Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bringing in the (proverbial) sheaves

Hairy Houdini, our local red squirrel, has been busy lately getting in his larder. Across the street from our house a walnut tree is dripping nuts, and Hairy seems determined that not one of them goes uncached. Back and forth he streaks, his mouth stuffed with a single fat nut, his beady little eyes lit with a crazed gleam. The determination of where to secrete the treasure is known to him alone, but careful observance leads me to believe the decision is based on happenstance and a what-the-hell attitude, so typical of the long-tailed rodents. Which could explain why he so seldom remembers where he buried them, and why so many young walnut trees are springing up in our yard.

A great restlessness pervades the air this time of year as the sun slants harder and the days grow shorter. The skies burn with blue fire. Apple trees and Osage oranges bow under the weight of their fruits. Goldenrod blossoms plume the breeze like yellow smoke, and a close inspection finds the flowers abuzz with activity. Competing for the nectar are bees, beetles and butterflies, an unruly multi-species mob with one thing on their minds: gather as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. For time, as they know it, is winding down.

They are not alone. Every September I check our own larder and calculate how much we have, if we need more, and if so, how much. But unlike the squirrels and the insects, what we store is not so easily gathered. It’s green chiles—preferably New Mexican or, if not, from southern Colorado. And a glance this year assured me that we needed more, much more, to tide us over for the coming year.

Back in Denver this was not a problem. A trip to the chile vendor at 38th and Brighton Boulevard garnered three or four bushels of fire-roasted Hatch chiles, the very best, grown and harvested in the fabled Hatch Valley of southern New Mexico. Big, meaty chiles like Big Jims or Sandias, plus a bushel of fiery jalapeƱos thrown in for good measure, roasted in mesh barrels over high flame until the skin blistered and peeled, then steamed in plastic sacks—they were heavenly to smell, and better to eat.

After we moved to Kansas, we’d make an annual pilgrimage back to Colorado each September. Ostensibly to see our boys, the real purpose of the trip was to restock the freezer with chiles. On the final morning we’d stop at the vendor, load the back seat and make the run for home, all the while salivating over the exquisite aroma escaping the damp sacks. If we stopped for a burger en route we’d be sure to order take-out so we could peel a thick wedge of chile to place atop the meat.

When we got home we’d place the chiles in freezer bags, a dozen or fifteen to a sack. Each would be dated, and I’d rotate the stock in the freezer. That night we’d cook up a huge pot of green chile stew to celebrate. My usual manner is to triple or quadruple the recipe in order to have some for leftovers and freezing. This is what I did several weeks ago.

And, like Hairy Houdini, I went looking for the extras and could not find them. I rooted and dug through the freezers—we have two, one just for chiles—and came up empty. Where had I buried them? It finally dawned that we’d eaten them, not having the fortitude to wait. I made a mental note to make a dozen batches next time.

After a while the idea of a trip to the city paled. Several Quixotic quests across Kansas after rumors of genuine Hatch chile failed, but in the nick of time we discovered a produce grower south of Manhattan who specialized in chiles. In a late season panic that Hairy would implicitly understand, we ended up buying five bushels of chiles and one-and-a-half bushels of jalapeƱos. Enough, we figured, to last two years, if not more.

It did. But as August waned and September waxed, and our supply steadily dwindled, I knew we’d have to restock, and soon. The days were getting short. Time was running out.

It’s been said that one can find anything on the Internet. That’s only partly true. One cannot find Hatch chiles in Kansas via the Internet, for I tried, many, many times. There were elusive hints that so-and-so garden center would have a shipment, but when I clicked on the link I found that it was years old. Phone calls went negative. Like Hairy, the look in my eye was becoming edgier each day.

Lori saved the day by convincing a trucker coming through southern Colorado to grab us two bushels of fire roasted chiles. Though I was dubious over this—once roasted, chiles don’t last forever—it worked out as planned, and she arrived home one afternoon with the car smelling sublimely and two large bags of steamed chiles piled on the back seat. Like a starving hyena, I tore into a sack and tasted one—very hot, just as I like.

Still, the freezer looked half-empty, and I wondered if we’d have enough.

The thermometer read 44 degrees this morning when I rose from bed, poured a cup of coffee and fed Sheba a stalk of broccoli. The low numeral didn’t adequately register until I opened the door and stepped into the darkness, at which time it settled on me like a rime of frost. My breath steamed the stars away. Moonrise cast a pallid glow on the beanfields adjoining the river, and in my weariness I imagined they were fields of chiles. For a second it warmed my heart, and then realization set in and the cold air settled in my bones. I cranked the heater on.

Two bushels plus a half-bushel in reserve. I hope we have enough.

Friday, September 08, 2006

A minor relocation, distant stars

Sirius rises in the east, Orion higher still with his three glittering stars aligned in tandem, red Betelgeuse in the fore and a wash of stars ghosting the heavens like the tendrils of fog wending the fields alongside the river. No moon nor pale sliver. Crickets fiddle their symphonies. Ant lions slumber in their earthy dens. Birds are silent save an occasional owl questioning the darkness. Who? Who? Just me, stumbling down the eroded stairs, fumbling for the car door, the coffee not yet kicked in, a weary dreamer sent out into the night. And I’d been sleeping so sound.

Lately I’ve been having a real problem with my alarm clock. It seems like right when I’m in the deepest dreamscape, when nocturnal imaginings are at their most vivid and unrelenting—for good or ill, it matters not—a jarring sound inevitably blasts me awake. Rather than smashing the thing with a fist I carefully slide a little lever to a secondary alarm position and lay back, heart pounding, eyes staring at a ceiling invisible in the darkness, and wonder why on earth we buy gadgets that limit our sleep. I groan. I grumble. I climb from bed and start the day.

Since midsummer’s heat spell we’ve moved to the lower bedroom, mostly out of expediency rather than any desire to trade a king-size luxury air mattress with dual adjustable chambers and three inches of memory foam for a sagging full-size spring mattress our sons once slept in. It’s certainly cozier than the larger bed, and much more uncomfortable, and we have the advantage of not having to mitigate the heat that collects upstairs like unwanted bills. Though the house is equipped with central air conditioning, the singularity of the second floor vent renders it useless. A window a/c unit helped but unfortunately its output was too little for the too much it’s required to overcome. The deciding factor was a particularly exorbitant electric bill which led us to reduce expenses by sleeping downstairs.

This is only one of a long list of quirks this house possesses. Interior walls are as plumb as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, several windows are caulked shut to stop drafts, the rear addition is utterly uninsulated and the oak floor sags in places. Missing roof shingles give the house a snaggletooth look. But the place has ‘character,’ that indefinable aggregate of distinctive features, characteristics and qualities that in anywhere other than rural America would be considered deficiencies.

Indeed, our house, and notably the lower bedroom, perfectly illustrates the opposing cosmic forces—the yin and yang—of life. Though the bed is too small, the windows can open, an impossibility upstairs. Though crowded with Lori’s loom, sewing machine and fiber supplies, it’s closer to the bathroom, which is a plus at my age. Adaptability is never so crucial as when owning a century-old house or living at our financial means.

Being able to open the bedroom window has led to some surprising thoughts. Where before the act of going to bed was merely perfunctory, now it’s an adventure. The vast acreage of the master bed had dulled my mind to equate it to a mattress and nothing but. The diminutive size of the downstairs bed, though, is more reminiscent of our little backpack tent, and I found that whenever I crawled into it I pretended to zip the door closed and snuggle into a cool nylon sleeping bag. Beyond the thin fabric of the tent the stars wheel in their celestial arc, denizens of the night sing their songs, and the convergence of the two creates an atmosphere of ease and harmony, the sweetest lullaby sending me off to the Land of Nod.

And then the alarm goes off and shatters the illusion.

Having the camper in sight of the open window no doubt fuels this idea, as does my impending trip to the Four Corners region. Cooler temperatures also help. Sometimes I imagine aligning my tent with the lunar standstill, as is the main bulwark of Chetro Ketl, an Anasazi city in Chaco Canyon, or along a gridline toward the winter solstice, as at Wijiji, another of the cities. Adventure beckons and there’s no reason to limit it to the vacation itself. Even as in dreams, the simplest, most mundane act can be gilded with expectation and desire.

Preparing the bedroom for slumber was an adventure in itself. Since the room was lightly used for the past year or so, I was afraid it had become the dominion of brown recluses. Several searches came up empty. Just when I was starting to let my guard down I found a recluse at the foot of the bed. A boot summarily dispatched it to whatever afterlife toxic spiders attend.

Another was found in the bathroom, and another in the hallway. “Houston, we have a problem,” I said to Lori, and brought out the big gun—the canister vac.

We tossed furniture and upended chairs, stripped sheets and rummaged through the closet. A large recluse wandered in from the hall, no doubt wondering what the ruckus was about, and disappeared up the vacuum tube. Other spiders were sucked up as I ran the nozzle along the molding. In the process we came across two glue strips I’d set years ago. Both had dead mice stuck to them, with a cadre of spiders encircling the corpses as if intending to pick the bones clean. We set several new traps.

There’s nothing like a surfeit of creepy-crawly things to disturb one’s slumber. Surprisingly, my dreams weren’t of tiny legs scribbling across my face but of spacious rooms and distant stars. The night was cool; a slight breeze whispered through the grass. Katydids conversed like small stones clinking together. The foundations of Wijiji aligned with my tent, and through open vents I could dimly see a notch in the buttes where the rising sun would announce the solstice. My sleeping bag was cozy and warm.

When the alarm sounded, as I knew it would, I’d rise grousing and start another day. But for now Sirius rose in the east and I was elsewhere. Adventure does not come to us—we create it. Even here, on a small bed with a sagging mattress in an old house on the edge of the Flint Hills, beside the one I love.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The road to Chetro Ketl

In most ways, the road to Chetro Ketl and back began on a Friday afternoon in mid-summer.

Lori walked in from work, took a long look at me and asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You crashing?”


I lied. I was standing on the brink of an unimaginably vast black hole and my footing was none too steady. Nor, as is the case with these things, was I sure I wouldn’t rather just tip forward and fall in.

A marriage is made of honesty and openness but I’m still trying to figure out what my mind is doing. If I don’t understand, how can I explain to someone else? The last thing I want is my wife worrying about my mental state.

As I worry.

Not ten minutes before I’d been washing dishes, hands deep in sudsy water, when the walls disappeared and a clear-running stream appeared at my feet and I heard the sound of it rushing over its gravel bed, and the air was crisp and clean and snowy mountains rose up in the near distance and about me a cluster of sunwashed wooden structures. I recognized Fairplay, a rustic town in the middle of an extended ovoid bowl of grass called South Park. My eyes held the long sweep of meadowlands, saw sunlight reflecting off the South Platte River, the stony peaks of the Mosquito Range snagging the clouds. I felt free as a bird, severed from bonds I’d only suspected. And then as suddenly as if a door slammed in my face it was gone, and I was back in our little kitchen in Blue Rapids.

I couldn’t breathe. My hands shook violently. I sagged against the counter, closed my eyes, gripped the rim of the sink and held on tight.

The stream still echoed in my ear. “Come back,” I begged. What remained was a mirage, there but not, translucent, fading even as I struggled to hold onto it.

By the time Lori walked in it was like nothing had happened. But something had. I had gone and returned in the blink of an eye, not a chance memory but a bodily visitation, but why or how were questions not all the angels in heaven could answer.


The itinerary was three pages, handwritten in pencil by Chod Hedinger, Lori’s distant cousin. When it came in the mail I glanced over it and set it aside. There’d be more time for planning as the time approached. The end of October seemed as distant as the moon.

For weeks I mulled over my visitation, looking for reasons or meanings, and the deeper I searched the more bitter I became. Before moving here I told Lori that I needed to see the mountains at least once a year, and now it was going on three barren years and I was feeling thin and stretched out. Which might account for what happened, but why so vividly?

One afternoon, when darkness settled over me, I walked to Mr. Bun’s cairn and slipped into the trees where I could not be seen, and I berated myself long and harsh over being so weak. I thought of South Park, and of the time I slipped into waist-deep water at the head of Antero Reservoir and cast to fat trout that ignored my fly, and the recollection was a metaphor for everything that failed me. Savagely, I cursed the memory and myself.

The truth is, I never had any of it. Only a short section of serpentine stream that I shared with cows. The mountains belonged to the citizens of the United States, the meadows to the ranchers, the road was long, the traffic fierce, the view heartbreaking, and nearly all of it inaccessible. Every trip there ended in some sort of frustration, whether from fishing or not finding the right camping spot or simply not knowing which way to go. I wanted it all and ended up with nothing but a handful of bad memories. For my mind to whisk me there was senseless and cruel. I hated it.


There is no darkness so deep that light cannot pierce, and slowly, slowly, it filtered through.

I ended up with nothing. The statement was patently false. I have an Orvis medal for the one that didn’t get away—the largest trout I ever caught, and that on a stream so narrow my nine-foot flyrod could touch both banks. What’s the worth of that? Of fishing the small feeder streams, of teaching Joel to fly-fish in Tarryall Creek, the bright brook trout, the ice cold water, the alpine flowers on the slopes of Mt. Sherman, and Lori’s 35th birthday wish to bag a fourteener, when Joel got high altitude sickness and Lori lost her footing and cascaded down a snowfield. The time a friend and I photographed the abandoned mines above timberline and the wildflowers blooming along the tiny rivulets dripping down from the snowpack—does that mean nothing?

When I was more or less myself again, I took out the itinerary and set it beside a map. With a finger I traced the route from Blue Rapids to the red rock canyons of southeastern Colorado, familiar territory, across northern New Mexico and into the Four Corners area, home to the Dineh, where scattered ruins were not just cities but astronomical observatories aligned with solar solstices and lunar standstills, back into Colorado and over Wolf Creek Pass and past Antero Reservoir where the trout snubbed me, and on down to the prairie and homeward. It was not, to my surprise, just desert and Anasazi ruins I would see, but the mountains of memory.

With tears blinding me, I began adding to the itinerary. I started lists of things to take, and things to do, and things to find, which would be the biggest challenge. And then I went off on a tangent. The road to Chetro Ketl begins here, I wrote. I am going on a long trip. I will walk in beauty.