This out-of-sequence “weather report” covers Aug 15 – Early Nov 2005.
The trip headline read, From Budapest to Krakow – Across the Carpathian Mountains. In the spring, when I had to choose a trip to celebrate turning 60, I already knew this would be a summer of living life on the skinny branches, only higher up and farther out than normal. So, why not hike with a group over a mountain range I never knew existed, across a country I’d never heard of (Slovakia). Just google Walking Softly Adventures. You, too, might discover new geographies.
En route to Budapest, I landed in Amsterdam to change planes. The greenness was other-worldly, with water everywhere. Everyone in Amsterdam has waterfront property. I’d been living in Montana, where the cheat grass had started to go dormant from lack of moisture. I had turned sixty and, in Montana, looked seventy. My skin was that dry. Cheat grass dry. Next stop Budapest and an easy transfer to a bus that traveled through Budapest, past beautiful Baroque (possibly Mesozoic) architecture, with geraniums sprouting from most window sills. The bus dropped passengers and their luggage off at various hotels. My stop was last – a nice little pension with breakfast, which I usually slept through, thanks to the nine-hour time difference I was adjusting to. By the time I met up with my tour group a few days later, I had watched lots of American TV programs voiced over in Hungarian, and I could see from the news that Switzerland had suffered serious flooding. I was glad to be in Hungary.
My “tribe” for the next ten days consisted of “active seniors,” almost all of them older than me, some of whom also suffered “cheat grass face.” The group included a nice couple in their young eighties from Portland, a portly former football pro turned Dutch Reformed Minister wearing a knee brace, his sassy wife who became my closest buddy on the trip, and five friends from Seattle of Asian descent who hike a lot together and had recently ridden camels out of Tunis — all really nice people. One woman, the only smoker, was in Europe doing one hiking trip after another with various tour companies. Anyway, we all walked and hiked and climbed our way across rolling hills and patterned farmlands into soaring, glacial-carved crags and peaks. We visited wine cellars, fortresses and monasteries that are World Heritage Sites, and listened to our Hungarian guide, Gabor, tell us about his culture. “Be careful not to ask a Hungarian, ‘How are you?’ because he will actually TELL you, and it won’t be pretty,” he said, wryly. He talked a lot about “the change” that gave them all greater freedom, and now what it means to join the European Union. Hearing all of this made me glad I was born in Priest River, Idaho. We all liked Gabor, and he knew his butterflies and storks (seen on many telephone poles in towns we visited or drove through). I took lots of digital photos.
Every night we stayed in castle hotels or four-star inns, always with giant pillows on the beds and buffet meals with more food than I’d ever seen in one place. After living out of a cooler all summer, I was like a hungry pygmy who’d just taken down a water buffalo. I gained weight. We always had hiking choices to make: less strenuous or more strenuous, and I usually opted for the more difficult. One hike took us up a stream gorge (something like a slot canyon in Southwest Utah), which involved walking on wet slippery wood ladders over the stream (I couldn’t have done this without my two new trekking poles).and then up a series of metal ladders, many stories up, that were bolted into vertical rock faces immediately adjacent to the waterfalls. This is the most exciting hike I’ve ever done in my life. I absolutely loved it, and I must go back to Slovakia to do it again. We hiked over a pass across the High Tatras. I was on top of the world – or so I thought – until we hardier folk climbed the highest peak in Poland assisted by chains bolted into the rock, coached by a Tatra Mountain Guide with serious body odor. I wore my Great Old Broads for Wilderness t-shirt. We stayed three nights in Zakopane (pronounced Zokkoponnie), Poland, a charming resort town with nice (cheerful, even) people, special mountain resort architecture, folklore festival and market, and world ski jumping championship on astro turf. Here I finished reading Michener’s book Poland –borrowed from Sherry and hauled with me from Idaho.
The owners of the travel company, out of Portland, led the trip – and I have never been so taken care of in all my life. A trip with this company should be prescribed by psychologists everywhere for caretaker people like me. It was finally my turn. And then all too soon we reached Krakow, and it was time to say goodbye to my tribe. Several of us cried. I bravely took the train from Krakow to Poland to fly home, and discovered that only younger Polish people who work in hotels speak any English. I didn’t know how or when to pay on the bus from the train station to the airport, and there was no one to ask, so when the ticket police came along I nearly ended up in Polish prison because I did not have enough Polish money to pay the fare AND the fine for my criminal act. A total stranger paid my fine and then got off the bus. I will never tell another Polish joke as long as I live; however, I do plan to write a letter to the president of Poland about the incident – because to encourage tourism, they just gotta do better with signs and other languages. I’ve thought about it and decided this notion is not ethnocentric on my part, it’s just good business.
Back in Helena, I stayed a couple days with Jeff, Lee and Madison, before moving to the Montana Artists’ Refuge (MAR) in the tiny town Basin, about 45 minutes south of Helena. They had a space available for a writer. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t do anything right to snag some illustrious “residency.” I had to pay rent, just like the other two residents – both artists – but it turned out to be the best thing I could have done with the month of September. I worked hard on updating the pages of the book (out first in 1987) for a reprint of Just West of Yellowstone, requested by the bookstores and the Forest Service in West. I’d been collecting new information off and on for a couple years. A member of the Board for the MAR is a graphic designer, and he designed a new cover for the book. I think you’ll like it as much as I do. When I bring out the new edition in the spring, I’ll let you know.
One resident at the MAR, an artist about my age, became a buddy to walk with at the end of a work day – up one of the gulches out of town. The aspens were turning yellow and we watched their progress. Pat talked a lot about other art residencies she’d done, and we also discussed how to determine where to live when we grew up. New Mexico, she thought. In fact, several of my friends are thinking about where to live and talking about New Mexico as a possibility. But maybe not – and this question about where to live keeps coming up, so I’m considering writing a book about that too. I mean, when you find yourself suddenly open to finding a home for yourself – because a hurricane displaces you, or a divorce, or your spouse dies, or it’s simply time for a change — and you can move to wherever you want (within reason) – how to you go about deciding??? What aids are there “out there” to help you find your place? Proximity to family members can play a role, of course, but it isn’t always necessary to live near them, either, given the ease of air travel. And they may not even WANT you to be close.
Then during the first half of October I drove back to Big Foggy north of Priest River to stay at the cabin there and visit my favorite population on the fringe, the GBTC. I continued work on my update for Just West. The weather was cooling and the aspens and cottonwoods along the river were golden in the fog. It was a beautiful and magical time, as always. Almost every evening, Sherry and I watched on DVD the first season of MONK – a television series about an obsessive-compulsive detective. Highly entertaining. On the weekend, I drove to Sandpoint to stay over night with friend Bobbie Ryder-Johanson at her little cottage on Lake Pend O’reille. We had a lovely time catching up with each other’s lives, since we were neighbors and classmates at the Univ. of Idaho from 1979 – 81. We shared photos and stories. We sat at water’s edge and sketched and talked in the warm fall sunlight. I even toyed with the idea of buying a lot near Bobbie’s place, one with an old rundown cabin on it complete with thick moss on the roof, but it’s too expensive, and the location is too isolated for me. Bobbie and her family live near Pullman, WA, and are only there about one weekend a month.
Back to Helena for a few more days with Jeff, Lee and Madison – before leaving MT for the next 6-1/2 months. I must say that my son and his wife were patient and generous with me in my comings and goings all summer, and I know that I disrupted their lives on more than one occasion. I miss my granddaughter like crazy, but Jeff and Lee are good about sending me pictures, and I can send her cards and presents – like a first globe of the world with a little sign on a movable pin that says, Gamma Rae is now HERE.
After Helena, my last stop (before returning to St. John for the winter to work) was in Santa Fe. My friend, Diana, had just moved there from Pullman. Earlier in the summer she said many times, “You’re going to LOVE Santa Fe!” And she was right. For almost two weeks we did all sorts of things around town – plus unpacked some of her boxes. She ended up with too much stuff for her smaller new abode, so she gave me lots of nice clothes. We went on a couple birding hikes at the Audubon center near town, shopped at the Whole Foods Store, went to art galleries, and participated in an art invitational sponsored by the gallery that represents D’s beautiful acrylic flower paintings. Diana painted a pumpkin for the auction. The other artists, mostly from Colorado, painted still life set-ups, architecture, and street scenes, and we all attended the evening critiques as well as a huge reception at an art patron’s house out in the country. Wow! A new employee at the gallery is an opera singer who came to Santa Fe from New Orleans with her family. They just barely escaped with their lives and lost everything else. The Rotary Club of Santa Fe sponsored them, and the family is doing well, however, the 6’ 2” tall opera singer can’t sing soprano in 7000’ high Santa Fe, only (for now) Mezzo. Santa Fe has everything – welcoming, friendly, liberal, creative people; the most incredible art galleries and shops, and beautiful scenery and sky and mountains. My friend Carol from Fort Worth flew up one day for lunch with us, which was great fun. She and I will meet and drive around New Mexico and visit Diana in Santa Fe the first week of May in 2006.
And on October 30 I left Santa Fe for Seattle to catch my breath before my flight to St. John. Friends Katie and Lorna drove the 90 miles down from Bellingham for lunch with me and a great visit around Pike Place Market – a gloriously fun time with these two firecrackers. They plan to go with me (and any other friends I can round up – just let me know) on a goat packing trip into Grand Staircase/Escalante in SW Utah for a week in October 2006. They’ll bring their ukuleles. I’ll bring mine. We’ll paint and write and entertain each other and the goats. Suddenly it was time for Katie and Lorna to leave for Bellingham, and for me to bag my things and get on another plane.
And here I am back on St. John – where new dramas (stacked on top of old ones) continue to unfold, and where the weather’s the same as when I left in May – sunny, warm and moist (no cheat grass here), with a good chance of mosquitoes.