Fields of Gold, Fields of Green
December 11, 2017
I love how corny life is sometimes. I was running yesterday, in the sun out in the cornfields, and the song “Fields of Gold” came on my iPod shuffle (the Eva Cassidy version). I looked across the harvested land to the west, where the Indian Peaks towered. They looked a tad more fantastic than usual. And at that moment a stray golden corn leaf fluttered down and landed at my feet.
For some reason it got me to thinking of things: of other fields, of green ones, and of time gone by.
For a long time, I lived in a tropical paradise.
During my first or second weekend of eight years of life in Puerto Rico, I drove around the entire island in a counterclockwise fashion. It was the year 2002 and I wanted to get to know my new home. Late that afternoon I found myself on the southeast coast, where I had randomly happened upon an offbeat locals’ beach called Guayanés. It was Sunday. A rustic beachside bar called Yolanda’s was all fired up with a live band. Pinchos were on the barbecue. Old couples were dancing. The Medalla beer was ice cold.
And so began my relationship with Guayanés.
It turned out that Guayanés was only about 20 minutes from the pharmaceutical factories I was trying to help build. Once a week over the next few years, I snuck away for a two hour lunch. No one knew where I was. I drove to Guayanés, where I went for my run on the empty beach, and then for a swim in the Caribbean. Yolanda’s usually wasn’t open, but a little bar and grocery store named Come y Vete always was, and I’d go there and get bottled water and grape soda before driving back for afternoon meetings with sand in my ears. I got to know the guy who ran the grocery store pretty well, and a number of other locals.
I kept going back to Guayanés long after I quit being an engineer. We lived in San Juan, on the other side of the island, and I had a different beach there that was closer for me to run on. But every once in a while I’d get a heart-tug for Guayanés, and go back and run on the beach, or enjoy an afternoon there with my kids. In later years
Yolanda’s got torn down; I think it was because its low-lying shoreline was just too vulnerable to storm surges. Whoever owned that plot did a good job of maintaining palm trees right up to the edge of the surf, and painted their trunks white. I always made sure to park, and lay out the beach blanket, in a spot that wouldn’t get hit by a falling coconut.
I kept going back to Guayanés long after we’d moved away from Puerto Rico. The last time was in June of 2014. My daughter, who was born in Puerto Rico, and I were in Puerto Rico to visit her godmother, on our way to making a trip through South America. I was also there to take the Level 3 CFA exam (which I passed – yay!). After spending the day studying, while Nia was hanging out with her godmother, I went to Guayanés.
On September 20, 2017, at about 6:00 in the morning, Hurricane Maria made landfall at Guayanés. I’m not talking “near Guayanés.” I’m talking exactly at Guayanés.
That morning, as I thought about all the dear people of Puerto Rico, and my heart ached with a pretty good understanding of what this storm was going to mean for the island and for everybody there, I searched my computer for some choice Guayanés photos and put them on my desktop. They are still here; I look at them every day. My favorite is of my daughter at age two, standing next to a palm tree with the glowing water and afternoon sky behind her. Happy times.
Those trees are gone now, as is much of the nearby township. I haven’t verified this but I know it in my gut.
Here are some other things I’ve come to know, which you might also be interested to know if you don’t know already, as I’ve followed news stories in the hurricane’s wake.
*The government so far is sticking to its official death toll of 62. It is flat out wrong.
*The real total is well over 1,000. That’s how many more people have died than usual in the two months since the storm.
*The deadliest day was Sept. 25. Many hospitals had run out of generator power, dialysis clinics were restricting treatment hours, people on respirators had nowhere to plug in, and the bedridden were having trouble getting help. On that day, 135 people died compared to 74 in 2016 and 60 in 2015.
*Leading causes were diabetes and Alzheimer’s, but huge spikes were seen in sepsis (severe infection), pneumonia, and emphysema. Also suicide.
*On October 3rd, when Donald Trump went to San Juan to throw paper towels at people who had shown up to try to understand when their homes might be reconnected to water and electricity, and he marveled at “Sixteen people certified (dead). Sixteen people versus in the thousands (in Katrina). You can be very proud of all your people and all our people working together,” by then 556 more people had died since the hurricane compared with the average for the same period in the two prior years.
*Hurricane Maria is likely the world’s sixth deadliest hurricane on record since 1851.
I feel for the people of Guayanés, and for all of Puerto Rico, but I know that these feelings don’t accomplish anything. I know that Maria marks a profound turning point and that things are never going to be the same. All I can do, I guess, is keep sending my love telepathically, and keep feeling my deep gratitude for all that Puerto Rico means and has meant to me. And send a donation to my friend’s church in Loiza, just to help out in some tiny way.
You bet I’ll go back to Guayanés. Probably in a year. I don’t know what I’ll find when I get there, but I’m for damn sure going back.
Who Killed Pablo Neruda?
November 11, 2017
A few weeks ago, an international panel of forensic experts issued its unanimous conclusion: Chilean poet Pablo Neruda did not die of cancer in 1973.
A quick summary:
When Neruda died 12 days after the military coup in Chile, the official story was that he succumbed to cachexia, a wasting sickness related to his prostate cancer. Legions of fans never believed it. They were certain he’d died of a broken heart. Others figured he’d been murdered by the military regime. After all, Chile’s most famous poet was not exactly in the Pinochet camp. He’d been close to just-deposed and deceased President Salvador Allende, and served in his administration.
Decades of suspicion came to a head in 2011 when a judge ordered an investigation. Manuel Araya, Neruda’s driver, insisted in an interview that he hadn’t driven the poet to Santiago’s Santa Maria Clinic solely for health reasons. Neruda’s houses were getting seized, and they went to the clinic mainly for shelter before flying to exile in Mexico. According to Araya, Neruda was not in critical condition. Others can attest that he was as obese as ever; hardly “wasting.” Araya vividly remembers Neruda telling him that a doctor came into his room and gave him an injection, which made him feel worse.
Then the doctor in question, Sergio Draper, came forward with a revelation: On the night of Neruda’s death, he turned his shift over to a young, blue-eyed doctor named Price. There is no Dr. Price in the hospital’s registry. Draper’s description of Price, though given 40 years later, closely matches Michael Townley, an American spy-assassin who served five years in US prisons after confessing to planting a car bomb that killed an exiled Pinochet opponent in Washington DC in 1976.
My friend Luisa told me something interesting a few years ago while we were discussing this mystery. As a teenager, she went to the Santa Maria Clinic one week before Neruda did, to visit a sick friend. She remembers walking in and finding no one at the front desk, and no security anywhere. She found it odd that she could walk around the hospital, looking for her friend, with no one questioning her presence.
In 2013, a judge ordered Neruda’s remains exhumed and tested. And three weeks ago, a Dr. Aurelio Luna held a press conference to state that the panel of forensic experts was “100% convinced” that Neruda’s death certificate “does not reflect the reality of the death.” The team will now carry out tests on a toxin found in his remains.
If they find anything, Chilean prosecutors will probably have a hard time going after Michael Townley, who is currently hiding in a USA witness protection program in exchange for testifying about the car bomb. And apparently Townley has records to prove he was in Florida on the night Neruda died. He’d fled there during the Allende years, after killing a worker at a Chilean television studio.
In other, totally unrelated news: Three afternoons ago, in Starbucks, I finished writing hike #101 of my book, Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range.
What a wonderful journey it has been this year, physically, mentally, and spiritually, traipsing all over my incredible surroundings, taking in the beauty, and soaking up the STORIES.
All year I made sure to remain present, enjoy the research, and above all love the hiking, and never look as this in terms of “getting across a finish line.” But when I did, it felt amazing. Here are some stats:
First hike walked: January 19
Last hike walked: October 8
Number of hikes considered: 264
Number of hikes walked: 163
Number of hikes written: 101
Number of photos taken: over 5,000
At some point maybe I’ll total up my miles and elevation gain. Or maybe I won’t. For certain I’ll keep hiking! That part never ends, thankfully. If anyone wants to hike with me let me know; I usually go on Wednesdays nowadays, but am flexible.
We’re not done with the book, of course. I am very grateful to be working with editor Nancy Zerbey who, from her seat at her computer in Boston, practically walks all the trails, checks facts, offers insight, and brings the writing up to the next level. Nancy and I will get done by spring, and then the book designer and map people get to work. The book will be published by Imbrifex in 2019.
Meanwhile I continue to blog for Imbrifex’s Base Camp Guides. My author page there is here.
I’m also happy to be Bob Cratchet-ing again in the Jesters Dinner Theater’s annual production of “Scrooge.” It’s my fourth year in the role, and the 30th anniversary run of this Longmont Christmas tradition. You can’t go wrong with this Scrooge! If you plan to come, make sure and make a reservation soon as the house tends to pack out.
Scott Carpenter Park
October 11, 2017
“Where am I going?” I asked my son one day in late August.
It was move-in day at CU Boulder. Freshman year. His mama’s car was loaded with belongings and people, and there wasn’t enough space for me and one last, big, purple suitcase.
“Come to my dorm,” he said. He told me the name of it, and off they drove.
I went inside and checked on the dorm location. Then I got in my car and backed out of the garage. I stopped.
“Wait a minute. Where am I going to park?”
I knew it was going to be zany on campus with everyone moving in. I also knew that each family was allowed only one car.
It didn’t take me long to come up with my answer.
“Scott Carpenter Park.”
In Boulder, along Boulder Creek, there’s a park called Scott Carpenter Park. It’s got a big green hill with an awesome view of the Flatirons, and a great playground with a rocket ship climber.
Scott Carpenter was, among other things, an astronaut. He was one of the seven pilots selected for NASA’s Project Mercury in 1959, which was the USA’s first human space flight program.
Malcolm Scott Carpenter hated his first name and was born in Boulder in 1925, back when the city had about 11,000 people. He loved climbing in the Flatirons. He graduated from Boulder High and didn’t graduate from CU, where he studied aeronautical engineering and failed heat transfer class during his senior year.
Thirteen years later, after becoming the second American to orbit the Earth, CU gave Scott his B.S. anyway. The dean claimed he’d learned enough about heat transfer during his re-entry into the atmosphere. Yeah, Scott was the number two orbiter, following John Glenn, his good buddy who was first. Scott was, however, the first American to eat solid food in space. It wasn’t a Pillsbury food stick but rather food cubes, created by the team that went on to develop Pillsbury food sticks. John Glenn only got liquid Tang during his flight.
Scott’s flight was imperfect, marred by some equipment glitches and a few of his own pilot errors. When he came full circle on his third orbit, he had to manually control his reentry, and as a result landed 288 miles from the planned splashdown point, northeast of Puerto Rico. No cell phones then; Scott climbed out of his capsule, inflated his bright orange raft, and waited to be found. For 39 minutes nobody knew where he was or if he had survived. Walter Cronkite had to somberly tell the nation, “We may have…lost an astronaut.”
It was space race time and astronauts were like rock stars. After Scott’s flight, the USA was tied with the Soviets at two manned orbit missions each. Within five days Scott got his degree from CU, and a couple weeks later this park was named after him. I have a feeling the university wouldn’t have given him his degree these days without making him come back and pass the dang final first.
Scott’s twilight years were lived mostly in Vail, yet another example of how that Colorado gravity pulls you back! He passed away in Denver on October 10 (yesterday), four years ago.
We first moved to Colorado in the 1990s, and for four years we lived in a little condo in Boulder. 760 square feet. From there I rode my bike to a bluff-top pharmaceutical factory at the edge of town where I worked as an engineer. My fitness run from the apartment, which I did hundreds of times, went along Boulder Creek. My turnaround point was the top of that green hill in Scott Carpenter Park.
If it was daytime I’d watch parents playing with their children in the playground, or sledding on the hill. From that hilltop I dreamt of having a kid of my own someday.
When my son was a baby, I started taking him to Scott Carpenter Park in his stroller. I held him as he cried after falling on the slide. I first sledded with him there when he was two years old maybe, and watched his inner tube go off a jump, watched him fly into the air, do a full flip, and land on his rear end (and not break his neck). “WIPE OUT, Baba!” he yelled, laughing.
We moved to Puerto Rico for many years, and when we finally moved back my son, my daughter, and I went to Scott Carpenter Park over and over: to play in the playground and on the hill, skate in the skateboard park, swim in the huge summer pool, watch the fireworks on the 4th July, and sled on the hill in the winter.
We played badminton on the hill. We threw boomerangs from that hill – when there weren’t a lot of people around, that is – and sometimes they came full circle.
“Of course. I’ll park at Scott Carpenter Park.”
It was only about 3/4 of a mile from his dorm.
So I did. The Flatirons were gorgeous that day, hazy in late summer. I did not take the cement path to the bridge over the creek. Instead, you bet, I wheeled that big heavy purple suitcase through the grass, and up and over that big green hill.
“Full circle,” I said when I got to the top.
I did the same thing coming back. Except by then I had two empty suitcases.
Towers, Tangents, Tunnels
September 11, 2017
Yesterday was 119th anniversary of the assassination of Empress Elisabeth. I’m not talking Liz with a “z” of England, but Lis with an “s” of Austria-Hungary. I met her last month, on a hill in Buda overlooking the Danube. Actually I met a charming neo-Romanesque tower erected in 1911 and named in her honor.
Circular and built from haraszti limestone that is holding up well, the tower has about 100 steps to the top. I should know the exact number but I don’t. I climbed it three times. First I went with my kids, who for some reason didn’t want to go up and instead stayed in the basement cafe eating ice cream. I went up by myself, and then went up again because I had forgotten my ice cream stick on top. I went up a third time a few days later while trekking the Buda Hills, which I wrote about for Base Camp Guides (link to my article here).
Sisi, as Elisabeth was called, was beautiful, ultra-thin, and did everything she could to stay that way. After age 32 she never sat for another portrait or photograph. Another thing she could control was her waist, which she maintained until she died. Her regimen purportedly included a cold shower in the morning, an olive oil bath in the evening, nightly facial masks of raw veal or crushed strawberries, and a metal plate for a pillow. She was big on fasting and exercise, rode horses all the time, and hiked when back problems forced less time in the saddle. Later in life she took up fencing. She also smoked.
Sisi came from an eccentric Bavarian family and grew up free in the countryside. Her older sister was supposed to marry Emperor Franz Joseph I, but Sisi attended the engagement meeting (at age sixteen) and Franz insisted on marrying her instead. Thus began her long reign of never fitting in at the Habsburg court, in fact being there literally made her sick. Early on she fell in love with traveling, and with spending time in Hungary where she felt more relaxed and at home.
Her travel bug intensified after her only son, Prince Rudolf, shot his mistress in the head and killed himself at his hunting lodge. After that Sisi firmly withdrew from court life, wore black and gray, and traveled. She maintained her figure and very long hair, and frequented the French Riviera, Lake Geneva, Morocco, Algeria, Malta, Turkey, and Egypt.
Sisi, at age 60, was lakeshore in Geneva on a beautiful fall day, Sept 10, 1898. She was traveling in cognito with a Hungarian duchess friend. Shielded by parasol, they left the hotel on foot to board a steamer to travel to Montreux, at the other end of the lake. This was when Luigi Lucheni, a 25-year-old anarchist, approached and bumped into them head-on. Sisi crumpled but regained her footing, and she and her friend boarded the ship. After it was underway, she collapsed. The friend informed the crew of her identity, the ship turned around, and Sisi reportedly drew her last breaths as she was being carried into the hotel.
What happened? Investigators found a small wound in her chest with a few drops of blood. Further examination revealed that a needle-like instrument, several inches long, had pierced her heart. Because she was so tightly-laced there had been almost nowhere for the blood to go, and that’s how she’d been able to walk up onto the ship. Had the needle been left in her chest it would have acted as a plug, and she would have lived a little longer.
After stabbing, Luigi ran down the street and threw the needle into a doorway. He was soon apprehended. The needle was found the next day by a cleaner, and is now on display in a museum in Vienna.
Luigi’s intended target was Philippe, the French Duke of Orleans. But the duke changed his itinerary at the last minute and skipped town. Meanwhile, it leaked that Elisabeth was at the hotel on the lake. So Luigi went for her instead. Elisabeth was an odd choice due to her charitable works and her court-shunning, commoner-consorting ways. But Luigi had come to Geneva to, in his own words, “kill a sovereign,” and he did.
Luigi never got to make a political statement or become a martyr. He was tried in Geneva as a common murderer and incarcerated for life, since Geneva had recently abolished the death penalty. Luigi tried to get his trial switched to Lucerne, which still had the death penalty, and failed. In 1900 he tried to kill himself with a sharpened sardine tin key, and failed. Ten years later he tried to hang himself with a belt, and succeeded. This was reportedly after prison guards discovered his in-progress memoirs and threw them away.
Luigi’s head was removed from his body and preserved in a jar at the Institute of Forensic Science at the University of Geneva. In 1985, the jar was given to the Federal Museum of Pathology and Anatomy in Vienna. In 2000, Luigi’s head was buried in a cemetery in Vienna.
In other news, have any of you ever experienced tunnel anxiety? I hadn’t until this past July, when my work on the guidebook Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range finally took me across the Continental Divide with some friends to climb a fourteener in Summit County (Quandary Peak). I’d driven through the cheerless 1.7-mile-long Eisenhower tunnels piercing the Divide maybe a hundred times, and never had a problem. But for some reason this time I freaked! It was horrible! And it was the same way coming back!
A few weeks later, after getting back to Zurich from Budapest, I rented a car and took my kids on a fun and glorious day to the alpine wonderland of Grindelwald, Switzerland. It wasn’t until we were underway that I realized it meant tunnels. Like, LOTS of tunnels. Lots of long and curvy tunnels, more than a dozen of them, maybe six that were more than two miles long. But each time I gripped the wheel and my phobia never rematerialized. I was okay. Later I looked on Google Maps and estimated that a sixth of the 85-mile journey between Zurich to Grindelwald had been through tunnels!
But those Swiss tunnels are nice. And the Eisenhower tunnels do look dingy and dated, I decided, as I gazed down to their east portals from my perch on Mount Sniktau (great hike, by the way! Sniktau’s going to be in the book). Some feats of engineering age well, like Seattle’s Space Needle, but in my opinion the 1970s Eisenhower tunnels do not.
I’m no longer afraid to drive into the Eisenhower tunnels though, thank goodness, since my job requires it (although I do go through a mental preparation on the approach). I wonder how many others feel this way. Janet Bonnema, whose job also required going in, probably didn’t.
Janet Bonnema, born in Denver in 1938, 101 years after Empress Elisabeth was born and long before the Eisenhower tunnels, had an affinity for science and math but relented to prevailing norms for women and graduated with a history degree from CU Boulder, where she also captained the ski team and got into rock climbing.
I’ve often wondered what people do after they get a history degree. Go work for one of those history companies? In Janet’s case, she still felt the technical impulse, and landed a job with Boeing in Seattle as an engineering aide. She left after 2.5 years, which doesn’t surprise me. I grew up in Seattle and never knew anyone who liked working at Boeing. My father was a psychiatrist and made good business with depressed Boeing engineers. But in Janet’s case, she also had to watch man after man get promoted past her and given better pay.
Janet saved money, quit, and spent the rest of the sixties backpacking around the world. By the early 1970s she was in Colorado and living in Georgetown, near where the amazing tunnel construction project was underway. She applied for a number of openings with the Colorado Department of Highways and received a letter of acceptance. The letter was addressed to Mr. Janet P. Bonnema, and stated that he would be employed if he wanted the job.
Janet called to accept, and her voice gave her away and she was discouraged by the hiring manager. According the investigative report made later, the manager told her, “Women are taboo in the mines and tunnels of Colorado. Those workers would flat walk out of that there tunnel and they’d never come back.”
He had a point. The superstition had been going on in mines around the world for centuries and in Colorado since the beginning of miners and hence the beginning of white people: Women were bad luck, catastrophic luck, in a tunnel.
Janet took the job anyway. It required her to plot data displayed on instruments mounted inside the tunnel. This was the 1970s. You had to go to the instrument to read it. The tunnel contractor refused to let her enter, so she had to get guys to go in and collect her data. This went on for 18 months. Meanwhile the Equal Rights Amendment push was in full swing, and Colorado was one of the states where voters ratified it. Also, Janet got the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate her case, and it concluded that barring female workers from the tunnel constituted sexual discrimination.
Still the tunnel contractor refused her entry. So Janet filed a class-action lawsuit, which was settled out of court in her favor. On November 9, 1972, Janet entered the tunnel along with several women reporters.
When the workers saw this, about 70 of them flat walked out of that there tunnel, just like the hiring manager predicted. But unlike the prediction, they came back (except for one). Heck! They were making $8-$10 per hour, which is $45-$55 now.
After that Janet, no longer confined to her desk, rode her motorcycle up to the tunnel regularly to collect her data. When the job completed, she re-enrolled at CU and got a master’s degree in civil engineering. She worked projects all over the world, doing stints in places like Vietnam, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Israel. Eventually she moved to Florida where she worked in water management. She retired there in 2001, which freed up more of her time for travel, scuba diving, and aircraft piloting.
Why am I writing this, going off on all these tangents? Because I find it interesting. Real life is amazing and way better than fiction. You can’t make this shit up but you get to live it.
The Toy Metro
August 11, 2017
The Toy Metro of Budapest has yellow cars which are spotlessly clean and measure only seven of my shoes across. The ceilings aren’t much taller than me and are fitted with leather hand straps. At each a stop, a buzzer and a red light go off over the door. The stations have walls of glazed red and white tile and wooden ticket booths. Rows of wooden lockers line one end of each station; I haven’t been able to find out what they were for. The riveted support columns are painted dark green and have Corinthian embellishments.
A dozen or so stairs take you up to Andrassy Avenue, an elegant boulevard constructed in 1872 which is now a World Heritage Site. It got renamed Stalin Street in the 1950s, spent a short spell as Avenue of Hungarian Youth during the 1956 attempted revolution, and was People’s Republic Street for the remainder of the Communist era. In 1990 it became Andrassy again, named after a prime minister of the 1870s.
The Toy Metro is almost as old as the avenue. It was completed in 1896, just in time to convey people from Pest’s center on the Danube out to City Park in order to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the Magyars (the Hungarians) arriving in the Carpathian Basin. This makes it the oldest metro in continental Europe, and the second oldest in the world after London’s Underground (well, third oldest if you count Istanbul’s Tunel funicular). I knew it was special from the moment I laid my tired eyes on it, loaded onto it with my kids and luggage one noontime en route to our Airbnb apartment near Heroes’ Square.
Introductory fares were 20 fillers. One ticket was valid for one adult or two children taking an uninterrupted trip on the next train. Later the route was broken into two fare sections each costing 12 fillers, divided at Oktogon. Passes were introduced in 1900. Women conductors were employed during World War I to address the labor shortage.
Nowadays you can buy a seven-day pass for 4,900 forints (about $19) which lets you ride not only the Toy Metro to your heart’s content but also Budapest’s outstanding network of other metros, trains, buses, and trams that take you everywhere and barely keep you waiting at all. Like most things in this intoxicating, atmospheric, utterly groovy city, $1.80 gelato not excepted, this is a superb value. The pass even gets you up into the Buda Hills on the cog railway for a hike, if you’d like.
The best thing about the Toy Metro is that it’s hardly a toy. One hundred and twenty years on, the thing is damn functional! It was our chariot, our ground zero during the mesmerizing week we spent in this sultry summer city-on-the-Danube.
In other news, I was surprised to learn that paprika wasn’t popular in Hungary until, like, 1880. And it wasn’t even until 1920 that it went from hot to sweet! The red bell peppers from which this goulash, rice, soup, and sausage seasoning/colorant are air dried from originated in central Mexico.
In still other news, I’m back in the Rockies and hitting the trails again today, making good progress on Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range. Being August, I am now delving into the heights of the Gore and Mosquito Ranges, which technically aren’t in the Front Range, but easily inside the two-hour driving radius I have imposed from Denver’s Larimer Square.
For my recent blog post at Base Camp Guides, click here.
Loooove them mountains! All of them mountains.
And thrilled that this recent foray to Europe included an injection of Swiss Alps!
Just Set That There
July 11, 2017
“Orwell? I read ‘Animal Farm’ when I was in 4th grade on a bus in India.”
I heard my son Baraka say this to his girlfriend the other day. He’s home for the summer, getting ready to head off to college. They were sitting in the next room discussing literature.
I grinned and leaned into the kitchen counter. He remembers.
“Baba!” he called to me. “Then we got to that place where the women cooked for the goddess. What was it called?”
“Thiruvananthapuram,” I called back.
Ah, Thiruvananthapuram. My smile expanded. How I’d missed those seven syllables. Back in the day, Baraka and I enjoyed throwing them back and forth in our conversations: Thiruvananthapuram, the green hilly city near to India’s southern tip, with the groovy rhythmic name that stretches all the way across the Arabian Sea.
More memories flowed…
As our bus reached the northern outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, it halted. Then we began to literally crawl into the city, inch by inch, detouring around many closed streets. As we got nearer to the center, for the first time ever in India I became concerned about safety.
It looked like a war zone! All the shops had their metal doors down, and the sides of the streets were littered with thousands of charred red bricks, clay pots, and other debris.
Oh geez, I thought, what happened? Did bombs go off? Was there a riot? Is there a war going on I don’t know about?
The answer was, “Nope.” There was no need to be concerned. Quite the contrary. What had been going on was not a war, not a riot. It was women cooking.
Millions of women, cooking.
They’d come to Thiruvananthapuram, and earlier that day sat in peaceful lines along the streets, each in front of her own little makeshift red-brick stove fired by coconut branches. And each had prepared rice porridge for the Goddess Attukalamma (Amma).
The full name of this mega-festival is Attukal Pongala Mahotsavam, and it is centered around the Bhagavathy Temple. It happens once a year, only here in Thiruvananthapuram.
In 1997 The Guinness Book of World Records listed it as the largest gathering of women in the history of the world, at 1.5 million. Since then attendance has increased. The Times of India estimated this year’s crowd at more than three million, with more roads occupied than last year. About twenty square kilometers around the temple were fully choked in. Not all women were able to cook; it was necessary to arrive three days early to stake out a spot anywhere near the temple.
Goddess Attukalamma is revered as an incarnation of Kannaki, the heroine of the epic poem Silappathikaram. In this story, the King of Madurai wrongfully imposes the death penalty on Kannaki’s husband. Enraged, Kannaki kills the king and flees. She travels to Kerala where she rests for a while. Here in Thiruvananthapuram, women cook porridge to appease her. This porridge, called pongala, which means “to boil over,” is a delicious and comforting confection of rice, molasses, shaved coconut, nuts, and raisins. It is pronounced the same as the Spanish phrase póngala, which means, “Set that there.”
The cooking event is the biggest part of the ten day festival. By 10:30 AM, a million women are ready to cook on a million pots and fireplaces that they have “set there.”
To give the starting signal, the chief priest lights the main stove.
Try and imagine what happens next.
In one giant wave, up and down the streets of Thiruvananthapuram, for miles and miles, the women step forward, light their fires, and begin to cook.
By 2:30 PM, porridge is ready. What happens next is this: the priest comes and sprinkles each pot with holy water.
Aha! I thought. So that’s why we saw all the puddles of water by the road. I didn’t think it had rained!
I wondered where they got all that holy water. I also wondered where they got the holy tanker truck, to drive up and down the streets of Thiruvananthapuram and spray a million of pots of pongala.
You can readily detect the happiness women experience in coming together to prepare their porridge. All castes and creeds show up, mostly from southern India but also from all around the country. Celebrities and other luminaries arrive too. Miss World first runner-up Parvathy Omanakuttan was here again this year, preparing pongala for her second time. “Last time, I won the Miss India crown and became the Miss World runner up…Amma is really powerful and one really experiences a feeling of satisfaction after doing this pongala. I am really happy I am here,” Parvathy told the Times of India.
For TV actress Chippy, it was her tenth time preparing the pongala. “One has to be here to experience the goodness,” she said.
And everyone in Thiruvananthapuram gets the day off from work. Except for the constables. And the IT employees.
“That was a good trip for me,” Baraka told me recently, of the 13-month journey he and I took around the world when he was nine and ten years old. I think we’d been reminiscing about Egypt.
“It was good for me too,” I said.
What to do with them? With all of the beautiful memories that flood me, and haunt me, a decade later?
Just honor them when they come, I guess. Don’t cling. Love them, honor them. And then set them down again. Let them be.
Just set them…there.
MoonPies at Ted's Place
June 12, 2017
Do any of you remember MoonPies? They’re still going strong! This year they are celebrating 100 years of crumbling in your lap when you take a bite. I hadn’t had a MoonPie in hella, but a chance encounter this past month flooded me with memories and happily renewed the relationship.
I was out in the countryside driving one afternoon and I was (a) thirsty and (b) hungry. I’m not talking a little; I was a lot of each. I stopped at a roadside beef jerky shack, so prevalent on the mountain roads of Colorado, hoping they had items other than jerky to satisfy my pangs. As I pressed through the glass door (on which was taped a sign that read, We do NOT sell pot) my heart sank a little because it looked like all they sold was beef jerky. And that was not going to cut it for the gaping hole I felt in my tummy. Fortunately the lady at the counter directed me to a cooler on the porch containing soda pops. With a big Cherry Coke in the cup caddy, I was on my way with one of two needs met.
But dang I was hungry! I passed another beef jerky place and didn’t stop. “I think I can make it to Ted’s Place,” I told myself.
Ted’s Place is now a nondescript Shell station at a highway crossroads. When Ted Herring and his brother built the first version in 1922, it was a grassy field at the intersection of one dirt road going to Wyoming and another dirt road going into the mountains. They sold gas, pop, and candy to road travelers, groceries to convicts building the road, and also a lot of tires. Back in those days, especially when heading into the mountains, you needed extra tires on board to replace inevitable flats. Ted and his family went on to have many successful decades at that location, and some Colorado maps even show “Ted’s Place” on them (the fact that Ted eventually joined the state’s House of Representatives might have something to do with it).
I entered the Shell station that now occupies Ted’s spot and began to prowl the aisles. In addition to my ever-increasing hunger, I felt a growing sense of doom. Everything looked small and unsatisfying, mostly candy in little packages, lots of sugar with nothing to address my appetite. And everything cost at least $1.99. I needed something cheap and filling! And I just didn’t see “it.”
I turned a corner by the windows. I scanned the shelves. I blinked. I did a double take. On a bottom shelf, peeking up at me, was a box of MoonPies. YES!!
I grabbed one and caressed it. Admiring it, I noticed something on the label: Celebrating 100 Years.
I closed my eyes and decades fell away. It was Seattle. 1973. I was nine. I was perusing the aisles of 7-Eleven, at the halfway point of my walk home from elementary school. I was hungry as hell. I had a dime and a nickel burning holes in my pocket, and I was searching for something – “the” thing — that would satisfy me. And I wasn’t finding it. I didn’t want a candy bar. I was HUNGRY. It was the kind of hunger a candy necklace also could do nothing for, and I wasn’t in the mood for seven pieces of black licorice (though I loved black licorice and still do). The other substantial options, old standbys, were Big Hunk and Salted Nut Roll, and it looked like one of those was going to have to cut it.
But then I remembered: “Of COURSE. I’ll have a MoonPie.” For the record, a banana MoonPie.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Back in 1973 I had no clue I was partaking in a tradition, an American institution, one that went back to before the Great Depression. I didn’t realize I was one of millions who had gone through this ritual for generations. I was just nine and hungry!
A traditional MoonPie is two round graham cracker cookies with marshmallow filling, dipped in a flavored coating. Longtime cuisine of the American South, a MoonPie meal is traditionally completed by an RC Cola. MoonPies have been made daily in Tennessee by the Chattanooga Bakery since April 29, 1917. Early on they came in chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. In the 1960s banana was added, and the Double Decker was also introduced. Double Deckers also come in lemon and orange and, as of 2014, salted caramel.
How did MoonPies come to be? It was the 1910s. A traveling salesman named Earl Mitchell queried a Kentucky coal miner: “What would you like to eat for a snack?” The miner replied he wanted something with graham cracker and marshmallow, and he held out his arms. “And make it big as the moon!” he added.
The Chattanooga Bakery was already in business in 1917, making a hundred other things, but it soon became clear that they had something special in MoonPie. Large in portion size and costing five cents, they were more than an occasional treat. A MoonPie and an RC Cola became something of an American version of the ploughman’s lunch, or working man’s lunch. They fit nicely into a coal miners’ tiffin.
Some other things about MoonPies:
*Two songs concerning “a MoonPie and an RC Cola,” have charted, one in the 1950s and another in 1973.
*In Mobile, Alabama, they celebrate New Year’s Eve by raising a 12-foot mechanical banana MoonPie to a height of 200 feet.
*In Bell Buckle, Tennessee, there’s an annual RC & MoonPie Festival.
*MoonPies have long been a standard “throw item” from Mardi Gras floats throughout the South.
*Many a MoonPie eating contest is held around the country each year.
*On October 16th, 2010, competitive eater Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas consumed 38 MoonPies in eight minutes in Caruthersville, Missouri.
*The Limestone Branch Distillery of Kentucky makes award-winning MoonPie Moonshine which is sanctioned by the 5th generation of the same family that still runs MoonPie. The liqueur comes in chocolate, vanilla, and – of course – banana.
MoonPies were popular during the Depression, naturally. You can go to the website, where this year the public is invited to share MoonPie memories, and read about a great-grandad who would come home with three MoonPies to share between his five kids. He’d take two of the MoonPies and divide them into five equal portions (don’t ask me how he did that). For the third MoonPie there’d be a contest: horseshoes, obstacle course, footrace, rope climbing. The winner got the third MoonPie all to herself or himself. The writer goes onto explain what MoonPies meant to the relationship between his father and grandfather, between himself and his own dad, and now between him and his daughter. Reading it might make you choke up into tears.
MoonPie sales skyrocketed after World War II when the Baby Boom hit and moms needed a filling snack for their kids. That’s where I came in. I was born in 1964, which makes me the very last of the official Baby Boomers. So I KNOW there are a lot of you – 20 years’ worth of you – who remember MoonPies!
Back at Ted’s Place, I reached down and grabbed a second banana MoonPie from the box. I told you: I was hungry. And I’m not nine anymore. And heck, they were only 79 cents!
Mmm! Mmm! Back in the car, I polished off both banana MoonPies as I drove, and relished the familiar old bloated feeling. And of course I gathered all the crumbs from my lap and shoveled them into my mouth. And I loved the fact that I had bought those MoonPies for the exact same reasons I bought MoonPie when I was nine: because they were (a) cheap and big, and (b) good. And (c) – I was oblivious to/apathetic toward nutrition. But even there I think it is important to cut ourselves a break and to realize (and I have learned this over and over again, so many ways, so many times) that then, as now, my body was telling me something:
Trust yourself. Be in touch with your intuition. The feeling you get not in your head, but in your gut – where there are 72,000 nerve endings. Trust it in everything, not just in what to eat.
We do know best, about what is right for ourselves. Trust that niggle, that gut feel. Listen to it. Listen to yourself, and trust yourself when you hear from YOU. No matter what anyone else says.
Before leaving MoonPie’s website last night, I found myself pulling out my credit card. Of course I bought the attractive black 100th Anniversary tee shirt, of course I will cherish wearing it. And of course I threw in a box of traditional banana MoonPies. And of course I added a box of double-decker salted caramels. Lordy lord, I have GOT to try the salted caramel MoonPies!
In other news, this past month was the semiannual recital of my kickass voice teacher, Mary Lou Moore. For my piece I chose to sing Led Zeppelin. What the hell, I dared. Here’s the clip, warts and all.
Also this past month, I did my second blog for Base Camp Guides. Catch it here.
In still other news, I have a problem: my rose bush is too abundant. I have to walk out into the lawn to get to the garbage cans. Oh wait. Never mind. Abundant roses? No problem.
Land of Sky Blue Waters
May 12, 2017
One of many areas I’ve gotten to know while working on my hiking book is Red Feather Lakes, northwest of Fort Collins. Here’s how a 1920s promotional brochure, put out by some Denver businessmen who were trying to develop a resort there, described it:
“…Regal mountain nature sweeping from lighted up patches by the silvery sheen of quaking aspen groves; broad, undulating meadows covered with gorgeous wild flowers, varying from the most delicately tinted to the most barbaric colored types; gigantic piles of multi-colored, castellated rocks in awesome formation; lovely, azure skies holding the mystery of the ages; rarified air of incredible clarity; babbling brooks that tumble their ways through hills and dales; golden sunshine, more glorious in Colorado than anywhere on earth, and in the distance, the empurpled mountains, their glistening, snow-capped peaks piercing the floating clouds…”
I read this and made a commitment to myself that, no matter how true it was, I would not write this kind of shit in my hiking book.
Maybe a few words will trickle in. I like “castellated rocks,” for example, and “empurpled mountains.” But dammit, I’m not going to ever say aspen quake! Even though they do. It’s a pseudo-technical term I learned recently, related to the fact that each aspen leaf is attached by a flat petiole that acts as a pivot for the blade, making it flutter in the slightest breeze so that the tree looks to be trembling. As of this past week these leaves were sprouting, so I haven’t yet seen them quake this year, and don’t have to search-and-replace the verb in my manuscript.
Of course I wanted to know why they were called the Red Feather Lakes. Of course, it wasn’t a short answer. Well actually it was, but it sent me off on tangents – as tends to happen.
This chain of reservoirs, built over a century ago, were first called the Mitchell Lakes. When developers were trying to promote a resort here in the 1920s, they wanted to replace this humdrum name with something more alluring. Then along came Princess Redfeather.
Tsianina (pronounced “Cha-nee-nah”) was born on a tribal allotment in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in the late 1800s. She grew up “free as the whistling wind,” as she put it, 100 miles as the red eagle flies from where my granny grew up. Tsianina was a spelling bee champion at the Indian Government School she was sent to, and also became its pianist, playing the march for the children as they entered the dining room. She found it easy to memorize anything. Her teacher and a benefactor wanted her to have better opportunities, so they organized for her move to Denver and study piano with a noted maestro.
Tsianina was in the habit of humming to herself sometimes as she played, and one day her teacher interrupted her and asked if she ever sang. Then he recommended her to a renowned Denver voice teacher who, after her third lesson, introduced her to Charles Wakefield Cadman.
Cadman had recently become famous. A music critic and reporter for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Cadman was at heart a talented composer and pianist and had been working on romanticized Indian music using authentic melodies. The paper sent him to interview Lillian Nordica, one of the biggest opera stars of the day, and he and Lillian struck up a friendship. Lillian asked to see some of his music, and she went on to sing “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” on her tour in 1909. She brought Cadman onstage as her accompanist on at least one occasion. Around this time Cadman’s health deterioriated with (common-at-the-time) pulmonary problems, and he moved to Albuquerque and then Denver — common to do back then when you had pulmonary problems.
In Denver, Cadman and Tsianina formed a duo and became a big hit. They performed all over the country. “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” became Tsianina’s signature song, but equally popular were Cadman’s compositions “At Dawning” and “The Canoe Song.” The pair remained a big draw all through the 1910s.
The same cannot be said for Lillian Nordica, whose voice and health were deteriorating but she went to Australia anyway in 1913 and performed complete Ring cycles as Brunnhilde. Lillian almost missed her boat back from Sydney, but (unfortunately) she wired the captain and asked him to wait. Unfortunately the captain waited, and the boat hit a reef and got stuck for three days, and Lillian got hypothermia, and was hospitalized in Queensland, got a little better, better enough to rewrite her will and disinherit her third husband, and was then transferred to Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) where she died of pneumonia a few months later.
Meanwhile Tsianina and Cadman were going strong. In the waning days of World War I, however, Tsianina paused her career when the opportunity came to entertain troops in Europe. Claims of patriotism aside, I can relate to what she did – she followed her travel bug! Tsianina hints at her mindset in her memoir, Where Trails Have Led Me, writing about the confusion other Indians felt: young men who wondered “why they should fight for America after the way they had been treated by her.” She wondered it of herself too.
On nearing Liverpool her ship got torpedoed, didn’t sink, and she went on to have a blast in London for ten days and accomplish her goal of meeting an earl. Then it was on toward the front lines in France, in the days just before the armistice, where she contemplated America as being “on the defensive and therefore the lesser of the savage men…American history had recorded the Indian as savage because he was defending his home and loved ones, and here I was – helping defend the homeland which in turn had robbed us of our heritage. Amazing! I wondered if I had all my marbles!”
You can watch a YouTube clip of Tsianina entertaining soldiers in post-armistice Germany here. The clip has no sound, but that doesn’t matter. Tsianina is absolutely radiant.
She came back from the war with, as she put it, an “entirely changed viewpoint…For the first time in my life I was learning that the world is what you make it.” She got back to work with Cadman, who noted to a friend that she was “mentally dominant,” and continued performing, as she put it, “confident, secure and unafraid.”
This was the year that an opera Tsianina had helped Cadman develop – “Shanewis,” based on Native American characters, stories, and themes – premiered at the New York Met. Tsianina was asked to perform the title role but she demurred, content to be a coach. At least once she stepped in and performed the role, most notably in 1926 for a capacity crowd at the Hollywood Bowl.
Around this time, Tsianina met the guys working to develop the Mitchell Lakes. She had long been a big celebrity in Denver, and often spent time here. The developers glommed onto her Indian motif, and worked to integrate her legendary Cherokee ancestor named Chief Redfeather into their business plan. According to oral history, in days of yore, Redfeather died in a battle against the Pawnees somewhere northwest of present-day Fort Collins. Tsianina made a publicized trip to the Mitchell Lakes in 1921, accompanied by Charles Lory, the head of what is now Colorado State University, to “look for Redfeather’s grave.” After that the lakes were given new monickers. Instead of being named after homesteaders they were called “Hiawatha,” “Apache,” “Shagwa,” and so on. And remain so. And that’s how they became the Red Feather Lakes. You see how I can go off on tangents?
As for Tsianina, she retired from professional singing in 1935 and lived for 50 more years, passing away in 1985. She worked quite a bit on American Indian education, citizenship, and other causes, helping to found the Foundation for American Indian Education which today still exists as the AIEF.
I finished writing up my hike in the Red Feather Lakes, but I wasn’t done with Tsianina. I wanted to read her memoir, Where Trails Have Led Me, which she published in 1968. It’s out of print, but Amazon had a copy for $49.99. “Should I buy it?” I asked my consultant (my son). “No,” he said.
Then I remembered this thing called the library. And it turned out that Fort Collins had a copy of Where Trails Have Led Me in its museum archives room! So this past Wednesday, a rainy afternoon, I went there and I sat and I read it.
Here’s how Tsianina starts her memoir:
“All mankind has a world, a world in which he lives and moves and is his being. It may be a world of his own choosing or it may be of someone else’s choosing – it may be a family’s choice. In the final analysis, the individual has a right to choose for himself what his world will be – choose his world…choose the way he wishes to live.”
I love that, and I offer my edits: “The individual has the responsibility to choose for himself what his world will be, in fact, he’s doing it anyway.”
Which brings me to my point. Did I have a point? I think I did.
I visited my friend Harriet on the morning of the afternoon I visited Tsianina in the museum archives.
Harriet will die soon, incidentally. Harriet and I talked about the things we loved, and about how we both had loved being stay-at-home parents. She told me she’d always been filled with passions and done what she loved doing. I told her I’d never done what I didn’t love, not for any real length of time anyway. Maybe a better way to put it would be that I’ve always loved what I’ve done. I can’t fathom living any other way.
On the way out, down in the kitchen, her husband Willie shook my hand and encouraged me to keep going with the hiking book. “It’s going to pay off!” he said.
I smiled and concealed my inward twitch. It was the same way when one of my fellow actors at the theater said, “I hope your hiking book makes you rich.” I know both she and Willie were speaking from their heart and had nothing but warm intentions for me, so I didn’t go off on them about how weird what they were saying sounded to me.
Hope I get rich? I am rich: with the day I had yesterday. Early morning found me in a drizzle at Devil’s Head. The sun broke as I moved on to hike Stanley Rim, and continued to shine as I made an exquisite afternoon trek in Mueller State Park. Dusk found me discovering the Dome Rock State Wildlife Area, where I am compelled to go back on Monday. I can hardly wait to get back there and pick up where I left off.
It’s going to pay off? How about is paying off. Paid off. Why do we always have to focus on going somewhere to get something and achieve some end goal? And in the process miss out on reveling in and deeply appreciating what IS?
Make money from a book – sure, why not? But let’s say my publisher emailed me tomorrow and said the deal was off. No way would I not complete this project. I’d finish it. Absolutely. And make a book, and sell it at-cost on CreateSpace, and make an e-book and price it at ninety nine cents. If through it someone else could experience 1/100th of what I have experienced in doing it, that would be icing on the cake. But as for payment – I’ve already been paid.
Being is payoff. Living is payoff. This is the miracle. This is enough. The wealth is here and now. Breathing out. Breathing in.
On top of that, the spring in my step. How my body feels. How giddy and excited I get when I climb out of the car to begin a hike, even on a drizzly morning at Devil’s Head.
Or the jolt of energy I feel when I research what I’ve hiked and find “the story” in the hike. Every hike has a story. Every hike has a thousand stories. The rush, the thrill course through me, and I rub my hands together, and I dive into more research, follow the thread, stay up until 3 AM.
And meet people like Tsianina!
In other news, I have started blogging for Base Camp Guides. You can catch the first one here.
April 12, 2017
William Ivy was born on July 31, 1866 in Houston. He left home at age 10 and became a paperboy for the San Antonio Light and Express.
That was my first job too! Except I worked for the Seattle Times. I wish kids these days had more opportunities to do that kind of thing. Long ago, paper routes got taken over by adults, and then newspapers got taken over by something else. Such is the way all things change and become. Anyway, the paper route is where me and Ivy’s lives diverge – or maybe not. I hope not.
In San Antonio, Ivy got good at walking across a high-wire strung across the San Antonio River. He also dove off a bridge to win bets, and did trapeze stunts hanging from a tree branch over said river. Naturally, when the Thayer Dollar Circus came to town, Ivy ran away with it. It was 1877; he was 11. Actually he’d already run away from home, so this was just the next phase of development.
In the circus Ivy hooked up with two brothers named Baldwin to do high-wire and trapeze. He changed his name to Ivy Baldwin became one of the Baldwin Brothers.
Balloon stunts were getting big in circuses in those days. One day in Terre Haute, one of the balloonists got drunk and didn’t show up for work, so Ivy filled in. At 5’ 3.5” and 120 pounds he had a great build for it, as well as an innate desire to be up in the air.
Balloons in those days were made out of something like a bedsheet, held over a stack from a wood fire in a covered trench by 20 or so men. The soot from the fire would cling to the interior seams and help to seal them. When the balloon was hot enough to ascend, it would go as high as 3,000 feet and slow to a hover as it cooled.
As the balloon went up in front of spectators, one of the men would get “caught in the ropes.” That was Ivy. He’d hang from a bar by his knees, or by his toes, and perform acrobatics as it went up. At about 2,500 feet he’d let go, free-fall, and pull a parachute from a sack.
With the Baldwin Brothers, Ivy traveled all over the world doing all kinds of stunts. In 1890, the Emperor of Japan was so impressed that he had a special kimono sewn for Ivy depicting balloons, parachutes, and crazy leaps.
Ivy broke from the Baldwin Brothers in 1893 and went solo, basing himself in Denver thereafter. He’d already gained a strong affinity for Colorado as home; in 1890 the Baldwins had been a major part of the opening of Elitch Gardens Amusement Park. Ivy became something of a Denver fixture. Say, if a new saloon was opening, he would be seen walking between rooftops. This was free-wheeling, wild west Denver. When he did the same stunts back East he had to comply with local regulations, which often stipulated a net. One time in Baltimore, to stay legal he ran out and got an old fishing net at the last minute and laid it on the ground beneath his tightrope.
In 1894 Ivy joined the Army Signal Corps to help get its balloon program going. This was the very early days of the “air” force, and the Corps was near to giving up when Ivy and his wife Bertha sewed up a new balloon in their living room. He became a sergeant in charge of ‘the’ military balloon, and went with it to the Cuba to serve in the Spanish-American war. In 1898 he and an associate were shot down near enemy lines a day before the Battle of San Juan Hill near Santiago de Cuba (on the southeast coast near Guantanamo). This made them the first American aviators to get shot down. They landed in a river and survived. Ivy finished his enlistment in 1900 and was honorably discharged. Later, he served in World War I.
A contemporary of the Wright brothers, Ivy in the early 1900s got involved in the design-build and testing of prototype aircraft – and in the many crack-ups of them. But he never lost his life, nor his affection for ballooning, parachuting, and – especially – his first love: tightrope walking.
In 1906 or so, Ivy began a long association with the El Dorado Springs Resort in the stunning El Dorado Canyon, which is 9 miles southwest of Boulder. This is where I “met” Ivy, while doing research for my hiking book a few weeks ago. El Dorado is now a rustic state park with hiking trails, and has been a rock climbers’ mecca since the inception of the sport. But in the early 1900s it was a major commercial resort. On summer days, El Dorado attracted tens of thousands to its artesian water-filled swimming pools and carnival atmosphere. Fine hotels such as the New El Dorado catered to honeymooners such as Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. Glenn Miller played the dance hall.
There is a spot in the El Dorado Canyon entrance that cries out for a tightrope walker. This is the span between Bastille Rock, on the south side, and Wind Tower on the north. It’s about 600 feet across and almost the same amount of feet high.
Ivy did the walk more than 80 times over decades. Sometimes he did it backwards. One time he had to stop and hang by his knees for about an hour to let a storm pass.
Ivy said his act was “the greatest poison in the world” because “one drop could kill you.” But it never did. He died at the age of 87, in bed in his house in El Dorado Springs. By then his daredevil life had exceeded standard expectancy by 45 and 20 years, respectively, of what it was when he was born and when he died.
A few years before, in 1948, on his 82nd birthday, Ivy walked El Dorado Canyon for the last time. The wire was set lower than usual and for a shorter span, but only on the insistence of his daughter. The event was filmed by LIFE Magazine, and you can watch the video here. The best part is seeing smiling, fit Ivy step off the other end, wave, and climb down the rocks.
One source said that Ivy felt so good after his “final” walk that he did it again the next day.
This is the part where me and Ivy’s life stories will re-converge. I’ll keep on changing, becoming, and exploring, all my life, and when I’m 82 I’ll keep doing the shit that I love to do, including the shit I loved to do when I was ten years old. Call it poison. And get up and do it again the next day.
It would be nice to die in bed, but we don’t have a say in that matter do we. Or to quote Maggie (Molly) Brown, another oddball Coloradan who I wrote about last month:
“I am a daughter of adventure. This means that I never experience a dull moment, and never know when I may go up in an airplane and come down with a crash, or go motoring and climb a pole, or go off for a walk in the twilight and return all mussed up in an ambulance. That’s my arc, as the astrologers would say. It’s a good one, too, for a person who had rather make a snap-out than a fade-out of life.
(written shortly before she died in bed in her sleep)
March 13, 2017
“As we reached a sea as smooth as glass…I saw that it was necessary for someone to bend the oars. I placed mine in the oarlocks…”
—Margaret Brown, reporting to the Newport Herald in May of 1912, a month after the Titanic.
I visited the Molly Brown House after work one day last week. The historical Denver house-turned-museum on Pennsylvania Street, which the Browns bought in 1894 when it was six years old, was on my way home. I had a couple of motivations for stopping by.
One was research. I’d already been to the house once, a year ago with my kids when I didn’t know I’d be performing in the Broadway—and phony—version of Margaret’s life. Nowadays, three nights a week I play a French prince smitten by Molly. I chase her, woo her, and get her to say she’ll marry me. And each time she ditches me in the penultimate scene. I stand there singing and crying in a blue spotlight while SHE gets on the Titanic and goes back to Colorado to live happily ever after with her husband. Which isn’t what happened. Well, she did get on the Titanic, and by most accounts she lived happily, but not ever after, and definitely not with husband. All this I knew. But still I wanted to spend some more time in the house and presence of Maggie (she never went by the name “Molly”).
I was also looking for inspiration. I’m now in week eight or so of working on a book about 101 hikes along Colorado’s Front Range. I’ve written almost twenty, and with each one I get slightly less of a feeling of “what have I gotten myself into?” But only slightly. And as I walk and walk (and walk), I’m getting pickier. My hike reject rate keeps going up. It’s approaching 30%. Part of this is because I don’t read anyone else’s info. I go into each hike ‘cold’ and I collect my own data and impressions.
On the day of the Molly Brown House, I was on my way home from a reject: Waterton Canyon. Why a reject? I’ll save that for my sequel: “50 ½ Hikes Not to Bother Doing Along Colorado’s Front Range.” Suffice to say it finally got good at mile 7. At mile 8 it got great, and I had to tear myself away. I wanted to keep going! But this is a book about day hikes. People don’t want to walk twenty frigging miles in one day.
I was tired and feeling kind of defeated by the time I called in on 134 Pennsylvania Street for the tour. It was hard for me to see walking all day to throw a hike in the trash as progress. Like rowing to stand still and not get sucked into the vortex of the Titanic. “Energize me, Maggie!” I said as I came through the door. And she did, with that bit about dipping your oars in the water and keeping going. In the real life of Margaret Brown, that moment added energy and a platform to her many passions, which she continued to pursue with verve.
Passions are good. I like passions. “Only touch the things that turn you on,” says my friend Jane Siberry. “Let whatever makes you dark and dull and drained be gone. Even if people criticize and say you’re wrong.”
So yeah, I am rowing away at this book thing. Whenever I find myself looking too far ahead, I tell myself to cut it out. To go one week at a time, one hike at a time, one article at a time, one step, one pen-stroke at a time. And kicking a hike off the list is progress. It’s 101 hikes, not 202!
Who am I to groan? Most of the time my problem is that I walk too much amazing stuff and build up an onerous backlog. I got to watch it. I’m already doing three hikes in one day sometimes, and daylight is getting longer. “You are not allowed to hike again until you get caught up on writing,” I tell myself.
And I am meeting great people as I walk, many posthumously. A couple Thursdays ago I was on Mount Galbraith, just outside of Golden. I came out of a gulch and headed up a grassy hillside, and the behemoth Coors Brewery came into view. That sucker is gigantic. And I finally wondered, “Who was the dude who started that?”
A pretty incredible dude, to tell you the truth. Adolph Kuhrs was orphaned at age 15 while working as apprentice at a brewery in Germany. A few years later, in 1868, he stowed away on a ship to the USA as an undocumented immigrant. He moved to Denver, worked as a gardener, saved his pennies, and got control of a bottling business. With passion for brewing re-invigorated, he and a partner converted a tannery in Golden City to a brewery. Damn was that tannery beer good! And when prohibition hit in 1916, and lasted 17 years, did Kuhrs quit? No way. Using his customary ingenuity and adaptability, Adolph diversified into industry-leading malted milk, near-beer, chemicals, and other products including porcelain. The porcelain business survives to this day. In fact, Coors quarried clay for its porcelain on 75 of the acres of the Mount Galbraith Park I was walking on.
Mount Galbraith is a great hike! It’s going to be in the book.
Year of the Rooster
February 12, 2017
Happy Lunar New Year! Or Tet, or Chinese New Year, or whatever you’d like to call it. Friday night, January 27 was New Year’s Eve. We have left behind the Year of the Monkey and entered the Year of the Rooster!
It caught me a little by surprise. Last year I enjoyed Tet festivities in Hanoi, and I had it in my head that Tet happened in February and was a “spring” thing. After all, the fifteen-day sequence of celebrations is often called “Spring Festival” in Chinese.
But the exact dates shift around a quite bit, and definitely tilt towards winter. Lunar year begins on the first new moon between 21 January and 20 February, which means it is usually only two moons after the winter solstice.
To be more precise, we have entered the Year of the Fire Rooster, since in the twelve-year cycle the animal components are modified by the five elements. What does this mean? Lots of things, if you wish to dig into astrology. This might be a good year to be punctual, trustworthy, and to manage your money. But hell, every year is good for that isn’t it. Also, people might be a little more polite this year, be a little bit less stubborn, and keep up with their tendency to complicate things. I’m gonna work on the first two and ditch the third.
Zodiac aside, one thing’s for certain: The Rooster crows. The Rooster is a WAKE UP CALL.
And that’s a good thing. Maybe it was an essential thing if you lived in the days before alarm clocks.
I like to think of the Year of the Rooster as an ongoing invitation to wake up. Be present, be aware. And to keep asking myself, “What am I learning here? What is my life teaching me? And what am I going to do, right now, in this moment?”
On a sort of different note, we opened “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” at the Jesters Dinner Theater last night, after several delays for several reasons including not having a kitchen until yesterday. Talk about awareness! Negotiating myriad scene and costume changes while remembering lines and songs was all good fun, and I can’t wait to go back and do it all again plus wait tables today.
For all you lovers out there, we have a special performance of this Colorado love story coming up on Tuesday night, in celebration of Valentine’s Day. For tickets you can go to the Jesters website, or call 303-682-9980. We run the show into April.
In other news, I recently signed a contract to write a book about 101 hikes in the Rocky Mountains close to Denver, scheduled for publication in 2019. To get started I made a list: 140 hikes to walk and whittle down. I’ve got a lot of work to do! And I am on it.
Speaking of…does anyone want to go hiking with me? Let me know, I’d love to have you come along. I am out there several times a week all through this Year of the Fire Rooster. Also, you can be in the book if you want to – your beautiful front or backside, your choice. My publisher wants people in the pictures we include with the hikes, so readers can ‘see’ themselves on the trails.
One thing I am certainly waking up to thanks to this project: There is a ton of truly great hiking to be done here all year round.
Who needs to wait until summer? It’s been a great gig so far: say on a Thursday morning, walking up through scented ponderosa forest in sunshine, patches of snow, mule deer hopping around and ogling me. Doesn’t suck, for a job.
Arbor Day in Enero
El 11 de enero (January 11), 2017
I swung by my town’s tree limb diversion center today to drop off a few bags of leaves. Typical Colorado, after New Year’s snow we had a warm dry spell last week before it chilled down and snowed a foot, so I had a window to rake the back yard. I was out there in shorts and a tee shirt doing it.
Autumn leaf collection around here can be challenging. Lots of times it snows before the leaves all fall off. Other times they fall and then it snows on top of them, and it is easy to never get around to it until spring (that’s what happened with me last year). This year was a bit different: I took off traveling at the beginning of October and didn’t get back until a few days before Christmas. But the leaves called to me during those warm dry days last week and I went out and got them.
I never did get a Christmas tree this year since I got back so close to Christmas. This was the first year in I don’t know – a couple of decades? – that I didn’t have a tree. Even when I lived in India I had a little tree in my apartment. Since I was in Vietnam and its environs this year in the run-up to Christmas, I saw only an occasional pink or blue decorated plastic tree in stores and coffee houses dotting the cityscapes. Then I got back to Colorado and got with the X-mas spirit, acting in “Scrooge” at the Jesters Dinner Theater. There were lots of decorations there and that was my tree this year.
But today, I got showered in Christmas trees! At the tree limb diversion center I was greeted by a whole mountain of them.
It was wonderful. I suppose you could look at this in a different way and see it as not so wonderful, but to me it was lovely. And they still smelled like Christmas! And sure, it was only a massif of unwanted evergreen, but I found myself standing and gaping. So many trees, hundreds, thousands of them. It’s weird. I felt the power of each one. Each individual tree had been the objective of an outing by someone, or by a family, and selected (usually after some debate), brought home (not easy!), decorated, and loved for so many days and nights. Each one. Each had been an object of happiness and delight, and probably a majority had been loved by children. Standing there faced with them all, I felt the cumulative power of the love and toil and celebration that had been involved with each one, including their planting, cultivation, harvest, and transport. Though they were simply discarded drying-out hunks of organic matter, each one radiated energy.
It’s true: I did not have a Christmas tree this year. I had a thousand Christmas trees!
In other news (I just got back from rehearsal), I will perform the role of Prince Delong in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” at the Jesters for the run of the show, from February 3 through April 2nd. In addition to having a single-cast Prince we have a single-cast Molly, so hopefully she and I can develop some chemistry. Actually I know we can. The lady playing Molly also played one of the Fantines in “Les Miserables” – the one who hit me so hard in the face that I had trouble chewing for three days. She’s a great actress! Her voice is even better.
For info, please go to the Jesters’ website or call them at 303-682-9980.
Also, I’m still planning to kick out my new novel soon. Probably in a couple of weeks.