this astrological trajectory together. Below are some quotes by astrologers about the second Saturn Cycle:

“The Saturn Return brings about endings and new beginnings.  The universe will unveil unhealthy and incongruent living and working conditions that can no longer be tolerated.  This recognition can bring about enormous change . . .”

“As the body ages, depression and fatigue inevitably arise, yet as the body becomes less an object of vanity it’s a chance for the Spirit to rise . . . The hallmark of the second Saturn Return is that if you deal maturely with the old pockets of unfinished business you gain the gift that will last till the end—the gift of wisdom. You become an Elder.”

“At the second Saturn return (usually between 58-60, you are asked ‘Do you want to be a wise elder – or just older?’ You begin to realize that you only have a certain amount of time left to do what you came to do. You realize that you aren’t going to be around forever, that what you do now has consequences. What did I come here to do, and how am I doing with that? What have I left undone, where am I out of integrity with myself and others?”

The timing of my stay in Massachusetts fortunately allowed me to attend a weekend retreat with Lama John Makransky and Julie Forsythe. It was for the meditation teachers with the Foundation of Active Compassion (of which I am one). I was relieved to have the restorative break, to reconnect with old friends and teachers, and to get a “booster shot” of Dzogchen. (Dzogchen is considered to be the most subtle and profound teachings of the Tibetan Buddhist Ningyma tradition.)

The retreat was held at Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield NH, the lovely retreat center for the Natural Dharma Fellowship, the sangha led by Lama Willa Miller. I had been there before for a previous FAC teacher weekend and another time to help lead an outdoor retreat with Bob Morrison and Lama Willa. That latter weekend in October 2010 was memorable for the six inches of snow that fell!

The weather in early May was beautiful, the silence delicious, the views over mountains and sky soothing. A short walk down the dirt road brought me to blooming trout lilies, bellworts, and red trilliums. A yellow-bellied sapsucker flew from tree to tree. Usually these weekends focus on issues of being a teacher and are partially interactive. This one was silent. Lama John focused on the expansive teachings of Dzogchen and highlighted the approach of Tsoknyi Rinpoche, another teacher of mine.

At the very end of the retreat, after silence was broken, lunch was eaten and people were beginning to disperse, a birthday cake with candles appeared before me and a round of Happy Birthday was sung. This was a complete surprise since only one person at the retreat had known my birthday was near. Fortunately, I had recently become lax on my gluten-free diet of several years and I heartily ate two large pieces of the moist chocolate with peanut butter icing dessert!

If you are interested in knowing more about Dzogchen, there are many books available. One recommendation is Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s, Open Heart, Open Mind. John Makransky’s book is, Awakening Through Love.

The time I spent in Massachusetts spanned the most magical mini-season of the year. When I arrived mid-April, few plants were green and the trees were bare. Only small buds hinted at what was to come. Some of the earliest spring flowers were visible –  crocuses and forsythia – but they were sparse, separated by barren-looking earth.

By the time I left five weeks later, bright greenery had burst forth in every imaginable place. A rainbow of flowers decorated the landscape. It was as if the forest, once naked and exposed, became modest and drew a green curtain over itself while the trees fully dressed themselves in foliage. The intimate inner sanctum of the woods, once visible from the edges, became opaque to the outside observer. Roads that had opened to the sky were now tunnels of green arms reaching overhead.

Our fresh beginning has been enhanced by the major home renovation project Chris undertook in my sister’s driveway. He added a three-way (propane, 12 volt, 120) refrigerator, the installation of which necessitated taking apart and redesigning the entire kitchenette/appliance side of the camper. I knew I would like having a fridge but after a few days with it on the road, I am ecstatically reminded that refrigeration is one of the truly great inventions of the 20th century. No more tripping over the cooler, buying ice, pulling soggy items from chilled water and keeping food at not-quite-cold enough temperatures. We even have a freezer that freezes. It’s changed the kind of food we can buy and therefore eat.

Our fresh start also began in a new part of the country. Part I ended in Florida and Part III began in New England. During Part I we gradually headed East. Now we are pointed West. Sometimes I think we are just starting to get the hang of this vagabond life. We will probably really know what we are doing, and why, about the time we return to Santa Cruz in October. Although the plan is to stop then, will I want to?