Thursday, July 31, 2008
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Didgeridoo and Gullible, Too
I must have had my mouth open, because, “OH, GOD, NO!” escaped before I could shut it. Such is life. C’est la vie. Oh, well. Open mouth syndrome is what usually causes most of my troubles.
Before I could shut my mouth this time, though, I was onstage with internationally acclaimed musician Andrew Langford, who had just captivated his capacity audience at the Sounds of Starlight theater in downtown Alice Springs, Australia. Worse, he was expecting me to follow his act! He asked me to sit on the stool, and handed me one of his prized musical instruments.
I started laughing. Not all of it was nervousness. In fact, I wasn’t feeling at all nervous, up there in front of the large crowd. The whole idea of me following his act was hysterical in the extreme, and I never quit laughing.
To explain my predicament, I must backtrack to earlier in the afternoon….
Kangaroo Dreaming didgeridoo
We were passing around various brochures while we waited for our coach to arrive to take us several miles out of town into the Outback desert, to learn about the Aboriginals of Australia, an enigmatic people who have lived on this continent between 40,000 and 70,000 years, with 50,000 being the currently accepted figure. One brochure in particular caught my eye. I passed it on to my friends.
“Look, Kristy,” said Kathy, “this place has didgeridoo workshops.” Kristy, the owner of a didgeridoo, took the brochure and saw the workshop would fit nicely into the free time we had right after noon, and would take place in the pedestrian mall where the coach was going to leave us after the Aboriginal event.
On hearing that a number of us were interested in the afternoon workshop, Simon led the way to the theater, and also secured discounted tickets for that night’s performance. During the workshop, Kristy made didgeridoo noises while I, seated beside her and trying to not spit out my denture, made trumpeting noises. Not acceptable.
Eventually I accidentally made the correct noise and was thrilled. Others did much, much better. I was taken by the sounds of the didgeridoo, a reedy, haunting, droning sound that we heard in every shop we entered or passed.
Kristy and Gullible at didgeridoo workshop, Alice Springs, Australia
After the workshop, I wandered around the store in the entryway to the theater where didgeridoos were displayed. I attempted a few more acceptable noises, though in order to keep my mouth off the beeswax mouthpiece, I circled my thumb and forefinger on it and blew. Again, quite by accident, I made the appropriate didgeridoo noise and the clerk gave me a thumbs up.
At the hotel later, as we were preparing to leave for the concert, Kathy asked me if I planned to buy a didgeridoo. I looked her square in the eyes and responded, “That would be absolutely the most foolish thing I could spend money on….”
She nodded in agreement.
“…which is why I’m going to do it!”
I had my eye on one already. Long and sensuously curved, decorated with a kangaroo in the Aboriginal art style, I was a goner when I read the tag that accompanied it: “Artist—Merkel, Key—F#, Timber—Eucalyptus Woolybutt.” How could I resist a didgeridoo made of woolybutt? I took it to the counter and asked the clerk to hold onto it for me until after the performance.
And that is what got me on the stage of the Starlight Theater. They had my name. And, as I said, my mouth must have been open when I heard it called.
“OH, GOD, NO!” I blurted—and headed for the stage.
It did not take the beautiful Andrew long to figure out that I was no threat to trump his act. In fact, he quickly began trying to SAVE his act by getting me offstage, pleading for anyone who could sustain a drone to come onstage. Don Black rescued me. Don, however, had an advantage—he plays the oboe in a concert symphony.
Andrew grabbed the didgeridoo from me, kicked me off the stool, and told me to go sit on the edge of the stage, where I was handed a drum. Today was the second time in my life I’d ever even seen a didgeridoo.
Soon, Andrew and his two-man crew had the entire audience involved in playing music. Some like me, were given drums, others clapsticks and similar percussion instruments. That is how we
closed out the show. I will confess that I didn’t do much better on the drum than I had with the didgeridoo.
Andrew trying to get Gullible to play the didgeridoo....
Afterwards, I went to the front counter and handed over my Visa. Then the clerk arranged for Andrew to talk with me about the didgeridoo I had just adopted. “You’ve made a good choice,” said Andrew. “This is a good didgeridoo and easy to play.” He then did just that, leaning the butt of the woolybutt (I love writing that!) didgeridoo on a step of the circular staircase behind him and making incredibly rhythmic music.
Andrew said something that night that completely changed my understanding of how to play the didge (as we players call them). The instrument itself, he explained, does not make a sound, as it is nothing but a length of eucalyptus tree trunk hollowed out by termites. Instead, it
amplifies the sound your mouth and lips make.
Gullible struggling with the drum.
You know the expression “loose lips sink ships?” Well, loose lips—the vibration of one’s lips and the sounds from one’s mouth—are what create the distinctive tone of the didgeridoo. It also involves inhaling and blowing at the same time! As for myself, I am still in the rude noises stage, but I am trying.
Not to big note, mates, but here’s the dinky-di: If I gobsmack meself and turn tall poppy with the didge, it’ll be my shout for the house or I aren’t worth a zack. An’, I don’t mean at Mackers, either.
June 7, 2008 Gullible
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Feathers on the Floor
(to the tune of Islands in the Stream)
Feathers on the floor, feathers by the door,
feathers everywhere, Pablo doesn’t care.
Feathers on my desk, colors picturesque,
feathers in a mess, I wish he molted less.
Green and red and blue, yellow's in there, too.
Black and sometimes white, I'll clean them up tonight .
feathers fly a-whirl, feathers in a swirl.
Some are soft and light, downy stars in white,
Pablo’s underwear, you think that he’d be bare.
Feathers on the floor, feathers by the door,
feathers everywhere, feathers in my hair.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
I was walking up the Seward Highway with Danny Kaye the other day, picking up litter as usual. For some inexplicable reason, he had insinuated himself inside my head and was singing “Wonderful, wonderful, Copenhagen” over and over and over. To make it worse, he wouldn’t finish the lyrics.
For a quarter mile, that’s all he and I sang. Finally, he started inserting some words about “girl of a town…” I kept trying to add words about harbor lights, but he would have none of it. I was ready to start shrieking, so he twisted that rubbery face of his into all sorts of shapes and finally came up with “friendly old girl of a town.” That’s as far as we got before we reached Jerome Lake and red-haired Danny and Copenhagen were forgotten instantly.
I stood on the embankment overlooking Jerome Lake for a long time, spellbound by its perfect tranquility and the autumn colors reflected on its surface. So completely did the lake captivate my attention that afternoon, it wasn’t until I went out for a bike ride in the evening that I remembered my walk with Danny.
I’ve been thinking about memory a lot lately, the hows and whys and why nots. In fact, after I got home from my bike ride I pondered the enigmatic nature of memory during the ten minutes I wandered around the garage looking for the glasses I’d just taken off so I could slip out of my wet jacket and tee shirt.
I’ve been working on a theory about memory, something that has to do with a slightly skewed parallel universe where we also exist at this very moment. It would explain a lot of things, wouldn’t it? Especially if we somehow drift back and forth between these two places without realizing it. Maybe it was the other me who put those glasses in the jacket pocket, and this me who had to find them. Was it the other me who made all those stupid mistakes in my youth? Is that why I can remember something now and not later? Is that why I am so comfortable referring to my muse as a distinct entity, rather than as a spark of creativity that lies within me?
I’ve said before that I’m a different person when I sit before the computer and start writing, that something takes over my conscious mind and the words flow without my bidding. The problem with this theory gaining converts is that it sounds an awful lot like schizophrenia and multiple personalities, which are not things to be taken lightly or used in jest.
Once upon a time I used to be pretty good at Trivial Pursuit. A question would be posed and an answer would jump out of my mouth before I had a chance to think about it. Often I would be as amazed as the others playing the game. I would have no idea how or why I happened to be storing that information. I’m not bragging here, as this feat says nothing about my intelligence, only that my memory is crammed full of useless trivia that surfaces at the oddest times.
I have a trivia question that I’ve been asking people for years: Who played The Great Gildersleeve?
I refuse to Google it find the answer. Some day it will pop up, I know. In the meantime, I bedevil my contemporaries. Good ol’ Throckmorton Gildersleeve. They can picture him, hear his laugh. His name is on the tips of their tongues. They can almost feel the words coming out of their mouths.
“William Bendix!” yelled one.
“Nope, he played in ‘The Life of Riley.’” I answered. Someone told me the correct answer once. I’ve misplaced it again. Or, maybe the other me… Oh, never mind.
So while you’re lying awake trying to remember Throckmorton’s real name, Danny and I will be working on the lyrics to his song. Say goodnight to the nice folks, Danny.
© Sept. 2007, Gullible
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
We are waiting; they are reluctant. We are hopeful; they are suspicious. Curiosity guides us; they are propelled by instinct. “We” are tourists wanting to watch them; “they” are Little penguins trying to reach their burrows safely.
We sit on pink or green blankets brought from our hotel in downtown Melbourne. Simon arranged with the concierge for a couple dozen blankets to be available to us. When I left the Mercure Hotel entrance and crossed the sidewalk to the waiting coach earlier this afternoon, I wondered what passers-by thought of the stream of us exiting the hotel, blankets in hand. Mass blanket theft?
Now, in the minutes before it is too dark to see, I smile at the thought. If those pedestrians live in Melbourne, they know exactly what we are doing with all those blankets. We have placed them on the cold concrete and asphalt tiers of the spectator stands at Summerland Beach on Phillip Island. I choose a seat on the risers, but abandon it in favor of leaning against a concrete bulkhead next to the rope that keeps the spectators confined to certain areas. At my feet are tiny penguin footprints in the sand.
Almost full dark now, I begin to suspect that this is the one night of the year that they won’t come back. We all watch the water’s edge, right where the gentle surf effervesces into white froth before it begins to recede from the sandy beach. I think I see movement there, but
The Little penguins cross this beach each night en route to their
burrows in the sand dunes beyond. Julia Hart photo
The park service turns on floodlights and we can see the beach better. We wait for some time.
A white spot appears against the inky blackness of the water. Then another and another. Soon I count a dozen white spots. The first group of Little penguins is huddled at the water’s edge, the light illuminating their white undersides. They have been to sea feeding, some for days or weeks at a time. Now they are returning to their colony burrows to feed their young, or just to be home.
Some minutes pass as the group summons enough courage to make the trek across the beach to the vegetation on the dunes. Several false starts are made and with a flurry of flippers they plunge back into the water, then gather together once again on the sand. These birds believe there is safety in numbers. It is not the human spectators they fear, but animal and avian predators.
I mentally cross my fingers, silently urge them on. I scan the sky, thinking it is surely too dark for eagles, then remember animals that hunt in the night. Suddenly they make a break for it, waddling quickly across a dozen yards of gently inclined sand, and reach the dunes safely. The theme music from “Chariots of Fire” swirls in my head. One penguin lags behind, his distress at being alone obvious.
I ask the ranger, who is there to make sure humans stay quiet and in bounds and do not use flash photography, about the slow penguin.
“I got a good look at its legs,” she answers. “It’s okay, it walks okay. It’s just fat.” She tells me the penguins feed alone at sea, then gather a hundred yards offshore when they want to return to their burrows.
Soon more groups are mustering up and down the beach. After almost two hours we start to leave. One group of penguins has been unable to make “the” decision for some time. It has been in and out of the water a dozen times, and it is still there as we climb the steps to the boardwalk. It takes only one to turn back and the whole group will follow.
Picture from postcard by © Scancolor, Australia. Unauthorized photography is not allowed at Summerland Beach.
All around us in the full darkness we hear caws and barks and chirrs. Penguins are scattered throughout the rolling dunes, standing next to the low vegetation outside their burrows and chatting with their neighbors. Others are alongside the dimly lighted boardwalk, unafraid of the dozens of humans passing by or stopping to watch.
A bit further up the walk, a group of people are gathered at the rail. A man calls his wife over to watch. “Ew-w-w-w,” she exclaims as she sees an X-rated penguin propagation spectacle occurring in full view.
“Aw, c’mon,” the man says. “He’s been gone a week.”
The night air is alive with penguin calls. They may have been afraid to cross the beach alone, but they are not hiding in their burrows now. Everywhere we look there are penguins, all of them vocal. Some have to waddle as far as a mile and a half to return to their own burrows.
Almost a half million visitors come to this site every year to watch this Penguin Parade. The smallest of the seventeen known varieties of penguins, Little penguins are found only in the Southern Hemisphere, mostly along the southern coastlines of Australia and New Zealand. They appear to be about a foot tall, but the largest males can grow to sixteen inches. Instead of black, their feathers are an indigo blue. Adults weigh around two pounds, and barring foxes and cats and perils of the deep, have a lifespan of about six years.
Blankets under our arms, we walk back to the visitor’s center, through the gift shop, and out the front door towards the dark parking lot where our motor coach awaits. As we leave the building, we see a sign that warns drivers to look under their vehicles for penguins before starting or moving them.
Our group is quiet on the long ride back to Melbourne. Some nap, others take in the night skyline of the city. We are comfortable and reassured in our silence. We have seen the Little penguins safely home and all is well with the world.
Julia Hart photo
Early in the trip I discover a truth about group tours: all roads lead to gift shops. Get off the tram and the exit is through the gift shop. Go through the gift shop to reach the train. Try to find your gate at the airport, and you must first run a gauntlet of gift shops. The public restrooms are at the very back, through the gift shop.
Thus, a trip to a gift shop is what I expect when I awake the morning after our sunset visit with Uluru. There is an Aboriginal cultural center to be seen, Simon says. And, our itinerary notes mention a drive around the five mile base of the 1100 foot high rock. I am not expecting much more than a close-up view of Aboriginal rock art in caves and another gift shop.
We have to be at the Ayers Rock Airport at noon for a flight to Melbourne, so we leave the hotel at 8 a.m. for Uluru. Along the short drive, our driver relates some Aboriginal legends regarding Uluru. This is a sacred site to the Aboriginals, Laurie says, and some specific spots around the base are so sacred to them, they request no pictures be taken of those places. These, he explains, are sites of gender-based rituals, and photographs might lead to inadvertent violation of the taboos by Aboriginals of the opposite gender.
We approach Uluru on its right side, follow the paved road around to the shaded rear. The driver parks the coach and we descend into the morning chill. Our group is silent as we walk along the pathways, dodging other groups and independent tourists. I am struck by the realization that Uluru is not the seamless loaf of red rock that it appears to be from a distance. Instead, on this side, are canyons and fissures, massive boulders and overhangs. Few speak, but in the exchange of eye meeting eye, a gigantic “WOW” is communicated.
The drivers points out features and marks, telling us this is where the Aboriginals say Kuniya, the python woman, lived and where she fought Liru, the poisonous snake. He points to a dark serpentine mark that represents Kuniya on the rock face. We reboard the coach and drive to another location a short
distance away. A footpath leads to a water hole at the base of the rock. Another drive takes us to a cave where the Aboriginals left paintings. We recognize the symbols—man sitting, water hole, meeting place. The platform on which some thirty or more tourists stand protects the underlying flora as well as the paintings themselves. No one speaks.
Another stop, the path leading to a massive overhang, all smooth and curving and flowing like softly over-stuffed furniture. I walk up a gentle incline and step onto a long ledge
created by eons of erosion. I am standing within Uluru, and I am overwhelmed with its beauty, its gracefulness and symmetry. Even the name is ideal, I think, with its melodious vowels and soft consonants.
I meet one of my friends on the pathway. “I had no idea,” she says, “how sensuous it was.” It’s the perfect word. “Sensuous, sensual”—relating to pleasing of the senses. My senses are stunned into overload. There are no sharp edges on this red sandstone. Erosion has polished it into fluid curves and sinuosity. I touch the rock, lay my hand upon it, and imagine that I am stroking its whole. The rock is warm in the early morning sun, almost as if it is alive.
There is something else here: there is a spirituality. It is easy to understand why the Aboriginals consider this a sacred place. I could be in a church or a cathedral, a temple or a tabernacle. There is an aura here that commands respect and silence. This is a place where one communicates with one’s soul, speaks with one’s god. There are dozens of tourists here, I know, but I am oblivious to all, so overcome am I with the tranquility of Uluru. I feel that I am dressed far too casually to be in the presence of this place.
Along one slope of the rock, stakes are set in the sandstone with a chain handhold leading towards the summit, an arduous half-mile climb. People come from around the world to climb this icon. At the base is a sign next to a portal in a simple fence. The sign explains that Uluru is of great spiritual significance to the Aboriginals, and they ask that we choose NOT to climb the rock. In addition to its place in their religion, they are concerned about our safety.
Today, the park service has closed the climb, for reasons unexplained. It may have to do with expected weather or winds, although today is mild and still. Nonetheless, I am pleased that no humans are sullying the route.
Later, I do some research and find that at least 35 people have died while climbing Uluru. I recall how, some years ago, a car accident killed a couple people not far from my home. It occurred on a gentle curve near a popular hiking trail, a place where we know to watch for moose and bears crossing the two lane highway. Close by, red salmon fight the current in Moose Creek to reach its headwaters and spawn. Those deaths forever changed my perception of that particular curve.
South of Mazatlan one day, a tour guide told us the Mexicans believe one’s soul remains at the site of the person’s death, explaining the numerous roadside memorials where accidents had taken lives.
Is that the reason for the aura of Uluru? Is it the beliefs of the Aboriginals and the deaths that have occurred there? Or is it that Uluru itself has the capacity to touch one’s soul and to leave a piece of itself deep within?
I have seen many impressive geological wonders in my travels. I have seen the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Waimea Canyon of the island of Kauai in Hawaii. I have snow-mobiled through Yellowstone National Park in the winter and stood on top of the Arrigetch Peaks of northern Alaska in summer. I have walked the rim of Kilauea caldera in Hawaii and flown over Katmai Crater and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Alaska. I live in one of the most spectacular places on earth.
Nowhere have I been as touched by geology as the day I communed with Uluru. I look at photographs of a “red loaf of bread” and feel a bond. I know what that loaf-like image holds in store for those who venture close to it, for those who are open to its suggestion.
I am forever changed, eternally moved, permanently affected by a massive red rock in the middle of the Australian Outback that is called Uluru.
A tee shirt I find later in New Zealand carries the consummate message. The print is of a hiker and mountains in silhouette, and bears the legend beneath: “The earth has music for those who listen.”
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Red Rocks in the Sunset
I hold the glass of champagne at arm’s length, as if to offer a toast, but do not speak. Carefully moving the glass up, down, left, right, I am searching for the perfect spot. The effervescence in the golden liquid captures bits of the rust-red color of the monolith in the distance. I adjust the glass a fraction more and, suddenly, within the flute of champagne is a perfectly miniaturized image of Uluru.
The sun is setting and shadows are snaking across the desert, blurring the sharp images of shrubs and spindly trees that somehow survive here in Australia’s treacherous Outback.
Begging Australian magpies appear from under the brush and eye us expectantly. They have no interest in the crumbs of crackers we drop near them, but pounce immediately on the cheese we offer as a substitute. I realize they come here every day at sunset and wait for the long diesel motor coaches to bring the tourists.
Each day the birds have to retrain the tourists: cheese, not crackers. I imagine they wonder if we’ll ever get it right and not need daily remedial teaching. Not the crudités or fruit. Cheese is what they await.
I have seen untold numbers of pictures of this formation, Uluru—known as Ayers Rock beyond the general area of Australia. As with many countries attempting to come to terms with the mistreatment its indigenous peoples, Australia returned this area of the Outback to the Aboriginals, and adopted their historic name of Uluru (Oo-luh-roo) as the preferred name of the red icon.
Simon pouring the bubbly at Uluru
The color is its most recognizable feature. From pink to mauve to red to maroon, the sandstone appears to change color with the weather and time of day. When infrequent rain falls, the rock is silvery-gray. Within the sandstone are iron-bearing minerals, thus the process of oxidation gives Uluru its red-brown rusty coloration, much like the red
rock of Sedona, Arizona.
“It looks like a loaf of bread,” someone near me says. I agree. It does. A Pullman loaf, though, because of its length, not round-top loaves. Through binoculars I can see eroded channels where rain runs down the rock, and the series of bowl-shaped pools where it collects before spilling into another farther down. As the sun settles lower, more contours come into focus, but it remains exactly what it appears to be—a solid red rock shaped
like a long loaf of bread.
In the distance behind us stand the Kuta Tjuta ( The Olgas), now in silhouette before the setting sun. We had been to an overlook earlier to see and photograph this dramatic line of thirty-six mounds as red as Uluru.
and adventure. The champagne and hors-d-oeuvres were a surprise, never mentioned in the itinerary written by Simon, the forty pages of schedules, maps, histories and tips that we call “our homework.”
I crawl into bed thinking that this day alone would have been worth the cost of the entire trip. I fall asleep reliving the day’s adventures—hot air ballooning, riding moaning camels, the 280 mile drive to this oasis in the desert. I am innocently oblivious to what Uluru has waiting for me the next morning.
Friday, July 18, 2008
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Monday, July 14, 2008
Then the book reviews:
I am going to have two stories and one piece of doggerel published in “Alaska Women Speak,” the summer edition. Wow. I submitted these three pieces and they are going to publish all three!
“Alaska Women Speak” is a quarterly, published since 1992, and is devoted to “the exchange of ideas, literature, art and heart talk, as well as a statewide update of women’s political and social ideas and activities.” It is available in Alaska at Barnes and Noble, Borders and independent bookstores around Alaska. I think I saw it on Amazon, too.
I’m preening my feathers……. Finally, a publishing credit. Okay, another publishing credit. Then, I hear that I've received an honorable mention in a ByLine magazine writing contest--the second month in a row. Am I tootin' my own horn? You're darn tootin' I am. Been a long time between toots, too. I should buy a lottery ticket, recommends a friend.
The new Robert Crais novel, “Chasing Darkness,” has a great plot and these words: “The air, jittery with heat…….”
And, the new Janet Evanovich, “Fearless Fourteen,” has lots of laugh-out-louds. (Can’t remember right now who told me about reading Evanovich during a red-eye flight and laughing and giggling so much she ticked off her husband and everyone around her….)
If you aren’t already a fan of hers, just read the cover jacket blurb and you will be:
“THE COMPLICATIONS: Murder, kidnapping, destruction of personal property, and acid reflux.”
“THE CONCLUSION: Only the fearless should read ‘Fourteen.’ Thrills, chills, and incontinence may result.”
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Chapter 6, Above and Beyond
Part Two: Beyond
The camels got me up. No way was I going to miss this.
“The best five dollars you’ll ever spend,” promises Simon, and he hasn’t led us astray yet. Off the coach I go and into, of course, the gift shop, where I plop down my five bucks Australian and return to the paddock outside.
I wander around, looking at both saddled and unsaddled camels, then find the place where the camel rides begin. Two saddled camels kneel on the ground, wearing contraptions that look an awful lot like two saddles with the camel’s hump in between. These are dromedaries, one-humped Arabian camels.
Oh, no, I think. They can’t possibly carry two people at once. I examine the camels’ legs, notice the thick bones but the apparent absence of meaty muscle. Their hindquarters seem to be emaciated when I compare them to the rears of horses and moose. Their feet are extraordinarily wide, for floatation on sand.
One camel seems to agree with me about carrying two people. She lets out a long, bellowing moan as she surveys the crowd before her. She moans again. Laughter. Again. For obvious reasons, her name is Mona, and she is a very vocal camel. Two well-proportioned Americans climb aboard Mona and another two on the accompanying beast. My knees hurt in empathy as the two animals lurch onto their front feet, then onto their rear feet. A handler leads them
around the large paddock.
I am at the end of the line and feel overwhelmingly grateful that my camel has to heft only me as it stands. I am full of questions as the camel is led around the ring.
“How much can they carry?”
“Four hundred kilograms,” comes the answer. That shut me up. I am pretty proud of myself when I can convert centigrade and kilometers into something close to the
Katy and Norman correct ballpark, but kilograms are beyond me. Later I
on Moaning Mona. learn it converts to 880 pounds!
Kristy Hart photo
“Why the cord in the nostril?”
"We can’t use bits and bridles on camels as they chew their cud. This cord merely pierces outer flare of the nostril, and doesn’t hurt.” I wasn’t sure about that, but I notice the gentle touch of the handler and say no more.
My camel goes down on its front knees, then down at the rear, its legs underneath
itself, and placidly begins to chew its cud. I dismount, pat my camel a thank you, and my heart is racing. As Simon had promised, it was the best five dollars I’ve ever spent.
Kathy and Julia. Kristy Hart photo
Back aboard the coach, we are off to the Yalara Resort, located on the outskirts of the famed Ayers Rock, deep within the Australian Outback.
June 2, 2008
Above and Beyond
Part One: Above
This is the day we have been waiting for, or as Simon put it, “Su-u-u-per Wednesday, the most anticipated day of the trip.” Thus, when the wake up call comes shortly after four a.m., I jump out of bed and get dressed. Kathy, my roommate, does the same, and soon we are in the lobby of the hotel.
A bus with a company logo painted on its side arrives and twenty of our group board and select seats. After a few miles, past the airport, we leave the pavement and drive down a dirt road. Dust infiltrates the bus. Finally we slow and pull up next to other vehicles. One of the trucks has a flat tire and we wait on the bus while the men finish changing it.
“If you want to help,” says our driver, “you’re welcome.” He is not referring to changing tires, but to helping the crew inflate a giant hot air balloon. Still dark, the scene is lit only by headlights, the temperature cool but not uncomfortable. The crew on the flat across from us already has its balloon out of the bag and stretched on the ground. Behind us, and also on the far side of the road, the second crew pulls its balloon and straightens the straps and ropes and cords.
Our crew unloads the wicker passenger basket and lays it on its side. A stout strap fastens it to the bus. We are given safety instructions: “Do NOT walk between the bus and the basket!” Crewmen straighten, adjust, pull and flatten the balloon. They crawl inside, making sure everything is ready.
Across the way, I see both balloons in various stages of inflation. A huge fan is turned on to inflate our balloon with cold air. A crewman turns to me, “Do you want to help?” I spring forward, anxious to be a part of this adventure. He instructs me to hold one side of the balloon’s neck (or “skirt” as it’s called in balloon-ese) shoulder high so the fan can direct air into the balloon envelope. Again they crawl inside, tinkering with who knows what in the darkness.
Gullible holding open the balloon skirt for inflation.
Julia Hart photo
I hear a loud rushing noise from across the road and see flames from the propane burner of the first balloon. Soon, the same noise comes from the second balloon. We are a long way from that point, I think, as cold air rushes past me into the cavernous shroud of nylon. Eventually, Eric turns on a burner and hot flames plunge into the darkness through the fire-retardant skirt. I see light on the eastern horizon now, and can make out figures outside the area lit by headlights.
Again and again Eric shoots short blasts from the burners, and the balloon begins to stand upright. A crewman runs to the wicker basket and pushes it onto its bottom. Per instruction all twenty of us rush to four points on the basket and climb in. The basket is untethered from the bus, a blast of fire escapes from the burners, and we begin to ascend. In the distance, the other two balloons are drifting in the morning dimness.
About to launch. Photo by Outback Ballooning
I look down at the vehicles at our launching site. They are preparing to follow us to our anticipating landing site. Eric keys a two-way radio and announces to flight control at the airport that three balloons are launched and gives the approximate direction of travel. The message is acknowledged. This is, I think, a morning ritual for Outback Ballooning.
Except for the occasional noise from the burners, the flight is silent. We rise to a thousand feet, slowly sink, more flames, rise again. The sun appears, lighting the desert with orange, then golden light. Sunrise in the Outback. Kristy photo
We see cattle tracks on the uninhabited land below us, then wild kangaroos.
We float northwards. Below, near a patch of scrub trees, I spot three kangaroos, one obviously a young joey. It appears anxious, hopping one way and then the other, pausing to look at its mother. “Shouldn’t we run?” it appears to be asking. Mom is unperturbed. She’s seen these large orange UFOs before.
Eventually we are given landing instructions: hold on tight, flex your knees, be prepared for three bumps. That is exactly what happens as Eric pulls the cord and air escapes through the valve in the top of the envelope. We climb out, the envelope is laid out straight, and volunteers help to roll it and stuff it back into its bag. We are exhilarated. This has been worth every cent, but more is to come as we are bussed back to Alice Springs and let out onto the park-like grounds of Alice Springs Resort.
We are served baked chicken legs and champagne, the traditional foods associated Kangaroos, Kristy Hart photo
with hot air balloons. Then Quiche Lorraine and orange juice, cut fruit, chocolate cake, cheese and crackers. It is the best breakfast we have enjoyed on the trip.
Soon our coach arrives with the 19 members of the group who did not opt for this side trip, those who slept in until 7 a.m. and missed a thrilling ride in the sunrise hour of the Outback.
Most of us find empty rows on the coach, and settle in for naps. Packing the balloon. Kathy pix
We have a six hour coach journey ahead of us today, with a couple short stops. Sleep comes late for me. My mind is replaying the morning, too vivid with color and subtle drama to allow it to slow down and slumber.
Next: Part Two: Beyond!
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Ozymandias Revisited Redux
An Answer, Finally
In between the falsetto cries of the loons at Lower Summit Lake one night, I heard the mournful wail of a train. I stood up and looked around, wondering about its source.
I was a good ways from any railroad tracks, with a dozen or more tall mountains in between, so the noise had to be coming from the little black car that had just zipped past on the highway. Don’t ask what kind of car. They all look the same anymore, unlike the cars of my youth when those of us who lusted after a car of our own and the freedom it promised, could rattle off the year, make and model of any vehicle at a glance. Anyway, it was a black car.
Then, suddenly, in one of those shifts my brain is partial to, I knew the answer to a question I’ve been asked many times, and thus far had been unable to answer. “Where,” they ask, “do you get the ideas for your stories?” Of course, I thought. Loons on the lake and a train whistle where there are no trains. That’s it. That's the answer.
Way back in the pre-Paleolithic Age when I was in high school, my English teacher passed out mimeographed pages of an assignment.
Mimeograph, to those of you who haven’t yet discovered the wonders of Medicare and doctors who opt out of the penurious program, pre-dates Xerox photocopies and computer printers. It was a duplicating process used by teachers to mass produce lessons. The resulting pages were light purple in color and smelled of the alcohol used in the inking process. Legal sniffing, school-offered buzzes. It gave me headaches.
Anyway, eventually the “take one, pass them back” pile of pages reached me, and I scanned the fuzzy printing to see what this quiz was all about. Her instructions were brief: compare and comment on the two poems.
The first was “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said —“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The second, written by Morris Bishop, was entitled, “Ozymandias Revisited.” The two poems were identical, except for the final lines in the last stanza of Bishop’s .
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Also the names of Emory P. Gray,
Mr. and Mrs. Dukes, and Oscar Baer
Of 17 West 4th St., Oyster Bay.”
I puzzled over the two poems. I didn’t appreciate poetry then, at age 15, and if I recall correctly, I took the writing quite literally and totally missed Shelley’s metaphor of mankind’s conceit, and the temporary nature of his institutions.
Bishop’s was beyond me. I remember thinking thoughts along the line of “from the sublime to the prosaic.” Only a couple in the class “got it.”
“It” was that Bishop’s last lines quoted the graffiti that visitors to the site of Ozymandias’ statue had written upon its base, and spoke eloquently of the need of humans to immortalize themselves.
I have forgotten much in my lifetime, but that alcohol-reeking mimeographed page of sonnets lives forever. I was chagrined at being fooled by something that was so obvious once I was “clued in.”
She gave us another unusual assignment, except this one was offered as subtly as possible. As she lectured away from her place at the blackboard (or greenboard as it were), a stranger entered the classroom and walked to the rear of the room, lingered a while, then left. I was torn between curiosity and listening to the teacher.
After the stranger left, the teacher stopped her lecture.
“Write a page,” she said, “about what you saw when that person entered the classroom.”
Uh, oh, I thought. Damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Should I reveal as much as I had seen, and let the teacher know I hadn’t been paying attention to her? Or, should I tell all, showing off my powers of observation?
I did both, jotting down some of the teacher’s words that I had paid attention to, and interspersing them with my observations of the stranger’s appearance, clothing, and actions. Plus, I offered various theories as to the stranger’s arrival, combining the whole into a short story with much imagination and creative license.
Some things we are taught disappear as quickly as the instructor’s voice falls silent. Other lessons stay with us a lifetime. I don’t remember that teacher’s name right now, but I do remember her lessons
And therein are the answers to my friends’ questions. I look for the obvious, the apply-hand-smartly-to-the-forehead, I-could-have-had-a-V-8 obvious. Then again, I also watch for the quiet stranger who walks into the room, and listen for train whistles where there are no trains.
Saturday, July 5, 2008
With the sixty power lens on the spotting scope, I have a pretty good view of the neighbors and their activities. I’ve been watching them for thirty years, though sometimes they aren’t home for years at a time, and I wonder what they’re doing during those absences, and what keeps them away. I don’t ask—we don’t speak the same language and I prefer to keep my distance.
Fourth of July evening they were once again dining "a fresco." I watched the mother—or maybe it was the father, it’s hard to tell—carving up the entrée and serving it to her young one. My teenaged neighbor Miles, who lives much closer to them, tells me they have two, but I’ve seen only one, or perhaps only one at a time.
Anyway, there she was, momma golden eagle ripping and tearing her prey apart and carefully inserting it in the wide-open beak of the gray and white eaglet in the nest. The adult is hard to see unless she moves, as she blends in perfectly with the rock face where the nest is built in a small nook about half-way up the sheer wall. In a few weeks, the chick will have fully fledged and be independent, able to fly and hunt on its own.
Independent, but not on Independence Day.
As is my custom every Fourth of July, I re-read the United State’s Declaration of Independence of 1776. The original document, badly faded and almost illegible, is now two hundred and thirty-two years old. I had always thought of those events as happening in the impossibly distant past, until I realized that at my age of 66, that “past” represented only four of my lifetimes. I guess it wasn’t that long after all.
A couple months ago I watched the HBO series “John Adams,” a biography of our second president’s life that dwelled on his part in the Continental Congress and the document that declared our freedom from Britain. The eloquent and erudite words written by Thomas Jefferson have the ability to capture the imagination, and the realization that it was drafted in slightly more than two weeks can boggle that imagination. All that, without the aid of a word processor to cut and paste, no “delete” or “backspace” keys, no ball point pens, pencils or erasers. All that with quill and ink.
The HBO series impressed upon me one astonishing fact: how very tenuous was our independence, not only in the war that continued against the almost invincible British army, but afterwards in the sometimes stumbling search for how this country was to be governed. Adams and Jefferson, once the fondest of friends, became bitter enemies when their views on the strength of the federal government moved in opposite directions.
During the month of May, I was in New Zealand and one of a group of six American tourists seated for dinner in the home of New Zealanders Brian and Diane. Before us on a nicely appointed table were typical foods of their country—green-lipped mussels, roast hogget (meat from a two-year-old lamb), an assortment of various potatoes and winter vegetables. The food was wonderful. What made the dinner so special, though, was the subject of conversation introduced by a somewhat impish Brian: the U.S. and its politics, its actions in the world, and its public image.
First, Brian asked our opinions of the current candidates for the U.S. presidency. At that time, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still battling for the Democratic party’s nomination, and McCain was the Republican candidate. The six of us expressed our opinions, and the doubt in the course our country is taking was evident, as was the hesitancy to change that course abruptly. Brian stated his preference: Obama.
His reasons were many, having to do with Iraq, America’s treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans, and the world-wide impact such a candidate would make.
“Americans are arrogant,” he stated. Under the right circumstances, those could be fighting words, and I glanced at Brian to read his eyes. They showed that he loved a lively conversation.
He is a nice-looking man, obviously successful in his business, knowledgeable and informed, and well-traveled. The fact that he knew the names of our political candidates, and that I knew nothing of his country’s leader, not even his name, was not lost on me. I couldn’t even use the remoteness of my residence in rural Alaska as an excuse for that failing.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “We like Americans. We wouldn’t have hosted you if we didn’t. But your country is viewed world-wide as arrogant. It should clean up its own backyard before it interferes, or tells other countries how to live.” I have paraphrased his words as I don’t recall the exact ones he used, but their meaning is exact. Everyone at the table concurred to some degree. After Sept. 11, he went on, America had world-wide sympathy. Then, he said, we messed it all up.
So I’ve been thinking about that, off and on, since my return. I read about New Zealand, and learned of that country’s mistreatment of the indigenous Maori. Before visiting New Zealand, we were in Australia, and heard about that country’s mistreatment of the original people, the Aboriginals. After New Zealand we went to Fiji, where the clash between the first people, the Fijians, and the workers brought in from India by Britain, the Indo-Fijians, was more than evident. It permeated the very atmosphere of that tropical island, so much so that walking through the main shopping district of Nadi can be a daunting experience, and one best done in a group during daylight hours. I walked solo for a half block before I returned to the safety of my group.
Mistreatment of the first peoples, it seems, is a world-wide shame, not limited to the U.S. I thought of the economic crisis in this country at this time, with energy prices demanding a change in our lifestyles and foretelling severe problems for years to come. I thought of the efforts we’re making in bio-fuels and alternative energies. I thought of the accusations that our research into bio-fuels is causing food prices around the globe to stampede upwards. I also thought of how the U.S. has been criticized for not intervening in the undeclared genocide in Darfur.
As for keeping our noses where they belong, and not interfering in political problems of other countries, two articles in this morning’s newspaper caught my eye. The first was a story about 1215 soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen who participated in a mass re-enlistment ceremony in Baghdad. The story quoted Gen. David Petraeus, who is the current head of the coalition forces in Iraq and who administered the re-upping oath, as saying that the troops’ commitment and sacrifice have given the Iraqi people “the most precious gift…freedom.”
Also mentioned in the article were the re-enlistment bonuses of up to $75,000, depending on rank and several other factors, as well as the fact that re-enlisting while serving in a war zone makes the bonuses tax-free. Cynical? Perhaps.
Then the second article got my attention. It was written by Steven Erlanger of The New York Times. The story was buried on page four--below the story about the death of U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, below the story of how current energy prices are hurting senior citizens, below the story about how western governments are ignoring ruling despots in Africa with whom they are economically aligned while at the same time criticizing Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, and even below the one about two guys tying after eating fifty-nine hot dogs each and needing a five hot dog run-off.
After all that was the story about the rescue of hostages held by Columbian guerillas for six years. Two days previous, former French presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three Americans and eleven Columbians had been freed in a complicated and dangerous ruse successfully pulled off by Columbian forces that had infiltrated the FARC rebels.
When her plane landed in France, Betancourt was met by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “I owe everything to France,” she stated publicly, thanking Sarkozy and the French people and asking for the president’s continued efforts in freeing the remaining seven hundred hostages.
The final paragraph of the article, one that could easily be overlooked by readers scanning stories, or eliminated by space constrictions imposed by the necessity for advertising space, read like this: “Sarkozy’s role became a topic of heated internal politics… The rescue operation, carried out by Columbian forces with American guidance, was done with no French involvement and no forewarning to Paris.”
July 5, 2008
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Clive thinks I’ve been suspiciously quiet for too long a time. Clive is one of the people who went to Australia with the pack of us. He wonders if I’m on my Wild Women trip, as he called it, and whether Pablo the Parrot will forgive another such transgression so soon after the Australia walkabout.
Well, I’m here and the reason for the silence is much more prosaic than running off with the Wild Women. In fact, yesterday my registration check was returned in the mail. I don’t think they found out how old I am. After all, the registration form said only that attendees had to be over 18 years of age. There was no mention of an upper cap.
No, the letter said that Becoming an Outdoors Woman could take only sixty registrants, and my application arrived after they’d filled the quota. So, rats. I don’t have that many years left to learn how to become an outdoors woman. I was sort of hoping to find out if I had been correctly using my chain saws all these years—the Homelite EZ that my husband gave me for a wedding present, and the Stihl 024 Wood Boss that he gave me for an anniversary present after I wore out the Homelite. The newest Stihl, the M5250C, I bought for myself.
Then there was the fly fishing class that I was looking forward to. I’ve been a meat fisherman for umpteen years, and never really considered fishing a sport. I thought the fly fishing class would add a new element to fishing. I would have to give up my force-feeding equipment—the three-pronged snagging hooks. “I can’t help it if that fish doesn’t know where its mouth is,” I would tell my husband…
Dutch Oven Gourmet was another class I wanted to take. Can’t say why, though. After all those years of cooking at home and in restaurants, including owning a restaurant for seven years, I’ve had enough of cooking. I’d much rather assemble a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or slather a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with butter than actually cook a meal these days.
No, what really bums me out is that now I have no excuse for spending a king’s ransom in gas money by driving to Haines, pulling my little camping trailer so I had all the amenities of home with me. Then, I was going to take a side trip to Valdez to visit some friends on the way back. One of the things I wanted to do on that side trip was stop by a farm out there in that frozen Interior wilderness, and introduce myself to someone I’ve gotten to know rather well this past week, as well as his horse and his pigs.
Those critters are the reason for my week’s silence. I gave the muse the time off (as if I actually have ANY control over her) so that I could do a favor for a friend. Well, actually for his brother, who had written an account of establishing a farm out in the middle of nowhere in god-forsaken COLD country. What the brother needed was someone to edit a story he’d written about that adventure. The story turned out to be more than 54,000 words! Book length!
I’ve edited my own stuff—I call it a left brain attack—but never anyone else’s. So, for the past week that’s what I’ve been doing. When the manuscript arrived by e-mail, it was pretty rough. Two different typists had worked on it from the original hand-written copy.
The formatting was all screwed up, parts were missing, apparently where they were unable to read his handwriting, lots of misspelled words, and there were some grammatical errors. The whole thing turned out to be a fascinating story, and a lot of work! There were special circumstances here, as the author is facing that Big Deadline in the Sky, and could communicate and answer questions only when he was sufficiently medicated.
I worked my tail off, and kept long hours in front of my computer. I not only burned the midnight oil, but way-after-midnight oil. I learned a whole lot about my computer and all the little hidden toolbar thingies. I also learned how hard it is for me to edit someone else’s work, and that I’m not very good at it. I kept wanting to rewrite it instead of just correcting it. The formatting gave me fits. I could produce a well-formatted page and print it, but when I tried to merge all the chapters into one file, everything went berserk. Bold face and italics chapter titles appeared here and there, and parts of the body text were bold faced. Page setup went awry. Nevertheless, a nice, clean-looking 230 page manuscript, chapters and front work all merged into one Word.doc, formatting finally behaving, emerged on the computer.
Six days later I finished the manuscript, but only after I enlisted the aid of a retired teacher here in town to double-check it for me. Well, actually by this time it was probably the tenth or twentieth check. It’s a darned good thing I did, because some glaring grammatical errors had flown right past me. Apparently I had been more attuned to spelling and formatting than grammar. The number of errors she pointed out gave me reason to pause and consider my own writing, and how much I’ve forgotten.
Now to get some neglected chores done and then it’s back to the Aussie journals….if I can find my muse.
Anyway, at 4 a.m. today I e-mailed the completed manuscript to him. Later this morning I received a note from him that read in part, “I am so happy.”
So am I.