29 December 2016

Special Forces and Random Love Letters in the Desert

Yesterday I met with my surgeon for my fourth annual follow up visit.  This spring marks four years since my cancer diagnosis and recovery.  After each of our brief visits, I always have plans for something pleasant to soften the anxiety and to leave Phoenix with a positive vibe.  In previous years I’ve scheduled lunch at my favorite French bistro with my sister or cousin, but since my doctor moved her office across town, that wasn’t really an option this year.  Instead I plotted a long solo hike in the mountains west of Phoenix along the Mesquite Canyon and Willow Canyon trails.

White Tank Regional Park is a large county park, the western geographic boundary of the Valley of the Sun.  Like most desert mountains, these are steep and rocky, lined with dry canyons and few trees.  I recall coming here from time to time as a child, for celebratory picnics; as an adult I’ve been back a few times, mostly to hike with my in-laws.  Several years ago, Dan and the girls and I spent two nights here, backpacking in and camping at an abandoned sheep corral.  The water from the nearby spring was so alkaline it curdled our dry coffee creamer.  On that trip we played cribbage, drank bourbon, and explored the mostly dry tinajas (depressions scoured out of bedrock, usually below dry waterfalls, which fill with rainwater and runoff) which give the mountains their name.

This trip, though, I was hoping to complete an eight-mile loop which would take me beyond that camp, and return in time to have a late lunch with a friend from high school afterward.  I’d done another long solo hike recently, Picacho Peak north of Tucson, a landmark I’ve driven by dozens of times in the past.  It was a fantastic experience to be alone in the desert with my boots and my mind.  Life is short and I intend to take more time to explore places I've always wanted to go from here on out.  The trail begins at the mouth of a canyon, climbing gradually but continually.  A recent storm had brought a lot of rain to the area, and the desert was damp and muddy in places, green shoots carpeting the ground where it isn’t covered in stones and boulders.  I felt strong as I hiked, stopping infrequently to chug water or for a quick snack.  I had to keep moving to avoid feeling chilled.  After the first mile or so, I encountered other hikers only rarely.  The solitude and silence were exactly what my post-holiday mind craved.  I’d finished Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard earlier this week, which details his trek in the Himalaya in the 1970’s.  It’s a beautiful book about many things, among them how to live in the present moment as fully as possible, which is what hiking alone does for me.  It’s a story that I know I will read again and that I will carry in my heart for a long time.

In the desert mountains, the terrain is varied, but the vegetation appears dispersed with care, almost planned:  a saguaro or two studs the landscape and is surrounded by perfectly placed brittlebush, grasses, and small boulders covered with desert varnish.  The colors blend and are generally muted this time of year, with nearly nothing in flower.  It’s as if the countryside is storing its energy to release all its vibrant colors in a single explosion of spring blooms.

And so, when my eye was drawn to a small, bright white square, I investigated.  The white square was folded paper, anchored with a square stone to a rough granite boulder right along the trail.  I unfolded it and revealed this message:

I can only assume it’s part of the random love letters movement that I learned about over the summer.  I left a random love letter earlier this summer myself as part of a calligraphy challenge I participated in on Instagram, but I’d never found one in the wild, or anywhere else for that matter.  Its effect on me was so profound and positive that I’m inspired to make a true effort to leave many for strangers to find.  I re-folded this note and replaced it, hoping others will be touched by its message.

As I approached the junction where I intended to take my next break, I happened upon an old man seated on a rock outcropping overlooking the canyon I would soon descend into.  He waved both arms above his head and smiled broadly.

“I’m so glad you’re here!” he cried out, as if he’d been waiting for me.  “Sit!  Here’s a good rock.  It’s lunch time!”

Now, in a city, I doubt I would have even made eye contact with such an exuberant person, so wary are we of our own species.  But here, high above the city, I thought, “Why the hell not?”

We never exchanged names, although we did share dried mango and pretzels.  He asked about my life and told me of his:  special forces in Vietnam, teaching biology in Denver, dividing the year between Colorado and Arizona in the RV he shares with his wife.  He told me he hikes this eight-mile loop twice a week and that after his 80th birthday this spring, he hopes to climb another fourteener in Colorado with his son and grandson.  He was as gregarious a character as I’ve ever met.  I wondered, as I continued down the trail, how many hikers he’s shared his lunch with in that spot.

And on I went, past the low sheep corral where we’d camped those years before (the only level place, it seemed, in this tangle of canyons and ridges), and back up again only to wander back down.  Once back in my car, I whizzed past the fields of flowers grown for florists, rows of lettuce, and a few remaining citrus groves on my way to share a pint of Guinness and laughter with an old friend just a stone’s throw from the high school where we met decades prior.  This morning I awoke to the silence of a sleepy house not yet stirring, reflecting on the magic of a day well-spent.

15 October 2016

Second Spring

This past week we camped at one of our favorite places, Granite Basin.  We love it because it’s quiet and beautiful, plus it’s only about a ten-minute drive from home.  It’s so close that my 73-year-old mother-in-law surprised us on two of our mornings there by hiking from our neighborhood to visit us.  It truly is a gem of our county, in fact my blog wallpaper is from a nearby trail.

It wasn’t our typical camping trip, though, as Dan worked every day for at least a few hours and Madeleine had some kind of social event with friends most days.   But we had the campground pretty much to ourselves.  Arden taught herself to play ukulele.  I hiked every day.  There’s a five-mile loop that connects to the campground that traverses several drainages with a really lovely variety of trees and plants.  Fall colors are blooming on the deciduous trees and some late flowers are still bright.  The network of trails continues on to the small lake and the imposing Granite Mountain and beyond, including the Prescott Circle Trail which is a future goal of mine.

Fall in October is my favorite time of year here.  The days are warm and sunny and the mornings are crisp but not yet frosty.  This week offered a bit of respite from our busy lives, a chance for reflection, and a pooling of stores before winter – it was good enough to energize us through the weeks until our next adventure.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.  – Albert Camus

Some of the more interesting plants and trees in Granite Basin:

Digitalis purpurea (Foxglove)

Salvia henryi (Crimson sage)

Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)

Senecio douglasii (Threadleaf groundsel)

Oenothera hookeri (Hooker’s evening primrose)

Geranium caopitosum (Pineywoods geranium)

Cercocarpus montanus (True mountain mahogany)

Rhus Glubra (Smooth sumac)

Vitis arizonica (Canyon grape)

Parthenocissus vitacea (Virginia creeper)

Pinus ponderosa (Ponderosa pine)

Juniperus deppeana (Alligator juniper)

Arctostaphylos pungens (Pointleaf manzanita)

Quercus gambelii (Gambel oak)

Chenopodium graveolens (Fetid goosefoot)

Parthenocissus vitacea (Virginia creeper) near our front door
(I've done my best to correctly identify these plants.  If you note any errors, please let me know and I'll rectify it.)

24 August 2016

Beneficiaries of Chance

My friend died ten days ago.  Today would have been his birthday and my mind has been absorbed lately with thoughts and memories of him and his family.  As I reflect  on our relationship, I realized that I consider the deep friendship with him and his wife as the first adult couple relationship that Dan and I had.  All of our other friends we’d met in school or college, and we had friendships with colleagues of ours.  But this one was the first relationship we both made with another married couple and we’ve been lucky enough to sustain it over a couple of decades.

All this reminiscing called to mind a favorite excerpt from Ann Druyan’s book, Life with Carl: 
I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl.  But the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is… Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous - not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural.  We knew that we were beneficiaries of chance… That pure chance could be so generous and so kind… That we could find each other in the immensity of time… The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way that we took care of each other and our family, while he lived.  That is so much more important than the idea I will ever see him someday.  I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again.  But I saw him.  We saw each other.  We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”  

Each of us, if we are lucky, finds someone else in the cosmos with whom there is an intense connection.  Ann Druyan’s relationship with Carl Sagan is one example.  Perhaps your thoughts are called to your relationship with your romantic partner, or the dearest of friends, or a sibling.  We are each beneficiaries of chance, as Druyan so beautifully puts it.

It is pretty much impossible for me to fathom the size of the cosmos in a literal way, as Sagan did.  In light of what remains an incomprehensible abstraction, though, I can still sense my own insignificance.  And I sense it in places like the coast, the desert, or the Grand Canyon, all of which are nearly as insignificant as a single human on a cosmic scale.  It cannot be physically possible for me to create a ripple in the fabric that is an immense universe of universes.

And yet, we are often fortunate enough to feel these ripples, and to be the recipients of them.  If we think of time as linear, as many cultures do, then A leads to B, which leads to C.  The series of choices, though, which caused us to arrive at A in the first place, are like branches of an enormous tree, forking and dividing again and again, leading to a multitude of decisions and other destinations.  What if is a question I rarely let myself ponder, as it serves little purpose except as fuel for regret.  But what if choices had been made differently?  Would they still have led me to you?  Or your grandparents to one another?  What if, what if, what if?

And these ripples work both ways in this roulette of life, making us beneficiaries of chance, and also encumbering us with great suffering and pain.  What if that car hadn’t crossed the double yellow?  What if those cells hadn’t divided exponentially far too quickly and yet simultaneously agonizingly slow?  How much of this life is chance?  How much is the magic we make of it?  My gram was fond of the adage Bloom where you are planted.  Her sentiments aren’t unusual for her generation who encountered far more global hardship during the Great Depression and World War II than I’ve encountered in mine.  I’ve attempted to follow her advice, but it doesn’t account for those electrifying relationships that shock us into a deeper consciousness of the other than we knew were possible.  We’ve all had relationships that we tried too hard to make work and that ended despite our efforts.

It seems unlikely that pure chance alone, or simply willing it so can create a bond with another that makes us grateful for the small ripples in the cosmos that enrich our lives so deeply or shake us to our very foundations.  Louise Erdrich, in her novel the Painted Drum, so beautifully states,

Life will break you.  Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning.  You have to love.  You have to feel.  It is the reason you are here on earth.  You are here to be swallowed up.  And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness.  Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”

We can believe that these connections are destiny.  Or chance.  Or the product of our efforts.  It’s all deeper than I can plumb, and so instead I will focus on my gratitude that I am the beneficiary of the apples that fall around me, whether I planted the orchard or not.  I will remain astonished.

09 July 2016


I spent Independence Day and most of the first week of July hosting a family from Czech Republic in our home.  Eight years ago, we volunteered to host the daughter of this family for a summer program.  This summer, she returned with her parents who speak minimal English (although more English than my Czech, which is pretty much limited to “cheers!”).  There is something incredibly powerful and also humbling about inviting a foreign stranger to stay in your home.  Following World War II, when it was abundantly clear that we were in great need of international goodwill, programs like the Fulbright were developed to foster the exchange of ideas between nations.  Unfortunately, the world at large remains in dire need of international goodwill, but I still want to believe that it is possible to bridge the gaps that divide us by building personal relationships with those we perceive as different from us.

I was the lucky recipient of another family’s commitment to international goodwill in 1989, when I participated in a program in Paris.  1989 was the bicentennial of the beginning of the French Revolution, which was a divisive and violent period of paranoia and misguided patriotism, but which ultimately gave the world one of the fundamental documents for human rights, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was of course modeled after the American Declaration of Independence and US Constitution.  I studied the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1989 as I visited sites impacted by the Revolution.  It was easy to get caught up in the spectacle of the celebrations, especially while singing La Marseillaise in the streets around Place de la Bastille while swigging from passing bottles of wine and dodging errant firecrackers.  But the best part was developing relationships and interacting with the French, which isn’t easy, as any tourist will tell you.  But I insist that it is worth the effort.

It is worth the effort to go outside of your comfort zone.  It is worth the effort to learn another language, even if only the most basic tourist essentials (please, thank you, hello, goodbye, thank you, thank you, thank you).  It is worth the effort to study the history and culture of another place, even if at first it is only on a superficial tourist level.  But you must reach for this reward, you must work for it, and you must listen to strangers.

1989 is a year that not only markedly altered my life, it was also the year that ended with the Berlin Wall coming down and the Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia.  The end of Communism in Europe and the end of the Cold War were defining historic moments of the beginnings of my adulthood, including my first teaching job, when I taught English to children who had fled the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Of course, in 1989 as I watched these events unfold with my jaw on the floor of my Tucson apartment, I had no idea that many years in the future my family would be having dinner with a family who had lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  I had no idea that we would be discussing Ronald Reagan, freedom, and the hoops one must jump through to get a new washing machine in a Communist state.

Here’s what I learned:  families are the same regardless.  People have the same hopes and dreams and love for their children.  Parents in a socialist republic, and an Eastern bloc state, or here in the USA, love their children and their neighbor’s children.  They want the next generation to have opportunities they lacked and to exercise their rights and to leave the planet better.  And it’s the same for black families.  And Muslim families.  And gay families.  And any combination of the above.  But it can be difficult to recognize unless we have an anchor to which we can attach our acknowledgement of what unites us.  That anchor is a relationship with someone.  One person at a time.  I am amazed and deeply touched by the attachment I’ve formed with our Czech family, in spite of our inability to converse directly without the translation skills of their daughter, who is very precious to us.  We feel blessed to have had the opportunity to share with them our town and our nation’s independence and freedom, and to have a renewed interest and appreciation for such after seeing them through their eyes.

The day after our Czech family departed, my daughters and I had the opportunity to visit a nearby ranch.  We’d been invited by a dear friend but had not previously met the host.  Regardless, we were welcomed warmly, and treated to unique and fun opportunities, like his private zip line, low ropes course, and feeding hummingbirds by hand.  I had never met this man, but he treated us like old friends and made us feel so welcome – like, I hope, our Czech family felt with us.

This past week, the Dalai Lama said, “I consider we are all the same as human beings, mentally, emotionally, and physically.  In order to ensure a more peaceful world and a healthier environment we sometimes point the finger at others, saying they should do this or that.  If one individual becomes more compassionate, it will influence others and so we will change the world.”

We have had a tough go of events these past many weeks here in the US specifically, and in the world at large.  There has been too much violence.  Too many senseless deaths.  Too little compassion.  Too many valleys dividing us and too few anchors in our common ground.  We are better than our political divide.  Better than our racial divide and better than our religious divide.  And it might take generations to come closer together.  But we have traveled a long road since the year of my birth, 1968, which was also a year of terrible violence and division.  But 1968 was also the year that gave us the Civil Rights Act, Special Olympics, the first Medal of Honor awarded to a black Marine, the admission of women to Yale University, the Beatle’s White Album, the computer mouse, and RenĂ© Cassin receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which, you’ll recall, found inspiration in the document that was instrumental in the French Revolution.

What if our politicians extended a hand across the aisle?  What if we took the time to know not only our neighbor’s children, but also the children of someone different from us?  What if we embody compassion (sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it)?  As the Dalai Lama said, it begins with individuals.  It begins with us – not them – us.  It begins with an open heart, a willingness to listen without judgment, without politics, and without fear.