Mazama Retreat, Day 6

pileated_woodpecker_marcussharpe

Photo by Marcus Sharpe, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The pileated woodpecker struck first. The fiery red streak across the top of its head stood in sharp contrast to the muted yellow of an alder grove as it hunted carpenter ants up a 15-foot snag.

golden_eagle_glamor

Photo by Ganesh Jayaraman, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A golden eagle rose from the slope below the road to Tiffany Mountain, 20 feet away as it lifted off over Boulder Creek.

The valley glowed yellow below glacier-carved mountainsides hung with wide swaths of burned forest, some as gray as the slopes facing Mt. St. Helens but without the blast effect. Steep acreage with sharp boundaries, rich green with new growth, showed off dots and stripes of larch, its uniquely deciduous needles golden in the sun.

Larch Close

My photo, Mazama

I felt disappointed there wasn’t more snow. On a previous visit, I’d spotted mountain lion tracks in morning powder. The fresh paw prints emerged onto the edge of the washboard and headed down the road. I followed.

mountain lion

National Park Service photo

Maybe 100 yards on, an equally fresh set of deer tracks appeared, heading in the same direction. Did the wily feline sense the deer down in the brush and take the higher road to look for it? Perhaps the deer came up on the road to make better time getting away. The two sets of tracks ran parallel for 200 yards before disappearing downslope. Who won the duel of wits?

On our hike up Freezeout Ridge toward Tiffany, we spotted many tracks. Traversing burned and fallen stands of Engleman Spruce and Lodgepole Pine, we found snowshoe hare, the prints shallow and muted, covered by the previous night’s thin layer of powder.

Snowshoe Hare

Photo from ActiveWild.com. The photo captures the hare’s gait, which leaves an imprint of the small forepaws behind those of the long snowshoe paws.

A deer, its tracks as fresh and clear as Jessie’s, had taken the easy way up for a while, walking the trail before veering off.

Parnassus

Kotzebue Grass of Parnassus. Photo by Slichter, science.halleyhosting.com

As we moved out of charcoal forest and onto snow-blanketed meadows, we spotted skittery mouse tracks, barely visible due to new snow. The dry brown remnants of summer flowers poked through crust strong enough to carry a 54-pound dog. Hard to say, but surely some of those grass tips were the tops of tall, delicately flowered and, at least to me, curiously named Kotzebue’s Grass of Parnassus, a signature of the Tiffany biosphere.

The largest prints, at first, looked human, old and rounded by wind and snowfall, but one revealed a cloven hoof. Another set looked brand new, the print of the hoof and dew claws of an elk clearly visible, the telltale scatter of snow around the footprints revealing just how fresh they were. We stopped, wondering how close this animal might be, how big, how many prongs on its vast antlers.

Elk in Snow

National Forest Service photo

But what would an elk be doing at 7,500 feet on a ridge two feet deep in snow? A smart and savvy veteran staying high to avoid human hunters? A young misinformed male trying to establish territory in a place no self-respecting female would venture? An alpine gourmand looking for still-green Idaho Fescue hiding under the densely packed branches of ridgetop krummholz? Or an old timer, like me, looking for some sunshine to warm his tired bones?

On the way home, a hawk circled up from a roadside tree and resettled on a branch 15 feet from my car window. I can’t identify it, other than to say it was about two-thirds the size of the golden eagle, dark brown with many white markings. Seeing it motivated me to spend a couple hours researching the flora and fauna of the Tiffany highlands. Go. I’ll certainly go back.

Mazama Retreat, Day 5

Deeply personal writing, especially about suffering, challenges  the best writers. Other people played roles and even the most objective reporting can’t fully capture all points of view. I’m far from the best writer, and I have enough journalism experience to know how hard it is to get a simple news story right. In the past few days’ worth of posts, I’ve done my best to share what I’ve learned, not complain or blame. I’ve tried to show my struggle and the ideas and people that helped pull me through.

Arthur SchopenhauerI heed Arthur Schopenhauer’s advice: A man should choose to respond to his misfortunes more as a knower than as a sufferer. For me, to truly know, I have to write, and rewrite, research, check myself, get advice, and rewrite again. I take the risk of publishing because if sharing what I know helps just one other person, it’s worth it. And I always welcome comments or challenges, both critical and complimentary. That’s how I’ll get better. Thank you.

Mazama Retreat, Day 4

I have two adult children from whom I have been involuntarily estranged for years. The separation took place in the months before my middle child Andrew died of brain cancer. I can speculate on the reasons for their actions, and I’m certain some of my own behavior contributed, but I’ll leave it at this: They made a choice. And I’ve yet to fully accept it.

The good news is that both of my surviving children are amazing individuals. What papa wouldn’t be proud? What papa, under these circumstances, wouldn’t try everything imaginable to at least get a conversation with them?

The bad news is that, based on all the research I’ve found and all the professional advice I’ve received, there is nothing I can do. But I kept trying. Until a year ago.

Last October, I received a message through a third party that my communications were no longer welcome. None. “Do not contact me again.”

What changed? Why? Why now? Along with those questions came shame. I got it that I was being forced to let go, but emotionally I viewed letting go as a betrayal. As abandonment. Having been abandoned by my father (at about the same age my children cut themselves off from me) I had long sworn to never walk away from my children. I can count at least a dozen major decisions, both personal and professional, where the most important factor was my children.

St AugustineThanks to a one-week monastic retreat, I became reluctantly comfortable with what I must do: Respect their wishes. To do that, I had to internalize a lesson from St. Augustine.

I had believed that I could slowly convince them to come back. I was wrong. I came to understand that my persistence was driven by pride: As the father, I know better what’s good for my children. Yes, pride. Arrogance. Worse, I realized I’d been making life harder for them, not easier. By pulling on them, I added stress to their lives.

Augustine had two messages. First, if you want to impart something to anyone, you need to know who they are and speak in a manner they will understand. Implicit is that they must be willing to listen.

Later, Augustine talked about John the Baptist. Before he baptized Jesus, many people thought John was the Messiah. He kept saying no, not me, but he’s coming, get ready. He could have said yes and been believed, and basked in the glory of being treated like the Messiah. But he humbled himself. As Augustine said, “He saw where his salvation lay. He understood that he was a lamp, and his fear was that it might be blown out by the wind of pride.” Just as Brother Stanislaw read that word “pride,” a sunbeam exploded through a stained glass window and lit up the pale butter-colored walls of the church like a rainbow.

Okay, I thought: Message received. Practice humility.

I can’t help feeling sorrow. It helps, a little, to re-read St. Augustine. Maybe the hardest is to set aside an old family aphorism that my father attributes to his grandmother Maria: Pazienza e’ la madre di tutte le virtu’. Patience is the mother of all virtues. Why set it aside? Because it implies hope. At least for me, humility trumps hope. To be truly humble, I must surrender all hope.

I surrendered.

Mazama Retreat, Day 3

Today marks the 15th anniversary of my son Andrew’s death. Once it was clear the end was near, I made it my mission to help him prepare. Very quickly he let me know there wasn’t much I could tell him. I figured out I should turn myself around, and walk beside him. I don’t know whether I made much of a difference, but he achieved what I might call grace. He could talk about it. When the time came, he was ready.

AndrewSelf reducedAndrew continues to inspire me and, so I hear, many others.

These days, I find myself wondering how I might help others. I recently lost an uncle. My father is over 90, my mother in her mid 80s. A friend my age battles cancer. I’m well aware that the lifelong impulse to “solve the problem” won’t help, but it’s easy to slip into that mental habit. Augustine reminds me to be humble. That, in order to be heard, one must speak the hearer’s language. And, sometimes, simply remain silent, open and available.

Mazama Retreat, Day 2

Yesterday, I mentioned sleep. This particular week, I need lots of it. I fell into bed last night around 10:30 and woke up just after 8. The first thing I did (after taking care of Jessie), I sat down to write. Just whatever. I opened my journal, picked up a pen, and started writing. About a dream. I wrote what I remembered about it, then I wrote what I thought about the story in the dream, then I wrote what I felt about it. About 20 minutes in, my writing hand started to go numb. After 30 minutes, I had two and a half pages of hastily written whatever came to mind. Interesting stuff. I’ll try it again tomorrow.

Slate Peak 2016The mountains called us today, to Harts Pass. As many times as I’ve made that trip, I still git nervous when that old washboard forest road gives way to a rocky track blasted from a cliff face named Dead Horse Point. Heck, two years ago, I run into a rock slide and had to turn around. No mean feat, about a 17-point turn, with my back end hanging over the edge. You fall, you die. Snow, same thing, I’ve done it a thousand times and got stuck – and got myself unstuck — a couple, but I still worry. Then, to git up that last quarter mile, I had to drop the old Land Cruiser into low range with both differentials locked. That snow was heavy as concrete what with all the rain. Them wheel ruts was so deep my undercarriage, as high as it is, plowed snow up the middle. That old rig started slippin. I got her stopped and a glance in the rearview reminded me of what I already knew: It would be 400 yards of reverse down a slippery slope to the nearest turnaround. Maybe if I back up a little, then run at it again. So I dropped it into reverse, just six feet or so. I moved into neutral, fingers drumming on the shifter. Give it a couple of tries, see if it’ll go. Into drive. Tap the gas. A little more. I felt a little oof as the tires pushed through the clogged up rut. A bounce right. A bounce left. But still movin, still movin and then…made it!

Jessie Harts Pass 2016 CroppedJessie promptly buried herself in the snow. I strapped on my snowshoes and we hiked maybe a mile and a half up to the Pacific Crest Trail junction. No broad vistas, what with clouds and snow flurries, but beautiful and soothing still.

Mazama Retreat Day 1, Part 2

With some improvisation, my Pappardelle al Ragu di Cinghiale came together and proved delicious. All natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free pork; organic carrots, onion, celery and Italian parsley; house-grown organic garlic, rosemary and thyme; organic whole wheat flour and tomato paste; Scarpetta’s Fricco Rosso Tuscan blend; Costco’s pecorino romano, and fresh pappardelle.Cinghiale 2016

I think I’m going to rename it Pappardelle Mazama. Let me know if you’d like the recipe.

Jessie and I had a good long walk to the Mazama store after breakfast.

Jessie w PonderosasOn our way, a big pickup truck hauling a very long livestock trailer pulled up and just stopped in the middle of the adjacent road. A couple jumped out, swung the trailer gate open and led off two saddled horses. We exchanged friendly hellos as they mounted up and explained themselves: They were after some runaway cattle. “We gotta get’em quick, they won’t hang around,” he said, and they galloped off in pursuit of four cows lounging in a nearby aspen grove.

Well those cows didn’t just stand around and wait to be herded. They got up right quick and took off across the Mazama meadow, blazing their own path through hip-high golden grasses. The horseback couple raced into position, flanking the bovines, and they must have gone a mile or so before a corral near the store swallowed up the escapees.

I’m guessing those cud-chewers just didn’t want to be somebody’s lunch.

Mazama Retreat, Day 1

Ever since my son died, in 2001, I’ve gone on retreat the last week of October. The 26th marks the anniversary of Andrew’s death. Cancer. He was 16. I come to Mazama, just outside North Cascades National Park, at the head of the beautiful Methow Valley. Just me and my lab, Jessie. We get easy access to alpine trails with soul-soothing vistas. We walk through sun-gilded meadows and groves of nearly leafless aspen. Ponderosa pines surround our cabin, straight and silent sentinels, protective of those seeking solace.

Mazama Meadow

Mazama meadow

I’ve developed some rituals. On the trip up, my first stop is Andrew’s memorial bench, erected by his classmates at his high school. I also visit with Jon, a dear friend who lives nearby and dad to Jessie’s brother Homer. (Homer died a couple of months ago.) I then take the long way around, via Stevens Pass and faux-Bavarian Leavenworth where I grab a brat and beer before proceeding up the Columbia River valley. We stop again at Twisp to visit Tappi, my favorite Italian restaurant, before the final push to Mazama, dodging road-roving deer.

Good sleep is priority one. First, a little man-dog ritual: Worn leather sofa, spread with towels to protect it from dog, six paws stretched toward the warmth of the fire. I sip a single-malt scotch and gaze at the flames.

In the morning, it’s coffee, one of my beloved’s morning muffins, and a bit of writing. If it’s a stick-around-the-cabin day, Jessie and I will stroll to the Mazama Store. Other days, we’ll go to Harts Pass or Tiffany Mountain. Our hikes have gotten shorter and easier. Jessie’s 13 now, with arthritis in one hip and both front paws. I look for places to get her on snow, which she loves.

I cook most nights. Each meal is a meditation. A seasonal specialty is Pappardelle al Ragu di Cinghiale (wide noodles with a sauce of braised wild boar). Boar is tough to find, but I have an orchard that produces so many apples that I trade hundreds of pounds to a farmer friend. I take mostly yogurt in trade, and usually a free-range apple-finished pork loin. Due to travel, Kelsey postponed what she calls her hogs’ “meet their maker” date to November. Fortunately, my friendly Twisp chef knows a local meatsmith.

Today’s a stick-around-the-cabin day. After breakfast, we’ll walk over to the store.

Orange Milk?

Having been involved with the national rollout of Smartfood, a brand built on white cheddar cheese (who ever heard of orange milk?), I cracked up when I spotted this billboard in Seattle.Darigold White Cheddar

On Hold

On June 30, I suspended work on my second novel, working title Lidija. I’ve just posted the opening scene. As they say in the business world, I ran out of runway, and for the foreseeable future, I will be back in that business world. For more information about my business activities, please visit my LinkedIn profile.

Will I keep writing fiction? You bet. I must. I don’t know how much, but I will. As James Baldwin wrote,

“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable…The world changes according to the way people see it, and if [with your writing] you alter, even by a millimeter, the way…people look at reality, then you can change it.”

 

Andrew Visits

Andrew provided the fourth miracle at St. Leo. The day of remembrance for bereaved parents fell during my week there. At 7 pm, I borrowed a votive candle from the church and took out my photo of Andrew. I lit the candle and once again a crazy idea grabbed me and I, well, I started talking to Andrew. We spoke for 20 minutes. Me out loud, imagining what he would say.

Andrew, circa 1991, Dallas

Andrew, circa 1991, Dallas

His irreverence gently skewered me, a beacon of rationality. I could hear him, chastising me for pressing gifts and letters on the two who didn’t want to hear from me, even though I knew it wouldn’t work. Even though I knew they didn’t want anything from me. He said, “You are such a dork. You’ve been annoying them.”

Annoying. Great. Thanks. Now you tell me.

“All you had to do is ask.”