Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lullaby of the Leaves

It’s the last day of October, my favorite month of the year. I spent most of the morning outside raking leaves, an annual routine that I seldom get tired of. Sometimes I use the electric leaf blower but most of the time I enjoy just swinging the hand rake back and forth, and piling the leaves manually on a big tarp before dragging them to the curb. Yes, here in Grand Junction we have curbside leaf cleanup. We all pile our leaves in cornrows on the street near the gutter and every Thursday a city truck with a huge suction device comes along and sucks up the debris leaving a clean street for at least a day or two.

Our two large cottonwoods, lone apricot and big red bud trees have only just begun to lose their leafy load so the best (or worst depending on how you look at it) is still to come. Nevertheless, I enjoy the process; the excuse to be outside in the fresh air smelling the October earth and feeling the lean toward winter. There is bitter sweetness in all of this because, as friends who know me will attest, I am not a winter person. After the leaves have all fallen, and daylight savings kicks in, and the major holidays have passed I grit my teeth, hunker down, and settle into a kind of hibernation.

But I glory in October when the city streets are afire in a kind of suspended animation and crackling calm before the storms; when the nearby canyons cloak themselves in shady coolness; when the neighbors are out cleaning roof gutters and pulling up the shriveled remnants of tomato and zucchini plants. In October I usually squeeze in a desert trip or two. I gorge myself on photography and sunlight that settles like glass over the valley. I buy pumpkins with my daughter and put scarecrow sentinels on the front porch.

October, for me, carries with it so many connections, mysteries, and heartfelt emotions. It is a golden thread that passes all too quickly into memory. That odd ephemeral month that puts the hot summer well behind us while winter beckons just over the ridges to the north.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The FBI and I

Scarcely one month after being hired as a seasonal park ranger for the National Park Service, Department of Interior, I received my first induction notice. It was from Selective Service Board #62 out of San Jose, California, one of the toughest draft boards in the nation. I knew that from experience after spending several years negotiating student deferments and trying to achieve conscientious objector status, to no avail. If you were a living, breathing chunk of man flesh, you were pretty much qualified to be cannon fodder in Southeast Asia. This was early 1971 and the Vietnam War was still very much in progress.

Several months earlier I had gone through the humiliating ritual of enduring the military physical exam when a busload of us anxious males were driven to the gothic old induction center in Oakland to be poked, prodded and paraded around. I was still coasting on a student deferment at the time so I wasn’t immediately sent off to basic training. I went back to eating mescaline and being unemployed in sleepy Santa Cruz.

But now I was actually wearing a uniform and working for the federal government as a genuine, bona fide park ranger so I figured that I was already serving my country and maybe didn’t need to be inducted after all. I wrote to my senator and congressman with this novel suggestion but no one seemed to be buying it at the time. Apparently conscription in the military was the only acceptable form of government service, and protecting America’s natural resources was not.

On induction day I stayed in my cabin at Pinnacles National Monument. Shortly thereafter I bought maps of British Columbia and The Draft Dodgers Guide to Canada and began making plans to flee the country. I also began having severe stomach pains, debilitating attacks that would leave me on my back on the floor. Someone suggested that my medical problem might be due to an ulcer and recommended I get it checked out. Which I did in no short order.

Sure enough. Turned out that I had developed a peptic ulcer….from worrying about the draft, no doubt. But an ulcer was a verifiable cause for a 4F so I proudly accepted my doctor’s prognosis, and got my paperwork in order. Meanwhile the Federal Bureau of Investigation had already contacted my parents, looking for their first born son. When I phoned home, my mom gave me a telephone number to call.

Once I made contact with the FBI, I was told to meet with one of their representatives at a location in San Jose. The address was for a building that looked like an abandoned apartment complex with no identifying signs on any of the doors. Nevertheless, I found the building and soon thereafter a fellow with a black suit and black shiny shoes found me.

I was taken into a sparely furnished office where another man in black shiny shoes joined us. At which time I told them how I had been sick on induction day and just couldn’t drag myself out of bed that day. I was the contrite detainee and they were the mystery men in black who would give me one more chance at induction. I agreed to the deal, we shook hands, and I was back on the road to the Pinnacles.

Soon after, I received yet another induction notice. This time I did show up, with my medical papers in hand. I still had to go through the humiliating physical exam ritual however as no one would look at the papers until the very end of the process….at which time I was pronounced 4F. Unfit for service. So I had no choice but to return to my park ranger job which I managed to hang on to for another 32 years. Hopefully during all that time, I provided at least a little bit of public service to this great country of ours.

By the way, within a few years that ulcer of mine just disappeared.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Aspens and Anniversaries

Nineteen years ago today a wild mountain lion ran across the road in front of me as I drove into the mountains near Mineral, California. At the time, I considered it a good omen as I was in the process of getting my eight year old daughter Alison so that she could be with me on my wedding day. Ali lived with her mom near the town of Portola, high up the Feather River country. The drive from Redding took three hours and took me near the slopes of Lassen Peak, around the shore of Lake Almanor, and along the banks of Indian Creek. I’d gotten a crack-o-dawn start so that we could have plenty of time to make ready for the ceremony.

That afternoon Amy and I got married under the trees in Viola, a tiny community in the foothills of the Cascades. We were surrounded by friends and family and good feelings. And the day after the nuptials were completed, we flew down to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a two-week honeymoon through the Four Corners area. That mountain lion sighting was a harbinger of a sublime experience that has lasted nearly twenty years.

So today the two of us drove into the mountains once again but this time it was in Colorado instead of California. We decided to catch the fall color on Grand Mesa, only about an hour’s drive from Grand Junction. We left the interstate at Plateau Creek and slowly wound along its rugged banks which are currently decked out in yellow rabbitbrush and late summer grasses. We encountered the first aspens just beyond the town of Mesa near the Powderhorn ski area.

Farther up the road at Old Powderhorn the color was even better. And eventually we spent a good chunk of time wandering amid white bark and golden shadows, photographing the autumn splendor. It was a warm and quiet affirmation of a marriage well spent, of two-week fall vacations through the canyon country, and of other autumn days spent admiring the intermountain West. We have aged, certainly, but those things we love about this land and each other have not.

Late September was a great time to get married and a great time to have an anniversary.....when the western mountains are full of sunshine and color, in a final burst of arboreal glory before the chilly days of winter set in.