Monday, October 28, 2019

Bringing Gracie Along

Today, my two younger daughters and I made a return trip to Gordon Skagit Farm. We visited this upscale autumn market ten days ago, and loved it so much that we decided to make a return visit. My youngest was in pursuit of a dried flower arrangement, but I was just looking to soak up more gorgeous October ambiance. I dreamed of strolling around the artful displays laden with gorgeous gourds, fabulous foliage, and pretty pink blossoms amidst the pumpkins that I find so utterly irresistible.

This time, however, we brought Gracie along.

If you have ever taken a toddler to a nice restaurant, then you have a pretty good idea how my afternoon unfolded.

To be fair, Gracie was obedient, charming, and happy to visit with humans and canines alike. In many ways, she was a model visitor to the autumn market.

However, she also:

jumped up against the wire on the chicken coop and barked with wild enthusiasm at the two feathery occupants,

attempted to leap through the metal railings at the horse paddock, whose openings were less than ten inches apart, and almost twisted her body just the right way to slip through,

marched through all the deepest mud puddles, wild waves circling out from her muddy ankles, and came thisclose to lying down in the deepest one, and

drank vigorously from the watering trough that had been charmingly repurposed as a water garden, complete with lilies and bobbing mini-pumpkins.

Thankfully, my darling dog drew the line at leaping into the water trough, though I could see the gears turning in her head. She seriously considered diving in.

Next year, I'll definitely be heading back to Gordon Skagit Farm to stock up on wonky pumpkins, invest in some orchard-fresh apples, and drink in some October goodness. And even though I bet that she'll once again create her own special brand of chaos and uproar, I'll bring Gracie along too.

* * * * *

If this story doesn't convince you to visit Gordon Skagit Farm, then I suggest you keep reading:

Reading Books That Are Blue

On Democracy by E.B.White

Apparently, crafting prize-winning and universally beloved children's literature was merely a side hustle for E.B. White. His day job saw him whipping up nuanced, passionate, and delightfully urbane political essays for The New Yorker, and boy, could White pack a punch. Written over the fifty-year span of his career from the 1920s to the 70s, our weekend farmer from Maine had plenty to say about the state of our world, the state of our minds, and whether we might figure out a way to survive ourselves. Topics range from the serious to the silly, but all explore our nation's fantastically fragile system of democracy and the glories of individual freedom. 

The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker

I wish I had written this book. Simple, satisfying, and always spot on, the author stresses the importance of opening our eyes as we walk about our lives, and yes, quite simply noticing what is happening right in front of our noses. I long to read all the supporting literature he quotes, written by all the other clever people who have found a way to make a living telling other people to set down their bloody phones and simply look about. I regret that I didn't write down my own little exercises of noticing this or that as I go about my dailies, because this slender volume is full of similar suggestions and activities. But I've happily decided to lay all conflicting thoughts aside and simply enjoy this lovely little book. 

I make no apology for my wildly eclectic taste in reading. These two books, for example, which I've been reading intermittently and interchangeably over the past few weeks, could not be more different from one another. The first warns that our democracy is in serious peril, and then encourages us to keep on and trust that it will all sort itself out. The second coaches us to look for security cameras and the color yellow as we go about our daily routines, and promises that such observations will affect the way we think. .

Perhaps there is a profound connection between these two ideas; a synchronicity that eludes me. I like to think that maybe there is, and someday soon my brain will light up as it finally comes clear. But for now, all I can see that connects them is that they are both small books, endearing to me as they sit quite comfortably in my hands.

And, interestingly, they are both blue.

* * * * *

Read more about what I've been reading:

Saturday, October 19, 2019

My Newfound Brother

"The man who can keep a secret may be wise, but he is not half as wise as 
the man with no secrets to keep." -E.W.Howe

During the past two and a half years, I've imagined many times the moment when I would first meet my newfound brother face to face. Never once did I dream that we'd be standing in the parking lot of his local urgent care offices, with me nursing a battered shoulder and sporting one of my husband's plaid flannel shirts. 

But that is exactly the way it happened. Go figure.

Halfway through my meal, I leaned back in my chair, took a deep breath, and looked round me.

It was a busy night in the Michigan pizza shop, lots of large groups gathered around cobbled combinations of shoved-together tables, laughing and talking and eating in happy community.

Our group was no exception. The nine of us circled round together, inhaling pizza, chattering in animated, overlapping conversations, as comfortable people often do. We spanned quite a few decades in age but that didn't seem to matter, grins flashed across the table in all directions as the banter rolled on. Then my attention turned to the person seated at my right.

My brother, Jeff, whom I was meeting for the very first time.

To be fair, we've been talking by phone for several years now. When my father died in late 2016, I learned for the first time of this brother from another mother, a secret my father had successfully carried to his grave. But Jeff had tracked down our shared father several years earlier, and therefore knew of me. Sworn to secrecy, he'd waited patiently until the day just after Christmas in 2016. when he answered his phone to hear me say, "Hi, well, I guess I'm your sister."

We've been talking ever since.

It's an awkward thing, one might think, to discover an unknown sibling.

To face the undeniable reality of your' father's infidelity, lies, and secret-keeping.
To work through the deep emotions that stir up when our identity is rearranged.
To lay all the distance aside and begin a relationship that has gone missing for years.

But the truth it that it wasn't awkward at all.

I've found nothing but joy in my new brother. He's a funny, interesting, thoughtful person. Easy to talk to, easy to laugh with. We seem to intuitively understand what makes each other tick. And whatever darkness led to my father's irresponsible behavior all those many years ago, well, that has nothing to do with Jeff and me. We are simply happy to have found one another.

So it was with great celebration that my family stopped in to spend an afternoon with Jeff's family, and we became one big family together.

As I listened to the straws slurp against the bottom of empty cups, and watched his kids and mine buzz back and forth to the ice cream counter to order their desserts. Jeff and I looked at each other and smiled.

And I knew this was the just the first of many happy times I would spend with my newfound brother.

In all the lovely chaos of our visit, we totally neglected to take photos together. But here's a glimpse of my brother, Jeff, and his lovely wife, Dacia.

Courtesy of Dacia on Facebook

* * * * *

Here's the story I wrote when I first learned of Jeff's existence:

Fresh Air

* * * * *

And here, for what it's worth, is a reflection on what my dad taught me:

Father's Day Musings About A Bad Dad

* * * * *

Road Trip 2019: read all about it.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Gordon Skagit Farm

My first hint that Gordon Skagit Farm might be something special was when I heard it was called an autumn market. 

Not a pumpkin farm. Not a harvest party. But a autumn market. 
I am not really a fan of pumpkin farms or harvest parties. 

But an autumn market? To me, that sounds natural and unstructured and enticingly real.

So I was intrigued from the get go.

 ^My daughters and I parked the car and followed the way in, marked out for us with tables, bins and colorful heaps of pumpkins of all shapes and sizes.

The path led us into - you guessed it - a charming outdoor marketplace. Gravel crunched underfoot as I walked to the middle of the courtyard formed by a series of old outbuildings.

^ Inside and outside the outbuildings, sprinkled in fact all over the property, were more rustic displays of gorgeous fall produce. 

^ Items ranged from the ordinary

^ to the sublime

^ Every which way I turned my head. the displays grew more fanciful

^ and eclectic. 

^ Here and there, significant pieces of fall-inspired art hung tucked among the produce, sometimes in counterpoint to the humble vegetables, 

^ other times, riffing off familiar friends. 

^ Here's another pumpkin painting hoisted up on the back of this old beast of a flat bed. which helps show the scale of the artwork. In a word, it's big. 

^ The farm's branding features a lean red fox who made appearances here and there around the market.
I am always a fan of fuzzy red animals. 

Also capturing my attention and affection: pops of pink blooms. 
I am always a fan a pink flowers.

^ As much as I enjoyed the diversity of the displays, my attention drifted always back to the pumpkins:

^ Balanced by yet another beautiful old barn.

^Piled in pale heaps against the shrubs and ivy.

 ^ Resting on the radiator of an ancient old farm truck.

 * * * * *

^ Beyond the marketplace lay the working fields of the farm, and we were cordially invited to stroll off into the wide open spaces. So we did. 

^ We wandered through a corn field cut this way and that with muddy paths. Ambling about as the afternoon sun sunk low, we had no concerns about finding our way out. 

^ In fact, as my daughters charged ahead, I took my sweet time, enjoying one hundred percent solitude among the musky cornstalks as the wind rattled their dried tassels up above. 

^ Eventually we bushwhacked our way to civilization. Or at least the pumpkin fields. They were a joyous riot of orange bubbles bobbing on a sea of green under low skies. 

^ As we walked back toward the market, we watched a family come toward us to explore the fields. Mom and Dad rambled along peaceably while their two boys, ages maybe seven and five, raced down the lane at top speed. Their hair blew wild in the breeze, they sprinted straight toward and through every mud puddle in sight, and they laughed and shrieked at the top of their lungs for the sheer joy of it all. 

I smiled at them as they raced past us. I noticed that the parents appeared even happier than their boys, if that was possible.

And I decided that I like autumn markets very much. 

Then we gathered up our load of pumpkins and gourds, as well as farm fresh apples, carrots, potatoes leeks, honey, and cider. With our lungs full of fresh October air, we climbed in the car and drove home.

* * * * *

For more information and gorgeous photos of Gordon Skagit Farm, go to their website here

* * * * *

If this story doesn't convince you to visit Gordon Skagit Farm, then I suggest you keep reading:

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Mackinac Bridge

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." -E.L.Doctorow

Growing up a Michigander, my heart has always burst with pride for my home state.

I mean, come on. 

A state shaped like an actual mitten.
Surrounded by not one, not two, but three Great Lakes.
With a vast, wild, and completely separate upper peninsula. Called the UP.
And the bridge as well as the wild waters below are called Mackinac.*

What a land! What a legacy! What luck fell to me to be born in such a place.

Ironically, I saw little of my home state when I actually lived there. Don't even think I made it halfway up the Lower Peninsula.  But since moving to Seattle and settling down to a long tradition of road trips back and forth between my two homes, the direct route flows through from west to east across the UP, over the Mighty Mac, and down the middle of the Mitten.

And now I've passed through the length and breadth of my home state many times over.

I love every inch of the journey but my favorite five miles is hands-down the bridge.

Massive towers and burly cables overhead.
Wildly swirling waters below.
Views of both pine-studded peninsulas, and turtle-backed Mackinac Island in the distance.
Boats boldly sailing on stiff currents.
And winds sweeping across the waves.

On the day we planned to cross the Mackinac Bridge, our morning's drive from Escanaba was shrouded in fog. Oh, the road was clear enough, but every little peekaboo view to Lake Michigan along the route lay hidden in the white mists. 

"It'll burn off by St. Ignace," my husband foretold. He's usually right about these things, so I patiently rode on.

Around noon, we arrived at the north end of the bridge and swung round for a prime view of the bridge. 

And this is what we found.

The fog most definitely did not clear. 

Even as we drove across her, I saw

No towers or cables
No water below
No land whatsoever
No boats
Not even a hint of wind.

For all I got out of my trip across the Mackinac Bridge, I might as well have been standing in a silent snow field with a pillowcase over my head.

But you know what?

I still love my mitten-shaped state,
her gorgeous Great Lakes,
the magical UP, 
and our beautiful, brawny bridge. 

I'm always proud to be a Michigander.

Even when the bridge is fogged in. 

* * * * *

* It's pronounced MAK-in-aw. Not MAK-in-ack. And it means, roughly, big turtle. 

* * * * *

Road Trip 2019: read all about it.

* * * * *

More stories about marvelous, mysterious fog:

Dakota Sunshine

"Just living is not must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower." 
-Hans Christian Andersen

Traveling thousands of miles across the country with four full-size humans and eighty-three pounds of big red dog in a Honda CRV is difficult, you might expect.

But it's not.

Gracie is a model traveler.

We stash our bags up in the rooftop carrier so that Gracie has most of the back space for herself, which she sometimes uses to stretch out and sleep but mostly sits up and looks out the rear window, watching the world roll by. She is endlessly entertained.

We lay down a soft bed of old towels and blankets, which she promptly rearranges into her own happy lumps. She has strong opinions about things.

We tuck her water bowl securely into a corner and keep it half full of water, which she tidily sips as we drive along. She can never get enough to drink.

We stop at lots of rest areas and put her on her long leash so she can stretch her legs in the pet zones, which she truly adores. And when she is running through the lush green grass, she is -in a word - adorable.

This evening romp off I-90 in the middle of North Dakota is a perfect case in point. 

She'd been cooped up for hours without a complaint, but the moment we invited her out of the car and set her running, she was in pure heaven. 

My two younger daughters and I delighted in Gracie's antics, snapping mad pictures as she gallivanted in the grass, making the most of the fresh, cool air and the low evening sun.

To our delight and surprise, we soon realized we were not the only ones.

A young man - probably in his twenties - leaned against his car, watching our girl run. 

And as we walked deeper down the length of the pet lawn, we saw him scoot behind the building and slip along the sidewalk closer to where Gracie was playing.

Then he pulled his phone from his pocket, and snapped a few pics of our girl. 

My daughters and I pretended not to notice. 

But as he slipped the phone back in his pocket, and lingered just a few minutes more to watch my dog play in the Dakota sunshine, I saw him smile.

And I smiled too. 

* * * * *

Road Trip 2019: read all about it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Glacier National Park

You just stay the course, and do what it is that you do, and grow while you're doing it. 
Eventually you will come full circle. -Jon Bon Jovi

Thirty-some-odd years ago, my newlywed husband and I left our Chicago apartment and Midwestern roots in the rear view mirror and moved to Seattle.

We had no idea what would come of this decision. Kids, dogs, even owning a house were all written in our minds in the future tense, and we were living on the heady fragrance of a lifetime's hopes and dreams

Thus we rolled west across the great (and I do mean enormous) state of Montanan and up into Glacier National Park. Of course, my husband had seen the park as a child; thanks to my father-in-law's passion for the west, his family hit up pretty much every national park west of the Mississippi. But my eyes were drinking in this beautiful corner of the world for the first time, and wrapped up as I was in the new, unfolding visions of my future, I was smitten.

Many years have passed, and my life grown by leaps and bounds, but I've never forgotten that first trip to Glacier. Many times, I've dreamed of going back, wondering how I would feel to approach the park with my home behind me to the west, rather than ahead in the east; with my life's milestones mostly behind me, rather than looming in the unforeseeable future. 

This year was finally the right time to go back. We pulled through the western gate of the park around 8 a.m. on a Saturday in September, and began an action-packed day of exploring Glacier. Exploring my past. Exploring myself

* * * * *

Long, narrow mountain lakes punctuate the park and create some of its most memorable vistas. Greeting us at the west entrance is Lake McDonald. We strolled around the visitor center to get our bearings, introduced Gracie to countless admiring strangers, and headed out to the beach. 

I won't sugar coat it; the weather was grim. But between Gracie's willingness to wade, the spectacle of some bold paddle boarders, and a dreamy little river otter making the rounds ten feet out, we were encouraged to ignore the icy temperatures and enjoy the scene. 

^ The few trappings of human presence look utterly insignificant against the backdrop of nature's majesty. As they should. 

^ Gracie can never resist the urge to step into a body of water and drink up. She'll settle for a mud puddle but these crystal clear waters suited her well.

^ Owing to the frigid water, she did resist the temptation to lie down while drinking. The girl has standards. 

* * * * *

Next stop: McDonald Falls, at the northeast end of the lake with the same name. As I prowled the roadside lookout, searching for just the right angle, the right framing, the right perspective, to completely capture the poetry of these waterfalls, I knew I was doomed to fail. Sometimes, there's just no way to photograph the feeling of a place; you simply must go and see it for yourself.

^ Still, I kept trying. Here's my best though still utterly inadequate attempt. 

* * * * *

Following the McDonald River, we continued to wind up the foothills and into the mountains, on the Going-To-The-Sun Road. Unbelievably steep and dogged with hairpin turns and sheer drop offs, this route offers jaw-dropping scenery to those who survive the panic attacks. 

^ My husband remembers the name of every waterfall in the park. Sadly, I do not. 

^ Glaciers scoured out this wide, circular valleys, creating this park's distinctive look. 

^On my first trip through the park, I was awestruck at the wild, mountainous, inescapably rugged beauty. This time, I felt a sense of comfort and familiarity. This is a place that feels like home to me.

^ But let's be honest. I was still sporting three cameras and snapping photos like an Asian tourist. Ain't no shame in that game.

^Yeah, this is the Weeping Wall,  a formation of rock that runs with tiny waterfalls seeping through mostly all year long. "It's just like the rock walls on the way to Stevens Pass," my daughters observed. So true. 

^ Oh my goodness, this bridge. This cliff. This rocky disaster in waiting. Thirty-plus years ago, I had a lot less to lose and I was much more cavalier about danger. Now, I'm careful.

^Take a look at those sculpted valleys, rugged peaks, chiseled ridges. And as long as the rain doesn't fall, I'm good with those moody clouds. 

* * * * *

 My first visit to Glacier fell during July, and the park was awash in gorgeous wildflowers. That bloom season had been unusually fruitful, and my camera roll - um, film canisters - were loaded down with photos of flowers in bloom.  This time round, in September, the color was less abundant but roadside patches of purple asters were everywhere.

^ The petals may be imperfect but the overall effect is spot on. 

Speaking of roadside beauty, Gracie was more than happy to hop out of the car and explore at every turnout. Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails, so she made the most of her legal opportunities to romp.

^Since our first visit to Glacier, we have shared life with three gorgeous red heads and traveled with them back and forth across the continent countless times. I can't imagine my life without my pups. 

* * * * *

All my life, I've been obsessed with grizzly bears and dreamed of seeing one in real life. Seeing one from a considerable distance in real life. I'm smart enough to be terrified of bears but awed by their beauty and majesty. In my dream encounter, I would get a glimpse of a grizzly far off across a mountain vista and enjoy its presence without it ever getting a whiff of me.

Well. that box has now been ticked.

At a roadside pull-off, we noticed a fellow traveler peering away across the way through a shooting scope, and talking animatedly with fellow gapers. We wandered over to join the group and sure enough, up on the hillside was a gorgeous grizzly, golden-tipped fur aglow in the afternoon sun, lolling about in a patch of berries, oblivious to its giddy observers. 

Though my photo barely does the bear justice, the view through the telescope was much better. I could make out the bear's face - fuzzy ears, deep-set eyes, long muzzle - and all my dreams came true. 

^ See the brightest reddish brown patch? The one that's smack dab in the middle of the photo? Now let your eyes drift across to the far left edge of the patch, where it bumps up against some greet trees. See the greyish brownish bump just to the right of the trees, with the light silvery bit on top? That, my friend, is a grizzly bear. I am in love.

* * * * *

Going-To-The-Sun Road reaches its high point at Logan Pass. First time through, we stopped there for a glorious hike and a midday meal that was the highlight of our tour. But this time, the pass was jam-packed with tourists and buffeted by outrageous winds. Rounding out this trifecta of terrible, the rain that had been holding off all morning finally began to fall. We drove on.

^An iconic view on the east side of the park, Wild Goose Island stands small and proud in a sea of white-capped waters. So cute. 

* * * * *

With our traverse across the park complete, we ran north up the eastern boundary and slipped into the Many Glacier area. Back in the day, the park was developed as a respite for the rich and weary East Coasters who, for a price, might take a train west to the park boundary, and then hop in one of the park's red buses to be whisked off to one of several gorgeous scenic lodges. 

^ The lodge at Many Glaciers stands strong and tall. Last time, we ate dinner here; this time, we hiked around the lake. 

^ The trail we followed looped around the shore of the lake, with countless options for popping off the trail and up to the water's edge. I'd like to believe my daughters were performing a Lewis and Clark reenactment for my entertainment, but I think they were pointing at a bird. 

^ Another view from the hike around the lake. Looks like it's still raining at Logan Pass. 

^ I'd be down for a boat tour of the lake, but dogs are not allowed. It bums me out that National Parks have such restrictive policies around their doggy visitors, but I trust them to know what's best. I do not need my dog going mano a mano with a grizzly. Or even a skunk. 

* * * * *

With Many Glaciers behind us, we had time to squeeze in one more stop at the park; this time, an area called Two Medicine Lake. We drove south along the eastern park boundary, through a section of wildly graded, twisting and turning, minimally marked construction which gave rise to a new family expression. "We're being tossed around like kittens in a burlap bag," has officially entered the Streicher lexicon.  

^ When we weren't being jostled in our seats like said kittens in a bag, we could look out the window and see vistas like this one. So worth it.

^ Ever game for a dip in a body of water, Gracie boldly stepped into Two Medicine Lake. But holy iceballs, it was chilly, and she quickly headed back to dry land. 

* * * * *

With our day in the park satisfyingly spent, we pointed the car east and ran toward Great Falls, where dinner and a soft bed awaited. Along the way, we were treated to breathtaking views of the mountains and the setting sun behind. 

* * * * *

As we drifted east across the high plains, away from our current home and toward our original home, I thought how true it is that life often moves us in circles. Cliched as it may sound, my second visit to Glacier really did bring me in a full circle from my first, and showed me just how much my life has grown and changed over the years.