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. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Black Tails and White Ties

The city of Portland dressed in black tails and white ties for our date on the town. The grand staircase: the rooftops of shops, old hotels and newer skyscrapers, stepped up to a moon. The playlist beat to the rhythm of streetlights, the spotlights headlights. Murals provided a fa├žade of other guests, slightly blurred as if in a room swirling with cigarette smoke. 

In front of me on the inside window ledge sat two cardboard boxes containing the evening’s dinner. The menu included three meatballs in the left-hand box and a spicy kale and a roasted cauliflower entre in the righthand one. The spread was catered by a friendly neighborhood grocery store named Whole Foods. 

My front row seat was in a room painted ceiling and all in midnight blue with gold highlights, its dimness lit romantically by table lamps wearing elegant Victorian shades. The accommodation multitasked with a sink in one corner, an antique—some might just call old—wooden chair that I had pulled up to the window, and a queen-sized bed on which lay two thick bathrobes, the better to visit the bathrooms down the hall.  

Snow on Snoqualmie Pass made me detour south through Portland, Oregon. Taking advantage of the circumstance, I booked a night at the Crystal Palace Hotel, a block from Powell’s bookstore. Although I had promised myself twelve hours at Powell’s, their hours had been shortened due to Covid, so I stayed until their new closing time at six o’clock and did “the night on the town” from my room, practicing downtown living. 

When I occasionally think it would be fun to live in a city in a classic older hotel or apartment, I do so from a position of privilege.

A fuller view from my window, without the romance of being dressed in black and white, put another hotel up for consideration. The Georgiana advertises “reasonable rates.” It’s amenities included street level shopping at a sex shop, Peterson’s Grocery with most of its windows boarded over, and two bars and a nightclub A guest review noted that you were required to sign a waiver stating you were aware of the amenities, particularly the nightclub and bars. After signing, you would not get a refund no matter the complaint.

Sex shop aside, it was the blue window that eventually placed some perspective on living in a downtown hotel. I noticed an occasional burst of light coming from the upper corner window. A young man wearing a yellow ski hat sat on a twin bed smoking a bong. The hat, I suppose, serving as a nightcap in the cool room. The bong’s intermittent white flashes illuminated his stark surroundings. The euphoria or the stupor that followed his inhales must have helped irradicate the young man’s sense of failure. A hotel with “reasonable rates” has connotations. None good. 

In the morning, I pulled aside the curtains to let in the eastern light and checked the view again. When your refrigerator is winter and the shelves are the window ledges, I am sure that you worry about spring’s arrival and even maybe global warming. And so you take another toke on your bong. Summer’s arrival worse. Living on upper floors of an old hotel, the window has to be open to get cooler air, but the opening invites the company of street noise: engines, garbage trucks, sirens, and the shouts or mutterings of drunks.

Other than the brief noise of the joviality of other guests arriving on my floor, my night had been blissfully quiet, buffered by carpeting, insulated walls, and the thick door of my classier hotel. 

Early in the morning around, I walked to the Louisiana-style donut shop, Nola’s, for lemon poppyseed and chocolate beignets. The expense of two donuts would have bought a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter at the Peterson’s grocery.

View of my hotel from the evening before.

I ate the beignets downstairs at the hotel accompanied by a mug of free coffee from the lobby.

I would still like to spend a month or so in a downtown Portland lodging. I envision long walks, good restaurants, and perhaps attending a few art or writer’s events along with those twelve hours at Powell’s. The reality of living in a big city would be a lark for me, but the inequities in downtown housing—so obvious during my one night in a hotel—is for many not the fantasy of a town dressed in black tails and white ties.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Quonset Huts and Why They Evoke Nostalgia


I frequently pass this Quonset hut, a WWII relic, where it sits on the edge of a sketchy industrial area on the edge of town. It looks lost and lonely most days, but none more so than on a foggy one. Every time I notice the hut, I think of my dad and his long ago military service. 

I've tried taking the hut's photo before, but I couldn't seem to catch its sense of uselessness, illustrating I hope the passing of the necessity for buildings constructed for purposes of war.

I admit to a certain nostalgia about WWII. This would seem to be in conflict with my aversion to military endeavors, but after some thought, I have concluded that my feelings of nostaglia, a word derived from two Greek words: return home and pain, has to do with my appreciation for a time when a frightening challenge was met with competence and some measure of grace. 

My father (third in line) with his sleeve rolled up, his jacket casually tossed over his shoulder, and a slight  smile on his face conveys the spirit with which I speak. I have no doubt that my father would have preferred to continue his schooling to be a forest ranger, but within two weeks of Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the Army-Air Force and was sent to England for three years. In almost all of the photos of my dad during the war—a night with fellow Coloradan soldiers at a U.S.O. event, sitting on a bench with a WAC by some river, and standing in a heavy overcoat in front of the Louve in Paris—he is smiling. I know that he experienced and saw things of which he did not speak and certainly would not have left a smile on his face; and for me not seeing these things likely skews my impression of the War. 

(This photo reminds me that this is the spirit with which I wish all Americans were approaching getting vaccinated for Covid-19. Just do it.)

I am reading a book about President John Adams and in it is mentioned the fact that silverware was melted to make lead bullets during the Revolutionary War. In both the First and the Second World Wars the practice was repeated with all kinds of metal. Somewhere in this world there are silverware and sewing machines and coins and bumpers all which contain traces of metal once used in implements or accessories of war and previously might have been silverware. When I notice a Quonset hut, a steel-sided structure, I know that it speaks of sacrifice of something gathered and given up for the cause of winning a war. Consider how lovely it will be when the sole purpose of recycling and repurposing will be to take something made in peace time and use it to make the world a better and more equitable place. When we skip the intermittant stage of recycling to make war implements. 

During WWII the Lionel toy company switched from making toy trains to making compasses for warships and the Mattatuck Manufacturing Company switched from making its stock upholstery tacks to making  cartridge clips. This is the stuff that I admire. The making of the Quonset huts in huge quantities falls into the same category. The unified effort of ordinary people, sustained and focused, is what bolsters my feelings of nostalgia for the war in which my father fought. 

I love Quonset huts for the elegance of their swooping curve, an imitation of a rolling hill. I love that they were repurposed after the war as temporary houses, as roadside cafes, and mostly as farm sheds. I love that their easy-to-construct design makes them portable. Mainly, I love that they exemplify the good qualities of American democracy, our intentions to make the world right. And as always, I love that they remind me of my dad.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

I Must Be Off/Packing Silence

In this time of Covid-19, the thought of traveling for seven months is just that, a thought. I recently had a piece titled "Packing Silence" published on the travel site I Must Be Off — Where To, Friends?  Although none of us are loading the car and rounding up the dog for a journey, most of us are dealing with silence within the walls of our abodes. Depression is on the uptick and silence is one of the culprits. 

I have always had a comfortable relationship to silence. Not that I don't resort to podcasts or music to accompany through tasks, but mostly I find silence a resource. It allows me to observe my surroundings more carefully or to think about my writing undisturbed.

Please read the piece and share it with anyone who might appreciate some humor and thoughtfulness on the subject of silence. Here is a link to the essay:  I Must Be Off/Packing Silence.

Christopher Allen, the creator of the "I Must Be Off" website, is an award-winning author. Do read some of his pieces and guest contributions or watch the videos. His website lets you travel vicariously. 

Take care. Stay safe.