1.

Sierra Cement. It’s what we ski on in California.

This weekend featured different types –from the regular Portland cement known since the dawn of man for its compressive strength to the brick-mortar type that will erode and crack allowing smoke to seep out your chimney into the attic.
Or allow you to slide sideways on a ski slope despite your recent afternoon spent sharpening your edges.

What I hit Saturday morning was partially cured Portland cement that had been carefully screed by a grooming machine in the night.

My ski buddy for the day, a guy we’ll call “Dana,” craved these artificial lines on the hill; he grew up in south-central California. He was accustomed to skiing on what Montanans deridingly call “mashed potatoes.”

My home snow is western Montanan. Think light-as-air, frozen as Pluto. Yep, that stuff virtually unknown to Californios: Powder so light you’re not really sure it’s there, whether you’re floating or flying or …

I spent the morning trying to figure out whether Dana was uphill from me or down, because I spent so much time looking, dizzily, at the scree lines. Many times I shrugged and headed to the lift line.

After an hour trying to steer the skis I’d bought off an older and much heavier friend, those muscles that turn the edges failed and my vision became pure white. Heels over head, and butt over brains, I slid down and down and down. I clumsily maneuvered myself, while sliding downhill, until my large clunky boots were downhill of the rest of me. Only then could I dig in a heel and ca-thunk to a halt.

A lovely young bundle of delight, about eight years old, found my glasses. Her mother brought me my missing ski.

Soon my head was upright again and with a nudge or two to adjust my glasses I was in my happy place once more.

But I slowed down.

This was a warning biff, “you need to get your s*** together.”

So s*** together I got, biffing only once more that day, but with more grace and reason–trying to avoid a fearless toddler who skied through my peripheral vision.

And for the record, I stopped a free-ranging ski and returned it to its owner more than once.

The go-around came around.

2.
This summer, after hiking a vertical mile down into the Grand Canyon (7.5 horizontal miles,) I met up with friends, and rather than dig through five boats looking for the PFD (Personal Flotation Device) I had mailed in advance, I donned one of the extras the park service requires each boat carry.

I tucked my hiking boots into my friend’s drybox and smiled at the guy I’ll call “Steve.” I didn’t have croakies–those things that hold your glasses to your head–so Steve lent me a stretch of Guatamalan weave and we cast off.

Soon we faced Horn rapid, a place where lots of water–about 12,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) –pours between two rocks.

Steve maneuvered the boat perfectly using two spindly oars … but then in the train of waves below the rocks, the boat slipped sideways. Just like my skis had. And we were going heels over head, butt over brains.

Although I could see light, I knew in that instant the PFD I’d borrowed was too small. The graceful woman and trip leader who’d lent it to me was about half my size.

In a few strokes I was breathing air, wondering if I’d ever see again. For my glasses were gone.

Then a guy we’ll call “Jason” paddled up in a bright red kayak.

Another boater would come up with the perfect name for Jason-the-rescuer: “Idol of American Youth, Loved By All, Hated by None … and He Saves Babies.” Yup, the neonatologist asked me if I was okay. I said that I was fine. “Is Steve okay?” I asked.

Before he departed to find out, Jason told me my hat was floating right behind me. Ka-ching! My glasses were tangled up in my hat straps; I would see again.

I clung to the life line on the upside down raft for a few beats, the current pulling my feet under it then realized everyone else was upstream. No one would be able to pull me aboard; It was up to me to ‘self-rescue.’ And it would be really good to do so before the boat hit the massive chunk of limestone toward which it was rapidly heading.

I tried to leverage myself up onto the bottom of the boat but the lifeline was too low and loose. So I worked my way around to the bow (the water is warmer this year, I thought) where I untied the bow line and dragged it as I uncoiled it, toward the oars. I passed the loops through the lifeline next to the mid-ship D-ring and tossed the soaking mass of rope over the top –er, BOTTOM– of the boat. Then I worked my way around to the other side, grabbed the coil and pulled myself up onto the bottom (top?) of the raft.

I heard a cheer upstream as my soggy shape appeared on the topside (bottom) of the boat.

Then I reached for the spare oar, which was tethered to the side of the raft just at the water line. Releasing just one cam strap allowed me to pull the large awkward 10-foot oar up for use as a paddle. Just as I did this I felt a bump. Jason was back and was pushing the raft toward the right bank as well with the nose of his kayak.

I’m not religious, but at that moment, Jason was God.

Soon I was clambering up a rocky shoreline to loop a rope around a tree. There was no way I could hold the boat to shore by myself.

Soon a crew of helmeted rafter-friends was standing on one side of the boat, pulling ropes attached to the opposite side. I was on the shoreside team, trying to keep the boat from slipping away into the current. At a call, the helmeted bunch leaned into the stream, splashing together. I heard a clunk as an oar hit a helmet and the boat was upright again.

3.

Last week my friend who I’ll call “Leo” mentioned via text he’d be taking his Cessna 172, an aging single-prop plane, up for a flight in the morning.

I responded with one word: “jealous.”

We had discussed flying before and he’d come away with an impression only of my apprehension. But today he took the bait and invited me along.

I’d met Leo at the local brew pub, danced with him in the street during a summer small-town fete, and we’d had a few meals together. We had friends in common. His brain was fathomless, his heart genuine.

I felt we shared a trust and intimacy hard to define to others. A few days earlier he’d shown me his hangout at the hangar. His plane was so shiny I wondered just how much time he spent here, but I liked it. Leo is a retired social worker who had climbed the ranks in a major west-coast city as high as anyone could go. He was smart and focused. His voice held a curious monotone aspect I couldn’t figure out, but it was calming.

He pulled something that clicked and soon the largest door you’ll ever see was sliding open to release his plane from its hangar to the great, great world.

He read through a list on a laminated cheat sheet. We checked oil, added a quart. We checked fuel, both wing tanks were half-full. He expressed dismay that his hangar-buddy had not returned the tubular fuel sampler to its place. I had seen Leo pick it up and asked him if it was in his back pocket.

He reached to his right buttock and found it then apologized for blaming his buddy. His buddy who wasn’t even there. My confidence was taking off.

Then he drew some fuel from the base of the left wing and pointed to a bubble of water that had sunk to the bottom of the gizmo. He emptied it into a can then asked me to wobble the wing while he picked up the tail of the plane. We were trying to collect all the water in the bottom of the fuel tank so we could drain it, he explained.

We repeated this exercise several times until no more water collected in the clear tube.

After checking every nut and bolt on the plane we climbed aboard and he showed me how the three-piece seat belt worked and asked me to make sure it was snug and centered. Then he handed me the cheat sheet and asked me to read it aloud.

Leo checked that every gauge functioned, that every flap lifted, every light blinked. He handed me earphones and made sure the mic actually touched my lips. He pressed buttons to tune in the local tower and switched his voice to monotone.
Aha.

Soon we rolled to the edge of the runway and watched a similar small plane land. He spoke to someone in a focused, rapid d-minor, rattling off the number on his tail and expressing his intent to take off.

An automated voice stated windspeed and direction.

After the other plane landed, we pulled onto the runway and waited permission to take off.

As he pulled the throttle I felt the aging upholstery press into my back.

The last time I’d done this I had been a journalist riding with a local businessman named “Bill” who believed in community and wanted nothing more than to brag about his home county. I had taken so many pictures I’d gotten seasick.

Or maybe it was the fear.

With a grandmother (“Tutu”) in Hawaii I had flown on big planes every summer of my childhood from our home in Montana. But I knew that statistically small planes held much higher risk. And no margin of error.

I felt the bumps of the runway cease. We floated, touching nothing, I felt I’d lost my grip on everything.

I looked at Leo, who now wore clear, sophisticated glasses. He whipped them off and asked me, his voice crackling intimately in my ears, to reach in the glove compartment to find a cloth to clean them. I obliged. His head kept moving as he explained that I should constantly be on the lookout for other planes.

I liked this voice right inside my head.

He said he’d like to go to Boonville, a small becoming-artsy burb in the Anderson Valley directly west of Lake County. Several mountain ranges made this a long sinuous drive. But flying took just minutes. He’d like to walk into town for lunch, he seemed to be asking me.

I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do.

I marveled at the perspective, wondered at a valley below us invisible from roads I knew. I watched cars and trucks dawdle along highway 101 between Ukiah and Hopland. I noticed that pear orchards around Ukiah had been replaced by vineyards in the decade I’d spent on the east coast.

The morning sun lit up the mountains now behind us and dark shadows still kept rural homes shaded.

Soon I could see a runway, a short runway to the left of a town toward which Leo was clearly headed.

As the plane tilted so did my everything. I felt my fingers clench, my hair moved and I imagined us slipping sideways to earth, crumpling in a vineyard in a crash someone would photograph later after our bodies were removed.

“Stop,” I told myself.

Soon we were on the ground, the plane rolling obediently toward curled pieces of rebar to which 1/2-inch ropes had been attached. We climbed out and fixed the ropes to the plane in a simple knot, a new-to-me knot. This must be a “tie down.”

We walked into town, forego one cafe with a long line for a coffeeshop where two Spanish-speaking women prepared salads and sandwiches. The mid-day sun was too much so I wound up the handle on a faded red umbrella.

Another customer–a woman with gray hair still flat on the back of her head from sleeping–asked if I would be so kind as to move to the other end of the long table so she could sit in the sun –as she was still cold. “My house is still in the shade,” she began to explain. I looked at Leo, who I knew had a way of wrapping up conversations quickly if they lacked interest.

After I gave the woman as much room as I could, Leo and I sat across from each other and I realized suddenly I was on a date. The best, most romantic date I’d ever been on.

He ate half the sandwich, I ate half the salad, then we switched plates. I was head over heels, butt over brains.

It lasted just a moment, then I was back with my old friend.

Soon we were ambling along the road back toward the airport. I’d lost track of which road led south off the main street and asked Leo. He pointed ahead.

A building shaped like an airport tower with large window upstairs stood at the side of the runway. Leo pointed to it and told me it was actually a restroom. I laughed.

We took turns using it, reducing the weight, he noted, for our return flight.

We untied the plane, buckled in and I heard his crackly voice inside my head again, explaining that in order to clear the mountain at the west end of the runway just in front of us, we’d have to do a wheelie and ascend steeply.

His motions, which had been smooth and flawless before, now became decisive and sudden. We raced down the runway with the propellor roaring, my view strangely skyward as I knew the front wheel was off the ground already.

Leo’s monotone explained he would now create lift by dropping the flaps.

That feeling you get in a dentist’s chair, when you submit to the dentist’s whims–or skill–came over me and I was certain the weight of my stomach would ground us. But we soared into the air.

Then Leo calmly angled the plane again so that I felt we must slip toward earth as I’d felt before.

But we didn’t.

Instead he calmly reminded me to watch for other aircraft. He also handed me a map. I studied it, noting the ridge to our right had a topo line labeled in bold print “2000.” Our altimeter, I checked was rising slowly between 1500 and 1800. I told Leo we needed another 500 feet to clear the ridge.

“Good navigating,” he commented.

I realized then he had zero expectations for me. I really was just along for the ride; I could make what I wanted of it.

I chose to be thrilled. The mountains to my right spun as we turned to the east, the sun now above us.

I looked at the map. The ridge before us was somewhat higher than 3500 feet. Leo pointed to the altimeter as we climbed above 4500 and my stomach fluttered as the plane bumped. The warmth of the sun became inadequate as I felt a chill I checked to make sure was actually just physically cold, just temperature.

Leo apologized and explained how air movements make the plane rise and drop, creating a bump sensation.

He announced he would drop to a lower elevation to avoid the bumps.

As we cleared the ridge I saw Clear Lake, the familiar water just a mile from my long-time home. No longer was it an algae-ridden swamp buzzing with speed boats. It was an alpine dream, a pool of blue perched up in the mountains, clear, placid, glimmering with extraordinary grace.

4.

Just last week I had a few drinks with my friend we’ll call “Emily.”

Emily has been a loner for a few years, having left a significant other of some 20+ years for many reasons. And I have heard her many new boyfriend tales. But this week’s stumped me.

She’d met a guy at the gym where she had just finished telling me, she was proud to be known for her regular appearances. He was different than anyone she’d met; he was sincere, sweet, good-looking … but still married to someone with a pile of kids in the middle. But Emily was seriously enamored.

I listened.

They’d gone out for meals a few times, watched a movie together.

“Daglesh keeps touching me, like on the arm. I know he likes me,” she said. “But he won’t take it to the next level. He kisses me on the cheek but that’s it.”

It sounded great to me. A guy who goes slow.

“But it’s been three months,” she almost yelled. “He’s super hot … and I’ve asked him to stay the night but he won’t.”

Emily is a normal-looking not unattractive but not Barbie-doll kinda gal. Her brain can scare even the truest heart.

But this picture was not becoming clear to me.

Three months? It seemed like he was leading her on. Not having met the guy I was suspicious. “I’d think about telling him to fish or cut bait,” I found myself thinking.

“It’s been three months?” I asked to be sure.

Then last night Emily called in tears.

She had done what I had advised. He was technically still married and although he claimed it was over, she had some doubts so she’d given the ultimatum.

And he had chosen to cut bait.

Emily was heels over head, butt over brains.

“Are you going to live your life without whitewater rafting?” I asked her. “Without skiing? Without flying?”

I paused but she didn’t answer. But I knew Emily. She got it.

“Then you did the right thing,” I told her.