Glacier

15 Aug

DSC_0896 (2)

WEST GLACIER – Officials at Glacier National Park announced Friday morning that the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road has been re-opened to vehicles.  The road had been closed due to the Reynolds Creek Fire that has burned an estimated 3,913 acres several miles east of Logan Pass.

I had noticed my eyes burning two days earlier and a hundred miles to the east, and yesterday the mountains before us had been shadowed in a haze.  But today the air at Logan Pass is clear.

DSC_0913 (2)

With only one entrance to Glacier National Park open, we leave early to beat the crowds.  Climbing thirty miles on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, we arrive at the pass shortly after 8:00am.

DSC_0933 (3)

Open only from May through October, the pass crosses the Continental Divide, has known wind speeds of 139 mph and can be buried beneath eighty feet of snow.  Hard to believe as we make our way through the stillness of the morning.

DSC_0958 (2)

Although much better since she’s started walking, stairs are tough for mom, and these are big steps at a high altitude.  She soon finds herself out of breath, and insists that Jetta and I go on without her.  She will sit and rest, and then catch up with us in her own time.

DSC_1024 (2)

So we continue on, passing chipmunks, marmots, Mountain goats and a warning that we are entering Grizzly bear territory.  Jetta meets a young man, a friend of friends, who is getting married later that day.  They chat for a time and then, with an amazing lightness, he takes off at a dead run to catch up with his family, heading further up the trail and disappearing over the ridge in a matter of seconds.

Having reached our destination, we turn back to see how mom’s doing.  But she appears just a few minutes later, smiling, her borrowed hat flapping in the wind.

DSC_0996 (2)

“How far did you go?”

I point to a large rock in the distance and she takes off, shouting over her shoulder “I want to go as far as everybody else.”

And she does.

DSC_1008 (2)

 

Wayfarers

8 Aug

 

DSC_0888 (2)

From her house on house on Echo Lake outside of Big Fork, Montana, mom’s friend Jetta takes us the next morning to meet her friends.

DSC_0837 (2)

Today they are hiking at Wayfarer State Park.  Karine and Julie,

DSC_0845 (2)

Tara,

DSC_0829 (3)

Mom, Jetta and Karen.

DSC_0827 (2)

But there’s more than hiking.  There is an ease and a joy.

DSC_0847 (2)

Glen helps us with our route, and as I learn more about them all, I find I have misjudged everyone’s age by about 15 years.

DSC_0887 (2)

In the afternoon, we go kayaking, something I never thought I’d do with my mom.

DSC_0865 (2)

She continues to surprise me.

 

Water, Land & Sky

7 Aug

DSC_0728

One man was killed and seven others were missing and believed dead Thursday night after millions of yards of dirt and rocks slid down the upstream side of the east abutment of the giant Fort Peck dam across the Missouri river here.  —  The Billings Gazette, Montana September 23, 1938

DSC_0729

It’s very quiet up on the Fort Peck Dam this early morning.  Five miles of earthen wall holding back the Missouri.

DSC_0730 (2)

The building of the dam made the first issue of Life Magazine in 1936, and Franklin Roosevelt came to visit, the work on this dusty prairie a symbol of all that was to be.

DSC_0779 (2)

Seventeen miles down the road is Glasgow, shown in Life as a town of dance halls and saloons where the workers could blow off a little steam.

DSC_0778 (2)

“Morning,” says a bearded man stepping carefully onto the sidewalk.  “Nice day.  I wore my medium flannel and it’s already warm.”  I agreed it was warm and he blessed me as his dog sniffed my shoes and continued on.

DSC_0760

Eighty years on, the stretch of bars and casinos across from the old railway depot is little changed.

DSC_0784 (2)

Further down Route 2 we stopped for breakfast.

DSC_0801

Two freight trains went by as we ate.  Forest fires on the news.  A group of bikers came in and the owner moved them to the back to make way for the seniors breakfast that was about to start at the round table up front.  H.D. was on the stool when we arrived, and he was still there when we left.

DSC_0803

We made a U-Turn for the Dinosaur Museum.  Souvenirs, an explanation of ammonites, and a couple free dinosaur bones from the archeologist on staff.  They were so sweet I left with a smile.

DSC_0818 (2)

The mountains shadowed us for most of the day.  Ghosts on the horizon, coming and going, first to the south, and then later to the north.  West of Shelby they became real, and shortly thereafter we began to ascend.  With my mother sucking in air and reminding me of the speed limit for every approaching curve, Marias Pass was like the most beautiful airplane turbulence I’d ever experienced.  But the air, a lush, clean mélange of balsam, cedar and pine was gentle and delicious.  I just kept thinking, “I want to smell like that. ”

DSC_0813 (2)

Arriving in West Glacier, the road leveled out and we continued on to our destination, always within sight of what we had just passed through.

The Color of Wheat

5 Aug

DSC_0664

“Is this hotel really haunted?” 

“Oh yes.  But just the third floor.  We keep it locked”

Fort Peck Hotel, August 3rd 2015

.DSC_0621

The morning came early, as promised.  Apologies to Grand Forks.  As wonderful as you probably are, we blew right past you in exhaustion, only to land in a convention center/hotel/condo gulag  to your southwest.  Your sunrise the next morning was, nevertheless, gorgeous.

DSC_0662

The morning  sun across the fields is spectacular, teaching me the beauty of grass against wheat against sky.  It becomes clear to me for the first time that great artists learn about color from nature, not a textbook.

DSC_0658

And so we keep pulling over to the side of the road and stepping into the morning wind.

DSC_0643

And walking through the quiet towns.

DSC_0650

We hear the train before we see it, and rush to tracks where we see nothing in either direction.  Getting back into the car we hear it again, closer this time, and we run back.  Still nothing. “Maybe there’s another set of tracks,’ I say.  And then it’s there, coming fast out of the east.

DSC_0691

The combination of empty roads, great speed limits and a time zone crossing that works in our favor, allows us to arrive early in Fort Peck, Montana.  A town built from nothing by the WPA to house the men working on the Fort Peck Dam, we are booked into the former workers lodge, now the Fort Peck Hotel.

DSC_0689

Beaver pelts, moose heads, a wolf skin and more stuffed birds than I can count, with a bar in the lobby, it is everything I hoped for.DSC_0708

Built on a hill, there’s a loneliness to the town.

DSC_0693

And though the it fills up for the afternoon performance of Tarzan, The Musical at this gorgeous theatre rebuilt by volunteers from the movie theatre built for the dam workers back in the ’30s, it is quiet again by dusk.

DSC_0706

An island of homes in a sea of sagebrush.

DSC_0711

Dark Clouds, Blue Water

1 Aug

DSC_0552

She looked at that buck and said “I would love to shoot you,” and, you know, he looked back at her like he understood.  —Conversation overheard this morning Char’s Café, Bruce’s Crossing, Michigan

Leaving New York in the darkness, the quiet morning streets of my neighborhood are like that frayed old blanket that you love for its warmth and comfort.  The flight gets off late, but travels fast through a morning sky of dirty clouds.  Smoky hobgoblins hang in the distant gray.  Chicago bristles in the gloom, the dark buildings flipping me off as I fly past.

Connection made in time for the short hop back over the Lake and into the sun.  Lunch with my brother and we hit the road.  The first gas station we stop at has a live bait refrigerator.  Michigan.

DSC_0587

Nine miles into the U.P. we hit a long stretch of route 2 along the northern edge of Lake Michigan and pull over so I can wade into the water.  I climb back into the car and mom pulls back into traffic, the wind hitting my arms, the sand on my feet not yet dry.

DSC_0599

Joyously empty roads and a sun that doesn’t want to set, the U.P. is magic.  Like stepping back in time to when there weren’t so many of us,  and the world not quite so damaged.  Mom and Pop motels and motor courts abound.  Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert could be just around the next bend in the road.

DSC_0611

Diner Breakfast, followed by a completely unnecessary bakery stop.  Cinnamon rolls and Blueberry turnovers.

DSC_0618

Judy Garland’s birthplace, just because.

DSC_0615

Abandoned liquor store in Crookston, Minnesota.  At the other end of town mom sees a house from a dream. “I kept trying to buy it” she says.

And there’s talk, lots of talk.  More in the morning when we’re fresh, less as we grow tired.  But these conversations are marked by their ease,  for at this point the road seems long, and our time together endless.

And now I must sleep, for tomorrow we cross North Dakota and on into eastern Montana and Mom wants to be on the road by 6:00am.  Luckily, I’ve booked us into a lodge with a bar.  I can already taste the beer.

DSC_0558

..

Road Trip

29 Jul

Todd 4 folks 2 Mom and Dad, 1967

When I was four years old my mother gave me my first camera.  It was made of plastic and took 120 mm film, which I had to mail off along with a small amount cash to have developed.  Later that year we took our first family vacation, driving from Michigan to New England.  It was there I took these pictures.

Todd 5 Cape Cod

Cape Cod

Todd 2 docks

My Mom and little brother David at The Mayflower

Todd 6 Kennedy's Grave

Kennedy’s grave

When Amy’s father passed this spring, I was talking to my mom and she mentioned that she had planned a trip to Montana, but her friend had backed out because she didn’t want to drive.  She thought it would be boring.  Mom disagreed.  She wanted to get out on the back roads, eat at little diners, see something of the country.  But she didn’t want to go alone

“Wow,  I should go with you.”

“Oh that would be great.  Would you?”

Um… I would.

So, this coming Friday I fly to Michigan and we hit the road.  I have a new camera, and hopefully some time to write.  So I’ll be posting on the fly, doing my best to keep you all informed.

I have not spent this much time with my mom in 35 years, and though I’m looking forward to it, I already miss my family.  And both the world and my mother are far from predictable.

So check in frequently, keep me in your thoughts, and prayers would not be turned away.

DSC_0233

Sycamore

22 Apr

Sycamore_tree_bark

 

“Why is the cross the symbol of Christianity?” 

“Well, it’s supposed to signify the sacrifice Christ made for all mankind.” 

I know, but it doesn’t really seem like much of a sacrifice.  He was only gone for like a week.”          

—  Conversation with Heath, shortly before our trip to Oklahoma

I notice the tree as we pull into the driveway, its hacked limbs struggling over the roof and into the sky.  John and Sue bought this house shortly before I married their daughter, and the tree over their back deck shaded our wedding festivities, a party for which her father and I drove to three different places, including a gas station with a smoker out back, to get just the right assortment of barbecue.

They’ve been waiting over an hour for the ambulance.  Battling pain and plummeting blood pressure, John is struggling with both his illness and its treatment.  I call the ambulance again and go back to see him.

“Hey John, how you doing?”

“Oh, I’m doing OK.”

We talk for a moment, and he does seem, not great, but OK.  Heath has been worried, so I ask, “John, do you feel well enough to see Heath for a moment, he’s been asking about you.”

“What? Sure, sure, I’ll talk to Heath.”

When we return, things have changed.  Now in pain, Amy is helping him back onto his pillows.  Not recognizing the situation, Heath begins.

“Hi Pawpaw.  I’m sorry you don’t feel well and that the chemo is making you sick.  Dad says you’re even having hallucinations.”  Amy shushes him with a look, and I lead him back out of the room.  Through the front door I see the ambulance pull up.

In the days that follow, while the rest of Amy’s family camp out at the hospital, Heath, Hallie and I take care of her parents’ house.  I open windows, tie back curtains and lift shades.  Heath plays video games while Hallie and I watch T.V., walk down to the mailbox, or play catch out on the driveway.  Amy calls, we visit the hospital, and then return to await more calls.  Two days in, late at night, I get the one I don’t want.

I don’t want to tell Heath his grandfather is dying, but I have promised never to lie to him.  So when, in the darkness following Amy’s call, he asks again if his Pawpaw is going to die, I wait, remembering Amy’s firm denial of the possibility only hours earlier, and then, looking into his open face, say “Yes, it looks that way.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t look like he’s going to make it buddy.”

After a moment he breathes, and with his breath comes a high, animal sound like nothing I’ve ever heard.  My ten-year old son is keening.

“No!” His face is a grimace of teeth and tears, his voice a howl.  “Nooooo! Are you sure?  Is there no chance?”

“I don’t think so Heath.”

“No chance at all?”

“I don’t think so.”

And then he starts to pray.  I have never seen Heath pray, but he is praying now, laying on his back, his knees pulled in toward his chest, his clenched hands held above him.

“Please God.  Please!  Don’t let my Pawpaw die. Dad, do you believe God answer’s prayers?”

I hesitate.

“I believe he hears them.  I don’t think he always answers them the way we want.”

“But there’s a chance.   At least there’s a chance.”

“A very small one.”

“Well what are the rules?  Are there a limited number of times you can pray?”

“No, no.  You can pray as many times as you want.”

Though still crying, he is quieter now.  If he prays more, I do not hear it.  We must have slept, for when I look out the window the sky has begun to lighten.

“Dad, do you think God will answer my prayer?”

“I don’t know buddy.  But I do know it was a really good prayer.”

Silence.

“If Pawpaw dies I don’t know how I’ll ever be happy.”

The evening skies of Oklahoma go a fair way toward making up for everything else.  As the day cools, the air slides from a clear robin egg blue down into warmer pinks and oranges while the wispy clouds shade into gentle swipes of purple and gray, a vibrant display that, for a time, makes everything below seem irrelevant. Occasionally on such evenings John and I would talk, sometimes on his front porch, other times out back beneath the shade of the sycamore.  He’d always want to know about Heath and Hallie, his kiddos.  But though the skies are lovely over the following days, we don’t have a chance to talk again.  John does not make it home.  It’s just the kiddos and I.

The Monday after the memorial service a hard rain sweeps across the neighborhood, great gusts of wind snap limbs, damage the back fence, and struggle to carry away the stubborn old patio umbrella no one wants to run out and close.  After years of drought, the storm is too late to save the sycamore, and serves only to remind us of the danger it poses.  Sue tells me that over the past summer the tree “just burnt right up.” She couldn’t water it enough.  But she hates to see it go, for one limb is still alive, covered with buds and young leaves, offering the hope of a bit more shade in the days to come.

Sad for a few days, Heath finds happiness again in the family he loves.  He’s a different kid though –  more open, more present, and more thoughtful.  He won’t talk about John, though.  It makes him too sad.

Amy and I don’t talk much either.  Every time we try, I feel my own distance.  She did ask if I believe in heaven and, shamefully, I dodged the question.

But should it come up again, I’ll tell her that I don’t feel like her father is gone.  He’s here with me, much as he always was.  The conversations we had, the times we shared, and the solid feeling in my chest that I have for that man are strong.  Whatever he taught me is there.  The confidence he gave me as a husband and father is there.  He is with me, he is real, and he is not going away.

Heath and John Easter 2013

Walking the Dog

IMG_2850 (1)

Kindred

24 Feb

gavin-clark-pier
I sort of split 50-50 between thinking I’m a complete twat, and the other half thinks I’m fucking brilliant… — Gavin Clark

Gavin Clark died last week.  Sadly, until his death, I had no idea who he was.  I met him through Shane Meadows’ film, The Living Room.  Beginning like a goof between buddies, Shane visits Gavin’s home, catches him still waking up: messy kitchen, the familiar routine of trying to get organized after the kids are off to school.  With some prompting, Gavin begins to talk about the project they’re working on, a concert in his own living room, as a first step toward overcoming his fears as a performer.

Immediately endearing, it took me some time to realize that this sweet, struggling man is also brilliant, his singing surpassed only by his songwriting.  Messy kitchen, unpaid tax bill and all, his songs took me to places I have long neglected.  A gift from a stranger, a friend I had never met.

Later I found myself telling Heath, (who’s running for 6th grade student representative on a platform of extended electronics time, computer classes for the 6th grade, and an end to racial and sexual discrimination) that whenever he finds something exciting, something that sparks his imagination, he needs to hold on to it, because people will tell him it has no value, and that his focus needs to be on working hard and making money.  This will be a lie, I told him.  Those sparks are what we live for.  Those moments take us where we need to go.

That evening Hallie wrecked my desk. She was sly about it, waiting until I was outside shoveling snow, nothing but cuteness and good intentions when Amy came down to find her quietly drawing.  But once the coast was clear, she muscled the desk drawer off its runners and onto the bed, scattering notebooks, paper clips, pads, pens and highlighters everywhere.  When I found the mess she had made, Hallie was all innocence, and took my scolding with big brown eyes and a quivering lip.  “OK daddy,” she said, looking up at me with tear-stained cheeks, my noble, six-year-old, pony-tailed martyr.  And then she shuffled off down the hall, no doubt planning her next bit of destruction.

As I listened to her pad away, I gathered up the pens and paper, replaced the drawer, straightened my desk, and sat down for a few minutes.  I dug out the details for that new journal that was calling for submissions, ran through all the half-finished blog posts I’d been meaning to get to, and took another look at that short story that had started so well.  And I thought of my friend Mark, who drowned when we were six, and my best friend Randy, who I haven’t seen for forty years, and all the other people who were so important to me, and who I never see.  I wondered what they were doing, and if they ever thought of me.

And then I thought: I’m as adult as I want to be.

And I began to write.

livingroom

Big Magic

22 Sep

Central Park

Falling in love is small magic, a beginners sleight of hand.  With a little time and patience anyone can do it.  Marriage is something more:  A time-release miracle, performed in tandem, naked on a high-wire. Friends and relatives offer a toast as you climb the ladder, and then go their way, leaving the two of you to walk out alone, exposed, your lives in each others’ hands.  And while this is very brave, it’s not yet miraculous,  for alchemy takes time.

Saturday began early, crisp and cool, as we made our preparations for the Buddy Walk, the yearly Central Park gathering of the nicest families I know, and the day we join with friends to celebrate Hallie.  Heath hates this, of course.  He has to leave the house, spend hours outdoors, walk great distances, socialize in a loud communal atmosphere with limited technology, and all because of his little sister.  “Why God?!”  he cries, his hands aloft like a latter-day Tevye, “Why must there be so  much walking?  Why must there even be a Buddy Walk!?” And then he does his best to close out the world, burrowing beneath a sweatshirt, and desperately trying to find something, anything, to do on his tablet.  For Heath, we call this being a good sport.

As we move through the day, the clouds come and go.  Far more social than I, Amy is in constant motion.  She greets, she organizes, she chats.  I hang with Hallie as she gets her nails done (tasteful pink) and her hands painted (“Star,” she says, pointing solemnly to her left hand; “Heart,” she says, pointing to her right.).  Spending the day within a few feet of each other, we barely speak, and as the afternoon winds down, and our friends disperse with hugs and thanks, we make our way home to prepare for her brother Tim’s annual cook out.  More food, more wine, more friends.  A day of love, friendship, good food, and a little too much wine.

Sunday is our anniversary.  No gifts, no dinner, no expectations.  We can barely get off the couch.

Eighteen years ago I knew little of magic.  I just thought I was lucky.  I had met this sweet, funny, beautiful woman, for whom I felt a love stronger than any I’d ever known.  I offered my hand, she took it, and together we climbed the ladder and stepped out onto the wire.

The wonder of a good marriage is that there is no illusion.  It is very, very real.  And very pure, for it’s a miracle you create solely for yourselves, using only what you’ve learned from each other.  A mutual act of strength, humor, joy and grace, performed fully cognizant of how many times you’ve kept each other from falling.  And it’s so much fun.  To this day, nobody makes me laugh like she does.  And the magic just grows with each passing year.

I’ve always had trouble seeing myself.  There are moments of clarity, but most of the time I struggle.  Perceptive with others; I am, to myself, an amiable blur.  But for eighteen years Amy has been my mirror, unrelentingly showing me my best self.  A simple gift of incredible value.  And the biggest magic I know.

 

Amy

 

Alone Again (Naturally)

11 Jul

alone-again

Cigarettes and beer on a warm summer breeze. 

To this day, walking the streets of New York, I’ll turn a corner and bam!  There it will be: that essence of summer 1972.  And I have to stop, because, for a moment, I am nine years old, sitting on the porch of our Lake Michigan cottage, holding my little Sears & Roebuck 9 volt transistor radio, listening to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally.”

It’s an odd song for a kid to fall in love with.  A father dies, a mother dies, a young man’s abandoned at the altar.  I believe suicide may be contemplated.  But none of this really matters.  Because it’s not the words so much as the gently loping beat, like the saunter of a sun-kissed girl walking along the sand, a melody with the quiet insistence of waves on a shore,  and that distinctly English melancholy of something beautiful coming to an end.

Cigarettes and beer.

It was a crazy summer.  My cousin Joni, sixteen and wild, had run away to California, only to turn up several weeks later, with a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue tucked beneath her newly unshaven armpits.  She would play “California” and then solemnly intone to whoever would listen, “It was just like that.”  She was so cool.

But even cooler was her friend Memphis.

First of all she was from Memphis.  Second of all she would take driftwood  and turn it into art, painting it with a big letter “M”, and clouds, and seagulls and stuff.

But mostly, she would talk to me.

We’d sit on the porch as the sun went down and the beachgoers across the street packed up for the day, and in her exotic southern accent she’d tell me stories.  Like how her sister had been home sick one time when she heard that her boyfriend, whose Camaro Z28 was the baddest car in all of Memphis, was stepping out on her.  How her sister had pulled on her bathrobe, tied a scarf over her rollers, and headed out in search of that Z28, and how, finding it parked outside a local burger joint, she had stopped the car, walked inside, and dropped her boyfriend’s date with a single punch.

And we would talk about girls.  She tried to get me to believe that the prettiest weren’t always the nicest, and that I should always give the less attractive girls a chance.  I didn’t really believe her, but I lied and told her that I had a crush on a girl who wasn’t very pretty at all.  She smiled.

And as the night settled in, and the rangers locked the gates and began their patrols, we watched the spotlight on their pickup sweep across the darkness, while the adults inside the cottage gathered around the big table, talking and laughing, playing cards.  The breeze lifted the hair from Memphis’ face and I stole a glance as she looked out across the water.  It was 80 miles to Milwaukee.  Too far to see.

 

Heath came to me last night as we were getting ready for bed.  Having mistakenly tried to eat ice cream from a frozen scoop, I am holding a bloody washcloth to my lips.

“Dad, can we go out on the porch and talk for a while?”  There’s an urgency in his face.  He’s afraid I’ll say no.

“Sure.” I mumble, getting some ice for my lip, which is beginning to swell.  “Go on out on the porch.  I’ll be right there.”

The fireflies have finally arrived, and as I join him they glimmer up and down the block.

“There’s one!” he shouts, jumping up and following it around the porch.  Fascinated by this little piece of light, he is every inch the nine-year old.  But soon he will be ten.  He borrowed my sandals for the first time this week.  Still puppyish, he is growing into his feet.

We talk about his first day at summer school, his new teacher, his friends.  When things go quiet he pushes for more.

“Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

Struggling to maintain the conversation, he leans on the professorial cadences he finds so comfortable.

“Dad.  Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

I laugh, because of course there’s too much.  And then, gently, I say “You know Heath, we don’t always have to talk.  We can just sit together and enjoy the evening.”

“I know, but I like to talk.”

So we do.

 

In a few weeks we will return to Lake Michigan, and a town that is in many ways unchanged.  But it won’t smell the same.  Most of my family are gone now, and sadly, they took their packets of Kools and their Pabst Blue Ribbon with them.

But, for my kids, there are two houses, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins galore, as well as porches, sunsets and the breeze off the water.

I heard years ago that Memphis had become a nurse.  I’m not sure where.  But I like to think she’s still out there, telling stories, painting driftwood, and giving sage advice to precocious lovelorn little boys.

Her hair was auburn.  She was sixteen.  I think of her every time I hear that song.

 

ghaven1