I Thought I’d Never See

A Flock of Flamingoes

Flocks of flamingo. Africa. Kenya. Lake Nakuru

Driving across the Caribbean island of Bonaire in a hard-used rental truck equipped with a shimmy and loose steering, Joel and I crested a hill and saw approximately two hundred flamboyant pink flamingoes wading in a large body of shallow water. Their long, stretched-out necks and heads, barely submerged and held parallel to the pond’s floor, snaked back and forth searching for food in a mesmerizing underwater undulation of flamingo heads. Long minutes passed. We couldn’t stop watching

A Bevy of Belugas

But there they were, surging through the ocean waters of Cook’s Inlet in Alaska, leaping waves in equidistant rows, barreling toward the horizon: syncopated, buoyant, a playful army on the march. We joined other drivers who’d abandoned their cars on the shoulders of the highway and rushed to the edge of the water as the whales paraded before us in formation. Strangers no longer, we all watched with smiles on our faces, passing the word, belugas, to newcomers, until the last rank disappeared.

A Band of Rams

Group of Rocky Mountain SheepWe came across five desert bighorn sheep as we explored Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah. Suddenly, the superior-seeming animals stood in our path: uninterested in and unalarmed by our presence. They noted our arrival and stood as though posing for our benefit, muscles flexed in case our intrusion became inconvenient. Stocky, confident, and indomitable, they stared at us from between rounded horns. We broke eye contact first.

A Pair of Peacocks Fly in Formation

Airborne, the peacocks winged their way above the narrow dirt road we followed along the Mississippi River. Both of the birds trailed tail feathers of length, partially fanned. They flew in tandem, outlined against a billowed cloud, their iridescent plumage highlighted by the afternoon sun. We watched their graceful passage across the sky and felt privileged.

A Lone Lizard Perform a Feat

Common basilisk lizardIt stalked the earth below a Mayan ruin in Belize. The few tourists present gave way before its royal pace and majestic body, nearly three-feet long and crowned with intimidating crests. Cameras clicked. Then the incredible happened. Startled by a noise we didn’t hear, or perhaps tired of our attention, the lizard reared on its hind legs and sprinted away. We gasped at the sight of an upright lizard running to cover. Later, I learned it was a common basilisk, more widely known as the Jesus lizard because it runs, erect, over both land and water.

I didn’t expect to see any of these marvels, but I was blessed to do so.

And in my mind, I see them still.

Touch the Past  

Museums are made for musing. I never know how many of their offerings I’ll want to ponder, so I don’t visit museums if a parking meter is ticking, others are waiting for me, or I’m wearing uncomfortable shoes.

I’ve strolled the endless corridors of famous museums and enjoyed them, but I prefer those in small towns: they house fewer items, so I don’t feel the need to set a brisk pace to avoid dying of old age as I contemplate a diorama. Also, unlike wealthier museums, where every display is must-see and note-worthy with a capital N, local museums reflect the lives of folks like me who first populated the area, managed to survive, and eventually created and developed a town. I can imagine living their day-to-day lives.

Museum

Little Snake River Museum in Savery, Wyoming

Several fine, small-town museums dot the Wyoming-Colorado border area where I live. I like their names — the Tread of Pioneers Museum, the Little Snake River Museum — and their exhibits intrigue me: the cowboy and gunfighter collection at the Museum of Northwest Colorado, the elk that resides at Wyman’s Living History Museum, and the pioneer town that surrounds the Encampment Museum.

While exploring local museums, I think about the exhausting work families did to survive and the innovations from tin cans to miners lamps to apple peelers to tractors that eased their burdens. I admire the items they created to add beauty, comfort, and enjoyment to their lives: homemade quilts, rag rugs, cross-stitched wall hangings, stick horses, sock dolls, hand carved tops, and checker boards.

museum front - Version 2

Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig

As I walk away from small, local museums — usually free of charge and manned by friendly, informative folks — I wonder what people of the future will think when they visit displays from my era. What will they make of early TV’s with tiny screens mounted in large cabinets, hand-pushed lawnmowers, striped bellbottoms, Mr. Potato Head, bomb shelters, rotary phones, and typewriters?

Actually, I already see bits of my life on display in small museums. I recently visited the Little Snake River Museum in Savery, Wyoming, where I enjoyed exploring refinished schools and simple homes that allowed me to me glimpse the everyday lives mountain men and early town fathers lived along the river.

In one small home, the kitchen wallpaper featured bright red cherries hanging from joined stems, a pattern I knew well from a childhood filled with visits to the snug kitchens of older relatives. Inside a school I saw a bulletin board covered with valentines of the day, the same sort my friends and I used to exchange: “If you carrot all for me, peas be mine.”

Thanks to small, local museums, I am aware of my place in a long line of human hopes, struggles, triumphs, hard-won advances, and difficult setbacks that paved the way for me to live well and age well.

Small town museums capture our stories and deserve our attention.

Tourist Traps and Attractions

Some sites are called tourist traps for an obvious reason: they are.

In my experience, the more signs you see advertising a must-see marvel, the more likely it will be a site of little interest and less authenticity next to a shop selling T-shirts, fudge, and coffee mugs: a classic tourist trap.

A friend and I once stopped at a cave acclaimed by numerous gaudy highway signs as an outlaw refuge in days of yore. We stood behind a chain-link fence to peer into a smoke-blackened cave and read a list of bad guys “thought to have spent time” there. Exit arrows then led us to a souvenir-and-sugar-rich store where bathrooms lurked behind signs designating them for customer use only.

Other sites attract tourists for an equally straightforward reason: they’re worth seeing.

“Why go to Yosemite?” a friend with opinions asked. “All you’ll see is tourists gawking, pointing, and littering. They’re like flies.”

Half Dome and Nevada Fall, Yosemite National Park, California

The next summer, ignoring her advice, I traveled to Yosemite where I looked beyond the slow-moving traffic and crowded campgrounds to a splendor of trees, sky, water, and stone. I then hiked beneath massive granite domes to the noise of waterfalls, exchanging greetings and “Isn’t this awesome?” with fellow flies.

A few sites, less well known, surprise and captivate.

Though Joel and I drove I-70 through Missouri to Illinois regularly, we never paid much attention to the Show Me state beyond its rolling green hills, wild turkeys, and billboards urging motorists to stop at Passion’s Adult Store.

Then, when Joel wanted to revisit his childhood by fishing at Reel Foot, Tennessee, we consulted our scenic-road-trip book and selected a route that meandered through the springs of Missouri.

bigspring_l

We’d never heard of the churning pools with no-nonsense names: Alley Spring, Round Spring, Blue Spring, Big Spring; springs located beneath limestone bluffs standing guard over vast basins with rough edges, where turquoise waters bubbled up to flow into streams that drifted by caves and natural bridges.

One morning, we walked through a heavy rain without getting wet on a path protected by overhanging trees and found a spring of deep, rolling water that shimmered with shades of indigo. At Big Spring, we felt the force of water drained from a seventy-mile radius before gushing from the ground at a rate of 277 million gallons a day. Accustomed to the dryer landscapes of the intermountain west, our eyes soaked up the abundant water and lush greenness of this beautiful state.

When I moved to Colorado, I was equally surprised and fulfilled when Joel suggested we visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Though I’d lived in western states my entire life, I’d never heard of the canyon and had little interest in making its acquaintance.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But when we stopped at the first viewpoint along the Black Canyon’s rim, I looked in amazement at the dramatic slash in the surface of the earth with its shadowed walls falling straight to a distant river: a canyon so narrow and steep it defied the sun and dwelled in darkness. At every stop, I held on to the guardrail: looking down at the Black Canyon made me feel vulnerable and insignificant.

I’d found another site worthy of the term, tourist attraction. I hope you’ve found several as well.

On Hiking

I came to hiking late in life.

When young, I clamored to climb West Mountain with my friends. In reality, we ran up the first foothill, declared ourselves exhausted, and spent the rest of the afternoon acting silly and enjoying the ten pound lunches we’d packed.

I began to hike for pleasure in my twenties when I backpacked in the Sierra Nevadas with my first husband, a man of quirks. He ate freeze-dried food with gusto, scooted rattlers safely off the trail, and refused to build campfires or sleep in tents because to do so would isolate us from the night.

cg

I admit his desire to embrace the night advanced my stargazing from the Big Dipper and North Star to more difficult prey like Cassiopeia and the blue glow of Vega. It’s easy to recognize constellations and stars when they hang within reach like sparkling fruit.

While backpacking, I carried a fair share of weight and made do with minimal grooming. I knew I was a dawdler, not a pacesetter, so I walked second in line—though I’d heard that rattlesnakes, startled by the first hiker, tend to strike the second.

At times I felt fear.

I once walked a narrow path along a sheer cliff and pictured myself rolling away like a potato bug. When my husband joked that perhaps we’d fall to our deaths more quickly in the thin mountain air, I didn’t laugh. I edged into rivers: facing upstream for better control, side-stepping over slick rocks, probing for footholds with a hiking stick, my heart thumping in my chest. We once out-waited an unexpected lightning storm, crouched together under a clump of brush as jagged spears ignited the world and my terror.

But such moments of fear paled in comparison to my appreciation of the breathtaking beauty I walked through while carrying a pack on my back. I’ll never forget standing among Ponderosas of vanilla scent with my boots planted against the slope of the trail, while I gazed at a sky hidden by swaths of twilight clouds. The retreating sun stretched the shadows of the pines thin and long: a multitude of blackened arrows crossing contoured boulders, curtained cliffs, and a sunset-splashed river.

Since moving to Colorado in the nineties, Joel and I have climbed a few of Colorado’s fourteen-thousand-plus peaks called fourteeners. Standing on the summit of a towering mountain, mesmerized by a view stretching into eternity in all directions from a vantage point on top of the world, I feel enriched, alive, powerful.

Joel about to summit

Joel about to summit

Of course, on the way down, I’m brought back to reality by two knees, aghast at what I’ve done to them, muttering and complaining with each step.

Unwilling to give up a hobby that enriches my life, I swallow ibuprofen and ignore their grumbling.

 

Transforming Moments

Nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss caught me as a child. Then poetry disappeared from my life, and I didn’t notice. In high school, I analyzed the elements of assigned poems, managing to do so without thought or connection. In college, I avoided math, foreign languages, and all things poetic; and as a young adult, I forgot poetry existed.

Then Robert Frost rose up, thumped me on my head, caught my attention, and took my breath away with a flow of simple words focused on a fleeting moment.

Dust of Snow          raven on a spruce
by Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

With his straightforward description of a meaningful moment in his life, Mr. Frost captured similar brief, shining occurrences I had experienced — moments that lifted me from myself and filled me with a sense of wonder: a monarch butterfly hovering near my face, a mountain sunset of magenta staining a river below, a breeze ruffling the cottonwood leaves through which I climbed, morning light outlining the silhouette of an elk, a bear playing peek-a-boo by repeatedly popping his head out of road-side undergrowth, then quickly withdrawing.

An evening grosbeak showed up in our yard today.Male Evening Grosbeak in Winter

I was drinking coffee with Joel, idly gazing at a spring-infused morning through windows in need of washing, when a male grosbeak plunked himself down in our platform feeder.

My heart leaped. After last summer’s absence, the bird with an unfortunate name and striking appearance had returned. I grabbed the binoculars to verify his details: bright yellow forehead and body, exaggerated pale bill, white-blazed wings and confident demeanor.

A grosbeak picking through the sunflower seeds we’d sprinkled with hope transformed my morning; a morning I had dreaded for reasons that now seemed insignificant.

The splendid bird also reunited me, however briefly, with an esteemed poet named Robert Frost: the man who returned me to poetry.

 

 

Thoughts on a Spring Morning

American Robin (Turdus Migratorius) resting on a large branch

So self assured
I thought

They
go about their
business
with intent and
confidence
like landed gentry

enter any environment
oblivious to the squabbling and
jostling of others

bathe at will and
oft-times in public

indulge in sex when and where
and with whomsoever

all with panache
and assumed acceptance

They
command universal love
even from
rough-haired youth
armed with
new-found swagger and
BB guns
who seldom
aim their way

Then
an adolescent of the breed
puffed up-scruffy
uncomfortable in his skin
unsure in his grooming

and investing too much effort
in his awkward movements

fled without elegance
or economy when
challenged by a
smaller foe

and reminded me:

robins, too, have
an awkward stage

March Madness

adapted from a column published in 2011

Ball

Since moving to Northwest Colorado, I’ve learned a second definition for March Madness: the craziness that creeps over the populace as winter battles spring and too often wins. For most of my life, however, March Madness meant the NCAA tournament and basketball at its finest.

I grew up with the game. My older brothers scuffled a patch of packed dirt beneath a basket hanging regulation height from a telephone pole. Sometimes they created secret plays with complicated passes and elaborate feints, then enlisted Carolyn and me to stop their shot anyway we could.

We couldn’t. I sulked; Carolyn exacted revenge.

During junior high and high school, I anticipated the Friday night basketball games played in the crowded gymnasium of Spanish Fork High School all week. Filled bleachers rose from the sidelines to a thronged balcony. A band blared from the stage; and my brothers—Lawrence and then Bob—started for the Spaniards.

As I grew, people assessed my height and assumed I would play basketball; I shared their assumption—until I ran into the reality of women’s sports in the 50’s.

In junior high, we crowded around side baskets to practice shooting or passing while eying the boys at the other end of the gym. Though we never played a game, we preferred the basketball drills to the calisthenics unit.

 We played actual games in high school, but with special rules that protected our fragile bodies and stifled the flow of the game.

Not robust enough to run full court, we played in two zones: each team had three offensive players on one side of the half-court line and three defensive players on the other. A player who crossed the line risked both fouling and fatigue.

We could hold the ball only three seconds and dribble only three times. If you stole the ball from another player, you were whistled for unladylike behavior.

As center, I spent half my time wandering around the half-court line, watching the action at the other end. When my team managed to get possession, I ran for the basket, as instructed, hoping the forwards would get the ball to me, but they were usually too busy counting to three.

I scored five points in my best game—my daintiness unmarred by unsightly sweat.

Despite my unhappy experience with the game, my first exposure to the NCAA tournament on a small black-and-white TV in the sixties hooked me, and I still consider it the best sporting event on TV.

I love the language of the tournament: March Madness, N-C-double-A, Selection Sunday, top seed, underdog, Cinderella team, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four.

I thrill to the possibility that at any time a player or a team could exceed expectations, stun the crowd with excellence, and send a higher-ranked team home.

A few years ago, Joel and I went to the western regional in Salt Lake City with friends. The field house was a jumble of crowded seating, blaring buzzers, dancing mascots, frantic coaches, and players leaping in victory or drooping in defeat with towels hiding their faces—all tied together by the constant, mesmerizing movement of the game and the steady rain of basketballs through a hoop.

And the fun is about to begin again.

The Winds of March

 

Catherine II of Russia

Catherine II of Russia

I know two things about the Russian empress, Catherine the Great: She displays impeccable posture in her royal portraits, and she said, “A great wind is blowing, and that gives one either imagination or a headache.”

I’m quite sure Catherine never visited our region during the month of March, but her comment makes me think she could have.

From December through February, I expect harsh snow-burdened gales to turn our roads into obstacle courses, pursue livestock across drifted fields, and snatch branches from whip-lashed trees.

But fierce winds in March unsettle me. Just when the world begins to stir with the promise of daily walks through a gentle spring—sun warming my face and fresh air dancing—the promising month falls prey to unpredictable winds.

A balmy breeze, which invites sauntering in the morning, freshens and becomes bothersome in the afternoon, causing me to tuck my chin and scurry. By the next day it’s surly and vindictive, slapping at my reddened face no matter which direction I turn.

Several calm days with stilled leaves and quiet follow, and I begin to believe spring is more than a myth I cling to in order to preserve my sanity. Then the next morning, I walk into a one-direction gale, its insistent, monotonous bluster unbroken by the ebb and flow of gusts.

It’s enough to make a walker paranoid.

child with kite

I became a student of March winds as a child. I had no choice: my elementary school abounded with displays of lions, lambs, and puffy-cheeked faces blowing playful breezes in which kites frolicked.

In sixth grade, Mr. Wadsen, who played the zither and had black eyebrows that grew together in a commanding line, taught us how to make kites from newspaper and weightless pieces of wood he supplied. We carefully tore strips from an old sheet to create tails for stability, attached kite string, and went outside to fly our creations.

Within minutes, a rambunctious wind grabbed our kites and either bounced them across the playground in swirls of dust or tossed them high into trees to be impaled by bare branches.

We had a glorious time.

In fourth grade, our class presented the program for the March PTA meeting. Mrs. Thomas selected a poem about the wind by Christina Rossetti and coached us in a choral reading of its lovely lines: “Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I, but when the trees bow down their heads, the wind is passing by.”

She assigned Blake and Lamont to produce pleasant wind sounds—whooshes and soft sighs—as a background to our words.

Rehearsals went well, but the night of the performance, in front of parents, teachers, and school board members, Blake and Lamont succumbed to their weakness for erratic behavior and increased the volume of the wind.

By the time we finished the second verse, they’d whipped up a nor’easter.

Encouraged by chuckles from the audience, other reprobates soon added their banshee howls to the hurricane, while those of us with more decorum laughed uncontrollably at their antics.

We didn’t get recess for a week.

 

 

 

Challenge: fingers, prose poem, assonance

Assonance is the strategic repetition of vowel sounds in close proximity to each other and is frequently used to create internal rhyming.

A Chance of Rain in the Afternoon

Throughout the day, relaxed fingers of cloud waved from a brittle brightness of sky until, at 3:00, out of the sameness of the day before and before and before, a wind swirled up and through and long, and drought-weary leaves, no will to cling, fell to fleck the yellow lawn. As a false darkness stretched below a canopy of clouds, the insistent wind caused thunderheads to collide, littering the sky with rolling-train sounds, sending skinny, witch-fingers of lightening through the clouds. The showy commotion roused no rain: the crooked, yellow fingers fled the sky; the train of thunder passed on by; and our hopeless rain-hopes waned, along with the lightening, the wind, and the thunder din.

Challenge: An elegy with fog and a metaphor

An elegy consists of pairs of verse, rhyming or not, with the first line being slightly longer than the second. Most elegies contain an element of longing. In the words of Ben H., who distributes and explains the daily poetry challenges, “… your elegy can be about anything, as long as it evokes a thing that’s irretrievably gone.”

Poet’s Note: Please, dear readers, believe me: On my dashboard in edit, my poem is a series of two-line verses with the first longer than the second. When published, the first line frequently wraps. For thirty despairing minutes, I tried to figure out how to use a smaller font, then, having better things to do with my Saturday, gave up and hoped you would imagine a flow of perfect two-line verses as you read my poem.

 

For Memorial Day and Childhood

Saturday, as I walked with friends from my 4-H group,
we heard a meadowlark’s trill.

“Listen,” our leader said, “it’s singing its song for us,
telling you Lake Shore’s a pretty little place.”

Smoldering fires twined black smoke, farmer’s fog, toward the sky,
sending our way a pungent smell, familiar since our birth:

the scent of scorched cinnamon from where our
fathers,
wielding shovels, burned their irrigation ditches clean.

On Sunday, my family scurried toward a church filled with song
as sycamore trees waved encouragement and urged us on;

through it’s open windows congregational voices soared,
singing,“Welcome, Welcome, Sabbath Morning,” with joy.

Later, Bob and I bickered lazily as we looted the garden for dinner:
baby carrots clumped with earth,

leaves of lettuce, fragile as butterfly wings,
peas to boil with new potatoes.

On Monday, Mom rinsed chipped Mason jars to be filled
with the unflagging cheerfulness of buttercups,

the curvaceousness of purple iris, the fulsome fragrance of lilacs,
and white petals of daisy surrounding small suns.

Seven miles away, the cemetery waited with gentled grass,
under the freshness of skies filled with spring light,

to receive our offered flowers, our memories,
our quiet laughter, our tearful eyes.

,