Thursday, May 30, 2013

In Which Your Correspondent Had a Miles Davis Moment

A construction worker was squinting at points near the rooftop of our tri-level rowhome buildings and seemed quite concerned. He noticed me noticing him, the result being one of those inconclusive postmodern moments of who is watching whom and whose observation has priority and who is suppose to look away first and pretend he wasn't looking. 

He averted his eyes from mine, as though he’d been caught dogging it. Naturally, I averted my glance from his so I wouldn't look like I was being nosy, which, of course, I was. After a few seconds of our Kabuki eye dancing, I waved. He smiled and explained that he was working on a bird infestation problem. 

I knew we’d had a starling invasion that was worse than those in previous years and that our property manager had taken action. But it struck me as curious that this young man wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of a large, commercial company, who was remediating construction defects at the adjacent complex, would be remediating birds. 

He looked at me looking at his logo and he looked at his logo, too. He told me about the birds. He told me about every crack and fissure that the little buggers wriggled into and set up shop. He told me how our building had the trim butting the wrong way while the other buildings had done it differently and they didn’t have any starlings and anyway he didn't have a ladder tall enough but he’d finally found one and had clambered up on the roof and had to hang way over to actually see anything and didn't at first but finally did, hung over and peeked inside a crack and saw a nest of baby starlings. “No way I’m gonna kill a bunch of baby birds,” he said. “No way.” 

He said maybe someone who hunted birds could do it but not him and anyway he wasn't particularly thrilled about having to be the guy who looked for birds, he worked construction and liked it, it was a good job but anyways he figured he had to do just about anything, any job they gave him, there were people with four, six, ten years with the company and they were getting laid off, people getting laid off all over the place and he only had three years with the company and he didn't know what would happen tomorrow. 

But he wasn't going to kill any baby starlings. 

Miles Davis said that everything he liked best in the world was happening all around him all the time. Yes. Made my damned day.

Note: I originally wrote this in 2009. I'm reprinting it because I liked it.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A True and Magnificent Story of Gold, Indians and a Bear

Years ago, my father owned a sawmill in the Tahoe National Forest, in the Sierras. He’d bought it out of receivership from a law firm in Chicago, who had no other takers, for zero down, in the late 1950’s. I asked him if he’d ever heard from the Chicago people again, and he said just once. They found out he’d sold off much of the equipment that collateralized the note they’d carried back and weren’t too happy about it. “What did they say?” I asked.

“What the hell could they say?” he said. That’s pretty much all I know about that part, but that's another story.

His competitors were nearly all people like him, small operators who did well when the housing market was good, and scraped by when it wasn’t. One of his competitors was the Sierraville Lumber Company, owned by a man named Dick Barrington. He was a Chief of the Washoe Indian tribe and had been a classmate of Jim Thorpe, the Olympic gold medalist and pro football star, at Carlisle.

In 1960, my father made a deal to buy the Sierraville Lumber Company and I went with him to Mr. Barrington’s office. My father left to go do something and I was alone in the office with Mr. Barrington. He was fat like my father (“not fat, just prosperous-looking,” was how my father described it), with wrinkled, nut-brown skin, a stained fedora hat and a cigar that wasn’t lit.

He was as kind as Santa Claus and told me some stories I wish I still remembered. He spoke in that soothing diction so many Indians have, breathy, with R’s sometimes truncated, sometimes elongated. “Your father and I were young men together,” he said.

At twelve, I kind of did the math. My father had been born in 1903. Jim Thorpe won his medals at the 1912 Olympics. Mr. Barrington, then, had to have been quite a bit older than my father, who had always seemed very old to me. I didn’t know what Mr. Barrington meant when he said he and my father were young men together, but he meant something. I told my father about this later and he didn’t say anything.

Mr. Barrington also said the Washoes were filing a $5 million lawsuit against America for taking Lake Tahoe away from them. “We won’t get the five million, but we’ll get something,” he said. Later, we stopped by his house to get some papers or something. My father and I couldn’t go inside because Mrs. Barrington didn’t like white people.

In those days, the value of a lumber company wasn’t in the sawmills or retained earnings or any of that. It was in its timber holdings. The Forest Service would auction off a tract of timber, and the successful bidder could buy it by paying ten percent down and the balance when it was cut, which would be several years later. By then, it would have appreciated so much that it was often just as profitable to sell the timber as it was to cut it into lumber, which was a more volatile market.

My father wanted the Sierraville Lumber Company because it had some timber under contract. Occasionally, some companies had timber holdings that were actually on fee property. The Sierraville Lumber Company had one such piece of 140 acres called the Ladies Canyon Mine. “It’s got gold on it,” Mr. Barrington said. He always had a slight smile when he talked. I wondered why he was selling it if it had gold on it but didn’t want to ask.

I was fourteen in 1962 and my first job was running timber lines. I’d assist the surveyor in locating the boundaries of the tracts to be eventually logged. It could be very hard work, because the boundaries often ran at very steep verticals through thick Manzanita brush. But if you liked being outside, it was pretty good, and since my father’s company was unionized, they had to pay me scale.

The surveyor’s name was Chuck Swanson and we set out one day to survey the Ladies Canyon property. Chuck hardly ever talked and his pickup smelled like vinyl and coffee. We drove through Sierra City and found the road to the property. It was less than a scratch on the map and not much more on the ground, twisting and winding and thumping to, perhaps, the 6,500-foot elevation where the property was.

It was used as a deer hunting camp by some locals, and they’d nailed some boards between some trees for a table or counter and had scraped off a spot for campfires. The area of the camp was, maybe, thirty by forty feet and was the only flat part of the property. You could see where the mine was because there was a huge tailings pile behind a mound. A small pipe ran out of the other side of the mound with spring water flowing out. I was thirsty and it felt like drinking a glacier.

Chuck loved finding section corner monuments. Rather, he loved looking for them. He’d look at his maps, then in the general direction of where the monument was supposed to be and would take off in a frenzy. I had to stay behind with the stick, so I could hold the stick when he looked through his surveyor’s scope.

The monuments were gone half the time, so I’d be left to my own devices until he could figure something out. I wandered around and looked for deer or squirrels. The bark on the Sugar Pine trees was thick and pitchy. It was hot and the earthy smell of sun on pine needles rose from the ground. I found a ridge and thought I could pretty much see forever. A creek gushed near the edge of the campground and I followed it downhill for a stretch. It twisted into a pool maybe five feet in diameter and six feet deep and I could see small brook trout darting around.

My father eventually logged the property. I returned there later on a day trip with my brother-in-law to scout it out for camping and it looked pretty much as it did the first time I saw it, except for a few slash piles. We saw a timber rattler and I shot it with a .22 rifle.

The family used it for camping over the years. On one occasion, my wife and my brother took our three children, his three and my sister’s two on a three-day camping expedition. He was between wives but that’s another story. Near the camp area, we ran into a bunch of men with old pickup trucks along the creek. The men seemed to be panning for gold. One of the pickups had a bumper sticker that said, “The Only Way They’ll Get My Gun Is If They Pry It From My Cold, Dead Fingers.” The men all wore pistols.

My brother and I debated whether or not we should evict the men but opted instead to ask them if it was all right if we camped there. “This is our land.” My brother noted.

One of them men scowled at us. “I knew this was gonna be trouble,” he said, and started kicking at the ground, his hands in his hip pockets. He looked at his friends, kicked the ground some more, looked at our camp trailer and looked at the kids and decided it would all right if we camped. The tailings pile was gone.

Our daughter was five, one son almost four, our youngest two, and they slept in the trailer with their uncle while my wife and I slept outside because you could see the Milky Way ribboning over the trees. Occasional meteors arced and disappeared. The rest of the children were a few years older than ours and got to sleep in the tent and be bad or at least think about being bad and tell each other scary stories and roast marshmallows.

When it got dark, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. A scant orange glow bled through the gray ash of the campfire and all you could hear was the soft rush complete stillness makes. The noise that erupted after midnight near the area where our food and gear were stored snapped my wife and me awake.

She flashed a light towards the noise and saw some reddish movement darting in and out of the light. “It’s a chicken!” she said. I had my doubts. Chickens weren’t exactly plentiful in the Sierra Buttes, and my first thought was the guy with the pistol who said there’d be trouble. I pulled myself out of my sleeping bag, took the flashlight and made my way carefully though the dark to get a closer look.

I switched on the flashlight, and as though he were the star performer in a music hall suddenly in the spotlight, a bear stared back at me. I think I yelled something, because he stood up on his back legs and glowered in my direction.

Now, a zillion things go through your mind in such a situation. Flight was not an option. Fear for the children in the tent loomed large. All the ways of getting rid of bears that were not at your disposal flicker in and out of your mind. We had a .22 rifle somewhere, but even if it were loaded, which it wasn’t, it would not have been of much use against a bear.

I awakened my brother in the trailer, thinking two heads were better than one. Some of the children in the tent had awakened and were peeking out and we told them to stay in the tent, which, of course, they didn’t do. After pondering the situation for several seconds, my brother picked up a rock and heaved it at the bear. This sounded like the only possible option, so I began tossing rocks at the bear as well.

When you can’t see, your aim tends not to be very good, and the rocks hit everything except the bear. The ice chest. The picnic table. The trees. The Coleman stove. Finally, a fusillade of stones seemed to thunk instead of clang. The bear shook himself and ambled back into the woods. He had eaten our chocolate chip cookies, though.

I didn’t know it then, but the bear, in his own way, presaged the end of the story.

Over the years, generations of family camped there and loved it. But the 1990s came along and it became necessary to dispose of the few remaining family assets, including Ladies Canyon.

Our first thought was to have it appraised for its timber. But there wasn’t really all that much when my father had logged it almost thirty years before. Besides, it felt like such a desecration. We thought we’d try to sell it instead.

I don’t recall what it appraised for, but it wasn’t very much. That a piece of ground which had given us so much pleasure and so many stories over the years should be worth so little was, well, sobering, to say the least. The good part was that it made us reflect on the difference between worth and value.

We decided to donate the property. We discussed various charities who might be interested, and settled on the Boy Scouts. The Scouts owned property at Gold Lake, not too far away, and would be able to manage it.

But one of my nephews, whose raging environmental activism had been ignited by his once being an Eagle Scout, argued passionately against this proposition. He’d recently come out as a gay man and had very little use for the Boy Scouts. We took them off the table.

In the end, I remembered Mr. Barrington and got the idea of giving it back to the Washoe Tribe. My brother approached the Washoes, and they were ecstatic. All of their traditional alpine land had been taken from them. I wondered how Dick Barrington’s lawsuit over Lake Tahoe had turned out but didn’t ask.

It took more than a year for the federal and tribal bureaucracy to work things out, but we deeded the property to the tribe. We had a handshake agreement with the Chief that our family could still camp there whenever we wanted, which was fine with him.

The Chief told us the tribe would be honoring us with a Bear Ceremony and I wondered if the bear who had wandered into camp so long ago would be back or if he’d have anything to do with the ceremony.

More than a year passed. I was living in San Francisco by then and I thought to ask my brother if he’d heard anything about the Bear Ceremony. He called tribal headquarters in Gardnerville and learned that the Chief was in the penitentiary for something or other, and they’d let us know when he got out.

All of which was only fitting, I suppose. That bear had disappeared into the night, and nearly twenty years later, we needed for him to come back out.

And we're still waiting.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Scary Trees

I know I ramble on too much about our landscape here, but I can't get over it sometimes. When it didn't snow much in January and February, things looked kind of bleak. The days were sunny, but they were short because it was dark early and late. The out-of-doors took on a monochromatic quality sometimes, with the pond a kind of glassy, gunmetal gray, the ground and flora pretty desiccated, the air chilly and thin, the sky fading.

And while walking through all this one evening, I noticed how scary the trees were, all old and spindly with muscled branches twisting off in mysterious ways. They were the kind of trees you'd see in old black-and-white movies, when the lightning would strike and reveal Frankenstein. 

In some, you could see Merlin appear. A bad fairy or evil dwarf might also lurk inside. 

 What to make of this one? My guess is that it can talk. It's clearly very angry about something, and you wouldn't dare go near without someone else with you.

This stand one may well have hidden a unicorn. On the other hand, a troll could also live there with a bunch of his nasty friends who eat raw birds and large frogs. It could also house those horrid little creatures that hide under your bed and grab your feet if you dangle them over the side.

If you stood near this one when no one else was looking, a door would open and you'd see a staircase going down, down, down. If you peeked inside, a wraith-like wind would snatch you inside and the door would disappear and you'd be gone forever. The stairs would lead to a stone dungeon and a skeleton would be manacled to the wall, right next to a small door that didn't ever seem to open, except you'd wonder how the skeleton's manacles got there.

Can't you see an elf lying down on one of the big branches and leaning on her elbow, looking at you? Or Merlin sitting there with his feet dangling? It could also have a magic door that only opens from the inside, where you'd escape the dungeon if the dungeon door would somehow open.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sometimes, It Really Is a Wonderful World

In the last couple of weeks, it's been slowly dawning on me why our part of Colorado feels more like the American West than anywhere we've lived. We moved here from Portland, OR, to Portland from San Francisco (with a ten-year hiatus in Eugene, OR), and to San Francisco from Reno, NV. These places are further west than Colorado, and in the case of Reno--at 4,700 feet or so, where the High Desert meets the Sierra Nevada range--geologically similar to Denver.

Denver is a big city.
Really big, in fact, with all the characteristics of big American cities: Terrific restaurants, many with overpriced entrees you have a hard time pronouncing, let alone eat; colliding street grids that can be very confusing; abominable traffic; seedy, scary neighborhoods; fantastic amenities for people, such as a Philharmonic, traditional to avant garde theater, entertainment venues galore, a zoo, a natural history museum, and gorgeous parks; neighborhoods from kicky to trendy to soothing;
a sophisticated population; public transportation that satisfies and fails; and professional sports teams with outstanding facilities.

Arvada's population is about 108,000, and like all Denver suburbs, it's spread out, a Miracle Mile maze of strip malls, Wal Marts, McDonalds, supermarkets, four- and six-lane boulevards and distances. No one ever anticipated an energy shortage. It's the best and worst of suburban America.

Our Arvada home, a refuge in the middle of the suburban jungle, is in a 1970s-era subdivision sited on a 30-acre pond, with a view of the Front Range of the Rockies. And it's here, a scant fifteen or twenty minutes from downtown, that The West reveals itself.

Begin at sunrise, when the golden light of dawn lays over the mirror-like pond reflecting the sky, the trees, silhouettes of buildings and circling waterfowl. Only a leaping bass disturbs the bronze silence. I try to quit staring and get on with it, but I can't pull myself away, as though I'm a shadow of the serenity and can't leave until it dissipates.

About a week ago, I noticed what looked like boiling near the shoreline. At first, I assumed it was a couple of drakes battling over a hen. They've been pairing off for a few weeks. But no ducks were there.

I went for a closer look and discovered a frenzy of fish! Bass, actually.
At various places all around the pond, schools of bass numbering between four or so and more than I could count were beaching themselves, flopping back into the water, leaping over the tree roots at the shoreline, smashing themselves into one another. I've never seen anything like it. These golden creatures are at least fourteen inches long, many even bigger, and the jump and flail and flee with reckless abandon. My guess is that they're spawning. Or mating. Or both.

But their activity has brought in another couple of pelicans. We had one resident pelican,
who moved in maybe six weeks ago. I'd never before seen a pelican in the wild, and, in fact didn't know they lived in this part of the world. Pelicans are, shall we say, huge. As in really enormous. We've seen our guy with a fish sticking out of his mouth,and he spends his day patrolling the pond, scaring away the ducks. 

But he apparently alerted some friends about the bass, and we had a total of three pelicans for a while. Sometimes they come back. They do seem to prefer weekends. When they fly, they put on an air show that beats the Blue Angels, lumbering out of the water and gliding into slow loops around the pond, gaining altitude and finally disappearing over the treetops.

Over the winter, a bald eagle moved in for a few days. The pond iced over, and a Canadian Honker had somehow gotten stuck in the ice. I don't know if it died alone or if the eagle killed it, but in any event the eagle moved in and ate the goose.

The eagle's airshow was every bit as good as the pelicans' that came later, except the eagle's has a scariness to it. You feel that he's watching you out of the corner of his eye. He pretty much left when the ice melted, except for one day when I looked out our picture window and saw him dive out of the sky and come up with a fish. That I should deserve to see such an event is unbelievable, and if I ever get over it, call the mortuary.

The sky is on fire at sundown, particularly now, when the thunderclouds linger over the Front Range. The trees look like shadows in the salmon light, and the scent of rain on earth lingers in the air.

I'd forgotten what stars look like. On a clear night, you can get a glimpse of the Milky Way, but most of the time,the constellations are strewn across the inkblack sky like crystal shards. I used to love watching the Dippers, Andromeda and Orion as well as the North Star and all the planets, and I love becoming reacquainted with them all, gazing into them and beyond and wondering what's there.

That's what the West should be. That it still exists is stunning enough, and that it emerges through the din and haze of an urban area is surprising. But that I get to see it, touch it, wrap myself in it every day is wondrous.