Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Christmas Melody

by Greg Larson

 My granddaughter, Melody, is at an age when she is most impressionable.  Believe me.  She continues to talk about our trip last spring to the zoo where she saw the elephants pooping.  She is also at the age when Christmas memories, with their sights and sounds, will remain with her for a lifetime.

Last Christmas, she ran into our house and headed straight for the living room.  Her jaw dropped, and then a big smile broke out as she slowly looked up to the top of the Christmas tree.

“Would you like to see the tree up close?” I asked.

She ran to my arms and I lifted her up next to the tree.  Her eyes glowed as she took a deep breath and smiled.  This was a new vantage point for her.  Now in the stratosphere, she floated around the tree like an angel.  I showed her my favorite ornaments while she reached out to touch a bell or a sparkling orb.

Melody and Granddad Larson

The Christmas visit to our house was an adventure for Melody.  Her outstretched arms and tiny fingers reached for figurines and decorations, always probing and touching with fascination.  She never tired of playing with the snow globes or asking me to rewind the music boxes.

“Granddad, can I have a cookie?” she would ask. “Can I have two cookies?”

I handed her the sugar cookies and watched them crumble in her hands and mouth as she ate them quickly.
With more energy to burn, she ran around in circles and her outstretched arms appeared before me.

“Granddad, can I see the Christmas tree?”

I picked her up every time she asked, and we looked at the ornaments together.  I saw them through her eyes, viewing the sparkling tree as if I were two years old.  Her fascination with the tree remained the entire visit, which seemed much too short.  As quickly as the house had been filled with grandkid’s energy, it returned to its normal state, with the dog once again curling in his favorite spot to sleep in the sun at the front door.

Gretta and I finally boxed up the ornaments and packed the tinsel for next year, and I hauled the tree to the recycle center at the park.

On Melody’s next visit in the spring, she burst into the house and ran on tip-toes to the living room where she abruptly stopped.  She peered around the room, then with a serious voice and sad eyes she turned to me and asked, “Granddad, where’s the Christmas tree?”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ten-Six and Lesser Elevations

Gretta on Weminuche Trail, SW Colorado (2003)

Ten-Six and Lesser Elevations
writing and photos by Greg Larson

“Look at those peaks and rocks!” I shared with Gretta as I pointed to a peak in the San Juan mountains in southwest Colorado.  We had just finished lunch on the continental divide at an elevation of 11,500 feet, during a break on a hike from our base camp near Weminuche Pass in a designated wilderness area.

“Wow, this is why I like the back country,” I said as I scanned the vistas in all directions.

“Come here,” said Gretta while she took me by the hand, “I want to show you something.”

We walked over to a clump of grass on the alpine meadow, and she pointed downward, “See those little flowers? They are so tiny, but every petal is perfect!”

I had to get down on my hands and knees to see the little blue flowers with five petals.  Each blossom was smaller than a pencil eraser.

Alpine flowers

My view of the world expanded a bit more that day.  No longer did I look  just for things big and massive. I started to see the tiniest details in the mountain environment.  I guess that’s how I’d describe why Gretta and I enjoy backpacking and hiking.  Sure, it takes a lot of time and energy to plan and execute a camping trip, and mother-nature doesn’t always cooperate, as we found out in Rocky Mountain National Park in July of 2009.  But every bit of effort is worth it when something unexpected is discovered.  From the smallest flower to the grandest vista, it is the treasure of memories and images that makes the hardships worthwhile.

Three of our campsites in Colorado have been at an elevation of 10,600 feet; in an alpine zone that is near the timberline transition point.  We’ve hiked and camped at lesser elevations, too, always finding unique and picturesque country not seen by motorists or casual passers-by.

Camping in the wilderness clears the mind of all the social clutter.  Necessities are put into a different perspective.  Does one really need all of the paraphernalia and accoutrements taken for granted in our everyday life?  We carry the barest essentials, and only when the items don't add too much weight to the pack.

The following photos are some of my favorite images; good examples of why we don't mind putting up with temperature extremes, mosquitoes and flies, strenuous climbs and dehydrated food.

Englemann spruce in SW Colorado (2003)

One afternoon, a rain shower pattered on our poncho hoods while Gretta and I sat on a boulder, looking out at the endless forest of Englemann spruce trees before us.  The peace and quiet stretched minute upon minute, mile upon mile.  Without warning, the sunlight pierced the clouds.  It was as if the giant spotlight of God shone on the spruce trees in front of us.  On instinct, I quickly pulled out my camera, ran a few feet to frame the picture and snapped the photo above.  Within twenty seconds, the sunlight was gone.

Weminuche Creek in SW Colorado (2003)

It was a crisp morning in the dry, thin air as I walked to the creek to fill our water bottles. The gurgling and rushing water, along with the birds awakening with song, made the hidden oasis seem full of life.  The little waterfall caught my eye; the natural landscape far superior to anything designed by man.  A tree trunk had fallen years ago, creating the weir on the creek, with one half of the trunk becoming a flower box for the summertime greenery.  It was an invigorating moment, yet peaceful.

Mills Canyon, New Mexico (2003)

Mills Canyon is in a remote area along the Canadian River in northeast New Mexico.  Just prior to camping there in 2003, I learned that wildlife officials used the canyon as a location to release the "problem" bears that had been trapped in the towns and ranches nearby.  The beauty of the place was worth the risk, and we never did see any bears, good or bad.

Cholla Cactus blooms in Mills Canyon, New Mexico (2003)

Rock Cliff in Mills Canyon, New Mexico (2003)

I sat and waited during the sunrise for the correct light, and noticed that the rocks, which were at least a hundred feet above the canyon floor, had been eroded by fast flowing water at some point in eons past.  Scenes like the one above are as beautiful and moving as any found in the National Parks.

Sunrise at Mosca Pass, Colorado (2003)

 Mosca Pass was one of the first mountain passes used by explorers and trappers, such as Kit Carson and John Fremont, as a relatively easy path to get from eastern Colorado to the San Luis Valley.  The photo above is from a lookout point near the pass; the view is southeast.  The photo below is looking west along the trail below Mosca Pass.  The trail ends at the base of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

 Gretta on Mosca Trail, with Great Sand Dunes and San Luis Valley beyond (2009)

Gretta among giant aspen trees near Mosca Trail (2009)

We discovered a side path from the Mosca Trail and meandered through the trees to a remote, lush green valley surrounded by an aspen forest.  The aspen trees were the largest I'd ever seen, with some of trunks nearly two feet in diameter.

Abandoned miner's cabin in hidden valley near Mosca Trail

I wondered how many pairs of eyes viewed this remote valley each year.  We hiked in the hidden valley on two days in the warmth of summer and never saw a soul.

Unidentified fisherman at Bear Lake (2009)

Bear Lake is in the San Isabel National Forest and is located near Cuchara, Colorado, in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the southern part of the state.  Luck was with me when I photographed the fly fisherman; the picture captured the line as it whipped and arched during the cast.

Gretta and Greg on a mission near Bear Lake (2009)

We backpacked into the Englemann spruce forest above Bear Lake to set up our base camp.  We wanted to stay away from the bears that roamed the RV campgrounds at night looking for some easy food or trash to eat.

Gretta resting at timberline above Bear Lake (2009)

The air was thin at this resting spot just above the timberline on the mountains above Bear Lake.  We took advantage of the view during a break on an afternoon hike/climb at an elevation of approximately 11,500 ft.  The shadow on the mountain gave a hint that big clouds were coming for the afternoon storms.  We turned back towards camp, knowing we would return the next morning and attempt our climb to the ridge at the 12,500 ft. elevation.

Gretta hiking at 12,000 ft. elevation above the clouds (2009)

On the morning climb from our base camp near Bear Lake, we passed through the fog in the forest, and found ourselves above the clouds on a steep alpine meadow full of flowers.  I expected Julie Andrews to appear any moment wearing her dress with apron, singing "The hills are alive.."

A surreal spot on a beautiful planet (2009)
(Near Sangre de Cristo ridge looking east to the Spanish Peaks)

Cell phone coverage was quite good from the ridge near the spot shown above.  We were able to see a large part of the state of Colorado, looking east and west from the main ridge of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.  The beauty of terrain and clouds, along with the thin air, left us breathless.  We felt as though we were in a different world for a few brief hours.  In early afternoon, we retreated to base camp just before the storms unleashed with thunder, lightning and rain that drove us into our tent for two hours.

Columbine in SW Colorado (2003)

The columbine is an elegant flower in a wild environment with a short growing season. The flowers in the high, alpine elevations have only a brief twelve weeks each year to flourish and bloom.  Time is relative and it makes me realize that we have a few cosmic moments on terra firma to grow and experience all that surrounds us.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Takin' Care of Bidness

by Greg Larson

It was a dreary, rainy and dark Tuesday evening in early October when I parked my car next to the 12th street viaduct in the West Bottoms of Kansas City.  A freight train rumbled down the tracks in the switch yard as I walked through the non-descript entrance of the brick and timber warehouse.  Only a small sign by the door which stated “KC Auction Co” gave a hint of what was happening inside.

Fortunately, a friend of mine notified me of the auction advertisement.  He knew of my architectural interest in Kansas City and the Plaza, and he had discovered an ad while perusing the Sunday classifieds in the Kansas City Star:

     Fine Art and Antique Auction
     60+ Architectural Books from the closed JC Nichols Plaza
     50+ Paintings or artwork…
     60+ Lamps/Chandeliers…
     Antiques: Clocks, 1820’s Boston Banjo…

I walked into the large vestibule on the main floor of the building, and found myself in the middle of a festive atmosphere with a crowd surrounding a food vendor.  People of all shapes, sizes and attire stood in line to purchase greasy sandwiches and brats.  Some read the auction catalog and discussed the auction listings while the vendor flipped the steaming meat on the portable grille.

Walking past the food, I wandered into the main floor of the auction.  It was a scene from “Antiques Roadshow,” with lamps, rugs, antique chairs, tables, artwork and glassware scattered around the space. People milled and chatted; they pointed and poked at the merchandise.  I tried to stay focused on my mission to find research material regarding Edward Buehler Delk, a well-known architect in Kansas City during the early 20th century.  I knew of Delk’s involvement in the master plan for the Plaza, the first planned suburban shopping district in the U.S. which was designed to cater to the automobile.  Some of the buildings on the Plaza were designed by Delk and built for J.C. Nichols in the 1920’s, so I thought there might be a publication at auction related to his work.

After viewing the books on the auction table, I knew they were rich in historical significance and of archival quality.  Of local importance were the myriad details and designs shown in the different volumes.  They provided the inspiration for architects who designed the Plaza and other residential and commercial projects for J.C. Nichols in the Kansas City region.  Some of the books captured the essence of the design styles used in his developments:

     1921 – English Homes, 6 volume set
     1914 – California Gardens
     1914 – Architectural Terra Cotta Standard Construction
     1925 – Italian Brickwork
     1921 – Country Residences in Europe and America
     1924 – Spanish Farm Houses and Minor Public Buildings

My heart began to pound when I discovered what I considered to be the “crown jewel” of research material on Edward Buehler Delk.  During his career, he commissioned a New York printing firm to publish an architectural catalog of his extensive works for use as a marketing tool and as a gift to his clients.  Two copies were in the auction!  The only other copies I had seen were at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, and in the library at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Inscribed in one of the copies up for auction was a personal note from Delk to Nichols stating his gratitude that many of the projects shown in the catalog were made possible by Nichols.  The tight fountain-pen script included Delk’s signature.  At a later date, Nichols passed the copy on to another architect with a note on the front of the catalog, including his signed initials, “JCN”.

I immediately decided that I would bid for one of the catalogs, and quickly needed to develop a strategy.  I was a bit unsure how to proceed, since I’d never participated in an auction.  The unsigned copy would be auctioned prior to the signed copy.  I assumed the signed copy was of higher value due to its historical significance.  With a self-imposed limit of $200 on the maximum amount to spend, I decided to bid on the unsigned copy.  If the bidding was within my limit, then I would be assured of one of the volumes to use for my research and safekeeping.

I registered at the counter where they handed me a bid catalog and a numbered bid card to raise when placing a bid on an item.  During the few minutes prior to the bidding, I found a seat and began to “people watch” to try to rid myself of nervous energy.  The man wearing a polyester suit (which was two sizes too small) and a bowler hat won my vote for the most unusual character in the crowd.  The attire varied from sport coats to denim jackets, and from designer shoes to hiking boots.

A woman brushed against the two catalogs of interest to me, and then she plopped her big purse on top of them as she looked at the other books.  Oh my, I thought, I’d like to go up and ask her to be careful with “my” books.  I also wondered how much brat juice had dripped on the items while the public munched their food as they pored over the tables.

The seats began to fill, including the three large antique wooden benches on a platform at the rear of the seating area.  The auctioneer walked up to the podium, tested the microphone and checked with his assistants, including the women receiving the telephone and online bids, to make sure they were ready.  The tension mounted while he made a few brief announcements.  He looked toward the people sitting on the benches at the rear of the crowd and commented, “Are those benches comfortable?”  The people sitting there nodded, and he continued, “Just a reminder, those benches will be auctioned later, so we’ll have to ask you to find different seats at that time!”

The auctioneer began the bidding process with speed and precision.  The lot numbers and the bids rolled off his tongue while he pointed to the individuals who raised their cards.  Every once in a while I heard a “ding” from the laptop receiving the online bids, whereupon a woman would yell out the bid.  With three hours of bidding ahead, the auctioneer’s goal was to move through the items as efficiently as possible, while the assistants brought each item to the front podium.

It was almost time for Lots 54 and 55, the two Delk catalogs to be auctioned.  My pulse quickened and I reminded myself of the bid limit I had imposed.

“Lot 54! 80! Bidding 80? Bidding 80?…80! Bidding 90?...90! Bidding 100?” barked the auctioneer as he began to point to the bidders.

I raised my bid card.

“100!” the auctioneer yelled as his eyes focused in my direction and he pointed to me.  Then he pointed to the other bidders, and with continued urgency, he shouted, “Bidding 110? 110?”

It appeared there were three of us competing for the catalog.  I hoped the price wouldn’t run up too high.  With little time to think, I raised my card two more times during the process.

“150!” he yelled as he pointed to me with my card raised for the final time.  Then he pointed to the other bidders, “Bidding 160? 160? …160?  Sold to number twenty-eight for $150!”

Interior title page of Edward Buehler Delk's self published catalog
(scanned from Greg Larson's copy)

Immediately, an assistant brought the catalog and carefully handed it to me.  My strategy had worked!  I then listened to the bidding on the signed copy, even though I had no budget to purchase it.  The auctioneer worked the price to $110, and the bidding slowed, but he did get the bidders to finally run the purchase price up to $140.  I was miffed.  If I’d known that the signed copy would have sold at that low price, I would have bid on it instead.

I continued to watch the auction as the artwork began to sell.  The most expensive piece of artwork was a signed Salvador Dali print (10” x 13”) which sold for $550.

Chandeliers, door hardware, vases and urns…the auctioneer droned on.  Before half the lots were auctioned, I got up and paid for my catalog at the cashier.  I slid the purchase into my leather pouch and held it close as I ran through the rain to the car.  Although I was elated to have the catalog of the extensive list of Edward Buehler Delk projects, it saddened me to think that the architectural material that had provided the inspiration for many Plaza and Kansas City projects had just been parceled and scattered, no longer remaining as a group of books used for research material.  I wondered how many people had used them.  What were their names?  How many times had Delk used the books for research?  I could only imagine.  I started the car, turned on the windshield wipers and drove off into the darkness.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hockey Pals

This is a 450 word fictional hors d'oeuvre, if you will.  It's a slapshot attempt to paint a picture of a bygone era in sports, and a treat for the "sports fan" inside each of us.

Hockey Pals
Short Fictional Story by Greg Larson

I’ve just kidnapped my buddy.  He doesn’t know what I’m doing yet, but I’ve decided it is necessary to extract him from his hockey fixation.  I’m driving him to my secluded cabin in Maine, and I hope to give him some privacy and time to rest.  It’s now dark outside and he’s comfortably resting beneath a blanket in the backseat of the car.  He’s been much too close to professional hockey . . .and it’s time for him to have a change in perspective.

The drive through the woods has given me time to reflect on our relationship.  I’ve had many long talks with him about the sport, reminiscing late into the night.  He has been a mentor to me, and has known many of the great players like Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito, and others with first names such as Guy and Jacques.  He has been on a first name basis with many of hockey’s greatest men and has been hugged by most of them.  But his fixation with the game is not good for his health.  He’s even talked about seeing apparitions of some of the hall of fame players, and says he’s had conversations with them.  The stories he could tell!  He’s seen it all.

We both wish that the ‘good ole days’ could return to hockey, when players were recruited from the blue collar ranks, from coal mines and steel mills, from tough neighborhoods and bleak rural areas.  We long for the pure joy of the sport; to see the sweat on the players and the toothless smiles on their scarred faces when their team scored the winning goal.

We remember some of the old arenas like the Montreal Forum, the Checkerdome in St. Louis, and the old Boston Garden.  I can smell the stale beer on the concourses and see the cigar smoke haze hanging below the rafters.  My blood gets to pumping when I remember the shots through the crease for a winning score, and I could feel the vibration of those old arenas when the fans erupted.  Those nights were magic!

The new arenas are too slick, too sterile, and too expensive.  It’s difficult to have a spontaneous night out with the boys anymore.

My buddy has been through too much.  He’s attended too many hockey celebrations, and he's been filled to the brim with booze, out all night, tattooed, worn out and banged up.  I can’t imagine what he’s spent on travel and lodging.  He needs a change of scenery.

Yeah, my buddy needs to give it a rest.  I'm talking about my buddy Stan, that is . . .the Stanley Cup.  He barely fits in the back seat of my Crown Vic.

2002 Reuters file photo

Postscript:  In researching the internet for this fictional story, I discovered that the Stanley Cup has a rigorous schedule between hockey seasons, due to the fact that each member of the championship team is allowed to have possession of the cup for a few days.  The cup is taken to parties, bars, and even to priests, for fun, photo-ops, and blessings.  In one photo, a player's daughter had filled the cup with milk and Froot Loops cereal!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Wisconsin Yard Art Inspires Kansans

Elizabeth and Eugene in Kansas

Wisconsin Yard Art Inspires Kansans
by Greg Larson

I’m convinced that Wisconsin is king when it comes to yard art. There’s lots of it, and the folks in the cheese state take pride in their lawns and the accoutrements therein.  Gretta and I admired the yard art while touring the state three times by bicycle.  Contrary to what you may think, we did slow down to “smell the roses” and look around while traveling through the towns and cities.

Touring the Cheese State
The most prevalent theme was the Dutch boy and girl, with colorful variations throughout the state.  We identified the Dutch couple statuaries as "Elizabeth and Eugene," our middle names.  Calling them by our middle names is a whole story in itself, which I won't go into now.

Here are some of my favorite photos of yard art. etc., with anecdotes listed below each one:

Proud Couple
While I was taking the picture above, a woman came out of the house and exclaimed, "So, you like my sweet couple!"  She was obviously happy that someone appreciated her handiwork.  She informed us that she had just recently repainted them, and she added, "And it's no easy task!"

Two couples in one photo!
We were drawn to the yard with the windmill, the Dutch couple and a plethora of yard art at this location in Rhinelander.  But I thought the property owner had missed a marketing opportunity.  I kept looking for a custard stand or a miniature golf course.  A beer and brat garden would have been perfect, too!  Maybe the zoning wasn't right or they just preferred to display their yard art.

Miniature golf, anyone?

Making a Point!
Not too far across the Wisconsin state line is Strawberry Point, Iowa.  We found an ice cream stand a couple of blocks from this town's ground-zero, bought a treat and then walked up to admire the iconic image.  Wow, this strawberry could be considered  "high art!"  Anyone familiar with Claus Oldenberg?  But I won't get into a protracted discussion here on "what is art?"  I wonder if any Wisconsin city has a giant cheese curd mounted prominently on top of a tower?

Does this tell us anything about Packer fans?
Just before I took the picture above, we spent an afternoon with a few hundred cyclists at the Steven's Point Brewery.  The Brewery offered free samples at a beer garden on their lawn, and we sampled just about everything before making the return trip to our hotel.  On the way back to the hotel, the gates came down on a train crossing which was next to this yard and house.  We had plenty of time to admire the yard art, but viewing it was somewhat surreal, due to the effects of the beer, the train whistle and the crossing bells!  Maybe the owner's fascination with the yard art is also a defense mechanism for living so close to a railroad track.

Where have all the dwarves gone?
At one of the towns along the Wisconsin River, we slowed down and stopped at the front yard shown above.  I was certain this was the house that displayed Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in the front yard the last time we toured Wisconsin.  I didn't see Snow White anywhere, but I decided to take pictures of two Dutch couples, anyway....the pair shown in the front yard, and the pair in the side yard shown below.

Virtual Disneyland
Lo and behold!  What came into my viewfinder as I prepared to take a picture of the second Dutch couple?  Snow White and the Seven Dwarves!  Relegated to the backyard, no less!  The shame!  The following is only pure speculation, but as we pedaled on, Gretta and I concluded that the husband and wife (we gave them fictitious names of Karl and Mildred) were on the verge of needing marriage counseling.  Karl's co-workers at the paper mill down the road were giving him a hard time whenever he met them at the local bar after their work shift.  While drinking the Old Milwaukee on tap, they'd say, "Karl!  You've got to do something with Snow White and the little guys!  They don't fit your image."  The assemblage of Snow White and the dwarves was an embarrassment to Karl, even though he had agreed to the yard-art with his wife........after all, it was her idea.

We speculated that Karl talked Mildred into allowing him to move the major display to the back yard, but at a high price.  The negotiated deal probably included some diamond jewelry for Mildred and also included a lot of Karl's sweat, which was required to relocate the entourage of figurines.  The rental cost for the fork-lift to pick up and move Snow White was no small item, either.  But the snickers from Karl's buddies at the local bar and grille have subsided, and we're sure that he now lives in peace at work and home.  What a great country!

The Mother Mary of all yard art
Grotto Gardens was a shady afternoon respite on a long 88 mile day on the tandem.  Located in Rudolph, Wisconsin, it covers most of the grounds at the Shrine of Peace and  Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine and Museum.  It was established by Father Philip Wagner, fulfuilling a promise he made to the Virgin Mary after a 1912 pilgrimage to the Lady of Lourdes shrine in France.  Father Wagner was cured of debilitating exhaustion he was suffering while studying for the priesthood in Europe.

While taking the rest break, I filled my water bottles and sucked down some Vanilla Bean Gu Gel.  Then I slowly walked through the gardens and crossed a small footbridge.  As the statuary scene above came into view, I imagined a children's choir of a thousand voices filling the air.  It was a sight to behold, ranking above all other yard statuary seen on the trip.  A feeling of peace washed over me, along with the boost of caffeine from the Gu Gel.  I was ready to ride again.  At least I had overcome my temporary exhaustion.

Cheese Curd Stonehenge - Potential Yard Art?
Gretta and I developed an appreciation for fresh cheese curds while in Wisconsin.  Once you've had fresh cheese curds (yes, the ones that squeak when you chew them) you will never want to eat any curds that are not fresh.  I became fascinated with their shape and came up with the ingenious idea that they looked like part of Stonehenge.  One idea led to another, and I concluded that large fiberglass replicas of cheese curds in Wisconsin could rival the pink flamingos or the Dutch couples in yard art status.  Depending on the size of yard, each homeowner could display all or just a portion of Stonehenge.  An entire miniature golf course would fit into some of the larger replicas, whereas a few simple fiberglass "stones" would make a nice backdrop for a flower garden!  The picture above is a stonehenge model I created from real cheese curds. If you know of any venture-capitalists interested in funding fiberglass fabrication of cheese curds, let me know!

Cozy garden for Kansas pair
So that brings us to the Dutch couple shown above, Elizabeth and Eugene in Kansas.  Some friends had inherited the concrete sweethearts, and after seeing how excited Gretta was when she saw them, they decided the Dutch couple needed a new home.  Imagine our surprise when one day the figurines appeared on our front porch.   We've recently given them a new coat of paint and they are displayed prominently in our flower garden. 

Eugene and Elizabeth in the Kansas kitchen
We also have "Elizabeth and Eugene" salt and pepper shakers, complete with an accessory windmill in our kitchen in Kansas which remind us of Wisconsin yard art and of Holland, Michigan......whence they came.  But that is yet another story for another day.

The Making of Stonehenge in Two Days

You, too, can have fun in retirement!


Creating a cheese curd replica of Stonehenge was a unique experience. The first task was to see if cheese curds were available in Kansas.  I found some large-sized curds at the grocery store, then purchased a green covered foam board for the base, and cut pieces of toothpicks to attach the cheese curds to the base board.  Maps and photos of the real Stonehenge were readily available on the internet, and once I determined the proper size for the circle, I was deep into the project!  Some last-minute mozarella pieces were necessary to create the larger central stones.

At one point in the middle of the fabrication process I had a flashback to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," when Richard Dreyfuss was creating the Devil's Tower model.  I had an eerie feeling that I might find crop circles in the back yard the next morning!

As I awoke, my big toe detected some harmonic vibrations at about 5:00 am......Oooo!

Stonehenge in two days!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

River of Dreams

Dad -  fixing his fishing line (1962)

Dreams…..we all have something in common.  They occur most every night, but are so elusive, quickly evaporating from our memories.  Some dreams include the hum-drum, everyday occurrences, yet others are so bizarre they are impossible to describe.  For something that occurs so often, we know so little about them.  They tap the power and material in our brains, throwing the images back to us in unusual ways.

River of Dreams
by Greg Larson

It was an early spring morning in the heart of the Flint Hills and the dew was heavy on the bluestem prairie grass.  I was deep in thought, scanning out upon the horizon, where the sun was beginning to rise.  I looked back at a farmhouse and saw my dad walking toward me.  The house didn’t look familiar, but I noticed the lawn was neatly cut and the climbing rose bush had begun to bloom on the trellis.  It was a peaceful setting in the mellow light.

Dad looked at me and said, “I’m leaving early, and I’ll be ahead of you. If you want to go fishing with me, I’ll be about seven miles south of here on a bend in the river, near the highway.  I hope you have time to stop.”

I broke out of my near trance-like state and responded to him, “Yes, I’ll see you later!”

He drove off, picking up speed down the gravel road; the limestone dust billowing behind the car as it disappeared into the trees along the creek.  I wished I had listened to him more closely.  How was I going to know the exact spot on the river where he would be fishing?  I might have to walk a mile or two, and the weeds and brush could make it difficult for me to find him.

And then I woke up.

I had been dreaming, and as I awoke the realization hit me that Dad had passed away over a year ago.  I wouldn’t be able to go fishing with him again, at least not in this lifetime.  But I began to think about the amazing subconscious area of our mind and how it works while in the dream state.  Fishing along a river wouldn’t have been my first choice for picking an activity with Dad.  I would have envisioned a golf game on a pristine and empty golf course.  I have decades of memories of playing golf with him, including beautiful spring days on the public courses in Wichita during his later years.  

But deep down, I knew that fishing was Dad’s favorite pastime.  He had a passion for fishing during his childhood and into his adult life.  Somehow my subconscious had picked up on that fact before the dream began to stream across the synapses of my brain.  Indeed, Dad took me fishing many times when I was young.  It was a perfect time to be with him.  We were outdoors, and he was relaxed, enjoying the time spent fishing with me and my brothers.

It was a fleeting “river of dreams” moment. I wished the faux reality had lasted longer, allowing me to find him on the river.  I would have been able to put the bait on the hook and cast the line out into the channel.  Then I would have sat beside him, taking the time to visit, or absorb the silence side-by-side, watching the river roll by us.  Maybe some early morning in my dreams I’ll see him driving back out of the trees toward the virtual farmhouse, returning to take me fishing with him.

Dad with his stringer of fish

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Weather Makers

Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park


The front range of the Rocky Mountains has a beauty and an allure that draw millions of people to the West every year.  In the past, they were a jutting barrier that awaited the explorers and pioneers once they had crossed the Great American Desert.  The beauty of Pike's Peak inspired Katharine Lee Bates in 1913 to write “America The Beautiful,” which includes the phrase, “For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain."

The front range can also be deadly.  As Gretta and I drove this summer through a rainstorm to Rocky Mountain National Park on U.S. Highway 34 from Loveland, I remembered accounts of the flash flood in 1976 in Big Thompson Canyon that killed 144 people.

We encountered our own challenges on our backpack trip in the National Park, and it reinforced my belief in the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared.”  The complexion of the skies can change in an instant, causing the beautiful surroundings to become inhospitable .

The Weather Makers
by Greg Larson

Anticipation and Preparation

Many times as I drove around Denver, I had glanced up at the peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park, and wished I could find time to go backpacking and exploring, or just sit and meditate among the crags and the snowfields.  On one business trip, I was able to take a short day-hike in the Flatirons near Boulder, Colorado.  It only increased my desire to spend more time in the mountains.

Gretta and I finally planned a major trip to Colorado, with a backpack sojourn into Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) to be the finale of our summer adventures.  I selected and reserved two nights at the Upper Ouzel Creek Campsite in the Wild Basin, which is located in the southeast area of the park.  The campsite was six miles from the trailhead and was the closest one to the continental divide; according to my contour map it was located near the timberline at 10,600 feet in altitude.  All our activities during the early part of our trip would build our endurance and acclimatize us to the thin air.

During the spring I visualized our stay at Ouzel Creek; an idyllic picture of warm, streaming sunshine at daybreak, an invigorating breakfast as we took in the vistas and then a short hike to Bluebird Lake, nestled at the foot of the peaks and glaciers.  Ah, Gretta and I would be able to relax and appreciate the beauty of the massive peaks and the alpine flowers.

As we traveled, we snagged bits and pieces of weather forecasts.  The prediction for the coming days was for cooler and wetter weather.  After visiting friends in Denver, we stopped at a sporting goods store and purchased some additional socks, pants, and fleece clothing to add to our layers of clothes already planned for the hike.

On the day prior to our anticipated backpack adventure, we hiked four miles round trip to Bierstadt Lake in the northeast area of the park.  We approached the lake and found a vista worthy of any National Park calendar.  The lake was a sheet of glass, and reflected through the reeds the beauty of the peaks, while a mother duck and her babies waddled onto the shore.  The beauty only heightened my anticipation of the trip that would start the next day.

The Hike Begins

The next morning, Gretta and I rose early, hurried to breakfast and devoured the pecan waffles at the Bighorn Restaurant in Estes Park.  We loaded our gear, drove to the Wild Basin trailhead and stepped onto the trail before 8:00 a.m.  The sun shone on the mossy rocks and the water foamed and roared down the creeks as we started up the trail with our heavy packs.  The morning was what I had envisioned for the start of a perfect backpack trip.  We even spied a ptarmigan perched on a log in the shade of the forest!

Gretta on the trail in the early morning

A mile into the hike we stopped for a water break as the sunlight streamed through the forest.  During our break, a ranger stopped and asked us how things were going and if we planned to camp overnight.

“We’re doing great!” I said, “We’re camping two nights at Upper Ouzel Creek.  We thought it would be a good idea to get an early start.”

“That sounds like wise planning.”  He replied as he continued on down the trail.

We crossed the bridge at Calypso Cascades and took another break at Ouzel Falls.  The falls were approximately halfway to our campsite!  I warned Gretta that our path would become much steeper at the next trail split.  After a couple of steep switchbacks, the trail leveled out onto fields that were relatively empty of vegetation.  It appeared a forest fire had occurred a couple of decades ago; the trees were much smaller and fewer in number.  I could more easily see Long’s Peak to the right, and the continental divide loomed only a couple of miles ahead.

Storms are Brewing

A cool wind hit us and the clouds quickly darkened.  I hoped to see the next forest, find some shelter and stop for lunch.  But, without warning, the raindrops began to hit us in earnest.  We stopped and pulled on our ponchos, covering our upper bodies and the backpacks.

Lightning bolts jabbed at the peaks while the thunder rumbled and echoed around us.  Pea-size ice pellets began to sting us but we continued to plod methodically up the trail.  There was no place to hide or to find shelter, so it was best to keep moving.

Only a mile and a half from our destination, we stopped during a short break in the storm to wolf down our cheese sandwiches and gulp some water.  The rain started again and we resumed our hike.  Negotiating the trail was more difficult than ever; it became steeper, muddier, and rockier, with tall, wet grass rubbing against us as we pressed onward.  The trail was collecting run-off water and had become a small tributary for the creek.  It seemed an eternity passed while we took each step up the rugged path.  We approached a waterfall and a small creek where I filled our water bottles and Gretta treated the water with some aqua pills.  I looked at the topographic map and determined that we were only about a quarter mile from our campsite.  Our spirits rose as we continued the hike up the trail. I hurried to the top of the next climb to see if the campsite lay ahead.

Disaster Strikes!

Then I heard a bloodcurdling scream behind me!  Gretta was screaming and screaming.  With a full pack on my back, I instinctively began running down the steep path, not realizing that I was putting myself at risk.  Thoughts raced through my head from mountain lions to compound fractures. I found her face-down, under her backpack.

“Gretta! What happened?”

“I tripped and smacked my face on a rock!” she cried, “My glasses are broken and my face is numb.  I can’t get the pack off my back!”

I tore off my pack and removed hers as quickly as possible.  Then I rolled her towards me. Her face was covered with blood and her glasses were demolished.

Remains of Gretta's glasses

I found the first-aid kit and tore open a towelette.

“How bad does it look?” She cried.

I gently wiped her nose and face, and gave her a report:  “Your nose is scraped badly, and it looks like your glasses punched against your eye and cheek.  There’s some heavy swelling around the eye.”

Gretta was distraught, but I could tell that she had all her faculties and she didn’t have any serious pain or symptoms of a concussion.  Nothing appeared broken, not even her nose.  She was upset that her twenty year old boots had ceased to be waterproof; they were not keeping her feet dry.  Her socks were wet and she was getting cold.  I was concerned that she might develop hypothermia if we didn’t get to camp quickly.

We agreed that I go ahead to the campsite, drop my pack, and hurry back to her.  Then I would carry her pack and guide her up the trail.

Finally we made it to the campsite, but Gretta had paid a heavy price with her fall.  Although the fog and rain remained constant, I was determined to set up the tent and get Gretta dried out.

The Campsite
We found the RMNP stake where our tent was to be pitched, and my heart sank.  The small, slightly sloping spot was full of water!  There was no other good spot to set up the tent.

“Oh, we have a small pond for our tent!” I facetiously remarked.

“Where are we going to pitch it?” cried Gretta.

I resolved to get us both through the ordeal, grabbed a big pine stick and hacked and scraped out the rocky soil in the corner of the site, creating a channel for the water to drain.  It reminded me of playing as a child in the gutters and the ditches after a rainstorm.  The water visibly receded from the small plateau.

Sometimes during a break in the fog, a magical world would come into view.  Mt. Copeland rose 2,500 ft. just south of the creek!  The talus glistened from the rain, and pockets of sleet clung in the cracks.  The creek from Junco Lake roared over the rocks, bisecting one of the snowfields (at night, it sounded like someone had left the bath water running).  Our campsite was within the last stand of Englemann spruce, at the edge of the timberline.  The only vegetation visible above us was the krummholz that grew in the nooks and crannies.

View from Upper Ouzel Creek campsite

The rain quit for a short time, although the fog hung heavily around us.  We carefully set out the plastic ground cloth and began setting up the tent with the protective rain-fly.  I knew the rain would come again soon, so I quickly grabbed the plastic trowel and dug channels in the mud beside the tent to capture any surface drainage.  Just as I completed the task, the thunder, rain and sleet returned; we threw our gear into the tent and quickly jumped in.

The Weather Makers

We began to see a pattern to the storms that came in succession.  Every hour or two, the fog with relatively warm moist air, rose up the valley from the east.  Like the prow of a ship it moved towards us, looming larger, eventually overtaking our campsite.  The cool air aloft streaked from the west over the continental divide, then tumbled and mixed with the fog.  Light rain began to fall, increasing with intensity, and eventually the lightning, thunder, and sleet would create a crescendo to the storm.  After a five to ten minute break in the weather, the process repeated itself.  We were eye-witnesses to a giant weather-making machine.  These storms spewed out thunderheads and moisture to Denver and beyond to Kansas.  I gave the peaks surrounding us an unofficial title, dubbing them “The Weather Makers.”  From time to time I had to scoop the sleet off the rain-fly and scrape the trenches clear to allow the water to flow around us.

During another break in the storm pattern, I fired up my whisper-lite stove on the rocks outside the tent, boiling water for noodles and cider in less than three minutes.  I’d barely poured the water into our instant dinner when the rain and thunder began again.  We quickly drank our cider, slurped down the noodles, and once again dove into the tent.

Give me Shelter

Although Gretta still had a shiver or two, she was feeling much warmer.  But we had become prisoners in our tent.  Before the daylight faded in the evening, I peeked out and said, “Guess what? It’s still foggy!”

The tent continued to keep us warm and dry. Just before going to sleep, we played “twenty questions.”  At times we laughed so hard I felt the tears streaming down my cheeks.  Our sleep came in two-hour chunks, with lightning and thunder rudely waking us at each occurrence.  At 3:00 a.m., I heard water trickling near the tent, and contemplated building an ark.  But my immediate concern was possible water in the tent, so I strapped on my boots, pulled on the rain jacket and took the flashlight outside to see if the trenches were doing their job.  The trickle was not coming towards the tent.  The engineered channels had worked!

As the gray daylight became visible, I looked out of the tent again.  “It’s still foggy!”

The Road Back to Civilization

I leaned towards Gretta and said, “I’m entertaining the idea that we pack up and hike down this morning.”

Gretta blurted out, “I’m beyond entertaining!  Let’s pack up and go!  We don’t even need to light up the stove for breakfast.  We can just eat granola bars on the way down.”

The rain began again.  With little excess space in the tent, we had to take turns packing up our gear.  Then we emptied the tent and began dismantling it.  I loaded up my pack frame with the wet tent and some of our heavier items, and then I gave Gretta my ear band to hold back her hair and my walking stick to help stabilize her on the trail.  Although we packed up as quickly as possible, the cold and rain made every activity occur in slow motion.  Our breath was visible in the 40 degree air.

I felt somewhat defeated; the “Rain Makers” had dealt us a mighty punch.  But I was determined that Gretta and I return safely to the trailhead.  We started the long, slow descent from camp, knowing that the return trip would take 4 to 5 hours.  Since Gretta’s vision was limited without her glasses, I lead her past the obstacles and guided her over the swollen creeks.  The trail was surprisingly steep and rugged in the first mile and a half from camp.  It looked much steeper going down than it did going up the day before.

Once past Ouzel Falls, we began to see day-hikers coming up to observe the roaring creek as it spilled down the mountain.  Even though it was still raining, they hiked up in large numbers.  Many of the women turned a wary eye toward me and then asked Gretta, “Are you okay?”  We had to stop every quarter mile to recount the events.

By the time we reached the trailhead we were exhausted.  We chugged some coke from the ice chest in the car, then found a forest ranger to inspect Gretta’s injuries.  He concluded as I had……Gretta had quite a shiner, but no serious injuries that needed attention.

The 30 hour ordeal was over.  We drove back to Estes Park, found a vacancy at a nice riverside inn, ate an entire large pizza, and slept for 12 hours.

The next day as we drove out of the mountains, I kept glancing in the rear-view mirror.  The clouds were breaking up along the continental divide, but Long’s Peak was still shrouded in fog; it had not been visible for the last two days.  I guess I’ll always view the peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park with some awe and mystery, and with the memory of the “Weather Makers” cranking out the storms.  But I’ll continue to have an idyllic fantasy of sitting amongst the peaks on a beautiful day.