Bliss

“You need to clean your room, honey,” my grandmother says in her soft but commanding voice, and I know that doesn’t mean just shoving everything scattered on the floor into the closet. Why put everything away only to be bothered with pulling it all out tomorrow when I’m ready to play with it again? My mom’s mother lives with us, maintaining the household and making it possible for both of my parents to work. She knows how to hug and spank with equal skill.

I’d rather be walking out the back door, across the brick patio to the exterior two-bay garage to find my red bicycle waiting for me like a faithful companion. That bike takes me to the convenience store five blocks away to buy bubble gum. It takes me to my cousin’s house less than a mile away to play outside or curl up inside reading comic books. My bike has had many reincarnations: firetruck, racecar, motorcycle, roller coaster, spaceship.

I ride down the street, past houses of people my parents know casually but whom I only recognize as neighbors in cars and front yards. I would be shocked to learn, years later, that some of them drink alcohol, a substance of sin never permitted to cross the threshold of our baptized home. I cannot fathom that the housewife I never see next door beats her husband, and his shouts we hear from time to time are most likely cries of anguish, pain, despair.

My bike and I are unaware of nearby marriages crumbling, family financial crises, chronic illness, depression, or the fear of impending death. It’s inconceivable that some people on our street never go to church. Perhaps there are even parents who don’t pay attention to their children’s cluttered rooms. We are saved from the unimagined horrors that are carefully concealed behind neatly trimmed shrubs and front doors always closed.

Our Final Destination

One of the most magnificent places I have ever seen is Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. My wife, younger son, and I combined a visit to this park with our exploration of Yellowstone during the summer of 2015. Formed by a series of earthquakes dating back about 10 million years, the Teton Range rises an impressive 7,000 feet above the valley floor. The jagged, rocky peaks are quite a spectacle and can be seen for miles across the expansive meadows, forests, and flood plains that make up so much of the park’s terrain.

Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge
Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge

There are numerous options for staying overnight in the park, including campgrounds, cabins, and lodges. Jackson Lake Lodge is a full-service resort hotel that features a spacious lobby with two-story windows looking out on Jackson Lake and the 40-mile-long mountain range beyond. We didn’t actually stay at this lodge, but we spent some time in the lobby, out on the deck, and on the nearby trails where we could gaze at the ascending peaks still dressed in patches of snow even in July. As I wrote in a previous blog about this view, “Grand” doesn’t do it justice.

Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake
Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake

Human occupation of this region of the state began approximately 11,000 years ago when Nomadic paleo-Indians first entered the valley shortly after Pleistocene Ice Age glaciers retreated. The first euro-American explorer who may have entered the area was John Colter. He served as a member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition, but he left the expedition in the fall of 1806 and traveled through this region in the winter of 1807-1808. As America expanded westward, survey expeditions mapped the landscape, documented natural resources, and scouted for future railroad access. Congress created the original park in 1929 to protect the Teton Range and several lakes at the foot of the mountains. More land from the federal government and from private donors was added over the next few decades, and by 1950 the park was the size that it is today: 310,000 acres.

Just inside the southern entrance to the park is a place that holds special meaning for my wife and me. The tiny Chapel of the Transfiguration was built in 1925 on land donated by Maud Noble. It was constructed so that the early settlers would not have to make the long buckboard ride into the nearby town of Jackson for Sunday services. The structure also served guests and employees of the dude ranches that stretched north of Jackson along the base of the Teton Range. It is still a functioning Episcopal church and is operated by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. Services are held at the Chapel from late May to early September each year. A large window behind its altar frames the magnificent beauty of the Teton Range. A good friend of mine and a former Baptist minister of music once said, “It wouldn’t matter what the topic of your sermon was in that chapel. You’d always get an ‘amen’ at the end.”

Grand Tetons - Chapel of the Transfiguration
Grand Tetons – Chapel of the Transfiguration

My wife is a cradle Episcopalian, and I joined the denomination after we were married in 2008. We sometimes visit Episcopal churches when we are traveling, especially in historic locations. Although we did not attend a service at this little chapel, we were quite taken by its simple construction and its beautiful surroundings. In the summer of 2012, St. John’s created a Garden of Memories at the Chapel of Transfiguration for those who would like to repose their cremains on the grounds of this unique sacred place. Instead of being spread, ashes are poured into the ground and covered with soil. The names and dates of the deceased are inscribed on a plaque mounted on a large stone in the garden. We both decided a long time ago that we wanted to be cremated when we die, and after visiting this lovely place of worship in the valley below the Grand Tetons, we have chosen to make this garden our final travel destination.

Celebrating Ten Years in Sedona

Ten years is a long time, or way too short, depending on the circumstances. In 2018, my wife and I celebrated our ten-year anniversary. A decade seems like a natural milestone in the course of a lifetime and a marriage, so we decided to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Traveling brings us a great deal of pleasure, so we decided to spend a few days in a place that would offer some of our favorite elements of “getting away:” rest, relaxation, beauty, hiking, sightseeing, and of course, good food. Shortly after we married, we made a trip to Phoenix, rented a car, drove up to the Grand Canyon, and came back through the mystical and magical town of Sedona, Arizona. We told ourselves that someday we would come back and spend more time wandering around and getting a closer look at the iconic red rocks there. This special anniversary turned out to be the perfect time for a return to Sedona.

Casa Sedona Inn
Casa Sedona Inn

My wife found the perfect spot for us to stay a couple of nights. The Casa Sedona Inn is a small inn located on the west side of town with luscious gardens, bubbling fountains, comfortable rooms, and stunning views of the red rocks nearby. We had a private balcony overlooking the small pool and the wilderness area just beyond the property boundaries. We were both impressed with the hospitality of the staff, the quaint restaurant, the fine collection of art throughout the building, and the irresistible southwestern charm. Not nearly as exciting to my bride but an added treat for me was the wildlife we could see from our balcony and windows, including a few deer and what I mistook for a wild pig. Having previously lived in the southwest, my wife identified the creature as a javelina. Unlike the European swine most often seen domesticated on farms or in the wild in the eastern United States, these mammals are native to the Americas. Admittedly, this photo of the critter may not exactly exemplify the romantic tone of this post, but how could I resist?!

 

Javelina
Javelina

For our anniversary hike we drove a short distance out of town to Devil’s Bridge Trail. We had grand ideas of actually making it all the way to the often-photographed natural sandstone arch, but the trail turns into more of a climb near the end. We were satisfied with the five-mile out and back trek we made, which afforded some amazing views of the red rocks and distant mountain peaks. I never get tired of turning a corner, coming out into a clearing, or cresting a hill on a hiking trail to be transported by a vista that simply defies description.

Sedona's red rocks from Devil's Bridge Trail
Sedona’s red rocks from Devil’s Bridge Trail

 

Scenic views from Devil's Bridge Trail in Sedona
Scenic views from Devil’s Bridge Trail in Sedona

Sedona is a tourist town in the best and perhaps the worst sense of the phrase. People from around the world come here because of the town’s reputation as a center of cosmic  energy that is conducive to healing, meditation, and self-exploration. Somehow the red rocks, with their high concentration of iron-oxide, are thought to create a gravitational field of exceptional force. I have my doubts, but I do know that the force of commerce is quite real in Sedona — there are plenty of retailers. It is a fine vacation spot for families, with plenty to see and do. We especially enjoyed spending time in Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, where we had an exquisite dinner at Rene Restaurant and Wine Bar. We were seated next to a table of twelve — a wedding party that had just finished up in the little village chapel around the corner. They were an entertaining bunch.

The chapel at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village
The chapel at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village

On our final day in Sedona, we visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross. One of the guides at the chapel informed us that the giant crucifix had only been installed a few months before we arrived. Regardless of one’s approach to Christian faith in general or the Catholic Church in particular, this is an impressive work of art. We both sat for a brief time on one of the modest wooden bench pews, and I felt a deep appreciation for how the design of this chapel so eloquently compliments its natural surroundings, tucked into the rocks that look almost blood-stained.

Crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross
Crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross

 

Blooming cacti near Sedona
Blooming cacti near Sedona

On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch, which was an ideal spot to walk along the banks of Oak Creek and stand in awe looking up at the peaks of Cathedral Rock. For those who think that Arizona is limited to dry desert sand and overwhelming heat, the Oak Creek Watershed is like a 50-mile elongated oasis of streams, falls, cascades, and pools in central Arizona that nourishes rich vegetation and wildlife. Somehow a metaphor about refreshing  water in the desert and a relationship that continues to run even deeper and stronger after ten years seems an appropriate way to end this post. Suffice it to say, the return to Sedona was an excellent way to celebrate the “mystical” union of two people who are well married and immersed in the inexplicable power of love.

Cathedral Rock reflected in Oak Creek
Cathedral Rock reflected in Oak Creek

 

Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch
Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch

Decorating for Christmas

Aside from gorging on turkey and football, one of the strongest impulses generated by Thanksgiving Day among so many Americans is the urge to head to the attic, basement, or garage and pull out the holiday decorations. At this time of year, any sense of good taste is tossed out like moldy green-bean casserole that was pushed to the back of the refrigerator and forgotten for two weeks. Thanks to the development of inexpensive plastic, PVC, fiberglass, large-scale inflatable statuary, and sophisticated electrical components, some American homes and properties are transformed into dazzling spectacles that almost put to shame the illuminated facades of Las Vegas casino resorts.

The amount of time, energy, and financial resources that families dedicate to decorating varies considerably, but I suspect those who celebrate Christmas tend to be a bit more profuse than their Jewish counterparts. Muslims and Hindus use much less extravagant decorations for their special celebrations at other times of the year. Even among the folks who celebrate Christmas, the amount and type of decorations are quite diverse, with everything from simple nativity scenes to the construction of a North Pole Reindeer Flight School in the front yard that backs up neighborhood traffic for several blocks. The true zealots start their decorating activities the week before Thanksgiving, perhaps even earlier, and it can take them up to two weeks to get the job completely finished. I know a family that puts up a Christmas tree in every single room of the house, including miniature versions in all three bathrooms.

Such enthusiasts have a difficult time giving any decoration a well-deserved sabbatical or even retirement. They have an attachment to or fondness of every piece they ever purchased, so decorating through the years has a cumulative effect. At some point, all surfaces of the house are adorned with festive accessories in an attempt to display every single item they have accumulated. It can be a tad overwhelming. Some manage to pull it off better than others. Lest I be perceived as a decorating snob, I hastily confess that I have in years past clearly fallen into the camp of the unrestrained and over-exuberant. My wife has done an admirable job of intervening and helping me understand that less is better when it comes to Christmas ornamentation.

Christmas Tree and decorations
Christmas Tree and decorations

For most of its history, Christianity has been a remarkably adaptable religion, which partly explains its rapid expansion after the 4th century and its durability throughout a good portion of the western world and across many different cultures. A fine example of this adaptability can be found in Christmas decorations. Ancient Romans brought evergreen trees into their homes to celebrate the winter solstice. They also hung bright metal ornaments on trees around their homes. Pagan societies believed that the holly bush had magical qualities to repel evil spirits. Even beyond decorations, Christians managed to incorporate customs from other faith traditions into the celebration of Christmas.

Americans are a population heavily influenced by capitalism and commercialism. We market everything, including Christmas. We are also a flexible bunch, and we don’t mind bending the truth a little to sell the product. Again, we can see this characteristic exhibited in a fairly common holiday decoration: the nativity scene. We like to portray this pivotal point in human history as a nice package that can easily fit on a small side table or night stand. So we take all the elements of the story — the baby Jesus in the manger, Mary, Joseph, angels, the shepherds, the ox, the donkey, the star, and the wise men with their camels — and we fold them altogether into one, compact decoration. It is irrelevant that the wise men were not there on the night of the Christ child’s birth but at least a month or so later (perhaps much later) after he was presented at the Temple by his parents. We cannot be expected to have a separate set of figurines in the house to represent this part of the story. After all, we need to make room somewhere for a sleigh and eight or nine reindeer too!

The older I get, the more I appreciate celebrating the spirit of Christmas with simplicity and humility. Over the decades I have purchased, displayed, and discarded any number of decorations. I have suffered through finding just the right tree at a farm in the country, cutting it down, paying way too much for it, and hauling it home only to find that once we wrestled it into the stand, it was as crooked as a Washington politician. We have gone through several different artificial trees and are thrilled with the two we have now, one inside and one on our back porch, that came with lights already installed. Over the last few years we have started buying what my wife calls “timeless” decorations — pieces that are reminiscent of generations past. Some people would refer to them as classic decorations. A close friend of ours paints marvelous Santa faces on gourds, and we include our collection of them on the living room mantel every year.

There are two decorations that my wife and I cherish perhaps more than any others, and we put them out every year then carefully store them away until the next Christmas. One is a small, resin angel that her parents gave her when she was a child. It is beautiful and precious. The other is a little plastic illuminated church that houses a manually-wound chime player that plays “Silent Night.” It belonged to my mother, a woman to whom the Christmas story was fundamental and factual. The miraculous birth of Jesus was a mystery she embraced without question, with little or no struggle. She has been gone now for over a dozen Christmases, but that little church keeps the memory of her fresh and close for me. I am grateful to have this modest decoration that is somehow a perfect expression of her faith and this holiday.

Church and angel
Church and angel

Our Mountain Getaway

In the early 1970s, my parents purchased a small, three-bedroom house a few blocks from the downtown section of a sleepy little hamlet in the north Georgia mountains.  They intended to use the house as a vacation spot for their family, relatives, and close friends.  The house was about seventy years old and had been abandoned and neglected for quite a long time. As a skilled electrician and carpenter, my father was able to take what was an almost uninhabitable shack and, with the help of family and friends, turn it into a comfortable summer cabin. With all her characteristic love and gentle kindness, my mother turned the cabin into a second home.  When my parents first bought the house, there were two large oak trees growing in the front yard, so they decided to call the place “Twin Oaks.”  Even though one of the trees had to come down several years later, the name had already become so associated with the house that they decided to keep using it. 

Over the years, Twin Oaks provided four generations with a great place to escape and relax, to enjoy the beauty of the Georgia mountains, and to have SO much fun.  My sister and I continued to maintain the house and property as best we could after our parents could no longer make the trips to the mountain getaway.  Unfortunately, a house like this one was never intended to last for a very long time, and as a new century approached, Twin Oaks began to suffer from wear and tear and too many cold winters. In the fall of 2015 my wife and I, as the current owners, decided to demolish our little mountain vacation house and build something new in its place. I wrote a post in December of that year about our decision titled Letting It Go. We had some apprehension at the time, and it was not an easy decision to make. But, there was no doubt that we loved the location and wanted to continue having a place of our own for family and friends.

We contracted with a builder who is also a family member to construct a three-bedroom, two bath house, which was completed in December, 2016.  The wood frame house with a rock foundation is built basically on the same footprint as the original house.  It is still conveniently located within walking distance of the ever-expanding and vibrant downtown area.  However, this house came with a few significant upgrades: central heat and air, modern kitchen appliances, wireless Internet, and DISH TV.  It can be enjoyed year-round and doesn’t have to be “put to bed” for the winter. For over four decades, Twin Oaks was a place to create wonderful memories.  That tradition continues with a new house — Twin Oaks 2! 

Twin Oaks 2
Twin Oaks 2

When the Splurge Is Worth It

Most Americans are not wealthy, unless compared to the millions of people who live in less-developed countries around the world. Although there is a vast household income spectrum in this country, most of us have limits on our discretionary spending. We have to make choices, especially about our wants as opposed to our needs. Some folks are truly prudent and seek savings that other families pass up: driving small, fuel-efficient vehicles; eating at home or taking lunch to work; shopping around for insurance; or even selecting generic products over name brands. Americans are among the most consumer-driven individuals on the planet. We love our stuff! We crave gadgets, electronics, toys, and a whole host of disposable products. We will spend hard-earned money on the most useless objects to occupy the limited time we have away from our jobs. The latest obsession that comes to mind is the fidget spinner, ranging in price on the low end from $3 to $10, but going well over $400 for the designer models. Millions have been sold across the country in 2017 (and in other countries as well). What is the function of this incredible device? It spins. That’s it. Oh, and it is branded as a remedy for everything from boredom to Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have absolutely no issues with what people choose to buy with their money, as long as they are paying their own way and taking proper care of their dependents. I certainly do my part when it comes to blowing money on the absurd too. However, as I look back over the decades, I regret a few times that I didn’t make certain choices that would have afforded me with lifetime experiences and memories. One example that comes to mind was during the summer of 1984 when I was studying abroad in England. Pop music has been an important influence in shaping my world view since I was a child. Some of the lyricists and musicians from the 1970s had the effect on me that poets and painters have on others with more sophisticated taste than my own. I was and shall always be a huge fan of the music of Elton John and his long-time collaborator, Bernie Taupin. That summer in 1984, Elton John was on his “Breaking Hearts” tour and played a concert at Wembley Stadium in London. As a graduate student who depended on the sacrifices of my parents and the funds from two grants, I was on a tight budget. Still, I could have found a way to purchase a ticket, but I didn’t. There would be plenty of other opportunities to see Elton John in concert, especially in the states, but it would not have been the same. That chance came and went but left its mark on me.

Since that summer in 1984, I have made countless spending decisions — most were fairly routine but some were certainly significant. I am thankful to have more discretionary income now than I did as a graduate student! My wife and I love to travel, and even though some trips can get a bit pricey, I never regret the money we spend this way because of the incredible experiences we share during our journeys. In recent years, I have taken advantage of opportunities to attend concerts with family and friends because I never want to miss out like I did that summer so many years ago. My older son and I saw Bob Dylan a couple of years ago — who knows how much longer this musical icon will be around? We also saw Pearl Jam in the band’s hometown of Seattle a few years earlier. I understood about 2% of the lyrics that Eddie Vedder sang, which is absolutely irrelevant. My son is a huge fan of the band and the whole grunge movement, and I was so glad we could take the trip.

My wife tells a proverbial story from several years ago when she was stressing over the decision to spend extra money on a wonderful hotel for a trip we were planning to Rome. She asked the opinion of a good friend and mentor, who wisely said, “Five years from now you won’t remember how much you spent on the hotel, but the two of you will never forget the experience of staying at that place.” She was such a wise woman, and we followed her advice with absolutely no regrets. In that same spirit, we have attended several concerts in recent years and have seen some incredible shows, including Fleetwood Mac and Earth, Wind & Fire. In 2012, The Rolling Stones announced that they were coming to Newark, New Jersey and to New York City for a 50th anniversary limited tour. Thinking that the band might be announcing their retirement, we jumped at the opportunity to see them. We bought plane and hotel tickets and made it a long weekend in NYC, which was expensive. Do we remember how expensive now? No. Will we ever forget the moment Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts walked out on that Prudential Center stage? Can’t imagine. Of course, we couldn’t have known then that the Stones would end up touring several cities in the U.S. the next year and are still making appearances around the world. Again, no regrets.

The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones, 2012

One more example should be enough to make my point here a tad more convincing. The Eagles are a band that helped define the music of our generation. They have a tumultuous history of substance abuse, infighting, breaking up, and reemerging from the ashes. They also created some of the most memorable music of the rock era. Their harmonies were close to perfect, their lyrics spellbinding, and their performances were almost legendary. They have won almost every major Grammy and at least five American Music Awards. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. When the band announced the “History of the Eagles” tour for 2013, we paid an additional fee to grab early tickets and the best seats we could afford. Their concert in Charlotte on November 15, 2013 was truly the best show I have ever seen. The vocals, instrumentation, stage presence, lighting, acoustics, and video production were just outstanding. As a reporter for the Charlotte Observer wrote, “The Eagles didn’t just give fans a typical concert Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena. It gave generations of fans a musical history lesson from its 1971 formation to its 1994 reunion.” As thrilled as we were at the end of that phenomenal evening, it would be just over two years later that we truly appreciated how fortunate we were to have been there. The news on January 18, 2016 of the unexpected death of Glenn Fry, the band’s front man and one of its founders, sent a shudder through the world of popular music. It also drove home to us the realization that, whenever possible, we need to take advantage of every one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that comes along.

The Eagles
The Eagles, 2013

 

A Moment in Time

People travel for a variety of reasons.  Even people who travel for pleasure don’t all have the same agenda.  We may be looking for simple relaxation, thrilling adventure, outdoor recreation, breathtaking scenery, cultural or historical education, stimulating enlightenment, or something altogether different.  Generally, we are looking for an experience that transcends our day-to-day lives.  We seek a opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes, to be somehow transported if only for a brief time.  And, we really don’t have to be in some romantic or exotic location.  It can happen so unexpectedly, not because of our plans but in spite of them.  It can also happen in an unlikely place — not at all where we anticipated “the magic” would occur.

Several years ago, my wife and I took a trip to San Francisco.  We stayed for about a week at a good friend’s house in Port Richmond, a neighborhood in Richmond, California overlooking the bay.  It was my first time to the west coast, so we acted like true tourists and visited Muir Woods, the wine country, various places in and around the city, and even took a drive down Highway 1 along the Pacific coast and spent the night in Carmel.  It was fabulous.  On one afternoon during our vacation, we met up with a young man who is a family friend who lives in the city.  He took us to some of his favorite hiking spots at Land’s End and other locations around the entrance of the bay.  We came back to the Port Richmond house and settled out on the deck overlooking the bay.  We had a few drinks and took the time to catch up with him as the afternoon drifted towards evening.  We were enjoying each other’s company and the comfortable weather so much that we decided to have pizza delivered instead of going out for dinner.

Sunset over San Francisco Bay
Sunset over San Francisco Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
We continued to sit on that deck after the pizza was devoured and talked for hours.  As we sipped on drinks, we watched the sun slowly sink behind the top of the distant hills to the west beyond the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge and marveled as the lights of the bridge and its endless stream of vehicles began to glow with evening’s approach.  We talked and laughed about life, our memories, our hopes and fears.  We soaked up the beauty of the bay at nightfall. There was nothing spectacular about the meal, although the setting was certainly enchanting enough.  We were together, enjoying each other’s company, completely immersed in the now — the right then and there.  We had not necessarily planned for the day to end this way.  There was no remarkable event, no famous landmark, no fanfare at all.  Still, it was somehow wonderful, and I knew it would be impossible to replicate.  I took a photograph of the sunset from the deck to commemorate the occasion. Anytime I can stumble upon a moment like that, I get the sense that I have done more than travel.  I have taken a journey.