Friday, August 26, 2011

Such a summer

In just minutes I will head upstairs to pour the last glass of pilsner draft from the growler I picked up at Otto’s in State College, Pennsylvania, on the night I spent out on my way back from Hog Island this week.  
A good, safe drive.  (Except for my being called ‘An asshole from Ohio’ in the L.L.Bean parking lot.  But that’s a whole other story.)  The new Chevy Cruze averaged over 40 mpg both ways.  That’s what we were looking for.  Good for Lordstown, Ohio: GM’s final assembly plant for Cruze.  
I suppose this last glass of beer symbolizes the end of summer.  Noah starts school next Tuesday.  Alex, Ellie, and Jenni are in already.  
The end of summer means an imminent restart of my continued work on The Dressy Adventuress: Mabel Loomis Todd and her Camp Mavooshen on Audubon’s Hog Island.  The goal is to have a final working draft by late spring 2011.  Copy can then go out for review, correction, and final revisions.  I’ll have to get permission to publish images from Audubon and Yale, but that shouldn’t be too difficult.  
I mean, such a summer.  
The first big deal was Cindy and my going to San Diego to help celebrate Joanna & Gary’s wedding back in April.  A few weeks later it was taking grandson Alex to the Nation’s Capital where our best hours were spent at National Air & Space’s Advar-Hazy Center at Dulles.  Alex had a reverent visit with an F-14 Tomcat, one of his all-time favorite aircraft.  He was moved.  
The biggest event this summer, though, was to be a family expedition to Crestone, Colorado with grandsons Alex and Noah.  I hoped it would be an engaging adventure for both children and adults alike in a starkly beautiful part of this amazing country.  
Unfortunately, Alex was not able to join us because of his love of aircraft.  As mentioned before, the dude loves planes and had a tough decision to make.  
We found a willing traveling and playing companion for Noah in 12 year-old family friend, Adel.  Neither young man had been west of Chicago yet.  Neither had they seen the endless beauty of the Kansas prairie.  
When asked this morning about how he felt about the Colorado trip, weeks later, Noah responded awesome.  Noah’s favorite stuff in the Sangres?  
  1. Horseback riding.  
  2. Scenic train trip through LeVeta Pass and back.  
  3. Scavenging the desert with Adel looking for antlers and skeletal remains of wildlife past. 
Not a bad list, you know?  He didn’t mention how much fun he had walking up mountain trails, but he doesn’t seem to bear any adverse effects either.  He experienced some pretty cool mountain stuff on his first trip out.  I assured him we’d make South Crestone Lake next trip.  He agreed.  
Cindy Lou and I took Ellie south to the Queen City for an overnighter that included visits to both the Newport Aquarium and the Cincinnati Zoo.  It was mighty hot, but we had a good time.  Ice cream on fountain square at the tail end of the LGBT festival ended our first day out.  When we left the zoo the next day, the thermometer in the new car read 107 degrees.  I couldn’t disagree.  
The last event of my summer was the solo trip last week to  the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Bremen, Maine.  Good work, good sunsets, good fog.  Good inspiration.  I look forward to re-engaging with The Dressy Adventuress.  
I am currently reading Rubicon: The Love Story of Emily Dickinson’s Brother, Austin, and Mabel Todd, the woman who saved Emily’s Poetry:  A Novel by Candace Ridington.  Let’s see how that one works as muse.  
Oh.  One last thing:  I’ve created a music list for the Colorado trip.  The e-collection is entitled Mountains w/ boys.  I could make you a copy of it if you asked real nice.   
Mountains w/ boys  collected summer 2011
1.  ‘Gates of the mountains’  Paul Winter Consort   Beginning with the absolutely marvelous song of the Swainson’s thrush.  How best to start any collection of music? 
2.  ‘Rocky Mountain High’  John Denver   A mantra of mine?  No doubt.  I wanted the boys to know it was a meaningful favorite.  I’m pretty sure they got it.

[Sorry the numbering just got screwy.  I don't know how to fix it.  Holy smoke.  I sound like the Wizard of Oz!!]
  1. ‘Behind the waterfall’  David Lanz & Paul Speer    Great song. 
  1. ‘Swans Against the Sun’  Michael Martin Murphy   I like to call the place were we live Wild Grace; an idea drawn from this cowboy pop song I’ve loved since the 70s.  And, BTW, Mr. Murphy lives in the San Luis and has been known to perform at summer concerts around those parts.   
  1. ‘Colorado Rocky Mountain Home’  Suzie Ryan     A song by our friend Suzie who blessed us with an evening meal visit on this trip.  The ‘bridge’ she sings of is at a Nada retreat cabin up around 9200 feet.  A bit of a hike, but a meditative view and vocal mountain water flow nearby.  Powerful place.
  1. ‘Common nighhawk’  Common nighthawk  A sunset call in both Ohio and Colorado.  A tough little friend, now, in two places.
  1. ‘Prairie melancholy‘  Jennifer Warnes  A touching melody sung by the spirit of a deceased pioneer woman who reflects back on her life.
  1. ‘Mountain‘  David Lanz & Paul Speer  A second cut from the Natural States album.  I found this Narada recording in a national park gift shop while on one of those famous Geology Field Trip events coordinated by my buddy Mark.  I still play the whole collection frequently. 
  1. ‘Witchi Tai To’  Paul Winter Consort  A cut from the Crestone album.  
Witchi tai to -- 
Water spirit feeling springin’ ‘round my head;  
makes me feel glad that I’m not dead. 

Something to be said for that, don’t you think?  
  1. ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’  Marty Robins  Heavens, but I can hear my father sing this song while he worked in his workshop, or as we drove off on a fishing trip. 
  1. ‘Cowboy Buckaroo’  Mason Williams  Just kind of cute.  Fun to sing at full voice!  
  1. ‘Cosmic Cowboy’  Nitty Gritty Dirt Band  And to think we were staying just miles from the Cosmic Highway -- famous for UFO sightings.  I mean, some people take this very seriously.  I’m not kidding:  We had a strange light out on our Crestone horizon that just started moving around on a few nights.  It was a real mystery.  Got us to talkin’...  
  1. ‘In search of kindred spirits‘  Kevin Wood  I’ve always loved the idea of ‘kindred spirits’ since I learned of the Archer Durand painting of the same name.  
  1. ‘Cool water‘   Joni Mitchell & Willie Nelson  Thoughts on life in a very dry place, not unlike the San Luis.
  1. ‘American kestrel’  American kestrel  Noah says this is the bird he really wants to find.  They’re in Ohio, too, so we’ll keep looking.  Now he knows what they sound like. 
  1. ‘Down by the water’  The Decembrists  Buddy Bruce brought The Decembrists with him from LA on his Colorado trek.  Not only on CD, but he played this piece on his guitar and harmonica on the porch a couple of evenings.  Great camping feel.
  1. ‘Happy trails’  Roy Rogers     Simply iconic. 
Today’s Elder Idea:  Happy trails to you, until we meet again /  Keep smilin’ until then....
my hero Roy
image:  The boys with a personal moment with old #18.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hog Island

Again, I apologize to you loyal readers for leaving you in the lurch the last week.  Just about when I was ready to write a new Back Porch entry, it was time for me to leave for Hog Island, Maine, where some important work had to be done.  A busy and tiring week it was, but significant. 
This year I went back to the Hog Island Audubon Camp (as it is known these days) as a kitchen volunteer.  One of the last times I had been there, I served on the staff for the first time as instructor for the Nature Literature and Journaling session.  We only attracted a handful of takers the two years it was offered, so it was axed.  I have been active in Friends of Hog Island for a time, too, so whenever I’ve been to this mystical Muscongus Bay destination, I’ve worn a variety of hats.  
My volunteer work started last Sunday about 8 am after an abbreviated breakfast.  As I recall, the four girls at the table were going on about relationships and men.  We fellows weren’t doing too well in the skirmish, when finally all the ladies laughed, realizing I had been sitting there quietly, meditating over my empty cereal bowl, not trying to defend any heinous male behavior.  
First, we half-dozen valiant volunteers had five buildings to clean and about forty bedrooms to set up.  Rooms were swept, potties swished, showers wiped down, and towels and sheets laid out on every bed.  We were pretty busy for four hours or so.  By then we grabbed a quick lunch and made final readiness to welcome new campers that afternoon. 
This session was composed of Audubon chapter leaders and various national staff from across the country.  I was especially pleased to see Heather Starck and her daughter Ayla on the registration list.  I worked with Heather while serving on the Audubon Ohio board.  She was AO’s education person, spending much of her time coordinating the beginnings of The Grange Insurance Audubon Center in urban Columbus.  About a year after that job was successfully completed, National asked her to be the executive director of Audubon North Carolina.  Hard worker.  Good kids.  Both of ‘em.
After everybody arrived on the mainland and were transported across the narrows to the float tied up to the Queen Mary lab, I spent my volunteer hours primarily in the kitchen.  Janii Laberge is the chef in charge again this summer, and it was a privilege to serve with him.  As I told him, each meal he prepares is a work of art.  The coming together of each course entails a two-hour dance performed relentlessly three times a day.  

Even though we freebie workers wanted to be there, we were always aware of doing something stupid that would cause a rebuke from the maestro.  At least I felt that way.  In the end, I’d have to say my fears were unfounded.  Sure, there was some correction through the week, but it was always good natured, even if tinged with a bit of disbelief in his voice.  I spent most of my time keeping the dirty pots and pans moving through the sink, though I did get to cut and present some chicken breasts, work on the breakfast fruit salad, and stack clean plates just out of the Hobart.  Damned hot, I might add. 
A couple a family things connected to Hog Island to round out this entry:  
Thoughts of Dad this week:  As I told Janii, Dad was 21 when World War II broke out for us.  He was called into work at Frigidaire that December 7 to put in an overtime day grinding firing pins for guns the plant was making for Allied troops.  
After he finished basic training in the Army Air Corps, story goes that while he was waiting for a bus to take him to further training, an officer came by asking recruits if anybody knew about butchering.  Dad said he spent summers on a farm and had seen butchering plenty of times.  That was enough, because next thing he knew, he found himself in the kitchen.  And there he stayed for the rest of the war.  
And here I was working in a commercial kitchen, perhaps not too unlike the ones Dad worked in, thinking how special it would be if I could join him in there again.  I remember working with him in the school kitchen for church men’s club spaghetti dinners when I was a kid, and here I was, working to prepare food that sustained the campers going about their good work for the week.  I hold feeding people well in high regard.  I thought of Dad a lot. 
Bird islands with boys:  I have had such an amazing time at this wonderful place that I’d really like to share it with grandkids.  Are you surprised?  ;-)
Turns out one Family Camp session returns next summer.  Many grandparents are expected with grandkids.  I feel like I’d like to join ‘em.  Who to take?  Consideration of Alex and Noah come up right away.  Don’t know if we can afford to take them both.  And what about the girls?  Torre and Ellie?  Again, I just don’t know how they would take to such rustic accommodations.  
Then there is the teen birding session.  Only 16 kids join a larger group of adult birders.  Director Steve Kress tells us the camaraderie this summer among the whole group was a beauty to behold.  Might Alex like to do that -- solo?  Might be a cool New England thing to do.  
And what of taking a kid out to a rocky and rugged bird island out in the bay to count and tend recovering seabirds for a week?  Wouldn’t that be beyond cool?  Project Puffin is always looking for volunteers.  
All of these are opportunities worthy of consideration.  It is time.  Cindy Lou and I and some parents need to figure this one out.  
The Dressy Adventuress:  Work on my book has been languishing.  It’s been summer, though, with extended child care for Noah that has kept me away from getting much done on that project.  Shoot, I’ve had a hard enough time getting blog entries finished.  
I went to Hog Island, in part, looking for a little fire that could both get my writing enthusiasm for Mrs. Todd's book rekindled while at the same time reducing my insecurities on the project.  I feel pretty good at this point.  It’s time to get back to work.  Wish me luck.  
By the way, I have at least one more ‘Stones & Bones’ entry to write with reflections on the Sangre’s trip.  More on Maine, too.  Stay tuned.  And thanks for reading.  
Today’s elder idea:  This island is so beautiful it really makes my heart ache!  Why, it seems to me God's own heaven can hardly be more perfect. 
journal of Mabel Loomis Todd
written on Hog Island
9 August 1924
photo:  I took this one last week on Hog Island.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Stones & Bones3: Mountains w/ boys

I’ve made it clear here on The Back Porch plenty of times how much I love mountains.  Not that they don’t scare the bejeebers out of me now and then, but I really do love them.  
I know, in part, it’s a sublime thing.  I mean, how can a body not be impressed by a rock standing 14,000 feet high that has a history of taking the life of the occasional hiker/climber who unforgivingly figures a better way down?  It happens.  This spring the Crestone Eagle carried word of discovery of the remains of a backpacker from the Southeast who never made it back to his car last fall.  Found his camp still set up after a winter of light snow in the high country.  Found what was left of him not too far off.  It didn’t go into details.  
So it is in large part because of the sublime that I want to share mountains, the Sangres at Crestone in particular, with my grandkids.  
I have a hard time explaining clearly just what it is about these Rockies that have captured my imagination.  Yes, it is the magnitude of the mountain range and the expanse of San Luis valley just beyond.  And, yes, the quiet retreat time available at Crestone touches something I need.  
But now I seem to have the need to share the place with those I love who I think would find something special there, too.  
First thought, after Cindy Lou, was grandboys.  Alex is 14, Noah 10.  What better time to set a guy loose on a mountain trail or climb a sand dune that seems to reach half way to the sky?  Or maybe ride horses.  Or take a raft trip down the wild and beautiful Arkansas River. 
After our July travel dates were set and lodging arranged, Alex decided he couldn’t go with us due to his passion for aircraft.  The Dayton Air Show was to take place while we would be in Colorado.  Dude had to make a tough choice.  
But Noah was in.  As was another young friend, 12 year-old, Adel.  Neither young man had been west of the Mississippi yet, so our car adventure would be multiple firsts for them, as well as a first for Cindy and my teaming up as vacation activity directors for kids.  We’ve camped with grandkids before, but nothing on this scale.   
I really wanted the boys to have bikes at Crestone.  When I was their age, my bike was a magic carpet that took me into neighborhoods far enough away from home that I had never walked them.  These places were new and exciting, and I really liked that feeling.  I hoped bikes would somehow add to Adel and Noah’s experiences, so onto the Escape bike rack they went.  They trailed us nicely for our 2,600 mile round trip. 
We hauled Adel’s violin, baseball gloves, frisbees, a soccer ball, and a bag full of crafts to keep kids interested in a quiet place.  In my heart, though, I hoped the guys would cut loose from us and go out and find their own adventure.  Such was, and is, at the very center of my wanting (needing?) to share mountains with boys.  
The picture above distills an essence of this Sangres trip for me.  Adel is sitting with his water bottle with Noah at his back holding his walking stick.  Both have just spent a couple hours ascending the trail to North Crestone Lake. 
We knew we would not reach the lake on this day, but that we would discover as much of the trail as we could.  Noah had just decided not too far back on the trail that he had had enough walking for the day.  After a break we would start to head back down. 
Just about then, the fourth ‘boy’ in our party, my Los Angeles friend Bruce, who had been the hike’s rabbit up ahead on the trail, came back for us to advise of a very rewarding mountain panorama just ahead from our current position.  Ahead Noah and I pushed.  The view, as you can see, was amazing.  
So I guess I’m saying that adventure and boys and mountains go together.  Surely in Crestone.  And it’s not that I don’t want to take granddaughters.  It’s just that I’d like to take kids who would most probably enjoy the physical kick in the butt that Nature provides.  I’m just not sure about grandgirls.  

Today’s Elder Idea:  If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder...he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.
from Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder
photo:  ‘Mountains w/ boys’  Tom Schaefer (summer 2011)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Stones & bones2: Water

I consider myself a newbie to Crestone, having been there just three times for a total of five weeks over the last three years. 
Still, I have to say, the place scares me a little. 
It’s not the people.  The ones I’ve met are great.  I hear there is some animosity downtown where one market owner wants to see another driven out of business, but that could be anything.  All the folks I’ve met, and it hasn’t been many, have been just lovely. 
It’s more just the physical place:  The topography.  The vegetation.  Or lack thereof.  The wildness just beyond the next mile of light suburban development.  
I heard someone who lives there say life at Crestone is austere.  That would mean he thinks life there is either severe or strict in manner, attitude, or appearance or having no comforts or luxuries; harsh.  Or maybe definition #3 is a little more his flavor: having an extremely plain and simple style or appearance; unadorned. 
For me, Crestone’s austerity manifests itself in the magnitude of things.  There’s just so much of everything there.
The mountains:  Four 14k peaks just to the east in the Sangre de Cristo range.  Trails and mountain experiences abound.  Enough said.  
The desert:  Thousands of empty dry acres west making up the Baca Grants and just beyond, the Baca National Wildlife Reserve.  No more than ten miles due south is Great Sand Dune National Park and Preserve.  The desert is a presence here. 
The summer sky:  A moving and morphing painting of open blue, scudding puffballs, and by afternoon, localized thunderheads dropping their wet loads, visible from your perch in the foothills, from cloud top to water hitting the earth.  Amazing scope.  And just about every mid to late summer afternoon.
The spirit:  A respected zen teacher professed this place one of the best in the world for personal retreat because of the natural energy converging via of water, sky, earth, and spirit.  The Carmelites have come here to offer quiet desert cabins as places of reflection in the presence of mountains.  People seem to think this a place where spirit has a better chance of connecting with souls.    
For me, the Crestone area is a living and breathing dichotomy that, while still a puzzle to me, energizes me in ways that make my heart sing.  
I’ve referred to the mountains as green, and they are.  But the land just at their skirt is sandy and rocky and dry and for all intents and purposes a desert.  Prickly pear cactus does very well there.  Remember, too, that the swelling desert just beyond the mountains is the body of the San Luis, that large expanse of alpine valley known for both its abundance of wildlife and its record setting potato production. 
It’s all just a little strange for a guy who has grown up in the presence of trees and summer thunderstorms.  
Maybe it is some buried reverence for water deep inside that I don’t understand.  
I’ll say this:  something there is about interacting with a mountain stream, tumbling true and cold from some alpine lake full of snowmelt.   
Just being on the mountain in the presence of its water is enough.  Being at a wider spot in the stream, down lower after multiple rivulets have combined into one larger flow that is enough to be named:  Willow Creek, South Crestone Creek, Spanish Creek.  Listen to the spirit in the voice of the water babbling.  
It was along the North Crestone Creek that our Crestone adventure began a couple Saturdays ago.  Cindy and I knew we wouldn’t walk far, but we wanted to get the boys up a mountain trail for an authentic experience.  The trail turned out to be a gravel road, but you get the idea.  
We ascended for 45 minutes or so, finding a great open spot just along the North Crestone Creek probably a mile or so uptrail from the national forest campground.  Packs were dropped, Cindy’s camera came out, trail snacks were consumed, and boys became mystified boulder hoppers.   
And the beginning of a very fine time was had by all. 
Today’s elder idea:  The Sangre de Cristo mountains is among the youngest in Colorado.  With nine peaks above 14,000 feet, this rugged mountain chain is one of the longest and straightest continuous mountain ranges in the world.  The Sangre de Cristos stretch for over 75 miles, rarely dipping below 10,000 feet, and are home to more than 60 alpine lakes, 400 miles of streams, and nearly 400 miles of trails.  
from a National Geographic map
Photo:  Cindy Lou Cooke  c. 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

Stones & bones1

First off, let me apologize to those faithful readers who have been looking for updates on our family’s July Crestone trip.  Phew!  It sure is easier to write when one is traveling by himself or with his partner.  More quiet reflection is possible.  When traveling with two boys, however, the equation changes.  It’s been a while since I’ve traveled so intensely with kids.  Their interest and care take precedence over reflective blogging!  
Know, though, that Cindy Lou and I as well as Noah and Adel had a great time.  I don’t really want to play the trip back for you one day/event at a time, so let me reflect a bit on what moves me most after the fact. 
When we got to Crestone, I hate to admit, I was damn depressed.  
We had been on the road four long days, and all travelers were pretty worn out, even though we were energized by just having watched rafters on the Arkansas River and finally arriving at the lofty and green Sangre de Cristo mountains. 
Fact was our first afternoon in Crestone was mighty hot.  Must have been in the low- to mid-90s, I’d guess.  The straw bale house in which we stayed was reasonably cool, but with the temp where it was, it was still hot.  And, I must add, the place had no air conditioning and not even a fan.  All I could think of was that if the afternoon heat continued like that for all of our nine day visit, we would all be fricking miserable.  
So it was that after an initial unpacking of the car, and feeling uncomfortably hot, I found myself parked on the adult bed on the loft in tears.  Cindy comforted me and told me all would be okay, but I had very vivid images of how hot the mid-section of America had been on the first leg of our 3,000 mile round-trip.  If we had to put up with anything like that without in-house cooling, everybody’s behavior wouldn’t be pretty.  (On our night #2 stop in Salina, Kansas, the heat index had to have been 110+ degrees.  Felt like we got out of the air conditioned car and stepped into a roaster.  No kidding.)  In addition, good friend Bruce was coming in from Los Angeles, and he made it perfectly clear he'd rather do Colorado in October when everything cooled off.  Having him trek in from California for a hot and uncomfortable stay disheartened me even more. 
You see, this Colorado trip was all my idea.  Yes, Cindy Lou was in favor, but if the truth be told, she would prefer vacationing on a nice breezy beach someplace where she could lay out in the sun and read a book.  Crestone sure as hell wasn’t feeling like that on afternoon #1.  
Still, the boys seemed to be in good shape.  We had hauled two twenty inch bikes ‘cross country, and they jumped on and took off up the road first chance they got.  It was what I hoped they would do.  I expected the bikes would give them both a certain sense of independence on this trip.    
And, after all, that was one of the main reasons for expanding our Crestone expedition to boys.  I mean, I love the Colorado Rockies.  I have for as long as I can remember.  I hadn’t gotten there for too many years, though, when I discovered Paul Winter Consort’s Crestone album in 2008 -- which is currently playing in my writing space.  I determined that winter I had to get back.    
It was great to find the Nada Hermitage in summer 2009 for a two week Crestone stay with Cindy Lou.  It was even better for me to return there fall 2010 for a solo two week writing sabbatical.  Amazing stuff with first snow flying on the peaks and all.
But a trip from Ohio to Colorado was an adventure above all.  I have had such a good time in the process over the years that I so wanted to share it with grandkids.  This was our first try at taking them to mountains.  It had to be a good time.
Well, by afternoon’s end I was feeling a bit better.  The afternoon cooled as soon as the sun began to set.  By night’s end, the air was in the very delicious 50s.  Oh, so nice to sleep in that!  
I also decided that even though we needed a few days to adapt our lungs to the thinner air at 8000 feet, we had to get the boys mountain hiking on day 2.  Cindy agreed.  
We wouldn’t try to do too much.  We’d just head up the North Crestone Lake trail as far as we could.  Turned out we had just the right amount of lunch and found a lovely spot just off the trail to eat it and get our feet wet in that delightful stream descending down the mountain.  
All would be great, as Cindy promised.  Tears again.  More later.  
Today’s elder idea:  This year, it is not clear, just what ends here or what’s begun....  
Michael Martin Murphy
‘Swans Against the Sun’