Cyber Magic

Urging my laptop to life, there were no inklings of the magic it would soon dispense. No hint of the hidden connections that lay within. Nothing to reveal the memories it would unleash.

The usual plethora of overnight emails swarmed my inbox, parading up the screen as they entered. Sifting through the usual jungle of unwanted solicitations, the day’s local news headlines, and legitimate email exchanges lay an unassuming subject from a sender I didn’t recognize. “Using an Image” it said. Once I had dispensed with the known correspondences, I opened it. And smiled. Then smiled even more.

A five year old photo of mine had caught the attention of a stranger. It was part of a blog post from our first year as lighthouse keepers for Crisp Point Lighthouse, when each day brought new perspectives for photographing that magnificent structure. In this image the day’s lingering light illuminated the lighthouse against a gloomy background, behind it the arc of a rainbow stretched skyward. It was the light that attracted Sarah’s attention.

Crisp Point Lighthouse with rainbowI have no idea how she found the photo. I dug through blog posts from six stints of light keeping before I spotted the picture she described. I was tickled that she wanted to use it and immediately granted permission.

But the magic still lay within. Sarah’s email began, “Good morning from a rather gloomy north east England.” That was the first smile. She went on to describe her interest in the photograph, to use for a monthly parish magazine she produces called Crosstalk. The theme of the next issue was “Light,” and she felt it would make a fitting cover image. She described the magazine’s circulation as “around 300 copies across three parishes in and around the City of Durham.” That was the second, bigger smile.

I spent my junior year in college studying at the University of Durham. As one of only 40 Americans immersed in a university population of over 4,000, I relished the opportunity to live the life of a British student, embraced the unique college system and relished the beauty and culture of that historic city. The best feature of my dorm room was the prominent view of the majestic cathedral through its single window. I made lasting friendships and developed a love affair with Britain that I have sustained through frequent return visits, including another stint to do a master’s degree at the University of Bath. Fond memories came flooding back.Durham Cathedral

What are the chances? That Sarah would find my photo. That she would be from my favorite city in Britain. And that she could so easily reach out to me directly.

A rapid-fire email exchange ensued, in which we uncovered more connections and interests in common.  The warmth of the new bond filled my soul.

The internet often gets a bad wrap. But in this case it made my day. Through cyber magic.

Music to my ears

The sterile white tomb-like cavern awaits.  Enshrouded in voluminous hospital pants and gown I succumb to the platform, and allow myself to be strapped on my back in a motionless state.  One final question from the medical professional, “What kind of music do you like?”

Nagging hip pain has brought me here.  My running regime interrupted for months as I nurse the overuse injury, cross-training with cycling and swimming.  But with little improvement.  Seeking answers, I return to the clinic and this time the doctor orders an X-ray and then an MRI.  Now we’re getting somewhere, I think.  Even if I don’t like the outcome, anything is better than this uncertainty.

The MRI machine is very loud, the attendant informs me.  I will need the music in my headphones turned up high.  “Classical” is my response.  My bed travels into the cylinder and the noisy rat-a-tats begin.  So does the music.

It happens instantly.  Suddenly, I am transported back to an elegant living room and a Steinway concert grand piano.  I know that music intimately, my fingers can follow it up and down the keyboard.  I listen to hear if the top notes “sing” as Mrs. Blair insisted, if the melody comes through and the running passages glide evenly and gracefully underneath.  She would approve of the phrasing, I think.

The piece that follows is equally familiar.  And the next.  If I didn’t play them fellow students did.  I know them by heart from Mrs. Blair’s “musicales” when we performed for one another frequently over the six years that I studied with her.

Mrs. Blair accepted only select musicians.  I always wondered how I got in.  I remained in awe of my fellow pianists, who mastered sonatas and concertos and played them flawlessly.  A constant source of inspiration, I toiled to measure up.  But it was really Mrs. Blair that I sought to please.

She was of a different era.  Always beautifully dressed, in a perfectly appointed second floor apartment in an elegant old house, she carried herself regally despite her advancing age.  I never heard her play the piano, her fingers were too gnarled by then.  Instinctively I knew she was a master, her knowledge of music unbounded.  To me, she was an icon, firm but kind.  Loving.  I never wanted to let her down.

The pinnacle of our years of study was to present a senior recital at the end of high school.  It took place in her living room, with fresh flowers adorning the gleaming length of that Steinway, a corsage and formal gown.  Folding chairs formed neat rows between the upholstered furniture, and fancy finger foods awaited in the dining room.  I played for an hour in front of my parents and our closest friends.  It would be the peak of my musical prowess.

Molly at the pianoFor forty minutes I am steeped in these fondest of memories.  Not even the machine’s thumping can suppress the music and magic.  I am sorry when the tests are complete and I scoot back out in to the real world.

I asked for classical music.  I got piano masterpieces.  It was divine intervention.  And music to my ears.

 

Winter Water

If I had any doubts about winter’s arrival, it only took a trip up the North Shore to the Canadian border and beyond to confirm it.  While patchy snow powdered Duluth, the more northern climes delivered deeply flocked pines and enough snow on the ground to make boots a necessity.  Not exactly typical waterfall weather, but that was the whole attraction.

It took two stops at Kakabeka Falls north of Thunder Bay to catch in it bathed in sunlight.  Afternoon delivered the warmth and light we sought, and transformed the view into a thunderous sparkling delight.

Kakabeca Falls in winter Rich at Kakabeca Falls

Pushing further north, we ventured in search of Silver Falls.  Following unplowed roads into the park of the same name, we stopped to hike at Dog Lake.  With only vague directions to the falls, we declined the remaining narrowing white road onward.  Silver Falls await a return visit.

Molly hiking at Dog Lake

Just at the border, High Falls in Grand Portage State Park graced us with sunshine once again.  The Pigeon River flowed with gusto, even as its borders froze into creamy icicles.  Especially intriguing was watching the water falling behind the thinner icy patches.

High Falls in winter High Falls closeup

While Rich stopped to investigate the water fowl in the bay at Grand Marais, I found yet another water feature in the crystal remnants of recent wave action.

Icy bushes Grand Marais

The best part of all?  We had every single one of these sights to ourselves.  Apparently, we were the only ones out in search of winter water.

Bonfire Magic

“We have a bonfire every night,” Bob the proprietor of the Grizzly Lodge told us.  “People make friends for life there.”  I wasn’t sure sure about the “for life part” but I’m not one to miss a good blazing fire.

Rich and I were within yards of reaching the entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  The plan was to find a campsite in the park for the night, but when Rich saw the Vacancy sign on the lodge, he immediately turned into the drive.  His deteriorating health dictated better rest than sleeping outdoors on a thin inflatable pad.  Late in the season, we scored a tiny cabin right on the riverbank.

Rich barbecued out near the fire pit while I prepared the remainder of our camp meal in the cabin.  Already the bonfire was ablaze.  When Rich crashed and crawled under the colorful patchwork quilt on the soft double bed, I slipped outside.

Approaching the fire pit, I could just make out three couples and a young man seated on the quadrangle of logs.  I settled next to the couple on the nearest side.  Like me, they appeared to be in their 60s.  The man was tuning a guitar, clearly a borrowed instrument, muttering about its quality.  But when his fingers caressed the strings music unfurled.  His picking held the promise of a folk melody as the vibrating notes sang out over the flames.  Soon his gravelly voice took up the tune, with an oddly lyrical mix of breathy tones and vibrato.  His wife joined in, singing a quiet and alluring harmony, almost a haunting combination.  The language was foreign, adding to the mystique.  The impromptu performance continued, mostly his guitar and solo voice, always in his native tongue.  It was a magical moment.  I wanted it to go on forever.

Simon Chudnovski and Valentina Kharenko are originally from the Ukraine, and have lived in New York City for 20 years.  Both are accomplished musicians, and Simon had been invited to perform in Seattle.  Valentina, a pianist, would play as well.  They were taking their first long car trip in the US with their son, David.  Fulfilling one of David’s dreams, they were visiting as many western national parks as possible in three weeks.  Normally they camped and hiked each day, but that night they had allowed themselves a cabin and real beds.

David eagerly filled us in on their travels, their music and their lives.  The couple on the next log was from the Pennsylvania Dutch area, dressed in their traditional garb.  They asked Valentina if she spoke German, and the conversation continued in that language.  The Ukrainians took as much interest in each of us as we did in them, as we lingered by the fire.

I so wished Rich could be there.  I knew he would be as enchanted by the music as I was, as charmed by the experience.  I chatted with David as we wandered back to our cabins, and told him as much.  He insisted on stopping at his car so he could give me a CD of his father’s music.  And he gave me the name of Simon’s channel on YouTube.

I invite you to listen to his music.  You will have to imagine the heat of the fire, the glow on the faces surrounding the blaze, the crackle of the dry wood.  That music floating over the scene.  Bob joined us for a spell out there.  Said he’d never before experienced a bonfire like that one.  When magic happened.

Heavenly Performances in the Tetons

Sometimes nature’s best is just outside your window.  Such was the case in the Grand Tetons.

It pays to be married to a photographer.  Especially one with a passion for night time photography and the sun’s golden hours.  I may not be game for his all-night antics chasing the Aurora, but sunsets and sunrises I can handle.  And I have to admit, Rich does his homework.

Upon arriving at Jackson Lake Lodge, Rich quickly scouted the mountain views from the front of the lodge, his apps that detailed the exact location of sun movement, and the weather forecast.  He deemed it a perfect sunset opportunity.  We were poised and ready with our cameras and tripods well before the action began.  An darn if he wasn’t spot on!

Tetons sunset 1

Tetons Sunset 2

We spent a magical hour watching the pageantry of the receding sun, as it shot light rays from behind the mountains and spun color into the clouds overhead.  We knew it must be something special when we spotted numerous lodge staff members dashing outside to capture pictures of the display.

I could have been thoroughly satisfied with that experience.  But it was far from over.  I was informed that we had a full moon, and it was due to set over the mountains early the next morning.  It was a once-a-month phenomenon.  And we had the good fortune to see it.  So it was that I dragged my body out of bed in the dark and chill of pre-dawn the following morning.  And heck, that too was worth the effort!

Tetons moonset 1

Tetons moonset 2

It wasn’t long from the conclusion of that drama to the sun’s appearance, so we lingered for the final show.  Rising from behind, it slowly painted the mountaintops and slithered down the rocky slopes with pinky golden colors, ultimately meeting the mist rising from Jackson Lake.

Tetons sunrise 1

Tetons sunrise 2

It was the perfect trifecta.  Three heavenly performances initiated our visit to the Grand Tetons.  And the view in broad daylight wasn’t half bad either.

Tetons panoramic view

Tetons’ Triumph

It’s not fair to play favorites. But I have to say that the Grand Tetons topped Yellowstone this time around. However, it wasn’t a level playing field.

While we were enamored with Yellowstone’s rich offerings, we were constantly on the go, traveling from place to place in order to see it all. We walked miles of boardwalks built to protect nature’s attractions and accommodate the large volume of visitors. We followed signs to scenic overlooks and followed well-worn paths. Throughout it all, we attempted to curtail our activities so as not to worsen Rich’s ill health. But we failed. His misery deepened as he spiraled down with pneumonia. Clearly our experience was tainted. I stopped myself short of buying a coffee mug, my favorite souvenir, emblazoned with a bear and the words Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t bring myself to burden Rich with bad karma each time he opened the cupboard.

In contrast, the Grand Tetons offered a respite. Through sheer luck, we secured four nights in Jackson Lake Lodge. The grand lobby with soaring windows overlooking the rocky mountain peaks and Jackson Lake offered daylong access to cushy couches and chairs for relaxing and absorbing the view. A coffee bar, restaurants and a bar/lounge were within mere steps. Knowing Rich’s condition, the staff ensured that our room was just a short distance away. It felt like a haven in the wilderness.
Tetons from Lobby window

But the real benefit was the nature of the park. The mountains, the lakes and the wildlife were the draw. The natural beauty to behold. There were no must-do sights compelling a visit. We could do as little (Rich) or as much (Molly) as we pleased. We had a central base from which we could explore, either together or separately.

Hiking alone is a consideration in bear country, so I limited myself to safer routes – still accompanied by bear spray. Taking the trail to Grand View Point afforded me views in two directions, out over Jackson Lake and the Tetons and overlooking Two Ocean Lake with forested crests on the other side.Tetons from Grand View PointTwo Ocean Lake from Grand View Point

Naturally, Rich ventured out in search of birds and wildlife. I accompanied him to the Willow-Moose Road, where we found a pair of moose. We watched the bull for close to an hour, as he kept tabs on his cow moose. He was an expert at camouflaging himself behind bushes or branches that obscured our view, but we persevered and enjoyed the show. Oxbow Bend was another favorite, just a couple miles down the road from the lodge. Fall colors were in full display against the backdrop of the Tetons, and it held the promise of bird and wildlife viewing.Moose in Tetons
Oxbow Bend

We found the Grand Tetons to be far more bicycle friendly than Yellowstone. The 20-mile long multi-use paved trail attracted my attention. I had my heart set on cycling it the full distance from Jenny Lake to Jackson and back again. Although it parallels the highway, I relished the safety of the path and the constant companionship of the mountains that flanked the route. I even experienced a cycling wildlife jam, when motorists stopped and flooded the path to photograph a herd of elk at close range.Bicycle trail in Tetons
Entry to Tetons

Rich tested his mettle on the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, a short one-way road with a bicycle lane. We cycled up and back, marveling at the blue-green waters of Jenny Lake. The sun dappled route on a warm afternoon was good medicine for both of us.

R biking Jenny LakeMR Jenny Lake

Some of the park roads had good wide shoulders, allowing us to cycle right from the lodge. A trip to the Colter Bay picnic area brought us right down to the lake and a rock beach. I ventured a little further to reach the National Park Service and University of Wyoming Research Station, a peaceful perch on the lake.
Jackson Lake research center

The Tetons afforded us a more relaxed pace and the ability to make plans at will.  And a chance for Rich to recuperate.  Even just hovering around the lodge environs was a treat. It’s not often we splurged like this. It was worth savoring.  And I bought my souvenir mug.  It says Grand Tetons National Park and has a moose on it.Jackson Lake and Tetons

Yellowstone’s Many Faces

Before this trip, Yellowstone National Park conjured up images of Old Faithful in my brain.  Snow in June and a rustic cabin.  That’s what I remember from visiting with my family in sixth grade.  Now I realize the injustice of that narrow memory.

Yellowstone is home to a wealth of unique natural wonders.  Despite its vast size, the distinct variety of sights found within its borders is astonishing.  Each of our five days brought something new.  Thankfully, our son Erik and his wife Katie visited Yellowstone just a month ahead of us, leaving us with tips on the best way to see the park.  And their bear spray.

We explored the “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” – walking the north rim, hiking down to the brink of the Lower Falls and absorbing the rich colors of the deep canyon walls.

Molly at Yellowstone CanyonYellowstone Lower FallsYellowstone Canyon

Naturally, we paid a visit to Old Faithful.  But there was so much more to that geyser and hot spring haven.  I walked the geyser trail, marveling at the huge variety in size, shape, frequency and reliability of eruption.  The hot springs were especially appealing, particularly the brilliant blue of Morning Glory.

Rich photographing Old FaithfulArtemisia geyserMorning Glory hot spring

There was something magnetic about Grand Prismatic, especially when viewed from above at the overlook.

Molly overlooking Grand PrismaticRich next to Grand Prismatic

I wasn’t sure I needed to see Mammoth Hot Springs.  When we first arrived, I couldn’t see what was so great about them.  But after wandering among the terraces and land formations created by the hot springs, I had to admit I was impressed with nature’s artistry.

Mammoth Hot Springs 1Mammoth Hot Springs 2Mammoth Hot Springs 3

Even more than the famous sights, I was eager to get into the wilderness.  I wanted to hike down a trail, escape the crowds and lose myself in placing one foot in front of the other in quiet solitude.  Following Erik and Katie’s advice – and their footsteps – we hiked to Shoshone Lake, the largest backcountry lake in the lower 48 states.

Rich hiking to Shoshone LakeShoshone Lake in distanceMolly at Shoshone Lake

A visit to Yellowstone is synonymous with wildlife, and we saw our share of that as well.  Bison and elk were ubiquitous throughout the park.  I heard elk bugling in the woods for the first time.  Then it became commonplace, as it was rut season.  One evening, we were delayed getting to dinner due to a placid elk crossing our path.  A “wildlife jam” alerted us to the presence of two grizzly bears tearing into something tasty on the roadside.  We chose not to venture close enough to get a good picture of that scene.Yellowstone Bison Yellowstone Elk

I have replaced my Old Faithful image of Yellowstone with a collage.  My mind now holds a collection of sights and creations of nature, interspersed with immersion in the wilderness and wildlife views.  Just a few of Yellowstone’s many faces.