Fireside Chats

campfireThere are few things as relaxing as sitting outdoors around a campfire with family members or friends. It’s a bonding experience as old as humankind beginning with the first person who discovered how to make flames burst forth from a few sticks. I can only imagine how mystical that experience must have been when light and warmth burst forth to transform the darkness. Each time that I see a pile of logs ignite I think of that moment and how it was as much a leap forward for mankind as the eventual landing on the moon.

I’ve been camping all over the United States and spent more than a good share of time under the spell of colorful flames and crackling wood. There is something spiritual about sitting under the stars feeling a kind of kinship with the entirety of history. Going back to the basics of existence brings a sense of peace and stability in a world that so often feels as though it is about fall off of a precipice any second. Away from the never ending race of society it’s easier to be philosophical, able to see things as they really are. Sharing such a time with loved ones makes it even more magical.

I have so many fond memories of being with my husband and daughters far away from the distractions that sometimes invaded our family bliss. Around the glowing embers of a campfire it was only the four of us whispering, laughing and feeling as though we were capable of conquering the world. We were free to totally be ourselves, to be honest, silly, however we wished to be. We told stories and dreamed of what our futures might be. There is little that I have accumulated during my existence that is of more value to me than the memories of those nights when we knew beyond any doubt how fortunate we were to have each other.

We liked to take turns telling tales. They might be outrageous, funny or scary. It didn’t matter as long as we allowed our imaginations to run free. I sometimes wish that I had recorded the stories or written them down. It would be so much fun to look back on the wonder of it all with a saved history of our glorious times. Instead I have to rely on memory which often fades over time. All that is left is a feeling that somehow brings me as much comfort as I felt back when the actual adventure was unfolding.

Campfires always seem to bring out the child in me. They tempt me to roast marshmallows and make s’mores, treats that I have never exactly liked but that brings me untold pleasure nonetheless. I love the taste of hot dogs cooked over the flames and potatoes baked in the embers. Everything seems to taste better around a fire. Everything feels more vivid.

It takes patience and a bit of skill to build a great fire that lasts until the night grows old and all of the conversations have stopped. We have a dear friend who is a master of the art. He brings his own wood that has been dried to perfection. He builds a kind of pyramid and uses chips and shavings to get the process started. He makes it appear to be easier than it actually is which always makes me wonder if that first fire was the result of an inventive soul or just a lucky accident. I suppose that we will never know for certain but what a wondrous sight that must surely have been if even I am filled with awe each time that I see the flames burst forth.

There was one particular time around a campfire that lingers in my mind. My youngest brother and his two sons had come with us. The boys were openly disappointed to be roughing it in the outdoors when their real wish had been to spend time at Disney World. They were openly sulking throughout the day as we hiked along trails and viewed scenic vistas. We had visited a tiny bookstore at the end of our activities and I suggested that each person find a book with chapters to share with one another when we built a fire that evening. A bit of excitement ensued as we searched the stacks for something unique.

Later, after we had eaten and prepared our tents for sleeping, we gathered around a fire and began to share our finds. It was so exciting that we lost track of time and continued the readings until the last flames turned into red embers. After that nobody mentioned Disney World again. Instead we anxiously planned each night’s entertainment while we experienced the best of nature during the day. Before long we were creating our own stories which somehow seemed even better than the ones we had read from books. We celebrated the sheer joy of being together and using talents that we had not even realized we had.

I feel for anyone who has never enjoyed the campfire experience. It is ingrained in who we are as humans and until we have done it, we haven’t really lived. Given the craziness of life these day perhaps it might even be a kind of panacea for all that ails us. Go somewhere away from the madding crowd. Make a campfire, have a chat, watch the healing begin.

Pure Bliss

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The annual RV show hit Houston this week reminding me of the time when we first decided to hit the road each summer to see the USA in our Chevrolet. We had a bright blue Chevy truck, a feeling of wanderlust and the germ of an idea about traveling across the United States smoldering in our minds. The RV show nailed our resolve to take some summer trips when we found a super deal on a camper shell for the back of the truck. Mike worked all spring that year turning the interior of the enclosure into a veritable wonder by installing sets of wooden structures along the front and sides that served the dual purpose of holding our gear and serving as platforms for mattresses that would become our beds. By the time summer vacation came around our truck was a self contained traveling machine.

We got married young and life took over to keep us busy with the art of surviving. Before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother became ill with first and most frightening episode of psychosis. I was not even twenty one when I had to swing into action to get her the medical care that she needed and bring my younger brothers to our apartment where they stayed while she was in the hospital. I spent that summer visiting Mama in the hospital, caring for my brothers, and keeping up with the bills that came to my mother’s mailbox.

There was no time for travel that year and the following summer the birth of our first child kept as at home as well. After that there always seemed to be some kind of family emergency or illness that left us busy on the home front, including one year when Mike developed a rare disease and ended up spending three months undergoing chemotherapy four days a week. We were in our early thirties when things finally seemed to settle down and thoughts of summer road trips became our dream.

Our first foray in our rolling conveyance, mobile restaurant and makeshift hotel was to Rocky Mountain National Park. We packed away our cooking gear, food, lanterns, clothing and other necessities and niceties in the wooden boxes along the perimeter of the camper shell and placed almost perfectly fitting mattresses on top of the lids to serve as our sleeping quarters. A fourth mattress on the floor of the truck bed would become Mike’s spot for when we grew weary each evening. With a tape deck playing Willie Nelson crooning On the Road Again and piles of books to keep us entertained during the long drive we were as excited as we might have been if we were traveling first class.

We took our sweet time reaching our destination with a couple of stops at campgrounds along the way. It was then that we developed an elaborate system for keeping things organized. Our youngest daughter entered the camper first and skittered to the far back bunk which was the smallest in total surface area. Next came our first born to claim one of the side beds and then me on the opposite side. Finally Mike crawled into the middle space on the floor and we settled down for a few last minute stories and jokes before we finally fell asleep in what we considered to be our high class quarters. With windows along three sides we were quite comfortable and content and mostly excited about the adventures that lay ahead.

Once we reached Estes Park, Colorado we parked our truck in a spot at Mary’s Lake Campground in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. We set up shop under an awning that Mike created from a gigantic tarp. We had two dish tubs for cleaning our cookware and a propane double burner stove for preparing our food. A plastic tablecloth on our concrete dining table completed the scene of our temporary home along with four folding chairs around the fire ring. We could not have been happier about our vacation heaven under the stars.

We’d travel into the national park each day and spend hours hiking and enjoying the majestic views. At night we’d build a fire and enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers, soup, chile or whatever culinary delight we fancied. We could not have been more comfortable or satisfied with our accommodations and we thought ourselves the luckiest and happiest family on the planet.

We took side trips to see a railroad museum, a few ski towns, a mining town, lakes and other wonderful sights. We had contests to see who could find the best souvenir for five dollars or less. We told spooky stories and read book after book. We gazed at the stars in wonder and marveled at the glory of our world.

Over the years we put thousands of miles on our little vacation conveyance and home. We saw Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, most of Colorado and even the Canadian Rockies. Eventually we outgrew the our sleeping quarters and opted for a gigantic tent for sleeping but we would never forget those glorious summers inside our magical truck when we saw so many wonders of the United States and realized how lucky we were to have each other.

The girls are grown and gone with family’s of their own now. Mike and I have a much fancier travel trailer complete with its own kitchen, bathroom and comfortable bed. Air conditioning and a heater protect us from the elements and we even have a television to entertain us when we wish. It’s perfect for the two of us as we age but on its best day it simply can’t compete with those times when we and our children were young and thinking ourselves so fortunate to have the cramped quarters of that tiny camper on the back of our truck. Those trips were incredible and filled with the most special of memories. I can still hear our laughter as we climbed into our beds after a long day of exploration. It was in those days that we experienced the meaning of pure bliss.   

Wanderlust

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I spent a whole lot of years keeping my nose the the grindstone of life. I had two children by the time I was twenty five years old and I devoted most of my days and nights to them. I did teaching jobs of one sort or another for over forty years. Over time I taught every age group from pre-school to high school and subjects ranging from religion to Algebra II. I was as devoted to my students as I was to my two daughters and I sometimes worry that they may have felt in competition with them. My mom struggled with mental illness whose symptoms began to display themselves fifty years ago about the time that mankind first landed on the moon. All in all I never felt comfortable taking too much time away from my duties. There always seemed to be someone who needed me to be around.

My husband was as devoted to taking care of the family and other people as I was. I can count on one hand the number of days that he took off from work, and he often let vacation time lapse because he felt so responsible for happenings at his places of business. Even during the  days when we were newly weds he labored in double shifts at NASA pulling electrical cable under the floor of the Mission Control building to insure that the historic moon landing went off without a hitch. Later he would become a banker and the type of person who spent long days attempting to be of service to his bosses and his customers.

Over the years we found that we had very little time to take trips, and often not enough money to make them extravagant. We eventually purchased a canvas tent and tossed it in the back of our various vehicles to travel across the United States in two week increments. We tended to enjoy vacations in cooler climates since we were depending on Mother Nature to keep us comfortable as we slept at night. We have fond memories of laughing and telling stories inside our humble traveling abode. We always felt safe and happy and blessed to be together enjoying the wonders of our country which we discovered are indeed many.

We created a number of rather corny traditions that still make us smile. We generally began each journey by playing Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again. We’d eat sandwiches for lunch and cook on our propane gas stove for dinner. Somehow the food always tasted better on those adventures than it did at home. We learned how to “rough it” in great style and on those long drives we read a ton of books that we often shared with one another when they turned out to be especially good.

Once our daughters were grown and gone we had a bit more time and money to expend on our explorations even as we spent years paying off the students loans that we had contracted for their college educations. We became a bit more willing to be extravagant on our vacations, flying instead of driving and staying in hotels rather than a tent. Our new found freedom and income spoiled us just enough that we one day found ourselves complaining about sleeping in a tent. It felt as though no matter where we chose to travel it was either too hot or too cold. Besides it became increasingly less comfortable to sleep on the floor and then arise in the morning ready to overcome multiple aches and pains.

We set aside our old camping gear and opted for a trailer instead. It’s not huge, but rather just right for our needs. We’ve taken it all around Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas and even all the way out to San Diego with two of our grandchildren. It’s nice to have an actual bed for sleeping and a real bathroom for taking care of all of our hygiene needs. We’ve had just as much fun in our Sonic as we ever did inside our tent without all of the nuisances that we endured when we were young and hardy.

Now that I am retired I get a case of Wanderlust quite often. I feel compelled to travel as much as I can while I can. While there are exotic places I like to see I find that short and simple trips have their own magic. I’ve discovered the beauty of east Texas and its people. It is a kind of hidden jewel that I had never before thought of as a great destination. I have learned that it is filled with green forests, rolling hills and breathtaking vistas that appear from out of nowhere. The little towns out there hold treasures like the Buttercup Cafe in Gladewater where a young woman and her family make the best hamburgers and coconut cream pie that I have ever tasted. I’ve visited a boutique winery in Mineola filled with amazingly interesting characters and elegantly tasting wines. I’ve wandered around an old home in Tyler that was filled with stories and objects from the past and I’ve sat of an evening in Tyler State Park marveling at the splendor.

I still long to travel across the Atlantic to see Paris and Rome and Vienna. I’d like to visit the towns where my Slovakian grandparents were born. I love New York City and think it would be grand to return there regularly. I’m longing to spend more time in Canada which I consider to be a kind of cousin to my own country. I have yet to visit Alaska or Hawaii and I’ve heard such wonderful things about both of those places.

The clock is ticking. I am going to be seventy one on my birthday this year. Many of my peers have already left this earth and some have been slowed down by illnesses. I want to keep going as long as I can. I have fewer responsibilities now than ever before. I have the time and the wherewithal for traveling, so I plan to take advantage of every opportunity to explore the world around me.

If my travels have taught me anything it is that we humans are even more amazing than the environments in which we live and the things that we have created. People are good everywhere. I’m looking forward to meeting ever more of them.

A Spiritual Journey

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I felt my grandmother’s spirit all around me when I visited Arkansas last week. Her family had a homestead not far from where I was camped at Lake Ouachita State Park. My great great grandmother and great grandfather are buried on the land that is now part of a national forest. In a churchyard nearby lies my great grandmother. The area is graced with a natural beauty that is breathtaking, so it is little wonder that my grandmother returned when she was growing old to retire to a farm in Caddo Gap.

I spent many happy summers with my grandparents enjoying the wonders of Arkansas. My grandmother took me and my brothers on hikes in the hills when she taught us how to identify the birds and showed us where to find quartz crystals. The sounds and smells were permanently imprinted on my brain back then, Returning brought back vivid memories and made me feel as though my grandmother might pop out from behind one of the trees at any moment smiling and extending her hand to lead us on yet another adventure.

I do understand why my grandmother loved this little piece of heaven so. The forests, hills, rivers, lakes and stone outcroppings are stunning and the people are as friendly as though they were old friends. The whole state is dotted with parks that have unique features that make them lovely. Lake Ouachita is encircled with a forest of pines, oaks and hickory trees that  change into lovely yellow, red and orange colors as the days grow colder. Geese fly in V formation over the lake and ducks waddle across the campgrounds. Now and again a deer wanders through the quiet. It would be quite lovely just to stay there and find a sense of calm and satisfaction that is sometimes hard to duplicate in the rush of daily living.

Instead, we traveled around the vicinity visiting places like Hot Springs, best known for the spas that once attracted the rich and the famous from around the world. Now all but one of the bathhouses are historical artifacts of a different time. Walking along the avenue in front of them garners images of people strolling and laughing as they vacation and enjoy the waters that ease their pains. In my own case I think of the last photograph of my parents together on our family trip less than a year before my father died. My mother wears a sundress with a full skirt and my dad is in a short sleeved shirt with khakis. They are holding hands like two lovers in spite of the fact that they had been married for ten years and had three children following behind. Their faces exude happiness and they are truly beautiful.

At the edge of town in Hot Springs is a lovely botanical garden, Garvin Woodland Gardens. It is a kind of paradise with paths meandering along streams and groves of azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, magnolias and roses. The walk takes about an hour and a half but seems to pass far too quickly. It is cool and refreshing under the big trees, and the silence save for the wind and cries of birds creates a meditative feel. The last stop is a glorious church built with wood and glass that looks out on a forest. It is a place that refreshes the body and the soul all at the same time.

Not far from Lake Ouachita is Mount Ida, a treasure trove of rock shops that offer quartz crystals and other gems from the area as well as a variety of specimens from around the world. In many of the places there is the added feature of being able to actually dig for treasures with the promise of finding something even more unusual. It is a place where a a fun day being an amateur geologist becomes reality.

Another gorgeous park is located at Mt. Nebo which requires a drive up a narrow road that twists and turns and ends with a magnificent view of the valley below. There are stone cabins for rent that are fully equipped with everything but food. Best of all they have outdoor patios with fireplaces and unbelievable scenic views. I’ve already put a return visit to this wonderful place on my bucket list.

Of course we traveled to Caddo Gap, the site of so many of my childhood memories with my grandparents. It was a thriving little town once, but that was long long ago. The old jailhouse has been converted into a residence and the suspension bridge over the creek that once served as a way to walk out of the hills is now in tatters. Only those who saw it when it was still fit for use will understand how remarkable it used to be. I recall watching my grandmother bravely walk across its wooden planks high above the water and thinking that she must surely have been the most courageous woman in the world. I can still she her smiling down on me and encouraging me to be more adventurous, a trait that seems to be a must in Arkansas.

I fell in love with the glorious place where my grandparents and great grandparents lived and worked so long ago. Arkansas is a beautiful state with wonderfully inviting people. I will definitely be returning. 

It’s My Hobby and I’m Sticking To It

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I was reminded by a Facebook memory that I have been posting blogs five days a week for six years now. If my math is correct that means that I have somehow managed to write somewhere around one thousand five hundred sixty essays, a number that is almost overwhelming when I think about it. I suppose that in many ways an undertaking that was supposed to be an avenue for advertising the book that I have written has become an obsession, while the book itself languishes in a state of unfinished editing which leads me to believe that I have some sort of psychological hangup regarding my opus magnum. Surely there is a reason for prioritizing my daily chatter over the work that took so much of my time. Anyway, this is an anniversary of sorts which brings me back to one of my earliest and most memorable posts.

Husband Mike and I had gone camping with friends at Ink’s Lake State Park located in the hill country of Texas. Things went awry from the start, beginning with the failure of one of our tent poles that resulted in a fix that left the structure leaning to one side. We should have taken this as an omen and either left immediately or made a visit to a camping store to purchase new outdoor living quarters. Instead we soldiered on, and for a time everything went remarkable well until the next bad sign came with the arrival of a group of young people late one evening. They literally came into the campground like storm troopers intent on stealing our sense of security

The members of the group appeared to have no sense of the lateness of the hour as they set up their tents using the bright headlights of their trucks to throw light on the project as well as all of the nearby sites including ours. They bantered so loudly that we heard every sound that they uttered which included both arguments laced with profanity and laughter laced with profanity. One of the members of the group had a chortle that most surely had been designed to drive people insane. Unfortunately he seemed to think that everything was funny. Even after the new folks finally went into their tents they chattered on and on and on, with the sound of that horrific laugh punctuating every single comment.

Needless to say it was a very long and unrestful night, but I was encouraged when I awoke to find the irritating people packing up to leave. In truth I almost asked if I might help them in order to hurry the process along. Instead I simply observed them while I ate my breakfast. I noticed that they were flying a large flag that was unfamiliar to me so I Googled a description and learned that it was something known as the new Nazi banner. Somehow I wasn’t surprised at all because the group was accompanied by a black Labrador Retriever whose name was a pejorative starting with the letter N. I held my temper as best I might, and soon enough they were gone leaving behind so much garbage that vultures came around to clean up the mess. As creepy as those birds were, they were preferable to the people whose place they had taken.

I was able to laugh at the adventure and enjoyed a lovely day at a winery with our friends.  Later that evening we enjoyed dinner together and played a rousing round of Scrabble while sipping on wine, so I truly thought that I would enjoy a night of deep sleep until thunder, lightning and a torrent of rain began falling mercilessly on our tent. The “sturm und drang” only got worse as the wind picked up and took advantage of the broken tent pole that now threatened to collapse under the intensity of the weather. I was far too terrified to sleep and so I lay on my cot hoping and praying that the little stream right behind our site would not decide to flood the floor of our home away from home, or that the wind might become too much for our structure. All kinds of warnings were making frightening noises on my cell phone, so when there was a small break in the downpour I raced to our car with a pillow and a blanket and found the refuge that I needed. It wasn’t long before Mike had given up his post and joined me. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation, but at least it felt safe.

By morning we assessed the damage and decided that it was time to bail and head back home. As we were leaving the park rangers mentioned that we had been the only tenters left in the park during the storm. They said that they were glad to see that we were okay because they had worried about us and even considered coming to check on our safety,\. Sadly they felt that it had been just too dangerous outside for them to brave it. Somehow I did not feel better for their kind thoughts.

Ultimately Mike and I gave up on being boys scouts and invested in a nice trailer that has kept us safe from other storms that we have endured. We were eventually able to laugh about our adventure in the tent, and I felt some sense of gratitude that it had given me a topic for launching my blog.

I’m not quite sure why I still get so much out of writing so prolifically. I sometimes wonder if anyone other than my good friends Linda and Adriana or my cousin Terri are reading my work. I know that I am addicted to putting my thoughts on a page. It is my drug of choice and since it does me no harm I suppose that it is as good as any habit gets. The ironic thing is that six years later I find myself in a new state of chaos much like the storm of long ago, and it is just as humorous. Who knew the power of water? Just a brief sprinkle from a hot water heater has upended my household for six weeks now. By tomorrow I should have all of the repairs completed including getting new carpet, but the process has been akin to moving out of the house, tearing it apart, rebuilding it again and then moving back in. For someone as obsessive compulsive as I am it has taken a great deal of laughter to keep me from losing my perspective. I’ve even thought of those God awful campers of late and chuckled at the thought of them just to stay sane.

Right now every item from our walls, closets, drawers, etc. is stored in boxes stacked high in the garage. We attempted to remember to leave out things that we would need for the duration but have found ourselves returning again and again to those boxes because we neglected to keep something at hand. Mike realized that he was going to need his checkbook after we had boxed it up,  and after a bit of a hunt retrieved it and carried it around in his back pocket. One morning he came to me and announced that he had somehow lost it. We searched everywhere and were on the verge of calling the bank to have the account changed when I used my most excellent sleuthing skills to retrace his steps. I eventually found the missing item on the floor of the guest bathroom where it had apparently fallen from Mike’s pants when nature called.

I’m doing rather well given my perfectionist tendencies. I’ve made my journey a study in empathy as I think of friends and family who suffered far greater devastation in the floods of last summer. I also have a new appreciation for anyone who is remodeling in any way. I remember Adriana telling me once that she and her husband had been forced to stored their belongings sky high in their garage while new floors were being laid in their home. I honestly had no feeling or understanding for her situation. Now I just want to give her a long overdue hug for what she must have endured.

In the meantime I suppose that I will keep writing, even if it is only for myself. I’m part of a vast group of people crying out in a kind of wilderness, unknown authors who write out of compulsion. Perhaps I am a bit crazy for doing it, but it’s my hobby and I’m sticking to it. Oh, and I really do want to get that book out for the public. I really believe that it has some merit. I hope it won’t be another six years before I get it done.