Friday, September 25, 2009

Merced River
(Part Three)

Downriver to the west, the sun sinks behind a canyon wall. Across the rapids to the north, cottonwoods rain autumn gold on the scant remains of the Yosemite Valley Railroad, a railroad defunct since 1945 when the sugar pine groves that once lined both sides of the Merced were completely logged. Jim hollers from the campground that we’ll have near-freezing temperatures tonight; it’s time to pitch my tent. He announces he’ll sleep inside his truck tonight instead of pitching a tent, ostensibly to save time when we decide to pack up, but I know he’s determined to help me learn how to feel comfortable camping solo: his agenda, not mine. This is not his first attempt. He tried it in 1993 when we backpacked in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula after Labor Day. Both my knees swelled so that I couldn’t bend them after a treacherous descent down from Grand Pass into Cameron Basin. No choice for me but to recuperate in a mountain meadow while he disappeared on day hikes into the distant peaks, heading for Deception Creek and the trails we couldn’t experience together. Not another hiker within view, not one ranger station still open. I didn’t talk to him for six months after that adventure.

I pitch my feather-weight blue Sierra Design tent all by its lonesome out in the middle of the deserted camp ring with Jim’s truck a good thirty yards away, plenty of room for carnivore or homo sapien mischief in the gathering darkness. I can’t ignore the gut feeling that I’m the one who should be sleeping in the truck and Jim in the tent, a throw-back to the not-so-distant past of my childhood when chivalrous men were expected to protect their women at all cost. But he’s not my man and I’m not his woman and El Rio de Nuestra Señora de la Merced splashes along past us on its own journey.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Merced River
(Part Two)

Along the northern edge of our campground, the Merced rushes through a series of rapids known as Chip Tooth, Nightmare, and Stark Reality. I investigate the sparkling clear water from a boulder high above Stark Reality and rename the rapids as if I, a life-long Midwesterner completely unversed in whitewater, were running the river: Body Cast, Swan Song, and Final Solution.

I once sang a Swan Song while pirouetting down a talus slope after losing my purchase, down toward what I believed was my Final Solution, memorizing my last glimpse of the astonishing beauty of a cobalt sky and yellow brittlebush, the heartache of Bill’s outstretched arms and horror-stricken face. We were camped on BLM land just outside of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona that spring of 1995 with Jim who, while I sang, was miles away back at our campsite. A passing adventurer hoisted me on his back out of that cactus-infested desert canyon, my arms and legs covered with abrasions, my left ankle screaming, my ego bruised. Once on flatter terrain, Bill and I hobbled back to camp on three good legs. After we returned to Illinois ten days later, Bill dragged me to an orthopedic doctor, and I spent the next month sporting a plaster cast on my left leg.

I suspect these whitewater rapids below me wouldn’t let me off that easily. Body Cast.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Merced River
(Part One)

BIRTHED OUT OF THE MOST RECENT ICE AGE along the 11,000 foot crest of the Sierra Nevada, El Rio de Nuestra Señora de la Merced was named in 1806 by grateful army officer Gabriel Moraga at the end of a forty-mile march through dry brush. Its waters run wild and unharnessed from Yosemite west to Lake McClure and out into California’s San Joaquin Valley.

In 1996 my friend Jim drives us in his silver pickup east from San Francisco for my first camping and photography trip in Yosemite amid the sheer granite walls, massive domes, and waterfalls. We cross the river on Route 99 south of Turlock, then meet up with it again on Route 140 north of Mariposa, my anticipation mounting of the wondrous landscape about to unfold before us. But because the late October afternoon is waning and Jim hates setting up camp in the dark, not to mention battling crowds in national parks, he decides we’ll camp for a few days of solitude along the Merced at Indian Flat, a campground five miles west of the park entrance. We rumble around hairpin curves and switchbacks past boarded-up roadside businesses down to the river and a campground deserted but for rocks, incense cedar, and the two of us. The bathhouse is padlocked for the season, but Jim says not to worry, we’re fine. He’s camped here before. We’re fine.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Black-Capped Chickadee

How many dees does a chickadee dee
when a chickadee dee dee dees?

He sings at the feeder
in the neighbor’s yard,
sings Mother home
wherever I happen to be.

And I remember how she
listened and whistled
as she hung our clothes
out to dry on a line
stretched from the kitchen
window to the American elm
where he hung upside down
watching her.

Hey, sweetie, she whistled.
Feee-bee-beee, he replied.

And I remember how she
would catch his buzzy dees
and whistling feee-beees
in the palm of her hand
and clothespin them
to the line so our clothes
could sing themselves dry
in a summer breeze.


He sings at the feeder
in the neighbor’s yard,
sings Mother home
whenever I need her.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Leaf Report

loosed launched
twirled tossed
pitched poured flown

crunched kicked
reaped raked
heaped jumped thrown

picked pressed saved
screened sketched shown

curled crisped
dulled dried
bagged burned blown

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New Mexico 2009

Steaming hot pancakes as the desert sun rises over the canyon wall - life is good!

As per usual, I packed ingredients for oatmeal and pancake breakfasts in our camping gear before we left Tulsa. We forgot to pack a small amount of cooking oil and syrup, however, so we stopped at Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe and splurged on Kerrygold’s Pure Irish Butter and Trader Joe’s Wild Maine Blueberry Fruit Sauce, among other vacation-only treats.

The first morning at Ghost Ranch outside of Abiquiu NM, Bill lit the camp stove, pulled our griddle out of the trunk, mixed up the pancake batter, and discovered we had forgotten to bring a spatula. How to make pancakes? I suggested he use our small frying pan and flip them with all the panache of Julia Child. Bon appétit!

Pure Irish Butter sizzled in the pan, Johnnycakes browned and crisped on the edges, and Bill flipped. Not one pancake hit the dirt! Then we smothered the buttery cakes in the blueberry sauce and declared them to be the best-tasting pancakes ever. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of mine. The recipe makes five cakes the size of the one you see.


1 cup flour
1 teaspoon cornmeal
1 teaspoon brown sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
1 cup milk (I use a small box of soymilk)

Mix dry ingredients in a gallon freezer bag. In camp add egg and milk to the bag and mush around. Pour onto griddle or in pan, flip and serve.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Canyon Wren

Chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, cheer, cheer, cheer.

We can’t see the tiny wren
whose full-throated song reverberates
in the steep-walled canyon. In the heat
of a desolate afternoon, his whistling trill
is a waterfall, a refreshing draught
in the dry desert of Chaco.

Chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, cheer, cheer, cheer.

We can’t see the tiny wren,
creeping about his rocky outcrops,
poking his slender bill inside crevices
to gather insects and spiders
until he stops to sing again.
Descending and decelerating,
his melodious song from high above
our campsite is a welcome gift
in the last harsh hours of daylight.

Chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, cheer, cheer, cheer.

We can’t see the tiny wren,
but his song inspires us to consider
cooking up our own dinner,
a somewhat different bill of fare
that will, without a doubt, attract
the attention of coyotes lurking
in the rabbit brush behind us.
We can see them.

Chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, chee, cheer, cheer, cheer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

In the Time of Falling Leaves

I have fallen among
thieves who steal days of my life
one small moment at a time

I have fallen apart
when death arrives

I have fallen asleep
during Friday night concerts
and Monday morning classes

I have fallen away
from the idolization of progress
for its own sake

I have fallen backward
over the edge of a desert cliff
and believed it was the end

I have fallen behind
in raking leaves and washing windows
and dusting dusting dusting

I have fallen down
in a snow bank and looked the fool
rather than plunge into the lake

I have fallen for
happily-ever-after endings
and promises of a sure thing

I have fallen forward
down a slushy stairwell
and damaged my ego

I have fallen head-over-heels
in love

I have fallen ill
because someone sitting behind me
sneezed all through Act Two

I have fallen in
with the crowd when it suited me
and out when it didn't

I have fallen into
a few bad habits for which I claim
full responsibility even though
I'd rather place the blame

I have fallen off
a horse that didn't trust me

I have fallen on
patches of ice with and without skates
and seen stars

I have fallen out
of hammocks
and over the hill.

I have fallen overboard
in the middle of a lake in Maine
just because

I have fallen with
my husband into bed at night
grateful to have a husband
and a bed and another night
to share