Wednesday, March 14, 2012

When The Wind Blows

Molly’s eyes open slow and sure into the twinkling blue slits she wears by day. The corners of her mouth turn up on her moony face, repositioning some sly old joke behind the crescent. The bedside lamp has been on all night. From flat on her pillow, she can see the first frost of the late season on her breath. Outside, thin, icy clouds sweep across the mountains. She separates the hands clasped at her fleshy breastbone and slaps one over the horsehair mattress, only to find familiar lumps big as bodies — not Griffin’s body itself.

No one’s home to hear but she barks out the coarse chuckle of the jolly girl she is supposed to be. She knows Griffin has been out since dawn:  He likes to visit the yawning girls putting together sausage biscuits at the Duck ‘n Go, or chat with Beau Tillman on his bread route. The truck rocks down the town’s dirt roads and Griffin walks alongside in the grainy light, hands in his pockets, hissing laughter. Maybe Beau is listening through the open window, maybe not.

Molly sits up, grabs the Noxema from the table, smears a thin coat over her freckles. Stubby fingers rake her hair into a tight ponytail. She stands into a pair of Birkenstocks worn shiny black by her round white feet and scuffs her way toward the kitchen. In the short hallway, she stops at a photograph of the father she has not seen since she was three — his sepia face hangs at the same height as a real father’s. On tiptoe, like a ballerina a fraction of her weight, she presses her cheek against his brash smile. His retouched hair looks black instead of red-brown, like hers.

In the kitchen, one of the vinyl chairs squeaks to accept her weight. Griffin has left a stolen newspaper on the table as usual — with a note on top, which is not usual. “Hey girl,” it says. “Thanks. Sister in Atlanta got me a job.” An expanse of blank white suggests he might have wanted to say more, but finally the word “Cool” closes the note, without punctuation, pencil line drifting off to nothing. Molly heaves herself from the chair, goes to the screen door and drops her Mexican poncho over her head. She leaves her Birkenstocks inside and stuffs bare feet into boots that have been on the steps since spring.

Her nose whistles on the walk. Her flannel drawstring pants pillow half in and half out of the boots. Her hands are small and exposed hanging outside the poncho, beside her wide hips. Opposite the back alley, shops are dressed up for the tourists like rows of saloon hall hussies, but away from the fa├žades shop owners smoke or let their guts hang out while they empty trash.

“Hey Molly!” they call.

She turns suddenly into the back of the Mount Mercy Rescue Mission. Reverend Sebastian stirs a big pot of oatmeal with his bottom lip poked out, while she ties on her apron.

At length he says, “Saw Griffin at the bus stop this mornin’.”

“Yep,” Molly replies. Her nose is still whistling. She scans the dozen cots on the other side of the room. Half are taken.

The reverend points his dripping ladle without checking to see if she is watching. “That there’s Tallahassee Joe, come in last night from North Pass Campground.”

Molly locks down the joke she holds between her teeth and gums a little more securely.  

“Hey Joe!” she shouts. “Get over here and get some breakfast.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


For the first few years Doug and I were married, our family traveled. Our crew of six crawled all over the mountains within hours of our home, in the Great Smokies and on others in Virginia and North Carolina. We camped and camped some more, or spent long, full days under the South Carolina sun, swimming along beaches, seining the tide pools, or dropping crab buckets off the piers. Most significantly, on a professor’s salary, we packed up and moved the whole household operation out West for two summers in a row. 

Horseback riding i n Colorado.
WhileDoug taught as an adjunct professor or volunteered for the National Forest Service in Wyoming, the rest of us tooled around New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming. Since our living expenses mostly came with us, the trips were surprisingly affordable, and we had a grand, spiritually and intellectually luxurious time. One of the summers, our 16-year-old twins worked their first jobs as lifeguards at the Saratoga Municipal Swimming Pool, within sight of the magnificent Medicine Bow mountains on WYO 130, while the two younger girls ran wild and free on their bikes through every nook and cranny of that small Wyoming town. On any night, all of us girls might lie down in the back of Doug’s pickup truck under the breathtaking explosion of Western stars, while he slowly drove along endless miles of dirt roads. Daily, we drove or hiked out to where we could see wolves, herds of elk, deer with two or three brand-spanking new babies, eagles, beaver, otters, trout — more wildlife than I could ever list here. Days and days we spent in native ruins, the cave dwellings at Mesa Verde, the Anasazi Great Houses in Chaco Canyon. Horseback riding and hot springs, and wildflowers — how to describe the wildflowers? The world a family of six could reach by minivan or in hiking boots was a wonder, and we basked in it all.

Hiking in Mesa Verde  --  and yeah, that's a bonafide cliff!
Alas, since we’ve moved onto the farm, those kinds of dreamy extended excursions have seemed over  for two years now, at least for Doug and me. Three of the girls we imparted with wanderlust are women now, and they still roam the world, for work and for fun — Mexico, the Honduras, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand and Tasmania, the Caribbean, Canada and Alaska, and always and repeatedly, the Western United States. Doug and I, meanwhile, have been tied to feeding horses, tending chickens, mowing, planting, putting up food. Responsibly leaving the animals has seemed an impossible specter.
One of our views.

Finally this past weekend, the two of us got away for one precious night in Knoxville, Tennessee, about two hours from home. We planned the short trip around a concert, and slept in the executive suite of a fine hotel, feeling strangely “1 percent” as we swiped our room cards in the elevator before it would even take us to our floor. The spring weather was beautiful. We walked the sleepy streets of old Knoxville in the sunshine until concert time on Sunday. We had a terrific time. Yet, afterward, we kept taking each other’s pulse.
Doug on top of the Medicine Bows.

“Did you have a good time?”
“Yes I did. You?”
“Why yes, yes I did.”

The answer was yes — really.

And no.

What was wrong, I wondered? Too much anticipation?

One day after we returned from our two-day trip, my three oldest daughters flew in from a 10-day vacation in Puerto Rico. They were thrilled with what they found here — a picture-book of rain forests and sapphire beaches and reefs. We laughed to hear about how they snorkeled amongst the fishes until their guide startled them with the order, “My friends! Wait right here!” They treaded water on a shallow section of reef looking around for sharks’ fins until their guide informed them of the problem:  “The boat!” he yelped, then dove into a 20-minute swim, to catch the drifting craft that would take them back to land …

They had a terrific time. And yet …
Holly, Tessa and Devon in front of the Medicine Bows.

What exactly was all this my extraordinarily lucky daughters were complaining about, I wondered?  Puerto Rico was awfully touristy, they said, and expensive  for the kinds of travelers who carry all their needs slung over their shoulders. The local people were westernized in a way that transcends “westernization” — bearing the overzealous quality of wannabes. They all had new cars, iPads, most were overweight. They wouldn’t allow my daughters to converse in Spanish with them, as though the local tongue were anathema. “Gluttonous,” one daughter said, and living in such a small place, homogenous — no escaping either Americans, or the relentless march of America on the native people. McDonalds, Burger King, KFC. The daughters, it turned out, had traveled to what they already knew all too well.

Then I realized:  the complaint was the same for Doug and me. We hadn’t gotten away. Our short stay in Knoxville took us right smack dab into the heart of our very own culture, with no nature and no change in the landscape of our everyday lives to distract us from — whoopee! — bars and restaurants and the touristy shopping on Market Square. Our brief taste of the 1 percent was rather flavorless. Little cabins in the middle of nowhere have served us so much better than that 18th floor suite.

On the upside, we are making strides back toward balance, slowly finding the ways we might be able to travel again. I now have a horse-savvy friend who can feed my horses while I am away, and I will do the same for her. Doug, meanwhile, is planning another month-long hike out west for this summer, when I will be the sole animal caretaker, secure in the knowledge that my turn to hit the road will come.

And from now on, we’ll be sure to get away, whether we drive two hours or twenty or take a flight.

Taylor getting photographed (and checked out) after we'd been in the Saratoga, Wyo., Fourth of July parade!