Mary Oliver

We’ve lost Mary Oliver; her pure and rampant voice comprised of simple observation, curiosity, and a kind of rapture based on wonderment. Not surprisingly, she said it best.

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn:
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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Must Be Winter in Montana

This past Friday I decided to go paddling. We hadn’t seen snow in a couple of weeks, the temps were topping out in the high 30s and low 40s.Skiing around town was crusty and thin. I invited a friend I’d long wanted to paddle with. We’ve known each other for years through various tangents. He’s a kindred spirit of northern paddling adventures. We have mutual friends. And, because he works for Yellowstone National Park, he’s out of work due to the tragic, pathetic government shutdown that is daily harming millions of Americans because of a non-existent crisis.

We met in my driveway after breakfast. I’d been out pouring boiling water over the bow and stern lines of the canoe to get them unfrozen from the ground. We wore winter boots, paddling mitts, long underwear. It was sunny and cold. On the way to our put-in on a stretch of the East Gallatin River that is fed by spring creeks and tends to stay ice free with enough water to paddle all winter, we drove under the sharp gaze of a majestic golden eagle, its tawny head glistening in the winter sun. A good omen.

By mid-morning we were afloat, getting used to each other’s paddling styles, feeling that play of boat hull and swinging current and paddle stroke like the dance it always is. Because we’d never paddled together before, and had only talked sporadically over the years, we chatted most of the time. Not about the shutdown which was hurting his family and disrupting his work, with ripple effects that ranged from completing wildlife studies to whether he would have to draw from his retirement savings to pay bills. No. We talked about northern rivers, about mutual friends, about books we loved, and the local geography that kept revealing new perspectives on the Bridger Range, the Hyalites, the Tobacco Roots, as we swung around corner after corner.

The river did its magic, the way it accelerated around an oxbow curve, or funneled into a deep slick over a shallows. Rough-legged hawks coasted overhead, ducks jumped from the water ahead of us, white-tail flashed through the willows, the sky bathed us in winter light. “I’m a big advocate of putting your head in the sand once in a while,” he said. “You disappear from society, dive into an adventure and forget the bullshit.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever even thought about Montana paddling in January,” he laughed, “but this is sweet.”

“Yeah, and there’s the next stretch downstream to think about if the weather stays warm,” I said when we shook hands at the end.

Then, the very next day, early Saturday morning, I met friends to go ski in Yellowstone Park, along the upper reaches of the Gallatin River.

At the Bighorn trailhead, where we snapped into ski bindings, it was -4 degrees. The day was dazzling, almost blinding. The kind of day you could sunburn the bottom of your nose from the reflected glare. The carpet of snow sparkled with diamonds of crystalline light. We struck up the broad, open valley. The river carved its slow way down from its source below Bighorn Pass. The trail had been broken some five miles in. We warmed up, shed layers, the sun warmed the day, the snow settled around us, snowshoe hare tracks bounded here and there, open patches of river gurgled through the vise of winter. Where the broken trail petered out, where deep, sugary snow stopped us, there were bison trails and beds, deep tunnels of heroic effort and brute survival.

Back at the cars, with the sun going behind the ridge and the temperature plummeting, we hugged, chatted about another nearby trail we might ski later in the week.

“Maybe,” I said, “but I could be paddling that day. Let’s see how it goes.”

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Voyages

What do you say when a relative announces that he has an apartment available in Hawaii whenever you want to come visit?

In our case, we said we’ll be there in December, before the Christmas rush. We drove to Seattle – Marypat, Eli and I – and flew on over, landing in Kona, greeted with leis in the tropical evening air by my cousin Al (easy name to remember!). For more than a week, we enjoyed snorkeling with an amazing array of colorful fish, hanging out with sea turtles, being bashed around by surf on boogie-boards, witnessing the amazing wet/dry phenomenon where within a couple of miles you cross from what feels like Arizona to what passes for jungle, eating Hawaiian cuisine (Spam and eggs), hiking to black beaches and surf-beaten headlands, walking across fresh lava flows, visiting farmer’s markets and botanical gardens and 200-foot waterfalls.

Best of all, at this point in my life, was the chance to deepen relationships with relatives who we’ve only recently begun to know, hearing their back story during evening conversations, finding out what makes them tick, how their lives came together, why they live where they do. That is the take-home piece for me, the thing that outshines the usual tourist highlights, this deepened bond with another branch of family.

What also stays with me is the remarkable geography of this outlier state, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the inescapable background knowledge of that location, surrounded by horizon after horizon of open ocean. First, the rampant isolation of it. But also, the solidity of these islands, rising as much as 13,000′ above the sea in volcanic mounts that are still building themselves, eruption after eruption, lava river after lava river, towering above the deep, sheer skirts of rock rising out of the seafloor far below.

Partway through the visit, we listened to a ranger talk at one of the island parks. She spoke of the first settlers of the islands, some 1,500 years earlier, and the circumstances under which we now surmise they made their way to these islands. They were South Pacific sailors, from Tahiti or one of the other Polynesian Islands roughly 2,500 miles away. They girded themselves for voyages north, assuming from evidence like bird migrations that land existed somewhere out there, and set off in ocean-going vessels that were little more than large canoes with outriggers and sails.

They had nothing besides their abiding knowledge of the ocean – its vast eddies and winds and storms. They had their navigational wisdom based on observations of the stars and sun, currents and trade winds. They carried the most basic foods and supplies. For more than a month they lived and navigated and survived on the ocean, sailing northward. Eventually, they came to what we now call Hawaii, where they landed, they settled, they built culture and organized politics and developed ceremonies. They were among the avalanche of exotic species who have come to these mid-ocean lumps of lava and found ways to live – plants, animals, insects, birds, people – all arriving by some circumstantial quirk to take up residence and wreak various havoc and flourish and compete.

What an unbelievable leap of faith. It begs the question of what desperation, or curiosity, or adventurous urge, led to that launching of boats. It begs the question of how many voyages set out and never returned, never found land, and perished in the quest. It stirs the imagination, these unbelievably daunting voyages and the intrepid confidence or desperate circumstances that fueled them.

It beggars current expedition lore, robust and ambitious as it sometimes is, to consider these oceanic odysseys. It certainly beggars our own voyage, by plane and car, with a waiting apartment and the local knowledge of relatives at the other end with fragrant wreaths of flowers to put around our necks.

What a thing!

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This Schizophrenic Time

It hits me about a mile up the trail along the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park. We pause there on the way to the Cache Creek junction. Utter quiet. Nothing stirs. Light snow falls from a gray sky. Specimen Ridge dives down to meet the valley floor. No people, no noise, stillness rippling away like ocean.

We stop because a herd of maybe 100 bison punctuate the land ahead, on both sides of the trail – shaggy, enduring boulders in the sifting snowfall. Closer still, a northern shrike perches at the top of a small tree.

What strikes me is that, this is what it used to be like everywhere, all the time, not that long ago. Space, quiet, animals going about their business, landscape spreading to the horizon. It strikes me because it is so rare now, the swooping vacuum of silence and uninhabited, undeveloped space. This is what it all used to be like, I think again, walking toward the stoic bison across freezing ground.

To find such sanctuary, now, requires strategy. We come late in the season, just before the park roads close, shedding the ‘animal jam’ traffic and summer tourists. We leave the boardwalks and diorama-studded ‘nature’ trails and strike off. We walk more than the normal half-mile that seems to be the tether for most park visitors. On one level, it’s not that hard to do – a pretty minimal effort of timing and commitment. Still, it is notable how rare it is in the usual round of existence to find such stillness, such calm, in which the earth seems to palpably breathe its rhythms.

We walk on, past the bison, deeper into silence. Some ways up Cache Creek we stop for lunch in the pre-winter day. While we eat, we spread the map between us, outline future hikes, deeper dives into the untrammeled landscape. On the way back, more bison, more birds in the gray sky, a few snow squalls. Through it all, the spell of silence embraces us.

A few hours later, the same afternoon, we negotiate a packed parking lot at the trailhead for the Boiling River hot springs, also in Yellowstone Park. Seemed like a good idea to get in a soak to top off the day, but when we see the glut of cars and people, we hesitate. Nevertheless, we pull on swimsuits and lock the car behind us. Along the trail to the remarkable confluence of gushing hot springs and the Gardner River, there is a steady parade of bath-robed, flip-flop-wearing soakers.

At the hot springs, we jostle awkwardly over rough boulders into the ribbon of hot water, an eddying line of tolerable temperature, with scalding heat to one side and frigid cold to the other. It is like pushing into a crowded subway at rush hour with a gaggle of half-naked commuters. Settling in, literally rubbing shoulders with strangers, I strain to blend the two parts of this same day – the oceanic, quiet wild of the morning, and the human jam I find myself literally immersed in.

It is emblematic of contemporary life, this mind-bending phenomenon of leaping between dimensions of reality. In the period of a few hours I can board a plane in mid-winter Montana and land, the same day, in tropical Hawaii, or the Yucatan, or Palm Beach. Within a day I can leap from American culture to the culture of Kenya or Japan or Malaysia.

Given that potential, the schizophrenic day in Yellowstone Park seems unremarkable. And yet, for me, contrasting the moment of awareness in the company of a herd of bison, with the relative cacophony at the hot springs, has profound significance. Am I capable of truly reckoning with such contrast? Are we humans biologically and emotionally equipped to make such seismic shifts? What does the normalization of leaps between dimensions do to our sense of reality? Do we numb ourselves to contrast in the process?

As we leave the hot pools, stumbling back over slippery rocks, a young couple passes us as they enter. They both carry tall cans of Coors. The man holds tight to his vulnerable cell phone in his other hand, despite the precarious passage, as if the possibility of leaving his electronic appendage behind would be tantamount to amputation. Lord knows, he might have to forgo a ‘selfie’ that will immortalize him on Facebook.

Maybe, I think, as I gird myself for the chilly schlep back to the car, leaps between environments is the least of our issues.

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The Practice of Wandering

Mary Oliver wrote:

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.”

This weekend we took our new, little T@B travel trailer out on a test run. Yes, we’ve joined the ranks of the RV folk, in anticipation of some extended vagabond time in the next era of life. It was an impulsive move. It is very cute. It is simple. It is small. We pulled it over to the Madison River with our ancient Honda Odyssey with 365,000 miles on it, camped next to the river, tried out the rig.

On Sunday we slept in, snuggled in the cozy bed. We made coffee and sat under the awning, watching the scud of gray sky, threatening weather. Eventually we had breakfast, and it was nearly noon before we unhitched the car and drove a few miles to Madison Buffalo Jump State Park. It is the time of year when, historians tell us, native peoples gathered in large numbers there to drive bison over the cliffs to their deaths. We walked through the yellowed grasses up a sloping valley, angled uphill toward the bench behind the cliff escarpment. It is a place that fairly hums with history, but now, is quiet and largely unvisited. Rising above the valley, the view spreads, to the line of trees along the Madison River, the cliffs on the opposite side, away into the Tobacco Root Mountains. Over it the gray skies and the hum of history. At the top we noticed another trail down below that looked like it might intersect farther up the bench. We followed the narrow grassy ridge to see. The trails did meet, just below a fence with an unequivocal No Trespassing sign. We turned and strolled back down toward the cliffs, making detours to see where side trails might lead. On the way one of the ancient teepee rings lay before us. We lay down in it, looked at the sky, smelled juniper and sage. The wind stirred.

Along the edge of cliffs trails web here and there. At one point a series of potholes had filled with water from recent rains. Robins were everywhere, and Townsend’s solitaires, juncos. Glistening pools, and birds. Eventually we found a break in the cliffs we could scramble down, and then sidehill gingerly through prickly pear on the steep slope where, presumably, hundreds, probably thousands, of bison had met their demise. Impossible not to entertain images of the carnage, that joyous, macabre harvest: bawling, injured animals, crews of people butchering with stone tools, the smell of blood and hide and smoke and sweat saturating the day.

Late in the afternoon we returned to the trailer. While we ate sandwiches at the picnic table, a gang of warblers thronged the willows nearby. Dozens of yellow-tinged birds, busy with something. Suddenly, they disappeared. Just then, the flair of Cooper’s hawk tilted past our table, banded tail and sharp beak. It landed in the vacated willows, settled itself, as if asserting hierarchy, watchful for an inattentive warbler, or, perhaps, chagrined at missing a chance. We saw it all, sitting with our sandwiches in hand, with the gray sky wreathing above, and the river murmuring past.

Maybe prayer is nothing more than being still and paying some attention.

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Letter To The Editor

I am a writer. I take it personally when President Trump echoes fellow authoritarians, Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao, and calls the media “the enemy of the people.”

It is no accident that job one on the authoritarian “to-do” list is to take over and demean the media. It is no accident that these regimes, throughout history, attack libraries, universities, and the educated populace. They have a simple, practical reason. They fear the truth. They fear knowledge. They don’t want people to know what is behind the curtain of corruption. They don’t want people to understand history, to appreciate other cultures, to discover other ways to see the world.

For millennia this has been so. Now it is so in our country. Our president speaks those words for the same reason Stalin did, for the same reason all tyrants speak them. Because truth and knowledge are the greatest threats to his tyranny. Worse yet, his Republican minions facilitate him through their cowardly, silent complicity.

It is time to address this danger. Ballots are coming. The election looms. We have a chance to speak to power in the most fundamental way, through our votes. Do we want truth, or do we accept our own version of Stalin?

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Still Tuned . . . ?

Sorry about that. I meant to get back to my Plan B post in a few days, but things got away from me. Good things.

Like a week spent on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, in Idaho, a trip many paddlers list in their top 5 expeditions. A trip we’ve had on our list for decades, but never managed, until now, to pull a permit or have the time to go on. Now we have, and we understand why it’s on everyone’s top tier of river trip experiences. Our time was typified by low water, great weather, sterling company, and nearby forest fires. In a nutshell – fun, busy water for inflatable canoes, hot springs along the way, persistent good weather and a group of friends who have known each other for decades.

Then we got back and got pulled in to being the support crew for two of the kids (Ruby and Sawyer) and a friend who were competing in a 24-hour mountain bike race near Kalispell, MT. When was the last time I pulled an all-nighter?? I don’t know, but I don’t need another one in the next decade. Fun to be part of the crazy scene, and doubly so because our team, Punk Rock Ev, won the day, but it’s one of those activities like the 100-mile runs that make you ask . . . why???

Enough excuses. Back to the early summer and what became of our thwarted northern expedition plans. The fact that we needed a Plan B was due to an earlier decision to rent our house for the 5-6 weeks that we’d be gone. Those renters were still planning on moving in, and a deal is a deal, so we had to vacate between June 24 and August 1.

The Plan was pretty loose and required us to render our Toyota Prius into a recreational vehicle, loaded down with the inflatable canoe and paddling gear, two mountain bikes and their equipment, backpacking supplies, and general camping outfit. Nothing the Prius, with the addition of a roof rack, rocket box, bike rack and some creative packing, couldn’t accomplish. Off we drove, after giving the renters the run-through on our quirky home.

Honestly, we didn’t know how far we’d range, from Canada to the Pacific coast. We were flexible and unplanned. In the end, we never left the confines of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The organizing theme was to do things and go places we hadn’t indulged before – paddle streams we’d always meant to get to, hike in mountains we’d never explored, visit folks we’d lost touch with, check out communities we were curious about. Above all, to be flexible enough to take in a matinee movie that seemed intriguing, or detour 100 miles to see an old friend, or take up the suggestion of a local about a nice ride/paddle/event to experience.

Some highlights:

– New rivers . . . the Popo Agie, the Grays, the Buffalo Fork, the upper Snake, the upper Green, the upper Stillwater, and more.
– New hikes . . . Italian Peaks (Montana), the Big Snowies (Montana), the Pioneers (Montana), Table Mountain (Wyoming), Timberline Lake (MT).
– Bike rides . . . Red Canyon (Wyo), 200 miles of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail between Ashton, Id. and Pinedale, Wyo., assorted river shuttles.
– Other notable events – a tour of Tippet Rise in Fishtail, Mont. (look it up – pretty incredible), a matinee viewing of RBG in Jackson Hole, Wyo. (worth seeing!), 4th of July in Dillon with family and friends, an overnight return to a favorite stretch of the Yellowstone River – (God I love that piece of water!).

The Upshot:

– Yeah, I guess we could be vagabonds for a while. With a few tweaks and a different rig, we could go a long time and stay pretty occupied.
– Not only did we get the satisfaction of checking off a list of places we’ve long wanted to experience, the list only got longer because in those visits, we kept uncovering more cool places to get to next time.
– It was really nice to come home. It is good to have a home base and community of friends, even if we get away for extended periods. Nothing replaces that.

Summer is waning now in Montana, as sure as the rivers ebb toward fall trickles. School and teaching gigs begin in a week. Life will resume a work, home, play pattern tethered to our long-standing community. But inevitably, plans are afoot – next year’s summer expedition in the north, our dance with retirement (can we???) and what we might do with it, decisions about downsizing our life, making the most of our dwindling time, watching the kids grow into their futures, and always, aware of the unexpected turns which loom on the horizon, inevitable as they are unpredictable.

So yeah, stay tuned, stay ready, love life.

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Ah . . . Life!

It has been a long time, even by my standards. The (very) occasional blogger reappears. If you pick this up expecting a chronicle of northern canoe adventure from the tundra of Nunavut, you’re about to be disappointed. To give away the punch line, we didn’t end up going. Here’s why.

It is a testimony to how life gets in the way of our best laid plans. In our case, life inserted itself around mid-February, when, one morning, Marypat and I were sitting in the living room with our cups of coffee, contemplating the gray dawn. Out of the quiet, Marypat said, “Something’s wrong with me.” I resisted the obvious snarky come back, and instead, felt the chill of dread sparked by a statement like that, at our age. Dread because we know so many people who have fallen prey to mishap, illness, circumstance in ways that have fundamentally changed their lives, altered their abilities, thwarted their ambitions. Debilitating migraines, strokes, falls, cancer, car wrecks, amputations, heart attacks, surgeries gone very wrong. In some cases, friends and acquaintances have succumbed, tragically and too early. These days, we go to a lot more memorial services than weddings . . .

So yes, dread. Also, some impulse to discount that sort of statement. Things come and go, especially at our age. You have a bad month. Inexplicable issues come up and then fade. Maybe it’s a passing thing.

Sometime mid-winter, Marypat started feeling an alarming, full-body ache. Her shoulders, her hips, her neck, her hands. She could barely turn over in bed. She couldn’t open a jar, pick up a box, sit in a car, lift the end of a canoe. When she got out of bed and tried to walk, it was like watching an 80-year old getting her bearings, trusting her legs, taking the first shaky step. Going for a ski that she would normally knock off without any effect would leave her exhausted for days. No more yoga, no more gym workouts, no more all-day outings. It was all she could do to get through a work day teaching art at the elementary school.

This from a woman who is nothing if not physically fierce. Marypat’s identity is inextricably knotted up with the joys and challenges of physical activity. To lose that . . . well, it’s not a thing I like to contemplate.

We tried acupuncture, dietary changes, massage. She had blood work and doctor consults. Everyone had their theory, their diagnosis, their treatment plan. Nothing had any effect. She might have a good day with anti-inflammatory drugs, but relapse, in tears, the next. As spring came on she couldn’t bike ride. We went for a short paddle on a local stream, just a couple of hours on the water, and she couldn’t open her hands for the next two days.

Through all this we were continuing to dry food and gear up for a 40-day expedition to the Far North. I had joked that it was an opportunity to see if we still had it in us. Suddenly, it wasn’t such a joke.

We finally were able to get in with a local rheumatologist. At this point our departure was only a month off. The doc looked at MP’s blood work, asked good questions, ordered more tests. She came up with a diagnosis of Polymyalgia Rheumatica (sp?) that she was pretty confident of. It’s one of those baffling auto-immune disorders so many people seem afflicted by, and that also seem so little understood. She prescribed a tapering dose of Prednisone that might continue for a period of years, along with a bone-building drug to counteract one of the side-effects of the Prednisone regimen. By the time we were in full treatment, the clock was down to two weeks. Still, we held off, we kept drying food, piling up gear.

Over Memorial Day, we continued a very fun group tradition of paddling three rivers in three days. That Monday morning, two rivers down, Marypat was standing with me and Ruby at the camp table, waiting for coffee. “I’ve made my decision,” she said. “I can’t do the trip this year.” Silence. It was one of those turning-point moments. Honestly, it wasn’t a huge surprise. We had all been watching her, wondering how this could possibly work, coming to that same conclusion. But it was her call, and for her to give up on a trip like that, to admit she couldn’t pull it off, to assess her physical ability and realize it wasn’t up to the challenge. That was a huge thing. Also, admittedly, a bit of a relief to have a decision, even a decision that wasn’t preferred. It meant that we could move on, make alternative plans, get to the next thing.

In typical style, Marypat followed her announcement with a pledge. “I’m not giving up on the trip,” she went on. “I’m just putting it off. I’m in for next year when we get this stuff figured out. Are you guys?”

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which our Plan B is revealed – how we spent our expedition time as vagabonds.

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You See These Things

The other day Sawyer asked if I’d drive a shuttle car for him. He and some friends were planning to “crust-cruise” (a spring skate ski phenomenon) over the Gallatin Range. My picking them up would save them a prohibitive drive to stage a car on the far side. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, so I agreed. Actually, it’s a pretty nice drive, up Paradise Valley along the Yellowstone River and then, using my “geezer pass”, into Yellowstone Park. Beautiful morning. The Yellowstone coming up, but still far from flooding. The mountains deep in snowpack, potent with uncertain prospects for flooding, great paddling, natural drama.

I drove up past the Mammoth Terraces, the roads gritty with sand. Few visitors, winter-gaunt elk and bison searching for greening grass. I got to our rendezvous before the crew arrived and was standing by the car, chastising myself for forgetting binoculars, surveying the distant slopes and meadows for skiers. Geese flew overhead. A sandhill crane called from a nearby meadow. Some bison moved slowly across a bare hillside near Bunsen Peak. I heard a funny ticking noise, some soft thumping. I figured it was the cooling engine, didn’t give it much thought, but it persisted. Finally I looked over.

On the far side of the car a female mountain bluebird was flitting energetically around the sideview mirror. She landed on the mirror itself and started pecking away at her reflection, then hopped on top of the mirror, then to the window, back to the mirror, more pecking. She paid me no mind. Eventually she came to my side of the car and repeated her obsessive behavior on that mirror, completely oblivious to me. The male bluebird arrived. The two birds twirled together in a spiraling flight maybe thirty feet high, then broke off – courtship, spring energy, love . . . They disappeared into the open end of a metal hitching rail near the trailhead, emerged again, did another acrobatic spiraling flight, blue wings tangling in the blue sky. Then the female returned to the mirror, took up her OCD preoccupation with her image. I assume she thought the bird in the mirror was an intruder. She was so energetic in her attacks I worried she might break her thin beak on the glass.

I had brought a couple of magazines to read while I waited, but the birds were so entertaining, so bright, so active. Then I caught some distant movement on far slopes, four skiers skating across the final feathering stretches of melting snow, eating distance. Suddenly they were there, twenty-some miles in their wake. They were full of all the wildlife they’d seen – grizzly and wolf tracks, moose and bison and elk, a fox, a skunk. I showed them the bright birds, still obsessed with the car mirror.

When we drove off I imagined the relief that bluebird must have felt, finally free of the territorial interloper so immune to her attacks. I wanted to put up a no parking sign so she’d be spared the trial of another reflected challenger showing up. How much spring energy will she use up fighting off the endless stream of herself, provoking her, strangely oblivious to her attacks, and then mysteriously disappearing? What unintended challenges we present, being in the world with our inexplicable geegaws.

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Antidote To War

Yes, we’re back! Survived, actually thrived, for a month in South Korea and have returned to a lingering winter, the prospects of paddling and biking season held at bay by wet slushy conditions and cool temperatures. Also back with my personal prescription to end warfare in the world. It’s really a pretty simple solution – I’m shocked it hasn’t been promoted by politicians. Well, I take that back, I’m not shocked by anything political any more. But first, a quick update on the month.

It was a two-part experience.

Part I – the Paralympics, during which we hunkered down in an AirBnB in Gangneung (on the northeastern coast) and yo-yoed back and forth between Olympic venues to watch Sawyer’s races and various other events like hockey and downhill skiing. Our little apartment mirrored the living space for as much as 90% of Korea’s population – the 15th floor of a high-rise apartment building in a thicket of identical buildings. These fields of apartment towers rise up in every city in the country. They house small, efficient living spaces, well soundproofed, with no containment on showers, with little attention to chairs and tables. Ours did have a dining table and chairs, a nice bed, and bedding for others on the floor. Our host was incredibly sweet, stocking food for us, dropping off gifts, and very helpful with directions. Eli and Ruby and one of Sawyer’s old school buddies, Fletcher, all showed up during that phase to witness the events, add their personalities to the mix, and generally ramp up energy levels.

We interspersed going to events and ceremonies with outings to a couple of national parks, temples, and local sights, getting to know our surroundings, becoming more comfortable with local transport, and sampling local markets, squid ink ice cream, exercise stations along city trails, steep hiking trails and incredibly friendly and helpful locals. The highlight, of course, was Sawyer and Jake’s silver medal race in the 10K event late in the week of competition. They were denied an earlier bronze medal because of a pretty sketchy disqualification protest, but brought home silver in style. The medal ceremony was one of those proud parental moments for the books. Too bad the Paralympics are so ignored by television coverage and general interest, because it is an inspiring and powerful display of overcoming odds and heroic effort at an elite level. And the personal stories of tragedy and commitment are pretty incredible. As Sawyer suggested, we ought to schedule the Paralympic games ahead of the actual Olympics and give it the coverage it deserves.

Anyway, the good news is that we all got to participate in it, got tours of the athlete village, benefited from all the schwag showered on Sawyer and the team, and mingled with other families/athletes doing the same.

Part II – After the games, we traveled the country with Sawyer for another two weeks. We had a rental car, which made it pretty luxurious and nimble by comparison to depending on public transport. Luckily the navigation system (we named it Karen) got us wherever we desired (mostly). Just type in the destination and follow directions. If we’d had to depend on paper maps, we’d probably still be in Seoul! Also turns out that it is incredibly helpful to have a 25-year-old with a good phone along these days. Sawyer saved us on numerous occasions when it came to finding a room, deciphering a town, locating a restaurant. Would have been pretty different without him. We covered a lot of ground, only missing the southeastern quadrant of the country. Mostly we hopped from national park to national park, hiking trails, visiting temples, getting doses of culture. We stayed in a variety of AirBnB and motels, mostly at $50/night, either cooking in our rooms, or going out for Korean food. Again, little emphasis on beds and chairs and tables. Rooms were often just a warm floor with mats and blankets and a bathroom with uncontained shower drainage. Workable, but spare. We did have a couple of nicer rooms, with beds, chairs, balconies.

Our travels took us all the way south to the island of Jeju, which was quite tropical by comparison – palm trees and blossoming cherry trees, volcanic peaks and lava tube caves, sea food everywhere (think live octopus and squid). We rented bikes one day to cruise through some islands – no bikes big enough for Sawyer or me – pretty much a BMX experience. Recreation, South Korea style, is a very social affair. Peaks generally had 30-50 people on them, all taking selfies and talking at high volume. Tourists arrived literally by the busload and trails were packed with Koreans all in the same outfits – stretch pants, trekking poles, big hats, day packs.

Rather than try to chronicle our time, I started a list of Korean observations. So, in the interest of saving space, here’s a sample:

– Koreans pour their friend’s drinks, never their own – a symbol of the Confucian/Buddhist emphasis on community over individual;
– Koreans are helpful to an excruciating degree;
– I never felt threatened or unsafe anywhere;
– Recycling is routine and expected, from food waste to cardboard, and from apartment buildings to ferry terminals;
– They may pride themselves on Korean beef and pork, but we never saw livestock, anywhere;
– Always park your car straight and between the white lines, and always back into parking spaces;
– Bread isn’t easy to find – have to go to bakeries for it;
– Korean restaurant food comes fast and is served REALLY hot;
– Korea may be the only country on earth with an extensive and impressive penis park (really!);
– Trails in Korea feature steep stairways bolted into rock walls – there isn’t a switchback in sight;
– Not a book or magazine in view – screens everywhere;
– Paths and trails and city parks have exercise stations for workouts and stretching, and they get used;
– Smog is the biggest downside to Korean life – masks abound;
– Nature in solitude is not a thing – recreation is social;
– Motel rooms come with toothbrushes, razors and toothpaste, a vanity table complete with hair spray, dryer, and cosmetics;
– Holidays in Korea seem somewhat random and unexplained;
– Trails/nature is manicured – topiary, paved walkways, aisles of flowering trees, pagodas on lakes;
– Nude public baths are the norm, and refreshingly so;
– Obesity is not a thing.

So, here’s my strategy to produce world peace. One word – travel.

Once you experience a place, a culture, a local history, a people, it is really hard to imagine visiting the terror and devastation of warfare on them. It’s that simple. From a distance, and through the fog of propaganda and ignorance, it’s easy to stereotype a culture, to demonize them, to basically dehumanize them. In essence, it’s easy to fall prey to the hype and disinformation fed to us by people in power with ulterior motives. Once you go there and meet people, share a water bottle with them on a hot trail, get directions from them in a strange city, find out about the backdrop of history that informs their culture, appreciate just how much like you they are, it’s well nigh impossible to imagine dropping bombs on them, leveling their cities, throwing thousands into refuge camps, ruining lives by the score, killing civilians.

I know, it’s simplistic. It’s naive. And you can come up with examples of warfare and horror visited on people by neighbors who know them intimately. But it is also undeniable that visiting a place, whether it’s downtown Nairobi, the shores of the Yucatan, the markets of Seoul, or the mosques of Istanbul, mingling first-hand with the streams of culture and religion and custom and history there, coming face to face with the reality of how fundamentally the same we all are, when the politics and drama are stripped away, it becomes much more difficult to perform the act of dehumanization it requires to visit death and destruction for political purposes on those same people.

The whole time we were in South Korea, I kept flashing on the tension we are experiencing with that part of the world. With the posturing and threat bandied about as if there are no casualties that come from such behavior. With the legacy of conquest and conflict that has been visited on that country – from the Mongols to the Japanese to the Korean War – each one flattening the country, erasing history, burning and pillaging and terrorizing the population. How the peninsula has been razed and rebuilt repeatedly. How incredibly resilient it has been, and how warm and accepting and helpful it remains. And I leaven that with the vitriol spewed by politicians, and the absolute disregard for any nuance of understanding or compassion, never mind any reckoning with history or deeper introspection.

That’s it. Travel. Experience. Be there first hand, meet people, get your hair cut, buy food from a stall, look at art, walk the beaches and trails, shake hands, watch parents with their children, take pictures of each other, laugh at the awkwardness of trying to order food off a Korean menu – then go back and see how you feel about pushing the “big button” and raining hell down on that part of the world.

Probably won’t get me the Nobel Peace Prize, but there you have it . . . Al’s Rx for peace on Earth!

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