When the Words Won’t Come

It’s been a dry year for writing. After steadily plugging away on my book for over four years, I came to an abrupt halt. At first, I put it down to my usual summer slow-down, the season when I prioritize family, cabin, friends and the outdoors over sitting in front of a laptop. But I failed to get re-energized all through the fall and winter and felt lost, drifting without that goal and sense of productivity. I had to do something.

It was a writing friend who pointed me down a new path. I’ve always had an interest in sketching and was intrigued when I saw a distant cousin doing “journal sketching” years ago. The idea stuck with me, so when Gail recommended Jane LaFazio‘s online class Sketching and Watercolor: Journal Style I took the plunge.

The class included six lessons, one released every week for the students to work on independently. I ordered her list of supplies and waited eagerly to begin.

Week 1: Fruit. I watched her video, read all the instructions, and looked at her examples. Could I really do this? I pulled a sheet of thick watercolor paper off the 5×7″ pad she recommended and lined up my drawing pencil and kneadable eraser. Setting pencil to paper, I took a deep breath and began to follow the outline of the fruit in front of me. This was a rough draft, after all, and I could always hit delete and rewrite it.

Pulling out my permanent ink pen, I traced my pencil lines. There was no going back here, each stroke of the pen was a final statement – a sentence I could no longer change. But it went surprisingly well and I forged on.

The final step was all new territory to me. I opened up my children’s set of watercolors that Jane assured us were a good inexpensive starting point. Now I had to mix colors, blend shades and capture the nuances of light and color. I still have a lot to learn about writing scenes, and this felt the same way. I needed to make this come to life, now with water and paint. With Jane’s reassuring voice in my head, I applied my brush strokes as best I could.

For the journaling aspect, Jane encouraged us to frame our paintings, to add words and context to the composition, and to sign and date it. She was right, it added the polish my timid start needed, the final edit to complete the story.

Voila, I had my first painting!

Now it was time to share my work. The final step was to post my painting on our class discussion page with a note about the experience. Just like reading my stories aloud in writing workshops and hearing others read, this became a valuable learning experience. We all opened ourselves to exposure, gave feedback and encouraged one another on this journey. In addition, Jane commented on each and every painting, always providing encouragement infused with helpful tips and insights.

Buoyed by my first attempt, I bought more fruit and continued painting and posting throughout the week.

Week 2: Leaves. Who knew there were so many colors of green in the plants around us? Jane taught us to mix colors, to layer them on the paper and reveal the veins in the leaves. I revelled in the new techniques, but lacked material in our bleak Northland spring that had not yet sprung. Just as story and plot have evaded me as a writer, I had to get creative and find alternate ways to express myself. This time, foraging in the refrigerator and tub of spring greens I found inspiration.

I liked these small compositions. I was not overwhelmed by a large expanse of white paper, and a complex layout. They were a manageable size, something that could be accomplished in one or two sittings. Just as the magazine stories I have continued to write this year while my book lays fallow. Short projects that were contained and manageable.

Week 3: Straight to Ink. Now this was a scary concept, drawing with no safety net. Committing immediately with no recourse. Sort of like those writing prompts I’ve done in classes. Write about the color Red for five minutes. Don’t look back, just keep writing.

We warmed up with continuous line drawings. Keep your pen on the paper without lifting it, go over existing lines if you need to. I was skeptical, but it turned out to be fun. Then we drew with our non-dominant hand. The results were wobbly and sometimes a bit wonky, but I had to admit there was a bit of charm. It made me realize that left alone, my drawing is very controlled and precise. It takes work to let myself go and let the lines just flow.

We were granted permission to raise our pens in our subsequent drawings, but it was still hard to commit to ink right out of the gate. I found that it forced me to keep my eyes on the subject more, and trust my hand to follow its outline. The longer I kept at it, the bolder I became. I learned to embrace the irregularities and appreciate the end result. Perhaps I need to do more of that in my writing. Ignore the wiggles and blips and just let the words come. Sort it out with color later.

Week 4: Flowers. I was learning to like sketching and painting nature. It’s very forgiving in its irregularities and loose symmetry. This time it took purchasing a bouquet at the grocery store for my subjects, while I gazed wistfully at the garden flowers from fellow students in warmer climes.

My bouquet contained some brilliantly colored blooms, impossible to replicate with my student paints. I queried Jane. “How do I make hot pink?” Her reply, “You can’t. You need specific colors like Opera Pink to get it.” Clearly my toolkit was lacking, so I researched the more professional paints she had recommended for those willing to pay the price. I was now one of those. I hit Place Order.

Perhaps this was like hiring a writing coach. When I found myself unable to navigate the divide between writing short magazine stories and the manuscript for a book, I sought to increase my toolkit. She guided me through exercises to grow my skills, to learn new techniques and put me on a course to continue working on my own.

While I waited for my new paints to arrive, I did the best I could with the materials at hand, and finished up with some pastel flowers.

Week 5: Shoes. I just knew I was going to like this lesson. Shoes provided such a vast array of choices. This one in particular provided numerous comments and camaraderie when we posted our paintings. I found great fun and inspiration in the shoes my fellow students chose, and how they rendered them with ink and watercolor. Students ranged from novices like me to those with obvious artistic talent, and I learned from every one of them. I also admit to borrowing some of their ideas and techniques.

Clearly this was why my writing coach instructed me to read every book in my genre that I could get my hands on. I learned what worked and what didn’t. What made me want to keep reading, and what caused me to quit reading some books.

I dove into my own closet first, then succumbed to the cuteness factor of my grandchildren’s footwear. Sometimes it’s the subject matter itself that makes a creation shine, whether it’s in print or paint.

Week 6: Man Made Objects. This lesson incorporated techniques for drawing to scale, maintaining symmetry and the artistic license in choosing what details to leave in or exclude. Not wanting to copy Jane’s example of a wine bottle with a classy label, I stumbled on a bottle of Amaretto in the pantry. It contained plenty of challenges for getting the proportions right, and I worked through her methods to complete my drawing. But the thought of replicating the bumpy texture of the bottle and the shiny glass was daunting, so I set it aside. When I completed painting a kettle and tea cup, that first drawing taunted me, daring me to complete it. I accepted the challenge.

Sometimes stories don’t go well. Chapters just won’t work. I’ve found that if I leave them alone for a while, rather than using blunt force to push through them, the answer becomes more clear. Or my confidence surges. And the end result is greatly enhanced. So it was for my Amaretto. Along with the help of my new paints!

I have completed my class, but not my painting. I have a lot of practicing to do, especially mastering those finicky watercolors. I found that I look forward to these art projects, and they can absorb a whole morning or afternoon just as writing did in the past. I did have a niggling worry that I might supplant my writing time with sketching and painting. That I might transfer my allegiance from creating with words to ink and color.

I went into this new venture hoping to stimulate my creativity, to open that side of my brain hoping it would spur on my writing as well. If I had my way, I would marry the two. Use my ink and color to illustrate my words. But I’m not there yet.

The biggest hurdle with my book is that I cannot see the true thread, feel the message I am meant to be sending, the audience I seek to serve. Learning to draw and paint hasn’t solved that for me, but clearly it has taught me many transferrable lessons. So for now, I will continue my new art and wait for the words to come.

Arches, through Dad’s eyes

Dear Dad,

I felt you by my side these last few days as I was steeped in the geology of Utah, surrounded by stone edifices and in awe of rock formations. You spent your whole career immersed in the nature of minerals, focused on the engineering aspects of mining. I don’t think I ever absorbed much of that while growing up. Susie was always the rock hound, her pockets bulging with rocks every time we ventured outside. Every family picnic on The Rocks (now known as Brighton Beach) enticed her to return with abundant samples of the pebble beach.

But it all came to roost as I ventured into Arches National Park.

Like any tourist, I had come to see the natural stone arches that gave the park it’s name. Home to over 2,000 arches, it is one of the world’s greatest densities of natural arches. But the initial drive into the park soon revealed the larger scope of its majesty as I stared at massive red rock walls, towers that dwarfed the humans at their base, and rocks impossibly balanced atop delicate bases. With names like The Great Wall, Tower of Babel, and Courthouse Towers, I soon came to appreciate the fuller extent of nature’s creation.

Dad, I couldn’t help but be attracted to the layers of rock, easily evident in the faces of the formations, no doubt each telling a story of its era. I’m sure you could have explained it all to me, how the land evolved over time, and the unique composition of each layer. I had to be content with admiring nature’s sculpting skills.

My destination for the first day was The Windows. It is the most accessible site of the famous arches, and had the bonus of several examples clustered in a small area. With a mid-afternoon entry ticket (they now have timed entry, to solve the problem of the park’s immense popularity) I wanted to make the best use of our limited time to explore. Nabbing a prime parking spot, I cajoled Rich up to the North Window where we followed the parade of sightseers up into its opening.

I continued on to explore the South Window and opposite those, Turret Arch.

I imagine you were silently whispering in my ear, Dad, as I continued to discover that the arches were just one attraction in this whole outdoor museum. The La Sal Mountains made a great backdrop for some of the other other-worldly rocks. And I could easily make out the Elephant Parade.

I had my heart set on being in the park at sunrise, to witness the beauty of the arches against the backdrop of the pre-dawn redness, and the glow of the nascent sunlight painting the stone monuments. That might not have sounded very appealing to you, Dad, as I had to get up at 4:45am to be in position well before sunrise. Rich seconded your sensibility, so the next morning I ventured out in the darkness on my own.

Returning to The Windows, I was one of the first to perch under the arch of the North Window where I could see the sky gradually increasing in color. The wind whipped through the opening, intensifying the 48-degree temperature, and I was thankful for my Minnesota layers. I was gradually joined by swarms of other sunrise-seekers, and I soon realized that while they just wanted to watch the sunrise, I wanted a dramatic photo. That spot wasn’t it. But in my retreat, I did capture the scene.

As I walked away, the moon was just setting behind Turret Arch. To me, that was just as good as a sunrise.

I found the sunrise to be more dramatic amid the towers and slabs nearby.

Taking the primitive trail around the back of the windows yielded the golden hour glow I was after, and further distanced me from the throngs above. It was well worth the early wake-up call, Dad, for these special moments with the rocks.

Leveraging my early start, I ventured further into the park to find more of the arches. On a short side-trail, I headed over to see Pine Tree Arch which proved to be one of my favorites for the view through the center.

Beyond that, I reached Landscape Arch – the iconic view that graces the park’s brochure. You would have found the informational sign interesting, Dad, as it chronicled a section of the arch crumbling and falling in 1991, leaving it even thinner and more tenuous than before. A testament to the impermanence of all these rock structures – still changing with the forces of nature.

I couldn’t leave without seeing Delicate Arch. Since I was alone, I shied away from the hike right up to the arch which was described as “difficult with exposure to heights.” I think you would have seconded that, Dad. Instead I made my way to the upper viewpoint, and kept going out onto the rocky slabs to the rim of a canyon where Delicate Arch stood on the opposite side. By then the day had warmed nicely, and it seemed a fitting finale to my visit.

I don’t think you ever went to Arches, Dad. But I’m certain you would have loved it. I certainly did, especially seeing it through your eyes.

Love, Molly

It was Fate

The thought occurred to me in the middle of nowhere. It was one of those strange, inexplicable revelations that changed the course of our plans.

We had left Tucson that morning, heading for Moab. Deciding that the journey was too long for one day, Rich surveyed the thin options on our remote route and booked us a room at the Thunderbird Lodge in Chinle AZ. It is owned and operated by the Navajo Nation, and is situated on their land. It seemed more interesting than the standard motel fare in town.

Driving through the red rock formations of northern Arizona, it may have been the out-of-this-world environs that tickled my brain.

“Rich, do you remember someone told us about that ‘mini Grand Canyon?’ Do you think we will be near there?”

I got only a non-committal reply as he concentrated on the driving. But the idea had hijacked my brain.

I’m a list maker extraordinaire. I have an extensive packing list for traveling, carefully honed with each trip. En route, I document each day’s travels, where we stay, how far we drive, the restaurants we choose and our activities. Quickly mining the Notes app on my iPhone, I had my answer.

“Yes! It was the man who cleaned our room at Yavapai Lodge at the Grand Canyon.” That was back in 2017, five years ago.

“We chatted with him, and he told us about the Canyon de Chelly – how it rivaled the grandeur of the Grand Canyon but on a more intimate scale. It was in his home town of Chinle AZ.”

I was on fire now. “That’s it! That’s where we’re going!” In fact, the Thunderbird Lodge was at the entrance to the Canyon. The Rim Roads spun out from our very lodgings. We had time to spare the following day, and I just filled it.

Up at first light, we threw on our clothes and headed out the door. The North Rim was said to be best in the mornings so we headed to the first overlook – Antelope House, just 8 miles away. We arrived to find a deserted parking lot and a rough sign pointing toward a scruffy area stating “Overlook 1/4 mile.” Setting out, we crossed the solid rock expanse dotted with scrub bushes. It felt like senseless wandering, until I noticed the sequence of rocks defining a path, showing us the way. I was further encouraged by a few man-made stone steps, and an arrow painted on a rock.

Then suddenly, we were there, perched on the edge. The world dropped away in front of me, the depths of the canyon yawning in the open expanse. The sun’s rays were just working their way down the walls of the canyon, illuminating the colors, glowing as only early morning sun can do. Sharp shadows in stark contrast.

True to that man’s words, it was majestic and grand. A beauty to behold, extensive and captivating in every direction. But that was not its magic.

It was the solitude. We competed with no one for the view. Silence reigned as we gazed out over the canyon. We had complete freedom to wander the terrain, to take in the depths from our choice of vantage point, to make the experience uniquely our own. To spend as long as we liked looking, thinking, pausing, appreciating.

There was not a barrier in sight, save one promontory protected by short brick walls. No one to collect tickets, no lines waiting to enter.

I felt entirely unrushed as I cruised over the thick slabs of rock. Playful but careful. I watched as the canyon came to life, changing colors before my eyes. Peering down over the edge, finding caves and imagining the rocks forming gates down below. Rich took his fill of photos, relishing the lack of interference from other onlookers.

We eventually moved on to two more overlooks further down the rim. The views continued to impress, especially when we spied the remnants of early cliff dwellers across the way, looking like doll houses in the distance. And still we were solo visitors.

What will remain with me from that morning was the memory of that first overlook, feeling that we owned the canyon, had our own private showing. The freedom to wander unencumbered by fences or warning signs. The sense of awe we were allowed to absorb. I

t’s an experience that can’t be bought. Or planned. Clearly it was fate that brought it to us.

The Lure of the Loop

I am not a newcomer here. Despite a three year gap, I come laden with memories and expectations from two prior stays at the base of the Catalina Mountains on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Escaping a winter that just won’t quit, the constant sunshine and warmth were the natural draw. But to me, that is only the backdrop for my cycling plans. I already know, I will head straight to The Loop.

Tucson’s vast expanse of paved bike trails top the “washes” where flood waters are funneled during the rainy season. The Loop accounts for 131 miles of off-road trail, including a 55-mile long route that circles the city. I crossed that off my to-do list last time we were here, so instead I turn my focus to the three River Parks that radiate out from a central connecting point. Each has a distinct personality, which guides my selection each time I set out.

My biking routes over our 2-week stay

Our location in the Oro Valley is at the top of La Cañada del Oro River Park. Within a mile, I join the trail that I consider “my home trail.” I traverse this 12-mile trail down and back each time I seek out a route to cycle. Rich rolls his eyes, at my willingness to pedal 30-40 miles to explore each time I set out. But the terrain is flat, the pavement remarkably smooth, the cycling is easy and I’m just tickled to be out in the warm sunshine.

La Cañada del Oro heads southwest through suburban areas that exude prosperity. At the top, the rugged mountain peaks remain in close proximity, a tireless sight. Two golf courses flank the trail, spilling nice landscaping onto the sidelines and spawning narrow bridges to usher golf carts to the holes on the opposite side. An artsy park is a popular spot and a handy parking area for cyclists. And the path takes to the flats with a windy course flanked by desert shrubs, wildlife and birds. Before I know it, I’m alongside massive poles with netting to enclose Top Golf, with three decks of golf stations. That signals my approach to a decision point.

Turning to the right takes me to Santa Cruz River Park North. After enduring some industrial development, it leads to the flowing Santa Cruz River. Green lush trees and bushes line the banks of the river and the sound of flowing water is both a surprise and a treat. Cycling alongside this oasis I want it to continue forever, but the trail moves away and into local neighborhoods. I cycle behind houses for miles – most protected from view by stone walls – with desert scrub on the opposite side. More eye candy appears with the El Rio preserve and a seasonal lake. Another range of mountains looms close by. Like all my River Park routes, it’s an out-and-back proposition.

In the opposite direction, Santa Cruz River Park South is probably the most remote of the trails – at least for the portion I cycle. It starts with open pit digging of some kind, then takes off in a wilderness area where the trail quietly follows the wash down both sides. It passes Sweetwater Wetlands Park, popular for birding. But until it reaches the heart of the city, it remains quiet and unpopulated. I can cycle on autopilot through that section.

I’ve left my favorite for last, Rilitto River Park. This appears to be the most popular trail, with paths on both sides of the wash and there are plenty of walkers, runners and cyclists enjoying it at all times of the day. The south side is less populated, and has some fun artwork and landscaping along the way. The north side has numerous parks, playgrounds and ball fields that draw families. And the Ren Coffeehouse is a popular stopping spot for cyclists. Rilitto Park hosts a Farmers’ Market on Sundays, and I happened to be there on Bike to the Farmers Market Day. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to peruse the farm and ethnic foods on offer.

I took my last bike ride this morning, finishing with another pass on both sides of Rilitto. My new bicycle bell came in handy, dinging each time I passed a pedestrian or bike. It made me smile each time it rang, and garnered a wavy from those on the path. Tomorrow we leave to head back to the cold Northland. But I’m already looking forward to another visit, knowing I will be lured back to The Loop.

A Gap in our Streak

We all have Covid Stories. You know the litany – because of Covid I couldn’t do this, or travel there, or see so-and-so. Covid interrupted our lives, our routines and broke our winning streaks. But life went on.

In my case, the streak ended just shy of 30. Every year since 1993, my friend Susan and I have escaped our husbands, kids, work, stress and life to spend several days plying the ski trails by day, and sharing our woes, our dreams, our successes and failures in front of a fireplace by night. Until last year.

Those early years we felt so rebellious. The whole idea was born of a need for equal time, payback for the fishing weekend our husbands shared every fall. It was our turn to hand off the kids and venture off into the wilderness. Susan was pregnant with her second child, and I left three at home. It was ground-breaking, escaping before the days of cell phones, out of reach, out of touch on the shores of Lake Superior. And wonderful.

1993 at the Stone Hearth Inn B&B

How well I remember the middle years. We were both in management, working in IT balancing the technical aspects our of careers while getting mired in people management, motivation and leadership. Living in the Cities at the time, we had a long drive to our chosen ski lodgings up the North Shore, hours we used to shed our challenges, our anxieties, and especially our frustrations. Speeding through the darkness, we peeled away layers of pent-up emotions, leaving them on the floor of the car when we arrived. The same topics would resurface over our après-ski wine and cheese, but the tone softened with each passing evening. We were not alone.

2002 Celebrating 10 years at Old Shore Beach B&B

Our kids grew up, our careers shifted paths, and the busy-ness of our lives moderated, slightly. We grappled with thoughts of retirement, of life after work, of building new homes away from the Twin Cities. The life changes that awaited us were ample fodder for our time together, and we allowed ourselves to extend our outing to longer weekend trips. The guys’ fishing trip had long since met its demise, but we clung fiercely to our annual tradition. We continued to see one another through life. Listening and supporting.

2010 at Skara Brae B&B

Retirement has brought increased freedom, allowing us to move to week-day trips. We’re more willing to splurge on our lodgings these days, to grant ourselves some extra comforts. But little else has changed, and despite now living far apart the bond of friendship rekindles the minute we pull away with a car full of skis, food and gear. A comfortable companionship.

2017 at Poplar Creek Guesthouse

I’m not exactly sure how we chose cross-country skiing as the basis for these escapes, but it has remained a constant throughout our trips. Year after year we’d glide through the woods, losing ourselves in the silence of the sport. Our paces often didn’t always match up, but it didn’t matter. We’d drift apart, deep in thought, one of us waiting down the trail to regroup. For all the talking we did at night, we let our brains percolate on their own in the midst of the cold and snow. Most trips we racked up the kilometers all day long, returning to our digs pleasantly worn out, chilled and ready for the fire.

2009 Mukwonago Trails
2014 Sugarbush Trails
2014 Sugarbush Trails

From the very start, my ritual was to get up for an early morning ski before breakfast. Eager to push myself, I’d head out the door in all conditions. Susan joined me in the initial years, and on one memorable occasion we skied up to a ridge on the North Shore where we had a grand view of Lake Superior. We then plummeted back down to our B&B just in time for the sumptuous breakfast that awaited. We walked through the door, faces bordering on frostbite, eye lashes crusted with ice crystals and fingers that hardly moved. It wasn’t long after that when Susan elected to spend those early morning hours painting instead. But I persevered. I balanced the frequent brutal conditions with skiing as the sun rose, being the first out on freshly groomed trails and breathing in the tranquility.

2008 A foggy morning at Maplelag Resort
2003 Susan painting at Poplar Creek Guesthouse

Perhaps it was the gap that urged us to look back and take stock of our accumulation of shared experiences. Just as our lives have changed throughout the last 30 years, so have our outlooks. We still eagerly pack up our skis, and look forward to time spent in the woods. Skiing remains the focus of this annual excursion but we don’t feel the same pressure to pack it in as we did during our working years.

“I think I’m getting wimpy,” I confessed to Susan on the drive up the shore. “I just don’t relish going out in those cold, sub-zero temperatures anymore.” She nodded. “And I’m not keen on skiing crusty snow, or steep downhills on a twisty trail.” My confidence is waning. I now prefer soft new snow with good grip and staying in control. Susan put it differently. “I call it being selective. We’ve earned the right to make different choices.”

2022 Ready to ski the Sugarbush Trails

We embraced this new attitude over a cozy breakfast in our trail-side cabin at Bearskin Lodge the next morning, as we monitored the thermometer, waiting for it to cross zero. The following day we chose to start our day snowshoeing through the deep snow in the woods. The recent snowstorm and grooming delivered ski conditions to my exact specifications, and the sun shone down in a deep blue sky as if to endorse the perfection as we glided down the tracks each day. Being able to walk out the door to over 70 kilometers of trails afforded me plenty of opportunity to continue skiing, even when Susan had reached her fill and retreated to the Lodge. Proving we have acquired the wisdom to pursue our own passions.

2022 Morning snowshoe at Bearskin Lodge
2022 Molly skiing around Flour Lake
2022 The evening ritual by the fire

Next year will be our 30th trip, and there is no doubt we will go. We will still pack up our skis, dream of the solitude on the trails, communing with winter and pushing our bodies in the great outdoors. But we will also have the grace afforded by age, to give ourselves options. To make different choices, because we can. And it’s infinitely better than another gap in our streak.

Good Advice on Mt. Rainier

We left well before dawn, the hatch brimming with equipment, a cooler humming in the back seat and sipping Starbucks lattes. As we exited the city and ventured down narrower lanes, the sky brightened to a clear blue and Mt. Rainier rose majestically in the early morning light. Beckoning to us.

Arriving just as the gate opened, we reached the parking lot among the throng of outdoor adventurers eager to be the first ones up the mountain. In the warmth of the sunshine, skis, poles, boots, snowshoes, and backpacks littered the ground and cheerful chatter punctuated the air of excitement.

Erik, Katie and I carried our snowshoes to the trail entrance where we strapped them on. We were hardly alone, joining the long column of people stretching out ahead of us, trekking up the trail – we dubbed it The Great Mt. Rainier Migration. All destined for Panorama Point or beyond, high above.

Snowshoeing in the mountains, I had envisioned thick powdery snow through narrow tree-lined paths. But here was a wide open expanse encompassing open fields, glaciers, rocky outcroppings and clusters of pines, all gleaming in the brilliant sunshine. The snow was more than well packed, and I was thankful for the metal teeth and firm grip of my snowshoes.

I was most intrigued by those who were ski mountaineering. With thick skins on their skis, many were shuffling their skills uphill. Others chose to strap a ski on each side of their backpacks, forming a peak over their heads as they trudged with crampons on their boots. We seemed to be in the minority choosing snowshoes.

As we advanced, so did the steepness of the slope. When we got to the true climb, I gladly accepted the trekking poles Erik had brought along. I learned to punch with my toes then step up and repeat. The surface was as slippery as it was firm, and I was grateful when Erik positioned himself behind me – just in case. We commiserated with those around us, marveling at the icy slope and encouraging one another. By this time, the skiers had all removed their skis.

Step by step I moved upward. A slow and careful process, never looking down, only just at the spot in front of me where I might punch my next set of metal teeth. Up ahead Katie had already scrambled to the top, nimble in her youth and fitness. Never once did I allow myself to think about the return trip. About how I was going to navigate that sliding hill in reverse. I lived fully in the present, elated to be doing this, committed to making it.

And then we were there. Standing atop Panorama Point, buffeted by heavy wind threatening to blow me over, soaking in the warm sunshine and the view of peaks in every direction. Mt. Rainier in all its splendor.

We considered our options for going back down, but the alternate routes were sparsely populated and we took that as a sign. Better to be among the masses then off on our own. Still steeling myself from thinking about it, I followed Erik and Katie back over the edge. Back onto the slick slope. Inch by inch.

“Say, I’d wait if I were you.”

We turned to find an athletic young man fully outfitted with mountaineering equipment and skis.

“It’s still too icy to go down now. Wait for the sun to soften the snow first. It will be a lot safer then.”

The wisdom of his words took only seconds to absorb and we quickly retreated to the top, calling out our thanks. Surely, this was a scenic spot for our lunch. Scouting out a perch that might provide some protection from the wind we prepared to settle in.

Our friend soon returned.

“Oh, and when you go down – take off your snowshoes and punch your heels into the snow. That will work much better.”

We weren’t alone in dithering over which was the best way down, and we shared laughs with other snowshoers over the options and myriad pieces of advice. But time and sunshine proved our best friends, and the heel-punch method took us right down the softened slope. In fact, by following in the boot-steps of others it was almost like walking down stairs in the pocked snow.

With our climb completed, we still had an afternoon of exploring left. The wide open expanses gave us limitless options for meandering, and I relaxed into the aimless wandering and endless views. By that time, the ski mountaineers were descending the slopes, the best of them carving precise squiggles through virgin snow. A show in itself.

With the temperature soaring and the snow softening, the mountain became a playground. Families built snow forts, kids romped on snowshoes, the adventurous set up tents and boy scouts dug snow caves for spending the night. We found narrow unpopulated trails to explore and stretched our time until gate-closing loomed. The ideal capstone to our day.

We left with that good tired feeling, faces flushed with the sun and wind, the joy of spending time with family and reveling in God’s nature. And the luck of getting good advice.

What was I thinking?

The box lingered in the corner, untouched. Its factory tape still in tact. The large cardboard cube became invisible over time, as all things do when left alone. I passed it numerous times a day without giving it a thought. Yet at the same time, its very existence hung over my head.

I had wrestled with the idea for months. At first it prickled, then it pestered, then visions formed on how I could bring it to reality. Until one day I just did it. I walked into the sewing machine shop and bought myself a new serger.

I had survived seven years without the specialty sewing machine that breezes through knit fabrics, rendering t-shirts, sweatsuits, leggings, shorts, pajamas and even swimsuits in a flash. Its mastery over ribbed cuffs and necklines brought professional finishes to all these garments. For years I clothed myself and my children in custom outfits for mere pennies and large helping of personal satisfaction.

Matching family outfits so we could find one another at Disney World

That trusty machine soldiered on for years, then lay dormant when those little children went off to college and moved on to real jobs. But I brought it back into service to finish the edges of the cloth napkins for my son Carl’s wedding reception. It was on the 240th napkin that it ground to a halt – about a dozen napkins short. The repair shop delivered the harsh news, it had met its demise. My years of sewing had completely worn out the parts inside. Fortunately, the final guest count did not exceed 240.

Rich offered to buy me a new machine on the spot, but I declined. After being idled for so many years, I was uncertain I would make use of it. And so I laid the idea to rest. Or did I?

Perhaps it was my annual Grammy Jammie sewing spree that unearthed the thought again. The possibility that older grandchildren might soon opt out of slipper jammies and prefer something lighter drifted into my thoughts. And even Grammy Jammies could benefit from the bound seams the serger produces. As I picked out knit dresses for my 5 and 6 year old granddaughters for Christmas, cousins who refuse to wear anything but dresses, the niggling truth lingered. I could make these. So easily, with a serger.

Visions of resurrecting my old sewing life danced before my eyes. Just think of all the cute outfits I could make for them! And then the other voice intervened. What about my writing? Would this usurp the hours I had formerly designated for writing? Is this a delay tactic, to put off getting back to writing my book? I tried to silence the mental arguments.

So the box loitered. I couldn’t open it before Christmas, as I knew it would unleash a mountain of tasks. Choose new patterns, figure out sizes, buy fabric, cut out garment pieces. Worse yet would be the learning curve. Sergers are notoriously finicky machines and I had a brand new model to master. I had no intention of spoiling my family holidays with a new obsession.

Weeks went by. Then, in the depth of our latest cold snap I took the plunge. Tearing the tape off the box, I extracted the thick manual, then shut it again. Just flipping through the pages of instructions in three languages sent my eyes rolling back in my head. But I went ahead and bought fabric anyway, and cut out a little girl dress. Then I watched the instructional DVD. Taking a deep breath I returned to the box, lifted out the squeaky styrofoam, lugged the heavy machine to my workspace, and stared it down. Perhaps this wasn’t such a great idea after all. I would wait until morning to do battle when I was fresh.

To my great joy, the serger came already threaded. That alleviated one huge hurdle right away. Until I jammed the fabric in the machine and had to rethread the gnarliest of the four threads. But my confidence soared when I was able to return the stitches to finely tuned regularity. I continued to practice throughout the morning, tweaking tension, adjusting the differential, eyeballing the seam allowance and honing my technique.

Eventually the moment of truth arrived. It was time to sew for real. Sergers are not at all forgiving when it comes to mistakes, so my heart thumped and my throat tightened as I fed the dress pieces under the presser foot and pushed down on the pedal. One seam led to another. I successfully married the ribbing with the neckline and attached sleeves and skirt. The familiar loud thumping of the machine (as opposed to the sweet hum of a regular sewing machine) brought it all back. My fingers remembered what to do, and my eyes guided the fabric. And in short order I had a completed dress.

Maybe it wasn’t such a hairbrained idea after all.

A Stroke of Luck

One more day.  Our time was up at the AirBnB in Ft. Myers but we had one too many days for our travel home.

“How about we splurge and stay right on the beach?”  I saw no point in leaving the beautiful weather any sooner than necessary. 

Rich feigned deafness.  He was bent over his tablet, intently searching, reading, expanding the map, searching again.  I knew it, my fate rested in his hands.

“Here, take a look at this,” he said, handing over his tablet.

The charming cottage appealed to me, but it was the location that clinched it.  The small peninsula on the Gulf Coast was dominated by Bald Point State Park.  It had miles of beach, wetlands for Rich’s birding, trails for hiking and options for cycling.  My eyes traced 5-mile long Alligator Point, already planning my bike ride.  The cottage was wedged into this outdoor haven, surrounded by park land.

“Let’s book it!”

Turning off the Interstate toward Florida’s Panhandle on smaller roads, we lost traffic with each passing mile, and my muscles gradually unclenched after the tight game of leapfrog with the endless stream of semis.  By the time we turned onto the peninsula we had the road to ourselves.  After passing elaborate beach houses floating above impossibly tall stilts, we pulled into the grassy lot to find a humble cottage nestled among the wild Florida greenery.

This was a true cabin, Florida style.  The floor was tiled in a colorful pattern, heat rose through metal grates in the floor, there was a hand-sewn quilt on the bed and the quaint, comfy furnishings invited lingering.  The well supplied kitchen and modern conveniences ensured a comfortable stay.  It didn’t take us long to unload and venture out to explore.

We both set out on our bikes, but in opposite directions.  Rich headed into the park to check out the beach and marsh trails for birding options.  I had Alligator Point in my sights, eager to explore.  The road meandered down the narrow peninsula, first giving me views of the Gulf, threading down the middle, then following the bay sideThis was an old-time beach community.  Small ground level houses mixed with newer stilted monstrosities.  A community center, waterworks and marina were among the few commercial properties.  It was impossible to hurry despite the lack of traffic.  My head swiveled to take in the ambiance and culture of this local culture.

It didn’t take me long to determine that this was a different Florida.  Having traveled significantly north, the temperature had dropped significantly, especially when combined with the chilly wind off the Gulf.  The highs were in the 50s not the 80s.  Being from Northern Minnesota it still felt balmy to us, but was not yet inviting to other tourists.  As a result, there were very few people around.  It was quiet.  For years we have tried to “think un” when we planned vacations.  This time we nailed it.

I woke early the next morning, intent on walking the beach at sunrise.  Noting the 38-degree temp I donned my winter jacket, hat and mittens and covered the short distance to the sand that stretched as far as I could see.  Already the horizon was ablaze, the cloudless sky waking fiercely with the sun’s impending rays. The tide was well on its way out, leaving behind ripple patterns, tidal pools and sand islands that reflected the orange glow and blue hues of the water.  It wasn’t the barefoot saunter I might have envisioned, occasionally splashing through the retreating waves.  Instead, I headed downwind, braced myself against the chill and found my warmth in movement.  Perhaps all the better in its uniqueness.

Over a mile down the beach, the sun finally peeped above the horizon, a yellow orb that rose quickly.  And with it the beach glowed in its initial pastels.  Transformed.

Lingering over my breakfast in the cottage as the sun streamed in, I perused the park maps and settled on a hike.  The closest trail was the loop around Tucker and Little Tucker Lakes, and I liked the idea of seeing water along the way.  I must have been in a Minnesota mindset, picturing narrow paths lined with trees and easy views of the lakes.  But this was Florida.

I set off down a swath wide enough for a highway, looking more like a dirt road than a path.  It became grassier at times but never lost its width.  The tall pines that populated these woods seemed to emulate palm trees, with impossibly tall barren trunks that branched out into a rounded canopy of needles and huge pinecones.  I admired those tall soldiers in a huge battalion.  At their base swarms of palm bushes blanketed the ground, high enough to obscure my view of the lakes.  But the sun beat down, I shed several layers and pushed onward – never seeing another soul on the trail.

A final short bike ride included a visit to the main entrance of the park.  I pushed my bike out one of the beach entrances, where I could see the beach wrapping around the end of the peninsula.  Boardwalks traversed the marsh, and a long wooden pier extended into the water.  So much more to explore. Someday.

Sometimes the best experiences can’t be planned.  What started as a solution to a problem turned into an unexpected pleasure.  A peaceful coda on the end of a melodic symphony.  A chance to unwind, to engage with nature and retreat from the more populated world.  A stroke of luck.

It’s Been a While

“Would you like to bike to Lakes Park with me?” Rich asked.

On the surface it was a simple question. It’s a nice park about six miles from our AirBnB in Ft. Myers. The route is totally flat, with bike trail all the way. The afternoon was sunny and warm, inviting for an outdoor activity.

For eight years we bike toured at least once a year, usually for up to a month at a time, covering around 1,000 miles. Hopping on our bikes together was ingrained in our retirement lifestyle. When we weren’t touring, we were still out there training or just staying in shape. We took it for granted.

But yesterday’s question was not simple. It carried a depth of meaning that was not lost on me. Since Rich’s open-heart surgery over a year ago, he has been fighting his way back to health and persistently pushing to increase his endurance. He no longer takes anything for granted. Nor do I.

I couldn’t remember the last time we biked together. I looked it up in my sports tracking app. The answer – August 31, 2020. That was just over a month before his heart took him down on the trail. Back when there were signs that we missed, when workouts were harder for him but we had no idea why. When we blamed it on getting older. Yet he persevered, and we went on a nice ride in Grand Marais. I didn’t know it would be our last for so long.

Throughout his recovery, Rich insisted he had to fight his own battles. Overcome his demons on his own. He doggedly went out trail running and passed the spot where he went down, his recovering heart pounding as hard as it could as the haunting memory swept over him. He got back on his bike when the weather warmed, walking the hills when he didn’t have the stamina to pedal up them. “Slow and steady” was his mantra. Each time I offered to go with him, I got the same response. “I have to conquer this on my own.” Admittedly, sometimes I set out for my own ride on the same route a little later, just to reassure myself he was still upright, on his way home.

Rich was told that the mental game would be just as hard as the physical side of his recovery. Not knowing how much his body has left to give and the extent of his long-term prospects for active sports has been hard.

Facing all this has clouded my horizon as well. Rich’s uncertainties leave me feeling adrift. What does all this mean for our future? Our mutual love of outdoor active pursuits hangs in limbo. It used to be a no-brainer to dream up vacations that revolved around cross-country skiing, canoeing, kayaking, cycling and hiking. How much of that remains within our reach? It’s understandable that Rich’s interest may wane with his abilities. The gulf between our abilities has plunged us into uncharted territory.

And the big question still looms: Will we ever be able to resume bike touring? I still long for those days in the saddle, grappling with weather conditions, the incredible views from the seats of our bikes, the wonderful people we meet along the way, and the sense of empowerment from traveling under own own steam. I can’t accept that it’s the end just yet. Only time will tell.

Rich’s question really marked a milestone. For the first time, he was willing to share his ride. Which really meant sharing his new reality. Riding with him would allow me to personally witness his capabilities.

Cycling down the driveway, I settled into place behind him, allowing him to set the pace and curbing my urge to forge ahead – an issue even in normal times. The sense of familiarity and normalcy was overwhelming, yet I recognized it as a gift. I was also impressed. Rich kept up a good pace, better than I anticipated. Clearly his efforts were paying off.

When Google misled us on the distance to the park, and the round-trip turned out to be closer to 16 miles than 12, I could see Rich tiring on the way home. He doggedly pushed his pedals to complete the ride, and still carried his bike up the 16 steps to our 2nd floor abode. But not without a cost. I witnessed the weakness imposed by his heart. A good lesson, grounding me.

But the ride held more significance. It was a measure of just how far he’s come. More and more often, I hear Rich utter “I never could have done that a few months ago.” Which I take as a good omen for the future. For our future. He’s fighting a good fight and winning. I’m already looking forward to our next bike ride. This time I don’t expect it to be such a long while.

Back by Popular Demand

“Did you make Grammy Jammies this year?” 

Ben in the first Jammies 2010

The frequency of the question came as a surprise.  Apparently my annual sewing spree has spawned a following. It’s nice to know that a simple, homespun and creative work of love can capture an audience. Amidst the stress and anxiety surrounding our Covid-laden lives, it’s heartwarming to be able to contribute some whimsy to the world.

The answer is “Of course!”

What started with a single pair of slipper jammies 11 years ago has blossomed into seven pairs of Grammie Jammies and six Grammie Jammies for special friends this year. Thinking that a newborn was a bit young to have adopted a favorite friend yet, I added a matching stuffed animal to the assembly for him.

With each passing year, the kids get older, the Jammies bigger and I hold my breath as I check with the oldest ones to see if they are still “in.” Now topping out at 11 and 9, I realize this ritual may be nearing the end of its lifespan for them. But this year they came up with their own creative solution. “Can we have them without feet?”

“Yes! I can certainly do that!” and the tradition lives on.

I admit that I let this venture consume my fall. Once the Jammies are all cut and ready to sew, my obsessive side comes out. I develop tunnel vision, waking only to ponder how many Jammies I can complete by the end of the day. I feed material through the machine, clip threads, insert zippers, zigzag seams, top stitch, stretch ribbing, wind the bobbin and start new spools of thread all the day long. Admittedly, I still do my share of ripping out stitches and do-overs as well. Practice doesn’t always make perfect.

To date, I’ve made 51 pairs of Grammy Jammies, out of 16 different patterns of fleece. Expanding into friend Jammies four years ago adds another 20 miniature Jammies. Taking the numbers game even farther, here’s what it took to produce this year’s Grammy Jammies:

  • 13 zippers
  • 9 yards of fleece fabric
  • 5/8 yard ribbing fabric
  • Gripper foot fabric
  • 1 snap
  • 3 large spools of thread
  • 3 old Kwik Sew patterns, sizes newborn to kids XL
  • 1 44 year old sewing machine

By now the kids all know what comes in fabric bags, and I’m always as excited as they are when the latest creations are unveiled. And the best part is snuggling in together, surrounded by soft fleece clad bodies and a whole lot of love. Just like what went into the Jammies.

I can only hope that they will be back by popular demand again next year!