Joshua Tree Diary: I Saw A Shooting Star Tonight And I Thought of You

[Photo source: NASA]

[The title is taken from a song by Bob Dylan, of course.]

Actually, I saw five ‘shooting stars’…and it was last night, not tonight. But I still thought of you.  Or, by the time I post this it will be two nights ago.  The date we had in the desert that night (December 13, 2017) was to drive into the dark areas, beyond the houses, beyond the lights and view the Geminids Meteor shower.  I took this particular event personally since I’m a Gemini.  I don’t necessary believe in astrology, but I did have two minds about leaving our cozy house and driving twelve miles into the National Park.

Night vision takes about ten minutes for me to kick in.  That’s because I eat a lot of carrots.  At least that’s what my mother always said.

But so many cars passed out the pull-over area that I had to close my eyes and turn my head away…like I was some kind of desert cattle rustler.

We’re nearing our half-way time here in Joshua Tree.  We will be on the road on January 1…to somewhere.  There has been a pall cast on the last phase of our vacation.  Our original plan was to take some back roads through Pioneertown and Victorville and then spend a week hiking in the hills around Santa Barbara.  But the recent fires in that area have given me some concern.  Today, I read that they are handing out face masks in that area.  I’m not concerned about the actual fires.  I think they will be contained by the first of the year, but it’s what we can expect that worries me.

[Cholla family?]

I’ve been hindered (and Mariam, also) by bronchial problems.  The humidity up here in the high desert is around 10%.  That’s nose bleed time for me.  And, I just can’t lose the cough I’ve had since we were in Orting, WA for Thanksgiving.

No, I think the flames will be contained by early January, but we intended to hike the hills north of Santa Barbara.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hike through six inches of ash while wearing a filter over my nose.  I’m fearful that it will remind me of my Catholic education…”ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

We turned on the news from the LA area.  We saw images of people wandering through the remains of their homes that were destroyed by the “Thomas Fire”.  My hiking and their loss became a very real thing to me.  Who was I to feel distraught about my vacation when so many acres are burned, people’s homes are lost…and lives are ended…in so many ways.  I was being selfish in thinking how the fires would inconvenient  me.

We began to look at some alternatives (read: I don’t want to go home yet) because the Adirondacks are in a cold spell.  That’s what we’re trying to avoid.

Dilemma city.

So, we’re thinking of changing our plans and spending our last week in Palm Springs, or a nearby location.

That would be great if I golfed.  It would be paradise.

But, I don’t golf.

We were in Palm Springs two years ago.  There are some great movie palaces there.  Maybe we can catch up on some Oscar nominated movies…maybe the new Star Wars?

Maybe a movie that has some comets, meteorites, and shooting stars.

No wonder everybody on the planet comes to, or ends up in Los Angeles, or somewhere here in southern California.

I hear it’s snowing at home in Rainbow Lake, NY.

[Photo is mine]

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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.]

Joshua Tree Diary: The First Days

I looked in the mirror late this morning and decided I would need a haircut sometime in the next few weeks.  Trouble is, we’re a few miles from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base (the largest U.S. military base in the world, I’m told) and nearly all the haircut places offer a “military cut”.  Well, I really don’t want to have my head shaved at this point in my life, so I have to find a salon that can make a guy like me look like a guy like me.

So, here we are…in Joshua Tree, California.  The high desert, the edge of the Mojave, the northern edge of the National Park.  Our home is very well appointed with a fenced in backyard and cable TV.  We’re quite pleased with the rental we’ve chosen for the month of December.

[Part of our rental]

[Our private backyard}

I’ve struggled to come up with a catchy title to the blogs that I will be posting for the next month (we’re here only for December before we head to Santa Barbara for a few days of hiking and beach walking).  I’m calling this series of blogs The Joshua Tree Diary.  Lame? Maybe, but you haven’t been through what I’ve been through lately.

We arrived from Los Angeles on December 1 in a rented Nissan.  We passed the Joshua Tree Inn where Gram Parsons OD’d (see an earlier post about that on my website…it’s called “Room 8”).

We seemed to have arrived during a cool spell.  It got below freezing last night and may do so again tonight.  We were treated to the clear desert sky and the rising of the Super Moon last night.

[The Super Moon on Dec. 3. Sorry, but the iPhone doesn’t do well with this kind of photo]

Okay, so how did we spend our first days here?  We’ll I got here running a slight fever and a cough that would freak out most circus animals.  My throat felt like I had hosted a demolition derby and my chest felt like I inhaled  a quart of vanilla yogurt…I was not well.

We did manage to get to the National Park Visitor Center where I intended to purchase a Golden Pass (we left our other one home).  This allows seniors free admission to the Parks.  Two years ago when we purchased one at Devil’s Tower National Park, the cost for this lifetime pass was $10.00.  Now they charge $80.00!  And, these parks are ours anyway, we pays taxes…don’t get me started.

Next stop was getting a temporary visitors card at the local library.  I gladly paid $10.00 even though I will only be using it until December 31.  I’m not carrying anymore “book” books.  They are heavy and bulky.  I’ll give my copy of David Copperfield to a woman who runs a tiny used bookstore a few miles away along Route 62, towards Twentynine Palms.

I bought a copy of the Hi-Desert Star…couldn’t find a copy of the New York Times anywhere.  An ad caught my eye and it was then I realized that we were living amidst a culture that is quite different from Upstate New York.  I hope this guy finds his goal and makes off for the hills and gets rich from a lost mine (there are many out here).

[Ad from the Hi-Desert Star}

How am I feeling today?  I think I turned the corner.  I don’t think it’s hit or miss anymore.  I don’t think it’s touch and go.  I don’t feeling like I’m going to die out here…and become just another statistic.  I felt well enough to drag myself and Mariam to the Joshua Tree Saloon to sip a glass of Lagunitas.

[Joshua Tree Bar & Grill]

All of the above happened in the first four days.  We haven’t set foot in the Park yet.  Maybe on Wednesday we’ll hike the Skull Rock Trail.  It’s short and the ‘skull rock’ boulder is looking more and more like me.

Having said all that, this is what we’ve left behind:

[An Adirondack scene. Pretty, but no shoveling]

Right now, I’ll take the desert and deal with sand in my shoes and not frost on my finger tips.

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 Winters Of My Life

garagepathsnow

“Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.  If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see.” 

–Robert Service. The Cremation of Sam Magee

I live in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York.  I don’t live in the Yukon.  But lately, I feel like the Yukon would be a bit more comfortable.  Am I living in Lapland or Spitzbergen or Thule…in lovely Greenland?

Don’t get me wrong.  Don’t misunderstand.  Don’t think I’ve lost my spirit and my love for wintertime.  I love snow.  I used to be able to skate backwards on the Brick Pond when I was young.  Remember the Brick Pond blog post?  Of course you do.  I have fond memories of the winters of my life.  My childhood girlfriend and I built a fantastic snowman in my front yard on Front Street after an unusual April snowstorm.  It was probably 1963.  In four days it was a pile of melted snow…like Frosty.  A birch tree grows in that place where the snowman stood and wasted away that April.

My brothers and I would play ‘Fox & Geese’ in our backyard on dark December evenings.  We’d make paths in the 18″ of snow, making figure 8’s and sharp turns…and then the game began.  It was a form of Tag, except you were expected to not just ‘tag’ someone…you would push them into the snow.

It was unbelievable fun.

And, we’d take our snowsuits off in the backroom and our faces were red and our clothes steamed from melting snow and sweat and our mother made hot chocolate and maybe popcorn while we changed clothes…into our flannel pajamas.  No hot chocolate or popcorn has tasted as good as it did on those winter nights in the 1950’s.

But, time moves on and bodies get older and the joy of moving snow has become a challenge that I can hardly face these days.  See the path to the garage?  I’ve shoveled such a path for sixteen years…at least (this is a rough guess) 30 times a year.  That makes an estimated 480 times I’ve pushed the shovel and threw the snow from the front porch to the garage door.  (I’d feel comfortable rounding that number up to 600).  Then came the carrying of the garbage and recycling bags.  Then I would walk into the garage where the bins are and find myself holding onto something to prevent my slipping on the frozen surface of the floor (from the melting of the snow from the car).

My back hurts in places I didn’t know existed.  I’ve learned all about the L3 and L4 that I will need surgery to correct my stenosis.  I think I may have had enough of the North Country winters.

I always believed that people needed four distinct seasons to keep one’s brain alive and enjoy the difference in weather.  In my hometown of Owego, NY, we had four seasons.  None of them went on too long…some of them like autumn were too short.  But, here in the Adirondacks there are five seasons. Sounds great, right?  Well it comes down to this:

  • A Long Winter
  • Mud
  • Bugs
  • A Short Summer
  • A Brief Autumn

I’ve checked my indoor/outdoor thermometer on a March night and saw that it was -38 F.  This was early in our years in the North Country.

“Mariam, let’s step outside and take a breath.  The inside of your nares will feel like pin pricks.”

“No,” she said.

“But it’s bracing, invigorating and stimulating,” I said.  “You never experienced this in Queens.” She stared at me for a moment probably wondering if I truly understood the word “NO”.  She went back to the warm sofa and picked up her book.

Clearly she didn’t fully understand the vibrant and visceral pleasures of walking our loop road when it’s forty below zero.  Sometimes I find her hard to understand.  What was her problem with a bit of a chill in the air?  It took me a year or two to fully get her point.

temp

[We never got around to setting this clock back an hour.  It’s really 11:20 on December 15 as I finish this blog. It’s expected to go down to -14 F in a few hours…but I can’t stay up that long. So take my word for it.]

I own more fleece than is legal.  I own enough wool to keep all the Irish Aran Island knitters in their due pint of Guinness.  I have seven pairs of gloves, none of which keeps my fingers from numbness.

So, without regret, we are relocating to New York City for about six months.  This is not because of my whining, mind you.  It’s a professional move on the part of my wife, Mariam.

This is a fantastic country here in the Adirondacks, but it’s a young person’s world.

The skiing is great on Whiteface this year, so I read.  But when your age is on the wrong end of the 60’s, I’d rather let someone else move the snow.

The weather in the City can be bitter in the winter when the wind blows off the Hudson, but I won’t have to shovel a path to put my garbage out or to get the newspaper.  All I have to worry about is the slush in the gutters that will be my challenge as I stroll up Broadway to Zabars for some Irish Cheddar and some salmon fillets.

And, if its way too awful to get out…I can always order take-out from a Chinese restaurant.

snow2000

[Mariam and I in front of our new home in 2000. Who would have guessed?]

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

snowroad

Sure, I could be walking down this snowy, quiet and picturesque road.  I could be thinking about the approaching holidays, the snow men, the fire in our downstairs living room wood burner…but I don’t imagine I’ll be making this walk.  Don’t get me wrong, I love snow.  I always have.  But as I stand in the middle of this road to take the photo, I can feel my lower back aching from the shoveling I already did twice today.  And now my left knee hurts.  What’s that all about?

It’s Monday afternoon.  On Saturday afternoon, I was on our roof in a tee-shirt and a leaf-blower and a pair of ear protectors (they look like high-end Bose earphones).  I couldn’t hear a thing.  The only way I knew the blower was ON was to watch the twigs, pine needles and wet leaves fly away…away to the back deck and the front porch.  This would require another half-hour of leaf blowing.  I stood on the roof like the Colossus of Rhodes…like Paul Bunyan.  I looked down at my wife whose job it was to help keep the extension cords from kinking up.  She was saying something to me.  I couldn’t hear a thing.  She could have been saying “the house is on fire and I just called 911” or she could be saying “I need to go to the bathroom”.

That was just this past Saturday. On Sunday, it began to snow.  It’s 5:30 pm on Monday as I write this and it’s still snowing.

That’s a quick transition from late fall cleaning to mid-winter torture.

Take a look at the next two photos.  The top one was taken an hour or so ago.  The next one was taken a year ago almost to the day (give or take a week or so).  Which photo shows a happy contented 69-year-old guy?  Which one depicts a senior citizen who is cursing the weather gods and feeling his lower back going south?

snow-shoveling

sailing

Trust me.  Both photos are of the same man.

No, I don’t think I’ll take a walk in a winter wonderland.  Instead, I’ll pour a glass of Cabernet and watch the darkness descend on the view toward the lake.  I’ll think of how quick things change.  How you’re young one minute and lost in late middle age the next.  How your friends are laughing and loving and talking and dancing one minute…and then their heart stops the next.  I’m not being morose here…I’m still grieving my childhood buddy, Jimmy Merrill, who passed away last Thursday.

Old friends, old loves…and memories.  I’m Irish so I tend to dwell on these things.

A little dose of melancholy falls into everyone’s lives.  It’s not a bad thing.  I just have to keep my eye on the future and the fact that there will be a day when the snow will melt and the crocus and the Lady Slippers will grow beneath the ferns and color will return to the world.  It’s so monochromatic right now.  But, that’s to be expected.

Another month must pass before the days begin to get longer.

dore

Thirty Feet From My Pillow: A Tale Of Love, Sex And Perhaps Death Outside My Bedroom Window

birdsnest

I can’t recall seeing so many clusters and varieties of Fungi in my front yard in the sixteen years we have owned our home on the hill above Rainbow Lake.  I was on my knees examining a species that was unfamiliar to me.  I was on my knees in three inches of yellow, red and wet leaves that had fallen after a rain.  Too late to rake.  Too wet and heavy.  I also knew that when I stood, I would have two wet circles on the knees of the Route 66 jeans from the Malone Wal-Mart.

Something caught my eye.  Something almost completely buried in the leaves inches away from the mushroom cluster I was studying.  I brushed a few leaves aside exposing a wet and empty bird’s nest.  It must have fallen from the enormous bush in our front yard.

I looked at the nest and began to think of the family of avians that had made it their home for the spring and summer.

I had suspected something was different every time I walked from our front door to the car.  There was always a bird that would flutter close to me and make me duck.  Most of our bird activity was in the back of the house, observed from our deck, with the lake in the distance.  I never gave the creature much thought…until now…as I knelt beside what was probably its home.

How did I miss it all?

The spring was full of bird songs.  It’s what happens here in the Adirondack forest.  I knew in late April and May that the mating season was in full swing.  Some male bird (I never saw it long enough to make a positive ID…maybe it was a Robin?  A Sparrow?), was desperate to find a mate.  Our yard was like a bar at closing time.  The urge to procreate was overpowering.

He must have scored.  He must have found the one for him.  I was kneeling next to the nest that proved it.

I looked from the nest to our bedroom window.  Maybe twenty feet.  Ten more feet inside the room was my pillow. I stood up (wet knees and all) and walked over to a chair on our front deck.  I brushed aside the leaves and sat down, keeping an eye on the empty nest.  It suddenly occurred to me that the drama of life, birth and loss was played out a few feet from where I slept.

The courting took place.  The mating took place.  There were a few eggs.  The male had constructed the nest.  The female would protect the eggs.  Later (I never heard anything) one egg cracked…then another.

The chicks would need food.  That was the female’s role.

I thought of the thunderstorms that shook the trees around our house on more than one occasion during the summer.  The nest survived.  Then, when the moment, that unspoken unexpected moment arrived, one of the chicks climbed to the edge of the nest.  Another followed while the female urged them, one by one, to take the risk…to take the leap…to learn to fly.

Perhaps, I thought, the weakest chick fell and was made a meal by an animal.  Perhaps they all survived.  I’ll never know but nature is often unforgiving and the rules are not weighted in anyone’s or anything’s favor.

I do know that soon the nest was empty.  A breeze shook it from the branches.  It fell to the ground and the autumn leaves began to cover it.

Where did the birds go?  Are they migrating south as I sit here and write this?  Will they survive the coming winter?

I don’t have the answers.  After all, an entire Cycle of Life took place just thirty feet from my pillow.  While the Great Instinct of Life was being played out in the big bush, I was reading, playing Scrabble, tossing off a bad dream, napping, pacing, worrying, aging, weeping, staring at the ceiling, regretting, hoping or just sound asleep.

I decided I’m going to pay closer attention to that giant bush in our yard when the spring of 2017 arrives.  I’m not going to miss out on such a great story of life again.

But, I probably will miss something, some detail and the great drama will start without me.

bw-bedroom-window

[The bedroom window.  The giant bush.  The nest is at the lower left of the frame…covered again by leaves.]