House of Glass

We have arrived safely at our two-week way-station outside Ukiah.

download (1)The last two days were difficult, particularly in the afternoons. Rain. Not torrential rain, but utterly miserable rain for driving. Dark. Gusty. Cold and sloppy. The roads didn’t seem especially slick, but then we’d go past flashing patrol lights where someone had taken out a road sign, or where two cars had assumed a pose from the Kama Sutra. The drive sucked.

Let’s back up a bit.

Despite our “no-stress” mantra, Thursday and Friday in Fort Collins grew increasingly stressful. Thursday was actual moving day, where the big, strong guys showed up to move boxes onto a big, strong truck, and Friday involved coordinating cleaners, final inspection, and closing. Heavy rain dumped on us Friday afternoon: combined with multiple trains running through town, and the beginnings of spring construction season, traffic was thoroughly snarled — the one day we truly needed to cross town multiple times. By Friday evening, we were all grouchy and mentally exhausted.

20150513_195203Our nephew, Jonathan, arrived Thursday morning to help with the driving, and he and I were agitating for celebratory pizza on Friday while Marta inexplicably dragged her feet. Then our friends, Mark and Deborah, showed up with steaks, potatoes, salad, and wine. Marta had known, of course: she and Deborah had arranged matters a week before. My son, Stephen, was in town and joined us. Deborah grilled the steaks over an open fire, and we all told stories and drank wine until it ran out.

We got moving by about 9:30 on Saturday morning, after breakfast at the Ever-Open Cafe on North College. It’s the first time I’d ever tried the restaurant — for some reason, I’d always feared it was a terrible little greasy spoon. It was not; I can happily recommend the food and the service.

The drive across Wyoming on Interstate 80 was uneventful; a bit windy in spots, which, if that surprises you, means you’ve never heard anything true about Wyoming. Toward late afternoon, the clouds started to mass over the western range that drops into Utah.

downloadFor those of you who have never been to Salt Lake, the eastern mountains rise like a wall, and portions of the city have built out onto some of the mountain spurs, making the descent into Salt Lake a decidedly three-dimensional experience. The sky was not blue as it appears in this stock photo, but black, filled with great boluses of darkness interspersed with sheets of pale rain and tides of steaming fog. You could see everything surge and boil, driven about by the winds. We raced along the highway, surrounded by trucks that threw up a blinding, greasy mist from the road. It was like descending into a playground of the gods on a night where they’ve had a bit much to drink and are growing belligerent.

20150516_192800-1We finally started to see light as we drove across the salt flats to the west of Salt Lake City, and by the time we reached Wendover, it was cold and windy, but clear. We actually felt the last few fingers of direct sunlight on our faces as we drove into the KOA and ran for the rest room.

I have not much good to say about Wendover: it’s someplace wedged between nowhere and nothing. It’s a casino town, the first (or the last) in Nevada along Interstate 80, a kind of run-down mini-Vegas like most gambling towns that aren’t Vegas. There is really only The Strip: a long stretch of garish lights each promising “better odds” than the next place along the strip. There seem to be no restaurants as such: only casinos, and the food is definitely an afterthought. I commented to Jonathan that our dining choice, which reeked of stale cigarette smoke and cheap perfume, sounded and smelled like a cross between a strip-joint and Chuck E. Cheese’s, and he thought I’d pretty well nailed it.

20150515_165916Still, we had our indomitable adventurers’ spirits, and our clown noses. We made a fine evening of it.

The KOA itself is a little patch of parking spots on rocky gravel, stuck behind one of the more garish casinos with rocky desert at its back. I went to sleep to the sound of wind rattling the canvas walls of the Casita, and the skeletal dance of tree-branch shadows cast by the ten billion watts of light from the nearest casino.

A word about sleeping arrangements: we had three adults, a dog, and two cats in our little 8′ pop-up camper. I’m not going to say it was comfortable, but it worked.

Nevada was an exercise in negatives. No one fell asleep at the wheel. We didn’t run out of gas. We weren’t stopped and robbed by any county sheriffs under the guise of “civil asset forfeiture.” We spotted no federal prisoners trying to hitchhike. No space aliens abducted us, no giant praying mantises devoured the semi-trailer in front of us, and The Mob stayed safely distant to the south, in Vegas.

20150517_140158The weather remained semi-overcast and cool through an uneventful day of driving, until we reached Reno and started to descend into California. Once again, clouds gathered and rain dumped, giant trucks threw greasy spray, and we once more despaired of ever seeing sunlight. Jonathan told me that he wondered if we, like those unfortunates passing through the self-same Donner Pass in 1846, would end up having to eat each other.

This, too, did not happen.

Just before reaching Sacramento, where the sun had begun to shine weakly through the clouds, we took a detour northward at the direction of Google Navigator. It probably added an hour to the trip, but it took us through very light traffic on rural highways. Our route took us up highway 20, through the mountains and around Clear Lake and Mendocino Lake, to drive into Ukiah from the north. Although we are only 2-1/2 hours north of San Francisco straight up highway 101, coming around the back way felt like we were in the opening scenes of The Shining, driving to a remote, remote, remote place far from civilization of any sort.

We arrived, again, right at sunset, which set the sky on fire in glorious oranges, reds, and magentas. I missed the photo-op. We fell into bed, too exhausted from the long drive to do anything else.

This morning afforded us the opportunity to finally look at the place we will call home until June 1.

It appears to be a house constructed to make it seem you are living outdoors, without the disadvantages of actually living outdoors. To which end, most of the walls are floor-to-ceiling windows. The living room. The bedrooms. The bathrooms.

20150518_104617It is a House of Glass.

I am surprised to find that I like it.

It does mean early-rising, because when the sun rises, it fills the house with light. There are no curtains or other blinds. You can pull the covers over your head, but nothing keeps the room around you dark. Nothing protects you from the steady gaze of the deer and the house wrens that stare at you from the outside, like you were the odd creature in a zoo. But there are no people up here, no neighbors within line-of-sight.

Today, after running some unavoidable errands in Ukiah, we visited the Montgomery Woods State National Reserve, just up one of the twisty roads into the mountains about a half-hour from here. It’s one of the few remaining Old Growth Sequoia forests, and the ancient trees are spectacular. These look like more-or-less ordinary mountain forests until you spot something — like a human body — that gives you a sense of the scale of these trees. These forests are silent, and dim, and cool, and full of living energy.

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And now, sleep calls. It has been a busy day, and tomorrow, we have to supervise the unloading of the moving truck into local storage units, where everything will sit until June 1.

Packed

The packers finished today, and I watched the piano go.

We sold the piano to a CSU music professor, a clarinetist. His wife plays piano, and they want to teach their children. So it goes to a good home, and the kids will grow up never appreciating what an unusual experience they’ve had, learning on a grand piano. It’s best that way — children, in my opinion, should never be burdened with the obligation of gratitude for things they don’t understand.

I learned on a little spinet — a horrid little piece of noisy furniture. My parents bought it for us kids, and we dutifully practiced (though usually under duress), and even developed some skill. But the so-called “action” — the mechanism, and the feel — of a spinet is totally different from that of a grand, for a top-end spinet, and ours was not top-end. It was almost impossible to tease any nuance out of that box. It was literally a forte-piano — a loud-quiet. Like a Volkswagen bug, it had only two speeds: on or off. If you weren’t ciphering half the notes, you were banging on it.

Not that I fault my parents. They bought us a piano, and on my Dad’s salary, that was a Big Deal. A spinet was what they could afford, and it was the only thing that would fit in the house. Grateful though I am, however, it was a nasty little instrument.

When I got to high school, I would sometimes sneak into the auditorium during lunch and play their 8′ Steinway Concert Grand. In those days, our high school had the newest and best auditorium in town; the local symphony would rehearse in the orchestra rehearsal room in the evenings, and would perform in the high school auditorium. Why I never got kicked out, I’ll never know, though perhaps no one ever heard me: it was a typical high school, and during lunch break, it would take an air-raid siren to cut through the general din. Of course, I was also very active in the school music program, and I actually played in the civic symphony, so maybe they thought my presence was legitimate.

In college, I got to use the pianos in the practice rooms. It was a new music building, and the pianos were new baby grands — Yamahas, if I remember correctly. Yamaha was just becoming known as a piano manufacturer, and their instruments were bold, bright, and wonderfully responsive. And relatively cheap, for the quality, which is why they ended up in practice rooms.

I started looking for a piano of my own in 1983, shortly after taking my first job, and it was amazing some of the crap people wanted to pawn off for an exorbitant price. Most buyers were, of course, looking for furniture, so things like the condition of the finish and (gag) color were of utmost importance to them. I only cared about the touch, and the sound.

I fell in love with an Ibach at Pianos Unlimited in Denver, but the $10,000 price tag — remember, these are 1983 dollars, and I was making only $27,000 a year with a new family — was entirely out of reach. I’d never heard of the brand: it’s one of the oldest piano manufacturers in the world, dating back to 1794. Beethoven could very well have performed on an Ibach at some point in his career. This piano was a little weak in the high register, but the bass was round and full and smooth as chocolate with wine; it had the most magical sound and feel I’ve ever experienced. I could tell that the salesman wanted to let me have it, but he couldn’t lower the price, and I couldn’t meet it. So I would come back from time to time to see if it was still there and play it a little, and he’d look at me sadly and listen. They never had any rush business that late in the day. I imagine the salesman, also, had too many buyers looking for a piece of furniture at furniture warehouse prices; the Ibach was always there. Like any first love, I’ve sometimes wondered where that piano ended up, and hope it found a good home.

I kept driving around town, answering newspaper ads — remember, this was before the Internet — and finally answered the ad of a little old woman who needed to get rid of her piano because she was moving. I seem to recall she had been a piano teacher, and she was very reluctant to part with the instrument, a 5-1/2′ Wurlitzer baby grand manufactured in 1926. She made me play for her before she would agree to sell it. Apparently, I passed muster — she sold it to me for $2000, more like $10,000 in devalued modern dollars. We had to take out a loan to buy it, and the bank was reluctant, since the only collateral we could put up was the piano itself, which was the last thing they wanted to repossess should we fail to make payments — but in the end, they relented.

We moved it into the basement of our home in Westminster, the haunted room. The first notes of the third movement of my Piano Concerto in f-minor popped out of my fingers there, and I worked out the rest of the concerto on that keyboard.

Over the years, I pounded out Rachmaninoff’s C#-minor Prelude when I was angry, Chopin Preludes and Nocturnes when I was pensive or sad, a little Schubert or Beethoven or Mozart when I was feeling happy. I took insincere flying leaps at a number of piano concerti, fell on my face, and moved on to simpler things. I wooed women with song, and then celebrated their departure with more song. I annoyed and charmed the neighbors by turns, though I was (mostly) religious about shutting down by 10:00 at night.

That piano was a fine little instrument, with plenty of subtlety in the action. It could use a little refurbishing — new felts on the hammers, new friction pads for the posts. But it plays very nicely.

Yes, I’m terribly sad to see it go.

But I don’t play any more. Playing piano is a physical skill, and when you don’t play, you lose the edge. You can bring it back — but like trying to lose weight and give yourself a set of six-pack abdominals after being a middle-aged schlub, it’s very hard work and requires dedication, not wishful thinking.

I’d rather be writing new music.

Themon Joins the Cell-Phone Age

You’ll note some changes to the page format.

I’m working from a laptop right now with crappy software on it, and I can’t upgrade. So I can’t really customize this properly.

But the new format shows up on tablets and cell phones. Yay!

The Journey Begins

Saturday we had a final farewell party in the house that has been such a wonderful place to entertain. Old friends dropped by, and we tried to drink up the liquor cabinet, and failed. I opened some bottles of mead that have been sitting around for fifteen years, including the Mystery Mead, labeled 2000. Only one person guessed the flavor: garlic. Yes, a garlic mead. I don’t think it was anyone’s favorite, but it wasn’t bad, and by the end of the party the bottle was empty.

Sunday and Monday were final clean-up and pack days, and it was a bit overbooked, but we got most everything finished. I still have to finish mowing: the rain last week kept me from getting ahead of it, and it looks terrible. Marta is intent on leaving the new owners with a clean move-in: one of the many things I love about her.

20150512_080747Monday — yesterday — ended with us packing the cars and hitching our little Conestoga — maybe we should rename her the Conistogita — as our temporary home while the Packer Ants descend on the house.

We decided to move out early, to save stress on the animals. When we moved to the house in 2012, it was just a cross-town move, and we put the cats in the new place and locked them in the upstairs bathrooms with litter boxes and food. All the thumping and bumping in the new environment left them decidedly unhappy; there was a lot of fur on the carpet when we finally let them out to explore their new home.

When we had the roof replaced after the huge hailstorm last summer and the entire house became the inside of a djembe with a thousand insane drummers on the roof, Marta packed up and left with the animals in our Casita. That’s when she found the KOA camground north of Fort Collins. Surprisingly, after a round of largely symbolic growling, both cats settled down and rather liked it.

That’s what we’re doing this time, too.

20150511_204126We left the house to the sight of a gorgeous orange sky behind the foothills, and arrived at the KOA just as the stars were coming out in an indigo sky. As usual, the propane furnace didn’t work, but we were toasty under our comforter, and the animals had their own little warm nests.

Today promises to be a lazy day for me. We need at least one person at the house to supervise the packing (required by the moving company), and one person here to supervise the animals. If we took the cats out a lot, we could probably leave them in the Casita for extended periods. But our mantra for this move has been “NO STRESS,” and that includes feeling stressed about whether the animals are stressed.

Though supervising the packing is a lot more work than pet-sitting, Marta said she’d feel better if she was on top of the movers. Frankly, so would I.

It’s about ten in the morning, the animals are all catching a morning nap, and I’m blogging away. Birds are chirping outside, and the chill is finally just starting to leave the air.

This is, by far, the nicest KOA I’ve ever encountered. Aside from the spacious and well-kept grounds, they have things like this:

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Or this:

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I can’t help thinking about travelers in other times and places. At no time in the past — and perhaps no time in the future — has a move like this been so easy, and painless.

We’re moving 1200 miles, give or take. Horse-drawn wagons could make about twenty miles a day under ideal circumstances, and only ten (or less) otherwise. At ten miles a day, this trip would take 120 days, or four months. Heading out today, we could reasonably hope to arrive by mid-September, “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” as they say. But ordinary little things like broken wagon wheels, lame horses, local flooding, brush fires, or just good, old-fashioned rain-soaked mud could easily push that out a month, to mid-October, and now we’re flirting with winter. A bit of truly bad luck, or a bad (or misread) map, and we could find ourselves holed up for the winter, far from our destination, in some truly inhospitable place.

We’d have left most of our belongings behind. We would have only necessities with us, or perhaps some inconveniently large heirloom we absolutely refused to part with, for which we would have to sacrifice other comforts in order to accommodate. We’d be traveling in company: we’d need spotters, trackers, and a gunman or two in case we encountered bandits. We’d have some kind of constitution or compact for the traveling group, which would spell out rights and responsibilities, and tensions on the road could turn deadly.

Our stresses seem trival to non-existent in comparison. Other people are packing virtually all of our belongings, down to the paper clips, and it will all arrive, almost magically, within days of our arrival. Our own journey will take two not-very-long days: we plan to leave early Saturday morning, and arrive late Sunday evening, those 1200 miles vanishing under our wheels like a swift bird’s dream. We will eat well on the road, relax in the evenings, sleep soundly during our one night on the road, and will be surrounded on our trip by an enormous infrastructure that is designed to facilitate rapid, safe, convenient travel.

In addition, Marta and I are in constant communication though we are several miles apart at the moment, and she can ask whether I want my regular shoes packed, or with us in the car. I’m blogging on a laptop, through a local hotspot built into an Android pad that uses the cell phone network to get to the Internet.

It’s really quite astonishing.

Coming Home

Beltane was delightful, terrible, joyful, sad, and a thousand other things all rolled into one.

We gathered at Treehenge, our eponymous grove in north Fort Collins, and the day blessed us with sun and warmth. We had a large group — nearly 20 people, and all of them bearing familiar faces. Iannin led the rite, and wanted to honor Marta and me as Flower Queen and Green Man respectively; we played it up and pranced, and danced, and ran between the fires like two young lovers on their way to the woods. It was beautiful.

The sadness comes of leaving this community of Druids, of course. They are, each and every one, remarkable, irreplaceable people. Thoughtful people. Compassionate people. Deep, rich-in-spirit, listening people.

If we lived in the 1800’s, and were joining a wagon train headed West, I’d be in tears much of the time — because the odds that I would ever return or see any of them again would be close to zero. But we don’t live in the 1800’s. We live in the early 2000’s, and while our advanced computer and transportation technology may eat itself and most of us in the next fifty years, it is there right now, and — as I keep reminding people — we are only an e-mail away.

Even so. I am both joyful and sad.

After the rite, Tina asked me an interesting question. She asked how I felt about leaving my Home. I’ve capitalized this word, because the capital letter was clearly present in her question.

My answer, which was spontaneous and unconsidered, surprised me.

“I’ve never felt at Home here,” I told her.

I’ve been thinking about that answer for two days, now.

I grew up forty miles from here. I’ve travelled a little — parts of Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Amsterdam, England; then Colombia, recently Sydney — and spent about thirty months on Long Island. After the Long Island stint, I came back to Denver and Fort Collins, and have never strayed for more than a brief vacation. You’d think this was my home.

But the truth is, it isn’t Home, and never was.

I could not leave my hometown fast enough as a young man. For all my deep familiarity and childhood memories, my hometown was never Home. Now that my parents and late mother-in-law have passed, there is nothing there for me: merely one friend, one of those permanent friends who would be no less close if she moved to Antarctica and I to the North Pole, and we exchanged letters once every five years.

Those thirty months on Long Island were traumatic, for many reasons; one of them being that it was definitely not Home. While I was there, I gained an appreciation for the idea that a vampire cannot rest unless he is on his home earth — I never felt I could truly sleep, and I relaxed for the first time in two-and-a-half years as I was driving westward in the mountains of Pennsylvania with the City far behind me. I came back here seeking refuge in the familiar. Kids happened, work happened, houses and divorces and girlfriends and parties happened, and I’ve stayed for thirty-three years.

But it isn’t Home. It never really was.

Part of it is the people. I don’t fit in around here.

J.M. Greer commented once in passing about the “failed colonization of the Western Plains,” and it gave voice to something I’ve long felt. This entire area, West of the Mississippi all the way to the deserts in the rain-shadow of the Rocky Mountains, is hard country, high country, dry country. The further from the Mississippi you travel, the harder, higher, and drier it gets. You can’t become a prosperous farmer here with one mule and a mail-order bride. Call it a “look in the eyes” — people who call these high-plains deserts Home have that look, and I don’t.

I don’t fit in.

This is the land of cattle barons, and nomads, and reclusive mountain people: of grifters and drifters; of survivors; of the lucky and the unlucky, and (in these latter years) of grasping urbanites and shallow suburban Libertarians, who shout about “freedom from taxation” while using chlorinated, cholera-free city water to keep their Bluegrass lawns green and their garages clean. City folk will pass you on the right and flip you off as they roar past. Townies drive “compensation trucks” that don’t fit in any parking spots, yet don’t show a spot of rust or old manure in the truck bed. Rural folk vote for Sarah Palin and post anti-abortion signs in their fields near the highways.

I don’t fit in.

But the deeper question is about the Land, and Tina pressed the point. Do I feel at home with the Land?

I’ve been sensing the Land for a long time. I used to sit outside at night in the freezing cold as a child to watch the stars and feel the omnipresent wind in my face. Nature — raw, wild nature in her untrammeled form — has always been a part of my life, and an essential part. Since I’ve embraced a more Pagan, animistic world-view over the last two decades, I’ve become more adept at giving language to what I’ve always felt.

In becoming more aware, however, I’ve also come to understand that I don’t really “get” the Land here.

In the late 1990’s, I went to Dallas on a business trip in July. Dallas-Fort Worth is a dual city deeply mired in Christian Fundamentalism and early-twentieth-century Prohibition, mixed with the anything-goes abandon of the desert whorehouse. On my way through the sweltering afternoon furnace-heat to the airport, I stopped for a beer in one of the few venues that served beer, and noted that the empty back corner of the restaurant was roped off with a big sign proclaiming “Bob’s Bible Study” or some such sentiment, a reflection of the smarmy “Jesus Saves” billboards all over town. While I sat there, enjoying the mild buzz from the beer, I decided to see if I could touch the spirit of the Land.

I think I did. Something like a giant lizard deep beneath the ground, a creature of fire and earth and little else, sleeping. This encrustation of loud Christian piety on its back was barely enough to irritate it a bit: the hint of a vague dream of an itch to be scratched. It made me pity the Fundamentalists of the area when the Land finally rises from its sleep and notices them. I bid it good slumber, and withdrew.

Texas is not Home.

Or there was a visit to Portland, Maine, where Poseidon reigns. Wet beyond imagining to a desert-dweller like me: deep water, oceanic abysses of water, dark and cold, powerful, ubiquitous and overwhelming. Only hard basalt could stand as earth against it: all else was varying thicknesses of water, whether murk or mud or damp black earth. Wind was heavy with moisture, and even the candle flame was subdued and chill.

Maine is not Home.

The Land here strikes me as new, not-quite formed. Not that long ago, in geological time, it was a deep seabed, and the Rocky Mountains did not exist. Mountain edges are still raw, still glowing with the energy of recent fracture. Where we live, tilted slabs of sandstone form the “foothills” that preface the sharp slopes of the Rockies, something once flat and stable that crumpled catastrophically in a huge geological fender-bender. Trees and grasses are the newcomers, along with migratory bison and the flickering bird-shadows of humans who follow them.

This is a place full of pockets of deep magic, and when you find them, they inspire, energize, fill one with awe. But the Land, mostly, doesn’t yet see us humans — we’re too recent. There is no relationship.

If there is, then it isn’t working for me.

I don’t fit in.

Something is calling me Westward, from a land of fire and flood and drought, to a land of earthquake and flood and drought. I don’t know what the experience will bring. But the call is clear, and I’m answering it.

We’ll see if I come Home.