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Birches & Smokey flannel

It was still dark. I hunched over the cast iron stove in my cabin and fed a few small sticks onto last night’s coals. I sipped my coffee, which I planned to drink in the truck. It’s hard to leave the fire on a raw October morning. 50 miles away, on a mountainside I’d explored once or twice before, I knew about a place I’d come to call the “sunrise glade.” Out on the road my headlights cut through the smoky fog, and the “campfire” smell from my stove at home hung thick on my flannel. I began to think about the sunrise, and the forest glade and ghostly birches I’d walked through just a few years before. I wanted to go there again.

Pale trees may seem a silly thing to get all worked up about, but I wanted to share with others the thing I’d witnessed there, guided by white, elegant pillars into the darkness of a forest hardly known to mankind. Birches don’t seem to care that other trees grow darker and rougher. The nonconformist paper birch grows smooth and bright, refracting the sun’s rays like a tall, bony moon in the cold, dark space of the woods. I hiked in, and one tall moon led me to another, and another, until it felt like the galaxy itself had collapsed and lay burning at my feet in the auburn colors of the dying foliage and glowing bark.

I confess that morning I became lost, though it was not much trouble setting my course back down the mountain. In the mountains, the way home is generally “downhill.” So I ended up in some creek, splashing my way back down a dew-soaked ravine to a road that led me to my truck, and my truck carried me home to the fire that still sputtered enough to revive again. In my soul though, and in the picture that I carried back with me that day, the white birches lead me to into a forest fantasy that comes alive every time I kindle a fire or smell that smoky flannel.

Photograph: “Sunrise Glade” – White Mountain National Forest, NH.

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