Mountain Writing Retreat for City Walking Girl

Lighthouse Inkwell, Issue 4, 2003

By Marci Alboher

Rocky Mountain National Park. Time to free write. We stop on the trail and Bill, the instructor, gives the prompt. I share a boulder with Jen. It’s Day 1 and we still haven’t separated much. The trickling stream reminds me I have to pee. Probably shouldn’t write about that. Wonder what Jen’s writing about. Nature I’m sure. But all this silence brings me back to New York.

In my mind I walk up Broadway. Who needs personal space? Great to brush up against people while navigating streets. Look right. Look left. At 72nd Street Broadway and Amsterdam kiss for a moment. Ten years and I can’t remember if Josie’s is on Broadway or Amsterdam. Gray’s Papaya always busy. New subway station at 72nd St. still looks funny – a little too clean. Paper Access just closed – where will I get my pens? Walk-Don’t Walk sign flashes. Rush across during blinking red. Keep up the pace, crossing with the light then zigzagging so I can cover more streets.

I’m a seasoned city-walker and one of the fast ones. We know our pace – 20 blocks in 15 minutes if we catch the lights and crowds are with us. Cell phone rings. I answer and it slows me down. But I can walk and talk. Even read email on the phone. Carrie’s by my side and checks her Blackberry. Walk, walk – move this way, jump in front of the slow ones, the carriage-pushers and amblers. Who ambles in New York? Probably the ones who like the cross-town bus. No bus for me. And no cabs unless it’s the fastest way or shoes are blister-makers. Walking or subway is ideal for the impatient. Cell coverage underground is bad so it’s a good time for reading. Bring a bag big enough to carry the Times, but then newspaper causes smudge. The New Yorker is best — it folds small and one week takes me all the way to Brooklyn and back. Perfect for the visit to Nana. Plus, something to talk about during lunch.

Hard boulder on my butt brings me back to the free-writing hike. Time’s up. Bill quietly approaches each person so we can ease out of our writing. Nothing abrupt. He and Jen talk about the words they chose for the stream. He ‘plash.’ She ‘popping.’ I think about words for pee — trickle tinkle piddle puddle.

Shadowcliff – the site of the retreat – is quiet even for birds. Views are wide-angle. The building is strong – built by volunteers, I hear, and never shifted – whatever that means. But night noises – human noises – travel and beds shake. So far it’s just the late-night drinkers – roommates and paper walls don’t lend well to nighttime trysts. I sleep well in altitude (put me in the ‘gifted and talented’ sleeper class). But Jen awakens when the night crowd comes back to the shared bathroom.

Shower sign tells me not to waste. Not a lot of waste here. Even the food waste is treated politely and properly canistered.

Like our people, the waste in New York doesn’t have its personal space. We had been separating for a time, but then budget cuts so plastic and glass were mingling again with food. Out West they outlaw these mixed marriages. Now NYC is getting it going again. Good for us.

Sign-up sheets to set up and clean up for meals are nearly full after Day 1. We dispose of knives and forks in separate compartments so they can bathe in sudsy water before their power wash. These types cooperate and follow rules made for good communities. Barbara Kingsolver smiles on us. Supportive and quiet when people try to write. In class everyone’s allowed to read aloud. To share. The Jesus fish, the aphorisms, the shared bathrooms, all exist in peace. Year after year. Volunteer built, but never shifted – whatever that means.

It’s early and I’m still adjusting, I admit. I check my phone messages. Editor calls. I fear my story needs another edit, but it’s a personal question – can I recommend a real estate lawyer? Next call – former boss coming to NY – am I free? Is my couch? Of course it’s not free – doesn’t she know my rule for good community relations in New York – no houseguests except for emergencies. Lose the connection. Redial, trying to find a place with some coverage. I return some calls, relieved that I’ve missed a potential houseguest by being out of town. Why is no one else carrying a phone and moving from spot to spot to find the signal? I try again and connect. I say I’ll be brief because I may be cut off.

Five days away and newspapers papers and emails will be piled up. Next weekend looks ugly. Idea. Maybe I can get the Times here. Ask at the office. Owner chuckles. Nowhere in town. I know she’s thinking – VACATION, MISS. I tell myself she’s right. This week is to write. To read books. To do one thing at a time – single tasking.

And to hike – to hike with the amblers. Observe and notice, I remind myself – no need for race-walking. Wes takes a flower to press in his journal. I want to do the same, but pause. I feel like a plagiarist. Later, back in the bunk I notice a tiny bug pressed into mine. Jen circles it in purple pen – writes ‘BUG FROM HIKE.’

Next day’s hike is excruciating in its slowness. Bob, Shadowcliff’s owner, leads us, showing his love for the land. I learn that Aspens are all connected, but that’s enough. Listening to interesting nature tidbits won’t turn me into a flower-gazer. So I walk. And walk. And climb. I need to move. Can’t stand and listen anymore. Soon Juana follows and then Mary. These two share the restlessness. Even back at Shadowcliff I notice others taking out their phones. Wes, Jenny, Tiffany, Juana – I’m not the only one who can’t leave it behind.

By Day 3 mobile phone usage and connections to home are more obvious. Jaynie gets a message about work. Some talk so loud that catch-ups and love-yous travel through anorexic walls. I notice the computer in the main building. Internet access for three dollars a day. Writers all talk about their goals – words, pages, revisions.

My only goal – not to use that machine.

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