Thursday, July 31, 2014

My First Rodeo

I grew up firmly believing America looks just like the movies. To me, The South-East looked like the life in Dallas, Los Angeles looked like Beverly Hills 90210 and the West looked just like any John Wayne movies, full of pistols, runaway rogues, horses and dirty bandanas. There was not much in between but open lands and people who hated all three of them.

I was firmly convinced Americans invented the peanut butter sandwich, the cookies and milk deal (who does that outside America?!) and the oven roasted turkey. And they, of course, invented … the rodeo.

Also growing up, I never took a social or political, or even a moral stance towards the rodeo. I just thought: well, Spanish people have the bull fights, Middle Easterners play soccer with the head of a dead sheep, and Americans have the rodeo. There you go! Better than Russians poisoning people with radioactive energy, I guess. And definitely tamer than the first two!

It was not till I came to America when I realized that although they invented it (or so I thought), you’re not supposed to really admit you went to the rodeo, or worse yet: that you would have any desire to go to the rodeo.  In America, now, people will wonder what a horrible person you must be to condone such a bestial, brutal, coarse and backwards custom that is simply not necessary in this day and age. An in-house tradition denied – this was news to me.

During most of my life in America, the rodeo was not an attraction, because it was not very popular, I guess, in the places I have lived. But living in South West America will draw you to what the South West still does. And let me tell you: life here, on the ranch, is very much like Dallas. More brutal. More coarse. And less glamorous, but just as American country as it gets. And the rodeo is not verboten! On the contrary.

Here, it’s still a family tradition: every summer, people take their whole families, for a whole week, sometimes, to see ranchers riding bucking horses and bulls, little kids riding sheep and big guys lasso-ing calves. Teen girls curl up their blonde locks and wear Daisy Duke shorts and cowboy boots to meet their paramours over the announcer’s screaming the names of the next contestant. Little kids lick icy cones and watch the show with noses dipped in ice-cream and eyes as big as onions. Some eat peanuts, but corn dogs, funnel cake and cotton candy is what’s for dinner. And some people even bring bologna sandwiches from home. And people do say “yee-haw”, just like the movies.

And yes, my friends, I am here to tell you I partook in this tradition this year. I just wanted to be able to say that I have lived here and I have seen the customs that this country and this area call familiar to them. It is the old fashioned adage that “when in Rome …” that got me to do it. Is it low of me and superficial? Fine. I am willing to live with that. Do I know America better now? Somewhat. Am I happy I did it? Not sure if “happy” is the word, but yes, I like being able to “judge” this even having seen it myself, and not with outsider’s eyes.

Like anything human, it has good parts and bad. The animals are absolutely amazing. Cowboys really do take care of their horses! They are beautiful, and they are smart! Well groomed and well trained. I fell in love with the horses, for sure. They twist and turn and run in such ways that is graceful and amazing at the same time. Their dance of muscles and strength is beautiful.

The kids riding the sheep were simply adorable. They could not have weighed more than 40 lbs and they flew on those sheep backs! You also learn what the proper position of the rider should be on the horses and bulls and what disqualifies a rider. In the fight, if there is one, between the man and the animal, the animal almost always wins. Almost. Except for the tying of the bulls. That was brutal, and I could not watch it. We left right in the middle of that. I guess, so much for me trying the running of the bulls in Pamplona next year!

I know now that Americans didn’t really invent the rodeo – but the Mexicans did. They are surely responsible for promoting it, though, and keeping it alive. I also know that Canadians compete as well. I think all the various competitions in a rodeo have stemmed from the daily chores of the cowboys on their farms. Not sure if they still behave like this on the farms, but the craftsmanship lives on.

Moral quandary aside, I am glad I have first hand witnessed it.  It’s history, and tradition, in a way, and for that value I am glad I watched it. The energy as well as the patience and mathematical exactness of the handlers were an amazing tour de force of human stamina and even bravery. At any given point, the human skull could be crushed, but they pressed on. And the dance of the animals will haunt me forever. I am grateful I live this close to this (now) very American tradition and that I had the chance to try understand it and make my own choice. Knowingly.   

"It ain't never gonna be my first time at the rodeo anymore", but will this be my last?! Time only will tell ... 

Click on the picture for all the shots from that night. Made me really want a new camera ...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Shutting Off the Noise. Notes from Small Town America

On one hot lunch break at work, our company fed us hotdogs in the blazing sun, on the lawn in front of our building. I shared the table with one of our DBA’s (google that if you’re fuzzy on what it spells) and we started talking about our love of the Rockies – mine, of Colorado, my husband’s of Montana, and his – of Star Valley, Wyoming.  And although I drove through Star Valley a couple of times, en route to Jackson, WY and Yellowstone Park, the name didn’t ring a bell.

What better way to learn what Star Valley is but to drive up there for the weekend, right?! Plus, it’s North of us – remember my rule: head North in the summer, South in the winter – just like a bird.

Our weekend in Afton, WY (the heart of Star Valley and its largest town, at around 1900 residents) was one of the most relaxing, peaceful, simple and no nonsense good weekends we have had in a long while. Just a small town atmosphere, with no clutter, no noise, not even from RV generators, with homemade, fresh food, and gorgeous landscape and hundreds of miles of. We went away to find again the quiet in us, and that, we did.  

Here are ten clues that you are in small town America – as we have found them during those two days about week ago:

  1. When we pulled up to check into Old Mill Log Cabins, we found this “welcome” setting on the front porch of the owner’s cabin. Seeing the picture my mom asked “was that to protect you from animals? Or people?” – well, I guess it’s still the Wild West out there, mom, it could be either. Or both.
  2. After we checked in, we were told to go right ahead, drive to our cabin, which is unlocked, with the key inside. Then, when we would leave on Sunday, she would like us to just leave the key inside the cabin, and leave the door unlocked. And have a nice stay!

    The barn at the Old Mill Log Cabins complex
  3. We had dinner the first night at Rocky Mountain Seafood - how brave is that of us?!, to have clams and octopus and shrimp in the heart of the mountains, thousands of miles away from the ocean?! – and the  waitress kept hugging the customers as they left with “love you, hon' “ – all of them but us and this other couple that we knew as our neighbors from the cabin next door.
  4. People from neighboring towns, that made the drive for a nicer dinner to Afton and are not quite familiar with the restaurant’s staff, assume that everyone who works there is related to each other. Most times that is a safe assumption. It was not such at Rocky Mountain Seafood but the staff understood the presumption completely.

    Subtle: a sign of the times, in a shop window
  5. There is a quietness and boredom about small towns. Especially on a summer afternoon, you feel like the air stands still. Oh, that feeling of “there is nothing to do and we’re just rotting …”. After dinner, we walked up and down Main Street in Afton, and there were very few people out, especially for a Friday night. That feeling of boredom glided through the warm evening mountain air. Teens were driving up and down the street, with windows down, in packed cars going 20 miles an hour, yelling profanities to the scattered, chance pedestrians. Adds just a tad of color to the bucolic landscape.

    Downtown Afton, WY on a weekend

  6. We stepped into one of the two gift stores in town and the shop assistant was an old man. He was welcoming without being pushy and extremely witty. He gave us directions to a well known trail where we’d enjoy the Bridger National Forest at its finest, and we felt almost obligated to buy something from him. Which we did. He then wrapped our purchases in local newspapers. I am thinking of framing them with my favorite picture of that weekend, should I have any wall space left in my house to hang it in.

    The trail runs parallel to Swift Creek, towards the Intermittent Spring.
  7. Because of the city taking over The West, in larger towns deer is completely unfazed by their proximity to humans. Here, on the roads behind the cabins, they were still skittish at the sound of the car engine and would not sit still for a photo. Wilderness is still untouched out there …
  8. We’re used to not only being seated by the host(ess) in restaurants everywhere we go, but to wait for a while (sometimes close to an hour or more) for a seat. But in Star Valley, there is no host(ess) and no wait for a table. You seat yourself – take your pick. It’s never crowded.
  9. I grew up partly in a small, retreated town in the mountains of Romania. Every year, when I would make the journey back to it, I always noticed how things never changed. There is a feeling that history is frozen in time, at some point in the past, perpetually, every time you go back, in a remote mountain settlement. This feeling was revoked when we walked into The Elkhorn Restaurant (of course, on Main Street) and saw a framed picture of president John F. Kennedy over the deli counter.
  10. The number one way to tell you’re in a small, remote town in the middle of nothing but God’s beauty is that you’ll be watching your phone looping around for cell, internet and GPS signal all weekend long and draining its battery into the ground. After a while, you give up trying to connect to the world “out there”, and realize there is a whole world “right here” that needs your attention. This (forced) shift of perspective is refreshing.

You turn off the “other” noisy world you come from and you learn of a new dimension that still exists in today’s universe, but it’s so often turned off for us, city dwellers. No matter how fast the world is being overpopulated and overbuilt, I hope humanity will manage to forget about the remote corners of the world, and leave them untouched, so we could go for a weekend and get reacquainted with ourselves, our thoughts, and un-mute our internal voices once again. 

Drinking from the fountain of pure, untouched beauty and simple life is the best reward we can give to our too tired, too rushed and too shallow bodies moving through the muck of the daily grind …
Click on the picture to see the entire album from this weekend.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Most American Long Weekend of the Year

We live only an hour, at most, away from Snowbird Resort, but then again, we live about an hour away from anywhere worth going away. So, when we go to Snowbird for the weekend, my husband and I have sort of a tug-of-war between us over “we did go out of town” (he)  – “we didn’t go out of town” (me). Truth is … he is right: when we get up there, no matter how close to home it is, geographically, the air is cleaner and cooler, the pace is slower, the legs are lazier, the food is delicious, everything is a splurge, so it does feel like we are completely disconnected and on vacation.

We escaped to Snowbird this past long weekend, for July 4th. It was definitely not your “traditional” July 4th weekend, but it was a success, for us, nonetheless. As we were driving up there, we saw signs that fireworks were forbidden in the canyon - so that tells you that it was not going to be your regular Independence Day celebration up there.

We checked in, uneventfully, and then we headed out to dinner. The air was crisp and fresh, but not as cool as we had hoped for. The Valley floor temps were in the high 90’s, and Snowbird was not far off from that!  The air was fresher, though.

For dinner, we went to El Chanate, the first night. Every time I go to resorts around us, like Snowbird, Deer Valley and Park City, it puzzles me how I bump into very poor customer service everywhere – and I cannot, for the life of me, explain how these people stay in business! Our first night there was no exception: long waits, empty glasses, cold food, longer wait for  a bill … But all these could not damper our mood – improved significantly by the gorgeous mountain views, and watching deer graze on the slopes around us, and feeding the squirrels who were begging for tortilla chips on our patio.

This was July 4th: Mexican food, served very painfully slow, and no fireworks – due to dry weather and being in the canyon. 

On July 5th, I finally had my "patriotic" hotdog in my patriotic (USA) shirt. Best foot long I had in a while, with giant pickle slices and mustard.

The next day, we went exploring: the mountain trails, the grounds and other restaurants. 

Aspen and rock - it's all that peaks of the mountains Utah is all about!
We had a blast, bad (occasional) service, millions of kids and all! We saw deer only 5-6 feet away while exploring a close by trail, woodchuck mommas and their babies, bees and birds, we slid above snow covered peaks, eagles, pine trees and aspens in our chair lift. We had the best foot long hotdog (what’s more “American” than that, right?!) and relaxed by the pool, in total and complete abandon. The day felt like 48 hours long! 

The wild flowers were amazing! A feast for the eyes, and for the bees, flies and ants, just the same ...

We ate, we napped, we watched TV, we ate things we don’t normally eat (smoked salmon on pancakes, anyone?!), we saw gorgeous landscape and we people watched till silly! We are so lucky and so blessed to afford this, and to be able to drive just 60 minutes away from our front yard, to wash our retinas, be wowed and breathe clean air. 

All these guys were feet away from our hotel - so friendly and curious - were we trespassing their land?! Or just sharing?!

Nothing says "lazy weekend" to me than laying by a pool - this time, with mountains and pines all around ...

One of my favorite pastimes is to take the chair lift to the top of the mountain. The views from Hidden Peak were breathtaking. There was a breeze in the air, and there was not one bead of sweat on my forehead! We slid by rock, snow, mountain lakes and streams and the occasional eagle ...

My breakfast at The Atrium, one morning: smoked salmon, pancakes, fruit, raspberry, cheese crepes and seasoned potatoes ...

More food: a glass of white zin, black cod on a fried rice cake and French Vanilla creme brulee with fresh berries

Back home, growing up, we always only dreamed about “those Americans” who work long hours all year round, to only to run away for the weekend and recharge. It’s what the movies showed us.
Well, now, I live it: this is truly a great county, and dreams of long weekends filled with battery recharging activities and vistas really do come true!
I hope everyone had a safe, happy, relaxing and full July Fourth Weekend!
Here’s to an American summer! 
Please click picture to see the whole album from this trip. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

July Fourth

This year is going to be my 16th July Fourth on this land.

On my first one, I was  watching the fireworks at Broadway at the Beach, in Myrtle Beach, SC. 
I had no (legal) job. I was  a brand new American wife, with a head full of dreams and a door wide open. 

Every year, on this day, I think of that day - the hopes and dreams and carelessness and ... hope. Lots of hope. I had no idea what the future held. I was dreaming of MY version of the "American dream", I suppose: a warm home, a steady income, a clean job, a neat garden with roses up front. Simple things. 

I could not even dream, at that point, about my life 16 years from then. 
16 years would have seemed like an unrealistic, unfathomable pipe dream.

But I am here to tell you: 16 years from that first  July Fourth, life is everything I dreamed of , and then some. All the dreams and hopes have been fulfilled and then some, beyond belief. 
I am grateful, happy, and still in awe. And I am here to tell you: I am glad that my parents taught me that  it's OK to ... dream. It's in the dreams that everything starts. So, don't be afraid of them. They will give you the map!

Like a true non-American, I still hate peanut butter. 
Like a true (imported) American, I still love freedom.
And because I am simply, undeniably "me", it all works out at the end of the day.

I am grateful every second of every day for what life and America has given me. I can never fully feel like I belong, but I can always and forever feel grateful. 
When I hear the news about the people that are sending their children here, for a better, free life, I just want to walk (yes, walk!) to them and adopt them all. I want to tell them that, yes, it's possible and yes, they should keep trying. Whatever their dreams are, they are becoming reality here. So, they should keep trying and they should keep dreaming.  
Freedom and happiness and ... another day, full of hope, unrestricted sun rises and no worries ... are possible.

Happy Birthday, America! 
And thank you for having me at the Big Party for yet another year!