Friday, December 31, 2021

Walking Alleys in the Time of Covid-19—Bizarre? Or Normal?

The Covid-19 pandemic—like every pandemic that has plagued humanity—has turned normality akilter, brought grief where none existed, and challenged man’s capacity to be generous in adversity. What on ordinary days might seem bizarre, becomes normal: quarantining in a parent’s basement with meals left at the door like it is a prison cell, the storing of bodies jumbled in refrigerator trucks with each corpse’s existence reduced to the accuracy of its identity tag, and some men proud to wear football helmets, gun holsters, and jock straps can’t find their own courage when it comes to pulling a scrap of cloth over their mouth and nose. Mothers, unlike my own who died in the polio pandemic when I was a one-year-old (only two years before the polio vaccine was available), stand on street corners with their children in tow, all mask less, waving anti-vaxxer signs, seemingly oblivious or pretending to be oblivious to the hazard of their ill-formed campaign—politically driven and opposing the very science their child is supposedly learning in school. Yes, the bizarre normal.

The photo above of buildings in Walla Walla, Washington, certainly has an eerie feeling. The pavement appears to be clouds and the words in the water’s reflection should be reading backwards. Bizarre, yes. That I have recently taken a break from walking my familiar wooded canyon (where I wandered mostly alone these past two years) and instead spent hours walking the alleys of my hometown, peering into gutters is both bizarre and normal. Bizarre, because who walks alleys? And normal because I have become accustomed to looking for the beautiful or unusual—slow-walking through a pandemic and welcoming what comes.   

On Christmas Eve day, the drive-thru lane in the alley behind Baker Boyer Bank saw a crisp business, so I dodged cars while stopping to admire the blue sky reflected in the runoff from a nearby building. I loved the authority of the white line, its certainty solid in an uncertain time. 

Examine this photo. Although it could be construed as a painting, it isn’t. Pebbles embedded in an alley’s pavement read through the water of the puddle as paint blotches. The ordinarily unnoticed electrical conduits attached to the back of a building act as an artistic element, guiding the viewers eyes up and back down. I’ve passed by this spot hundreds of times and never slowed to see the beauty at my feet. This is the bounty of pandemic time. 

One of my ninth great grandfathers immigrated in 1635 to Massachusetts from a village in England called Boxted. When one of the many plagues swept through the village’s borders and threatened to kill everyone, those who were not yet contagious moved a short distance and hastily built a new town they called Boxted Cross. Think on this. What if this had been the solution for Covid-19? Would Walla Walla have come to be known as Old Walla Walla, and the new “town” Walla Walla Crossed?

I appreciate that many of our old Walla Walla buildings have survived earlier catastrophes or waves of use and disuse, of people moving about for whatever reason. I enjoyed isolating these building’s beauty in a world of pooled water or windowpanes.

I haven’t shied entirely away from popping into stores. 

Or walking down Main Street past its iconic clock.

On this last day of 2021, I can grieve for those whose lives were upended by this pandemic and I can hope this next year brings both a greater sensibility for and appreciation of our medical capabilities, along with a more generous consideration for the well-being of others.  

Let’s all be looking for new tracks, normal ones like the railroad tracks in front of Safeway on a snowy day. 

Let’s gather warmth like from the colors of alley walls and from the kindness of strangers, their eyes twinkling from above their masks. Let’s find our way back to normal.



Sunday, October 24, 2021

Images of a Coastal Trip Stored for Winter Browsing

When there is snow on the ground this winter and its dark in the canyon by 5 o'clock, sometimes I'll picture the coast as I saw it in late summer. I'll remember the the smooth glide of the seals under their brillantly-colored toys in the tank at the Newport Aquarium or the silly-looking seaside telescope surveying Nelscott Beach.

I'll remember the feel of the cool sand on my bare feet on the evening walk on Nelscott Beach or the hip pain of trudging through the thick white sand on the Oregon Dunes—each step sinking deep while the dune grass shadows beckoned us onward encouragingly. 

At Agate Beach I had to stand on my tiptoes to catch a glimpse of Yaquina Lighthouse over the sand dunes that were level with my head as I walked down to the water. The lighthouse appeared like a white pencil tip stuck on the hills over the top of a dune. Can you find it?

A lighthouse is a beacon for tourists like me. During an earlier winter, the memory of the red and white lenses at the Umpqua Lighthouse warmed my thoughts. This summer I got to climb up into the lighthouse's cap of lenses and was bathed in a pinkish light. It was glorious!

Who isn't moved by the perpendicular lines of a lighthouse?

My sister and I visited the old Coast Guard Station house next to the Umpqua Lighthouse. We wandered it's rooms, and read tales of heroism. What vision will stay in my mind from visiting it, might you ask?  I think it will be the light and brush of leaves against a window—in the women's bathroom. Not a particularly historic spot, but stunning nevertheless.

During this winter's gloom-filled evenings, I'll also recall the colors of sea-nurtured life in a tidepool below Yaquina Lighthouse. 

And I'll remember the brillance of jellyfish—those washed ashore on beaches and those blue ones, perpetually floating in the water of a tank at the nearby Newport Aquarium. The jellyfish tossed on the sand by incoming waves can't survive outside the water. They act as prisms until their water-filled bodies drain and their skins' dissolve or are reclaimed by the sea.

If those images are not enough, there is always sunset at Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach. 

Maybe I should think about reserving a room on the beach in the January or February. It might not all be the color of winter fog gray and certainly not snow white.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Can I Convince You to Vacation in the Midwest?

Look under a mushroom and you might find Iowa.

This summer between jaunts to Mt. Rainier and the Oregon Coast, I sidetracked east and looped through six of the Midwestern states: North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska.  My intentions for the trip included visiting friends, tracing my ancestral lineages, and placing flowers on the headstone of my recently-discovered great-uncle, a Minneapolis 1900s saloonkeeper whose inheritance had put my sister and me through college.

The pins on a map hanging in Iowa’s Gothic House Museum indicate that Midwesterners vacation in the Midwest, while Westerners—like me, not so much.

I was leery of traveling into the Midwest partly because of the reputation of the stern-faced Midwesterners, pitchforks at ready. Maskless and unvaccinated in the middle of an epidemic.


But, it is hard to keep a stern face when there is so much to find to delight. 

I’ll start my story in the southwest corner of North Dakota at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I hadn’t heard of this park until this summer. A young Seattle couple camping in Mt. Rainier raved to me that this was their favorite park.

The terrain was startling and the roaming wild horses unexpected. In one evening, I was pleased to locate two bison of the three hundred “managed” Park herd—first bison I had seen since the one on a bar sign in Montana. The best photo of a bison that I took was the one hanging off the bar. 

(Isn’t it sad that white men decimated the herds of bison—sustenance for the Native population—and in exchange gifted them alcoholism and ironically bison on neon bar signs?)

I crossed North Dakota stopping only at rest stops and convenience stores, partly due to the state's high Covid-19 rates. I spoke with a nurse offering free Covid shots at a highway rest stop. She had given four shots in four hours. She shrugged behind her mask. Other than the National Park rangers at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, she and one other woman were the only ones I saw wearing masks all day. My tally seemed to be an informal statistic that confirmed why North Dakota had a high rate of epidemic-related hospitalizations and deaths this summer. And why I kept moving. Maybe by the time you might visit, things will have changed. I would have loved to go slower and admire the county.

My favorite billboard on the entire trip was in Fargo, North Dakota. It was a chiropractor’s advertisement with a smiling gray-haired cowboy, who leaned forward on his horse and made eye contact as I drove by. It made me wish I had a horse. The ad read “Let Us Put You Back in the Saddle.”   

The billboards throughout my travels portrayed a big part of Midwestern culture: an aging farm population and an enduring Christian presence. The well-meaning Pro-life billboards started showing up in North Dakota and continued being in evidence on highways the entire journey. Unfortunately, the only babies shown on every billboard—six Midwest state’s worth—were white babies. The signs contradicted the recent protests that systematic racism doesn’t exist in America. The impression was reinforced when one billboard had a blue lives matter flag on one half and on the other half a photo of another fetus worth saving—a white one again. I had expected to cross evidence of racism in the Midwest and it was one of the reasons that visiting there made me anticipate feeling uncomfortable. I just hadn't expected it to be so blatant.

As I drove into eastern Minnesota, hardwoods began appearing. Common hackberry, oak, elm, and maples circled farmhouses and silos or edged small lakes. I was delighted as the beautiful woods grew thicker. I spent a night on one of the lakes with new friends, Anita and John, who had an old cabin with a Finnish wood-fired sauna nestled against the lake’s bank. My hosts were lovely and their dog laidback and welcoming. When I arrived late afternoon the smell of freshly made grape jelly lingered. As an introduction to Minnesota, I was charmed. We even canoed a short distance in the morning before the dog jumped in the water and began following us, threatening to tip us over. We switched to the sauna.


Mid-morning I headed to the Twin-Cities area, where I loved the backyard concert in St. Paul and the Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes served at the Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. I was glad to go by (even in a heavy downpour) and see the heartfelt tribute to an ordinary man who had died before his time.

George Floyd

All of the bigger cities I visited—Minneapolis, St. Paul, and later Sioux Falls—were surprisingly hip with their plethora of coffee shops and unique restaurants, but the small towns held their weight too. Fairfield, Iowa, had a cider house and an especially good bakery. A nearby town had an exceptional Italian restaurant on its little village square. And of course there was a hamburger joint staffed with a teenager at the counter with her braces glinting off the fluorescent lights. I could see the braces because no one wore masks. Not the cooks, not the customers. Everyone, men in their muddy boots and families, exuded a joyful midday jive. The fries were good.

I came away with a cluster of impressions of the Midwest. A cluster, by the way, is the name for a group of mushrooms. 

In Iowa my good friend Art took me on trails that meandered over gentle slopes and alongside the wide and slow rivers. Wildflowers were abundant and the fun of hunting mushrooms turned up more than a dozen varieties in one walk. Treasure hunting for adults. The landscape was beautiful.


The Midwestern people whom I encountered on my travels—like the mushrooms—were of many persuasions. In Sioux Falls a car maintenance salesman took the time to talk with me after my car was serviced and the women in the Genealogy Research Department of the same city helped me by rifling through old books in search of my family. In St. Paul Adele, Tom, and Flora made me feel welcome by sharing books, laughter, and their dog, Opel. 

In a small towns it was the same. In Iowa a volunteer at a barn bash happily described to Art and me the uses of various pieces of antique farm equipment and how they had made farming easier and more efficient. A farmer wearing a red baseball cap enthused about his half-a-million dollar combine after we had climbed up into its high seats and admired the view. And at the same event, another farmer explained an exhibit showing how using newer farming techniques increased water retention in soil. Although he didn't mention the why farmers were having to change their methods of farming (plow into our conversation the words climate change), he seemed to understand that his generation of farmers needed to rely on science.  
I had a lovely discussion with the woman at The Gothic House Museum about making pies and with the grave digger at the the cemetery in Missouri City, Iowa, who took time to help me find my ancestor Evan's gravestones. I liked all of the people with whom I spoke, even if we might not have agreed. Consider the older guy who made me coffee at the Hub in Burwell, Nebraska. He told me he wasn’t concerned about not having any boys to carry on his family name because the second-coming was going to take him up before long. He, like all the rest, asked about my travels and sent me on my way smiling.   

Am I going to vacation in the Midwest again? 


Before I ventured east, I wasn't looking forward to the flag-waving political bluster that seems to have replaced science and good sense with a rigid independence and a stubborn pride. It seems to have especially infected farming and ranching communities in America. Their livelyhoods are essential to our country's wellbeing, so the trend seems particularly unfortunate. Hay bales wrapped in American flags laying in fields along highways in North Dakota were the first indication of the bluster. I wondered what kind of reception I would find wearing my yoga tights and mask, looking like a foreigner.

Patches of flags, sometimes thick as weeds, waved in front yards in many of the Midwestern small towns. American flags flapped from the eaves of businesses on town squares, making covert statements about loyalty. A campaign poster in a beauty shop's window read: “Jesus in 2020, Our Only Hope.” And in contradiction of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," there were yard signs stating “F_ _ _ whatever candidate you didn’t like.” If I just focused on the political messages, and there were many, I would have missed the goodness of the people and the beauty of their land.

So, yes, I plan to return to the Midwest. Bet mushrooms on it. So you should consider it too. Go and leave your own prints in the Midwest like a night-prowling raccoon left his in the soil on a riverbank on the Des Moines River. Take your mask (you’ll look like a raccoon) and get your shots beforehand. 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

On the Edge of Awe


My friend Sue sat at the foot of two giants, awestruck in Ohanapecosh, a native name that means “standing at the edge of place.” The two trees are on an island in the Ohanapecosh River at the foot of Mt. Rainier. Outside Mt. Rainier National Park, the world seems to be standing at the edge of another place—one that is too hot, too racially divided, too contentious. A few days in the National Park in the shade under a canopy of trees and a person could acquire an optimism that humanity will step back from the edges of our catastrophes. 

Cross a swinging bridge built for one or maybe two people and one enters the Ohanapecosh Grove of the Patriarchs. The limits of the bridge require the give and take of those wishing to cross. The courtesy was extended with laughter and grace again and again.   

Walking on the trails of the National Park, Sue and I passed people from every continent—a diversity of races, ages, and languages. There were people from India, Japan, China, the Middle East and Europe. We spoke to women of African descent—elderly and young—at a time when being outside in nature and Black in America can be hazardous. We spoke to a dad pushing his disabled son in a wheelchair. He was the one who called our attention to the few orange lilies.

Lilies were everywhere. A ranching family with a patriarch, who loved photography, stood with us by a hillside of white lilies. His kids and wife extolled the virtues of raising kids outside on the farm, instilling in them a love of nature and yet regretting not being able to pass the farm along to the next generation. It was an easy exchange away from the western conflicts between ranchers and farmers and us city folks. We talked, appreciating our collective joy of lilies, of camera lenses, and of family and of work. 

It was as though we stood on the edge of possibilities, on the edge of what humanity could be and do.

 The flowers were astonishing this year. The lilies alone were lovely at every stage of their blooming. 

 The white globe before its opening, the dancing of the full petals in the breezes, and the lilies’ fading stage, a lovely, muted pink. Humanity’s many colors, like those of flowers should be a source of delight. Would that the world would appreciate skin tones like the colors of petals. Nowhere on the park trails did I hear anyone deriding the pink of the heather or the purple of the asters. Everyone commented on their beauty. 

There was an impressive generosity in shared information among the assembled park guests: the names of flowers, of a glacier, or a waterfall, a trail. The distance to a point ahead, the directions to a campsite, the sharing of guidebooks and binoculars. The name of a marmot. When people consult respectfully, they gather information. In the park people shared information freely. This willingness to listen or share facts is so often missing in the other place, the place on the edge of catastrophes.

When Sue sat on the ground to admire the two Patriarch trees, a man sitting on a bench in back of her called out that he and his son would share the bench with her—she didn’t need to sit on the ground he said. Laughing, Sue explained that she just wanted the lowest perspective possible, better with which to take a photo. When she got up she joined the father and his son as they sat eating on the bench. Alex and Locke were from Maryland, traveling west to explore Mt. Rainier, the Olympic Peninsula, and the Redwoods. Sue, an oceanographer, began explaining the beach formations on the Olympic Peninsula when Locke, the son, spoke up that he was hoping to become a geologist. As we talked it was apparent he already had an impressive knowledge of the field. We must have talked for almost a half an hour before parting ways. With Sue’s background in science and mine in education, we were both delighted to meet an up-and-coming scientist and an involved dad. 

On the edge of this place, the enthusiasm of a young man was like a shaft of light filtering from the outside world. If humanity is to face the crisis on the horizon, the next generation needs articulate, thoughtful, and well-schooled leaders—science based, informed. 

By the time Sue and I arrived at Paradise Lodge further up the road, we both had expressed our regret that we had not gotten contact information from the dad and his son. Later that afternoon we arrived back at our campground, but before Sue and I turned into our campsite loop we stopped at the message board to remove a note we had posted earlier for a friend passing through. To our confusion and then surprise, a second note had been attached to ours. The note read, “For Sue and Kathy — If you met a father and son from Maryland, this is for you. We enjoyed talking with you! If you wanted to send any more geological cool advice, we are at E18. Also email…, Alex and Locke.” 

Sue and I will surely return for another camping trip to Mt. Rainier: to the litter-free trails, the clear river waters, to the respectful quiet of the park's crowded campground, and to the potential for making friends in a place on the edge of civility and hope.

Until next time Mt. Rainier.

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Friday, July 16, 2021



Awe is a funny word. It stems from the Old English word ege, meaning “terror and dread.” The hot-looking manhold cover marked WATER which I pass on my evening walks earns my awe of the dreaded kind. No water, no rain, has touched it metal surface in many, many weeks. A mile up the road the arrow on the Umatilla Forest Fire sign is locked in place pointing to EXTREAME. The air has had a scent of smoke over the past few days. The light has a reddish tinge. We are not yet at mid-summer's day.

Warding off dread, I am coating my cabin and outbuildings with a fire retardant. An effort that gives me only a slight feeling of assurance. Avoiding the sun, I work on whichever side is in the shade. Sometimes I take a break by hiking further up the canyon along a stream or join a friend at the river's edge as he fishes in the river. 

My friend reminds me not to let my shadow fall on the water and scare the fish into their own version of shock and awe. What do fish make of their own shadows? My friend and I came across a dozen small trout swimming in a sunlit pool in a mountain stream. There appeared to be twice the number of fish until I realized I was also counting their shadows. The beauty of the pool, the movement of the fish and their shadows, and the delight in finding trout gave me a brush with awe, the reverant kind.  

                                                             Can you find the fish?

In Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes, the author Alastair Humphreys suggests, “I can guarantee that within a mile of where you live, there will be something that you’ve never seen or noticed before.” Studies show these small moments of surprise, of awe, contribute to good health. I have many of these moments in the canyon.

This spring  I found a Pacific Tree Frog, caught him, and then let him go in the boggy area across from my cabin. I have been wishing for the evening sound of croaking frogs. Maybe this little guy will start the tradition.

Bees delight me with their varying markings. Each one providing a moment of awe. Within a mile I found this moth mullien blossom visited by a bee with its knees laden with pollen. 

Further up the canyon it is the water that holds the awe. Maybe it is the scarcity of water this summer—I can’t hear the river from my cabin this summer—that makes me appreciate any trail with deep enough water that its rivulets still make music. Listen.

This summer, if I am to have "Microadventures" of the less dreaded type, I have to ignore the dry tips of pine needles, the yellowed sunburnt leaves, and the lid in the road proclaiming water where none is evident.

Instead, find pleasure in the leap of a single drop of water.

Or an eight-inch high waterfall slipping over red volcanic rock and making a froth of bubbles, each one tinged blue and green reflecting the sky and the trees. A lovely sight.

May your summer be filled with awe of the less dreaded kind.