Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Monday, August 23, 2010

Class Reunion, Part 3

My little girl started high school today. And I left mine for the last time 45 years ago.

I once told somebody that going to a high school reunion was a little like being stoned on acid. The faces look sort of familiar but the reality when compared to memory is somewhat skewed. One is taken aback by the gray hair (or lack of it), the wrinkles, the extra pounds. But underneath it all are the kids we went to school with. Some of them were friends. And some of them wouldn’t give you the time of day. Nevertheless, we shared a common experience and a common community. And what a fine little community it was.

I rolled into Los Altos midday on Friday after a speedy, scenic drive over the Sierras and a long slog through the smoggy Sacramento Valley. I was way too early for that afternoon’s informal gathering at the Alpine Inn so I spent my time driving old familiar streets, visiting the house I grew up in, trying to remember the names of all my neighbors back then. I walked around Los Altos trying to get my bearings back but, like the old acid trips, everything was skewed. The Los Altos Theatre with its art deco facade was gone. So was the big oak tree at the head of Main Street. Gordon’s Market was being demolished but some of the store fronts at the east end of Main still retained that early 60s something out of Mad Men.

As the meeting time drew nearer I drove up into the foothills through forests of madrone and oak, past golden fields of dry grass and slopes of chaparral. Up Moody Road to Page Mill, past Joan Baez’s place. The summer heat was redolent of pine needles and eucalyptus. The poison oak was turning red. Eventually I turned on to Arastradero and followed it to the Alpine Inn, that rustic anachronism from the days when this part of the San Francisco peninsula was a bucolic eden, a mecca of apricot and walnut orchards, a hangout for Stanford professors, and a haven for the oddballs like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

I was one of the first to arrive but in time others drifted in, bought beers, settled into an easy talk. Hawaiian shirts were predominant. Faces lit up in recognition. The guys who were not part of my high school crowd gave friendly hellos and handshakes but pretty much left it at that. Then there were the old reliables I knew I could talk and laugh with. And the crowd grew along with the conversation. And then some of the women began to show up. And the old voices mingled with the hum of cicadas in the hills around us. The timeless hum of summer.

The women who were not part of my high school crowd were much friendlier. Gracious. Open. Even effusive. As if time had leveled the playing field......had left us all with broken marriages, long gone parents, kids going through college, grand kids in many cases, and our own common infirmities. Arthritis. Hip replacements. Back surgery. The onset of age in an ageless setting.

I had been to other class reunions but this one felt good and right and affirmative. Here we were forty five years after the fact, made common by age and time. And through it all there was an acknowledgment of having grown up in a very special spot. A small town where we could take long walks along the railroad tracks, explore creeks that were not yet swathed in cement, ride our bicycles down Quinn Hill in a rush of youthful exhilaration. And enjoy the affluence and isolation of a community on the brink of great change.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Class Reunion, Part 2

What would we early risers do without places like the Toiyabe Cafe in downtown Austin, Nevada? I had just spent a starry, silent night in the back of my car in the pinyon-forested Bob Scott Campground, brewed a cup of marginal coffee with my one-burner stove, then watched an apricot dawn spill down the slopes of the 7,000 foot mountains to the west. It was just after 6am and I was too lazy to break out any more cooking gear but energized enough to drive down the steep switchbacks of highway 50 to the empty streets of Austin.

There was one other customer inside the Toiyabe Cafe. The television near the corner ceiling was transmitting a snowy telecast of the morning news out of Reno. Near the restrooms were a few antiquated video games. On the wall was the stuffed head of a pronghorn and signs touting “the loneliest highway in America”. But I didn’t feel lonely at the moment. I was ordering a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs to get me through the remaining 170 miles to Reno, an easy run compared to the 560 miles I’d driven the day before.

I have passed through this town dozens of times over the past 35 years and this cafe has always been a welcome stop. Now they serve lattes and espressos in deference to aging yuppies and modern travelers. I savored my breakfast and the familiarity of this little, local place before hitting the road once again....on the second leg of my trip back in time to the place where I grew up.

After leaving Austin, I would take a scenic detour through the Reese River Valley, photograph some living pronghorns, navigate through the Desatoya Mountains, and lose a telephoto lens somewhere along the way. I’d stop at the infamous Shoe Tree as well where I spotted the pair of old tennies that my daughter threw up there last month.

Continuity. Anticipation. And beauty all around me.

I push onward toward the San Francisco peninsula.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Class Reunion, Part 1

On Thursday, I am sure that the “loneliest highway in America” will live up to its name as I pass the burned-out remains of the whorehouse just this side of East Gate. A few miles beyond there I will stop at the “shoe tree”, the big, ancient cottonwood tree from which dangle hundreds of pairs of old shoes, a strangely appropriate landmark in the middle of the Nevada desert. I will have spent Wednesday night at the nearly-deserted Bob Scott Campground just above the old mining town of Austin, watching the glow of sunset creep from pinion-juniper forest to a small aspen grove above 7,000’; sleeping in a fetal position in the back of the Subaru. Then brew up a little coffee in the morning and have a quick bowl of Corn Pops to get me going. Across the miles of sagebrush and cattle-beaten country of the Great Basin.

As always, I have second thoughts about traveling solo over so many miles again at my age. Second thoughts about returning to the bay area and the old hometown. Second thoughts about my ability to cope with new situations and old memories. But the spirit of adventure always seems to take hold. The chance for independence. Jack Kerouac freedom (which was illusional even for Mr. Kerouac). Traveling mile upon mile through the splayed out West. The reassuring rumble of the car engine. Some classic jazz music providing the soundtrack.

Ahead of me Thursday morning lie the stark white lake beds of Fallon, the Singing Sand Dune, the traffic of urban Reno, and the Great Wall of Hope beyond...the Sierra Nevada range. And beyond that the known and the unknown. The familiar streets and boulevards of the peninsula, and the weirdly familiar faces of the long ago and much touted Class of 1965. The one Medved and Wallechinsky wrote about in What Ever Happened to the Class of ‘65? That was us alright. If not the exact same school, certainly formed from the same historical momentum and circumstance.

Stay tuned for further details.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Colorado West

Colorado’s Western Slope isn’t actually a slope at all but a series of quirky canyons, mesas and mountain ranges with names like the Bookcliffs, the Raggeds, the Uncompahgre Plateau, the West Elks, Grand Mesa, the Roan Plateau, Battlement Mesa, the Piceance Basin (pronounced pee-onse) and many others. The landforms rupture and bend toward an ever more arid horizon. Pointed tree-limned peaks flatten into broad plateaus of sage, pinyon and juniper. Bordered on the east by the Rocky Mountain high country and on the west by the dissected edges of the Colorado Plateau, the area is dotted with oddly named little towns like Silt, Rifle, Fruita, Mack and Parachute .

The Western Slope’s metropolitan center is Grand Junction, Colorado where two great desert rivers, the Colorado and the Gunnison, conjoin in the center of town. At 4,500’ elevation, it is often referred to as the “banana belt” of Colorado where winters are generally mild and summers are hot. If you time it just right, you can start spring planting in April and harvest fruit and veggies right through October.

Obama made a campaign visit here in September of 2008 but McCain took 69% of the Mesa County vote just two months later. Should give you some idea of the general political climate. Yet people seem to be more civil about it around these parts. In spite of my ponytail, I get treated decently wherever I go. And it’s a good place to raise a child.

It’s also an especially good place to get out of doors with tantalizing red rock country only a few minutes away in the numerous sandstone canyons carved out of the Uncompahgre including Colorado National Monument and my old place of business, Colorado Canyons National Conservation Area. You won’t find that name on the map anymore as it was changed in June, 2004 to McInnis Canyons in an attempt to lend credibility to the Republican congressman whose efforts prevented the area from becoming part of a national park.

Even though Scott McInnis has recently been accused of plagiarism as he makes a run for the state governorship, his surname will forever embellish 123,000 acres of magnificent country he is not worthy of being honored for. So be it. Because that doesn’t change the natural landscape of the Western Slope, nor the eccentricity of its population. Nor the fact that I live here and will probably keep doing so for many more years to come.