Basin and Range

Choose an afternoon

when August sun

stuns basin and range

into silence,

while crickets in the hay meadows

eat all your profits.

If you are going, that’s the time to leave.

Should you hesitate until sunset,

you will recognize this common place,

a cathedral,

and  restless souls among us

are stayed for a moment

by the gorgeous light.

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Oh My Heck! Adventurous Eating in Central Utah

It is difficult to absorb let alone to describe the spectacular landscape of Utah’s scenic Highway 12. It is even more difficult when there are four women in an SUV, cousins of a certain age getting caught up with each other’s lives, talking about everything from eyebrows to aging, reminiscing about mutual Mormon family history, and sometimes forgetting to look out the car windows.

To avoid overusing the word “spectacular” it is best to rely on descriptions of the landscape in “A Route Guide to Scenic Byway 12” or to an article in the NY Times, “Driving: The rhythm of Utah’s Highway 12: Climb, Turn, Gasp.” The route guide notes, “Many segments of Scenic Byway 12 have sharp curves and narrow to no paved shoulders.” The NY Times writer is more accurate when he refers to “fatal drop-offs.” Neither mentions the possibility of, gasp, a panic attack.

Billed as our “cousins’ road trip,” we had been talking about it for a year. Who’s the “we”? Well–and this is way less complicated than figuring out who’s who in War and Peace–there’s me, Nancy Harris McLelland; my sister, Itha Ann Harris Macreavy; cousin Chris Nelson Probasco; cousin Patti Harris Good.

Our mutual grandparents, Henry and Adela Harris of Brigham City, Utah, had five children: Tom, Marian, Fred, Dick, and Alice. They and their spouses are deceased. Cousin Patti, who lives in Phoenix, is Tom’s daughter; Chris lives in Salt Lake and her mother is Alice; my sister Itha lives in Lafayette, California; I live in Tuscarora, Nevada. We are Fred’s daughters. Since we are in our seventies, except my sister who is sixty-seven, we thought a road trip into Utah heartland would be a good way to get together. It was.

About 9:30 on Monday, June 22, 2015 we were in front of Chris’s house in Salt Lake moving our bags around to make room for her suitcase and a cooler. We loaded up, waved goodbye to the neighbor, and drove a block to our first stop for coffee. The Coffee Garden has excellent coffee, the nicest tattooed baristas, and the coolest to-go cup sleeve. I showed one to my sister repeating, “Do you get it?” I pointed to the text, “They don’t know what they’re missing,” and to the image, silhouettes of two men in suits. She stared at the image while I pestered, “Don’t you get it?” She was getting annoyed. I continued, “Two guys in black suits…coffee…you don’t know what you’re missing…”

The light went on. “Of course! Mormon missionaries! I get it!” She laughed. Both Uncle Tom and Uncle Dick went on missions in their youth. Dad never did. He loved his parents and his brothers and sisters, but, by the time he was sixteen, I think he “got it.” The religion never took hold. Moving to Nevada and going into the ranching business further changed his perspective–and ours. I don’t think we are lapsed “Jack Mormons.” We were never baptized.

Maybe we are Cultural Mormons. Especially the older we get, we value memories of family reunions at Granny and Grandpa’s home in Brigham City, often Memorial Day, but everyone called it “Decoration Day.” We remember gathering at the cemetery and wandering among family graves. We remember one of the aunts or uncles beginning a holiday meal, “Please bless this food to our use…”; bits of Mormon hymns like, “Put your shoulder to the wheel” and “Come, come ye Saints.” And peaches. My sister and I love Brigham City peaches and brick houses with white trim and Utah towns with irrigation ditches running down each street. Maybe we are Cultural Utahans. There’s a difference.

I asked Chris if she would navigate us out of Salt Lake. I don’t like city driving, even though Salt Lake has be one of the easiest cities in America to negotiate because of the way Brigham Young laid it out on a grid. The Mormon Temple is the alpha and omega of this particular universe. Even though it’s not true, when you drive through a little town like Panguitch or Parawan and a street sign reads 15000 First South, you are inclined to think that’s how many blocks you are from the Temple.

Cruising south on Interstate 15, we detoured into Mona, pop 1200, at the foot of Mt. Nebo, the highest mountain in the Wasatch Range. I discovered on Wikipedia that Burl Ives “was once jailed in Mona for singing “Foggy Foggy Dew” because it was considered bawdy by the authorities.” Chris wanted us to see the Young Living lavender fields at Whispering Springs Farm, two hundred acres of lavender. Somehow we missed the turnoff and would have had to take a frontage road sending us back towards Salt Lake. Since we were only seventy-seven miles from the Mormon Temple and had only been on the road for an hour and a half, we decided to save the lavender fields for the return trip.

We changed drivers and I insisted we cruise Mona’s main drag before continuing south. Because I was driving, I stopped in front of an abandoned gas station, where I found a faded pink metal display rack lying in the weeds. “There’s room,” I said, as I shoved my find on top of their bags, although I sensed their concern about my penchant for found objects and junk stores.

Patti pointed out Gay Dean’s bakery, kitty-corner from the abandoned gas station. “They’re open,” she said. “They probably have good pie,” she added from the back seat. I ignored the wistfulness in her voice. Patti took a liking to the name “Gay Dean” and for the next five minutes, she considered the pros and cons of changing her name to Gay Dean when she returned to Phoenix. My sister egged her on.

All four of us love classic Utah names, especially for woman and for towns. Patti and Chris know more Harris family history and more family names than my sister and I do. We know Grandpa’s sisters were Maude and Mabel; Maud’s daughter is Donna Maude. However, the names on our mother’s Milford, Utah side of the family, the Tanners, are more in the Mormon vernacular. For example, my sister was named after our maternal grandmother, Itha Goldie Tanner. Evidently, the name “Itha” came to her mother in a dream. On neither side of the family do we have any “Aquanetta’s” or “Velvaleen’s,” not even a “Ziona.” I discovered a YouTube called Mormon Girls Say. They do a clever riff on Utah girls’ names.

We also appreciate that you have to learn the local pronunciation of place names: Mona is in Juab (Jew-ab) County and our next stop was Scipio (Sip-io). Not Skippy-o. Fifty minutes later we piled out of the car at a junk store, the kind that irritates me because the prices are ridiculously high. Either the owner is a hoarder who can’t bear to part with a single rusted license plate or chipped saucer or else he is a cynic disguised as a good old feller. I think he thinks, “Old gals like them, my heck, they’ll buy anything.”

My sister and cousins thought he was quite the charmer. Patti said, “I like the way he said, ‘What are you kids up to?’” She overpaid for a pretty pink Depression glass dish she said she will use as a cookie plate to set on her kitchen counter in Phoenix. She said oatmeal cookies are her signature cookie. With Patti it’s nearly impossible to tell when she is bullshitting. From the back seat, Itha and Patti launched into a discussion of what kind of cookie would look best on that glass dish. “Mexican wedding cookies,” said my sister. They would have prattled on with this litany of cookies until someone, probably me playing the big sister, said, “Alright you kids. I get it. That’s enough!”

As it turned out, Chris interrupted them as we were leaving Scipio. “See that house!” she said. “ It’s ruined!” We didn’t get it. We saw a classic two-story brick home with a new gabled roof, freshly painted white trim, and a tidy front yard. Mormon vernacular. She explained that her friend, Bonnie Posselli, a well-known landscape artist, did many paintings of that house over the years when it was abandoned, dilapidated, the yard filled with weeds. “Now it’s ruined,” Chris said as she took a picture with her Iphone to send to Bonnie.

We reached Saline (Sah-line-ah) for our first dining experience. I forgot to mention I had decided to use the road trip to try my hand at being a food writer. It began in Salt Lake at the bar at the Monaco Hotel. We were talking about favorite Utah expressions, like “oh my heck.” Patti said, “Have you ever heard the expression ‘Right snacky’? When something tastes good, you compliment the cook by saying, ‘Why, that’s right snacky’!” We took her word for it that “right snacky” was a Utahism. Now, knowing Patti’s sense of humor, I have my doubts.

I decided to take notes when we stopped for a late lunch at Mom’s Cafe in Salina. Evidently Willie Nelson has been to Mom’s Cafe, because our waitress said so and because his framed photograph was directly above our booth. There was also a review by Michael and Jane Stern, the couple who write the Road Food books. I ordered a tuna salad sandwich. The other three ordered deluxe hamburgers and thick-cut fries with Utah fry sauce and side salads of chopped lettuce, beets, peas, and a sprinkling of snack mix. It looked right snacky. Note to self: If you are going to be a food critic, you have to order right.

While paying my bill at Mom’s Cafe, I bought a container of Real Salt salt, mined in nearby Redmond. The woman at the cash register told me her husband works in the salt mine, gave me my change and a look that said, “Don’t go there with a ‘working in a salt mine’ wisecrack.” The Redmond Real Salt website explains that “ Real Salt is mined from an ancient dead sea and is not from a sea subjected to environmental toxins.” Also, on the website is a cool picture of Zen Master Hung, Chi-Sung, “one of the most famous meditation teachers in Taiwan,” meditating in the Real Salt salt mine. Seriously. You have to wonder how a Taiwanese zen master got to Utah. Anyway, since coming home, I have been using Real Salt salt for my margaritas and highly recommend it.

Utah is producing some excellent booze. After my failure as a food writer at Mom’s Cafe and my success buying Real Salt, I got thinking maybe I should just look for Utah products. I am already a fan of High West Distillery in Park City. I like their Rendezvous Rye whiskey, but my favorite is their peach vodka. According to the website, they “collaborate with a peach grower in Roy, Utah, which is next to Brigham City, home of an annual peach festival second to none….” Oh my heck! In 1909, our grandmother, Adela, was Brigham City’s first Peach Day queen. That’s reason enough to support High West peach vodka.

I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I could be converted. Where are the Utah beer missionaries? Utah brewers are producing some excellent craft beers and they have a knack for names. My favorite beer name is Wasatch Polygamy Porter. My favorite brewing company is the Jack Mormon Brewing Company (coming soon, according to the Utahbeer.blogspot.com).

After Salina we headed south on Hwy 24 and would have driven straight to Torrey except, as we approached Bicknell, Chris said, “There’s a restaurant in Bicknell that used to serve pickle pie and bean pie.” At that moment, the exit appeared and I swerved down the ramp into Bicknell, pop 300. The Sunglow Motel and Restaurant did not have a homemade pie vibe, let alone something as quirky as pickle pie.

We sent Chris inside. A few minutes later she came out with two styrofoam containers, one with a piece of pickle pie and one with a piece of bean pie. My sister and I went inside to see the framed newspaper article about Mrs. Cula Ekker, who invented pickle pie. I took a picture of Indica, the young waitress who could pass for barista at the Coffee Garden in Salt Lake, edgy looks but the same Utah niceness. She is helping her folks who recently bought the motel and restaurant. This is the recipe for pickle pie, which tastes like pumpkin pie without the pumpkin. The bean pie tastes like the pickle pie. Don’t bother making it.

I love Torrey. The irrigation ditches that run alongside the main street remind me of Brigham City in the summer. We pulled in to Austin’s Chuckwagon Lodge and it is everything you could want in a retro shady court. After settling into our knotty pine rooms, we arranged four chairs in front of Chris and Patti’s room and had cocktails. As we watched the evening light move across the red rock cliffs and the alfalfa meadows below, we reminisced about our parents, grandparents, our childhoods.

We ate dinner that night at Cafe Diablo, a few blocks from the motel. The attention grabber on the menu was under Small Plates–some kind of rattlesnake appetizer. None of us wanted to try it. I was too tired to be the adventurous food writer. I can’t remember what I ordered for dinner. That tells you something. In the car the next day I asked the cousins, “What was the rattlesnake thing on the menu?” No one could quite remember.

“Was it a free-range rattlesnake?” Patti wondered.

I remembered asking our waitress where the rattlesnakes came from. She said she didn’t know, but assured us, “They’re not from around here.”

“What herbs and spices complement rattlesnake?” said my sister.

“I think they just used a crab cake recipe,” said Chris.

That morning we had breakfast at the Capitol Reef Inn and Cafe. I realized that I needed to practice photographing food. The close up of my huevos rancheros was disgusting, although they tasted pretty good. I did a better job getting Kim, our waitress, to pose. A hasher with attitude, Kim owned the room. As she passed out menus, Kim asked, “Are you friends?”

We said, “No, we’re cousins.”

My sister added, “We’re friends, too.”

It came as no surprise when Kim told us she’s from New Jersey, always wanted to be an actress and to go to Hollywood. “ I only got as far as Utah.” She paused, looked out the window, “There’s hope. I’m only fifty-seven.”

Torrey has a great 1950’s style burger joint and I realized that timing and/or a gargantuan appetite is crucial for a food critic. I couldn’t imagine a burger and fries within an hour of huevos rancheros, but I said, “ Can we stop for a minute? I want to look at the menu.” Sure enough, the burgers and fries come with the famous Utah condiment, fry sauce. Here’s the recipe with way too many continental variations. You shouldn’t mess with it. No chipotle. No Siracha.

I drove the thirty-six miles from Torrey to Boulder. I probably annoyed both Patti and Itha by insisting they look out the windows. Our first stop was the Homestead Overlook. I defer to the Route Guide to Scenic Byway 12:

“…dramatic panoramic views from a 9,400-foot-high vantage point…visitors can see the
five peaks of the Henry Mountains to the east, the magenta wedge of the Waterpocket Fold
below, and the striated face of the Kaiparowits Plateau to the west. Far off in the distance,
the slopes of Navajo Mountain stand as a reminder of Native American history…”

There were only three other cars and two fancy Harley Davidsons in the parking area. Fewer than a dozen people were scattered along the edge of the overlook. I said to Chris, “I can’t believe how few tourists. I don’t get it.”

“They’re all at Bryce Canyon or bumper-to-bumper going through Zion,” she said. “Capitol Reef National Park is relatively unknown.”

I was contemplating the fact that the view is larger than the state of Connecticut, when a man came up beside me and said, “Do you believe in The Flood?” I think he took my startled silence as a “yes.” A slender, middle-aged man dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and dark pants, he didn’t didn’t seem like a Mormon missionary. He wasn’t handing out pamphlets or anything. His explanation was hard to follow, but he was definitely seeing Noah and the Ark floating in the trace of a great inland sea. I was imagining dinosaurs, but didn’t say so.

“Looking out there does make you wonder about time and eternity,” I said and then excused myself. Back in the car, my cousins thought I was quite civil. My sister did also, knowing my husband is a geologist and has taught me to think in geologic time. “Part of what we were looking at– the Waterpocket Fold, a warp in the earth’s crust–is 65 million years old,” I said. “and we are looking at 200 million years of geologic history,” I said as I started the car. That got their attention. “I just read it on the map,” I said.

“I have no patience for those Creationist idiots,” Chris said.

“Do they ever come to the museum to see the dinosaurs?” I asked.

“Of course not,” she said. Chris volunteers at the University of Utah Museum of Natural History, which has a world class vertebrate fossil collection. She told us she has been using dental tools to chip away at a single dinosaur vertebrae, part of a dig somewhere in the expanse of the Capitol Reef area we were looking at. “Capitol Reef is thick with dinosaur bones,” Chris said.

I could hardly wait for Itha and Patti to see the Boulder Mountain Lodge, where we were staying the next two nights. The description in the brochure makes it seem like it could be set in any number of places in the West:

“rustic, elegant western architecture of red stucco, rose colored sandstone blocks, giant spruce timbers and       dramatically pitched rusted metal roofs…the gorgeous Craftsman style wooden furniture in the twenty guest rooms…”

The Boulder Mountain Lodge is not set anywhere. It’s poised between the expanse of Capitol Reef National Park and the expanse of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument wilderness area and the Kaiparowits Plateau. Boulder, an historic farming and ranching community with fewer than two hundred residents happens to have an Anasazi site right in the middle of town.

I realize purists in hiking boots might be critical when I describe the spacious rooms, the expanse of lawn, and especially when I extol the food at the adjacent Hell’s Backbone Grill restaurant. Don’t go there. As the Highway 12 map notes, “There are plenty of campgrounds and dirt roads galore, plenty of ways to lose yourself in this remote, wild, endlessly explorable country.”

It is not only the amenities of the lodge in its unusual location that appeal to me–Chris and I stayed there a couple of days the previous summer–but also the story of Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle, the owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill. They tell how they “came by” this place in their beautiful cookbook, With a Measure of Grace: “We wanted to run a viable business that embodied our shared principles and food philosophies and to do it with passion, compassion, equanimity, generosity loving kindness and grace.” They grow most of the produce in their farm three miles from the restaurant: “The farm is worked organically, employing principles of sustainability and Buddhist values of right livelihood.” Blake Spalding, who refers to herself as a Tibetan Buddhist, says, “My specialty became doing fresh food in isolated places.”
Everybody is a food critic these days. The Yelp reviews of Hell’s Backbone Grill are mostly superlatives. There are some pretty good food photos, too, especially of the desserts. The restaurant has won many awards and earned serious reviews. In an article on “Off-the-Beaten Path Restaurants,” a Wall Street Journal food writer notes, “Every so often an unassuming restaurant achieves cult status for serving grub so good folks travel miles upon miles to get their hands on it.”

My thought is this: when you experience the place on a few perfect days in June, you forget the isolation, the short growing season, and that it probably takes a spiritual dimension to flourish in a harsh land. I’m not sure it matters too much whether you are a Tibetan Buddhist or a Latter Day Saint. I think Alexandra Fuller, author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, is the person who gets the spiritual commitment and the soupcon of craziness it takes to make a go of an endeavor like the Hell’s Backbone Grill. Her article in the New York Times gives a great sense of the place.

At dinner that evening, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, we raised our wine glasses and toasted Mom. It would have been her hundredth birthday. The last of the Harris brothers and sisters and their spouses, Mom died at ninety-eight, two years previously. She would have gotten a kick out of this “cousins’ road trip,” but wondered why we didn’t swing down to Milford and pay our respects to her birth place. The next day we were all glad to be out of the car, enjoyed separate activities, and had another great dinner.

We left Boulder about 9:30 Thursday morning. I drove for the first fifteen minutes. We were on the Hogsback, which the New York Times “Climb, Turn, and Gasp” guy describes as “a forty-five minute drive over an awe-inspiring and slightly treacherous [slightly?] switchback road…which has no guardrails and drops off almost vertically on both sides into vast, sweeping canyons.” At first I thought I had overdone it on the French press coffee at breakfast–hands shaking and forehead breaking out into a sweat. Then the vertigo hit. I whispered, “Chris. You have to drive.”

Chris drove for the next eleven hours, which was too long, too much to see. We stopped in Escalante at a trading post, where Chris bought a camo vest on sale for her eight-year-old grandson and where I didn’t even inquire about the alligator jerky listed on a sandwich board outside. We stopped at one lookout at Bryce Canyon National Park. With hundreds of tourists, we looked over the guardrails at an infinity of pink hoodoos, pinnacles, buttresses and columns. We got right back into the car, drove to Cannonville, got directions and drove through the Kodachrome Basin State Park. I took a picture of Chris flipping the bird in front of a hoodoo. We had a late lunch in Panguitch. It was not “right snacky.” At dusk we drove past Mona and the turn-off and to the Young Living lavender fields. Next time.

But there won’t be a next time. It’s not that we didn’t get along. We did. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy the reminiscing and one another’s company. We did. We told all the stories we knew. We live too far apart. We’re too old. It takes too much effort to rejuvenate our relationships. Our adult children are not that interested in this particular heritage. When they are, there’s the LDS genealogy websites. That pink metal display rack I picked up out of the dirt in Mona was stupid. Furthermore, I think a panic attack is a reasonable response to the immensity and strangeness of the landscape along Highway 12.

At least that’s how I felt by the time my sister and I got to Tooele (Ta-willa) about 11:00 that night. We left Patti at the Monaco Hotel, Chris at her house, and then my sister and I drove another forty minutes west on Interstate 80 to Tooele, where we had booked a room so that we would get a head start on getting back to Nevada the next day.

I feel differently as I write this. I have a dozen first cousins and only know those two, Patti and Chris. There is something deeply familiar about them and I love them both. My sister feels the same way. Maybe next year we will meet in Brigham City for Peach Days. Oh my heck! We could probably be in the parade if we wanted to.

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Independence Valley

Watch the restless swallows come and go

on the power line to Tuscarora.

Some avian law explains the way

they leave precise space between each other.

Instinct decrees the distance between hawks

hunkered on poles beside the Midas Road.

Nature tells peregrine falcons not to nest

less than two miles from other raptors.

What of the ranchers who inhabit

the valley below?  From an eagle’s view

soaring above the plain, distance makes sense.

That’s all the high desert land can sustain.

Still, a question remains.  Does remoteness

breed a species disinclined to be near its kind?

The dust plume of a truck on a  country road

shows the miles folks go to help each other.

Yet, not everyone is meant for this place.

Those who survive, stay sober, stay sane,

have willed their peace

with silence and with space.

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My Dad Saddling a Horse

Often it  takes time, loss, and our own experience of parenting to recognize a parent’s love.  Sometimes  a childhood memory comes upon us and  we think,  Now I understand.  Now, many years after my father’s  death,  I understand that his saddling my horse was  an act of love.

I see my father with the curry comb in his hand.  I hear it  scratch  against the horse’s hide and I notice a louder sound as he  combs the coarse mane and tail.  With a soft brush, he brushes the horse’s back and then reaches beneath the belly crooning, “Whoa, boy.  Easy now.”  He cautions me not to brush the tender wedge of the horse’s withers.  The horse might kick.

He throws on a saddle blanket, releasing a pleasant whiff of horse sweat.  I watch him smooth the thick layer before placing another blanket on top, a fancier one.  How do  I know a wrinkled saddle  blanket can wear a sore on the horse’s back?  Other than reminding me not to brush the withers, or, when I was very young, not to stand right behind even the gentlest horse, I don’t remember him lecturing me.  I think my father  knew  if he saddled a horse with loving care and with horse savvy, then I would, too, when my time came.

I admire his strength as he heaves the saddle onto the horse, the right stirrup hooked over the horn.  Sometimes, when he  reaches to let down the stirrup and the cinch, the horse jumps a little; when my father bends under  the horse to grab the cinch, I think he is  brave.  I love watching his strong hands loop the  latigo strap   around and around the cinch ring,  neatly folding it through the brass buckle, and  giving the leather strap  a firm tug.

As my father unties the horse, he pats him on the shoulder and calls him by name.  Dad turns and smiles at me. My time is coming. He leads the horse around a couple dozen steps, sometimes handing me the halter rope to make a circle or two. We are ensuring that the horse  lets out any excess air in its belly.  Dad  slips his hand under the cinch and then  tightens it.  My father never skips this procedure, no matter how eager I am to go riding.

I hold the halter rope as  Dad  buckles the halter around the horse’s neck, takes the bridle and, with his left hand, guides the bit  into the horse’s mouth.  He places the earpiece over the horse’s right ear. The bit rattles as the horse rolls his tongue over the cricket, signaling contentment.  Dad ties the reins in a knot and  hands them to me.

Except when I was very young, he never helped me get on a horse.  That was my job.  I remember leading  the horse to a rock, a hay bale, or  maneuvering close  to the corral  so I could slide onto the saddle from the top rail.  Suddenly, I was  on my own, ready to ride into the blue sky and sage-covered hills of a Nevada morning.

Writing about my dad saddling a horse takes me back to the grand barn at the Seventy-One Ranch in Starr Valley; to the humble railroad tie barn at the Thorpe Creek Ranch in Lamoille;  to smells of hay, leather, and horse manure; to the darkness of a barn and the way morning light shines  through cracks in the wood; to the sounds of horses  shifting their weight or rubbing their rumps against a stall.

Most all my memories  are fond ones, but, for a girl, the relationship with her father becomes complicated with the necessary distance of the teenage years.  When I think of my dad saddling a horse, the manifestations of love are clear–teaching, protecting, letting go.   I know he watched me with love as I left the yard.

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Driving Under the Influence

This is not one of those “You had to be there” stories.  It is one of those “Have you ever taken a wrong turn?” stories.    I was in a hurry, so I turned off at Golconda and took the Midas road to Tuscarora.  While I was driving I was listening to one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, read her book, Plan B–Further Thoughts on Faith.   

To understand what happened,  you probably need to be familiar with Anne Lamott and her nonfiction work.  Bird by Bird is considered to be one of the best how-to’s on writing. An Amazon reviewer said, “I’m hooked on Lamott.  She slaps me in the face with her startling revelations, nudges me in the ribs with her unpredictable humor, and prods my frozen little writer’s hands back into action with warm compassion.”  Another favorite of mine  is Operating Instructions, a hilarious, honest account of her son’s first year and the underside of motherhood.  Most important,  I was attracted to her combination of reverence and irreverence  in her spiritual journey.  As a reviewer said about her  book, Traveling Mercies:  Some Thoughts on Faith:  “We see a woman grasping for faith and hope in the midst of a crazy life full of heartaches.”  I could relate.

 Plan B–Further Thoughts on Faith had mixed reviews.  One reviewer described the book as “ a spiritual antidote to anxiety and despair in increasingly fraught times.”   Another said it was written “during the beginning of the Iraq War…a left wing Christian…who is turning fifty and her son is becoming a teenager.”  In retrospect, I’m inclined to agree with the reviewer who said, “after reading this book…and her endless tirade on George W. Bush… I felt totally depressed about the state of the world.”  But that’s hindsight.

 At the time, it was like taking a road trip with a nonstop talker, a girlfriend  so needy and neurotic and funny that I could not bring myself to eject her from the cd player.  The consequence was that I took a wrong turn, practically ruined my new Subaru,  caused my husband to go a little berserk, and  did not have the  conversion experience I was hoping for.

 Here’s what happened.

 It was Memorial Day weekend, 2006.  I was trying to get to Tuscarora for the Tuscarora artists open studio weekend.  It was a big deal; lots of advertising, even a Nevada Arts Council promotional grant.  I had collaborated with my friend Joan on an art and poetry project.  While I was still in California,  she and her husband Stan  opened up my Tuscarora place for the summer   to be part of the tour of art studios.

 I spent the previous night at my son’s house in Carson City, and, when I took off early Saturday morning, my car was loaded with suitcases,  groceries, books, writing materials, and even a case of champagne, a wedding present to be delivered to a family friend in Elko.  I was positive I would be in Tuscarora by noon.  I bought the audio version of Plan B a month before and saved it for my road trip.  Once I turned off  Highway 395 at Fernley and onto Interstate 80, I inserted the first disc.

When I passed Winnemucca and noticed that Golconda was ten miles away, I realized I had to think about something besides Anne Lamott, her teenage son, George W. Bush, and/or Jesus.  I had a choice to make:  should I turn off at Golconda and take the shorter but unimproved Midas road?  Should I stay on Interstate 80 all the way to Elko, and drive the fifty-two miles to Tuscarora, paved except the last seven miles of well-maintained county road?

 I pulled into a rest stop a few miles before the Golconda exit.  The invigorating  high desert air and the untroubled  blue sky encouraged me. The mountains seemed familiar in a  primordial way.  Actually, this particular range has always scared me a little.  I didn’t  know the  name.

 Taking the Midas Road was the more adventurous choice, and I ignored the voice that sounded like a tiny husband sitting on my shoulder saying, Everybody knows you’ll get a flat tire if you take the Midas road.  Don’t do it!

 It’s not like I stood there thinking, “What would Anne Lamott do?” or, for that matter, “What would Jesus do?”   However,  I was becoming a bit peevish that I didn’t have a personal savior like she did to help me through my neurotic, worrisome days.  I inhaled the Nevada air and found my inner ranch woman who said, What the hell.  Take the Midas road.

 I buckled myself back into the driver’s seat, inserted disc three and headed for the hills.  You are probably guessing that I took the wrong road.  Yep.  All the time I thought I was on the Midas road to Tuscarora, I was on the Eden Valley road to Paradise.  Spoiler alert:  this was not a metaphysical journey that ended with enlightenment.

 When I made the wrong turn, I had a cd going.  I can’t  remember  Anne’s issue, but, at the same time,  Joan  called  on my cell phone, wondering where I was.  She was impatient. A bus load of people from Reno on a Nevada arts tour were wandering around Tuscarora.  “A bus load,” she said,  “in Tuscarora!”  You probably need to know Tuscarora has a year-round population of eleven; about twenty-three of us in the summer. Ordinarily, the only things you can buy are stamps at the post office.

 “I’m coming,” I said.  “I’m taking the Midas road.  It’s quicker.”  At the moment I was talking with Joan and listening to Anne Lamott, I was turning onto a gravel road running parallel to the no-name mountains.  Straight road, intimidating  mountains.  I know where I’m going and I know who’s going with me.

 I must have clipped along for at least thirty miles, glancing at the mountains every now and then, thinking there was something wrong about them, and looking for a sign that I was on the right road.  Yes, God and Jesus play such a huge role in Anne Lamott’s life that, after the second disc, “sign” was beginning to have a double meaning for me, too.

 I could easily have gone the forty-four miles to Paradise Valley, Nevada without passing a soul on the road.  Fortunately, I saw the dust of an oncoming pickup.  I stopped, rolled down the window, and waved.  “Hi!” I said. “ I’m trying’ to get to Tuscarora.  Am I on the right road?”

 “Nope,” said the driver, a ranch hand or a miner.  “This is the road to Paradise.  The Midas road is on the other side of the mountain.”  The other guy in the truck looked straight ahead, suppressing a smirk.

 The driver told me what I had to do, but I knew anyway–eat his dust all the way back to Golconda.  By this time I was well into the third cd.  I may have turned Anne Lamott down, but I never turned her off.  She needed me.  She was on a cruise obsessing about cellulite and her body in a bathing suit.

 When I got to Golconda, I had a choice to make:  get back on Interstate 80, two hours to Elko and an hour to Tuscarora.  Or take the Midas turnoff.  I could  see the sign I had missed before:  Midas 34 miles.  My car was dirty; the windshield bug-smeared.  Tuscarora seemed closer, now the mountains were on the appropriate side of my car.  Yep.  I took the road less traveled and regretted it.

 Although I was pretty sure I was on the right road and there were signs pointing the way, my inner ranch woman had developed Lamottian insecurities.  The signs became less frequent and weren’t confidence builders–little US Forest Service markers pointing  to obscure destinations.  I expected to see Slough of Despond any minute.  I was squeezing the steering wheel, but still listening to Anne Lamott.

I was getting weary of her fixation on George-the-devil-incarnate Bush.  I started talking back to my cd player.  But the next thing I knew I was laughing as she described shades of feeling towards her teenage son, from unconditional love to murderous rage.  Okay I tell myself.  Stick it out with Anne.  Trust you’re on the right road.  You’ll get there.

 Suddenly I saw Willow Creek reservoir.  Like an Old Testament wanderer in the desert, I saw the oasis appear before me.  It was  a miracle!  Actually it was like that.  I drove for about forty miles on a gravel road road through a valley that’s not “Paradise” adjacent to intimidating, no-name mountains, which were now on my left, as they should be.  Then I drove through an eternity of undulating sage-covered hills.  The road became narrow, rutted, curved.  I couldn’t get distracted because an idiot in a 4×4 truck or a hapless idiot like myself in a Subaru  could be barreling around the next curve and I would  die in a head-on crash in the middle of nowhere, and  Anne Lamott would be whining about trying to teach Sunday school.

 The end was near.  There were signs I recognized. I was glad the road was rutted.  It’s always rutted on the other side of the Willow Creek reservoir.  Everybody knows that.  I was even excited about the swathes of Mormon crickets that made the road crawl at various intervals.  Yes, I said to myself,  we, too, have  endured a plague of crickets.  I half-expected to see seagulls swooping down.  The bad news was that I’d had it with Anne Lamott. She had gone from being my best friend to another one of those people in my life who nev-ver listens!

 Then I hear something–a pop and a hiss.  “Fuck!” I said to the steering wheel.   Anne Lamott also says “fuck” when she is anxious or frustrated.  Jesus doesn’t seem to mind.  I stopped the car.  Fortunately, I was not in a Mormon cricket zone.  My first thought was that the rough road caused one of bottles of champagne to explode.  I checked the box in the back seat.  Nope.  I got on my hands and knees and looked under the car.  Nothing was hanging loose.  No oil pan in the dirt.  I wanted to ask Anne Lamott if 2006 Subarus had oil pans, but, no, the car door was open and she was still going on about herself.

 Then it was  over.  The fifth cd ended. The car was quiet.  My steering seemed difficult, but the ruts were deep.  I saw a familiar ranch and it was on the correct side of the road.  I knew I was only five miles from Tuscarora, and I drove like I was  chased by the hounds of hell.

 The sun was over the yardarm.  The bus had taken the art-loving tourists back to the Red Lion Casino in Elko.  As I pulled up, I saw Joan and Stan sitting on lawn chairs in my yard, drinking gin and tonics.  I could tell they were glad to see me.    As I got out of the the car, Stan raised his glass,  “Want one?” and  pointed with his drink to my left front tire. “Flat tire,” he said.

I realized I had been riding the rim for the last ten or fifteen miles.  My interior monologue went like this:  Okay.  This shouldn’t’ be a big deal.  I got a flat on the Midas road.  So, I didn’t listen to the tiny husband on my shoulder who now seems like a not-so-jolly green giant standing with his arms crossed and really pissed because everybody knows about these new AWD cars and you don’t get one flat tire you have to replace all four and you never, ever drive on a flat because that throws the finely calibrated steering mechanism out of whack and you might as well drive the son-of-a-bitch into the Willow Creek reservoir and go buy a new car.

Here’s how the story ends.  I didn’t ruin the car.  I did have to buy  new set of tires.  The rest of the weekend was really fun.  I did not have the religious conversion I was hoping for, in spite of all the signs.  You know, headed for Paradise and then finding out you’re on the wrong road.

 

 

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May in Tuscarora, a 7-5-7 haiku

Blue eggs in the robin’s nest

Pink apple blossoms

Snow covers the dead sparrow.

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Serafina at the Branding

I have been thinking about the ways we teach young children how to interpret  their sensory experiences.  In doing so, we often teach them what to hate, what to fear, and, hopefully,  what to remember with love.  Here’s a case in point.

The first weekend in May last year I took care of  my friends’ three-year-old daughter, Serafina, while her father helped with the branding at our neighbors’ ranch.  For most of the morning her dad was inside the corral on his knees with a sharp pocket knife castrating the bull calves.  Serafina and I squatted on the ground, observing the activity through the lowest rung of the pole fence.  I noticed how careful I was to guide Serafina’s  sensory experience.  I am not a rancher, neither are Serafina’s parents, but  we love where we live and respect cattle ranching.  Not everyone does.

From Serafina’s perspective, the strongest  sensory experience was  the steady sound of  bawling cattle.  To me, it is a pleasant, familiar sound, whether at a  spring branding or a fall round-up,  part of the hubbub and the necessity of the occasion.  At three and still so new to the world,  Serafina  was simply learning to associate the noisiness with a word, “cow.” Maybe when she is older she will join 4H, raise a steer, and, at the auction at the county fair, she will  bear the ambivalence of sending to market the animal  she has named and cared for.

We watched the calves being roped and dragged from the herd to the branding fire and then stretched taut by two riders,  the header and the heeler.  “It’s so they hold still,” I told Fina, wondering what she was thinking about what she saw, and then I remembered that “holding still” is something  a wiggly  three-year-old has begun to understand.

      I watched her attention turn the trio of men intent on their work,  kneeling around the outstretched calf, an image that has changed little in the West in the past one hundred fifty years.  She could see her dad, whose steady hand  gave him the task of cleanly removing the calf’s testicles.  Each time  one of the men  skillfully pressed the hot branding iron, we got a whiff of calf hair and hide.   I did not teach her to go “Eww” at the pungent smell.

When a cowboy stood to loosen the rope around a calf’s hind legs, I saw her eyes follow the wobbly calf as it  ran back to the herd.  “It’s going back to its Momma,” I told Serafina.  She smiled at me with trust and  understanding.

This spring four-year-old Serafina went to the branding with both her parents.  I understand she spent the morning in the ranch house kitchen as her mom helped to prepare the branding lunch, always a festive event.

What Serafina doesn’t know, doesn’t need to know right now, is that she is privy to a way of life and livelihood that is under siege.  This is from a recent article in Range magazine:  “…today most cattle ranchers in the western US are…besieged by people who want the cattle off the public lands and, basically, want to discourage people from eating beef.  Cows are bad for the land and beef is bad for your body, so they say.”  There are animal rights activists who consider branding livestock cruel and barbaric,  who shudder at the communal nature of branding, which  brings friends and neighbors together to share the labor and to celebrate a good day’s work with the hospitality of food and drink.

Maybe a generation from now spring branding and fall roundup will be a memory for everyone.  I hope not, for Serafina’s sake and for us all.

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When You’re Feeling Sorry for Yourself, Scrub the Kitchen Floor

“When you’re  feeling sorry for yourself, scrub the kitchen floor.”  Can’t remember who said it or where I  came across the quote.  It’s a good one.   Hot suds in a blue bucket, yellow rubber gloves, scrub brush with a wooden handle,  rags from an old towel, on your hands and knees–a meditation on daily use. First, clear the room as best you can.  Turn the chairs upside down onto the kitchen table.   Find  your daughter’s long-discarded volleyball knee pads or at least a folded towel to kneel on.  Start in the farthest corner of the room.  If  you cry as you scrub or if resentments emerge with the vigor of your scrubbing, that’s the point. While you purge self pity–that’s what it comes  down to–you accomplish something. Scrubbing the kitchen floor is an antidote to any strong emotion.

You can be mad, sad,  or anxious, worrying about someone you love.  There’s a family story about my mother’s mother.  On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, she was  on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor in my parents’ apartment in Elko, Nevada, waiting for news of her son who was on a Navy battleship in the Pacific.   She didn’t know if he was dead or alive.

She had come to Elko in mid-November  to await my birth, her first grandchild.  After my safe arrival, she allayed her anxiety about her son with her tried and true method.  By the time the news came that he was safe, Mother said the old linoleum floor sparkled.

You might find you are teased about your old-fashioned housewifery and told that cleanliness is next to uptightness, not godliness.  Don’t worry about it.  Most likely, the  criticism comes from those who have little understanding of what it was like to be raised on a  ranch,  who don’t know how hard it was to keep nature outside.   Most likely, they didn’t grow up with the chaos of back porches, where overcoats and boots and greasy caps and cowboy hats and ropes and wrenches and baling twine were  held at bay. When a ranch wife  said, “I just scrubbed the kitchen floor,”  she meant the men in the family better know the difference between the back porch, the house, and the barn. My kitchen floor in Tuscarora is the same  black and white linoleum tile that  was in my mother’s kitchen at their ranch thirty miles southeast of Elko.  The ranch has been bought and sold several times.  Both my parents are dead.  When I’m nostalgic  for that time and place, when I’m feeling sorry for myself,  missing those dear people, I scrub the kitchen floor.

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The Mona Lisa

In Da Vinci’s great picture, The Mona Lisa,

the critics go round, they go round and

around, and they ponder her smile and

the fold of her hands and they ponder

the rumor of a stomachus tumor

or postpartum bloat and they write dissertations

and take their vacations to leer in the Louvre

at the Number One Oeuvre, of the woman who knows

to keep her mouth shut, lest she release the canary

she was told  to hold by the maestro  himself

in Da Vinci’s great picture,  The Mona Lisa.

 

(with apologies to William Carlos Williams)

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Baucis and Philemon and the Space Crone: Thoughts on Valentine’s Day

These years Valentine’s Day brings out the worst in me.  You know, Cupid and all that.  For those of us with menopause a couple of decades behind us, sex is not what it used to be.  At a writing conference last winter in Key West, I got into a conversation with an attractive seventy-something woman.  After a couple of glasses of chardonnay, she offered unsolicited information about her sex life.  “With the man I was last dating,” she said, “I learned to give penile injections.”

 “Was it pleasurable?” I asked, not sure whether I meant giving the guy injections or having intercourse.

 “Not for me,” she said.  I’m sure she meant both.

 Eros is for the young.  The other night I watched a re-run of Titanic.  The scene where Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio steam up a roadster  did nothing for my libido.  My favorite scene is with eighty-seven year old actress Gloria Stuart.  In a flowing white nightgown, with flowing white hair and fabulous red toenails, this make-believe centenarian Titanic survivor stands alone at the prow of the research vessel.  She flings a rare diamond necklace into the sea.  Now that looked like fun.

 The obligatory gifts of Valentine’s Day have always reminded me of the duty you-know-what.  For those of us in long-term marriages, the heart-shaped box of chocolates or the heart-shaped necklace hawked on the shopping channel would be both insulting and sad.

 For couples in my age group, there is only one romantic gesture left–to die at the same time or at least within a couple of months of one another.  It happens more frequently than you might think.  Headlines like these are not that uncommon:  “Couple of 62 Years Held Hands Until the Very End” or “Couple Married 63 Years Died on the Same Day.”

 I call them the “Baucis and Philemon couples.”  In case you have forgotten your Ovid, here’s the Wikipedia retelling of the myth:

           “In Ovid’s moralizing fable…Baucis and Philemon were an old married couple…the only ones in their town to welcome                disguised gods Zeus and Hermes…thus embodying the pious exercise of hospitality… As a reward for their hospitality                Zeus turned their cottage into an ornate temple.  The couple’s wish to be guardians of the temple was granted.  They                  also asked that when time came for one of them to die, that the other would die as well.  Upon their death, the couple                were changed into an intertwining pair of trees, one oak and one linden…”

 On that same trip to Key West, I got into a conversation in the Fort Myers airport waiting room with an elderly couple from the Midwest.  Unsolicited and without chardonnay, they told me they wanted their ashes mixed in the same urn and plowed into the field closest to their Indiana farmhouse.  They had worked out the details:  which of the adult children would be in charge of the urn until they were both cremated.   Embarrassed by their revealing such an intimacy to a stranger, I had to look away.  The devoted couple  held hands  as they spoke.

 Devotion is built into the medieval concept of courtly love, but the burden of proof is  on the male.  The courtier tries to make himself worthy of the object of his affection by doing whatever deeds she might desire. My local newspaper carried this story of chivalry gone wrong:   

           Elko Daily Free Press, January 21, 2014:  “An 88-year-old man who shot his wife in the chest in a Carson City hospital on           Sunday told police he was trying to carry out a murder-suicide because the woman was paralyzed and didn’t want to                 live, authorities said.   The man reportedly told police that he had brought two bullets for her and two for himself, but the             gun jammed after his first shot.”

 

Ultimate romantic gesture or  the story of  an inept spouse who never could do anything right–you decide.  I never did find out how it ended for the poor old guy.

 There are many powerful memoirs  of devoted couples mated for life and the survivor’s intertwining emotions of love and grief. Three books come to mind:  Joan Didion, A Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband; Julian Barnes, Levels of Life, about the loss of his wife; and Mary Oliver, Our World,  about the love of her life, photographer Molly Malone Cook.

 It turns out  long-term marriages are good for us.    A recent article in the New York Times, “Study Finds More Reasons to Get and Stay Married,” notes that “social scientists have long known that married people tend to be happier…” and that “People have the capacity to increase their happiness levels and avoid falling deep into midlife crisis by finding support in long-term relationships.”

The role for most women in the late stage of married life reverts to a maternal one.  We mother ailing husbands and mother old, old parents.  It slows the rhythm of our days, gives us something to do, satisfies  the habit of mothering.  Or is it a woman’s  biological destiny to forever nurture someone or something?  You decide.

 Another reminder from social scientists  is that women are much more likely to face their elder years alone, without a partner.  The Huffington Post notes that “Because women typically live longer than men–at age 65, a woman can expect to live another 20 years while the typical man will live another 17 years–and tend to marry men who are older than themselves, women are far more likely to be widowed.”

For those of us who have long outlived our reproductive capacity and outlived our spouses, Valentine’s Day is redundant.  If we restore Cupid to his ancient Greek name, Eros, it is easier to remember that Valentine’s Day is a celebration of sexual desire and that in ancient Greece, Eros is both the primordial god of procreation celebrated in fertility cults and the god who could inflict a frenzy of desire.

 Rather than lament the fact or apologize for this phase of women’s  lives, we  should be celebrating.  I confess that my change in thinking is a result of reading an essay  by Ursula LeGuin,  “The Space Crone,” in a collection of essays, Dancing at the Edge of the World.  The subject of the piece is menopause.  Here’s the first paragraph:

           “…menopause is probably the least glamorous topic imaginable; and this is interesting,  because it is one of the very few            topics to which cling some shreds and remnants of taboo.  A serious mention of menopause is usually met with uneasy              silence; a sneering reference to it is usually met with relieved sniggers.  Both the silence and the sniggering are pretty                  sure indication signs of taboo.”

 

The essay is a bold argument for a woman to rethink  life after the second “Change of Life.”  She says the following:

           “With the secularization of virginity now complete, so that the once awesome term ‘virgin’  is now a sneer or at best                    a slightly dated word for a person who hasn’t copulated yet, the opportunity of gaining or regaining the                                        dangerous/sacred condition of being at the Second Change has ceased to be apparent….Virginity is now a mere                        preamble or waiting room to be got out of as soon as possible…Old age is similarly a waiting room , where you go after              life’s over and wait for cancer or a stroke.”

  Wow!  Right on, I said to myself as I read her piece.  LeGuin says there are no rites of passage for women to enter this phase, one she considers our entrance into the fullness of humanity.  The crone, LeGuin claims, is the only person “who has experienced, accepted, and acted the entire human condition–the essential quality of which is Change…”

 Certainly, there  are no good names for us in this phase of our lives.  I cringe at the word “crone.”  “Old Woman,”  “Granny,” “Hag,”  “Witch,” “Beldame”–they’re no better.  Perhaps it is the time to rename ourselves. and to recognize that our post-reproductive  lives, which are getting longer all the time, are  opportunities for growth, for adventure, for new accomplishments.  This may sound like wishful thinking and it is–in the best sense of the word.  It’s too depressing to feel condemned to the waiting room of old age and to a vision of a woman’s post-reproductive life as one big anti-climax–pun intended.  There are vital  septuagenarians and octogenarians out there and I want to be among ‘em.  For my part this Valentine’s Day, I’m buying myself a dozen roses and a plane ticket to somewhere I have always wanted to go.

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