Monday, April 17, 2017

Deep Roots in Santa Fe

Palace of the Governors - Santa Fe, New Mexico
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          Travel across the high plains today isn’t what it used to be in the 19th Century. Satellite radio, iPods, and CD’s kept me entertained while the GPS map and the voice directed me to the destination. Coffee and fast food were within arm’s reach. In one day, I was able to complete a journey that took four months to travel in the 1800s. The latest trip to the Southwest didn’t diminish my focus on history as I pulled off the Interstate highway and drove to one of my favorite destinations.

Deep Roots in Santa Fe

travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

          I walked alone down the narrow streets of Santa Fe, along the historical road that once held countless wagon trains, and funneled them to the heart of the enigmatic city. It was good to be back, although just for one evening on my quick journey through New Mexico. Something tugged on my spirit while I absorbed the sights and sounds. My thoughts wandered to all of the people who walked or rode down this street at the end of their long journey across the plains. What were they thinking? Were they relieved to have survived the months-long trek and its dangers of storms, drought, heat, robbers, and native tribes? I can imagine the cool breeze was refreshing to them as they crossed Glorieta Pass, viewed the chimney smoke and smelled the piñon and aspen on their approach to Santa Fe, which was established in 1610 as the northern colonial capital of Spain’s presence in North America.

Oldest House in the U.S. (circa 1646), Santa Fe, New Mexico
watercolor by Gregory E. Larson
          Before I walked past the La Fonda Hotel, I took a short diversion along the narrow Vargas Rd. to see the oldest house in the United States. It was built (circa 1646) on top of pueblo ruins which were estimated to have been part of a native village that existed around the year 1000. The unassuming adobe structure has survived many revisions as well as potential destruction. I walked through the gift shop and down some steps, ducked my head at the doorways and viewed the two small, simple rooms. It was my kind of destination, one that is probably missed by many tourists, even though its roots are deep.
          As I left Vargas Rd. and walked down the street towards the city center, I passed young millennials, old hippies, Native Americans, Hispanics, vagrants, and people from all points along the socio-economic strata. The mixture is hard to describe. You have to see it for yourself: tourists, artists, locals, all passing through a portal of time and space. Time itself is a strange commodity here. Centuries are fleeting but the clock seemed to stop on that late afternoon as I stood in the center of the plaza, where the inscriptions on a monument/obelisk celebrate the Union troop’s 1860s victories over the local native “uprisings.”
Monument in the Santa Fe Plaza
photo by Gregory E. Larson
            The Palace of the Governors, on the north side of the plaza, is the oldest continuously-operating public building in the United States, having been established by the Spanish sometime between 1610 and 1618. The Native Americans have been selling their wares along the sidewalk at the front of the building for centuries.
          Sounds of Harley mufflers punctuated the air while a group of motorcycle riders circled the center of town.
The Palace of the Governors - Santa Fe, New Mexico
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          Unceremoniously, two Native-American men approached the obelisk. They wore everyday jeans and shirts, and carried a large drum. Without hesitation they began to beat the drum and sang a soft chant. I stood near them while the sunlight shafts filtered through the trees, and wondered the significance of their song. Were they giving a memorial to their ancestors? Was this a centuries-long protest next to the monument that celebrated the demise of their older relatives? Was it a prayer for the living or the dead? I didn’t know the answer, but I felt they had tapped another deep root of this special place, and struck a nerve of the spirit of Santa Fe.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Snowshoeing in the Rockies

Hallett's Peak above the frozen Bear Lake - Rocky Mountain National Park
          When invited by my brother-in-law to go snowshoeing in Colorado, I jumped at the chance for a winter trip of a different sort. In retrospect, I think Gretta would have loved snowshoeing, and like so many things she did, she would have easily mastered it.
          Reflecting on the trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, I was amazed at the contrasts of each day. The same area around Bear Lake looked so different due to clouds, sunshine, wind, temperature and time of day. The first day we were greeted with low temperatures, no wind and falling snow. The second day the mountains were swept with strong winds (30 to 50 mph) and variable cloudiness. The snow was blowing so strongly through the mountains and forests that the large peaks were not visible. On the third day, the wind kept blowing, but the peaks stood out in all their glory. The trip reminded me that high altitude and the weather are powerful forces that must be respected if one wants to be safe and enjoy the unique environment.

Snowshoeing in the Rockies

travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

          The snow continued to gently fall as we strapped on our snowshoes. I had assumed the snowshoes would look like tennis rackets on the feet, but the outdoor equipment has evolved into high-tech gear. The shoes, made of plastic with aluminum grippers on the bottom, are much narrower and have parallel sides, which prevent imbalance and tripping.
           The snow base for the entire winter of 2017 was sixty-three inches deep, and six inches of new snow had fallen the previous day. Our guide commented, “This is the most snow I’ve seen up here in the park since I moved here thirty-five years ago. It will be a muddy mess during the thaw, and that will last all the way through June.”

           He made sure we had the proper clothing before we put on the snowshoes. With single-digit temperatures, he wanted to make sure we wore several lightweight layers to trap the air and keep the body warm. I had learned long ago from the bike-riding days that the proper clothes, along with drinks and snacks were essential for a comfortable day. I made sure that everything was tucked, zipped and snapped to my satisfaction before we started. My head was covered with a balaclava, ski goggles and a hood. The only exposed skin was my nose for breathing.
All of the clothes and gear used (snowshoes and poles not shown)

          The snowflakes continued to drift down through the trees around Bear Lake as we began our hike on an unmarked trail towards Nymph Lake. Immediately I felt I had been transported to some other world as the snow-covered Engelmann spruce towered above us, cutting off part of the daylight which existed during the snowfall. We moved up the trail like slow-paced gnomes. Whoosh! An overloaded branch dropped an avalanche of snow down onto the trail. The guide remarked, “It’s kinda fun to watch as long as it doesn’t hit us!”
Heavy snow on the spruce trees
          While we stopped to rest, he showed us bobcat tracks and porcupine claw marks on the tree trunks. “Porcupines are slow tree-climbers, so every now and then I’ll spy one rustling up in the branches.”

          Up the trail we went, learning to move the left foot with the right pole, and the right foot with the left pole. We arrived at Nymph Lake and walked out onto the snowy, frozen surface. Our guide explained that in the fall, thousands of toads burrow in the mud to try to keep warm, but they all eventually freeze and their hearts stop beating. Miraculously, they revive themselves to make noise again in the spring.
Standing on frozen Nymph Lake
          The snow continued to collect on our hats and packs, and the massive peaks were not visible because of the cloud cover.
          The next day we hiked without a guide. Snow was swirling off the peaks and the trees. In the valleys, the wind speed was 30 mph with gusts up to 50 mph. We selected a trail at a lower elevation in the forest, and were amazed at how calm it was among the firs, spruces and aspens. The sun cast long shadows through the aspen groves and we spied giant boulders coated with snow and ice. I sensed the streams would be overflowing and noisy in the spring. The quiet enveloped us. I heard myself breathing as I continued to put one foot ahead of the other. An occasional gust of wind broke the silence, causing snow to swirl in the sunlight while the tops of the tall spruce trees swayed violently.
Watercolor impression of the
hike through the aspen groves
          The final day was sunny and windy, but we were able to see Hallett’s Peak and its rocky neighbors above Bear Lake. Long’s Peak, to the southeast, stood higher than the others. As flatlanders we talked about how nice it would be to have a view of the peaks every day during the sunrise.   
          Our destination was Bierstadt Lake, about two miles from Bear Lake. The gusts kept us cold at the beginning, but once we crested a ridge and hiked down into the forest, we were comfortable again. We noticed other hikers with all types of skis and snowshoes.
          I had not anticipated how difficult it was to take photos in the cold, windy environment. Many things worked against success, including batteries that didn’t want to provide power when they got too cold. Polarized lenses on the goggles and double gloves prevented me from easily snapping the camera button. Fortunately, we weren’t in a hurry, and I was able to take the time to warm the batteries, pull off the gloves and raise the goggles. It was a lengthy process, and the fingers got cold each time the outer gloves were removed. I snapped only about one-third the photos that I normally would have taken in a warm environment.
          We arrived at the Bierstadt Lake perimeter trail, but the lake was a half-mile down the trail, hidden by the forest. After a vote, we decided to return to Bear Lake to make sure we had enough energy to finish the hike. Before we started, I cleared the snow from the trunk of a fallen tree to create a frozen bench for us to take a break and have a snack. The temperature was about 25 degrees and it was the first time in three days I was able to vent and unzip part of the coat to keep from overheating. The breaks were nice and were part of our unhurried pace.
          Hiking in the cold, snowy woods at high altitude is not something everyone would enjoy, but I liked the focus on the trail, moving forward, one step at a time, listening to the silence, and wondering what it would be like to live somewhere in a cabin in the woods, with the peaks towering above.
Hiking partners Brandon Henry and Richard Henry

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Ghost in the Chateau

Chateau de Roumegouse
A Ghost in the Chateau
by Gregory E. Larson

           Do you believe in ghosts? Whenever I’m asked that question, I tell the story of a dark night on a hilltop in south-central France in the summer of 2007, when Gretta and I were guests at the Chateau de Roumegouse near the town of Rignac. It was at the beginning of our bike tour along the Dordogne River Valley.

          “Larsons,” The chateau manager and the tour guide spoke in unison as they looked up from their lists to my wife and me.  
           The manager held the last room key and dangled the leather strap with a wood medallion. All the other keys had been handed out to the tour participants who were leaving the chateau lobby to search for their assigned rooms. He turned to us and spoke in a hushed voice with a French accent, “You have the Roumegouse Suite!” The two men looked at us as though we should understand it was something special. The manager continued, “Charles de Gaulle was a guest at our chateau after World War II, when he wanted a quiet summer vacation.” He raised one eyebrow and said, “The Roumogouse Suite was his favorite. Enjoy!” He laid the key in the palm of my hand.
          Our footsteps echoed off the stone steps and walls of the stairway as we grabbed the massive rope railing. The look and smell of the place shouted “ancient!”
          I was baffled as to why we were given the key to the main suite. Maybe it was the Gretta factor again – good things always happened when I was with her.
          I jiggled the key and asked “Why did we get this?”
          She leaned toward me as we approached the hallway door and said quietly, “I think it’s a perk for being a repeat tour customer and for getting along so well with the guides and the riders.”
          I inserted the large skeleton key into the keyhole and slowly opened the doors, one on each side of the eighteen-inch-thick limestone wall in the hallway. We stepped in and peered around the room.
          I made sure the doors were shut and said, “Oh my God, don’t tell anyone about the size of our suite or they’ll be ticked. It’s just our little secret.” Gretta jumped up on the giant bed with the antique wood headboard, and I flopped down on the sofa in a separate seating area with oriental rugs, tables and lamps. Massive French windows filled the exterior wall, and the view was of a verdant lawn with woods beyond. “Wow!” I couldn’t believe it. The huge bathroom had a “his” and hers” area with closets and heated towel racks.

Greg and Gretta at the end of the first day

          We had finished the bike ride for the day, so I let Gretta take her shower first. I lounged on the sofa and looked at the magazines and literature on the table. A brochure, which had the history of the chateau, caught my eye.
          The Roumegouse chateau was built in the 10th century and served as a hilltop outpost for Castelnau, one of the large castles along the Dordogne River. Early in the history of the chateau, its resident knight decided it was his moral obligation to join the crusades to the Middle East. The fateful trip cost him his life and caused extreme grief to his wife, Resplendine de Rignac. According to legend, she died of a broken heart and her ghost still haunts the chateau. Rumors abound of lavender scents, ghostly images and nighttime shuffling noises in the hallways.
          Late in the afternoon while we were exploring the grounds, I shared with Gretta the story about the chateau being haunted. We didn’t give it much thought while we looked at the stone-shingled outbuildings covered with moss. Another discovery was a bizarre path to nowhere, a spiral ramp which had no purpose. Gretta dubbed it the “folly.”

The "folly" - spiral ramp to nowhere
           We spent the remainder of the day relaxing on the patio, and whet our appetites on a fine French dinner with the bike tour group. Late into the evening we tipped our wine glasses and shared stories. Finally, Gretta and I said our “goodnight” to the remaining folks and walked along the dimly-lit stone hallway. I quickly grabbed her waist from behind.
          “Watch out for ghosts!” I said.
          “That’s not funny.” She gave me a look that said “don’t scare me like that.”
          Once in the room, I knew I’d be in bed and asleep in five minutes. Hmm . . . so Charles de Gaulle slept here. I wondered if he snored with that big nose of his. Did French snoring sound the same as American snoring? As I drifted off to sleep, I heard Gretta say she would probably read for a while.

Charles de Gaulle slept here
          All of a sudden, I awoke in a state of semi-consciousness and disorientation. Where was I? What time was it? I stirred . . . then my body froze. Oh, my God . . .  the image before me was a glowing wall which created a silhouette of a woman! I shifted from drowsiness to sheer panic. It’s the ghost! In milliseconds the adrenaline shot through my body. Am I in danger? What will happen next? What is the ghost going to do to me? She could stab or strangle me to death! I tried to scream but the only sound that came out was a tiny, gurgling groan.
          “Greg, are you awake?”
          I rubbed my eyes and looked at the glowing wall. It was Gretta standing in the bathroom doorway.
          “This bathroom is so big I can’t find the switch to turn off the lights.”
          I fell back on the pillow with my heart racing a mile-a-minute. “Oh my gosh, I thought you were the ghost! I was afraid you were going to strangle me.” I took a deep breath and we both laughed and laughed, and we couldn’t stop laughing.
          I raised my hands, made a cross with my two index fingers, and turned toward the large room. I spoke with a stern voice, “In the name of Jesus, do not haunt us tonight. Stay away!”
          We laughed some more, and I went to sleep for a second time. It’s quite possible I snored, but I never heard a thing the entire night.

French countryside near Chateau de Roumegouse


Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Unusual Wisconsin Tourist Attraction


The Unusual Wisconsin Tourist Attraction
by Gregory E. Larson

          “The weather is perfect, with a bit of a south breeze, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy being on the bike today.” It was the third day of the 2006 Great Annual Bicycle Adventure Along the Wisconsin River, and our bike tour leader was reviewing the day’s route, giving the riders tips on different attractions. “There are plenty of things to see, so you can take your pick, or just ride the bike. Some of you may want to go to the railroad museum, and if that doesn’t interest you, there is always the crane center.”

          Ooo . . . a crane center. I envisioned towering construction cranes with cantilevered booms . . .Manitowocs with cables, gears, and massive counterweights . . . some big honkin’ equipment. Maybe the crane center has a beer garden. Who knows? . . . maybe even polka music. I looked at Gretta and said, “Let’s stop at the crane center. It sounds interesting.”

          Off we went, pedaling across the Wisconsin countryside, a biker’s dream of hills, rivers and woods. I was happy as a lark. It couldn’t get any better, with Gretta by my side. We were outdoors, doing what we loved, and the crane center sounded like icing on the cake. It would be a perfect day.

          Later that afternoon, as we rolled across the landscape, I asked Gretta, “How much farther is it to the crane center?”

          “I think we’re getting close . . . maybe a couple of miles.”

           I looked out onto the horizon and began to get an empty feeling. I expected to see some crane towers, but no man-made elements came into view. Nothing. Something wasn’t right, so I asked Gretta, “What kind of a crane center is this? I don’t see any construction cranes . . . is this like the bird cranes?”

          Gretta started laughing and said, “Boy, are you in for a rude awakening. Yes, it’s where they care for endangered Whooping Cranes. I think they have some baby cranes, too. I hope we get to see one.”

          “You’ve got to be kidding!”

          “No. It’s the bird cranes.” Gretta gave me a funny look. “So you thought it was going to be a bunch of construction cranes?”

          We both started laughing so hard our bikes began to swerve back and forth across the road. Oh well, so much for the vision of steel towers and a beer garden.

          I switched my perspective from construction man to nature boy and it became an educational afternoon. We entered the crane sanctuary and were quietly guided to a bird blind which allowed us to view a pond. The guide told us if we were patient, we might see a mother Whooping Crane and her baby come out for an afternoon walk. Sure enough, after a few minutes we spied a tall white neck in the marsh grass, slowly walking toward the pond.

          First, the mother poked out of the grass to make sure it was safe to proceed. Then the baby rushed out and splashed into the water. The mother strolled ahead on her stilt-like legs with her young one close behind. She stopped a few times and showed the baby how to look for food by poking the beak into the silt below the surface. After watching the mom, the baby bird made few feeble stabs into the water and the mud. I realized it was a brief glimpse into the world of nature that we rarely get to see.

          The afternoon turned out to be quite different than I had originally envisioned, but it reinforced my belief that every day with Gretta was an adventure.
Mother and baby Whooping Crane
photo by Gregory E. Larson