Saturday, October 13, 2018

Amongst the Waves at Lac d'Annecy

Catamaran Race on Lac d'Annecy
Amongst the Waves of Lac d’Annecy
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           The gentle waves of pristine water lapped the dock posts and the shore of Lac d’Annecy at the foot of the French Alps. The afternoon breeze was growing with the temperature in the low 70s, although for two people from Kansas (my friend Mary Anne and I), it seemed to be in the slight breeze category. We stood on shore, watching the white, modern water-taxi slowly jostle its way to the edge of the dock, guided by the young, sandy-haired captain of the boat.

Water Taxi approaching

          In weeks of anticipation of the chartered boat ride, I’d envisioned a sleek wooden boat of golden-brown color with a finish of glossy marine varnish. Although, the white taxi looked very sea-worthy and appeared to have the power to quickly get us around the lake.
           “Allo!” said the young driver of the boat as he stepped up on the dock and looked at me. The eyes of the tourists eating at the lakeside cafĂ© turned our way to watch us board the taxi. He reached out his hand and spoke with a French accent. “My name is Thibault. And your name?”
          With the exotic setting in the Alps, I was very tempted to say, “Bond . . . James Bond.” But my senses got the better of me. “I’m Greg . . . and this is my friend Mary Anne.”
Author and Mary Anne in the Water Taxi
          Thibault responded, “Oui, I can show you some points of interest around the lake, but tell me if there is something specific you want to see.”
          “I’m an artist. I paint watercolors, and I’d like to photograph a castle, chateau, or church along the shore to use as my inspiration to paint. I’d also like to get some good mountain backgrounds as well.”
Abbaye de Talloires at the foot of the Alps
          “Yes,” said Thibault, “We can do that. Let’s go.” We settled in the boat and pulled away from the resort of Abbaye de Talloires. It was worthy of a movie setting. The deep water reflected colors of turquoise and emerald green. As a backdrop to the old resort, the deciduous trees were just beginning to turn their fall colors. Behind them, upwards on the mountain slopes stood the conifers of deep forest green. Capping the view at the sky were the massive cliffs which seemed to announce to the world: Here we stand guard at the west end of the European Alps! Artistic views appeared at every turn on the lake.
          The artful setting did not go unnoticed by impressionist and cubist painter, Paul Cezanne. In the summer of 1896 he stayed at the Abbaye, which had originally been the home of a group of Benedictine Monks. It was abandoned by the monks after the French Revolution, and in 1862 the portion of the building that was built in 1681 became a hotel.
Paul Cezanne's 1896 painting of Chateau de Duingt on Lac d'Annecy
          Cezanne painted many scenes around Lac d’Annecy in both watercolor and oils. His most famous painting of that summer, Lac d’Annecy, was a view of the Chateau de Duingt, which is the castle located across the lake from the Abbaye. This was a time when Cezanne cultivated his cubist ideas of making geometric forms out of what he saw in his surroundings.
Chateau de Duingt on Lac d'Annecy
          I tend to paint more realistic detail, but I hoped that whatever pixy dust of Paul Cezanne remained in the surroundings, that some of it would fall on me as I searched for subject matter.
          Thibault steered the boat across the small end of the lake to give us a good view of the famous Chateau de Duingt. He slowed the engine and allowed me to snap several pictures.
          “I am told that a family with three children live in the castle. For income they have some of the surrounding buildings set up as a bed and breakfast hotel, and they rent out the grounds for large parties for weddings and family events.”
          We followed the western shore and stopped at spots to view interesting church spires or large chateaus, but I wasn’t pleased with any of the pictures. The mountains were so huge and once I zoomed on the buildings, the peaks were lost. Thibault steered the boat around a peninsula and the large north end of the lake came into view. Voila, a sailboat race of small catamarans was in progress. That’s when my creative juices started to flow.
          I turned and looked at Thibault, then pointed to the boats. “We must go there. I want to take as many sailboat pictures as possible. Try to stop on the south side of the race so the sun will be good for the photos.”

Sailing on Lac d'Annecy
2018 original watercolor by
Gregory E. Larson
          When he turned the water-taxi and accelerated, some of the wave-spray sprinkled our faces, and the whole afternoon came alive. He closed in on the race, cut the engine, and we began to bob like a cork. I jumped like a little kid from one spot in the boat to another to get good views of the moving catamarans as they rounded the race buoys. I focused on composing each picture of sails and mountains, which was difficult while using a zoom lens.
          The sailboats were bobbing in the water and the participants were shouting and laughing at each other in French. Was this catamaran race smack-talk? I couldn’t make out the words, but there were spirited exchanges of shouting between the boats. I guessed they were saying things like, “Get out of the way you waterlogged bucket! We’re coming through!” I felt like I was in a virtual carnival ride, with the wind, water, and the colorful sails moving at a rapid pace.

Focused on sailboats
          Thibault kept following the race and repositioning the boat for me to continue taking photos. My mind was racing along with the boats, trying to find the most colorful groupings and nice backdrops. I’d hit the motherlode in terms of inspiration for watercolors. Les Petits Catamarans! Tears of joy came to my eyes as the boats continued racing.
          I smiled with a thumbs-up to Mary Anne and realized she was taking a picture of me taking pictures of the sailboats. In that moment, I was convinced that the boat ride on the lake had made the entire trip to France worthwhile.
Les Petits Catamarans
2018 original watercolor by
Gregory E. Larson

Friday, August 10, 2018

Mt. Sidney

by Gregory E. Larson

           The summer morning had a freshness to it, causing one to linger in the breeze above the river . . . though the freshness would not remain in August. The day’s increasing wind from the south ushered in hot air in an attempt to legitimize a Midwest drought.
          My friend and I wandered through the cemetery at Mt. Sidney, which is more of a mound than a mount along the Kansas River in the countryside west of Bonner Springs. We had no specific reason for the visit, no mystery to solve, nor grave to seek. It was just a desire to find a peaceful spot, to drink in the morning before it was lost. The bordering woods sloped to the south where a view through the gaps of the towering cottonwoods revealed reflections from a shrinking channel and sun-bleached sandbars.
          Grass crunched under foot, as the freshness had already given way to dormancy. Stones of different age, size and shape dotted the hillside. Some had tilted or shifted in the sod. We tried to read the words and numbers on the cut stone, but weather and time had worn the surfaces. They were discolored by moss, dirt and erosion. Our fingers traced engravings on the rough surfaces to reveal names of real people given up to the earth in decades and centuries past.
          It was a quiet place in the country, punctuated by sounds of a busy world, of people going about their daily business in northeast Kansas. The freight trains rocked and creaked on the tracks hidden in the woods along the river. Planes overhead pierced the blue sky on journeys of unknown destinations. On rare occasions, clouds of dust billowed from the gravel road as a car or truck passed by.

The large monument and sculpture at Mt. Sidney
          On the highest spot, a prominent stone with a sculptured angel marked Mt. Sidney. The four sides of the marker listed many names of the Elder family. On the side overlooking the river, the engraving revealed:

son of
born on
JUNE 30, 1879
JAN 20, 1895

 . . . not yet sixteen. I wondered what kind of life he lived. How did he die? Illness? Accident? Who were his friends? How deep was the sorrow of parents and family? On my walk that morning it was a mystery lost to layers of sod and generations.
          Deep in thought, we wandered towards the car. I found comfort knowing that summer’s grasp would soon give way to autumn. The time spent in the cemetery reinforced my joy of life. It made me appreciate all the friends and family close to me. I thought of all the places one can experience on this globe - places that give us joy and strength. At the end of the walk, I felt all the better for having stopped my hustling and bustling to share a moment on the warm hillside.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Lost Plane in Colorado

Al (Stacy) Torres, Jr., standing next to the Torres family's Piper Cherokee, 1969 (Torres family photo).
Lost Plane in Colorado
by Gregory E. Larson

          Everyone knows that I like an adventure. The most memorable, hair-raising adventure I ever had was when I was eighteen years old. My younger brother and I, along with two friends stumbled upon a plane crash in the remote wilderness of Colorado. The plane had been missing for over seven months.
          Numerous times I have written down memories and thoughts of the events surrounding the tragedy and our discovery. I revisited the crash site in 2009 and eventually made contact with the surviving family in 2014.
          The article below is one that I wrote for the newspaper in La Veta, Colorado, which is the largest town in the area near the crash site. I provided the basic facts around the crash and discovery, but did not go into any detail. I’ve also added some updates at the end of the article.

 1969 plane crash site near Cuchara revisited
by Greg Larson
Special to THE [LA VETA] SIGNATURE – August 13, 2009

           Discovering the crash site of a lost plane is something a person doesn’t forget. I have often thought about the crash I helped discover almost 40 years ago. Something compelled me to return and see what remained at the site.
          The single-engine plane crashed during a snowstorm just north of Trinchera Peak [in southern Colorado] on a ridge line above Bear Lake on October 23, 1969. The flight originated from Belen, New Mexico, with the intended destination of Denver, Colorado. Four persons perished in the crash: Al (Stacy) Torres, Jr., Al Torres, Sr., Lindy Garcia, all three from Belen, NM, and Tom Mayhew of Farmington, NM. Their families had searched the mountains of New Mexico for months, and the First National Bank of Belen had offered $1,000 for information leading to the location of the missing aircraft.
          We discovered the plane crash in May of 1970 on a camping trip with my brother and two friends. At the age of eighteen, I organized the trip along with my younger brother, Tim, who was fourteen. We each had invited a friend from our hometown of Garden City, Kansas, to go camping with us in the Cuchara area. After loading up my ’63 Plymouth, we drove to Bear lake and pitched our tent in the snow, unaware of the missing plane.
          One the morning of May 29, 1970, we discussed where to hike. My brother and I had a strong disagreement on which direction to take. I wanted to hike some of the trails, but Tim wanted to strike out for the ridge. We final agreed to hike to the ridge (12,000 ft. elevation), but I insisted that I would decide when to turn back for camp if we ran into bad weather or started to run out of time.
          The hike through the woods and up to the timberline was difficult; at times we waded through waist-deep snow. After climbing to the top of the basin, Tim and his friend, Craig Letourneau, crossed the ridge first and discovered the crash site on the west side of the mountain. The plane had slammed into the steep, rocky slope about 200 feet below the ridge.
          When my friend, Ron Rupp, and I crossed the ridge, we saw the wreckage; a gruesome scene in the melting snow. It was what I would term a “Twilight Zone” experience. Over the years I’ve tried to blank out what I saw there.
          After recovering the plane’s log book and some identification from one of the bodies, we hurried down the mountain during an afternoon snow squall. Ron and I drove to the general store in Cuchara and contacted the forest ranger.
          Recently [July 2009], I traveled with my wife from Overland Park, Kansas, to revisit the site. When we viewed the basin and ridge high above Bear Lake, I feared we might not be able to find the crash site.
          Three things had to fall into place for a successful revisit: we would need enough physical strength and endurance to climb up to the ridge, my memory would have to direct us to the crash location, and the weather would have to cooperate.
Wife, Gretta, hiking above the clouds and up to the ridge.
          On July 21, 2009, we began an early ascent of the mountain, hiking above the timberline and the clouds and climbing up the steep alpine meadows. We reached the ridge and searched the western slopes for the crash site, but found nothing. As I scanned the slopes one last time, I saw what appeared to be a stake on a cairn below the ridge, and soon realized that it was a metal cross with a rectangular plaque. I carefully climbed down the scree on the steep slope to inspect the memorial.
Greg standing on the ridge at a rock cairn located above the crash site.
          The plaque was inscribed, “IN MEMORY OCTOBER 1969.” The names of the four victims were engraved on the steel, with the birth year next to each name. I was surprised to find only a small amount of debris at the site. Remnants scattered aroundthe memorial included pieces of metal, plastic, and electrical parts.
Memorial cross at the crash site.
          As I looked on the plaque at the birth year of Al (Stacy) Torres, Jr., I was struck by the irony that we were the same age on the date of the crash.
          I’ve had time to reflect upon my revisit to the scene, but questions remain. Why did the victims fly into a snowstorm? What happened to the crash debris? Where was the engine block? What directed us to discover the crash in the vast wilderness? Some questions have no answers. The unforgettable events and experiences surrounding the crash will always be shrouded with some mystery.

Author’s update, July 1, 2018:
          Standing alone at the memorial on the mountainside in 2009 was a deeply moving experience for me. I realized that the family must have built, carried and installed the cross at the crash site. The unanswered questions gnawed at me, so I began a slow search to connect with the Torres family. That search, in itself, was an adventure. In 2014, I received a phone call from Nolbert Torres, the oldest surviving brother. We wept on the phone together as we remembered the past and shared about our families.
          In the Fall of 2014, I traveled to Belen, New Mexico, and spent three days with Nolbert (Nols) and the Torres family, asking questions and swapping family stories. They welcomed me with open arms and treated me as if I were a long-lost family member.
          On the last evening, my brother Tim was able to join me and the Torres family at Nols’ brother’s house (Matt Torres) for a pot-luck dinner and family gathering. We sat out in the cool air of the Rio Grande valley and talked into the night about the stories surrounding the crash. For many younger members of the family, it was the first time they had heard all of the details surrounding the tragedy.
From left to right: Therese Salazar, Bernadette Baca, Matthew Torres, Charlotte Torres - mother of the Torres family, Gerard Torres, Tim Larson, Greg Larson, Nolbert Torres.
           My intention has been to write a detailed book about the Larson and the Torres families and how their lives intersected on a remote ridge in the wilderness, but as we all know, sometimes life’s events create major roadblocks and prevent focus on what seems important.
          My hope now is to finish the project – to provide my perspective from both sides of the tragedy. It is a rich story of two thriving “baby-boomer” families from different areas of the U.S., dealing with and overcoming the horror of death and destruction of the crash, then re-connecting forty years later to give thanks for the lives we have lived. It has definitely been an adventure that continues to this day and beyond.
A timeless view on a serene day at 12,000 ft., in an area of the Sangre de Cristo mountains where severe and unpredictable weather frequently occurs.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Cosmic Fate of a Used Bicycle

With a bike, the world became a bigger place.

The Cosmic Fate of a Used Bicycle
by Gregory E. Larson

 Preface: We all use different tools, utensils and things in our everyday lives. I’m sure that you can look back and remember something to which you had an attachment – maybe a car, bike, toy, doll or tools and utensils that became a part of you. This is a memoir of the first bicycle I had. An additional note: I used this same title for an article I wrote in a creative writing class in 2009, and decided to write the same story now, but from a different perspective.

          There are times of great significance in our lives. We may not know the magnitude of the events until we look back and see the impact they had on us. As Christmas day of 1956 unfolded in Wichita, Kansas, I wasn’t sure what the future held for me as a five-year-old, nor did I care. I just wanted to play with the toy gun and holster that was under the Christmas tree and wear the cowboy shirt and hat that made my transformation into Hop-a-long Cassidy or Roy Rogers complete.
          I didn’t know what jealous or envious meant, but I felt strange when I saw the shiny, new bicycle that Santa had placed in the living room for my older brother, Dan. A Royal Sabre, three-speed, it was what my brother called an English Racer. I had no bicycle at all. Why was my older brother getting a new one? My dad helped Dan get up on the seat. His feet didn’t even reach the pedals.
          “We’ll get the seat adjusted,” Dad said to my brother, “and you’ll grow quick enough that you should be able to ride it soon.” He turned to me. “You know what this means, Greg. You’ll get to ride Dan’s old bike. We’ll put training wheels on it, and you can start learning.”
          I had a funny feeling in my stomach. I wanted to ride a bicycle, but I didn’t know if I could do it. The big boys in the neighborhood zipped along the sidewalks without training wheels. It looked like something that was hard to do.
          The days were chilly in wintertime, but Dad took me outside to try out the training wheels on the bike. One of his big hands guided the handle bars, while the other hand gave me a sturdy push to keep me moving forward.  Before too long, I wobbled down the sidewalk on my own, while relying on the training wheels to keep me upright.
          I began to follow some of the neighborhood gang on my bike as they pedaled along the sidewalk, and realized that my world was expanding quickly. If I could keep up with them, I could ride to around the block or to the school playground. But I wasn’t fast enough, and I still had to use the training wheels. The best thing to do was practice going faster and faster. My little balloon-tire bike and I became good friends. I didn’t care if the two-toned brown and cream bike had its share of rusty scratches. It was mine and I was learning to go places.
          One Saturday morning my dad’s voice shook me up at breakfast. “I think it’s time to take off those training wheels, Greg,” Little did I know it was going to be a glorious day. Once on the bike, I felt it wobble, but my Dad’s guiding hands stayed with me. All of a sudden he pulled his hands away and ran alongside yelling, “You’re doing it, you’re doing it on your own!” Adrenaline pumped through my veins. I felt scared, excited, not sure of what to do next, and then my confidence took a giant leap as I kept pedaling. 
           The extent of my world grew exponentially from that day forward. The possibilities were endless. One day I was the Lone Ranger. The next day I morphed my imitation Colt 45 into a gas nozzle and pumped pretend gas into my friend’s bike and mine. We could be or do anything we imagined. In the evenings we rode with the neighborhood pack around the block. A wooden clothes-pin attached to the frame, and an old playing card touching the spokes turned any bike into a noisy motorcycle. We were fearless motorcycle cops!
          On summer days we rode endless circles in the back yard, pretending we were circus performers. Tricks came easily. After pedaling uphill in the circle, we took turns doing tricks on the downhill side, putting feet on the handlebars or balancing side-saddle. As we became braver, we stood on one pedal and extended the other leg out to the side. Of course, there was the no-hands trick, too. I had as much fun riding the bike as I did climbing trees in the neighborhood. The little bike seemed to do just about anything I asked it to do. It became a place of comfort and familiarity to sit on the seat and ride out on another adventure.
          The sidewalk in front of our house was uneven because the elm tree roots had pushed up the concrete, creating a mini-ramp where the slabs separated. With some daring and ingenuity, my friend and I could briefly launch our bikes into the air if we picked up enough speed before the ramp. Hey, I thought, we could create a circus trick where the bike rider would launch the bike up the ramp and over one of us lying on our back across the sidewalk just beyond the ramp! It would be The Ramp of Danger! This was years before Evil Knievel. I volunteered to lie down on the sidewalk, and my friend sped on his bike toward my skinny body. I sucked in my stomach as he approached. Ka-thump! His rear balloon tire bumped my stomach and was gone in a flash. It worked!
          Now it was my turn to ride over my friend. I got on my bike to ride it to a starting point. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mom coming out the front door. She had that stern mother look in her face.
          “Hey! What are you boys doing?”
          “Nothin’. Just a circus trick.”
          “Oh no you don’t.”
          “But, Mom, we tried it, and it doesn’t hurt at all.”
          “Well you are NOT to do it anymore. You could easily get hurt. You can ride your bikes, but there will be no more stunts like that.” Her orders put an end to the thought of a circus career, but it didn’t stop us from riding bikes every day.
          In a year, Mom and Dad moved us to the suburbs and my world grew even larger. We rode our bikes to the swimming pool and to a little shopping center nearby. Eventually, I talked Dad into painting the old bike. We agreed on a baby-blue color to match the color of the family car.
          My new friend and I rode to school, and when we had free time in the summer, we rode all the way out to the wheat fields, hid our bikes in the tree windbreaks and hiked out to the edge of our universe. We explored the tree lines in our hobbit-like world before I’d ever heard of hobbits.
          Now, as a grandfather, I am able to spend time riding bikes with the grandkids. It is fun to see their confidence build as they learn to ride their bikes and explore their neighborhood. The cosmic fate continues as each child and each bike create a moving machine of legs, arms, pedals and wheels – and I get to watch their world expand exponentially.
Another generation of cyclists ready to roll.


The grandchildren on their road to the future.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Serenity in the Rocky Mountains

Timeless beauty at the Continental Divide
photo by author

Preface: This year’s hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park inspired me to paint a picture with words and to paint a watercolor (at the end of the blog). It was four glorious days of mild-weather hiking in March for me and my brother-in-law, Michael Farley, and his wife Linda Anneberg. I’ve included several pictures for you to enjoy.

Serenity in the Rocky Mountains
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

Sunrise on Long's Peak
photo by author
          It was the stillness of the forest in the semi-darkness that grabbed my attention when we began our daily treks at the trailhead. Hiking each day in the mountains at sunrise had many advantages. It gave one a new perspective of the beautiful landscape, and there were no crowds. I looked up to the peaks to see the golden reflections of sunrise touch the snow and rocks. To me, it was nature’s alarm clock at the start of a fresh, new day. As we walked through the forest, the glints of sunlight sparkled around the dark trunks of the pines. Snow crunched underfoot. The shadowed floor of blue snow lay quiet, waiting for the birds and animals to wake up.

Author on Emerald Lake with Hallett Peak behind
          This year’s winter hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park were quite different than last year when I had every piece of clothing and equipment on to keep me warm in the snow and wind. It was a treat to have mostly mild and sunny days. Temperatures were in the high teens at sunrise, and around forty-five degrees when we finished hiking in early afternoon. Snowshoes were not needed because the trails were a mixture of packed snow, ice, rocks and mud. The best mode of hiking was traction devices on the boots and the use of poles to keep one’s balance. We were able to go greater distances without the snowshoes, hiking about six miles a day.
Climbing a chute to Loch Vale
          By late morning each day, we reached our destination at frozen glacial lakes in hidden valleys near the peaks on the continental divide. We joked that to go further would require ropes on the rock faces. The names of the lakes evoked beautiful images (Emerald Lake, Dream Lake, Bierstadt Lake, Mills Lake, and Loch Vale), and each time we arrived at the frozen surfaces, the views would stop me in my tracks. Many times I just stared at the snow, the peaks, and the forests. I stood in silence for several minutes, watching the cloud shadows play on the rock faces. I wondered what the view was like from high up on the craggy faces that stood before me, and looked at the snowdrifts which caressed the boulders and trees. It was a timeless feeling, with a view unchanged by the ages.
          Most of the lakes were about 10,000 feet in altitude, with adjacent peaks of 12,000 to 14,000 ft. The details of rock and snow which stood over a half-mile in height from close range were almost too much to comprehend. It made me realize how tiny we humans are in such a big world, and also vulnerable to sudden weather changes. We always watched the clouds to see where they were going. Even though the forests were quiet, it was evident from the clouds and fog that scraped the peaks at fifty miles-per-hour that the climate was much different above us.
          I wanted to inhale the solid tranquility and etch it into my memory. I’m convinced that hiking in the mountains is good for the soul, and four days of beautiful winter weather in the Rocky Mountains brought forth memories (and pictures) for the keeping.

Winter at Loch Vale
Rocky Mountain National Park
watercolor by author
Here are a few more pictures from the trip:
Early morning on the trail
photo by author

Mills Lake looking at Long's Peak (middle left).
Glacial Valley below Bear Lake
Rocky Mountain National Park
photo by author
Frozen surface of Bierstadt Lake
Rocky Mountain National Park
photo by author

Looking back at the valley towards Loch Vale
photo by author


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Claustrophobic? Let Your Mind Wander.

by Gregory E. Larson

 Preface: Believe it or not, there are no pictures with this blog post. You’ll have to use your imagination, since that is what the essay is all about.

           “Mr. Larson,” said the nurse, “Are you claustrophobic?”
           The doctor had ordered an MRI test, and the nurse was ready to have me lie down on the large sliding tray that rolls into the machine. I chuckled and said, “I don’t think so.”
          “Well, this test is one of the longer ones,” she said, “It takes about thirty minutes.” She handed me a button on a cord. “If you have any problems at all, just push that button and we’ll come right in.” She handed me some ear plugs. “These should help block out some of the noise.”
          I answered, “As long as I don’t have to hold my breath for thirty minutes, I think I’ll be okay.” Once I got on the big tray, they positioned my head so that it would not move. While they rolled the tray into the machine, images of my youth came flooding back to the time my brothers convinced me that it was okay to fold me into the couch on the hide-a-bed frame.

* * *

          I tried to remember why my brothers decided to fold me into the couch. Were they punishing me for some injustice or were we just curious to see what strange things we could do in a normal household? Whenever Mom and Dad were gone for the evening, it was open season to do just about anything as long as no one got injured and no property was damaged.
          I thought it strange that once my brothers folded the frame to the point where part of the mattress covered me, I actually thought it was fun. I pretended I was a piece of chicken, and the mattress was the piece of bread for the giant chicken sandwich. They pushed the frame into the couch and down into place. Things got really tight, but I just laughed. Then the punishment came. My brothers flopped down on the couch without putting the cushions in place.
          “Hey! Cut it out! Get off me!”
          I heard them put the cushions on top of me, and then they said, “Good-bye. We’ll check on you later.” Fortunately, they were only kidding.  In fact, my little brother, Tim, wanted to give it a try. His turn at being folded into couch didn’t last very long. He started screaming and laughing immediately. When my older brother, Dan, and I gave the frame one last push, we heard a POP . . . then looked wide-eyed at each other.
          “Hey, what was that?” asked Tim.
          Dan replied, “We don’t know but we’re pulling you back out and no one is to say a word to Mom and Dad. We might have cracked the frame. Once Tim was out and the cushions put into place we quickly pursued other mischief.

* * *
          My mind was jolted back into the present when the MRI machine began vibrating weird, high and low pitch sounds, with short bursts and long tones. It was a bizarre experience. Who needs drugs to enjoy this strange world? A bluish-white light shone on a surface that was about two inches in front of my nose. To pass the time, I imagined I was in a pod of a spaceship or a time machine going to another galaxy. What would I see once we got there?
          Yes, I like to daydream. I figure if they ever make a pantheon for daydreamers, my name will be etched in marble in a prominent location on the entablature.
           The daydreaming started at a young age, and it has never stopped. It is a blessing and a curse. It’s not a good thing when you imagine flying in a jet over the Rockies and you get interrupted by a teacher or professor. But it does come in handy when you are waiting in line somewhere or you’re tired of doing Sudoku puzzles in the doctor’s waiting room.
          Absent-mindedness is a spin-off from daydreaming. It can get complicated when you think of two or three things at the same time. I’ve never been a big fan of multi-tasking.
          Claustrophobia. Daydreaming. I thought of those two words side-by-side and said, “Yes, if you want to fight off claustrophobia or any bad situation, just let your mind wander to a good place!” In the book Unbroken, when the famous athlete Louis Zamperini was being tortured in a Japanese prison in WWII, didn’t he imagine he was running barefoot on an endless beach? I’ve read accounts of people starving in prison or in the wilderness, and they imagine the best Thanksgiving dinner possible. It does help, at least temporarily.
          The machine noises subsided and the lights came on in the room. It was time for them to pull me out.
          Claustrophobic? Nah.
          While tucked into the MRI machine, I’d gone back to the 1960s, returned to the present, only to be shot out into interstellar space. Now that’s about as wide open as it gets.
          So . . . if you are claustrophobic, the next time you feel it coming on, just let your mind wander. The universe is a big place.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Travel Oddities (Part 2)

The carnival atmosphere outside Fenway Park
Travel Oddities (Part 2)
travel memoirs
by Gregory E. Larson

 1.     Dirty Water at Fenway Park, Boston
           I finally made it to see the Boston Red Sox play in Fenway Park last July with two of my daughters, and I was able to check off another bucket-list item. We ate fast food along Boylston Avenue and walked over I-90 to the street adjacent to the ballpark. A carnival atmosphere permeated the entrance, where people were hawking t-shirts, programs, etc., and jugglers and clowns were walking among the crowd.
          Once inside, I looked in awe at my surroundings. I had that feeling of baseball reverence as I spied the green monster wall and saw the Boston skyline beyond. The ball field was an intimate space, with the crowd and the scoreboard packed around it.
Fenway Park is hallowed ground for baseball fans.
          I knew that one of the traditions was the playing of Neil Diamond’s song, Sweet Caroline, at the seventh inning stretch. What I didn’t know was the tradition of playing an old rock tune at the end of the game when the Red Sox won. I was having so much fun watching the game that I secretly hoped the Minnesota Twins would tie it up so we could stay longer, but they didn’t score in the top of the ninth inning, so the game was over.
          The speakers began to blare a loud guitar rift and the fans rocked and clapped like they were at a concert. The song, a 1966 one-hit wonder by The Standells, titled Dirty Water, was pumping adrenaline into the fans who stayed for the end of the game. I realized the lyrics were about Boston, although I wouldn’t consider a family crowd a target market. Here are some of the pertinent lyrics, which are sung with a snarly, devil-may-care attitude:

 Aw, Boston, you’re my home . . .
Yeah, down by the river,
Down by the banks of the river Charles.
(Aw, that's where it's happenin' baby)
That's where you'll find me
Along with lovers, muggers, and thieves. 
(Aw, but they're cool people) . . .
I love that dirty water!
I love that dirty water!

          The baseball crowd knew the lyrics by heart and they sang at the top of their lungs. I have to admit that I tapped my toes to the music and hated to hear the song come to an end. I guess there’s a bit of bad boy in all of us. I felt like a Bostonian as I walked out of the stadium and into the night along with several thousand fans.
Here's a link to Dirty Water:

2. Christmas in July
          The little hotel on the edge of Spello, Italy, was a perfect stopover on a 2005 bike tour across Italy. The building had previously been an olive mill and was converted into a hotel. The rooms had patios with unobstructed views of the mountains and the dusty-green olive groves that hugged their bases.
Countryside near Spello, Italy
         But . . . inside the room was an unusual art print above the sofa. It was a folk-art picture of a small Italian village on Christmas Eve, in which all of the townspeople were walking towards the church. While we washed our bike clothes and hung them out on the patio to dry, I mentioned to Gretta that I thought the art seemed unusual and out of place. She responded, “Yes, but I do think it is kind of cute.”

Italian winter scene in our Spello hotel room in July
          The next day we wandered around Spello. It was Sunday, and the shops and galleries were closed, but we did bump into a little gallery that was the studio for the folk artist who had created the Christmas Eve picture. Every painting in the window had little village people plodding along the streets. The artist appeared to have a following and was probably a revered painter in Spello.
          But Christmas Eve on the wall in the hotel room in July?

3. Puppet Bike

Of course! It's a puppet bike!
          April in Chicago wasn't exactly Paris, but a visit to the Chicago Art Institute and some street entertainment afterwards made me feel like I'd been transported to a land of varied culture with fine art and street theatre.
          Gretta and I were enjoying a weekend in Chicago with friends, and we'd just walked out of the Institute and crossed to the west side of Michigan Avenue. At the corner, I spied some type of bicycle contraption with a small crowd huddled near the rear of the bike where a large, fancy box was attached to the frame. Oh, I should have realized instantly that it was a "Puppet Bike!" Little doggie hand-puppets were dancing to an Elvis tune, and they had captured the attention of every passerby on Michigan Avenue. 

Doggie puppets rockin' on Michigan Ave.
          Pat-a-cake hand-jive, dosey-doh! I couldn't see any blue suede shoes, but a disco ball was included in the performance, along with the puppets waving dollar bills and pointing to the money box below the tiny stage. 
Here's a link to see a reporter's story on puppet bike: 
4. Prime Real Estate in Banff    
A nice hotel on the main street in Banff, Alberta
          Banff, Alberta is a beautiful tourist town at the edge of the Canadian Rockies. When trying to describe it to Americans, I tell them it is like Estes Park, Colorado on steroids. It’s bigger and a bit fancier – larger streets, multiple downtown hotels and curio shops with high-end merchandise. The adventure tour company booked us in the Royal Canadian Hotel, which was located on the main street in the middle of town.
          I assumed the real estate in downtown would be considered prime, but when I looked out the hotel room window at the house adjacent to the hotel, I was a bit shocked.

Driveway amenities.
          The house and yard didn’t fit the tidy little town appearance of Banff. I saw several dogs and cats, although I had to look through all the overgrowth and junk. The VW bus in the driveway looked like a permanent structure with little trees growing on the roof. The cottage in the back yard had its own issues.

A real fixer-upper in the back yard.
          All I could figure was the property was in a trust or stuck in a lawsuit. The only other thought was maybe the owner was holding out for a prime price.
          Hey, it would make a great Bed and Breakfast fixer-upper.

5.     Rag-tag Band on the streets of Florence
          I looked out the third-floor window of the bed and breakfast room in Florence, and my jaw dropped. The San Giovanni Baptistry was directly in front of me in the middle of the town square and the view to the right was the massive Duomo and the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral. Gretta and I used the central location to allow us to roam and sightsee during the day and return to the room for a deli lunch break. It was fun to sit at the window sill and people-watch.
View from our room in Florence, Italy
          On a Saturday we were munching sandwiches and swigging Coca-Colas when we heard a marching band. The noise kept getting louder so we looked out the window, only to witness a crowd following a rag-tag bunch of musicians with a strange mixture of drums and instruments. They were playing simple tunes and the crowd of tourists and locals looked like they were having a lot of fun.
Impromptu marching band at the square in Florence
          All of a sudden they turned and began to march around the square. As they passed our window we waved to the crowd and they looked up and waved and cheered back to us! Gretta and I felt like a King and Queen receiving a command performance from the people’s band.
          The mass of people continued to follow the band around the square two more times before they went on down the street. At one point, near the front of the cathedral, it seemed like the whole city was attempting to converge on one spot. The horse carriages, the band, the crowd, the vendors, beggars, a street sweeping machine and an ambulance were all vying for the same space.

There was a lot happening on the square that afternoon.
          The band was enjoying their march around town. It appeared to be a family affair, with all ages participating. Being in Italy, I assumed that wine was somehow included, possibly before, during, and after the march. I guess they decided to wake the town up in the middle of the afternoon. What could be better than exercise, music, sunshine, and the effects of wine and a happy crowd on a Saturday afternoon? Gretta and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

6.     La Forge - A Storybook Cottage Made from Stone
     Note: This anecdote isn't quite what I would consider an oddity, but the stone cabin was a unique place. it was a great memory - so I'll end this blog post with a moment in time I'll never forget.
     On a 2007 bike tour in France, our accommodations in La Bugue were on the grounds of a large French chateau. We were the lucky couple who got the keys to a private stone cabin down by a creek.
          “Wow, look at this,” I said to Gretta as we walked up to the bulding. “It looks like something out of a fairy tale.”
La Forge - The fairy-tale stone cabin
           Centuries ago, the building had been a forge for making horseshoes, and for a time it had been the bakery for the chateau. The main floor of the tiny cabin had a living room and a large bathroom. The bed was in a loft which was accessed by a glorified ladder with a rope for a railing.
Gretta in the storybook cottage
          Outside, there was a small creek and a little waterfall next to the cabin. A bamboo grove created a soft shimmer of green light on the surroundings. A giant sycamore grew in front of the cabin, making the building look even smaller than it was. Gretta seemed like a little kid playing house as she opened up the shutters and windows in the warm summer afternoon. I just sat outside on a chaise lounge while I sipped a beer, looked at the cabin and then decided to pinch myself.