Friday, October 1, 2010

After the Boys of Summer Have Gone

On Labor Day – the last REAL day of summer in most young boys’ minds – I went swimming with my grandsons, Ethan & Cade. Ethan is seven; smart and sensitive, he has juvenile diabetes but takes it like a man; he loves skateboarding and has been my BFF since he was born. Cade’s 3 – going on 6 – energetic, talkative, rough-and-tumble; so tow-headed and dimpled cute that he can just give you a look and you are wrapped around his finger. We swam and splashed until the boys’ mom said, too soon, that it was time to go. We pretended we didn’t hear her at first, but, like Old Man Winter, Mom can’t be put off forever and we dragged ourselves out of the pool and out of summer. It was time for summer to go too.

Ah, the extraordinaryness of an early September pool day! Clear sky so blue your eyes water; the sun glowing like your own personal space heater in the dry and cool 80° air; a brisk breeze just begging you to launch a kite, lay in the grass and name the clouds on their lazy journey East. But the breeze kept us in the perfect-temperature water – just cool enough for a summer day and just warm enough to keep you in the pool and out of the goose-bumping wind.

The time wafted by like the breeze that carried the screams and shouts and laughter along with the clean smell of chlorine down the ridge and away into autumn. Just like in the movies, I flashed back on five decades of growing up and misted over with a nostalgia strong enough to bring back the smells of my childhood. Summers smelled like the Ragweed that grows along the ditches and roads of Colorado; it smelled like chlorine and wintergreen locker-room disinfectant; smelled like a light rain – barely more than verga – on a dusty field; like a lake with carp and crappie in the middle and cattails and goose poop on the edges; like freshly laid blacktop and freshly mown grass; sunblock on the nose of the lifeguard you can’t take your eyes off.

I rode my bike a couple-three miles to the Loveland Municipal Pool where baskets cost a dime but the swimming was free. The water was icy cold – I don’t think the pool was ever heated except by the sun. We dove and swam hard off the low board at poolside. Dive in; swim to the edge and clamber out; run-walk around to the ladder to go again – an endless circle that kept us busy till the rest-time whistle blew. We lay blue-lipped in the mile-high wind, our legs shivering and stiff and our toenails scraping on the rough concrete without a towel to soften the scratches. The concrete was blistering, but the lifeguards were even hotter. We goofed off on the middle board, trying to get the lifeguards to notice us. When you’re 12, getting a 17-year old to notice you (in any way you could) was a major accomplishment. Much time was spent (and wasted) in this endeavor, creating silly “dives” and basically trying to impress with a 3-stooges style of adolescent geekiness. Then finally, someone would get double-dared to go off the High Board and the game got serious. The high board was for hot-shot divers and had more people chickening out at the top than people who actually took the fast way down.

We didn’t dive off the high-board – that took more skill than we possessed. But we could pull off a booming cannonball (when I was younger) and a high-splashing can-opener (when I learned it looked cooler, splashed higher and didn’t hurt my butt so bad!) The crowning achievement of the day would be pulling off a can-opener that caused a big enough splash to soak the lifeguard. That always got their attention, though it sometimes got us kicked out too, or at least banished to the baby pool until the next whistle.

We snapped at each other’s legs with towels wound tight. Loud pops that, if carefully aimed, would leave nasty welts and the promise of revenge when you least expect it. The age-old bonding ritual of boys hurting boys. Testosterone just beginning to course through our teenage veins.

So many of the memories of summers are floating on the waters of my hometown. The pool of my childhood lifeguard fantasies is also where I took swimming lessons every year. I was a fish – I loved playing at that old pool; racing in the local swim meets; plunging headfirst (when the lifeguards weren’t looking) down the curving slide; hanging out in the warm water of the kiddie-pool on the cold days when the air temperature was actually lower than the shallow water temperature, heated by the sun and probably, now that I think of it, by the effluence of the littler kids. Yuck!

But as we grew older, the pool wasn’t cool enough and so we took to the irrigation ditches. In our early teens, the ditch was the place where we traded our flip-flops and swimming suits for cut-off jeans and tennis shoes and floated on old inner-tubes to where the fence across the ditch saved us from being sucked down the underground pipe to the lake. We had no fear of that imminent death, but jumped and squealed like little girls when we chased crawdads out from under slimy rocks.

When I got my license, we drove to Chasteen’s Grove on the Big Thompson River where we stood on the dam and jumped off the falls into a rock-lined pool that one of the guys promised didn’t have any hidden boulders under the surface. Luckily he was right, or at least we missed the hidden skull-busters and survived. Later, there were the reservoirs where we partied around campfires and skipped rocks and played music and danced in the moonlight. So much of all my summers revolve around water. Being a mountain boy, though, the river is still my favorite place to be. There is no place as beautiful and restful as the beaver-dammed headwaters of a glacier-fed stream at tree-line.

Last weekend, Marcia and I took the (probably) last hike of the summer. The sky was a piercing blue; the only cloud was a spider-web of moisture the size of a quarter at arm’s length. The river at the trailhead was talking fast as it ran with the melted snow of two nights before—clear and clean. I filled my filter bottle from a small cascade that gurgled into a pool almost big enough for a grown man to sit in after a hot hike. I filed that fact away for later, and took a deep breath of the smell of the water. Icy fresh with a hint of river willow and wet dust. You’d think that there is no water purer than this, yet it’s not the drinkable mountain water of my youth. Giardia – a nasty little anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasite that is carried by Rocky Mountain Goats who, like the littler kids in the pool don’t bother with finding an outhouse up on the high snowy peaks – poisons the water for humans. I was glad I had my water purifier because this is the best-tasting water in the world with or without the flagellated parasites. It’s a leap of faith that my purifier will screen out 99.94% of viruses in the water which means that bacteria stoppage should be even higher. Taking that leap with barely a thought, I drink deeply.

We drank deeply of the day. Hiking a thousand feet and enjoying the lung-popping exercise and the breath-taking view. The sun at 12,000 feet feels amazingly good, even though I know it’s a melanoma waiting for a breach in my sun-screen. As we stopped to catch our breath for about the twentieth time, we marveled that it had been almost 20 years (and 20 pounds) since we last trekked this path with a family group of about 20 people. The trail was dusty except where it crossed a couple of snow-melt seeps—each one bringing that mountain-river smell and lowering my stress level another 38 degrees – coincidentally about the temperature of the water that flows fresh off the snow fields. Life is often breathless and tiresome; it is often dusty and rocky and steep. But it seems to me that life is good by the water.

The pool closed last week – kept open late this year by the record-breaking heat of this long, hot summer. That heat is now fading into nights cool enough to warrant an extra blanket on the bed as we are not ready yet to sleep with the windows closed. The world turns and the cycle moves on. The snows that will eventually feed my rivers are only weeks away from starting to pile on the slopes and fill the high valleys. Ethan and Cade say that they are going to learn to snowboard this winter! So, when the boys of summer are gone, the boys of winter will be riding and schussing the slopes of Loveland Basin and that will bring on a whole other set of memories for this mountain boy…

Author’s note: in researching Giardia, I discovered that I am still another week away from being sure that the little critters didn’t adhere to my stomach lining and are biding their time as they gather their forces; waiting to send me on a 2-week crash diet characterized by gut-wrenching vomiting and explosive diarrhea.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What I was; Who I am; Where I will be…

After a 35-year disappearance, Ron Bates called me a couple of weeks ago. We caught up briefly by phone and then he said he was coming my way; could he stop by on his journey? I told him that I’d been trying to find him for over 20 years – of course he could! He could spend the night and we’d catch up on the years between us. Ron had been my hippy “bud” during five of my wildest young-adult years – my best friend in between my childhood best friend, Alan, and my grown-up best friend, Marcia. Five years of sharing hot-boxed cigarettes behind the school, jumping off waterfalls in the Big Thompson Canyon, chasing every pretty girl we saw, shopping trips to “The Hill” in Boulder, and “stomping” up the sides of mountains in our s---kickers as fast as we could with no regard for obstacles in the way (the goal was a straight line from bottom to top.) Five years living high on life and youth and relatively harmless, but nevertheless illegal, substances. We weren’t thugs – in fact, we were pretty good guys, but we weren’t the kind of guys that stern fathers wanted their sons and daughters hanging out with. “trouble” with a lower-case “t”. We hung with Chicano friends – a politically-correct term in the 70’s. To our amigos, he was Ron Romero; I was Ron Rodriguez, though we never learned to speak Spanish beyond a few choice epithets. Aye Chingao!

He was at the house when I got home; waiting for me in a beat-up pickup that somehow made me feel embarrassed that my pickup was in better shape. We shared a long, almost-comfortable masculine embrace while we laughed and gee-whizzed and slapped each other on the back. We’re grown men now – he more grizzled; me heavier. He’s got dentures; I’ve got the Gout. Two “buds” that have given up both the bud and the Budweisers. He’d been married for a brief 3-year stint; I’d married my best friend and lived happily ever after in middle-class suburbia bliss. He lived off the grid in a cabin with no utilities. I bought a house and contributed to a 401k. He moved from job to job and eventually became a farrier to rich ladies with pampered horses. I took a job washing dishes, ended up in restaurant management and spent pretty much my whole career with one company climbing the corporate ladder. We spent the evening mis-remembering the good ol’ days – telling embellished stories of the time that had passed, and explaining the choices that had led us to our current contrary places in a world we once shared.

They say that there are an infinite number of universes existing side by side, branching off with each of the myriad choices that every man makes throughout his life. In one of those universes, Nixon didn’t end the draft and I made good on my threat to flee to Canada and take my low lottery number with me. In that universe, Ron Romero and I are living with the Inuit – eating blubber and rubbing noses with our native wives under the Northern Lights. In another, Ron wasn’t chased off by the parents of his soul mate – a good friend of my soul mate – and we grow old together on Wisteria Lane while our kids became the kind of best buds that we were for those few carefree years.

Seeing the divergent roads that Romero & I took got me to thinking of the choices I’ve made, the different universes I’ve inhabited along the way and where my choices will eventually take me – what I was; who I am; where I will be…

What I was, was the classic “second child” in a stable and strict family with strong Christian values and two brothers and two sisters and an extended village of cousins and aunts and uncles who loved me and were loved in return. Future issues were only hinted at when I explained to my Mom at an early age, as I drenched my potatoes with ketchup, “I like too much.” Ketchup wasn’t the problem; “too much” was. While I was a loving kid, I was an insolent teen and a rebellious adult whose penchant for “too much” extended to most of my choices. I worked too much, I played too much, I drank too much, I ate too much. I went too far a lot of times. I was a teenage hippy with disdain for “the System” and mistrust for anyone over 30. I didn’t care too much for school; it wasn’t all about me. First I was kicked out; then I dropped out. I was a self-indulgent thrill-seeker who didn’t pay near enough attention to other people and way too much attention to my own little universe. I subscribed to the 60’s maxim: if it feels good, do it.

Thankfully, I do believe that people can change and marrying my best friend was surely the catalyst for mine. Who I am now is a more mature and conventional adaptation of that younger self. Still prone to be a bit rebellious and to lean toward indulging “too much,” but far more prone to figuratively push the plate away. I still take some hedonistic pleasures, though they are more socially acceptable and along the lines of a good cup of coffee, a bowl of Breyer’s natural vanilla, a Stephen King novel, and an early bedtime. I take more pleasure now in other people and their happiness, although I still sometimes act like I’m king of the world. My rise through the kitchens shaped my belief that hard work is the road to success and that searching for either a handout or the “one big deal” is a sure way to spend your life in disappointment and dissatisfaction. I believe I have a duty to share and to teach whatever small tidbits of wisdom I’ve picked up along the way with those that want to be taught. I believe in the power of words to shape reality so I try to be careful about what I say but this is definitely a work in progress. I believe in the sanctity of all life and in showing respect to the world around me, but also believe that Mother Nature is well-equipped to take care of herself in the end, thank-you very much.

As I’ve aged, I believe that the choices I make now are going to dictate where I’ll be in my dotage, and hope that the poor choices I made in another branch of my life don’t figure in too prominently. We live in exciting times. I HATE exciting times. Exciting just means that too many things can go wrong and you never know who’s in charge of that universe-branching. Give me bland and predictable any day. I want to know that my retirement funds will grow. I want to know that I’ll live a healthy, long life surrounded by people I love, but not worry that I’ll outlive my bank account. I want to know where my next meal is coming from. I don’t want to wonder if I should stock up on canned foods and batteries, or if I should buy gold and guns to prepare for the apocalypse. My risk-taking days are behind me. I want to know where the future will take me. I want some surety in my life, but in Exciting Times like these, a sure thing is a rare commodity. I’m pretty sure that it is this human desire to have things work out and the uncertainty that they might not that has given rise to the belief in the Karmic nature of things. We can’t control the future; only the present. So we hope that if we live right today, that tomorrow will pay us back with kindness.

So then, this is the philosophy that I hope will take me to where I’d like to be going—to a happy place, if bland & predictable, where grandkids will ride on my back and beg me to tell them another story; where the “imminent” apocalypse fades away with Glenn Beck and his doomsayer TV show; where the loaves and fishes don’t run out before my time does.

First, I’ll do no harm. I will walk my trail without stepping on others, be they human or animal. I will leave the flower unpicked so that others can smell it and it can spread its seed for future generations to enjoy. Second, I’ll do some good where I can. I’ll give to my favorite charities, even though I know that by giving to one, I’ll end up on eleven more mailing lists. I can’t save the world, but I can help save that fly-covered kid pictured in the junk mail with my name spelled wrong. I’ll be a peacemaker when the tension is high. I’ll teach someone something that will make their road smoother. Third, I’ll love as I’d like to be loved. I’ll try to live the Golden Rule. I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt and try not to judge, lest I be judged and be found wanting. I’ll love my wife, and my family, and their friends, and the people I work with, and tolerate – and even enjoy – the people I see on the streets and at the airport and in the malls and the restaurants.

And finally, I’ll cross my fingers and think positively. I’ll believe that things will always be better; that people will mostly do the right thing; that there’s a light at the end of every tunnel; that love will win out. I’ll believe that wherever I’m going, it’ll be a fabulous journey and a worthy destination. I’ll live my life thinking that every person is special; every place is special; every event is special…as it is.

That special place is where I will be.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Heading Home on the High Plains Highway

Nothing very romantic about being a road warrior. 8 days on the road, living out of a suitcase might sound like an adventure, but the thrill is soon gone. The reality is unpacking in a different hotel every night, trying to turn a sterile (you hope) cubicle into something you can call home for about 7 hours before you pack it all away again. It’s a 12-hour shift sandwiched between a 100-mile drive and a late-night taco before stripping off the you-don’t-want-to-think-about-it bedspread from the sagging mattress that was someone else’s home last night. It all makes a man want to get home. In a hurry. Luckily the work is fun and rewarding and, sometimes, the scenery in between is more than worth the drive.

The work is done and I’m heading home on Highway 81 south out of western Nebraska. It’s a long lonesome highway that morphs into Highway 23 that will take me west into Colorful Colorado. Two lanes of blacktop that lead across the border into Holyoke, Colorado where the speed limit is 60mph but the actual minimum speed is 75 for any vehicle not built to drive between rows of corn.

The road out of North Platte (home of the world’s largest railyard) climbs imperceptibly but steadily towards the high plains of eastern Colorado. Once in the Centennial State, I begin to feel an urgency, like a horse on a long ride that smells water, and I have to fight to keep my right foot from turning into a lead anvil. The air is noticeably thinner, drier and clearer as my eyes are drawn to the sights along the road of my home state. I could go straight west from here and catch I-76 into Denver, but I decide to take the road less traveled and turn south onto 385 – the “High Plains Highway.” Here’s what I saw.

After passing “Blisties” – a curiously-named and as-yet-unexplored roadhouse on the edge of Holyoke, with a flashing neon martini glass that is still lit up in the early morning – it’s a wide open road. 385 is a straight ribbon of macadam where the only traffic is tractors, Ford F-350’s, a few overloaded 18-wheelers sneaking around the weigh stations and me. It’s a road that invites you to break the speed limit if not the sound barrier. A lone buzzard dips his wings in a salute – circling the road ahead as if he’s anticipating my role in an upcoming road-kill incident, but I don’t prep lunch for him today and he soon passes behind me.

Eastern Colorado – the corn is shorter here. So short it droops in shame, perhaps sensing I am judging its growth against the Iowa and Nebraska standards where it’s already above your knees and will be “thigh high by the 4th of July.” Although it’s good to be back in Colorado, the only mountains in sight are on the license plates of passing cars. The High Plains Highway heads straight south, not west, so there won’t be any snow-capped peaks in view for hours. The only hint that you’re not in Kansas anymore is the drier air and a subtle change in the flora. The hills are covered with the familiar tall grass, sage brush and yuccas of home. In mid-June, the yuccas are in full bloom; their banana-like stems of pale yellow-green flowers are the tallest plants on the plains.

Crossing into Yuma County is like bursting onto a moonscape. Small, but bumpity hills of desert brush hint of a different local government as the road turns uneven and is not so well-maintained. The rough road is now noticeably climbing, slowly but inexorably, and finally crests onto the high plains. Prairie grasses that no plow has ever turned over dominate the scenery for miles and miles. The occasional farm struggles to tame the grass, cactus and scrub. Irrigation ditches hand-dug by some long-dead homesteader divert water from a distant river to grow the trees that are so foreign to this biosphere; deep wells feed circular sprinklers so big it takes tractors to move them, creating an oasis that is dependent on ever-contested water rights to survive.

Going south, the air gets hotter and the crops become more varied and grow taller. Although the high plains are almost treeless, it’s very green here. There’s more rain here. It’s far enough from the mountains that the clouds that disperse over the Continental Divide have had time to regroup & coalesce into towering thunderclouds. The storms come almost daily in the summer, dropping the life-giving moisture that passed over the semi-arid Front Range along the Denver metro corridor. It’s a land that’s well-acquainted with hail and tornados (though there’s not a trailer park in sight!)

The road bends East and my stomach flip-flops as I worry about getting home on time. I’ve been away for a week, working my way along the Platte River through Nebraska and though I’m enjoying the drive, I don’t want it to be any longer than it’s already going to be. As we say when hiking a trail, you hate to give up the higher ground, or in this case, the western ground. I yearn to get home – see my baby; breathe the cool, clean, thin air and sit in the shade of trees I’ve planted myself.

A ring of cottonwoods on the side of hill makes me wonder about the ranch they must at one time have sheltered but have now outlived and outlasted. There is no evidence of that civilized past – not even a crumbling foundation, yet there is no way they would grow on this dry hillside without human help. What happened to the people? What happened to the house? Another mile and Prickly Poppies dominate a field supervised by a racing windmill, endlessly pumping water for a dozen angus heifers just chillin’ in the mud.

The road drops precipitously off a ridge into a valley that begat Wray, elevation 3516. I’ve climbed half way from the lowlands of Nebraska to the Mile High City. I take the bypass around Wray and then regret my hurry on the other side when my bladder inquires if there are any rest stops on this lonesome road. There isn’t. But, an uncomfortable 20 miles farther along there’s a turnout with a couple half-dead trees that offer enough privacy for a deserted road like this, and soon I’m lighter and on my way. The road bends west and I strain my eyes looking for the mountains, though I know they are still an hour or more away. A dry stream bed turns into an unexpected canyon with a herd of future steaks lying in the shade of the only trees for miles around. It’s an alien garden of Eden for a half mile – a paradise that these cows deserve given their inevitable fate; then the open plains exert themselves again. The trees are gone and grasshopper oil pumps are the only things that rise above waste level into the sky around here.

An elaborate windbreak hints of high winds and snowdrifts across the road in another season. A full mile of three parallel rows of pines accentuates the otherwise flat countryside. At 60 mph, there are only venetian-blind glimpses of the sprawling complex behind the trees and my mind takes a brief flight of fancy to imagine some horrible Jonestown cult, a serial killer’s hideout, or an evil doctor’s lair. But, when the gleaming white farmhouse pops into view, the horror fantasies melt into the Petticoat Junction reality.

Full road replacement work in the middle of nowhere brings a mild curse to my lips. But I’ve got luck on my side as the one-way escort vehicle starts the 3-car parade going my direction right when I pull up to the sun-burned, Camel-smoking flag girl, who cautiously turns the STOP sign she’s holding to show me the side that warns SLOW. The pilot car leads us through 5 miles of brand new, but one lane and painfully slow highway. Past the construction the blacktop is pot-holed and wash-boarded and a big sign proudly proclaims its ultimate repair thanks to the debt-inducing, but jobs-creating, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Yay big government!?

The next stop sign I hit is Highway 36, a direct route to northern Denver. I decide to keep going south, thinking I’ll head west when I hit I-70 in 30 miles. But I see another flag girl with a stop sign almost immediately. I’m not so lucky at this new stretch of construction, and I’m stopped for way too long. Frustrated, I finally turn around and head back north to jump on 36 towards the mountains. I love the sight-seeing and the freedom of the road less-traveled, but I’ve been driving for 4 hours now with only my thoughts and XM-Radio comedians to keep me company (and awake) and I’m ready to get home. Highway 36 is smooth. Easy to go fast and I catch myself going 80 before I set the cruise control, knowing that a main road brings an easier ride, but also an easier ticket.

There’s a wide spot in the road called “Joe’s.” Judging by the huge Baptist church and cemetery, the Bible store and the marquee advertising nightly prayer meetings, this must indeed be a born-again, God-fearing town. Even the wrecker service is named “Church Towing.” Yet, the only other visible business in town is “Joe’s Liquor Store.” Not sure if that’s a hypocrisy or a necessity.

Yellow Honey-clover stretches along the road for miles. I roll down my window and hang my head out the window, inhaling the scent, my nostrils flaring like a dog. I can hear the bees above the whine of the tires and the growl of the wind. The smell of honey and summer weeds makes my mouth water and my eyes mist over. An entire hillside of yellow stretches to the horizon. It’s everywhere! It’s a weed of course, but it smells like heaven.

An abandoned clapboard farmhouse on a hill makes me wish there was a pull-out so I could take a picture. With all its windows missing, I can see straight through it, the peeling-paint frames highlight the sunlit fields beyond. And then it’s gone. I crest a hill and look in all directions – only one tree as far as I can see, but the green grasses and yellow clover create an amazing lushness to the landscape.

At Bennett, the 2-lane turns to 4-lane and the outline of the mountains come into view. The sight of the Front Range always gives me a thrill. Almost there! The rest of the trip is a combination of interstates and rush-hour traffic and a couple of wind-up-business cell phone calls now that I have reliable service, and the last 50 miles go by quickly.

As I exit off I-25, I sing the words to an old favorite Simon & Garfunkle song. “Home – with my thoughts escaping. Home – where my music’s playing. Home – where my love lies waiting silently for me.” The drive is over. The work week’s done. My beautiful wife pulls into the garage right in front of me. Perfect timing.

I’m home. That’s all that matters.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

We Should’ve Turned Back - The Devil's Thumb Debacle

One of the things that make living in Denver so special is looking west every day and seeing the backbone of the continent rising into the air. The “purple mountain’s majesty above the fruited plains” was written specifically about the snow-capped peaks I get to look at every day. From my house, I can see all the way from Longs Peak on the north end to Pikes Peak on the southern end of a chain of high mountains called the Front Range. 100 miles of eye-popping, jaw-dropping, testicle-flipping peaks of 13,000 feet or more that on a clear, windy day seem to be just out of arm’s reach.

In winter, the sight of that snow-covered line sandwiched between the indigo foothills below and the sapphire skies above can stop you dead in your tracks to just gaze in wonder and pleasure. “Surely, ‘tis a privilege to live in Colorado,” we often say, and not lightly but because we really mean it. The people who live along the populous eastern “downslope” side of the Front Range are reminded of the blessing every day and most of us count that blessing multiple times over 300 times a year – every day the sun shines!

Between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park runs a string of the craggiest mountains on the Front Range called the Indian Peaks. For about 30 miles, the Continental Divide runs along the tops of the Indian Peaks. All the snow that falls on the West side of these mountains ends up in the Colorado River and eventually ends up in the Pacific Ocean (although that is only after Los Angeles sucks it completely dry and then pees it out and the sewers empty it into the ocean. The river itself, mighty as it is through the Grand Canyon, never makes it to the ocean, but disappears into the California Baja desert.) All the snow on the Eastern side ends up in the Gulf of Mexico where it just might wash away the oil spill – although it will probably take a couple millennia.

My brother-in-law, John, and I were looking at that Divide one day from his porch on Twin Sisters and decided we had to cross it on foot – because it is there. And thus, a dream was born; and soon a plan was hatched to go Over-the-Top and stand on the Indian Peaks with one foot in each continental watershed. So, in the summer of 2004, we made our first assault on the Divide, hiking up Glacier Basin to Thunder Lake in the shadow of the high pass where there was (supposedly) a trail Over-the-Top. Alas, there was no trail; just 40 stories of broken scree going up from the lake. We studied the scree field through our binoculars, trying to suss out the path that would accommodate our old knees and 50 lb. packs. After a few half-hearted forays, we decided that discretion was the better part of valor and turned back to hike the 9 miles to civilization – disappointed, but comfortable knowing that the journey was as rewarding as the destination, especially when you’re in God’s country.

Two years later, we decided to try it again. We left REI with lighter equipment and better maps. We decided on a different trail and felt confident that we would, on this sortie, stand on the Divide and shake our fists at the heavens. (After which, we’d drop to our knees and thank Heavens.) The route we chose was the Devil’s Thumb trail. We would camp overnight at Devil’s Thumb Lake and then hike Over-the-Top the second day and loop back around to return. Easy peas-y, lemon squeeze-y. Only it wasn’t. The Devil wasn’t going to show us his thumb; he had in mind a different digit to show us…

John and I rendezvoused in the hippie mountain town of Nederland – home of the Frozen Dead Guy and most of the people east of the Continental Divide who still drop acid on a semi-regular basis. We had a fabulous breakfast at a dirty little hippie café and then car-pooled to the trail head where it began to rain. Again. I should mention that after a completely dry June that year, this first weekend in July had brought rain to the Front Range. It had rained all night but we weren’t afraid. We’d been to REI. We had all the right equipment. Right? Right!


We should’ve turned back when we found we had to park 2 miles away from the trailhead because the road to the trailhead was under water. Multiple FEET of water. But, it was barely drizzling; just a fine mist and we are men, not wussies. Stupid men, to be sure – because we believed we were NOT going to be denied our goal because of a little H-2-0. You’d think a couple of born-and-raised mountain boys would know that if it is drizzling at the 9,000 foot trailhead, it could easily be snowing at our 11,000 foot camp site, even on the 4th of July. But, hyped-up testosterone combined with an over-stimulated Pollyanna complex ruled our pre-frontal cortexes that day, ruling out any chance of making a responsible decision, so we shouldered our packs and headed up the trail. At least we wouldn’t be sweating much that day. Figuratively maybe, but not literally.

The rain kept getting worse so about a mile in we stopped and I threw my Bronco’s rain poncho over my head and draped it over my pack. John had worn his rain gear, so he didn’t worry about covering his back pack. This would turn out to be extraordinarily poor judgment. The temperature was about 50 degrees. Yet, we didn’t even think about turning back.

It was a beautiful trail, lush with the kind of water-drenched foliage you don’t often see on the drier Eastern slope of the Rockies. The trail was in full bloom with vistas of green to drink in and wild raspberries to eat up. (Our post-climb research would reveal that the Devil’s Thumb trail is a natural moisture alley, funneling the clouds down this valley that get broken up by the high peaks elsewhere on the Front Range.) So, while we marveled at the flora and marched happily forward, the rain started to find the nooks and crannies of our clothes and packs and equipment. The trail was so overgrown with amazing greenery that a machete would have come in handy and we were constantly pushing our way through the soaked underbrush. Our shirtsleeves and pants legs started to soak up the water. The rocky path alternated between being a trail spotted with puddles to being a rushing stream disguised as a trail. Water-proofed boots and jackets and ponchos were no match for this five-sided deluge.

We should have turned back about two hours later when I noticed my socks were squishing and realized that my pants were wet to my hip and my shirt sleeves were wet to my shoulders. But I was wearing a poncho! How could this be? The answer soaked in… It was so wet all around that our clothes were acting like a $20 Sham-Wow, sponging up water from the boot-tops up.

It was getting fairly uncomfortable when we stopped for lunch. With no dry place to sit, we were standing under a giant Douglas Fir munching on trail mix and dried fruit when a group of high school girls and their chaperone came slogging down the trail. They stopped long enough to tell us of their cold night in the snow and marvel at how tough & brave we were to be heading into the jaws of the Devil. When they told us about the snow, I remember thinking briefly that our plan had gone awry. But, then they had to compliment our toughness, and we were doomed again by testosterone and hubris, and were soon repacked and headed up the trail. The rain continued. The temperature was now in the 40’s. We should’ve turned back

We got to Devil’s Thumb Lake about 3:00 amid driving rain and a wind angry enough to rip the ropes out of our frozen hands as we tried to string a tarp in the trees to create some kind of livable space under which to pitch our tents. 30 minutes later, we were pitched and crawling into our tents to get out of the rain and dry out for the first time in 6 hours. Backpack tents are small, so it’s a yogic challenge to unpack, undress, and re-fit while trying to not let your soaked stuff touch your dry stuff to prevent further Sham-wow effects. I had just gotten un-pretzled and was relaxing for a minute – somewhat dry, finally – when I heard John yelling from his tent through the drumming of the rain & corn snow on the tarp above us, “G-&)^($* it!!! $onuva%^#*$##@!!!!! M---$%*F($&#^.”

John doesn’t cuss much, so I worriedly shouted back, “What’s wrong?”

Through the blue haze of the f- & s-bombs and the noise of the wind & rain, John got out an occasional coherent and printable word that made me understand that his rain gear (better than mine at keeping HIM dry) did nothing to keep his pack dry (as my poncho had) and his sleeping bag was soaked. Not a good deal when we were expecting the temps to dip near the freezing mark within a few hours. Luckily, I had a brought a small fleece blanket and had a foil space blanket in my emergency kit, and I talked him back in off the ledge by convincing him they would probably get him through the night if he wore all his clothes.

We should’ve turned back and left right then, but instead we decided to brew a cup of coffee and then start the process of making dinner. During a lull in the downpour, John grabbed a jug and headed to the lake for water. I busied myself getting my pack stove fired up and finally got a little tired of waiting for John to return with water. I mean, the lake was RIGHT THERE! So I grabbed my stove pot and headed off to get my own water.

I met John halfway down the trail. Somehow, he looked even more bedraggled and – could it be? – wetter than he had before. I didn’t get a chance to ask him why it took so long as the mystery was revealed when he blurted it, “I fell in the %@#$-ing lake!” The soft dirt around the lake, soaked as it was, had crumbled on his approach, sending him slip-sliding into the icy snow melt of Devil’s Thumb Lake and drenching his only dry clothes. Now we knew that we really should’ve turned back a long time ago.

I looked at John, shivering and dripping as we walked back to camp. “The way I see it,” I said, “you’ll never be warm enough all night without dry clothes. So, we only have one choice since I’m not willing to go all Brokeback Mountain to keep you warm. We have to break camp and head home.” (I should explain here that building a fire was not an option. Even without the wilderness fire ban, there wasn’t a stick of dry wood between here and the Wyoming border.)

John laughed a little and said, “At least the exertion of hiking down will keep us warmer than sitting here in the cold.”

“Let’s get crackin’ then,” I said, “it’s 4:00 and it’ll be dark in 4 hours. If we bust it, we MIGHT get down in four-and-a-half. You got a flashlight?”

We both did, but we were both hoping not to have to use them – at least not for too long. We broke camp as fast as our shivering, stiff-with-the-cold hands could unknot the ropes and stakes. Rolling up wet tents and tarps and stuffing our wet things into our carefully measured and weighed backpacks, we realized that we’d be carrying quite a bit of extra water weight all the way back down. But, up against the impending sunset, there was no time to waste on niceties, so the water got stuffed into the backpacks too.

A half hour later we were on the trail, moving as fast as our water-logged packs and tired feet would allow us. Half jogging when the trail was smooth and relatively level; picking our way carefully along slick rocks when it wasn’t; slogging through trail torrents above our ankles, we hustled down the mountain. There was no time, or energy, for chit-chat. We were solely focused on the goal of making it to the truck by dark. The only sounds were the rain, the click of our walking sticks on the rocky path, and an occasional grunt or moan or yelp as we struggled to remain upright in our panicky haste.

The last mile was navigated more slowly as it was negotiated by flashlight. We found the truck about an hour past sunset and tossed our packs in the trunk. We climbed in, turned the heater on to the nuclear blast setting and sat for a minute in the dark with the rain thudding on the roof and our hearts beating loud in our ears. Soaked and sore, tired and borderline hypothermic, we sat in silence while we waited for the heater to clear the foggy windows.

When we could finally see out the windows, I slipped the truck into gear and started off down the muddy road to Nederland. “Let’s go home,” I said.

“Yep, we should’ve turned back,” said John. “A long time ago.”

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Happy Trails!

“Happy Trails!” That’s my standard salutation to fellow hikers on the Colorado trails that I call my back yard. Like “Aloha,” it can mean hello, or goodbye, or even be an easy answer to questions like, “How ya doin’?” or “How’s it goin’?” Though hokey, it seems to be universally understood by the brotherhood of strangers you meet on a high mountain trail. And, since the lack of oxygen above, say 12,000 feet, strips away the need, if not the ability, for verbosity, “Happy Trails,” is the perfect greeting.

There is no place on earth that can stir my soul like the tundra high above tree line in the Rockies. The vistas inspire and humble me. The wildflowers, so delicate, yet so strong to withstand the harsh environment, are beautiful. The crisp, thin air can bite and invigorate. The sun at this altitude can burn before it warms. You can feel both mighty and insignificant, and if you pay attention, you can feel god’s presence.

There are fifty-four 14,000 feet-or-higher peaks in Colorado. I’ve made it – sometimes barely and always breathlessly – to the top of 17 of these goddesses. I’ve only aborted two climbs out of the 19 I’ve attempted. But that’s not because I’m good; it’s because I’ve been lucky. Lately, I’ve been thinking about those treks and what I’ve seen on those happy trails.

I met a woman recently who had just climbed her first 14’er. As we talked about her conquest, she asked me which 14’er is my favorite and that got me to thinking. It’s easy to say that the Colorado Rockies is my favorite place on earth, but I’m hard pressed to name a favorite peak. My first 14’er was Longs Peak. By far the hardest peak I’ve partnered with. (I’m not sure you can really say you’ve conquered a high mountain.) If you respect her and treat her right, she might allow you to spread your arms when you’ve reached the top and shout, “I’m king of the world!” She just as likely might NOT let you feel like the king of the world. She might turn your ankle, or shut you down with a bout of altitude sickness, or call her friend, Thor, to chase you off her slopes or even kill you because you were too foolish to obey The Rule: summit by noon or risk the ubiquitous afternoon storm clouds and the lightning that is way too close for comfort.

Longs Peak (no, there is no apostrophe – that is the crux of this biscuit*) is the most noticeable and most dramatic of the 14’ers on the Front Range. 25 miles straight west of my hometown, It is also the hardest and most dangerous to climb – a infamous boulder field that breaks legs; a scree slide where your only warning of potential melon-mashers are the cries of “Rock” from the climbers above you; and finally, the Home Stretch – a hundred foot slab of rock on a 60 degree pitch that is fitted with fixed cables for safety because a slip on this slab would send you sliding a thousand feet to the rocks below. Seven grueling miles and over a mile in elevation gain, it is the jewel of Rocky Mountain National Park and the most popular 14’er. But my favorite part of this trek isn’t the football-field sized summit; it’s the Goblin Forest. If you start hiking at 4:00 AM, (typical start time to be able to watch Thor’s show from a safe distance as you descend,) you’ll reach the Goblin Forest at about sunrise. The forest is a stand of Bristlecone Pines just below tree line. These amazing trees are some of the oldest living things on earth. As bent and gnarled as Yoda, they have survived the thin air and deep snows of thousands of winters. I could easily spend the day hanging out with the Goblins and Krummholtz, but the summit beckons.

Two of my most memorable climbs were actually aborted attempts at reaching 2 summits in one day. Grays and Torreys are twin peaks that are often bagged in one day by the ambitious trekker. In the early years of my love affair with the high peaks, Stan, Roger, Lisa and I thought we would bag all 54 peaks, so bagging two in one day was our preferred method to reaching the final goal. Our Grays & Torreys attempt started out as a family affair, with something like 15 people – kids and cousins and brothers and sisters and grandpa and grandma – the youngest was 7; the oldest was 70. Needless to say, not everyone made it to the top. Dropping off in twos and threes, the crowd thinned out like the pines at tree line. Roger and Stan, (aka the mountain goat,) and a few others forged on ahead to bag Grays quickly so that the bridge to Torreys could be attacked before it got too late. My Dad – 68 at the time – and I kept plodding on, determined to get at least one peak that day.

The going gets slow when you get past 12,000 feet. For many people, there is about as much time spent resting your thighs and filling your depleted lungs as there is climbing. Dad and I were “enjoying” such a rest when our lack of large party size was rewarded with the appearance of the local (though non-native) wildlife – Rocky Mountain Goats begging for handouts and coming so close we could pet their shaggy hair. I'll never forget the sound of the snuffling beasts as they crowded around us, nibbling at tundra and licking the lichen off the surrounding boulders – tolerating our invasion of their space. We let them think we might feed them something so we could enjoy their company for a while. Once they figured out we weren’t carrying treats, they leapt off, rock to rock, on hooves so soft they were not only sure-footed, but almost silent. After the circus left town, Dad & I trudged on to the top where we watched the others summit Torrey’s through binoculars. We signed the ledger at the top, slapped each other on the back and headed down to join the rest of the family who were waiting for us by the cars four miles away.

My other most memorable climb was with John Roehl. John is my brother-in-law who lives in a cabin his grandfather built in 1913 on Twin Sister’s Mountain across the valley from Longs Peak. He’s older than me, but we’re like twin sons of different mothers. He was with me on my first climb (Longs) and was with me on my last climb (to date). John & I have a habit of biting off more than we can chew. Twice we’ve been thwarted in overnight attempts to hike across the continental divide over the Indian Peaks – but those are stories for another time.

We decided to climb the twin peaks of Belford and Oxford a few years back. Our plan was to carry full packs up the first 2 miles of the trail to tree-line. There, we would camp out and then bag the two peaks the next day, come back to our tents, break camp and head down. That way we’d be free of our 48 lb. packs (yes, we weighed them and believe me, every ounce counts) for the toughest part of the climb. The weather was perfect, the trail was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever trekked, but we were doomed from the start. I had not properly broken in my new boots and John was fighting pinched nerves in both feet. We stumbled into a perfect meadow at 11,500 and happily pitched our tents.

Nothing satisfies like campfire coffee – even if a real fire isn’t allowed and the only heat you have is a white-gas stove that will heat up about 2 cups of water at a time. We drank a lukewarm cup of coffee, (water boils at like 180 degrees at this altitude, so it doesn't stay hot long) munched on dried fruit and jerky and squirmed into our sleeping bags pretty much as soon as the sun went down, planning to hit the trail before sunrise for the meat of the climb. Tired as we were and with no alarm clocks (too much weight) we didn’t wake until daylight. In that high mountain valley, even in summer, sunrise doesn’t come until well past 7:00 and we knew we were behind schedule. So, after a hurried breakfast, we hit the trail up Mt. Belford.

Some 4 hours later, right about noon, we made the summit, tired and footsore and looked out over the saddle to Oxford. Only we couldn’t see Oxford. It was hidden by the massive thundercloud hanging halfway down its flanks. John looked at me. I looked at John. “Do we go for it?” I asked. “That was the plan,” said John. We watched the clouds roil another minute – or five. (Remember that I once dreamed of hiking all 54 14’ers and you’ll understand why John’s next question changed my hiking life forever.) That dream was several years and thousands of vertical feet ago and the blisters on my feet and the ache in my knees brought a clarity to my mind that is rare in the rarified air of the mountaintop. “Let me ask you this,” said John, “do you plan on climbing all 54 peaks in your lifetime?”

I had to really think hard about that. One part of me wanted to – still wants to. Another, more rational, more mature, more realistic part of me understands that while the mind is often willing, the body is too often weak. I looked at John. I looked at the clouds hanging around Oxford’s summit. I looked at my new boots. I looked back at the clouds. I looked at John again. “No,” I said, “I guess I probably won’t bag them all.”

“Then, do we need to risk the lightning for this one?” John asked.

I looked over at Oxford one more time. “Let’s go break camp and go home,” I said.

It was late afternoon when our battered feet brought us back to the truck. Tired, sore, and disappointed, but somehow closer through our shared failure and pain. Still, it was a good trip. We love the mountain and the trail and the camaraderie that comes from trekking the Happy Trails. Barefoot, I started the truck for the long drive home. We drove in exhausted silence for a few miles before John said what we both were thinking that day (and every day since,) “’tis a privilege to live in Colorado.”

“Happy Trails,” I replied.

*apologies to Frank Zappa

Friday, April 30, 2010

April Showers Bring.... um, Birthdays?

April is a busy month. Just jam-packed with fun things to do. It all starts with sprinkling itching powder in the wife’s bra on April Fool’s Day. (Do NOT take this as an endorsement, by the way, as you will not only have your testicles confiscated and placed in her purse for safe keeping, but you probably also be banished outside to plant the flowers that bring the showers and bloom in May.) Good Friday and Easter usually fall in April (fish to fry and bonnets to buy); then you have to pay the taxman (“Should 5% appear too small, be thankful I don’t take it all…”). After sending your check to the IRS (Incomprehensible Rip-off System), you might feel like using your tax headache as an excuse to obtain a medical marijuana card and head downtown to join the smoke-in on the capital steps at 4:20 on 4/20. Passing around the peace pipe with a bunch of aging hippies might get you in the mood to hug a tree and bicycle to work on Earth Day. Of course, 30 miles on a bike isn’t as comfy on the 56-year old butt as it used to be and you could end up sitting on an icepack for the rest of the month while you contemplate how you missed celebrating Jefferson’s birthday, World Penguin Day, John Muir Day, Paul Revere Day, Librarian Day, Rubber Eraser Day, and ASPCA day. Once your tush heals, you can finish up the month by wearing a kilt (National Tartan Day) while you plant a tree on Arbor Day. (I do, however, advise against CLIMBING a tree with said kilt on.)

Whew – and right around the corner is the 8th of May!

But in our family, the day we celebrate is April 10th – National Sibling’s Day. Huh? With 5 kids in our family, birthdays can get a bit repetitious – especially as you get older and don’t really want to “celebrate” another grain of sand falling to the wrong side of the hourglass. So, this is the day that we gather to celebrate our birthdays – all of which fall between March 31 and April 30; all 2 years apart except for our littlest brother who came a year later (apparently my parents’ rhythm method must have been a bit syncopated back in 1960.) Honestly, this birthdays-in-a-batch works out pretty well. We’re lucky to get them all over in one swell foop. We consider ourselves a lucky family in other ways, too – we actually like each other and get along; we’re all a bit goofy and have a sense-of-humor approach to life (see “swell foop” comment); we all love each other and have extended families that do too.

So, today, I write about my siblings because I wouldn’t be who I am without them – I’d probably be richer and smarter and more well-adjusted. Or not. My brothers and sisters have had a huge influence on the person I’ve come to be. The fighting & biting, the loving and shoving, the caring, the sharing, the self baby-sitting and the hand-me-downs all added another brick in my wall of self.

Stanley Richard was the first-born – stupidly intelligent and always the leader – especially when we climb a 14’er. On the trail, we call him the Mountain Goat because he is always out front, setting the pace as if he alone is getting enough oxygen at 12,000 feet above sea level. It’s like, “Slow down and smell the Columbines, dude. We’re dying back here!” At the family gatherings, he whips us at trivia or Scrabble or any other parlor game that requires a brain. Stan taught me how to play chess when I was something like 10 years old. Picture Bobby Fischer playing Erkel – I didn’t stand a chance. He introduced me to the innocence of the Beatles and the risqué-ness of “Louie Louie” and “G-L-O-R-I-A.” He picked on me and made me cry. I pestered him and made of nuisance of myself when he was hanging with his older friends. We played mumbly-pegs and Indian Wrestled on the lawn (I wonder what that’s called now in the age of PC.) We road our bikes to the pool and ogled the lifeguards and tried to get them to notice us by splashing them. His specialty was the “can-opener” and mine was the “cannonball.” KER-PLUNK-KER-SPLASH! “ Did you see me get Suzie all wet? She yelled at me! I think she likes me!” Sh-yeah; right! His nickname in high school was Cush and I was insanely proud as a freshman when the upperclassmen dubbed me “Little Cush.” He taught me how to ride a bike and then passed his paper route down to me. Later, we rode motorcycles together and fussed about our helmet-hair. Now, we talk sports and grandkids and cars and assorted old-man aches and pains.

Janis Lynette was the first girl in the family – two years younger than me (but you knew that if you were paying attention.) She’s the lovey-dovey, gentle and kind, peacemaker and nurse-maid of the family. She called me “Nonald-deedee and Nonald-deedah” which makes absolutely no sense to me now and didn’t then either, but that’s how kids are. I teased her mercilessly and she would still want to sit by me while we were watching TV and put curlers in my hair. She hated green beans and got in big trouble for throwing them at the wall under the table where they stuck to the wood paneling (which now puzzles me as I ponder the physics of that – but I know it is true; I saw them on the wall – like caterpillars on a tree.) She collected all things piggish until her house started to look like a sty. Pig dolls, pigs on the wall, piggy banks and hog savings & loans; pig dishes, pig kitsches; all manner of swine-ish knick-knacks for a decade or so. Puzzlingly, she is known to all who love her, not as “Piggy,” but as “Buggy.” I know there is a reason for this, but it escapes me at the moment. My universe is full of mysteries. She loves a good mystery, by the way, especially the spooky ones by Stephen King. She is, no doubt, his #1 fan! Janis lives in Des Moines now where she grows a garden and sends me amazing tomatoes that taste like tomatoes ought to – juicy and sweet with a hint of the dirt that begat them; she sends jalapenos that have an effect similar to a roadside IED on the internal plumbing of mere mortals. Even my chili-hardened taste buds cry. She cries when she reads my blogs. (Her heart is so big, it has to be soft.)

Lisa Darlene is the other brainiac of the group. With a great sense of humor, she was always easy to amuse. I could make her roll on the floor giggling just by saying “par le voux” in a Frenchy, nasally tone. And I did it over and over and over. And when I got tired of amusing her, she’d beg for more, “Say ‘par le voux,’ say ‘par le voux,’ say ‘par le voux.’” Energetic and rambunctious, she talks so fast you need TiVo ears so you can back it up and replay the last 3 sentences. She’s an MD in Chicago and has always been the social butterfly – more friends than you can count; more dates on her calendar than days in the year; more after-school duties than the Octo-Mom. She’s always doing something, yet rarely has a plan to get it done until the very last minute. Like me, she is often late – usually because she tries to fit too much into each minute, especially the last ones. Just HAS to do that “one more thing.” Like me, she’s been known to say, “I like too much.” Lisa’s now a Stage Mom since her pride & joy boy, Chance, has become somewhat of a local celebrity playing the chocolate-loving Charlie and singing of golden tickets. If moms were ranked in a hierarchy based on the precociousness of their kids, she would be the Queen of the World!

My baby brother, Roger Alan, has become one of my best friends after I mainly ignored him for the first 20 or so years of his life. That’s gotta be tough when you’re looking to your older brother to be your friend or to at least not be your enemy. I didn’t MEAN to be mean to him, but looking back, I was pretty much a Dill-hole. I regret now that I wasn’t a better big brother to him as he grew up. He’s seven years younger than me, so, by the time he was looking for an older brother to hang with and mentor him, I was a snobby teen-ager too interested in being cool and having fun than being a good brother and friend. I was too self-absorbed to even know that I had shorted him all those years ago until a couple of years ago. I’m sorry for any pain I caused you, bro’. I was too dumb or too selfish (or even too brain-addled) to notice back then. I’m glad we’ve become close now as we’ve gotten older and our ages have gotten (relatively) closer. We ski, we climb, we 4WD, although still not often enough it seems. Roger, I think, is one of a kind, but is also kind of an amalgam of the rest of us. Like Stan, he’s a regular Mensa. Like me, he’s creative and hard working. Like Janis, he’s kind and generous. Like Lisa, he’s impulsive, and social. (And usually late.) Like himself, he’s a fabulous friend to all who know him.

So there you have it. The short version of the story of five kids, now grown up. (Next year we’ll ALL be in our fifties.) Five birthdays in April now over. Five different people joined forever by blood and bruises and laughter and love.

Happy Birthday to Us!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Be sure your sins will find you out…

My Mom was always able to tell when one of us kids was in trouble. But she wasn’t the kind of Mom that tried to catch you doing wrong. She didn’t need to. I believe her theory was that one way or another, sooner or later, whether it was her or my dad that found you out, or it was just the final come-uppance that you could count on from God, you could always be sure your sins would find you out!
And yet, I still tried to pull off the monkey-shines. There’s something in the teenage genome that made me believe I was invincible, impregnable, impervious to the consequences – and just a little too tricky for my parents to catch me. Armored by those teenage “defenses” and a really thick skull, I rode out to do battle against my parents’ wits, only to keep losing and being found out. I never seemed to learn. It never occurred to me that teenagers since the time of Cain & Abel have been trying to fool their parents, and there is little evidence that I should be more adept at this lost cause than any of my predecessors. I wonder if it isn’t true that half the fun of shenanigans comes from the fear of getting caught.

I skipped my last year of high school because my college of choice had a program where you could get in just by having enough (and the right kind of) credits. I did OK grade-wise in high school, but I kept getting kicked out (the Academy had some pretty strict rules, but the shenanigans were nobody’s fault but mine – I knew the rules.) So, I thought I would do well to by-pass the drama of getting kicked out in my senior year. In retrospect, I realize that I could have forgone the drama by just behaving myself. But that didn’t occur to me then, which proves that I probably wasn’t really ready for college as I was just too busy having fun. In fact, I was having a lot more fun than I was having study time. I did have a part-time job doing some sort of paperwork for the music department, but it was a breeze. Classes were pretty easy – I took almost exclusively music classes and didn’t even type my own papers. I left that chore to this cute blonde farmer’s daughter I had met for the first time the year before at Band Camp. (No, seriously! And then a couple years later we were married and talking about kids.)

When it came time for Thanksgiving break that first year, I told my folks that I was going to stay in Lincoln and work at school instead of coming home. I knew that if I came home for break, I’d be working for my old man with no time left over for fun and games – and that’s just not fair; not when you’re 17. So, once again, I tried to pull a fast one on Mom and Dad.

I didn’t work at my music job at college that week. Instead, four of us piled into Jack’s VW van and headed to Colorado to ski. The van was just barely reliable enough to make the trip with a lot of crossed fingers, and was sorely deficient in the heater department. It was freezing cold as we drove all night to get to Colorado. I remember that Dan and Suzie (the names might have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent) spent almost the entire trip to Boulder in a sleeping bag in the back of the van trying to stay warm. It must have worked because the van’s windows fogged up very badly. Jack & I stomped our feet and wished we had a couple sleeping bags in the front seats too so we could stay warm. Suzie offered to share theirs, but there wasn’t really room for three people in it and I could tell by the look in Dan’s eye that he wasn’t going anywhere.

As I recall, it was mostly a miserable trip, but we didn’t care – we were off on a fabulous adventure. Just a quartet of kinda-hippies living wild at the thought of having no one to tell us what to do. We got to Boulder on Tuesday and headed up to the Lake Eldora Ski area. Cheap, close and not so high in the mountains that we couldn’t survive a night or two in the drafty, cold van. My brand new, perfectly fitted skis were at home in my closet. Since I was not supposed to be within 500 miles of home, I rented skis that first day. Bet you can’t guess what happened next…

Second run; feeling good; high on life and skiing as fast and recklessly as you might expect from a kid with no one to tell him what to do. I low-bottomed a dip in the moguls and went flying through the air to land in a damaged heap amongst some rocks and logs. Though it was a jarring, twisting landing, my rented too-tight skis hadn’t come off. After a moment of being stunned, I reached down to unbuckle my skis and that’s when I noticed something amiss. Oh yeah, that’s it: my foot is pointing the wrong way! I’ll just take off this ski and turn my foot around to the front. There, that’s bett…oh holy $%*#($. And then I think I went into shock.

Boot-top fracture, both bones, non-compound, but seriously messed up. Lake Eldora in 1971 didn’t have anything in the way of a medical unit. In fact, they could not even get me an aspirin for the pain. They DID duct-tape my shattered leg onto a folded piece of cardboard and took me down the mountain on the stretcher of shame. I climbed into the back of the van as I pondered my options. Finally, I figured that since my parents would eventually find out my nefarious scheme and I would have to ultimately take my lumps, I might as well head on home to Loveland to the hospital there. So, we headed down Boulder Canyon to catch the Diagonal to Longmont and then home.

The VW POS Mini-van broke down on the Diagonal.

No cell phones in those days, so we hitch-hiked with a mother and teen-age girl to the hospital in Longmont, where a welcome shot of morphine came none too soon, and a humble call to my Mom happened way too soon. Besides being in a lot of pain, I think I finally realized just how selfish I had been and how pulling one over on the old folks wasn’t as cool as it had seemed just the day before. I was pretty doped up for the next few days, but I’m still pretty sure that Mom never said anything. I was in a constant state of foggy horror at the thought of being confronted by her about my lie. I think she may have sensed that the pain I was going through might actually slap me into having a clue.

I was in a hip-to-toe cast for 6 months; on crutches for 6 weeks. My leg itched so bad I had a specially bent clothes-hanger that left gaping holes in my bleached-white skin from my constant, aggressive scratching. I had only 2 pairs of pants that would fit over my cast: a pair of overalls (shucks, garsh, I’m just a country boy) and a pair of Red, WHITE and Blue jeans (what a radical, eh?). When I finally got out of that cast, my leg was the size of a baseball bat handle. I’ve been overeating ever since trying to fill that leg up to its original size! Well, I exaggerate a little, but that puny leg looked more like a T-Rex appendage than anything else, and actually has affected me the rest of my life. Wearing the walking cast for so many months caused my pelvis to tip sideways, which, in turn, caused my spine to twist, which eventually paid off the school loans of more than one chiropractor.

But, no, Mom never chastised me for my lie. I know she was disappointed in me, but more, I think, she was hurt. Hurt I’d lied to her, then hurt because she knew I was going to be hurt by my own actions. And great moms hate more than anything to see their kids get hurt.

Mom, it’s your birthday in a couple of days. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate the way you handled this epic adventure in one of the time periods when I was most trying to you and Dad. I appreciate your love too, through it all, and I know that’s why you’ve done so much for me; it’s all about the love. And I love you more than words can ever say.

Oh, and thanks too Mom, for teaching me words that I not only believe but am quick to use to admonish others not as lucky as I was to have a phrase that, once taught, didn’t have to be overused in order to be effective: Be Sure Your Sins Will Find You Out.

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Valentine's Day equals Romance

They say that Valentine’s Day is a made-up holiday. Created and perpetuated by the evil card company Hallmark and aided and abetted by those corrupters of souls, Russell Stover & FTD Florists. It’s a holiday fashioned by retail companies solely for the purpose of capitalizing on the fact that humans are hungry for romance. But you can’t really blame them; it’s just business, and the fact is that we need Valentine’s Day. Made up or real, it is a very important day for couples and wannabe-couples.

Valentine’s Day is all about the “romance.” This is why it has lasted so long and, I suspect, will never fade away. However, there are two distinct definitions of “romance,” and this causes a disconnect for just about every couple at one time or another. You see, “romance” means a very different thing to the inhabitants of Venus than it means to us Martians. To the fairer sex, “romance” means the validation of their value to their mate; the proof that their men love them and cherish them and want to dote on them and protect them and honor them forever and always – with gifts and treats and (horrors) conversation! To the male of the species, “romance” means sex. Period. All the machinations that we go through to prove our undying love on Valentine’s Day (or any other day for that matter) are just a bunch of peacock feathers spread out in a display to attract the female; just a puffed out throat to impress her into saying yes; just a hopeful set of abracadabras and magical flourishes in our too-thinly veiled attempts to make her objections disappear.

Unless, of course, you’ve been faithfully married for 36 years and really DO want to show nothing more than your undying love and reaffirm your promise to “love, honor and cherish till death do us part.” Then, “romance” means the same to both of you. Really! Honest! No, really – I’m not just saying that! This year will be the 37th Valentine’s Day that I’ve shared with my best friend, Marcia. 37 times I’ve picked out a card – usually 3 of them: a funny one, a romantic (to her) one and a romantic (to me) one. 37 times I’ve wondered if dinner and togetherness says enough or if I should buy her something special. 37 times she’s said she doesn’t want “anything.” 36 times I’ve not been fooled by that line. (There was that one year when I was young and naïve and thought that “don’t get me anything” meant she didn’t want anything. What I found out it meant was that if I wanted “anything,” then I better get her something, no matter what she says!)

You’d think that love and romance would get old after that much time, but this is not the case for me and my Baby-cakes. We still hold hands when we take a walk or a drive. She still blows me kisses from the couch to my barca-lounger and I still catch them. We still watch romantic movies together and are still touched by the stories. We can talk about anything or we can talk about nothing and still feel comfortable. We enjoy sports together; we watch American Idol together; we do housework together; if I cook, she cleans and visa versa; we go on hikes together; we sit around like couch potatoes together. I play love songs on the guitar for her while she does her needlepoint. We so often finish each other’s sentences and have the same idea for dinner that it’s actually a bit spooky. Before long, we’ll probably even start looking alike. Yes, folks, I’m a lucky man indeed to have married my best friend and found a mate for life. So many couples we’ve known don’t stay together for so long – with or without a ring.

I once told Marcia that I thought the reason we’d been together so long was that I had no ego. After the swelling went down from the roundhouse slap I got when I didn’t clarify my remark soon enough, I explained myself – slowly and carefully. What I meant is that I think that with a soul-mate/wife/lover/partner, happiness and harmony come from not letting your ego require you to be right all the time. This goes beyond just simple compromise which is certainly important in relationships; this thought process actually requires you to acknowledge that someone else is smarter, more logical, better informed and more reasonable than you are – at least part of the time. Our natural inclination, even when it goes against someone we love, is to desire to not be in the wrong. Following this natural inclination is a recipe for marital disaster or frequent dust-ups at the very least. At its worst, it kills “romance,” no matter what definition you adhere to.

You must realize that two people living in close proximity to each other (and desiring to keep up said living arrangement) cannot both be right all the time. Therefore, my advice to my kids and any other couple who asks about the secret of our longevity is to stop being a baby and give in and give upmore often than you think you should. What can it possibly hurt to let your loved one be right more often than you? This is especially good advice to the men out there who wish there was more “romance” in their life, but don’t quite seem to comprehend that their egocentric arguments cause a direct INVERSE relationship to the amount of “romance” that they enjoy. An equally true state of affairs is that a woman who must always be right is a woman destined to have her man rarely show her the kind of “romance” that she desires – unless of course, he is accommodating her desires solely to get the kind of “romance” he desires.

Oh, it’s a vicious circle boys and girls and this is where Valentine’s Day comes in handy. The giving of the cards and candy and flowers and jewelry and pajama-grams takes the focus off our egos and puts it squarely onto the shoulders of Hallmark and Russell Stover and the Vermont Teddy Bear company where it belongs.

That way we can all get what we want for Valentine’s Day: ROMANCE!

For Marcia – I love you babe!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Passing of Man's Best Friend

My best friend (not counting all my human BFFs) died yesterday. Suddenly. Quietly. Alone.

He was only a little over 7 years old and seemed to be the picture of good health – strong, muscular, agile, confident, alert. We spent the morning together – eating breakfast, watching the birds at the feeder, and then reading the paper before we went our separate ways to carry out our normal routines. I never saw him alive again…

Marcia (my other best friend) and I came home yesterday afternoon to a bad odor in the house. Thinking that Starbuck had had an accident, we started looking for poop, but found instead our big black cat sleeping for the last time under the bed.

There are Cat People and there are Dog People in this world. I’m told that there are people who (horrors!) swing both ways, but we won’t speak of them in this G-rated eulogy. I believe that Dog People like dogs because they are unfailingly faithful and will love their owners even if they are ax murderers or child pornographers. Cats, on the other hand, know what’s in your heart and will disdain and abuse you for the slightest perceived mistreatment. They will hold a grudge for months merely because you bought the on-sale cat food instead of the Fancy Feast.

Still, as a species in total, I don’t care much for dogs, although I’ve been fond of a few special canines over the years. Dogs, I find, are way too much trouble – all the walking and poop-scooping and bathing and grooming. They drool and they smell, and this despite the fact that they seem to like to lick themselves, but maybe because they only lick certain parts of their body. While this private-area licking may seem desirable, I actually find it extremely distasteful, (pun intended) particularly when you factor in the drool effect. You see where I’m going with this?

While I don’t really buy in to the theory of dogs being man’s best friend, I do understand the comfort and companionship that a pet brings. Which is why many Dog People berate Cat People – how much comfort and companionship can you expect from a cat? After all, cats are aloof and snooty. They won’t chase a ball, and you can’t train them to shake hands. Eccentric Cat People sometimes say that this is because cats are actually more intelligent than we humans – sometimes even claiming they are a superior race from another planet who merely abide our existence due to their inability to operate a can opener, since it was their brains that evolved and not their opposable thumbs. These people are nuts. But then, so are the Dog People who allow their dogs to French kiss them (see note above regarding licking + drooling.)

On our block, it’s easy to know every neighbor who has a dog. Partly because of the barking, but mostly because you see them walking the dogs, day and night, rain and shine. On the whole, I prefer to see them walking their dogs in the daytime and in the sunshine as they are far less likely to bend down and fondle the feces of the frou-frou poodle when it’s cold and dark and raining outside. It is after those bad nights that I find myself prospecting the front yard with a shovel before I mow the lawn. Give me a litter box and scoop any day of the week. I like to reserve my grass for wrestling on with my grandkids!

I’m sure there are other cats on our block, though we never see them since they don’t require – verily, they will not tolerate – being walked, and the coyotes and bobcats and great horned owls in the scrub oak prevent even the most callous owners from risking their pets’ lives in this neighborhood. I bought a cat leash once and tried to walk Starbuck outside. Though the leash was attached to a body harness made especially for cats, he Harry-Houdini’ed it off in about 3 seconds and ran wildly into the house to hide under the same bed that I found him under, lifeless and cold, just yesterday.

So, we’ve always been Cat People, Marcia and I, with a long succession of best friends over our last 37 years together. First, there was Ajax, the white tornado (named after the bathroom cleansing powder tag line and due to the fact he was a pure white Iowa barn kitten – read feral – who tore gaping holes in my hands when I first chased him down in the hay and picked him up.)

Then, there was Ajax II (we may have been overly influenced by TV ads at the time) only he wasn’t new and improved like the cleanser. He was dumb and stubborn, although just as white as Ajax the first. The dumbest cat we’ve ever had, he would get up on the sofa beside me and look at me with eyes that said, “Please don’t hit me,” and then would pee on the sofa. Over and over again. Day after day. His term as best friend did not last long.
We had a cat named Ptolemy who don’t remember much about, which is strange given his (her?) name. You’d think I’d at least remember why we named it that…

But, we definitely remember Frank. He was the first cat that we ever had for any length of time – about 15 years. He was a Man’s Cat. An un-neutered Tom with all his claws and an attitude of swagger to go with it. He was the meanest sonamabitch on the block and often came home with small farm animals clenched in his massive jaws and drop them on our porch, showing off his hunting prowess to “his humans” before he devoured his prey. We didn’t spend much money on cat food in those days as we backed up to an open field and Frank went wherever he wanted to whenever he wanted to. With all his toughness though, it was probably Frank that turned us into Cat People for good as he was also the most loving cat we’ve ever had. He would sit and purr and rub his nose on my chin and give me the look that said, “You, for a human, are very cool to live with.” It was a sad day when Frank finally had to be put to sleep after contracting inoperable cancer.

While we had Frank, we got Beans – our first black cat. Beans didn’t last long, so she was replaced with Ernest. (Get it? Frank & Beans. Frank & Ernest. We cracked ourselves up!) Ernest didn’t last much longer than Frank and so we started all over again with George and Gracie. Gracie was a demur, tiny lady that had been abused before we found her, so was skittish all of her 13 years with us. George was a hulking pig of a cat that would spend hours lying on his stomach with his front paws and nose buried in his food dish. He eventually weighed in at 22 pounds of pure flab – his belly flap alone was as big as Gracie. His claim to fame, though, was that Chelsa and Bryn liked to play “clay kitty” with him. As fat and lazy as George was, they would arrange him in all kinds of crazy positions and then see how long he would stay that way. Usually, the only thing that made him move from the “clay kitty” positioning was gravity – and that happened very slowly.

Lastly, we had Eddie McCattrey and Starbuck. They were the best buddies ever, even though Eddie was 3 or 4 years older and weighed about 2/3rds as much as the younger Starbuck. Eddie was named for the great Bronco wide receiver as he was “predominantly orange” much like the PR agency for the Broncos promised the new uniforms would be even though a color-blind dog would’ve easily seen they were all blue and very little orange. I ran into Eddie McCaffrey, the football player, in the local King Soopers and actually pulled him aside and told him the store of the naming of Eddie McCattrey and how we made him stand up and lift his arms while we shouted “Touchdown, Broncos” before every game. He said he was honored, although I suspect he was a little bit scared.

We always called Starbuck a black cat, but up close and in the light, he was actually a deep dark espresso coffee color. But that is NOT why I named him Starbuck, or at least not the main reason, although my love for Grande Americanos was a factor. Sometime before we got him, I gained the nickname “Cap’n.” This is a story unto itself and I’m already waxing a bit too eloquently, so we’ll save that story for another day. In Moby Dick, Cap’n Ahab’s first mate is Starbuck, thus by new BFF became MY first mate, Starbuck.

Starbuck was, like Frank, a Man’s Cat. Huge headed and fierce looking, he really was a pussy at heart. He was a great mouser and kept our home free of any critters seeking refuge from the wild open spaces behind our house. He scared the grandkids and awed anyone else who he deemed worthy of his presence. He didn’t much like to be held, but when he chose to sit his 20 lb. bulk in your lap, you KNEW it. He sat in my lap that last day he was alive – something he rarely did, especially in the morning. I choose to believe he knew it was time to go and wanted one last ear-scratching before he used up the last of his 9 lives. I’ve also got to believe that he’s happy now in kitty heaven with his best buddy Eddie. The two of them are probably sleeping like spoons on the great comfy bed of the Cat Lady in the Sky.

Good night Starbuck. Sleep tight.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Where This Old Dog Learned His Tricks...

I mentioned in a previous post how I owe my love of the open road to my dad and the road trips he “foisted” on us kids in our formative years. Since his 82nd birthday is just a few days away, I’ve been thinking about all the other ways that he has affected my life and how much I owe to him. My dad recently told me how much he enjoys reading my bloviations. I suspect that the satisfaction he takes in my overwrought ramblings is as much driven by the vicarious pride that fathers take in observing their sons (and daughters) as it is by pure journalistic appreciation. In any case, I began thinking about how I could thank him for the lessons he’s taught me, while providing more grist for his reading mill. There were a lot lessons and they have shaped the way I act and, in many ways, have made me the man I am.

Art Cushing was an x-ray technician until shortly after I was born. Then he decided to build houses, so he bought a set of blueprints and did just that. With no training, with little help, he just up and changed his career because he wanted to. And he didn’t do it half-heartedly either. He became one of the leading developers of our home town, even getting interviewed on the radio for his contributions. We all sat around the living room listening to the disk jockey compliment Dad on his company slogan “Every Home a Work of ‘Art;” and then signing off with the classic line of all time, “Lay a brick for us, Art.” Lessons one, two and three: 1.) you can do anything that you put your mind to; 2.) if you’re gonna do something, do it right; and 3.) you can’t take yourself too seriously.

I was a pretty boisterous kid growing up. Always in trouble; always breaking things; the second kid is always the wild one, right? Growing up in a more practical era when the rod was not spared in order to spoil the child, I had my fair share of spankings with the ol’ Pratt & Lambert paint stir stick. But, either the punishment wasn’t severe enough, or I was just incorrigible, because I know my folks got pretty tired of how often they had to discipline me. One day I broke out the window in the front door right after I’d been told to simmer down. Sent to my room, I knew I was in for it and I steeled myself for the worst. But I didn’t feel the stir-stick sting that day. Dad came into the room shaking his head and said, “What are we going to do with you? Believe me son; giving you a spanking hurts me more than it hurts you.” I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I think it must have been some sass-talk. Then Dad said, “You have to see how hard this is. So, I’m not going to spank you; you’re going to spank me.” He then handed me the paint paddle and bent over the dresser. Oh boy, I thought, now’s my chance to get back! But, I couldn’t do it. I cried harder from that punishment than I ever had from the piddly paddle sting on my own bare butt. I can’t remember ever having another spanking after that (except for the principal’s belt I got in the 7th grad for fighting, but that’s a different story.) Obviously, it wasn’t that I suddenly became a perfect kid, but I did begin to see the importance of minding my parents. Lesson four: it really does hurt your parents more than it hurts you.

Summer nights in the sixties were spent outside. We ran through the spray of the mosquito truck as it rumbled down the alley behind our house. (Insert your choice of a long-term-effect-on-my-brain joke here. We used to play with a vial of mercury too, so feel free to draw your own conclusions, but kindly keep them to yourself. We’re quite happy in our little fantasy world here…) We played hide and seek in the pitch black back yards of our neighborhoods, (without cell phones to keep track of us.) In the fading light of our ½ acre back yard my dad hit grounders and fly balls to my brother Stan and me, coaching us to use “Two hands! Two hands!” and not try to be cool by catching the ball with one hand – which really meant being lazy. A good lesson in and of itself, but the lesson that really stuck with me is the one to go all out. Give it everything you’ve got. Work hard, play hard. That lesson was driven into us night after night, hit after hit. A phrase that predates Nike’s “Just Do It” by 30 years and that our family still uses to this day when we talk about really going for it: “Dive for that, Cushing!”

On Sabbaths, the only approved fun was Bible games and nature rides and hikes. Any games were a blast with our family – we love to play. But our favorite after-church activity was taking a drive “uppa-mountain” and a hike through the mountains west of town. We were very lucky growing up that Rocky Mountain National Park was just uppa-mountain from our home in Loveland. This little slice of heaven is arguably proof to even the hardest core atheist that there is an intelligent design to our world. We were taught that God is in everything and has entrusted man with this amazing Earth; that we shouldn’t take our stewardship lightly; that we should appreciate all of nature. Whenever I feel the need to spiritually rejuvenate, I just get outside. I believe that God speaks to us through the sounds of nature. He whispers through the sighing of the Ponderosas; he shouts through the roar of Ouzel Falls; he speaks through the shrill of the Whistle Pig on Trail Ridge Road, and holds his tongue so we can meditate surrounded by the silence of the aspen grove. The bite of the thin air above 11,000 feet clears your mind and brings you closer to heaven, if not into heaven itself. The wildflowers on the tundra are the decorations of heaven. I’ve learned to appreciate and protect these things and they bring me peace.

Friday nights were a time for music, but we weren’t listening to the Beatles or the Beach Boys (that was every other night of the week, but only through the transistor radio under the covers once the lights were out.) Friday music was either classical or homemade. Beethoven was the classical composer of choice. We listened to beautiful sonatas and exciting overtures played on the old Hi-Fi. The 5th symphony and Eroica were musical pieces that would literally transport me, and still do. I would close my eyes and “watch the movies they created in my head.” On more energetic evenings, we’d strike up the Cushing band – Dad on the marimba, Stan and Lisa on the clarinet, me on the trombone, Janis on the piano, Roger on the drums, and Mom singing along. Oh what a joyful noise we made! We were taught that it was a special talent to be able to make music and appreciate music, and to use the talents we were given.

That’s not all I learned from my Dad. I learned to shingle a roof, pour concrete, pound a nail, fix a washing machine, restore an old car, ride a motorcycle, drive a stick, mow a lawn, ski on water and on snow, carry a handkerchief, a knife & Chapstick at all times, and, yes, lay a brick. I learned to appreciate Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling on one end of the spectrum, and Carol Burnett and Red Skelton on the other. I learned how to play volleyball and mumblypegs, Rook and chicken foot. I learned how to break a sweat and keep my cool. I learned how to give to those less fortunate than me and to not complain about what I have. I learned how to laugh at myself and to be careful how I laugh at others.

I learned to not waste – that if something was broken, you don’t just throw it away and buy a new one; you fix the old one! I learned the value of a dollar and that saving is better than spending. I learned that while money can’t buy you happiness, it can buy you cool stuff; and that if you accumulate too much stuff, you can put it out at the end of the driveway and someone will haul it away for you – for free!

I learned how to love my wife and be faithful till death do us part. I learned that the greatest success I can ever have comes from being able to watch my children grow and succeed. I learned that loving your family and spending time with them is the greatest joy I can ever hope to have.

Thanks Dad – for these lessons and all the others that you’ve taught me. Happy Birthday!