Monday, July 27, 2009

Crestone redux: Lessons learned

A couple of weeks ago when I started the Crestone blogs, I wondered what I would learn during my two-week quiet stay at Nada in the San Luis Valley.

One thing is that I need to exercise more. I’ve always liked walking the neighborhood, but over the last year or so it has seemed more like a ‘should’ and as a result, I haven’t. The consequence for that lack of exercise, I think, is my aborted attempt to reach South Crestone Lake. Given, the hike was a steep one and my legs did damned well for three hours. Still, I know if I train a bit, I’ll make it next time. Trust me. I’m looking forward to it, in fact. So #1: I learned I need to exercise more.

Second, I learned that I really like being in the quiet. We played a little music and talked a bit, but other than that, our hermitage was really quiet. Cindy read, sewed, and knitted. I read and wrote a bit, walked the neighborhood some, and found myself reclined on a bench by the fireplace pretty often just listening to the quiet and checking out the knotty pine pattern of the ceiling. One afternoon while doing so, I also wrote a half dozen poems when ideas jumped out of my brain. #2: I rather like being a quiet introvert.

Which brings me to another personal realization determined some years ago at the Grand Canyon. It was June 1987, one year after my first visit to the South Rim. I was impressed on the first visit, but not overly so. I mean, the Grand Canyon is one big hole in the ground, no doubt. But the air quality that early summer was poor: the North Rim shrouded in a haze and the colors of the side canyons muted. The rim sunset we watched was cool, but overall, I could boil down my Canyon experience to my being thankful for having survived the hike down to Phantom Ranch and back up Bright Angel.

But then 1987. The second coming. I stood there with a new batch of kids, including my own daughter, peering into the abyss, while my eyes filled up with tears. Just like they are doing now, remembering. I realized then, as I do now, that the Canyon gets into you and doesn’t let you go. I believe it’s the reason cranky old Ed Abbey wanted his cremated ashes tossed in the Canyon. For all eternity.

Since then I’ve been able to return to the Canyon once by myself and once with my buddy, Will. On both occasions I was able to find a spot and sit, listening to wind whistling through my ears and the pine needles, being present with both the greatness of that place and this amazing planet.

So it could be that I’m a year away from knowing more about what I learned at the Sangre de Cristos. Or maybe I’m one trip removed from feeling the special stuff.

I do know this, too: the Earth is a special place. It is good to be quiet with it. It has a lot to say and much to share. I’ve learned something about that at the Grand Canyon, in the Sangres, and on my back porch. In fact, it’s interesting what you can learn just tying up the tomatoes plants.

Today’s elder idea:

Take as much as you think you ought to

Give just as much as you can

Don’t forget what your failures have taught you

Or else you’ll have to learn them all over again.

Dan Fogelberg

from ‘Lessons Learned’

Nether Lands 1977

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Farewell Bill

The ranks of 59 year-olds on this planet was reduced by one yesterday. We lost Bill Chmiel, a classmate of mine from Carroll High School’s illustrious class of 1968. Dreaded cancer took him.

I must admit, I did not know Bill well back in the day. Whatever classes and other stuff I was involved in weren’t the same things he was up to. I did email him a bit since January, most of the time while he was shuttling between his home on Block Island, Rhode Island and hospitals in Boston getting his diagnosis and beginning to take treatment. He seemed up to beating this thing, and like a lot of his friends, I hoped the medical profession had one more miracle in its bag of tricks to make him whole again. Everybody tried really hard, of that I’m sure.

CHS ’68 had our 40th reunion last summer. I think Bill was there. Again, I didn’t know enough to seek him out. I think the deal was that it was after the reunion that he was diagnosed. In January he mentioned it had been a tough six months for him and his wife, Terri. So it was a pretty steep decline Bill and his family had to deal with.

As we babyboomers live into our 60s, the inevitability of death comes ever closer. That’s okay, I guess. Life is what it is. Death will come for all of us. It’s just that we’re on the cusp of being invulnerable and well, being way too vulnerable. I will hug my grandson, who is here today, and my wife a bit tighter this day. Life is good. I don’t look forward to dealing with death any time soon. Still way too much to do.

Farewell, my friend. I hope it was a lovely ride.

Today’s elder idea: Thanks for channeling some of that positive energy my way. It has been a very challenging six months for my wife and myself. We value and appreciate all your prayers.

Bill Chmiel

3 January 2009 email

And on this rainy day in the Miami Valley:

Water spirit feeling springin’ round my head

Makes me feel glad that I’m not dead.

Witchi Tai To

Traditional healing song in the Native American Church

Monday, July 20, 2009

My man Neil!

Let’s see. In about thirty minutes we’ll be at the precise 40th anniversary moment when Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another heavenly body. Oh, what a night that was for humanity.

I was 19 in the summer of 1969 and worked at Rike’s warehouse on old Miami Boulevard West in Dayton. Remember Warehouse Sales? Where lots of good stuff goes on super special? Perhaps Rike’s didn’t originate the concept, but they surely perfected it. I was an Extra that summer who drove a fork lift, unloaded trucks and train cars, worked Will Call, and did just about anything anybody in a tie asked me to do. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.

July 20 was a Sunday night in 1969. I had promised to attend a church event in Cincinnati: a Cursillo closing. You know, when tons of people who already made the retreat show up in solidarity for the newbies? I really wanted to stay home and watch the moon history on television, but I felt responsibility to Alvin, my Cursillo sponsor and buddy from work, who I had promised. He drove and promised to get me someplace that night to see the landing.

Alvin got me someplace, alright. It was some restaurant at the Paddock Road exit off I-75 in Cincinnati. As I recall, the place was pretty crowded, everybody watching the monitor mounted high on the wall. Odd, I can’t remember if we were tuned into Uncle Walter on CBS or another network. All I really remember was how lousy the picture from the moon was. Shoot, I thought, we could get a man on the moon but we couldn’t get a better picture? So it was. I was elated, nonetheless.

I’m a space junky. Got that way listening to Al Shepherd’s and Gus Grissom’s suborbitals in 1961 on the school public address system when I was 11. Then one year later when John Glenn became the first American to orbit -- and he was an Ohioan like Orville Wright -- I was beside myself with pride and hero worship. I came to conclude that astronauts were the modern manifestation of the great American archetype, the independent and self-reliant cowboy. Cool!

We need heroes. John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, and the host of NASA pilots and mission specialists, fit that bill. Still, today, I bet few people paid attention that two astronauts put in a full day walking in space, doing some hard work that will make the International Space Station a more complete habitat and research facility. Did you know it was Dave Wolf and Tom Marshburn working in space today, making their own kind of history?

I’m a Trekkie, too. Not a colorful one who goes to conventions dressed as a Klingon, but just a guy from the 60s who’d love to see a Federation where lots of different types of people do, indeed, try to get along. There’s still trouble, to be sure, but money and opportunity aren’t the issue anymore. All you have to do is try hard and opportunity will find you. And the good guys can win.

I’d like to think I learned something about hard work and adventure from NASA about that when I was 19. I know I learned something from Star Trek.

Today’s elder idea: That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.

Neil Armstrong

US astronaut and American hero

2:56 UTC July 21, 1969

10:56 pm EST, Sunday, July 20, 1969

in Cincinnati

Friday, July 17, 2009

Crestone - Lake City - Winter Park - Kansas City

I write this entry from a Drury Inn just across I-70 from Royals Stadium in Cindy Lou’s town of birth, Raytown, Missouri. Since we left Crestone two days ago, we have traveled another 1,200+ miles and will arrive Dayton sometime later today. As many travelers feel after more than two weeks on the road, it will be good to get home.

But before we get there and put this trip into past tense, let me just wax philosophical once more to say how amazingly beautiful this country is. The quiet retreat at Nada was surely worth the trip, but witnessing first hand, one more time, the purple mountains majesty and the fruited plain that we sing about on patriotic occasions, is something to appreciate.

After pulling out of Crestone for the last time on Wednesday, we drove a loop inside Colorado, stopping for a time in the little town of Lake City, which like so many others, is an 1880s-era mountain town with roots in mining precious metals. It still sports a real bank on the main corner downtown, with most other storefronts now converted to tourist shops. To get there from the south, one has to traverse scenic CO 149, better known as The Silver Thread. Such a drive! No major mountain peaks on this route, but a 50 mile drive that takes you first along trout fishing waters, then through a pristine wet valley that can take your breath away. Eventually the scenic byway takes you over a pass and down into town, but not before passing through stands of aspen and then mountainsides of conifer. I heard about this route from a teaching colleague who fell in love with it years ago. I think this trip marks my third time through. Wow.

From there our destination for the night was Winter Park, a skiing/rafting/biking mecca about an hour northwest of Denver. Lots of peaks on this route, and some mighty steep passes. Still a bit of snow up there, too. We finished the day with dinner with our nephew, Josh Cooke, a recent Indiana State grad who is making a career in the adventure business. In summer he guides river rafting trips, while in winter snow mobile, or ‘sled’ expeditions into the national forest. He had a few harrowing stories to tell!

Yesterday Cindy and I headed out for earnest on our return trip east. First the long return drive over 13,000 foot Berthoud Pass (nine switchbacks), then onto I-70 through Denver and on into the high plains. Make no mistake: it’s a long way across Kansas. But by late afternoon we found ourselves in the Flint Hills and marveled, again, over America’s natural beauty. One day took us from snow covered peaks to rolling greens hills that went all the way to the horizon. America the beautiful, indeed.

* * *

I regret I haven’t been able to include pictures with this blog. When I get home my goal is to upload pics to my Mac gallery and then figure out how you can view them. Stay tuned for some Colorado imagery. It’s coming.

Today’s elder idea:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

from America the Beautiful

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Crestone #12: Talismans

When I was in my last year at Carroll High School in Dayton back in the day, all seniors were required to go on a retreat before graduation. I forget most of the details forty plus years later, but I remember when it was all over, each retreatant was gifted with something special to hang on to. Holy cards were the thing back then. But not with Fr. Jim Heft, our retreat director at Bergamo. He gave us, instead, a small hinge.

In those post-Vatican II days when change was blowing through the Catholic church, he wanted us to think of ourselves as hinges. We could help open doors or close them. It was up to us. Fr. Heft might be surprised to know that I still have mine. I’ve carried it on my keychain for years. It’s a bit bent now from when I tried to tighten a screw in a pinch and it surely is tarnished. But it’s still with me, a talisman from a day when I started to know the meaning of being an adult.

I picked up another talisman this week: a rock from the spot in the trail 10,000 feet above sea level where I gave up the hike to South Crestone Lake. It’s a little piece of bright shattered quartz, small enough to fit in my pocket. When I finished the hike, I assumed that was it. At my age, my mountain treks were over. A day or so later, though, I caught myself thinking that if I worked out regularly before coming back here, I really could try it again. Perhaps my quartz talisman will be in my pocket during those workouts. In any case, having a little piece of the Sangres in my office or in my pocket will be a tangible reminder of these amazing two weeks in Crestone.

* * *

This is my last blog from Nada. Tomorrow we move on. I’ll have more to say here on The Back Porch blog about our Colorado retreat, but this is the last one I write in the Juliana hermitage as the morning sun comes through our mountain-facing windows. A few odds and ends to tidy up:

  • I had hoped to cleverly title today’s blog ‘Dinner at the Dunes.’ We had a picnic packed last night and were on highway 17 on our way back to Great Sand Dunes for an evening meal and an opportunity for me to photograph sunlight setting on the sand peaks. Alas, in the place where it doesn’t rain in the summer, Great Sand Dunes was getting a downpour at dusk. But we made the best of it. We went into Alamosa and found the Chili’s.
  • If you like jazz at all, you really should get yourself a copy of Paul Winter Consort’s Crestone. Winter’s claim to fame, as you probably know, is recording his soprano sax out in the field. North Crestone Lake was the setting for this album. Other great Consort field recordings are Canyon and Prayer for the Wild Things. I recommend them all. We heard on the local grapevine that Winter and the band were back in town lately filming a DVD of Crestone. In an email snagged yesterday, Winter confirms the Crestone music video is near. Go to his Living Music website for details:
  • One of the reasons I love Colorado and the West is because of John Denver. I was a young dad when Denver was making the top 10 with hits like ‘Rocky Mountain High.’ Singing it in the local cover band, Collage, with the likes of Marty & Steve Doody, John Lauer, Jeff White, and Bruce Gunnell set that love deep on many a Saturday night back then.
  • Former GFS/AmW-er Laurie Scott Mattern sent an email this week re: a crackdown on rock-snatchers at Acadia NP in Maine. Heavens! I hope a crackdown on talisman-heisters at the Sangres isn’t next! ;-)

Today’s elder idea: In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.

Richard Louv

from Last Child in the Woods

Monday, July 13, 2009

Crestone #11: Solitude

When most folks think vacation, they usually visualize a Florida beach, gambling in Las Vegas, or seeing a show on Broadway. There are some of us mid-lifers who still like to camp, but most of us now seek a little more comfort when we leave home for a week or two.

Cindy and I picked solitude as a destination. How can solitude, some of you might ask, be a vacation?

Well, for us, it’s been a pretty crazy year plus. In May 2008, Cindy’s dad fell and broke his hip which took him out of assisted living and put him in a nursing home. As the primary care giver, Cindy had to make all the arrangements, plus drive to see her dad multiple times a week. My mom has been in much better shape, but there are still lots of doctor’s visits and trips to the grocery. My sister Patty takes care of most of Mom’s needs, bless her heart, but I’m called on to do some. Then there’s child care for grandkids. It’s all good, but all of this sometimes leaves us wondering where our retirement time is.

Then, of course, Cindy’s dad passed last Christmas. All of her sibs came to town and while it was good to see everybody, there was some family tension. As Cindy continues to work through her father’s final financial reckoning, she finds herself on a learning curve that would make a banker’s head swim. In other words, things have been tough.

A vacation where all of that could be left behind for two weeks was just what we both needed. Enter Nada.

The monks here at Nada live in the old Roman Catholic Carmelite tradition that dates back to the Crusades. Early Carmelites lived a simple life in the desert, practicing contemplative prayer with special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The small community here at Nada -- three lay women and one priest -- still do. In addition, of course, they offer desert hermitages to retreatants to come and have their own solitary experiences. There is usually only one community meal a week, after mass on Sunday. There is morning and evening prayer most days, but all of that is optional for us. Retreatants are free to come and go as we please, taking hikes, driving into Crestone or Alamosa, or taking side trips to wherever.

Cindy and I have pretty much kept to ourselves, hanging out in the remote Juliana hermitage, one of only two set up for a couple. There has been much sleeping, lots of reading, some writing, and much quiet time as we both try to give each other the space we need. Meals have been simple but good, largely put together with canned food provided in the cupboad by the Nadans. We also brought along some cookies, juice, a little soda, some frozen ground turkey, and a few bottles of wine. We played John Denver on my iPod desktop system a few afternoons, but other than that, it has been pretty quiet inside our personal hermitage.

Two days into our stay, Cindy stood at our picture windows looking out at the desert foothills of the Sangres and said, ‘This is just what I need.’ Most times I know where I can find her: sleeping in her single bed or perched in the window seat, either knitting or reading a book.

We’ve had a fan on most of the week, and we can hear the little refrigerator hum. But other than that, all we can hear are the pinyon jays and the wind in the stove pipe now and then. It is so quiet that when the wind blows just right, we can hear Willow Creek, a rushing alpine stream about a mile away. There are times I’ve actually heard jets at cruising altitude, which is miles up. All I can see are tiny spots with vapor trails.

We like Broadway shows and camping with the kids. But getting away from our busy lives to exist in the quiet that only a mother like nature can provide has been a real blessing. You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy Nada, either. They welcome all traditions. Solitude has provided us a recharge that we both have been hungry for. We recommend it.

Today’s elder idea: We aspire to create a vital environment characterized by solitude, simplicity, and beauty, where community thrives, love is nurtured, prayer flourishes, and the whole person can be transformed.

excerpt from The Spiritual Life Institute mission

Nada Hermitage, Crestone CO

PS: If you haven’t looked yet, check out the Nada website. Staying here is very affordable. Two weeks for a couple costs less than $800, food included. And they have a place in Skreen, County Sligo, Ireland at similar rates. Beat that.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Crestone #10: My iron skillet

As we gathered our gear to head west, I cleared an old plastic storage box to serve as our portable library. I brought along some Emily Dickinson; Billy Collins; the brand new Mary Oliver; this year’s Pulitzer for fiction, Olive Kitteridge; the jewel box insert for Paul Winter’s Consort’s Crestone; and my zen favorite, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are; among a few odds and ends. Cindy contributed some fiction: Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons, Jody Piccoult’s The Pact, and Kate Jacobs’s The Friday Night Knitting Club. Cindy has done a number on her collection, while I’ve had a pretty good time with mine, too.

Along with the library, a case of bottled water, and other stuff in the trunk, I stowed one other important thing very carefully: my iron skillet.

As it’s turned out, since my retirement, and probably for some time before that, I’ve taken on the responsibility of grocery shopping and meal planning at our house. I suppose I like to cook because my dad was such a role model. When I was a kid, he reprised his kitchen skills learned with the Army Air Corps during the war by fixing huge spaghetti dinners for the men’s group at church. After he retired he even took on some catering gigs. And, of course, there was his famous Christmas morning breakfast at the family homestead that he cooked every year until he couldn’t any more.

In any case, I like to cook. And I especially like to cook for Cindy. We say to each other now and then that if one or the other isn’t home, it’s a frozen something in the microwave. But when we’re both home, it’s a bona fide meal either off the stove or off the grill, usually fixed by me. I look at it as a real way to nourish my family and our love.

So when gear was stowed for our two week adventure in solitude, I had to bring my iron skillet. At home I use it for almost everything, from making Noah’s pancakes to grilled cheese sandwiches to my own version of spaghetti sauce. I have used non-stick fry pans in the past, but no more. There’s something about cooking on some version of Teflon that doesn’t feel healthy, especially since so many old pans have flaked off their coatings. Cindy’s favorite skillet is a lovely heavy duty stainless steel number. But for me, it’s the old iron skillet.

I’ve had this skillet through two marriages, and I suppose I’ve handled it better than some relationship issues. I oil it carefully after every use, disdaining soap unless it really is a mess. It always comes back beautiful, and frankly, with all the oilings, has become pretty non-stick all by itself.

We didn’t know exactly what to expect here at Nada. We knew we would have lots of quiet time here in our hermitage, and that we have. The books, journals, and blogs have been entertaining and enriching. And so has the cooking. Not that every meal has come out of my iron skillet, but the onions, ground turkey, and rice dish the other night was pretty fine. Something there is about sauteing onions and garlic in an iron skillet that sets the mood for any evening meal.

Taking care of ourselves, mind and body, was important during our quiet time at the mountains. My iron skillet was another anchor brought from home that has made our time together here more meaningful. Oh. And I baked cookies, too, in the toaster oven. For a pot luck.

Today’s elder idea: The habit of ignoring our present moments in favor of others yet to come leads directly to a pervasive lack of awareness of the web of life in which we are embedded.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Crestone #9: Summer storm

Ask anybody from around these parts and she or he will tell you it’s been a wet spring and summer. That is why, you will be told, there are still so damned many mosquitoes around. By early July the San Luis Valley is usually a much dryer place.

During our stay here at Nada, though, rain has been an almost daily occurrence in the valley. Not that it rained here every day, mind you, but from our vantage point in the sandy foothills just slightly up from the valley floor, you can see rain showers from miles away. Last night around dusk, though, was the masterpiece.

Built with solar heating in mind, all of the Nada hermitages have large glass southern exposures. Thus, we have two large windows in the living area looking south. Just as the sun was making its daily spectacular exit over the San Juan range on the other side of the San Luis, a large system of dark cumulus moved slowly toward us from the southwest, dropping rain as it came. At the same time, looking due south, we saw another system dumping sheets of rain on what we assumed was Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, less than 20 miles away as the raven flies. Folks down there in the campground were getting mighty wet.

The system moving toward us from the southwest kept coming and growing, beginning to give us a spectacular, unobscured lightning show. First Cindy wondered if she saw lightning at all, seeing both it and a reflection in the glass next to her window seat where she was reading. Before too long, though, the book was set down and plans for a simple dinner were put on hold while we both sat facing south as the sky and the day darkened.

First one, then another, then another complete branching of lightning was seen, sky to valley. The ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ you could hear from us were as good as any uttered at any Fourth of July fireworks display. To say it was spectacular doesn’t do the lightning justice. We sat in awe as the natural pyrotechnics lit up the ever darkening sky. When the rain finally got to us, it wasn’t really much. But the lightening continued overhead as the storm moved ever closer to the mountains.

We finally had a couple of flashes overhead, then all was over. I told Cindy the lightning show was the best movie I had seen yet this summer. And when I stood outside for a little while during the approach, I said it was even better than anything IMAX could film. Wow.

We came to be with summer mountains and have to admit the mosquitoes have made it very difficult to do much outside. As our stay in the Juliana hermitage comes to an end next week, we will take not only lessons of the quiet back east with us, but vivid mental images of a nighttime thunderstorm that Nikon could not record. It will be a story we will only be able to tell about.

Today’s elder idea: The only paradise I know is the one lit by our everyday sun, this land of difficult love, shot through with shadow. The place where we learn this love, if we learn it at all, shimmers behind every new place we inhabit.

Scott Russell Sanders

from “Buckeye”

Writing from the Center

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Crestone #8 South Crestone Lake hike

When the South Crestone Lake hike washed out on Monday -- and after I talked to you about it here -- I reset my sights on Friday. Cindy & I wanted to go back into Alamosa for lunch on Tuesday and then visit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, just down the road, on the way back to Nada. That would give me Wednesday and Thursday to get my head together, read and write a little more, and re-gather my gear to head up the trail. Then on Wednesday afternoon, both of us concluded that Thursday would be the day. “Just do it,” Cindy said. I agreed.

When I woke up at 5:30 this morning with light on the sage and grasses outside our hermitage just starting to brighten, I got up, stuck my head out the door to check the temperature, and saw it would be a clear morning. I made my peanut butter sandwich quietly, but Cindy was awake anyway. I gathered some trail mix, an apple, a couple bottles of water, and the water filter. Along with the binocs, Sibley’s western bird book, my camera, bug juice, and the only neoprene knee sleeve I had, I was out the door by 6:15.

My goal today was, of course, to reach an alpine lake. South Crestone was it. By the time I got on the trail, dawn was brightening, but I was at least 30 minutes away from the sun making it over the mountains. The air was cool and the mosquitoes seemed pretty light. I set out.

The trail turned from sandy to rocky by the time I passed the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness sign. I was not aware that I was heading into official wilderness. I was pleased. The trail kept rising, and soon I found myself in an stand of aspen with the sun just peaking over the range.

The trail kept rising as I encountered a few stream crossings and lots of rocks on the trail. I stopped now and then for a handful of trail mix and a sip of water. It was good to be on the mountain on my very first solo hike into wilderness. I felt good.

The trail notes I read said to give myself three hours to reach the lake. At two and one half hours, I thought I should be getting close. I had kept up a good pace, though slow. My breathing felt good and my body was behaving nicely.

That’s when I began to feel the tightness in my right ‘bicycle muscle,’ as I call it. It had been working hard in tandem lifting my body and pack up the trail. Now it was starting to tell me it had limitations. I massaged it some, but was concerned that it would cramp up even more.

As I climbed the steep trail still more, I recognized an opening coming up ahead. I hoped it was the lake. Alas, it was a lovely wet meadow. But no lake. Again, I was concerned. I was feeling tightness start in my left thigh muscle, too.

Looking ahead and up, I concluded that South Crestone Lake had to be, at least, one more long, hard pitch up the trail. I looked at the steepness of the trail, feeling tightness in both thighs -- and knew I had been beaten. It wasn’t going to happen. South Crestone Lake would not be known today. My legs could not get me there.

After uttering a few expletives, I settled down on a sunlit rock and assessed where I was. I had a great morning on the mountain below Challenger Peak. I had lots of pictures on my camera. Other than my legs, I felt good. And I was sitting on the mountain. I had done what I could do. I ate my lunch.

The trail back saw the pain shift from my thighs to my knees. The neoprene sleeve helped the one, but the other now was barking pretty loudly. I kept up a steady, slow pace -- not able to stop for long because of the clouds of mosquitoes now active -- and three hours later was glad to see the car at the trailhead.

The mountain beat me, like I had feared. Still, I had many mindful moments this morning, watching the sun rise through aspens and hearing the laughter of mountain streams. All in all, I had gotten what I had come for.

I refer to Mr. Denver for today’s elder idea.

Today’s elder idea: Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and streams seeking grace in every step he takes.

John Denver

‘Rocky Mountain High’

PS: Cindy wanted you to know that she is glad I’m home. Safe.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Crestone #7: GFS/AmW

The last time I spent much time in Colorado was in 1990, on the last Geology Field Study/American West field trip organized by my friend and colleague Mark Maley. It was the final trip in the summer series, beginning in 1986 when we both taught at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio.

Over five years and four field trips, about 50 kids took part in the summer extravaganza that had us all sleeping in tents, riding for hours in a stuffed van pulling a trailer, packing lunches, and partaking of student-prepared evening meals served at picnic tables across the American southwest. We hiked down the Grand Canyon and visited alpine lakes in the Rockies. Mark was famous for holding class at 9:00 at night, student notebooks and reports lit by a Coleman lantern. While Mark did the geology and fretted over reservations for months, I planned the menu and offered the kids some humanities, including two trips to Window Rock AZ to visit with Navajo folk. Oh, what a time it was.

We still hear from some of those kids. In fact, the Saturday before Cindy and I set out on this retreat, we hosted a little get-together at our home for one of the very first GFS kids who currently is working in Germany teaching dependents of American airmen and -women. Laurie Scott Mattern did, in fact, go on the first two GFS/AmW trips, filling in a much needed space that second time that helped balance trip expenses.

Which is part of the reason I celebrate GFS/AmW today: While Mark and I don’t know about all the kids who went with us, we do still hear from some. The 1990 crew, in fact -- 19 years later -- now exchange email as a group, mostly laughing about something from that summer or updating everybody on a new trip out west they have taken or are planning with their families.

What I want to say is this: our being in the West made a difference in our lives. The community experience has changed us. Mark and I are now brothers. The kids still laugh about their antics, but underneath it all is a deep appreciation for mountains, the desert, hoo-doos, volcanic cinders, the ancient people who made this amazing region their home, and each other.

The American West is a powerful place. Most of the kids knew. And now, on this quiet retreat in the morning shadow of the Sangre de Cristos overlooking the hard working and beautiful San Luis valley, I am restoring my spirit as I did years ago.

Today’s elder idea: I ask you again: if you have not been enchanted by this adventure -- your life -- what would do for you?

Mary Oliver

from ‘Evidence’ Evidence (2009)

PS: I’m pretty sure some of those GFS/AmW folk are following this blog. How did that trip years ago impact your life? How does it make a difference to you today? I’d appreciate your sharing a comment about that here. Thanks.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Crestone #6: Thomas Berry

You know, I’ve backpacked in Rocky Mountain National Park with a 4 year-old and an apprehensive wife and had a pretty good time, once I got over my altitude headache.

I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to Phantom Ranch and back up the Bright Angel Trail four different summers with high school kids and an ornery colleague. It took some time, but everybody came out okay, none the worse for wear.

Then about ten years ago I hiked in the mountains just outside Yellowstone. After about 90 minutes on the trail and 1,000 feet in elevation, I got cramps in my legs so bad I could hardly move. It was not a very good day. Lesson learned about eating and drinking while hiking.

So today, anticipating the effects of hiking up to South Crestone Lake, guess which wild walking adventure I cared to dwell on? You guessed it. The bad one. I wimped out.

Too much physical exertion scares me as I approach my 60th year. I’m not happy to report that.

Part of it today, too, was that the trail is not carefully marked and I don’t have a topo or trail map. I think my equipment is okay, but what if I get lost or run out of water?

Still, I’m going to do it. Sooner or later before I pull out of Crestone, I’m heading up that trail just as far as my lungs can get in about three hours -- or until my body screams loud enough to make me turn around. We’ll see.

Besides the physical thing, it’s spiritual for me. Even if I don’t make the lake, I will encounter the mountain in some spiritual way. Shoot, it’s a big part why I came.

The day was not a wash out, by any means. Instead, I spent time listening to the poet/philosopher/‘geologian’ Thomas Berry on tape speaking about The Moment of Grace humanity has come to. He went on eloquently about how essential it is for every aspect of human economy to consider how everything is effected when an act is taken. He stressed creativity and our finding a positive way to set course for the future. Meaningful stuff.

My guess is the recently deceased Berry will be on my mind when I finally make way up the trail. I’ll let you know.

Today’s elder idea: Everything is sacred by its participation in the universe.

Thomas Berry

died 1 June 2009

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Crestone #5: Sunday at Nada

I wonder what this place has to teach me.

I mean, I came here by such a circuitous route, all really lead by the heart, or curiosity, or whatever life force it is that encourages us to look around the next corner for an understanding of a deeper meaning to life.

There is much power here, it is said. One zen practitioner said this region’s mountains, waters, and air made for one of the best places on the planet for spiritual retreat.

Cindy and I needed a vacation, and that is what we have come for. But in addition to that, the Sangre de Cristos offer more than just time away from home. Artists, spiritualists, body workers, and outdoor activists have come here for something special.

In many ways, I feel very lucky to have come to this naturally spiritual space for whatever reason that has drawn us.

This afternoon Cindy made me a light weight shirt to help protect me from marauding mosquitoes for my walk up the South Crestone Lake trail tomorrow morning. We’re listening to Secret Garden in front of the fan. I’m trying to pay attention to my breathing and just be present in the here and now. I think we both are practicing prayer.

And I’m just curious what this place will teach us.

Oh. And by the way, how do you nourish your spirit?

Today’s elder idea: Birding for me is a form of prayer. It is communion with God. The birds are not God, but God is in the birds. The world is not to be equated with God, but God is in the world. Matter does matter, because it matters to God.

Fr. Eric Haarer


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Crestone #4: Discipline

We have been at Nada for just over two days, and already so much seems important enough to write about. Just watching sun and clouds play off rocky Challenger Peak and the adjacent conifer fields can take all afternoon and is worth the meditation. The birds have been lovely. I think we have a piñon jay so far, but a little gray job with mottled breast and a very distinctive brown crown defies identification.

And reading. Cindy has finished The Pact by Jodi Picoult already, while I have waded into Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods yesterday and just now finished reading Mary Oliver’s newest collection of poems, Evidence, cover to cover. Trust me. You’ll be seeing some Oliver quotes in blog entries for the next little while.

But I suppose the most important thing I’ve read so far came in the Nada guest handbook provided in our hermitage. It appears on the second page -- just after the all-important schedule of weekly events -- so it’s safe to assume this idea is pretty important in the Nadan’s daily lives. The section is entitled ‘The Value of Discipline.’

I don’t know about you, but discipline is a real issue for me. I know how important it is to get things done. As a teacher, I had the discipline to get up every day and make it into school and provide kids something of value. I approached grading papers the same way.

And being a grandfather. I love to schedule time for the grandkids and just go do cool stuff. Dig a pond. Go on a picnic. Take a bike hike. Visit the National Museum of the United States Air force. A quote from the handbook spells out that desire factor pretty well: ‘Freedom is not doing whatever we want, but really wanting to do whatever we must.’ Being Grandpa Tom works like that for me.

But in other aspects of my life discipline is wanting. Too much other stuff distracts. The grocery. Reds’ games. Email. Surfing news and political websites. Taking Mom to the doctor. iTunes. All of this takes me away from the writing I’d like to think I’m supposed to be doing.

So one thing I’d like to think I’ve learned so far on this break from my real world, again from the Nada handbook, is this: The antidote to external rules is not sloppiness but internal rhythm.

I would like to get better at finding my internal rhythm. And that has a lot to do with paying attention. Mindfully. I’ve been reading some Zen stuff, too.

Today’s elder idea: If we skip discipline, an unfruitful looseness and lethargy result. If we leave ourselves wide open, we will never find our way to genuine freedom.

from the Nada handbook

Friday, July 3, 2009

Crestone #3: Arrival at Nada

We are now into our second afternoon in Crestone at the Nada Hermitage. We were welcomed yesterday and went about the task of moving our two weeks of stuff into our place, making it a little bit more our own. We now reside in the morning shadow of the Sangre de Cristo range. It is certainly a site to behold.

Though this place is considered a desert and languishes through a long drought, we had a lovely hard fifteen minute rain just a couple hours after our arrival. Clouds thickened over the late, hot, post-noon hours, then blew in the short driving storm from the west. Air temperature cooled immediately. We had a great view of everything from our south window wall -- after we rushed to close the western windows.

Earlier today we had an orientation with Suzy, a member of the community here. She explained how the library check-out procedure worked and showed us where to put compost, recycling, and trash. We ended our session with a brief visit to Nada’s chapel. While there she explained the symbolism in the two windows and the significance of the black granite altar. We told her a little of our story, especially the recent parts involving the burial of Cindy’s dad just a month or so ago. The discussion then turned to issues of darkness and light that we experience in our lives. Back when I was in graduate school, I was energized by the idea of living at peak experience. Since that time, I have had more than a few heart-to-hearts about how such wasn’t possible. Life is composed of both light and dark, good and bad. Cindy observed how so many people want to see life as an ‘either/or’ thing, when it makes more sense to accept it as ‘both/and.’ We have much to learn from such a varied pallet of life experiences.

Yesterday afternoon in our hermitage was almost magical. We had completed our long 1,500+ mile pilgrimage successfully and were embarking on a ‘quiet’ fourteen day ‘retreat.‘ We shared a bottle of wine while Cindy knitted and sat at our window watching the mountains change with the cloud patterns. I took a couple of brief walks, taking pictures and fighting off a well armed mosquito population. Still, we both felt great and were glad we were finally here. We made reservations back in January!

Waking this morning found us with a bit of an unexpected let-down, but here we were in a secluded cabin with life’s essentials -- and each other. I expected to nap often, write this blog entry, and just be still in this space with the wind audible in the grasses and piñon pines.

Only the library on the Nada campus has wi-fi connection, so after our orientation, Cindy fired up her computer to check email. I was already heading out the door on my way back to our hermitage to write this when she called across the room, shock in her voice, relaying the message that one of our retired colleagues from Wayne High School, Bob Sterling, had died yesterday. We were both stopped in our tracks.

Light and dark, indeed, even in this place of beautiful retreat.

Today’s elder idea: It wasn’t ‘either/or’ for Ansel Adams. He printed images from his photographic negatives with the full range of tones from complete black to absolute white in every exposure. He became a master of embracing the extremes.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Crestone #2: Pilgrimage

I know it would have been quicker to take a plane, rent a car, then get about the pleasure of making our way into the mountains. Denver’s Frontier Airlines, in fact, has a direct flight from Dayton International, and with a rental car, the cost would have been about the same as our gas and motel expenses. I checked. And I’ve heard lots of people say how much they hate to drive across Kansas. It is over 400 miles of monotony, they say, and takes about forever. I understand. It is a long and often painful drive. Still, we welcomed it for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

Today we took on Kansas from a starting point new to us: the southeast corner. We had spent the night prior in Springfield, Missouri, having dinner with Cindy’s aunt and uncle. An hour southwest to Joplin this morning put us on the Kansas line. From there we noodled our way across on red highways (two-laners) all the way west into the high plains, stopping tonight in the little burg of Las Animas, Colorado. It was a hot day, too. A bank sign in Dodge City reported the temp had reached 104.

Aside from the summer heat and the time it takes to traverse, Kansas is downright beautiful. Coming up from the southeast, we watched countless harvesting crews take out mile after mile of winter wheat while others gathered hay and alfalfa into huge rolls and bales. We saw countless western meadowlarks singing their hearts out on fenceposts and marveled at scissor-tail flycatchers working the air. The Gypsum Hills were downright stunning, as well: arroyos and the occasional water hole accenting rolling grassy hills with only a few scrub trees -- as far as the eye could see.

It is important to say, too, that we both saw the trip’s difficult-on-the-butt drive as element of pilgrimage. We signed on for two weeks at the Nada Hermitage because of the silence it offers. Such a promise of silence, we both thought, needed some preparation. We both commented that in the days we spent at home selecting and packing things we might use in our cabin, we were deliberately disconnecting from the world. We had work to do -- stopping the mail and newspaper and lining up family and neighbors to water plants, tend the tomatoes and cucumbers, and cut the grass. But we also felt ourselves slowing down in anticipation of Crestone and the Sangre de Cristos. The long drive is part of that preparation.

The silence Nada and the San Luis valley offers will be important to, as the folks there say, re-humanize us. Essential to that renewal, then, is Nature’s remarkable beauty. Our pilgrimage across the Midwest into the mountains reinforces, again, the wonder and power of this Earth and the amazing geography and geology we know as the United States of America.

Today’s elder idea: Take time to get ready for the really good stuff. Slow down. Immerse yourself in time and place.

PS: I apologize for a few spelling errors published lately. I mistyped in a recent email and some of you were directed to Sorry about that. If you have a few extra minutes, though, give a look. Brother Will reports it is a 2002 piece on California toxics and bears a closer look.