On an impulse and understanding that the odds were slim, Karen called the Pine Inn to ask if the Ocean View King, Room 12, was available. It was the room we wanted fifty years ago, but couldn’t afford. Fortunately, under very unfortunate circumstances, it was.
With all its charm and natural beauty, Carmel, CA can be an eery place, especially during the summer months as the baked Central Valley air mixes with the cool ocean breezes to cast a seductive mist over the shops and cottages. During the intervening years since our honeymoon in August 1970, Karen and I have slept in the village to commemorate dates such as our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary or my sixty-fifth birthday. The latter was less about romance and more about the noon tee time at the Pebble Beach Golf Links that she gifted me.
Today, as we celebrate a half century together, Carmel is eery in a difference way. First of all, it was seventy degrees and sunny outside, resulting in a 20,000 step day. Actually, my iWatch defined it more accurately as a 21,204 step day. By good fortune, it was warm enough for outdoor dining because that’s all that was permitted.
Traffic was light, crowds were exceptionally thin for this or any time of the year and everyone’s faces were covered by N-95 masks or an array of designer fabrics befitting the elegant surroundings. The dream of an sunny Carmel, bereft of tourists was fulfilled only because of the Covid-19
pandemic that has kept the world’s population under house arrest for months. I felt a degree of guilt in enjoying this unprecedented peacefulness, but fifty years is a long commitment and we’ve earned it, 18,250 days, one at a time. I reflect on a lyric from singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. “We’ve proven ourselves so many times, the magnetic strip is wearing thin.” Circumstances dictated that we celebrate this milestone alone together, exactly the way it should be.
We looked in the window of the exclusive European men’s clothing boutique that has always existed somewhere on Ocean Avenue and Karen made the same observation she made fifty years earlier.
“That tweed sports coat would look great on you,” she said, “it’s that new European cut.”
At my age, a little ego stroking is always welcomed, but I am no longer a “39-long” and the permanent bump on my left side, the result of two kidney surgeries, makes me skeptical that it will look as good as it does on the faceless mannequin.
“I don’t need anymore clothes,” I said.
“It doesn’t cost you anything to try it on.”
She has lived with me long enough to realize the danger in that statement.
Entering the doorway, we are greeted by the stereotypical Carmel European shop owner, tan, nice build, impeccably dressed, shaved head, face covered by a designer mask.
Karen greets him from a distance. “I like your mask.”
“Thank you,” he said, “we sell all kinds.”
“How much are they?”
“They are forty dollars, but each one is hand made and reversible.”
Sales are down and even designer clothing shops are adapting to new customer needs. We have received many masks from friends who sew, but, quickly realized that, like pairs of underwear, you can’t have too many.
Unable to touch or try on the masks, Karen shakes the basket like a gold prospector, looking for the nugget that conveys fashionable responsibility.
Still pretending that this is my idea, she says, “My husband would like to look at that tweed sport coat in the window.”
The shop owner takes the same coat off the rack and begins to tie it into as many knots as he can. Then, he immediately unties it.
“See, no wrinkles,” he said, “this fabric is ideal for traveling.”
Karen inserts optimism. “It will be perfect when we travel again.”
I add a hint of pessimism. “If we travel again.”
Without asking, the owner retreats to the back of the shop to find my perfect size. While he is away and Karen is exploring the masks, I lift the left sleeve of the coat and see the price of “$1,975.00” on the tag. He returns and I try it on. It looks good, but not great.
Still seeing my twenty-two year-old body, Karen says, “Well, what do you think?”
“I think you can buy me a forty dollar hand-made, reversible mask.”
Ironically, the 1970 version of the coat sold for the outrageous price of $125.00, the same rent we were paying for a furnished, one-bedroom apartment near campus.
On our honeymoon fifty years ago, during meals or on walks, I mostly just stared at Karen, sometimes making her uncomfortable.
“What?” she would ask.
“Nothing,” I said, wearing the grin of a Cheshire cat.
Today, I look across the outdoor table at La Bicyclette and see the same faceunder a shield attached to new costume designer glasses that she found in the next shop. She catches me starring, doesn’t ask why, just speaks.
“This was a waste of money.” she said, “I Googled it and it can’t substitute for a mask.”
I tried to put her frugal mind at ease. “It cost less than twenty bucks and it looks cute. Wait until after the vaccine and you can set a new trend.”
“When would I wear it?”
“I think it could be a post pandemic fashion statement.”
“Nothing says NO like a face shield.”
“You’re a little nuts,” she said, “but I do like the new hair.”
The masked server interrupts our conversation with the moules frites and glass of riesling I ordered for lunch. Day 18,251 was beginning on a good note.
What could go wrong? Six people, all Medicare eligible, with absolutely no nautical experience, rent a forty-seven foot, three-berth, three-bath boat named “Vision 3” and serve as its only crew and galley staff during a six-day, eighty-seven-kilometer journey through a canal in south France,
maneuvering through forty-two locks along the way. The ad assured us that “boating is the best way to slow down,” and bolstered our confidence, declaring, “No experience required-instruction is provided, all boats are fully equipped and easy to drive, you are the captain of your own boat with a huge choice of itineraries.”
Months before, David, reservation frontman and ex-officio Captain, began to express reservations.
“I’m worried about us being able to do this?” he said, “Have you all read the forty page Captain’s Manual?”
Looking up, I smiled and said, “David, it will be fine, people do this trip all the time. It can’t be that hard.”
Not persuaded, he continued to press the issue. “On what facts are you basing this.”
“The fact that we are all intelligent, capable people following thousands of who have done it.”
Beginning to laugh, David said, “Do you think any of us will be speaking to each other by the end of the week?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I said, trying to set back any notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, “Lets take it day by day.”
“Or minute by minute,” he uttered, reading my thoughts.
Anxiety aside, we were all committed to meet up in the village of Castelnaudary on the second Sunday in September 2016 to come face to face with “Vision 3” and her mysterious ways before embarking on a trek down the Canal du Midi, docking in small villages, medieval towns or anywhere along the banks, slowly moving toward our final destination of Homps. The reward for remaining civilized throughout this week would be another one together at a villa in Provence, rumored to be large enough to hide from each other if necessary.
We assembled in the late afternoon at the dock along the Grand Basin in Castelnaudary to complete some paperwork with “Le Boat”, our rental company, and finally boarded “Vision 3.” In addition to her three en-suite berths, she had a compact but complete indoor kitchen with window
seating, an upstairs sun deck with more seating and dining tables with covered shade screens, when needed. The ignition and electrical systems were in the galley, but the boat was driven from the controls on the upper sun deck where we were all seated for our one and only practice run.
The experience of guiding the boat around the Grand Basin was like learning to drive in a large, empty parking lot . Sooner or later, one must maneuver in a small lane in heavy traffic, where learning on the run can lead to consequences. Today, it seemed easy and fluid and confidence in our capabilities was high. Although not leaving the basin until morning, we were now living aboard “Vision 3” and, in fact, truly captains of our own boat.
Food was always a priority of this crew and it was decided to celebrate our last night in Castelnaudary, or maybe to the known civilized world, by eating the best cassoulet in the village. Along with nearby Toulouse and
Carcassonne, Castelnaudary boasts of being the birthplace of cassoulet and Captain David discovered that chef David Campigotto of Chez David, a small bistro in an alley off the stone street, was famous and cooks it around the world. This local dish is a rich, slow-cooked casserole that contains pork sausage, duck and sometimes goose confit, pork skin and haricot blancs (white beans). Today’s simmered a minimum of six hours and, paired with a cheap bottle of wine from the local Corbieres appellation, created an indelible meal, invoking memories of when I could eat like this regularly.
The next morning, after a breakfast that lasted longer than planned, we launched into the basin and our sojourn on the water began.
Leaving Castelnaudary was not easy. Beginning with the Excluse Saint-Roch, the gateway lock that exits the Grand Basin downstream, we encountered a three multi-lock sequence, totaling nine separate locks during the initial
sixteen kilometers of our journey. It was like being thrown out of an airplane on your first day of sky diving school as your instructor yells, “Just pull the cord when it’s time.” It seems simple enough, but a difficult situation in which to discover if you’ve got what it takes.
A lock is a simple device, used for centuries, to move boats between different levels of water. Once the boats are safely in the small tub-like basin and they have been thrust to the side and secured by a rope, loosely
wrapped around a concrete bollard, the rear gate closes and the front one opens, creating the same effect of pulling the plug in a bathtub full of water. The ropes secure the boat close to the side wall of the lock, but must be slowly released as the boat sinks. Maneuvering through each lock required finesse and focus, something initially lacking from this group.
Now is as good a time as any to introduce the crew.
Captain David, a former non-profit grants officer and current rock/blues drummer by trade, worries about big stuff, little stuff and everything in between. He worried about the crew’s capabilities which led to his pro-active approach in becoming proficient at the controls. He was our best option to drive the craft and was unanimously awarded the symbolic sea captains hat.
Monkey Girl is tall, lean and loves the physical work. She secured her spot as front ropes person from the beginning and was the most active crew member in the locks, jumping on and off the boat. She also cooks a mean, moist vegetable frittata and it is widely known that she is sleeping with Captain David. This has been going on for over thirty-five years.
Knotman, the oldest crew member, was on his last excursion before
undergoing full knee replacement surgery days after our return. The crew knew of his physical limitations, but we were not aware that, as a former Boy Scout, he had a merit badge in nautical knot tying, an essential skill in securing the boat when we stopped. This was not covered in our orientation, but, we were in good hands.
“In the forty years that we have known each other, I had no idea that you were a Boy Scout who could tie nautical knots,” I said.
“Would it had made a difference if you had known?”
“Yes. Until now, I never knew who to call when I needed a decent knot, I answered, “I’m surprised that this is one of the few things that you still remember.”
“It’s something you don’t forget, like tying a shoe” he mumbled, giving verbal instructions from his deck chair to those of us who washed out after Cub Scouts.
Ginny, the retired professor, after assuming various roles, settled in as chief navigator and keeper of the map, informing us when more locks were on the horizon. We met Ginny and Knotman on the same night that the original Godfather film premiered and spent much of the seventies riding around in a VW bus named “Bertha,” who was sweet but had no guts. I noticed that every evening at five o’clock, Ginny prepared a cocktail for Knotman. It always magically appeared.
One day I asked, “What is that?”
“Gin and tonic,” she responded. “Do you want one?” From that point on, Knotman and I had a gin and tonic at five o’clock each evening.
Karen and I have shared a berth for decades and one of our most difficult days had been on water, in a canoe on the Russian River forty years ago. This new experience would be different because we are now mature and wise enough to add a motor and recruit additional crew members. However, she hyperextended her knee during the first day, jumping off the boat in a lock while handling the rear ropes. For the next few days , soreness and stiffness restricted her to duties like meal prep, photography, navigation and keeping Knotman company on our walks.
I was nicknamed “Ropes Pierre” by Captain David, partly for my funny hat and partly for my adopted role as the rear boat ropes person. I was also the designated understudy to the captain, but, after several near crashes into the bank of the canal, it was mutually decided that I would drive during emergency situations only.
Captain David, clearly, had the most difficult task, made easier by his quick mastery of thrusting, using a video game-type controller that moves the boat sideways, left to right or right to left. He quickly mastered movement of the boat in tight quarters, through each lock.
His nervous voice escalating, Captain David declared, “Talk to me, people.” Five crew members began to speak at once.
A more emphatic, “I can see that!” prompted the crew to silence.
This is the way the first day went. The learning curve and the stress level was high. The lock attendants were accustomed to novice boaters and efficiently guided us through these difficult first locks. Moving down the canal, we watched the attendants hop on small motorbikes and take off along the adjacent trail. As we approached the next lock, there they were, waiting for us, looking comfortably familiar. Each lock became a bit easier than the last.
The difficulty in becoming proficient on steering these boats down the canal is that we are programmed for immediate response. Our cars, smartphones
, and even various remotes lead us to expect swift and precise feedback from our commands.
As the vessel veers slightly to the right, we turn the wheel to the left. Nothing happens, so we turn more left as it begins to respond to the first command.
“Oh shit,” says Captain David as he turns the wheel sharply to the right. The boat continues to turn left, so he turns the wheel more to the right. We are no longer veering to the left, now headed directly toward the right bank. The boat recovers, creating a herringbone pattern as we weaved through the water.
“Passing boat ahead,” Monkey Girl declared from her perch on the bow of the boat. The canal is narrow enough to require some concentration when other boats pass from the opposite direction. Panic ensued. We avoided the passing boat by overcompensating to the right, but now desperately needed to swerve to the left.
Seconds before impact, Captain David, his voice cracking, yelled, “We’re going to hit.”
Bam! There was a hollow sound as the hull collided with the right bank of the canal and a small tree branch swept across the deck. Traveling at a slow speed, the impact knocked over a few water bottles, but the crew suffered no more than an escalated heart rate. A short break was in order and Captain David thrusted us to a safe place along the bank, where we secured the boat.
Inspecting the hull for damage, he remarked, “There is a reason they install rubber bumpers on these boats.”
“Yeah,” I said, “for people like us.”
Our confidence was shaken, but reminding ourselves that we purchased the full insurance package reduced the stress. What else could we do? We were surely not the first nor the last rookies to make this mistake. Besides, we could only get better. The crew needed to jump back on the horse.
Realizing the need to reach our first destination by nightfall, we began again and by late afternoon we came upon a popular place to tie up along the bank, about a mile outside of the village of Bram. The first day on the canal was a roller coaster ride, but we survived it.
“Still think this is easy and anyone can do it?” Captain David asked, smiling over a glass of wine.
“Ok, maybe you were right.” I swallowed a taste of my wine and a bit of my pride.
The plan was to walk the mile and a half into the village of Bram, find a
restaurant and enjoy a relaxing meal off the boat on our first night. Along the trek, we quickly divided into three groups. Monkey Girl and Captain David were out front because they walk fast and Karen and Knotman, one requiring a walking stick and the other needing one, tailed behind. Ginny and I remained in the middle and caught up on politics and stories of old mutual friends.
Ginny grew up on a cattle ranch, now prime real estate in the heart of Silicon Valley, now harvesting Apples. Oracles and Googles. Her diverse career as a public administrator, consultant, Mayor, executive headhunter, college professor and department chair doesn’t overshadow her decades of successful civic activism in the small coastal town where she has resided for nearly fifty years. Today, we talked about our golf games, or lack thereof.
Soon some Aussies passed us on bikes, vowing to scout the Sunday night restaurant scene in the village. Australians are great people to encounter in foreign countries. They are experienced travelers and have pure enjoyment in meeting new people.
Outside of the village, we passed an old, decaying stone wall, with vines
draped from the top like dreadlocks. At eye level, someone, somehow had successfully grown moss that perfectly formed the word, “Imagine,” in script. Was it a mystical message from the canal gods, sage advice for the week ahead or just a great visual image. For me, maybe it was all of the above. Today, it is the cover photo on my Facebook page, my tattoo of social media.
As promised, The Aussies returned with an update. Apparently, Sunday nightlife in Bram is a oxymoron. We arrived to a village that was closed up for the evening, except for one small marche. A relaxing meal in town became an evening of shopping, hauling bags of groceries back to the boat, cooking and cleaning up before a well-earned rest. If you are thinking about a glass half empty, think again. The fresh produce was, in fact, amazing, we bought breakfast items for the next two days, made it to ten thousand steps, prepared a group dinner (something we’re good at) and laughed until our heads hit the pillow.
“Goodnight, John Boy.” A sound from Knotman’s berth was the last I heard. Our first day was complete, but the quest was just beginning.
We awoke Monday morning without power. Being stranded was annoying, but the inability to make coffee was nearly catastrophic. Le Boat would dispatch a technician who would be arriving within the next thirty minutes.
“So, you guys didn’t hear the gurgling sound last night?” Captain David directed his question to me and Karen.
“What gurgling sound?” Our berth was up front, directly behind the galley. Apparently, we were spared the noise that kept our compatriots up most of the night.
“It sounded like we were taking on water,” said Captain David, “I thought we were sinking.” He repeated himself. “I thought we damaged the hull yesterday and we were taking on water.”
“Sorry, we didn’t hear a thing.” I said.
Knotman chimed in. “I dreamt that the boat was adrift, then woke up and still thought we were floating, then the gurgling started.”
We finally got a good night’s sleep and, apparently, missed all the excitement. It was also a bit disconcerting that Knotman was dreaming of being adrift.
The technician arrived on a small motorbike with wooden tool boxes draped over each side like saddlebags. Of note, the distance that took us a full day of cruising, managing nine locks and a crash into the bank, he covered in thirty minutes on his motorbike. These boats go slow.
Our battery was dead. We had neglected to adjust the setting from battery to generator mode at the end of the evening, something none of us remembered being discussed at our brief orientation. Soon we had power and Captain David was trying to explain the gurgling sound to the technician who spoke little English.
“Beelge,” he finally responded as he reached for the onboard operators manual. He pointed out that the gurgling sound was the bilge pump evacuating small amounts of water that normally accumulates in the hull of the boat. Our encounter with the bank may have disturbed the small amount of water in the hull and the bilge pump did its job.
After some coffee, fruit and yogurt, we untied the boat at ten fifteen and headed south, down the canal, toward the next lock.
Captain David declared, “Under normal circumstances, there is no reason we can’t be moving by nine.”
I tried to contemplate what is was that we would be late for.
As we began to feel comfortable, the locks became fun, breaking up the
monotony of lying down on the sun deck, watching the clouds and poplar trees go by. The canal was losing many of its trees to disease and we passed several removal and restoration projects throughout the week.
These boats go slow. At one point, a female jogger pushing an infant in an ergonomic stroller, passed us, even managing a wave. The crew stared at her for a second, then looked toward each other and laughed.
I turned to Ginny and said, “I expect to see a large hippopotamus emerge from the water.”
“Yeah,” she responded jokingly, “and Captain David would have to shoot it with a fake gun,” She fully understood my reference to the slow Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland.
This new calmness gave us permission to unwind, relax and reflect.
His eyes staring ahead, behind dark glasses and looking patriarchal, Knotman declared, “I’ve wanted to do this for twenty years.”
Monkey Girl was animated. “Last Monday I was on a boat, deep up the Klamath River and a week later I’m on the freak’in
Canal Du Midi. Just sitting here thinking. Oh my god. Whoa!”
She made a swoosh sound while she moved here arm past her head, illustrating an inability to grasp it all.
Ginny said nothing but her laugh was unmistakable. It’s comforting. Her public and community life has earned her great respect, but everyone loves her laugh.
“I’m guessing that the Klamath boat went faster than this one,” said Captain David.
“Just a bit,” said Monkey Girl
“Tell them how you got up there.”
“Uh, on a board member’s personal jet.”
Captain David smiled. He privately enjoyed the status that Rosemary’s
work provided. In her professional circles, he enjoyed his role as an educated rock musician who could talk intellectually about politics or the newest restaurant in the City.
Karen chimed in. “Let me see if I understand this. You travelled by private jet and power boat to a remote location near the Klamath River to negotiate the purchase of redwoods from an Indian tribe?”
“Yes!” There was a hint of guilt in Monkey Girl’s voice.
“Hey,” I said, coming to her defense, “all the canoes were checked out.”
The crew laughed, remembering that we would have found the whole scenario offensive forty years ago. There is a huge difference between judging when you are young and actually doing after you mature, something we’ve all lived long enough to learn.
The fact is that we all proud of Monkey Girl’s efforts. In retirement, after a highly respected career, she finds herself on the Save The Redwoods board of directors, devoting much of her knowledge and youthful enthusiasm to something that she is passionate about.
Aside from our professional connections and our political compatibility, the glue of the crew’s long relationship is laughter, our comfort in laughing at ourselves and with others.
As Knotman says, We’re not much to look at, but we have great personalities.”
“Speak for yourself, my friend, you have to look at the whole package,” said Captain David, sweeping his hand across his body.
“My point exactly.”
“Lock ahead, two-hundred meters,” someone yelled, signaling everyone to take their positions, Monkey Girl on the front ropes, Ropes Pierre on the rear with Ginny, Karen and Knotman serving as back seat drivers for the Captain. I say this in a good way. Maneuvering a lock with several other boats requires all available eyes and ears.
This would be the last lock before the small port of Carcassonne, the
medieval walled city where we planned to stay for a few days. As we approached the lock, we all stood down. There was a traffic jam with several boats ahead of us in both directions. It was caused by two small tourist boats, dispatched from the port to go upstream, allowing tourists to experience a lock. The boat would go through the lock, cruise fifty meters, turn around and go back. This excursion is like going to The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas and thinking you’re in Italy. With twenty-seven locks under our belts, the delay did not sit well with us seasoned sailors.
I muttered something inappropriate under my breath and Captain David said, “calm down, don’t say anything.” Then, as the tourist boat passed us before turning around, he looked squarely at the tour guide, flung his arms above his head and said, “What the fuck!”
With lips pursed, she lifted the microphone to her little mouth, looked
directly at Captain David, mimicked him with his own words, then added, “We have prior-i-tee,” with heavy emphasis on the last syllable. This became a repeated catch phrase, but the crew soon let it go. We had four days to get to Homps, reachable in a day and a half if we pushed it. Time was not an issue.
Albeit frustrating, the delay had given us a chance to meet with other crews, many displaying their national flags. There was a group from South Africa, the Kiwi’s from New Zealand and the couples from San Francisco, on their third trip. The greeting served as more than a cultural exchange. It helped to be on a first-name basis now that the gridlock had freed up. To make up for lost time, the lock operators were surely going to pack as many boats in the lock as possible.
We entered the lock second and were directed toward the right wall, an easy thrust for Captain David. “Front ropes secure,” shouted Monkey Girl.
“Back ropes secure,” I called out. We were in position and could do nothing but wait for the other boats to load.
“Sorry, mate.” said the New Zealand captain, apologizing for the fact that he couldn’t stop his slow-moving boat from drifting into ours. Luckily, we were all floating. While holding my rope taut, I was able to stick out my foot and stop the multi-ton vessel in its tracks.
Interrupting our lock “block-party,” the rear gate began to close and within seconds we were face-to-face with a wet, slimy wall as we descended. Both of us yelled, “Ropes free!,” simultaneously, assuring Captain David that, when the front gates open, he was free to thrust the boat to the left, then forward into the lower canal. After nearly an hour delay, the port in Carcassonne was less than three hundred meters ahead.
We found a spot to park the boat and Knotman did his thing while the some of us secured hook-ups to replenish our water and electrical supply and others gathered clothes for the port laundromat. We were all ready to pause for a few days and channel our energy toward exploring the old walled Cite’, the most noted stop on our journey.
Stepping into my berth, Ginny asked, “Have you seen Knotman?”
“Not since I saw him walking down the dock ten minutes ago.”
Before leaving, she said, “Well, if you do see him, I’m looking for him.”
Moments later, while folding freshly laundered clothes, I glanced out my small berth window to solve the mystery. There was Knotman, two boats over, sitting on the South African’s sun-deck, chatting away, enjoying a gin and tonic.
“Ginny, look at the sun deck, two boats over,” I yelled. Soon, her familiar laugh emerged from the galley. “Why am I not surprised?”
I have known Knotman for forty-five years. Early on, he had a deserved reputation as a serial party-crasher. This type of hobby is quite spontaneous, one never knows when an opportunity may present itself. From personal experience, he and I, in 1976, at a Berkeley marina hotel, crashed a post concert party for Joan Baez. We were returning from the restroom when we saw a small sign outside a private room that read, “Diamonds and Rust, Inc.” We took a chance and after we came face-to-face with Ms. Baez helping her young son in the buffet line, realized privacy was in order. As we left, I whispered, “Great concert.” She smiled and continued to multi-task. There is also the story, many years ago, of Knotman crawling through a window to crash a wedding at the Sunnyside Inn in Lake Tahoe, where Captain David was playing drums in the house band. That’s the Captain’s tale to tell.
Knotman was our ambassador to the South Africans and we acknowledged each other while dining at the same restaurant. After dinner, I found Karen, sitting at their table, engaged in conversation.
“What’s up?” I asked.
A woman at the table said, “We’re talking politics with your wife, what’s it to you.” After the chorus of laughter, I decided to join them. From the beginning, the conversation focused around one question, “What in the hell are you Americans doing with your election?”
One man, Gary, explained that he had made three bets on current issues with a friend back home, a local tax measure, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump. He had lost the first two bets and would never live down being swept.
“Trust me,” I said, “it will never happen.” I still feel bad about giving him a false sense of confidence. I remember that moment as the time when I first should have realized that I live in a California, progressive bubble and am out of touch with fly-over America.
Carcassonne is a special place. Well, actually, Carcassonne is a nice city, but the old walled Cite’ is the special place. Everyone should see it once in their
lives. Monkey Girl, Captain David and I decided to leave early and walk the two-mile, moderate uphill climb from the port. The others would join us later, all agreeing to meet up at the Porte Narbonnaise entrance. My walk mates had been to Carcassonne before and were filled with advice, most notably that it must be seen, both by day and by night.
Conversation stopped after we arrived and entered the medieval fortress through the Porte Saint-Nazaine gate. We had each drifted off, taking photographs. With settlements dating back to 3500 BC, the old city was restored in 1853 and became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Today, it is a fascinating visual facade for the shops, restaurants and plazas that are filled with tourists.
Choral voices could be heard, coming from inside a chapel within the Basilique Saint-Nazaine. The once designated cathedral had been downgraded to a grand, awe-inspiring “ordinary church,” combining Romanesque and Gothic architecture with unearthly gargoyles standing
watch from all sides.I entered the dusky chapel to find four men, standing below a majestic altar, illuminated only by colored light through thirty-foot high stained-glass windows, beautifully chanting in a very Gregorian way.
These are brief but enduring memories because they are unique and special. I was pleasantly reminded of a night in Venice, nearly twenty years ago, when Karen and I ended an evening of “chichetti” (Italian bar hopping) with late-night Vivaldi, performed by a chamber orchestra in a small chapel near a
dimly light piazza. Today, I videoed forty-one seconds of their glorious harmonies on my smartphone to help me always remember this moment. The last time I checked, my memory was not improving.
The entire crew united and, after a brief stroll, dined together at Auberge des Lices, a quaint restaurant/inn, quietly tucked away in a small courtyard near the old cathedral. It was relaxed and so were we, two and one half days in.
Carcassonne at night is jaw-dropping, an emerald city glowing on top of a
hill. It danced in and out of view from the window of our cab as we traversed the dark streets up to its gates. I clicked the heels of my shoes together and rode the moment like a magic carpet. We were returning to
the castle, one with over 5,ooo years of history that, today, is still the prototype design used in films like Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”
Good or bad, Carcassonne first established itself during the Middle Ages, evidenced by the slivered openings in the stone walls, used as cover by
archers and to pour scalding oil on their enemies. By the beginning of the nineteenth Century, a depressed economy and impoverished population left the old Cite’ abandoned. In 1809, re-routing of the Canal du Midi through the lower town began a small revival, but by mid-century, it faced demolition. A successful effort to declare the site a National Monument led to restorations under the oversight of French architect Viollet-le-Duc. Nearly one hundred-fifty years would pass before the UNESCO designation saved it for eternity.
Tonight, we seemingly entered through a different Porte Narbonnaise gate. It looked strange and intimidating, like someone’s face in the dark, illuminated only by a light under their chin. Preservation married a
Medieval site with twentieth century architectural lighting that altered the entire aesthetic into a dramatic art piece.
It was quiet and the streets were empty, this night. Captain David remembered a restaurant below the illuminated castle and was dogged in his effort to find it. We did find it, but it was unaccessible, hosting a private event that required space rather than ambiance.
A few yards away was Méli et Zéli Restaurant. Knotman checked out their menu and thought it looked good. A nearby chalkboard described “Desserts Du Jour: Creme Brûlée, Baba au Rhum, Tarte au Citron, Poirier…” We weren’t sure if the last item was some type of pear dessert or a reference to the style of Derek Poirier, a member of Team USA at the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie in Lyon, France, a
competition among the world’s best. It will remain a mystery.
While adjacent to the enlightened castle, neither the outdoor patio or
indoor of the restaurant offered unobstructed views. Noticing our hesitation, the waiter walked over and began talking to Monkey Girl, our best option to converse in French. The conversation was short.
“The best that I could determine,” she reported, “is that he is willing to put a table wherever we want.”
Ginny asked, “Where did you tell him to put it?”
She smiled. “How does in the street outside the restaurant sound?”
That’s exactly where they put it. It became our private table in the shadow of the castle.
Monkey Girl rewarded herself with foie gras. The rest dined on saumon
marine’ a’l’aneth (salmon marinated at the dill), entrecôte a la plancha (beef ribsteak of the floor), and cassoulet, all paired with a bottle of 2013 Cuvee’ Sextant from the local Corbieres appellation. Good times on a slow night in Carcassonne.
Leaving Carcassonne was as difficult as leaving Castelnaudary on our first day. Ecluse #51 was a bit congested with morning commute traffic. Everyone’s going somewhere. It was our fifth day and our twenty-fourth lock.
Karen took a turn handling the rear rope duties. She stretched her knee out in Carcassonne and had tired of desk duty. Monkey Girl was everywhere during our departure, jumping from the boat to lock and back, getting updates and pulling us forward as the gridlock eased. Once through, she
remained busy wrapping her ropes.
Captain David responded. “Please sit down and relax, you’re making me exhausted.” He knew it wouldn’t last, but occasional reminders can briefly put Monkey Girl in pause mode.
None of this ongoing group dynamic bothered me. I relished in observing the natural order that developed among the crew in this unusual habitat. I thought it would make a great story.
There was more than three kilometers to the next lock, time to relax and enjoy the countryside, the autumn pastures, yellow and brown, the old stone-grey structures with roofs from the century they were built. The canal permits access to old country France where the past is the present. Soon, we passed by a field of sunflowers. Karen was fixated.
“They were looking at this when they painted,” she said, referencing the Impressionist painters of the nineteenth century, bohemian artists who began painting everyday life. We had seen so much of their original works in the Musee d’Orsy in Paris, the Chicago Institute of Art and others that she recognized the real landscape. It was present at Monet’s gardens in Giverny, in the village of Anvers d’ Orse, where Van Gogh spent his last years, and here along the Canal du Midi. Van Gogh’s “The Sunflower Field” moving slowly on a gorgeous day.
Captain David addressed the crew. “Will someone call Monkey Girl’s cellphone, she can’t find it.”
No luck. Someone said that they reached her voicemail, but she sounded gurgled.
Monkey Girl responded. “Kidding aside, I think that’s where it is and probably harder to find than fricken Dory.”
When leaving Carcassonne and since we met in 1974, Monkey Girl is
someone who always needs to be active and, this time, it resulted in the deposit of another Iphone 6S on the muddy floor of the canal. One can only imagine how many are down there.
Ordinarily, the loss of a phone would be catastrophic for Monkey Girl. She would be missing an important conference call or expecting a critical email. Today, we laughed it off. She had cleared her calendar and her mind. A phone isn’t a necessary tool to be a front ropes person on a canal boat. However, she would have a new Iphone7 within forty-eight hours after returning home. Without the calm of the canal, we tend to revert to our old ways.
“Low bridge ahead!” Someone had spotted one of the old bridges near Berriac, a small village inland from the canal, south of Carcassonne, and
yelled out a warning. Based on our experience with similar bridges earlier on the junket, the alert did not mean to use moderate caution, but to lay down on your back to avoid decapitation or, at a minimum, a bad headache. Although beautiful and charming, these low, narrow bridges were not designed to accommodate modern boats. Today, during our cruise between Carcassonne and Trèbes, we came upon several, aptly naming them, “The Low Bridges of Berriac.”
The lower levels of the boat were safe, but, between locks we all hung out on the upper sun deck. This required that the entire crew, including Captain David, lie flat on our backs as we passed through. Face up, under the
bridge, I could see the detail in each stone of the timeless mosaic. Vision 3 was in free fall. We set her direction, lied down and prayed that we would avoid the curved sidewalls during the seconds it took to pass under. We did it with inches to spare.
It was amazing to watch the large barge boats maneuver through the low bridges. With berths below the deck, they sit lower in the water than Vision 3 and, defying perceptions, they certainly can’t be any wider. The difficulty is that they are nearly one hundred feet long.
Most barge boats look lived on. A home on the water with worn deck chairs and geranium-filled flower boxes and the charm of a bed and breakfast.
They’re typically available for charter on one-way trips down or up the canal where the captain and chef are provided. Expensive and food-driven, it’s another option to experience the solitude of the canal. Our fear was that we would awaken each day to a wonderful breakfast, then watch the scenery pass, anticipating a extraordinary lunch with an afternoon break, checking emails before cocktails and dinner. It sounded appealing for a one day excursion, but the thought of idle minds and putting our bodies on a highly caloric recess for a week was never an option.
Waiting our turn to go through ecluse #57, Écluse de Villedubert, we watched an experienced young captain of African descent as he masterfully guided a barge boat first through a lock sequence, spinning the large wheel and thrusting to a forty-five degree angle just to fit. Then, floating by our boat, he smiled and waved with his left hand while fluidly spinning the wheel with his right. Once he was perfectly aligned, the crew watched him gracefully steer through the first of the many recognizable low bridges he would encounter between Berriac and Carcassonne.
“Are you watching this guy?” Ginny asked no one in particular.
“Amazing.” Karen wondered aloud how many times he had cruised this exact route. The charm of the barge boats and their flamboyant, talented captains are part of the theater of the canal.
Around the next bend, some old brick buildings came into view that seemed to be touching the water. Today, they marked the entrance to the small,
winsome port of Trèbes, a place to tie up for the night. The last census determined that Trèbes
had over five thousand residents, up four thousand from the first in 1793. There have been few changes to the town over that period of time.
During our brief visit, we decided to stay close to the boat and explore the ambiance along the tiny waterfront that included a bank, a wine shop featuring local Corbieres-Lanquedoc-Rousillon wines and a few restaurants.
The wine shop featured a young, knowledgeable proprietor who openly
shared his knowledge. Although we could spend more, those of us choosing the wines felt that we could get balanced flavors and rich texture for ten euros. We did, time after time.
The crew’s desire for a light aperitif before dinner and the advice of the shopkeeper lead to my selection of a Domaine de la Rogue Cinsault-
Grenache, a rosé that blended two regional grape varietals. Grenache adds the flavor and Cinsault, the texture.
We drank it on our deck, under the shade covering as the setting sun splashed light across the water and century-old building fronts. Amid this setting, we could have spent five euros and it would have tasted just as good.
The crew chose a quaint outdoor cafe on the water for dinner and, within minutes, were greeted by a young waiter. Knotman ordered a carafe each
of their house red and white wine and Karen ordered a decaf Americano. The young man left, vowing to return.
“Are you guys watching this?” Ginny, the observant one, pointed out that ours and other waiters were crossing back and forth over an adjacent road as they worked. Apparently, the indoor portion of the cafe and the kitchen were separated from the outdoor waterfront tables by a road with vehicular traffic. Soon, our waiter emerged through a doorway, looked both ways and crossed the road with our drinks.
Captain David said. “Think they have workman’s comp insurance?”
Monkey Girl laid out her odds. “I’m going to go with a low maybe.”
“Are you sure this is decaf?” Karen repeated her stock question to anyone
serving her coffee after nine in the morning. The waiter stared at her for an instant, returned the coffee to his tray, turned and walked back across the road. Trapped laughter escaped.
Karen felt justified. “Listen, I feel sorry for the guy, but I still need to sleep tonight.”
We had a very nice local dinner, mostly seafood and our waiter got a workout. He managed a smile as he distributed dessert menus, but his eyes said, “Ne me faites pas remonter
la route” (Please don’t make me cross the road again). We passed on dessert, paid the bill and said goodnight.
The quiet walk across the bridge with the calm water, now being lit by the
moon, created a lasting visual image of our abbreviated stay in Trèbes. We weren’t certain if there was somewhere we needed to be or if we just needed to be somewhere else, but it was determined that we would pull anchor in the morning.
I embrace the rare times when I find myself alone, absorbed in a moment. Tonight, on the deck, before turning in, it was ten minutes of watching the stars through the black shadows of the towpath trees with “Waste a Moment” by Kings of Leon blaring through my headphones. It was the dichotomy I wanted. Listening to Southern American boys in Southern France helps me connect the dots. “Take the time to waste a moment.”
The morning began as peaceful as the night ended. The galley was quiet and the water was undisturbed. I poured a cup of coffee.
“Croissant monsieur et madame?” Without notice, Captain David stuck his head through the door, speaking in his best bad French accent.
“Croissant, sir?” I responded with my best effort to mimic the Inspector Clouseau character made famous by Peter Sellers in the early Pink Panther movies. More than anyone, David gets my humor. We both remember classic funny lines that we have heard over the past fifty years and when our memories intersect, we share a moment and nobody else in the room gets us. Today, it was Peter Sellers, tomorrow it could be Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin or even Adam Arkin.
We like to think that, back in 2010, they made a film about us titled “The Trip.” In our world, actor Steve Coogan played the Captain David character and Rob Brydon was me. Two men, on assignment for a magazine, touring the fine inns and Michelen-starred restaurants of the European countryside. Coogan’s script perfectly captured many of our dinner conversations before we could get them down on paper.
Inspector Clouseau speaks in his thick French accent. “I would like a rhuume.”
Not understanding the request, the British hotel clerk says, “a rhuume, sir?”
In frustration, Closeau responds. “Yes, I said a rhuume!”
The conversation goes on, classically orchestrated by Seller’s subtle style.
Appreciation of great comedy helped forge a long friendship between a Jewish boy from Flint, Michigan who has been a drummer in the San Francisco rock scene for four decades and a California-native WASP kid who stuck to some straighter line.
Today, on the boat, Captain David had something sweet. This and other mornings when we were in port, he and Monkey Girl would leave early and
set out to find a local patisserie. They would bring back a warm, fresh tart or scone and carefully cut it into five pieces, enough for everyone but Karen. We instinctively respected her wishes and the crew was always willing to insulate her from any food that lists sugar higher than the forth ingredient. Personally, I believe we should offer a piece to Karen and let her decide what she wants to do with it.
Ecluse Trebes was a three-lock sequence that provided a test for those entering or exiting the port. I liked my perch on the back deck where I could continue to enjoy the picturesque harbor while handling the ropes. Once through the final gates, Trebes slowly faded from distance but remains, to this day, a tranquil memory. We had nine kilometers of relaxed, uninterrupted cruising until the Ecluse Marseillette, our next lock, where we planned some exercise by walking into the village.
Captain David spoke. “Did everyone see their potpourri?”
While out on their early morning patisserie search, he and Monkey Girl bought three cute little handmade pouches and secretly placed one in each bathroom. It was nearly impossible to remain anonymous when you are living on a 47-foot boat with five other people.
“Yes, Captain”, said Knotman, “how frick’en thoughtful.”
“Well, I thought we are six days in and, besides, they are probably made by local artisans.” Captain David, once again, rode the fence between
explanation and justification.
Smiling, Knotman said, “I am truly appreciative and will certainly thank you for days to come.”
Bam! A piercingly loud sound silenced us.
Startled, Captain David said, “What was that?”
“Sounded like a gunshot,” said Ginny, answering for the group.
Addressing Monkey Girl, perched on the front deck, Captain David said, “Are there any boats coming?”
“No, the water is clear.”
Bam! Bam! Two more shots and the sound was louder and closer.
Offering food for thought, Knotman said, “Maybe, it’s canal pirates.”
Deadpanned, Captain David said, “No one said anything about canal pirates.”
Feeling the need to add my two cents, I said, “It wouldn’t be the only thing they missed in the orientation.”
Bam! Another ear-piercing gunshot.
As we slowly cruised around a bend, the canal revealed two men with shotguns, hunting birds in an open field. Sounds that are unsettling in the modern world were, in this part of southern France, nothing more than farmers seeking fresh duck meat for their next cassoulet. Watching them as we passed was reminiscent of the times, as a young boy, that I accompanied my father and his friends, watching them hunt duck and pheasant. I also remember jarring my teeth on small pellets, accidentally left in the meat of the catch.
I was thinking about food and asked if anyone else was getting hungry. It was agreed that we would tie up along the banks near Marseillette, have lunch on the boat, then walk into the village to explore and exert.
Ecluse Marseillette was the first of nine locks we would encounter in the next nine kilometers. As we finished one, we prepared for the next, destined to work our way to Pulcheric, hoping to find fresh, locally grown foods.
Marseillette was one of the more picturesque locks along the canal, with
green manicured hedges surrounding the same simple stone lock house design used throughout the canal, each with pastel blue or green window shutters. The lock houses serve as housing for the lock masters and most of the unique settings resulted from long term residency, something we would discover further down the canal.
Once through the lock, we could see the aged Marseillette skyline in the distance, with its signature clock tower standing tall. Soon, we were along the bank and Knotman was instructing the two ropes people on the proper nautical knot to secure our boat.
Lunch usually consisted of assorted charcuterie and cheeses modified with more vegetables and white meat than the traditional varieties of pork sausage. Once we added some olives and any leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, lunch became another feast.
“The cupboard is not totally bare, but we definitely need to pick up a few things,” said Karen after we finished lunch.
Speaking up, Monkey Girl said, “According to Rick Steves, there is a supermarche in Pulcheric and we thought that we would stop there for the night, walk into town and shop.”
“Sounds great to me,” said Karen. She began making a list on her phone.
Knotman decided to stay back as we as we began the short hike into Marseillette. He needed a nap after two glasses of chardonnay at lunch.
Along the bank, a few yards up from our boat, I saw an old, worn wooden sailboat with faded green and white paint, a natural cherrywood mast and
a makeshift, weathered red canvas canopy, hung adjacent to the green, port-holed galley and adding more living space for the sailor. Surrounded by several ducks on the bank, the boat seemed to project a colorful past as it floated stoically still amid the backdrop of the murky canal water and trees, lit by the afternoon sun.
Captain David watched as I shot a few photos with my phone. “Isn’t that a great boat?”
“Oh yeah, I said, the stories it could tell.”
Marseillette is described as a commune is southern France with about 700 residents. Today, on a Thursday afternoon, it looked deserted with no sign
of people on the small sidewalks or in the windows of the flats. It reminded me of streetscapes painted by American Impressionist Edward Hopper, barren and mysterious.
“Let’s find the highest point and start there,” said Captain David, realizing that we could probably see the entire village from any hill.
“Look for the cathedral, they’re usually on higher ground.”
He was right. We found the local cathedral on the hill adjacent to a vista that may have explained why no one was in town.
To the west and spread across a large valley that extended all the way to the Pyreness Mountains was flat, fertile agricultural land, divided symmetrically into vegetables, orchards, vineyards and flowers. There
were also large empty sections that were, most likely, show-stopping fields of lavender during the summer months. Marseillette was not a port, but an agrarian village with a canal running behind it.
With no specific landmarks to photograph, our right brains kicked in as we all began to shoot this place as it was with narrow streets, old stone bridges and, of course, the village clock tower that resembled a turret at a miniature castle. Although people were scarce, our concentration in taking pictures was periodically broken by a delivery truck that sped by. FedEx and UPS are truly everywhere.
Reaching Pulcheric by six o’clock required that we quickly return to the boat and leave. We had to maneuver several locks and were hoping to avoid any delays.
Captain David approached me as we stepped onto the rear deck of the boat.
“Hey Ropes, look at this.” He had stopped on the walk back to take some photos of the old sailboat. There was one shot that he was particularly proud of and I thought it was framed better than those that I took.
“Very nice,” I said, “I like that you zoomed-in closer.”
He smiled and nodded, as to agree. I guess that on the canal and in life generally, it’s really all about who takes the best pictures.
The final chapter of this Thursday could be named, “Locks After Lunch.” In the next hours, the canal would drop twenty-two meters with the aid of nine locks and the crew was ready for the challenge. The real question was if the locks were ready for us.
Minutes from Marseillette, we could see an increase in boats cruising in both directions. This signaled that the lock masters would have to cram as many boats as possible through each sequence to keep up. We had to renew our focus.
The first test was the Ecluse triple de Fonfile a Blomac, commonly known as the Fonfile lock. It was an ordinary three-lock sequence, but small with tight spaces. We anticipated going through the chain with another boat, but were surprised when they insisted on adding a third. The lock masters had more confidence in our abilities than we did. Although the tasks such as thrusting and securing the vessel did not change, more precision and speed control was required.
As she turned toward me, smiling, Karen said, “just like those guys that took us zip-lining in Hawaii, they’re trying to push us and build our confidence with each new lock.
I responded. “Our delicate self-esteem aside, they’re bent on getting as many boats through before they close at six.”
We did get through flawlessly, but quickly folded our ropes and remained in position for the Ecluse Saint-Martin, our third-eighth and thirty-ninth locks, one kilometer ahead.
Captain David said, “What time is it, anyway?”
Knotman answered. “Does it matter. We’re going to get there when we get there.”
Affirmation that long time residency leads to the most creative and colorful lock houses was clearly evident at the Ecluse de l”Aiguille,” our fortieth lock. There were at least six boats ahead of us, so Captain David thrusted to the bank and we secured the boat. Monkey Girl hopped off and walked ahead to scout the situation.
Climbing back aboard several minutes later, she said, “Boats are jammed in both directions, but there’s a neat sculpture garden next to the lock house.”
“We’re screwed,” said Captain David, his mind in another place.
I asked, “What kind of sculpture?”
“Ya know, whimsical stuff, mostly made from junk, a little funky.”
Not in a mood to discuss whimsical three-dimensional art, Captain David said, “We’ve got two hours to get through here and reach Pulcheric before the locks close.”
Knotman questioned, “What’s so special about reaching Pulcheric?”
“There is a supermarche and we need some things for dinner and breakfast” said Karen.
We had reason to worry, but as long as we are delayed for a few minutes, I wanted to check out the sculpture garden.
The Ecluse de l”Aiguille, surrounded by trees, lawns and mature shrubbery
was among the most aesthetically pleasing locks on the canal. However, the biggest attraction is Joël Barthes, éclusier sculpteur, who has lived in the lock house since 1988. As the story goes, within a few years after moving
in, he found a large piece of wood and transformed it into a decorative feature for his yard. He never stopped. To date, he has created over two hundred pieces from junk and recycled materials largely donated by locals. Some pieces have been sold, but most remain on the property. He had an exclusive exhibit space with several visitors assured each day.
Joël has participated in a few exhibitions, but, for the most part, he enjoys moving boats efficiently through his lock and pursuing his art career on the side. Today, he did his job well and our delay was shorter than anticipated.
The gates open and we were free to, once again, float down the canal. One of Joel’s metal men was attached to the last lock and seemed to be opening the door for our new adventure.
I shouted out. “Full throttle.”
The crew laughed. We would proceed at the same speed we always had. Still not competing with cyclists or joggers, we could out perform most conversational walkers, unaware that they were in a race.
“Monkey Girl”, are you getting these pictures,” said Ginny
“I don’t have a phone.”
“Well, I’ve got pictures of the pups.”
“That’s right, they’re together.”
Beginning in 1978 and for the next twenty-two years, our colleagues on the crew were footloose and fancy free while Karen and I were focused on parenting and finding good childcare. Today, the roles have reversed. We enjoy our freedom while the rest of the crew are challenged to find, not just dog sitters, but quality dog sitters. Pet friendly lodging and eateries are required now when the group travels locally.
All of this because Captain David and Monkey Girl are the proud parents of Mojo, a refined standard poodle, white with patches of grey and black. Lotti, a pure white, soft-coated Wheaton terrier is Knotman and Ginny’s little girl.
The dogs were with different sitters, but, due to scheduling issues, were together for the next four days. The current sitter was texting photos of Mojo and Lotti playing side by side and our colleagues were gushing over each one.
“They really do play well together,” said Monkey Girl.
“I know, we need to set more play dates.”
“I totally agree.”
Young parents are adorable. Especially when they are missing their children.
I volunteered to steer for awhile so they could all enjoy the reassuring photos, delivered by satellite from San Francisco to our floating home. Karen and I glanced at each other, smiling. We have raised two boys who are now raising their children. We have wonderful memories of Bon Aimee, our golden retriever and, before that, an poodle terrier mix named Cocoa, our practice child. One day, in the future, we will most likely get another dog. But for now, weighing the added stress and responsibility always leads us to “been there, done that.” We enjoy playing with our friends pets whenever we can and going home alone.
Reaching Pulcheric before the locks closed was beyond our control. We had over an hour to travel two kilometers and open water ahead. Success was dependent upon the number of other boats waiting to get through. Our fate would slowly be revealed after the next few curves in the canal.
As we turned, Ginny made a quick observation. “It’s not looking good.”
“No, it’s not, said Captain David, we just need to tie up and wait.”
There was little movement over the next twenty minutes and then there was none. Time caught up with us and the locks closed for the night. We weren’t going anywhere until morning.
Pulcheric, the supermarche and the ten-thousand steps into town and back were not happening.
Dinner had the improvisation of a jazz concert. Wine, olives and the last of some Comte cheese started us off. We had eggs and an onion that Monkey Girl turned into one of her frittatas. Salad was a collective of every vegetable we had left and there was even a bar of chocolate for dessert, which was cut into five equal pieces.
We stayed up and talked politics until we wore ourselves out. Ginny always had something to share from Politico, the Captain recited David Borowitz from New Yorker magazine and I was starting to follow clips of Stephen Cobert monologues that were becoming increasingly poignant.
Karen was taking in all in and becoming more agitated and animated with each passing comment. We have shared a berth literally our entire adult lives and since the first day, she has always been a Socialist with a taste for nice things, a Lexus Socialist, through and through.
Politically, Karen is the most and least cynical member of the crew. Her unique political perspectives are based, more than anything, on history. She is a firm believer that homosapiens shares a genetic deficiency that makes them repeat their mistakes.
“Shall we make a list of the maniacal dictators in the world that were elected?” She threatens a lecture to those who don’t share her concern that Donald Trump could very well beat Hillary. She’s right. One only has to go back to the start of the Twentieth Century to assemble a legitimate top ten. Ask anyone who was part of the Allied Forces, less than a decade before my birth.
Is Karen not reading Politico or David Borowitz or watching Cobert? She agrees with them, enjoys there humor, but does not rely on them to deliver us from evil.
“Karen, you are so right about history, but he’s imploding before our eyes,” said Captain David, “Pussygate will probably break him.”
I could see comfort in the eyes of four crew members and I could feel mine. Pussygate would be the beginning of the end.
The crew is so politically aligned that these late night discussions never turn sour. They are pep rallies that leave us high enough to fight another day. We had done this many times before, but never on a boat in Southern France, our cupboards bare, our bellies full and each filled to the brim with exuberance and buoyancy.
A robust sense of freedom exudes from the soul when one has no place to be other than where they are.
THE NEXT MORNING
I could hear the wind and feel the cool air as my eyes opened from a deep sleep.
Karen was awake. “It’s cold, I needed an extra blanket. My phone says there is a seventy percent chance of rain later.”
The grey, overcast skies were clearly visible from the galley. The prediction from Karen’s weather apps may be low but we’ll all know if it changes. She is what I call a “weather watcher,” moving back and forth between Google Weather and the Weather Channel so as not to miss anything. I never look at mine, it’s too much work. I simply ask Karen about each day and she delivers a detailed, hour-by-hour analysis.
“Honey, do you think I should wear a sweater?”
“Well, at six it will be seventy-two, but then drops to sixty-seven,then…”
“Great. I’ll just layer.”
There was enough food and coffee to get us through breakfast. The lock was free and opening soon. We needed to decide what we were doing.
Captain David said, “Lets not go into Pulcheric. We can pick up some lunch in a village along the way and, surely, there is some type of marche in Homps.”
“Knotman and I want to cook our balsamic chicken and grape dish tonight,” said Ginny. It was our last night aboard Vision 3.
I responded, “Love that dish, but need I remind you that this is the third time you have cooked it for us.”
Robin spoke. “She never does that.”
“Apparently she does.”
Monkey Girl questioned, “Does what?”
“Cooks the same dish twice for the same people.”
“He says that but it’s total bullshit,” said Ginny defending herself. “You just said that I’ve already cooked it twice for us. But, if it’s troubling for you, we can take a pass”
“No, no, no, no.”
Robin and Ginny are entertainers and love hosting dinner parties. They cooked their delicious balsamic chicken and grape recipe one night in Todo Santos and Karen suggested that it should become a vacation tradition.
“You’ll never see it again,” said Knotman that night, six years ago.
He then outed Ginny’s secret rule that any of her guests would not see that same recipe twice. Although she has never quite admitted it, she now feels comfortable and will nudge the rules for us. Aside from Todo Santos, they served it at a party after my son’s wedding and, hopefully, would again tonight in Homps.
Once through Ecluse Pulcheric, we kept going, all agreeing that there was no longer a need to “slep” into the village for food. We had over six kilometers to the next lock and saw the need to soak up as much of this visual as we could in the short time we had left.
The overcast sky was a canvas, the dark clouds moving across like black brush strokes. The light drizzle would soon turn to rain.
Ginny, our chief navigator said, “It looks like there is a tiny port in La Redorte and we should get there before noon.”
“I thought I read that there was a Roman aqueduct in La Redorte,” said Karen.
“Your’e right, it shows it on the map.”
We were counting down. Ecluse Jouarres was quick and easy, even in the rain. After an eight-foot drop, we gently cruised into an empty, passive water stop in the commune of La Redorte. They had become so
commonplace that the thought of only one more lock before our final destination was insignificant.
After thrusting to the wall and securing the boat, we decided to raise the sun shade to keep as much of the deck dry as possible. The light rain was giving no signs of letting up.
Once moving on the water, the shade came down in anticipation of another low bridge and we would be open to the elements. Maybe it would pass after some time exploring the village.
As part of a government reorganization in 2015, La Redorte, population around twelve hundred, is defined, like Pulcheric, as one of twenty-three communes within the canton or territorial sub-division of Le Haut-
Minervois. It is most known for the Chateau de la Redorte & Spa, a five-star resort catering to all of southern France and advertised as only a thirty-minute drive from Carcassonne, a place we left three days ago. These boats go slow.
It was decided, after grabbing some umbrellas, that we would all go our own ways and meet back at the boat in ninety minutes.
“Whoever sees an good food option for lunch, buy it and we can eat on the boat,” said Captain David, proposing a strategy that sounded good to everyone. None of us were hungry yet.
A five hundred foot walk and a bridge crossing left Karen and I in the only
village center, one long street for all the businesses, retail and public services. I loved the buildings for their authenticity and their architecture. Like a few days ago in Marseillette, I began photographing nearly everything. For some reason I wanted to capture the look of this genuine small village that, most likely, exists to support the Chateau Spa.
I shot the post office, an old dwelling with ivy-covered walls and, what turned out to be one of my favorite photos, an old bookstore with pale blue shutters. As I was
seeking a better image, I saw a familiar face coming out through the door, waving something that looked like an old paperback book.
“Hey Ropes, I bought you a present,” said Captain David, yelling across the street.
“Great.” I waved an acknowledgment as we continued in different directions.
Minutes later, we ran into Knotman and Ginny and walked together for awhile until we spotted our other compatriots entering a little shop with a brightly painted hot pink and gray sign that read:
“Look at those guys,” said Karen.
“My guess is that it’s gonna be fresh hot rolls and pastries for lunch,” said Knotman.
Karen, fearing that she will be stranded on a boat with nothing but carbs and sugar, said, “Not me!”
“Don’t worry, we always take care of you.”
I know that in emergency situations, Karen always has a stash of baby carrots somewhere. Years ago, we were sitting in the Cabo San Lucas Airport, waiting for the other members of the crew to arrive, when a beautiful, happy looking Golden Retriever, attached to a security guard, sat at her feet.
The guard said, “Ma’am, are you carrying any fruit or vegetables?”
With people around us staring, Karen plead guilty and pulled a baggie out of her purse and handed it to him. He politely nodded and confiscated her carrots.
When the crew arrived, after a few hugs, I declared, “Karen has already been busted.”
I relished in telling the story and ended with, “One day, we are going to be detained in some remote place in the world because of your damn carrots.”
We laughed and Karen gave me a look that encapsulated every expletive imaginable. She doesn’t always appreciate that great comedy comes from life.
“It looks like a quaint little place, let’s check it out,” I said.
Ginny added, “And find out what the Captain and Monkey Girl are up to.”
Walking into La Mie’nervoise, I felt that I had won Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. The smells were indescribable. The left side of the shop was a
virtual fairyland of tarts, torts, eclairs, macarons and fresh pain d’epices. On the right side, the smells from fresh, warm baguettes, brioche, boule and Fougasse bread with gruyere cheese signaled that this little spot was both delightful and dangerous. The bakers were proficient artisans but, in the end, the shop was nothing more than an alluring house of temptation.
We bought two large sandwiches that were taken back to the boat and cut into many pieces. It was the same drill for the eclair that accidentally fell into someone’s bag.
Holding up a well-used paperback book for me to see, David said, “I bought you an Elmore Leonard book, Mr. Paradise.”
He pulled it back. “But I want to read it again first, then I’ll give it to you.”
We had both separately binge watched the series, “Justified” on the FX channel. The many seasons were based on “Fire In the Hole, one of Leonard’s books. Captain David was surprised that I hadn’t read any and
took on the responsibility of assuring that I did so. I look forward to it after he finishes re-reading it.
After a few curves on the canal, we came upon the picturesque Roman aqueduct. I am amazed at these remarkable design feats. From reading history, Karen can better visualize what it may have been like centuries ago when they performed an essential role in the
modernization of the world. We had seen remnants of this system at Pont-du-Gard a few hours from here and as far away as Segovia in central Spain. The aqueducts are symbols of human ingenuity and innovative spirit.
The Curse of Narbonne
The afternoon rain turned into thunder and lighting. The canal was now adjacent to miles of flat agricultural land and, off in the distance, the lightning bolts had an air of being close to the ground. The crew had three kilometers, one lock and one night left aboard Vision 3. We would debark the next morning before traveling by train to Montpellier.
Knotman limped up the steps to the sun deck. “I finished our travel plans for tomorrow,” he said. “We leave from the Lézignan-Corbières station at nine-fifteen and have a thirty-minute layover in Narbonne. We’ll be in Montpellier by noon.”
Karen lifted both arms and let her head and shoulders fall back against the padded seat. “No, not Narbonne!”
“That’s right, you guys weren’t too happy with Narbonne when we first met up,” said Captain David, “in fact, Ropes Pierre was thoroughly pissed.”
“At anything and everything,” I said, owning my state of mind when I arrived in Castelnaudary.
Ginny spoke up. “Alright, let’s hear this story.”
“It’s difficult for me to talk about,” I said smiling.
“Nothing is difficult for you to talk about. Let’s hear it.”
Although the crew met briefly in Paris, each couple traveled separately to Castelnaudary. Our itinerary led us on a high speed train from Gare Lyon
direct to Narbonne. After a brief lay over, we would transfer to a more localized train for the short ride to our final destination. The first leg of the journey foreshadowed a relaxing travel day. Then we arrived at the Narbonne station.
With only fifteen-minutes before our train departed, we had little time to locate the next track and move our luggage to the new platform. The electric signage with that information was not working. The small waiting room was congested as two repairman were stretched across the floor working on the under belly of a dissembled ticketing machine. Their work created dust and a little puddle of water. Lifting my luggage, I stepped over four big feet and began to look for an information desk. We had twelve minutes before our connection was due to arrive.
The information desk and the ticket counter were one in the same. With no signage available, there were nearly twenty people ahead of me with questions. Anxious and not feeling in control, I looked through a glass wall to the main platform and saw Karen holding out both hands with her fingers spread. We had ten minutes to determine where we had to be and get ourselves there.
I extended my arm to indicate the many people in line that would have their questions answered before me. We both were beginning to panic and I knew that this mime between us would not end well. Most likely, one of us would, in total frustration, adjust our glasses with a middle finger, our secret, all encompassing password for “stop talking, “I’ve had enough” or “I don’t want to deal to you when you’re this way.”
It seemed like each person before me was involved in an extended conversation, but, ten minutes after our train was scheduled to depart, I spoke to an agent.
“That train was delayed one hour, now 14:15,” she said.
My impulse, after having been in line for twenty minutes, was to seek a longer dialogue. I wanted to suggest that they could save their customers valuable time during these power outages by having someone service the people in line with only quick questions. Then, realizing who and where I was, I decided to find Karen to tell her that we did not miss our ride.
“Merci,” I said and left.
We now had forty minutes before our new train arrived, time to use the restroom and get something to eat. There was a orange cone on the floor in front of the men’s room and a hand-written “out of order” sign on the door, secured with black electrical tape, a classy touch.
The attendant was as helpful as the situation allowed. “It’s not working, just use the women’s.”
I hate using women’s bathrooms. Firstly, there is usually a long line for me to feel conspicuous in and, secondly, there is this pressure to leave it better than I found it. On this day, it was open and I was in and out in record time.
Complaining as I lifted up one slice of bread on my turkey and cheese sandwich, I said, “Karen, this bread is wet.”
“Too much mayo?”
“No, wet like soggy, like it was frozen overnight, then put on a counter to thaw.”
“Take it back.”
“Forget it, they’re all this way.” I peeled off the turkey slices and cheese and threw the inedible bread in a nearby trash can.
The delayed coach arrived on time. Once inside, we gathered our luggage around us and sat in seats down the aisle. Karen pulled up a book on her Kindle and I put on headphones and scrolled through my music library. This is where we go to decompress. The Narbonne station experience was behind us and we planned to be in Castelnaudary within the hour.
Karen tapped my shoulder and I paused the music.
“We’re going to be there in five minutes.”
We gathered our luggage and prepared to enter the station.
There was no station in Castelnaudary, just something that looks like a bus stop with a plexiglass overhang. As the train slowed to a stop, we patiently stood beside our seats. When the doors opened, we made our way down the aisle to the exit. Seconds later, they closed and the train began to accelerate. Unlike our upscale ride from Paris, this commuter train operated like a rapid transit system. Doors open, people get off and on, doors close and life quickly moves ahead.
We both looked at each other, stunned, to the delight of a French couple, seated a few rows back, who were laughing uncontrollably. I was angered for an instant, then realized that there is humor in the sight of two Americans carrying backpacks and luggage, looking shocked as the doors closed in their faces. Maybe they weren’t trying to be rude, just couldn’t stop laughing.
“You can get off at the next stop,” said the French man, still very much amused.
I was relieved that he spoke some English and nodded.
The next stop was eighteen miles south of Castelnaudary, some remote pastural commune named Avignonet. As we quickly departed the train, I turned toward the French man. “Will there be another one coming that can take us back?”
“Eventually.” Both he and the woman began laughing again.
We stepped off the train to nothingness. A defining fact about the commune of Avignonet is that the population of 281 people in 1793 dropped to 214 in 2010.
For the short term, I thought that our best hope was to sit down and wait for the train that we were told would eventually come. Karen felt differently.
“Do you think they have Uber or cabs out here?”, she asked. The slope between frustration, anger and cynicism is a slippery one.
“No I don’t. If you’re looking for ground transportation, I suggest that you jump on a fucking cow and hope it’s going in the right direction.”
“Well, if there is no trains coming until morning, I want to explore other options before it gets dark.” She walked off.
“Do you have phone service?”
“No, but I’m able to text Monkey Girl. They’re looking into options.”
Moments later, I noticed a dim light far down the tracks coming toward us. Waving my arms to get her attention, I called out Karen’s name. Twenty meters down the track, she heard me and turned.
“Train coming!” With one arm raised, I frenetically pointed a finger in its direction. She started back, walking along the side of the tracks.
Turning my head, I suddenly realized that this train wasn’t stopping. In an instant, it was upon us, bound for Paris at one hundred-fifty miles per hour, no more than six feet from my nose. It was five seconds of chaos. The sound was excruciating, my eyes were nearly shut from the blast of wind and my lips quivered uncontrollably. Down the tracks, Karen was frozen with fear, her head turned downward and away from the blast. Then it was gone and the silence was deafening. I checked in.
“Are you okay?”
“I think so.”
“I’m guessing that wasn’t our train after all.”
Checking to see if she adjusted her glasses, there was no sound or movement. We both needed a moment to sit and compose ourselves, then refocus on getting to Castelnaudary.
Relief arrived twenty minutes later in the form of a slow, quiet northbound commuter train. We boarded and sat on our suitcases next to the doors for the ride back and, fortunately, slept in a bed that night.
Laughing, Knotman said, “Well Ropes, you must have been beside yourself.”
“No, I was beside him, listening to his entire sermon.” Karen sought the sympathy she deserved.
“I got him a glass of wine, some cassoulet and he was a new man,” said Captain David.
Mellowed out after six days on the canal, I raised my glass. “We survived the curse of Narbonne.”
Karen offered a prophetic warning. “And we’re going back.”
It was appropriate that the water entry to Homps required finesse through another low, narrow bridge that served as the portal to the compact, but easily maneuverable lock. Once the gates opened, we drifted into the basin. Within minutes, Captain David backed Vision 3 into a berth as Knotman yelled out instructions for the final time. Once the boat was secured, I connected to the electrical power station and water hook-up, which consisted of coupling our issued garden hose to a nearby spigot, pushing it through an opening on the lower deck and turning it on. We would all have a nice last shower. For the evening and next morning, Vision 3 was our floating Air BNB.
Homps is a small commune with less than one thousand people whose residents mostly work in farming, but its ideal location supports vacation
rentals and tourism. In addition to the waterfront amenities that the Canal Du Midi brings, it is centrally located with easy access to Carcassonne, Minerve, a medieval Cather Castle and the small fortified village of Aigne that was described as a magical fairy tale.
Ginny and Knotman left the boat first, wandering into the village to find poulet, raisin and vinaigre balsamique. They had planned a nostalgic dinner, one that would certainly evoke old memories and create some new ones. The rest of us walked over to the Le Boat office to arrange for transportation to the train station the next morning.
As we walked back by Vision 3 on our way into the village, Captain David noticed something.
“Hey Ropes, didn’t you hook up the hose for water.”
“I did.” I now noticed that it was missing.
Both Karen and Monkey Girl shrugged the shoulders of innocence.
Captain David questioned. “I wonder if someone from Le Boat took it.”
Moments laters we were back in the office describing our plight to the receptionist.
“It’s the gypsies,” she said, “When people leave their boats, they steal and sell them to others. They get five euros for each hose.”
Admitting to little knowledge of gypsies, they seem to get blamed for many things in Europe. Throughout Spain, France and Italy, there are warnings that they will pick your pockets, steal your purse or sell you fake merchandise. We always take precautions for the worst, but also have fond memories of being serenaded by gypsy minstrels in the old moorish Albaicin district of Granada. A beautiful evening of authentic music with stunning views of Alhambra was worth the risk.
“Do you have a replacement for us?” Captain David’s tone expressed an expectation.
“No, just grab one when it’s free,” said the clerk.
“If I was continuing down the canal and just paid five euros, I may not want to give it up.”
We left the office with the understanding that we were on our own. The rain had stopped and the thunderous late afternoon skies had the hue of orange sherbet as we walked along the path. Captain David turned the opposite direction at the fork.
I asked, “Where are you going?”
“To get my hose back.”
A mischievous laugh from Monkey Girl expressed her support of the idea.
“Let’s just say that we steal a hose and later someone knocks on our door asking where we got it,” I said.
“We tell them that we bought it off a gypsy for five euros.”
“Great idea, let’s do it.”
After reconnecting our hose, we walked into the village to pick-up some fruit for breakfast and some greens, a baguette and a bottle of wine, our contribution to dinner.
As we crossed the new bridge that spanned the canal, I made eye contact
with a gypsy man standing alone. He knew that I knew and I knew that he knew that I knew. However, his enterprise would continue long after we’re gone. Later, I saw the old man buying food at a small marche. That five euro note circulated well through the local economy.
Our last supper was marvelous as always and the backdrop was stunning. As the sun began to set, the orange creamsicle clouds burned golden at the tips like fire against the darkening blue sky. A pinkish hue illuminated the galley through dinner and slowly faded with our last glass of wine.
Knotman offered an amusing challenge. “If we wanted to do another week or so, we could take this boat to the Mediterranean.”
No one answered. The canal experience had pushed our mental and
physical proficiencies, sometimes to the brink. However, we survived it all, knowing that mastery could be in hand after some practice. Most important, our friendships were intact and strong. Even at an advanced age, this crew, as a whole, remained better than the sum if its parts. We left the canal knowing it would never leave us. Tomorrow evening, in the city of Montpellier, the crew would celebrate our canal experiences, the ups and downs that made it all real. On our last night as sailors, we fell asleep to the rhythm of heavy rain, lightning bolts and the thunder that followed.
Our suitcases were packed and stacked near the rear door before we had coffee and breakfast. We wanted to start the transition day on schedule and make it as stress-free as possible. With clear skies and good intentions, we arrived at Gare Lezignan-Corbiere ninety minutes before our train would depart for Narbonne. We hurried, now we waited and did some serious people watching. Small town train stations are as essential to the fabric of French culture as road stops and freeways are to ours.
Narbonne was only twelve kilometers away and, as we boarded the train, Karen and I warned our compatriots not to get too comfortable and to be mindful of exiting quickly. The crew had to split up to find available seating, but we sat on our luggage near the door. Fool me twice, shame on me.
First off the train, we checked to see if the others had exited safely. Captain David and Monkey Girl emerged from the rear of the car but the others were nowhere in sight. As the wave of departing passengers dissipated, we saw Knotman sitting on a bench and Ginny in a discussion with an attendant.
As we approached them, I asked, “What’s going on?”
“Knotman left his walking stick on the train,” said Ginny, “We got everything off but that.”
The Narbonne station had claimed another victim. If recovered, the attendant said it could be back at the station by next day, long after we had left the region. It was gone.
The immediate task at hand was to transport the crew and luggage downstairs through a tunnel that led to the opposite platform. Four of us handled the bags and Ginny handled Knotman. We made the transition with minutes to spare.
Sitting down during the forty-five minute ride to Montpellier, Knotman said, “I loved that stick. I bought it in Beijing.”
“And now, it will spend its remaining days with an old Parisian,” said Ginny, adding some levity to the situation.
I thought about the curse of Narbonne, but decided not to share it. Our experience aside, it is reputed to be a very nice city with much history and it was time to move on.
As on the boat, we each assumed a specific role to get the luggage and our hobbled crew member up three flights to the Montpellier station taxi
platform. Four of us approached the top of the stairs as Knotman and Ginny walked out of the elevator doors and, within minutes, the crew piled into two cabs for the short ride to the Grand Hotel du Midi. We had less than twenty-four hours to unwind and celebrate our adventure before moving on to something closer to our comfort zone.
After check-in, we strolled through the old narrow streets with chic shops before settling in at an outdoor cafe for lunch. It was then that I realized Montpellier was a special city with a romantic charm, hidden from the world, at least the one between my ears.
Seconds from our hotel we came upon an entire city block that was covered
by a canopy of pink umbrellas, like some miniature Christo project. During the weekend, the streets were open to pedestrians only and the shops, unlike other upscale destinations, were promoting sales and discounts. With these distractions, getting the crew to the cafe was like herding cats. We all saw places that we wanted to re-visit.
The afternoon was a good time for the crew to couple-up and go separate ways. Karen and I, as is often the case, found a shoe store. An hour later, we both left wearing our great deals, mine a European-style, black lace-up with hard rubber soles, dressy, but casual.
Returning to the hotel, we saw Monkey Girl and Captain David standing by the concierge who was engrossed in a phone call. Intent on spending the crew’s travel fund on food, they had worked hard to secure a reservation with a known chef who usually cooks for only two parties per night.
“Well, look at this guy,” I said as Knotman strolled in with his new walking stick. They had spent their afternoon productively.
“Good as new,” he reported.
“Try to hang on to this one,” said Ginny, securing the last word.
The Last Night
The crew met in the hotel lounge for cocktails before walking to dinner. As we sat around a small table, the waiter delivered our usual: three vodka martini’s, a gin and tonic, a Manhattan and a decaf Americano. The purple velvet drapes and mahogany walls of the lounge added an old world elegance. In contrast, a young Asian DJ, tucked away in a dimly lit corner playing her techno music, created a modern, global vibe.
The concierge approached our table and spoke to Captain David. “I’m sorry sir, but the chef is ill tonight and will not be cooking.”
“Bummer,” said the Captain, recalling the effort he put into this reservation.
With the same thought, Monkey Girl uttered, “Huge bummer.”
Fortunately, the concierge prepared a backup reservation before presenting the bad news.
“Sir, I have contacted the maitre’d at La Grillardin and she has a open table at seven-thirty, but needs it for another party at nine. It’s very pleasant and I’m certain you will enjoy her menu.”
We took the advice from a gentleman who makes dinner reservations for a living and, with limited time, finished our drinks and began a leisurely walk to the restaurant.
Imagine walking through a smaller Paris at night with no traffic other than pedestrians. The streets were hosting a festive affair highlighted by eclectic music, culinary scents and herds of young good-looking people.
I turned to Karen. “This is where I would be spending my weekends if I was twenty-one and single.”
“Me too,” she said.
We later discovered that there are ten universities within one hundred kilometers of Montpellier and students flock here on weekends. Youthful hearts and minds are contagious. Karen and I have guiltless memories of our wild, romantic college days because we were together, although not in Montpellier.
As the narrow street twisted, we came upon a small plaza with tables set
between large trees, lit only by the glow of street lamps. It was another image of the region’s charm and part of the restaurant. Unfortunately our table for the next ninety minutes was inside.
We were seated in a long, narrow room with a table set for six and one
other for two, occupied by a young couple. Considerate of their quiet romantic dinner, we tried not to be disruptive old sailors boasting about life on the water.
With a few bottles of wine, we ordered dinner quickly. Monkey Girl, once again, selected the homemade foie gras and I the grilled scallops with risotto and fresh vegetables. At first, no one took notice when Knotman ordered something on the menu that read:
“Camembert cheese, cooked in its box in the chimney (in the oven at lunch time), smoked pork and boiled potatoes”
The foil covering the top of the traditional Camembert wooden box, was cut open and the hot cheese was poured over the remaining ingredients.
“My arteries are tightening up just watching this,” I said. “Can I get you something green?”
“I’m not a greens guy,” said Knotman.
“One worm in your salad back in 1976 and you’re no longer a greens guy?” I said, mentioning something that happened forty years ago in a San Diego restaurant.
“Oh God, the worm story,” said Ginny laughing.
Knotman added. “I forgot about the worm.”
“If I don’t keep it alive, this story may die forever,” I said, referencing my photographic memory for all things mundane. The truth is that Knotman is a great greens guy and many have enjoyed his gourmet salads over the years.
We were all relaxed and the impressions of our experiences were flowing freely. Karen turned the conversation to average daily temperature.
“Actually, the weather has pretty much cooperated all week.”
“We had a bit of everything,” added Knotman.
Captain David chimed in. “I’m happy that it wasn’t bloody hot the entire week.”
Monkey Girl added, “The weather is turning autumnal.”
“As are we,” I said.
For the remaining forty-five minutes, we continued with stories about life on the canal and toasted for each time we ran aground. In the end, all was overshadowed by Captain David’s question.
“So, where is our next adventure?”
After some initial research, that question would be answered at the next crew retreat, when we gather with our recipes and wines, an easel, some paper, tape and multi-colored pens. In a relaxing atmosphere, Knotman will deliver his financial report, we will become motivated, and new ideas will begin to ooze. One will rise to the top and the next adventure will soon be confirmed and calendared. That’s essentially how this crew rolls.
Karen and I, holding hands, walked back toward the hotel together, in the streets among the young, beautiful people.
“Do you feel old?” she asked.
“No, I feel young, I just look old.”
We would have an anniversary soon and could not have dreamed forty-seven years ago that we would be here tonight in this place, still together. I’ve known Karen longer than I have known anyone. In the early seventies, we attended a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert in Berkeley. Singer songwriter Neil Young, in his slow, whiney voice, introduced another band member, Stephen Stills. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re still playing together.” An apt description of any relationship that has survived time.
Another singer songwriter, Joni Mitchell honestly described the consequences of a long affair when she said, “There are some lines you have put here and some you’ve erased.” Longevity is nice, but much better if you’re still playing together.
Minutes later in a plaza, aglow with the cobalt blue light of the Opera House facade, we came upon a crowd of people that circled several street dancers putting their talent on display. To the crowds rhythmic clapping, each
performer took a turn with a brief breakdance routine. We were immersed in the moment, our youthful spirit intact. I didn’t want to leave and felt a connection with this group of young strangers. It was the perfect climax to a sojourn that had taken us from surviving the curse of Narbonne to Castelnaudary, through forty-two locks, medieval Carcassonne, the low bridges of Berriac, the charm of Trebes, to this night in Montpellier.
The crew felt fortunate to have, for a week, lived a charmed life on the Canal du Midi. We were tested as a team and proved to ourselves that we were up to the challenge. More important, we felt blessed to still have desire and an appetite for more.
A few years back, we purchased a South African photo safari at a fundraising auction and decided, this August, to schedule the trip and add three days at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Upon arrival at the Zulu Nyala Game Preserve in South Africa’s northeastern Zulu province, we discovered that all guests purchased their excursion by supporting a non-profit. It’s part of their business model and something rewarding to be a part of.
The food was quite good, but commonly included such dishes as crocodile meatballs, ostrich filets and grilled Eland, Africa’s largest antelope. Seeking a wine to pair with this new cuisine, I was delightfully surprised with a Diemersdal Pinotage 2017, from an historic winery in the Durbanville Valley region near Capetown, and began to rely upon their brand for the remainder of our African adventure.
Pinotage is a signature grape in South Africa, created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University. It is a marraige of pinot noir and cinsault, a popular varietal used in southern Rhone-style blends and known in its homeland as hermitage. The Pinotage 2017 and other red and white varietals from the Diemersdal Estate became a familiar name among many unfamiliar choices.
Wines have been produced at the Estate for over three centuries and six generations of the Louws family have artistically and meticulously farmed the land for over 130 years.
The Diemersdal Estate covers 840 acres, of which nearly 450 is planted under vine with pinotage, merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and others. Of note, many of the remaining acres are used for grazing and the preservation of Renosterveld, a threatened vegetation type in southernmost Africa’s Cape Floristic Region. The hillside vineyards at the Estate welcome cool, misty afternoon breezes that permit dry-farming, culminating in fully ripened fruit.
To accompany fresh-caught grilled bream and crocodile frikadelle at the Palm Restaurant in the Ilala Hotel at Victoria Falls, we fortunately chose the definitively styled Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2018 with layered tropical fruit on the nose and palate and a vibrant minerality on the finish. The reasonable price made this wine even more appealing.
For the record, crocodile does taste like chicken and we had served as a meatball, then grilled and diced, potentially popular in the States when served in a taco. Crocodile tacos, an idea before its time?
Diemersdal also produces a high-end sauvignon blanc reserve and the Diemersdal Winter Ferment 2019, described as a “new world style of sauvignon blanc” with tropical flavors, a hint of grapefruit and a rich, vibrant acidity throughout.
Days later, seeking a white wine that we could pair with a buffet featuring an array of fish, meat and game dishes as well as fresh sushi, we selected the elegantly aromatic Diemersdal Chardonnay Unwooded 2017. The rich, creamy texture of the wine is balanced with melon and citrus flavors that linger. I now can forever brag to my “foodie” friends of eating sushi in Zimbabwe.
In addition to the red pinotage, we selected a bottle of Diemersdal Merlot 2017 for dinner one evening at the game preserve. Aged twelve months in 30% new French oak, this wine is still young but delivered very evident spice overtones throughout the nose and palate.
Once again relying on Diemersdal for our last dinner in Johannesburg, we reached out for a bold, nicely structured Diemersdal Shiraz 2017, a complex wine with strong spice overtones and a full palate of flavors that paired well with everything from a venison stew to a cheese plate.
Wines from the Diemersdal Estate carried us through South Africa and Zimbabwe, but a search upon our return found them available on numerous on-line wine sites but very limited access in local outlets.
However, for those seeking to explore the pinotage varietal, your options are wide open. K&L Wines in San Francisco and Redwood City offers a 2015 Beaumont Pinotage Bot River South Africa ($28), awarded 92-points from James Suckling describing flavors of “blueberry, violets, orange peel and citrus.”
For a local option, wine.com sells a Fort Ross Vineyard Pinotage Sonoma Coast ($37) from northwest Sonoma County, boasting ratings in the nineties and, most appropriate for our recent adventure, the Graham Beck Game Reserve Pinotage 2015 ($16) from beautiful South Africa.
Metaphorically, a river is often used to represent movement, connection or coming home, like “ a river to a sea.”In 1971, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell wrote the song “River,” describing it, from the perspective of her upbringing in Saskatchewan, Canada, as a pathway to escape her problems and a longing for something more.It simply began:“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace.Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
The complete song was self-revealing in a way that was unprecedented, especially for a woman dealing with the societal ceiling of the times.Although we have never met, I would, over the next forty years, develop an intimate relationship with Joni Mitchell through her words and her music. They became an ongoing inspiration to my soul as it revealed itself to me.I often found solace in her words that helped me to think and write poetically.Without trying, she often reminded me that I could be a better, more enlightened person.She was my muse.
A few days after my twenty-fourth birthday, I returned to my apartment to find a thin, wrapped twelve-inch square package lying across the threshold of my doorstep with a note from my brother-in-law attached that read, “Happy Birthday, there’s great music in the world that isn’t jazz.”
Kerry had recently returned from combat in the Vietnam War and was living the hippie life in the hills of Los Gatos.Unable to expand my psychedelic horizons, he became determined to broaden me musically beyond my limiting obsession with jazz artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and pianist Herbie Hancock.
He had some success with my college graduation gift of the album, “On the Threshold of a Dream,” that turned me on to the innovative music of the Moody Blues and thought that Joni Michell’s latest 1972 release, “For The Roses,” would be the next logical step in his plan to open me up.Those instincts were auspiciousand, at that time, he may have known more about my inner self than I did.
Unfortunately, Kerry fell into life-long drug addiction, the cumulative effects of which led to his death, at age sixty-five, from a heart attack.As a few people gathered at his gravesite, I delivered some brief remarks and credited his birthday gift of “For The Roses” as life changing for me.
It is one thing to write from the heart and another to write unafraid, willing to reveal and expose your vulnerabilities. For me, Joni Mitchell did that better than anyone.
The album, “For The Roses” included a few catchy songs like, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” and “Barangrill,” that used wit and alliteration to tellyoung love stories.Pulling me deeper into her expressive self, another piece, “Lesson In Survival” was a different type of love song that spoke of the complexities of relationships, isolation and the fear of incompatibility.
She wrote: “Maybe it’s paranoia, maybe it’s sensitivity.Your friends protect you, scrutinize me and I get so damn timid, not at all the spirit that’s inside of me.I can’t seem to make it with you socially, there’s this reef around me.”
The song, “Lesson In Survival” set-up one of her most poignant pieces, “Woman of Heart And Mind.”
“I am a women of heart and mind, with time on my hands, no child to raise.You come to me like a little boy and I give you my scorn and my praise.”
In the early seventies, the roles of men and women were more defined, like the walls of a cage.Joni’s words made me question why I couldn’t be a little boy and lean on my young wife sometimes.Current norms only placed importance on me being a rock for her to lean on, something that seemed counterintuitive to what makes a lasting relationship.
Women had already figured this out, judging by the new movement for equality that they were creating.I understood the concept, but Joni’s lyrics became the voice in my head that rose up from time to time when I needed to be reminded that I could think and do better.
The song’s assault on the perceived “Mad Men” roles of men and women that existed forty-five years ago continued with lyrics from the modern female perspective.
“After the rush when you come back down, you’re always disappointed, nothing seems to keep you high. Drive your bargains, push your papers, win your medals, fuck your strangers, don’t it leave you on the empty side?”
In the 1990s, my two young boys would giggle when they heard that verse of “Women Of Heart And Mind” playing on my home or car stereo.Today, at ages forty and thirty-three, I consider both of them to be open and sensitive men.Thanks, in part, to musical pioneers like Joni Mitchell, they grew up in a society where the archaic roles of men and women were more blurred and less defined.
The song, “Woman Of Heart And Mind” concludes not like an arrow, but a dagger to the heart of early-1970s norms as Joni became introspective and personal.“You criticize and you flatter, you imitate the best and the rest you memorize.You know, the times you impress me the most are the times when you don’t try, when you don’t even try.”
I refused to look in a mirror for days while my young mind digested those words.
The lessons of “Woman Of Heart And Mind” were reinforced later, in 1977, with the song “Jericho,”“I’ll try to keep myself open up to you and approve your self expression.I need that too.I need your confidence and the gift of your extra time, in return I’ll give you mine.Sweet darling, it’s a rich exchange it seems to me.It’s a warm arrangement.”
These words continually emerge as a voice in my head, usually when I am not living up to the message.
A few weeks after receiving it, I shared my excitement about “For The Roses” to a visiting friend who was familiar with Joni’s music.When I returned from work the next day, he gifted me her three earlier albums.I became full-on Joni Mitchell and couldn’t get enough of her music or her poetic messages.Even though she stopped writing and recording music in 2007, her lyrics have their own drawer in the Dewey-decimal system of my mind, easily retrievable.
In her album, “Blue,” recorded one year before “For The Roses” in 1971, Joni’s lyrics were slightly less refined, but revealing of her emerging themes. In the song, “All I Want,” she wrote/sang:“All I really want our love to do is to bring out the best in me and in you.I wanna talk to you, I want to shampoo you, I want to renew you, again and again.”
While Joni was, most likely, referring to an personal relationship, my take-a-way was that more than being present, I needed to consciously be there, again and again.As the superficial pressures of becoming a sensitive, white male were mounting, Joni offered a cautionary reminder:“When you dig down deep, you lose good sleep and it makes you heavy company.”
My wife Karen shared a passion for Joni’s words that would evolve, over time, into an artistic threesome.As we all grew and changed, her lyrics became less of a guide for our relationship and more of an appreciation of expression.
Although passion was still present, our desire to bathe and shampoo together gave way to “I just want to soak in the tub and relax for a while.”As a young relationship is often driven by passion, one that is maturing acknowledges growth as people, allowing more space for independent thought as well as a relaxing bath.After all, it was Joni who reminded us of the need to approve each other’s self-expression.
Joni’s declaration:“…you want stimulation, nothing more, that’s what I think” became, at times, mutually acceptable.Our deep love was engrained and with the fear of incompatibility diminishing, an appreciation for individual expression and a desire for exploration of mind and body burst forth.
Joni was also evolving. In addition to exposing vulnerabilities, her words began to express a deep sense of independence and wanderlust that, admittedly, resulted in both peace of mind and regret.Years earlier, in “River,” she blamed herself as she wrote/sang:“I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
Her epic 1976 release, “Hejira,” revealed a more determined independent spirit as she wrote/sang:“In our possessive coupling, so much could not be expressed.So now I’m returning to myself, these things that you and I suppressed. We’re only particles of change I know, orbiting around the sun.But how can I have that point of view, when I’m always bound and tied to someone.”
Ironically, shortly after hearing those words for the first time, Karen and I, after being together for eight years, decided to make a baby.
No worries, Joni, we would always be there for you and approve your self expression.We needed you, too, now that our lives were about to change forever.
“No one’s going to show us everything, we all come and go unknown, each so deep and superficial, between the forceps and the stone.”
Ryan Christopher, our first child, was born on a rainy morning in San Francisco at the close of 1977. Elvis Presley was dead, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the skies welcomed the space shuttle and supersonic commercial flights on the Concorde. For the next few months, our lives were a dichotomy between being indulgent new parents and wanting to stay relevant in the cafes of adult conversation.
Although we loved this baby above all else, we had spent the 1970s developing a friendship circle and still yearned to remain a part of the social gatherings, dinners and discussions that would create a balance between our past and present lives.
We sought some clarity listening to Joni Mitchell, although her recent lyrics were poetically self-revealing of a lifestyle at polar opposite to ours. She was independent, exploring several relationships with little expectation.
“I met a friend of spirit, he drank and womanized and as I sat before his sanity, I was holding back from crying. He saw my complications and he mirrored me back simplified and we laughed how our perfection would always be denied. ‘Heart and humor and humility,’ he said, ‘will lighten up your heavy load.’ I left him then for the refuge of the roads.”
Joni was not my role model in understanding the new feminist perspective, but her words were the three glasses of wine that I needed to be open-minded. Her unending diary was unbolted, now telling of an independent woman, sometimes in a relationship, sometimes not, sometimes looking, sometimes not.
“Anima rising, queen of queens, wash my guilt of Eden, wash and balance me.Anima rising, uprising in me tonight, she’s a vengeful little goddess with an ancient crown to fight.”
Through dealing with dichotomies in our lives, we found Joni’s.As her lyrical compositions evolved, they became more lucid and seductively inviting.
In her autobiographical song, “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter,” released days before Ryan was born, she wrote/sang:“The spirit talks in spectrums, it talks to mother earth to father sky, self-indulgence to self-denial, man to woman, scales to feathers, you and I, eagles in the sky, you and I, snakes in the grass, you and I, crawl and fly, you and I.”
Exposing herself to the world with no boundaries, she used contrasting images to describe the inner conflicts and the depth of her character.Like Shakespeare, she drew a fuzzy line between good and evil.
By exposing herself, she spoke to the duality in all of us:“Behind my bolt locked door, the eagle and the serpent are at war in me, the serpent fighting for blind desire, the eagle for clarity.What strange prizes these battles bring, these hectic joys-these weary blues, puffed up and strutting when I think I win, down and shaken when I think I lose.”
She reminds that blind desire and clarity can be gateway drugs to each other.
“Big bird dragging its tail in the dust…snake kite flying on a string.”
Joni’s inner conflicts are not black and white, left or right-brained, on or off. They are in the same soup of her soul, of our souls, there to be embraced with grace and balance.
Although we will never fully understand the motivation and intimate meanings of Joni’s lyrics, she provoked my creative imagination and helped bridge the gap between the real world and my abstract self. It was reassuring and normalizing to hear: “It seems we all live so close to that line and so far from satisfaction.”
Joni often used references of a personal relationship as a metaphor that spoke to something larger.My perception of the simple words: “And you put me at the top of your danger list just for being so much like you are” was meant to expose the 1970s good ol’ boys network for what it was.
In those times, there were more threatened men who resisted women’s entrance into the workplace with gender-biased perceptions and role expectations.Many men claimed exclusive seats at the boardroom table because the norms of the day dictated it.When men heard the question, “Do you want your wife working late at the office?” they had horrific thoughts of creepy predators, changing diapers and, heaven forbid, having to cook a meal.
In her typical fashion, Joni’s words didn’t demand inclusion, just magnified the fact that insecurity was the root of the problem.She was never a leader of the feminist movement, but a willingness to write openly of her fears and vulnerabilities enabled us all to think introspectively, become more enlightened to re-think the barricades to change.
When a glass ceiling breaks, some focus on what’s beyond, others cover up to avoid the shard’s falling around them. Joni’s lyrics peeled back the layers of existing norms and exposed the right side of history.
She wrote/sang:“I come from open prairie, given some wisdom and a lot of jive.Last night I saw the ghost of my old ideals, re-run on channel five.”
While the unpredictable winds of change were blowing hard, Joni used another relationship metaphor to caution us of the risks to intimacy.
“You and me are like America and Russia, we’re always keeping score.We’re always balancing the power and that could get to be a cold, cold war.”
A lengthy solo by jazz tenor saxophone great, Wayne Shorter at the end of a new piece foreshadowed Joni’s brief collaboration with legendary composer Charles Mingus during the last few months of his life.
Putting words to the Mingus’s jazz classic, “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat,” Joni recounts mid-century society reactions when saxophonist Lester Young married a white woman.She ended the piece with another poignant and universal message:“Love is never easy, it’s short of the hope we have for happiness.”
Joni also included a haunting original piece about her impressions of Mingus’s multiple personalities that, once again, spoke to some duality in all of us. “He is three, one’s in the middle unmoved, waiting to show what he sees to the other two. To the one attacking–so afraid and the one that keeps trying to love and trust and getting himself betrayed. In the plan—oh the divine plan, God must be a boogie man.”
As she aged, Joni used an introspective style to discuss her mortality. The song, “Sweet Bird,” began:“Out on some borderline, some mark of in-between, I lay down golden-in time and woke up vanishing. Sweet bird, you are briefer than a falling star.” She continued. “Behind our eyes, calendars of our lives, circled with compromise. Sweet bird of time and change you must be laughing, up on your feathers laughing.”
Another polarity of life is the nexus of an aging body and an expanding mind.Well into middle-age, Joni, as we do, became more reflective and often cynical about both the past and present.Now speaking to a larger audience, her current state-of-mind was revealed through a hard-edged, whimsical love song.“If I’d only seen through the silky veils of ardor what a killing crime this love can be.I would have locked up my heart in a golden sheath of armor and kept its crazy beating under strictest secrecy, high security.”
Sensing, early on, a nation divided, Joni began to speak to our perceived invulnerability, not by advocating changes in policy, but openly reflecting on what we all had become.
Years ago, in “Borderline,” she observed: “Everybody looks so ill at ease, so distrustful so displeased.
Running down the table, I see a borderline, like a barbed wire fence strung tight, strung tense, prickling with pretense, a borderline.”
Changing mine or anyone’s position was never on Joni’s agenda.She was only there for thought-provoking insight.
“Every notion we subscribe to is just a borderline. Good or bad, we think we know, as if thinking makes things so. All convictions grow along a borderline”.
Borderlines were something Joni wrote of but never subscribed to.
Joni’s well-timed last lyrical message came in 2007, something I relished then and now.Imagining that it was our final conversation and I was seeking any sage advice that would sustain me, she responded with:“If you can dream and not make dreams your master. If you can think and not make intellect your game. If you can meet with triumph and disaster
and treat those two imposters just the same.”
Like any long-term relationship, there is no real ending.What we take from it lasts throughout our lives and maybe gets passed on to another.Of the people who I have long admired but never met, Joni’s profound impact in my life is unmatched.Like a martyr, revealing her own vulnerabilities conjured up introspection and balance in our lives and, perhaps, in the lives of others.
Though not included in any dictionary at the time, the word “hop”, during the late 1950s, was a term used by young people to describe a place to gather and begin the pre sexual revolution, innocent pubescent introduction to intimate contact called dancing.
Danny and the Juniors
At this stage, you are immediately cast into another teeny-bopper comparison.Even while on the floor, I would question my
dance skills.Was I good or just average?I looked around and surmised that I didn’t have the graceful swagger of Stephen, but was better than the kid with flaying arms who missed every other beat. I had just enough confidence to ask someone to dance, knowing I could never be as bad as that guy.
Danny and the Juniors with their one and only hit, “At The Hop,” helped cement the term into our middle school vocabularies with their somewhat racy lyrics:
“Well, you can swing it you can groove it
You can really start to move it at the hop
Where the jockey is the smoothest
And the music is the coolest at the hop
All the cats and chicks can get their kicks at the hop
I was more than ready to go. When I would hear my parents complain that they couldn’t understand the words to our modern music, I thought that was the plan.
By high school in 1962, “the hop” began to lose its luster.It didn’t sound like this new decade.Unable to settle on a name, our weekly summer dance night in the high school multi-purpose room became the What’s It club.
In ninth grade, I was still small.Six foot would come two years later, after a fairly rapid growth spurt. My legs were so skinny that after sitting in a hot bath with my new jeans on, they still didn’t fit tight. My hair had turned from straight to wavy to coarse and curly in a span of three years, leaving me with fewer options than I preferred.
In the end, I could handle my myself socially.I was less shy about interacting with girls than many of my friends.Something about not being seen as serious gives you limited access and I had all the dancing I could handle.To use a baseball metaphor for intimate progression, I was a prime candidate to slide safely into second base.
She said, “Hey, Lyle, you wanna dance?
Yes, at times they came to me.Whether on the dance floor or in a phone booth, a girl making the first move was usually better than my plan, no move at all.
The What’s It was mostly about hanging out and dancing to records, but twice a month we had a live band that immediately turned the atmosphere from teen club to nightclub.
By 1962, Elvis Presley had already made twelve films and his days of producing good rock ’n roll were behind him.The music of many of the black musicians who inspired Elvis surfaced and, thanks in some part to Barry Gordy’s Motown Records in Detroit,
became mainstream.One of those performers who appealed to young people was James Brown, the King of Soul. His sparkling costumes, wavy processed hair and rapid footwork in his dance moves appealed to crowds from the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the Hollywood Bowl.Therhythms were relentless and the lyrics insignificant, all that was needed was an intermittent, “I feel good,” followed in the next riff by, “I knew that I would.”
Brown’s music inspired local bands to cover his style and they were presented throughout the summer atWhat’s It. The Jaguars with Richie Jackson performed twice, adding a small brass section for the danceable beginning numbers before introducing Jackson, who entertained with his voice and his soft feet. Another soul band, The Young Starlighters with Mitch and Cherie, delivered much of the same with harmonized vocals and some knock-off James Brown choreography.
On records-only nights, we danced to Brown, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and later to the Supremes and Smokey Robinson.These were innocent, soulful times that we thought would last forever.
In 1964, the Beatles, a new group from Liverpool, England began to dominate AM radio airplay with the juvenile phase of their music.For many of us, their songs were short and silly, nothing that signaled legendary. However, the album, “Rubber Soul,” released in December 1965, began their ascent into creative brilliance that has not been matched since.
By the end of 1964, the California-sound of the Beach Boys, could no longer compete with the Beatles invasion in the annual Battle of the Bands call-in survey sponsored by KLIV-1590 AM Radio in San Jose.
We were raised on the music of Little Richard, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Motown, but now listening to bands called The Rolling Stones and the Kinks.
The British had taken our black music, respectfully filtered it through their culture and voice, and fed it back to us. To say that we
The Chocolate Watchband
hailed it as groundbreaking is an understatement. How many potentially great live Beatles albums were ruined by the screamers?
The Jaguars and the Young Starlighters were gone from Thursday nights at the What’s It, replaced by bands like The Chocolate Watchband who mostly covered Rolling Stones tunes. Another band, Stained Glass, whose recording of the Beatle’s “If I Needed Someone” was number one on the 1965 Buffalo, New York top hit list, were always idiosyncratic and our high school classmate Dennis was the drummer. Then there was the Gollywogs who, a fewyears later, changed the band’s name to Credence Clearwater Revival and went global.
For a time, I missed Little Richie Jackson and hoped he would catch on with a new band, even if it meant performing on Friday nights in the lounge of a local bowling alley.
We danced nostalgically to Johnny B.Goode by Chuck Berry or Marvin Gayes’s “I Be Doggone,” but most of the new stuff was British.In 1965, “(I Can’t Get No)Satisfaction” became number one as we stepped our way to commencement.Soon, we were off to college and what happened over the next five years will be discussed by historians and sociologists for centuries.
As I look back, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, early beginnings of the women’s movement, the protests, the whole damn cultural revolution, happened in the face of the previous generation who had saved and protected our way of life.
I wish I could re-do some of those tense conversations and get my point across in a more sensitive way.I regret that courtesy and understanding were, at times, overshadowed by the cause, or what was perceived as such.
Songwriter Jackson Browne in a musical analogy, wrote, “Make room for my 45s along beside your 78s, nothing survives but the way we live our lives.”
We stopped dancing and started listening.The role of dance as an introduction to intimate contact became obsolete. With the dawn of birth control and a new open-mindedness, such encounters resulted from nothing more than a simple twist of fate.
American black music inspired the first British invasion which, in turn, inspired a new generation of British and American bands like Cream, Jefferson Airplane and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as singer songwriters like Fred Neil, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
In 1969, using a firmly planted, powerful position in student politics, the Black Student Union at my university secured comedian/activist Dick Gregory as a Scholar-in-Residence and brought in a series of jazz artists like Charles Lloyd, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet and Bobby Hutcherson to celebrate the black experience.
My musical horizons exploded.I once heard Reverend Jesse Jackson introduce the Cannonball Adderley Quintet at an Operation Breadbasket event in Chicago, referring to the role of music in the black movement.
He said, “The musician often tries to capture the new thing that gives us melody and rhythm as we do our thing.”
The Cannonball Adderley Quintet at Operation Breadbasket
I became a sponge for the rhythms and the messages of the time. As Jackson urged those in the audience to stand up straight, the Quintet launched into their new inspiring anthem, “Walk Tall.”
There it was, the identical rhythms of James Brown, The Jaguars with Richie Jackson, and The Young Starlighters, disguised in a new package with a new meaning.As it all evolved musically and spiritually, I have never forgotten, not for one minute that, for me, it all started at the hop.
In 2010, as we lifted off the runway in Guayaquil, Ecuador and banked toward Baltra in the Galápagos Islands, some six hundred miles away, I still didn’t know what to expect. I had dreamt of this moment for decades, but wondered if reality would match presumption.
Karen patted my knee.
“This is your “leg” of the journey,” she said.
She was referencing a promise made to ourselves forty years earlier, when the relationship was new. We had spent the last eight days in the Peruvian Andes fulfilling her dream of walking in Macchu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.
“What’s on your mind?” she asked.
“Sally Lightfoot crabs,” I said.
“That’s what was on my mind. They only exist here and I’m hoping to see some.”
“Well, good luck, honey, I’m sure you’ll manage to find one or two.”
To my surprise, the first natural vegetation we encountered, after stepping onto Galápagos soil, looked like a large grove of Saguaro
Proceeding through customs with no lines in a building without walls and a thatch roof was a near stress-free beginning. On the bus for the two-mile trek to the ferry, I got my first glimpse of the prickly pear tree, with large, flat “prickly” pads that resemble the shape of a Saguaro cactus. An abundant and vital part of the Galápagos landscape, the flowers of the prickly pear feed the giant saddle tortoises,
and the pads, after falling to the ground are devoured by the large land iguanas.
The first ferry ride was less than one mile, the distance between Baltra and Santa Rosa Islands. The initial arid landscape quickly became a translucent turquoise blue bay inlet with visible sea life, surrounded by coal-black volcanic rocks.
Stepping off the second ferry to Santa Cruz Island, one of the largest in the archipelago, I watched a Sally Lightfoot crab scurry across the rocks. We hoped to see a few of these colorful, animated creatures, but estimated that more than one hundred thousand crossed our paths. They were everywhere, their vibrant color pigments contrasting with the black background. The infant Sally Lightfoot crabs are black for natural camouflage, the adolescents go through a
Sally Lightfoot Crab
red period before assuming, as adults, gleaming red legs and a dazzling yellow shell with piercing sky blue trim.
Santa Cruz Island was more tropical than the others. It is also home to the giant domed tortoise that thrives inland from the water that bears its name. Baie Tortuga is along the route to Puerto Isidro Ayora, where “Carmina,” our nautical home for the next five days, was “anchor down,” awaiting our arrival. An opportunity to observe these gentle giants was enough to delay the rendezvous.
A short hike off the road into a large, lush meadow led to our earliest glimpse of a huge tortoise. Everyone’s eyes locked on the first creature, but within seconds we were watching fifteen or so quietly grazing on the grasses. A few withdrew into their shells as we passed by, but most continued their normal routine of ingesting without chewing, beginning a three-month digestive process. They often measure six feet in length and their shells reach the height of a tall human adult’s waist. It’s hard to comprehend these
Giant Domed Tortoise
stupendous creatures once being slaughtered for fresh meat on pirate ships.
The giant tortoises were mesmerizing. We could have watched all day but needed to be in port soon. As the bus was departing down a dirt road, it suddenly stopped as Pauli, our naturalist, stood up.
“Well, my friends. It seems that one of the tortoises has decided to rest in the middle of the road,” she said.
“What happens next?” John asked.
Any physical contact with the tortoises is strictly forbidden and closely observed. We waited for fifteen minutes before Pauli stood once again.
“I need volunteers,” she said.
With limited visitations closely monitored by the Conservancy, she understood the need to remain on schedule.
“I’ll do it,” I said, my arm already raised like a fifth grader who knows the right answer.
Seconds later, six of us carefully surrounded and, with near perfect precision, lifted the giant domed tortoise and moved it several feet off the muddy road. It remained quiet and still during the process but, once on the ground, became the fastest slow-mover of the day.
Other islands are home to the saddle tortoise whose shell is arched to provide more neck reach to the prickly pear flower, food that hangs three to four feet above the ground.
Puerto Isidro Ayora, Galapagos’s largest town with a population of thirty-thousand, is the main port for all cruise vessels. As our group of fifteen boarded two rubber Zodiacs for the half-mile journey to the small cruise ship, a discussion ensued regarding people’s diverse expectations. Some were fulfilling lifelong dreams, others were being dragged along by their partners. I tuned out, put aside any perceptions and immersed myself in the moment. I was sitting in a rubber raft with a motor attached, in the sea of the archipelago, at the confluence of the three oceanic currents that created this ecosystem.
Settled in on Carmina, we enjoyed a welcome toast with pina coladas and a wonderful dinner prepared by chef Raoul, our new favorite crew member. We all went to bed early, hoping to sleep through our first night of sailing. The last sound I heard was the anchor lifting through the water as we departed for Bartolome’ Island, a volcanic rock with minimal plant or animal life.
On the Zodiacs by early morning, we left for the island and a challenging hike up four hundred steps through lava rock to the highest
Bartolome Island, Sullivan Bay, Pinnacle Rock
peak, later snorkeling a small cove in Sullivan Bay, directly below the majestic, wind-carved Pinnacle Rock. Views from the top of the island and below the ocean’s surface were equally stunning, the latter courtesy of a huge school of yellowtail surgeonfish. We
would see many more fish along with sea lions, marine iguanas, eels, rays and sea turtles during our daily snorkeling adventures.
After lunch on the boat, we were back on the Zodiacs, patrolling the volcanic cliffs in search of the shy Galápagos penguins, hiding among the fluorescent Sally Lightfoot crabs and a few Blue-footed Boobies. Measuring twenty-four inches high, these rare docile penguins are the second smallest of the species that, once in the water, become quick and agile.
Day Two began with a dry landing on Puerto Egas, a lava beach on Santiago Island, and a hike where we encountered large colonies of sea lions, marine iguanas and, of course, more Sally Lightfoot crabs. The volcanic cliffs led us to a flat plateau filled with tide pools and ledges near the surf, providing protected water access for various species.
With marine iguanas on Puerto Egas Beach
Hundreds of prehistoric looking marine iguanas appeared as we reached the ledge, lying side-by-side and on top of each other, oblivious to our invasion. Aside from the occasional snort, ejecting the salt acquired on their latest ocean sojourn to eat red and green algae and cool their bodies, they seemed lifeless. Over the next hour, we observed the lethargic creatures sunning themselves until the necessity to repeat the cycle drove them to the sea.
I’ve watched the California sea lion, the Galapagos variety’s closest relative, for most of my life, but never studied their daily activities or parenting habits as well as the chauvinistic attitudes of the alpha male. Pauli consistently identified red-billed tropic birds, brown pelicans, flightless cormorants, Galapagos hawks, lava lemons, and many of
the fourteen species of finches found on the islands.
After snorkeling in a small bay abundant with sea turtles and rays, we returned to the boat for lunch as it navigated toward Rabida Island for our first deep-water snorkeling off the Zodiac. The timing for this jaunt was perfect for observing the last lunch call for hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies, innocent-looking, lumbering birds with iridescent turquoise duck-feet that, once in the air, became missiles, diving into the surf with the force and synchronization of the Blue Angels air acrobatic team. Gathering and hovering high above for several minutes, there was a “caw” to action from the leader and suddenly they released, hitting the water like bullets from a semi-automatic rifle. None of them went back to the cliffs hungry.
Using a backflip off the Zodiac like a scuba diver, Rod was the first in the water. Before I entered, he reappeared, emphatically pointing to a specific location.
“Look down now,” he said.
Off the boat, after adjusting my mask, I put my face in the water in time to see two marine iguanas feeding on algae. Watching them smoothly sway back and forth through the water as they swam to the surface was hypnotic, the spell broken only by a large sea turtle passing within arm’s reach.
The five of us who chose to join the first deep water snorkeling were rewarded well beyond our expectations. Back to the boat to remove our wetsuits, we quickly re-boarded the Zodiac dinghies and crossed the inlet for a wet landing on Rabida Island that promised red sand beaches and large colonies of sea lions.
Beach on Rabida Island
With uniquely gorgeous beaches, the small Rabida Island revealed a landscape of low to medium shrubs and prickly pear trees that vibrantly contrasted with the red sand and soil. It was there that we first observed the dictatorial alpha male sea lions rule their harems with an iron flipper, lashing out against other interested males or females with a wandering eye. Thrusting out one’s chest and yelling stridently is, apparently, required to maintain their power or overcome the fear of losing it. I have heard recent rumors that the females have initiated a #MeToo! movement that is wreaking havoc on the entire eco-system.
On the return trip to Carmina, the drivers meticulously maneuvered the Zodiacs close to the rocks of the minute Nameless Island for close observation of calmer Blue-Footed Boobies. The docile nesting birds did not seem to match the air-acrobatic profile on
display when they were hunting fish.
After dinner on the boat, we set sail to South Plaza Island, a small patch of land, that unlike Bartolome Island, promised distinctive terrain and wildlife.
The early morning rumpling of a dropping anchor signaled that we were close to land. South Plaza Island required a wet landing because the minuscule strips of sand immediately ascended to steep rocks that were carefully crossed to reach the effervescent scarlet and yellow Sesuvium, a succulent ground cover that surrounded a dirt trail. A short walk led us to steep, vivid cliffs that afforded close-up views of fierce blue-green surf and Elliot’s storm petrel, a long-legged bird that flies close to the rocks with uncomprehending speed and agility.
The male land iguana that resides on South Plaza Island is also unique, displaying lurid colors to attract females during mating season. The ones we encountered were two to three feet long with bright yellow scales that resembled an ear of corn.
Quality time for land iguanas
Karen carefully photographed them from all angles and was rewarded when a female arrived for some companionship.
“Give them a minute, Karen,” said Ginny, smiling, “they probably don’t get enough quality time together.”
“They’re iguanas, Karen said,“They have nothing but time.”
Aware of this rare opportunity, she continued to shoot, mindful of the purity and dignity of the moment.
A lasting memory from this small island, thriving with life, was watching the birth of a baby sea lion and what followed. A large sea lion was lying on the rocks a few yards away. Pauli pointed skyward to a large flock of frigate birds that hovered above like hawks over their prey.
“That sea lion is about to give birth,” she said, “and those frigates know it.”
Baby sea lion
Minutes later, the pup was born. The mother immediately nudged it away from the afterbirth toward the sea, anticipating that the frigates would soon dive in numbers for the unusual meal.
The dynamics of the scene were astonishing. The acrobatic, hungry frigates, the protective sea lion mother and the pup, trying to comprehend “womb to water,” was mind-boggling to watch.
Something else mind-boggling happened that evening on the boat during dinner. We sat with another couple, Tom and Carol who, although we had snorkeled together in the group, we had not spoken to.
As a conversation ensued, Tom asked the question, “Where did you guys grow up?”
“I was born in Santa Monica, but I grew up in Sunnyvale,” said Karen.
Tom said, “You’re kidding, so did I. What high school did you attend?”
On the Zodiacs
“Oh my god, so did I. What year did you graduate?”
“Me too.” “What was your maiden name?”
“You’re Karen Raven, my god, I remember you as far back as junior high. Your brother Kerry was on the high school basketball team.”
Once again, I slipped into the moment. What were the odds? We were sitting in the galley of a small cruising ship, somewhere in the Galápagos Islands, and Karen was talking to a new friend who happened to be very old friend.
Months later, Tom and Carol traveled down from Oregon and we attended a Homestead High School reunion together, days after the death of its most famous alumni, Steve Jobs.
Karen at Darwin’s Bay
As the sun rose, we found ourselves near unfamiliar land. Our time on Santa Fe Island, one of the oldest, began as the Zodiacs entered
the pellucid waters of Darwin’s Bay. A wet landing was required on a beach alive with sea lion activity, which nearly caught one of our group in a compromising position between an angry alpha male and an unwelcome intruder. Amid some loud barking and a few aggressive gestures, the situation was soon peaceably resolved. It seems that the alpha male will defend his harem against outsiders of any species.
The snorkeling group
The other memories of Santa Fe Island came from below the ocean’s surface. After a deep-water entry off the Zodiac, we snorkeled the bay, identifying three rays—spotted eagle, diamond and sting—more sea lions, eels, multitudes of fish and graceful sea turtles methodically swimming by. Plants and sea life created a striking visual underwater panorama that has remained a vivid memory.
Chef Raoul outdid himself with a sublime farewell dinner. Afterwards, we all enjoyed an aperitif and talked about our experiences and our expectations. Most were met, some not. The few people that chose not to get into the water or the Zodiacs would have enjoyed a luxury cruise more.
Atypically, I mostly remained silent during our discussion, choosing to maintain the purity of my personal insights. Although I detest the term “bucket list,” exploring the Galápagos Islands was something that I always planned to do during my lifetime and I had a sense of fulfillment.
We toasted Pauli, thanking her for carefully curating the excursion. We joked that leading small groups through the islands for a living
Pauli leads the landing
was a dream job. Truly, we all appreciated how hard she worked. Her patience and knowledge enhanced the adventure more than we could have imagined.
There was a light storm during the final sail to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island. Needing the help of the guide rails to get our clothes from the dresser to the suitcase, choppy waters made us wish that we had completed packing before dinner. Our bags managed to get outside the door by the 6 am deadline and soon we were on the Zodiacs for our final ride to enjoy the village before departing for the Ecuadorian coast.
At the dock, we observed several locals waiting for a water taxi, standing while two small sea lions slept on the provided
siesta time for sea lions
benches. It was a metaphor for the way of life on the islands where an “everything matters” viewpoint is engrained into the culture.
Few have had the opportunity to experience Galápagos and fewer are capable of grasping it the way Charles Darwin did. My resolve to stay in the moment helped me immerse myself into it and take what it was giving. The memories, and the way it enhanced my perspective of the world, will last forever.
The word got around the neighborhood quickly. Balloons and banners were going up at the new local service station and, in 1955, that was all the advertising needed. The Grand Opening was Saturday and everyone who was anyone would show up. Copious amounts of food, drinks, rides and other free stuff would be at hand. The fathers, wearing wingtips and work boots, would mingle with the new manager, eating hot dogs and listening to his subtle pitch of reliable service and proximity. In those days, no one wanted to travel too far from home.
The mothers, dressed in petal-pushers and scarves to protect their hair from the wind, would talk among themselves. The adults would have their discussions and make decisions, but, for us kids, it was a young baby-boomers dream, fun in the sun on a Saturday afternoon at another gas station opening in post-WWII Santa Clara Valley.
This new station was a Mobilgas, so the flying red horse ride would be there. The deep red-winged stallion in full motion mimicked the large neon ones that hung above each station. Today, it was a perfect fit for both my frame and imagination.
What is the attraction to a seven-year-old boy of sitting on some tiny molded horse that moved two inches forward, then backward to simulate galloping? It certainly wasn’t my first rodeo but the red flying horse was different, an upgrade from the scratched up old mechanical mare outside of the grocery store. This was a flying red horse, permanently posed, head down, wings spread as if in flight. It would be totally cool to ride a real red flying horse, although I would have to replace my cuffed blue jeans and homemade shirt with a super hero costume. For now, I’ll use my mind’s eye and settle for riding this one, which comes with a free photo.
In addition to the rides and hot dogs, there was cotton candy and stacks of wooden crates holding glass Coca-Cola bottles. This opening even had a guest appearance from local country radio disc jockey, Cottonseed Clark, a who broadcast a few hours of his radio program from the event. Another souvenir photo, autographed. Mobilgas was pulling out all the stops for this one. In the 1950s, these events were common because gas and service stations played an integral role in our daily lives.
Filling the car up with gas was only one reason for our weekly trek at the service station. It began when we drove over the black hose that made a chime sound to alert the mechanic. In 1955, there were enough cars to keep each station busy, but the pace was such that the operator could perform maintenance work and still handle the pump demand. The fact that our parents were having children in record numbers would change that dynamic and contribute to the slow death of the full-service experience.
“Hi George,” my dad said, “fill it up with Ethel.”
Before he said a word, George Osaka would open the hood, then walk to the rear of the car and insert the gas hose. Because he had to hold the hose the entire time, he had a few moments for friendly conversation before he completed his checklist.
George said, “How’s she running?”
“So far, so good,” said my dad, “that whine is gone since you replaced the belt.”
“Guess that was it.”
George would always acknowledge me in the backseat.
“You staying busy, Butch?”
My father thought that we could afford premium Ethel gas even though, at twenty-three cents per gallon, it was two cents higher than regular. I would always roll down my back seat window during this process to experience the sweet smell of gasoline. There are many people in today’s world that are addicted to intoxicative inhalants and, there but for fortune go I. I loved the smell of fresh gasoline, possibly associating it with freedom. I dreamt of driving my own car one day and, if I could ever save fifteen hundred dollars, buy that new Ford convertible shown on the local car commercial and take it on a long road trip. There was not a faint glimpse of a thought that, years later, I would find the odor of gas toxic and obnoxious, connecting it to congestion and dirty air. In the 1950s, cars and gasoline were the wave of the future, just listen to Walt Disney talk of his Autopia.
Tank full, George would focus his attention under the hood, checking the oil and radiator water levels then shaking the hoses to assure none were loose. After checking the tire pressure, he would spray and clean all the car windows to complete the service, all for the price of the gas that, somehow flowed plentifully from a magical underground reservoir.
“Everything looks good. That will be four fourteen,” said George.
My dad handed him a five dollar bill and he returned with the change, green stamps and wishes for everyone to have a good week. Mr. Osaka was our go-to service station guy because my dad thought he was a good and trustworthy mechanic and had this belief that the Japanese were honest business people. I found this somewhat conflicting because he was slightly more than a decade removed from a foxhole in Tawara, but I witnessed him, on numerous occasions, do and say things that expressed his respect for the local Japanese community. He would say that government leaders, not people, start wars.
After the car was serviced and when there wasn’t a station opening that I could persuade my parents to go to, our Saturday morning routine took us to the local donut shop for a late breakfast of donuts, coffee and chocolate milk, which set us back another dollar fifty, including tip. Then, on some days, it was off to the local car wash.
My father normally washed our car himself, but once a month we went to the new modern carwash because they vacuumed the interior and cleaned the cigarette smoke residue that would form inside of the windshield. Carwashes represented new, state-of-the-art technology and it seemed like magic as I peered through soap-film-stained windows to watch our car go through. Occasionally, in lieu of a gas station opening, we would go to Bounceland USA so I could jump on the trampoline. For this enterprise, someone leased a vacant lot, dug twelve pits, covered the top with springs and rubber straps and charged fifty cents for kids to jump up and down for twenty minutes. Life in those days would allow such a venture. No liability waivers, no spotters, people did things at their own risk. These, and similar endeavors, would soon fall prey to the mating calls of lawyers in love.
I stayed on the lookout for new Mobilgas stations during the next few months, but the arrival of a new Hopalong Cassidy bike, named after the television serial cowboy, and a pogo stick vastly escalated my mobility and I moved on from the flying red horse.
In my mind, that old icon has become a metaphor for innocent, simpler times when we had one phone, attached to the wall, one small television displaying three channels in a large ugly cabinet, one car and one bathroom. I am also reminded that, in 1955, I had seven normal years left before it all fell apart. As my family crashed and burned, there were times when I wished I had a red flying horse to take me away from it all.
I remember simpler times when a face was just a face, another friend on the playground. Post World War II Santa Clara Valley was rapidly expanding and most of the faces moving into the new houses were various shades of Europe. We were all different to some degree and, beyond a little curiosity, it was quietly accepted or irrelevant within the serious business of childhood.
Most of our fathers fought in the war, mine in Tarawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. The common paradigm for returning GI’s was to get married, have kids and live happily and peaceably ever after. The textbooks called it “Return to Normalcy,” a panacea for the scars of battle.
My parents had little money, but I had everything I needed and some things I didn’t, like freckled cheeks and a “cowlick” on the back of my head resembling the Alfalfa character on the “Little Rascals” television show. Another social challenge, surprisingly, came from re-runs of The Honeymooners on the CBS channel. In each episode, Bronx bus driver Ralph Kramden, played by Jackie Gleason, bullied and yelled at his sewer-worker neighbor named Ed Norton. For an entire year, I was known only as “N-A-W-W-T-O-N,” usually from voices at maximum volume. Aside from that, things were quite normal.
During the 1958-59 school year, in Ms. Joan Davis’ fifth grade class, I met two young boys who were as different as any two people could be. Although our friendships were short-lived and we have had no contact in sixty years, they both remain in my memory because their stories are still pertinent today.
Both Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez were immigrants, one seasonal and the other fleeing communism with his parents after the Soviet Union invaded his homeland. Neither of them had television sets and both called me by my first name. They focused on what they had, never on what they didn’t.
I asked, “Hey Edvins, where are you from again?”
“Latvia,” he answered.
“Latvia. I’ve never heard of it.”
“Oh, that’s because it doesn’t exist anymore.”
He often spoke of his homeland but didn’t dwell on it. He told us that his father was an engineer in Latvia, but they had to leave and now he was managing an orchard across from the school until something better came along. We never discussed it, but I strangely became empathetic to his quiet struggle and understood that life was a little harder for him. Feeling empathy was a new experience for me.
Edvins was outgoing, verbose and smart. These factors offset his non-athletic, somewhat flabby body and the thick crew cut that fully covered his head like a completely grown “chia pet” gnome. He had no reservations in assuming the role as the smartest kid in class and his strong opinions convinced us that he hated the “commies” more than we did. His personal stories, many handed down from his father, reassured us all that Kruschev was the devil and the Soviet Union was indeed the “Evil Empire.”
Edvins was the first kid that I met who was an artist. He could draw anything and often spent his day sketching portraits of other classmates and not concentrating on the subject at hand. For the most part, we all saw his art as an asset, one that we relied on to make our class projects better.
One day, years later, in seventh grade homeroom, Edvins quietly passed me a dollar bill.
I whispered, “What’s this for?”
Gesturing with his finger, he said, “Look at it.”
Edvins had drawn a near perfect one dollar bill, both sides. At first glance, I easily mistook it for the real thing.
“I want to try it out at lunch,” he muttered.
I knew what he meant and still allowed my curiosity to make me complicit in his plan. We ate lunch together in the cafeteria, then set out for the room where students took turns selling ice cream to other students. The money raised went to the end of the year picnic.
Edvins said, “Two Fudgesicles,” holding up his fingers in the shape of a “V”.
The innocent student clerk took the phony bill, handed him the two bars and seventy cents change. Barely able to contain our emotions, we took the contraband and slithered out to a remote area to eat it. Edvins was beside himself, celebrating the fact that he had pulled off his little scheme.
On our way back to class, we stopped by the ice cream room as Edvins turned over a real dollar bill and asked for his forgery back. We all laughed, knowing it was typical Edvins, mischievous but honest, curbing his boredom in ways the rest of us could not imagine.
Florencio Lopez had dark skin. His slim but strong physique and the deep cheekbones in his face looked like an old, sepia photograph of a Native American warrior. His wardrobe consisted of jeans and a few different flannel shirts that he always wore with the top button fastened. His hard-soled shoes looked like they had survived generations.
Florencio was shy, quiet and stoic, remaining a mystery to most of us. He stood out as the sole Hispanic kid in class. Because English was not his first language, he was often slow to comprehend lessons, making this strong kid self-conscientious and vulnerable.
When Ms. Davis called on him, he often answered, “I don’t know.” She was very patient and set an all-inclusive tone in the classroom, yet he remained aloof and preferred to be by himself. There was still this mysterious aura that made us unsure and cautious about approaching him.
Florencio’s moment came not in the classroom, but on the playground. In those days, every fifteen minute recess and the half hour remaining after lunch was ample time for many of the boys to divide into teams for a day long progressive touch football game.
He started showing up on the sidelines and watching us play. One day, someone asked him if he wanted to join in. He nodded quickly, then as the football hurled toward him as an impromptu try-out, he raised his large hands up and stopped it in its tracks. After an instant of stunned silence, an argument ensued.
“Okay, we’ll take him.”
“No, no, we’re a man down, we’ll take him.”
With minutes of recess left, the dispute was quickly resolved and, before the bell rang, we all learned that Florencio Lopez could run like the wind. From that point, he was known to everyone as Flo and he embraced it. His athletic abilities became his wristband to inclusion.
He could outrun anyone else backwards in hard soled shoes and the team he was on typically called only one play, “Throw to Flo,” hoping that he would not out run the arm strength of the passer. For weeks afterward, Flo became the playground star and far less mysterious to us all.
On the first Saturday of December, there was a district-wide football jamboree where all the elementary schools would gather for one day of competition. Permission slips and a small lunch fee were required. We all expected Flo to be our secret weapon, but he quietly told us that he couldn’t go. We pressed the issue until it became uncomfortable for everyone. Things that most of us took for granted were beyond the reach of others.
The last time that I remember seeing Florencio Lopez was a chance meeting when I was visiting his neighbor, Edvins Augusts. Next to Edvins’ modest, green, 1940s ranch house was a large, old bungalow in disrepair and in need of paint. Florencio lived there with his parents and five younger siblings. Ironically, the only two dwellings in the large orchard were side by side and the homes of my two new friends. Outside of class, it was the first and last time the three of us hung out together. The afternoon did not include art or football, just the three of us talking about whatever ten-year- old boys talk about.
Florencio did not return for the sixth grade, but Edvins stayed for a few years. The orchard was being sold off and by 1961 became a neighborhood with its own expressway, no longer in need of a manager or a foreman.
Recent research revealed an Edvins Augusts of my age who married twice, once in California and once in Nevada to a woman with a Russian surname. The search results for Florencio Lopez ranged from a Professor of Finance at a major university to a notorious Mexican drug lord apprehended in the late nineties.
Their fates remain unknown, but for me, getting to know Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez in the late fifties widened my young perspective and began to cement the understanding that, with our differences, we are all, deep down, the same.
October 7, 2017 was not an ordinary Saturday. We joined friends on a fancy tour bus for the ninety minute ride from Santa Rosa to Middletown, then up the mountain to the hydro-thermal power compound known as “The Geysers.” Returning in the afternoon from Calistoga, the bus drove through the pass that became Mark Springs Road because it was the fastest and most accessible route.
Passing by the entrance to Safari West, an African animal preserve prompted discussion on who had been there
“We were there last month,” I said
Weeks before, in late August, out-of-town guests enthusiastically requested Safari West, a four-hundred-acre African preserve and breeding center, as a top priority during their short visit. I either never knew or had forgotten that such a place existed northeast of Santa Rosa. However, I was game and loved being around it.
On a warm morning, we arrived and soon met our guide and jeep driver, Cindy. With dusty Levi’s, a khaki workshirt and the baked skin of someone who spends their days in our local Serengeti Plain, she was surely a seasoned veteran, comforting to our group.
Cindy explained that we would soon board what looked like a worn World War II surplus jeep retrofitted with a second level of seating for four people above the cab and a long gear shift protruding from the floor to the right of the driver. She referred to the old jeep as her partner and I had full confidence in both.
First on our day’s agenda, before boarding the jeep, was some intense bird-watching, then viewing primates and predator cats that, for obvious reasons are prohibited from roaming freely among the appreciative prey on the preserve.
I have seen flamingos before, but never heard them make a sound. We came upon a crowded colony of various shades of pink that, at times, sounded like an entire section of Type-A violinists who played and argued with each other simultaneously. The crescendo came in waves. One flamingo would annoy another, others, who I called shamers, would join in to escalate the volume and ferocity of the screeches, lowering their heads and projecting their necks forward like a weapon. The colony moved from tranquil fluidity to chaotic dysfunction and back again within seconds. Watching their behavior made me think of the parallels between us and them.
After carefully cleaning the bottoms of our shoes, we entered the large aviary. In trees and on the ground, we were surrounded by scarlet ibis, Argus pheasants, crown cranes, Stanley cranes and a unique demoiselle crane named Kovu, who literally had no clue that she was a bird. Some abandoned crane eggs were hatched in an incubator, producing Kovu,
who was then hand feed by humans. During both her formation and formative years, Kovu bonded with people, not cranes or birds at all.
She soon joined our group and participated in the walking tour. She stopped and started walking with us and seemed to enjoy observing these engaging winged creatures that surrounded us. Cindy pointed out that she has, in the past, taken a particular liking to a specific person, prompting her to raise and spread her wings, strutting around ceremoniously in circles.
Moments later, I stepped back and accidentally nudged Kovu. I apologized. She stared at me for a instant and then the “love dance” began. I became the one. She pulled her wings back and, in full display, began to dance in circles just for me. I was embarrassed and flattered at the same time. At my age, it’s nice to have appeal, even by a demoiselle crane who thinks more like a girlfriend than being a bird.
“Stand back Kovu.” Cindy delivered the disappointing news to our young friend, who had expectations of leaving the aviary and joining us for the rest of the tour.
After viewing the caged cats and before boarding the jeep, we observed several Black and White Colobus monkeys swinging from branches and moving quickly on the ground. Each one of these gorgeous creatures had a distinct black body with a white cape-like streak down it’s back and a ring of white fur that surrounded their entire face.
Colobus is the Greek word for “mutilate” and unlike any other primates, these beautiful creatures, genetically, have no thumbs. They are also herbivores with a digestive system that enables the consumption of a variety of leaves, flowers and twigs. Their sloppy eating habits and digestive systems are said to be vital to seed distribution. It’s difficult to be neat without thumbs.
“Who wants to sit up top first?” asked Cindy as we boarded the jeep. A young family of four jumped at the chance and were doubly pleased when we offered them our turn.
Buckled in, we started up the bumpy road. Entering each section of the preserve required that Cindy stop and exit the jeep, unlock and open a gate, re-enter, start up the vehicle and move a few feet forward, stop and exit once again to lock the gate behind us. She did this several times during the tour. After all, this is old school Safari West, not Jurassic Park.
The first series of corrals belonged to five or six large giraffes with enough acreage to roam freely.
Cindy spoke. “Thirty-six giraffes have been born here and we believe that Jamala, who is celebrating her twentieth birthday today, may be pregnant.” She definitely was. When she turned, we were all surprised to see parts of two hoofed legs protruding from her.
Cindy quickly grabbed her radio. “This is Cindy. Are you aware that Jamala is giving birth.”
A voice was transmitted. “Yes, we’ve been monitoring her the last hour.”
“Does she need help?”
“We’re going to give her some time.”
“I knew that young Rico was up to no good.” Cindy smiled.
“Yeah, he was pretty active in the short time he was here.”
Rico was a nine-year-old male giraffe that was brought into the preserve to stimulate some growth to the herd. Apparently, his activity level was so high that his stay was shortened.
Not knowing how long the birth process would take, Cindy suggested that we proceed with our tour but quickly return after any updates.
In the next minutes we encountered ostriches, water buffalo, varieties of antelopes and an interesting zebra dynamic. We came upon three female zebras, standing side by side, intently observing a young male eating.
“They shunned and were downright mean to him when he first arrived,” said Cindy, “but after awhile, they all warmed up.”
The expressions of the tirelessly observant females seemed to say, “Isn’t he handsome when he eats?”
“Oh yes, such confidence!”
After listening to a scratchy voice over the radio, Cindy said, “It’s time to get back to Jamala.”
We returned to the sight of two young women pulling on rope lines that had been secured around the calf’s hoofs, now below a dangling head and neck. This tug-of-war continued for several minutes before reinforcement arrived in the form of two more young women.
The giraffe corrals looked like one large square corral, divided into four equal parts. Although Jamala was separated, a six-foot fence could not keep the others giraffes from surrounding her with comfort and support. They did not interfere, they were just there for her. One last tug by the young quartet and the new miracle of life slid from the mother
and fell six feet to the ground.
The calf looked dazed for a moment and then began, in vain, to stand up. Due to predators, standing is a top priority for baby giraffes. After many wobbly, futile attempts, the twenty-minute-old calf finally stood up and a minute later was nursing.
Jamala tended to her new offspring, cleaned her up and, within the forty minutes, we observed a new six-foot-tall baby giraffe walking steadily, looking a month, not an hour old.
She shared her wonderful birthday present with a small, fortunate group of people and supportive giraffes. The four interns were exhausted, but running high on
Jamala’s Birthday Gift
adrenaline. We all shared a moment and a lifelong memory together, but theirs were up close and personal.
My story was convincing. All on the bus agreed that we would go soon, together.
In the late hours of Sunday October 8, the Tubbs Fire ravaged through the same pass that we had traveled a day before and burned parts of Safari West. After directing the staff to evacuate, owner Peter Lang, stayed behind and strung together ten garden hoses to hold it at bay. N one of the living creatures at the preserve were harmed. The same could not be said for Lang’s home and a fleet of old, worn surplus jeeps with special seating above the cab.
Heroically, Peter Lang not only saved these beautiful creatures, but future
Mother and calf
opportunities for us to observe all facets of their complex lives, including the miracle of birth.
Safari West can be life changing. At a minimum, it reminds us of what we have known all along and may have forgotten. We are part of a balance that is both precious and fragile. Although humans have benefitted from being able to walk and use our hands simultaneously, we still share an eco-system and a an obligation to nourish and protect it.
On October 19, our family welcomed Drew Sofia Norton, into the world. Her parents
Drew Sofia Norton
and Jamala experienced the miracle of birth months apart. I hope that this beautiful baby, precious forever and fragile for the short-term, will embrace and celebrate all living things in our world. Visiting Safari West in a few years may give her a head start.
“What did you forget this time,” said Karen, responding to a familiar tone in my voice.
“My phone,” I answered, tightening my grip on the steering wheel.
“Well, I’ve got mine, she said, reassuring us both that we would not be completely off the grid of modern life during the next few days.
It was 2009 and having celebrated our recent retirements with season ski passes to Mammoth Mountain Resort, we relished the concept of mid-week skiing and the availability of a nearby cabin, courtesy of friends, Cindy and Ross. For us, the season passes were a metaphor for our new-found freedom and the ability to be spontaneous, to load the car on a whim and, within hours, be on a sparsely populated mountain. Cautiously dipping our toes in the sea of invincibility that once dominated our early lives, we were happy, healthy and wanted to remain as young as we could for as long as we could.
Our plan was to ski Wednesday through Friday noon, have a quick lunch, then get out of Dodge before the weekenders arrived. Today, there would be no standing in line to buy a lift ticket. They were already around our necks, with photos, encased in plastic. Season passes make you feel élite and special.
It had been awhile since Karen skied Mammoth and I was anxious to show her some new runs that I had discovered in a recent trip with some colleagues from work.
“Ross recommended a great warm-up run for me. It’s called Mambo,” I said as we put on our ski’s at the bottom of Stump Alley.
Karen answered, “Sounds good, as long as they have already groomed it.” To find her “ski legs,” she preferred that the first few runs of the day be free of moguls, chunky snow or ice. Mambo is a series of plateaus, creating alternating degrees of steepness from the top to the bottom before merging with Escape, a chute that allowed us to build up enough speed to make it back to the Stump Alley Express Chair. From there, we did it again, and once more until we realized we were falling into our comfort zones. A very nice, cozy comfort zone where the challenge of the slope fluidly matched the skill level of the skier. Feeling more confident, we were ready to push ourselves.
“Let’s go higher,” Karen said.
So we did. We ascended the mountain, Stump Alley to Chair #3 to a higher ridge line.
“This chute feeds into St Anton, follow me,” I pointed down the slope. From the back side, we could ski the St. Anton run which provided access to numerous opportunities on the northern side of the mountain. There we were, me in my helmet and goggles and Karen, sporting a cute beret and designer shades, embracing the sense of freedom and euphoria that the mountain gave us.
On Thursday, I suggested we explore it’s back side. The old two-person Chair #9 had been replaced with the new six-person Cloud Nine Express Chair which made many more skiers aware of these once-remote runs. Off the chair to the right, Goldhill could be intimidating, but soon merged with great runs like Haven’t The Foggiest and Quicksilver. The calmness of this area, with the muted sun, struggling to penetrated the thick, grey-rust sky, painted a very heavenly portrait. Nearly Nirvana but for the packs of helter-skelter snowboarders, passing through the silence like some Mad Max movie.
“Karen, do you remember Face of Five? I inquired. “We’ve skied it several times together.”
“Tell me about it,” she asked, signaling that her memory of it was, at best, foggy.
“The face is steep, right off the chair, sometimes chunky in the morning,” I said, “but it soon becomes Solitude, which you loved.”
“Where is it?” expressing due diligence on my recommendation.
“Actually, it’s just around this ridge, follow me,” I responded. And she did.
We skied Face of Five many times, benefitting by another new express chair until our legs began to tire. On our last run, we would stay on Solitude, past the express chair, to connect with lower trails that would eventually bring us back to Stump Alley, where a beverage of our choice was waiting. During this last run, it was important that we stay together. My intelligent, educated wife is severely directionally challenged and I would like to think that she needs me to get down the hill. Honestly, if we got separated, she would probably flag down a skier and ask directions.
We decided to spend our last morning on the back side, continuing to relish the challenge. Skiing better than we had on our first day, we wanted more, but the early weekenders were arriving and clearly visible against the backdrop of the white snow.
“Let’s do one more, then go in,” Karen said, as noon was approaching.
Pointing to a narrow trail, I said, “This will take us back to Face Of Five and we can go down from there.”
“Great.” There was an enthusiast tone to her voice. She was feeling good and we would probably boast to each other throughout the drive home.
The trail merged directly into the traffic on Face of Five. We pulled up to get our bearings and discuss a plan for the last descent. Suggesting our usual route, I said, “Ski down to the sign, we can meet up there and then go down the rest of the way together.”
The sign is a large billboard-sized ski trail map that is located at the apex of the lower and upper slopes. All the primary chair lifts coming from the various lodges dump skiers nearby and it is highly recognizable and helpful to those without pocket maps.
“You go first and I’ll meet you at the sign,” said Karen.
So I did. I set the edges of my ski’s into the snow and stopped at the base of the gigantic trail map, listening to what my thighs were telling me. I kept close watch for my partner for the next several minutes. She didn’t come. After another fifteen minutes, I became worried. At the least, she had taken a wrong turn, descended to another area and, without my phone, it could take hours for us to connect. This was the option that I was hoping for.
Polling slowly, I made my way back to the chair lift and rode to the top of Face of Five, looking off for signs of her. I skied back down and still saw none. Beginning to feel helpless, I decided to ski down to Stump Alley, near where our car was parked. Again, I waited and paced. My mind was running out of good scenario’s and I decided to check the places that I was avoiding.
Neither of the two emergency first aids stations reported an accident involving a woman. They recommended I check back later. Thinking that Karen may have called the cabin land-line, I drove there and found Ross, an early weekender, just arriving. He is part of the volunteer ski patrol and has contacts and can ski areas most people can’t. Before immediately leaving for the mountain, Ross gave me his phone. I called Karen’s phone and, for the first time in hours, heard her voice.
“Hi, you’ve reached Karen’s cell. Your call is important to me, at the beep….”
Another hour passed and I found myself driving back to the places where she might be, including both first aid stations. At 3:30 PM, the phone rang.
“Hello, Ross James please,” the voice on the line said.
“This is Ross’ phone, but my name is Lyle Norton,” I answered.
“Oh, Mr. Norton, the voice answered back, “you’re the person I am trying to contact. This is Dr. Siena at Mammoth Community Hospital.”
The scratches along the right side of her face and the broken clavicle would heal soon, but they were mostly concerned about the concussion. Karen was resting, not so comfortably. Dr. Siena explained that she had arrived in an ambulance sometime after 12:30 PM in a semi-conscious state. She later regained full consciousness and he had spoken to her. She recalled from an instant glimpse before the collision that it was a skier wearing a helmet. She remembered parts of a bumpy, headfirst basket ride down the slope, briefly worrying about throwing up, then actually doing so as she was being placed in the ambulance.
Within seconds after I started down the slope, she was hit. I was probably no more than fifty yards away and heard nothing. Ironically, although it was a tragic event in our lives, neither of us have any recollection of what really happened or witnessed it. The resort accident report that I requested revealed nothing: “woman found unconscious on Face of Five, evacuated at 12:18 PM and transported to Community Hospital. No witnesses.” The other skier apparently fled the scene and she was discovered, lying alone in the snow. You really do ski at your own risk and radio communication between those on the mountain and the first aid centers is not always reliable.
Karen continued to rest. After a few weeks, the facial scratches were gone and the fog in her brain was beginning to lift. In April, two months from the accident, she was much better and, feeling the need to “get back on the horse,” we returned to Mammoth to finish the run on Face Of Five. We skied for two days, mostly the back side (a reprise on Haven’t The Foggiest). We were back, both skiing with helmets, one a bit worn and the other, new and shiny, still living the dream, day-by-day, acutely aware of our mortality.