I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Our changing world

Me in 1943
When this little girl was little, the world was a very different place. More than I can sometimes fathom. My dad took this picture, and it was translated from a color slide into a digital print by Pete, Norma Jean's husband of 44 years. Daddy has been gone since 1979, and Pete died this past spring. The little girl is now a senior. Although the toddler doesn't exist any more, I am still here, in a world no one alive back then would recognize, if they somehow had a chance to visit.

Probably the biggest changes can be traced to two sources, the first being the number of people on the planet today, versus when the picture was taken: more than three times as many. Before the current year ends, the world will have seven billion human inhabitants. I found this graph on Wikipedia:
What this tells me is that there is no way the world could have added this many people without massive changes in the way everything is distributed. In this country, it means that the rich have become richer and the poor are much poorer. Income distribution makes everything different. And then there is food. Of the seven billion on the planet right now, one-sixth of them are hungry, and more than six million children die of malnutrition every year (2010 statistics).

When that picture was taken, I would bet that many adults believed that, with the wealth of the world today, hunger would be a thing of the past. I know I did when I was growing up. But who could have guessed then at how much greed and avarice would run things? Certainly not me. I truly believed that our better nature would prevail.

The other big change in our world has been caused by the huge advances in technology. Without even thinking about it, I googled the web to find the statistics and graph I used in this post, and without a thought of the amazing nature of this, I have at my fingertips all the facts and figures anybody could wish for. Kids born today don't know a world without cellphones and instant messaging; they know how to "keyboard" before they can talk. Yesterday, Leo at my local coffeeshop begged me to take out my iPad so he could look at pictures. He swiped his finger across the screen confidently to change from one picture to the next. He's not even three years old yet. What will the world be like when he's my age?

This has been on my mind lately, since I've been mulling over the creation of an "epitaph" post: one I write and give to my Life Partner so that, in case of me expiring suddenly or unexpectedly, all my followers will not be left to wonder what happened to me. Somebody gave me the idea of writing this as a sort of Living Will for my two blogs. If you have ever tried to think of what you would write in this situation, trust me: it's quite a useful meditation. I have only just begun the process, and it may take me a while, but I will have written it all out one of these days. And in the process, I'll learn something.

Years ago, when I was a Hospice volunteer, we were given a similar exercise: to give a memorial statement about my life at my own funeral. I remember doing it, and somewhere in my things I believe I still have it. I'll try to dig it up and see what I said back in the 1980s about who I thought I would be by the time I died. At that place in life, I didn't know Smart Guy, hadn't started skydiving, and Chris was alive and well. So I suspect it would be quite different from what I will write these days. I'll let you know how it goes.

Hopefully this post will not be depressing, but it's what is on my mind as I sit here in the dark, listening to the wind and rain blustering outside. Every once in a while a gentle breeze blowing through the window caresses my face. The state of the world might be scary in the aggregate, but right here right now, it feels just right.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The end of summer

Late snowfall brought spring flowers in September
This year, 2011, has been one for the record books in so many ways. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, summer comes to an end this week, and we only really had two weeks of warm weather in my part of the country. Other parts, like Texas, had nonstop 100-degree days; I'll take our version of summer any time. I'm listening to the rain falling outside right now, reconciled to the fact that skydiving this weekend won't happen and hoping the next weekend will bring warmer and drier weather.

The springtime brought us so much snow and cool weather that we were sure that come July our summer would start. It didn't. Then August came, and it started out cool and rainy. It wasn't until September that it began to be really warm. I enjoy Scott Sistek's weather blog on KOMO News, and he wrote here about how we had six consecutive months of below-normal temperatures.

The late snowfall in the mountains and the cool temperatures meant that snow would cover most of the trails in the Mt. Baker wilderness that I enjoy every summer. This year we couldn't even get to the trailheads of most of them, and I just learned that the snow level is lowering to 6,000 feet this week, meaning that the remaining snow will not clear, only to be covered by more. I wonder what the bears have been eating to get ready for their long hibernation.

The upside has been the wildflowers this year. They have been everywhere in amazing profusion at the higher elevations, when usually they are long gone by this time. Tomorrow we'll go on another hike in the mountains, and I suspect I'll see more flowers. They thrill me when they are in such abundance, especially when the sun is shining. Tomorrow's hike will be the seventh extra hike we added that takes us to new places farther south, since so many of our usual treks are impassable. It's supposed to be hard, one of the hardest I'll have done, but the rain should have stopped by then.

I'm in the best shape I've been in for decades. Because of the extra hikes on Mondays on top of the regular Thursday hikes, I noticed this past Thursday that a 1,700-foot elevation gain over three miles felt like nothing. Tomorrow's 4,000-foot elevation gain on Mount Dickerman wil be a challenge, I'm sure, but it comes at the best possible time for me. Although the summer is coming to an end, and my ability to keep this hard-won fitness will probably not last for the entire winter, I'll do my best to help it along. At my age, the adage "use it or lose it" applies to many aspects of life, but especially to fitness.

Interesting to me to consider how hard it is to become fit and how easy it is to lose it. It's not fair, but there you go. Nothing to be done about that fact. At any age, getting in shape is a worthwhile goal, but when your seventies are looming on the horizon, it's very satisfying to walk for long distances and feel my body continue to perform admirably. It's not that I don't get tired, but a good night's sleep or two and good healthy food and I'm raring to go again. I haven't felt this strong and vigorous in a long, long time.

I know I will be writing in here soon enough about my aches and pains, I've done it plenty in the past, but today, it's the other side of the equation I'm feeling. At the end of summer 2011, I can look back at the past season and be grateful for it. The rain is pattering gently on the roof, a light breeze wafts in through the window as I sit in the darkness, my tea finished and the day just beginning.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years ago

Another anniversary that brings back memories of the day ten years ago that the Twin Towers were destroyed. I have read many remembrances from that day, but the ones that have moved me the most are first-hand accounts of what each person was doing at the time.

My day started with me getting ready to go into the office for a two-day-long evaluation of our department's work during the previous five years and the direction we were planning to follow for the next five years. At the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), each section would go through this on a rotating basis and it was our turn. Scientists who made up several panels had arrived during the previous weekend from both coasts. NCAR is located in Boulder, Colorado. We had prepared for this day for months.

It was during the first break that we heard, and one of our administrators had a small television on her desk. We all came in and crowded around while we watched in horror as they played, over and over, the planes hitting the Twin Towers. Although it was difficult, we tried to carry on with the planned events until the first Tower fell, and then it was all canceled. At home that afternoon, I remember so well the tears flowing as Smart Guy and I held hands in silence watching the events of the day. None of our visiting scientific staff were able to return home since all air traffic had been shut down. Everything was in disarray.

Tragedy sometimes sucks me in and I try to absorb it a little at a time, but these events were so huge and all-encompassing that I spent the next days in mourning, along with the rest of the world. I didn't feel scared for my own safety but filled with sadness for all those who had lost their lives in the event, and the terrible wreckage left behind. I remember hoping that they would find survivors in the wreckage, which they didn't. Not even one person. When they showed a special filled with images of those people who jumped off the Towers, it hit me hard. I can still see those images in my mind's eye, and to this day I cannot shut them out.

A few months later, I traveled to New York for a conference and saw the lights shining in the darkness where the Twin Towers had stood. It was impossible to get close to Ground Zero, I didn't even try, but everywhere we went in the evenings, we could see those lights shining up to heaven. The world had changed, but we didn't really know how or why.

My son Chris was stationed in Germany and he was involved in protecting his Army base from possible attack. I heard much later, when I visited the base for his funeral, that he had stayed up all night and performed magnificently in stressful circumstances. Then we went to war with the Taliban in Afghanistan. I was filled with worry for his safety. He told me not to worry, someone had to sort the mail. However, less than a year later, Chris would be gone, and not long after that, the United States would be at war with Iraq. I had a hard time trying to understand why we were going after that country.

And today we are still at war, ten years later. Can anybody tell me why? All those people dead and more every day. I still remember the awful feeling in the pit of my stomach when I heard we were starting another war in Iraq. Oh, the country I love: what has happened to us? Have we lost our way in the fog of war?

I can only hope that the world's wounds will heal once we stop blowing things up in the name of revenge. Or something. I am too small a person to understand the sweep of history during the passage of events, but I do hope I live long enough to see peace and prosperity return to my little corner of the world. Today I will be thinking of that event ten years ago that started us down this long journey and seeking solace in friendship. It is all I know how to do.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Peruvian adventure

I took this picture at Machu Picchu thirty years ago. The way the stones were carved into this little niche fascinated me. But now, what fascinates me even more is that thirty years have passed since I was there. My first international adventure was in the fall of 1981. Now it's the fall of 2011.

On the first day of summer in 1981, I was hit by a truck from behind while riding my bicycle down Boulder Canyon, which I wrote about here. I sustained a compression fracture in my back, which turned out to be rather fortuitous in many ways: the last thoracic vertebrae is not involved in weight bearing for the upper or lower body, so after healing up from the injury, I received a small settlement from the driver's insurance company ($10,000). Most of my friends at the time thought I should invest the money (which would have been the sensible thing to do), but I decided I wanted to travel to Peru. After arranging for a six-week-long absence from my job, I took off for Peru. One thing I wanted to see was Machu Picchu, and a tattered poster of the ruins had followed me from one apartment to the next. It embodied my dream of travel to distant places.

My traveling companion, Marla, was unknown to me before some well-meaning friends hooked us up. Those same friends didn't like the idea of me traveling alone, which I was prepared to do, but Marla and I were such different people that we only spent a small portion of our time in Peru together. We did, however, both meet up again for a five-day excursion from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. We took the train from Cuzco to Kilometer 88, where about a dozen fellow hikers from all over the world disembarked along with us for a three-day-long hike across three mountain passes on the ancient Inca Trail. I found a description of the hike on line and learned that now the Peruvian Government does not allow anyone to take this trip without a guide. Thirty years ago the trail was open to anyone who wanted to take it.

We carried a tent and iodine pills to treat whatever water we might find. After those three days of hiking, we crested a hill and looked down on Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu (the big mountain behind the ruins) resplendent in all its glory. This picture was taken from Wikipedia, but I have a similar one somewhere.
When we arrived early in the morning, there were only a few fellow hikers there, but as the day went on, busload after busload of tourists arrived from Cuzco so they could walk around the ruins and then be transported back to town. I climbed to the top of Huayna Picchu after touring through the ruins. I felt that the bused tourists' experience of the place could not be anywhere like mine, since I had actually WALKED there.

I don't even remember what kind of camera I had with me, but of course it had film back then and I didn't see my pictures until I arrived back home in Boulder. Funny, now that seems so strange since I'm used to seeing my pictures instantaneously. Life has changed a great deal, in ways that no one could have predicted. But one that is the same today, I'm still hiking.

Thirty years is a long time. I was in my late thirties when I took this journey to Peru, and I've now experienced the culture of many more countries and had numerous adventures. But this was my first, and I will never forget how it shaped me. You never forget your first time.