A Moveable Christmas

And then there was the Christmas tree. We have not had a Christmas tree for 7 or 8 years because we fled the country every year at the holidays mostly to escape the crazy aunt who was always there for Christmas dinner then for the opening of presents and she could be counted upon to make someone cry at dinner. A chair would be pushed back from the table scraping loudly against the wood floor and the person who was red faced, angry, hurt with tears streaming down flushed cheeks would run away to another room and slam the door.

So to escape the inevitable drama we spent many Christmases away, usually in Argentina where it was summertime. Not in Buenos Aires though where Christmas is hot, sultry and crowded. Where Christmas Eve is like New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas combined with Fourth of July in D.C. with party noise and fireworks until 3:00 am. Instead we flew to the far south in the region of Mt. Fitzroy and the big ice fields, the Viedma and Moreno Glaciers, Los Glaciares National Park. We stayed at working sheep ranches or a wooded Patagonia lodge called Helsingfors from which we could walk up into the hills and mountains beyond.

William and Andrea Halligan on the road with Mt. Fitzroy in the background.
William and Andrea Halligan on the road with Mt. Fitzroy in the background.
Patagonia 2012-2013.
Patagonia.
Christmas buffet in Patagonia.
Christmas buffet in Patagonia.

The barman at Helsingfors made wonderful pisco sours that were served in front of the big fireplace at a table with crackers and fine cheeses and bowls of nuts. They were served by his pretty assistant and in the background I could hear him attempting to teach her the art of the pisco sour, a smooth delight after miles of walking the high trails thousands of miles from the holiday malls and crowds.

Friends and acquaintances congratulated us on the wisdom of escaping Christmas. A brilliant move, they said.

But this year, Andrea’s father is hosting Christmas Eve at his house in Los Angeles with nearly a dozen relatives. At age 97 he says he is not purchasing or setting up a Christmas tree. We are also invited to a family gathering in Bakersfield, and with the good and bad of Bakersfield, the sadness and bitterness of decades pervading some of the very walls of houses, but where we are going it will be a Norman Rockwell perfect dinner with brothers who are prosperous and who have pretty wives and beautiful and wonderfully behaved children.

And after Christmas, my wife and I want to secret away to a hidden mountain cabin in an undisclosed location.

Christmas tree? We won’t even be home for Christmas. And father-in-law in L.A. would like a tree for his gathering, but is not about to purchase one. Of course our mountain cabin would look festive with a tree. And so the solution: at the local nursery we purchased a live tree in a pot. The tree is small, only about four feet tall.

It is decorated and lighted now and its lights show nicely through our front windows for any neighbors who may walk past our San Diego home. And it will travel with us, ornaments and lights and all to the three locations to the north. I will simply lift it out of the Subaru and carry it fully decorated into each house and plug it in.

So it will be a moveable Christmas, and our first holiday with relatives in nearly a decade.

Ernest Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast said that if one were lucky enough to be a young man in Paris in the 1920s, then Paris could stay with one through life wherever he might travel—Paris for him was a moveable feast.

I have never been to Paris. If I travel to France at all, my preference is Chamonix or Argentiere, or the slopes of Mt. Blanc.

But if one is fortunate enough to grow up on a cozy family farm in northern Wisconsin with snow and family traditions that extend back to a Norway of the early 20th century—Grandmother moved from Norway to snowy Wisconsin in 1912 and the country must have seemed much like home to her with fellow Scandinavians populating many neighboring farms–then Christmases on the farm, with venison and cranberries and lefsa that took Grandmother two full days to make, formed part of my Christmas memory and is a moveable feast for me.

Not quite Paris, but it will do.

And so the tree is up with two weeks to go. We turn out the house lights, turn on the Christmas tree lights and listen to Christmas carols on Pandora.

In a short time, Andrea will prepare Christmas dinner here and pack it up along with the tree and any small presents we plan to give away. And the tree will come along for the holiday travels to the north.

A moveable Christmas for us this year and to you a Merry Christmas wherever the holidays find you.

 

Blackie the Cat—A Love Story

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I was once voted Least Likely to Ever Own a Cat. A farm kid who always owned dogs, and who–from the age of 4 onward– always had an old dog following me around Wisconsin woods and back roads, I never had much to do with cats; and in fact even got a few guilty chuckles from the book “Fifty uses for a Dead Cat.”

Well, but then there was Rocky and in short order Blackie. What happened was this: during a bike ride on a lonely 2 lane blacktop in east San Diego County, my wife Andrea and I heard mewing from the brush along the road and stopping found a little tiger striped kitten that had obviously been dumped off to fend for itself or die.

I pedaled home with one hand gripping the handlebar of my mountain bike while I held a skinny squirming kitten in the other. A bath with flea-soap in the sink, a trip to the vet for shots, and we had ourselves a cat. Our new addition liked to climb up on high shelves, either in the garage or bookshelves indoors and whenever one of us walked by would launch itself, feet outstretched like Superman, tail steering like a rudder and land neat as you please on a shoulder.

“Heck; she’s Rocky the Flying Squirrel,” Andrea declared, and the name stuck.

For at least a year we’d caught glimpses of a feral black cat living and scrounging on the hillside just east of our house. Wily and quick as light he could catch birds in a flash of teeth and claws. I once saw him catch a rat and then eat the whole thing–feet and head and tail and all. Gross. I knew I liked dogs better.

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Life and Teaching: Searching for the Mystic in the High Sierras

Andrea and William Halligan in the High Sierras.
Andrea and William Halligan in the High Sierras.

I pulled our dirty gray Subaru into the Mosquito Flat parking lot at about 3:00 in the afternoon. We’d driven up from San Diego, and the plan was a quick backpack trip of just three or four days. Our packs were stashed in the back of the Subaru; mine held the tent and rain-fly, down quilt, Thermarest sleeping pad, stove, fuel, and a bear canister jammed tight with enough food for both of us for a few days.

There was also the book. Many people of my generation had read it years ago as it was part of the new age-y compendium back then. It snuggled cozily on 1960s and ’70s bookshelves alongside Thus Spake Zarathustra, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. Somehow I’d missed it, but I owned the boxed collection of all five volumes and they had been gathering dust untouched for some time. For this trip I brought the first two volumes along: Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East. The thin paperbacks tucked neatly into a side pouch of my pack.

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Money, Gold and Promises

Burro race, Rhyolite, Nevada, July 4, 1908. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.
Burro race, Rhyolite, Nevada, July 4, 1908. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.

Hyperbole: Extravagant exaggeration; language that describes something as better (or worse) than it actually is. (Merriam Webster)

In August, 1904, two men were crouched on the desert ground in semi-darkness before dawn. They held their hands over a small campfire to warm themselves. The morning breeze smelled of the heat that would come later, when the sun was up, but it had been close to freezing overnight and wasn’t much warmer now. They were prospectors and they were camped just over the hills from Death Valley.

They were about to make an historic gold strike. Some even say that their find saved the state of Nevada. You wouldn’t guess any of that if you looked around the town that sprang up as a result of their bonanza. It lies in ruins now, a bit over a hundred miles north of Las Vegas. Perhaps some of you have been there, but not many know its story. The town was called Rhyolite.

An old legend says that while one of the men, Ed Cross, was frying bacon and heating baked beans over the fire, one of their mules ran off; Ed’s partner, Shorty Harris, scrambled up into the hills above their camp to catch it. When he’d nearly caught up with the mule, the story goes, Shorty tripped over a rock and sprawled out face down in sand that was speckled with gold. History books claim that he shouted then, “Forget breakfast, Ed. This is it! The find of the century!”

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Lines written a few miles above Walter’s Wiggles

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Zion Canyon. The West Rim is on the right; Angel’s Landing is lower right.

There’s no accounting for the passage of time. Clocks and calendars while seeming to measure the flow of moments or years or lifetimes, aren’t really up to the task. How can 600 pages torn from faded calendars explain why some fifty year-old memories seem as fresh to me as last week’s? How can a canyon take 250 million years to form? How can re-visiting a favorite old backcountry climb here in Utah cause such a burst of emotion, though it’s been many years since I’ve been here? The very passage of time seems less than real.

I’m on a hike with my wife, Andrea, to the west rim of Zion Canyon and while here, I seem to step into Wordsworth’s famous poem about his walking tour above Tintern Abbey. Even though he wrote of a time and place 216 years in the past and thousands of miles from here, the lines of the poem ring true for me.

The hills above the Abbey held special meaning for Wordsworth, but he had not climbed in that country for five years. He wrote that the place had not been unseen in all that time however; often when the crush of the city strife became too much for him, he would revisit these vistas in his mind and find that it calmed him.

He remembered that when five years younger he could bound over the mountainsides like a deer—not quite the case when he sat writing the most

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Sherpa Stew and Yak Butter Apple Pie

Horse with the setting sun in Kyanjin Village, Nepal.
Horse with the setting sun in Kyanjin Village, Nepal.

The mountain came into view at dawn, a beautiful alpenglow pink against a still dark but clearing sky. Lang Tang, 23,711 feet tall, is not even in the top ten of Himalayan peaks, but its magnificent shape captured me. We were at the first of several tea houses on our way up the Lang Tang Valley to Kyanjin—and all the way the mountain would tower above us.

I suppose I knew what to expect—you can Google anything these days. Our first tea house, the glass windows of the dining room a collage of stickers advertising everything from helicopter service “anywhere in Nepal, including Everest Base Camp,” to various trekking and climbing guides, was about a day’s walk below the small village of Lang Tang and the Lang Tang Monastery. The stickers on the window were in a world of languages from English, German, and French to Japanese.

This first lodging place had its own mini hydro-electric generator and there was power to charge cameras and iPads, but only for a few hours each evening. The toilet facility was an outhouse a dozen yards down a small slope. When you flushed, by pouring water from a big blue plastic bucket, the effluence was carried by a pipe straight into the Lang Tang River. The river runs so clear and clean-looking, a seemingly pristine Himalayan stream. But you don’t want to drink from it.

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A 1950s Christmas

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We lived in those days in a modest farmhouse at the end of a gravel country road a quarter mile off the two lane county highway. There was a barn and in the winter our cows did not venture outside (of course there’s a story about the cow manure and how we spread it over snowy fields in winter, but perhaps that’s for another time); there was a chicken coop, a machine shed and a garage with room for our one car—a 1951 Chevy Bel Air.

A few days before Christmas Grandpa drove us on snowy roads into town. You entered town from the west and you couldn’t see the main street or its stores and offices until you cleared a little crest of a hill and then the town of Black River Falls came into view below you, all snow at the sides of Main Street and the river at the far end of town frozen over and guys ice fishing and the Highway 12 bridge arching over. Now the town was dressed up for Christmas. There was a manger scene in front of St. Joseph’s Parish, the Catholic Church that stood at the top of the hill overlooking main street. Green garland stretched across Main Street from the county hospital on the north side of the street to the library on the south. Another ran from Pough’s Hardware to the City Café and one more from Gamble’s Department Store to the Shell gas station. And from each garland a big silver bell was suspended over the street. I was certain that Bing Crosby—whom I called Big Crosby then, after all what kind of name was Bing?—had driven through our town and our garland and 3 foot high bells must have been on his mind when he sang “Silver Bells”, on the radio.

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River Memory

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Ihave written about this little stretch of river before, (see Sand, Stars and The E-Myth) but the Colorado River is a treasury of memory. Standing at the upper boat dock just last week brought some of them streaming back to me. My dad introduced me to this place decades ago. His smiling face, big hands, constant humor, and ultimate skill with a rod and reel fill a lot of those memories.

Dad was a man of big dreams abandoned or unrealized and I suppose that makes him pretty much like the rest of us. In his younger days he was a standout high school baseball player and even played some minor league ball in the old Illinois-Indiana-Iowa league.

Even though the phrase comfortable in his own skin fit Dad more than anyone else I’ve ever known, he could also have been the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days. He never forgot his glory days. Even in his 50s, he kept his high school yearbooks around and he’d occasionally read aloud from them—especially the paragraphs that glowingly described this kid who might have been the best schoolboy baseball player in the state.

The New York Yankees had a strong interest in him. He probably thought he was the next Ty Cobb or Ted Williams. He batted an astounding .500 in the minors. But a wild kid driving a stolen ’42 Buick 90 miles an hour on a country blacktop road

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