A Beach Moment that Lingers

Seaside in Progreso, Mexico is unforgettable.

If I concentrate, I can still recall sitting on the beach at Progreso, digging my toes into the sand and sipping a piña colada made with sweet, fresh pineapple and soft, sugary coconut shavings. I remember the waiters, who had to cross the beach boulevard from the Crabster restaurant to keep asking me if I needed anything else.

It was not a cruise ship day, otherwise there would have been hundreds more people like me, tourists mulling about looking for T-shirts, or souvenirs, or bathrooms. The first time we journeyed north from Merida by bus and disembarked in this sleepy beach town, we heard the jolting noise of English being spoken with a southern accent. The words, already foreign sounding after a few weeks staying in Mexico, hit me from the tables along the avenue leading to the ocean. Gray-headed travelers in tropical shirts sat ordering beers and margaritas and eating barbecue marinated in the sour orange and lime of the Yucatán rather than the dry rubs or smoke of the places their accents said they hailed from. We walked on without belying our compatriotism. I just wanted to sit in the warm breeze, to feel the sun on my skin, and to look out on the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to be mesmerized by the waves and by the squawking of flocks of gulls who undulated the same way.

We ate pork tacos with habanero salsa. Huge shrimp encrusted in coconut batter and fried. Beach vendors passed by often, selling colorful whipped sugar candy merengues and caramelized peanut palanquetas. They hawked all sorts of wares held aloft on their heads or in big backpacks. A man selling large baskets had half a dozen draped over each of his arms and more piled on his back. One vendor rode the bus back to Merida with us at the end of the day, his pastry tray stowed somewhere below in a luggage compartment. The ride cost the equivalent of $1US each way. So, we rode with a crowd, though most appeared not to be traveling to sit on the beach.

I watched the fluttering of the umbrellas and palapas, the thatched roofs of dried palm leaves. They shaded tables and chaise lounges set up along the shore. I listened to the surf. I watched a Mexican family pull two white plastic tables together to accommodate everyone for a child’s birthday party. 

Further down the beach large palapas stood at the ready to accommodate more people in search of shade. And still further a newer restaurant with a multi-level, open-air deck that ensured every table had a view of the sea. Swings on ropes and palm trees growing up through the rafters made the place feel like an Instagram picture from Tulum. That made it more expensive than the other places.

Yes, I like piña coladas. This one has a coconut sugar rim, Mexican cinnamon shavings that are like the more relaxed version of cinnamon sticks, and a skewer of fresh pineapple and berries.

Only a few more historic establishments remain after decades of hurricanes and the ebb and flow of tourism on this sleepy coastline. But the city rebuilt the seaside in the last few years. The malecón is now a low concrete wall, turned into seating in spots and undulating along the ribbon of beach kept the sand and water on one side and a wide boulevard on the other for pedestrians, bicycles, and every hour or so a truck full of police decked out in military-style uniforms and holding automatic rifles. In places like Mexico this show of force is a comfort rather than a threat I suppose. I prefer the bicycle cops of California beaches who seem harmless, and yet ready to confront whatever trouble comes. 

Sleeping dogs flopped in the warm sand against the sea wall and lay contentedly snoozing, flipping their tails like horses to defend against the odd fly. The mid-80-degree temperature was perfect. I waded out into the water far enough to feel its December chill, but I never got too warm sitting on the beach to require more water dunks, just more pina coladas, or Mexican beers, or Topo Chicos.

Boats on the Gulf.

The beach faced north, so the sunsets faded out of view. And we meandered back to the bus depot to board the ride back to the city. It was only a little over an hour along the highway. We disembarked at the stop by Paseo 60, the huge new complex right around the block from our rental house. It had a massive open-air plaza with a waterfall cascading over plexiglass, a stage curtained with sisal ropes, old henequen manufacturing equipment turned sculpture. Escalators and shops, a hotel, a coach depot for high-class road trips daily to Cancun and elsewhere. We walked along the narrow sidewalk and turned down Calle 37 toward our house. Weeds edged out from cracks and the concrete crumbled in places. We passed old single story colonial houses, one that had been turned into a boutique hotel on the corner.

It was one key to open the wrought iron gate over the front door, and then another key to unlock the wood door, weathering badly in the tropics. I stepped into the cool of the cavernous living room, slipped off my flip flops to spray the sand off my feet with a water bottle left on a little towel just beside the door. The tile was cool beneath my bare feet and I padded across it into the kitchen and sank down into one of the equipale chairs of pigskin and slats of cedar. The sun of the beach still felt warm on my skin.

If I concentrate, it still does.

A Bit of String in Merida

The cathedral in Merida, Mexico is the oldest church in the Americas.

A labyrinth of concrete, some crumbling, some intact. Facades painted pink, periwinkle or warm orange. Black wrought-iron gates and railings. Oiled hardwood doors. Narrow sidewalks. Cars speeding along thin streets. Centuries old buildings standing silently bragging, like elders, with the assurance that only comes from having seen several lifetimes. This is a place called Merida, Mexico. 

The ancient Maya people of the Yucatan peninsula built massive structures for sport and religion here more than a thousand years ago. They had their own calendar and written language. But when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, they brought Catholicism and erected the large cathedral in the grand plaza in the center of Merida. It stands over the site of much more ancient Mayan structures. In fact, its constructed with stones from the Mayan buildings. So are the colonial houses and buildings that radiate out from the plaza. 

Three centuries later, at the end of the 19th century, wars and innovation brought sudden wealth and growth to the Yucatan again, in the form of string. That’s right, twine. The Mayans had long before used a variety of agave plant called henequen to make rope fiber called sisal. They wove it into hammocks, clothes, and hats. The Spanish decided it was also good rope for their ships. But mid-19th century hacienda owners began growing the plants in earnest. They brought in newly invented machines to strip the leaves and dry the fibers. The demand was so great that it spawned dozens of sisal millionaires. Millionaires! From string!

Henequen plants still being cultivated outside Merida, Mexico.
The fibers from the henequen plant’s leaves are dried to make strong fibers for rope and other textiles.

The wealthy elite built large mansions all along the wide boulevards of Merida. They built schools and hospitals, paved streets, and installed sewage systems. And when the string industry succumbed to politics, revolution, war, other suppliers around the world, and the invention of synthetic fibers, these stately homes and most of the haciendas where sisal was produced were abandoned and fell into disrepair. Some lasted into the middle of the 20th century. Many became hotels. Some became businesses or government offices in this city that is the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan. Some are now part of the newest industry in Merida—tourism.

We toured the Casa Gemelas, an impressive mansion built from string money back in the day. This house just opened a few months ago for tourists to peek inside the palace. The awkward young man who was our guide said the place was at one time host to Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Grace. He said to google it. 

At the end of our (overpriced) tour, our guide whispered for us to lean in closer. That was a little awkward. But when Ron and I obliged, along with men from Guadalajara and New Jersey, he told us in hushed tones that the owner of the house had just walked by. He discreetly pointed out an older woman as she was leaving through the back gate. Our small group had no idea what to make of that. It was like seeing Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey, skulking around the back of the manor house, embarrassed to have been forced to become a tourist attraction for financial solvency.

A view from our backyard in Merida, where we have our own pair of henequen, or “green gold” plants.

I doubt the Mayans who roam the streets of Merida hawking colorful embroideries feel this discomfort. They’re just trying to make a buck. And the Mayan calendar knew a thousand years ago that history repeats itself. Sometimes you’re conquered, sometimes you’re on top. And while string may make a bunch of people rich for a while, it’s power actually lies in the sturdy tie it makes to fasten around whatever you need held fast. 

Five Simple Time Travel Hacks

  1. Go to Sleep

I once traveled internationally with a slight woman on heavy medication. During a long layover she stretched out on top of a row of suitcases lining a crowded African airport hallway, bunched a scarf into a pillow under her head and dozed off. Her literal layover zoomed by. She was a small spectacle, but those who eyed her with curiosity likely also felt great envy for her ability to time travel. I know I did. And I also admired her unconscious balance.

Ron and I time traveling through the 20th century.

2. Cross Datelines.

In the days when Ron was traveling a lot I remember once he called from Southeast Asia on a random Thursday to update me on his schedule. He sounded tired, and I knew he was several time zones away. He told me without hesitation that he would be back Wednesday. That confused me. Local times and the rotation of the earth seemed compelling evidence that Wednesday had already come and gone over the entire earth. He said he didn’t know, but it had something to do with time zones, and he was really jet lagged.

I said something like, “Okay hon, love you,” and we hung up.

He’s finally done it, I thought. He can travel through time. 

I went to the living room to see if he was in fact already lying on the couch since the day before. 

He was not.

3. Make Up Your Own Version of Time.

In New Delhi, the time zone varies by an extra half hour. This is perhaps due to indecision, maybe a compromise, or possibly an attempt at mathematical precision between longitudinal meridians. Things were made simpler in China, a country more than 3,000 miles wide (similarly girthed to the United States) where they decided to have just one time zone, for the sake of unity. The unified Chinese experience morning whenever Beijing rises in the east; even if the capital is as far east of western China as New York from L.A.

Ron and I time traveling in Ethiopia circa 2005. It was still 1998 there.

My favorite made up time is in countries where the calendar is set on an entirely different year. Ethiopia is seven years behind the rest of the world. Their worldwide pandemic began in 2013 and rages on now, in 2014. I hope their 2020 goes better than it did for the rest of us.

4. Do Nothing or Go to IHOP

Pandemic and retirement together have been a cocktail of tranquilizers given to us like we are about to embark on a multi-year space journey involving a sleeping pod. Doing nothing, and not much, and waiting for the world to re-open is a terrible way to time travel. 

Looking across the Gulf, waiting on the world to change.

I realize that for most people drumming up pity for a problem like this is akin to sympathy for an American suburbanite whose latte wasn’t properly foamed. Still, I know it’s a real problem because it makes me jealous of the earth itself. How dare this planet continue orbiting around the sun and revolving constantly when I am forced to sit still? 

This yearning to be elsewhere is constant, even subconscious. On a recent Wednesday evening our car sort of turned itself into the International House of Pancakes after church. Were we subconsciously drawn to that word “international”? Maybe. It was breakfast for dinner, perhaps in deference to the fall season time shifts. We sat in a vinyl booth and drank weak coffee. 

“At least we have IHOP,” I told Ron, grinning with a mouthful of Swedish crepes and lingonberry syrup. 

Like most people, we’re waiting for the endemic, and more international possibilities than pancakes.

5. Mark Anniversaries.

In 2020, during the dark days of pandemic quarantine when time literally stood still, we began planning something to look forward to. Since then, waiting has seemed like the year-long anticipation of a pregnant elephant. But Lord willing, we will spend 30-plus days in Mexico to celebrate 30 years of marriage this December. 

Sunset in Punta Mita, Mexico, 2018, the last time we left the country.

It sounds amazing, and it is, or rather, I hope it will be. But I feel a little disingenuous talking about it as though it were the only thing in our lives. We have regular lives with problems and triumphs, love and heartbreaks, like everyone. But once every 30 years or so, why not throw a Gatsby-level party for ourselves? Thirty actual years together have happened. Some were better than others. Some were memorable, others not so much. But the cumulation of shared experiences is astounding. And perhaps only long-married people understand how relationships ebb and flow, and how a lover turns into a friend, and then weirdly into a sort of conjoined twin.

So, we’re headed south to party like spring breakers with two heads. Except that now we’re 30 years older, fatter, and creakier. And when I wonder why I feel like I’ve been traveling through space and time for a few decades, I remember that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

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Riding Around Colorado

I have always loved cottonwoods–their giant woody arms, their cottony snows, their heart-shaped leaves turning yellow in the autumn.

Ron and I have been walking everywhere lately. We’re trying to stay healthy and fit for our upcoming excursions in other places, and to get in better cardiovascular condition for ski season. We walk to the grocery, the dentist, the library. We walked our ballots over to the voting box this week for the election. It takes time to walk, and planning. But it resets the soul somehow, puffing out stress and breathing in the simple rhythm of walking upright.

But when I found a bike on Facebook marketplace for 40 bucks, I was ready to add to our exercise options. It was clear out in the suburb of Aurora, but for $40, we figured we could afford a road trip. We took the toll road that rings Denver all the way around to a place so far east it may have been Kansas. That added a few dollars to the bargain. The tolls in Denver are astoundingly pricey. (The toll from our house to where the bike was equaled $9.85!) 

Ron and I often walk up to Waneka Lake in Lafayette.

Ron still had his bike from 30-plus years ago. He dusted it off, greased it up and put the chain back on about 20 times during the first ride we took. No matter, our old bikes are seaworthy enough, not unlike the rather rustier ones we rode up and down the Gulf Coast in Florida this summer. (Grateful for those as I recall pedaling our way up Casey Key and wondering which mansion along the pristine beachfront was Stephen King’s writing alcove.)

It was in Florida where we re-ignited our interest in bicycling. It was primarily out of necessity since we didn’t have a car. But we enjoyed it so much. And now that we’re stoked on spokes again, this fall we have found Colorado to be, well, slightly hillier than Florida. In Colorado, even paths and roadways that appear flat from a distance have found us huffing and puffing in easy gears. 

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you heave to sweat up the hills and can coast down them.”

Ernest Hemingway

Though they are daunting, all the hillocks also promise fantastic vistas. Pedaling up the Rock Creek and Coal Creek trails around Lafayette has shown us giant cottonwoods turning yellow, deep blue Flatirons slanting upward, and Long’s Peak rising snowcapped in the distance.

I’m also excited to be perched high on my bicycle seat when we ride through some parts of the trails around here that lead through settlements of prairie dogs—little beasts I find unnerving at best. I have rodent phobia (musophobia), so the few moments when we are coasting through prairie dog towns are tense. And Ron knows that sometimes something as innocuous as a breeze, much less a rodent, can topple me from a bicycle. So, when we cruise through rodentville, he looks back at me frequently, knowing how much I hate it. 

Along the Coal Creek Trail near Lafayette, Colorado.

But the dogs just sit and rudely stare, silently threatening to pop up or down like weasels, or tarts. Their shadowy holes lie waiting to startle me like a jack-in-the-box or a whack-a-mole. But phobia or no phobia, we’ve had no incidents so far with these rodents. However, we have had a few minor maintenance problems as we get back in the groove of cycling.

Ron’s front tire deflated about a mile into one section of trail one afternoon. He had run over a couple of goat’s head weeds, also aptly named puncturevine, and well, his inner tube was tapped. I rode back the way we had come, and he walked his bike up to a trailhead where I eventually met him with the pickup truck. We drove off to Wal-mart for bike repair supplies, and Ron talked about how he had been impressed with the number of friendly offers of help he got while walking his flat- tired bike. He took it as a hopeful sign of humanity still left in our race. I hope he’s right.

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Rugged Like the Colorado Rockies

My in-laws live at 10,000 feet. By comparison, the highest peaks in Colorado are 14,000 feet. People feel sleepy in their cozy mountain house, because of the high altitude. Water boils 18 degrees cooler on their stove, and it is the best water I’ve ever tasted. Also, It’s also usually 20 degrees cooler up there in Como, Colorado than down here on the front range. 

September snowfall atop the range west of Como, Colorado, near Boreas Pass.

In summertime this feels like a lovely reprieve from the 95-degree heat of the plains to the 75 degrees in the shade of the aspens and conifers that dot the hills up there. And looking out across the expanse of South Park is breathtaking. But then, the wind kicks up, which it does most days, and blows until most people head indoors and the cattle plant their hooves firmly at a slant, the way the grass grows. In the winter the wind and cold are enough to drive most people to warmer climes. I think my in-laws are among only a handful of folks who call Como home year-round.

They’ve had snow on the 4th of July up there. We’ve been nearly frostbitten and hypothermic sledding with my mother-in-law in the winter. The highway through the valley is closed many days when the road becomes indistinguishable from the ditch and the fields that lay beyond barbed wire fence lines that are buried in snowdrifts. We once drove home in a ground blizzard that obscured our passage except for the three feet just in front of the headlights that lit up the raging snowstorm like a swarm of moths at a porchlight. 

Sometimes I can’t believe we live in this beautiful state.

But in high summer and a few days in the early fall Como is idyllic. This fall we went up to help cut wood with the in-laws. We headed across a cow pasture to a stand of aspen that had died. Most had already fallen, and my father-in-law worked the chainsaw deftly on them until the bed of the old pickup truck was full.

We drove back and my father-in-law stepped to work at the gas-powered log splitter, and we made the mountain of firewood on the other side of his driveway a ½ ton higher. Tossing logs was good cardiovascular work in the altitude. I drank through my water bottle a couple of times. I kept taking off my jacket and putting it back on depending on whether the sun was behind a cloud or not. 

And although for much of the year Como is a less-than-attractive place to hang your hat, since it will actually blow away, my in-laws have been there long enough now that I know they’re just the type to stick places, no matter what. And while that has made them a bit more anxious than most about weather, it’s also instructive about who they are and about who my husband is. 

Ron Sr. and Ron Jr. working on firewood for the long, cold Como winter.

For one thing: he’s steadfast and constant—like the Como wind and his parents. He’s also a hard worker, since most things—firewood for example, but also vegetable gardens, satellite antennas, water, etc., require harder work to exist up there than in other easier places. And, perhaps due to all the hard work in a difficult place, his idea of adversity is a few clicks more intense than most people. 

He’s a mountain man, quiet like the long afternoons on a deserted hill with only the breeze in the pines and the chittering of birds to hear. He’s calm like the sun coming up over the peaks. And he has a depth like the clouds gathering in the west over the Rockies.

I used to spend my summers in Como when I was a kid, going to the camp there. I remember sitting on the wooden veranda of the mess hall, resting my legs on the log railing, and soaking in the sun. I remember the cool of the shade through the trees to the cabins, and hikes high up little Mt. Baldy. I was in the slow group, pretending to stop for pictures quite often. In contrast with my husband, my experience of Como says a lot about me. I get bored with the same place all the time. I spent my summers goofing off, so I got pretty good at that. And most adversity to me is a fun adventure, like lighting candles if the power goes out for 15 minutes, not something to overcome for fear of literally freezing to death. So, although we have some shared memories of Como, most of our times there were as different as we are from one another. 

The aspens glowing gold and orange this fall in the Colorado Rockies near Como.

My husband went back up to Como several days in September while I was in Minnesota, and in October to wander the beautiful mountainsides in search of deer and elk. His photos show a picturesque but rugged bit of country where already the temperatures are turning to freezing. The first snow has long since landed, with plenty more to come if you adhere to the common saying about mountain weather:

“Nine months of winter, three months of fall, a breath of spring and no summer at all.” 

Still, my husband will likely want to be there. As John Muir said, he’s not so much in the mountains as the mountains are in him. 

Haitian Inspiration Comes to Denver

I registered for the event twice. I looted my local library shelves of three Edwidge Danticat novels. I read her writing craft book electronically. Then I drove into downtown Denver past young professionals and homeless camps and arrived at the Saturday workshop this Haitian-born author was to lead. I was early. I sat in a front row seat, blood buzzing in my veins.

Writer Edwidge Danticat in Denver in October 2021.

Writing is such a solitary activity that any event that pulls word pushers out from their lonely spaces to mingle, speak, and listen to others is bound to be full of inspiration. And because of the pandemic, it had been a year and a half since Danticat was supposed to have arrived in Denver to speak with other writers and readers. And suddenly, in she walked. 

She spoke about how COVID had showed people of every ilk what the solitary world of writers is like. 

“The world learned how writers live locked in a room, trying to get inspiration from the air,” she said.

She also spoke about the idea of mortality—which has consumed the world since February 2020. “So much of writing about death involves writing about life,” she said.

You may know Danticat and you may not. You may google her and read her stories, you may not. She is award-winning and well-published with nearly two dozen novels, short story collections, young adult and children’s books, memoirs, essays, and anthologies edited. She also holds an MFA in writing from Brown and honorary degrees from Smith and Yale. Her career and accomplishments are impressive. 

Most impressive this month was that she was also very generous. She listened as a few workshop participants read what they had written during the 10-minute exercise she led for us. She commented positively and asked to hear from others. She answered questions from the audience. I asked her about her writing process. And this was the most helpful thing to me since it is so similar to my own process. She said that her words don’t land gracefully on the page straight out of the chute, but that she edits heavily. 

After the workshop with Danticat I sat at this sidewalk cafe table in Denver and worked on some editing.

This was a great relief to me. Raw talent would never be enough for me to land in Oprah’s Book Club—where Danticat has been since the early ‘90s. But editing heavily means that hard work pays off. 

Honing skills and working hard are for anyone with energy and drive. Talent and luck are sprinkled around more arbitrarily it seems. And of course, as Eminem so famously rapped, opportunity comes once in a lifetime. 

I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to hear Danticat in Denver. I hope we are now best friends. Meeting her isn’t much of a travel story for this travel-themed blog. But the old adage that books take us to places we would otherwise never go, is true enough. And inspiration can also give us a ride further than any plane, train, or automobile. Hopefully this blog, though perhaps only a handcart on a railroad through the desert, can be some sort of transport for you as well. Thanks for reading. 

Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Relatives

That’s my 86-year-old mother on the back of a four-wheeler with my cousin Ginny. We saw lots of Minnesota in these types of off-road vehicles.

There are lakes, too, of course, that’s Minnesota’s true license plate tag line: the land of 10,000 lakes. And beside each of these lakes a family member from my mom’s side likely has a cabin. 

I told my mother I would be her travel companion this September so she could again visit her watery and forested homeland and see all the nieces, nephews, grands, greats, and great-greats. She’ll be 87 this year and all the trouble made these days through TSA, along with the degeneration of the state of air travel that has become more like taking the bus now, is a bit too much for this octogenarian. 

Back in the day, my mom was a stewardess on Continental airlines. From behind her federally mandated COVID mask, she told the Southwest Airlines flight crew this bit of her personal history as we stepped aboard in Denver.

“Her uniform now hangs in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.,” I explained to reiterate that they had something of a legend on board.

When we disembarked that plane the captain spotted my mom on the way out. 

“How did we do?” he asked. 

She gave him and the rest of the flight crew a thumbs up.

We took an Uber to where the rental car was. Mom stood in the parking lot and asked Jesus to help us. I fumbled around on a newer app I hadn’t used before and wondered why there were so many black Hondas in Minneapolis. But soon enough, we were off, cruising north toward my mom’s hometown of Deerwood, pop. 553.

Mom’s getting strapped into her life jacket for our boat trip across Sunset Lake.

Country roads through thick forests of maples, elms, and pine gave way to large lakes with reedy shores. Green hayfields undulated into the distances and eventually led us past my two cousins’ houses and my aunt’s house to a cabin my Uncle Hub and his family built a couple decades before he died. 

The first morning at this cabin on Sunset Lake I sat behind a giant wooden desk writing in the loft overlooking the water. Bright morning sun lit up sparkles across the blue of the water. And having re-read Huckleberry Finn this summer I was a bit intrigued with the island in the middle of the lake. 

About lunchtime I convinced my mom to get into the metal rowboat that lay overturned on the shore at the cabin and adventure out to the island in the middle of the lake for a picnic. It didn’t take much convincing as she is likely the source of some of my adventurous spirit. Getting in and out of the boat was a little tricky for her, but once she was settled, I waded shin-deep into the muddy shore of the lake and tugged at that aluminum craft until we were waterborne.

I couldn’t figure out the oarlocks, so I ended up Sacagawea-style at the bow, kneeling and paddling like I was canoeing through lands yet uncharted with Lewis and Clark.

Mom wanted to take a selfie of us on the island.

Actually, the island is quite familiar. My mom said they used to take her mom there for Sunday outings. We stepped ashore and sat in the tall grass on a beach towel while we ate sandwiches and photographed the views. I found some old songs on Apple music on my phone and that seemed like pure magic to my mom. 

Mother’s prayers were going up nonstop on the way back, especially when we were trying to get her back out of the boat. Finally, I hoisted her up under the arms and she was back on dry land and happier than Magellan to find shore again.

Meanwhile, my lake-water-soaked shoes spent several days drying on the deck and several days convincing me that something had died in my suitcase.

We visited with my Aunt Frannie, and her kids, and their kids, and some of their kids’ kids. We also saw kids and grandkids from my other aunt’s brood. They all drove us around their acreages and farms in ATVs. We went up and down dirt paths through woods, beside rivers where swans swam, through fields of cows and deer, and to other cabins, farms with honey, chickens and ducks, and wood piles that would impress Paul Bunyan. We ate meals together with family I’d never met or hadn’t seen in decades. 

My mom cleans the sunfish and bass she caught in the lake.

My mom caught fish in the lake, and we watched deer parade across the grass and through the forest. As we drove the winding blacktop from one relative’s house to another, we watched carefully as each late-summer day made more and more green leaves turn yellow, orange and bright russet. 

My cousin said she and her family started this cabin as a homeschooling project when her kids were in high school. It’s glampy and adorable.

Two nights we were booked at my Cousin Ginny’s more rustic cabin. We reminisced around a campfire eating s’mores and listening to my mother tell tales of the long, long ago. But the romance of clamping wore off the first night with my mom, for whom outhouses at midnight, loft beds, and carrying in your own water are memories from a poor childhood on a farm, rather than a way of living in her 80s. So, she spent the second night in my cousin’s house. 

I spent a glorious few hours in the cabin alone. Surrounded by trees, the sound of wind in the leaves and birds chirping, I wrote and wrote. Late at night, lying in bed, I listened as coyotes came to dance and sing in the forest.

A dream space for writing.

This introverted moment seemed to surprise some of my relatives, maybe because they are so often surrounded by kinfolk. So, I thought about it a lot. In some ways I always feel alone—even surrounded by so many family members welcoming us into their lives for a few moments, asking my mother about the history of her clan, offering us chicken dinners. We are all part of others this way, but also, separate selves. Maybe, since I’m not from Minnesota, I’m less like a maple tree, dripping syrup into a bucket to boil down and share. Maybe, being from Colorado, I’m more like an aspen, singularly standing beside all the other aspens, yet deep down also linked together with the same roots that bind us all.

The moon over Sunset Lake.

Smart Dogs and Western Colorado

The 2021 Meeker Classic Sheepdog Trials art is now emblazoned on the back of Ron’s new T-shirt from this amazing event!

Sometimes I didn’t even hear the command, or the whistle that sent another Border Collie at a full sprint across the green pasture of The Meeker Classic Sheepdog Trials. But the dogs were easy to spot, their shiny black-and-white fur rippling with their speed.

A small flock of sheep waited at the far end of the field, nibbling grass on a warm mid-September day. The dog’s body got smaller as he trotted his way between boulders and tall dry grasses at the edge of the irrigated hay. A flat-top hill in the background was dotted with obstinate pinion and cedar trees that are so characteristic of the landscape in this part of rural western Colorado.

Almost a minute later the dog emerged at the far end of the field. He lay down behind the small herd of sheep and listened for the whistling commands from his handler. Then he was up and working again, fetching the sheep in a steady and controlled pace back through two fence panels and around the far side of the handler. He herded them in a cross-drive, through two more sets of panels and into a shedding ring where the grass had been cut shorter and bounded by piles of sawdust. The dog’s pink tongue hung long at this point in the contest. The sheep were stubborn. But the shrill whistles continued long, short, and combinations that told the dog what to do. Multiple audible commands also issued from the handler telling the dog to “come by,” “lie down,” or “away.” The dogs must work with the handlers to separate some of the sheep away from the rest, and then pen them. Finally, after 15 or 30 minutes that seemed like hours of intensity, the contest ended with failure, no more time, or success. The dogs raced to jump into a tub of cool water.

A sheepdog hard at work in Meeker. Photo by © PiperAnne Worcester (Not permitted for any other use.) Check out her photography site: https://www.piperspix.com

We lived in Meeker, Colorado about 30 years ago from late spring to late summer while Ron was fighting forest fires for the Bureau of Land Management there. We met a sheep rancher’s son back then, whose family was well-known in the area for all things sheep. We remember his kindness, lending us some furniture for our sparse apartment in town and his warm welcome inviting us to the sheepdog trials, but we never made it. Fire season was always winding down by September, and I had taken a teaching job in New Mexico that year, so we were well on our way out of the state by the time the sheep were being loaded in the trailers to be herded around by the best-trained dogs from all over the world.

So, this year, we decided to make the trials. 

Our home for the sheepdog trials.

We stayed in Buford in a little one-room cabin with no running water. We grilled our dinners over charcoal and listened to the gurgle of the White River behind us. Then each morning at dawn we rousted out of our sleeping bags and headed 20 miles to the outskirts of town where the 2021 Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials began at 7 a.m. and ended around 4 p.m. We didn’t arrive on the scene until halfway through the second day of runs. We were given running orders with names of handlers and dogs, and we bought a program that explained the course. On one of the first few pages was a current picture of the sheep rancher’s son we had met decades ago. Our memories were faded, but it was him. We remembered his name. He’s a big sheepdog at the trials now.

I began writing down scores and we caught on to the rules and easily became fascinated to see what these incredibly intelligent and well-trained dogs could do.

Meeker, Colorado is a beautiful place on the Western side of the state with plenty of room for sheep to roam and graze.

By the weekend, more people also showed up to watch. Some people said they had seen something about sheepdog trials on television. It happens in places in the British Isles too. 

We ate lamb kabobs, lamb ribs, and sheep cheese. Everyone was so friendly, and we enjoyed the wide-open vistas and the weather. On the last day the air even cleared of all the California wildfire smoke that had plagued us in Colorado for the previous month.

This handler makes penning a group of sheep look easy.

The first few days a lot of no-scores came in. That showed us how difficult the course was—how stubborn were the merino sheep pastured in the high mountains all summer. But as the preliminaries turned into semi-finals, and the semi-finals turned into final rounds, the level of training and handling ratcheted up to an unbelievably impressive level. One whistle could stop a dog in its tracks. One word could turn his head to the left or right.

The human sheepherders below illustrate just how well sheepdogs work to move sheep. Sheepdogs run around and look sheep in the eye to get them moving. These humans are using noise, flags, and shoves to get the sheep into the trailer.

Near the very end of the trials a sudden rainstorm sent a downpour onto the field and emptied the bleachers during the second to last handler’s run. She and her dog finished their contest, the rain quit, and the final contestant ran. Then, a Canadian handler called Scott Glen, who had won the event in 2019 (2020 was cancelled.) was named champion again for 2021, this time with a different dog called Alice. The man and his dog went home with another championship accolade and a few thousand dollars in cash. 

Also, Ron and I made the news:

210912-MEEKER-SHEEPDOG-TRIALS
That’s us sitting in the red chairs! Photo by © Hart Van Denburg/CPR News See the whole story here: https://www.cpr.org/2021/09/20/go-dog-go-sights-and-sounds-from-the-meeker-classic-sheepdog-championship-trials/
These are the high mountains of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest near Meeker where sheep graze in meadows and dogs round them up regularly.

We went home through the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. We passed sheep wagons and shepherds watching wooly sheep grazing between sagebrush. We passed hunting camps set up high on mountain passes where scars from old forest fires competed with magnificent views of the Flat Tops and where the setting sun was herding the edges of the sky toward the pen behind the hills for the night.

Work and Apple Pie

Views from Como, Colorado make the world seem even bigger.

When we got home from Nashville, we jumped nearly straight out of vacation gear and into manual labor mode. This had been the plan, but the work we ended up having in front of us was a bit more than we had bargained for. Before we left for Florida, we had been living in the apartment in the basement of our house for a year, but we decided that when we came back, we would move upstairs again into the main house. We can make more money renting the big house, but we wanted room for our own house guests, friends, and family, and we enjoy having the big kitchen up there so we can have people for meals. Also, Ron really missed being able to sit outside on the back patio and look at the garden. (Me, too.)

The apartment downstairs was the job in front of us. We planned to turn it into our next AirBnB project. The extra work came because over the summer, a torrential rain had flooded the entryway of the basement apartment, the laundry room, and the front of the living room where floor to ceiling bookshelves line the wall. My middle daughter was living down there at the time, and she did her best with towels, fans, and a carpet shampooer, but the water got soaked up into the bottom shelves of the bookshelf and warped all the wood and sopped the drywall. So, Ron had to cut the bottom stuff out and replace it. And, we didn’t really have a chance to get started on this until a few days after we were back in the state. The guests renting the house asked to stay longer, and then, Ron’s older sister got married again and wanted him to perform the ceremony. We headed up to the mountains for a beautiful backyard wedding in Como with family we don’t see very often. So, that was a sweet time.

Ron and I painted the downstairs apartment.

The next day, we finally got to work moving things upstairs, cleaning the apartment, and demolishing shelves and drywall. Then, Ron installed new shelves, drywalled and replaced trim, taped, mudded and textured. I was busy rearranging all the things we moved upstairs and all the rest that we kept downstairs, then organizing, shampooing carpets, painting, laundering, more cleaning, and then stocking this new AirBnB with blankets, dishes, towels, and everything else guests might think they need. I felt so grateful that I was able to shop at my own house (having been an AirBnB for a year) for most everything we needed in terms of furnishings. 

All this work meant we had to take a few loads of construction scrap to the dump. But we also had to take several loads of yard waste. This was part of the extra work as well. The summer lawnmowing company was supposed to weed the yard, but they did not. So, waiting for drywall mud and paint to dry, Ron set in to uncover the front landscaping from bindweed. He hacked down giant stalks of sunflowers that had faded. And he filled the truck several times with volunteer saplings from all over the yard. Our house is on a double lot, so the landscaping is twice as much work as the housekeeping. When we’re home and can keep up with things it doesn’t feel so overwhelming, but we had returned to something of a jungle.

Now the apartment feels clean, warm, and welcoming for AirBnB guests.

Finally, we finished everything, and welcomed new guests to the refreshed space downstairs.

I’m always nervous about the first few guests and what ratings and comments they will leave. But I need not have worried. Everyone who stayed those first few weeks loved the place. So that was a relief. And now we are off and running with two small AirBnB spaces and living back up in the house. We haven’t yet been lingering on the patio in the evenings like we used to because the mosquitoes have been bad—we think because of all the overgrown weeds in the gardens. 

But it is good to sit out there in the mornings and to be able to have space for guests. I like having my writing space back as well, in the office upstairs. Though the last few weeks I’ve found myself sitting in cabins in forests, typing out these blogs and working on some fiction projects. (Stay tuned for adventure stories from these places!)

We will likely finish reclaiming the rest of the back gardens later this month and into October. And the good news about all the early summer rains was that we will have a bumper crop of apples to pick in the next couple weeks. I don’t know what variety they are, but they have a nice blend of tartness and sweet and make great pies. 

After picking, I peel them with my mechanical crank peeler. I slice them with a slicer, then sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar and freeze them in plastic baggies that hold just the right amount for a pie. We’ll have enough for pies all fall and winter. Yum!

Friends in Low Places

Nashville, Part Deux

Many months ago, we began planning to visit some good friends in Nashville. We were looking forward to it like hostages creeping out into the light of day after more than a year spent underground in the bunker of COVID-19. But just as the hatch slid open and our eyes had begun to adjust to the proverbial sun again as the corona virus had receded somewhat, in came the Delta variant, and the rise of cases in the south of the United States. And Tennessee was smack dab in the cross hairs of zones in the country where more people avoided inoculations than got them. 

A gigantic sunflower grows in my friend’s garden in Nashville, Tennessee.

So, the visit was in jeopardy. We were coming in hot from Florida, a peninsula the overly dramatic news reports had already painted red with variant cases. And our friends had already been dealing with some complex health concerns even before COVID was a thing. But hope was still alive, and virology. So, we got a quick swab up the nose at a rural drugstore, and that came out clean, so we headed over for a sweet time of meeting my friend’s newest family addition and watching him toddle around in the backyard while we talked and caught up. 

We ate brunch, picked tomatoes from the garden, remarked over the giant sunflowers, and talked about kids, Jesus, and Scotland.

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” —Marcel Proust

It was simple and good and now I am praying that the Delta variant goes out again as quickly as it arrived and my sweet friend can have a hospital bed to deliver the next addition to her family, coming soon to a COVID-infested mess. Ugh.

Our Sunday night in Nashville, we checked out the bluegrass jam at The Station Inn—a place with the ambiance of a 1970s single-wide trailer, but the best bluegrass in town. Among other fiddlers and pickers, we heard a 12-year-old strumming a massive guitar that dwarfed him behind it but did not dampen his high tenor voice from belting out “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

Two other friends of ours drove down and the next day we hung out on the rooftop at Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk and Rock-n-Roll Steakhouse with us. (That’s a real name.) This is quintessential Broadway in Nashville, the gritty honky tonk area of town where the beer is mediocre, the music is loud, and the people watching is better than on the bus. For example, this guy hangs out at Kid Rock’s:

We sauntered down the crowded street after a while and found another honky tonk where the band included a middle-aged, leggy blonde playing a flute. We checked out Printer’s Alley and then heard a busker under a concrete overhang whose voice reverberated beautifully in the urban acoustics. 

Once we got hungry, we found a multiple-level food court with everything from poke bowls and pad thai, to nachos, cotton candy and boozy ice cream. We saved the southern BBQ for another place, another day—and it did not disappoint. As a recovering vegetarian (though it has been several decades) the sides were my favorite: banana pudding, potato salad, green beans, and macaroni and cheese. 

And we sampled some Tennessee Whiskey—I’m capitalizing because that’s the brand name at Nelson’s Green Briar Distillery. We sipped tastings and heard the history of this spirit, including the shipwreck that sent the German immigrant family’s original fortune to the bottom of the sea—gold bars sewn into the patriarch’s jacket.  

Then, we stumbled into the American Pickers store and priced what appeared to be the world’s first gas pump and other oddities. We drove to Franklin, Tennessee, and breezed in and out of historic houses, plantations, and Civil War battlegrounds and cemeteries. Then, back in Nashville, we got to hear the music at The Listening Room. And that music was amazing. (See the other blog about that.) 

Our friends Jared and Lauren joined us in Nashville.

But there is also a certain kind of music in the rekindling of friendships. The long overdue visit spent relaxing in the sun with my friend and her family, and baby giggles bursting randomly into the air like soap bubbles sounded as good to my ears as the bluegrass ballads we heard at The Station. And reuniting with our other friends elevated even ordinary moments in Nashville. So, while I still find Nashville to be a magical city, I recommend being there with magical people as well. 

Friends make barbecue sauce taste sweeter.