Crappy Little Rodeo (part iii)

To be honest, some of us might not remember Tobin’s debut in the wild cow milking event during the Round Up, Pendleton’s annual rodeo. There were other activities that sometimes can interfere with recall. One might have been in the Let ‘Er Buck room, a closely guarded, but wide open secret, bar that is below the south grand stands where only hard liquor is served.

There is always a line to get into the Let “Er Buck room, and if one looks younger than 55, an ID is required. Purses are searched and anyone carrying a beer has to chug it or pour it out into a trash can. The aura of the crowd is such that most individuals will choose to gulp down their beer rather than bear the scorn of other patrons. Cash is not accepted at the bar, only overpriced chips available near the entrance. There seems to be no limit to the number of people who are admitted (the fire marshal is on vacation.)


There are signs posted that nudity is not tolerated. In spite of the warning, one is likely to see a woman riding on the shoulders of a red faced man with veins on his forehead that look like they are ready to burst. The woman, whose eyes seem unable to focus, has no shirt on.

Anyone who walks into this place should be forewarned, groping is not only common, but expected. And it ain’t men who are doing the groping. Well, in the modern era, there are a few males who can’t resist a young cowboy’s rear.

The air in the Let ‘Er Buck room is thick with fumes of booze, the temperature is jacked up from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, and the noise makes conversation all but impossible. Amazingly, there are few troublemakers, everyone is pretty mellow. There are bouncers patrolling around the perimeter who are ready to grab the occasional hot head or warn someone to button a shirt or to put a tee shirt back on. Still, even with the best intentions, it is hard to avoid getting a little shit faced before squeezing out the door to go back to the rodeo.

Anyone who’s been in the Let ‘Er Buck room might be forgiven for having a hazy memory of the rodeo.

So, unlike later competition, Tobin’s initial entry into wild cow milking was witnessed from different parts of the grandstands. Sheila was on the west side above the Let ‘Er Buck Room which may have contributed to the floating quality of her video. Those of us around her could not help much as we were having difficulty identifying Tobin as from that distance all the muggers looked the same. Using a borrowed pair of binoculars we were able to pick out our son just as the starting gun went off and the cows went nuts.

Even as the ropers took off after the cows, it was difficult to follow the muggers. In the pandemonium everyone in the arena who wasn’t on a horse looked like they were lost as they ran in all directions.

“There he is!”someone yelled.

“Where?”somebody else asked.



“Who is Tobin?”

There was confusion in the stands as well as in the arena, but we finally spotted Tobin being yanked around by a big black cow as the roper attended to the lower rear of the frantic, angry beast. Within seconds Tobin’s partner was loping toward the judges with what appeared to be a test tube in hand. It looked like the partners might be in for a prize and Tobin sailed his hat high in the air as we cheered. In the end, they did not place, but Tobin showed himself to be a worthy competitor. In the future he would not have to work as hard to get a roper.

Not that every roper was necessarily an expert with a lariat. Some years the cowboy missed lassoing the cow at the last moment after Tobin had run the full length of the arena trying to catch up to the roper. Those moments left him exhausted and disappointed but not as much as the time when he and the cowboy had caught the cow early, only to discover that the roper had lost the milk container.

The years went by, and Tobin gained experience. He was paired with many different ropers with different levels of skill, but if the cowboy lassoed a cow, Tobin was likely to hang on long enough for a sample of milk, if at all available from the cow. They were frequently able to win a little money at times, but a buckle eluded Tobin. Plus, the competition was hard on his body, and he eventually was forced to have knee surgery.

The procedure was done last spring, and with intensive physical therapy Tobin was back chasing cowS in small rodeos by August, just practicing for the big one in Pendleton. When the Round Up came around, he was only scheduled for two days, Thursday and Saturday. By now, his cheering squad knew where to gather after the barrel racing was finished. We weren’t spread all over the grandstands any more, but knew that the best spot to watch was next to where the bucking events had taken place. There was always plenty of room in this prime area as the rodeo crowd thinned quickly before the wild cow milking.

Thursday’s wild cow milking event came and went without Tobin and his roper placing. But, Tobin was not discouraged. Saturday would be another chance.

We spotted Tobin almost immediately as he walked out on the grass without a trace of a limp. He waved his blue, heavy duty rubber gloves at us, his fan club and the official arena photographer noticed and took our picture with Tobin standing in front. No other mugger had a cheering section like Tobin.

The cows came rumbling into the arena followed by the gunshot that let the roper know that it was time to go to work. It seemed as if several minutes passed, although it turned out to be seconds, when the cow was lassoed and Tobin grabbed her around her massive neck. More time flew by as the roper jumped down and ran to the cow. Quickly he knelt down and was able to coax a little milk into the bottle, but as he ran toward the judges, it seemed as if a dozen other cowboy were going to arrive at the same time. It was impossible for us to see who got to the judges or in what order.

Tobin walked over to us, puffing and sweaty as is usually the case after the event is finished. He was pleased as it seemed that he and his roper came in third. And his knee felt great, much better than the past few years. Actually, his knee was so bad a few years ago, he reluctantly had to pass on an event. However, the Crappy Little Campers came up with with a suitable replacement. Mignon, Tobin’s sister, agreed that her fiancée, Traver, needed an initiation into the Crappy Little Camp as this would be his first time at the Round Up. He was given an opportunity to fill in for Tobin in the wild cow milking event. No pressure though.

Traver's 1st milking

Traver had never been around many animals except for the occasional cat or dog, certainly nothing like cows or horses. He was from Canada for Christ sake. Canadians are too polite to chase wild cows around an arena. But he is also a great sport, plus, as a boyfriend who was just joining this crowd for the first time, well, no pressure.

He was not really mugger material, not big enough to really handle a half ton of writhing anger, but he trotted out with the rest of the guys. Traver actually looked like he knew what he was doing, but it would probably have been better for him if the roper never caught a cow. As luck would have it, the cowboy lassoed one only minutes after the cattle entered the arena. Traver ran up and grabbed the rope, hoping to hold the nice bossy while the roper quietly sat down to milk her.

The next few minutes saw Traver being dragged through cow shit, grass and finally dirt at the edge of the field. One must give the lad credit for perseverance as he did not give up and continued to hang on to the rope. But the thick leather gloves did not have enough friction, and the rope slowly slipped through Traver’s hands. Eventually, the heat from the sliding rope actually burned through his glove. His hand not only suffered burns but the rope tore the skin away from his palm.


No buckle, but he has a very nice scar to remind him that wild cow milking is probably not his sport. He did survive his initiation into our Crappy Little Camp

Back at our camp this year, after a little food and a fair amount of booze, beer or wine (most of the adults managed to sample all three poisons in the course of an evening in camp or out on the town) someone grabbed a guitar and started singing. The hootenanny started. Scott Niesen had been gathering songs requested by members of the Crappy Little Camp and put them into a pretty glossy song book. Pretty soon there were several guitars, a couple of fiddles and a mandolin. To add a little pizazz to our rough sound, Quinn, our grandson, joined the group with his baritone saxophone.

Tobin came back from his session at the Let ‘Er Buck room where he replenished the fluids lost as he chased down a cow and held it in place for milking. It is rumored that he also may have stopped in a beer garden or two where he discussed strategy with fellow muggers. He was ready to keep the party going at the Crappy Little Camp as he grabbed his ukulele and joined in the rowdy music.

During a break, while we were arguing over the next song to play, Tobin’s cell phone rang. Nobody paid much attention until Tobin said something like, “Who is this? Where do you want me to go?”

All of us stopped yammering and started to listen to the phone conversation.

“What? I won? A buckle?”

He stood up and laughter rolled out of his very soul. “I won a buckle. I got first place. They want me to run down to the rodeo grounds to a presentation. I won, damn it, I won!”

The Crappy Little Camp roared with excitement and joy for Tobin. Our guy was a champion! Drinks all around.

The last part wasn’t the best idea as we all were too tipsy to follow Tobin down to the arena a distance of about a mile. But Traver stepped up to the task, and we watched with admiration as the two of them headed out into the night.

Later, much later, Tobin and Traver sort of slid back to join Tobin’s fan club. We were treated to an exhibition of the BUCKLE as well as another prize, almost as impressive. Tobin was also given a huge Pendleton wool blanket complete with the impressive Round Up logo.

Tobin won first place, but we, as members of the Crappy Little Campers and Tobin Fan Club received a prize as well. We were able to witness joy. It is unlikely we will ever see the joyous satisfaction in Tobin’s eyes and face as he called his family and brothers with the news: he won a Round Up Buckle.





Crappy Little Rodeo (part ii)

Milk Cow Blues

Keep in mind that a cow weighs about half a ton.

There is an event in the Pendleton Round-Up that isn’t included in most rodeos; and, in truth, it isn’t the most popular among even the Pendleton fans. Most folks don’t take it seriously, and it is the last event of the day. Many people decide to leave, maybe to get an early start in the Let ‘Er Buck Room, the infamous bar that only serves hard liquor below the south grandstands. But our group, that has become known as the “Crappy Little Campers,” gather as close as we can to the arena to watch our local hero.

The event is called “wild cow milking,” and although it provides a lot of laughs, the competitors take the doings quite seriously. After all, there is money involved, but even more (most) important a buckle can be won.

The competition goes like this: A roper, on a horse, is paired with a “mugger,” a man on the ground. There are usually about ten teams.  A cow is lassoed and the mugger grabs the animal around the neck and holds it while the roper drops down from his horse, squeezes a little milk into a small container, and runs it off to the judges. The first guy to bring in a sample of milk to the judges wins the buckle. Simple.

The cows are range cattle, a far cry from the docile bossy bred for a dairy farm. They are not used to being around humans other than an infrequent cowboy on a horse. The cows are skittish and can be aggressive, especially after calving. And, in this event, they have been separated from their babies. So they are especially pissed off.

The event starts with the ropers and muggers at one end of the rodeo grounds. At the other end the cattle, maybe about thirty cows, are driven into the arena, and as soon as they are free of the gates, a gun shot signals the start of the competition.

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The herd of cattle disperses in every direction, confused by the separation from their calves and panicked by the shot. They are further crazed by the sight of cowboys racing toward them ropes at the ready. It’s not easy for the ropers either as they get in each other’s way trying to get to a single cow. The cattle themselves unwittingly block what might be an easy target for a roper.

The muggers, at first, are only a bit less confused than the cows as they try to run toward wherever the ropers might be heading. These are large men, not used to moving fast, and they quickly start breathing hard. Their shirts start turning dark with sweat. A few of them, looking for their ropers or trying to avoid a charging cow, run into each other. To make matters worse, the announcer laughs at the spectacle below him.

A few of the cowboys manage to get a rope over some cows and attempt to hold their animals in place while the muggers struggle toward them. A mugger might grab the rope, inadvertently pulling it out of the ropers hands. Then it becomes a rodeo version of a Nantucket sleigh ride as the cow race around the area pulling the mugger off his feet and through a lot of cow shit.

A more experienced, or lucky mugger will not touch the rope but grab the cow around its neck. This is where a heavy man has the advantage as the cow will jerk its head around trying to get free of the mugger. A small man will be lifted off his feet and be carried off, leaving the roper alone deciding whether to give chase or to get back on his horse and ride away.

A mugger is not just holding the cow in place. He is actually trying to get a choke hold on the animal, similar to what some cops do to control a violent person instead of gassing, tasing or shooting him. The mugger tries to reduce the blood supply to the cow’s brain so that it will stop thrashing around long enough for the roper to grab an udder and squeeze out a bit of milk.

Well, that’s the plan, anyway. It turns out that it’s not that easy to choke a cow. As might be obvious, cattle have thick necks, much thicker than the average wacko who is out of control on meth. The oxygen carrying arteries deep within those tree-trunk-sized necks and having a man hanging on just seems to enrage the cows more. A few of the muggers fly into the air as if they’d been rag dolls. When they finally get up off the ground, they are likely to be butted into the air by a cow that has avoided being roped.

A few of the muggers manage to hang on and actually choke a cow into submission, but even then the plan can go awry. Sometimes the cow will actually faint and fall down and cover her udder with her massive body. Then the cowboy will have to try to roll the cow over on her side, a feat that is almost impossible as the cow’s muscles are flaccid. It’s like trying to roll a giant water balloon.

Another problem that makes milking a wild cow almost impossible is the stress that the animal is under. Milk does not flow easily when the cow is pissed off. A dairy hand does not get milk from a cow that is chased around the barn yard and then assaulted. [Although there are a few farmers who seem to think that is the only way to convince a cow to give milk.] A roper can lasso a cow and a mugger can choke her until she stands still, but after all that excitement, the milk sometimes will not come.

Eventually, the spectator will notice a cowboy sprinting toward the center of the arena toward the judges. At times there will be two of the ropers running, each trying to outrace the other to get his sample to the judges first. The judges have to be on the ball, not only to correctly identify who arrives first, but to see if there is actually milk in the container. Frequently a milker will, in the excitement, might be a bit over optimistic and think that he has something in the bottle when it is  actually empty.

For the past several years, our crowd, christened the “Crappy Little Camp,” have gathered at the Pendleton high school grounds and set up camp in the school parking lot. Our site usually contains a variety of camping trailers, motor homes, fifth wheel RVs, pickup campers and several tents. At times a few urban cowboys have slept under the open sky in pickup beds.


Our favorite event of the Round Up is the wild cow milking not so much for the pandemonium that is guaranteed but because we have a star in our midst who not only competes at the Pendleton rodeo, he mugs cows all over the Pacific Northwest. Although he is serious about the events in California, Oregon and Washington, those contests are just practice for the big one: the Pendleton Round Up.

He is our guy.

Tobin is our middle son and lives in Seattle with his wife Gladys and their three kids. He never lived on a ranch, nor can he ride a horse. But he grew up going to the Pendleton Round Up every year since he was a kid. The culture of the rodeo bit him and he wanted to be part of it. However, he couldn’t ride a horse and had no interest in learning. And, if he couldn’t ride a horse, he couldn’t imagine riding a bull.

Plus, he has a real job. He couldn’t really join the rodeo circuit and work in the high tech industry at the same time. He guessed that Gladys probably wouldn’t support the idea of him joining the Professional Rodeo Association. And, of course, he couldn’t ride a horse.

One summer, while Tobin was in his early forties, he came up with a way that he could be part of the rodeo: he could be a wild cow mugger. But he had to prepare for it. First, he needed to practice a little, get the feel of handling a rope and having something like a cow at the end of it.

He bought a rope and some leather gloves along with some ugly cowboy boots that are known as “ropers.” There was no fancy tooling on this style, no elevated heel that would keep a boot from slipping through a stirrup as he would not even be on a horse. He tied one end of the rope on a pickup and had his brother (or anyone else he could talk into the stunt) drive slowly while he pulled back, as if there was a cow pulling him forward.

Tobin gloves

Just a week before the Round Up, Tobin hooked up with a cowboy and talked him into being his roper. No doubt there was beer and whiskey involved in the discussion. As news spread among family and friends, the excitement (and some concern) grew exponentially. Attending the rodeo now went beyond the usual singin,’ drinkin,’ dancin,’ and carryin’ on. Yes, this behavior would continue, but now we had purpose. We had a star in our midst.

The day of Tobin’s debut, a Thursday, the weather was typical for Round Up, hot and dry. There was a little haze in the distance that was caused by a small wild fire some fifty miles to the west of Pendleton. Our crowd wandered into the stands at different times depending on our different interests. Some of us, those without hangovers, arrived at one fifteen to see the opening ceremonies where the rodeo princesses and rodeo queen are introduced as they gallop their horses at top speed and slam to a halt just before the grand stand. [This might have been the year that the court decided to ride in a daring manner with hands free of reins, hanging on to nothing. One of the horses stopped so suddenly that a princess was launched into the stands, sustaining four broken ribs and a sprained wrist. The crowd was pleased.]

Others in our lot came in later, during the bucking competitions, and a few waited until after the Indian dance and award ceremony when people can walk in without paying. But, most of us had tickets, and were assigned to different areas around the arena.

to be continued . . .

Crappy Little Rodeo (part 1)

The weather for Pendleton’s annual rodeo, the Round Up, was much cooler than usual with temperatures reaching only the low eighties this year. Nights were cool enough to require hoodies, jackets and booze (actually, alcohol is not really weather dependent during Round Up). Pendleton Whisky (yes, that is the way it is spelled) was generally the preferred spirit with our group, but there were other whiskeys, tequila, gin, vodka as well as beer to keep our group from becoming dehydrated. The phrase, “Let ‘Er Buck,” was not to be used exclusively by the rodeo participants.

Rainbow Cowboys2IMG_5050Rainbow

Folks come from all over the Northwest to enjoy the Wild West celebration that occurs the second full week of September every year, (we even met a few people from the Netherlands), and the rodeo probably increases the population of Pendleton by 50% during that period. This year there were even more people to crowd into the small city as there were approximately 2,000 cyclists who came to town as part of Cycle Oregon. It was not the first time that Cycle Oregon happened to camp in Pendleton during the Round Up, but this year it was much smoother.

A few years ago the bicyclists had to fend for themselves and set up their tents in a field next to the high school. The regular rodeo fans showed some resentment as they had to compete for the use of toilets and showers, and the cyclists did not appreciate the rough manners and hard drinking of the Let ‘Er Buck crowd. One of the female fans of the rodeo, a short, pretty blond from Burns went so far as to spurn the riding attire of the Cycle Oregon folks by stating loudly, “They saunter around here looking like a bunch of goddam aliens.”

Why would Cycle Oregon want to come Pendleton again?

This year the Pendleton Round Up Association joined with Cycle Oregon to create a more pleasant experience for the rodeo people as well as the bicycle folks. There was a carefully planned area for the cyclists to camp that included booths for vendors as well as food and drink, all quite separated from the rodeo campers. The Cycle Oregon experience also provided opportunities for their people to participate in Round Up activities including tickets to the rodeo itself. Everyone was all smiles.

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Most people are aware what goes on at a rodeo, and, for good reason, a lot of folks are offended by the events. One can look at the activities as down right cruel. Sure, the contestants are pitting themselves against large animals, and the possibility of a cowboy getting hurt or even killed definitely exists. Indeed, there is a certain excitement during bull riding, a little dark hope that the animal will chase down a cowboy or clown or, even better that the bull will escape the small, weakly fenced-in area and run out into the crowd. Great stuff!

However, there is the argument that while the cowboy is brave (or foolish), he voluntarily gets on the back of the huge beast. The bull, or for that matter, any of the other animals in the other events, has no choice in the matter. They are conscripted into service. No wonder the bulls are so pissed off.

The most dangerous events for the human contestants are the bull and bronc riding events, but the scariest for the animals are the calf and steer roping contests. It is not unusual to witness animals get knocked unconscious as they are jerked to a halt by a lasso attached to the saddle horn of a horse that is trained to stop on a time as soon as the rope is tossed. It is small wonder why PETA objects to the concept of rodeo.

Still, the rodeo is part of western culture. It has been around for centuries and the events reflect the necessary skills that are still used on cattle ranches all over the two American continents. Rodeo has also grown to be big-time urban entertainment with contests in every large city west of the Mississippi. Especially professional bull riding (PBR) which is staged with the same aggressive flare as huge rock concerts or other big time professional sports. PBR events are complete with loud music and exploding flash bombs.

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My own experience with rodeo is colored with a bit of memory and falling in love. In western Iowa, where I grew up, there were farms, not ranches. There were real cowboys just across the Missouri River in Nebraska and in South Dakota, states not one hundred miles away. There were big rodeos in those areas and a little of the fever leaked back to the towns around where I grew up near Sioux City.

Being a farm boy, back then in the middle of the last century, I was comfortable being around animals, but I admit there was a certain callousness about the treatment of livestock. It wasn’t that we were deliberately cruel to animals (although there were some farmers, like my grandfather, who seemed to have the impression that his mules, horses and even dogs were deliberately plotting against him). It was more that as a matter of course of running a farm, we did not give a lot of thought about how a pig or a cow might feel.

So when a rodeo came to town, the excitement of seeing real cowboys in competition overrode whatever pain might be inflicted on the stock. And of course, any crappy little rodeo that we had, was in the most part a collection of inexperienced amateurs and burnt out cowboys at the end of whatever career they might have had in the arena. Even the rodeo grounds were a ramshackle mess of old wooden gates held together with bailing wire and twine. The stands were built from splintery boards that were pulled from collapsed barns in the area. Most of the structures had to be rebuilt every time a rodeo event managed to be put together. To many of the farmers the rodeo was mostly a comedy of watching the animal win. It also gave a few of them bragging rights for a few months about spending a few seconds on a bucking horse or bull.

After I left home, I gave little thought to rodeos or western culture. When anyone brought up the subject of rodeo, it was usually a negative comment regarding the cruelty involved, and I, without much reflection, generally agreed. The conversation would soon move on in a different direction. After all, we were urban people and really did not have a lot to say about cowboys other than to make fun of country western lyrics.

Then, almost fifty years since I had been to a little rodeo in Iowa, I became smitten with a woman who grew up with rodeo. Sheila started going to the Pendleton Round Up when she was a little girl with her dad, and she brought her kids every year. Her children brought theirs.

I fell for this freckle-faced redhead with her western drawl. My heart melted when I heard her say “cayish” for cash. Or “kaowboy” for cowboy.  How could I resist when she invited me to the Round Up? I bought my first cowboy boots since I was a teenager. I bought a cowboy hat. I went to the rodeo.

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The Pendleton Round Up is a big rodeo and compares to the Calgary Stampede, Cheyenne Frontier Days and others that offer big prizes and prestige to winners. The cash winnings are impressive and can amount to millions of dollars over a season of rodeo. But for many of the contestants, the money is secondary to the honor of winning over so many other talented competitors. There are material symbols to championship: saddles, blankets, ribbons, booze and photos with rodeo queens and her courts. But perhaps the biggest and mostly sought after trophy is the belt buckle. All the other awards are nice to have to display in a trophy case, but the buckle is something the cowboy can wear every time he puts on his jeans.

The most popular rodeo events to watch are probably the bucking competitions, but the other events demonstrate different kinds of skills. The roping events show an amazing coordination and cooperation between humans and horses that require lightning quick responses of both. In steer roping, for example, once the rope has been tossed over the horns of the steer, the cowboy completely depends on the horse to do its job without human direction as the rider jumps off to do his.

Barrel Racing is another, perhaps more poetic demonstration of coordination between a woman and her horse. The rare event that allows only women competitors is a race against time where the rider with her horse must successfully circle three barrels (one on each side of the arena, and one at the opposite end from the start), and then race back to the starting line.

There is one other event that is widely unknown, uncelebrated and frequently is not even part of many rodeos: wild cow milking. This event and the highlight of one of its winners will be subject of the next installment.


Black Horse Campground

The campground around us seemed almost empty with a few campers in tents far from our site. This morning, however, we heard the lonely sound of a horn that came from somewhere in the woods. The notes seemed to be perfect and blended in with the soul of the green forest and the song of the river. Later, after dark we heard the sound again, and we discovered that the musician was just a hundred yards away in the next campsite. He told us that he used to be a French Horn player with a Los Angeles symphony and became discouraged with his career. He later moved to the Northwest and became a wood worker where he created his own Alp Horn. 

I casually mentioned that I used to play a trumpet in my high school in an effort to impress the man as being a fellow musician. He handed me the instrument’s mouth to examine. It was made of wood and closely resembled the mouth piece of trumpets, trombones, and other brass instruments. Unfortunately, my hint didn’t have the intended result, and I was not invited to try the big, wooden horn.

After we returned from the Alpenhorn camp, as our own fire was dying, Sheila played a few Irish airs, also appropriate for this kind of wilderness. Two mule deer appeared just across the road from our camp, only a few yards away ears pitched forward as if trying to understand the music drifting toward them like a mystery. After a few minutes the deer went back to grazing on the grass and slowly sauntered away.

This was the place we were looking for.


What We Did This Summer


We cleverly decided to visit the Midwest during the warmest part of the year, August, for reasons that, at the moment, escape me. For the first two weeks we got away with exceptionally unusual nice weather. Iowa and Nebraska had always looked brown and dry, with air that baked one’s brains. This year everything was gloriously green and cool. We became complacent and paid for our naïveté’ soon after we left Wisconsin and entered Minnesota. Every day the temperature shot up higher. The eighties in Wisconsin became nineties in Minnesota, and in North Dakota the thermometer indicated temperatures over 100. 

It was mid afternoon, around three o’clock when we reached Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, and the temperature had reached 107. Just outside of town we noticed that there is a state park that has a large lake after which the town is named. We were hoping that an evening breeze off the water might cool the campsites down a bit. Before pulling our trailer out to the park, we decided that we would buy some fresh lettuce, tomatoes and sweet corn for dinner along with some hamburger to cook on a grill.

We skipped the chain supermarket on the outskirts of town, deciding that we wanted to support a local grocery store. The GPS indicated a store well away from the Interstate, but it had not counted on the massive construction project that blocked several streets on the way. We were diverted by several detours on the way and by the time we were getting close to our destination, the GPS was getting downright abusive with her “Recalculating route.” One could hear the undertone, “Get it right, dumb shit.”

It was disappointing that the grocery store was just another chain that sold everything either wrapped in plastic, frozen, or canned. Plus, considering all the cornfields that we’d passed, there was no sweet corn. But Sheila had noticed a small place on a corner that had a sign that indicated that it had local produce. 

The local market was not far from the supermarket, but there was no direct route because of the street construction. Nevertheless we did not have to put up with sarcastic remarks and insults from the GPS and were allowed to make our way in peace. 

The market was a cute little wooden structure with a flower garden on the side. We were cheerfully greeted by a young American Indian woman as we entered. However, it became immediately obvious that the main fresh products were pots of flowers, not vegetables. She had some potatoes and beets, but no tomatoes. Corn might be coming in a couple of days.

Ok. We decided to pick something up at the chain mega grocery near the freeway. Still no ears of sweet corn. The lettuce was Dole, the hamburger was plastic wrapped, and the tomatoes were fresh —— from Canada.

Devil’s Lake, the body of water, not the town, is the largest lake in North Dakota and is growing.  Got something to do with climate warming I think. There are a large number of dead trees on the periphery of lake, standing in the water. It is a great place for buzzards to hang out and makes for a spooky sight. A state park occupies a large corner of the lake and wild land around  it. The place is renowned for its fishing.


The ranger wanted to know if we wanted to camp by the water, and, if so, there were very few sites left as the place was filling up with boats and fishermen. There were a few places by some trees that looked good to us, but I asked about mosquitoes. She replied that we shouldn’t worry about mosquitoes, but flies.

She was right. It’s difficult to guess why there were so many flies, but they didn’t bite, just seemed to like us, especially our eyes and ears. 

Sheila checked her WWW resources the next morning and found that there was a coffee shop in the town and also had baked goods. Not wanting to have breakfast with the flies, we drove back into Devil’s Lake and dodged the construction to check the shop out. It was then that we noticed how poor the residents seemed to be. People seemed to be wondering around aimlessly at 7:30 in the morning or sitting on concrete curbs smoking. The place looked dismal and hopeless, but there was a bright spot. There was a bar that opened at eight a.m., and there was a man who was standing, waiting for the door to be unlocked. A sign indicated that it would open at 8:00 in the morning and it did not close until 7:00 a.m. 


Next: Endless fields of hay, soybeans and corn. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

Reefer Madness

Oregon has been in the marijuana business for two or three years now, longer if you count the period when cannabis could be purchased for medical (wink, wink, nudge, nudge*) use only. It took awhile for the state to figure out how to best make sure that the pot for recreational use was going to be reasonably pure and safe for general consumption and, of course tax the shit out of the product. Oregon also tried to make it difficult for out-of-state investors to take over the market. Keep it local, so to speak.

By the time the tangles were all combed out and the farmers licensed, the entrepreneurs were ready. In Portland there seemed to be a Pot shop every few blocks, and the dispensaries soon outnumbered the Starbucks coffee shops. Business was brisk.

Green Oasis is a cannabis vender that got into the legal side of the trade early and opened a shop in Sellwood, a southeastern part of Portland, close to where we used to live (not that I ever patronized the place of course). It has a very good reputation and is a part of the business community. The Green Oasis keeps a low profile and does little to call attention to itself. The shop looks like a quiet little house on a corner that really fits into a residential setting. About the only difference from the houses around it is a small electric sign in what would be a kitchen window that says, “open.”

Many, if not most, marijuana dispensaries in Portland go to great measures to pull users inside their doors with names like Hemp Dreams, Happy Smoke or Dopy’s Dope and have ads in all the local weekly, hip newspapers. The Green Oasis is just a hushed little place that serves the neighborhood and also has a strong reputation that gathers word-of-mouth customers.

So it was last month that, after a Happy Hour with friends who live in our old neighborhood, we decided to visit Green Oasis. Our friends, who shall remain nameless, wanted to pick up some supplies and we would meet them at the shop after leaving our car at our B&B that is also in Sellwood. The Namelesses had already made their purchases by the time we arrived and had moved on to an open air food cart pod near the dispensary. But we still wanted to check out the goods in the Green Oasis. Sheila wanted something to rub on some sore joints and I was, well, interested in some other products.

Pot shops are quite strict about who comes inside the store for a couple of reasons. One is related to terms of licensing in that they are required to get identification from anyone who wishes to enter. Shoppers must be at least 21 and show proof with picture ID. The other reason is that the cannabis dealers can’t take credit or debit cards as banks or credit unions are unable to support the marijuana industry because the federal government still classifies cannabis as a dangerous and illegal drug. Therefore, the shops have to deal in cash and, of course, cash is quite attractive to criminals. The security at the door, in addition to keeping kids out, also is a precaution against robbery.

As we walked toward the Green Oasis we barely noticed a man who looked a bit confused, a little shabbily dressed but not quite hoboish or homeless sitting on a bench next to the store. Later, the Namelesses would confirm that they’d also seen him and heard him muttering to himself. But, he seemed harmless enough and appeared to be in no danger to himself. We passed him by and entered the shop.

After a woman behind thick, probably bulletproof, glass examined our identification, she unlocked the door and let us inside. The interior of the building smelled almost like incense that was heavily dosed with hemp. There was no smoke or haze, but the air seemed thick, dense, almost liquid. It was rather pleasant once one was acclimated.

The feeling inside such an establishment was a bit strange and even anticlimactic for one who had to purchase a lid of grass from weird people who definitely had some connection to shady operators and smugglers. There was the thrill of underground dealings that were illegal and at the same time it felt.   like being in a special culture. And, there was usually an opportunity to get something to clean your brain out like acid, speed or mushrooms. But, in a modern dispensary everything is right out in the open and is not that different from a pharmacy except a drug store doesn’t have all its pills, tinctures, tablets, ointments, salves and lotions on display. It is also like a cigar store or even a wine shop.

The clerk seemed quite knowledgeable while she explained about the indica and sativa content of cannabis. There are a lot of other active and inactive parts of weed that she listed, but it was hard to keep up with the information.

As we were learning about this new pharmacology, two men showed up and wanted to enter the store. One, a young man maybe in his late twenties, had slipped his ID under the window and waited while the man behind him started making a commotion. The guy that had been sitting on the bench was loudly complaining about something and seemed to find the young man in front of him at fault.

The first fellow was admitted and the door quickly closed behind him, effectively blocking the other guy. The young man was a bit above average in height and had an athletic build as well as a slight Eastern European accent. He no sooner began examining the products inside the glass showcases than the man outside started cursing and accusing the young man of stealing his identification. He kept up the ruckus until the subject of his wrath gave up and said, “Ok, asshole. Let’s take this outside.”

He quickly strode out the door, grabbed the other guy and hauled him out to the sidewalk and punched him in the face. The other guy retaliated by snapping the young man’s Ray Bans. But then the strange fellow quickly retreated and left the area.

The Eastern European returned to the shop and calmly selected his products, paid for them and walked out with his merchandise.

Throughout all this activity the clerks seemed completely oblivious to what was going on. The woman that we were talking with just mentioned that as long as the two adversaries were settling their differences off the property, they would ignore the tussle. No need to call the police. Don’t need that kind of publicity.

Huh. Marijuana has such a gentle and peaceful reputation.

The Yaak Valley

We’ve been gone for a month and I’d like to use the fact that there frequently was no Internet coverage as an excuse for not writing anything. Nothing on the blog, nothing in e-mails, little texting and only a few sentences in my journal. I took my guitar along but took it out of its case maybe twice. My art supplies were hardly touched. I did, however, have two {sic} beers every evening. My default mode was reading. 

I also packed my running shoes and exercise clothing that remained in a gym bag for the entire trip. At first I told myself that it was too chilly or rainy. After a week of kidding myself, I just gave up and let myself gain all the weight that I’d lost over the last six months.

Being a sloth can be rewarding if one is in the right frame of mind.


The Yaak Valley is an isolated area in the Northwest corner of Montana, and most of the folks that live in that sparsely populated region are people who are not comfortable with being around others. There are guys hiding from the law, from angry women (or men), from the world (who can blame them?), but most are harmless in their isolation. There is a sort of faux lawlessness and aggressive edge in the Yaak Valley. Consider the following, a story, that is mildly accurately repeated here,  that the owner of the Dirty Rotten Shame Saloon in Yaak recounted:

The Dirty Rotten Shame Saloon is one of maybe four businesses in Yaak and is directly across the street from the only other bar in town, so one can easily compute that 50% of the establishments in town are devoted to drinking. The bartender at the Dirty Rotten Shame contends that the competition across the road, The Yaak Bar and Restaurant, is geared for family dining, and that during tourist season has its share of customers while the Dirty Rotten Shame Saloon has a constant patronage throughout the year. 

The Dirty Rotten Shame Saloon does not look particularly inviting as one drives into the small collection of buildings that is Yaak. The bar on the other side of the street is well lit and might have several vehicles parked in front. In fact, if it weren’t for the loud, raucous, rock ‘n roll music blaring from speakers on its disheveled porch, the Dirty Rotten Shame Saloon looks closed and abandoned. But, the locals know.

Upon entering the Dirty Rotten Shame Saloon (the saloon, since the other bar is now irrelevant to this already lengthy story) the first thing noticed is the giant cardboard cutout of Donald Trump in the back. The second is the Confederate battle flag tacked to the ceiling above the bar. Third is the scant number of patrons present. The customers that in the saloon seem to be wary and furtively glaring at each other as they sit far from each other.

FOX news brays constantly from a television above the back of the bar.


A year, or so ago, two locals, brothers, were in the saloon looking for the ex-girlfriend of the younger one. In fact the woman for whom they were searching was hiding in the saloon’s women’s restroom, afraid to come out and deal with the two siblings who were steadily ordering more shots and beers, becoming louder and more aggressive. The owner finally reached the most unusual point, for the saloon, of warning the boys to calm down. 

The boisterous lads could not control themselves and were thrown out of the saloon. However they did not feel they were fairly treated and stood out on the street shouting and cursing about the injustice of their situation. Finally they decided that it was their right to force their way back into the saloon.

As the brothers approached the saloon’s rickety steps, the owner stepped out onto the porch and lifted a can up so they could plainly see what they faced.

“Gonna bear spray you boys if you try to come up here,” he warned.

“Gonna kick your ass, mother fucker,” the older brother eloquently replied in a slurred snarl.

The owner answered with stream of bright orange spray that immediately got past the intoxicated state of both lads who reacted with coughing, snorting and weeping gasps of pain. They chose to retreat.

There was a quiet respite on the street of Yaak that lasted for about fifteen minutes before the brothers started racing their muffler-less, vintage Ford pickup back and forth through town. With the bravado of high school sophomores they hurled curses at the saloon each time they passed by. At some point one of them must have realized that their taunting was as useless as trying to outfart a tornado. A new tactic was in order.

The saloon’s owner saw the brothers park their truck down the road. He saw them grab stuff out of the back of the cab before splitting up. The older one started walking back down the road while his brother stumbled off to the side. In a few minutes there was again shouting and cussing outside the front of the saloon. The owner opened the door to find the older brother waving a pistol around, daring the owner to spray him again. The owner quietly closed the door and called the sheriff. 

A ninety year old patron turned to his son and said, “Damn, this place ain’t changed in fifty years.”

The owner asked everyone to stay in their seats and requested the two men at the pool table to resume their game later and to take a seat. “All the meals and drinks will be on the house but please don’t go outside until the sheriff has arrived and after he says it is safe to leave.”

After ten minutes and the sheriff had not yet arrived, the owner looked outside the side window of the saloon and was startled to see the younger brother sitting on a stump not twenty yards away. He had a rifle with a spotting scope aimed directly at the window. The owner stepped away from the window and again called the sheriff’s depart. He reiterated the problem and explained that the idiots outside the saloon had gotten even more out of hand. He ended the call by saying,”Stop fucking around and get over here before someone gets killed and by 

God it’s not going to be me.”

Before the owner started to unlock his gun cabinet, sirens could be heard and soon the blue and white flashing lights of the sheriff’s vehicles were in front of the saloon. The older brother threw down his gun and started to run, but two deputies quickly caught up with him, handcuffed him and gently sat him down in the back of a patrol car. The poor lad was exhausted after such a busy evening, so he passed out.

The younger brother remained sitting on the stump with his rifle trained on the interior of the saloon. A number of deputies surrounded him, pointing their own rifles at the drunk man, shouting at him to drop the rifle and to lie down. The man did not move. The deputies waited for the order to shoot, but the sheriff slowly approached the rifleman. The words the lawman used were too quiet for anyone to hear except the man with the rifle.

After a couple of minutes the sheriff, with one hand stretched out toward the man, was standing next to him. The riotous, loudmouth jerk handed over his gun without a word. 

After the brothers were on their way to jail, the sheriff walked into the saloon, and assured everyone it was safe to leave. Of course, nobody wanted to leave. They were having too much fun. The sheriff wanted to know where the ex-girlfriend was. He wanted to interview her about the night. Someone said that she was still in the women’s room.

Knocking on the door of the restroom, the sheriff called on the woman to come out. 

“Oh, God,” came a voice through the door. “Do I have to?”

“Yeah, you do, Becky, and I have to take that drivers work permit away from you.”

Becky had received a DUII a few weeks prior to the above incident, but she’s pleaded a hardship in that she had to drive to work. She got a permit to drive to her place of employment, but was restricted to a work trip only. She also was forbidden to go into any place that served alcohol.

After visiting Yaak and the Dirty Rotten Sham Saloon, one has the impression that this story is not unusual for the Yaak Valley.


Almost Time

There are forsythia down the street, blasting out their yellow blossoms and the weather app on my iPad indicates that the temperature here in Missoula will hit 80 on Friday. Leaves are beginning to appear on many of the trees. Boxelder bugs are crawling around on the side of our back door. The air smells green. Someone has already mowed a lawn. It is almost time to pull the cover off of Siegfried and reconnect the battery. Wake him up after the long winter’s slumber.

Siegfried is a dark red, ‘97 BMW R1100rt motorcycle. It is a big bike, and I wonder if it is too large for me at my age, 75. I admit that I am a bit nervous about rocking it off the center stand and taking it out for the first ride of the year. Hell, I’m a little scared to start it.

Last Fall when I wanted to charge the battery before disconnecting it for the Winter, the temperature was around 40 degrees. I noticed, in the past, that when the weather was cool the throttle tended to be sluggish and the motor would race slightly between gears. But, I was unprepared for the roar of the engine the last time it started it. The tachometer immediately jumped into the red zone and stayed there. I was just reaching for the kill switch when Siegfried calmed down.

He must be getting temperamental.

My first bike was a bright red Honda CB350 named Rudy, and he was less than three times the size of Siegfried. Even so, I thought I was sorta, borderline Hells Angel when I puttered around the University of Wisconsin Madison in the seventies. There were two or three other guys with motorcycles of the same size, some of them had two cycle engines —— rrrrrrrr-ring-a-ding-ding. Stinking, black smoke coming out of the exhausts.

Sometimes we’d ride over to Middleton or Stoughton and terrorize those small towns. When we came down those main streets the residents would hide in their locked houses and stores would suddenly close for fear of our rampage.

Later, in Seattle, I bought a blue Yamaha 650 named Toranaga after a character in the novel Shogun by James Clavel. It was a fast bike and looked a little like a Triumph 650, the prettiest motorcycle ever built. The Yamaha was a very reliable machine and easy to work on, but that vintage of Triumph, well it was a miracle if it started.

My next bike was a red 750 Yamaha that came with the name of Fred and had a three cylinder engine that remained a mystery to me. God never intended a motor to have an odd number of combustion chambers and certainly would not have approved of valve lifters that had to be adjusted with shims. Shims were something used in carpentry, not motorcycles.

Another odd feature, or lack of feature I should say, about Fred, is that he came to me without a side stand. That was a real pain in the ass, especially when the bike was fully loaded for touring. It took a huge effort to buck all that weight back on the center stand when ever I stopped.

It might have been in a small town in Wyoming where the lack of a side stand got me in trouble. Just after filling the tank with gas, I wheeled the back away from the pumps and decided to get something to drink. Taking the motorcycle to the back of the gas station I stopped, turned off the motor, swung off the bike and walked away. A few seconds later there was a big crash behind me, and when I looked back, Fred was lying on his side with gasoline pouring out of the tank. I’d forgotten to set the bike up on the center stand.

Jesus, what a dolt.

With all the shit strapped on the pinion seat, it was impossible for me to lift Fred up to a standing position. After a few useless efforts and getting dizzy from the fumes of the gas flooding onto the hot engine and muffler, I race into the station and dragged the attendant out of his office and pulled him, by the arm, to the fallen bike. I bullied him into helping me pull the overloaded, stinking motorcycle up and roll it out of the pool of gas.

I put the bike on the center stand, and then thanked the guy for his heroic effort. My embarrassment was such that I forgot about my thirst and rode off without explaining how I had expected that the motorcycle would stand by itself without support. A car will, a tricycle will, but a motorcycle will not.

The Beast, a black ‘81 Honda Goldwing was my next motorcycle, and was named after its ungainly handling.

But, I digress.

I am going to Alaska for a week, and when I return I will be ready to ride.

Yes, I am nervous. But, I think that being a little frightened is a good thing on a motorcycle. It keeps me alert. From experience and tales of other bikers, I am convinced that we are invisible. Drivers, me included in this category, do not see bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, or even pedestrians on the road. They are looking for cars and trucks, not those of us that are smaller than a Bug or Mini-Cooper.

Still, being on a motorcycle is a delightful challenge. There are few other vehicles, other than a small airplane, that give the feel of strength and freedom. Sitting on that seat with all that power underneath is to feel a superhero kind of strength. The rider feels the road and the bike responds to every shift of weight. The handlebars don’t steer. They have the clutch and brake options and give the rider something to hang on to. A turn is negotiated by leaning. It’s almost a feeling of being the machine itself.

The rider is in the environment and odors of hay, freshly mown grass, cattle, horses, fruit trees, dry leaves in the Fall, cooking add to the experience. Sounds of birds, cattle, geese, children on playgrounds, and others that would be missed in a car come to the biker above the rushing wind and growl of the engine. Air temperature changes rapidly from cools shade in a wooded area to the warmth of the prairie in sunshine. Then there is the blazing hot radiant heat of the desert compared to the cold icy air of a mountain pass that seems to suck the heat out of the body.

Speed. Jesus, the feeling of ripping down the highway at 120+ an hour. Other vehicles seem as though they are crawling, maybe going 20 mph.

One would think that I am too old for this shit.

Well, maybe I am. But, I am looking forward to one more season, at least. And, it’s almost time.

Arrivederci Roma

We’ve checked into our flight tomorrow that leaves at 0945. Our bags are packed, and a ride to the airport has been arranged. We have seen what we’d planned for.

Rick Steves said in at least two of his travel videos that Rome could be brutal, but we found the city quite friendly, even gentle. Almost everyone we approached could speak a little English and tried to be helpful. We were warned about pickpockets, but there was no evidence of any thievery.

That’s not to say that there were no artful dodgers about. We were always carful with our belongings, and the public transportation was never crowded when we were aboard. As one of the entries in the flat’s visitor log indicated, people do get victimized. One fellow lost 500 euros and an expensive money clip to a pickpocket on the Metro.

Rome was nice to us as we had plenty of time to saunter around, and we planned only to visit a few important sites. We took guided tours and never stood in line. The following are some of the memories:

The tolling of the bells on the church across the street from our flat.

A beggar that cried, and kept crying as he tried to encourage me to give him more money. He was able to immediately stop the tears as soon as waiter made him moved on. Then he began crying again at a table further down the street.

The beauty of the Roman Spring as the leaves squirted out of the tree buds, the blossoms, lavender, yellow, pink suddenly appearing where there were only bare, brown branches the day before.

Incredible, detailed sculpture that has withstood the elements for hundreds of years.

Tall Egyptian obelisks that were hauled to Imperial Rome without modern equipment. How in the hell did they do that?

Rome - 34

Pasta (all done a perfect el dente), wine, seafood, gelato. The colors of the Italian ice cream were enough to tempt even that strongest willed dieter. The flavors seemed endless: black cherry, banana, several kinds of chocolate, vanilla, orange, lemon, and an infinite number of combinations.

We had a gelato shop just half a block from our apartment, and every night we would go down and try a new flavor. In the end we both chose the ricotta and pistachio combination as our favorite.


Some highlights:

The first place we visited was the Borghese Gallery. We arrived at the museum over an hour before the scheduled tour so we had plenty of time to have a snack and coffee in the cafeteria. It was fortunate for us as we had walked the entire distance from our flat. We had looked at a map, but we misjudged how far the hike would be. We were still feeling our jet lag and were beat upon our arrival. The coffee helped.

After two americanos I was alert, but I needed a bathroom before the tour began. The toilet was behind the cafeteria, but there was a sign in Italian and English that said that the facilities were only available to patrons who had a ticket to the museum. I had no ticket, but I had a reservation for the tour on my iPad.

I must have looked respectable (or old) because the woman who was guarding the toilet waved me in without asking for a ticket. The dumper was a water closet. That is, the stool was in a small, narrow room, not a stall like most American restrooms. It looked clean, but that was the end of the comfort.

I had to do a number two, and there was no seat on the stool. The toilet paper dispenser was ripped off the wall, but fortunately there was a roll hanging on a shard of plastic where the dispenser was supposed to be. But, no matter how many times I tried, the stool would not flush.

The tour of the Borghese Gallery was fantastic. Among the most impressive pieces of art, to me, were the 3-D effects of wall paintings of statues that appeared to be holding up the ceiling on the top floor. We couldn’t dawdle as we only had limited time in the gallery, and that was a shame as there is so much art to see: Bernini, Rafael, Caravaggio and so many others. Our docent was excellent, but we had to feel sorry for her. She spoke nonstop for over two hours, starting outside the museum. It was disappointing to hear the announcement at the end, telling visitors that they had to leave the building.

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There is one painting by an artist in the same period as Bernini that will always be etched into my memory of a gathering of women to an archery exhibition facilitated by the goddess Diana. There are a couple of guys hiding in bushes while they spy on the women as the ladies are watching Dianna hit impossible targets with her arrows.

There are so many things to notice in the painting, but the one that was most stunning to me was a young woman, nude in a pond, ignoring the exhibition. Instead, she is looking at the observer with the most wonton appearance that I’d ever seen. Her eyes are almond shaped and her lips full. Under the surface of the small pond, her legs can be seen to be slightly apart.

Yes, I might be a lech, but the artists was a genius having that sort of ability to portray such an incredible look that is more inviting than any photo.




We also took a tour that included the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, the Forum and some other ruins. Again, we had a guide who was full of information and never stopped talking through the three hours she was with us.

There is nothing I can say about these ancient leftovers other than to mention that very few visitors remember that the glory of the Roman Empire that lasted over a thousand years was supported mainly by the work of slaves. The other thing that was much less important was that after the fall of the empire, it was forgotten that the Palatine Hill was part of the palaces of emperors. It was known for hundreds of years as “Cow Hill” and was used as a pasture.

It seems somehow fitting that Nero’s tomb, as well as other emperors, was covered with grass and used to feed cattle and sheep.


Of course, who could visit the Eternal City without checking out the Vatican museum, but the only way to do it is to book a tour. Otherwise one can stand in line for up to four hours just to get a ticket. And there are no bathrooms while one waits. [I would have to have a coffee can or other vessel if I had to wait that long.]

Once again, our docent kept up a stream of information for the entire time, even while we waited for our tickets to be validated. She didn’t waste much time with explanations as we headed toward the Sistine Chapel, and she promised we would return to spend more time looking at the walls and art later. As a result of her economy of time, we were some of the first visitors inside the Sistine Chapel that morning. We could even sit and observe the ceiling where Michelangelo did his incredible work.

This chapel is open without any benches or other furnishings. The only time it seems to be used is when the cardinals are gathered to select a new pope. During the election, the benches and desks are brought in as well as the stove where they burn the special paper that announces to the public if a pope has been chosen. Black smoke for “no” and white smoke for “yes.”

Probably the most familiar of Michelangelo’s Sistine paintings is the creation of Adam. The next panel shows the creation of the sun, moon, and God’s butt. Might be my favorite.


That’s not blasphemy, is it?




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When we finally woke up the second time yesterday, the sky was almost as blue as New Mexico’s in the winter. But here in Rome, green leaves had come out on the trees outside our window and the bells of the church across the street were tolling. Scooters were buzzing, horns were tooting from tiny cars, and the air brakes on the bus hissed loudly. Get up, said the world. Everything is waiting for you.

With all the walking we do, we usually sleep late. It might be our age, but we don’t feel old. It might have been Anne Lamotte who said, “I don’t feel like I am old. I feel like a young person with a lot of things wrong with her.”

The weather was predicted to be very pleasant, and it looked like a good day to do some wandering around the old neighborhood of Trastevere, an area in the southwest part of Rome. Our friend Mary had spoken highly of Trastevere, so we decided to visit for the day.

We had learned to use the subway and the bus systems. We could buy tickers for the Metro from machines just at the turnstiles . Bus tickets were purchased at tobacco stores. But, this was urban transportation that I’d dreaded. Guide books, our host, friends, and other sources had warned us that there were pickpockets in abundance on these rides. As it happened, we were never bumped or groped by anyone. Perhaps we looked too old to have anything valuable on us.

It was late morning when we arrived in Trastevere, and the narrow streets had very few tourists, only a few locals going on there daily business. Sheila asked a woman who was just going into her residence where we might find some good coffee. She indicated a little spot that we’d just gone by, so we retraced our steps and entered.

It was obvious the moment we walked through the door that in was a little cafe that catered to local residents. The young woman behind the pastry case spoke very little English. She had long dark hair tied back with a scarf, dark eyes with long black eyelashes and wore a white top with black slacks.

Not that I noticed.

She pointed out the different pastries, but it was only the black cherry tart that we could identify. We ordered two pieces and our usual coffees, an Americano and a Cappuccino.

There was an elderly couple sitting at a table across from us (older than us!) who were laughing and talking with an old guy with a blue, corduroy cap and dark jacket as well as a middle aged fellow with a lot of tattoos and jewelry. The guy with the ink seemed to work at the cafe.

After a bit the woman was by herself as she was absorbed in her smart device while she rolled a cigarette with a little machine. I was familiar with the device as I’d had one in college that I used to roll joints.

Later we tried to find the botanical gardens that were shown on our map. We followed the winding, narrow streets the best we could toward where we thought the gardens might be. I was a little suspicious of my compass as the poles had mysteriously reversed a couple of years ago, but Sheila confirmed its accuracy with her iPhone compass. We seemed to be heading in the right direction.

After climbing a long set of stairs that seemed to lead in the right direction, we found ourselves in front of a gate that had a sign indicating that we’d arrived at the botanical garden. The gate was locked. The sign, in Italian, also seemed to say that the entrance was elsewhere, on the other side of the huge garden.

The stairs had been steep and long. We were wheezing and puffing, trying to recover from the long climb as well as being a bit pissed that we couldn’t enter the garden from this point. But, after recovering from our acute fatigue we went on to explore the area which turned out to have fabulous view of the city. Wandering on we stopped to enjoy views through the branches of pines as well as blooming fruit trees that spread the fragrance of spring. We could see the colosseum, the Palatine Hills and the ruins of the forum. In the far distance, mountains were covered with snow. Here, away from the noise and bustle of the city, we could hear a variety of birds praising the day with song. Now the long climb up the stair seemed very much worth the effort.

We came to an area where a number of people were looking over a short, rock wall. After checking out the view and taking a few photos, we became curious. It was crowded and difficult to see. We asked each other, “what do they see down there?” Maybe there were animals, possibly pea fowl. Lions? Elephants?

Just as we were getting close and about to look over the wall——BOOM! Smoke filled the air around us, and our ears were ringing. As the crowd cleared, we could finally look over and see a couple of soldiers rolling a canon back into the bunker below. A WWII artillery piece had been fired to mark the noon hour.