I was born with itchy feet. To satisfy that yearning this summer, I’m walking in a different wood, marsh, or mountain every morning. This past week I visited the Indian Kill Nature Preserve. That name sounds like a massacre, but it’s Dutch for a body of water. After I’d walked from my car through the opening section of the forest, down the long set of wooden stairs constructed into the side of the hill, past the marsh and over the small bridges to keep my feet out of the muck, I found the old Glen Ridge Hospital dam. The sight of it jarred the wind out of my lungs as I had a moment of Deja vu from Sao Miguel in the Azores two summers ago. A longing, I thought I’d managed well with these little adventures awakened in my chest.
Two summers ago, I went to my first, and so far my only, writer’s residency with Disquiet in the Azores. I hadn’t been out of the country in so long my passport expired fifteen years prior. After my world had grown so small, fear and distrust of my body overtook me with the thought of leaving. I’d been offered a scholarship for their two-week program in Lisbon, but I said no. I wasn’t ready. The idea of a city packed with people, surrounded by talented writers who had so much more experience than me, was too much. I was still figuring myself out without being tethered to doctors and my sofa. The kind woman who replied to my terrified emails suggested the residency instead. It had fewer people. I could write in a botanical garden, be on an island, go on whale watches, and only had a four-hour flight. My husband said, “you’re going.”
Every self-protective instinct wailed like a banshee inside me. I tried to keep calm by researching the Azores, learning some Portuguese with the Rosette Stone App, and looking up what a residency was and how to get the most out of it. (By the way, the answer was to sit down and write.) When I arrived at the small Sao Miguel airport, I handed the bored little man my brand new passport. It possesses a photo of me that my husband describes as looking like an IRA member due to my neutral face and the black turtle neck I was wearing since we’d snowshoed that day. Then the little man put a stamp in my pristine book; I had to look away. Tears pricked at the edges of my eyes, and I didn’t want him to send me back because I seemed unstable. It was the first time I thought, oh here I am in the fifteen years since my old passport expired.
The bridge over the dam at Indian Kill reminded me of one of our hikes that crossed an old power station dam. The Azores are a subtropical climate that can open the skies on you at any moment. The land was muddy and slippery through the lush forests. At points of our hike, we walked a metal bridge with a handrail on one side, cliff on the other, and a drop underneath. I couldn’t have been happier, and I chuckled when some of the writers who were more used to the city referred to it as “bad nature.” If you aren’t in the mood for sweating through your shirt because of the humidity that coated your lungs with every inhale, or the mud caking your shoes and splashing up your leg, and the sudden downpours in areas that looked like scenes from Jurassic Park, then yes, this it was bad nature. For me, it was joy.
On a different hike, another writer from Upstate New York, and I were chatting with our guide, and we both stopped as we stepped into the tall grass. We asked our guide, Miguel if he had any bug spray. He asked why. We told him we were concerned about ticks, and he laughed, “You’re in paradise. We don’t have any ticks or mosquitoes.” True, but roaches on the other hand.
While in the Azores, I sat in more than one geothermal pool. I saw newborn dolphins the size of cats learning to swim next to my boat, and blue hydrangeas covering the island and men’s chests in tattoos. There were daytime bats, lava tunnels under the city, the Furnas, warning signs not to touch the boiling mud created by steam venting from a volcano yet to cool down, a bamboo forest, black sand beaches, even a poinsettia growing in the ground alongside a native holly. These elements only described the local landscape. They don’t scratch the surface of the beauty of the people I met, both the locals and my fellow writers.
I’m lucky to have trails and nature preserves around my home. There’s an ever-changing vista of biodiversity: new flowers, butterflies, bees, the songs from birds and frogs calls. I’ve been rained on plenty this summer and have the mud stains on my insect shield hiking pants to prove it. This is all wonderful, and I’m enjoying them, but I was supposed to attend writing programs in North Carolina and Montana this summer. The cancelation of the Montana trip bruised my spirit. I’ve always wanted to spend time there. I had a plan to continue on to the Redwoods in California before returning home.
Part of me worries I’ll never get to travel again and that I ventured into the world too soon. At the time, it felt as if there wasn’t a moment to spare. Going to the Azores awoken something in me that had been dormant for so long, my itchy feet. The farmer who donated his land to create the Strawberry Fields Nature Preserve and I spoke a few weeks back. When I lamented about the canceled adventures, he asked why I wanted to travel when I have paradise right here. “Because,” I told him, “there is so much paradise to see.”
***One of the talented writers with me in the Azores used the residency to complete the first draft of her novel. I had the privilege of watching her work and swimming with her. Just this past week Gemma Reeves debut novel Victoria Park was made available for pre-order. I’m so proud of her. I know how much work she put into bringing this book into the world. If you would like to check it out, here is the link.***