Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wild Blue...Yonder!

It’s good to know that the spirit of exploration is still alive and well in the United States.  This desire to know what lies over the next ridge has always been one of our most attractive traits, whether the “ridge” in question is the Blue Ridge Mountains, gravity, the human genome or our own neuroses.

On Friday, my book group got together to discuss our latest read, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Full disclosure: I didn’t finish the book.  I found myself constantly torn between impatience on the one hand and admiration on the other.  The impatience sprang initially from a mild disgust at the complete mess Strayed makes of her life after her mother dies.  Maybe the sting was envy.  I mean, I’ve experienced many deaths, but I was never allowed to fall apart as completely as she did.  There was always someone depending on me to hold things together.  Yet Strayed’s response is to launch herself on a solo trek of the Pacific Crest Trail, the west coast’s sister of the Appalachian Trail, only longer and more arduous.  Of course she was stupidly, dangerously ignorant about trekking and unprepared for the rigors of the PCT, but she stuck with it.  She had the guts not only to think about such a journey, a woman alone in the wilderness for hundreds of miles, but to actually take it on.  That is something I could never do, and not only because I hate camping.

When I was a girl, ten or eleven, I had a dream of riding a horse across the country.  Like many adolescent girls, I was horse-mad.  I would regularly attach a “bridle” to the newel post of our banister and take off on mad gallops through the countryside or long slogs up the sides of mountains.  Since I grew up in Pennsylvania, the mountains I was familiar with had been tamed somewhat by the effects of time and erosion.  Still, my imaginary rides were full of excitement and horse-girl companionship, but never any serious danger.  As the youngest child of a mother who was seriously ill during my toddler-hood, I got a lot of attention from my sisters and father, but no one ever had the time to drive me to riding lessons.  Horse-mad I might be, but horse-poor I would remain.  I did get a cat I adored.  And the full set of Doctor Doolittle books one Christmas.  No movie version, whether Rex Harrison or Eddie Murphy, can hold a candle to the original books.

Despite my boldness on the banister, the reality of my personality is that the most adventurous thing I’ve ever done is move to New York City by myself to go to acting conservatory.  But that doesn’t mean I’m a complete coward. 

A friend in my book group commented that she related to Strayed’s impulse to get out into the wild and get away.  When she was facing a difficult time in her life, she said, that was all she wanted to do—turn away from the trouble and start to walk and walk and walk.  But she didn’t.  She stayed and did the harder thing; she examined herself.  I will tell you, my friend learned more about herself in three weeks time than Strayed has ever learned (at least according to what my book group reports about the end of Wild).  There are plenty of folks who can set off without a qualm to explore the most remote of territories, but who quail from the territory of the mind.

Coincidentally, also on Friday, the Space Shuttle flew over Monterey as it made its final trip to an aeronautical museum in Los Angeles.  Although I openly scoffed at people who said they planned to watch it pass (including my own husband), when I heard that we’d be able to have a good view of it from the deck of the school’s science building, I made my way over there, then across the street to a high ridge in our outdoor lab.  A cluster of twenty or so students and teachers stood in the sunshine looking out over Monterey Bay.  As one of our tech-savvy teachers followed his Twitter feed to determine how close the Shuttle was (“It’s circling San Francisco!”), I found myself (“It’s still circling San Francisco!”) getting more and more (“Oh, come on!  It’s still circling San Francisco?”) excited and (“It’s over Palo Alto!”) anticipatory.  Even so, (“It’s over San Jose!  It’ll be here in minutes!”) I was surprised how emotional I became when we heard the distant rumble of the low-flying 747 with its fighter jet escort.  Then it came into view.  Of course, I’ve seen any number of pictures of the Shuttle atop its transport, but somehow seeing it in person brought home just how tiny it is compared to its more earth-bound assistant.  It was breathtakingly white, gleaming and majestic as it coasted, only twelve hundred feet above sea level, over the Monterey Bay Aquarium, then south into its future.  It had carried explorers into space and safely back home, how many times?  Because of its development and engineering, humanity has been immeasurably enriched, from the small digital cameras that our faculty and students were using to snap photos as the Shuttle passed to memory foam mattresses and LED lights.  I realized I was foolish not to recognize that this was a moment that needed to be honored.  The Space Shuttle is the embodiment of the spirit of American exploration.  Truly, the Endeavor is aptly named.

At the same time that I was watching from a hilltop at school, a former band mate of John’s, now an arborist, was high in our hundred foot pine tree trimming dead branches.  Since our house is one mile directly uphill from the Aquarium, he had one of the best Shuttle views of anyone in town.  I hope it helped make up for the fact that his chipping crew failed to materialize, so he had to spend hours stacking large branches in our side yard to get them out of the way until Monday.  It has, I will tell you, created one of the most wonderful adventures for Cleo. 

Late Saturday evening, I realized that I hadn’t seen the puppy for an unusual length of time. I searched the house.  Nothing.  Beginning to get worried, I went outside and checked the gate to the street.  Safely shut tight.  Where the heck was she?  Nowhere in the backyard.  I stood on the back deck, peering down the length of the side yard.  No telltale blue Bedlington glow.  Suddenly, I heard a rustling from deep within the head-high pile of branches.  Oh, yuck, a rat?!  Cleo burst forth from one end of the pile and shook herself from the tip of the nose to the end of her tufted tail.  She saw me and leapt onto the deck, paws reaching high.  Her mouth agape in an exhilarated grin, her fur sticky with pine sap, her entire face stained a vivid green from the boughs, she was every inch the great explorer, returning home with newfound knowledge.

For some of us, it’s the call of the stars.  For others, joy is here on earth.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Choice of the Whole Frontier

Because our school contains a hundred plus acres of wilderness land which flows seamlessly into thousands more undeveloped acres of the former Fort Ord military facility, we have the great good fortune of regular wild animal sightings.  As we attend our periodic assemblies, we can look out through a wall of glass to a canyon where hawks and buzzards circle on the updrafts, and quail scratch and skitter, their top-knots waggling as they zig-zag in search of juicy morsels.  Tiny bunnies venture cautiously from the underbrush to nibble at the grass.  During my final approach to school last week, I had to slow the car as a turkey hen and her brood crossed the road in front of me.  It gave me a chance to reflect on the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin who recommended the turkey as our national symbol rather than the bald eagle.  It is, after all, indigenous to North America.  It is also beautiful in a subtle, understated, non-braggy kind of way.  As the hurrying group filed in front of me, I tried to get a good look at each of the mid-sized poults.  I wanted to help bear witness to their presence in the world, however brief.  Humans aren’t the only carnivores that like the taste of turkey meat.  Though there were six or seven last week, the hen will be lucky if she raises two to adulthood.

In the last month, our environmental science teacher has started one of the best projects ever at our school.  She and the tech team have installed two critter cams in the area we’ve come to call the Outdoor Lab.  The very first twenty-four hour period returned gold.

Handsome Bob

This bobcat apparently regards the Outdoor Lab as his personal territory because we have regular sightings of him, both by day and night.  The critter cams have also caught a coyote, multiple deer and a mystery animal which may have been a running mountain lion.  The image is too blurry to say for certain, but cougar sightings (the four-legged variety) are not uncommon around Monterey.  My personal favorite critter cam catch appeared on the school’s blog under the heading “Some wildlife is more wild than others.”

Wildlife in the Outdoor Lab

That shot was taken on a day when Cleo and I were helping the envi sci teacher collect the photo cards from the cameras.  Cleo is in her typical outdoor stance: nose aiming towards the ground scenting something while her back leg is held in the characteristic “Ow, there’s something stuck between my pads” position.  Whenever we walk in the “wilderness,” by which I mean anywhere that’s not paved, Cleo adopts this stance almost instantly.  It’s accompanied by a pathetic little hop that has John and me calling her Chester.  That’s a Gunsmoke reference for you under-50 crowd.  Um, Gunsmoke was a television show back in the day when we had only three channels to watch.  I know.  Hard to get your mind around, huh?

Not all the wildlife is over in the Outdoor Lab, though.  Years ago, the school adopted two desert tortoises which were first named Fred and Rosie.  Now, before I tell you this next part, you need to understand that it can be something of a challenge to determine gender where desert tortoises are concerned.  A couple of years ago, certain, shall we say, behaviors on Rosie’s part led us to believe that we’d gotten their names reversed.  We decided that to try to remember to call them by each other’s names, perhaps more gender-appropriate, would be so confusing that it just wasn’t worth it.  It’s not like they come when they’re called, anyway.  Turns out it’s just as well.  An art teacher joined us this year who happens to be a desert tortoise specialist.  Fred and Rosie, it seems, are brothers.  Somewhere in their thirties, they’re about the size of dinner plates.  I can confidently tell you, they are not afraid of Bedlington Terriers.

I don’t know how it is that Cleo never noticed them before a couple of weeks ago.  Indoors, they live in a kiddie pool in the prep area of the science building.  She has walked by that kiddie pool several dozen times in the last two years.  On warm days, they move to their outdoor enclosure, a large dog pen on a stretch of dirt between the science building and the parking lot.  Cleo and I were on a mission a couple weeks ago when I spotted Fred and Rosie outside and thought she might like to meet them.  Not one of my better ideas.  From the first sniff, she has been tortoise-obsessed.  She is the poster-child for the joke, “What’s the difference between a terrier and a terrorist?”  Answer: “You can negotiate with a terrorist.” 

The first thing that happened was that Rosie yanked his head into his shell while Fred charged Cleo.  It might seem funny to think of a tortoise “charging,” but I’ll tell you, I was glad the wire mesh of the pen was there to keep them apart.  I had images of that tortoise beak clamping down on Cleo’s nose and doing some serious damage, especially because Cleo wasn’t daunted at all.  She danced around the enclosure, trying to look at Fred and Rosie from every possible angle.  I was finally able to drag her away from them, but every chance she gets, she’s back up at that tortoise pen.  In fact, the next day, she actually ran out of the library, something she’d never done before, and made a beeline for the tortoises.  Over the next few days, I made a point of showing her that the pen was empty every time we went by.  I was hoping that she’d come to understand it wasn’t worth running over there because nine times out of ten, they wouldn’t be outside.  I know, I know.  I give her too much credit for logic.

So last Wednesday, Cleo and I were taking our afternoon leg-stretch, and I saw that Fred and Rosie were, indeed, outside.  Okay, I thought, maybe what I need to do is get Cleo so used to seeing them that she doesn’t care anymore.  Go ahead, laugh.  I’ll wait till you’re done. 

Ready?  Okay, so over to the pen we go.  Fred and Rosie were eating, so chose to ignore Cleo completely.  For Cleo, it was like seeing a squirrel scampering around a tree, a possum standing on the backyard fence, and an alien invasion all at once.  Barking furiously, she started alternately trying to dig her way under or hop her way over the metal barrier.  She pawed at the pen, slammed it with her shoulder, raced from one side to the other.  Fred, standing closer to the edge, turned a baleful stare on her and continued chewing.  I’m not sure which of us was most startled when Cleo shoved her face through one of the square gaps and closed her teeth on Fred’s shell.  She didn’t have enough of a purchase to hold on, but there was an audible clacking noise and a telltale damp semi-circle on one edge of his shell.

At this point, I decided it would be a good move to leash her and attempt to get her to exercise some self-control.  For a couple of minutes, she continued to bark, lunge and try to bite through the fence.  Eventually, I got her to sit, quivering, and just look at them.  But by this time, she was so agitated and over-heated that as she sat staring at them, she started listing to one side.  She caught herself, then began to slide the other way, slumping against my leg.  Fighting down a little panic of my own, I stepped away from the tortoise enclosure.  Cleo readily followed me, but hadn’t gone two steps when she staggered and sat down again.  All I knew was that I had to get her out of the sun and away from the tortoises.  I scooped her up and all but ran back to my office, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth for much of the way.  But even before we were back in the library she was asking to be put down.  Once in the office, I set her in front of her water bowl and opened the windows for a good cross breeze.  She tanked up, then stood extra-patiently as I picked grass and twigs out of her tassels and paws.  By the time I’d finished grooming her, she seemed perfectly fine and was ready to play again.

Cleo was a good reminder: It’s not the life we encounter that challenges us, but how we react to it.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Weekend in the Country

Over the long weekend of Labor Day, John and I piled two suitcases, an amp, numerous guitar pedals, two guitars, a travel crate and, of course, Cleo into the back of his RAV-4 and headed, once again, into the middle of nowhere.  Specifically, we were on our way to Downieville, a tiny gold rush town in the Tahoe National Forest, so that he could jam with a group of people he had met once, several years ago, and I had never met.

Frequent readers of this blog might remember that I am a self-described shy person.  The idea of hanging out all weekend with twenty plus strangers, all of whom have known each other since high school and before, doesn’t just make me uneasy, it causes cold sweat to trickle down my brow and back.  The draws were the mountain air, a rushing river, and a long weekend away from all forms of 21st century technology.  Plus the possibility of a bear sighting.  My plan was to hole up in the hotel room with Cleo where I could write and read to my heart’s content while John spent his time at the cabin playing music.

We set out for the six hour drive on Saturday morning at 1:30.  Yes, AM.  John had a gig Friday night that got him home at 12:30.  By the time he’d unloaded, packed and reloaded, an hour had sped by.  Let’s just say that traffic around Sacramento, normally highly congested, was not a problem.  We didn’t catch much scenery as we headed north, but the nearly full moon was stunning and we loved listening to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for the third time.  Cleo, the normally anxious, panting traveler, eventually curled up and went to sleep; that D.A.P pheromone spray is a god-send.  I’m not going to lie, the last hour-and-a-half of winding mountain roads between Nevada City and Downieville was a tough stretch, even with the sun rising over the mountains and the majestic pine trees. 

Our Inn, on the right
It was a huge relief to tumble out of the car into the crisp, cold morning air, to grab a couple bites of homemade zucchini bread from the inn’s continental breakfast bar, struggle up the narrow Victorian staircase, fall into the bed with the cast iron headboard, and pull the double-wedding ring quilt up to our chins.  It would have been even more blissful if our room hadn’t faced the town square where a Labor Day Weekend reenactment of a gold rush shootout was taking place, every hour on the half hour, and where a street fair went rapidly into full swing, complete with recorded barroom piano plinking out favorites from every decade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  At first, we couldn’t figure out why anyone would be shooting off fireworks in the middle of the day.  The announcer describing the events over a very loud loudspeaker eventually tipped us off—not fireworks, blanks.  I can now reliably tell you that Cleo does not care for gunfire.  Not that she’s frightened by it.  No, she just has to tell everyone how much she dislikes it, loudly and at length.

We gave up on sleeping after a couple of hours pretending that it was even possible and staggered groggily along the street until we came to a Mexican restaurant with veggie burritos and dark, aromatic coffee.  We ate at a picnic table on a warm deck overlooking the Downie River, and John managed to talk me into driving out to the cabin with him.  I don’t know, maybe it was sleep deprivation. 

Oddly enough, even though I’d been stressing about nearly every aspect of the trip, not once did it occur to me that Cleo might be an unexpected addition to the party.  I am always appalled and judgmental about people who show up to friends’ houses with their pets in tow, just expecting that everyone likes dogs, cats, goats, whatever as much as they do.  Literally, it was not until we were letting Cleo out of her crate that I realized with horror that we’d never asked if it was okay for her to be there.  It was the sight of an Australian Shepherd bearing down on us that shocked me into common courtesy.

There have been so many times in my life that I have regretted wasting energy on worrying.  You’d think I’d have learned the lesson by now. 

I’ve written many times before of Cleo’s shyness with other dogs.  Whatever the reason—the warmth and welcome from every individual in the world’s most beautiful riverside cabin, the adventure of wading through a chilly river to sit on warm rocks and talk with engaged, funny people, the gentle kindness of two mellow and adoring Aussies—Cleo was relaxed and at home in less than an hour.  She followed the other dogs around like a doting little sister, even taking a long walk with them and their mom and discovering (and fully inspecting) a large pile of bear scat. 

Anyone who lives with a Bedlington knows that the tail is the emotional barometer.  It is a clear indicator of a wide range of moods and emotional states.  The angle of each vertebra in a Bedlington tail communicates an array of subtle information.  Sure, you have the standard set: tucked=scared, straight out and rigid=aggressive, gently curved and waving=greeting.  When Cleo is relaxed and happy, her tail extends on a plane with her spine, then just about midway, it curves up into a spritely crescent.  It was the evening of our first day at the cabin that John turned to me and said quietly, “Look at that tail.”  As Cleo followed first one dog, then the other through the kitchen and out onto the veranda, her tail clearly expressed her happiness.  It was the next night that really amazed us, though.  We sat at one of the tables eating dinner with several folks, laughing, chatting, telling stories.  As I moved to recross my legs, my foot thumped against something.  I peered under the table.  The fifteen-year-old Australian Shepherd was curled up less than six inches from my toes.  Penetrating the shadows, I made out another bulk.  It was the other Aussie not six inches from her.  And making the third point in the under-the-table triangle, curled up in a much smaller ball, head on paws, lightly sleeping, was Cleo.

We felt easy all weekend, she and I.  We were warm and welcome, enjoying our new friends, listening to music, lounging and playing and finding it enough just to be ourselves.