Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Friendship - In Memory of Sharon

Best Friends Forever And Ever - how we always signed our letters.
Photo copies of letters from different times in Sharon's life, and the 45's we listened to over and over.

Today is my best friend, Sharon's, birthday.  She died on December 7, 2006 at the age of 37.  Sharon was my first and best friend all through grade school.  Sometimes I still talk to her in my head and can hear her voice.  It's hard to find the words but I've been meaning to write something in her honor for nine years now, and so here it is:

Sharon and I were inseparable.  When I look back at my old diaries nearly every entry reads, "Today Sharon and I...."  We slept over at each other's houses, went to the roller rink on Saturdays, the Swim and Racquet Club every day in the summer, and on Friday nights our two families went to Shakey's Pizza together.

We talked on the phone and wrote notes in class.  I had straight A's on my report cards except for "Conduct" where I usually received a 'C' for too much talking and giggling with my best friend.

We sang to Donny and Marie albums and played dress up with her dance clothes and my mom's prom dresses.  When we got older and our tastes were more refined (age 11) we listened to AC/DC and Foriegner.  She had these really cool platform shoes like Peter Kris from K.I.S.S.  We shoplifted some candy from the local convenience store (only once!) and played with matches in the alley.   Mostly we were so goofy I don't know how anyone could stand us.

My dad was in the Air Force and at the end of my sixth grade year he received orders for a move to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  I was devastated.  We'd lived in San Angelo, Texas since I was six years old.  In fact, I met Sharon just shortly after we'd moved to town.

When we left Texas, Sharon promised she would write to me.  And she did, nearly every week, for 25 years.

I saved most of those letters and every year I get them out and read some of them on her birthday.  Yesterday I realized that I was missing a span of about 5 years and searched the attic for them.  I never did find them but I found my 45's and roller skates, and decided to make some fun photos with them.

Over the years we each grew and evolved in different ways.  For awhile I felt like our friendship had waned, for the simple fact that we led such different lives and were bound to grow apart.  But we kept writing, and Sharon was always a better writer than I was - and I'm so thankful for that.

It took some major life events for me to truly appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of our friendship.  Sharon got cancer and I lost my first child, Anneliese.  It was at this juncture that we started to pick up the phone to call each other in addition to our letters.  It was awkward at first but it didn't take long at all to reconnect.

Sharon with her little brother David at a car show.
It was so great to hear her voice and her laughter, not to mention her Texas drawl.   We fell back into our old patterns of talking about, well, whatever!  I learned new things about her - like how she literally will not say anything bad about anyone.  And if she does, she says it in a funny and nice way.  How she is always positive and upbeat, even while battling cancer.   Thanksgiving 2006 she left a message on my answering machine, "I've really been feeling like C.R.A.P. lately."  You'd be hard-pressed to find a nicer person on the planet.  If I'd been through all the shit that she had, well, I'd be saying "shit."

Sharon had melanoma and also breast cancer, then her melanoma recurred.  It was so unfair.  She was a schoolteacher and her kids adored her.  She was smart, silly and fun and adored them back.  She had so much life left to live.

The last time I saw her was just a few months before she died.  I went to San Angelo for a weekend and we did some normal stuff - stayed up late talking and laughing, went out drinking beer (and to a dance club!), shopping, out to eat, and for drives around town.  I was so worried that I was tiring her out, but she said it was good to feel 'normal'.  We also did some not-so-normal stuff, like stay up late so she could take her chemo before bed.  We also had a talk about dying and this talk scared me.  I couldn't accept reality but I wanted to be there for her, to listen.  At that time I had hope and in fact, I was hopeful until the end.

Sharon was tough and courageous and never gave up.  She went through so much.  I think about that when I'm crabby for no good reason, how she always seemed to have a positive attitude.  Only once in a while would her letters reveal her fear and worry.  I'm honored that she shared that with me.

Having a best friend that knows your heart is a true treasure. Having a friend that has been there your whole life - from falling in love -- to heartbreak -- to grief, loss and sickness -- is a treasure a hundred times over.  Sharon was that friend.

I miss you Sharon and I'm still a dork. Sing along - READY - HERE WE GO - She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean --


Even though I tried, I don't think anyone could say it better than one of Sharon's students:

Sharon's mom's beautiful garden in San Angelo.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Shapeshifting in the Desert and Riding the Solitude Trail

I had a dream before I left for the desert.  I was sitting at my beautiful antique upright piano, hands poised, ready to play.  I was suspended in time because I knew that I could only play one note; but I didn't know what that note should be.  Lifting the front panel of the piano, I looked inside the piano for guidance.  There was nothing inside the piano except a single silver rose.

The week before my trip was a teeny bit awful.  I felt pummeled by the universe on every front.  The harder I tried, the worse things got.  Finally I threw up my hands in surrender.  And when it was time to leave I couldn't get the hell out of town fast enough.

I was craving solitude, sunshine, time on my bike, and an early spring.  A road trip to visit a good friend in Arizona was the remedy for what felt like a long Wyoming winter.

Later at my friend's house in Arizona on the spring equinox, I drew the card of Shapeshifter.


Coyote. Raven. Mountain Lion. Eagle. Badger.

Shift, pedal, climb, shift, descend, and......  coast.

I fairly coasted my way south, cocooned in the cab of my truck, lost in my thoughts and surrounded by the beauty of the landscape.  I took whatever back roads called to me.  I stopped and biked.  I sat in the bed of my pickup and watched the sun set over Monument Valley.  I had ice cream in Mexican Hat, Utah.

Riptide. This is Mary's Trail outside of Fruita.   It was my first dirt trail of the season after a winter of riding fat bikes in the snow... glorious dry hero-dirt and silly, goofy happiness. 

Solitude Trail outside of Moab was a son-of-a-bitch.  It was volcanic rock and sand pits chewed up by the dirt biker crowd.  Yeah man, it was a blast.  I left a little blood on the trail, but I finally bought some pro for my beat up knees and shins.  

I was on some random backroad that skirts Natural Bridges National Park and suddenly the road turned to a one-lane dirt road with a hellish drop off with no side rails, just orange cones marking where the road had fallen off into the abyss.   This is the view from the top looking into Monument Valley.

It was off-season in the desert southwest so there were no traders on the reservation selling their wares.  And the bike trails?  I didn't see any other riders on the Utah and Colorado trails and only a few in Arizona.

Weird things that you do while solo.  Do-rag; smear pink mud Indian war-paint-style on face; tuck feathers behind ears; ride bike down hotel hallways.  Listen to Waylon Jenning's Greatest Hits more times in a row than you care to admit.

I rode Adobe Jack and other miscellaneous trails in Sedona.  Adobe Jack was like the Disneyland of flow trails, a purpose built track that was yeehaw fun.  

My friend Rita and I went hiking in the Cococino National Forest, near the Cedar Bench Wilderness where I worked on a bald eagle study when I was 23 years old.  I was overjoyed to be back, in part because it remained so beautiful and unchanged after all these years.  Here I am standing in my dreaming spot - the place where I lived in my tent.   I feel like the same person but not at all like the same person.  It seems like a lifetime ago.  And while my eyes couldn't pick out the faint trails that I used to follow every day, my heart and my feet remembered.

This was a great time in my life, when everything I owned fit in the back of my truck. So simple.      It was here that I found my very own Walden.

Chasm Creek - which leads into the Verde River where the eagles nest high above in the cliffs.  The creek flows underground and intermittently and it's a magical place. I've seen javelina and beautiful lizards and tree frogs in the chasm.  There are rare plants growing from the dripping springs in the cliffs.  There is probably no one I'd rather share this place with than my friend Rita, a kindred spirit.

Another view of my camp.  I spent many cold and wet nights in my tent here from January to March for two field seasons.  I worked 10 days on and had 4 days off.  On my days off I'd explore southern Arizona, way down on the Mexican border -- mostly to warm up and dry off.  The two years I did the study were monsoon-like years with occasional flooding.  Sometimes I'd visit my grandpa Kramer who lived on the Arizona/California border.  On one visit he gave me a mason jar of fresh-squeezed orange juice from the trees in his yard, which I took on a solo backpack trip into Joshua Tree.  

The mountain lion was ever-present in my life here.  But I never saw one and so it was that the mountain lion sometimes felt like a spirit animal to me.  Once a lion killed and cached a deer just yards from my tent.  She came and fed on it every night.  Another time I was so close on her trail that I came across her steaming scat in the early morning light.  While hiking with Rita we saw big lion prints and tons of scat, old and new, on the road to my camp.  It was like a mountain lion highway.  I'm glad to see that it hasn't changed.  The scat in this photo looks huge to me, likely a big male.

I had the privilege of living in this beautiful area and shared it with one other wildlife biologist.  (There were two of us for safety reasons and also to split the long workdays.)

On my way home to Wyoming, I rode my bike in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.  There was an old townsite here, which was later used as a movie set for westerns.  All that is left now is the old cemetery.

Dashboard altar.  My friend Rita put this flower and the flicker feathers in a vase in my bedroom at her house.  The canvas was found at my old tent site.  One year had an old canvas tent that we used for cooking, etc. and then our separate tents for sleeping.  It was funny, as I was wondering if I had left anything from 22 years ago, I stumbled across this piece of canvas from the tent.  

On the trail of Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy Draw, Bryce Canyon National Park (hiking not biking - there was too much snow at this altitude.)

At the end of my trip I felt a little sad when I unloaded my bike from my truck and hung up my hat.  I missed my family while on the road but then back at home I started missing my Self, the person that I had rediscovered on my trip.  The person I used to be so many years ago and that I felt I had found again in the desert.  I was struck by how much I felt like a shapeshifter.

Desert Rat.  Conservationist.  Nomad.  Mother of three.  Colleague.  Sister.  Daughter.  Wife.  Friend.

I called Rita a few days after I got home and was lamenting about how hard it was to get back into the swing of things and also not get sucked into the daily drama of life - those tiny dust devils spinning around.  

Rita basically said, "let the desert spirits guide you."  And when the storms of life are brewing, try to be the owl holding tight onto a branch in the storm; the coyote warily watching and waiting; the eagle soaring above.

Many thanks to Rita and her husband Kenneth, and also the coyote, the lion, the eagles and owls, and the song of the canyon wren that I so longed to hear.  Thanks for the beauty, insight and peace.

And the rose?  Well, the Rose, according to my friend Rita, is love.  The only note.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Being Hearing Impaired - My Rant

Hearing impaired people use 50% of their daily energy on communications, people that can hear use 5%.  No wonder I'm so tired after work, it's a constant struggle to track what is going on in conversations.  Not only in meetings with crappy speaker phones, but in hallway conversations.  I feel like I miss a lot of nuance that is often key to a conversation.  I also miss other important snippets, like when meetings are scheduled, and often write things down wrong.

My hearing loss is mostly in the range of human speech.  At this point I think I can hear the voices of about 15 to 20% of people that I talk to on a daily basis.  I should correct that.  I can "hear" most everyone but I typically can't understand what is being said.  Along with hearing loss comes impaired speech discrimination.  Even with today's technology, hearing aids are not like eyeglasses, they don't 'correct' hearing as such, they just amplify sounds and don't make speech more understandable.  It's like having the car radio on a station that has a lot of static.  You can turn it up but you can't understand it any better - it's just louder static.  

I was on a solo road trip recently which was heavenly because it was a break from my constant struggle to hear and understand. I was either cocooned in my truck cab or out alone in the desert on my bike.  I truly needed that break.

Here in our little town of Lander, Wyoming I have a set world.  I know which people I will likely avoid because I can't hear them, depending on the day and whether I feel up to it or not.   I often wonder if people think I'm snooty...

Often times in social situations, I don't ask people to repeat something that I've missed, simply because the moment has passed. And I miss a lot, especially when people are joking around or say something to the side.  But - I try to smile and nod like I actually know what's going on.   I know, faking it is not the best plan, but I am just completely burned out lately.   And embarrassed that I have to ask five times or more before I get something.

My hearing impairment started when I was young with multiple ear infections.  I had tubes put in my ears in grade school and was amazed after the procedure when I could hear sounds such as the water running from the faucet.   But even after the tubes were put in, I still flunked the standardized hearing tests, year after year - all through grade school.  

About three years ago I had my hearing tested and bought hearing aids. The audiologist said that it would be life changing for me.  It's funny but with hearing loss, you just don't realize how bad it is until it gets really bad.  But now even my hearing aids are not that helpful.  I feel like my hearing loss compounds as each year passes.  My loss could be genetic - my grandma was completely deaf by the time she was in her 60's.  It could be a combination of things: ear infections, rock concerts (front row Billy Idol!), shooting guns without adequate hearing protection, etc.

Until now, I was under the impression that I missed about 10% of what happens at work or in social situations.   But I had an "aha" moment the other day, and realized that I probably have no clue how much I am missing and it's probably a much higher percentage. When I was on my solo bike trip I realized that when I'm not ensconced in my little world of Lander,  I actually can't hear the majority of people than I come across on any given day.  

It made me wonder: How often do I appear socially inept because I respond the wrong way? Or because I can't get the gist of the conversation?  Or I say something that someone has just said - and I get the dreaded "no duh" look from people?  Or I don't respond at all and look like I am ignoring the speaker?  Worst of all, what if people don't think I have a sense of humor?  

Most of the time I don't worry or care about what people think in general, which is a nice thing about being in your 40's.  But I do want my friends and family to know that I want to hear what they have to say.  My husband often acts as interpreter or  will ask me, "you didn't get any of that did you?"  Which can sometimes be annoying so I need to be more patient.  (Thanks for pointing out the obvious, honey!)

I hike and bike a lot with my sweet golden doodle named Daisy.  When I meet people on the trail it's frustrating because I can't even have a short casual conversation.  But since it's just me and one other person or group of people on the trail I have to say something out of common courtesy. And truly I like to connect with people.  But it's generally not a good idea for me to wear my hearing aids outside, it's too risky with expensive equipment that health insurance does not cover.  And so I muddle through a short conversation, and walk away feeling like a retard.  (Yeah, so "retard" is probably not politically correct but it describes how I feel perfectly!)

The worst is that I can't hear Ben very well (my 10 year old son), even with my hearing aids in. I'm trying to get my whole family trained to speak loudly and clearly and NOT while they are running water in the sink or from another room. Talking from another room or with their back to me makes me super cranky.  This past week Ben had a sore throat and so he was whispering. Both of our frustration levels were sky high. 
And don't even get me started about trying to talk on the phone or to support people with shitty headsets. I rue the invention of cell phones.  I can't hear anything when someone calls me on their cell phone, which everyone does of course.  No one seems to have a nice clear land line anymore.  Honestly, I would reach out more to my close friends but dang, it's so frickin' hard.  People leave messages on our answering machine that are complete gunk, and so I have to have my husband interpret and write them down for me.

Personally, I don't carry a cell phone, not because I can't hear - but because I don't like being that connected.  But things like email and Facebook are actually a help to me, because it's easier to communicate by writing.  Except that I don't much like looking at a computer screen after I get home from work.

People that are elderly and have hearing loss have an advantage - people expect them to be hearing impaired and talk loudly and clearly from the get-go.  Sometimes I want to wear a big sign that says, "I'm halfway deaf, speak the HELL up."  When I have to get a new set of hearing aids, they will be bright orange or blue, as my sign to the hearing world.

But I try to do what I can.  I want to proactive.  I am getting better (a little) about telling people that I'm hearing impaired.  But I get sick of reminding people that know me.  They probably don't realize how deaf I am.  I can no longer hear much with my left ear at all so I try to strategically place myself with my right ear towards the person speaking.

We just bought a TV (after not having one for 20 years!)  I watch everything with closed captioning, which sometimes bums me out because I'm not really watching the movie.  Movies in the theatre are a drag but I try to relax and enjoy the images on the big screen.  I've asked my husband to do all the ordering when we eat out because something as simple as ordering sandwiches for the kids at Subway is more frustrating than the average person can begin to imagine.

I could always hear my mom's voice but she passed away just over a year ago.  My closest living relatives, my brother and dad, are impossible to hear on the phone, and in person for that matter.  My dad has Parkinson's which means his speech is much more quiet than it used to be, especially when he's tired.   My brother only has a cell phone and it's also hard for me to hear/understand him in person.  My brother has a wicked sense of humor that I love so I really want to hear him, without asking him to repeat something a zillion times.

Sometimes it makes me sad.  There are probably rich friendships that I would have had but I tend to avoid people I can't hear.  I also avoid a lot of social situations, parties and things.  I'm an introvert by nature, but still.  Milling around with a room full of people making small talk makes me want to crawl under a chair.  So, yeah, I'm probably just a bit socially inept by nature.   Maybe my poor hearing steered me toward the introvert part of the spectrum.

I'm lucky, my close group of friends are understanding and I tend not to stray outside of my core group.  It's just too much work and too frustrating.   But hearing aids do help in social situations where there is background noise and being in a restaurant with friends was impossible before I had them.  But it's not ideal, and I always go away feeling tired and deflated.  I have to really amp myself up and be in the mood to go out and socialize.  The main thing is this: I need to be selective where and when and with whom I spend my energy.

Often when I get home from work I feel like I don't have any patience left to try to hear and understand my family.  And I'm not the most patient person in the world anyway.

I can't hear elk bugling, or sandhill cranes or the sound of rain on the roof.  But I can hear meadowlarks and chickadees.  I'm too stubborn to quit with some things, and I'm still trying to learn Spanish.  At times, it feels like my world is shrinking.  And the less I can hear the more frustrated I get; and the more I tune out and the more I miss, etc.  It's a vicious cycle.

But like anything, there are gifts.  I like solitude and I am comfortable with silence.  I have had wonderful, amazing experiences and jobs in the outdoors that I wouldn't have had without these personality traits.  Whether or not they are due to my hearing loss and the resultant feeling of being a little distant from society, I don't honestly know. Probably I'm just a tad quirky anyway.

Other benefits: when my kids are fighting in the car, I just take my hearing aids out.  The noises that bother other people, like generators in campgrounds, don't affect me.  I can't tell that my piano is wildly out of tune when I play. And I give myself a pass when something isn't worth the effort to try to hear/understand.

When I was first fitted for hearing aids, it was close to a miracle - I was amazed by all of the things that I could hear again.  But I could only wear them for a few hours at a time in the beginning.  My brain couldn't process that much noise and information.  I am still relieved when I take them out at the end of the day.  It's kind of like taking off your safety helmet or something at the end of a workday.  Done. Finished. Rest.

So, what does the future bring?  I'm going to look into cochlear implants but I'm not sure if I'm a candidate yet, and while they won't approximate human speech they might be an improvement.  I joined an online hearing loss support group a few days ago, which already makes me feel less alone, and its nice to commiserate with others, especially those who have a sense of humor about all of this.

I know that we all have our trials and tribulations and our stories to share, ALL of us, so truly -- thanks for listening.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Painting the Pump House

This is my best friend on a very tall ladder in flip flops, trying to paint the eves of the 100 year-old pump house on our farm.

And below her is my Uncle Lucky and my son Ben.  It was Lucky's idea one day last summer, about 6 months after my mom died. He said to me: "You know, you outta paint the well house, it looks so cute when it's painted."

It was twelve years ago when we last painted the well house.  My grandpa died, leaving the farm to my mom and my aunt. My mom moved to the farm and was also going through an awful divorce with my dad.  Our farm, which she and my aunt battled so hard to save after Grandpa died, has been in our family for over 100 years.

Twelve years ago it was Mom's idea to paint the pump house, as a collective therapy session. Not only was Mom going through the divorce but Scott and I had just lost our daughter, Anneliese, the winter before.  I was not functioning well.  Truth be told, I was not functioning at all.

So it was good that anything could get me out into the sunshine, it was an escape from my own thoughts for awhile.

Last time it was Lucky, Mom and I painting the pump house.  On this day it was my best friend Tracy, my 9 year old son, Lucky and I.

Painting the pump house is like passing the torch or changing of the guard.  There is so much symbology in this simple act.  It's another generation taking care of the farm that we all love so much.

I visit a number of ranches each summer for my work.  When a ranch changes hands through a sale or the death of an owner, there are always changes.  No matter who the new landowner is, change is inevitable. In almost every case, the changes to the land, the buildings, the ranching or farming operation are good.  A new owner is invigorated and inspired by their love of whatever special place it might be.

In our case my brother and his wife were able to move to the farm and they have lovingly restored the farmhouse that my grandpa built.  My brother is also making improvements to some of the outbuildings.  It wasn't that Mom didn't want to make these improvements, but she needed to spend her hard-earned retirement playing golf, enjoying her grandkids, and working in her wood shop!!

When we were painting, Lucky dubbed me "Kramer" - which is what he always called my mom.  He's called me "Grandbaby" all my life.  He's been our neighbor on the farm since before I can remember.  He is our honorary Uncle Lucky and actually, we love him all the more since he's not related to us!

I suppose that being 45 maybe it's time I'm not Grandbaby anymore.  And calling me by my mom's nickname (her maiden name and the name of our farm) is about as high an honor as I can get.

Well, all be damned I thought, I'm Kramer now.....  Will my kids and their kids and their kids and their kids paint this pump house until it falls down?  Truly the paint is the only thing holding the thing together.

It was such a fun day painting the pump house together, and just what we all needed. We stopped in the middle of the day to have a picnic at mom's grave under the mulberry tree.  Tracy brought out some gyros from the Greek bakery in Denver and we had ice-cold Fat Tirre beer.  Mom may have thought she was going to rest in peace, but now our favorite place to hang out is where we buried her ashes.  Her 'headstone' is her childhood tricycle.

We were such dopes, we painted the walls of the pump house first - barn red.  Then we ran out of time to paint the trim white.  So on Thanksgiving Day when all our cousins, aunts, and uncles were out for our traditional old-fashioned farm Thanksgiving, I corralled the kids and gave them paint brushes.

There ended up being more white paint on the red paint than on the trim.  We had to go over the walls again with the red -- but it was a Thanksgiving the kids will never forget.  My mom would have loved it.

The kids finish up the job on Thanksgiving Day.

Mom had great memories and stories about the pump house.  In the summer when they were picking corn, Grandpa kept watermelon in a bathtub with ice so that when they were done sacking corn they would all get delicious, cold watermelon.

Generations five and six.

Dave at the picnic spot under the mulberry tree, where Mom's ashes are buried.

Thanksgiving Day 2014.
We love and miss you Mom!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mountain Bike Joy - Grief and Healing

So yes, of course I bought the bike! (The Rocky Mountain Altitude - that I fell in love with in August, see my Confessions post.) I have to say that it changed my riding completely.  I am shredding trail I wouldn't have dreamed about a year ago.  And I'm conquering my fear.  Each time I push the envelope and achieve a new level it's exhilarating.  But mostly it's pure unadulterated fun.

And that's why I ride.  I love to ride.   It makes me feel like a 10 year old kid. A lot of times I am smiling to myself all the way down the mountain.  I'm living life in the moment, I'm in the zone, and it's all GOOD.  If you don't ride then you should know that there's a little bit of OCD I think with mountain bikers.

Must. Ride.

Not that I haven 't taken a few spills.  One pretty good hit to the head earned me a new helmet.  My legs look like a disaster zone.

The pain on the outside is minimal.  Truthfully, part of the reason that I bought the bike is because sometimes, especially this past year, I have a sadness that I can't shake  I know that we all have our stories but mine is this.  I have lost my share of loved ones in my life...

We lost our beautiful infant daughter Anneliese 13 years ago.  Although her memory is woven into the fabric of our daily lives, we still grieve for her and miss who she would have become.   Our lives have never been the same since.

Eight years ago my best friend from childhood, Sharon, died of cancer at the age of 37. She was a beautiful person, inside and out and one of the nicest people I've ever met.   All my grandparents are long gone and also my most special  aunts - my Aunt Vicki and my Aunt Shirley.  They helped me through the worst of times after losing my daughter.

Last year my mom died of cancer at 69 so this year has been hard.  And you'd think I'd know grief.

Right after mom died, I ran.  I ran on our local mountain trails - obsessively and long.  I think I was trying to outrun my grief.  Frankly I was sick of grief and in complete denial.  I should know better.  The result was that I injured my back and I could barely walk for about a month and a half.  And the pain settled in my hip and leg, too, in the exact place that my mom hurt from her cancer.

Thankfully spring came and I was back in shape to ride my bike.  Biking is way more fun than running.  Although if I'm completely honest then I might admit that I was trying to outride my grief too -- if I could only ride fast enough!  I just didn't want to do the grief thing again.  But the funny thing is that there is a kind of healing that happens when you are communing with nature.  This kind of healing comes of it's own accord, without too much effort on the part of the griever.  You just simply have to step outside.

But sometimes its hard to make yourself take that step.

I've always thought that 'nature healing' happens with long introspective walks in the woods.  That's what I've done in the past. But indeed healing can happen on a bike.  You pedal, climb, breath.... pedal, climb and breath.  At the top you stop to thank God that you made it and take in the view.  Then you race down the mountain with the wind in your hair and a great big smile on your face.

It seems like a contradiction but with grief work you can and should soak up life's joys - because they are a present to you, from Life itself.   Joy gives you balance and helps you heal.  I couldn't do this when we lost our daughter.  There was no balance to the sorrow I felt, at least for a very long time.  With my mom it's different and yes, there are levels to grief.  Not to lessen the grief of others, but it's the truth.

Stay with me here, this is not all about grief and sorrow!

Maybe because of my losses, I feel blessed in this life and so very lucky to lead the life I do.  My story is just one of many.  There are untold families that have endured deep sadness that I can't even begin to fathom.  But I do believe that when you've had significant loss it means that the joys of life are, well, even more joyful.

So what does this have to with riding?  On the trails where I ride there are blue grouse and mule deer and wildflowers.  In the fall, the yellows and oranges of the aspen trees are stunning with blue skies and a dusting of snow.  Every time I ride I am celebrating the here and now -- because I can. I am thankful for the day.  This is the way I honor my loved ones that aren't here, by feeling grateful and by living in the moment.

When I ride I don't think about work, or kids or relationships, or the past or future, nada.  I just meditate on dirt on sky.

Take all of what my life is and has been up to this point and mix it up, shaken not stirred, and there you have it.  This is me and my new bike.


I will have loved my life with passion, embraced it with fervor, cherished every single moment of it. I will have contemplated with wonder the sky and its running clouds, my brethren the humans, my sisters the flowers and stars. I will have feasted unceasingly on the treasure of life in all its forms. I will not have dwelled in mediocre ambitions, vain hatred, and useless complaints.  

I will depart with the belief that there is no end to the flow of life in the universe, that there is no death but only an unceasing change of worlds.  - Robert Mullen

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Confessions of a Hardtail Rider

I started mountain biking in college over 20 years ago on a Trek Antelope.  I rode many miles of  U.S. Forest Service trails during my down time as a fire fighter in the Snowy Range of Wyoming.  A few years later and a few dollars more I upgraded  to a used GT Pantera with the original RockShox.  My riding was mainly on two-tracks and cattle trails in the high desert near Green River, Wyoming.

Two years ago I finally upgraded to a Specialized Stumpjumper Comp 29'er Hardtail.  I demo'd a lot of bikes and for the type of cross-country riding I do this bike made a lot of sense.  Plus I'm a minimalist and I like the simplicity of a hardtail.  It's light and fast and she climbs like a demon. She has also turned me into a fast woman on the flowy downhills.  My favorite riding has always been in the desert and we have some sweet single track just outside of town at Johnny Behind the Rocks.

I'm probably an outlier on this but I usually ride alone. Riding is my cherished time for solitude and there's only a few other people that I like to ride with. Luckily for marital harmony, one of them is my husband.  Recently he started looking into buying a new bike.  In the past he didn't ride much and so only recently has considered a new bike. So -- I'm super excited that he wants to get on the trails with me.  He NEEDS a new bike -  he still has his Trek Antelope from his college days.  And, if he has a sweet new bike that means he'll want to ride more, promoting even more marital harmony, right?

A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to have Rocky Mountain Bikes in town with a bunch of demos. Being the supportive wife I tagged along (what better way to spend a summer day with your spouse?!)

We rode all afternoon.  It was hot out.  I was super tired from camping out the night before.  The first bike I rode was the Rocky Mountain Element which was the first full suspension bike I've ever ridden.  Holy cow!  It's like the first time you (...fill in the blank) and you think, "So, THIS is what it's all about." 

I rode the Element on a section of nasty trail that is pock-marked by horses and boulder-strewn.  It's a trail that I ride several times a week.  This year our local bike group, Lander Cycling Club, has been hard at work building trails in the foothills near our town and I've found myself really enjoying the technical terrain.  (And sort of getting back to my roots, pardon the pun!) Riding with FS was an eye-opener - the bike didn't care that I was tired and was picking a terrible line.  It just took me up and down the mountain like a dream.

The last bike I rode that day was the Rocky Mountain Altitude which was not only dreamy but it fit perfect - like my favorite little black dress.  It felt FANTASTIC, like I'd been riding it my whole life.  I felt invincible on this bike.  It was a complete and total joyride.  I could go through all of the specs that made it so but the fact is that I was in love.

So, the dilemma.  Do I abandon my hardtail purist stance and dive into the realm of full suspension?   I keep hearing about how riding a hardtail makes you a better rider, blah blah blah.  But the full suspension opens up a whole new level of riding fun.  And I do love my stumpy niner, but I'm kind of already feeling nostalgic for her - kind of when you look back to your very first love and realize that it wasn't quite as perfect as you thought. (Gosh, but I feel unfaithful!)

But even with a new bike, I will never be the fastest girl on the trail.  I always come in last in any event (who else stops to make snow angels during a fat bike race?).  But we only go around once and life is too short not to enjoy this ride to its fullest, and sometimes, newest ride...

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dispatch from the Field - Rattlesnake Mountains

And there I was, on top of a mountain range in the middle of a thunder storm -- lifting my bike over my head and praying that I wouldn't be hit by lightening...

In my many years of field work I've been in a number of sticky situations. Hazards include rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, broken trucks, bad roads and foul weather.

Given all that, I have the best job. My summer consists of visiting about 20 ranches for field work that I do for The Nature Conservancy.  I love meeting with the ranchers and being out on the land.  The most remote ranch I visit is in the Rattlesnake Range, a mountain range smack dab in the middle of Wyoming, i.e. the middle of nowhere.

To get to the ranch you have to take a number of nasty two-track roads up to the top of the range.  The directions are so confusing that no one has ever bothered writing them down.   Now that we have GPS it's a little bit easier to find  - although the country is confusing and there's no good points of reference.

This particular area used to be part of a large ranch called the Matador but some of it has been subdivided and as a result there are a handful of cabins up in the hills.  Some are nice and some are downright scary and consist of little more than plywood shacks.  They bring to mind gun-toting anti-government-recluse-freeman types living in the hills.  A place I don't want to get lost.

The Rattlesnake Range is intriguing and unexpected - it rises straight out of the sagebrush prairie into red-rock faults, canyons, spring-fed creeks and high open valleys. Pronghorn antelope, mule deer, mountain lions,  elk, and any number of raptors call it home.  Because of its remoteness it feels wild and intimidating but it's also beautiful.  It has a strange feel about it, like you'd imagine the vibe within the Bermuda Triangle.

I always try to get out early in the day to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.  Naturally on this trip I was running late and then took a wrong turn.  Once I got to the ranch gate it was locked, double-locked in fact.  The landowners were not home for my visit.

At the gate I ate a quick lunch on the hood of the truck before setting off on my mountain bike.  I'd been packing my bike for situations like these, where it would take a long time to walk in and the roads are often too rough for a vehicle.

The country was so lush, it seemed like there were thousands of butterflies this year with the abundance of wildflowers. My goal was to get to a high spot on the ranch to take photos and it wasn't until I was up there that I could see a wall of blackness closing in.

I was in a race to beat the storm and I rode back to the truck as fast as I could, but it was dicey.  The two-tracks are deeply rutted and I couldn't see the ruts because the grass was so thick and high. I took one spill over the handlebars and scratched my bike frame. That nearly made me cranky (the scratch not the spill).

The roads through the wet meadows were completely grown over so I put up cairns on the way in to mark the turns from one two-track to another.  (I was glad I took the time to do this, it would be no fun getting lost on the way out.)

I was riding through bogs in wide-open meadows when the storm broke.

Cairn as a marker.  I also found a plastic coat hanger that I picked up and used as a marker at a junction.  Why on earth would a coat hanger be out here?  Completely strange.

I debated whether or not to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.  But if I waited then the rain would make the roads impassable.  I wouldn't be able to get off the mountain.

It was a catch-22 so I said a prayer and high-tailed it across the open country, hoping that lightening wouldn't strike me whenever I had to hoist my bike above my head and over a barbed-wire fence. 

I arrived at the truck soaking wet.  I was feeling panicky about the road conditions but I also felt like it had been dry enough in the last few days that they wouldn't turn to mush too quickly....

No such luck -- the roads were complete snot. I slid sideways down the mountain for a good hour.  It was a rodeo and I did all I could to keep from getting stuck or sliding off the road into the borrow ditch.

Whenever I started to panic I did what I recently learned from my mountain bike coach.  "When things start to go to hell, stop and take a deep breath and start again."  Sometimes I couldn't stop and had to gun the thing but mostly this worked. It's been awhile since I'd been on roads this bad. Amazingly -- I had radio reception and sang out of tune classic country all the way down the mountain.

"She's a good hearted woman in love with a two-timing man."  It was a goofy scenario all around.

To add insult to injury I had to open a number of gates in the pouring rain.  Cattle congregate around the gates so wherever I got out I was deep in a quagmire of cow shit and mud.   I deal a lot in cow and horse poop which doesn't usually bother me.... but this was really... yuck.

Finally I made it to Poison Spider Road, a very nice graveled road and about two hours after that I was home in Lander.  It took me 45 minutes just to wash the mud and @#!* out of the wheel wells.

What's that saying about fishing?  A bad day of fishing is better than a good day in the office.  Same with field work, but then again, all's end that ends well...

The main county road, I could have kissed the dirt.

Road/no-road, all the grass made it soft for riding, an odd cushy feeling.

My destination was to find the cabin which is on the southern end of the property.
A weird side note, I was so happy that I made mangospacho the night before. I'm pretty sure I'm the only person to ever mountain bike in the Rattlesnakes and for sure the only to have a picnic with fresh mango soup.

New bike accessory, a mount for bear spray for when I am working in grizzly bear country.