Mountain Passages: Weather, Gardening and an Anniversary

I’m predicting a massive snowstorm here in the Front Range on Friday, October 18th.

The day before will be pleasant with blue skies, temperatures in the low seventies and a breeze out of the northwest. After dark the breeze will freshen up, cool down, and swing to the south. By midnight a huge front will blast down from Canada. The counterclockwise circulation will suck up moisture from the Gulf ofphoto-4 Mexico and we’ll have a foot of wet, sloppy snow in my garden the next morning.

How can I be so sure of all this? Simple, I just planted fall lettuce. Today is September 1 and the seed package said that the lettuce will mature in 48 days.

Yesterday Blue Eyes and I celebrated a double-digit wedding anniversary, not in the 30s but close. I know. I know. We were young then—not so much now.

I’ve always thought the average Mountain Gazette reader was a 32 year-old ski instructor/boatman who lived out of the back of her Toyota truck in the summer and had a huge black lab named Euripides—Rippy for short.

But some of us are getting a tad bit older. And with the longer teeth comes a real appreciation of my best friend who has managed to put up with all my nonsense for this many years.

I can’t imagine what it took to farm these flatlands a century or so ago. Those farmers had steely nerves. Gardening here at the base of the Rockies still requires vast over-confidence, irrational optimism, substantial soil amendments, and a disproportionate amount of luck.

So Blue Eyes looked sideways at me when I told her that I was planting an Asian Pear in my garden five years ago. You’ve seen the look? Right? There is no mention of the word, “crackpot” rather the response is couched in terms like, “plant the region and weather.” Or questions like, “So how many Asian Pears have you seen growing in Boulder?” All very civilized—but she’s thinking, “I married a crackpot.”

We’d put a couple hundred miles on the motorcycles before lunch. We were sitting on the deck of the Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur with our boots up on the railing and margaritas in our hands enjoying the view of the ocean. Blue Eyes is sort of straightforward. She looked at me and said, “So where do you think you’ll live when we get back to Boulder?”

“Your place.”

“You think?” she asked

“Yeah, it’s a little better decorated than my place.”

“You mean I don’t leave my clothes where I take them off?”

“Something like that.” I said and took another sip of my ‘rita, grinning.

This gardening season started with flights of pure fancy that lead me to plant lettuce seeds in early March. Hell, the weather was warming up somewhat, I’d spent the last two months in the house on injured reserve and needed to do SOMETHING. So I hobbled out to my garden, turned several raised beds, and planted spring lettuce. The weather was moderate and in a week or so little green buds appeared. I’d just gained three weeks on the season.

Nope.

Late March and Early April along the Front Range presented us with wave after wave of miserable, cold, stormy weather. The lettuce never knew what hit it. And for that matter, neither did the Asian Pear.

We bought a house together up in Boulder Heights we called The Cabin, eight miles northwest of town in the foothills. We got a mountain dog who was half Irish Wolfhound and half Old English Sheepdog with all the bad traits of both nationalities. We traveled a good deal for work and Sam the mountain dog became bi-weekly fixture at Cottonwood Kennels down in the flatlands. There was nothing better than to come in from the airport on Friday afternoon, pickup Sam, a pizza, and meet Blue Eyes up at The Cabin.

I know it’s a cliché but the years just flew by, wild weather and work through fall, winter and spring and most of the summer off just sitting there together looking down on Boulder. And then we moved downhill to north Boulder in 2005.

After five years I had interwoven the branches of the Asian Pear into the Southwest corner of my garden where it would be protected from the worst wind and weather by our house. Since the second summer we’ve harvested sweet, round, yellow Asian Pears.

This spring the leaves and buds came early, followed by the storms of late March and April. The Asian Pear didn’t even bother to bloom this year.

So after recovering from the spring lettuce debacle I did the usual and planted most everything in late May, three varieties of tomatoes, basil, and a mozzarella plant, ONE zucchini and as many anaheim peppers as I could fit in. Yes, I garden for two reasons: caprese and chile rellenos.

photo-5It has been a fine summer for gardening. I’ve eaten enough caprese to start speaking Italian, learned to make a tasty chile relleno casserole with chorizo and given away tomatoes to all my neighbors. My ex-running partner, Captain Love gets the two-foot long zucchinis. His wife, St. Jane has promised zucchini bread.

We both quit paid work a year or so ago. Blue Eyes runs a website call clothroads.com that sells indigenous textiles and products from third-world artisans. I sit on the board of the Buffalo Bicycle Classic and am working on a partnership with the Forest Service and Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol to work the major trails in the Roosevelt National Forest next year. It seems like we are both still working. When we look around us…we are simply amazed to be where we are in life.

It’s September 1, I’ve planted sets of lettuce, Swiss chard, kale and Brussel sprouts. I’ve shaded the lettuce with a tarp to protect it from the heat and now I’m taking bets on that October 18th snowstorm.

Alan Stark is a free-lance writer and member of the Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol.

The God of Skiing: South America

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… His book, The God of Skiing, is due out this fall and he will be sharing excerpts from it here at the Gazette for the next few months. Enjoy.

 

THE GOD OF SKIING

By Peter Kray

SOUTH AMERICA

The second time he disappeared everyone said he ran off to Argentina with Marc-Andre, that lanky grinning badger, the reckless French Canadian. The two of them talked about it like a dark green dream at the bottom of the world filled with fields of super skinny cigarette smoking licorice-haired girls who got plastic surgery for bigger lips and bigger butts but wanted tinier tits and had reductions. In Buenos Aires they met up with Marc- Andre’s friends who ran a tour DSC04605operation. They took a train through the Lake District and hired a car to the grasslands. They went to Las Lenas, above the treeline where everyone keeps their goggles on. To Chile, eating fried guinea pigs and washing them down with wooden cups of wine. They found work in the bars, or on the hill as avalanche control in La Parva or Portillo, the tiny private village where the World Cup racers come in August and September to train for the season.

But then they said that he fell in love with the little New England girl with short-black hair and sharp granite eyes who skied like a loping deer and spent her summers teaching skiing in Australia at Thredbo, or Hotham. So he had stopped in Australia then went to New Zealand. He dropped acid every day, living on beer and water, on trekking skis where the slopes echo tree-less as beaches, white and blue and beyond. He was in the saddle of some perfect ridge with just his sleeping bag, a pot for coffee and two bunks, and outside his hut was a crown of mountains.

“You follow the season.”

Other skiers were there though, and no one had seen him. So they said he left me the dog to drive south with Miller, through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, down broken roads with bad weather and bandits to the brown-white sands of Nicaragua where they would surf through August and come back in the Avocado, Miller’s old green Ford truck with the weather-beaten white camper and more than 100 pounds of marijuana to smoke and sell so they wouldn’t have to work all season. He was cutting trees in British Columbia. Guiding rivers in Alaska. And I was just borrowing the dog.

Someday, I would have to give Toby back to him.

 

***

 

Postcard: York, Maine

Time was, lighthouses served as safety beacons. Seafarers relied on them to avoid becoming shipwrecked, broke, and possibly dead. Then GPS came along. Now, lighthouses serve the same role as statues — ridiculously often photographed, untouchable homages to bygone eras that attract thousands of tourists each year. This one, off Nubble Point in York, Maine, where I spent five days last week, also happens to be surrounded by lobster traps. Yum.

Nubbles lighthouse
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Postcard: USA Pro Challenge, Breckenridge

After climbing Independence Pass out of Aspen and Hoosier Pass between Alma and Breckenridge on Tuesday, the 121 surviving racers in Colorado’s weeklong USA Pro Challenge were toast. But to reach the day’s ascent total of 12,000 vertical feet (!), they still had to punch themselves in the gut and ride up the short but demoralizing Moonstone climb. This group was about five minutes back of the leaders. They made not a sound as they passed.

moonstone climb
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Clouds

CloudsMy niece has a theory about ghosts. When the first people came into being, there were no clouds, just clear skies everywhere. Then when the first human being died, a cloud appeared in the sky. When the next one died, another cloud appeared in the sky. Then another, and another. On and on it went, this coming into being and passing away into sky. Sometimes a cloud will miss its former life and return to the earth. We call it a ghost. A whole bunch of them returning at once is called “fog”, which is easier and less scary to say than “a posse of ghosties.” Thank heaven there is also the wind. It moves the ghosties along to where they need to go. And we the living get to enjoy the occasional clear sky, just like they did in the old days.

Mountain Passages: Ghost Bike

There was hate in the cyclist’s eyes.

I was caught by traffic and blocking an intersection. Dumb move on my part; I should have been paying more attention. He was on a high-end road bike and in full kit—tall, skinny, powerful, and unshaven. I had blocked his turn. He yelled, “You Fucker!” and then slammed his fist on my hood as he slipped in front of me.photo-3

There was a moment when I moved to grab a flare from the side pocket, jump out of my 4Runner, and throw it at him. Sanity prevailed and I pulled through the intersection. What he did was totally uncalled for; a sociopathic overreaction to a traffic problem.

 There are a few Boulder cyclists who are unfit for the human race. Every bike town has them. Due to some chemical, genetic defect, or bad socialization they act as if traffic laws, common sense behavior, and the unwritten rules of civil interaction don’t apply to them. They are self-involved anarchists whose words and actions endanger everyone on a bike.

Out in the flats north of Boulder I heard a car speeding behind me. Instinctively I moved to the right. Within a second the mirror of a white SUV blew by my shoulder, six inches away. The truck was close enough and going fast enough that his slipstream drove me further right. The driver was either not paying attention or trying to blow me off the highway.  In either case, he had threatened my life. I yelled “ASSHOLE!” as loud as I could and flipped him off.

He turned into a side road 300 yards ahead and parked. He’d heard me.

My cycling partner yelled, “No Bear! Not worth it. He could have a gun.”

I crossed the highway and pulled up behind him, knowing that he’d have to get out of the car to be a threat.

“You are an ASSHOLE!” I needlessly reiterated. I could see arms flailing and the passenger wrestling with this guy. Maybe I’d gotten in the middle of a domestic, or maybe he’d gone for a gun and his wife was trying to stop him. I didn’t know. But somewhere in my small brain, the abandon ship klaxon was going off. I spun my bike and peddled off to rejoin my partner.

“You’re an idiot.”

“Yeah.”

“You could have gotten killed. Worse, you could have gotten me killed.”

“I know.”

 

Last night Blue Eyes was checking news websites before shutting down for the evening.

“Oh damn,” she said.

“What?”

“A guy was killed by a semi on Valmont this morning.”

“What happened?”

“Unclear, but apparently the he was caught under the real wheels of the truck.”

I rode out this morning and stopped at the white ghost bike. Here in Boulder County when someone is killed riding a bike, a white bike appears at the site the day after. Often family, friends, and total strangers leave flowers. After a week or so the bike disappears and is replaced by a bike wheel wired to nearby sign or post as a reminder. Sometimes flowers appear in these wheels. I think this is done all over the country, and if it isn’t, it should be.

I took off my helmet and sweat hat. I think I shook as I said a prayer for this guy. I’m not religious. I believe in rocks and trees and maybe some sort of a greater being (who is most likely female), but I had to say something. I think I said, “Sorry this happened to you. Goddam trucks.” Thus doing the poor cyclist no good at all and breaking the third commandment, all in one short prayer. I stared at the white bike for a while and involuntarily shook again. There are people I love who regularly ride bikes. This guy who was killed could have been anyone of them.

Vehicle cyclist contact results in one of two things: the cyclist is hurt or killed. The only protection we have is our vision, experience, and reaction time. But here are some ideas to curtail this carnage on the highway. Add your own ideas with a post.

Could we agree on a cycling code where we simply don’t react to provocation? Think Martin Luther King. No more yelling “Asshole” and flipping birds or pounding on hoods. It simply doesn’t get us anywhere. Remember, there are people out there who endanger cyclists just to see us react in anger.

Let’s not give a driver any reason to think we are arrogant or above the law. We are subject to the same traffic laws as drivers. Yeah, I know it’s easier to look both ways at a stop sign and blow through it, but let’s start unclipping. When we turn to look behind us at a stop light, make eye contact. Smile, engage the driver. Stay in your lane, don’t ride double causing cars to maneuver around us. You know the drill. And the anarchists among us? Simply quit riding with them. They have an agenda that could get us killed.

Support your local bike organizations. There is a concept called green bicycle routes or bike lanes separated from the road by a barrier. Whatever the concept, make it a plan to support the riders who work with city and county government to make cycling safer.

One other thing—helmet cams are now featherweight, high resolution, and fairly cheap. There are some bad people out there who really do try to hurt cyclists. Don’t fight them. Simply keep you camera running and use your video to file a complaint with the sheriff.

As to the ghost bike? Let’s have some years in Boulder County, and your county too, where the ghost bike never appears.

Alan Stark is a freelance writer and a member of the Buffalo Bicycle Classic Committee. He splits his time between Boulder and Breckenridge.

All You Childless Grown-ups Out There Can Just Shut Up!

All You Childless Grown-ups Out There Can Just Shut Up

By Rachel Walker

I remember the last time I knew everything there was to know about parenting. It was July 2009, and I was standing in a huddle of adults in a garage in Huntington, Vermont.  At the bottom of the huddle, sitting on the cement floor with a piece of fat, purple sidewalk chalk in one hand and a plastic, spill-proof cup in the other was my niece Sylvia, three years old. She drew. She sipped. She did both at the same time altogether ignoring the constellation of grown-ups orbiting her like planets circling the sun.

“Sweetheart,” her mom, Kerry, said for the umpteenth time. “You have three choices. Would you like to go on a ride with uncle Jeff and me; go on a walk with grandma and Aunt Rachel; or go to the hardware store with daddy?”photo-6

Staying in the garage and coloring was not an option, and yet Sylvia had clearly chosen that activity by refusing to acknowledge that her mom, my husband’s sister, was speaking to her. Kerry repeated the options. She never raised her voice. She never told Sylvia she was being annoying. She never rushed her into a decision. She just repeated over and over that Sylvia was welcome to go for a car ride, a walk, or to run an errand. And Sylvia continued to ignore her.

Oh for the love of GOD, I thought. How about we don’t let the three-year-old think she’s the center of the universe? Somebody pick her up and TELL her what she will be doing next.

That’s what real parenting was, right? Delineating boundaries. Teaching a kid to step into their place in the hierarchy. The world’s a tough place. Not everyone who meets your child is going to take the time to give a hoot about what she wants to do. Best teach ‘em young to step up, get along, and realize the world does not revolve around them.

Twelve weeks pregnant with my first child at the time, I was at that ripe stage of reproduction where my breasts ached daily, my waistband grew snugger by the minute, and I could fall asleep mid-step if I wasn’t careful. I’d escaped the brunt of morning sickness, but fatigue floored me. Patience had never been my strong point, but since starting to “eat for two,” it had become a mere afterthought. As cells divided within me and I embarked toward motherhood, I experienced irritants at an exponential level.

For instance, I could smell the red onions on the sandwich of someone sitting on the opposite end of the plane from me. I nearly popped the buttons off a shirt when I ripped it from my body because of an errant tag tickling my neck. When the dog whined for a walk, I snarled at her like she was the enemy. When Jeff, my husband, tried to rub my aching back, I snapped that I’d get a better massage from a pot of boiled spaghetti. And when I found myself in a huddle around Sylvia with my sister-in-law, her husband, Jeff, and his mom, Cassie, for what felt like a half hour while the three-year-old was given option after option after option, I bit my tongue until it bled. This was no way to parent and I was absolutely certain I would have handled the situation differently—OK, I’ll say it, better—had I been in charge.

Got that? The person whose only first-hand experience with offspring was retching at the smell of uncooked onions 100 feet away was pretty damn sure she could offer parenting advice that would be more effective than anything coming from an actual mom with years of experience under her belt.

Before I gave birth, I believed that modern parents—which included a good deal of my friends and extended family—had become so indulgent under the pretext of building their kids’ self esteem that they’d abdicated the responsibility of actually parenting. Instead of creating a structure for their kids, they tried to construct one with the input of their children. This was especially frustrating since my friends and family showed so much wisdom in other parts of their lives. Well past the age of beer bongs and one-night stands, these were respectable professionals, wizened 30-somethings, partners at law firms. And many of the kids of these older parents, once they wised up to the dynamic, manipulated the hell out of it for their own benefit. Forget giving them choices, I concluded. Let them know who’s boss. Stop treating him like a prince and he’ll stop acting like one.

Eventually Sylvia stood up and announced she didn’t want to do any of the options, which turned out to be just fine. While we had been waiting for her to choose, her dad had run the errand to the hardware store and returned. He would stay home with her, he announced, a decision I found maddening. Great, now she knows all she needs to do is stall for time and she’ll get her way.

I hadn’t yet learned the phrase, “pick your battles.”

Fast forward four years to July 2013, and I am on vacation in Crested Butte with my own family, which now includes Henry, 3, Silas, 1, my husband Jeff, and our dog, Chloe. Henry is sobbing on the dining room floor of our rented cabin because we did not pack his pedal bike. This would be the mini bicycle that’s been collecting dust in our garage for the past six months. Henry had made one attempt at the whole feet-on-pedals-try-to-go thing, toppled over, and parked the machine behind the shop vac. As far as I knew, he’d forgotten it was even there.

“Pedalbikepedalbikepedalbike!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” he wails.

We’ve brought his pedal-free balance bike, the rig he’s logged hundreds of miles with and that’s been his favorite toy for almost a year and a half. I suggest that’s awesome.

“NO!” he screams. “Pedalbikewouldbefineplease.”

“Darling,” I say in my most patient voice, “we didn’t bring your pedal bike. But we did bring lots of other fun things…”

Before I can catalog them he glares and declares that he will not be eating, playing, or being nice to his brother so long as this affront stands.

“Go home and get it, Mommy,” he says. “I want my pedal bike.”

Home is a five-hour drive away and I have no intention of indulging Henry. I say as much. He throws his body to the floor and blubbers without pausing to breathe, “pedalbikepedalbikepedalbike.”

His younger brother, Silas, takes the cue, shrieks, and turns on his own water works. He sprints for me and begins to pull himself up my body like a monkey shimmying up a jungle.

“Mom-meeeeee,” Silas wails.

“Pedalbike!” moans Henry.

Jeff and I make eye contact and share the glance that’s defined our silent communication for the past three years: What the fuck do we do now?

Choices. Three-year-olds want choices.

“Henry, sweetheart,” I say, “you have two choices. You can either cry about your pedal bike in your room until you feel well enough to join the family, or you can help me unpack our shoes.”

I realize this must sound like complete jibber jabber to my distraught preschooler because he punches the air between us and says, “nononono!” Then, in case I missed it the first 20 times, he lets me know exactly what he wants: “PEDAL BIKE.”

I try to sweeten the deal.

“Henry, if you calm down, you can watch Sponge Bob Square Pants.”

This is a high value bribe. Since we don’t own a television at home, cartoons are a rare novelty, and he would be absolutely thrilled to spend our entire week glued to the screen.

“Pedalllll biiiike,” he sobs.

“Henry,” I say, firmer now, but still trying to sound nice, “You have three choices: go to your room, help me unpack shoes, or watch television.”

Henry ignores me. Continues his temper tantrum. I’m now holding Silas, 22 pounds of chub with red cheeks, red hair, and a sharp set of teeth. He’s alternating between shrieks and trying to stick his hands in my mouth. I’m swaying him back and forth, and with each rotation I feel the muscles in my neck and back tense from the weight and the repetition. Three years into this parenting thing and I’ve got guns like you wouldn’t believe. My back, neck, and hips, however, have gone to shit. I hit my limit.

“Henry, are you listening to me?” I’m not even trying to be nice now. “Get over it. We didn’t bring your damn pedal bike. Now stop crying. It’s really obnoxious.”

I wouldn’t recommend that tactic. Henry wails harder.

“I’m serious,” I declare. “Calm down or I’m going to carry you to your room and leave you there until you stop crying.”

Jeff backs me up with a definitive, fatherly, “Henry, listen to your mother.”

I would love to take credit for Henry’s about face, but I’d be lying. My illogical three-year-old simply tires of screaming and yelling and trying to explain to his doltish parents that he wants his PEDAL BIKE. His wails mellow to whimpers. Within minutes his face is no longer the color of a fire engine and he snuggles up to my leg. A few more minutes, and he’s pretending to be a helicopter buzzing around the living room. Finally, a solid half hour after his melt down, Henry wraps his lanky arms around my leg and squeezes tight.

“Mommy, you know what?” he asks.

“What?”

“I love you.”

Had we been in a movie, I would have knelt down and looked my sweet blond boy in the eye, laid a tender hand on his shoulder and told him I loved him right back. I kind of did that, but not really. Balancing Silas on my hip and trying to shake the achy tension from my neck and shoulders, I stooped over, gave Henry a stiff hug—not because I was feeling distant (at least not entirely because of that) but because I didn’t want to drop his brother or make myself fall over—and said, “Feeling better, buddy?”

Truth is, I was tired and grumpy and pissed off that Henry demanded so much energy and attention over such a trivial thing at exactly the same time all I wanted to do was crack open a bottle of red and toast our first night of vacation. Not that it mattered what I wanted. Having been immersed in this parenting thing for the past four years (and yes, I’m including my first pregnancy in that timing), I’ve come to realize that being responsible for little people who are completely dependent on you for everything means that they come first. Always. And sometimes that’s a royal pain in your ass.

I no longer think I know what Kerry should have done or said to Sylvia all those years ago. I honestly don’t know what I would have done, and I am absolutely certain that if it had been Henry at the bottom of the huddle, I would have reacted differently than if it had been Silas—because they are two distinctly different people. In fact, the only thing I know today is that there is no right way to parent. We are all muddling through, it can be frustratingly hard, and, most of the time, we are doing our best.

And that should make us parents proud. Hell, we should be shouting from the rooftops, high-fiving each other in the street, tossing out thumbs up like a fireman in a 4th of July parade. We may not know exactly what we’re doing, but we’re doing fine! We’re still here! We will survive!photo-3

And that’s what parenting is: surviving the hard parts to be able to treasure the magic that comes from the alchemy of creating someone out of two cells. Parenting is not all drudgery, dirty diapers, and discipline. As tough as parenting can be, it is immensely fun, silly, and, yes, rewarding. Once I got over my snit about Henry’s temper tantrum in Crested Butte about a bike he hadn’t mentioned before—and hasn’t mentioned since—I swelled with love for the little guy. How wonderful to feel so safe that he could lose his marbles when he felt out of control or sidelined. What a sweet kid to circle back and express his love. And, wow, look at Silas follow his brother around and try to play helicopter, too.

I could have watched them for hours. Don’t believe me? Wait until your progeny does something cute, like show up on an ultrasound scan in utero or smile as an infant for the first time; you’ll be ready to grab the popcorn, lean back, and enjoy the show with a rapt interest you didn’t know you possessed. Truthfully, there’s nowhere else in the entire world I would have wanted to be than with my family in a beautiful mountain town in Colorado. It took a few deep breaths to gain that perspective, but gain it I did.

If I could go back and time, I’d tell my childless, smug self to bugger off. Parenting is hard enough without know-it-all clueless DINKS judging those of us who’ve spawned. I’ve been on both sides of that fence and I’m proposing a truce. You (without kids) try to temper your know-it-all-ness. And I (with two unpredictable little boys) will try not to sit next to you in a coffee shop when you’re clearly trying to work (even though it IS a coffee shop…but I won’t go there). Now, if you don’t mind, I have to either put away some shoes, stop crying, or go watch some T.V.

Postcard: Main Street chillin’

Summer is never long enough in the Mountain West. Owing to that annual fact of life, it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzied push to ride every trail or hike every peak or fish every alpine lake before the snow and ice return again. Sometimes I forget that one of summer’s special gifts is sitting on a bench along Main Street and doing nothing at all.

old timers chillin
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: High Summer Meadow

High-Mountain-MeadowToday I found myself wandering through a high summer meadow under a kingfisher sky. I hadn’t visited a place like this for a very long time. The grass was tall and infused with fragrant wildflowers and everything was waving in the wind.

As I made my way along the lovely slope, I tripped over something. I hadn’t seen it lying there on the ground because the grass was so tall. I bent down and picked it up. It was a halo. Not mine. I wondered whose it could be. I did a quick scan of the kingfisher sky. Nothing up there, just a cloud. I took a closer look at the halo. It wasn’t anything like a proper halo. It looked like a cheap coat hanger all bent out of shape. So I tried it on. It fit. I didn’t know what to make of that. It made me feel silly.

I checked my back to see if any wings had sprouted. Nothing. I stood there for a while in the high summer meadow with a halo on my head, just to see what might happen. Nothing. Only the wind in the tall grass and wildflowers and me feeling more and more silly. I kept checking my back for wings. Still nothing. Then I looked around to see if there might be a discarded harp or something lying in the tall grass, but all I came up with was—you guessed it—nothing. So I cocked an ear toward the kingfisher sky, just in case a heavenly voice might be calling. Nope. Okay, enough was enough.

Very little was happening in that high summer meadow. Hardly anything at all. Just me standing there under a kingfisher sky with an unflattering halo on my head and the wind moving through tall grass and wildflowers. I took off the halo and put it back where I found it. Then I made my way home and wrote up this little account. Here it is for you to read. Now I feel really silly.

Land in the Sky: No Slouch

Slouch Hat“I’m sorry that you don’t believe what I’m telling you, but come with me and you’ll have your ghost.”

It always begins this way. A favorite happy hour prank pulled on unsuspecting summer visitors down at Pandora’s Tavern. Tourists. Those nice folks who drop in because they’ve read the many agreeable reports concerning this place. Mostly on the internet. Mostly on Facebook. Pandora’s Tavern: the kind of watering hole where strangers are welcomed with companionable tales of neighborhood hijinks and unusual goings-on. Like this one about a ghost. It gets them every time.

“Okay, show me!”

Next thing you know, a doubting tipsy tourist is led out the door by one of our “local characters,” a guy who wears a vintage slouch hat and raggedy-ass Dutchman’s breeches. The unlikely pair then heads across the parking lot and through the gates of the big historic graveyard next door to Pandora’s Tavern. Let’s face it, you’d have to be at least a few sheets to the wind to think that bumbling through a stony lonesome at day’s end is an good way to resolve a barroom dispute. Especially one concerning the existence of a ghost. But I’ve witnessed far more ludicrous methods of philosophical investigation. Mostly at universities.

Some years ago, I participated in a seminar called “Environmental Ethics.” The professor explained that the goal of our inquiries was to come up with a compelling argument to “preserve biodiversity.” It was all very rational. The professor insisted our case be pitched in terms accessible to the lay person. “Something,” he intoned with dead seriousness, “that you could use to convince the guy sitting next to you at a bar.” I suggested we just buy the guy a drink. At that point, I was kindly asked to leave the seminar and my brief career in philosophy came to a close. In vino veritas.

But anyways, back in the big historic graveyard, our tipsy tourist and his outlandish guide are making their way across the graveyard through fading Chardonnay twilight toward a distant stone wall at the far back of the enclosure. Here the burial ground gives way to bosky darkness. Dimly seen—low among the polished stones—are the faint flickerings of solar-powered grave lights, now here, now there, now gone. The cemetery air is fragrant with wild mountain thyme. Ground lichens crunch underfoot. Somewhere an owl begins to hoot.

At last the ghost-hunting party comes to a halt in front of a cheerless, bluestone marker. It’s now almost too dark to read, but inscribed near the top of the monument is a name: Rip Van Winkle. It’s just one of many tombstones that bear his name in these parts. A truism derived from literary theory seems relevant here: “The final resting places of fictional characters can fill a large semantic field.” I was taught that in grad school, in another seminar, one I did not get kicked out of. What distinguishes this particular Rip Van Winkle tombstone from all the rest in the Catskill Mountains is the legend attached to it.

The story goes, if you stand in front of this tombstone and call out Rip Van Winkle’s name, his ghost will respond from the forest. I for one enjoy a ghost story that can be ground tested. Apparently, so does our tipsy tourist. He gives it a try. He stands in front of the tombstone. He turns toward the dark forest. He cups his hands around his mouth and calls out: “Rip Van Winkle!” A moment later, he gets a pale response: “Rip Van Winkle!”

“You have your ghost,” says the guide, his own voice now strangely paling.

“That’s an echo, you idiot!” shouts our tipsy tourist.

He turns menacingly toward his guide, only to catch the fading form of a vintage slouch hat, the raggedy end of an eerie deliquescence that leaves our tipsy tourist standing alone and in the dark, at the back of the big historic graveyard down by Pandora’s Tavern.