Keepin’ it Simple…

Sitting on our back porch here in the high mountains of Colorado, a gentle breeze kicked up bringing closer the sweet tunes of an old favorite Zac Brown Band melody…

“I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand
Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand
Life is good today Life is good today”

And as we rocked and forth gazing out to the endless horizon, minds sweetly drifting far away and reflecting on the good moment, it occurred to me that life really ain’t gotta be complicated at-tall (that’s “at all” in Southern…).  Goodness, why would you ever want to complicate it?

Yup, there’s great wisdom to be learned from those who live this simple lesson.  We can choose to be crazy-busy bees and never see just how quickly the sand drains down the hourglass …  or, look for easy ways to slow things down a spell.

Whether it’s a slow hike up into the mountains or an easy walk along a pretty beach, the people you find there are likely thinking along the same lines as you.

Oh, is that Alan Jackson with another great song winding its way to us…

“Two old people, without a thing
Children gone but still they sing
Side by side on that front porch swing
Living on love

Soon, though not soon enough, we’d be sitting on our favorite front porch with old friends who’d learned this lesson long before we ever did.   Better late than never… and life is good … no, make that: life is great.

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Waiting on a Second Life

He wondered what it must have been like back in the day.    Rolling off of the assembly line and into the shiny showroom,  buyers admiring her graceful lines, ladies in fashionable dresses and wearing white gloves, men in proper suits and sporting their fedoras.   Who would have been the first to drive her off of the lot?

Duke Ellington is playing on the brand new radio as his mind drifts.

And he wonders what places this forgotten automobile had seen in her long life?   Had it been an ordinary one, going to and from home and work, or had its first owner had the luxury of time, energy, money, and a romantic eye to the horizon?   What had been this car’s fate back in 1938?

His thoughts travelled to a world long faded from view and far away that evening in the empty car lot.

He could begin to see the older man shaking hands with the new buyers of his modest home, somewhere near Taos, New Mexico.   Yes, that’s it.   Now, his wife is smiling at their fresh possibilities, their  Airedale Terrier jumping willingly into the back seat as they drive off into the dust and on down to places yet to be discovered.   He’d deposited the royalty check from his last novel and now it was time for the two to explore.

Finally, the line approached and off they were, unencumbered with regret, second thoughts, or the slightest doubt.  Dues had been quietly paid over the years and no-one had been betrayed in their quest to live free.  Oh, certainly, there were times when the floor seemed soft like quicksand and their vision obscured with distraction, but somehow, they found a way to lean forward in the direction of their dreams and the day had finally come.

Reaching in the back seat, the woman opened the case to her prized violin, brought it to the front and began to play an inspiring melody that seemed to match the moment perfectly.  Looking to her, he noticed tears running down her cheek as she settled in to her instrument, her white scarf flowing in the wind along with the notes in the air.  Rare, they knew, that such freedom could lift their souls so effortlessly.

“Hey there, she’s a beauty isn’t she?”, exclaimed the salesman.   “Sure is.   I’ve just got to wonder what she’s seen in her long life.”

“An old lady called me a few weeks back and said she had something she thought I might be interested in, something that had been gathering dust for years.  Imagine that!  I’m closing up, but you’re welcome to stay.  Just shut the gate behind you when you leave. Oh!  And here’s my card.”

He smiled and turned away as the salesman returned back to his office in the warehouse, turning off, one by one, the bright lights outside.  The breeze picked up a bit and there was a sudden chill in the evening air.

Returning to his daydream,

The young, Bolivian child looked up and turned to see a plume of dust winding its way across the altiplano.   Cars were rare in 1938 and the sound it made was quite unusual.   The closer it came, the more excited he became.   And as it neared, it slowed down and stopped along the old, dirt road.  Roosters fluttering their wings by the mud brick hut near the road.

He could see two people in good spirits with a large piece of paper in hand.

“Excuse me please, child, could you tell me in what direction the village of Challapata may be?”

The excitement in the little boy was contagious as he pointed with great enthusiasm in the general direction of where they would need to go.  Mount Sajama was beginning to reveal herself in all of her glory as though rising magically from the far-distant horizon.

Bidding him farewell, they continued down the primitive, lonely road to their next day’s paradise and before long the land was once again still, save for the sounds of crows above.

“She’s had a great life”, came the voice from behind.   Turning around, he found a beautiful older woman, half sad, but somehow come alive, her long, gray hair flowing in the gentle breeze, a note clasped in her hands.

“I can only imagine”, he said as he walked slowly over to her.   “Did you know the owners?”

“Yes, I certainly had.   They used to live in New Mexico years ago, when they decided to sell it all and travel down to South America.  Had a wonderful, carefree time for almost a year.”

Stumbling back as he felt himself get a bit dizzy, recovering quickly to see if he wasn’t dreaming.

“My word…  really?”

“Yes, dear.  I can tell you all about it if you have a little time”, the evening sun revealing a weathered face filled with stories to tell, sad eyes almost, but a gentle and inviting look to the old woman.

“Of course!   Please do.”

And in her wistful way, she began to unfold a wonderful story of exploration, of dreams, of writing poetry on the beach, of quaint villages and wonderful, simple restaurants along their route to the tip of South America.    He’d been the love of her life and theirs had only grown sweeter with time.  Rare, she knew.

So when the illness was diagnosed the year before, they understood that they had little time remaining and so it was that they had embarked on their grand adventure to the end.

The old woman’s voice was strangely comforting as she told her story.   The sun was getting ready to disappear, casting its growing shadow on where they stood.  Turning to the old car, he asked her,

“It must have been a magnificent chapter in your lives…”

No response.   And as he turned around to ask again, she was gone.  Disoriented, he looked everywhere and could not imagine how she could have vanished so quickly in the open space and then he noticed a piece of paper left under the left windshield wiper; something not there the moment before.

Carefully unfolding the note, it read,

“When the sun has set, no candle can replace it”, a serpentine line drawn from the words into a violin being lifted by two hearts.

Leaning on the old car, he wondered what had just happened.  Had he imagined it all? Maybe though, perhaps… maybe not.   More and more, he was surrendering to the notion that there were no coincidences in life, just the occasional guides along the way if we should ever slow our thoughts and open up our minds.

[Image:  Icon4x4.com and filtered through the Prisma app for artistic effect.]

A Well-Deserved Lunch at the Grand Khan Irish Pub in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

At last, my long-awaited meal came to me as I listened to a sultry Lily Marlene playing over the loudspeakers.   The booth next to me was filled with loud and exuberant young, Russian males regaling each other with tall tales.   The impressive bratwurst and mountain of sauerkraut before me was nicely paired with a towering, Mongolian Tiger Beer and my early afternoon was simply perfect at this point in time.  At any moment, I expected Indiana Jones and his entourage to come through the door and for all of us to be transported back to a time in the 1930s.   The music… was I in pre-war Berlin?

There is something alluring in traveling to the far ends of this planet; places not yet made comfortable for tourists.   Thankfully, many still exist for the lone traveller,  those of us whose souls hail from the Black Sheep, those of us who yearn to break free from the bright lights and vexing stimuli of our ever rushing world.

Ulaanbaatar was still such a place in the Fall of 2012.

Early that same morning, in the intimate restaurant of the Hotel Kempinski, my wife and I enjoyed an unhurried breakfast.   Subtle pleasures come from quietly observing the other visitors.   Slowly streaming in were mostly geotechnical and other types of engineers on assignment to Mongolia to consult with those running the country’s mineral extraction industry.   Building was booming in town and the young people were enjoying the long reach of western fashion and style that was now finding a foothold in this place.  Oh, and there were a few travelers as well, mostly fit and healthy retirees dressed in khaki and kerchiefs; quiet, assured, though ever so slightly betrayed with their eagerness to explore.  Their studied look was otherwise, impeccable.

Bidding my hard-working wife “adieu” that morning as she went off to inspect operations in Mongolia, I took a long walk through town, to the outskirts at the base of the mountains in the south.   With no real idea of what I was about to discover, I simply walked for hours, crossing the main rail line cutting through town, then over the long bridge with the gentle flowing Tuul Gol River below, and then finally up into the foothills.

I desperately wanted to climb the conical mountain I had spied earlier that morning and so I simply walked in that general direction.   A taxi would have been easier, but I find that there is no substitute for what we encounter on foot.  Suffering a bit makes the end of a day’s (first) beverage that much tastier.  And so I continued along, at times on well designed sidewalks, but more often on deeply rutted, hardened muddy surfaces.

Over the bridge and I was almost there until I realized that this part of Ulaanbaatar was ringed with a tall, barbed wire fence.  “Merdes, alors!   Vraimant?”   Searching and searching in vain for an outlet to the mountain, I decided to enter the gates of a military compound. There was no guard, so I continued.

“Haaallo.   You!”, turning around, I saw the massive, Mongolian soldier approach, but he was smiling.  Decades of hard-won instinct commanded my subconscious brain as I became strangely calm.  Returning his warm and curious smile, I asked.  “Please, I am interested in climbing to the top of that mountain.   Is there a way?”  I must have seemed quite odd to him.

His burly and rather large hand was generously extended and I shook it.  After all, how often do we in our pampered environments ever have a chance to visit with a Mongolian on his land?  Looking back years later, this was the day’s finest moment.  I just did not know it at the time.

“I have had much to drink, my friend.   Japanese soldiers visit and we drink until sun comes up.”, confides G. Khan’s modern variant.   Brilliant, I thought.   So now I have this impressive soldier confessing to me of his excessive drinking.  Brain blank, I respond, “Very nice, very nice” as I continue to smile.   All instinct at this point in life, eh?  Placing his very heavy hand on my shoulder, now leaning a bit looking up to him, he points to some yurts about three blocks to the southeast, high octane breath explaining, “There.   But many hungry dogs.”

Parting ways with my new friend, I shake his hand, grinning at the wonderful super-collision of unlikely cultures and bid him a warm farewell.  Life is unpredictable that way, thank goodness.

But now another sense, one not so safe, begins to infiltrate my mind.   Dogs, many dogs. And desperately I continue through the mud streets with the sad looking concrete homes and battered doors, the lace draperies hanging lifelessly inside the small windows.   Past the old people casting their defeated eyes upon the stranger, clothes hanging on the line to dry, swaying in the gentle breeze.

Oh, why must there be hungry dogs?   Explains why I saw no one hiking up the vertical path up to the top of the mountain that morning.

Reminded me of places behind the Iron Curtain where I had grown up in the 60s and 70s.  Grim, Soviet Era housing constructed in haste, but devoid of song and color.  And around the last house on the street, there they were, a group of three dogs as promised; not the friendly ones either.  Small, but they had a certain desperate look.   And in these quick moments of truth, I’ve learned a certain way to walk and look.   No eye contact, stride with purpose, intensity.   Intensity, impatience; that’s it… and be prepared to bluff at a moment’s notice, for this is today’s crux.  Hope my animal smell of desperation does not betray me now.

Through the opening to where the soldier had pointed, I found my escape!   Making haste deliberately, I finally found my way to the other side, to the sea of light brown grasses that lay upon the steep mountainside, to the one path that I could see that led straight up to the summit.   Up I went, looking back occasionally to see the three dogs scavenging through trash, over the bunker-like workers’ homes and yurts.   Now, halfway up, I could begin to make the landscape of the city, the smokestacks belching out their toxic fumes all of which remained captured in the larger valley below.   I saw this vividly as well, when we lived in Ankara in the mid 1970s.

And then, finally to the summit.   A massive rock cairn contained the one leaning, wooden pole on which were tied many colorful streams of cloth fluttering in the breeze; a gift to the mountain gods?   All alone, I enjoyed the expansive view and the thought that I was half-way around this planet and in a place so unfamiliar but fascinating.

From the mountaintop, I looked for another path, one that might take me to another opening… one without hungry dogs.  Over there.  Yes.   Another trail led to another opening through one of the city’s vocational colleges.

It is a comforting feeling when we can relax to the idea that we’d now likely see another day.

“Is there anything more for your, sir?”, asked the slender waiter with the quiet voice.

“Another of your Mongolian Tiger Beers, please.   And the check when you can.  Thank you.”

On the coaster was inscribed an old Mongolian proverb,

“There are men who walk through the woods and see no trees.”  Oh my, how true that is.

And as I savored my exotic beverage in this land so far away from home, a quiet feeling came over me that though the streets were at times quite grim, there were plenty of trees if only we would bother to open our eyes to see.

 

Oregon: Instilling Respect for Grand Spaces

I can still remember the day that I took my son Anthony and his cousin, Sean, climbing up on Mount Hood.  It was a glorious day, the sun shining, the skies a dark blue against the bright snow and ice above.   Strange as it is, I can almost look left in my mind’s eye and see the two of them grinning ear to ear as we went higher and higher up above the clouds that morning in Oregon.

Disguised as “vacations”, we would organize our family trips to look for potential places to retire and Oregon held a certain allure to my wife who had lived there years ago.   There was so much to explore in such a short period of time, and as usual, she had us superbly organized.    Leave things to me, and I’d likely have us camping on the beach out of a 1967 VW Hippy Bus…

Seems to me that it was our turn now to show the kids the wonders of our beautiful planet and to instill in them a profound respect for our wild spaces.  We’d been camping with them for years, but Oregon was truly grand!  The approach to this was fairly simple, just bring them there, let it all soak in at an early age, and they’d never, ever be satisfied to live an ordinary life again.   A curse, perhaps, but a spell worth casting.

I’ve come to understand that the best remedy to our man-made ills is to simply drive far away to grand, natural spaces.   To stoke up that wonderful and magical feeling of awe as we stand before treasures such as Crater Lake, the Grand Canyon, and the Impact Crater is to imbue within us an undeniable feeling that we are small and fleeting in the grand scheme of things and this, I have found, is a great relief.  None of us is really important at all.   Trade the BigFootprint McMansion, ditch your rarely used yacht, and live in the footsteps of John Muir!   Simple is good, and hey, pretty affordable to boot!

So many of our worries and ills are unnecessary if we would simply remember to leave the man-made chatter in our rear view mirrors.   There’s a James Bond type red button in your Austin Healy labeled, “Screw the drama”.   Press it now!  And as in his movies, your vexing villain will soon be ejected out of the sunroof never to be seen again.

The other day I dropped off my old hiking boots to get resoled.  It was almost as agonizing as dropping of my little ones at day care years ago.

“Three weeks or so?”, I asked.

Smiling, the healthy and fit woman in her late sixties with the long, grey pony tail, smiled a bit and answered with her eyes.  It was clear, she’d kick my ass up any mountain around here.

Two weeks to go while my right foot heals from surgery and my old hiking boots get a second life.  Can’t wait.   My son will be home on leave and maybe the four of us can take a slow, long walk into the wild.

Endless Horizons – Another False Start on Our Quest to Break Free

Racing like a crazed mule in my old, heavily-loaded Jeep Wrangler, I just barely made it to the Devil’s Tower entry gate for a sweet few minutes as the sun set and lit up it’s dramatic face.   An otherworldly apparition rising out of the surrounding plains and forests, I had first learned of this cool, geological feature from Spielberg’s movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, having watched it with good friends in 1977 at a US Air Force theater just outside of Madrid, Spain.   Now, halfway around the world, I’d finally get to see the actual site 32 years later.

As I drove up the winding forest road to the base of this unusual tower, I caught a female ranger locking up at the gift shop, smiling and waving at me as she got into her USFS-issued pickup truck and drove away.   Her friendly gesture was an warm invitation to stay a spell even though it was after six.  She’d likely radio over to the entry gate and have them look for me on the way out; I was the only one there that November day.

I had been hired to run the cash office in a subterranean, windowless room at a ski resort on Mt. Hood and the low-paying, seasonal job promised us a foothold in our quest to relocate out West… at all costs, we were so desperate to leave the pressure-filled, DC area.  It paid an absolutely tiny fraction of what my wife made at her international organization, but we knew we could make it work by selling stuff and simplifying.

With the Jeep loaded to capacity, I plotted out my route across the US from Maryland to Oregon and scoped out some interesting stops along the way; the US map filled with pointy sticky notes.   Looking back now, eight years later, I have to laugh a bit at my insanity and impulsivity; but, I’ve also learned in life that the prize (in whatever form it takes) goes to He-Who-Sees-GrandVision and dares to take a risk and chance failure… and fail miserably I did.   I was not prepared to move so quickly with cash and receipts in that abysmal room, locked behind the plexiglass window with holes for 10 hours a day, while the world above was skiing freely on one of my favorite resorts; Mt. Hood!

The cruelty was unbearable.  Were the adventure Gods having a good laugh at my expense, I wondered?  Nasty Gods.

But not all was lost.   Some of the sights along the way were amazing.   The stop to the place where Custer made his last stand was profoundly haunting.   Just a quick pull off from Interstate 90, the approach to the rolling hills now dotted with headstones from Natives and US Army forced one to pause and to reflect.

Later that day, on my endless drive across Wyoming, later sitting on the bench watching the sun fade on Devil’s Tower proved to be another almost religious moment.  The last of the day’s Fall rays rose up until only an afterglow of dusk remained.   Not another person around.  Wish I had had a fancy iPhone to run a time lapse video.

The following day, as I wound my way up into the western Montana roads approaching the Idaho border, the stop at the National Bison Range had me laughing when the polite ranger with the pained expression quietly informed me that they had all migrated over the mountain pass for the year the week before.

No less impressive, a couple of days prior, was my detour to South Dakota’s Badlands, a place I could clearly recall seeing in some of the old Western movies I had watched growing up; and, of course, Mount Rushmore was quite impressive… though admittedly, not a defacing project I would condone in this day and age.   The Black Hills are a wonder to behold as they seemingly rise up to meet the traveller from an endless sea of  rolling grasslands; a type of oasis.

When I return with my wife, we’ll have to find the Crazy Horse project in the area; a similar monument that looks to be equally if not more impressive.

Well, so life teaches us to get out of our comfort zones, not overthink, and to learn from failure.   The drive back home to Maryland had a very different feeling to it…    for I had some “splainin'” to do.   We’d have a few more, non-life-threatening, false starts after this debacle and as I look back, the anguish and heartbreak at the delays were all worth it.

“If you are not failin’, your not really tryin'”.

Stepping Into a Dream: The Wonders of Petra (Jordan)

A smiling Bedouin approached me and said, “Here.  Please take my card.   It has my website on it.   I am here if you have any questions at all.”   Impeccable english.   Within seconds, I was blown away by the archaeological treasures before me and now, this interesting chap.  I looked over to his camel and visualized riding off over the sand dunes never to be captured by the modern world again.

We’d been tipped off by the locals to get here as the gates opened if we desired a tranquil experience.   The Red Sea was not far away and swarms of air conditioned, modern tour busses would soon load their pink-skinned cargo straight off of their plush cruise liners and they’d be upon us like locusts!   Best to make haste slowly.  No time to waste!

The drive from Amman was itself an interesting trek across the Jordanian desert.   Before the sun rises, then as it peeks above the horizon, the magical lights bring the quiet sands to life.   Our driver asked what radio station we’d like and as we always do, we replied that we’d be very happy with his local station.   Why on earth would we want to listen to something “western” when we are here?  Please.

As we approached, descending to the site, our spirits soared.   We could see the almost empty parking lot and my wife and I were glad that we’d risen at four in the morning to be the first ones here.   Sweet tranquility.

So much to take in, so little time.   Grateful, however, that at least we had this chance.

The walk from the exposed desert and immediately into the narrow gorge was wonderful.  Looking up, all I could see was a strip of blue sky.  It reminded me of an earlier adventure in southern Utah when I had waded up a chilly creek in Zion National Park (the Narrows).  Shortly into the gorge, the wall carvings began to appear, some sadly worn at about the four to five foot height due to careless tourists touching them.  Same damage as I had noted while in the ancient stacked pyramids in Egypt years prior.

If only we could select the humans that would respect these magnificent places…

Once through the gorge, the famous Treasury Building came into view and to my astonishment, about 300 other structures as well, all carved into the beautiful, red sandstone; a stone so curious with all of its various, curved striations.

So deep into the canyons were we that the sun only began to strike us as we hiked up the steep paths to the upper plateaus.

I could write an entire book on this morning’s experience, but this entry shall have to serve as a tease and an invitation for you who read it to go visit this wonderful site.

By the later morning, as we made haste to leave before the masses arrived, we found we were too late!   Nooooooo… a primal “geschrei” arose within us!    Through the narrow gorge, they all came streaming out, each grouping led by an underpaid tour guide with colored umbrella.   Within seconds, we were overrun and the once quiet place was abuzz with rude tourists bouncing off of each other each in desperation for the much needed photo.

I could barely breathe as my wife and I waded upstream through the gorge and to our amused driver waiting at the edge of chaos.

Well…, it was a magnificent experience, one that I would highly recommend.   If I had the Bedouin’s business card, I would surely post his contact information for you so that he might guide you for a quiet and contemplative experience of your own.

Erasing History – The Yom Kippur War

When you are a 15 year old kid (1975) and desperate to record your ‘fine’ rock and roll music, you hunt through your dad’s stuff, find a cassette tape (remember those?) and of course, tape over the existing recording…   except that, what was on that tape was far more interesting than the horrid, out-of-tune rendition of Honky Tonk Woman that followed.

34 years later, as my driver followed the Jordan Valley Highway south to drop me off for the tour of Jesus’ baptismal site, I thought back to that fateful day when I wiped out some interesting history on tape.

I wasn’t close to the old boy, but I can’t deny that he had a great go at life.   As a US diplomat stationed in Ankara (Turkey), he’d be called on to handle various assignments; one of which was to assist Henry Kissinger in his shuttle diplomacy during the early 1970s.  On one such assignment, during the Yom Kippur War, he found himself shuttling between Syria and Israel, the details of which I found in his journals and I’d rather not share.  But the tape he brought back of his time with the Israeli Army was surely fascinating.

While that conflict raged on, he found himself inside a mountain bunker with US and Israeli military officers and NCOs while the Syrians were hurling artillery and vectoring closer to their hardened site.   And as the incoming barrage intensified, one could clearly hear the tenor of voices, the back and forth over radio, and most of all the increasingly terrified voice of the civilians inside; my dad, included, though I could tell he was working hard to be brave.

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the day my dad came into my room and asked, “have you seen my cassette?” and of course, seeing it on my desk, his heart sinking as he realized that I had taped over a good portion of his prized piece of history.  To his credit, he never lost his cool.  He just laughed, walked out, and closed the door behind him.

Cresting the rolling mountains overlooking the Dead Sea, passing Jordanian military check posts every few kilometers, I thought back to those earlier years and wondered what the old boy really did see in the desert so long ago.

My driver dropped me off under what looked like a crude, bedouin tent with the deuce and a half parked next to it (military truck w/canvas top).   There were a few other tourists assembled and we all hopped into the back of the truck for our visit to The Jordan River Baptismal Site of Jesus Christ.   It was a fascinating walk to the famous river, the Israeli flag snapping in the wind across the way under the unrelenting high sun.   Surreal, in a way.

Sitting on a rock by the site, random thoughts coursed through my mind that afternoon.   If only my devoutly catholic grandmother and great-grandmother could have joined me on this pilgrimage; though, I swore I felt their presence…