Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas in Aspen

Christmas in Aspen: Nan and John at Aspen Highlands, with Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells in the backgroundFor the holidays this year, Nan and I are house and dog sitting for our friends, the Vaughns, in Aspen. They are in Costa Rica with family and we are looking after things back home. Their dog Hannah and our dog Scout get along well, romping in the snow together and competing for our affection, so the Vaughns are happy to have us stay here instead of having to board her.

Normally, one would expect to pay top dollar to spend the holidays in Aspen, so it was an unexpected surprise to receive this generous invitation. We have made the most of it, dining at a favorite restaurant on Christmas Eve and skiing on Christmas Day. It has been surprisingly quiet wherever we go. The restaurant had several open tables and there were no significant lift lines at the ski areas. During the years when we lived here, the holidays were always extremely busy, with "a head on every pillow in town," as we used to say. The poor national economy and the local emphasis on real estate profits over quality tourist experiences seem to have taken their toll.

The four of us spent Christmas Day with our friends, the Andersons, who live at the base of Aspen Highlands. The guys skied most of the day over at Buttermilk so the kids could play around in the terrain park on the Red's Rover trail. The photo of Jon is from the West Buttermilk chairlift's halfway point loading area, where we waited in the only lift line of the day.

Christmas in Aspen: Jon Anderson in the lift line at West ButtermilkLater, Jon and I caught the shuttle bus back to Aspen Highlands and met Nan, who had earlier taken Scout and Hannah for a cross-country ski up Maroon Creek Road, for an end-of-day top-to-bottom ski run. I wanted to get a good ski photo of Nan and me, and Jon suggested the new Ski Patrol hut at the top of the mountain for its amazing views. The sun was low in the sky and directly behind us, but Jon's photo turned out nicely, with the sun's flare coming from between Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells in the distant background.

The three of us skied the leg-burning thirty-six hundred vertical feet back to the base and then hobbled over to Jon's house for apr├Ęs-ski. When Jon's wife Lori, their kids and assorted guests finally returned from skiing, we all toasted the holidays and sat down to a wonderful Christmas Dinner.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Speak of the Devil

     Edward possessed an unusual talent. He could summon people at will—but not like a king could summon one of his subjects to the throne. Edward’s talent was more subtle than that. In fact, it was mostly unconscious. If Edward was daydreaming, as he did frequently, and happened to think of a person from his past, then within a few minutes, days or weeks, that person would make an appearance of some sort in his life. For instance, Edward would pick up the phone and hear a familiar voice: “I was just thinking of you,” he would say. Or he would wonder what an old acquaintance was up to and then open a newspaper to find an article about that person.
     For Edward, many of these incidents were happy coincidences, but not all of them were. Sometimes that article in the newspaper was an obituary. Edward had a dark side, and he would dwell on the bad experiences in his life more often than was normal. With his special talent, the results could be disturbing.
     Once, several years ago, he was on a backpacking trip with some friends, who were also business associates, in the Colorado mountains not far from his home. As they hiked up the trail, they discussed some of their worst business experiences, and Edward told them about the time his Christmas had been ruined by a client who refused to pay a very large overdue amount before closing his business for the holidays. A few minutes later, who should come walking down the trail past them but that very same client. Edward was thankful for his baseball cap and sunglasses, and for his friends reacting with waves and greetings but nothing more.
     When they were safely out of earshot, the friends stopped and confronted Edward. “How did you do that?” one asked.
     “Do what?” Edward replied.
     “How did you get that terrible client of yours to show up on cue like that? Did you know he would be out here?”
     “No,” said Edward, looking down at his boots. “Things like that happen to me all the time. I think about somebody and there they are.”
     “Speak of the devil!”
     “You mean that old expression, ‘Speak of the devil and the devil appears’?” asked Edward.
     “Exactly! You’d better be careful who you think about if you want to keep things like what just happened from happening all the time.”
     The friends saw the look of concern on Edward’s face and started laughing to lighten the mood. One said, “Don’t worry about it! It’s not like you know any axe murderers!” They drank from their water bottles, adjusted their packs, and continued up the trail, with Edward bringing up the rear.
     As he hiked, Edward thought about what had happened and replayed in his mind all the similar occurrences that he could remember. There were many. And the bad feelings about them far outweighed the good. He resolved that he would try to prevent the devil from appearing ever again by living as fully as possible in the present and not thinking about the past.

     Edward’s strategy worked well for him while he was awake, but he could not control his thoughts as he slept. His brain, deprived of its normal daydreaming, would work overtime at night, creating vivid dreams and horrific nightmares. Edward would breathe a sigh of relief on mornings when he awoke with no memories of his dreams. When he did wake up remembering them, he would jump out of bed and busy himself with his morning routines to put them quickly out of mind.
     Early one morning, when it was still dark, Edward awoke suddenly from a dream so intense that his ears were ringing and his heart was thumping in his chest. He rolled over and tried to fall back to sleep, but there was no hope of that. He rolled onto his back and stared up at the dark ceiling, replaying the dream in his mind:

     A classmate from childhood had somehow gotten in touch and invited him to her home for Christmas Eve dinner. It was snowing as he walked up the sidewalk to the address she had given him. Her adult son was bent over shoveling the front walk. When he saw Edward approach, he stood up and introduced himself. They entered the house together and removed their coats and boots in the front hall. The rooms were decorated for the holidays, but there was no one in them. Sounds of cooking and young children came from the back of the house, behind a swinging door at the rear of the dining room to their right. The son gestured to the living room on the left and told Edward to make himself at home. He said he would let his mother know that Edward had arrived and pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, giving Edward a glimpse of a young woman that he guessed was the son’s wife, seated at a table with their children.
     Edward walked through the arch leading to the living room and looked around. The room was comfortably furnished, and the walls were lined with built-in bookcases full of books and music CDs. He walked over to a shelf of CDs to see if he shared her taste in music. He was noticing the abundance of classical music when he saw her enter the room from the corner of his eye. He turned to face her and she stopped, still a few feet away. She was just as he remembered her, but her hair was shorter and more auburn in color. She wore a sparkling silver gown and matching shoes that made her glow in the room’s soft light.
     At a loss for words, Edward asked, “Do you still play cello?”
     “No,” she said. “I play the piano now.” She gestured through a door off the living room, where Edward could see a grand piano with its top open. “I’ve been looking for a guitarist to play duets with.”
     “I play guitar,” Edward said.
     She stepped closer and took his shoulders in her hands. She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. As she turned to pull away, Edward took her by the shoulders and kissed her softly on the mouth. “I love you,” he said. “I’ve always loved you.”

     That was the moment when Edward woke up. Somewhere in his subconscious mind, he still harbored feelings for this woman he had not seen since their twentieth class reunion, almost fifteen years ago. He also knew that given the intensity of his dream about her, she would soon appear in his life. His special talent would see to it. But he had been suppressing it for so long, he was no longer confident that it still worked. He needed to find her and tell her how he felt. He couldn’t wait for the talent to make it happen.
     Edward rolled out of bed and went into his office to turn on his computer. He tried every search engine and every networking site, but there was no mention of her. Finally, he found an address that might be hers. He wrote a quick letter saying that he had been thinking about her and asking her to get in touch with him. He put the letter in an envelope and hurried to the post office to mail it before he lost his nerve.
     Days passed and turned into weeks and months. The letter went unanswered. And the devil did not appear.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas Letter 2010

Christmas card photo 2010: Nan, Scout and John at Redlands Mesa Golf Club with the Colorado National Monument in the backgroundChristmas 2010

Dear Family and Friends,

It’s hard to believe we’re almost through the first decade of the new millennium. Fears of Y2K seem quaint now compared to the real difficulties we all face these days. If anything, all the economic and political uncertainty has strengthened our relationships and made them that much more important: We’re all we have.

The year saw us still doing our fair share of travel. We continued our recent spring tradition of sailing with our friend, Capt. John Kretschmer, aboard his 47-foot sailboat, this year sailing from Bocas del Toro, Panama to Isla Mujeres, Mexico over two weeks. Nan and I flew into Panama City and spent a night at a hotel located at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal, right next to the appropriately named Balboa Yacht Club. The next day, we took a puddle jumper over to Bocas, on the Caribbean side, and met up with John and the rest of the crew. We sailed north for two days to the tiny island of Providencia, a Colombian island off the coast of Nicaragua. From there, over three days, we rounded west and made landfall in Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. We spent a pleasant few days there, touring the island with a friend of John’s, and snorkeling in the crystal waters off the West End. We sailed north again, heading for Lighthouse Reef and its Great Blue Hole, but the seas were rough and we couldn’t risk the reef’s dangerous entrance, so we sailed overnight to San Pedro, on Belize’s Ambergris Caye. Our final passage took us past Cozumel to Isla Mujeres, our favorite place in Mexico. In two short days there, we raced around touching base with all of our local friends, distributing birthday gifts and fond greetings.

As soon as we returned home, I flew to Baltimore to inspect a sailboat for sale. Capt. John met me and offered his expert advice. A few weeks later, I was the proud owner of a 1980 Valiant 40 cutter, now named Whispering Jesse, in fulfillment of the dream I established in my blog of the same name almost six years ago. A week later, my sailing buddy Kevin met me in Baltimore and we sailed the boat down to Solomons, Maryland, where refitting work is being done to prepare her for bluewater passages. If all goes as planned, a small crew and I will set sail in March for Savannah, where my folks have a vacation home, and spend some time sailing with family in local waters. From there, Isla Mujeres and other Caribbean destinations beckon, as preludes to a trip around the world, but plans are still being formulated.

Nan’s mother, Mary Claire, is 87 now and still living at home, cared for by Nan’s younger sister, Amy. Over the summer, Nan made a few trips home to Manitowoc to spend time with her mother and give Amy a break. She timed her trips to take advantage of running races in the area. Nan has carried on with her running pursuits, racing almost every weekend through the spring, summer and fall, and usually placing in the top three in her age group. When she was in Manitowoc in October, Nan was joined by Amy for a trip down to Milwaukee to run in a lakefront event, their first race together.

I made it home to Wauwatosa just once this year, as a side trip on my way to Solomons to check on the sailboat’s refit progress and spend a weekend with my friend Curt and his family in the DC area. Sister Jane and her sons were in Tosa from Seattle and sister Susan’s family lives across town in Shorewood, so it was almost a family reunion. The actual reunion took place later in the trip, when everyone traveled to Chicago for the reunion of the Allen clan, my mother’s relatives. Close to a hundred showed up for an all-day barbecue and reminiscence.

Nan and I returned to Isla Mujeres in September. We had planned to stay for two weeks but cut our trip short due to terrible weather caused by hurricanes Karl and Matthew, which struck well to the south in the Yucatan peninsula but still managed to cause massive amounts of rainfall where we were.

Our card photo this year was taken at the eleventh tee of the Redlands Mesa Golf Club, where we have been members for three years. It’s located within easy walking distance of our home, so the photo gives a good idea of where we live and the views we enjoy of the Colorado National Monument. The golf is pretty dramatic, too, like playing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

The holidays are Nan’s and my time to let you know how much we care about you, even if this letter and card are the only communication you receive from us all year. Know that you are always in our thoughts. Here’s to a warm and wonderful holiday season and a prosperous New Year!

Love,

John, Nan and Scout

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Return to Hidden Valley

Scout posing in front of the petroglyph wall in Hidden Valley, Moab, UtahOn Friday afternoon, Nan, our dog Scout and I drove down to Moab for an overnight trip. Nan was signed up to run in the Winter Sun 10K race on Saturday morning, so Scout and I went for a hike.

In thinking about where Scout and I should take our hike in the days leading up to the trip, it occurred to me that I have not hiked the Hidden Valley trail in almost three years, not since our dog Charlie and I hiked it together a few weeks before he died of cancer. The cover of Raising Charlie, the book I wrote about him, shows a photo of Charlie standing in front of the trail's petroglyphs wall, which was our usual turn-around point. I knew it would make me sad to return to that spot, but I wanted to share it with our new dog, Scout.

The Hidden Valley trailhead is a few miles south of downtown Moab, just off of Highway 191. It is reached by turning right on to Angel Rock Road and then following the trail signs. The weather was cold and cloudy when Scout and I started hiking at 9:30, but we warmed up quickly while climbing the steep switchbacks leading up to the hidden valley that gives the trail its name.

When Charlie and I had hiked the trail together in March 2008, spring had already arrived in the high desert and it had been a warm day. We had stopped to rest and drink some water in the shade of a large juniper tree located where the trail starts to flatten out. The details of that hike are included in Raising Charlie, in a chapter titled "The Last Good Days." Scout and I stopped at that same tree, and I stood there for several moments, remembering Charlie sitting under it and smiling at me the way he did that day. Scout broke the spell by moaning as he rolled in a patch of snow that the tree was shading.

Scout on the Hidden Valley trail, with the petroglyph wall in the distanceWe set off again and soon emerged into the first of the sagebrush fields. Surprisingly, the trail through it was snow covered but the field itself was not. A few hundred yards further on, we crossed over a rocky section and entered the second sagebrush field. In the distance, I could see the petroglyph wall. In the photo to the right, if you click on it to see the full-size version and then draw a line from Scout's nose through the center of the dark bush behind him and extend it to the rock face in the distance, it will pass through the petroglyph wall right below the skyline.

The wall is a little ways off the right side of the trail, and there is not an established path to it, so Scout and I bushwhacked over to it through the rocks and scrub. As with the juniper tree, I stood for several moments and remembered Charlie standing on the ledge below the wall as I took photos, some of the last photos of his life. Scout sat patiently watching me. I called him over and had him sit on the ledge while I took photos. I wanted to include the petroglyphs in the photos, so the angle is a little different from the Raising Charlie cover photo, but the details are the same.

The Hidden Valley trail, with the La Sal Mountains in the distanceThat day with Charlie, it had suddenly occurred to me that the petroglyph that looks like three circles joined by lines depicts a primitive map of Hidden Valley. With Scout, I noticed a petroglyph I had never noticed before. It depicted the figure of a man, and at his side was an incomplete figure that I imagined to be the man's dog. It is gratifying to know that the primitive people who pecked these figures into this wall valued their relationships with their dogs enough to include them in their artwork.