Sunday, September 12, 2010

Overheard in a Thrift Store

I'm shopping in Deseret Industries (the Mormon version of Goodwill
Industries) in Vernal, Utah, when I hear this conversation between a
man (I'd say about 55) and a very young boy (6).
"Well, how ya doing, Tommy," the older man says.
Tommy says, "OK."
The older man continues: "You not kissing any girls are ya?"
What? My shoulders square. I'm on alert for inappropriate something, I
don't know what.
Tommy doesn't say anything, But, Tommy's daddy (I'm guessing) says,
"Be polite, Tommy, and answer Mr. Clark."
"No, sir." I can hear Tommy giggling.
"Well that's good, because you know what happens to little boys who go
kissing little girls?" I lean in, ready to intervene (and I still
don't know why.)
"They lose their teeth."
I can hear Tommy really giggle now. Then he slides into one of those
really good childhood belly laughs.
Turns out Tommy just lost both his front teeth and Mr. Clark knew this
and was giving Tommy a good tease.
And me, too.

A Real Regular Day

My shuttle bus seat is small, because I'm not. That's often the case
with seats, doors and the like. I'm a large person and regular stuff
doesn't fit my regular.
I try to stand between me and my immense bounty. I'll bike ride,
paddle, hike, climb, swim or take steps (450 of 'em in Wind Cave) to
explore and enjoy the world. Frankly, I often do it slower than
regular people, or with more gasping. But I get it done. And I love
getting it done.
Today, I'm on a shuttle bus to explore a dinosaur fossil field 5,000
feet up in the Utah mountains. It's a part of the Dinosaur National Monument, a federal park in the upper eastern corner of Utah, on a
border shared with Colorado.
We ride halfway there, then hike a 1/2 mile up into the craggy
mountains in search of the remains of the largest creatures to ever
hang out on Earth.
I look around. There are six other people. No one else squishes out of
a seat. Just me. OK. Game plan A: keep up with the crowd, no matter
what, so I don't stick out. Pretend to be regular.
My group of seven plus our park ranger (a college intern) hop off the
shuttle and begin our ascent. I take up the rear (so no one can hear
me pant).
This isn't bad, The initial ascent is minimal (See the picture? That's
my crew and I'm lagging behind). We hike through three distinct
ecosystems and millions of years of the earth's history. Along the way
the ranger stops us for a chat, to explain the rocks, the mountains,
the dinosaurs. To transform us into amateur paleontologists,
archeologists and geologists. And to rest! Catch our breath! Then we
move on.
As we near the dinosaur field, the pitch becomes steeper, more
challenging. We see fossils, small ones, and learn how to find other
ones. The ranger promises big discoveries. Up there. She points up. To
the trail that goes up. It's a switchback path. With very steep steps
at the end. And it's at the end, she says, where the biggest fossil
can be found.
Bait. She's dangling bait to get us to climb. I go for it, of course,
and I pant my way to the very end, where I see and feel a 6-foot
section of dinosaur femur, just hanging out in the rock face, where
it's been for millions of years. My reward. So worth it. (I didn't get
a picture. Go figure.)
I turn to scramble down and I see a startling sight. Three of the
regular people on this adventure ignored the bait. They're sitting on
a rock ledge. Resting. They've had enough. The steep climb back down
scares them, so they don't climb up. And miss the catch.
OK. This is a big lesson for me. I can climb up and down this mountain
because I want to. Because I challenge myself to do it. Not because
I'm overcoming obesity.
It's because I want to.
So I do.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Day 1: How Hot is Hot?

117 degrees.
That's how hot it is. Outside.
We're in our (air-conditioned) motor home, driving though Death
Valley, CA, in September because we want to see how hot hot is. We
giggle. It's a novelty.
By the time we park and get out, the temperature drops substantially.
To 111.
Not bad. I can breathe. And walk around without breaking a sweat. OK.
This is fun, I think, as the air conditioning from the motor home
lingers on my skin.
We've already decided to buy into a campsite with full hookups (water
and electricity) because the dogs suffer terribly in the heat. (wink
wink.) But we're so concerned about availability (only 14 sites with
hookups in the whole park) we pray about it. We ask God to make a site
available. For the dogs ... you know.
When we inquire for a site at the visitor's center, I'm surprised no
one snickers. Because God made nearly all of the sites available.
Hmmmm. We set up camp. It's 4 p.m. Only one other camper shares our
sense of adventure. There are 188 empty sites.
While Allen plugs in all the utilities, I walk the dogs. We go about
100 yards and I feel the situation change. This heat is no longer a
curiosity. It's real. It's serious. The dogs seem fine. Not even
panting. But I begin to feel hot. Not close, not sweltering. Hugely hot.
We turn back, where I find Otto's metal door handle so hot, it nearly
burns my hand as I touch it. Once inside, I notice my shirt and pants
feel clothes-dryer hot, so I shed the outer layers, quickly. And the
air inside is hot: 90 degrees in the front and 85 in the back. Even
though Allen cranked up the air conditioner 30 minutes ago.
This isn't fun anymore. This is serious. Oh, we aren't going to die or
suffer from heat stroke. Not that kind of serious. Serious in that we
need to pay attention to how we live, so the dogs don't burn their
feet on the ground outside (which Allen read can reach temperatures
above 200) so we don't burn our hands on hot metal or become parched.
I'm beginning to understand why it's called Death Valley.
To survive the heat and enjoy our stay, we need to reverse ourselves,
to live at night and sleep during the day. We nap at 6 (the metal
frame on one side of the bed is as hot as the front door! We use a
pillow as a heat shield.) Awake at 10 p.m. Walk the dogs. Easier. Much
easier. Even though it's 101 degrees. At 10 p.m. There's no sun
belting down on us. The ground is cooler. We watch for coyotes.
We eat dinner at 11 (using the microwave, not stove burners) and it's
now midnight. We need to stay up until the sun shines; but I don't
think we'll make it. We're finally cool (the air conditioning is still
cranked up) but we're tired. We make plans to use our awning
tomorrow to keep the door and bedroom wall from melting. And to shade
the ground for the dogs' feet.
Maybe we'll sit outside under that awning and eat ice cream. If it's
not too hot.

Day 2: Seeking Refuge

My plan fails.
To avoid living in Death Valley's daytime heat, I want to sleep during
the day and play at night. But by 2 a.m., I'm out. Asleep. Lulled by
the cool of the 84-degree nighttime air.
But not for long. At regular intervals, I do battle with the motor
home's air conditioner. Every 10 or so minutes, it rumbles to life,
jolting me awake with its monstrous roar and a face-full of its
breath. After thrashing around, trying to dodge the forced air in my
face, I relent and cocoon inside our sheet, where I lay dormant. For
about 10 minutes, when the next battle ensues.
So by 9 a.m., I stagger awake. And it's already 101 outside. We
venture out to open our awning, sit and read our books, then walk the
dogs. But the air is oven-like and the ground hot, so we collect our
things and move back inside, at intervals. The dogs first, without
that long walk. Then me, then Allen.
By the time we're all ensconced (with my new best friend -- the air
conditioner), the temperature reaches 115 outside.
We nap, read, watch a little video of our church's road rally on
Allen's Nano. We chat, and giggle and shower occasionally throughout
the day because we can, because the water is hot, without turning on
the heater. It's just hot, from the sun pounding on the hose.
At dusk, we take the dogs on that long-promised walk and duck a bat
and coyote on the way. We watch the sunset's crimson tide spill over
the mountaintops and guess at the heat. I say 85. Allen guesses 105.
We check. It's 101. At 9 p.m.
Hot. Hotter than last night.
I'm now yearning for sleep. But hesitate. Because my new best friend
just roared back into action.

Day 3: Relentless Heat

Refreshing. I awake and it's refreshing.
Outside temperature is 81. 81! And there's a gentle breeze. Is that a
fall nip in the air? Ah, refreshing.
I take the dogs for a brief walk, then climb back into bed for an
early morning nap.
Well, while I was out, the fall nip buckled under pressure from a
muscle-bound summer sun. It's now 108.
But a gentle breeze invites us outside again, where we walk the dogs
until one of them (Joshua) cries "ENOUGH!" and beelines for the cool
of the motor home. We set up our chairs under the awning and read,
enjoying the breeze, and feeling the heat rise.
It's now 110.
I decide to hand-wash my laundry to take advantage of the desert
sun. And am amazed: blue jeans dry in 15, maybe 20 minutes; undies,
5; cotton T's, 10. Even our hand towels wick out in less than 10. The
breeze helps. But, now it's not gentle. It's crass. It whips my
laundry, twisting it around. It picks up my shirts and smashes them to
the ground.
The breeze is now a wind and the awning begs to take flight. We wind
it back in, collect our clothes from the desert floor and climb back
inside the motor home, which rocks like a boat on a tempestuous sea.
It's 115 outside.
Welcome to Death Valley.

A Picture As Proof

Austin and Adam are setting out on an adventure of a lifetime.
Please, dear God. Bring them home safely. With just enough good
stories to wow their buddies.

We meet the 20-somethings in Cedar Breaks National Monument in the
southwestern corner of Utah, where the alpine meadow we're walking
through rises above 10,000 feet.

It's so high and surrounded by even higher peaks, I think of the Alps
and Maria twirling around in her noviciate clothing, arms
outstretched, singing "The Sound of Music." Allen and I climb the
gentle mountain top meadow with the dogs and I start humming "The
hills are alive ..." and then stop. Because I have no breath left. I
can't hum and walk at the same time. Ten-thousand feet is high up.
Very high up. How did Maria do it? We lose our breath just bending
over to tie our shoes.

As we walk back to the parking area, we see Adam and Austin, tugging
on their backpacks, adding stuff, taking stuff out. Their loads weigh
as much at they do combined.

"Look at the load that guy is carrying," Allen nods toward one of the
boys. It's an amazing mountain of stuff. We smile. Ah, to be young ...
We climb into the motor home and are set to leave when one of the duo
runs up to our window. And, in doing so, comes into our life.

"Hey, I know you are getting ready to leave, but can you take our

His grin cuts across his whole face.

So young.

We climb out and help document the beginning of their journey, which,
we discover, is the first of its kind for them. Two 20-somethings.
From Las Vegas, elevation 2030, striking out into the hills of Cedar
Breaks, elevation higher than 10,000.

"Take it slow," I warn. "It's pretty high up here."

"I know," Adam replied. "It's hard to breathe just putting our packs

I start to worry, like he's my nephew and I'm somehow responsible.
That's why I prayed.

"How long will you be out there?" I ask.

Just for the holiday weekend. They're due back at work on Tuesday.
I'd love to hear the stories they bring home.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Montana Dog Park: When it rains, it’s a full-out assault

We decide to visit our favorite Montana dog park, Jacob's Island in Missoula, because our Jacob loves to splash around in a babbling brook we found there.

He's our water dog. We like to let him play in water when we can.

We park in a lot we're told is a mile away from Jacob’s Island and start our hike. Which takes forever.

So it's not a mile. It's maybe two. In the meantime, gray clouds mottle the Big Sky and the wind kicks up and the rain begins. Well, it's not quite rain, it’s more like a mist, so we continue on. Jacob has earned his romp in the brook.

By the time we arrive at the dog park, it's raining harder, well, more like sprinkling this time, but the brook's just around the bend, so we go a bit faster. And so does the rain, which is now an insistent sprinkling.

Finally, around the bend we see NO BROOK! Jacob scrambles out over the stones. Then stops. What, no water? Maybe not out there, but over-head the sprinkling's given way to rain, a steady rain, so we relent. We head back to the motor home. About two miles away.

Those swirling gray clouds darken and light dances on the horizon.  Lightening! One thousand one. One thousand two. One thousand three. And thunder. 

We quicken our pace and so does the rain, which is now coming down as globlets. Fat, plunky globlets. Crackle flash! One thousand one. Thunder. The lightening is getting closer and the thunder ponderous. Then, CRACKLE SNAP SZZST! Thunder. No counting. It’s here. Lightening arcs over the power lines right over our heads and snaps into the hillside. 

And what this?? HAIL??!! You've got to be kidding me.

The dogs zig-zag with their heads down, trying to dodge the icy scattershot. I look up and see the hail pinging off Allen's head. Ping. Ping. I laugh. And am paid back with pain as the B-B sized hail stings my shoulder and neck. 

And it is cold. 

So we're scrambling with a mile to go in a hail/lightening/thunder/rain storm. What, no snow?

We're nearly there now. We can see motor home. Our warm, dry motor home.

Impossibly, we quicken our step then SPLISH SPLASH! We plow into a FLOOD right in the parking lot.

The water's so deep, it covers our ankles. We slog through.

And Jacob? He's having the time of his life. We promised him a brook. So now he plays. And we let him.

Because, well, it's what we came for.

Could This Be More Unreal?

This continues my blog from yesterday.

Today we are to head to St. Mary, MT, where we have reservations for four nights in Glacier National Park.

I wake up and find this on the news:

"Law enforcement officials have gathered near St. Mary and East Glacier as they continue searching for escaped Arizona fugitive John McCluskey and the woman who allegedly helped him escape, Casslyn Welch." 

The Welch woman was spotted in St. Mary.

They are there. Where we are to be.


So we do not go. That way, anyway.

 Instead, we proceed with caution, forfeit some money  and head west instead of north. 

All's Not Right With Our Little World

News of a murdered Oklahoma couple has rocked my world.

They were campers, like us, with their dogs, like us. They travel a lot, like us.

And apparently, they got in the way of some prison escapees and then died. They were burned to death. Inside their camper. Someone found their "well-groomed" dogs nearby. ID tags on the
dogs' collars helped police identify the dead couple.

Police think the suspects, armed and dangerous, live in our little world right now. Police say they are using back roads and are camping, in remote campgrounds and truck stops, in Yellowstone, which is in Wyoming and Montana, and are thought to be headed into Canada.

We're in Montana, at one point just north of Yellowstone. And we took back roads to get here. And while we never camp in remote campgrounds, we often sleepover in truck stops and rest stops. We aimed for a rest stop last night (before finding out about the murders) and --
thankfully -- couldn't find it. So we pushed on, into Helena  To the safety of a Walmart parking lot.

We're here again tonight. In the morning, we're head to St. Mary, MT, for the eastern entrance to Glacier National Park.

Police have caught two of the three escapees. Maybe by the time we we  wake up the third will be gone, too, from our little world.

And we can get on with our fun.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Hunt is On

I see two coyotes and shrug. What's a few coyotes when we have a lot of them back home? And, anyway, we've been surrounded by lots of coyotes before (at night, in Death Valley), so we don't need to waste time on these coyotes.

After all, we're in serious wildlife mode here in southwestern South Dakota, where Route 87 winds through Wind Cave National Park and then, without hesitation, right through Custer State Park. We're scoping for buffalo (saw one, then a herd), mule deer (saw lots), prairie dogs (saw megalots), white tailed deer (saw two) and pronghorn deer (wait for the story).

The first animals we see are these two coyotes, on the side of a little rolling hill. Just over the hill, we see four pronghorn deer, one of which is crossing the road. I take a picture.

So we wait. While he crosses.

That's when we see the third coyote, stretched low in the grass, slinking toward the three other deer. He crawls through the grass, like a snake. Then, he slowly raises himself to full height and
saunters over near the deer. They see him. And move slowly away. Sideways.

He lowers himself again, and trots toward the lead deer, forcing the threesome to move uphill a bit.

WOW! I get it. It's a hunt. We're seeing a hunt.

Coyote No. 3 kicks into gear and works the deer by running back and forth in front of them, much like a Border Collie works a herd of sheep. Coyotes No. 1 and 2 (the ones I shrugged off earlier) hide just past the crest of the hill. I can see their ears. They are laying in
wait. Ready for the ambush!

In the picture above, you can easily see the three deer and Coyote No. 1. Now, glance up from the third deer on the right to the top of the first ridge, then just a little to the right and THERE! See him? It's Coyote No. 2. Ready to Pounce. Coyote No. 1 is up there, too. He's just harder to see. But he's to the right of No. 2.

We watch the adventure unfold for 10 minutes; no one else stops. Oh, they hesitate to see what we're looking at, but none seemed interested. Or perhaps they just didn't know it's a hunt. An honest-to-goodness National Geographic hunt! Or, for the older crowd, A Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom moment.

Now wait. The action subsides. No. 3 is giving up. He's slinking off to the right. Nos. 1 and 2  follow. There is no kill (and I'm kinda happy about THAT!).

Here's what we think happened:  No. 3 was the front man, sent out to test the deers' sturdiness, to see if anyone was lame or sick. When all proved strong and well, the trio of hunters gave up, and set off to find breakfast elsewhere.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ranger Overload

Someone's knocking on our door.

It's 7 a.m. and someone's outside Otto, rapping on the side door.

I roll out of bed (literally, because we're tilted), grab my robe (well, toss on a T-shirt) and sneak a peek through the kitchen window.

It's Wilford Brimley, in uniform.

Of course, it's not. But this park ranger sure looks like Wilford.

"Good morning," he nods, sort of Midwestern style, "I'm sorry to  bother you so early, but do you have your receipt?"

The receipt he's looking for proves we paid yesterday for the privilege of staying overnight here at a fairly empty Wind Cave  National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Yes, I tell him, it's in my husband's wallet, which I'm please to discover in the place it out to be. I fish out the receipt and hand it out the door to Wilford.

"There's was no pen," I apologize for the looks of the receipt. "When we signed in yesterday, there was no pen at the station, so I used a rock, a charcoal rock to sign in."

He raises an eyebrow, accepts the receipt and shows me where it needs to be placed. He tips his hand to his hat and leaves.

But, not forever.

He shows up again at noon, and finds me sitting in the grass grooming my dog. And I think he's going quiz me about the dog hair and how I intend to clean it up (which I did, by the way.)

"I didn't see your husband earlier, so I brought an envelope up to you to fill out for tonight," he says, adding nothing about the dog. Whew.
"I'm sure you have a pen this time. We don't supply pens."

Why was he looking for my husband? (I didn't ask.) And does he think I'm trying to steal his campsite, to park here for free? (I didn't ask.) And why the sarcasm? (Ditto).

I fill out the little form, stuff $12 inside the envelope and Allen and I walk the dogs down the hill to the little station to pay in a proper way. I leave a pen behind for the next person and we walk back up the hill to Otto.

About two hours later, a different park ranger stops by to warn us of an impending storm. It comes and goes.

And another few hours later, a third ranger stops by to remind us about the hours we can run the generator.

And just when I'm all tuckered out with park rangers, I see Wilford again.  And I'm sure he's going to yell at me for hanging our laundry outside (where no one can see it). So I scurry around to pull it in before he gets here. Which he never does, because there's now another
camper in the park to occupy his time.

 I am so grateful.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Beware of the Black Hills Billboards

Steadily, Otto makes his way toward Wind Cave (just south of Mt.
Rushmore in South Dakota). And I stare out the window. The Badlands we
just exited present amazing landscapes and I watch for more as we
enter the Black Hills.

And, by golly, what amazing landscapes I see. Designed for kids. To
drive them crazy, to beg and scream "CAN WE GO THERE?!!!" I'm sure the
cacophony I hear includes a gazillions whines, cries and giggley



Mile after mile on I-90, kid-friendly/parent-cruel billboards
advertise tourist traps: Wonder Cave ("Don't Miss it!"), Sitting Bull
Caverns, Cosmos Mystery Area, Mt. Rushmore Shadow Resort (nowhere NEAR
Mt. Rushmore), USA Bear Country, Enchanted Eagle Treasures and the
most prolific of them all, Reptile Gardens.

There must be 10,000 signs for Reptile Gardens, some with cartoony
alligators, some with googley-eyed froggies, some with smiling,
hissing snakes, Look! There's one shaped like a train, with all the
smiling little reptiles sitting inside, waving me, inviting me to come
play with them.

We're strong willed. We didn't stop. But a million others did. As we
pass by, the parking lot vibrates with activity from cars, motor
homes, little kids, big kids. SUVs, Vans. EVERYWHERE!

The place we aim to see, Wind Cave National Park, is absent from the
screaming advertising menagerie.

Yet when we arrive, it, too, crawls with kids. And now us.

And I wonder how many of these families survived the gantlet of
advertising without giving in. And how many succumbed, at least once.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The View from Roam Free Park

Because a friend has asked, here's a picture from Roam Free Park
(without the grasshoppers) in Chamberlain, SD.

Well done, Grasshopper(s)

I'm so easily amused.

We're traveling the Native American Loop just north of Chamberlain, SD, when we see SOMETHING high on top the plateau. Sculpture? Fencing? Targets?

We drive a little closer and STILL can't quite make out what we see. Curiosity wins, so when we see a road leading up to the plateau we take it.


At the top is Roam Free Park and the little SOMETHINGS are informational markers at the edge of the ridge over which a magnificent view unfolds: the wide Missouri, trestles, bridges and
roads. Breathtaking.

We're alone in this little park, so we pull right to the top, to the corner of a loop and get out. Into wind. Magnificent wind. So strong, we can't open both doors at the same time or we create a wind tunnel through the motor home. So, Allen spills out first, with his camera. I go next, with mine. It's 97 degrees. And windy.

Here's where I am easily amused. With the breath-taking scenery swirling around and the river and the sky far and wide, I focus on bugs.

In my immediate space, there are hundreds of grasshoppers fleeing my steps.

I step. They leap. I step. They leap. They leap away from me like a spray of water, arching in a semi-circle. Look at them all! I've never seen so many grasshoppers in one place in my life!

Allen steps closer to me and I notice the grasshoppers leap away from him, too, in a spray of activity, but the spray aims toward me. HA! Now the bugs (big guys, too, about three inches long) leap in a kaleidoscope of directions, away from Allen toward me, away from me
toward Allen and back and forth. Some land on my feet. Ew.

I try taking pictures, but I know it's useless. I snap the one above, then I just keep walking. And on cue, they respond by leaping.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

We Don't Like Everyone We Meet

Look at those teeth. Whew.

Josh, my dominant Standard Poodle, walks just a little too close and Delila threatens menacingly. She rises up from the dust to make herself taller than Josh, who's already a tall dog, and curls her lips to expose impressive, meat-tearing fangs

A swath of hair from her neck down to her tail stands rigid.

She's not kidding. She postures, slowly. Stay away, Josh. Stay far, far away. Josh usually retaliates in kind. Not this time. Instead, he shrinks in submission.

Wow. I've never seen such a thing. He shrinks and slinks, slowly, lest he upset her. Wow. Josh, my dominant dog, subordinate.

We are at the Kiwanis Dog Park in Mankato, MN, as are a trio of beautiful, powerful dogs, (front to rear in the photo) Delila, Shep and Rorschach (when he was a puppy, he looked like an ink blot). Shep and Delila, both about 3 years old, are German Shepherd/Malamute siblings rescued from the streets of Kansas City. The Husky Rorschach (Rorsch for short) is 8 and never saw such poverty. He's always been a family dog.

They visit the dog park with Jim, their grandpa of sorts, who sits at a picnic table while the Josh/Delila chapter unfolds. The dogs belong to his daughter. However, they obey Jim, completely.

"Lila," he warns -- in a regular voice; no yelling -- during the Josh/Delila showdown. Delila backs off from Josh, who continues a slow exit from her space. She's made her point (that she's in charge). No need to continue the conversation.

"Oh, she can be a bitch," Jim explains, then storytells about a black ab Delila hates and dog owners who freak when dogs act like dogs and do things like mount each other.

He's so matter-of-fact I like him. I tell him it's the dog owners who cause most of the problems, not the dogs.

He agrees.

Then I tell him I used to be one of those owners, always trying to stop my dogs from being forward, from getting into trouble.

He laughs.

Then I see a young fellow heading toward the park with a little puppy.
Warning signals go off in my head. If Delila does her fang act again, will Josh let it go? Will he spar with her? Will the new dog owner understand?

I can't bear it, so I collect Josh and my other poodle, Jacob (who's been off hunting in the weeds), and we leave the park before any confrontation. But I return, without my dogs, because I want a picture of Jim's three beauties.

What I find floors me: that little puppy gleefully engaged in full play with the three big dogs AND two other dogs hopping around having a grand ol' time.

Delila, the bitch, is a sweetheart. The other dogs love her, play with
her and hop all over her.  There's no growling, no gnashing. She's such a happy, friendly dog.

She just doesn't like Josh.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

More Than Just Art

"Pull over!" I holler to my friend Louie, who, along with is wife, Carolyn, is giving us a tour of Sleepy Eye, MN, a town they lived in more than 40 years ago and a town many know from the "Little House on the Prairie" series of books and TV shows.

Louie pulls to the curb (he's good like that) and I leap out to immerse myself in the most mesmerizing statue I've ever seen of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Mesmerizing, but sad.

The sleekness, the thinness, the willowy nature of this work casts sorrow all about, as if to forewarn a mother and father that their child, this baby, dies a terrible death. Yes, we Christians know Christ died a horrible death here on Earth, but he lives on in Heaven and Earth. And we, too, will live after death.

But the ones left behind after we die mourn. Some mourn terribly.

This statue exudes that mourning for me. Look at the picture. See how the baby Jesus is gently touching his mother's face? He's consoling her. Now look at Joseph. I see such stoic anguish in his face. My heart tightens.

Just a block earlier, I saw a statue of a waif-like Mary, obviously created by the same hand. So we turn back to visit her. I walk all around her, noting that she, too, mourns. She carries a lily and casts her eyes downward. She slumps, slightly, as if life's a burden. Which it can be. Without Jesus.

I've written to both the town newspaper and visitor's bureau to find out who the artist is. I want to thank her, or him, for giving me such a powerful reminder of my faith.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sometimes, I Just Walk Away

There's a baby in the woods.

We're at a dog park in Mankato, MN, and there's a toddler -- a human
toddler --- sitting all by herself on the wooded hiking trail. Absurd.
Am I really seeing this?

We head her way because, of course, a baby left alone in the woods
needs help. Then out of nowhere, a chunky brown lab slathered in mud
comes roaring over to stop us. He growls and barks madly at my dogs,
who, thankfully, respond by walking away and not reciprocating the
attack. And then there's a smaller dog, a beagle/coon mix, also
aggressively beating us back, keeping us away from our rescue.

In flash, I see three other children, an adult and a picnic table
strewn with food. Aha. The real story coalesces as I see the gang
stroll over to the baby, who is still sitting on the path in the
woods. Now mom is sitting, too (above).

The mom -- babysitter, aunt, sister or whomever -- with the worst
possible judgement is having a picnic with her kids inside a dog
park. With their dogs. Who are, understandably, protecting their baby
and their food.

We skirt the crowd (all the while calling and whistling for our dogs,
trying to get them to ignore THEIR dogs, THEIR kids and THEIR food),
and finally get on the walking trail. THEIR dogs, unfortunately,
follow us. And when we get out of earshot of the family, THEIR dogs
settle down and become great dogs, friendly dogs, happy dogs.

Once we round the bend and the family comes into view THEIR dogs turn
bullish again.

I notice others dog and dog owners come into the park and leave. They
assess the situation, deem it unmanageable and walk away.

We do, too.

Baby, It's Hot Outside

My baby's getting old. Or maybe just out of shape. Or maybe he's cooking inside that black coat.

We're at the Paw Prints Dog Park in Janesville, WI, and it's 85 humid degrees. The gorgeous park unfolds on 17 acres of rolling prairie land with just enough mowed trails to keep people moving while the dogs explore.

My dogs (Joshua, 9, and Jacob, my baby, 7) embrace the experience. They head right out into the prairie, noses down, checking out the pee-mail and animal trails.

Did I mention the heat? 85 degrees. And cloudless. And 100 percent humidity. Which means the sun's brutal.

The three of us, the dogs and I, hike through the prairie's patches of wildflowers, grasses and weeds. I sweat profusely with each step. The dogs (big black poodles, each weighing about 90 pounds) slow down, and pant a lot. I'm drenched. Joshua gives up and heads back to the entrance gate, where he knows a bucket of water awaits.

Jacob and I push on, all the way to the end of the 17 acres, where I find a bench. I sit and survey and discover prairies lack shade trees.

That's when I notice Jacob's odd behavior. He pants frantically and lays down in a stand of tall grass (pictured). Seconds later, he's up again, racing toward another grass patch, circling around and laying down.

Poor guy! Is he trying to get away from the blazing sun? Is he suffering heat stoke?

I hop up and we both walk with a quicker step toward the other end of the park. Every so often, Jacob dives into the tall grass and lays down. Breaks my heart.

Allen meets us half way and Jake walks behind us, with a very uneven, very slow gait.

Wait, I get it! He's walking in our shadows. We are his shade.

He's a clever dog.

He's a survivor.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Four For The Books

We cross over into Indiana and I see:

1. A bald man walking down the road. Shirtless. Tattoos dance around his neck, shoulders and chest. No, wait. Ewwww. That's no tatoo! It's a mighty python, undulating, twisting around itself and the man's neck and shoulders and then dangling down his chest. Shudder.

2. A road crew of six morbidly obese men. One of the big guys drives a piece of heavy equipment that has independent left and right hand steering guides that nearly disappear into his belly folds. He rams his hands into his flab to grab hold of the handles. And he drives quite well.

3. An Amish man, maybe he's Mennonite, on a recumbent bike. He sits Peter-Fonda low, holds his hands high and wide on the handlebars and probably dreams of the wind in his hair.

4. Sadly, instant potatoes on my plate. At a large, touristy Amish-style restaurant. Where the chicken was bland, the noodles mushy, the corn salty, the bread hard and, thankfully, the stuffing perfect.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

We Always Get Back

"Go out to the main road, turn left, and just over the bridge turn left."

The directions loop round and round in my brain as Allen and I head out on our bikes for an afternoon of riding a rail trail here in Whitehouse, Ohio. A rail trail is a paved (usually) bike path that follows where old railroad tracks used to be. A lady who lives here and has been there gave me the directions.

At the main road, Allen turns right.

Wait. I listen to the directions replaying in my head. "The lady said to turn left," I yell. Allen keeps on pedaling. "Allen," I crank up the volume. "You are going the wrong way."

He stops. And counters the long-time resident's advice. "I know we passed the trail when we came in yesterday. It's this way."

We continue on his way and, of course, come to no bridge or rail trail. We cruise, instead, through pretty little neighborhoods, where we see the homes and gardens of the people who live here. One house looks like ours, with pretty skylights smiling up to God. At another, a family labors to put up stone siding. Along the way, a couple powerwalks, nearly overtaking us.

And, of course, we have no map so we get lost. But we do know how to backtrack. So we do, past the pretty windows, the stones and the walkers.

Eventually we come to a sign for the park the lady mentioned. Yeah! Only this park has no rail trails. Awwww.

It has several dirt trails, though, so we chose one, a 1.5 mile loop. It takes us into the woods past an impossibly green lake, through a garrison of skinny pines (above ... look closely and you'll see Allen on his bike) and up, down and around meadows of neck-high Queen Anne's Lace, Black Eyed Susans and an impressive array of prairie grasses.

And, of course, we have no map, So after three miles on the 1.5-mile loop, we know we're lost. But we know how to backtrack, so we do, back past the meadows, the pines and the green, green lake.

As we pedal this last stretch back to the campground, I think about how we journey around, often without maps or plans, basically clueless about what's to come. What's up ahead is often exhilarating. Sometimes novel. Sometimes blase.

And, if we get lost, we always know how to get back.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A New Journey Begins: Life is an Adventure

All I did was brush my teeth. And it kicked off a 24-hour series of
events that led us here, to Whitehouse, Ohio, where I sit with
instructions on how to use the tornado shelter that's about 250 feet
away. (That's it, in the picture. Well, it's the garage of the house
you see in the picture.)

And, yes, bring the dogs.

Let me begin.

Our 2010 Summer Adventure includes a visit with the kids and grandkids in Seattle, Glacier National Park, Yosemite, Death Valley and whatever we can pile on.

It begins now.

I'm brushing my teeth at the end of the first day of Our Summer 2010 Adventure. I rinse and ACK! POND SCUM! Our water tastes like POND SCUM. Oh, yuck. Spit spit. Where's the mouth wash? Gargle, gargle. Spit.

Must be something horrid is growing in our fresh water tank. Ack. Ack.

OK. No problem. No one use the water until we can rinse out the tank, sanitize it and rinse it out again. OK. No problem. Until then, we'll just use public restrooms. At Walmart. Or at the Rutherford B. Hayes Center (wonderful place to learn about our 19th president AND about
the history of croquet and other late 19th-century passions).

It's at the Center in Fremont, Ohio, that we try out our brand-new, $1,200 mega generator. It's 90+ degrees, so we need to use the generator to power the air conditioning we need to leave on in the motor home so our dogs don't die.

The generator guzzles all its gas in about three hours and, we discover, gets so hot it tries to melt our power cord plug. OK. Now we have sour water and a melting power plug. And we need to wash our hands.

That's when we decide to pay for an overnight at this campground, in Whitehouse, Ohio, an appropriate place to end the day after visiting a presidential museum.  And we have total access to all the water and power we need to wash our hands and fix our problems. However, on the way here, a bully of a truck kicked up a rock and we think our windshield cracked.

OK. We have a dinged windshield, nasty water and a deformed electrical plug.

And now for the tornado.

The people who own the campground point to the garage just up the street and tell me to head there, with my dogs, if the tornado siren sounds. And, they say, it probably will because there's a watch on for tonight and this is, after all, Ohio.

That's why the campground is so empty.

Our life is such an adventure.

(It's 10:21 p.m. and no tornado yet, but a storm brews. OH! I see lightning!)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

This journey's over

We're home now. Otto's refrigerator's emptied; the linens stripped.

Lots to do for our next outing:

  •      Bathroom door handle replaced
  •      Door shade replaced
  •      Paper products restocked
  •      Carpets shampooed
  •      Everything cleaned
  •      And so much more ....

But for now, we return to our other life, the one crowded with far too much stuff, far too many responsibilities, far too much to do.

We need to change all that.

Never Trust Technology

I think my TomTom GPS (I call him Thomas)  has a crush on me. 

We're heading home, and part of the journey takes us around Washington, DC.

It's just past dark and I mention to my husband how I'd love to visit DC again, take in the sights, walk past the White House. From up here on the highway I can see the Capitol dome in the distance. And wow! The Washington monument looms large just ahead. Oh look, there's the Lincoln Memorial. Why, we're so close I can see Lincoln inside.

I joke that Thomas must be flirting with me, giving me as much of DC as he can without getting us off target (which is Harrisburg, PA, for the night). 

Suddenly, a tunnel swallows us and turns us all around. In a flash, Thomas dumps us out onto a city street in downtown Washington. Good grief! It's  Pennsylvania Avenue. Allen swears we're in front of the White House. In a motor home. At night. And there's traffic everywhere!

What is Thomas up to? He's gone mad, I tell you. Simply mad!

There's nothing we can do by ourselves to escape. We have to listen to this maniacal GPS. Only it knows where we are and where it is taking us.  We're prisoners of technology, dependent on microchips as we swirl around lost in big-city traffic. This thing, this dastardly thing I now call  Hal 9000, winds us up then spins us back down into that tunnel. Down, down and around we go. 

Then finally, we're up and out, and back onto a freeway. Ahhhhhh.

But, no. It was a sinister trick.  Hal sucks us off this main road and spits us back into downtown Washington, this time onto a four-lane road with signs warning of narrow lanes ahead. Did I tell you we're in a motor home? One that's wider than an average car?

Why, Hal? Why put us through this? To get my attention?

Well, it works. I'm listening. And I fondle the device long enough to power it off. Then we turn to the maps to rescue ourselves and the rest of the night. Technology free ... well, for a while anyway.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Dog, a Duck and a Tale of Abandonment

I think I know why Harley was abandoned. 

He's an American Foxhound, a dog far more interested in what's up in the trees or across the water than he is in me or playing with my two dogs here at the Myrtle Beach dog park off Mallard Lake Road.

Harley is a hunter. And he was found on the outskirts of a popular hunting area near Myrtle Beach a few years ago by Margo and her husband, a couple of soft-hearted dog people, who also live near Myrtle Beach. The dog warden (or some law enforcer down in these parts) told Margo that it's not uncommon for a hunter to go into the woods with 15 dogs and consider himself lucky if he comes out with 10.

The lost five are left to manage for themselves. Harley, everyone assumes, was one of the five on a fateful hunting trip.

But I think I know what happened to Harley because of what he did yesterday, at this dog park that has a big lake in the middle of it. Harley, an avid duck hunter, saw a duck in the lake (it is Mallard Lake, after all) and plunged in to get it. Startled, the duck dashed away. Harley got to the middle of this big  (but shallow) lake and sat there, for three hours, waiting for that darn duck to come back. It made no difference to Harley who ran back and forth lakefront hollering for him to come out. Teasing him with treats. Offering up dinner. He was deaf to anything but a quack.

Know where this is going?

Harley wasn't abandoned. He did the abandoning. I think Harley chose some ol' duck over his hunting buddies. I'm sure he did. It's not that he got lost. He just got focused. Probably for hours. Like he did yesterday. But the first time, everyone got tired of waiting and went home. Yesterday, Margo waited until he just came out on his own.

So today, he's paying for his stubbornness at the end of a leash. And he's not getting off, Margo says, until after their walk, the one that goes all the way around that lake.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Dead or Alive?

Is Erica alive?

I'm at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, Ga., and one of the turtles, Erica, is just floating there. Nothing is moving. No fin flaps, no nose bubbles, nothing. Her neck (with a barnacle attached) bows so her chin drops downward. Her eyes are closed, not squeezed shut, just closed. Her shell is partially submerged and her fins dangle beneath her.

She looks dead. She acts dead. I watch for quite a while. Nothing is moving. She must be dead. Or close to it. 

I look around and there's no one to call for help. It's five minutes to 5 p.m., official closing time, and I notice, to my left,  lots of people in green shirts and white badges scurrying around outside the building, probably closing down for the evening. But, no one is inside with me and this dead 215-pound turtle. If she is dead. Does she need to be resuscitated?

I wish I could reach over this little ledge in front of me and just poke at her, to see if she moves, or just bobbles, like a dead turtle.

The little info page in front of me explains that Erica is a 215 pound loggerhead picked up in Florida's Seashore Key in July 2009. Kayakers found her floating in the water. Like she is now. Just floating.

Finally, I see a green-shirted 20-something within shouting distance and I holler out and wave at her:  "Excuse me." She walks my way, with a smile. "Is this turtle OK?"

"Oh, she's floating."

Yes, I see that.

My face must beg for more information, because she continues to explain about Erica. The turtle has a tear in her lung which causes excessive air to build up, hence her floating. The vets, hoping for a natural healing, have delayed surgery as long as possible, but at the end of this month, Erica goes on the board and under the knife to repair the wound.

So, she is alive. Just floating. Maybe there should be a sign saying she's OK. 

True Treasures

I'm walking the dogs on Jekyll Island State Park in Georgia when I see a man on a powder blue bike and hear him hollering "Bla---ackie. Bla---ackie."

He sits up quite straight on that bike and I notice he wobbles a bit, like he's unsure of his balance. Years ago, I would have called him an old man. I'm wiser now, so I consider him a savvy man, a sage.

When he glances our way, I swear I see a glint from his eyes. And he grins as he swerves to cross our path. Before he even speaks, I know I'm going to like this guy.

"You have such beautiful dogs," he says quite theatrically, with a smile in his voice matching that glint in his eye. He's a delightfully impish looking man, with a shock of white hair standing on end, crowning his head.

That crown is a good three inches high.

He leans back on his bike and lays his arms across his chest. "I'm out looking for my cat," he lowers his head, shakes it a bit, and his face turns all sad. Then he flips his face skyward and his sparkle returns. "But your dogs, YOUR DOGS!  (Joshua and Jacob, both Standard Poodles)." He unfolds his arms and claps his hand together high in the air, just once, and again uses his whole face to smile. That ready smile prompts mine.

His name is Ron Keno. We chat endlessly about nothing, and everything. It's the kind of chatter snowbirds (extroverted snowbirds, that is) enjoy: We compare our lives. And, we discover, we have loads in common:
 He lives in Upstate New York, just like I do.
 He loves animals and traveling, just like I do.
 And, then, he asks, "Do you like antiques?" Well, yes, but not to buy, I say. I like knowing about antiques, though.
         He adds a tilted head to that grin and glint. Then, he winks: "Ever watch 'Antiques Roadshow'?" 

"I LOVE Antiques Roadshow." Was that me chortling? I guess I'm getting carried away with my high-energy new friend, this eubullient, engaging, savvy sage (he later tells me he's 80).

"The Keno twins," he winks again. "They're my boys!" Impossibly, his infectious smile widens, stretching U-shaped, ear to ear. 

He' proud of his sons Leigh Keno and Leslie Keno, appraisers on the PBS series. And when I ask, he acquiesces how he's partly responsible for their love of antiques, which populate his life like books do mine.

He even met his long-time girlfriend Dot (he calls her Dor-o-thy) at a yard sale -- hers.  And together they prowl thrift stores and yard sales looking for that hidden treasure.

So we -- Dot and I -- make plans to hunt for those treasures together, tomorrow, off island, in Brunswick, Ga. What fun. I think I'm grinning. And there might even be a glint in my eye.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Lesson on Verbal Warfare

She didn't answer his question.

I'm not shocked.

He's young, maybe 4 or 5. And adults tend to look right past young people. Not engage them.  Disregard them. Unless, of course, the people involved are special or the setting is FOR children exclusively.

Today's setting is not a kid environment. It's the elegant and recently restored Beauvoir (Beautiful View), the final home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

Two years ago, we'd sneaked a peak at it from the road and saw near devastation: A shell of a house with a partial roof and dangling shutters struggling to stand amid mountains of debris. She'd taken a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina. 

Today, we see a revival of her original beauty, thanks to $4 million from state and federal agencies.

We're on a group tour (about eight of us) in this beautiful mansion, built in Biloxi, Miss., before the Civil War. Our guide is a woman of about 45, who wears period clothing (post Civil War, about 1889) and smiles a lot. She tells us inside stories about the lives and loves of the first family of the Confederacy -- the only first family of the Confederacy.

Our walk from the front to the back door takes about 20 minutes because we've stopped at each of the rooms to hear about the way the people lived in this ocean-front summer cottage, about the severe damage caused by Katrina and the restoration efforts still going on today.

All the while, the little boy with piercing blue eyes remains attentive. He listens to the tour guide's stories, tilting his little head upwards to hear with his eyes and his ears. He's so well behaved. Respectful. Curious.

A little red wooden train on the carpet in the living room catches his attention. He turns to the tour guide and asks "Why is there a train in there?" Our guide responded, "It's very old." Then just smiles.


That's no answer. That's a dismissal. Why not just answer his question?

I'm fuming. This little boy is, after all, a paying part of our tour group. He's listened to everything she said and has walked quietly with us on the whole tour, never touching a thing (well, he DID touch Jeff Davis' grandfather's grandfather clock, built in the 1700, and the oldest piece of furniture in the house ... but his mom was quick to catch and release.) 

A non-answer like "It's very old" insults that little boy. 

I start to speak up, to reprimand that tour guide in front of everyone for ignoring the child when I see his mom whispering in his ear. She does it quietly, respectfully. The boy nods his head. He likes the answer. He skips out the back door and down the garden steps.

I take a deep breath and realize my plan to right that wrong with a public tongue lashing was as rude as the original wrong.

So next time (and there will be a next time because adults often disregard our kids) I'll take a lesson from our mom and not draw my verbal sword in public. Instead, I'll kindly whisper in the offender's ear.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Pizza Pie Anthology

The pizza I grew up with came in a box (with a bag of floury stuff and a can of red sauce)  from Chef Boyardee. It was salty and doughy and we gobbled it up at slumber parties, along with M&Ms, bottles of Coke and chips and dip.

Pizza was not a meal. It had no food value. It was just water, flour, salt and the red stuff we poured out of that can.  I lived in West Virginia and we did not eat pizza for dinner. We snacked on it. At parties. Because it was fun for kids to make. From that box mix.

When I moved to Pennsylvania, I was in my 20s, and like me, pizza was growing up. Places called Victory Pig and Pizza L'Oven retrained my thinking because the pizzas they made were substantial. They were a meal. They had real food like pepperoni, chicken, ham and a variety of vegetables and fruits swimming on top of a luscious, thick, rich tomato sauce. And melted cheese. We can't forget the cheese.

The dough serving it all up was crunchy outside, soft inside, with a taste as refined as a baguette.

Over the years, while living in New York,  I've enjoyed exquisite pizzas at places such as Twin Trees, Sardo's, Gina and Joe's and even Pizza Hut.

Tonight we dine at Pizza Hut, back in the South, in Hammond, La., and I'm happy because I'm hungry, for a meal, a sumptuous pie we can eat lots of now, then some of later as a snack. Yum. The best of my youth and my grown-up years.

Our waiter seats us a table under a TV showing a national cheerleading competition out of Orlando. Thank goodness. Because after we order (a hand-tossed crust loaded with pepperoni, mushrooms and sausage), we wait about 40 minutes for our pie.

Finally, it arrives. But what he serves is not our grown-up pie. Thin, doughy crust tastes like a big communion wafer that holds a very browned cheese smothering a few shriveled mushrooms and squiggles of sausage. We can't find (or taste) any pepperoni. The smattering of red must be the sauce. Hard to tell.

We don't complain. It took 40 minutes to get this pie and we are determined to eat it. But it's dry, and salty. As it cools, the cheese turns leathery.

We eat about half before we surrender to this retro pie, the pizza of my youth.

Here in the South.

Is that Chef Boyardee in the kitchen again? 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Suspicious Activity in The Hood

We see a lot of park rangers around here on Padre Island National Seashore. But not the like ones swarming the car next door.

These guys mean business, talking into their hands-free walkie-talkies, toting big sidearms (Glocks, maybe?). Some ride in those big white pick-up trucks; two slither out of an unmarked Ford with red, blue and green lights splashing back and forth across the rear window.

Something's going down and I'm dying to know what.

They're blocking in my new neighbors, a bunch if teens (well, I'm guessing they're teens) tent camping on the beach. They've been gone all day and just drove back in, parking their big, black Lincoln Nagivator in the empty lot next to ours.   Six or seven of the kids in the SUV spill out and start unpacking their gear (including fishing poles)  while the cops talk to them.

No one seems concerned. But the cops stay a long time. Are they searching their car? Looking for drugs? Terrorists??

I am so curious. I need an excuse to wander around outside, to ask questions, to root out the reason the cops (well, park rangers) are investigating my neighbors. Ah. A book. A book I can leave in the bathroom (that's where the book exchange is).

I grab "The Pilot's Wife" (by Anita Shreve) and walk outside, meandering toward the book drop. I ask a few people, "What's up?" Dunno, they say.

I ask a few more. "Dunno, either. But, let us know if you find out."

I drop the book off in the bathroom and turn to walk back to my motor home. A big park ranger (and I mean really big, like football player big) pulls his huge white ranger pickup truck right next to me and leans out the window and says, with a big Texas drawl, "You seem concerned."

Bingo! This guy'll know what's what!

"This face is not a face of concern," I smile, trying to joke my way into getting my answers. "This is a face of curiosity."

"Well, they were speeding. Through the park. That's all." Then he drove away.

Speeding. Speeding. All this activity for a speeding ticket? Do I buy this?

I turn back to the folks who want my report and file my story.

"Don't believe 'em," one guys says.

"It's just a front," the woman remarks. "Something else has to be going on."

"It's a coverup," the third guys says, then cracks a smiles and whispers:


The Beach Awakens From Its Winter Nap

It's mid-March and I'm walking the beach and see lots of footprints in the sand.

Mingling with dog-paw marks and flip-flop prints, I notice remnants of children's feet, lots of lovely happy children's feet. I stop. I smile, wide-eyed. In awe. Because I've just witnessed something I've never seen before: A beach awaken from hibernation.

When we first arrived at Padre Island National Seashore, it was early February. And it was cold, windy. The beach population was two. Us. Well, four, counting our two Standard Poodles. The elements rushed everyone off. The sand was not smooth. It was dotted with tiny wisps of jagged sand ridges, each topped in black,  creating amazing geometric patterns.

The wind constantly worked to erase all prints, ever ours, to create those patterns.

Over the next few days, the wind calmed a little, and the fishermen joined us, adding their wader boots prints to our shoe prints and paw prints. Soon we noticed other prints in the sand, too, those of more people and more dogs. Necessary walks; nothing casual. Yet.

After a while, the tormenting wind turned into a gentle breeze (well, it does keep losing its temper from time to time, but mostly, it's a gentle ocean breeze). So joining the necessary walkers and waders were sitters, mostly women, the wives of the fishermen, who often walked the beach, looking for shells. Then, others, also shell seekers arrived. Casual walkers.

Today, as we walk the beach, the wind is at rest, the warming sun shines brightly and a melange of footprints mingles with ours. The beach is transformed, no longer bearing evidence of just fishermen, wives and dogs. It explodes with life, with people of all ages,  playing, swimming, chasing soccer balls and footballs (Here's a slide show; click on the slide show button top left, then click on the minus sign to change the time from 3 to 1 second in order to watch the toss. It's fun.)

Children shriek happily, running in and out of the waves. Teens and 20-somethings flirt. I see a beach wedding. Kids sing while sitting on top of cars. Others snowboard down the sand banks. There are lots of sand castles rising from the sand and kits taking flight. Fire pits under construction signal barbecues to come.

The beach is young again. Full of life. Vibrant, happy. Joyful. It has awakened from a long winter's rest. Ready to play again.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Heading South, On the Beach

Shovel. Check.

 Carpet. Check.

 Bucket, rope, check, check.

And lunch, water, towels. And a dishpan to carry the sea shells and sand dollars we find. 

It's 9 a.m. and we're ready, ready to drive down island, down about 60 miles to explore the rest of Padre Island National Seashore. Our goal: If we can't go all 60 miles, we want to AT LEAST frolic on both Little Shell Beach and Big Shell Beach.

It's not as easy as it sounds. The "road" we  travel is the beach (Highway -1). It's "paved" with hard-packed sand and soft sand (now you understand the supply list).

But we're driven to make it to the top (well, figuratively speaking.) So, we're off. 

And, "we" ARE driven, by my brave husband, Allen. The "we" are me and my two new friends, Sherry and Cindy (and Cindy's shitz tzu Bailey). Sherry (in a motor home) and Cindy (in a tent) travel the country alone. Well, not really alone; they both have dogs. My new girlfriends are 55 and 54, respectively, and smile, a lot.

Allen drives Sherry's Jeep and all goes well, for the first eight or so miles. The beach is littered not with debris, but with motor homes, kids playing, dogs running back and forth, and driftwood. We laugh, we smile. We joke.

We are unaware of the beast that lays in wait about 10 miles down until we slam into him, head, um, tire on.

The beast is the soft sand.

Allen captains our ship as we ride waves of that sand, up and down. He maneuvers around driftwood, and guides us through ruts so deep we hear the sand scrape against the Jeep's underbelly. Then we bounce over those ruts, like a jet ski crossing the wake.

Are those perspiration beads I see forming on his brow? 

Twice, Allen gets out to walk ahead, to check the viability of the "road." 

At 20 miles, we agree we can go no farther. Too soft. The beast wins. How deep are those ruts anyway? 12, 14 inches? Maybe 17?

So we turn back, our goal unmet. But, we're still smiling, still laughing, and still having a great time. We picnic on the gentler sand and search for small shells on Little Shell Beach. Cindy sheds her skirt (she wears a bathing suit underneath) and dips into the Gulf. Pictures here.

We return to the campground by 3 p.m. and unload the emergency supplies we never had to use (because Allen controlled the helm). And we vow to one day return to the high seas sands and dock at  Big Shell Beach.

Editor's note: According to the National Park's own Web site, we made our goal. Big Shell Beach stretches from mile 17 to mile 28. We made it to mile 20. So although we saw no big shells, we made it to Big Shell Beach. We made it. We made it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What About Bob

We're outside, puttering, when Bob hollers over. "When ya leavin?"

Bob's one of the hard-core anglers here in Padre Island National Seashore. He's been camped here or near here since November and fishes just about every day. Despite cold, wind and rain. And age. Bob is 71.

He leaves his waders outside to dry, so it always looks like there's another person over there at Bob's. And often, there is.

Bob's a people magnet. I looked up from my book one day and saw Bob climb out of his aging fifth wheel and start to work on something -- a bent fishing pole, a rusty generator, maybe he's filleting some fish. The next time I look up there are three other men there, one with a dog.

So today, Bob wants to know when we are leaving, because he wants to fish us some fish. (Look closely at the picture and you'll see the fish he just caught.) He offers the fish as a thank you for the chili I sent over the other day as a thank you for letting us hook up to his generator for a day. The thank yous never end here. It's kinda nice.

Bob says the chili (I notice his eyes start glistening) tastes almost like that that his wife had made for him -- the wife who died two years ago, just across the street, while the two of them were camping here. Lung cancer.

Linda Jean, was her name. She was his third and fifth wife (he married her twice). The others meant nothing, because combined, he and Linda Jean were married 36 years. Just two years before his wife died, his 18-year-old son Timmy died. In a car accident, while delivering newspapers. He says losing his wife was hard, but losing his son was fatal. He feels he died the day his son died. His son, his funny, gentle, loving son. The 300-plus people at his son's funeral gave Bob a stand ovation for his eulogy to his special son.

Bob says he doesn't believe in God because where was God for those two minutes Timmy needed him to save his life. Then he shows me letters from long-time friends who do believe in God. And send prayers his way. He has lots of friends and writes about 24 letters a month, just keeping in touch.

Bob unfolds his life to us in 20 minutes, all this while we stand here in the street. Eventually, I decline the offer of fish (Allen doesn't eat fish and I don't want the smell in our motor home) and walk back across the street. Then, and I don't really know why, I turn around and holler back, "We're here for four more days."

Maybe deep down I want to accept his thank you, for our thank you. Because, after all, Bob is so nice, and anyway, it's kinda nice when the thank yous never end. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Good Samaritan

Don (Sherry told me his name) has a big dog (Amigo, Sherry told me his name, too) who's a menace.

The year-old German Shepherd looks, acts and sounds vicious. And I don't say this lightly.

He barks, not a "hello, how are ya" bark. Not a "come play with me" bark. But an "I'll eat you alive" bark whenever we walk near him. And "near" is relative. He's feigned an attack when I'm 30 feet away or 15. Doesn't matter.

I and others in the campground talk about Don and Amigo. We complain about how loud the dog is, and how fearful we are of him. We gossip about how Don can't control the dog, and about how odd Don is anyway with a wild mop of curly hair. We see him on the beach, struggling to keep the dog under control. We walk circles around the two of them, never getting very close. We stay away.

Sherry stepped outside our crowd and unlike us, extended the hand of friendship to Don. Albeit cautiously, so Amigo didn't bite it.

Sherry spent time with Don, talked to him about how to train Amigo to be a better friend, a happier dog, so he wouldn't bark so much, so he wouldn't scare so many people. She gave Don some homemade brownies, drove him to the store, with Amigo chewing on her hand the whole time.

Don's a kind, gentle, intelligent man, Sherry said. His wife recently passed away. He's just in over his head with a dog he thought would grow up and out of the unruly behavior all by himself.

While the rest of us walked around this man and figuratively spat on him as he struggled, Sherry extended a hand to lift him up, to ease his pain.

 "A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way.
"When he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was.
"When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’
"Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?" He said, "He who showed mercy on him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Luke 10:30-37 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Fog Comes On Big Lion Feet

The TV newscaster wants me to watch the 10 p.m. news, so he headlines the biggest news of the day: Fog.




"The FOG returns," he stares right at me, warning me. "More at 10."

Fog. HA! The FOG is headlining the news down here in Corpus Christi.

Oh, I am so self-righteous.

Today, the FOG returns. Nearly all day.  I've never seen anything like it. It blankets the Earth. No color exists in my world. It's black, white and shades of gray. People resemble little gray carrots moving through a cloud. I see shadows where buildings used to be. Birds sitting on a fence look like knobs.

I hear the ocean, but cannot see it until I'm almost upon it. 
The fog blows in thick, like heavy smoke from a brush fire, everywhere. As in a Stephen King novel, it moves toward me, threatening to envelope me. Then it does. I see, feel and smell it wrapping its tendrils around me, overcoming me, encompassing me and everything around me.

I touch it back. It feels cold, damp, palpable. 

This is the kind of fog that headlines the news.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cigarettes Kill Books, Too

My new friend Sherry walks up to me with a green bag full of paperback books.

"Are you a reader?" she asks. Well, sure! I've read 13 books since Dec.13.

"Then here," she says. "Maybe you can find something in here you can read."

I'm more than just a reader.  I'm a collector. Well, a hoarder, really. I must have 2,000 books, half inherited from my father and the rest picked up at thrift stores, yard sales,, Barnes & Nobles, friends. I love books. 

But, ACK! Not these books.

I open the sack  and Phew! They stink. Like cigarettes. I'm a reformed smoker. The worst kind. I can't stand the smell of cigarettes. It sickens me. These books sicken me.

A smoker gave these books to Sherry, who now gives them to me because she's not fond of any of the authors (Harold Robbins, Belva Plain, John Lescroart, Anne Rivers Siddons, Maeve Binchy).

I've read nothing by any of these authors, never found a reason to be interested in these authors and own no other books by these authors, But, I'm a hoarder. A book hoarder. I need to keep these books. So I post a question on facebook: What can I do to get cigarette smell out of books? 

I MUST rescue these books. I NEED to keep them.

The sentiments pour in from my friends: Burn them, recycle them, just throw them away, baking soda, laundry sheets. 

I try laundry sheets and now the books stink like cigarettes and chemicals. We leave them outside overnight and still cigarettes claim them. 

There is no hope. No cure. Cigarettes kill.

So I pack them up in a sealed bag and head to the trash bin. On my way, I see two people, smoking. I offer them the books. I explain why, you know, about the smell. They open the bag and sniff. Smells fine to them.

So I essentially recycled the books, sparing them a sure death. And me the smell.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Letting Kids In On The Fun

I can't believe my eyes.

I'm sitting four or five rows up in  $20 "preferred seats" (actually, butt space on bleachers) at the National Professional Bull Riding Association's rodeo in Kingsville, Texas. I'm surrounded by Texans, whole families of Texans, whoopin' and hollerin,' clapping, standing, pumping their fists in the air (and chugging down huge cups of beer). 

I notice a darling little girl, about 6, decked out in pink -- a pink cowboy hat and pink chaps -- climbing on the fence, the only thing protecting her from those bucking, rocking, snorting bulls inside. Then I notice more kids, lots of kids, all looking like little cowhands and they're moseying on down toward that fence. The little boys wear black or plaid shirts, chaps and cowboy hats, just like their dads. The little girls look like their mommas, wearing cowboy hats, and vests, boots and belts all bedazzled in bling. Lots of bling. There are ribbons in their hair.

And then I see the darndest thing. Those moms and dads pick up their kids and drop them, DROP THEM like sacks of potatoes, over that head-high fence into the rodeo ring, that place where seconds earlier angry bulls snorted, bucked and rocked. What are they thinking? Why, some of bigger kids scramble up and over by themselves.

Soon there must be a 100 miniature cowboys and cowgirls milling about inside that ring.

What I see next, drops my jaw.

Three calves, cute little things with bows on their tails, charge into the ring. And those 100 kids? Round and round they chase those baby cows. The kids work like cattle dogs, moving those calves,  cutting them off from each other, all the while grabbing GRABBING for those bows on the little cow tails. The audience roars. It's bedlam in there. The calves kick, rock and buck and the kids dart, duck and charge. 

It doesn't take long, maybe three minutes, before three kids secure the treasured golden rings of calf chasing. For their efforts? They get $5. Enough for a pony ride.

The kids pant, gleefully, as they climb back over the fences to where moms and dads retrieve them. 

I gawk, still, at what I've just seen. And then applaud. Because no one stopped all the fun, worrying that it might be too dangerous. No one stopped the fun. Thank goodness, no one stopped the fun.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Spring Brake

Ah, the vagaries of youth, and the weather.

We're walking the dogs along the road that bisects the campground because a storm dares us to try, just try, to walk along the beach.

We did that a few days ago; we pushed past that weather bully and met its wall of 50 mph winds that blew us, our dogs, buckets of sand and an ocean of water all the way home (well, all the way back to our motor home.)

So, today, because we lost to that tyrant in the past, we stay off the beach, walk the road then turn to head home.

Ahead of us, we see a couple of college kids carrying sleeping bags and other stuff across the road to pack it all into the back of their car. Then we see more kids, climbing/struggling through the sand, wrestling with that thug, that tormentor I told you about.

"Hey, guys," I holler. "Were you the ones in the tents, on the beach?"

"Yes," the guy groans. "We give up."

Ah, the weather bully wins again.

So I chat for a while and learn there are eight of these kids from Texas State University in San Marcos  trying to live out their spring break dream of camping on the beach at the Padre Island National Seashore, enjoying the surf and the sun.

Instead, the winds billowed their tents all night and early this morning, the rain seeped through and they all got wet. And exasperated. And called it quits. Because the wind is relentless and the skies are gary and the Gulf of Mexico won't let anyone in to play.

And, anyway, one of the girls shyly admits, they noticed all the other people here in the park are, well, old. She grins her apology to me, one of the ones she consider, well, old.

So they're striking camp, but they've already shed their sadness. They no longer see this as a failed vacation. Instead, they've revamped  and plan to drive three hours north to San Antonio, where the mom of one of the kids will dry them off, cook their meals and pamper them.

So they are happy to be leaving, laugh at the memory they've just created and acknowledge the weather, tomorrow, should be swell.