A Saxy Reunion

They call themselves the Silver Sax. Starting out as a quartet ten years ago, they have blossomed into a robust band of eleven, over half of which are saxophones which range from soprano to baritone. Jo's husband Peter is one of the original members. It was he who explained to me the significance of the name, which refers to the members' hair color. By happenstance, they were to play a charity event while I was there. It was the perfect event for our mini-reunion.

Molly, Mary and Jo after 40 years

Molly, Mary and Jo 40 years later

Mary and Shaun arrived toting a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the occasion. Mary, Jo and I were reunited one more time, now 40 years since we all first met at Durham University. We covered as much ground as we could over drinks and dinner, dragging up old memories and recounting recent updates. But the main event was still to come.

Although we knew Peter played in a band, apart from Jo the rest of us had never heard him play. In his quiet way, Peter made light of his musical endeavors, but we all suspected he underplayed his and the group's prowess. We were eager to hear it for ourselves.

It was an eclectic old building that housed the bar where the event was hosted in the large back room. Arriving early in time for band set-up we carefully selected a table mid-way back, knowing the band would produce a full sound. Procuring our beverages from the bar at the back, we settled in to watch the room fill. All manner of dress and age were represented, although most like us sported the same hair color as the band.

Silver Sax band

With the first note we knew we were in for a good night. The first half was comprised of big band music, and their renditions of Count Basie and Glenn Miller were a solid credit to the original jazz and swing music. What they lacked in trumpets and trombones, they made up for in saxophones, and very effectively so. It was good foot tapping music, and each piece was better than the last. The music was interspersed with tidbits about the music and the band by their leader, who proved to be enlightening and articulate as well as a talented musician.

Peter playing with Silver Sax

After intermission, the second set changed gears entirely. Tackling the likes of the Beatles, Abba and the Beach Boys, the band rocked the house with their lively tunes. Foot tapping gave way to bodies jiving to the music. It couldn't be helped, it was that irresistible. Chicago followed and kept us so entertained that we begged for an encore when the time came. And the Silver Sax graciously (and readily) accommodated with a medley from Earth, Wind and Fire.

We all agreed that Peter had kept his musical skills and fellow musicians a good secret for far too long. But now that we knew better, we'd be back for more performances. To me sounds like a good excuse to return to England. I'm sure I could be talked into seeing my Durham friends again for another saxy reunion.

Jo, Peter, Molly, Mary and Shaun


A Grand Day Out

We couldn't have had a more perfect day. With an outing to Chatsworth House in the plans, we were elated by the clear blue sky, warm sunshine and nascent fall leaves. What better way to spend this gift than out in the countryside? Yes, my friends Jo and Peter made a very good choice for the day.

Our trip to Chatsworth took us through the beautiful countryside of Derbyshire and a fringe of the Peak District. There was a bit of mist still hovering in the valleys, but it didn't detract from the tidy villages we passed through and the green pastoral countryside. Every way I looked, the view was pure England.

Chatsworth House

We were visiting Chatsworth not to tour the lush country house but rather to enjoy the grounds. The park that surrounds the house is over 1,000 acres in size, much of it free to the public for walking. We headed for the central gardens immediately adjacent to the house. Immaculately kept with great variety in the plantings and themed gardens, it alone would easily have been a day's entertainment. But our visit also coincided with annual exhibition of contemporary sculpture. Over 30 modern sculptures were integrated into the landscape to add to our viewing pleasure.

Paths led throughout the gardens, and the sculptures gave us a ready itinerary for touring the area. With the sun shining down, it was idyllic weather for just strolling along. And as it was only my second day in England, it was the perfect activity for my sleep-confused system.

Some of our first sights were a bit unusual. We were there early enough that the sun reflected off dew-dipped cobwebs on some of the outdoor ornaments. Nature adding her own artistic touch.

Cobwebs at Chatsworth House
Touring Chatsworth gardens


I can't say we understood all the art. Some we dubbed “construction site” pieces. At others we could only shake our heads. Sometimes the meaning escaped us, but we enjoyed the interplay of the art with the surroundings and the artsy views they provided.

Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe at Chatsworth

One piece in particular sparked recognition on Jo's part. Based on Manet's “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe“, she explained the painting behind the sculpture and the furor it incited in its day for its scandalous content. Soon she had an audience, as another couple lent an ear to gain from her expertise. She showed us the original when we returned home, but it's her interpretation that will stay with me.

There were plenty of garden elements to interest us as well as the sculptures. The 300 year old cascade of water driven by gravity, with each of its steps made of a different material to produce a different sound from the falling water. The maze of thick tall shrubbery. Peter and I never did find our way to the center. But at least we made it out the other side. The reflecting pool with views in many directions. And the myriad flowers still in bloom. All carefully tended and manicured.

Scenes of Chatsworth

Taking time out for an outdoor lunch in the center of the stables, we basked in the sun and marveled at our good fortune with the weather. It made for sublime walking, talking and viewing. Indeed, it was a grand day out.

(With apologies to Wallace and Gromit… My family and English friends will understand!)


Lifelong Friendship

There I was, all on my own at Durham University in northern England. The year was 1975 and I was studying abroad on a program through the Institute of European Studies. It was a thrill to call that beautiful old cathedral city home, walking among age-old buildings, the castle and along the banks of the River Wear as a matter of course.

I loved the opportunity to lose my American self among the British and to immerse myself in their culture. As one of only 40 Americans in a sea of 4,000 students it was easy to do. I joined student clubs that offered experiences that were uniquely British. Soon I found myself in a church belfry doing “change ringing” on huge bells high over my head. I scaled rock faces with the mountaineering club, and went “walking” in the Lake District. I even rowed in a four-with-cox shell.

But the greatest gift of that year was the people I met. Little did I know they would become lasting friendships.

Jo rescued me. I was in the dorm laundry room, totally befuddled by the English version of washers and spin dryers. She immediately sensed my predicament and in her lively manner set about instructing me on the operating procedures. Hailing from the far north, Jo had a Geordie accent which added a language barrier to the session as I could barely understand her. But we muddled through and I found that she was equally curious about me and my “terrible American accent.” In short, we hit it off.

Mary was a good Catholic girl. I met her at a Catholic Society event. She was quiet but friendly and but we were drawn to each other. Discovering that we were both the studious type and lived in the same dorm, we established a fast bond. It was Mary who became my confidant. We could talk for hours, time slipping by unnoticed and never running out of conversation.

That was all forty years ago, almost to the day. And despite the passage of time our friendships have endured. In spite of the long distances between us, we have continued to see each other periodically through the years. We have even traveled to share our children's weddings. And regardless of communication barriers, we have stayed in touch. Mary and I are still avid talkers, thanks to Skype and other advances in technology.

Molly, Mary and Jo in 2011

So it seems fitting that I am traveling on my own to England once again. This time for the sole purpose of visiting my friends. I know they have both been planning excursions, cooking up a storm, and scheming for the duration of my visit. And I can't wait to be back in Jolly Olde England, a place that won my heart that year I lived there (and the subsequent graduate year I finagled just to be able to return). But it's really all about the people. I can absorb my fill of ordered green countryside with its rambling stone walls and hedgerows, drink an abundance of properly brewed tea with milk and take in the ancient buildings while in their company.

I have no fear of running out of things to say. We have forty years of memories to draw upon, share and compare. Gaps to fill. Family and career moves to relate. I know it will be like we saw each other just yesterday. These are lifelong friends.


Shooting the Moon

There has been a lot of hype about tonight’s supermoon and the lunar eclipse.  Even I was intrigued.  So when Rich headed down to Canal Park to photograph the rising moon, I decided to accompany him.  The decision wasn’t difficult.  It was a beautiful mild evening, very calm and inviting.  Even if I didn’t get any great photos, it would be a pleasant outing.

As soon as we arrived, we noticed another photographer heading for the Lakewalk.  He had a fancy camera atop his high-end tripod that he carried over his shoulder in a rather cavalier manner.  In the other hand, he held a case that could only hold a huge long lens.  It looked like we were in the right spot.

We set up shop near the corner of the Lakewalk and awaited the moon’s arrival.  With two foreign freighters anchored in the lake, we tried to position ourselves so that the moon would rise near one of them.  But we wouldn’t know until it came up.  As we waited, an aura of expectation developed along the Lakewalk.  Nearly everyone sported a camera around the neck.  And the population of tripods rapidly increased along the shoreline.

It was a couple of walkers who ultimately clued us in to the rising moon when I overheard them pointing it out.  It was so faint on the horizon Super Moon 2that we could hardly see it – a light blue orb blending in with the murky distant sky.  And it was in the wrong spot.  Or more accurately, we were.  Hefting our tripods, we rapidly headed closer to the bridge where we could get a better angle.  By the time we moved far enough to capture the moon with one of the ships, the moon was far more distinguishable and took on an orange glow.  Now it was getting more interesting.

Schlepping our gear closer yet to the pier, we found an even better view.  We could combine the moon, the freighter and the lighthouse.  Soon we were synchronizing our snapshots with the flash of the lighthouse’s beacon.Super Moon 3The higher the moon rose, the better its reflection.  By this time we were surrounded by other photography enthusiasts, all enjoying the spectacle.  The camaraderie was infectious, and rather than being competitive there was common rejoicing whenever someone captured an exceptional image.

Super Moon 4Indeed, it was a beautiful night to be shooting the moon.

A Keeper’s Life

Crisp Point Lighthouse“Do you travel around to other lighthouses to do this?” a visitor asks. “No, this is the only place we serve as lighthouse keepers,” I reply readily. Crisp Point Lighthouse is unique, and that’s what continues to draw us here.

We are clearly off the beaten path. 36 miles from the nearest town. 18 miles of that on rugged dirt road. Folks don’t find their way here by accident. We learn that they fall into three categories: 1) Lighthouse aficionados who want to add Crisp Point Lighthouse to their list of visits. We happily stamp their lighthouse “passports.” 2) Agate hunters who know these shores harbor some real beauties and are less visited than sites with easier access. We welcome them to the beach. 3) Travelers who happen to hear about the lighthouse while in the area. We congratulate them for surviving the rough drive. (We even sell them stickers proclaiming the same.)

Grounds of Crisp Point LighthouseRegardless of purpose, the lighthouse and shoreline delight our visitors. We never tire of answering questions (as best we can) and showing the maps and photos of how the area once looked – before Lake Superior claimed nearly all the original buildings except the lighthouse. Those who have visited before marvel at the extensive work done by the Crisp Point Light Historical Society, not only to restore the lighthouse but to landscape and protect the surrounding sand dunes.

The remote nature of Crisp Point is one of its best features. At least in our book. There is no cell phone coverage of any kind, so the urgency of internet access, email, phone calls and other technology laden gadgets is nil. The only telephone makes emergency calls only. All we know and all that matters is what’s happening right here. We take each moment as it comes, which is a peaceful way to live. When not engaged in our keepers’ duties we thrive on life’s simple pleasures.

Blogging becomes a hand written affair. Perched on the beach, mornings are spent scratching out my thoughts – inspiration as near as the waves lapping just beyond my feet.Blogging on the beach
Rich has a wealth of photographic material, both day and night. His camera accompanies him everywhere. I fool around with a bit of photography of my own.

Rich photographing Crisp Point LighthouseSunrise and driftwoodWe spend a lot of time reading. And what better spot than on top of the world? Not even the pesky flies are able to bother me up there.

Reading on the lighthouse catwalkSunrise and sunset become our daily clock. We make sure to be up before the sun in order to watch it make its dramatic entrance. One morning I stumble on a “double sunrise” courtesy of the lighthouse windows. Sunset marks the transition to nighttime, with its bonfires and stars.

Double sunrise atop Crisp Point LighthouseThe beach begs for us to walk it. The rocks ask for us to collect them. The tower invites us to climb it. And we do it all.

Molly at the top of Crisp Point LighthouseThe world continues to turn despite our ignorance of news and current affairs. We are probably as removed as the early lighthouse keepers in this remote spot. And we love it. It’s the keeper’s life for us – at least for five days a year.

An Enchanted Evening

The latch engages with a satisfying click as we close the Visitor Center for the day. The grounds of Crisp Point Lighthouse are always open and a few visitors remain to enjoy the setting sun. They require little of us as volunteer keepers, and we’re ready to enjoy another glorious evening on the shore of Lake Superior.

Rich in our dinner spot at Crisp PointOur plein air dining room awaits as we prepare our dinner on the grill and camp stove. It’s a challenge to plan meals with food that will last for five days without fresh ice for our cooler, but nevertheless we eat well. Perhaps it’s the ambiance that makes everything taste so good.

By the time we’ve finished our meal sunset is approaching. Living in Duluth we never see the sun set over Lake Superior, so we appreciate the treat. This trip we have been blessed with clear skies and just enough clouds at the horizon to create that special red glow. We have our choice of venues for this spectacle. A bench above the beach, a log in the sand and even the top of the lighthouse are all at our disposal. We linger, knowing that the greatest brilliance develops well after the sun has disappeared below the horizon. And we are rewarded.
Sunset at Crisp Point 1Sunset at Crisp Point 2
Molly at the campfire Crisp PointThe night is still young and I’m ready for the next glow. A stack of firewood awaits and our fire ring is at the ready. The dry wood roars to life and flames soon dance at the whim of the wind. The sky darkens as we stare into the blaze and the array of stars overhead intensifies with each passing moment. Looking up away from the fire we can already see the Milky Way and the Big and Little Dippers – the full extent of our astronomy knowledge. But it’s enough.

Before calling it a night, I attempt a few star pictures with the lighthouse. As my shots flash briefly on the camera display, I see it. That unmistakable glow, there on the left at the base of the lighthouse. Before my eyes can detect them, the Northern Lights show up in my photos. Abandoning my star project, I alert Rich and move to the shore to watch. A green band appears in the sky, arching up and over the lake.
Crisp Point Lighthouse at night
The show is brief but still a thrill. Rich is ecstatic – this is what he most wanted to see and photograph here. Although the lights have dissipated, Rich sets up shop under a blanket in a lawn chair overlooking the lake to wait. Lacking his fortitude and conviction, I head for the tent.

Over an hour passes with no action and still Rich waits. Even he’s nearly ready to call it quits, but hangs in there just long enough. The Northern Lights reappear and present a real display. Rich is in his element, capturing the Aurora and the lighthouse together.Crisp Point Northern Lights

Apparently the display was too ephemeral for Rich to wake me up in time to see it, so I missed that highlight. But I don’t feel cheated. I still had an enchanted evening.

Good Morning, Lighthouse

I’m groggy as I come to. My eyes are filled with “sleepy dirt,” the vestiges of a restless night spent in a tent. My body craves more rest but my will is stronger. I want to see the sunrise.

Crisp Point Lighthouse sunriseEmerging from the tent I step out into the balmy air, a happy surprise on Lake Superior in mid-September. The sky has just a faint orange tinge in the east. I turn toward the lake and there it is, Crisp Point Lighthouse. Our host for the week. Standing tall and just starting to catch the soft glow of the rising sun it welcomes me yet again.

This is our second stint as volunteer lighthouse keepers here. In return for our light duties we are privileged to be the sole inhabitants of this unspoiled shoreline for five days. We have a campsite for one, miles of Lake Superior beach and our majestic lighthouse.

Crisp Point sunrise over the beachThe visitor center does not open until 10am, leaving us with precious morning hours to commune with this beauty on our own. And so I waste no time in beginning my solo trek down the beach. Heading east, the gray sky gradually lightens to blue and the sun’s brilliance increases. I’m shielded from a direct view of the sunrise by the tree lined shore, which serves to prolong the magic of the sun’s colorful entrance. The action of the waves on the shore is mesmerizing and I am entranced with the fanciful shapes of enormous tree trunks thrown up onto the sand.Crisp Point driftwood

For once there is no hurry in my step. I feel no sense of urgency here, have no destination except forward. Camera in tow, I indulge myself in a few artsy shots. I’m no photographer but it’s a satisfying endeavor.Crisp Point beach reflection

Crisp Point lighthouse through driftwoodYesterday’s visitors reported several moose sightings, including on the beach. I fancy I see a few hoof prints, but my only wildlife encounter is a lone bird.

Molly breakfast on the beachI care about the time only in order to savor my breakfast on the beach. Sensing a few faint hunger pangs, I make my way back to stoke up the camp stove and prepare my coffee and homemade raisin bread toast. It tastes ever so much better perched on a log, my feet planted in sand below the great beacon. Visitors will begin arriving shortly, but for now the view is still all mine. Good morning, lighthouse!Crisp Point sunrise from the tower