Donkey Oatie, The Atlantic Ocean and More: A True Story

[Pam.  Photo: Patrick Egan]

Every so often I run across someone with a story to tell.  Often, the encounter is in a pub in New York City, Yuma, Arizona, Juneau, Alaska or someplace in between.  For example:
  • About twenty-five years ago I met a guy who claimed he had parachuted off one of the Twin Towers of the WTC.  He said he was promptly arrested.  I didn’t buy into the story at the time.  Maybe he did…maybe not…guys say a lot of stuff in bars.
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  • A few weeks ago I met a musician in an Irish pub on Amsterdam Avenue.  He said he knew Bob Dylan quite well.  He said that Dylan called him one day about ten years ago and complained to my new friend about his (my friend’s) recording of One More Cup of Coffee.  The phone call ended with Dylan hanging up on my friend.  I don’t doubt the truth of this story.  They guy seemed genuine and quite sincere.
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Then, a few nights ago, at our home on Rainbow Lake, NY, we had our friends Pam and Hans over for some wine and cheese.  (This was the couple who sold us the R-Pod that I blogged so much about during two cross-country trips). We sat in our screened in porch and talked.  I told them of my long time dream to hike the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail (I’ve never really had much interest in the Appalachian Trail).  Then Pam began a story that made me pull my chair closer to her.  I grabbed a notebook and a pen.  I took notes about her adventure.  I paid attention this time.  It was a story worth hearing–and it was a story I had to write…
Pam was twenty-something in the early 1970’s when her father passed away.  Her dad was the rock, the foundation of her family.  Her parents had met and married during WWII.  He was apparently a man of big dreams and those dreams brimmed with adventure and travel.  He dreamt of hiking the Appalachian Trail–he considered walking across America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  When he died, his dreams died with him.

The bond between Pam’s mother and father was sublime and solid.  So it was no great surprise that his death created a void in the world of Pam’s mom.  She went into a deep depression and this darkness alarmed the family.

. . .

One New Year’s Eve, Pam and her two brothers sat at the dining room table pouring over their father’s maps and articles, thinking of his unfulfilled travel dreams.  The siblings sat and pondered about what they could do to honor their dad’s memory and perhaps to bring their mother back into the light.  That night a plan was made.  Why not take their mom on a journey–something that would approximate the cross-country hike?

But, could their mother, now in her 60’s carry a full backpack on a lengthy hike?  It seemed unlikely, so another decision was made.  They would use a donkey to carry some of the load!  The Sicilian donkey was purchased from a farm in Massachusetts.  One of the siblings came up with the name Donkey Oatie.  It seemed to fit.

“Let’s start at Harriman State Park in New York State and head west.” I could hear the brother say.  “We’ll see how far we get and when feel we’ve had enough, we’ll end our trip”.
The family looked at each other and must have been thinking the same thought: “An impossible journey…it’s 840 miles of walking!”  But the planning went forward, nonetheless.
They mapped out a trip through New Jersey and Pennsylvania using State Parks as campgrounds.  When they reached the Keystone State, they ran into a problem.  NO PETS ALLOWED in many of the parks and a donkey was classified as a pet (?).  So they took to the back roads and soon found that this “very private trip became a very public one”.  A family friend was an AP photographer and he began phoning newspapers and Fire Departments along the route.  It wasn’t long before the travelers were being greeted by small crowds in small towns and villages.
But, it was on a lawn in a small Pennsylvania town where the story takes a special turn.
They were invited by a woman to have lunch on a lawn.  This stranger, this woman brought her mother out of the house to join everyone for lunch.  The mother had her own story to tell.  Sadly, the mother had terminal cancer.  She had also lost her husband.  Pam’s mother and this woman spoke about dreaming of destinations.  It was a widow to widow conversation.  The ill woman said that her life-long dream was to see the ocean..but something always came up and the trip never took place.  The daughter sat nearby and listened to the talk of the unfulfilled dreams of two women–who had both lost their husbands.  The ill woman told Pam’s mother how much she admired her efforts to fulfill her dreams and that of her late husband.  Pam’s mother told the woman that the sea wasn’t so far away.

The daughter sat and listened.  Several weeks later she did indeed make the trip with her mother, who finally got to look out over the sea.

The woman died two weeks after the trip.
Her daughter wrote later and told the family that she would always be grateful for the advice of Pam’s mother.  She said in the letter that those two weeks gave her that precious time to bond in that final way and to say good-bye to her mother.
Since that evening on our porch, I’ve thought about my own dreams of making a journey..but my plans seemed lame and insignificant when compared to the story I had been told.
And, besides, how could I ever make such a difference in the lives of two strangers from a simple lunch on a lawn in Pennsylvania?
The answer came to me during a sleepless night.  You really can’t plan for such outcomes–they somehow seek you out and fall into your lap.  The important thing is that you take that first step on the journey that only you can begin.

And, why are all such journeys of such importance?  Why was the terminally ill mother and her daughter’s trip to the Atlantic of such importance?  Why did Pam’s trip with her mother..attempting to honor the father’s fascination with journeys..make such an impression with a stranger on a lawn in a small Pennsylvania town?  And why did the story touch me so much?

It’s all been said so well in a cliché, an old saying, a common remark made in many situations..You just don’t know how long you have on this earth..every moment is precious..and can never be regained. 

My First Two Weeks Back In New York City After Five Years Of Living In The Far North Country

appt1

[Say what you want…this comes with the apartment]

Okay, It’s maybe three or four weeks now since we’ve left the cold and hostile fields of the North Country for the Cold and hostile streets of the Big Apple.

So, you might ask, How are we doing?

cookieline

[Across the street from out building. A line waiting for cookies.]

I’d say just fine.  It isn’t last year like Florida…that’s for sure but it beats the forty or fifty times I’ve already shoveled the path to the garage and the way to the road back home at Rainbow Lake.

Am I sorry we’re spending the winter in slushy New York?  Am I sorry we’re sub-letting a great apartment near Lincoln Center?  No.

ansonia

[The famous Ansonia Building…just steps away.]

Do I miss the beautiful snow falls and the freezing lakes?  Not really.  I just had an injection in my lower back which would have prevented me from skating on anything other than my front deck.

sceneabovecookieline

[The view across the street.]

Do I miss the shoveling? No. I’ve mastered that skill years ago.  I don’t miss the two feet of snow…It’s my back remember?

I’m remembering all the great nights and days that Mariam and I had in the 20+ years of living on the Upper West Side.  Yes, I miss the quiet snow falls of the North Country…but it’s not forever.  We’ll be back when the Black Flies begin to surface and the Canadian geese have returned to Ontario.

There’s so much to do there.

There’s so much to do here.

I’m a conflicted guy.

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.]

The Great And Silent Feast

I felt the breeze…

I stumbled on a tree root when…

Finally, we reached the pond…

yardleaves

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 homeroom 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.

On October 7, Mariam and I with our friends took a walk on 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.

pineneedles

[Even the conifers lose their leaves (needles) in the autumn]

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.

And, I could think.

A gentle sense of melancholy overcame me…it’s that time of year that evokes death and endings and dormant life.

lichentree

[This once-living tree is now being consumed by dozens of organisms]

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.  I have seen more fungi this October that I can recall.  My copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms was used more than the previous decade.  It is now well dog-eared.

fungusinyard

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 were breaking a once tall and stately beech or maple or oak into mere molecules.

mossylog

[A dead log feeds a number of organisms]

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

mossyground

[The ground cover of moss and lichen]

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.

Everything goes somewhere.  “Matter cannot be created or destroyed…it simply changes form”.  I think that’s Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics…but I could be wrong.  I stopped being a science teacher a decade ago.  Most things return in the spring.  Some things take a longer time…but sooner or later it all comes around again.

The exception, I hope, is lunch duty.

 

Kids Bottles: Another Moral Dilemma

kidsbottes

As I grow older, it seems to me, I am faced with some kind of moral choice nearly every day.  Then, I suppose that it’s something that’s true for every thinking person.

  • Should I watch Game of Thrones or search for the Vatican Channel on my Roku?
  • Should I continue to espouse the obvious truths of Creationism or trouble myself with science and facts by following the Theory of Evolution?
  • Should I be supporting Brad or Angelina?
  • Should I worry about the obviously faked data supporting Global Warming or continue to push for the Pipeline that will help a few zillionaires keep their children in elite private schools and screw up the environment for our children’s children?
  • Should I make an effort to feed a hungry family or contribute to a child’s dream of owning a bicycle?

Wait a minute!  That last bullet point sounds different…it sounds serious.  What’s going on here?

Several years ago, when I lived in New York City, I was faced with moral choices on every block.  We would be leaving a Chinese restaurant, discussing the dumplings, and then be confronted by a homeless man or woman.  I would dig in my pocket for a dollar or I would give them the left-overs I was carrying home.  With the number of street people growing constantly, there had to be a limit to my generosity.

Choices.

But, here in the North Country, one isn’t confronted by these daily dilemmas.  Unless you stopped to look around and see the trees in the forest.  Twelve miles from $6,000,000 vacation homes in and around Lake Placid there are people who live so far below the poverty line they are nearly out of sight.

My moral dilemma of late is the discovery of a sign along the Rainbow Lake Road, a mile from our home.  It is hand-painted and reads KIDS BOTTLES.  Back in Gabriels, by the main road, Route 86, are two small brown sheds.  A few years ago, these sheds were run by the local Girl Scout Troop.  People could drop off returnable bottles and cans…the money going to the Scouts.  The sheds would overflow.  Now, the money goes to the local food pantry.  The sheds still are usually filled.

I drink a fair amount of tonic water because I read that the quinine additive would help me with my painful leg cramps.  It seems to help…in a way…but it leaves me with several issues to resolve…

  • I could stand and feed the liter bottles into the big gray machine at Price Chopper in Lake Placid.  When the large plastic bag was empty, I would find Mariam and give her the ticket for $ .95.  Hardly helping our grocery bill (which would contain ten more bottles of tonic water and $2.50 for a copy of the New York Times).
  • I could take the easy way out and throw the bottles into our recycle bin (not really an option…it’s my nickel and I don’t want a nickel of mine in some account in Albany of deposits paid but not redeemed).
  • I could drop the bottles at the brown sheds in Gabriels, helping in a small way, to feed a local hungry family.
  • Or, I could stop at the hand-painted sign on Rainbow Lake Road and donate the few nickels to a family who were in the process of helping their child save for a new bicycle.

To many of you, my faithful readers, the choice may be clear in your mind already.  But, for me, it isn’t so clear.  Nothing in life is black or white…there are so many gray areas.  Of course, food is essential, but all the local grocery markets have food pantry boxes already.

The dilemma lies in the gray area of life.  Death by starvation is not something the North Country has experienced, at least as far as I know.

I hesitate with my bag of bottles.  Do I contribute to alleviating a large-scale problem of hunger or aid in the happiness of a child, who will someday own a bike?

I don’t have the answers…I only raise the questions that keep me awake at night.  How do I play out my role in the Social Contract?

Yesterday, I dropped my half-dozen bottles behind the chipboard hand-painted sign.  Remembering my own childhood and the pure innocent act of riding a bicycle.  I wanted to help the kid own a bike.  In a few weeks, I’ll probably drop my bag of returnables at the brown sheds.

Either way, someone loses and someone gains.  All I can do is alternate my actions with my conflicted conscious.

foodpantrybottles