Road Report: Revisiting a “thread”

Our trusty Subaru Forester on a gravel road in northwestern Colorado, laying down another “thread” across the landscapes we loved to explore.

Richard and I loved to take road trips. He drove, and I watched the landscape and speculated about the whys of it all: Why a ridge was shaped the way it was, why the lichens on one rock were orange and the other green, why that slope grew forest and that prairie….

Sometimes we talked, sometimes we were silent. Sometimes we drove for hours without stopping; sometimes we stopped to watch birds, look at wildflowers, gawk at a sky-full of stars, or pick up a rock (Richard preferred large rocks the size you could sculpt into basins, tables, sinks, or firepits). Often we wrote and edited haiku in our heads. Always we held hands.

When we moved home to Colorado 15 years ago, we were talking about the trips we had made across the state, and I said, “We’ve laid a lot of threads across this landscape.” Richard loved that metaphor; ever after, anytime we set out on a route we had taken before, he would say, “We’re following familiar threads.”

The West Elk Mountains across Blue Mesa Lake, a reservoir  much shrunken by our long drought. (Note the telltale bare “bathtub ring” usually covered by the reservoir.)

Over the weekend I followed one of those threads west on US 50 over Monarch Pass, down Tomichi Creek and through Gunnison, along the Gunnison River and then around Blue Mesa Lake with its wide bathtub ring from the drought, and then up and over Blue Mesa Divide, down to follow the Cimarron River, up Cerro Summit and finally down into Montrose, a bustling town on Colorado’s West Slope.

I admired the landscape, silently pondered some “why?” questions, but didn’t stop.

I was eager to get to Montrose in time for a massage with my friend Ginny Anthony, followed by dinner with Ginny and her husband Mark. I made it, the massage was heavenly, and their dog Tyler was delighted to play tug-the-hedgehog. I admired Ginny and Mark’s garden, was treated to a yummy dinner of Nepalese food at Guru’s, and was back in my Subaru before dark, headed for a place to spend the night under the waxing moon.

Chokecherry turning scarlet and serviceberry dull gold, a drought-induced early fall display of color.

As I drifted off to sleep I told Richard that I loved him, and that I had traveled one of our threads. I felt good; I slept well.

The next morning’s drive, back over Cerro Summit and Blue Mesa Divide, along shrunken Blue Mesa Lake, and up the Gunnison River Canyon, was lovely. I stopped to shoot photos here and there, amazed at the color in the chokecherry, currant, and serviceberry, a beautiful but eerie drought-induced display a month early.

As I passed through Gunnison, an ambulance screamed past from behind me. I said a quick blessing and hoped all was well. A few miles later, I topped a hill and found a line of vehicles stopped in the highway from both directions. At the bottom of the hill, lights flashed: the ambulance plus a sprinkling of patrol cars. A motorcycle lay on the shoulder near a small car.

I turned off the engine, got out, and joined a small knot of people from the other vehicles. One guy had his binoculars out and said it looked like a head-on between the bike and the car. Just then the ambulance screamed up the hill, headed back to Gunnison. We voiced our hopes that whoever was hurt would be okay, and watched the officers at the bottom of the hill measuring and photographing. The talk turned to distracted drivers and the perils of motorcycles versus cars–several of the stopped vehicles were pulling trailers with dirt bikes or road hogs. Eventually the official vehicles dispersed, we wished each other well, and headed back to our vehicles and drove on.

I saw the landscape through tears the rest of the way home, grieving at it all: Richard gone and me here without him; the motorcyclist in the ambulance, the driver of the car with the bashed in front-end and the responsibility for someone’s life.

None of it made sense, and it likely never will. Life is what life is, and we do our best to live it with love and compassion, thoughtfulness and generosity.

Sacred datura blossom unfurls slowing as day deepens to evening.

At home I unpacked the car and went outside to water the kitchen garden. And saw that the sacred datura I had planted right outside the bedroom door in Richard’s memory–those huge white trumpets were a favorite of his–was opening its first-ever blossom.

Beauty & death, grief & blooming time…. Emerson had it right:

Our lives are an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn. That there is no end in nature; every end is a beginning.

Onward.

 

Road Report: A taste of Alaska!

Visual artist Roberta happy to glimpse some sun at Potter Marsh outside Anchorage

There’s no way to capture Alaska in a few words.

So I’m going to post a photo album below showing the bit of Alaska my travel-companion Roberta Smith and I experienced: the Kenai Peninsula, a mountainous “tongue” that divides Cook Inlet, the deep seaway that makes Anchorage a port, from the Gulf of Alaska, the blue bowl of ocean separating the islands along the Northwest Passage from mainland Alaska.

The Kenai may be small compared to the rest of this vast state, but it boasts tremendous natural diversity: mountains, fjords, glaciers and ice sheets, beaches, marshes, spruce bogs, forests, and views of active volcanoes. We focused on Anchorage (the Native collection at the Anchorage Museum is worth a day in itself), Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park, and Homer and Katchemak Bay.

Here’s one story, not about wild nature so much as connections of the heart: On Richard’s first visit to Anchorage, he stumbled on a Native (Eskimo) shop that sold lacy hats, scarves, and other items knitted out from hand-harvested and hand-spun quviut (kee-vi-ute), musk ox underhair. “You’d love them,” he said. “But I don’t know which to buy you.” So he brought home a brochure.

The pieces were indeed gorgeous, but they were expensive enough to give even a fiber-lover like me pause. “I’ll come with you sometime and try them on,” I said.

Northern Lights beret from the “Tundra & Snow” collection at the Oomingmak Co-op Shop

He returned to Anchorage perhaps half a dozen times, but “sometime” never came: I never got to visit Alaska. Until my invitation to speak at TEDxHomer.

After arriving in Anchorage on a depressingly rainy Saturday night, Roberta and I were relieved to wake the next day to no rain (although low, gray skies). We explored the city, and eventually found our way to the Oomingmak Shop, where we tried on cloud-soft qiviut pieces. Still, I was reluctant to spent so much money. Until I tried on a “tundra beret” that combines qiviut and raw silk in a pattern called Northern Lights.

It felt and looked heavenly (no pun intended!). And I swore I could feel Richard beaming over my shoulder. I debated for about two minutes, and then handed over my charge card. (It only hurt a little.) I haven’t been sorry: the beret is indeed a treat to wear. Thank you, knitter Julia Bunder from the village of Ekwok!

(For more on this rare fiber, and the story of the Natives who collect, spin and knit it, read my friend Donna Druchunas‘ book, Arctic Lace.)

Once I had my glorious Qiviut hat and what felt like Richard’s benediction, I was ready to explore Alaska. After brunch with new friend Janine and her sweetie Scott in their fabulous eyrie with a view of rainy Cook Inlet, off we headed in the bright yellow VW Beetle Janine had rented for us, our “Alaska Bumblebee” car.

Humpback whaless circling and bubble-feeding in the fog off where the Kenai’s largest glacier meets the Gulf of Alaska

Our three days in Seward were moody and cold, the air relentlessly wet. Still, we saw humpback whales bubble-feeding, making a tight circle in the water to “gather” the plankton and small fish they eat–a new behavior for these huge whales; watched parakeet auklets scrabbling up steep sea-cliffs to their crevice nests, singing sweetly, along with puffins diving, orca pods spy-hopping, and glaciers calving. We even tasted glacier ice–fresh and crisp, despite its great age.

And we discovered fellow Colorado writer Craig Childs was in Seward as well–what are the chances?–so we had the treat of lunch with him at Seward’s vintage Showcase Lounge.

The sun came out for our drive down the Peninsula to Homer, where I gave my “Love Every Moment” talk as part of an inspiring TEDx event (I’ll post the link to the talk as soon as I have it). The next day Roberta and I went sea kayaking around Yukon Island, across the bay, in perfect weather. We paddled dappled blue swells, and watched sea otters bask up close and distant volcanoes puff with smoke.

Colorful cabins on Seldovia’s historic boardwalk.

On our last day, we took the ferry to the fishing village of Seldovia, which has an active Native Alaskan community. We saw more humpback whales, poked about in tidepools, and explored the native culture and the wooden wharf and piling architecture.

By the time we hit the road for the drive back to Anchorage yesterday, we felt quite blessed. One more gift awaited us: as we wound our way along the Kenai River in the stream of Sunday-afternoon, Anchorage-bound traffic, I spotted a furry head with rounded ears in the river amidst the anglers fishing the sockeye run: a brown (grizzly) bear! We stopped to watch her catch a fish in that glacier-melt-cold river, our hearts full.

I might never have explored Alaska, if not for the infectious joy Richard took from his trips to the state, plus the invitation from Kat, Adi, and the TEDx team. Thanks to you all–Native knitters, musk ox, whales, sea otters, fireweed, glaciers, parakeet auklets and brown bears too!

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The gift of family….

My sister-in-law, Letitia Cabe Hitz, taking photos of the match for Miss Alice, who loves nothing better than a big party and would have competed vigorously at pétanque!

In my post about the celebration of Richard’s birthday, I bragged about the extended Tweit side of my family. It’s time to say thanks to the Cabe side too.

Two of Richard’s three siblings made it to last Saturday’s festivities, and several of their kids and grand-kids came as well. Richard’s sister Tish gets the award for driving the farthest, having made the 14-hour-drive from her home in Northwest Arkansas. Since she’s about as comfortable in big crowds as I am (not!), I have to add a shout-out to her for being good-natured about attending the event and for shooting photos to take back to my 94-year-old mother-in-law, Miss Alice.

Richard’s older brother, Ron, didn’t have so far to drive–he lives across town–but he gets the award for bringing the most family members: six, including my sister-in-law, Bonnie; his eldest, Jennifer and her husband Paul (who flew in from Washington, DC, so he gets the flying-farthest award); and middle son Andrew, who came with his wife, Jenny, and their kids, Collin and Madalyn.

Friends Tim and Donna from Albuquerque, honorary Cabes after all these years (Donna was also one of Richard’s grad students at NMSU). Bonnie Cabe is in the center back next to the umbrella pole, Ron is hidden behind Tim.

Actually, Ron brought nine, counting friends who have been part of Cabe family gatherings for so long that they seem like family even if they’re not related genetically.

It’s not just about who from the Cabe side of the family came to pétanque. They’ve all been wonderfully supportive through this journey with Richard’s brain cancer and beyond. Their kindness is a real gift, one I hope never to take for granted.

Jennifer, who is the executive director of Tucson’s Canyon Ranch Institute, which promotes integrative and community health worldwide, took time to visit the sculpture park and Richard’s “Matriculation” with me on Sunday. We talked about death and fairness, and that conversation eased me past another chunk of the loss I’ve been feeling especially keenly now, around the anniversary of his 62nd birthday.

The guest cottage kitchen with the new upper cabinet and microwave/range hood on the wall, instead of occupying a third of the counter space….

Jennifer’s brother Andrew, husband of Jenny, father of impish Collin and charming Madalyn, stayed an extra two days to continue his work on the guest cottage. Andrew inherited Richard’s woodworking meme, and has been applying his impressive talents to finishing the many projects his “Unc” didn’t get to, including trim and kitchen cabinets in the guest cottage.

As a result, the cottage now boasts a new cabinet above the stove, and the microwave/range hood, which has hogged space on one of the counters in that tiny kitchen for, well, six years, is now up on the wall where it belongs. (The trim around the windows and doors and the face frames on the lower cabinets are Andrew’s work too.)

I’m feeling blessed to have the gift of two loving and supportive families, both Cabes and Tweits. As Richard used to say, “I’m a fortunate person.” Thank you all, for sticking with me!

****

Homer Spit, photo by Bennie Michael Lane

Tomorrow I’m headed to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, one spectacular part of that entirely spectacular state, to give a talk at TEDxHomer on Thursday, 7/26. You can watch/listen to me speak about “Love Every Moment: Play for Life–and Death,” my take on living mindfully and lovingly until the end, at 7:58 pm Alaska Time (9:58 pm here in RMT) on the TEDxHomer livestream.

The subject of my TEDx talk seems eerily appropriate after the mass shooting at the movie theatre in Aurora last night. My heart goes out to the families of those affected, including the shooter, who must be pretty sick indeed to have caused such carnage. May each of those affected get the help and comfort they need to heal. And may we all resolve to live our lives in loving kindness….

Happy Birthday, Richard….

Richard and his dad, Raymond Cabe, outside Salida, winter of 1951

Today, July 16th, 2012, would be Richard’s 62nd birthday. Molly and I decided last winter that we wanted to mark the occasion because while remembering is painful, forgetting his life and the joy he took from it would be worse.

Picking a weekend was easy: his favorite summer event in Salida, the Colorado Brewer’s Rendezvous, where microbreweries from around the state set up tasting casks under the shade trees in Riverside Park a few blocks from our house, was scheduled for Saturday, July 14th. Perfect.

The theme was easy too: it’s a long-standing Cabe-Tweit tradition to combine playing pétanque (a French game of bowling on gravel using steel balls, another of Richard’s summer delights) on our front-yard court with brunch on the morning of the Brewer’s Rendezvous. Once we had the date and the theme, we invited the combined Cabe-Tweit clan plus a few dozen friends, and left the planning and organizing until later.

The day before I left for the river trip, barely 10 days before the petanque brunch, I contemplated preparations. We had always served fritatta, muffins, and fruit salad with homemade yogurt, plus mimosas and an assortment of other beverages ranging from Trippel, Richard’s favorite beer, to coffee and natural sodas. Since it would be just me preparing food for 60 or so guests, I gave myself a break and ordered the fritattas from Ploughboy Local Market, and the muffins from the new bakery downtown. The point was to have a day he would have enjoyed, not to stress over it.

Molly, my brother Bill, great-nephew Connor, Matt, Fiona, Sienna and Porter Bryant (Sienna is Bill’s middle girl), and me in the front row. Thanks to Mark Allen for the photo.

Two days after I shook the sand out of my river shoes, the Tweit clan began arriving. First my middle niece, Sienna, her husband Matt, and their four-year-old, Fiona, and three-year-old, Porter, pulled in from Washington State via stops at Arches National Park and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, among other places. Then Molly and Mark, who flew in from San Francisco; and late that night, my brother and my eldest great-nephew, Connor, also from Washington State, but fresh from a backpacking trip in the San Juan Mountains via the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge train.

The next day, Friday, we went into serious party preparation, beginning with weeding the petanque court, which for some reason my wildflowers love to colonize. (Clearly, they don’t understand the hazards of play!) Molly, Mark and Bill dug and pulled and raked until the court looked better than it has in years.

The freshly weeded and raked pétanque court, outlined by river rocks and native wildflowers and grasses.

Next we laid in beverages, hauled the 12-foot-long chop saw table from Richard’s studio over to the front porch to hold food, and bought recyclable plates and cups.

Saturday morning we moved the big umbrellas to each end of the court, distributed chairs on the porches and patios, filled the chop-saw table with food and the big galvanized bucket with ice and drinks, arranged mementos at one end of the food table, including a candle made from the remains of the luminarias from the celebration of Richard’s life (thanks to Ed & Paula Berg, and Arlene Shovald) plus an iPad slide show put together by Mark and Molly, and then hung out.

“Aunt Molly, you’re throwing the ball wrong!” Collin Cabe, age five, already knows his great-uncle’s game.

Soon, the porches and yard were full of people eating, drinking, chatting, and either pitching boule or cheering on the pitchers. I flitted about, greeting guests, opening champagne bottles, refilling the coffee carafe, making sure everyone had food and drink, and giving tours of the house and Richard’s studio.

It was a great party, the kind where you look around and realize that people who were strangers a few minutes ago are now talking animatedly, and kids of all ages have gotten into the spirit of play.

By the time a rain shower moved in and the party attendees sheltered under the umbrellas and porches, it was mid-afternoon and time for those who were headed for serious beer-tasting to be on their way, and for the rest of us to clean up.

Some talking, some pitching, all enjoying the kind of gathering Richard loved….

When the house was quiet again, I poured myself a mimosa (my first, if you’re counting) and raised my glass in the direction of the now-quiet pétanque court.

“Happy Birthday, my love,” I said. “You are much missed and well-loved.”

I swear I could feel him smiling.

River report: fear and trust

Our boats at Triplet Falls campsite, in the calm water above the cascade that is the falls.

Yesterday late afternoon when I returned from the river, after I had shaken the sand out of my gear, sorted through mail and email and phone messages, and dealt with an urgent problem, I said to myself, “I’ll haul up on the couch and write a blog post.”

My inner voice responded, “Remember the resolve you made on the river?”

Oh yeah. The one about not pushing when I’m exhausted. “I’ll write from the couch with my feet up,” I responded. “That’s restful.” (Not that I was arguing, mind you, just discussing.)

My inner voice didn’t bother pointing out that I had driven most of the way across the state that day and then unpacked and done a load of laundry, or that the float and the drive along roads I last traveled with Richard on our Big Trip had been emotional, or that a well-written blog post takes me at least three hours….

Oh no. My inner voice knows me well. It simply flipped from words to body language. In moments my right temple felt like an ice pick was piercing it, my finger joints throbbed, and my balance was shot.

Huh. I hauled up on the couch and actually rested.

And after a while, I felt better.

That little incident nicely corroborates what four days of floating the Green River reminded me about fear and trust.

The word ring attached to my waterproof notebook

It started with the word-ring exercise I gave the group the night before the trip. I handed out one- by three-inch manila cards with a hole punched in one end of them, plus metal rings to attach them to our waterproof journals, and placed packages of colored markers in the center of the circle.

The assignment: write a word (or words) on one card in watercolor marker that represents something you want to leave behind on the float, and write another word on a different card in waterproof markers to stand for something you want to take away from the trip. We would then dip the cards with watercolor ink in the river and let the water wash away what we wanted to leave behind.

As the group chose markers and wrote and embellished their cards, I thought for about a nano-second.

Then I picked out a yellow watercolor marker for one word, and an aqua-blue waterproof one for the other. I carefully wrote “fear” in the yellow marker on one card, underlining it with crashing black rapids, and “trust” in aqua-blue on the other, outlining the letters with blue and green swirls.

Gates of Lodore, where the Green River begins slicing its way through the Unitah Mountains in Dinosaur National Monument, a “foreboding” view, as .

That pretty much sums up the why of this float-trip for me: it was time to let go of my fear of whitewater, my grief about my friend Carol’s drowning death, and to remind myself of what I love about running rivers: riding the muscly flow of the water itself, absorbing the quiet; the chance to see majestic canyons only accessible by river, the time “away” to think and just be; the yee-haw, bow-slapping fun of it, the look at the desert from the inside; the sound of canyon wrens trilling from impossible cliff perches and the sight of bighorn sheep kids tip-toeing down to drink.

Over four days, the river and sun and water worked their magic on me, with the help of our excellent guides from Adrift Adventures and a truly sympatico group gathered by Colorado Art Ranch.

Braving Butt Dam Falls, named for the narrow channel above that can be dammed by a couple of well-placed butts, and then the flow released in a breath-taking “whoosh!”

Oh, there were some scary moments (I will never be a thrill-seeking River Girl, and that’s okay), and some lonely moments—Richard would have loved this trip, dammit! There were some wet times, not just from the river; it actually hailed and rained on us the first afternoon, and then there was that shower in Butt Dam Falls.

The ceremony in Carol’s memory at our campsite at Triplet Falls reduced both her husband Terry and me to tears. (Terry, a long-time boatman, was rowing the raft through Triplet three summers ago when it flipped, and everyone made it safely out except Carol.) But it was healing too.

On the final day of our float, I slipped from the raft and swam alongside for a few minutes, letting the river cradle me, truly going with its flow. When I hauled myself back on board, I looked back at our string of rafts and saw Terry rowing, his hands sure on the oars, a huge smile splitting his face.

Taking our fears to the river and letting the water wash them away seems to have been a powerful beginning.

The slide show below gives a sense of those four days on the Green River. It’s in no particular order, so just click through and let the river’s magic carry you.

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Headed for the river, despite myself

My personal stuff pile, including my new day pack, bought to replace the ratty, thirty-year old canvas one I’ve had since my climbing days….

A tidy pile of outdoor clothing takes up the end of my bed; a pile of camping gear is mounded of the floor next to the bed. There’s a pile of books and writing gear in my office. I’m getting ready to hit the road–and then the river.

Tomorrow I’ll drive to Vernal, six and a half hours away in the northeastern corner of Utah, where I’ll join a Colorado Art Ranch “floatposium”–a float trip with workshops and talks along the way. I’m the resident writer, leading workshops as we go, and reading selections from great writing about the place and its stories.

Friday morning, we’ll put in at Gates of Lodore just downstream of Browns Park. We’ll take out Monday afternoon at Split Mountain, having followed the Green right through the heart of Dinosaur National Monument. (Click on “View park map” in the lefthand column to see the terrain. Click here for some impressive photos of the canyons we’ll float through.)

We’ll spend four days bouncing through rapids and idling in smooth water beneath towering sandstone walls, listening to the voice of the river as it changes from crashing to murmuring and to the sweet descending trills of canyon wrens, camping on river-beaches, smelling the metallic tang of the water and the pungent fragrance of sagebrush, and watching the stars blaze in the blackest of night skies.

The anthology What Wildness is This, from Story Circle Network and University of Texas Press

If it all sounds idyllic, it can be. But as I wrote in “Riding the River Home,” an essay in the anthology What Wildness is This,

I am no river girl. Whitewater terrifies me. Drowning is the worst death I can imagine.

Still, I rode the river then, and I’ll ride it again on this trip. I won’t be the one excited and cheering when the river’s voice changes from a murmur to a hissing rumble and the steady thump! thump! of the boatman’s oars turns to splashing and hollering, but I’ll be okay. What I learned on that river trip still holds true:

As we rode the river into the quiet of the canyons, as I told story after story about that slickrock landscape, I remembered what it is to be at home in a place, to belong in a way that touches your very cells. The river’s lessons were written in the dazzle of stars overhead, the hiss of water, the warmth of silky black schist, the trilling of canyon wrens, the curving shapes of redrock canyon walls, and the metallic taste of my unceasing dread. They reminded me of the connection between place and the human heart, of the necessity of belonging to the whole landscape, to the parts we love and the parts we fear. They reminded me that home is not an abstract concept, but a real and often problematic place. I’ll never be a river girl, and I no longer mind. … In a very real sense, I rode the river home.

The other reason this won’t necessarily be an idyllic trip for me is that my dear friend Carol Valera Jacobson, writer, bookstore owner, teacher, gardener, passionate liver of life, drowned in Triplet Falls in Lodore Canyon on the Green three summers ago. We’ll be camping by Triplet one night. Carol’s husband, Craig mayor Terry Carwile, will be with us.

It seems as if my lesson these days is letting go, and doing so with grace. I’m working on it.

****

How could you not fall for a face like that?

My other lesson is being flexible, and adapting to change. One of the changes in my life after Richard, on this new and unlooked-for path as Woman Alone involves another male. This one is four-footed though.

I’ve applied to adopt a rescued Great Dane. The one I’m considering is 5 years old, and a blue-eyed Merle Mantle (blue merle with white feet, a white nose, and a white chest) He’s got some medical issues, but he sounds like a real gentleman and a sweetheart. I don’t know yet if I can afford his care, or if he’s the dog for me. But I’m keeping my mind open.

Why would I want to add 135 pounds of dog to my life? That’s for another post. I’ll be offline until next week, once I return from the river….

Road report: A niece fledges

Alice's graduation cake, decorated with a burning tree

On Sunday afternoon, my youngest niece, Alice, said good-bye to the attendees at her high school graduation party, and climbed into the car with her mother and me, headed for north-central Washington for her summer job as the only female crew member on an elite wild land firefighting crew.

“The mountain is out!” said my sister-in-law, Lucy, as we drove north on I-5 and then northeast on US 512, aiming for our route over the Cascade Mountains. Sure enough, there was Mt. Rainier–Tahoma, “Mother of Waters”–shining white with the dozens of glaciers that feed some of Washington’s largest rivers.

Mt. Rainier or Tahoma floats above the Puyallup River valley east of Tacoma

At I-90, we headed east and uphill, climbing over the ragged, rugged ridges of the Cascades with their fringes of forest between clear-cuts. Up and up and up, into the high country were snowbanks lingered, dirt-etched and deep still.

We stopped at the summit, Snoqualmie Pass, all of 3,022 feet elevation, which doesn’t sound very impressive unless you begin the drive at sea level, which we did. Out of the forest nearby came the queer nasal fluting call of a single varied thrush. The sun was beginning to slant low, the air was cooling, and we had miles and hours to drive.

Eastern Washington's expansive skies and rain-shadow savannas

Alice took over the wheel as we headed down the east side of the Cascades, the forests changing from rain-nourished to rain-shadow, with wide-spaced trees towering over a park-like, grassy understory.

Our route took us south and east to Ellensburg, north over Blewett Pass, and then down into the orchard country along the Columbia River. Cherries hung red and yellow on glossy-leaved trees; apples, peaches, and pears were still ripening.

The Columbia River flows through volcanic buttes and sagebrush in central Washington.

We turned upstream and followed the Columbia north to where the Okanogan River flowed in from Canada. The light began to slant low as we drove north up the Okanogan Valley, through Omak and along the edge of the Colville Indian Reservation. At Tonasket, we turned back west, climbing over a rolling divide dotted with small lakes ringed by cattails and bulrushes.

At tiny Loomis, we turned south again, following a winding two-lane road along the valley bottom past waving grasslands, through ponderosa forest.

H20, the fire crew that is "better than water."

Where a sign proclaimed the home of the Highlands 20 fire crew (H20, “Better Than Water”), we turned uphill. In a saddle shaded by ponderosa pines, we parked by a row of cars and two bright yellow crew-hauler trucks (“crummies,” in firefighter parlance), across from three barracks-like buildings painted forestry green.

The air was still, rich with sun-warmed pine sap, and quiet. A lone guy sat reading at a picnic table. My petite niece, tall in her new firefighter boots, strode over and asked where she should check in. He pointed to one of the barracks.

A few minutes later, she emerged with the fire boss in charge of the camp and the crew boss–the only other female on the crew. After a few minutes of talk, Alice walked back to the car.

“I have my room,” she said. “They said to get settled in.”

Highlands 20 Fire Camp, south of Loomis in the Okanogan Highlands, Washington

We helped her carry her duffel, heavy with firefighting gear, into a spartan single room. Back out at the car, we checked for forgotten items, and she grabbed her pillow. I gave her a hug, and then walked to the car so that she and her mom could say a private good-bye.

Then Lucy and I drove away, watching the sun set through watery eyes. Our tears weren’t just for the ritual of parting, or that this is Alice’s fledging, the beginning of her leaving home. Lucy is a forester, and she and I have both worked as wild land firefighters; we know how hard and dangerous, how exciting and important the job is.

At the bottom of the drive, we turned right, taking a gravel road down the little valley, headed south past quiet lakes and green meadows grazed by deer in velvet, the highlands with their stately forests rising around us.

Sunset over Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, Okanogan Highlands, Washington

“Leaving her at college will be a snap after this,” said Lucy as we climbed over a divide and dropped down to the main road, headed on the six-hour drive back to their home in Olympia.

At twenty to three that morning, Lucy and I staggered out of the car and upstairs to bed, each thinking of Alice–now far away, beginning the leaving home, her initiation as a firefighter and an adult.

Wear your boots proudly, niece of mine! Be courageous, but not foolish. Come back healthy, knowing yourself to be strong and whole….

Stumbling on stories

The mother-in-law apartment in back of my grandparent’s house

In my family, we don’t tell stories. We are reserved and refrain from either gossip or boasting, in part because of our northern European heritage with its inherent emotional reticence, compounded by a Calvinist view of gossip and boasting as two sides of the same sin, pride. The result is a family lore as depauperate as forest on exposed granite; stories—like plants—struggle to sprout on its meager soil.

I wrote those words in my memoir Walking Nature Home, to illustrate a challenge in finding my writing voice: I know so little about the people I come from. Their stories are as obscure as the view of my great-grandmother Mira’s apartment in the photo above.

The Big Sur Coast, by my great-grandmother, Jennie Cannon

My parents, both only children, didn’t share my fascination with their families. The only clues I had of the fascinating lives of my forebears came in the artifacts scattered through my grandparents’ houses, including my great-grandmother Mira’s writing and my great-grandmother Jennie’s impressionist landscape paintings.

The people who could explain those artifacts are gone: my great-grandparents, including the botanist great-granddad who studied deserts around the world, and whose research I discovered only as an adult; my grandparents; and now my mom, who died a year ago February.

My great-grandmother, Janet Maclay (Cannon) with her horse, Danny Boy

My grandmother, Janet Maclay Cannon with  Danny Boy (~1918)

As a story-collector, I cherish those tales that come my way, like the one my grandmother Janet told then-ten-year-old Molly, about riding her horse, Danny Boy, all the way up the East Bay when her family moved from their farm near San Jose (what is now Silicon Valley) to a house in the Berkeley Hills so she could attend UC-Berkeley.

Molly shares my fascination with family stories, so when we were planning my recent visit to she and Mark in San Francisco, I asked if she’d be interested in spending a day in Berkeley exploring the neighborhood where my mom grew up. Molly was all for it.

On the appointed day, they drove me through downtown San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge. Molly navigated through the UC-Berkeley campus, where my parents met, he a grad student in Organic Chemistry, she an undergrad majoring in history and music.

The top of the campanile from 1631 La Vereda Road

Our destination: 1631 La Vereda Road, the address in the north Berkeley Hills I had found for my great-grandparents, Dr. William Austin Cannon (the desert botanist) and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon (the painter). We wound uphill on steep, narrow and switch-backing streets, and not only found the house, I recognized it from childhood walks with my granddad. We parked there, admired the view through the trees of the iconic campanile, bell-tower, on the UC-Berkeley campus, and set off downhill to explore the rest of the neighborhood.

At mid-afternoon, we puffed our way back up those same steep hills to La Vereda Road and the car. I noticed a man unlocking the front door at my great-grandparents’ house.

On impulse, I called, “Do you live here?”

He turned and looked down at the street.

My great-grandparents’ house at 1631 La Vereda Road

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said. “This was my great-grandparents’ house.”

“Who were they?”

“Dr. William Austin Cannon,” I said, and he interrupted,

“Any relation to Jennie?”

“She was his wife,” I said. “How do you know her?”

“Everyone here knows Jennie,” he said. “This was an artist’s enclave back then, and she was a key part of it.”

I was stunned. I had no idea. A guy who had never met my family knew more about my great-grandmother than I did.

I thanked him, and he turned to go inside. I didn’t even think to ask his name.

“The Campanile,” by Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon

As Molly navigated carefully down that steep bit of street, I looked one more time at the view from my great-grandmother’s house. And another chunk of family story fell into place.

I had always wondered about the odd foreshortened perspective in one of her paintings, “The Campanile,” a view of that bell-tower. Now I could see Jennie had painted it from her front porch high above the campus, only she turned the tower a quarter turn in the painting.

Having seen her view, I feel a bond with the great-grandmother who died not long before I was born, and the world she lived in. She was a noted California painter in the early 20th century, a time when the terms “noted painter” and “woman” did not often go together.

I’m no artist, but I’ve always gone against the tide in my work. I have also always loved to find a high point and look for the stories in the landscape spread out below. Perhaps those are her gifts.

Thanks, Molly and Mark, for exploring Berkeley with me. And thanks, Jennie, for sharing your view.

The hardest question

Self-portrait, Hotel Serrano, San Francisco

Wednesday morning I parked at the VA Hospital in Denver, and made my way inside carrying a cardboard box holding two tall and healthy tomato plants, the last of my indoor “farm.” Those plants elicited smiles as I wended my way through the crowded corridors.

I carried the tomato plants down a back hallway to an oncology consult room labeled “Dr. Catherine Klein,” set the plants down, pulled out my iPad and opened a book.

A few minutes later, I heard Dr. Klein’s delighted voice.

“Look who’s here!”

She gave me a hug and ushered me into her consult room. I gave her the box with tomato plants and she exclaimed at how beautiful they were. We oohed and aahed over them like new babies for a bit, and then she asked,

“How are you?”

I hate that question. I know people ask it out of concern and a genuine desire to know. But I never know how to answer it. It’s not simple, and I don’t want to give a whole dissertation on the subject.

“I’m good,” I said.

“You look great,” she responded. “How are you?”

I sighed, and my eyes filled; I blinked away the tears. “I am good. Not every moment. I have good days and not-so-good ones. By and large though, I’m happy.”

We talked a bit more, and then parted.

Molly at my hotel

I thought about Dr. Klein’s question on and off for the rest of that day, and again yesterday as I flew to San Francisco to  spend Mother’s Day weekend with Molly and her sweetie, Mark. I felt guilty about not giving a more thoughtful and complete answer.

How am I?

I am happy a lot of the time. Yesterday I had a wonderful afternoon walking San Francisco with Molly. She gave me a tour of her office and the little park nearby where she takes Diesel, her sweet part-Lab, on work-breaks.

We walked the route she takes through Chinatown, North Beach, and then up the steep slopes of Telegraph Hill on her way to and from work. It was a gorgeous day; San Francisco is perhaps my favorite city in the world; the view from their apartment is breathtaking; the Anna’s hummgbirds zipped around us on the deck, and the resident flock of parrots screamed into a nearby tree. I was happy.

The house where my great-grandparents, William Austin Cannon and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon lived for a time in the Berkeley hills.

And today, another beautiful day, Molly and Mark drove me across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley to explore the town where my mom grew up. We headed through the UC-Berkeley campus, past the Football Stadium where my parents went on dates, and up into the neighborhood in the hills where my great-grandparents, William Austin Cannon and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon lived. We found their house, a pre-1906 earthquake wood-frame Victorian. (It’s embiggened now, but still familiar.)

We wandered the narrow and winding streets downhill; we walked by the Oxford Street house where my mother grew up, a Mission-style bungalow (now, of course, much enlarged) that was a magic place to me growing up. We decided on the spur of the moment to see if we could get a table for lunch at Chez Panisse, Alice Walker’s restaurant, the birthplace for today’s locavore food movement.

Field greens salad with sauteed goat cheese and herbs at Chez Panisse

We ate a fabulous lunch of fresh, local food presented in beautiful and delicious ways by an attentive staff. The setting–an early 20th century Craftsman house expanded in lovely ways–was warm and inviting. (Still, I hope I won’t be offending the culinary gods when I confess I had no idea you could spend that much on lunch for three….)

In between those two happy days, I cried myself to sleep last night.

Because last September I was in San Francisco–with Richard. We walked all the way from the Marina District where our motel was to Molly and Mark’s place on Telegraph Hill. We held hands and laughed and hung out Caffe Roma in North Beach, our favorite coffee place.

This one's for you, Richard Cabe: Iris blooming in the garden below my mother's childhood home, Berkeley

We knew it was his last big trip; we knew he had terminal brain cancer. We knew the moments were precious and we enjoyed them thoroughly; we didn’t know he’d be dead less than two months later.

How am I?

Mostly I’m happy. But sometimes I feel like I’ve survived a hurricane of horrendous force, and I’m still picking up the pieces of me and my life.

That’s grief. It’ll be part of my life for a good long while, I expect. Because it’s an integral part of the process, just the way death is an integral part of life.

Road report: tough stuff

Cholla cactus stud the high plains east of Clines Corners, New Mexico

I made it home Friday evening, exhausted. Now that I’ve had some time to sort through what I saw and felt and heard on the road, I want to comment on some of the hard bits of the trip.

One of my faults, I’ve often thought, is that I’m not quick at assimilating things. A friend recently gave me a useful insight: “You’re very internal,” she said. “You have to think about things for a while. And when you write, you illuminate them for all us.” (Thank you, ‘Berta!)

The first really tough moment came the second day, as I was driving between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Lubbock, Texas. The highway climbed up onto the high plains, the sea of shortgrass prairie stretching away to the far horizon to the east, and I burst into tears. The last time I took this route Richard was driving. It was November, not April, he had just come through his first brain surgery with flying colors, the one where it looked like they had gotten the whole tumor, and we were happy, optimistic, holding hands.

Richard Cabe, Texas, November 2009 (three weeks after his first brain surgery)

I pulled off at the next exit, got out, watched the trucks roar by, and let the wind dry my tears. I shot a few photos of the prairie studded with spiny and tough cholla cactus. Then I got back in the car and drove on, and on, and on….

The next day, as I headed south and east from Lubbock, my route took me down a road Richard and I had never taken together. I found my eyes watering as I realized that is true on a deeper level, too: I am in fact on a road Richard and I never took together. That’s my life now.

Oh, yes, he’s with me in spirit–I feel his presence very strongly sometimes. That’s all wonderful and sweet, but it’s not the same as being right here on this plane of existence. That part, frankly, sucks. It’s lonely being Woman Alone after being married to the love of my life for the better part of three decades. Come to think of it, when he died, we had been together for more than half my life.

Skullcap, sundrops, blackfoot daisy, bluebonnets and other wildflowers on a Hill Country roadside

The next rough patch was seeing the wildflowers, whole swaths of them, coloring the Hill Country. Gorgeous tapestries of color and movement and sound, the butterflies dancing on the air as they flitted from flower to flower, the birds singing themselves into mating frenzy. The Texas Hill Country in spring, especially this spring after last year’s killing drought, is an in-your-face example of the resilience and sheer beauty of  the community of the land, the interwoven lives we call nature. Richard had told me I’d love the Hill Country in spring, but we never managed to be there at the right time, so I didn’t know. You can’t imagine the glory of it until you see the masses of wildflowers, hear the birds, smell the fragrance. Seeing it alone gave new meaning to the word “bittersweet.”

The hardest moment of the trip though, came on the last day, after I’d driven almost 2,400 miles in ten days. I had one final stop to deliver a message to a sculptor Richard knew, “Just tell Mark Saxe ‘thank you’ from me next time you go by his place.”

Sunset over the Arkansas Hills–home

I took the back road, winding up the Rio Grande Gorge, and stopped at Mark’s gallery and studio in tiny Rinconada. I half-hoped it wouldn’t be open. It was. Mark’s wife, Betsy, a ceramicist, took me around back. Mark walked over, his face gray with rock dust, and I had a vivid memory of Richard looking up from a granite basin he was carving, his smile joyous and rock-dust-gray. I gave Mark the message–and the news. I thought I could do it without crying. I was wrong. Mark hugged me, and we talked about life and death–and Richard.

Then I got back into the car and drove home to sleep in the bed Richard made for us. By myself.