August full moon

August full moon (Photo credit: Stelios Kiousis)

It is now August and those of us who, whether by choice or simply because here we are, deal with tourists on a daily basis are beginning to grit our teeth when we smile.  It’s not actually the tourists’ fault, I suppose, it’s just that there are so many of them.  This is of course a very good thing for our small town’s economy, but a mountain valley town with one main street, no matter how hard we try, is not really well constituted to accommodate daily influxes of 85,000 or so people, none of whom really know the area and most of whom seem to think they’d lose their amateur standing if they looked at a map.

I have commented on the ways tourists behave in the supermarket before.  I have compared getting through Estes Park on its one street (Elkhorn) to attempting to get crosstown in midtown Manhattan.  I have pointed out that elkjams are a lot of fun for tourists, not so much for locals trying to get to the post office and probably not as much fun as advertised for the elk.  (Mostly, this time of year they’re in the high country, which is cooler, so they’re harder to spot anyway.)  So what is it that makes all this more interesting (I was going to write “annoying”, but I’m snarky enough right now and am trying to be pleasant) now than say, in June or July?

Traditionally, it is simply weariness.  When the tourists first come back (like the swallows to Capistrano and for the same reason), townspeople whose livelihoods depend on the tourist dollar are so RELIEVED.  The cash cow will moo once more.  And, let’s face it, there are moments in this paradise of ours, moments we call January, February, March and April, where paradise has some ragged edges, mostly brought about by the incessant wind.  And we get tired of our own company, too.  It never gets less strange being the only customers in a restaurant (survival tips for winter restaurant dining in Estes Park:  don’t go out on Monday, a lot of places are closed or should be; memorize when the Sysco truck deliveries are so you can be more sure of relatively fresh food; go to the several truly popular places because they won’t be holding on to the food as long as humanly possible and there will be other people there, although not on Monday; order something that would definitely have been frozen, since thawing a frozen entree can at least assure you of the smallest amount of bacterial life, whereas “fresh” definitely would not).

So, the tourists are very very very welcome and we worry when they’re not enough of them.  The shops furbish themselves up, the new shops put on their brave displays, and we smile benignly when the visitors stand in the middle of the sidewalk making it impossible to turn your car left, right or go straight.  They’re HERE!  Everybody smiles and it’s a real smile, and when the cash registers start to ka-ching, we hope it’ll be a good summer, because that means a winter in which we can actually make ends meet or at least wave at each other.  So June is good.

Then, as summer wends its way through July, fresh Colorado produce actually makes it all the way up here and turns up on restaurant menus and even in Safeway, the afternoon thundershowers keep things green and pretty and cut the dust (and pull the tourists into the shops until the big drops stop splatting) and the locals get used to not being able to make a left turn and figure out their favorite this-summer way to avoid downtown in their errands.  The summer residents come back, which sort of makes up for the fact that social life takes a nosedive because people are so busy running shops and catering to the tourists, and all the houses that can look a little empty in the wintertime have kids playing some kind of ball in the front yard, and chairs pulled out under the trees to catch the fresh breezes and look at the mountains.  Hikers are all over the place, most of them, thank heavens, staying on the hiking trails.  And the wildlife, looking sleek and well-fed, delight everyone.  (Estes Park, because it has a lake, is a favorite stopping off point for birds, especially, migrating to and from summer and winter feeding areas, so June and August are filled with birds you would never expect in the mountains so far from an ocean, including pelicans, ibis, egrets, even seagulls.  And of course we have the occasional trumpeter swan, lots of Canada geese, ducks, each lady duck trailing her own little comet tail of fluffy ducklings, our own bluebirds, Stellar Jays, hummingbirds (more than three species, all of which fight over any and every red flower and/or feeder–fierce tiny creatures), and eagles and hawks.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our mammalian wildlife ranges from miniature chipmunks who dart around almost too fast to see to moose, who are newly arrived and seem to like it here.  We have a couple of beaver dams in the Estes valley, although most of these industrious creatures stay well away from humans because they know how much we like (for various reasons) to disturb or destroy their dams.  We have predators too, of which most people see only the black bears (oddly enough, they look cuddly but are NOT, and in many ways are more dangerous than the mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes who are also make these mountains their home).  And elk, deer and bighorn sheep, most of which are sleekening up for the rutting season to come up in the high country.

Moose -animal - Wildlife - Alaska

Moose (Photo credit: blmiers2)

Estes Park, in addition to very few streets, a huge and glorious national park, lots of high mountains and tiny gem-like lakes, hiking trails and wildlife, also has two golf courses, a go-kart track, a “family fun” center (which is hideous but which apparently makes money hand over fist), miniature golf courses almost without number, an aerial tramway, and rivers that always are festooned with fly fishermen in the summertime.  We also have a “fairgrounds” (so-called, but all the signs say Stanley Park), with a horse show or an exhibition every weekend.  So there’s lots to do, and a lot of people to do it, and if they’re also spending lots of money and filling up the motels, hotels, B&Bs, condo rentals and restaurants, there’s a lot of smiles on the faces of the locals, even if they do start looking a little weary.  (If you run a shop or a motel, your daily worklife lasts at least 10 hours and usually runs from practically dawn to midnight.)


August (Photo credit: randihausken)

So now that it’s August, it isn’t that the tourists are, in themselves, worse.  It’s just that our smiles are wearing thin, the elkjams are getting annoying instead of charming, and why is it that nobody’s kids have any manners any more?  You see, now we all just want the visitors to come, look around and gawp, spend all their money as quickly as possible, and leave, preferably in about three days.  Or three hours, if we could manage it.  We’re tired.  And disgruntled.  And soooooo ready for them all to go home and back to school and leave use our town for ourselves for a while.

Of course, there will still be the blip that comes during the autumn color season and the elk rut, but that’s smaller and we’ve caught our breath a bit and quite a few of us have looked at the books and realize that winter will be a lot nicer if we get a whole lot of people coming to see the elk play and aspen turn.

And then, of course, being human, we complain that the tourists are all gone too early and we didn’t make our nut and what is winter going to be like?  And so it starts up all over again.

But right now, it’s August, and we really wish, in our hearts of hearts, that they all would just go home.

Estes Park, Colorado

Estes Park, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Memorial Day

Memorial Day Commemoration 2008

Tomorrow will be the day Memorial Day is celebrated in the United States of America.  The date, which moved around a bit while the holiday was known as Decoration Day, was fixed at May 30 for many years, but in the last couple of decades it was changed to the last Monday in May, thus allowing a three-day weekend for most working people.  More and more, it seems that the holiday marks the beginning of summer rather than what it was intended to mark:  to memorialize, remember and gratefully thank the more than a million men and women who have lost their lives serving in our country’s armed forces.

In these days, after more than ten solid years of war, more families have ties to the military, it seems.  And more, sadly, have lost relatives and friends and loves to war.  (I seem to be using the word “more” a great deal in this post, but that’s appropriate.  For all that the spiritual says “we ain’t gonna study war no more”, it seems that war will always be with us, a larger and larger specter on the horizon, a horrible biological marker we can’t seem to rid ourselves of.  As a character said in the movie Gladiator, “there will always be somebody left to fight.”

Memorial Day got its start during and after the Civil War, when Southern families would decorate the graves of their fallen soldiers with flags and flowers, usually in May, although the actual date varied from state to state.  Later on, it became a country-wide holiday, marking not just the Civil War, but all wars in which United States military personnel have fought and died.  Unlike such holidays as Veteran’s Day (which is the current name for the holiday marking the end of the First World War and which now serves to mark the service of Armed Forces members in all wars, whether they were killed or not), Memorial Day is a day to thank those that gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in service to their country.

American Civil War Graves

American Civil War Graves (Photo credit: smilla4)

I was a young woman during the war of Viet Nam, a time during which military service got itself tarred with the brush of the political decisions made regarding that war.  My memories of those days are still bitter, with people greeting returning soldiers, alive and dead, with scorn and sometimes worse.  Memorial Day seemed rather to mock our nation’s blistering discord over that war that played itself out in so many ways against the soldiers who had very little choice about fighting.  It is probably not remembered now as much, but during those days, there was a draft, and soldiers went to Viet Nam because they had to, not because they volunteered.  Most of them served honorably, although it sometimes seemed our media deliberately chose to find stories of dishonor.  I wish to make this clear:  I did not approve of the reasons for our military involvement in Viet Nam and was opposed to its continuation.  However, both as the child of a man who had retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel and as a young adult who could not figure out why anybody, let alone members of the same generation, should vilify soldiers conscripted into service, I was appalled at the treatment of veterans and the dismissal of those who died in that jungle.

Since then, how many wars have there been?  Police actions, some were called.  Other names were used for other military ventures, because there is a law that while the American President can deploy troops, only Congress can declare war.  And now, for the first time in how many years, we are fighting only (ONLY!) one war, the one in Afghanistan, a country that has so far absorbed and spit back every foreign military venture taking place within its borders, from Britain to Russia to us.  Only one war.  I don’t remember who said it, but I clearly remember some wise person saying that there is always a war somewhere.

Wars are the big things that history books love to talk about, the movement of troops, the decisions of generals, the pageantry of it all.  Meanwhile, there are individual human beings, not toy soldiers, on those wrecked fields, driving those caissons and tanks, getting killed or, as is so very common in today’s modern war, getting severely injured in either or both brain and body.  Individual human beings.  People who could have sweethearts, wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, children of their own.  Lives.  Once such people were openly called “cannon fodder.”  It was always an ironic, grim designation, because it was so awfully true.

Quartermaster Corps branch insignia

Quartermaster Corps branch insignia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My father, as I said above, was in the Army.  He joined when he was very young.  Since he didn’t have a birth certificate, he was able to lie about his age.  He worked his way up to sergeant in the Quartermaster Corps.  This division of the United States Army handled supply and infrastructure, and my father started his military life as an army cook (or more probably he worked up to being an army cook by peeling potatoes like every other soldier).  When World War II broke out, he was stationed in Panama.  The Army had to vastly increase its size to meet the demands of WWII, and so required many more officers than it had needed since the Civil War.  It instituted an Officers’ Candidate School, for which my father applied and was accepted.  He graduated as a Second Lieutenant and remained in the Quartermaster Corps, achieving the rank of Major while on active duty in what was then Persia (now Iran and parts of Iraq) supervising the construction of the Red Ball Express across Persia to transport materiel to Russia, then our ally.   (Note:  the Wikipedia entry for “Red Ball Express” discusses only the convoys through France, but my father told me himself that the same designation was used for this highway through Iraq and Iran.)  He was wounded in the leg during an attack by Bedouins, thus managing to achieve the difficult task of getting wounded in furtherance of the war but not in battle.  And also managing to predate by some sixty-odd years the exact experience of our troops in today’s war in Iraq, only now the Bedouins are called insurgents.  He recovered, but his leg was never right again, and he was rotated back to the United States, where he served at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and was retired in 1947, with the usual bump in rank and with full medical disability.  He died, partially as a consequence still of that wound incurred in Persia, in 1960 and is buried, as was his fond wish, in Arlington National Cemetery.

My brother, David, served in the Korean War (ahem, police action), in the Navy.  He was deployed on a ship that patrolled the Atlantic Ocean from Cuba up to Nova Scotia, I believe, and was delighted that his service was routine, boring and without much incident.  He served three years, I believe, and then went to college and an eventual working life as a systems analyst, creating computer programs, sometimes for the United States military, thus coming full circle.  I have a picture that I unfortunately cannot find or I would post it showing him grinning in his sailor uniform.  My brother enjoys good health and a good life in California and long may he do so.

My husband, when I married, had retired from a career in the United States Air Force, in which he served as a surgeon.  At one time, he was one of the doctors retrieving our astronauts (in the Gemini Program, I believe).  His second to last deployment was as Command Surgeon at the Air Force Academy.  He retired as a full Colonel and moved to our small town of Estes Park, where he acted as Chief Surgeon of the Estes Park Medical Center.  He and I divorced (while living in California) in 1985 and he returned to Louisiana, his home state.  He died there, the victim of esophageal cancer, in the late eighties.

I am so very fortunate that my loved ones, those I personally met and knew, did not die in battle.  I have ancestors, as have we all, who did die in one or another battle, in this country or another one, fighting some war or another that now exists only in history books.  I have a direct ancestor on my mother’s side who fought in the Revolutionary War as a member of a militia in Virginia.  (He survived it.)  It is that relative that allows me to claim that I am related to Davy Crockett.  I can only assume that some great-great grandfathers or uncles of mine fought in the Civil War and probably in all other wars we have fought as a country.  My stepfather served in the 22nd Engineers Corp in France in World War I (where he lost his hearing as a result of mustard gas, or so I was told).  I would imagine that nobody reading this could actually say that no family member, no ancestor, ever died in a war, ever fought in a war.  It is an ugly, continuing part of the human condition.  I would not suggest that wars are never justified.  I’m not a pacifist (I try not to be any type of “ist”, actually).  Certainly, in my reading, it seems very much the truth that World War II had to be fought, for reasons that became totally clear only after the war ended.  And it also seems that the Civil War could not have been avoided and, although it was not actually the reason it was fought, the end of slavery that resulted from the Civil War is an unreservedly good thing (although we didn’t handle the peace arising from the Civil War with any kind of grace).  Other wars seem to me to be fought for reasons that do not rise to the term “necessary” or “good”.  But then I am not as informed as I perhaps should be.  I will not pronounce on our current and immediately past wars, because they are too close for there to be any judgment, at least on my part.

But they are fought by individual human beings.  And on Memorial Day, we honor those who have died in battle, those who have put their own bodies between their beloved home and war.  Our troops have been (along with two very big oceans) a primary reason that these ugly wars have not been fought on American soil since the Civil War–at least until terrorism changed the face of war culminating (so far) in the attack on and destruction of the World Trade Center.  Those women and men who have died in battle have saved countless civilian lives as well as the lives of fellow soldiers.  It is too much to ask of any human being, but that we survive as a country today has much to do with their service.

In my small town of Estes Park, there is a lawn in front of the Public Library on Elkhorn Avenue.  Currently, in honor of Memorial Day, the library staff has “planted” hundreds of tiny American flags in this lawn.  It is beautiful and it brings tears to the eye.  I would rather see the boys and girls themselves, all alive and spiffed up in their dress uniforms, than flags, but seeing the flags helps me remember, helps remind me in the midst of the barbecue and the Memorial Day sales, to silently thank them all.

Sign posted along the Red Ball route

Sign posted along the Red Ball route (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Driving Miss Tina

2003-2007 Nissan Murano photographed in Colleg...

Nissan Murano (not mine, but similar) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I may have mentioned, I christened my car “Tina” after I bought her.  It started as “Tiny” because she’s a big girl, but she didn’t like it, so now it’s Tina.  I have always loved Nissan cars–one literally saved my life in 2003 (that story I’ll blog about at some point, trust me)–and when I moved back to Colorado, with the prospect of snowy mountain roads, I bought a one-year-old Nissan Murano, silver gray with black interior.  She has many talents, my new (still feels new to me) big girl of a car.

Interesting (to me) digression:  While some complex mechanisms remain resolutely neuter, neutral and completely without individuality, others come equipped with personality, gender and, definitely, opinions of their own.  When I was in college, the elevator in my dorm hated me.  It simply did, that’s all there was to it.  My first car’s name was “Prudence Duvernoy” (from a character I had played in Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Royale”), and that car was madly in love with another student’s big old Chevy and always found a way to park next to him.  My second computer seemed a bit miffed that somebody so clueless could possibly be in charge of it, and I spent more on repairs and tech support than I had for the computer.  I think most people would, if absolutely pressed to the wall about it, admit that some machine in their life seemed to have distinct preferences and likes or dislikes.  And acted upon them.

In any event, back to today’s topic.  My car has many talents, chief among which is being the easiest to drive and the safest-feeling car I’ve ever owned.  As I said, she’s a big girl, and in my part of Colorado, which gets a lot of wind, it’s a delight to have this big solid vehicle around me as traffic lights wave around like banners and flags get ripped off flagpoles and construction signs have to have holes in them to protect them from becoming lethal flying weapons.  Tina also has the ability to find a parking space within reasonable distance of my destination virtually every time.  Even in Estes in the summertime.  That’s a very good talent for a car to have.  And, in spite of her size, she doesn’t guzzle gas, but sips it instead.  Very useful in the coming years.  She’s also comfortable and not cramped.  I’m glad she has cloth seats, because leather seats can be sticky in summer and cold in winter.  She has quite a bit of cargo space, and her rear seats fold down nice and flat.  So, yes, I’m very fond of Tina and she seems quite fond of me.

And where does she spend most of her time?  In my garage.  I’m sure she’s glad it’s there (she’s the first car I’ve ever had that didn’t live outside all the time like a husky).  I know I am, because I’m lucky enough to have an attached garage, which is a great luxury in a cold climate.  But Tina doesn’t spend a lot of time out on the road both because of my California gas crisis background (“is this trip necessary?  how much time do I want to spend in line at the gas station?  and I really shouldn’t be using so much gas anyway”  and so forth), and because I’m spending much more time these days at home, writing.  All good things.  But it turns out I miss driving.  Really a lot.

On Monday, when I went to buy my new toy (see previous post), one of the things I noticed about the whole trip was how much I enjoyed it.  Not just driving Tina because she’s a good, drivable car, but simply driving.  When I first learned to drive, my greatest (non-romantic) pleasure was to drive, simply to drive, not to go anywhere in particular, but to go!  I remember when I was a little girl, Daddy would sometimes say, particularly after dinner on a summer evening, “hey, want to go for a drive?”  And we all piled in, thrilled at the idea.  Daddy, Mama, Gail (that’s me) and Velvet (that’s the dog).  Of course, no summer evening drive engineered and guided by my father would ever come home without stopping at A&W Root Beer, so we had a hidden agenda, but so much of the joy was the drive itself.  This was a while ago, so our car didn’t have air conditioning (nothing had air conditioning except the movie theater, let alone a car) and Greeley, Colorado, while it did cool off after dark in the summer, was HOT.  My mother would bring beach towels so we could actually sit on the seats (which weren’t leather, but the particularly stiff and staunch plastic they had for car seats in the fifties) and Daddy would say a few Army words (as Mama called them while she shot a very dirty look at him) until the steering wheel cooled down enough to touch, and of course we’d have all the windows open.  So off we’d set, no seat belts, of course, not back then, and Velvet’s head out the side back window, ears flopping (she was a cocker spaniel), and me with the dog mostly in my lap, talking to Daddy at the top of my lungs.  The best time.  Ever.  (Especially with the soft ice cream cones we’d always get on the way back home, “we” in this case including the dog, who loved ice cream.)

Obviously, I grew up with the idea that one of the great things to do is get in the car and go for a ride.  And I think that feeling has always been there, even when I didn’t have a car, the time or a full tank.  When I moved to California, after my divorce and before I got so poor I couldn’t afford the gas (let alone trying to be a good person ecologically), I would get in my car and drive on a Sunday or late at night when the world just got to be too much with me and my life was otherwise out of control.  I remember late nights driving up the freeway to Palmdale and letting the car out, with much the feeling that I’m sure a horseback rider has, and driving as fast as I could on those straight empty highways in the high desert.  (For any possible California Highway Patrol person reading this, I think the statute of limitations has run.  I hope.)  I remember trying to pretend I was a famous star incognito driving a convertible (when actually I was a word processor in a Sentra that didn’t even have a sunroof) tooling up and down the Pacific Coast Highway on the way to or from Malibu,  just too cool for school.

Big Sur, California

Big Sur, California (Photo credit: the_tahoe_guy)

Once I took a vacation and drove up the Pacific Coast Highway practically to Oregon, which included driving the utterly glorious (and terrifying) Highway One to and past Big Sur.  It’s perhaps better to be a passenger on such a road trip, because as a driver, you can’t really take your eyes off the twisty turny narrow heartstopping road long enough to look out at the unbelievable heartstopping (for another reason) view.  But there are lots of turnouts, so I’d stop and stare at the Pacific and get back in my little Sentra and twist around the switchbacks some more.  Anybody who loves to drive someday simply has to drive on that road between San Simeon and Carmel.

The only time I didn’t enjoy driving was, of course, the daily commute to work.  Even then, there were times it had its compensations.  After all, if I was in my car getting to work, I wasn’t AT work, drudging away, so that was still a plus.  And there is nothing quite like the feeling of driving home after work.  The relief of it.  Except, of course, in southern California when it rained.  Just as Colorado drivers forget how, each and every year, to drive in the snow, Los Angeles drivers forget how to drive in the rain.  And a year’s worth of oil and muck on the roads gets as slick as snot (I know it’s a disgusting image, but it’s the only one that really says it) when the rains first come.  One night, when I worked downtown, I remember that it took me over two hours to get from my office to my apartment during a rainstorm.  At that time I drove a stick shift, and by the time I arrived home, I thought my leg was permanently damaged from the constant shifting into and out of first gear, trying to get ten more feet down the pavement.

Until I got Tina, I was also frightened of driving in snow, for the very good reasons of the stark terror I’d felt over the years commuting to work in Denver in the blizzards, and a bad accident (I’ve talked about it on this blog) in Wyoming during a blizzard.  But now, Tina does very well with her all-wheel drive and her big all-season tires and her weight.  She’s only slid around once or twice and that was in my neighborhood, so I may be getting a little too sanguine about what is really more dangerous than standard driving.

But last Monday, even with the high winds, driving was just a sheer pleasure.  Going down the canyon (that’s how Estes residents, or “locals” (see my post on Estes definitions) talk about driving down to the “valley” (ditto)) with little traffic was a pleasure, looking out at the trees and the sky and beauty.  I had lunch at a great place in Lyons called “Oskar Blues” and then set off to Boulder for my shopping.  I found parking places easily (okay, Tina found them), and I had the delight I just talked about in my previous post of purchasing my new iPad.  Then I went to Whole Foods, which is another terrific shopping experience, especially for someone like me whose only alternative in her home town is a pretty standard Safeway.  There I bought produce and strawberries that smelled so richly of strawberry that my mouth was watering right there in the store, and other good things to enjoy.  And then I drove home, up the canyon, out of the worst of the wind.

And I loved it.  It reminded me of being young and taking off on a California highway just for the sheer joy of it.  I know it’s frivolous and ecologically unsound and I do try to minimize my driving for the most part, both for reasons of carbon footprint and pollution, but oh how I love to drive Miss Tina!

Colorado Sky

Colorado Sky--One of the Delights of Driving (Photo credit: Let Ideas Compete)