Colorado

It was not yet dawn on that late June day in 1984 when we pulled back on I-40 and would soon be leaving Kansas. We were driving a Dodge rental truck full of my junk and pulling a ‘73 VW bus that contained more of my junk. After having lived in Topeka for two years, I was happily heading back to the Pacific Northwest, specifically Portland, Oregon. My friend Dan, who lived in Washington had eventually grown tired of my whining and agreed to help me move, and so far, he’d begun to regret the decision. The trip had begun with a couple of small problems. First we got a late start after some confounding issues with a hitch, and second, I had managed to lose the truck keys before we even ended the first day of travel. Although we’d eventually figured out the hitch and I had found the keys, Dan was less than thrilled to be involved in this adventure. But, with the start of a new day, he had decided to keep his misgivings to himself.

It had rained during the night, but the clouds had moved on east and the world looked fresh and green as we crossed into Colorado. Surprisingly, the landscape did not change and this part of the state looked just as flat as Kansas. Dorothy would have felt very much at home. The lush verdant of the early morning prairie soon lost its appeal as the hot sun of June dulled the sheen of the early day.

However, after a few hours of driving west the horizon began to change dramatically. The mountains slowly became visible; and after the monotonous plains the rugged, sharp landscape in front of us presented an exciting image. We would soon be up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

But first, we had to get through Denver.

Fortunately it was mid-day as we joined the traffic of the Mile High City, but we we became a little nervous as the highway kept adding lanes while cars and trucks around us kept going faster. Several drivers came up behind the truck and flashed their bright lights with impatience as we tried to steer our way through the city.

I was tempted to speed up, but the bus tended to fishtail if our speed climbed above fifty miles per hour. While I gripped the steering wheel harder, Dan looked at the now-ragged map, trying to keep us on I-70. The Interstate route was not easy to follow as the green signs frequently had destinations of cities and parks without noting what highway we were on. Dan cursed freely as we got herded off onto an exit that led us into an industrial area by large semis that had drivers who obviously had anger problems. A small, slow truck pulling a VW bus did not belong on their streets.

Eventually with Dan alternately wildly pointing at a street that looked like it might lead back to the Interstate, grabbing at the dashboard in terror or cursing at the trucks surrounding us we somehow found our way back to I-70 going west toward the Eisenhower Tunnel and up into the mountains.

It was steep going, but, on the map it looked like the quickest way through the Rockies rather than going the longer route up through Boulder and on through Wyoming. But the grade turned out to be too much for the truck.

We had only gone maybe twenty miles out of Denver, driving with less frantic traffic than earlier, going our top speed of 50 mph uphill when the truck’s engine started acting peculiar. It would be running smoothly and then do something like a hiccup and burp. Then it would continue to run normal for a mile. Then the hiccups turned into something more ominous, a long tortuous gagging sound, like a person might make just before vomiting.

Dan was also making noises, hissing and grumbling each time the motor faltered. He pointed at several possible exits off the Interstate, but I was too slow to turn off. He was ready to yank the steering wheel away from me, but I explained in a loud voice that I was turning into a rest area that I’d spotted. In a louder voice he pointed out that it was not a rest area where we were going, it was just a viewpoint where travelers could look at the majesty of the Rocky Mountains (as well as the smog above Denver).

He was right. It was just a small parking area off the highway where tourists could get out, stretch, take a few photos and then leave. There was no phone booth or even a toilet. Other than a couple of men standing next to their cars, one a beat up old Ford, the other a new BMW sedan. We were alone. The two guys were obviously concluding a drug deal, furtively exchanging cash for a small, clear, plastic bag containing something that looked like salt or baking soda.

By this time our truck’s engine had stopped running. My efforts to start it were futile as I cranked the starter. We could smell gas and agreed the engine was likely flooded but disagreed how to fix the problem. Dan wanted to wait a few minutes and try the starter again. My idea was to place a screw driver into the throat of the carburetor, holding the vanes open, allowing the gasoline fumes to disperse.

The truck’s motor was basically under the cab, and access to it was a metal cover between the seats. After releasing a few clamps and lifting the cover the engine was immediately visible. Dan was dubious and decided that he would watch the procedure from outside the truck, not trusting my ability as a mechanic. He stood with the passenger door open and muttered as I removed the cover off the engine.

It all looked familiar to me as I removed the air filter from the top of the carburetor and handed to Dan. He took the piece and stood back a little further. Not having a screwdriver I rummaged around in the glove box and found an old ballpoint and asked Dan to hold in the throat of the carb while I turned the engine.

After he flatly refused to help me with this simple task I found a piece of wire that I wound around the pen and shoved it into place. Then I turned the key of the ignition.

A large poof followed by a flame that thankfully extinguished itself as the engine roared to life. I admitted to Dan that I was not expecting the small explosion, but, I pointed out, the truck was now running.

Dan was not as impressed, and in fact it took a lot of apologies and convincing to get him back into the truck even after the air filter and motor cover were safely back in place. Still, it seemed prudent to have the truck looked at by a mechanic before continuing on up over the mountains. Something that fixes itself will eventually break itself.

We carefully chugged up the Interstate until we found an interchange where we could turn around. As we started back down toward Denver, we looked for a place that had a pay phone (cell phones were still only in the comics as Dick Tracy’s “two-way wrist radio.”) At the same time we saw a green sign that indicated that a restaurant and facilities were just ahead.

The engine started sputtering again as we pulled into the parking lot of a trendy little place in the woods where tourists and locals gathered with a bar connected to a restaurant. I found the rental papers with an emergency number and went inside where I found a telephone booth just inside the entrance. I dialed the number listed on the papers while Dan headed toward the bar.

The person that answered the phone was very friendly and said that the company valued my business and that an agent would be on the line shortly. I waited for several minutes while listening to jarring, loud music from an oldies station. Eventually somebody interrupted the noise with a raspy voice that was intermittent with static.

“Buzz, buzz -lo, this is buzz buzz, how can I help you?”

I tried to gather my thoughts and then babbled on about my predicament for several minutes. A few long seconds went by and the only thing I could hear was another conversation that seemed to be in a foreign language.

I asked if there was anyone there. The answer was now so loud that I had to hold the phone away from my ear. The voice wanted to know where I was calling from. I had no idea, but I explained that I was not far from Denver.

The voice loudly asked what state I was in.

I longed to join Dan in the bar where I could see him wiping foam off his mustache.

After the voice and I shouted back and forth for five minutes, the voice told me to call back in twenty minutes while someone would look for a repair facility close to where we were.

I took the opportunity to go to the bar and explain to Dan what the situation was, and all in all, he took it well. I realized that he’d had more than one beer and was probably on his fourth while he chatted happily with his new friends who were from California and Illinois.

It was necessary to call back twice, but after almost an hour, someone (a woman with an English accent) gave me the address of a repair place with whom the rental company had a contract. The garage was in the middle of Denver, but, she explained, I could go back to the rental agency in Topeka and return the truck for another, if I wished.

After a nightmare of a drive in the early rush hour with the motor threatening to stall at any time, we eventually found the shop just before they closed for the day. The guy at the desk looked as if he bathed in grease and chain smoked Camels as he guessed at what might be causing the problem with the truck. He suspected that the carburetor was sticky and that they should have it fixed by ten the next morning.

There was nothing to be done but to disconnect the bus from the truck while wondering if we could ever figure out to get the complicated hitch back on again. It had taken hours to do the hook up in Kansas and the frustration had almost caused me to break into tears. But with a lot of cursing, sweat and bruised knuckles, we’d eventually found the solution. Hopefully the miracle would repeat itself in the morning.

We found a motel that didn’t look terribly diseased and checked in. The young Vietnamese woman at the desk accepted my credit card without a word and handed us a key. She pointed to the stairway and said, “Your room on floor two.” And as we turned away she added, “No smoke.”

Of course, when we opened the door to the room, it smelled like the place had been occupied for weeks by someone who had a four-pack-a-day habit. I went back to the desk and asked if there was another room. The woman looked at me for a moment and frowned.

“No, no. All full up. Very nice room.”

Later, after returning from the nearby Taco Bell and watching Bonanza in black and white, we noticed that the room was getting quite chilly. There did not seem to be a thermostat or heat control any where. But the room was steadily getting colder. So, I picked up the telephone and called the desk, wondering if the heat could be turned on.

“Oh no. Only air conditioner,” was the answer.

Our evening was completed by finding the shower temperature was barely tepid and the stool could not be flush except by reaching into the tank for a slimy piece of string and pulling the valve open.

Dan said that he would pick the next night’s accommodations.

Leaving Kansas

As the afternoon wore on and long shadows fell over us, the novelty of the puzzle began to wear off. The hitch that would connect the ‘73 VW Westphalia Camper to the rental truck seemed to be designed by someone with severe psychosis. The device looked more like something to restrain a large animal, sort of like the hobbles we put on milk cows when I was a kid to prevent being kicked while hand milking into a pail. The hitch was a tangled mess of chains and clamps, and it came without instructions.

Dan, a friend from RT school, had traveled from Washington State to Topeka, Kansas to help me move to Oregon, and he was running out of patience. We’d expected to be out of town with my belongs stuffed into the truck and bus around noon, but we were still screwing around with the hitch problem. My neighbors had gathered around to give suggestions earlier, but they’d lost interest hours ago. Plus they’d also become offended at our cursing and use of obscene language as if words would somehow magically cause our problem to be solved.

But it was sort of a miracle when suddenly it became obvious how the attachment worked. Clank, rattle, click—and the bus was hooked up to the truck. After a short break to wash the rust, dirt, grease and blood off our hands, we climbed into the truck and headed west on I-70 toward Denver.

Except for the hills and valleys, on the east edge of Kansas where the topography is formed by the Missouri River, the landscape of the state is monotonous, flat as a billiards table. The only relief to the mind-dulling view is an occasional town where there are always three objects that stick out of the prairie: the steeple of a Catholic church, a grain elevator, and a water tower. So riding along a highway while staring into the late afternoon light with nothing along the road other than corn or soybeans is less than exhilarating. But, what are friends for?

The sun had just about disappeared below the line between the flat dirt of Kansas and the hot, white sky when we pulled off the Interstate to stop for the night. The motel was one of the ubiquitous chains that spring up out of nowhere next to a highway interchange. It was at that point that I noticed that the rental truck had two ignition keys, but they were on a small fob with a metal cable that would not allow a key to be removed. [Actually, I’ve noticed that all rental vehicles are like this. They come with two keys that can’t be separated. What is the point?] I became a little nervous. What if I lost the key and there was no spare?

After checking into the motel, we walked to a nearby restaurant that had a sign that promised “authentic, homemade Mexican food.” We were pleased to find a cuisine that we appreciated and entered the place with expectations of hot tamales and retried beans. The place seemed dark after facing the sun for so many hours, and the air conditioning was obviously on its highest setting. A young woman who looked as if she might have a Mexican heritage led us to a booth near the bar. There were neon signs that had Tecate, Modelo and, of course, Bud Light. The woman told us, in a definite non-HIspanic English, that our server would be with us soon.

It turned out that the restaurant was owned by a Pakistani family, and while the food was homemade and hot, it lacked the authenticity that was advertised outside. The retried beans were coarse and the picante sauce had a little taste of curry. The beer, at least, was cold and Mexican.

I was hungry and wolfed my food down while Dan drank his beer and ordered another. He stared at me and shook his head, his plate hardly touched.

“What?” I asked, wiping the strange, brown hot sauce from my lips.

“How can you eat that shit?” he asked with a frown of disgust on his face.

“I was hungry,” I righteously explained. “Aren’t you going to eat?”

He said nothing, but ordered another beer.

Dan has standards.

We finished our beers and I paid at the counter.

It was dark when we exited the restaurant and walked toward the motel. But first we stopped at the truck to get our packs out of the cab. When I reached into my pants pocket I found some coins and a screw, but no keys. My other pockets revealed a billfold, more change, a pocket knife, a filthy handkerchief but no keys. I looked foolishly, but with hope toward Dan.

He looked back at me, blankly, and then it hit him.

“You’ve lost the god damn keys, haven’t you? I saw you looking at them when we got out, and I knew it. You might have just said right then, ‘I’m going to lose these keys.’”

I had to admit it. He had a point, and I’d only had two beers.

We peered into the cab, trying to see if the keys were in the ignition. It was dark, but it didn’t look as if they were there. They weren’t on the seat, but we couldn’t see the floor. We went into the motel room and searched around the beds and in the bathroom. No keys

I was now convinced that the keys were on the floor of the truck and went back into the parking lot to look for a stone or something to break the side window of the rental. But Dan, being of the sounder mind, suggested that we retrace our steps on the chance that the keys dropped out of my pocket.

The glow from the street lights of the parking lot gave enough light so that we could see as we slowly went back toward the restaurant. I was temporarily elated when I found something that looked like keys, but it turned out to be a woman’s hair clasp that had been run over several times.

Dan sighed and said he was going to have another beer, and after a moment I followed. I decided that I was going to have several beers.

We stood for a few minutes, getting used to the dark light, then we headed straight for the bar. As we passed the cashier’s counter I happened to glance at a small bowl filled with matches. Nestled among the booklets I spied something other than matches. It was the key fob.

Missoula, Montana

Missoula, Montana.

When snow flakes drift down from the sky and slowly build up on the fence, creating a pure white topping on the brown wooden fence, I normally feel a peaceful sense of appreciation for nature’s art. Usually the snow covers the dry, yellow grass of Fall, the gray of the sidewalk and gives the world a feeling of purity and cleanliness. There is a feeling that the earth is preparing to sleep, gain a bit of rest before arising with energy for a new year.

Today, September 29, the snow is falling on green grass, on flowers that have yet to go to seed, on leaves that have not turned into Autumn’s gold, brown and red. The snow that is coming down brings me sadness and fear. But, perhaps I am being foolish and becoming pessimistic with my advancing years.

Still, I get a feeling that we are burying our collective head in the hot sand of climate change while telling each other that this record cold in September is a random, once-in-a-century turn of events. The snow will soon melt and the season will return to its normal, mild change as the days get shorter.

Will we look at the disappearance of 30% of our grassland birds and shrug our shoulders while saying, “Isn’t that strange?”

The sea life is dying, and the earth’s lungs, the Brazilian rain forest is being burnt to make room for more toxic agriculture that uses petrochemical fertilizer to grow crops that are unnatural and foreign to the tropics. Greenland’s ice is melting into the sea. Last summer was the hottest on record, ever. Hurricanes become ever stronger and more frequent while spawning devastating storms inland.

Isn’t that strange?

The children of the world have taken notice and have left their classrooms to gather on the streets to protest the adults’ ignorance and lack of concern for the welfare of the earth. The leaders of the world, and the parents of the children, smile and give lip service to the young ones. Some of the adults even agree to make resolutions, even go so far as to declare an emergency.

No one with any power takes action.

Meanwhile, I hypocritically drive to the gym in my gas guzzler Jeep that releases heat and carbon dioxide into the air. I think about camping trips into the mountains while pulling a trailer that reduces the fuel efficiency of the vehicle to half. I think about a flight overseas in a jet that blasts heat and poison into the sky.

I think about snow falling on green grass, flowers and summer leaves.

Adventures in Lodging

Having decided to stay in Olympia for two nights and wanting to avoid any motels or hotels, I went with Airbnb  which, in my experience, has consistently provided choices of lodging that are much more homey and less expensive than motel style accommodations.

After spending an hour or so on line, I found a very sweet looking booking in Olympia that had a photo of a one room cabin. The accoutrements included a bathroom and shower, but the real draw for me was the price: $35 per night.

Well, of course, I was a bit suspicious, but there was also a photo of the interior of the cabin that made it look very inviting and the references, while less than glowing, were very encouraging. So, I sent in my request to book. After all, it wasn’t as if I were going to spend a lot of time in my room. It was just a place to sleep.

Within minutes of my application, I received a message that I had a place to stay in Olympia. My host and I exchanged a few e-mails that built confidence between us.

When I arrived in Olympia I quite easily found the Airbnb rental, and the cabin (really a converted shed) looked quite nice, very comfortable. The inside was warm and quiet and well appointed with easy chairs, lamps, a counter with water, tea bags, and an electric kettle. The bed was basically a metal cot, but the mattress made it into a very decent bed.

However, as I looked around, I did not see bathroom facilities. Then I remembered that there was a second door to the shed and went out to check to see if the other room was a toilet, but it turned out to have yard and garden equipment inside.

My host came out to see how I was settling in and told me that the house across the yard from my shed would be unlocked and I could use the bathroom on the second floor. That meant, I later discovered, that when I wanted to take care of my ablutions, I walked out of my shed, across the yard, over the back deck, through the kitchen, past the living room, up the stairs, and down the hall before arriving at the bathroom. And, it was a shared one.

Lucky for me, the yard was dark at night.

                                                      Shack

After my stay in Olympia I drove down to the Portland area where I had reserved a room through Expedia in Vancouver to stay overnight in a Motel 6. The website (Expedia, not Motel 6) advised me to hurry and reserve a room as there were only two left for the Thursday night I wanted. When I arrived at the motel, the clerk seemed to be unaware of my reservation, but she asked if I wanted smoking or non-smoking. When I gave my preference, the non-smoking, she asked if I wanted a first or second floor room. Queen or king bed? The choices seemed endless and there were, in spite of the urgency that Expedia suggested, plenty of rooms left.

After I’d checked in and was taking my bag up to my room, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of people wandering around the parking area. People that did not fit a middle class portrait, and, if I were to be judgmental, I might say that these folks looked like they were looking for a drug deal. And, these possible peddlers and users weren’t just around the Motel 6, but I could see a similar lot lurching and stumbling through the properties of Best Western, Comfort Inn, and other chain motels that usually are pretty straight. It was middle afternoon, yet there were people sleeping on the lawns and in doorways. 

I went out for a bit to check out the Columbia Gorge by crossing the river and driving east on Marine Drive. It is always a delight to follow the road that, other than a few marinas and house boats, has an unobstructed view of the Columbia and of a spectacular Mt. Hood with its crown of snow. Unlike the summertime, in April it is still too cold to put many sport or fishing boats in the water, and, in fact, when I stopped at a park to watch the river, there was not one boat to be seen or heard. Other than a bit of traffic on Marine Drive, there was no sound other than a few geese, gulls and ducks.

Next, I drove to Sellwood, where we used to live, and found it in the full flowering of spring. Since spring was still a month behind in Montana, I strolled around snapping photos of tulips, daisies, and fruit trees as well as blossoms that I could not identify. With the technology of my cell phone I was able to share these sights with Sheila and possibly make her envious.

Coming back to my accommodations, this is what I found blocking my way into the parking lot:

Motel6

After I managed to squeeze the Subaru through the police presence, I joined the gawking crowd outside the motel and waited for something to give me a clue what was happening. I joked to a couple that having all the cops around made me feel safe. The woman snarled at me using the most unladylike, but picturesque description of the law enforcement officers. It was apparent that she did not find the remark funny and did not feel that safe around the police.

Her partner did not respond. His half closed eyes were pretty red, and he seemed to keep his hand on the woman’s shoulder for balance.

An emergency vehicle’s siren could be heard getting progressively louder, and soon the ambulance lights, red and white, flashed dramatically as the vehicle raced down the Interstate. There was little doubt of its destination and more folks stumbled over to the parking lot while the police made a feeble effort to keep them out of the way. It began to seem as though the cops were gathered more for their own entertainment than law enforcement.

After the ambulance driver nudged the vehicle through the ever-increasing crowd, the EMTs pulled out a gurney and advanced toward a room on first floor in the rear of the motel. After a short period of time, less than half an hour, they came back out wheeling an unconscious young man. Everyone came to the same conclusion: he should have just said no.

Of course there were a number of folks that were ready to say, “yes, I’ll have some of that.”

I did not sleep well that night.

Spring Break

In the middle of April I took a trip by myself to visit some friends who were staying in Olympia, Washington, for a few days. At the same time I decided to visit another friend who lives just outside of Elma, Washington, an unpleasant little town between Olympia and Aberdeen—a really crappy town. One might wonder why my friend lives where he does, but if you knew him, you would understand. He is a solitary sort of fellow who rarely leaves his house other than to drive to a store for cheap beer.

I flew from Missoula to Seattle where I’d reserved a car at the Dollar agency through the Expedia website, and it was a pretty good deal. For something like $40 a day I would have a small little compact that would hold at least two pieces of luggage plus a passenger. I could drive it to Olympia, Elma and then to Portland where I would pick up my daughter Erika. We would go to the Oregon beach for a couple of days, and then I could leave the car off at the Portland airport. From there I would fly back to Missoula.

The friendly clerk at Dollar, who spoke excellent English with an exotic Latin accent, had something else in mind. He completely ignored my reservation and told me that I could have a car similar to what I’d rented a year ago when another guy talked me into renting a Toyota Highlander. He seemed not to understand me when I said that I wanted the car that I’d reserved through Expedia. He merely frowned and asked me where I was going.

I reminded him that I was leaving the car at the Dollar agency at the Portland airport.

“Portland!?” he exploded. “Well, you need something comfortable to take on the Interstate. We have a nice Lincoln available. You can drive all over with that and never get tired.” He showed me a picture of a huge sedan on his computer. “It’s new,” he said, looking around as if he were engaging me in a conspiracy. “Only 20 thousand miles.”

His mustachioed smile turned into bushy eyebrowed frown, and he seemed worried for me when I said that I wanted the compact that I’d reserved (hadn’t I reserved one?). He seemed to suggest that someone of my age might perish in something as small as a compact. He appeared to be completely unaware of the line behind me where people began to glare at me.

I sensed that they were impatient with the old guy with the white beard who probably didn’t understand the rental procedure and most likely shouldn’t be driving anyway.

The agent showed me three more vehicles before I finally caved and agreed to rent a style of Subaru that had a sporty name something like Crossbow or Superdog.

But that wasn’t enough for Ronaldo (the name on his airport ID) as then we had to discuss insurance, several varieties going from the simplest where I wouldn’t be liable for scratches to the premium where I could total my rental by smashing into a police vehicle and walk away free and clear.

Then there was the issue of whether to bring the car back with a full tank or let the company fill the tank for you. The price that the agency would charge was exorbitant, but the guy explained that I would not be able to bring the car back full as there were no gas stations near the airport.

Again I surrendered. I was ready to sign anything just to get out of there, and as I walked away with the keys I am almost sure I heard applause from those who were waiting to be served.

Understanding Brexit

A month or so ago I decided to attend a lecture at the University of Montana that had the title of “Understanding Brexit.” England’s departure from the European Union had been heavily featured in the various news mediums for several months. It seemed as though the UK had somehow forgotten the issue and now was divided aggressively against itself. It was as if England had suddenly developed an autoimmune disease.

The lecture was sponsored by The Friends of Irish Studies and, since an outfit that has been labeled “The New IRA” had been indicated in some disturbances related to possible changes in the border between the Republic and the six counties that make up the English held Northern Ireland, I was interested in an Irish professor’s take on the situation.

Sadly, the name of the professor and her college escapes me, but I do recall that she came from County Sligo and that she had a charming brogue. In fact, I was so enchanted with her accent that I sat for twenty minutes before it dawned on me that her lecture was leading in a totally different direction from where I’d expected. Then, since I was seated only a few feet from her lectern, it was impossible for me to escape unnoticed.

The charming Irish professor spent an hour and a half explaining how the term “Brexit” was translated into the Irish language.

To be honest, there were some interesting points. Her research at one point involved finding what words were most commonly used in the English news media in the UK and in Ireland. The word “vote” came in as the most common word looking at subjects and verbs. I don’t remember what came in second, but “Trump” came in third just before “Brexit.”

Makes me proud.

The professor also reminded the audience that the term “Irish Goodbye” refers to a person leaving without mentioning to anyone that he/she is leaving or sort of sneaking out of a party without being noticed.

I must admit that I’ve done this on occasion, but, in my case, no one remembered that I’d been in attendance in the first place.

The Irish professor also defined “an English Goodbye” for us. The term describes someone leaving a gathering, but taking a long time to say goodbye and being angry about it.

By the way, the Irish word for Brexit is Breitimeacht.

Springtime in the Rockies

Last Thursday we decided to take a break from our usual activities and get out of town for the day. The sky was a mixture of white, gray and stunning blue, the lower parts of the mountains were losing the snow cover and a shy bit of green was beginning to show on the lawns of Missoula.  We would spend the day with first a visit to the National Bison Reserve, below the Mission Mountains northwest of Arlee, and then go for a soak in the pools of Quinn Hot Springs, north of St. Regis.

At the Black Cat Bakery, on our way out of town, we picked up a huge cheese and bacon biscuit and a German pretzel containing the same healthy ingredients that was just as gigantic. By the time we were on the highway my hands and steering wheel were covered with grease, and it seemed as if all was right with the world.

Just about the time we turned west off of US93 and continued on MT200 we could see the snowy tops of the Mission as the rest of the clouds started to dissolve. The Clark Fork River was swollen with rushing water from snow melt. Ducks struggled to maintain some sort of dignity as the stream swept them rapidly down the river.

After about ten miles we turned north, off the highway on a smaller road that would bring us to the reserve. We passed a ranch where a large herd of domesticated bison were feeding on a long line of alfalfa hay. These buffalo were getting first class service while those in the reserve would be digging up grass still covered by a layer of snow. Of course, what the tame critters did not know was that they would end up on someone’s table while the wild bunch would be still capering around on their piece of dedicated wilderness.

The visitors’ center was still closed for the season and a padlocked gate barred the way against anyone trying to drive up the still snow covered drive, but there was a wet and muddy road that continued into the interior of the reserve. At the entrance there was a sign tacked up to a post that had a large heading that said, “WARNING,” but the words below were too small for us to read. It was probably left over from last summer, maybe warning about fire danger.

Most of the reserve is rolling hills with a few wooded streams. Apart from the narrow roads and the tall fences that keep the buffalo from roaming into places where they might get into trouble, the land appears to be wild and untouched. The bison have to share the space with a couple of species of dear, black and grizzly bears, coyotes and wolves. Maybe a moose or two.

We made our way slowly, eyes peeled for bison, frequently mistaking large boulders sticking up out of the bushes for sleeping buffalo. Sheila spotted deer on the horizon, and we also spied meadow larks, magpies and starlings. There was plenty of evidence of bison in the form of pile of buffalo poop, but no sight of the animals themselves.

Crossing into another fenced area of the reserve we saw another of the white signs, and this time we could read what the warning was about. Black bears and grizzlies had been seen in the area last fall and visitors were warned to stay in their vehicles. We were in early spring and there were likely to be very few bears emerging from hibernation during our visit.

We drove to the end of the visitor road in the reserve where we stopped to talk to a man who told us that he was a frequent visitor, as often as once a week, to the reserve. He turned out to be a retired wildlife biologist, and he volunteered his observations about the area. He also shared a few of the photos on his phone that he’d taken over the last year. He had photographs of bears, deer, bison and birds as well as flowers and plants but admitted that he’d not seen any mammals other than the occasional white tale deer.

We drove even slower going back toward the entrance to the reserve, hoping that at least one bison might emerge from the hills. There were a couple of more permanent signs that warned people not to wander far from their vehicle as well as signs that forbade bicycles, motorcycles and hiking in the reserve.

Sheila asked me to stop so that she could focus the binoculars on a colorful duck floating in a small stream some distance from the road. After she pointed it out, I wanted a better look and asked for the glasses, but the duck had disappeared behind some trees. I got out of the Jeep for a better view.

I initially left the door open, but closed it because of the alarm sounding with the motor still running. Walking over to the side of the road and peering down among the trees with the binoculars I was able to focus on the brilliant feathers of the wood duck. But then I was distracted by the Jeep’s horn making a racket as if the anti theft alarm had been triggered.

Looking back at the Jeep I saw that Sheila was causing the disturbance, honking the horn to get my attention and pointing behind me. I turned around and saw what the fuss was about: a giant bison bull was standing ten feet from me. I stood still, frozen, wondering: if you aren’t supposed to run from a bear and try to look big for a mountain lion, what do you do when a bison is balefully staring at you?

The bull tossed its head while snot flew right and left. And it stunk, a most rancid odor. When it huffed and pawed the gravel I know that things were going south in a hurry. I was maybe five feet from the Jeep and I could hear Sheila popping the driver’s door. The bison started to move and I turned and ran.

Up to that moment time had crawled, as in a slow motion movie, frame by frame, but then everything turned into a blur. The next thing I knew was something slamming into my back, just under my shoulders and my face hit the dirt. Then something picked me up by my belt and I was flying. Then nothing.

Sheila said that I was tossed up on to the roof of the Jeep and then slid off to the other side and landed on my right side. While the bull was still flinging snot on the drivers side, Sheila got out and somehow picked me up and shoved me into the back. Then after getting back into the passenger front seat, she slipped over the gearshift and got into the driver’s seat.

She tried dialing 911, but being up in the wilderness among mountains, there was no connection. She had to drive to get help.

By this time the bison had lost interest in its game and had wondered up the road, but stood in the middle as if wondering what had just occurred. Sheila put the Jeep in gear and moved forward, approaching the animal, but it just stood there. It wasn’t menacing, shaking its head, pawing the ground or even seeming to notice the Jeep. But it was blocking the road.

Sheila crept closer, getting within feet of the bull, but it did not move. She honked the horn repeatedly. Finally she got mad and slowly drove into the buffalo. It, at last, seemed to realize that there was a mass larger than itself, and it slowly lurched its way into the snow and brown grass on the side of the road.

My nose hurt like hell, and I wondered why I was in the back seat lying down and curled up. When I tried to sit up my right shoulder and arm exploded in pain. I must have yelped as Sheila asked if was hurt bad. For some reason I said no and closed my eyes.

By the time that Sheila had cell phone service, she had driven almost all the way back to Missoula, and it made more sense to go to the emergency room at St. Patricks than to wait for an ambulance. In spite of the pain, I wasn’t that badly injured: a deep cut on my head (gonna have a great scar), a broken nose (I’ve had several of those before), a dislocated shoulder (shoved back into place in the ER) and a sprained wrist. Maybe a concussion and a definite black eye. I didn’t even stay over night.

As I came home through the back yard our neighbor, William Sanders, asked what happened. Without an instance of hesitation Sheila replied, “It was a buffalo, Bill.”

Winter Still

This morning as I stepped out the front door to get the paper, which was not there (no big surprise, as delivery seems to be run on some sort of lottery), the air was so cold that it shocked my nose. It was the kind of cold that stings the face and brings tears to the eyes. Nevertheless, it had that deep winter freshness to it as if it was too far below freezing that it could contain no impurities. Not that I lingered in my bare feet and thin clothing. Someone once proclaimed that a beautiful winter scene is best enjoyed looking out of a window from a room with blazing logs in a fireplace.

We’ve just returned from the other side of the world, New Zealand, where it is late autumn and the air is balmy and the temperature is mild. In fact, we came home with some dread after looking at the weather predictions. At LAX there were a couple of hours to spare, a short layover where I took advantage of the confusion of jet lag to have an American IPA, something I’d been missing. The Kiwi beer is better than the Australian, but it still isn’t up to what we brew here in the US. And, while I was enjoying my 20 ounce glass, I checked the weather for Missoula. It had not improved and still looked like it was going to be a nasty, cold arrival home.

There was no time for beer at the Portland airport, but I did chance to check to see, once more, if Missoula would be as cold as predicted. The answer, of course, was “No” as it would be colder than expected.

I’d prepared myself as best as I could, not having a parka or insulated boots to don, but I did have some long johns as well as a flannel shirt. I also had an insulated raincoat with gloves in its pockets. After landing in Missoula, I was fairly protected from the blowing snow on the walk from the plane to the terminal. I grumbled to myself, but I really wasn’t cold. I was merely anticipating the deep cold during the days ahead.

Something changed inside of me after Mignon picked us up and we were riding in her car, looking out at the deep snow along the road. Part of my internal transformation was inspired by the late afternoon, winter light that turned everything into a dreamy soft color that seemed to be a muted pink. Also, time seemed to stretch out as the road was slick and drivers took their time, and the traffic seemed to flow along in slow motion. It was almost like being high.

Contrary to what many people will think, I had not indulged.

The next day, after a twelve-hour sleep, I got up rather excited about what the day might bring, and I had a purpose. Even though our walk had been cleared the day before we returned, there was another four inches of snow to deal with, and the city actually will fine people who don’t get the snow off their sidewalks (not that I’ve actually heard of anyone getting fined). I put on my cold weather gear, grabbed the pretty blue plastic shovel and went to work.

The work felt good, and it was fun building the mountain of snow from the back yard. It’s huge now, almost as tall as I am. And, hopefully, next week there will be more snow to add.

It has been almost a week since we’ve returned home, and we still are enjoying the novelty of winter. The bitter cold has caused a collection of hoar frost on the trees, and the river has nearly frozen over. Most days have been cloudless and the sky has that incredible blue quality that appears only when the land is covered with snow. It is good that we didn’t miss winter.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

.

Leaving New Zealand

It is February 26 here, and the high will be in the lower seventies, mostly sunny. At home, in Montana, it is February 25, bitterly cold and there is a blizzard warning for Missoula. Our flight home leaves tomorrow afternoon. Yes, we are a bit reluctant to leave.

My sun burned scalp is healed, and it doesn’t feel as if my head is being boiled every time I take a shower. Nor does it feel like my head is on fire each time I go outside without a hat. I’ve stopped peeling. I’ve acclimatized to the New Zealand weather.
This is our last morning in Auckland, and our flight home is scheduled to leave at 2:50 this afternoon.

The word “last” has a special meaning for us as we are not likely to come this way again.  For us “last” has more of a terminal meaning.

That is not to say that we feel bad about it, and it doesn’t mean that we are necessarily going to stop traveling. But, a journey of such a long distance as the other side of the world doesn’t have the appeal that it used to. It is more difficult and takes more of a toll on our bodies.

Part of the hardship is, of course, that airline travel has changed. True, the prices are more reasonable, but the passengers pay the price by being crowded into uncomfortable seats that are best suited for those who are the size of children. Overhead bins do not accommodate enough carry on bags, and the space below the forward seats are barely large enough for feet, let alone a small bag as well.
Traveling is also less likely to call us to foreign parts since we aren’t interested in the same things as when we were younger. We don’t feel like staying up to party with the locals, nor are we likely to get up early to beat the crowd to any particular attraction. We certainly don’t really want to put on heavy hiking boot and carry a pack as we trek up a mountain trail or into thick jungle.

So, even though we will miss the mild climate of New Zealand’s early autumn, we are not likely to seek a long journey to find a comfortable alternative to a cold winter.

I hope I don’t freeze my ass off.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Auckland Redux

The late summer here on the north island has turned into early fall, and there is a chill in the air, especially in the morning and evening that makes us pleased to have some of our Montana clothing along.

A chilly breeze chased some of the early fallen, dry leaves ahead of us as we headed down Anzac Street from our nifty studio flat toward Central Auckland. We were looking forward to Sheila’s Flat White (New Zealand’s version of a latté) and my Long Black (an Americano) which may come with a small pitcher of hot water. The amount of espresso in a Long Black varies as well. It was a hard choice what to have with our coffees, but I eventually decided on a sausage roll and Sheila had a brioche baked with cheese and bacon. [We’ve found that the Kiwi bakeries approach French quality and variety.]

In two days we will be leaving New Zealand and we are having a bit of a problem deciding what we want to do and see while we are in Auckland. We turned in our rental car yesterday afternoon, and, quite honestly, I am pleased that I don’t have to face driving here in the city. Contrary to what I reported about drivers in this country recently, it became of a nerve wracking experience the closer we came to Auckland from the rural north.

Last week found us staying in a charming little cottage just outside the village of Waimauku where we looked across a small pasture that contained five friendly Herefords and a view of the bumpy hills and thick woods with sub tropical vegetation. [I can identify the palms, and know some of the trees are evergreen. There are many large ferns, but I never learned what those tall, lanky trees with branches that hold bunches of leaves that sort of form umbrellas. Google is no help when I supply that description as it refers me to Dr. Seuss.]

Our cottage contained a little radio, which delighted us even though the car radio seemed to play only crappy stations that disappeared after five minutes. Sheila was able to find a classical music station that, in spite of some of the long-winded commentary, we played almost constantly while we were in Waimauku. The personalities on the station sounded quite cultured, as they reported the weather information, and sounded as if they were reading a menu from a trendy restaurant.

Despite the pastoral setting of our cottage, other than looking at our bovine friends and the stunning beauty of the countryside, there was absolutely nothing to do other than listen to the radio. It wasn’t even possible to go for a walk or jog as there is no shoulder to step away from traffic. It was always necessary to get in the car and drive if we wanted to do something besides sit.

We learned about the traffic around Waimauku as we attempted to find our rental cottage as directed by our message from Airbnb. It was located on Taylor Road, a distance of only a mile out of town. When we slowed to look for the number on the mail box, I noticed that cars were bunching up behind us, so I picked up my speed. It wasn’t long before we saw the drive, but I was going too fast to make the turn. It seemed as if I was suddenly in the Grand Prix as I sped down the curvy road looking for a place to turn around. Finally, seeing what seemed a suitably wide drive I turned on the windshield wiper to indicate my turn.

After hearing horns blaring when I was stopped in the driveway, I once again was reminded the the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel in New Zealand. After being chased up and down Taylor road a couple more times, I was finally able to enter the right drive, sort of. It turned out that our host shared a drive with another home.

The neighbor of the stylish home came out to greet us with only a trace of a smile and informed us that our lodging was not where we were sitting. It was pretty obvious that this error had happened too many times for him to respond with a bare minimum of courtesy.

Each time we left our comfortable cottage to explore the area, we seemed to be chased by little racing cars. For example, when we drove to a beach, there was a black VW with a surfboard on top that followed our little blue Toyota as if the two cars had a ten foot tether. Perhaps the surf was up and the driver was anxious to get to the waves before the crowd.

The beach had a different feel than that of Baylys Beach. The sand was dark and oily and there were more people hanging about as might be expected this close to a large city. The beach was softer, and our feet sunk into the sand as we walked.

We were looking for birds as the guide book suggested, but there wasn’t a even a gull around, much less anything we’d not seen. Spying a trail that appeared to lead inland, we followed it on to the other side of tall dunes where there was more vegetation, where birds might nest or at least roost.
So we trudged over to a road less traveled, so to speak.
There was much less wind, and there were actually some bird songs that could be head coming from the brush and bushes not far from the path. A few sparrows flirted with us as we continued, but nothing out of the ordinary came to our attention. We followed the trail for half a mile or so before deciding that the beach would be more interesting and took a path that seemed as if it would bring us to the ocean.

The path became ever more difficult as it seemed to continue over some steep dunes, and, indeed, it petered out almost altogether. We had to help each other up and down some soft spots that looked only suitable for animals to follow. At last we came to an area that was well cared for and absolutely flat. In fact, it was too well groomed as it was a golf course, and we were standing on a putting green. In the distance, next to a cart we could see two men getting ready to tee off in our direction.
We made a hasty retreat and with remarkable agility we tumbled back over the dunes and followed our trail back to the beach.

Walking along, admiring the surf we noticed a mob of people in the distance who were in the water despite a sign that indicated that swimming was not permitted. With our binoculars we observed that the crowd was not exactly swimming but standing in a line, bobbing up and down as the waves came through. The scene made us wonder if this was some esoteric activity that was peculiar to New Zealand or perhaps a movie set for another remake of JAWs.

As we came closer, we could see that there was not a haphazard arrangement of people standing in the surf, but a line (or “queue” as they say here) of males and females and a man standing at the deepest end who looked as if he was directing traffic. Each time a wave came crashing in, he would jump up and the people would follow suit making the scene look like a vertical conga line.

 

I could stand it no more. I had to find out what was going on.
There was a couple who were lying on a blanket, taking in the sun nearby, so I strolled over to find out what those folks in the water were doing. Trying to keep my eyes on the young woman in the bikini, I asked the fellow if he could explain what we were seeing.

It was his opinion that the group was a high school class, and the guy in front of the line was a surfing instructor who was teaching a safety class. The teacher would wait for the proper wave with a surfboard and at the right instant he would hand a kid a board. After a boost, the kid would try to ride the wave in as long as possible.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Is that not cool?