Saturday, November 29, 2014

Childhood Demons

I  remember my Saturdays as a kid. They were always the same: we cleaned the house.
We vacuumed, and dusted, and brushed the carpets, and we put things in order all over the house – my sister and I.

My sister hates dusting. God gave me a husband who does, too. So, dusting has always been my job. I don’t mind it. I like it better than vacuuming, and brushing the carpet, for sure.

But one thing I hated back then was dusting around the doilies that both my mom and my grandmother had all over the house. They had doilies all over the furniture, with little, beautiful, sculptured China dolls on top of them. The doilies creeped me out! Dust will always cling to them, to make them sticky. And they never dusted well. And they would never lay flat! They would always curl up, to have little spots under them where dust could gather and make them extra sticky for next time.

And they felt like spider webs. I never wanted to touch them! They were like living creatures, holding history, and age, and … dust … and old timey creepiness inside their fibers.

My mom is a starch freak! She starches her bed sheets! And her doilies and macramés are so starched they sit flat on the furniture. If I had to pick doilies I can live with, they are my mom’s, because they are so starched, so stiff, they don’t bubble up – they just lay flat. No tricky dust pockets to potentially hold secret creepy stuff anywhere in there.

I just unburied one of her doilies from my huge pile of heirlooms that she constantly supplies, in my closet, and it reminded me of my childhood – of all those Saturdays when I dusted her furniture, and made sure the wood is clean, and her little China doll ladies are pretty and shiny. And … the doilies are clean, too … At least her doilies laid flat – as you can see in the picture. 

My mom's flat doily - she crocheted it, and I can still remember when she did it. But it will never see the sight of my furniture!

I came face to face with my fear of macramé last month, during a trip to Charleston, SC. The client I was visiting at the time suggested that I would stay at this old inn downtown, where they had a corporate rate. The inn was everything people come to Charleston for: old charm, antiques, history, everything … 

My Nemesis bed in Charleston, SC - see the huge doily as the canopy. Cree-py ...!

I checked in, at 10.30 at night, and walked into my room. And misfortune of all misfortunes the whole bed was like an altar dedicated to doilies: there was a doily canopy draped right over the four posts of the bed! My skin started to crawl and I started to cringe! I could only speed dial my husband to say “this place is haunted!!”.

I did not sleep a wink all night, and I left the lights on in the room, all night long. I was too afraid to sleep, in case the huge doilied canopy would collapse on my face and smother me, trap me, for crying out loud!

The smell and texture of ages, smothering me. The stickiness of dust and the webs … Eeww …

And I wonder sometimes why I have so little friends …

Monday, November 03, 2014

Late Fall in the Rockies

"I saw old Autumn in the misty morn stand shadowless like silence, listening to silence." (Thomas Hood)

If you have known me for a while, you know I fight the fall! I fight it for a while. Especially since I moved in The Rockies. I try to tell myself it’s not fall yet till my turkey comes out of the oven on Thanksgiving. I have loved fall, all my life, but here, where I live now, fall is short lived and it’s only the entrance door for the winter – which I hate!

Well, I don’t hate winter. I just hate the length of it. A couple of months won’t hurt. But 4-5-6 sometimes more months in a row … no, thank you! I need my toes exposed!

We made plans for weeks to venture out to shoot some of the colors of this season, but life has been getting in the way, and we have been procrastinating. But we have been lucky to have this beautiful Indian summer of sorts, where we’ve enjoyed warm, bright days with lazy sunlight resting on the still ripening tomatoes. We’ve had timidly chilled nights, with barely a drop of dew on the browning grass in the mornings. But this past weekend, we realized: we must go out and see what there is left to see, because winter is just barely in the air.

We got snow on the peaks this weekend, and it smells like frost! We drove around our house and we captured the tiring season, going to bed for a while. It was probably the last weekend where we could still capture some yellow and red still on the branches. But not very much. But as you can tell, the browns are beautiful too – and so diverse!

Every time I shoot the mountains, in any season, one deep and gnawing feeling pricks my heart: the mountains are where my heart, my brain, my soul, my whole being is! Their gentle or sharp slopes, their majesty, their height, their smells, their aspen and berries, and pines, their trails … leave deep, sharp marks inside my brain and my heart. And I cannot peel away from them! Wherever they are, for the rest of my life, I’ll try to be …

Here are some shots from our short (less than an hour, maybe) drive. 

 Our grass is almost always yellow, but it's muted in the summer. It was fresh and vibrant after this weekend's rains.

The Spanish Fork river, snaking lazily through the canyons - can you see the richness of the browns?! My sister calls brown "the most boring color" - but not in this context!

The long, country driveways and roads look longer and lonelier when they are lines by bright yellow poplars. 

A drive in the country: these sheep were something else: the herd dog had rounded them up in a perfect circle and not one of them was outside of it! Sheep at the mountain heals spells winter prologue to me.  

An open gate, a split rail fence, along the mountainside - the loneliness of the farmland in the big, wide open - you can almost hear life just slowly passing with the swing of that gate in the wind.

What would fall be without the steam coming off of the mountain? It's like the last breath - visible, touchable, real ... 

This is what Utah mountains look like to me: rock, bushes, pines and aspen - all coming together in the most perfect unison of color, texture, shape and height. All singing fall's hymns in all their contrast and harmony.

Aspen are my favorite trees in the fall, but maples are a close second: not so much in the majesty of aspens, as much as in the detail of every leaf: from various shades of red, to various shapes and sizes, they are the blood stream of the season ...

Red berries always spell Christmas to me! And cold - very much cold!  

I am ever the small town girl, very much unlike my big city sister! A small church, a two lane road, and tree lined lonely and empty streets, framed by mountains - that's it! Happiness cannot exist elsewhere, and I am convinced of this! 

On our way back to our house, I had to stop to shoot Mount Timpanogos: the dance of the clouds and their shades all over the valley was absolutely heart stopping! The snow, the rocks, the browns and the very lonely valley just spoke volumes of silence and beauty to me. The world is ready for what it is to come. You can hear the echo, and the surrender ...
Click on the picture for the entire album of this short trip. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Inconspicuous Cat

About 15 years ago, almost to the date, he was caged at PetLand in Greensboro, NC, at Friendly Shopping Center. He was “up for adoption”, for a small fee of $150. I asked the shop clerk “how much did he cost” and he corrected me that “he is not for sale. But he is up for adoption, for $150”. He was ugly, if I have ever seen such a thing as an ugly cat, skinny and had big, ears, full of mites. His eyes were sleepy. He had gorgeous orange tabby markings with not a speck of white or other colors in it. He was a true tabby. A true redhead! In more ways than one. 

I could tell he was making an extra effort to sit as close to the middle of the cage, so kids who were poking their skinny fingers to touch him won’t reach him. I told myself: he will never get adopted! He is too ugly and he is too old to be a kitten. Not old enough to be quite a cat. And he looked angry. Annoyed with all the kids’ poking. No one would see a “family cat” in him, I told myself, as I walked out of the place with my cat food in hand, and I sighed. 

I went home and told my then husband about him. We had $300 in the bank and the mortgage of $750 due in a week. 

Two days later, a Saturday, sometime in the fall, my husband and my then step kids showed up at the door with him in their hands. The ugly kitten, all mites, bones and ever so soft orange fur was now ours – our second kitty, after his bigger brother, Fero.
My first reaction was “We cannot afford HIM! We cannot afford the mortgage this month and you go out and buy a CAT????”. My husband said: “OK, fine, he has a 48 hour warranty, I am going to return him! Give him back”. 

I had him in my hands, and he was scratching and hissing and angry. All claws out and clinging onto my skin for dear life! I said: “NO WAY! He has been through enough already! We’ll love him up to be beautiful!” And the rest, really, is history! 

He never did get a real name. Fero was Fero, and the “little kitty” we just got became Little Kitty. And on his vet certificate, he is still Little Kitty. Not just Kitty, but “Little Kitty”.  
If God went out to design a perfect mold for a kitty, He must have fit my Little Kitty in it. He was the softest cat I have ever touched. The cleanest. The quietest. Like any cat, he was fiercely independent and stubborn. He liked company on his terms and he made those terms very clear! By biting, and scratching and hissing. You always knew his boundaries. And he only had to tell you about them once. 

He was my one true hunter cat! When I lived in a house in the woods of Summerfield, NC, we had mice. He caught them every time they’d dare wander through my kitchen, and would bring them to bed, in the middle of the night, in his mouth, to show me his catch! He was upset when we killed the mouse. It was his pray to kill, so understandable. 

He sneezed, occasionally, because he was allergic to clay, I found. He was even allergic to almost every brand of litter except two! I tried using clay bowls for his food – not a good idea! His nose would get as red as Rudolph’s and it would drip and drip, as he sneezed with all of his body. 

He always let Fero be the alpha cat, and always protected the baby cat, Gypsy. He was stoic, devoted to all his duties and respectful of everyone’s space, as long as they respected his.  

For years, I lived alone, after my divorce. We were all a team, me and the three kitties. I clipped the nails of the other two cats, but I could never do it by myself to him. He was impossible to pill or to put in the cat carrier singlehandedly. It was always a two people’s job. I figured, he was feral for a while, before he ended up at PetLand. You could tell, he did not trust people. 

He slept with me, for years. But always at the foot of the bed. Just enough to be close but not enough close where I could touch him. In true cat fashion, he spited me: with a name like Little Kitty, he grew to be the largest cat I have ever been owned by. 

A very rare sight: Little Kitty bonding with my sister. She was amongst the very few who "got him". And he, her.

Just like I promised him on his first day with me, I loved him up, I think, to be beautiful. Even gorgeous. He still had dreamy eyes and a serious look, all of his life, but the mites went away, and he filled into his large ears and paws.

He never once, that I can remember, got in trouble! He never broke anything, always groomed religiously, his breath never smelled. His moves were ever so calculated and slow, just like a tiger, which gained his nickname in his later life of Richard Parker, the tiger in Life of Pi. He was my tiger. Or “pumpkin”. Or “pinkie”, because of his pink paw pads. Because of his serious allure, he became “Mr. Kitty” to my now husband. And lived up to that name. He always kept a low profile. He ate the longest, because he always took his time, with everything. He was a typical middle child!

Just like with all my cats, we built a whole life together. Some people tell me that 15 years is “old” for a cat. To me, 100 would not be enough! We had to say ‘good bye’ to Mr. Kitty tonight. Just as quietly as he slipped into my life, he slipped away, on his own, after a two month heroic battle with kidney failure (I swear Utah water is killing my cats!). He was 15 and 5 months today. 

I’ll miss so much about him! His constant presence just beside me. His long grooming sessions, his lazy an watchful swagger down the stairs, swinging his fat belly left to right, while sheepishly glancing over his left shoulder to make sure I am following him. His quiet meow. His habit of “rearranging” my coasters: he would knock them on the floor, from the table or the arm rest of the couch. We never quite figured out why just the coasters. 

I hope kitties go to heaven and this way he can meet his brother, Fero, and compare matching bracelets of shaved fur on their paws, from the IVs they got for their kidney diseases. I hope he runs free, with no one chasing him down to clip his claws. I hope he makes someone as happy as he’s made us, and as fulfilled. 

He never asked for much. Not even for attention. A bowl of food, a clean litter box, a bowl of water, and a window with fresh air where he could watch birds, squirrels and cars.

I’ll miss his presence the most. To me, he was the ultimate symbol of coming home.
He ended up being so much more than a kitty with no name. 

Rest in peace, Little Man! We ache and cry and hope you make another world as happy as you made ours! 

Little Kitty:
 May 15, 1999 - October 15, 2014

Sunday, September 07, 2014

How Not to Die or Give Up While Climbing a Mountain

The Timpanogos Cave Trail Adventure

Till a week ago, the most difficult trail I can remember ever attempting was The Shoals Falls Loop Trail in South Mountains State Park in NC, or the Hot Pots trail, in Diamond Fork Canyon, in Utah.

But both trails quickly fade in comparison to the Timpanogos Cave Trail, in American Fork Canyon, which kicked my butt!

My husband attempted to climb it 10 years ago. In worse shape than he is now, although younger, and on a 100F+ day in the middle of summer, with no water on hand, he and his friend made it half way up the mountain and turned around. They never made it to the cave.

I will let you read on the specifics of the trail on your own, but I want to tell you about my own experience.

First, I have been intrigued about this cave since I moved here, simply, first, because I love caves. It’s one of those “face your fears” deals for me: I am terrified of bats, and I am not crazy about complete darkness, either. But I love what God and Nature conspire to do inside the belly of the world! And unlike the bottom of the ocean, where I would need special skills to go visit, there are no special skills or instructions required to see a cave.

Then, everyone I know in this area has not only been to the cave, but have climbed The Timpanogos (mountain), a 14 mile trail, which takes you up 11K feet high above the valley floor! Loving heights as much as I do, and looking upon open vistas, I was craving for years to lay my eyes on this beautiful landscape as seen from up there.

I promise my husband every summer that “this year, we’ll do the cave” and yet, for 4 years, we have not done it. So, this year was the year of the cave!

We each got a liter and a half of water to take with us, 6 clementines and a breakfast bar, good shoes and a good night sleep before the trip. And on the Sunday of Labor Day, we reserved our tickets to start the hike at 12.15 PM! My husband was dubious still, all the way to the trail head. And beyond.

In what follows, it’s the story of this hike, in pictures, and words:

It was actually chilly start, in the shade! The weather announced 78 for a high that day, which is perfect hiking weather, but it felt more like 68 to me, hence the sweater:

Right after this picture was taken, my husband dropped his bottle of water into the abyss below us! Oh, no! We were left with just my bottle – just one and a half liter for both of us, and a mile and a half of steep, steep canyon to climb! Will we make it?!

On the climb up, we kept seeing people with lots less water than us, and eating salty snacks, coming back, so we figured if we conserve our snacks and energy we’d be fine with the water we had left!

The trail is paved all the way up – which always made me believe that it’s no big deal. However, “steep” does not even begin to describe it! It is breakneck steep! It’s almost “straight up”, as if you were to rock climb Angels Landing in Zion! Seriously!

At every bend in the road (and there are many, as the trail snakes back and forth through rocky terrain), you feel like your knees, your liver, your chest are going to give up on you and this is your end. Right here, on the Timp Cave trail! 

This is one of the many pictures my husband took of the steep-ness and winding-ness of the trail: we are at one of the bends in the road when we took this shot:

From almost every angle we looked down in the valley from, we saw this abrupt, endless, and humbling beauty below: it was just quite literally breath-taking. I know this is a cliche, but I really don't have any other words for it: the vistas below kept us going and wanting  for more: more angles, more canyon clearance, more flora, more ... and more and more ...:

We were thrilled to learn that there are markers to tell you how far along you are in your journey: of course, tourist geeks that we are, we took pictures at every marker: here's me at the 1/4 way spot, right before entering a mini-tunnel:

The terrain is all rock, as you'd expect, in Utah. On every stopping point, you see these huge walls shouting up towards the sky, protecting you from falling off the cliffs. And then nothing but more rock beyond:

Although we had a set time for the cave tour, at the top (1:45 PM), we were in no hurry: we stopped not only to rest but also to take in the landscape, near and far. There are lots of up close beauties on the trail, like these flowers springing right off the boulders, or this trunk being one with the desert:

Such simple and plain and quiet beauty!  

Because the mountain is so steep and full of loose rocks and boulders, there are many areas throughout the trail marked as " no stop zones" - notice the yellow line in the middle of the trail: you are not supposed to stop in those areas, because of the increased danger for avalanches - this was killing me, because whether feeling dead or not, you could not rest. You had to keep on going:

This is me at the 3/4 way mark. Can you tell I am almost ready to die?! 

These are more amazing vistas we walked above of: the road you see winding about in the valley is the Alpine Loop, or the bottom of the American Fork Canyon. And the town in the distance is American Fork: 

To keep it ever so interesting, almost right towards the end of the trail, we found this sign: really, after being over a mile away from civilization, close to the top of this mountain, with the canyon only a mirage picture below us, you warn me about rattle snakes?? And really, do they know to stay off my trail, so I can be safe?!


This is me almost close to the end: I just could not believe I was towering over these gapes. I always say that photography never makes justice to mountain pictures because it doesn't matter what lens you use, you always lose in depth and width. Only the naked eye can understand the impact:

 My husband was so proud of himself (and I of both of us!) when we reached this sign. He needed a shot for his friend that attempted the hike 10 years ago and never saw this landmark:

Right after that shot, we started to see some sign of human presence, and we figured this will be the end of our "beautiful" ordeal: a rooftop, which meant, probably: the entrance to the cave!

And this is us, finally, at the entrance of the cave. You have no idea the elation and the excitement we felt when we finally saw the sign and started seeing the park rangers welcoming us:

After a 45 minute to an hour tour of the three caves (the Hansen, Middle and Timapnogos Caves), we came out at an even higher spot than where we walked in. I felt like I was really on top of the world, as it seemed like there was no mountain higher than where we were standing at this point:  

Not only the beauty, but the chilly breeze and the complete serenity and quietness of the moment were overwhelming. No car noise, no stream, nothing by the wind swishing in your hair was to be heard. If the heart of the cave lets you experience complete and total darkness, the top of the mountain offers you complete and total quietude on this planet.

It's here that we had our "lunch": the breakfast bar and the clementines - the sweetest oranges I have ever tasted - the lavish reward of a hike accomplished:


When we finally reached the bottom of the trail, that we had left almost 4 hours before, we took a shot of the park sign, for posterity: 

I am exhausted but happy and so much richer than 4 hours before!  

What makes this journey more amazing is the fact that although we love hiking, we are not healthy people! We attempt only "easy" hikes. We are not fit people. We are not even physically active people in my mind (although my husband would beg to differ about me, there). But we took it slow and steady, we reveled in the beauty ahead of us and we conquered the mountain. 

Only half of the water bottle was gone, at the end, and all of the food. We were so starved after it all, and completely threw all good sense to the wind and gorged on chicken wings, steak, mashed potatoes, salads and cheese fries for dinner! The waitress didn't understand how two people could order half of the menu. But if we were to die, we were going to die happy. And full. 

Would I do it again?! Only when my body will forget this pain it's been in for a week! 
I definitely recommend that anyone should attempt it at least once. 

Here's the most famous formation inside the Timpanogos cave: the Great Heart of the Timpanogos. Click on the picture to see the entire album, and all of the cave shots of all the eerie formations:

 Both Aa. and I agreed: when we have guests in Utah, in the next several months, we will encourage them to climb the trail. We, however, might be waiting for them with a picnic, at the bottom of the mountain. That, and a cold bottle of beer. Maybe two years from now, our bodies will forget and we might join. But not before then! Till then, you're all on your own.