Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Monday, November 28, 2011

Remembering the Creek

Shortly after my folks moved to suburban Mountain View in the fall of 1954, Permanente Creek became my avenue into the wild. It flowed intermittently past the end of my street at the junction of Lloyd Way and Ernestine Avenue, and through a short tunnel under Mountain View Avenue. West of the tunnel, its forested banks wound sinuously toward the creek’s source somewhere in the coastal hills behind Los Altos. East of the tunnel it reflected an increasingly urban landscape. Lined with backyard tract home fences, its battered slopes held fewer trees and more boxes of trash, piles of grass clippings, and a panoply of indiscriminately dumped items from old bicycle parts to well-used girlie magazines. For a ten year old child it was a paradise.

Throughout my pre-teen years, there was no better place to explore, hike or get lost in. Despite the rapid growth of neighborhoods up above, Permanente’s creek bed still maintained some vestiges of the natural history of the south bay. Some native trees still flourished among the eucalyptus and pepper trees. Poison oak often covered the more protected slopes. Occasionally I would find a dead tarantula or alligator lizards. It was not unusual for me to pack a lunch, take a friend, and drop into the creek for an all day journey. Its winding channel seldom had much water in it and was almost always easy to navigate. When I was twelve years old I even wrote a book about it called “My Adventures in Permanente Creek”. With a home-made press run of one copy, it was a runaway best seller.

Permanente Creek, along with Adobe, Arastradero and Stevens Creek, was considered an intermittent stream but periodically it could carry an enormous amount of runoff. Such was the case during the wet winter of 1958 when it actually overflowed at the Ernestine Avenue junction and sent a three-inch “wall of water” down our street. It was probably these isolated incidents that eventually sealed the creek’s doom.

During my college years I was in and out of Mountain View, immersed in the social and cultural upheaval, and not really paying attention to the changes going on in my old neighborhood. But some time during that time period Permanente Creek was dredged and channelized, its dirt banks shaved and completely covered in concrete. Furthermore, at the old Mountain View Avenue bridge a tall cyclone fence was erected to ensure no unauthorized entry into what was now a sterile channel…as if that glorified culvert could hold any intrigue or appeal to a young child anymore.

It is difficult to fathom the loss of an entire ecosystem that dwelt within the confines of Permanente Creek for perhaps thousands of years. But it is even more difficult to imagine the loss of adventure, excitement and mystery for curious kids like myself who now blend into the old neighborhood like the sidewalks and strip malls…who, with the proliferation of electronic media, iphones, computers, video games, probably don’t even care. But without Permanente Creek, I would likely not have found my calling as a park ranger and lover of western landscapes. The creek was my salvation even though in the end, I could not save it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Boomer-Angst

“…and I don’t know who I am but, you know, life is for learnin’.” - Joni Mitchell, Woodstock


We baby boomers are an odd generation, born during the last great world conflict and conflicted ever since. I was born in 1947 when Robert Mitchum was filming Out of the Past and Humphrey Bogart was doing Dark Passage on the streets of San Francisco. I’m old enough to remember seeing Elvis Presley’s first TV appearance, catching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and watching the moon landing on a big screen in the Fillmore Auditorium while waiting for Country Joe and the Fish to start their first set. I grew up on the clean suburban streets of Mountain View before it was a part of the Silicon Valley. And walked the railroad tracks of the old Vasona Line before it morphed into the Foothill Expressway.

Look at me…this anomaly of the new millennia, listening to the Grateful Dead while nursing my arthritic joints. Working out at the gym between appointments with my chiropractor. Waxing nostalgic about the days of mushrooms and weed when the current drug of choice is Vicodin. I hobble into the future refusing to be beaten down, dancing to Fountains of Wayne and trying, in vain, to put the skids on Father Time. Behind me is the detritus of ex-lovers, broken marriages, old friends who didn’t make it, and a few lost opportunities. But also behind me are the years spent living in national parks, hiking and exploring the glorious American landscape, the raising of two beautiful children, and the opportunities captured.

When my grandfather was 65, he looked old. Suit clad and sedentary. I am nearly 65 but I still feel the beat, the energy, the vibe. My generation looks younger and keeps moving toward some indefinable goal, taking with it the broad perspective of the final half of the twentieth century. McCarthyism. Amos n’ Andy. Civil Rights. JFK. Duck and Cover Drills. Drive In Movies. Reagonomics. Space Shuttles. And a huge and diverse panoply of cultural iconic events. Seems like there is a lot more noise and confusion these days, and life keeps moving faster. But I am glad for when I was born, and that I can look back on a life well lived and never boring or taken for granted.

“No regrets, Coyote” – Joni again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

THE LAST HALLOWEEN

It was my idea for Lindsay to go out on Halloween for one last trick-or-treat fest. Not that she wasn’t agreeable to it, having a ready-made cat costume at hand and the ambivalence a fifteen year old would have at going door to door. But she readily agreed that we could do one “final farewell tour” through the old historic district of Grand Junction where the big, stately homes and the tall trees created an appropriate ambience for the evening. So after dinner we drove down to 7th Street and parked, and started walking.

There were already some small groups of kids wandering around, and we could hear the laughter and shouting in the cool October night. Many of the houses were dark and seemingly uninhabited, while others were well-lit and welcoming. Nearly all of them greeted us with wide wooden porches and weathered steps, and flickering jack-o-lanterns along the walkways.

I hung back on the sidewalk while Lindsay went up to each door. But I paid close attention to the fine old details of the craftsman style homes with their broad open beamed front rooms, built-in bookcases, brick fireplaces and dark dormer windows. Often there would be a staircase leading up to the second floor, and amazing artifacts on shelves. Some of the homes still seemed locked in time with ancient hosts and hostesses come to the door. Others were obviously rentals with college kids and young families inside. But all of them together on those old broad streets created a kind of old-fashioned sense of community and caring. A small glimpse of Edwardian Americana come alive for one night.

I know that Lindsay tagged along primarily for my sake. She knew how much I savored those deep feelings of something nearly lost. And she could see me harkening back to my own childhood in California suburbia when the Halloween streets were rife with kids and costumes and a soon-to-be lost innocence. And she and I both knew that this might be the last time we would share in this fading fall ritual. So we soldiered on for several blocks in an unspoken alliance of magic and memory.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ode to October

October shines in my memory like the cottonwood leaves in autumn canyon country. In the west, it is a month when nature takes a quiet turn between fits and starts of an impending winter. In my own life October has been, with few exceptions, consistently reliable, emotional, peaceful and sweet. And I find myself looking back at some of the defining moments this month has given me.

Looking way back there is the obvious, of course…the childhood anticipation of Halloween and then the event itself, carried out on suburban streets of Mountain View with seeming throngs of other children all giddy and anxious in the warm peninsula night. But there was so much else beyond that and ahead of me. So many more Octobers to be spent throughout the west. So many defining events.

I never knew October had color until I moved to the southwest. Before that time, all I had ever noticed was the reddening poison oak in the bay area foothills, the burnished wild buckwheat in the chaparral. But in the Four Corners country I came to know and anticipate the explosion of yellow rabbit brush and snakeweed in the high desert, the tiny bursts of purple aster in grassy grottoes, the astonishing scarlet hues of maple and gambel oak on the mesas, and the golden turn of cottonwoods and box elder in canyon bottoms and arroyos. And topping it all off, nature usually saw fit to place this palette of color against a backdrop of deep blue skies and calm, quiet days. The pulse of Indian summer.

There are the other memories as well. Gratefully losing my virginity one college October in a small San Francisco flat. Marching with half a million people to Golden Gate Park in October, 1969 protesting the war. The birth of my youngest daughter in New Mexico in early October when the smell of roasting chilis hung heavy over the city along with hundreds of hot air balloons. A romantic rendezvous in Durango and Santa Fe. The hot October in southern Arizona when I labored to save a failing love affair. A walk among tufa towers at Mono Lake. A fabulous float on the Colorado River on the Utah/Colorado border. The myriad trips to mesa, mountain, and canyon to revel in that short, welcome window of Octoberness.

And now there are the homey Octobers. Harvesting the last few tomatoes and zucchini in the garden. Canning the remaining apples. Celebrating Lindsay’s birthday. Winterizing the house. Trotting out the old Halloween decorations. Walking my daughter home from school through streets with long shadows and sunlit sycamores. And waiting and watching for those noble cottonwoods to turn. October washes ageless over me and buffers me somehow against the grim realities and upheavals beyond 9th Street. It almost never disappoints or distorts. I am forever bound to its rhythms and promises. There is autumn, and then there is October.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September Remembered

I’m not sure what possessed me to watch The Today Show on the morning of September 11, 2001. I rarely watch any television in the morning especially when, as in this case, I was busy trying to get ready for work on the western end of Las Vegas. Nevertheless the television was on when I heard that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Like thousands of others in that moment, I figured it was some kind of bizarre and unfortunate accident…until I actually saw the second plane crash into the second tower just a few minutes later. The rest, of course, is ingrained American history. The horror. The uncertainty. The dark settling cloud.

When I reached my office at the Bureau of Land Management headquarters a few miles away, everyone was glued to the television set. By then the towers had collapsed and all hell was breaking loose in New York. Suddenly federal offices everywhere were being perceived as primary targets. I was told to drive out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, the 190,000 acre park that I managed at the time, to evacuate the visitor center, and to close down the 13-mile Scenic Drive. Paranoia was so rampant that I remember checking underneath my government pickup truck for car bombs before starting it up.

I drove west to Red Rock in a kind of fog as the late summer dawn was just illuminating the sandstone cliffs. The Visitor Center was easy to shut down as there were few visitors that early in the day. Likewise the Scenic Loop. I found myself driving past Joshua trees and creosote-flecked hills on an already empty road. At the apex of the loop, I stopped the car, got out, and sat on a lone boulder where I looked out over a surreal landscape of complete and utter silence. No airplane noise. No contrails over the imposing Las Vegas skyline. The silent desert for once was not sublime but somehow sinister.

To complicate the events of the next several days, not only did I have to contend with the alleged threats to federal facilities and the random nature of the violence, but my family and I were in the midst of trying to leave Las Vegas for good. I had accepted a job in Grand Junction, Colorado and we had already sold our house. But because of the tragic events on the east coast, our escrow was being held up as banks temporarily closed and the financial markets wavered. All we wanted to do was to get out of a city where we had never felt comfortable, and which had now become even more oppressive.

In another ten days we finally made the break. Most of our material goods were on a Bekins Van heading east. We made a rapid exit from Nevada and camped out the first night in Snow Canyon near St. George, Utah. Soon after that we were ensconced in a residential hotel in downtown Grand Junction. The horror began turning into hope. Amy and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary at a downtown Italian restaurant. A few days later we held a small birthday party (her fifth) for Lindsay in our fourth floor room. We drove up to Grand Mesa to hike amid autumn aspens. And I began my new life as manager of a slickrock wilderness of plateaus, canyons and the Colorado River.

Not long after that we found the little house on 9th street where we still live today. We came to know and love our community and to feel connected in some way in spite of the political and social upheaval that was occurring on the national stage. So 9/11 for me will always be a symbol of hope and change. On this tenth anniversary of the event, I don’t need the ever present media to show me the replays over and over again, to wallow in the sadness of it all, or to attempt to ignite unfettered patriotism. I need family, friends, and a quiet street in western Colorado where I can watch the beginning of every new day.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Response To a Friend's EMail

It’s good to hear from you again. Your email response challenges me to look beyond politics and deeper into my own visceral responses to coping with modern society. Right now, I don’t see it as either a liberal or conservative issue but more of a breakdown in basic civility and consideration. There are so many negative factors eating away at society these days, not the least of which is the media and a world where expedited electrical correspondence has replaced good ol’ face to face communication (consider this email as an example). It is especially hard on us old fogies who can remember when the telephone and letter writing and good old fashioned conversation were the norm and not the exception.

I will grant you that Obama has been completely ineffective….and a huge disappointment. But on the other side of the aisle, I see nothing but venality and greed coming from Republicans. Tax breaks. Subsidies for the rich. The complete takeover of government by corporate interests. And a general air of vindictiveness and a lack of common decency. Every aspect of our daily lives is being taken out of our hands and is externally controlled in one respect or another. So there is a constant battle to maintain individuality and optimism in the face of overwhelming odds.

So…what is my coping mechanism? I wake up early each morning, have a good cup of strong coffee, do a crossword puzzle or two, and watch the dawn break over my little street. I watch as my neighbors begin to stir, starting up their cars for the morning commute; the young girl who jogs by on the sidewalk; the elderly couple walking their dog. And later still, the parents dropping their kids off at the elementary school just a few doors away. I think about my wife and daughter, still asleep, the porch step that needs fixing, the vegetable garden that needs watering and weeding. I look beyond the street to the mesas and mountains beyond where I can make a getaway if need be. And I think about friendship.

As I get older I spend more time trying to come to grips with the past and how it has shaped me and my responses to the world. And I seek vindication of myself as a social animal, and I seek humanity in others. This is one reason why re-establishing contact with you meant so much. Or why last year’s high school reunion was so compelling. There were those old threads reaching back to the past with a promise of new connections to the future.

I don’t give a shit about whether you are a Republican or Democrat. I don’t care what religion you espouse (as long as you don't espouse it to me). But I do care about people. And I do care about the freedom to make my own choices, read what I want to read, think my own thoughts and practicing personal responsibility. Unfortunately, that last part isn’t included in school curriculum these days though it certainly should be.

It’s funny but when I didn’t hear from you for so long, I figured that I’d somehow maybe said something callous or offensive. I was feeling disappointed in myself. So I was particularly pleased that you responded. Quite frankly, I’d much rather hear about what you and your family do, or where you’ve visited lately, or share in your ruminations about the past than to try and make any sense of the cultural erosion that is going on all around us. We’re only human and all we can do is plug away at this life realizing in the end that our votes don’t make any difference but that our daily actions with our fellow man do.

Sorry I’ve gone on for so long. I’d much rather sit down somewhere with you and a couple of beers and continue this discussion. And perhaps we can do that in 2012. I plan on spending some time in California in celebration, if that is the right word, of turning 65. Who’d have thought way back in ’65, huh?

Do keep in touch, my friend.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Frogs in the Desert

I love this country! The Colorado Plateau, that is. It is early morning in Capitol Reef, Utah and I am watching the sunlight slide down the nearby cliffs, illuminating them in hues of apricot and vermillion. Got a hot cup of dark coffee in my hands, and my daughter Lindsay is still asleep in the tent.

Today we drive over the high country of the Henry Mountains through the slickrock domes of the Escalante, to Bryce and Zion Canyons and, eventually, to Kanab, Utah. Yesterday we got wet and muddy in the waters of Sulfur Creek and I watched as Lindsay sloshed through the stream and clambered over tumbled boulders, all smiles and increasingly confident in her hiking abilities.

I first came to this country forty four years ago with a busload of geology students from Foothill College, all fresh faced and eager. Most of what I knew about the desert southwest was what I had seen in low-budget westerns. You know, all those cool rocks the cowboys would hide behind to shoot at other cowboys who were riding past Joshua trees, all conveniently located not far from Hollywood in the Mojave Desert.

But that geology trip was a revelation to me. In nine days we went from digging trilobites in the Marble Mountains of California to hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back out again (with a night of revelry on the Colorado River in between), to visiting Indian ruins at Wupatki in Northern Arizona…and then to the red heart of the Colorado Plateau at Zion National Park. As I watched a nearly full moon rise over the Great White Throne, I knew that I would one day return.

And here I am. Beguiled visitor to the plateau’s western edge and full-time resident on the plateau’s eastern edge. I never lose my fascination and awe for the swirled sandstone, sinuous canyons, and hidden pockets of water. If all goes well this afternoon, we will sneak into a secret little canyon of mine on Zion’s east rim where quiet emerald pools are cradled by rock basins, landscaped with wiry shrubs and patches of wild fuchsia and paintbrush. In and out of the waterpockets are the desert tree frogs, neatly camouflaged denizens of pothole and pool. Life on a small scale in a landscape of a mighty scale.

After four decades the magic is still there. The fascination. The anticipation. Made even more significant by the company of my own child who lives in the moment in the landscape of her father’s past.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bruneau Dunes: A Hidden Gem in Southern Idaho



I don’t usually write travel pieces per se but in this day and age of crowded campgrounds and over marketed tourist traps, I’d like to mention a prosaic little area I recently had the pleasure of spending a night at. For anyone traveling through the vast open spaces of southern Idaho, Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park is a welcome stopover on the way to or from eastern Oregon. It has impressive sand dunes, lots of wildlife, marshes and small lakes, and it is wonderfully under used by human beings. We first discovered it back in 2005 when we were planning to visit my friend Stan up in Bend, Oregon. The idea was to head north out of Grand Junction, Colorado straight up the western edge through Flaming Gorge and on up into Wyoming. From there we would skirt across the southern half of Idaho, a state I was woefully unfamiliar with.

I had no idea where we could camp as we got near the southwestern corner but I wanted to be somewhere near the Snake River. A little googling of the Idaho State Park system brought up a photo of some large mountains of sand looming over a small marshy lake. Seemed like it might be a hidden gem so I booked a campsite…or rather a camping cabin which is basically a small roofed structure with a bunk bed, table, heater, and electricity. Water is from a nearby pump and cooking can be done at a picnic table or fire ring just beyond the covered porch from which an expansive view of the dunes can be enjoyed. Within the campground itself is a large centrally located restroom complete with hot showers! But there are clean pit toilets along the fringes for the less picky.

When we returned there last month for a one night stay we were greeted by a large gopher snake slithering across the porch. Rain appeared imminent so the covered cabin was a welcome amenity. The rest of the campground was virtually empty. Once settled in, we got out to see the very large dune fields which rise in grayish brown hummocks along one edge of a small valley. It didn’t take long to see numerous birds coming and going from the natural lake at the base of the dunes. In a few minutes time we saw curlews, northern harriers, killdeer and several ducks. A great blue heron rose from the shallows in front of us. My daughter Lindsay climbed to the top of the nearest dune.

Meanwhile we were surrounded by the vast volcanic tablelands and low, heavy skies of the Snake River country. I watched clouds climbing over distant mesas as they darkened and spread our way. But it remained dry long enough for us to prepare a typical camping dinner outside. The rain came later when we were safely ensconced inside the cabin and the sound of the light downpour was particularly soothing.

The following morning dawned clean and clear and we quickly cleaned up our site and were soon on our way. But we will likely return to Bruneau Dunes whenever our travels take us through southern Idaho. For those of you intrigued enough by my rhapsodic waxing, I include a link to the State Park site. Check it out. I don't think you will be disappointed.

http://parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/bruneaudunesstatepark.aspx

Sunday, July 3, 2011

You Can Never Go Home

The little house on Almond Avenue was a quiet and welcome sanctuary when I most needed one. I rented it when I first moved to Redding, California in 1988 coming off the heels of an acrimonious divorce and a failed love affair. Clinging to a hillside on the west end of town, the 700’ square foot bungalow had probably seen better days in a neighborhood now shabby around the edges. But it boasted a full basement where I could set up a darkroom, a roomy rear deck with a great view of Mount Lassen to the east, and a chunk of open space across the street under the flyway of Benton Air Field.

It had been built in 1938 by a man who, at the time, was working to complete the nearby Shasta Dam. Its simple clapboard construction housed two small bedrooms, a narrow kitchen with a breakfast nook, a living room with a fireplace, and a bathroom so tiny that one could barely avoid stepping into the toilet bowl when exiting the shower. The detached one-car garage had long ago been converted into a small studio apartment which I eventually sublet to a single mom. For a now-single park ranger it was a perfect setup.

The house was also conveniently located only six miles from Whiskeytown Lake where I worked as the Chief of Interpretive Services for the National Park Service. It was there that I met my future spouse Amy. By the spring of 1989 we had meshed our lifestyles together in the Almond Avenue house buying antique furniture and bookshelves for the interior and struggling to grow a garden on the exterior. We had one bedroom fixed up for my daughter Alison’s monthly visits. On the Fourth of July we could sit on the wooden deck and watch the Redding fireworks show in the valley below. And in the fall of 1991, we crammed our friends and relatives inside for our wedding reception.

Eventually we bought the house and spent three more years enjoying its simple pleasures and filling it with our own. Time and circumstance finally stepped in and moved us to a larger home in Redding and, not long after that, an even larger place in Northern New Mexico. But over the years we kept in touch with the old house, driving by it whenever we were in Redding and noting with approval the changes made by its current tenants. Until the last visit…

We pulled up to the Almond Avenue residence last month to find it boarded up and empty. The garden was dry and neglected. A notice on the window warned us to stay away. When I looked through it into the living room, I could see that the once wood-paneled walls were now painted purple. In the back of the house, the collapsing rear deck was cordoned off with yellow tape. Graffiti was sprayed on its railings. We wandered around the place in a state of shock.

In a matter of minutes a neighbor poked his head over the fence. We introduced ourselves and asked what the hell had happened to our former home, and he obligingly filled us in. Seems like the last resident was a 17-year old cocaine addict who had been illegally leasing the house from his mom. A few weeks earlier there had been a wild party with over forty people running around and trashing the place. Now the house was in foreclosure. “You could probably pick it up for 25 grand if you wanted to”, he said. But why would we ever want to?

I always figured that if you put enough love and energy into a place, the good vibes would somehow live on within its walls and rooms. That the “better angels of our nature” would somehow imbue successive residents with the will and obligation to carry on the good work of sustaining an aura of quaintness and caring. But this is just the hopeless conceit of a man who values a house as a home. The little house on Almond Avenue was the right place for the right time, and now that time has passed. Until, perhaps, someone comes along who will feel its history, see its potential, and allow it to nurture and protect them as it did for me so many years ago.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Geology of Youth (Sulfur Creek - 30 Years Later)



Capitol Reef is a geologic uplift that rises like a Great Wall through south central Utah. Running from north to south, its sandstone massif creates a formidable barrier of cliffs, canyons, domes and mesas referred to as the “Waterpocket Fold”. With its variegated ramparts, colorful gorges, and stone arches and chimneys, it more than merits its national park status.

Sulfur Creek briefly breaks free of its canyon confines near the park visitor center, flows under Utah Highway 24, then disappears into another maze of canyons just east of the road. I had not hiked along the creek since spring of 1981 but last week I had an opportunity to do so once again. I wanted to see if I could relocate a small waterfall that I had remembered from my past peregrinations in the area.

I grabbed my camera and walking stick and quickly gave the slip to several dozen Japanese tourists in and around the visitor center. I dropped into the creek bed a mere hundred yards away and immediately left humanity behind me. A brisk flow of crystal clear water was coursing through the red-walled canyon, forcing me to cross and re-cross the stream at regular intervals.

The physical landscape had changed little over the years, unlike the geography of my own aging body, full of dull aches under the skin and taking more tentative steps from rock to rock. My arthritic hands strained to hold fast to my walking stick. I grunted inadvertently each time I stooped to photograph a wildflower. More so when I tried to stand up again.

But those feelings were soon sublimated to the beauty of the canyon and by the vestiges of youth trying to reclaim my body as I drank in that golden plateau light, the spring green bursting from the undergrowth, and the magical sound of desert water. I was remembering that trip with Cindy so long ago when the two of us vagabonded for a week through the canyon country catching an unusual aurora borealis display over Arches National Park, getting caught in a rainstorm in the backcountry of Canyonlands, drinking pure water bubbling from the earth in Little Spring Canyon, and squeezing in this one last little walk in Sulfur Creek.

We were ultimately stymied at the waterfall I was now trying to relocate. Much of the canyon was still in shadow under great overhangs and alcoves. Penstemon and primrose were in bloom. And I continued my creek hopping, untroubled by human noise or presence. And in this particular case, my memory served me well.

After about half a mile I found my waterfall, cascading with a seasonal exuberance out from its sculpted bed into a broad shallow pool before pouring with renewed clarity into the main stream. I paused there by a small cottonwood tree, removed my pack, and sat down by the water’s edge.

Serenaded by the racing current, I snacked on a tangerine and a power bar, and reveled in my isolation with nature and my ability to still reach these places from my past. How much longer before that reaching is limited to mind and memory?

I sat by the waterfall in Sulfur Creek, one lone figure assailed by time in a timeless landscape, remembering those more mobile, pain-free days full of freedom and passion. And I was eternally grateful for the opportunity to return here where I could stitch my present life to the past.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Memories of Marmaras

In the 1950s, George and Thianna Marmaras operated a produce stand on Highway 99 just north of Turlock, California. Those were the days before the highway morphed into a freeway destroying all the small farms and businesses in its path; before Interstate 5 opened up to the west to steal away commercial traffic; before Modesto, Tracy and Turlock became bedroom communities to feed the insatiable growth of the Silicon Valley; and when the Southern Pacific still ran steam engines on its Central Valley lines. Those were the days when I was still spending portions of my summers with the old Greeks in the San Joaquin Valley.

George Marmaras was already in his 70s when I knew him, a wiry little man with white hair and the dark, wrinkled skin of a farmer. His wife Thianna was a typically large, matronly woman who always wore loose cotton dresses, kept her hair in a bun and, retrospectively, reminded me of a cross between Golda Meir and Eleanor Roosevelt . She didn’t speak English as well as George but well enough to serve the occasional customer who would stop at their ramshackle stand. Both of them had been long time friends of my grandparents and, along with several other Greek families, lived within a few miles of their house.

We referred to our grandparents place as “the Farm” but it really wasn’t one in the true sense as there was no livestock or outbuildings…only acres of vineyards and peach orchard. But the Marmaras place really did seem farm-like to me. They had chickens, dogs, a goat, and great big barn. Their residence, however, was pretty tiny, even to a 10-year old boy like myself. It was a simple wood house, built in the 1920s perhaps and probably no more than 700 square feet in area. And it smelled of old wool, pleasant must and coffee.

My grandparents would always take us “visiting” to the Marmaras place at least once during the summer, usually late in the afternoon when the oppressive valley heat was starting to abate. While it was still daylight, the old folks would sit outside in the shade of an umbrella tree, eating fresh-picked grapes and watermelon and talking the melodic language of my ancestors while I explored the grounds. The Marmaras goat was confined to a small enclosure but would come close enough for me to feed it pieces of paper or any other garbage that I could find. As darkness settled in, the moths and the toads would come out and the night air would come alive with the sound of crickets and frogs.

That was when the old Greeks retired into the little house. Thianna would brew up thick Turkish coffee in a small brass pot and serve its silty residue in small cups. There would be plenty of baklava and kolouthia for dessert. The women folk (there were usually other Greek neighbors visiting as well like the Christodoulis family from nearby Keyes) gathered in the small living room and knitted and talked, knitted and talked. I never knew what about but I imagine the conversation was laced with lots of gossip and news from the old country. Meanwhile, the men sat around a small table just off of the kitchen playing loud hands of pinochle. Some of them kept their hats on the whole time, and cigarette smoke filled the room. A big jug of Cribari was always nearby.

Usually by 10pm, the last cup of coffee had been served and the pinochle game was ended, and my grandparents and I would say our goodbyes on the tiny porch and slip away into the starry valley night. Looking back now, it seems like such a faraway time, simple and uncomplicated, etched deeply into memory. How many pieces of that farm have affected my life? My love of the heat? The wide open spaces? The attachment to ramshackle buildings? Who can say. By the mid-1960s, the Marmaras farm was gone along with George and Thianna whose warmth and good humor will live on whenever I revisit those boyhood summers of the mind.