Words + Photos: Molly Steele

Twice in my life I have felt notably inspired, and both occurred last October. A few nights before Halloween I was feeling dissatisfied and uninspired, but also suddenly overwhelmed with a sweet sensitivity. I wanted to create something that fully encompassed my focus and aesthetic expression while also tying me directly to nature. I had no interest in participating in holiday festivities; the idea of spending the weekend dressed as a slutty baby or sexy zombie or whatever didn’t sound appealing. So I asked my friend Kevin to join me in hunting for fog and rain, and to help me build a fort.

We met just after sunset at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains before carpooling up to Charlton Flats in the Angeles National Forest. It was sunny and clear in the sky above, so we set out to build a fort right away. We hiked a mile or so down the dry creek bed through the burnt area torched by the Station Fire five years ago. Kevin and I gathered wood, not sure of a plan or design. We wanted to incorporate the boulders surrounding our plot, and we hauled a large stump 60 or so feet uphill to use as a table. The design was crude, but it felt like the start of something. We had spent nearly all day quietly interacting with our environment and some warm beers. I cut my palm pretty deeply while breaking a branch, and by the end of the day it was filled black with dirt. I’d earned that bloody gash by carrying out what felt like a dream. The day ended with chili and cornbread.

That weekend we built a series of forts in different forests. Something about the process of choosing the materials, which we found at each site, and figuring out how to fit them together – not knowing if a fort would even be the end result – was deeply meditative. On the second day, it was snowing on and off, very cold, and the wood was all rotting. We hiked through light snow and rain to the southernmost Aspen grove, which I’d been wanting to visit for years. Handling the rotting wood and detritus under the snow really did something for me. The time we had to build the second fort was limited by how many hours of the harsh weather we could tolerate, so we experienced a dense period of being completely present. We used tall Aspen logs nearly twice my height and built a teepee structure, letting the shape of the wood choose how it all came together. Another day was concluded with hot chili and cornbread from another mountain town.

Our last fort was just outside Idyllwild in a place could be likened to heaven. Part of the forest had been sectioned off for an endangered frog species, so no one was around. Our last fort was constructed across a creek that we used a fallen tree to get to. The fort was short and we wove dead ferns together to create an insulating layer. We finished that fort under a cotton candy sunset and filled it with tea light candles in the dark. I have spent the past year journaling somewhat regularly, but this weekend was particularly difficult to articulate. A high that has lasted with me ever since, and a newfound passion I hope to interact with further.