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 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.”

One Man to Another

At St. Leo Abbey, Father David showed me the way to the third miracle. I resisted letting go, equating it with abandonment. The moment my firstborn landed in my hands, I vowed I would never leave him. My father abandoned me, and I can imagine nothing more shameful.

Blessing 2When I finished my story, Father David sat silent for a minute. “I sense your suffering. A big part of that is the pain of rejection by people you love. But letting go is not at all the same as abandoning. You aren’t abandoning them. They abandoned you.”

I felt freed of a burden. It’s not up to me. There is nothing I can do. I must wait.

Father David offered me a blessing. I’m not a religious man, but I thought, “He believes he can channel the Holy Spirit. Nothing to lose.” He crossed himself and gently put his hand on my head. “May God bless you.” It was a gift, from one man to another.