United States Map 1853

United States Map 1853

I follow Russell Crowe‘s Twitter feed.  He uses his Tweets (I truly loathe that term, by the way) to publicize his work and to express opinions and comments about his life that seem good to him to write about.  I enjoy this glimpse he allows his followers (of which he has many) into his life and work.  Several of his recent Tweets (there’s that stupid word again) have to do with maps.  He enjoys them, apparently, finds them fascinating, and often gets out maps and looks at them to, in his words (more or less, he’s taken down this particular set of Tweets (grrrrh), I think, and I can’t find the quote), plan adventures.

While there are perhaps not too many personality traits a major movie star who lives in Australia and a somewhat obscure, at least so far, writer temporarily in LA but living in Colorado have in common, I too look at maps and plan adventures.  And sometimes dream about the lines on the maps becoming a real journey.

Once I’d read his ‘comments’ (I’m simply not going to use that damned Twitter term again) about  maps, I got down my huge atlas and leafed through the pages, which led directly to my road trip (I drove) from Colorado to southern California.  So thanks for that, Mr. Crowe.  You inspired this essay, but also a real journey following a road map that led me 1300 miles from Estes Park, Colorado to Los Angeles, California.  I guess I won’t thank you for the snowstorm that included itself in my trip, you couldn’t possibly have known, but it did add to the adventure, after all, and that’s what dreamily looking at maps is all about.

Map of the United States Including Western Ter...

Map of the United States Including Western Territories, 12/1848 (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

When it comes to less likely adventure planning, the topographic maps are difficult for me to decipher, so I best like the maps that have highways on them, and cities and towns and parks and cultural activities and historical markers and battlefields and whatnot.  I trace the highways and wonder about the cities, and plan how I would drive from, say, Sienna to Rome, and whether there would be time for a side trip to Naples.  (Italy is one of my favorite maps.)  I look at the railroad lines and markers and think about taking a journey by rail all the way across India (I think it’s still possible to do that; certainly, the map has the little cross-hatched lines that indicate railroads), and what that would be like.  I’ve read novels set in the Raj where the author describes rail cars in which the porter puts a huge block of ice into a pail in the middle of the car so that the passengers will not literally expire from the heat.  I don’t love heat, particularly humid heat, and I wonder whether that would be an adventure or merely an ordeal.

But then, while we can plan adventures by tracing the lines on a map, we can’t really know just from the map whether the journey will be a wonder or an ordeal. One of the nice things about looking at maps and dreaming our adventures is that we can take the journey in imagination and not actually have to get cholera shots or miss connections at the airport or find that the only bathroom is down the hall and always occupied or sit in a railroad car with a block of ice to provide the only air conditioning.  And while there is only so much time (and money) a person can spend traveling, whether in luxury or in intentional (or, as happens more often with travel than we like to think, unintentional) squalor, one can travel anywhere and everywhere in one’s mind.  As long as we have maps.

The ruins of an ancient Chinese watchtower fro...

The ruins of an ancient Chinese watchtower from the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), located along what was the old line of rammed-earth fortifications in Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, that once stretched from the Hexi Corridor (in Gansu) to the Tarim Basin (in modern Xinjiang). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Quite a while ago, while waiting for a travel agent to finish with the prior customer, I browsed through the brochures displayed.  One of them, an oversized booklet, was for a company (I’m sure long since defunct) that did ‘adventure’ travel.  Very expensive, as I recall, completely out of my reach.  But one trip I particularly remember was the Silk Road Adventure.  This was before travel was easy or comfortable in the People’s Republic of China and while (I think) the Russians were the current Afghani opponent of choice (not their choice).  So the trip in the brochure consisted of jets (to get to Peking as it was then called), then trains (to follow the China portion of the Silk Road), then a genuine camel caravan (still used then and undoubtedly now to transport goods over the roof of the world), then (I think I recall) hiking with sherpas, and finally a grand finish in Samarkand (still one of the most beautiful place names in the world), after which the traveler, a good deal lighter in the wallet and probably in weight, presumably rejoined the 20th Century.  The maps for the excursion were done in a 19th century style, on a sand-colored background, hand-drawn with tiny pictures of camels and horses and people in burnooses and I traced the route and imagined being part of a caravan on the Silk Road and felt an amazing sense of romance.

I asked for a copy of the brochure and kept it for years, long past its expiration date, and I wish I still had it.  I don’t know whether and how much I would have enjoyed (in the sense that one enjoys the beach at Lahaina, say) the trip, but I wanted to do something that adventurous, that crazy, that really dangerous, and in some part of me, I still do.  So the next place I looked in my atlas after the inspiration provided by Mr. Crowe’s Twitter comment was the Silk Road.  It fills me still with wonder.  People have been moving themselves and their goods back and forth on this trail from the middle East to China for now thousands of years.  It’s rather a boggle to the mind to think of, isn’t it?  Even the words evoke excitement:  camels and howdahs and caravanserai, silks and spices and gold, Persia and Arabia and China.  And it’s all there, right there, on the map as you trace the path.

Silk Road Original text from original uploader...

Silk Road Original text from original uploader: “Extent of Silk Route/Silk Road. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I was following the ageless track of the Silk road in the atlas and wondering a bit about which map Mr. Crowe was devouring, I found myself thinking about semantics.  A non sequitur and yet not really.  Semantics is the study of the intersection (or lack of same) between the real world and the words humans use to describe it.  One of the scientific giants in the field was Alfred Korzybski (not a name that one thinks of often, is it?)  He once said (probably more than once, knowing scientific giants):  “The map is not the territory.”  For somebody who loves maps, this is a good thing to remember.  But it’s also a good thing to remember about living life anyway.  You see, you can plan but then the real thing will happen and it usually doesn’t much resemble the plan.  We all make proposed maps of our lives.  And we all find out over and over again that the same thing happens:  we create our carefully planned map, take the first step according to the plan, and then all hell breaks loose.  The road is closed in the only direction we want to go.  Under construction. Isn’t it always?  So we take a detour, and remake the plan to get back to the main road as quickly as possible.  Sometimes the detour works out better for us than the main road.  But other times, not so much.  Because the only bridge on the detour is washed out.  And the towns the detour goes through are nothing like the Paris you just knew you would visit because it was on your map or the New York City you knew you would live in because that was in the plan.  And the people aren’t what you had in mind, either.  Better possibly, more helpful, sometimes not a whole lot of fun.  Probably a lot more interesting.  But not the ones marked on your map.

And all these metaphors for life (John Lennon:  Life is what

English: Alfred Korzybski, Polish philosopher ...

English: Alfred Korzybski, Polish philosopher and scientist. Polski: Alfred Korzybski, inżynier, filozof, matematyk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

happens while you were making other plans) reflect back to Korzybski’s great metaphor that the map is not the territory.  That the life you find yourself living is not the pretty map you laid out in your teen years or early twenties.  Happens to us all.  So when you’re planning your next trip and drooling over your internal maps showing the historical markers (graduation with the medical degree, say, or a June wedding to the investment banker or, for that matter, the blues musician), and the gorgeous views (that beach in Lahaina, the Eiffel Tower), and the lovely long easy journey over well-marked roads into a happy twilight filled with blissful memories, you might want to remember, just occasionally, that some of the historical markers will have been torn down or never erected, that some views (try the trip from JFK through Queens to Manhattan, sometime) are not gorgeous, and your trip might end abruptly (ouch) or even worse in a long unhappy slog through our medical system.  (Abruptly sounds better, doesn’t it?)  Your real adventure will be in some ways better than your plan because it will be real, but it may not be nearly as beautiful or even as adventurous.  All you can know for sure is that it will be different.  The map is not the territory.

But then again, if maps are not territories, sometimes that’s a really good thing.  Let’s ponder, for a moment, shall we, map edges.  What happens and what do you find between the edge of one map and the beginning of another?  That might be the best place, the biggest adventure, of them all.  In all the old maps, toward the edges where nobody knew what anybody would find because nobody (at least nobody who talked to the mapmakers) knew what was out there, you’ll find enchanting and scary drawings of monsters and the legend “beyond here be dragons.”   And you know what, even if all the places in the map have been filled up with ‘real’ information, there are still dragons out beyond the edge.  All who have ever gone adventuring have their own definitions of what a dragon is before the start of their journeys and a probably much different knowledge of those dragons when (or if) they return.

And if there weren’t dragons, what would be the point of looking at the map, planning or engaging in the adventure?  We look at a map, whether of Africa or Asia or, perhaps, our lives, and we want dragons, we want some enchantment.  (At least while we’re looking at the map.  When we make it real and we’re in New Mexico and tired out, and it’s getting dark and starting to snow, and the dragon turns out to be a luxury hotel that somehow has transmogrified itself into the local no-tell motel, it doesn’t seem quite so enchanting.)  Come to think of it, ‘enchantment is a strange word.  In our modern world it doesn’t mean much more than glitter and a fancy dinner and a long walk by the ocean, I suppose, but to be ‘enchanted’ throughout most of human history was to be under the spell of magic and out of one’s own control.  It usually ended all right in the stories, but it was a hard thing to go through.  Sometimes, maybe, just bad water and not enough food, but not all journeys are about getting from one place to another and you can find some major dragons out there, the kind with very bad breath and extremely sharp teeth.

Regarding old maps with dragons at the edges, it isn’t true that early shipfarers thought they’d fall off the edge of the world as if the world were merely a map, but there were points beyond which they couldn’t and wouldn’t go for many long centuries because of some real problems.  Maps are useless on the ocean.  They call it the trackless sea for a reason.  In order to get from one place to another in a ship when you can’t see any land, you can’t use maps, you have to use something called celestial navigation.  In the long, long ago, that was not easy.  It took a while for navigators to figure out the principle of the compass (at least a compass lets you know in what direction you’re lost) and even longer to find out ways to figure out how far north (or south) you are (I think that’s what an astrolabe is for, or maybe a sextant).  During the day, if there’s no cloud cover, or not too much, you can figure out if you’re going east or west by where the sun is, so long as you have some idea of what time it is.  And at night there are stars (again, cloud cover really messes this up) that from experience you know are in certain apparent directions.  But that doesn’t really help you figure out exactly where east or west (or north or south) is.  And those damned oceans are really damned big.  You can figure (and you’d be right) that if you keep going west, you’re bound to run into something, but look at what happened to Columbus.  And finding land of any kind can take longer than you have food or water.  Oooops.

Map of the Galapagos Archipelago (Best Viewed ...

Map of the Galapagos Archipelago (Best Viewed in “Original” Size) (Photo credit: A.Davey)

All of this circles back to Mr. Crowe because he portrayed (and quite well, too) a ship’s captain in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”  So he probably knows much more, still, about how those tiny ships navigated those huge oceans than I do or ever will (or want to, because that would mean having to deal with arithmetic).  He knows, I’m sure, that ship navigators did (and do) use maps of a sort, which they call charts, because on them they chart their current position from the last known place using the compass, sextant, astrolabe and other instruments of navigation.  Thus, they could chart (more or less, usually less, exactly) where they were at any given moment.  GPS is a lot easier, but where’s the adventure in that?  After all, while you may fall off the edge of the world or get eaten by dragons, at least insofar as the world you left behind would know, you also might find a magical new place that up to now only its inhabitants knew existed.  For a long time, Tahiti was just a myth and that’s how the sailors wanted to keep it.

Another thing about maps.  They provide not only a picture of a place, but a moment in time. There is a romance to old maps that GPS or any other kind of modern navigational aid simply does not have.  Among the fascinations of the early United States map I have (the picture is at the top of the essay and I apologize for the light bloom from the flash) is that its primary inset map is of the Gold Fields in California!  A statement about what was important when the map was published.  In 1853, people were still pouring into northern California by the thousands to look for riches, fighting all the dragons in their way.

Map of Middle-Earth (hi-res)

Map of Middle-Earth (hi-res) (Photo credit: NightRStar)

Finally, there are the imaginary maps created to help us trace the journeys of our heroes in their fantastic worlds:  Middle Earth, Fionavar, Erewhon, the map of London showing 221B Baker Street, the map of Odysseus’ travels, even the nine circles of hell mapped in the Divine Comedy (so-called because it had a happy ending).  Now there’s a map filled with dragons!  When I was little (or littler, at least), I used to make up maps, creating islands and seas and rivers, places to find my adventure and fight my dragons.  Now, of course, the map of the real world seems to have more than enough dragons, and charting a course through the mystical maps of my plans and dreams truly the adventure of a lifetime.

NSRW Map of Australia

NSRW Map of Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what maps am I looking at to plan adventures now?  Well, as I said, I’m a follower of Russell Crowe, so I am learning about Australia by, among other things, looking at maps and planning adventures.  Sydney is way more south than I thought it was.  That’s one thing I’ve learned about it.  And it’s bigger.  The harbour (that’s how it’s spelled) is beautiful.  Everybody has seen the pictures of the Sydney Opera House at the edge of the water there.  Gorgeous!  There are other big cities on the east coast, Brisbane and Melbourne being two of them.  Australia does have mountains, which I found surprising.  By the way, they call lakes lagoons.  And they call their back country  the bush. (For a long time, I visualized this as a kind of great plains as I would know them in Colorado, with bushes about six feet high dotted about, but that’s not what they mean when they say ‘the bush’.  They mean what Coloradans do when we talk about the woods or the high country or the boonies–it’s simply the Australian term for empty as opposed to developed land.) They’ve got a lot of bush:  the major portion of Australia still looks, according to the maps, like the Great American Desert in maps of the United States in the 19th Century.   They apparently call this GABA, which means “Great Australian Bugger All.”  Hmmmnh.  Adventure?  Or just a hot ordeal?  Well, I can plan all the adventures Australia can offer but still not know what it’s like to be there from a page in an atlas.  And after all, because Mr. Crowe is looking at his own maps and planning his own adventures, he might not be willing to be my tour guide on an adventure (or an ordeal) in Australia.  That could be scary, because he could help.  After all, there might be dragons.

Old map

Old map (Photo credit: Photoshop Roadmap)

Rainy Sunday

Rain and mist.  My little mountain town looks as if it should be situated on a loch in Scotland.  All we need is a castle and some heather.  Instead we have high mountains we can’t see today, lots of pines, budding aspen and the start of a summer of wildflowers, small darting creatures and lots of elk.  Here’s a picture of a sleek gentleman in velvet wading in one of Estes Park‘s rivers on a sunnier day.  The picture is courtesy of Roxy Whalley, and many more of her wonderful photographs can be found at Images By Roxy  and A Picture A Day 2012.  Right now, and of course I can’t remember what I did with my camera, there are a number of elk lying down in the wet grass across the street, only their ears and growing antlers visible to me.  Sometimes I  need to remember and express my gratitude for being able to live here, because it is a gift.

. 05-12-12 - Wapiti in the River

On such a rainy Sunday, while feeling grateful for my blessings and sending up (around? through? wherever!) my thanks to the Author, I’m reminded that among those blessings and thanks are the choices I am given to make and the results of the choices I have made.  Sometimes, I think we all–I know I do–can feel coerced into the lives we’re living, caught somehow by circumstance or fate or some kind of determinism.  Why am I here?  We ask this, and we’re not (as the joke would have it) trying to figure out why we’re standing in the laundry room (in this joke, we’re looking for our glasses).  But of course, what we’re really looking for is either purpose or at least an explanation.

There are many sources from religions to philosophies to governments to mothers to science to (probably the wisest) comedians to tell us what our purpose is, explaining why we’re here.  We all know what they are and each of us has already or needs soon to come to terms with how much those explanations personally resonate.  But in a (very) superficial survey, I would state that reasons given for the existence and ultimate purpose of human beings, of life on this planet, of this planet’s own existence, of the existence of the universe, range from (a) utter determinism and predestination to (z) (or maybe zzzzzzz) mere chance.  Somewhere in the middle of that vast spectrum you will find my own microscopic dot, I’m sure.

choose determinism

choose determinism (Photo credit: alyceobvious)

But today, I keep thinking that for every situation, place, mess, glory or whatnot in which I’ve been plopped down, there is a spectrum ranging between a deterministic explanation and a free will expanation.  For example, why did I move back to Estes Park after a life in Los Angeles and New York City?  Why Estes Park?  Well, my mother and I moved here after my father died because they had stored their furniture in Colorado, Daddy had loved it here, and Mama found a house for cheaper rent in Estes Park than she could in all the front range towns (then, they’re small cities now).  How to parse that decision in terms of Choice, of Chance, of Determinism?  The Universe or God providing a path?  There is no real way to know.  Mama was too much under the survival and grief gun to ponder any of that.  She just wanted a roof, a job and a safe place for herself and her (sullen and hopefully temporarily unhappy) daughter.  So by default Estes Park became home, the place I knew, the refuge when things went bad, the place to escape from when the rest of the world (any part of it) looked better than a mountain valley with few jobs and no prospects.  No matter how beautiful it was.

But it isn’t just that Estes was and is home and I’ve always been homesick for the mountains.   True, when things went bad in my life (which happened a lot, but then that happens a lot to everybody), I’d think about Estes Park as home and want to go there to lick my wounds.  When things got better (which doesn’t inevitably happen for anybody, but which does take place more often than we notice, I think), Estes Park would once again become a nice place to visit.  Then, due to a weird confluence of strange events, I got older.  And due to an even weirder confluence of even stranger events, while I didn’t get rich, or even “comfortable”, as they say, I did manage to inherit, work for and save (saving being, alas, the least of it) enough not to fret over job prospects in a small mountain town.  Because while Estes Park is a hard place to live when you have to earn a living, if you can retire there on even a semi-pittance, Estes Park is a lovely place to live, filled with beauty, friends and important things to do.  So it became a choice once more open to me both in practical and in emotional terms.

But there were other forces.  Chance?  Determinism?  I don’t know.  When I moved to New York City, that choice was mine, but it was influenced by events in my life in Los Angeles that could very well be the universe nudging me toward a specific outcome, or which could have been pure chance onto which I imposed some kind of meaning.  This, by the way is a very old human sport, engaged in because our brains are hard-wired to form patterns.  Scientists believe that this wiring came about to allow us to pick out the pretty fruit against the background of green leaves.  But now, the pattern-formation wiring in our heads also will form patterns of behavior, of activities in the world, in an attempt to find the fruit of meaning against the background of noise.  In any event, the patterns I saw I interpreted in terms of the choice I wanted to make and I moved to New York City.

New York City

New York City (Photo credit: kaysha)

And loved it.  And would be there still were it not for some new patterns forming against the noise.  Patterns of economic disaster for all, physical problems for me, and the combination of isolation and loneliness these patterns (and some iffy choices on my part) created.  (Friends in Manhattan moved to Jersey, I stopped working because of my health, my health kept me at home in my Bronx coop which was very far from anywhere I wanted to be, etc., etc., etc.)  And I gradually came to the realization that I could no longer be there in my coop in the Bronx.  Since Manhattan was financially out of the question, where was I to be?  And was it simply my choice to stick a pin in a map?  Or was there a pattern?

Chance?  Determinism?  Choice?

Looking back makes it a lot easier to see the combinations.  While we’re in a situation, it is very hard to distinguish what parts of the decisions we make are free choice, reaction to random chance, or possibly the influence and caring of a superior entity.  Do I see the pretty fruit because it just happens to be there?  Or do the patterns in the foliage lead me to it?  Or whether it is all noise and background and I’m making up the pretty fruit I was trying to find.

But I came home, using as much single-minded effort to do so that I had used to move to New York.  And while I still miss Manhattan, I am glad I did.  Here is a very good place.  Whether I’m supposed to be here because some Force in the universe wills it and I am merely a pawn being moved, or whether I’m here because I am as much a maker of my life patterns as I am the one who discerns them, or whether I’m here purely out of rational choice and completely by chance, I don’t yet know.   Perhaps it is some unique combination of them all.

Estes Park in Rocky Mountains, Colorado.

Estes Park in Rocky Mountains, Colorado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right now, I’m not on the downward spiral of a bad decision or a bad place where I’m hunting desperately for someone, something, more wise and powerful than I am, to tell me what to do and assure me that it will all come out all right.  On the other hand, I kind of miss those times in my life when my desire for an outcome, my determination to make something happen, would overcome all chance, all determinism in the world. All gates were open, all systems were go, all circumstances in the world seemed to coalesce, serendipitously, into a green light which would sustain me until the project was complete, or close enough to complete so that clenching my teeth and soldiering on would make it so.

Today, I’m pondering my choices and my chances.  Oddly, like the elk in the stream in Roxy’s picture.  That elk is there because the original species indigenous to Estes Park was wiped out in hunting and another species was brought down from Wyoming to repopulate the National Park.  So, to what extent can we look at this particular elk and see the determinism of the universe and of human beings to place his kind in Estes Park? To what extent does that particular elk’s individual health and luck (the chance of his life) play a part in our seeing him in that river at that time and place and date?  And to what extent is he in that river because he just thought, what the hell, it’s easier to drink the water if I’m already in it?  Determinism.  Chance.  Choice.

What brand-new combination will come to me next, as it does to that elk?  What will move me on, whether metaphorically or (less likely at this point) actually to another place, another goal, another purpose.  While I came back to this beautiful place, this genuine home, to retire, to be still, to do small things and perhaps finally do them a bit better, and I hope that continues, it seems I’m not done with dreaming or hoping, either.  Or wondering if the Author, as I mentioned above, just might have something more for me to do and in just what way that will manifest to me.  As a choice?  As a chance?  As a destiny?

Meanwhile, on this rainy Sunday, I plan to make a small destiny of looking outside at the lovely misty mountains, feel the stroke of the rain on my skin, see if the elk have (entirely their choice, I hope) left the meadow below the road to find some other place to bed down this night, and open myself to patterns, to the fruit against the leaves, the intricate winding dance of chance and choice and determinism, and see what that dance creates for me next.

Taste, Trends and Cowboy Boots

Painting "Herd Quitters"

Have you ever pondered the difference between what you are supposed to like and what you actually do like?  I’m not thinking, here, about the truly important stuff, such as sexual preference (which is almost certainly not a choice), or with whom you fall in love anyway (which is more like compulsion or madness).  This is the more surface stuff, more about still not liking tangerine even when it’s the “in” color (I say it’s orange and I say the hell with it) or (like Ed Wood of long-ago B-movie days) loving Angora shruggies whether they are fashionable or not (something I can’t wear whether I like them or not or whether I think I should like them or not, because Angora itches).

Or, even more simply, what we are taught by our mothers (usually), local style mavens (often), and the media (all too often) to think of as stylish, trendy, fashionable, cool or just in good taste may not be what we, in our heart of hearts, really find pretty, attractive and delightful.  I remember in high school thinking that the pep club uniforms we had (slightly above the knee purple box pleated skirts with German lederhosen-style straps worn over white button-down Oxford shirts and with white tennis shoes) were really good-looking.  I liked the quality of the wool flannel in the skirt, I liked the hidden stitching on the stitched-down portion of the box pleats, I liked the simplicity of the purple and white, the shirts and tennis shoes complementing the skirt.  I thought the tout ensemble of the whole (as a friend’s mother would put it) looked good on me.  And I did not dare say so.  All the comments I ever heard about this uniform were, ahem, uniformly negative.  It was considered clunky, even then (and, yes, this was a long time ago), it was considered dowdy and totally uncool.  Nobody liked it.  So I, in my 16-year-old wisdom, didn’t like it either.  But I really did.

This led to confusion over time, because I learned probably the opposite of what I should have learned.  I learned that I’d better trust other’s taste in preference to my own.  I learned that what I liked was kitschy, ordinary, dowdy (that word again) and that what I was supposed to like was all that was cool, trendy, attractive.  And so I tried to like it.

Black Western cowboy boots on a white background

Black Western cowboy boots on a white background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For example.  I’ve lived either in the West in small towns or medium cities, Los Angeles or New York City virtually my whole life.  And somewhere along the way, I fell in love with Western-style clothes.  Specifically, such items as cowboy boots, snap-buttoned shirts, and fringed leather jackets.  But for a long, long time I didn’t tell anybody that, because when I was growing up, to be a cowboy or to like such western styles and ways of living was the most totally uncool thing you could do.  As I recall, the cool kids had truly unpleasant appellations for the cowboy kids, to which I will not give any credence by repeating them here.  And oh how I wanted to be a cool kid.  (I wasn’t, because I was an academic nerd, a term that had not been invented yet.  I liked most of my teachers and the challenge of learning stuff.  This is ALWAYS uncool in high school, at least in public high school.)  So I pretended to go along with the contempt (and it was true contempt, growing out of the bottomless pit of insecurity that a teenager lives with every day) for cowboys.

But way inside where I didn’t even look I really liked how they dressed.  And I couldn’t admit it.  Not even to myself.

A few years later, when I lived in Wyoming, where everybody was a cowboy (except for the cowgirls) and that was just background, not even a lifestyle choice (which is a term I don’t think anybody who lives in Wyoming understands or wants to), I went with a girlfriend to Cheyenne Frontier Days, one of the best rodeos going.  And that’s when I first really met up with, watched, and started to understand real working cowboys.  Rodeo cowboys, at least.  For them, wearing jeans bleached practically white with a round white patch in the back pocket where the chewing tobacco rubbed against the material, wearing tight shirts with snaps instead of buttons, and wearing, of course, and most iconically, the hat and the boots, didn’t have anything to do with style, with cool, with any sort of John Travolta post-modern irony.  It was simply the clothes you wore that were most practical for a physical, demanding way of life filled with hard work and not a lot of money.  You wore cowboy boots because if you rode, the pointed toes got your feet in the stirrups quickly without you having to look down and the high heels kept your feet from slipping through the stirrups, so that you wouldn’t be caught and dragged if your horse threw you.  The hat?  Wide brim to keep off the brutal western sun, deep crown to use to water yourself or your horse.  Jeans because they don’t wear out and you don’t have enough money to buy lots of pants.  The tight shirt with snaps?  The tight part is to protect against brush and thorns that would catch on looser material.  I don’t actually have any guesses about the snaps.

But Western wear has always been stylin’, whether it was “in style” or not.  Snaps and complexly designed yokes and fringe and embroidery were a major part of the look of a Western shirt.  And, let’s face it, during the mid-years of last century, Western wear was one of the few ways a man was allowed to express his own taste for color, style, for actual pretty, in what he wore.  And still be the most macho dude around.

So, here were Pat (my friend) and I, wandering around “backstage” at Cheyenne Frontier Days.  And I mostly noticed that people who are very comfortable in their skins, in their choices, look like they belong in their cowboy clothes.  This is something that can be extended, of course, to any style of clothing.  Queen Elizabeth II looks quite comfortable in satin encrusted with embroidery and jewels, wearing her orders and sashes and necklaces and tiaras and crowns.  For her, it’s not a costume, it’s not “cool”.  It’s just her uniform for a certain part of her working life.  I also noticed that the real working cowboys, whether their work is ranching or rodeo, look so utterly, droolingly delicious in their jeans and boots and snap-buttoned shirts and hats that a mere female has a real hard time remembering that these men are not icons, they’re human beings, with undoubtedly human problems.  I’m not suggesting that a girl shouldn’t get interested in a cowboy (or vice versa), but somewhere between “they never say a word and they’re always hurt” and “my heroes have always been cowboys”, it’s probably best to find the cowboy who interests you more for his thoughts, his humor and his liking of you than because he can wear the hell out of a pair of tight jeans.  Just sayin’.

But they sure are fun to look at.

However, that congruence between what I really liked, what my taste genuinely was, and what was out there to like, what was okay to like, didn’t survive the end of the rodeo season.  For one thing, I moved away from Wyoming.  For another, it still wasn’t cool in Colorado to like cowboys.  Oh well.  Life went on.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Photo taken at 61st...

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Photo taken at 61st Academy Awards 3/29/89 - Governor's Permission granted to copy, publish or post but please credit "photo by Alan Light" if you can (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And eventually I moved to Los Angeles.  LA is not part of the West, just so you know.  It may have been once, when Roy Rogers lived in the San Fernando Valley, but in the eighties and nineties when I lived there, LA was just too cool and trendy, too center-of-the-world, to give house room to the real life of the West.  But even there, there came around, as it does every few years in LA and New York City (but apparently nowhere else except every place in Texas), a fad for the cowboy look.  Oh, not for being a cowboy, just for looking like one, in a sort of deconstructed way.  And people who always seem to know what the next big thing is would rent a vacant lot or a parking lot and put thousands of pairs of used cowboy jeans or Western shirts and/or thousands of pairs of used cowboy boots out and people would buy them and buy them and buy them.  I did too.  I got a pair of black lizard Frye boots with really high heels and really pointed toes for some impossibly small amount of money and loved them to pieces, even if they were a bit narrow for my fat little baby feet.  I’m still mad at myself for getting rid of them.  One of the reasons those vacant lots filled with used boots was even possible is that you can’t kill a good pair of Frye boots no matter what you do to them, they’ll outlast you (or at least your ability to walk in boots with really pointy toes and really high heels).

Of course, I wore them the trendy, LA way, NOT with jeans, snap-buttoned shirts and fringe, but with long swirly skirts that were in style and so, of course, not Western.  And, heavens above, not with a cowboy hat.  After all, you had to have some standards.  And the cognitive dissonance went on.  Because I really liked those cowboy boots and what I wanted in my hidden self was to wear them right, with a fringed leather skirt or with chaps and jeans, and (even though I get the worst hat head you ever saw) with a cowboy hat.  And no matter how completely un-trendy it was (and it was), I wanted a fringed leather jacket and turquoise jewelry (none of which I could afford).  I really wanted them.  And I kept quiet about it, because just saying it out loud would brand me as some kind of nerd, geek or whatnot, with no style at all.

Finally I moved back here to the West.  Oh, not for that reason.  And not without a very large detour to New York City where I discovered that while what’s in style rules on 5th Avenue, you can wear what you want and like what you want in the Village (at least, you can so long as it’s black).  Which helped me, finally, realize that it was okay, it really was, for me to like things (cats, Georgette Heyer novels, Sherlock Holmes, Frye boots, fringed leather jackets, Tex-Mex food, Arts and Crafts furniture, Victoriana, Fiestaware, and the American West) because I liked them.  Whether somebody else did, whether it was cool or trendy, mattered not in the slightest.

I started buying turquoise jewelry.  Not the really good stuff, I still can’t afford it, but I have a couple of pieces I wear almost all the time.  I have a fringed, embroidered, suede Western jacket.  I just bought a pair of cowboy style ankle boots with conchos on them (I can hardly wait to wear them with the new jeans four sizes smaller than I’ve worn for years).  I go to the Rooftop Rodeo here in town.  And I’m starting to not care whether or not the Western-style pieces I’m looking at (rugs, cushions, even furniture) are cool or trendy anywhere but in my mind and heart.

Even more, I’m realizing that it’s okay for me not to like stuff that iscool or trendy.  No more apologies that I’m just not a minimalist when somebody tells me that the best furniture is Mies van der Rohe.  I know who he is, his stuff is lean and gorgeous and simple, and I couldn’t live with it for a minute.  I’m finally learning that stating for the record that I don’t like modern furniture is not going to get me drummed out of the human race, it’ll just keep me from being invited to a house where there wouldn’t be a comfortable place to sit anyway.  So now I can admit out loud, darn it, that I really liked those high school pep club uniforms and that I don’t care if tangerine is this year’s best color, because it’s orange and I hate orange and always did.

"The Cow Boy"

Snow Day

Snuggle time, making soup time, looking out at the world and being glad you’re inside time.  Obviously, I’m an indoor girl.  Didn’t used to be — of course, once dressed in snowpants, boots, mittens, sweaters, parka, hood, about the only thing I could do outside during or after a snow was to make snow angels, and then I could hardly get back up.  But I loved to look up and try to catch snowflakes in my mouth, let them melt on my tongue.  Such a clear, cold taste.

Snow crystals 2b

Image via Wikipedia

And after the snow, when it would get cold and crisp, walking on the snow made a scrunching sound unlike any other sound I’ve ever heard.  I was a child in Greeley, Colorado, and often after a snow would come a hard freeze which would leave a crust on the snow that, at the time, I was small enough to walk on if I was careful.  I would try for the longest series of steps possible before breaking through the snow crust.  Of course, I eventually would, and that usually would mean I would fall down, but falling down on a foot of snow when you’re eight years old and washing your face with snow is fun, not any kind of problem.

But as I grew up, snow got to be a problem at times.  Sometimes more than a problem.  How was it that it always snowed on Sunday night, thus making sleep impossible because I would worry so over the commute to work?  Especially the first snow.  It is a tradition in Denver, it seems, to have a first snow in October.  Coloradans and Denverites are never ready for it and seem to have forgotten how to drive in the stuff over the summer.  The first commute during the first snow was an adventure in terror, pretty much every year.  Sliding sideways down a hill toward a red traffic light on the bottom, realizing dully that the light would still be red when your car slide not to it but through it, now that’s an experience I wish I had missed.

I lived in Wyoming once and tried to transport props for a play I was directing from Rock Springs to Green River on the interstate on a late fall Sunday.  A truly Wyoming blizzard blew up and suddenly my car was spinning just like a top in the middle of the road.  The car behind me could not avoid my inadvertent ballerina move and both cars embraced with a clang.  A couple more joined our intricate (and frightening) dance before all of us fetched up against the rocks to the side of the road, where we stayed for over three hours before the Highway Patrol could sort us out.  Freezing, terrifying, snow.  Driving in the stuff has, since then, been an issue.  It is always a problem when your mortality rises up and slaps you.  When I moved back to Estes Park, I deliberately chose to buy an AWD vehicle, a  Nissan Murano (wonderful car), that ameliorates the problem and my concern at least a little.  But there are times even Tina (originally named “Tiny” ironically for her rather substantial size, but she didn’t seem to like it, so “Tina” it is) can’t get her tires under her and slips rather than glides through the white stuff.

When I lived in New York, I was rather surprised at the relative paucity of snow, at least while I lived there (they seem to have made up for it by now).  The difference seemed to be that any snow they got just stuck around until spring.  In the West, the wind whips the snow around so much that locals say that snow doesn’t melt, it just gets wore out.  So it was always fun to try to get from (plowed) sidewalk to (plowed) roadway with the piled up snow having turned to ice in between.  Twisted ankle heaven.  I didn’t have a car then, but I did have to get into the city to work, so while the subway didn’t slip and slide (at least not for that reason), the bus I used to get to the subway certainly did.

So, when I moved back to Estes, it was with the implicit realization and blessing that now if the snow was just too slippery out there, I could stay in here, free from the necessity to brave the elements, twist my ankles, fall down or slide through traffic lights.   Instead, now I could smugly look out at the beauty of the snow with an unambiguous heart.   (Sort of.  Today is also chore day, trash must be put out to be picked up tomorrow, and my driveway is so steep it often feels, especially when it is wet or icy, as if it had been constructed at a 45 degree angle.  Sigh.)

But that’s done now, and the soup is on, making the house fragrant.  Here’s hoping that your next snow day, if such you have, allows you to stay inside and make soup and enjoy the warmth and contrast with the out-of-doors or, if you’d rather, go out and make snow angels and taste snowflakes.  Just stay off the highways.  Those red traffic lights are traps on a snow day.

Hello world!

Estes Park Colorado

Image by siliconchaos via Flickr

Welcome to my blog.  Here I am, assimilated at last. is now my journal and my online communication with anyone who cares to read it, and I hope you will.  My focus, while mostly on my life here in Estes Park, will also include my work as a writer and my interests as they wax and wane.  I hope to add pictures as they are appropriate, and here’s the first two, one a rather nice shot of the high country in Rocky Mountain National Park I took last summer and the other one I found in the media gallery attached to my blog.  I think even some of the folks I knew in New York City would understand why I’m here.  I’m still learning how to operate this site, which has a great many options to add text, images, links and whatnot.  So expect changes.  Again, welcome.  I look forward to blogging and to your reactions.A picture of the high country from Moraine Avenue, Estes Park