Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

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.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Dancing With Sally Reynolds

The band is playing loudly in Bart Nelson’s backyard.  Caught up in the bizarre giddiness of my 50th high school reunion, I find myself getting up to dance, swirling wildly and erratically with fellow classmates from 1965 and earlier. I am transported back to one of the very first times I attempted to dance socially with anyone.

From an old brown file folder long stashed away I recently exhumed a crudely mimeographed “survey” sheet from my eighth grade days at Covington Junior High School.  I can no longer remember the purpose or reason behind the simple missive that queried me about my “favorite subject” and “favorite teacher”, but the odd question that caught my eye simply said “Favorite Dance Partner” followed by a short purple line on which I had written in pencil “Sally Reynolds”.

Covington was one of many shoebox-architecture schools that dotted the San Francisco peninsula in the mid-50s.  It was stylish back then to build these low slung, flat-topped, pastel painted institutions to accommodate a burgeoning baby boomer populace.  Covington was located in the semi-bucolic and affluent community of Los Altos on a quiet, pepper tree lined street with no sidewalks.  And it had the added cachet of having a swimming pool and a huge playground and cafeteria.

 Several times a year the cafeteria became a dance floor where we awkwardly shuffled in our stocking feet to songs like “You Were Mine” by the Fireflies and Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head On My Shoulder”.  I remember that last song in particular because I danced to it with Sally Reynolds.  Sally lived just a few blocks away from me and we rode the same bus to school every day.  I wouldn’t say we were friends because at the time I was so socially retarded I couldn’t possibly talk comfortably with a girl my own age, especially one as cute as Sally.  Oh yes, she had dark eyes, dishwater blonde hair cut pageboy style, and a perpetual California tan.  And almost always, a dazzling smile.

These attributes alone were enough to endear her to nearly everyone, and to include her in that intimidating echelon of seemingly unattainable cheerleader/pom pom girl types that kept boys like me at bay. But Sally was always friendly and had an easy charm about her that made her accessible even to a bumbling thirteen year old like myself.  It didn’t matter much at the time anyway because the boys hung out with the boys and the girls hung out with the girls, and the genders mixed only on rare occasions…like the infrequent dances in the Covington cafeteria.

These dance events were almost always held in the late afternoon.  There were no thematic decorations or frills.  Just a phonograph and PA system.  With boys on one side of the room and girls on the other.  I believe these affairs were probably held as an attempt to socialize all of us and make us feel more comfortable with members of the opposite sex. But for me, they were uncomfortable at best and usually did nothing more than magnify my inadequacies and anxieties.

I am speaking mostly for myself here as there were always the boys who had no trouble at all asking a girl to dance, and unashamedly sliding out on the shiny floor.  But I wasn’t one of them.  For me, the walk from one side of the cafeteria to the other was a painful one, and there were very few girls I could muster up the courage to ask for a dance.  But Sally was one of them.  She willingly endured my inept attempts at the fox trot.  She was soft and sweet and never said a word.  So perhaps that is why she made the list as my “favorite dance partner”.

Once we got into high school the lines were more clearly drawn and I only saw Sally in the hallway or sharing an occasional class.  Which was all well and good because I never had that intense and painful longing for her that I would feel with other women.  She was the neighbor girl with the dark tan and the winning smile.  And beauty that would never go to her head.

At the ten-year reunion for the Los Altos High School Class of ’65 Sally was sadly absent.  Apparently, just a few years before, she had died in a car that was hit by a railroad train. And after my initial shock, I wouldn’t have given it much more thought but for the fact that I remembered those quiet little moments we shared on the dance floor at Covington Junior High.  Such a small and ephemeral thing that seems to take on more meaning as I grow older. 

It is over fifty years later and I am still awkwardly moving to the music that punctuates this summer night.   But I can still remember dancing with Sally Reynolds in that sunny, innocent time during JFKs Camelot, before the wars in southeast Asia erupted, before the dot.coms overwhelmed the valley and turned it from Santa Clara into Silicon.  Paul Anka is singing from a 45rpm record and I have my hand around Sally’s waist  The late spring sun is streaming into the cafeteria and I am experiencing for the very first time those little pangs of romance that will soon take me places I have never been before.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

April Come She Will

April is a hard edged month on the Colorado Plateau, blowing in from the west just behind spring’s equinox.  After a high desert winter with the usual spate of below zero nights and grimy inversion layers in the valley, March regales us with longer days and brighter hopes.  In anticipation of irrigation, the neighbors gather with shovel and barrow for local ditch cleaning parties.  Freed from their burden of silt and debris, the cleared canals await the arrival of that first flush of thick water from the Colorado River.  Out in the gardens sprinklers are checked and hoses reinstated.  Barbecue grills are rolled out. Henleys are traded in for T-shirts. Garage sale ads abound. And trailhead parking lots are filled with optimistic hikers and bikers.
But before too long, the lion of early April nips at the heels of late March’s lamb.  Buffeting winds blow elm seeds into drifts along city streets.  The cut-off lows sneak in from the Pacific with surprising swiftness and sometimes snow.  Or one last pulse of polar air pushes down from the north wreaking havoc on the apricot and peach orchards.  And we dare not hike without “layering”.  Heavy shirts at the outset.  Maybe parkas.  Stripped down to tees as soon as the sun breaks through.  Then back to fleece and flannel when the sudden snow flurry blows through. And maybe back to short sleeves before we get back to the car.
This then is the enigma of spring in the canyon country.  The red earth is not quite ready to relax.  The sky is still an unsettled miasma of ragged clouds.  And the incessant wind further shapes the sandstone, piling up little dunes along the base of cliffs and flinging grains of sand at the unsuspecting and unprepared.  Nature does her spring cleaning in a fast and fickle manner, trimming dead branches from the cottonwoods, distributing seeds and pollen, and sending errant tumbleweeds rolling across the open range.
But those of us who live here know what is coming.  We can see it in the early blooming twin pod and loco weed, in the first appearance of butterfly and lizard.  And in the slow rising of the Colorado River from the melting snow upstream.  Soon the covers will come off of the swamp coolers.  Cactus flowers will bloom.  The green on Grand Mesa will overtake the white.  And the rock will radiate that dry, dense heat that I can wrap myself into like a child.

Friday, February 20, 2015


In the final scene of the film Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles leaves the mortally wounded Rita Hayworth lying amid broken mirrors on the funhouse floor.  He walks outside into the dawn of San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach.  The camera follows him as he crosses the parking lot, panning past the Dodger Car ride, the midway entrance, and the Deluxe Café.  Orson continues walking toward the Great Highway and the Pacific Ocean as the closing credits cover the screen.

The year was 1947.  Welles had been struggling with Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn to get this film made.  Cohn was furious that Rita Hayworth had cut her hair short at Welle’s behest for the movie.  And the screenplay was so convoluted, no one could really figure it out.  Filming had started the previous October.  Now it was January and the project was wrapping up.

My mom and dad had been struggling too.  On the same day the climactic Funhouse scene was shot, my dad was working for his in-laws as a short order cook at the very same Deluxe Café.  He spent the day flipping burgers, dipping candied apples, and making milkshakes in what was then the typical Greek diner (as typified in the famous SNL skit with John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd).  He was about to become a father for the first time.  Meanwhile, my mom spent most of that day amid the crowd of onlookers across the street who were waiting for a glimpse of the great Orson Welles.  She often tells the story of how she and her friends waited for hours to get that one quick look at the man who was bringing Hollywood to Playland.

And I was there too, in a manner of speaking…curled up in my mother’s womb in my fifth month of existence.  And while I cannot say for sure that this event inspired me in any way as a future film student and rabid cinema-phile, it must have awakened some primal celluloid, sprocket hole, dream factory, fantasy escape mechanism that I carry with me to this day.  The love of film noir.  The comforting embrace of a darkened movie theater.  The joy of looking at all of those lost landscape locations like Playland at the Beach.

My last visit to Playland was on a foggy night in 1969 when I wandered down there from my flat on 38th avenue.  I was a stoned student with no money and a film can full of weed in my pocket.  And by this time a seedy element had taken over the area and the great amusements along the midway were already slated for demolition.  The Funhouse was abandoned.  The Deluxe Café was already gone.  And I got accosted on the beach that evening by two black kids who took the last of my weed.

But because of Orson Welles, I can always go back to that final scene in Lady From Shanghai.  I can watch him crossing the parking lot, think about my dad working hard at the Deluxe Café, and imagine my mom standing just out of camera range waiting for that moment of glamour and magic that would momentarily rekindle her dreams and invariably touch the unborn child within.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Serendipity at Work

By the late summer of 1970, I had reached the absolute nadir of my existence.  I was sharing a rundown house in Santa Cruz with an emotionally damaged woman.  I was living on mescaline and $26 a week in unemployment money.  And my friend Ed Robinson, who worked at the local natural food store, was bringing me damaged fruit and outdated bread to subsist on.  My collegiate dreams of becoming a film maker had long since been dashed.  I had no prospects for the future.  And my main source of transportation, a beat up old bicycle, was stolen one day when I was downtown.

One night in a drug-induced funk, I wrote a desperate letter to Pinnacles National Monument.  It was the one place I loved more than any other.  It was my getaway…my power spot.  And I thought perhaps some one there would take me on for a few weeks to clean the rest rooms and empty the trash cans. So I spilled my guts out on paper, waxing rhapsodically over how much I adored the high peaks and cliffs, and the smell of the chaparral.  When I came to my senses the next day, I was a little embarrassed by what I had written, but by then I had mailed off the letter.

As summer turned to fall, I admitted defeat and moved back in with my folks.  Over the next several months I embarked on a series of hitchhiking trips and aimless road journeys. But shortly after New Years Day, 1971, I got a phone call from the naturalist at Pinnacles National Monument.  My emotive letter had caught his eye and, well, he might have an opening for a seasonal park ranger.  Could I come down for an interview?

I cut off my long hair. My mother drove me the 90 miles to park headquarters.  I somehow convinced the naturalist that I was competent.  And within three weeks, I had a job in the place I loved the most.  The rest, as they say, is history.  But this was not the first nor certainly the last example of the power of serendipity in my life.

Four years later while on vacation in southeastern Utah, I somewhat facetiously asked the campground ranger at Canyonlands National Park if they might ever have an opening there for a seasonal job.  He replied that a position had just come open and I could pick up an application on my way out.  Four weeks later, I was moving all my worldly possessions into a spacious mobile home in the Needles District of Canyonlands.

In 1987 I was left alone in Phoenix, Arizona when my wife and I separated and she and my daughter Alison moved to Northern California.  For the next several months, all I could think about was how I could move there myself without leaving the Park Service.  When I called the chief interpreter at Whiskeytown Lake one day looking for some slides of the place, he told me how much he’d love to have my job.  Within weeks we had arranged a job swap and I was on my way to Redding, California - just a few hours away from my daughter and the place where I would ultimately find my enduring love and current spouse.

Time and again, when I’ve felt powerless or helpless, fate has stepped in and given me a nudge.  In the late 90s when it looked like my Park Service career would be scuttled by a venal and vindictive boss, I got a last minute job offer from the Bureau of Land Management which set me on a path as a land manager of some of the finest resources on the Colorado Plateau.

I remember going to job fairs at elementary and high schools and having kids approach me to ask me how I ended up on my career path.  And I would have to be honest and say that I was just damn lucky.  That the universe had other ideas for all my best laid plans.  But also, that it helped immensely to have a broad based education, and the support of family and friends who never gave up their faith in my passions and abilities even when I myself would waver.