Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

We Are the Knights, the Mighty Mighty Knights

 In a recent Sue Grafton novel, a character ruminating about her bittersweet high school days says “There’s only so much room at the top of the heap.  The rest of us are fill dirt”.  I suppose I was part of that fill dirt, though comfortably ensconced at that angle of repose that judiciously kept me from sliding to the very bottom of the heap.  I had my close friends but we were all dwellers on the fringe, observing the campus dynamic and using it as fodder for our cynical humor. I was the kid in the back of the room who was making comic books deriding the social order. So I find it strange, fifty years after the fact, that I now feel such an affinity for the people I went to high school with.

I have alluded to this phenomenon before, I know, but the older I get the more I feel in tune with these people who went on to become doctors, lawyers, mushroom farmers, graphic designers, contractors, alpaca ranchers, wildlife biologists, IT specialists, and more.  Liberal or conservative it doesn’t matter, because we all survived the 60s.  We were all in shock the day JFK died.  We were all in awe the day a man landed on the moon.  And I suspect most of us were glued to the television set when the Beatles made their American debut.  But there is more to it than those high profile events.  There was the setting itself.

Los Altos was a safe and sunny place that nurtured us as it did the surrounding apricot and walnut orchards.  It was an affluent “village” with a quaint and busy downtown with mid-century modern facades and a large, remnant live oak lording over the junction of Main and State Streets.  It had Hal’s Record Den where we could absorb the latest vinyl releases at listening stations.  It had Clint’s Ice Cream Parlor with the giant concrete cone on the roof.   And a movie theatre with a deco marquee out front, the smell of stale popcorn within, and kiddee matinees every Saturday.  It was a bastion of sanity and security for several sweet years.

By the time we all graduated in 1965, the Los Altos Knights were tilting at the windmills of change both nationally and locally.  There was Vietnam, of course….the elephant in the room.  And rumors that beatniks were getting high in the hills near La Honda.  The old Vasona railroad line, whose weathered ties we would walk on to the outskirts of town, was replaced by a four-lane expressway.  The apricot orchards were being turned under at a furious rate.  The Whitecliff Market burned down.  The old Main Street oak tree finally died.  And most of us moved on along with the bucolic ambience that had made our hometown such a sanctuary for flowering youth.

In recent years I have made it a mission to get to know the people I ignored or who ignored me way back when.    And I never fail to be rewarded by their stories of extraordinary accomplishments, dreams fulfilled, sorrow endured, love lost, and adventures lived.    We all bear the burdens and the joys of where and when we grew up. And we are all stronger because of that.  We can all hearken back to those halcyon days when emotions ran high and possibilities seemed endless.  And nearly 70 years later, I can still feel the rusty iron rails under my feet and smell the scent of warm eucalyptus leaves on the edge of town.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


My dad’s name was Mickey.  Like the freckle faced kid Mickey Daniels in the silent Our Gang comedies.  Or his counterpart, the brash Mickey McGuire who was played by the equally brash Mickey Rooney.  The name carried a stamp of street smarts and self assurance.  And that was my dad all the way. 

His official name was Mitchell.  And when I asked him how he ended up with that name he said that when he started public school in San Francisco, the teacher could not pronounce his given name Mikh-ah-ale’, so she asked him what name he would prefer to be called by.  He answered “Mickey” because that’s what all his friends called him.  “Oh, we can’t have that”, said the teacher.  It sounded a little too rough around the edges.  “How about Mitchell?”  And so Mitchell became his legal name.  But Mickey was the one that most truly defined him.

He spent most of the Depression hanging out with friends on the streets of San Francisco.  He walked across the Golden Gate Bridge on its opening day.  In 1939 he spent a lot of time hanging out at the San Francisco Fair on Treasure Island.  He also whiled away a lot of hours down at Playland at the Beach.  He was a native San Franciscan all the way. 
But he wasn’t much for academics.  When it looked like he might not graduate from George Washington High School, he enlisted in the Navy with aspirations to crew on a submarine.  But a bout of rheumatic fever put an end to those dreams and forced him to stay stateside for the duration.  Nevertheless, his spirits were not dampened.  He tended bar for his fellow seamen in San Diego.  He became good at talking to people.  At developing a kind of self confidence.

After the war, he did what a lot of others did.  He did what was expected.  He got married and began a family, working a menial job at the Deluxe CafĂ© at Playland.  And as familial obligations grew, he began his long run as a salesman, working for Kraft Foods….and ultimately for the beverage business.  And he excelled at it, and enjoyed it.

Now I don’t know all the details and probably never will.  But I know this.  As a family, we never wanted for anything.  We were always comfortable, well fed, and well cared for.  When San Francisco became too confining, we all moved down to the Peninsula…a move which certainly changed my life for the better, and probably my sisters’ lives as well.  Sunny, warm.  Protected.   I can say that we had a good life growing up in Mountain View…back in the day when there were still a few hints of bucolic landscape left, back before it became the Silicon Valley.

Through all of this, my dad worked steadily.  He also started woodworking, and building fine furniture.  He always enjoyed working with his hands. He haunted junk shops and yard sales.  I remember going with him to the Mountain View dump to rummage through discarded treasures.  One time we got so distracted we got accidentally locked in.

 Anyway, things being what they were we kids grew up and moved on, and my parents moved too….first to Pleasant Hill, then to Carson City.  It was a pretty big deal when he and I traveled to Greece together back in 1995.  It was the first time I had spent any appreciable time with him, and I noted later on in my journals of that trip “Traveling with my dad has been fun and generally easy.  I only wish I had the same uncomplicated approach to life that he has.  He is always the optimist, the glad-hander.  He pretty much accepts whatever life doles out to him - a “que sera” philosophy… being with Dad helped me keep positive.  With him, what you see is what you get. ..An example from a few days ago:  Coming into Kalambaka and the Meteora area, it was raining and windy and right away I thought that our trip there might have been in vain.  The next morning there were threatening clouds and more wind, but Dad said, “Don’t worry.  It’ll probably clear up once we get up into the rocks”.  And, of course, it did.”

I know he would have liked to travel more but time and circumstance caught up with him.The last trip we took together was last year when he turned 90.  He and I spent the day circumnavigating the bay area, stopping first at his boyhood home on 38th & Fulton in San Francisco where we got out of the car and he regaled me with stories about his boyhood times in the neighborhood; then a stop at our first family home at 45th & Taraval Streets.  We even went by my mother’s childhood home on 48th and Fulton before  heading south toward Mountain View and our first real family home on Lloyd Way.  We could have stopped there but we continued on around the bay, circling back through Pleasant Hill and the house my folks had there.  And finally on back to Santa Rosa.  A seven hour day full of good memories and conversation.  I think he knew that it would probably be the last time he would see these places.  And for him, it was all good.

And that is how I would like to remember him.  The appreciator of life.  The meticulous craftsman.   The self-made man. Sure, there were conflicts.  He could be incredibly stubborn and single minded.   Our values clashed mightily in the late 60s.  But for him I think it was mostly all good.  He loved his kids, his grandkids and his great-grandkids, and he kept his sense of humor almost to the end.  In the last conversation we had over the phone, I asked him how he was doing and he said, “Well, I’m staying alive.”

There is certainly a lot more I could say, but I think the best way I can celebrate my father is to keep stayin’ alive.  Live life one day at a time.  Don’t dwell in the past but keep moving forward.  I now have some of his ashes in a little pouch, and I intend on taking it with me when I travel…taking him to all those places that he missed and would have loved.  That was Mickey.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Blue Mesa - 1986

           We were in the middle of the Dying Ground when I noticed her for the first time.  A low sun cast long shadows over blue earth as she knelt on a bare hillside, picking through pieces of petrified wood and the bones of beasts long forgotten.  Beyond her diminutive form, above the dusky round hills to the east, a nearly full moon eased its way upward over the Painted Desert.
            We were creatures out of time.
            The remainder of the group had gathered together in a low swale about a quarter of a mile away, listening to a park ranger explain Triassic floodplains and ancient volcanoes.  An eerie softness was borne on the cool April wind that swirled around the buttes.  Knowledge of all the hidden history underfoot cast a cloak of quiet reverence over the group.
            In one hand I held a fossilized piece of animal armor.   My mind and body had wandered far into the primordial depths. In a shallow gully I had scared up a Great Horned Owl.  And at the top of one small, pleated hill, at its very apex, I came upon her.  Her small fingers were lightly sifting the soil, deep eyes looking beyond the surface into the past.  Perhaps it was her grey bunting jacket that made her seem a part of that landscape.  Or the long black hair billowing around her shoulders.  Or something in her Asian countenance that hearkened back to primal Bering Strait migrations and Native American orientations.
            In that world of palpable silence, the pastel blues and greys seemed etched into clay, and her subtle movements were magnified against the austere sweep of the badlands.  We did not speak, though I desperately wanted to say something to her.  Instead, I passed within a few yards of her, pretending to scan the ground for more prehistoric puzzle pieces.  Our eyes met very briefly.  As I recall, she smiled.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


For nearly four years I lived in one of the loneliest outposts in the western United States…the Needles Country of Canyonlands in southeastern Utah.  Only a few of us lived there year-round, caretakers of some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.  This was in the mid-70s and cyberspace had not yet been tapped in rural San Juan County, or anywhere else for that matter.  So we lived without telephones, televisions, daily mail or even radio, unless you count the Blanding station that transmitted in Navajo for most of the day.  As a young man at the time, I took these deprivations in stride. But for a boy raised in the San Francisco Bay area, the one thing I really missed was current music.

Oh, I had my collection of vinyl records all neatly sorted between bricks and boards on the floor of my government mobile home.  And a box full of mix tapes for the car cassette player.  But that was stuff I’d brought with me.  I could order records through the mail and eventually pick them up in Moab.  Or I could drive the 200 miles to Grand Junction, Colorado where I could patronize a real record store.  But to keep really current on the music scene, I relied on friends far away to send me tape recordings…usually from records but occasionally just chunks of local radio broadcasts. This infusion of contemporary music was always most welcome…an audio tether to my urban roots.

This became most apparent when my friend Phil sent me a jazz mix tape sometime in late 1977.  By then I was living by myself (my longtime lady friend had fled the prior winter), and I was feeling the loneliness and the weight of the surrounding wilderness.  Fortunately, my Moab mailbox was often checked by fellow rangers while on supply runs and such was the case on this particular occasion.  The padded envelope was brought to my door and I eagerly opened it, finding a nice selection of Herbie Mann, Grover Washington Jr and John Handy.  Urban jazz invading the heart of slickrock country.

I played the tape a couple of times at home but its impact wasn’t truly felt until my “weekend” came around and I elected to hit the road.  It was late afternoon in late November and the shadows along Indian Creek were long and cold.  I drove up the dugway into open sagebrush country and reached highway 191 to Moab as the last light of dusk was fading away.  Northward past the Lisbon Valley turnoff. Past Wilson Arch, Past the little outpost of La Sal Junction.   At Kane Springs, I popped in the jazz tape and heard those first quite bass lines to Grover Washington’s  rendition of A Secret Place…a fine bit of funk as I crested the hill to Spanish Valley and saw the first lights of civilization.

At that moment it didn’t matter that I was driving into a town of less than 5,000 residents, with not one decent restaurant, music or book store, and no real bars (just a state liquor store).  When Grover’s sax started playing, I felt like I was heading into an oasis of energy….the hustle and bustle, the neon, the human connection.  I was seeing downtown Moab but I was feeling the Bay Area and remembering those nights in the clubs and dance halls of the City.  And bittersweet though it was, I knew that I would get a motel room for the night and spend hours on the telephone, and watch whatever was on the telly, and buy my groceries the following day, and head back into the canyon country I loved so much with a renewed sense of who I was, and where I was from, and where I was going.  Something in that sweet music had set me up, and satiated a need in me so that I could better appreciate the truly remarkable setting where my life was playing out.

To this day, when I play A Secret Place, I remember that long drive through darkness and that first glimpse of the lights, like stars fallen from the sky and ready for the taking.  The sweet music of youth.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

New Day's Year

Thirty three years ago today I was presented with the most precious Christmas gift I’ve ever received…a healthy, dark-eyed little package called Alison Noel, who is now herself a mother of a Christmas baby.  At the time her mom and I were living in a one-room apartment above the old Olema Store near Pt Reyes National Seashore, about 30 miles from the hospital in Santa Rosa.  Jeanne went into labor right around rush hour and I drove like a madman around the curves and hills of Pt Reyes-Petaluma Road to get us to the delivery room on time.  That part turned out quite well.  But about two weeks later we became concerned when Ali got into a multi-day crying jag.  On New Year’s Day we drove back over the hills to see the doctor and I penned the following little essay:

This is a quintessential Northern California New Year’s Day, shimmering under a cold sun through thin layers of haze, and wrapped in a palpable calm.  We are driving the open road along the edges of swollen Nicasio Reservoir whose still, sepia waters like a rambling Rorschach ink blot, mirror every detail of its banks.  From the evergreen forest of Point Reyes we have come, sliding through billowy treeless hills already decked in spring green amid serpentine crags whose gray walls stir my mind’s memory pool. Of younger times along coastal cliffs.  Of day tripping over slickrock.
Beside me in the car is Alison Noel, tiny daughter of just two weeks whose hat-covered head bobs gingerly against her padded infant seat.   Lulled by the engine’s hum and winding roadway, she is finally sleeping after a long evening of crying and colic.  If she were awake, she would have little awareness of the pastoral scenes beyond the windshield.  And she is too young to have memories or longings for other places, except perhaps that warm dark world of the womb she has so recently emerged from.
In the back seat is Jeanne who reaches forward with motherly concern to shield the baby’s eyes from occasional bursts of sunlight.  She is exhausted from the previous night’s ministrations to Alison.  But even in fatigue, she bears the calm radiance of new motherhood.  We comment on the newborn calf by the roadway and the frozen stance of a great blue heron.  A white-tailed kite hovers at the road junction where we turn away from bucolic vistas and begin the curvy course through redwoods and ranch-style homes in Lucas Valley.
At the doctor’s office in Terra Linda, we are reassured by the prognosis that Alison’s troubles are nothing more than normal infant behavior…a little stomach adjusting to a big world.  And anyway, it appears as if the ride has calmed her down somewhat.  I cannot speak for Jeanne, but I feel that perhaps the strands of memory weaving through my mind have infiltrated all of us, pulling us into that timeless web of familial unity.  Today marks our first minor crisis as a family and my first strong awareness of us as a trio.
As we drive homeward through the long soft shadows of West Marin, I am at once protector, provider, parent and child, weaving through the primordial mist, confronting myself at every turn, and dividing by three into the light.  Down the last hill we drive toward the muted sun, toward the dark spine of Inverness Ridge….toward home.

Happy Birthday, Alison…and good health and long life to your Christmas angel

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Simple Day

Lindsay is on the living room sofa practicing her Japanese.  Amy just finished baking two pies for tomorrow’s quiet festivities.  One pie is made from the remaining apples on our backyard tree that hang like yuletide balls on bent over branches.  The other pie is made from the pumpkin that has been on our front porch since before Halloween.  It escaped being hollowed out and eviscerated for Jack-o-lantern status, only to be chopped up and boiled for pie filling. 

Outside the sky is full of indecision.  Ragged clouds can’t decide whether to be stratus or cumulus right now, so they duke it out between bouts of blue. Long shadows lie along the Bookcliffs’ deep ridges.  Snow is forecast for the high country but here on the Western Slope we are getting only wind and a mild threat of rain.  The last autumn leaves cling tenaciously to sycamore and box elder.  But the top of Grand Mesa is etched in white.

Tomorrow we will have roast duck instead of turkey.  This has become a Grand Junction tradition for a family that doesn’t usually travel during the holidays, and has an affinity for dark meat.  If the weather is reasonable, we may sneak in a short walk at the edge of town on the cusp of canyon country.  In the afternoon I will replace the fall decorations with Christmas houses, and in the evening I will fire up the exterior holiday lites for the first time this year.  Then, perhaps, we will find an appropriate movie to watch….something light and not too sentimental.  Maybe an episode of Doctor Who.

Over the past decade we have made this our family tradition.  It is a far cry from the exuberant Greek Thanksgivings of my youth but I have grown to like it nonetheless.  Three people going about their business in Colorado at a pace to match the coming winter, and saying goodbye to that kindest of all seasons.  And hunkering down against a world that seems so wrought with fear and paranoia.  We salute ourselves, and our loved ones in other places…and we keep looking forward.