Joshua Tree Diary: Baby Steps and First Things

[On the way to Hidden Valley]

I’ve been coloring.  We’ve been coloring.  You know those adult coloring books that are so popular now?  Well, I’m not a bit ashamed to say that Mariam and I have been working separate pages in a book that I bought at a 7-Eleven for $5.99+ tax.

[Occupying time in the desert]

Neither of us have been feeling on top of our game.  I’ve already whined about my chest congestion (and Mariam’s allergies ), but today was a little bit warmer that any day since we arrived here on December 1.  It got to 59 F.  Then our landlord came by to drop off a vacuum cleaner and told us that many people in the Joshua Tree valley have allergies.  Nice thing to know.

My handkerchief looks like a WWI bandage stolen from a war museum somewhere in northern France.  My nose has been overactive.  I never realized until now how important my nose is for breathing.  I always took it for granted.  But breathing up here in the high desert is something that comes with difficulty, determination and prayer.  Still, we were determined to take our first hike in the National Park.  We choose Hidden Valley.  That’s a one mile loop trail through some spectacular scenery.  I’ve always wondered about names like Hidden Valley.  If it’s hidden, how does anyone know it’s there?

Well, I read my guidebook and found out that it was reputed to be a hiding place for cattle rustlers and horse thieves…back in the day.  That sounds like a perfect explanation.  You enter through a narrow notch and then there is this wonderful ‘valley’.  A perfect place to hide stolen livestock with places for lookouts and places to camp.

[In Hidden Valley]

[More in Hidden Valley]

The photos I’m including here don’t do justice to the serenity and beauty of the place.  The problem is that it’s the most popular short hike in the Park…which meant that one was never alone, truly alone, amidst the rock formations and cacti.  We may do the hike again…maybe at night so we can meet the ghosts of the rustlers or hear the neighing of the stolen steeds.

But, we started late and so I had to open the package for my new headlamp.  That was a challenge beyond anything I’ve attempted.  I’m usually good at getting a product out of its plastic/cardboard packaging, but this required a knife blade and the risk of opening a mean wound in my left palm or severing an artery.

[Headlamp destruction]

Yes, we started late, since here in the desert and at this time year, daylight begins to end shortly after 11:00 am.  Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration.  The sun begins to dip below the rocky mounds a little after 3:00 pm.

Our walk took thirty-five minutes.  Short but enough for someone whose feels oxygen deprived.

When we returned to the parking area, I felt the need to use the public rest room facilities.  Inside, I counted thirteen rolls of toilet paper!  That’s must be some kind of record.  I did not take a photo of those.

Pardon me, but I do have some class, dignity and some standards that remain…from back in the day.

I made that clear to the bartender at the Joshua Tree Saloon.

[All photos are mine.]

[Note to readers: The next blog post that will be out in a day or so has nothing to do with my current theme of Joshua Tree Diary.  It’s something totally different that I want I want to post now.]

Advertisements

The Quiet Feast/The Great Cycle

I felt the breeze…

I stumbled on a tree root when…

Finally, we reached the pond…

Concentrate.  Start over.

When I was a teacher I was often given the dubious privilege of  “lunch duty”.  A room, nearly the size of a gym, filled with 5th & 6th graders…or 9th & 10th graders, and a hand full of teachers produced a noise level that made it impossible to carry on a conversation or to even think about the hour before you.  Sometimes on days when I didn’t have duty, I would retreat to the faculty lunch room.  Even there, teachers talked about the students, the administration or their Valium prescription.  Still, no time to think.

As a last resort, I would take my tray to my empty home room and eat alone.  It occurred to me that I would appear antisocial…but at least I could think.

Once, perhaps a decade or so ago, I found a guidebook to monasteries, close to our home in Manhattan, that opened their doors to travelers…like a B & B with stained glass.  Mariam and I found one, run by the Episcopal church, on the western side of the Hudson River.  It was a large estate-like building that sat high above the river in the Hudson Highlands.  It happened that we booked our room on a “quiet” weekend.

No talking allowed.

During the meals, all I could hear was the clinking of forks and spoons on the china plates.  A whisper here and there…but otherwise, silence.

I could think.

A year ago, in October, along with our great friends, D’Arcy and Judy,  Mariam and I took a walk along the Silver Lake Bog trail.  The sky was azure.  The foliage was at a peak.  Brilliant reds, yellows, copper and scarlet leaves mixed with the green conifers.

I hung back and walked alone.  I stopped to listen.  The gently falling leaves sounded like a light rain.  I looked around me and realized that I had walked into a grand feast, a forested restaurant, a silent meal.

Nearly everything I looked at was in the process of dying…or already dead.  What was alive was consuming what was dead.  This was considered to be a fairly dry summer, but you would never have guessed that from that bog or our front yard.  My copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms was used more than the previous decade.

It was like watching “The Walking Dead” with the roles reversed.  Of course I have lived a life-time of seeing this every autumn, but on that day, the Big Picture came into focus more clearly and gave me the urge to put all this into words.  I was a witness to the Great Cycle of Life.  I know it’s a cliché, but there it was, all around me.  The ground itself was covered by a blanket of moss and lichen that were feeding and consuming the organic material.  The dead logs, many cleared from the trail by a chainsaw, were helpless to resist the countless fungi, moss, bacteria and water that was breaking a once tall and stately beech or maple or oak into mere molecules.

And, all this was done in total silence and  would continue even under three feet of snow and ice and temperatures of -37 degrees.

In six months, a small spore, a seed, a dormant larvae of a black fly would begin to revive and then bloom and the green would return.

And, that fly would find out where I lived.

 

 

The Summer We Never Had Is Gone

“I see your true colors shining through…”

-Cyndi Lauper

Green is still the dominant color in the foliage around Rainbow Lake.  Each day, however, brings out a few hundred more leaves that have lost their Chlorophyll and are showing their true colors.

We’ve had our first frost warning on my weather app…and that was in late August!  Since we arrived home in late June from our six months in NYC, there really hasn’t been a true summer, a season like I remember from the 1950’s family camping we did at Raquette Lake.

It rained a lot.  The lows dipped into the upper 40’s F on many nights.

Our burning bush seems to provide the only imaginary warmth…it’s turning red.

I find a beautiful red leaf in the driveway.  I mark the days off on our kitchen calendar.  It’s only two weeks until the Autumnal Equinox…the official end of summer.

I stack our firewood and wait for a guy named Forest (really) to deliver another face cord.

I love the fall foliage, the scarlets, reds, yellows and the deep dark browns of the trees that have leaves that just simply die. Die without giving us a palate of hues that we will remember and take Instagrams of and email to our loved ones who live in just two seasons…summer and winter, like Alabama or Mississippi.

But, I’m sensing a growing melancholy this year, unlike the years past.  I just turned seventy.  There’s far more of my life behind me than before me.

I lay awake at night and think of things that might have been…and now feel that now they’ll never be.

There’s a flash of color this time of year and then the wait, sometimes long, sometimes short, until the first snow falls.

That brings on a whole new catalogue of memories and sadness.

Am I alone?

[All photos are my own.]

The Toboggan

When I enter our garage from the door that faces our house, I don’t often look up.  What could be up there that I’m avoiding?  Well, there is an old oak bed head-board and foot board that was mine when I grew up at 420 Front Street, Owego, NY.  There are stickers of cowboys and indians on the head-board.  There are numerous tiny indentations of BB hits when I was young and used the head-board as a backdrop for my Daisy rifle.  The only other item of mine, settled and resting on the 2 x 4 inch cross pieces of the garage, is The Toboggan.

I stood and stared at the old sled for half an hour.  I brought it up here, to our place in the Adirondacks, intending it to be my first “project”.

My hands last handled this antique when we had to empty my father’s house after he passed in 2004.  Before that, I had placed it in the garage in Owego. Sometime in the early 1990’s, I stored it in the barn that was part of the house that my wife had owned in the years before we met.  The house was in Milford, PA.

I stood and stared and the memories came slowly at first and then I couldn’t stop them from filling my head with the past.

Was this the sled that my brothers tried to push me down the small hill behind our house in Owego?  There wasn’t much of a slope so I went nowhere until Chris or Denny ran behind me and pushed me onward.

That’s what brothers do.

Was this the sled that I took to a snowy hillside near Owego and jumped on behind Mary, my girlfriend, as we sailed through drifts of snow and patches of weeds and scrubs?  I don’t remember.

Was this the sled that came with me when I moved to a farm-house in the early 1970’s and I began my teaching career?  And also began a new role as a father to my 1 1/2-year-old girl, Erin?  I would take her on tours of the harvested cornfields that surrounded our lonely house on a snow-covered and wind-swept hill–pulling her behind me?

When I went ice skating with my brother Dan on a nearby frozen pond (before “they” broke the dam and drained the pond) and he was interested in film and I would pull them both while he filmed?  After Dan finished his project, I would skate backwards (I could, you know), pulling Erin on the toboggan and giving her a wicked swirl that would almost throw her sliding across the ice on her own.

The toboggan disappeared into the rafters of the slanted old garage behind our house in Owego–to be forgotten for years–with one exception.

I was informed of a great place to go tobogganing, the IBM Country Club in Endicott (or was it Endwell, NY)?  The golf course had a hill that was very popular.

So, one day in the mid-1970’s, we took the old sled down from my dad’s garage and headed for the slopes.  It proved to be a great place indeed.  Then I noticed that someone had built up a small snow bump.  I told Erin that before I would take her over it, I would have to first try it myself.

Off I went, toward the little bump.  The closer I glided toward the bump, the bigger it became.  When I hit it, I rose into the sky and felt I was going to land in someones backyard, across the river in Vestal.  I was airborne for what seemed like forty-five minutes, before I hit the ground.  The toboggan went one direction and my eye-glasses went another.  I simply came straight down onto the slope sliding in a third direction and feeling for broken bones before I came to an abrupt halt against a small tree.

“Mommy? Can Daddy do that again?” was all I could hear Erin cry out.

Was she kidding? My head buzzed for two days.

Back to my garage.  So there is the toboggan.  I had a fleeting thought about restoring it (once again) and mounting it on the wall in our screened-in porch.  It would require the removal of two antique snowshoes, but there are plenty of places on our walls to mount them in a new location. Ironically, the brand name stenciled in orange paint, on the curved bow reads: ADIRONDACK.

There’s a fair amount of dust on the old sled.  My best guess as to its age would be 90+ years.  But there’s one thing I am certain of; toboggans aren’t meant to gather dust.  Their made for the young and the old to ride on and scream from as it flashes past an old barn, an old tree or a fresh snowdrift.  They’re made to carry at least four adults, six kids and a metric ton of memories.

And, once it’s on the wall, I would never be asked to “do it again” on any slope, on any mountain or hill in the Adirondacks.

[The intended site of the restored toboggan]

 

 

Kissing Manhattan Goodbye

So, it’s time to say farewell to the city I love.  A week from today, if you have a drone, you will find us driving north on the I-87…through Albany…onto Exit 30…and then fifty more miles, through Lake Placid, to our home at Rainbow Lake.

I’ve heard it said so many times: “New York City is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Fine, I understand everyone has different tastes.  Besides, it’s all true what people say about New York.  It’s so big, crowded, diverse and varied, that whatever anyone says about the city… is true.  It’s safe, dangerous, cheap and way too expensive.  It’s all true…but I love the vibrant life, liberalism, culture and gravity.  Yes, there is an intense gravity to this place…someone once said that everyone should live in New York City at least once in their life…and I agree.

I lived on the Upper West Side for over twenty-five years.  With some exceptions, I loved every minute of my time.  Then, I retired and in 2011, Mariam and I decided to get bought out (our building was going condo) and we decided to head north to our place on Rainbow Lake.  We needed the quiet.  Mariam went part-time, working from home on the computer.

We got our quiet…sometimes, it seemed to me, a little too much.  I was lonely.  Only a few of our friends made the six-hour trip to visit us.

Then, we were offered the opportunity to come back for six months, on a full salary, to put things in order at Mariam’s place of business.  We got a sub-let on W. 74th Street and became New Yorkers once again.  I saw my son more often and reunited with old friends.

But, not all went as expected.  For reasons I won’t discuss here, I found myself falling into a mild depression.  I brought many of my “works-in-progress” for my writing  projects.  I lost the creative energy to plug-in my memory stick and write a few chapters.

The winter was wet and chilly.  The spring was little better.  Then it got really bloody hot.  But, we saw a number of Broadway and Off Broadway shows that were fantastic.  We made friends at our local pub, the Beacon Bar.  We had a good time.

And, now, we’re packing things up…unread novels, unread magazines and putting away unfulfilled trips.

This was kind of an experiment ….to see if we could ever move back here.

I’m conflicted.

The “Dream House in the Woods” can sometimes  be something you’re not expecting.  Where are your friends and local pubs “where everybody knows your name?”

It’s just another move in our lives.  Mariam will be retired and I need a hobby.  I was thinking about carving duck decoys….I’m serious.   Maybe I’ll write the Great American Novel. Maybe I won’t.

Maybe I won’t and just drift on my kayak.

Stay tuned.

Six Days Can Be A Long Time

[Photo credit: Mel Brown]

The moment happened a few hours ago.  I was probably sitting in Starbucks on Broadway and 75th Street when the time came and went.  I was aware of the time, but I was likely checking my email.  Our apartment wifi was dead for the time being.

It was an arbitrary time, marked only by a sweeping second hand on an office wall clock.  It turned over at 5:00 pm on June 12, 2017.  One moment it was 5:00 pm, and then it was another time altogether.

So, what’s so important about this?  That changing moment marked the end of a work day for my wife, Mariam…an ordinary work day.  But, now, she now has only six days left to the end of her working career, her fifty-one years in health care is coming to a close.  That’s a long time of working and an inspiring event to celebrate.  Ever since she graduated from the Bellevue School of Nursing, she has changed bed pans, helped AIDS patients, started up a cardiology unit in a hospital, and rose to being the head of the hemophilia treatment center at Mount Sinai Hospital.  She also is the president of two boards, both in the bleeding disorders world, in the intensive and competitive world of New York City.

I have expressed my concerns about the vacuum that will enter her life from a powerful position…into retirement.  She says she is not concerned.  I trust her instincts…but I still worry.

Her boss, Dr. Chris Walsh, is now reviewing aspects of her job.

“I’m going to miss you,” he understated.

I am proud of Mariam’s accomplishments.  I am looking forward to when she will be by my side, each day…for years to come…to travel and to sit at home…reading, playing chess, discussing politics and learning new things. We’ll be having a quiet dinner at a small Italian restaurant on 73rd St. on June 21.  Yes, June 21, her final day…and the traditional Summer Solstice.  How appropriate is that?  The longest day of the year.  The days will be getting shorter, but I will be there with you, Mariam, to help you through the long winter nights to come. And, I will be there on December 21, the traditional Winter Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer.  I know that’s the date you look forward to the most.

I will be there when the black flies come and go and the mesquitos arrive.  I’ll be there when the hail hits the roof and the leaves begin to fall.  I’ll light the campfire and I’ll play some Leonard Cohen for you on Spotify.  I’ll be there to ease you into your years of retirement.

Good luck to you, Mariam.  God speed!

Six days can be a long time…after all, that’s how long The Creation took.  Let’s hope there’s rest on the seventh day.

Two Candles

I’m sitting outside in our small garden. I’m trying to read a novel written by Hakan Nesser.  He writes great nordic noir mysteries.

It’s a warm night.  I bought two new candles to illuminate the dusk in the garden.  We had a friend over and ordered Chinese. I had my fried rice and dumplings. My little radio, in the living room was tuned to WQXR and I was listening, faintly heard,  from the garden, a Gregorian Chant.

We talked. I read a few poems from a new book from Barnes & Noble.  I had my friend listen to Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize on my iPhone.

By the time we finished, the candles were melted into the holders. I paid $2.47 (+tax) for each candle….at the end of  the evening’s dinner and conversation, both candles were gone.

What does that say about candles? Friendship? Dinner conversation?

Candles, some of them, burn quickly….like life.