The cottonwoods release the last of their burnt-yellow leaves and the mapgies, in piebald coats, flash shocking white breasts against the monochromatic landscape of waning fall, white from weeks of rain washing every single inch of animal, vegetable, mineral within one hundred miles of the Tetons.
The fair weather part-timers thin out, too, like leaves, blown off to other, often warmer places; places where you don’t need to rely on one another as you do here, facing the expanse and solemnity of November, of winter, a solidarity against the elements that brings people together and puts the little things in perspective.
Life here becomes peaceful again. Normal.
We are five weeks deep into homeschool routine, and the writing is on the wall--or in our case, the pavement. I smooth out obscure Latin words on the macadam, egg-shaped chalk balls dissolving with each curve of vowel, sketch hopscotch courts to drill skip-counting, the nervous system, principle verb parts.
A moose wanders by. And then another.
The cow lets out a somber grunt, a mating call of sorts that sounds none-too-optimistic. The bull responds with pursuit, a thrashing of willows with his antlers, resolving his testosterone-induced agitation while he readies himself for the task.
I watched bull moose once, in Alaska, a circle of creatures, peeing on the ground, on themselves, rolling in their own urine baths to scent their coats with the musky stank of mating. The ritual seemed nonsensical, comedic--those little bulls were competing only against one another, no females in sight.
The victor, already established, was out in the deeper thicket, hovering over his mate, bedded down, the great hulk of Denali at his back.
The picture of me looks like this: gangly legs with tall white knee socks, black and white saddle shoes, misshapen faux horn glasses way too big for my face, and a plaid, pleated skirt with a gigantic decorative safety pin, something you’d find on a Halloween costume.
Understandably, there was always a sort of insouciance about going back to school. Unlike earthquakes, it was just something that happened every year when the hottest days of summer had run their course and my mother ditched the tube tops and started wearing normal clothes again.
Pregnancy lasts for nine months because this is about an adequate amount of time to learn every thing you need to know about childbirth, newborns, sleep “training”, every manner of disciplinary option available to you in your future parenting years that will not land you in prison, and finally, how to successfully raise an accomplished, respectable and civilized person of the world.
And then the baby is born. And you learn about all the things you didn’t know you needed to learn about: preschool waiting lists, dual immersion educational options and vaccinations—which ones, in what combinations, at what age, and how often?
Right about the time that kids learn to sleep properly—something that befuddlingly takes years—then they need to learn how to wake up early and get dressed, be breakfasted and alert enough to pack up the previous day’s completed homework to meet the school bus, usually before the sun comes up.
This whole “childhood” thing is not for the inexperienced.
Which brings me back to the first day of school. As I looked at my friends’ Instagram posts of their kiddos' “First Day of School” pictures, hashtagged #iwontcry and #summerisover, complete with wheeled backpacks and brave, toothless faces standing tall on their front porches and sidewalks, I felt a little pang of regret, envy even.
And then I leaned over and looked at my six year-old, still asleep at 8 o’clock, her eyelashes dancing with a dream, the filtered morning sun throwing patterns across her cheeks—and stole away to walk the dog in the dew heavy grass before we started our first day of school, in pajamas, over hot chocolate, first grade books already littering the kitchen table.
In the end, he spent the better part of two weeks in the backyard, screaming
at night. At first, it sounded like a wounded deer, or a baby, or a trapped raccoon. I knew it couldn’t be a baby, but there is something about an animal making desperate human sounds that pulls you out of bed and into the night. It had happened before.
I left my baby--no longer a baby, really, but almost as vulnerable--in the house. She peered out of the window into the darkness. I told her to watch for my headlamp, that I would call out to her when I made it to where she might see the light’s strobe, streaking against the moonless sky.
August nights beckon winter with abandon, a shameless cold. My warmest robe and Rainbows, flip-flopping through dew-heavy grass, taking off the sandals to wade the creek, robe pulled up, creek muck sucking feet down, rinsing feet, stalking.
My child shouts out from the window, “Mama, I’m scared about you!”
She has seen my light disappear into the heavy brush and it’s not until I am hip deep in grasses that I consider the reality of living on the edge of a golf course. This is no place for sissies. Here and there, daybeds, matted grasses telling of mama moose and baby moose, the proclivities of bison, their hulking shadowed masses still as an abandoned automobile, and lethal.
The crackling scream is nearly above me now, and I am just so close that I can almost see this creature, and even though I know what it is, I need to see it to reconcile the aching cry it makes over and over again, pained and imploring, ceaseless.
Several more paces. My daughter yells again from the window. I marry her tone of voice with my imagination and come up with a grisly image: a child watches her mother disappear on a simple lookabout; standing guard in the window, as instructed, she listens closely as the silence turns to chaos, her mother being trampled to death.
My girl is relieved, the bed is warmer than it has ever been. We leave the curtains open, and talk about the creatures outside: the wolves we saw less than one mile away, the bird feeders hung high to discourage bears, buffalo larger than the back door. No wonder the poor child never wants to hike.
And then, the scream. It is nearer than ever, an arm’s reach away, just outside the glass. Together we hold our breaths, both of us waiting for it again, and then, it is the sound of a conch shell held to your ear, the rush of ocean suddenly, magically in your palm: the fireplace a megaphone to this expanse of feathers spreading, giant wings pushing air, bringing body to a halt.
A clamor of talons, the tinny echo of claws clasping the metal flashing around the chimney top. My quarry has landed, and if we could just crane our necks out the window and look up, we could see him: massive, unmistakeable, crying out ten feet from our pillows.
Last good-byes, Teton County Fair (c) cara blessley lowe 2013
The girls know, when they receive them as babies, that the lambs will be sold and killed for food. Baby lambs are called kids, and seeing kids--mere teenagers!--leading their sweet charges up the feed truck plank to the slaughterhouse is an unfortunate irony.
It is a cluster of consoling: of boyfriends and fathers and brothers with their arms and giant ranch-hand hands wrapped around the girls’ shoulders, belt buckles half the diameter as their waists; of sisters and other girls, mascara ribbons streaking their faces, a profusion of tears usually associated with weddings, or war.
As a bystander, you can’t get too sentimental.
These animals are bought, born, loved, raised, sold: the lesson is that earning a living is not without sacrifice, not without a price. This sacrifice means giving up something you love, adore even, and not just letting it go or even giving it away to another family, but leading it to it’s death.
There is a giant banner that sprawls the barn walls hailing the virtues of “Character”, which makes me wonder if I even understand the word. I never had to kill one of my animals when I was a kid.
Perhaps every parent should have to dry the tears of what I’ll call ‘chosen loss’ before the world thrusts it on their kids unawares.
Might there be a future where 4H takes root in those beleaguered neighborhoods of Chicago and other American cities where children killing children has become common enough to the point of being overlooked by the media and our political leaders?
Might makeshift barns replace sacked-out tenements, children learning compassion--not vengeance--through the heartbreak of loss?
At first, it’s just birth plans and cloth diapers, co-sleeping and schedules, and the next thing you know, your child is conspiring to feed the dog tacks.
Parenthood is no laughing matter.
We talk about this over rosé and s’mores, a campfire blazing away a threat of chill at sunset, the children as liberated from harm’s way as one could fathom: save grizzly bears, drowning and marshmallow roasting sticks to the eye. We holler the customary cautions and strap lifejackets on for safe measure, even though they are just skipping stones from the stern of an anchored boat. (There have been less obvious disasters, of this I am certain.)
We ponder choices, the desirability of geography, community, commuting, the trade-offs of not flying your Preferred Airline, hairy drives over wintry mountain passes, a winter that just does not quit, shares of beef and cubic-feet of deep freezers, all the while staring into the fire with the wizened eyes earned a handful of scant years into the walk as Keepers of Young Things.
“Think of their lives,” my friend throws out. “Their lives are crazy, they have no idea.” And they don’t.
This night is 360 degrees of mountains and foil-smooth lake, the cherry-topper of a full moon rising brighter than a lighthouse on a foggy night, and not a soul in sight.
There is something redemptive and grace-filled that children, in all their hope and optimism and God-given survival mechanisms, do not grasp the reality of their situation, as beautiful or as ugly as their situation may be.
In this case, it is beautiful. Of course there are still meltdowns and power struggles, heartbreaks and vulnerabilities beyond your wildest dreams, always; not to mention the abandonment, largely, of the life and personhood formerly known as Yours and You.
All of it, at this moment, seems a trifle of a concern.
All of it, you’d dare only with the best of friends.
Paw print at the crossing
On Christmas Eve, one of my best friends sent me an iPhone video that was nothing but blackness. “Make sure the volume is up” he told me.
Off in the distance, echoed and hollowed sounding, the howl of wolves. I imagined them, large paws padding the fresh snowfall, wending their way between the river-bottom firs.
What I know of wolves are speck-sized dust spots in my scope, the Lamar Valley, and so many head of elk running to and fro, careening like a flock of waxwings across the snow.
I was taught early on as a birder that the secret to identifying species is silhouette and context. The details get lost in the distance, the absence of glass to bring their barred and bibbed patterns in close a missed opportunity to tick a lifer off your list.
Nine o’clock in the morning. Late. The traffic of daily living already quieting. Sun high and a ribbon of inversion knitted together by the cold and rising. Priceless, but here, commonplace.
Click. Beautiful. Again.
The iPhone is a poor tool for such moments, but as the saying goes, a bad camera is better than no camera at all.
Besides, you don’t drive your preschooler to school thinking that on the way you’ll see wolves.
Black wolf, zoomed
The car was stopped. They came from the south. After two, I knew to wait. Accustomed to the ways of migratory shuffles, there are always more.
Black wolf. White snow. Cottonwoods. Grey wolf. Road. Grey wolf.
Three in all.
Lumbering and leggy, their run is a rocking-horse rock, their mouths the open mouths of carousel animals, bridleless. It’s full-out or nothing at all.
E watched along with me, speechless, a witness.
Much later, on the way home, we searched out the tracks, the place where the wolves crossed the road. I sunk, thigh deep into the sage flats and compared my palm to their paw, the way their tails cantilevered their gait against the awkward pull of the snow, wet and spring-like by midday.
I was still half-thinking we had somehow, the two of us, conjured the whole thing.
It wasn’t until later that I realized there, in my iPhone camera, in the big, wide view, the first black wolf is there. You can see him!
Not at all a ghost: opaque, pricked ears, that wild tail.
Sunset on the Capitol, me and E, on my birthday eve
There are few things as rewarding as watching your kiddos connect the dots: first words, first steps, that a-ha moment of recognizing something known but never seen in real life. Monuments fall into this category, along with life-size Elmos and watching donuts travel the conveyor belt at Krispy Kreme, a sheet of liquid sugar glazing the dozens to a high-gloss finish.
Children and how they process the world around them level the playing field in remarkably refreshing and undiscriminating ways.
Accepting an invitation to visit friends in Washington D.C. brought on the Great Debate: a grown-up, much needed adult trip the two of us, or a family affair, which meant wrangling babysitters for fancy evenings out with said friends and the hand-wringing hope that all the training and one-on-one we've spent with our kid will carry the day.
What with S and I commuting to LA for film work, various birthdays, and a general carpe diem approach to living, logistics conspired, and so we flew, all three, to D.C.
The visit was chock full of a grown-up agenda, which generally meshes with our child-rearing philosophy. Children are meant to fit into your world, you don't structure your entire life to accommodate their every mood and whim. That said, missed naps are nightmarish in the early years and once they are sleeping the night, no more gallery openings with your three-month old tucked discreetly into a Moby wrap.
The week began with the most fear-inspiring event on the agenda--a catered cocktail party at our friends' house our first night there. They live in a brownstone carrying Historic Registry credentials on Embassy Row, a stone's throw from the White House, covered ceiling to floor in either a) priceless tapestries or b) rare indigenous and/or modern art. Expected at the party were folks you'd see in either D.C.'s society pages or on any given televised political round-table, or neighbors--which fit into either of the above two categories, or once did.
How does it happen that when you transfer your energies mostly full-time to child rearing, putting on hold a life in which you previously Made Things Happen, that your children's behavior, for better or worse, takes the brunt of your performance anxiety as a parent...? Fair or not, right or wrong, in my case it is a bona fide fact, and this evening was no exception.
As the night progressed I watched as our four year-old, decked out in a navy velvet shift, walked calmly among the partygoers, never taking more than one hors d'oeuvre at a time, and managing to keep her blueberry-garnished ginger ale in her glass--not spilling on herself, another, or on the furniture. She was having such a good time that she didn't cling to my leg once. In fact, most guests didn't even realize she was our child, giving us the privilege to overhear remarks that took notice of her manners. It's as though she knew how high we had set the bar and was absolutely meeting it. Imagine that.
After the party, I kissed my baby good-bye and left her with Miss Corinna, returning hours later to find her hidden among Blue Willow bedding, sleeping away the night. Who is this kid, I wanted to ask my husband, but didn't, out of superstition of jinxing a run of exemplary behavior. I prayed a prayer of gratitude instead, that all the work was, well, working....
Such evenings become bookmarks for those times when E has absolutely had her fill of...fill-in-the-blank...the White House and the Capitol, walking and monuments and museums and parties, and wants nothing more than to go to the zoo, buy a bag of grain, and feed the goats. Which is exactly what we did.
A fallen spruce dwarfs S, at the site where he retrieved his kayak. In early summer the Snake flowed over this strainer.
First I see the kayak. It is innocuously perched on a rocky sandbar, drybag still attached. But where is S
? I ask myself. I walk all the way around the boat, suspicious, trying to determine if the current has washed it this high. Unlikely. The beginnings of another braid loll along beside me and the boat. The beast of the river's main channel keeps on.
Questioned asked, question answered. A ring tone peals from inside the thick polyurethane bag. Church bells, "the pope", my nickname for S. I tear into the bag, determined not to let the call go to voicemail. There is relief enough for my subconscious, dammed up by prayers, to now leak into my reasoning brain. All fears vie for first, but now I know no helicopters, no ambulance, no funeral, no life insurance will be tapped today. Praise God.
Half-whacked with relief and disbelief, I answer the phone, delirious, "How's that for a ride, partner?!"
There is heaving on the other end, a gasp. "I saw my life, you guys, flash before my eyes." He's unusually sincere, any attempts of making light of the melee nonexistent. Instead, gratitude. You know it's a very close call when I don't even feel the urge to be angry. And the fact that he called instead of texting tells me he indeed needed the comfort of receiving word on the other end.
We fashion a plan.
I traipse back to N and the enormity of the accident is settling on her. We sit, reckon the details of what happened, and wait for S. Time cautions, plays tricks with us, and has it been moments or hours?--and then he's back, the sun cocked over the edge of the Grand.
The details of survival already seem pedestrian. S becomes oddly deferential to the aftermath do's and don't's of river accidents as though common sense finally matters. Calling the Park Service becomes a priority. He's concerned someone will see our flotilla of shoes and paddles and hats and water bottles and will start looking for bodies immediately.
Kirsten, with the Park Service, teaches us new river phraseology, "river right" and "river left", presumably with the intent of avoiding confusion. I, however, have my doubts about this reasoning as some of the most sophisticated, intelligent people I know still confuse their rights with their lefts. I jab clarifications into the conversations, "We are on the EAST side of the river, tell her!"
Kirsten--surprise--cautions bears, tells us to wait where we are. This seems an absurd waste of time. I know we are within a mile of the bridge, and really, we can make do with two pairs of shoes between the three of us. And at this point, bears are the last of my worries.
But in keeping with the theme of the day, I acquiesce. It's nice to be agreeable, especially in circumstances of extreme duress.
The details get frittered away by more details. The precise strainer
sticking up out of the water; the place where the river bends hard left before the next downed log; righting an inflatable puffed full with current; river shoes entrapping the wearer in the overturned kayak; the dry bag, lassoed around feet--on purpose or on accident and was he in or out of his kayak at the time? My head spins with minutiae.
Now as in most every conversation, I filter the detritus for the point. This means lots of nods, an "um-hum" here or there, and mainly remembering to not drool as I listen. And listen. And listen.
Finally, two key points rise to the top, and these become the Press Release of our Survival. "Two weeks before his birthday, S. Lowe almost had to put his party plans on hold. A kayak trip turned to chaos as the man, 53 years old, was dragged under two logjams, trying to retrieve his capsized boat as he floated down a braided, debris-strewn stretch of Wyoming's Snake River."
So there it is. It's not the river that is necessarily dangerous but all the crap that falls into it. And when your river rushes through a forest, that means trees. Big trees. Lots of trees.
The fatal ingredient of boating here is the likelihood of getting trapped, not bonking your head on a rock or drowning in deep deep water. Just the rush of the river, the trees, lodged hard in the current and their network of limbs, unyielding, gigantic, intricate, ongoing.
Had the two trees he got sucked under had more branches, had the life vest he was wearing get hung up on an underwater snag, this story would not be blithely told under the pretense of entertainment.
I'd be a woman in mourning.
Which is also the great paradox behind silly disasters: that scythe-bearing meanie lurks behind every beautiful day.
N and I share a pair of shoes and convert our hats into flip-flops.
Summertime in Jackson Hole takes on metaphoric status for making the most of life. Because the season is so brief--a mish-mash of 45 not necessarily consecutive frost-free days--local behavior verges on the manic: so many barbeques, hikes, lake days, bike rides, camping trips, fishing excursions before all possibility is gone.
Near-freezing mornings signal the bossy insistence of autumn. The end draws near. And there it is, that palpable sense of panic to get in all those missed activities before the snow starts to fall. The question lately on everyone's lips, "Did you take advantage of summer?"
Our second river trip of the year, S had it in his mind to explore a new section of the Snake. It's a tangled stretch that reads fast, flat water with lots of unknowns, braiding through and passing by some of the most exquisite, historic estates below the Teton Range.
With poetic brevity the JH Kayak School explains, "From the put-in at Moose Visitor Center the fast-flowing river soon becomes very braided...caution is necessary as there are often snags and log jams." There is only one concession licensed to guide trips from Moose to Wilson. And though in twenty years of playing here I've never known anyone to float this part of the river on their own, How bad can it be, late August, an epic drought year? I ponder to myself.
The launch north of the Moose bridge adds a few more challenges: a mini-waterfall formed by boulders downriver from the launch which I skirt within a stroke or two, only to paddle harder against the river's pace, the current doing it's best to drag me against the next obstacle to survival: bridge pilings frapped with downed trees.
Pondering quickly turns to mission abort. Less than ten minutes into the journey, I am spinning like a tick on the river's surface, kayak over-inflated and wind gusts battling water battling my dread of orphaning my only child at an age so young she'd barely remember me.
Resolved to quit, I beach my trusty craft. Terra firma, amen. My husband, already 500 yards beyond, hasn't even noticed I'm no longer in the game.
Thankfully my BFF does. She and S are nimbly slicing through both wind and current atop her kayak. I'm kind of stunned. They make it look so...easy. They stop on a mid-river island and I struggle not to pull an urban reference, shifting my three-finger "W-WHATEVER" gesture into thumb & pinky "Call me" sweetness.
"I'm done," I tell him on the phone. "I just don't have a good feeling about this. You guys go ahead. I can carry my boat back to the truck."
"Come on babe, you and N take this kayak. I'll take the single, it'll be fine."
Few people know this: I'm a notorious sissy. Even in my most adventuresome days, I was bearish. But here, now, even though that still, small voice is screaming, "NO WAY, JOSE!", I get back into my kayak, fighting the internal fight of self-preservation versus disappointing my spouse.
In the movies, doom rarely comes at high noon on a cloudless bluebird day. Directors know better and tap their audience's psyche to deliver a more evocative climatic reference.
Paddling to the island is eerily effortless. Once launched aboard N's sit-atop however, the horror crystallizes: two serene fly-fisherman casting into 20 yards of class II rapids. I know enough about rivers to know that after the rapids comes the calm. Eddy lines. Those cellophane-stretched spots that mean depth, downdraft, the place where sticks get stuck, twirling like the frantic needle on a compass.
My stomach turns. We bear down. Water sloshes our laps. We rocking-horse rock. We make it.
But then, in the nanosecond between respite and relief, the boat shifts broadside, starts drifting backwards.
In moments of sheer panic, the human mind takes comfort in the insignificant details, the simple memories, not the exceptional ones. The smell of your newborn's head. The way the morning light seeped into your bedroom in the house you grew up in and loved best.
The flip was nothing more than the switch of a trout's dorsal fin, leaving the rise. You almost question that you saw it at all.
The water is bath-warm, rare for the Snake. And my very human mind finds it's one small detail: my webbed rubber sandal, threatening to fall off. I battle not the current, not survival at it's essence, but losing my shoe.
Snap back to task at hand: shore, yes; logjams, no. Head down into the water, arms pulling against the current, finally reaching that place where the river goes slack right before you reach land. Trees, once towering, stab at my thighs, underwater zombie arms wanting to pull me under. Grab decaying tree root to crawl up crumbling riverbank and almost fall back into the rushing river. Note to self: decaying tree roots are brittle, unreliable and sharp.
S careens by. He's clearly in control, owning the river. N alludes to him "rodeo cowboy corralling" our yard sale of paddles and drybag and sit-atop kayak and other miscellany and of course, that's exactly what my husband is now, a rodeo king, riding the river and saving the day.
N and I trudge through thick willows, direction downriver, and N's in shock enough to be mostly nonchalant about walking barefoot through thistle patches. Sandbar, abandoned river braid and stones stones stones. We sit. Assess.
My friend is shoeless and freaked by the very real possibility of bears. I'm just freaked. I wonder, Did I remember to pray? I pray.
I leave N to find my husband, assuring her that it would be a cold bear in hell who would walk out onto a sandbar just to attack her. "The berries are ripening", I tell her, hoping she'll extrapolate a positive message from my line of thinking.
The sun shines on, the sky seamless, and somewhere nearby, I am certain, there's a kid on vacation flying a kite.
Image courtesy of (c) Timothy C. Mayo
Seasons have sharp edges in western Wyoming. These days, it's all about firewood and hunting, making plans to provision for winter. In our family, we have the firewood-gathering down pat. But the hunting, that's another story. Both of us grew up in the milder confines of the suburbs, a BB gun was about as rough as things got and meat was something scored from an occasional McDonald's visit, or popped out of a package on the nights my mom wasn't making her "delicious chicken"--a thawed breast covered in Mrs. Dash and broiled to a dry puck of a thing. S's mom fancied simmering her meat in various Campbell-soup bases.
Some of my dearest friends are not just vegetarians, but animal rights' vegans, which means animal products anywhere on, in, or near their persons are verboten. I admire almost to the point of envying the discipline and conviction behind such a statement and wrestle with feed lots, the unethical treatment of furred and feathered sentient beings and all the rest, but I am nowhere near as restrained to make such a choice a reality in my life. Plus, my body just does better when it can run on what it needs. And many times, that's meat.
The other night we had friends over. The kids played while the adults talked about adult things, like business time, and the funny things the kids come up with and how to respond. Things like "What does beef taste like, elk or buffalo?"
See, their kids have been raised on mostly all wild meat. But this year, they've gone halvsies on a steer from a local rancher: "Imagine, grass fed organic beef for less that $1 pound." My Venice Whole Foods-shopping friends quiver at the very idea.
More hunting talk and I learn that another friend in common has already got her bison for this year. "She went out before dawn on opening day, called Tag-and-Drag and it's done."
That friend was 37 weeks pregnant. She had her baby ten days later. The bison isn't even processed yet.
So now we're looking for someone to go in halvsies on a steer. "$1 a pound. Even with a license, I don't think we can beat that deal," S tells me. See, he's about as excited, not to mention willing, as I am to shoot a beautiful large game animal.
Which means that now all we'll have to do is order the deep freezer.