Riding that line between Thrill and Error


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


Challenges of the Prodigal Son

Those who have read my blog since my youngest son was 15 know how I brag about “Seth.” But occasionally a charming incompetence shines through and humbles me. Like when he was subbing for his teacher at the University of Miami and got flown to Los Angeles for a gig that cost $1000 for the cheap seats: He forgot his shoes and texted mom in a panic before taking an Uber to Macy’s on his dinner break …

This morning’s story has a bit of that humbling blush to it but his problem-solving skills have improved.

Now he’s 22 and in his first year of a masters program at the Frost School of Music. As the teaching assistant for the jazz program’s saxophone studio, he was headed to New Orleans for a conference known as JEN, the Jazz Education Network. He’d be performing with the Concert Jazz Band and possibly others — wasn’t sure if he had clarinet or flute parts but knew he needed those instruments.

But the University of Miami is still on winter break so the buildings have different hours. It was 8:30 p.m. and instead of being open until midnight the music building housing practice rooms and instrument lockers had clicked close at 8 p.m. His flight was first thing in the morning.

His housemate with the car had other obligations so Seth was left at the locked door on the phone with campus security.

Nope, not unless he had some paperwork from someone very important –specifically a professor who everyone knew got up early and would probably be asleep by now (and likely heading for that same morning flight), Seth was SOL.

Remaining calm, Seth contacted the leader of the band, a horn player, did he even have any clarinet or flute parts?

The response was neither clear nor affirmative.

Standing outside the glass door (at this point mom is feeling grateful he chose Miami over Eastman school of music in Rochester New York where he would be frostbitten by now) he noticed a movement inside.

A cleaning woman who spoke no English cracked the door at his knock and spoke to him in Spanish.

Seth used Google translate to persuade her to let him in.

He felt bad, did not want to morally compromise her, but in the five minutes she allowed him, he grabbed his instruments and music. Had he done the wrong thing, putting her in that position?

I assured him he had not; that she was thrilled, knowing that some mom somewhere was loving her that moment.


Hiking Among Ghosts

I remember walking in the Boggs Forest with the kids. Trees so thick the forest floor drank only shade. Quiet.

Boggs fog

Spongy pine needles everywhere and reddish grayish bark–sometimes that bark showing black streaks from some ancient fire– absorbed all sound.

But kids grew, we moved to the city, became part of the east coast rat-race. We got used to constant abrasive noise.

When I returned to Boggs Forest a decade later–last year–the trees had been recently scorched by an infernal blaze. That fire, among the first of what would become annual conflagrations, sent northern Californians into wheeling screeches of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

And turned the whispering green conifers into skeletal clanking ghosts.

And they do clank against each other in the wind that now howls through, unslowed by needles and leaves.

Bark burned off and fallen, the trees remain nude, seem embarrassed. Their branches, twisted by heat, curl down as if to cover their private parts. They lean into each other for support in these final years of standing upright. It reminds me of the haunting images of nude Jews in line for their deadly showers in Germany.

But, I chastise myself, is that really fair? This is a naturally burned forest. those were victims of the worst form of prejudice known to man. Of greed.

But wait. Isn’t that what we’re talking about? This climate change, isn’t it just driven by greed?

I scrape my mind for optimism as my hiking pace slows.

It takes me awhile to see the beauty. But after hiking among the bare-boned trees several times per week for a year, I see it now. The beauty, I mean.

Forest managers have hastened the regrowth by planting new trees. I am watching the baby ponderosas reach for the sky, compete with weeds, poke away the predators. Clusters of scratchy brush surround the bases of the ghost black oaks, who now stand white against the dark sky.

I see bark burned to hues of black iridescence in the morning light, drinking the rain, shedding the snow.


I see footprints: deer, raccoon, mountain lion.

I see human bootprints every day, one set on what has become my path, my three-mile circle. They are slightly larger than mine and they weave with those of a large dog. I watch for their impressionist but I do not meet anyone on my path.

My path is not a path really, it hangs a left just past the gate, between low branches I leap the same hole, a hole where a tree stood, burned deep. Then my path roams over a low saddle where I often scare up a black-tailed rabbit. Then it crosses a creek. If I’m feeling stable I take a log bridge, if I’ve had too much coffee I forge through the undergrowth to climb again. Past the piles of logs some contracted lumber company forgot to clean up. Then up, up, up through a logged area of bulldozed contours that break my sense of natural peace.

Around the mountain to my favorite place I follow other bootprints.

One day I marvel, placing my foot next to a particularly sharp impression in the mud: Another hiker has exactly my size feet … which at women’s 11.5A is unusual. It takes me several seconds to realize that they are my yesterday tracks. I laugh out loud at myself.

Up, up to my last-trees-standing place, a knob on the north end of the state forest where I can see sometimes as far as Mt. Lassen, some 250 miles to the northeast.

One day in late October, just as I am growing to see the beauty in the burn, I meet a man coming up the trail. My eyes immediately check his feet. Are they just a tad bigger than mine? If so, where is his dog?

The man, slightly shorter than me and dressed from boot to hat in hunter camou (except for his shirt, which has been removed and tucked like a rag into his belt) sharpens his eyes and likewise assesses me.

I slide my foot next to his, unable to explain this sudden intimacy. It seems obvious; I am asking if he is the one who has been sharing my path.

But he’s confused. What is this large woman doing? He is not afraid, just curious. So I start to explain.

But his feet are several sizes smaller than mine.

“Nevermind,” I say.

He has been hiking uphill and seems eager to take a break. I see his eyes focus on a hillside across the valley. ‘You see that water tank?’ he asks.

I nod.

“My house was right there to the right and below it,” he says.

I look at him, understanding that he is a fire survivor. Something inside me melts.

He tells his story, about watching the flames approach, about being relieved to see it turn away, only to feel the wind change moments later forcing him to race away, no time to say good-bye to the everything he lost.

And about this time, his wife left him; his best friend died; his life became the kind of tragedy he’d only heard about.

He keeps telling his story.

He’d been hiking here for thirty years, recently retired.

His eyes kept sneaking toward the water tank marking his vanished home. There’s no way of describing what it feels to be on that rooftop seeing that wall of fire heading toward you, he tells me later.

It has been four years since the “Valley Fire” that marked the end of life-as-he-knew-it. We talk for almost an hour, there on the side of the burned up mountain.

I think of another hiker-friend who’d wanted to find a trail to the top of a nearby peak.

Selfishly, I realize, ‘this guy might know the trail.’

I ask. The stranger agrees to show me.

A few weeks later, after rescheduling several times, Doug picks me up in his pickup truck, the sibling to my own but younger, with more cylinders and a lower, better gear ratio. And it is bright red, which he needs.

Doug and I clamber over and under dead trees. Up, up, up, up. After two hours the wind hastens and I hear, no, I feel a buzzing around me.

Communication towers with taught-stretched guy wires enclosed by a chainlink fence marr the mountaintop.

Gross red streaks coat the bush, the rocks, the everything for yards and yards on the west side of the peak. I know this was fire retardent dropped just a few weeks ago during the “Kincade Fire.” We stare over the new burn area, our eyes stretching but failing to glimpse the Pacific Ocean in the distance.

“You can see it from Mt. St. Helena,” Doug says, nodding to the peak just south of us.

A new hike is planned.

It’s been more than two months now I’ve been hiking with Doug. I call him “Douglasii” (say it: Duh GLASSY Eye,) after one of the trees he knows so well.

As he speaks of his tragedies now, just this morning a new one–a friend younger than him died from a heart ailment–he also speaks of how useless stuff is. If you don’t use it, get rid of it, he advises. It’s just stuff.

I have gotten to know his living room as I stand waiting for him to find his coat or tie his boots. The walls are decorated sparsely with a rock hammer, a tiny tin Christmas ornament he found in his rubble … a chainsaw holding down a bookshelf.

Among his new tragedies he reports, after being called by his daughter to fix a faucet at her mother’s house, his ex gave him tree ornaments as a Christmas gift.

He’s hurt and angered. ‘She knows I haven’t had a tree for ten years,’ he laments.

“Maybe she thinks you should,” I suggest.

He stares at me, the newness of our friendship stalling his anger.

Soon we are off hiking again, a day or two passes, then hiking again. I tell him my tragedies, my didn’t-work-out loves, my potential new ones.

We hike again.

He tells me that his lady-friends don’t want to be friends when they find out he is still married.

And we hike again, this time along the same trail where we met. Again I see the big boots and big dog tracks. I explain to Doug this is why I wanted to know his shoe size. He stares at me but I think he gets it now. He thinks I’m crazy but he doesn’t say so.

We hike again.

One day he goes for a hike without me and when he tells me about it I feel a burn inside.

But I get it the next day when I head up the hill early, too early for him. It’s good to be solo.

Alone I meander slowly and come across a huge heavy tool unlike any I’ve ever seen. It’s a Pulaski without the point, but with a blade turned 90 degrees. It would be perfect for digging fire lines. But I look at the new trees. It must be for planting trees, I decide. I text a photo to Doug.

“It’s a rock hammer,” he immediately responds.

I carry it back two miles to my truck, shifting the weight from one shoulder to the other.

When he sees it he is surprised. He thought it was smaller. His hand runs down the curved handle admiring it. I give it to him. He’s pleased.

The next day he reports that it’s for digging fire lines, according to his knowledgable son.

We hike together the next day, I show him where I found it, among the ferns in a burned area.

We climb over rocks and along logs.

We hike again.

And again.

Every day I hike a new path with Doug.

When I can’t go with him on a long hike he proposes because I have a dentist appointment, I invite him over for breakfast.

He eats the French toast but won’t try the fried bananas, sloppy gray slugs that I know taste like central American heaven.


Won’t try something new? A darkness fills me.

But then we hike.

Doug and I, we just hike. It’s what we do.

I head to the dentist and he tightens his bootlaces. I am saddened when he sends me pictures of the hike without me. We will go again Sunday, he vows.

No matter how many dead trees, I can always find new growth if I look.

‘See you then,’ I say.



Tidal Reach

The beach where the Navarro River meets the Pacific ocean hides its wealth.
A muddy parking lot hosts few vehicles on a January Saturday. The half mile road out from highway One that leads north from the San Francisco Bay area is a mostly-paved narrow path threatened by overgrown undergrowth below the eucalyptus … it is driven only by the kind of people who ignore multiple “ROAD CLOSED” signs.

Their cars, mostly four-wheel drive and not-anywhere close to new, stand askew, disregarding any parking markers that may have been installed. Recent high waves leave the sand and gravel smooth almost up to the giant logs moved by bulldozers to delineate the parking area.
A flock of rocks guards the sliver of beach across the river, smooth and all pointed southeast, lolling at the water’s edge. When my aged chocolate lab/Chessie cross perks up her ears and considers placing a foot in the water, two of the rocks turn into seals and splash into the river. One of them barks. My dog is silent and steps back.


My cousin, Christian, and I stumble across the sand along the newest high water mark where fresh detritus forms a line of inquiry along the sand. I reach to pick up an object so shiny and colorful I cannot imagine that it arrived here otherhow than having been dropped by a rich person.
But it is a remnant of abalone honed into a shape a sad person might say is a worried face, another might say is a wary wolflike beast. I turn it over to gauge its rainbow before pocketing it.
Soon my pocket droops with pebbles, small pieces of worn wood, a green triangle of bottle glass.

My Cousin

Christian squats on a log and I click a picture with my phone. His eyes are closed just for that long. When we get to the Buckhorn bar, the only place in Boonville still open for lunch at 3 p.m., I look at the pictures I’ve snapped of him leaping from one log to another. Eyes are closed. Christian reaching to pet the dog, eyes closed. Christian turning toward the seals? yup, eyes closed.
It’s amazing how much we saw, really.


Toast to a Ghost

My mom suffered a crushing pain in her back this past April when an undetected sarcoma caused her T-11 vertebra to collapse.
She wanted to die.
The Maui emergency room personnel diagnosed a urinary tract infection and sent her home with some stiff antibiotics.
A couple weeks later the doc recommended an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) screen but her insurance company denied it. Mom’s husband said simply, “can we get one if we pay for it?”
Nope. Against protocol.
It was a terrible time.

My mom is one tough old bird. Raised in Hawaii before the islands were considered paradise, she did not have much calcium in her diet and inherited her mother’s severe scoliosis. Her back is the shape of an S.
But she swims in the ocean every day. Or she did until this back injury occurred. Now, eight months later, she is able to swim independently again but she sticks to the calm waters of her condominium’s pool.

I consider this recovery somewhat miraculous. You see, my mom is 84.

But she couldn’t have done it alone.

First my son, “Chance,” a recent college grad finishing up his first directorship project was waiting for the editors and colorists to finish working on his full-length feature film. He dropped what he was doing and flew out from Colorado to help his gramma. When the MRI was denied, he called the insurance company and demanded the names and credentials of everyone who had seen gramma’s file and asked who their HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) compliance officer was. I was somehow proud that my son was itching to, in his words, “sue the shit out of them.” For the record, this is Humana Healthcare we’re talking about. But he was right. Suddenly the door opened, the MRI was conducted — and showed a 70 percent compression fracture.


Chance stayed for two months preparing elaborate breakfasts, washing dishes, clothes and countertops meticulously. I was shocked; he’d never demonstrated those skills at home. He also had to deal with his step-grandfather, known here as “Chas.,” whose own bone marrow cancer was becoming debilitating.

Chas. couldn’t sleep and often kept mom up too. It was a tricky situation. Chance made separate hospital beds appear, each with it’s own set of controls … and their monstrous king went away. The vast countertop detritus disappeared also. Who knew lovely green granite lived under there?
Soon Gramma and Chas. became spoiled rotten. But instead of complimenting Chance on the lovely sliced papaya, mango and pineapple next to the scrambled eggs, toast and yogurt, Mom commented the eggs were too runny.

“Yup, welcome to my childhood,” I told my heroic kid, “that’s my mom.”

“But,” I added, “she’s my mom.”
Finally, worried for his sanity, I went to visit and noticed the caretakers that my son had finally brought onboard to help were quite helpful. Not only did they provide cleanliness and food preparation, they cheered mom up and made her do her exercises. And Mom and Chas. had to be on their best behavior for them. Not surprisingly, every week or two the help changed out and a new face appeared. The caregivers just didn’t want to come back.
Except for one.
One woman in particular struck me as both competent and caring. Thick-skinned, but delicate, she understood what they were going through and forgave them their bad behavior.
We’ll call her “Honey.”
Honey could tell “Mamafaye” that the eggs were just right and that she should be thanking Chance instead of criticizing him. All without falling from favor herself. She was all absolute tact.
Soon my mom was thanking Chance every time he turned around.
But alas, when you say “Thank you” accompanied by a large sigh, the truth outs itself.
It was time for Chance to be emancipated.
Fortunately, Honey was willing to stay on with longer hours and soon she was running the household, not only carefully leading mom in her daily exercises but also doing all housework including grocery shopping.

Chas. continued to moan and sigh. ‘I am dying,’ he would say simply. And grace simply escaped him.
Soon he proved himself right and mom was alone with Honey.

Fast forward to December 1, 2018.
Honey contacted me, as she does almost daily. But this time she sounded a little worried.
“The bathroom window is always open when I get here in the morning,” she reported. “Mamafaye can’t reach it. And I know I locked the door.”
I was worried. But on the sixth floor with no exterior floors below the window, I reasoned, my concern was invalid. I searched for other answers. But Honey knew and was succinct. “It’s Charlie,” she intimated. “His ghost is here.”
“Well,” I advised, “ask him to keep the window closed so Mamafaye doesn’t get cold.”
I couldn’t hear Honey’s response … we were communicating via text.
But I sensed she was considering her options.
She wanted to know why he was there, what did he want? What unfinished business did he have? And why was he opening the window at night?
I too considered it. The bathroom was referred to by my mom as “Charlie’s bathroom.” I would open the window when visiting to get airflow through the condo, often to dispel the steam from the shower or other bathroomy smells.
He’s trying to clear the air, I thought. He left somewhat gracelessly. Maybe we just need to let him know that we loved him despite his expert curmudgeonry.
So hey, Ghost of Chas., if you’re reading this, please know we love you.
And we’d love you even more if you kept that window closed.


The River of No Return

The River of No Return.

That’s the name the natives had for it when Lewis and Clark asked, according to one source. Kinda has some appeal, doesn’t it?

More than a challenge, it’s a seductive side dish to my life. What exactly do I have to lose?

I knew the Salmon River’s main fork would mean a trip to northish, centralish Idaho. But so distant from my Montana upbringing had I become that I knew not which side of the continental divide it ran. East or West? But it was a river trip invitation from a friend I like a lot.

I had the brains enough to say ‘yes.’ Whew.

But six months later, before I finished packing my car–in that moment when your subconscious searches for an excuse to quit the physical labor–I found myself staring at my computer screen, searching for the put-in, a creek named ‘Corn.’ Where exactly was I going?

We were going to float from eastern Idaho to western Idaho on the most lovely section of river I’ve seen in these many days.

In short, booby prize, this was not.

Overwhelmed with private business reorganization, property transfers, kids in college, you know the scene. I had just sent a check to someone to make sure I made the roster when suddenly, it was time to load up the car and get there.

Sure I’ll pick up Kathy in Salmon, Idaho. What does she look like?

Where is the turnoff for the put-in?

What is the name of the shuttle company?

Dessert for how many?

Then suddenly, we were all there. All 24 of us. A campground on a hill, sloping elegantly toward a loud, beautiful river, clear and strong. I pulled some shampoo out of a ziplock bag, a towel from the drying place on top of my pile of gear and headed downhill. I looked sideways–everyone was busy.

I hadn’t read the rules. I didn’t know nudity was a no-no. I didn’t know I was supposed to distribute my wastewater from my hairwash up on the hill. I was operating on Grand Canyon rules out of habit. I found a beautiful stream and just upriver, a large rock on which to perch my towel and clothes.

It’s amazing how quickly I can bathe when the water is the temperature of a bitter divorcee.

I swear, ranger, I was out in under 1.5 seconds.

But boy did I feel ready-for-anything afterward.

And it’s a good thing.

Because Dick Peterson is not your ordinary river trip leader. He’s 75 and missing a few toes. He speaks infrequently, when he has something important to say. And most importantly perhaps, he knows when to move aside and let his 18-year-old grandson row the rapid for him.

I had sent out some emails, unanswered, about this eve-of-launch dinner. Everyone knew but me. “It’s a thing,” Alex had said. “We do it night before launch every time.”

Someone had pulled an inflated boat off a trailer and someone had then covered said trailer with butcher paper, connecting the strips with duct tape. People were beginning to set up chairs around it as though it were a giant table.

When I finished combing out my wet hair, I approached this scene with some shyness, nay, trepidation.

I spoke softly to a man stirring something at the stove. He told me that dinner was almost ready. I watched as he and a couple others stirred giant pots of broth. As I stood there idle, he naturally enlisted me to help. As a team, we strained the contents of two large (like 10 gals each) pots and dumped them on the papered trailers. We pulled crab legs, sausages, corn-on-the-cob and laid them onto the butcher paper on the trailer. It was brilliant.

I was the newbie to this gig. I remembered the trip leader had sent out a list of chores, asking for volunteers. I didn’t know what “pearl diver” meant and on every trip I’d been on I knew people just jumped in and got ‘er done. I volunteered to be the ‘whatever needs to be done I’ll do it person.’ On this trip I always got beat to the dishwashing lineup; I always had hands offering to help peel fruit or carry heavy things–to the point I looked at my flabby legs and wondered if I LOOKED helpless.

But no, over the next five days I learned this group of two dozen people made a tribe, everyone knew their place, everyone fit into the cogs to make everything work. And it was all designed by simple love. Not complicated love, like I’ve seen on other trips, where people sleep with the wrong people or worse. Kathy told me during our introductory one-hour ride to the put-in that Steve has been her best friend since forever. I asked Steve how he knew her and he said “she’s my sister.” The two are not related.

On costume night my friend known here as Alex donned a pink wig and tutu. We called him Ruby as he danced around the firepit. And Alex came up with costumes for the two federal government types who had not brought costumes, both named “Ed.” When Alex was through Montana Ed looked like a sniper with willow branches stuck in his hat and charcoal blackening his skin. He crept up behind chairs and played the part. The other Ed had a large straight piece of driftwood strapped to his torso. “Morning Woody,” Alex announced. The quiet shy former FDA inspector wore it well.

And then there was the neonatologist (newborn baby doctor.) The lone hardshell kayaker, this guy couldn’t sit still. You’d think after dealing with screaming babies 50 weeks a year (I’m sure he doesn’t get to hang with the quiet ones) he’d take a break and relax. But no. After playing safety at every rapid (hanging out in the eddy downstream to assist in case of trouble) he hauled gear up steep beaches, washed dishes, explored the everything around camp (he’s the one who, despite having watched the bear at the edge of camp all evening, camped next to its apple tree and had to move his tent in the middle of the night.) He hiked everywhere and on one memorable evening, swam across the river from camp to jump off a high rock. This after paddling all day.

When we got to our shuttled cars and trucks at the take out, we discovered the shuttle team had forgotten one set of keys. We tried calling, we looked in every other vehicle … and eventually broke in through a small window, stuffed Sabina, the skinniest among us, in to unlock the doors. Someone found the keys in a seat pocket … but no one left until this was accomplished. We had become a tribe and I thrilled to be part of it.

Maybe by “River of No Return,” the native tribes meant that we would not want to return from it or that we would in no way become our old selves again.


The Village at Kelsey Creek

Watering Hole. Saloon. Bar. Pub.

Each name carries a specific image but they are all public meeting places. Where disputes come to a head, ideas are stretched and tested, friends look into each other?s eyes to gauge their friend?s okayness.

And people imbibe.

They relax, giggle, open their souls a little ? and maybe say a little too much.

It?s what makes a village.

I first walked into The Kelsey Creek Brewery in Kelseyville, California many years ago to meet a friend. As so often occurs when men and women become friends in a small town, rumors had been building about the intimacy of our relationship so my friend said, ?why not just meet at the brewpub? If something were going on between us, we wouldn?t meet in such a public place, right?? Let me not be unclear: my friend is entirely gray and 15 years my elder. Neither of us could remotely be considered ?hot items.? But rumors will occur where conversations lack content, where no higher purposes arise. And I?ve been tempted to fuel rumors with slight innuendo just to see whether, like the game of telephone from our youth, the message will return full circle and if so, what form it will have morphed into. Sure enough I was soon informed by my second cousin?s wife that I?d been sleeping with the guy. Amazing. Cue Bonnie Raitt?s ?Let?s Give Them Something to Talk About.?

If you do not bring your own, intimacy is just what you?ll be served at the Kelsey Creek Brewery.

Guards are dropped, hair is ruffled, bar stools are rocked back a notch so people can talk to the next guy over, people lean on their elbows, revealing just how flabby their arms have become. Not much can be hidden by the second round. And that honesty is what I crave. I?m a no-makeup, rarely hair-brushed, feet on the floor kind of person. I generally tell the bitter truth and I can deal with the consequences.

And I don?t care if the bartender wants to wear a tight t-shirt with a neckline dropped precisely to the point of no return. It?s not my business. She can be whoever she wants to be.

When the Brewery in bustling downtown Kelseyville changed hands, feathers were ruffled. People are change averse. But I soon became a great admirer of the new owners.

An Irish woman of serious demeanor whose sense of humor dares past that point of no return and her pony-tailed partner of some considerable beer-making talent welcome all equally. And no fake smiles come from the woman we?ll call ?Caroline.? You have to earn them. And when you do, everyone at the bar roars with delight.

And her assistant, who we?ll call ?Holly? carries a certain spirit all her own too. Recently Holly got carried away betting with a patron, an accented fellow we?ll call ?Xavier,? over a sports team. That was why, she explained while washing a glass, she was wearing a Dodgers jersey.

She didn?t learn her lesson. Next time I went in she had died her hair blue. And Xavier wore a huge grin.

I never imagined I?d become a barfly. But when the kids went off to college and I realized my husband, who was gone more than half the time on business overseas, wasn?t really present anymore, I decided to move back west–at least part time. And living alone is not something I?d done for 30 years. Loneliness and a weakness for India Pale Ale takes me to the brewpub with a regularity strong enough that I know someone every time I go in. And when the brewmaster, who we?ll call ?Jason,? makes a new IPA that Caroline thinks I?ll like, she has poured a taste for me before I?ve chosen my barstool. And she can tell who I?m going to sit next to too. If the guy we?ll call ?Shorty? is there, I?m likely to sit next to him. She knows I like his voice.

If it?s Paul or Xavier or Rick or Jim or Tim or Tom or Scott or Pat ? I like every one of those guys too. Maybe not Paul so much?he brought in a fart machine one time and teased me with it for 15 minutes before I caught on.

One time Shorty (who is 6?10?) and I were talking about hair and he leaned back to better evaluate then commented, ?You have gray hair.?

I love that kind of honesty. I entered a discussion about it. ?No, it?s actually turning white.? I leaned my ear forward to show him the edges of my face where it is snow-like.

He looked at me for a beat.

?No,? he annunciated. ?I said ?You have GREAT hair.??

But my favorites are the women. Kim and Julie and Jess only laugh if I am actually funny. And they sure don?t care if my cleavage is or is not showing; or whether my hair has leaves in it; or whether I have clay on my nose from the pottery studio.

If it weren?t for these watering holes, where would we go to confer? Churches? God forbid!

And what better antidote to conflict than alcohol? It relaxes everyone AND it reduces their ability to function. That is just what war needs.

The pub is a deliberately casual place with peanut shells on the floor. The bar is dotted with baskets of peanuts and popcorn. But they’re not over-salted as I’ve seen other establishments practice–in order to make people thirstier.

Dogs dragging requisite leashes wander among customers. Especially customers who bring in food?burritos, pizza, sandwiches. The Brew pub takes ?casual? right up to the line the health department has drawn in the sand. Bring your own food, but can you share it? I can see Caroline?s smile flatline. ?No comment.?

These people are so down-to-dirt honest that when their marquee had a spelling error, they made fun of themselves on instagram with it. “BEER, the perfect tempoary solution to any problem,” one day’s chalkboard read. The caption included “#drinkup! … #welovebeer … #spellcheck” These people are so friendly they didn’t re-order their serving glassware that bears the name of the town –misspelled.?In fact, someone suggested changing the name of the town to match the glasses. “Let’s just change it to Kesleyville.”

One time I straggled in for a refresher after working outside all day in the California high summer heat. I was wiped. I didn’t want to sit too close to anyone because I didn’t think I smelled too good. I couldn’t find a dry place on my t-shirt to dry the sweat that had dripped onto my glasses. But Tim wouldn’t say hello without his signature bear hug. “You’re one of us,” he said simply. Whether I had a choice I don’t know; my village had found me.








Here in northern California the heat is rising. You heard about the biggest fire in California history. But you might not have heard what those of us who watched that fire and it?s thunderclouds of smoke from our back porches felt. My own emotions surprised me.

Do we have a choice about our emotions? How we react to crisis? I think we do. But only insofar as we recognize those emotions, acknowledge them, process them. And for those who have lost what they value most?their possessions?and those others of us more ethereal, our peace, that process doesn?t feel controllable.
When fire, dramatic in every physical sense, comes through, we feel we are not participating in our lives; something else is running the show. We have to leave the places we know, sometimes in a very great hurry. We have to move on whether we like it or not. So I think we should just decide to like it, decide to see the half-fulness. It makes it a lot easier. Like fussiness. It?s much more fun to be not fussy.

Last Friday fires took off from locations in Mendocino County, which lies west of my forest cabin, not far from the Pacific Ocean. One started near Hopland?s Old River Road and One near Potter Valley?s Ranch Road. Both grew fast. The fires are named after the roads nearest their starting points. As we watched the source of smoke move slowly across our northern horizon in Lake County from west to east all week, we thought about those we know closest to the front lines.
We texted them, we Facebook-messaged them, we left them voicemail:
?You have a place to stay here;?
?Hey, come stay with us — dogs and cats welcome;?
?I can take one friendly horse;?
?I have room for your chickens.?
Ultimately we used all forms of social media, knowing our friends were on the move, unable to answer. ?Has anyone heard from Denise? Did she get out??
?Where is Cornelia staying? Did she take her giant puppy with her??
When the first fires moved through Lake County, California in 2015, people thousands of miles away found themselves scouring the internet for lost pets hoping to connect people with the found pets they didn?t have time or internet access to link with owners. Someone set up a page calling it simply ?Lake County Fires Petfind.?
Photos of lost goats, pigs, peacocks, chickens, horses were outnumbered by cats and dogs. Posts often included emotional verbiage about the wonderfulness of lost pets. Found or ?spotted? posts often feature elusive animals someone couldn?t catch but were compelled to report seen trotting down the road in one memorable example. My favorite photo features a small Toyota pickup loaded with two cowering horses. The bed had to have been hitting the tires. But dang it, they gotten ?em out.
Others merely opened their gates and let their horses free.
This was not an exercise. The Valley Fire roared through Middletown in September, 2015 destroying 1500 homes. In an area whose population is about three times that, the impact is ? well, it?s an impact.
Like some mutation involving d?j? vu and ptsd, these last few weeks everyone in this community of Lake County was either evacuated or was hosting evacuees. Everyone I know here was involved. And in a small town everyone knows everyone.
I am a few hundred yards from the mandatory evacuation zone so I hosted. Here?s where the term ?Evacu-cation? comes in.
My guests included wine-grape growers, a tech-savvy internet consultant, a professional chef, two retired appraisers and four dogs. Yes, that adds up to a party. An Evacuation Vacation.
The term ?Evacu-cation? was the brainchild of a young woman named Katie Riley. She stopped our stuttering. Thank you.
The winegrape growers brought a case of wine, the tech-savvy friend brought cigarettes and kept the air traffic scanner on all day so we could hear the conversations of pilots dropping water and fire retardant. And the professional chef, having sent home a campful of kids, brought lots and lots of sandwich supplies and a larderful of smoky pulled pork. Yum.
I sat on the couch and answered questions about where to find the forks (to the right of the sink ? should I move the silverware to the other side of the sink?) and whether to let loose the dogs (?don?t. there?s a skunk living under the porch?) and also how to turn on the shower; which closet houses towels; where to put the fish tank.
I also had to explain to one 70-something sister that by ?fish? her younger sister did not mean to challenge her decision to cook ribs for dinner. By ?bringing fish,? she meant ?Oscar,? her goldfish. She is bringing her goldfish, not a food item.
The foodies took over the kitchen, others did the dishes and I sat back and watched with delight.
Who knew that Suzy and Stan?s dogs like to sit on each other (Yes, this is the sister who brought her pet fish: Oscar, tank, water, everything.)
Meanwhile Chef Steve posted a selfie in my hot tub with a glass of rye.
And who the heck knew that you could listen to the conversations of those helicopter pilots dragging bags of water over the mountains?
It was a vacation for all of us, a giant slumber party.
Except for my cousin, who we?ll call ?Xian.? This cousin was having none of the evacuation advisories. He had just started sanding the living room floor in the home my grandmother grew up in 100 years ago. When he heard about the mandatory evacuations and closures of all businesses, roads etc within the lines of demarcation, his response was simply, ?Oh good, I get to keep the sander for one more day.?
His mom and sister and one of the dogs slept in my guest bedroom ten miles south of the family homestead.
My tech friend kept all informed by posting maps of cool sites like that shows an interactive map of wind directions and speeds with a slider for altitude. She reposted the Calfire updates and links to maps, maps, maps. Some maps are based on satellite temp readings, others show historic fire lines. Still others show real-time (updated every 30 minutes) current fire progression. She reposted dramatic footage shot by firefighters and professional photogs who sneaked inside the lines. She linked people to shelters in their areas and reposted requests for food, housing for pets, you name it. She was addicted. In a very helpful way.

Everyone found a niche, a way to help. And in our little corner of evacucation-land, crisis was turned into sheer pleasure.