Lessons from the Current River

Sometimes, on the trail, stories wrench their way out of my memory and demand attention, even if I’d prefer to keep them tucked away. This is one of them.

Several years ago, I was faced with having to say goodbye to a group of friends who had become like brothers and sisters during our year spent traveling with Up with People. The only consolation was that after everyone departed for their own corner of the globe, four of us would embark on a canoe trip through the Ozark Mountains on the Current River.

The memory of that canoe trip, with three of my favorite people on the planet, has crystallized over the years with images as vivid and sharp as if it happened yesterday. Old growth forests, dense and impassible. A lush, green canopy of oak. The earthy, musky scent of a slow moving river. Just the four of us, two canoes, and the knowledge that the end of our time together was imminent. Gaby would return to Mexico, Jussi to Finland, Mark would stay in Missouri, and I’d go home to Montana. But we still had two whole days and a glorious stretch of water before us.

We couldn’t believe our good fortune to have the river to ourselves. With no sign of the outside world, no responsibilities or jobs to return to, we were truly free. Time seemed to stop as we basked in the sun and each other’s company; swimming, climbing white bluffs, and jumping into deep pools. We found a sandbar, smack in the middle of the river, and set up camp for the night, only to unroll the tent and watch it practically disintegrate before our eyes. It had rotted since it’s last use, and we laughed ourselves silly, knowing that we’d be warm enough under the blanket of stars.

As we sat around the fire that night, Mark drug out an ancient bottle of wine that had been a wedding gift to his parents twenty-five years ago. It was a screw-top, something “fancy” like Ernest and Julio Gallo and his mother warned us that the wine was probably undrinkable by now. We didn’t care. We were young and broke and a free gallon of wine sounded pretty good to us. Mark said he’d buy another bottle when he got home, and we made a vow, that no matter what happened, the four of us would share it at our cast’s twenty-five year reunion. No spouses, no children, just the four of us.

We couldn’t have known, that night on the sandbar, that we’d lose our dear Gaby to cancer nine years later. If we’d had any idea of what the future would bring, I’m certain the next day would have been different.

The next morning brought hundreds of canoes carrying strangers who defiled our sanctuary with their laughter and shouting. I wanted our river back. I wanted the peace and serenity and that feeling like it existed only for us. We thought if we could just get ahead of this large group, it would go back to how it was before. So we paddled furiously. As we passed canoes, I felt strong, in control. We kept on, our oars slicing through the water in unison, determined to beat the throng and find our own place again. Soon, there were only a few canoes ahead of us. I remember smiling, the sense of accomplishment, when we’d passed them all.

And then, the sinking feeling of realizing we’d already reached the pull out, the end of our trip. I’d thought we had miles to go still, but our canoe trip – the one we’d anticipated for months – was over. Instead of paddling like banshees to pass all those canoes, why hadn’t we waited? Instead of rushing through those last miles, we should have savored them. I think I even turned our canoe around and tried to paddle upstream, desperate to hang on, just a while longer.

But that’s how life is, and sometimes, my angel Gaby reminds me of it. Slow down, she seems to say, as I row, row, row my boat, trying to stay on top of a never ending to-do list. This is your life.

My daughter turns seven today. She’ll never be as young as she is right now. I’ll never be as young as I am right now. Sometimes, if we let them, our regrets turn into gifts, in their sneaky, painful ways. I’m not making any promises, but I’m really going to try to stop paddling so fast. I can’t make the river stop, but hopefully, I’ve got a big, rambling stretch of it in front of me. Who cares if it’s not perfect, if it’s too crowded with canoes or a sticky floor that needs to be mopped. I’m going to savor the ride.


On the Trail of the Perfect Post-Pumpkin Pie Playlist

As I hit the trail today, in the effort to run off the obnoxious amount of calories that went down the hatch on Thanksgiving, I realized I’m a titch bored with my current playlist. These tunes still do the trick, but there’s nothing like new music to fuel the fire, eh?

So, I thought it might be fun to have a playlist swap. I wanted to get all fancy, so that you could click on the song and listen to it, but I didn’t have the patience or the mental bandwidth to figure that out. . .

In no particular order, here are some of my faves for running. Or vacuuming the house with extra fervor:

  • Little Lion Man – Mumford and Sons
  • American Girl – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
  • Seven Bridges Road – Eagles
  • Bohemian Like You – Dandy Warhols
  • Goody Two Shoes – Adam Ant
  • No Silver – Chris Bathgate
  • Safety Dance – Men without Hats
  • Zombie – The Cranberries
  • Desire – U2
  • Crazy – Seal

What songs put you in the mood to shake your tail feathers? 

Star Wars and the Art of Backstory

Courtesy of Wikipedia

In honor of my son’s ninth birthday, this post has a Star Wars theme, just like his cake. Nothing wrong with that kid’s imagination. He’s often engaged in imaginary battles, rife with explosions and mayhem. He arrests his sister in the name of the Galactic Senate. He talks like Yoda. “Time for dinner, it is.”

We recently watched the original Star Wars movie from 1977. It opens with farm boy Luke Skywalker discovering Princess Leia’s “you’re our only hope” message recorded on his new droid, R2D2. Throughout the entire movie, we don’t know Luke and Leia are twins. We have no foggy clue that Darth Vader used to be this likable but moody dude named Anakin. And it doesn’t matter, because the characters and story line have hooked us.

To a novelist, backstory is everything that happened before page one. Many writers struggle, especially in first drafts, with how much backstory to reveal and when to do it. (Thumbs pointing to myself, here.) It’s essential that the writer know the backstory inside and out, but the reader won’t give a hang about the backstory unless they’ve bought into the front story, which happens by serving up compelling characters in scene. Too much backstory, especially at the beginning, and you’ve put your reader on a one-way train to Snoozerville.

Star Wars got this right. The familiar scrolling text in the movie’s opening told us only what we needed to know. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .followed by something about forces gathering to overthrow the empire. Or something. Wee disclaimer – I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan. Too many battles and not enough schmoopy stuff. Precisely why my son IS a big fan.

Revealing the backstory at the right time is key. How can we forget evil Darth Vader wheezing out the words, “Luke, I am your father.” BLAMO! Waaay more powerful than if it would have been info-dumped into the scrolling text at the beginning of the movie.

Besides Star Wars, my son also loves to write. His current work in progress is about Anakin and Luke being brothers instead of father and son. (That whole Anakin/Padme love angle grosses him right out.) I love to watch the creative spark take hold. When Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was playing the other day, he said, “Hey, that would make an awesome title!” Then, as he sat down to write Ring of Fire, the Continuing Adventures of Anakin Skywalker, he stared off into space. His eyes lit up. “Mom! I figured out the perfect opening line. It’s this: After all that drama . . .” and then he launched into Anakin’s latest battle. I have to say, I was proud that at his tender age, he skipped over the urge to explain and got right down to business. Wish it was that easy for me!

Missed it by THAT much . . . okay, missed it by a mile.

We live by a pumpkin patch and I love to look over our deck in the fall and see the sweeping fields of orange. I like it even more in November, when the cows are turned out to chow on some pumpkin pie.

With multi-tasking in mind, I thought I’d take my camera on my run this morning so I could post the perfect pastoral shot: Flatirons in the background, a few golden leaves still clinging to the cottonwoods, and the striking contrast of black cows and sunlit pumpkins.

One problem – going on a run with a bulky camera didn’t sound like my idea of a good time. My bright idea was to leave the camera at home and take my iPhone instead. That way I could still take the picture AND listen to my playlist. I have to have music loud enough to drown out my breathing when I run, or I freak myself out because it sounds like I’m dying.

I was a weensy bit worried about how the shot would turn out because I don’t have the fancy new iPhone with the cool zoom, but I didn’t let it stop me, since the cows are usually close to the fence. Off I went with Cappy the dog and a hat and gloves because it was a nippy 40 degrees.  I was clipping right along when out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of grey. There, headed right toward me was a coyote with a fat prairie dog in his mouth. I froze in my tracks, thinking what a cool shot it would make. Well, maybe not so cool for the prairie dog, but still. . .

I reined in Cappy, ripped off my gloves, and now the coyote was crossing the trail just twenty feet away. Wait! I sent him a telepathic message, because coyotes are tricky like that. I don’t want your prairie dog. Just a quick picture!

And you know what? He stopped RIGHT in the trail with that dead varmint hanging from his choppers and posed for me. I fiddled frantically with my iPhone, trying to get the heck out of my playlist and find the camera mode and then wait for it to load. When it finally did, Wily E. had lost patience and was trotting away to have his breakfast.

At least I still had the cows. When I finally reached my destination, I ran into another glitch. The cows were way out in the middle of the field, nowhere close to the fence and there I was with no zoom. I seriously considered crawling through the fence and marching out to the middle of that field so I could get the shot.

But I have bad cow karma. Besides eating them, when I was a kid on the ranch, our idea of a good time was making the mama cows so mad they’d chase us up trees. One time, a particularly enraged cow managed to get her front legs up into the base of the ginormous willow where we thought we were safe. Scared the vinegar out of us.

If I dared to take my dog and sneak up close enough to get a decent shot with my cell phone, with my luck one of those cows would be the great-great grandchild of the ones we’d terrorized back in the day and her DNA would tell her to mow me down.

So, epic fail on all accounts. I did, however, dig up one from last fall that I took from our deck with a real camera and not my relic of a cell phone with no zoom or cool features.

Guess what I’m asking Santa for this Christmas?

Bovine Brunch Club