Life in Thin Air

I realize the Squid has been a boring series of political screeds of late, for the most part. I can’t help it. I feel like an invisible Thomas Paine, distributing my pamphlets to an invisible New England. I suppose a lot of us invisible types feel that way. (When everyone has a megaphone, all we hear is a big noise.)

But in America there still exists, for now, a place called RMNP – Rocky Mountain National Park. The family and I recently scootered up there, to a great little rented house right off the main drag in Estes Park, CO. That might seem odd, but this wasn’t our first Estes Park rodeo (they have those too),  and we’ve learned the reason downtown is downtown is that it’s the middle of everything. Being smack in the middle of downtown means you are smack in the middle of everywhere you want to go. What’s more, even with a crass commercial “strip” 100 feet from our door (and down the mountain), if we look any other direction we see – you guessed it – mountains. “Slanty living,” I call it, where there’s nowhere to set your water bottle or your camera bag down because the ground is just not flat anywhere. It’s the same in downtown Estes as it is everywhere else (except the golf course).

I love Estes Park not just for its scenic beauty, but also for its built-in mid-century kitschiness. It’s a compact little vision of what American vacationing was always meant to look like: beautiful views, fresh mountain air and sun, shady RV parks, ice cream and taffy, Indian jewelry, and mini golf. Lots of mini golf. We even took the tram up the mountain this time, something we’ve never bothered to check out on earlier trips. It was fantastic. Very trammy, just like you’d expect. 


But getting up into the park, into the real mountain air – that is the reason you go. It’s materially different, a different feeling altogether than walking around at sea level, buying gum or waiting for a bus or something. You are acutely aware of every moment – every breath, really – because the air is not giving it up for free, the oxygen. You have to work for it. And if you do you get that new energy that will take you up one more vertical foot, or yard. But it’s not unpleasant (for me, though it can be for some) to work for it. To greedily gulp up the mostly-nitrogen air to capture  those few precious oxygen molecules a lungfull offers. It’s a challenge. And the light – the light seems to be somehow unbowed from the atmosphere up there – pure, brilliant – razor sharp, enough to cut through what haze there might be, the misty mountain mornings, within an hour or so. (From our vantage just above the city, our cabin’s big front window captured the whole “bowl” of downtown Estes, and in the mornings sometimes the clouds were lying down on the mountaintops, a misty blanket. It burned off by 10 or so, replaced with that big smiling sun that, as bright as it shines, can be a devil to locate among all those pointy peaks. They shadow one another, or the cloud shadows roam across their glowing granite rock faces and clingy pines.)

And the water – of course all the water up there is snowmelt, erstwhile ice racing down the mountains on all sides to find its new level. Such a hurry! Over polished boulders and rotting aspens and pines, fish flipped out by anglers where it runs smoother on the levels. Crystal clear, but foaming and bubbling too, mountain champagne – you want to stoop by the bank, cup a hand and drink its coldness (but you don’t). Here you can find a peaceful wood at the Wild Basin – near the foot of Long’s Peak, a few yards from that pond where we saw a young moose at play in the still water –a peaceful place that is not peaceful at all, as you step into the woods and feel the momentum of the river crashing over huge rocks and coming together in that unmistakable sound of rushing water gone mad with flight, obstacles be damned. Subtle at first, like a highway in the distance, when you arrive it’s a jet engine next to your ear, yet it’s peaceful noise, nature’s noise, with just you, your family, the rocks and the water and the trees, those immortal sentinels. A kind of cacophonous silence, a blaring quiet. It’s other-worldly, because usually we don’t get to live in this other world – the real world. Usually we’re stuck in the rough copy we made.


We won’t make a habit of future trips to the Rocky Mountains, it would not be fair to those who suffer from the altitudes. But I at least will probably need to find my way back a few more times, for the refresh. I have an inner, insistent need now, at this part of life, to find such soul-enriching places and promptly suck up the enrichment they offer. My soul depletes—especially during this tragic moment my country endures, when we continue to phone in our former lives in a kind of embarrassed, resigned dull dread while we wait for the other shoe to drop. And the one after that.

The canyons of Utah proved to be such a place (but also high in the sky, a bit ironic for canyons). So too the canyons of Chicago or New York – electric cities– where the thrill to the soul is more man-made but no less evocative of that unnamed thing—the essence of life—the thing that escapes our book of days and visits us only when we set it aside for a respite, a rest, a difference. Such moments, we think – the fleeting moments, almost invisible as if glimpsed out of the corner of our soul’s eye—such moments are a brief delve into what our world was meant to be for us, before we lost our way: bright, electric, alive, immediate, moving—moving—never at rest, but always at peace with its wild self.





Undici Quarantacinque

It doesn’t matter where you go, or how long you stay. When you return from a trip, you bring back both memories, which are temporal, and  impressions, which are ethereal.

Or so it is with me. For now I can roll the experience like a movie in my head, from start to finish, and remember most of what happened. That’s the memory, and it will fade. But I also have the impressions, the all-senses recordings of a moment, or a place, which I know I will carry with me forever.

With regard to Florence, I’ll now have two sets of impressions, and two faded memories. Of the impressions from my childhood visit, I spoke somewhat in my last essay. But specifically, there is the fried potatoes at the little Trattoria we found quite by chance one evening. I remember my father, mother, sister and I had been wandering around aimlessly in our characteristic way, probably searching for the cheapest of the restaurants, when we finally stumbled into one, literally a hole in a wall – the door was broken off its ancient hinges. It had about five tables, with Mama doing the cooking and Papa working the tables. I was a bit intimidated by this place, its earthiness, but I knew what I wanted: French fries. And by chance he was willing to make them, what are known locally as patati frita. I ordered them, and ate them with salt and a little wine, and they were the best thing I had ever eaten in my life. I think it was the olive oil.

So I suppose it was the sensory memory that created the lifelong impression of those French fries. At any rate, I know I’ll never forget them. Nor will I forget the greasy face of that hard-working owner, stooping over my chair, peering inquisitively into my greasy 12-year-old face stuffed with fries, saying with a twisted grimace that may have been merely questioning or may have been a little challenging – “e bene?” I was satisfied the place was not dangerous, comfortable with my wine, and knew enough Italian to reply with gusto: “Molto bene. Benissimo.”

This seemed to please the old man. He had impressed the Americans. (I should point out that in the early 1970s, American families strolling aimlessly around Florence was not a common thing. We were like Bigfoot.)

And this year’s trip – I know for a fact I will never forget the Uffizi man. The Uffizi man had what I consider the most stressful job in Italy. It was his task to stand outside the Museo dei Uffizi – one of the most visited museums in the world – and try to manage controlled entry for a frenzied crowd of over-scheduled, over-stimulated, reservation-holding art lovers.

It must be understood that in Europe, people do not necessarily queue up for entry into a place the way they do here. They more or less bunch up around the entrance, forming an organic blob of people with no beginning and no end.

These days at the Uffizi, the non-reservation entrance is a blob of people about half a mile long at any given time (in 1974 we just wandered in). The usual wait to get in is about two to two-and-a-half hours. But for those in the know, there is a special entrance for timed entry. You simply call a few days ahead, book a time of entry, and they give you a reservation number. You show up at the reservation entrance at that time and avoid the big blob of tourists in the regular line.

Still, it’s a harrowing experience. The people still bunch up, fearing they will miss their time. So about 75 people or so–those who are on time, a little ahead of time, or a little late–are all standing there, pushing toward the door, waving their reservations at the little old man standing behind the velvet ropes that guard the door to Botticelli, Leonardo, Titian, Michelangelo, Rubens and the rest.

He is about 60, or maybe older, aristocratically thin, short from an American perspective, careworn, with a big blue jacket, fashionable pants and shoes (he’s Italian) and a good head of silver hair. He looks about himself, rarely into the eyes of his supplicants, but beyond and a little above them, as if he’s waiting for some superior force to come and make them all go away. He answers his cell phone and cups his other ear to hear over the crowd. He stands behind the ropes which only he may touch. He lights a cigarette, smokes it hurriedly, then stubs it out after a few puffs. He points to his watch, he shrugs his shoulders, he listens to plaintive stories in Italian or French, answering back in tones of regret, of pragmatism, of powerlessness. But mostly he says, in a loud but not hostile voice – more a plaintive one – the time. He announces the time, like some town crier, at fifteen minute intervals.

“Undici quarantacinque,” he says. 11:45. That’s our time, all of us. When he says it, we wave our little slips of paper and, like good Catholics, chant the responsorial song: “Undici quarantacinque! Undici quarantacinque!” He nods knowingly, waves his arms to take us all in, his 11:45 flock. But then he shakes his head, points to his watch. Not yet.

“What time is it?” I ask my wife in a too-frenzied tone. She is calm like the Arno. “It’s only 11:35.” “Oh,” I say, “it really seemed like it should be time.”

“Undici trenta?” The man says to anyone who may find wisdom in the statement.

All of these people, including me, are thinking the same thing. They’re not sure how the system works. They’ve planned for months, come from far-flung lands, spent a fortune, with the Uffizi as their main object. They have a reservation, but what if they never get recognized by the little man? Occasionally he opens the magical ropes and lets a few people in. He has inspected their reservation. They must be a little late, I think. They must be undici trenta – yes, I’m thinking of time in Italian now. It just seems more efficient.

I am staring at this man as one would stare at a judge empowered to suspend an unjust life sentence. He is good at his job, he does not acknowledge me. He looks at his watch. I look at my watch. The crowd surges, it – as if evolved into an organism – is getting impatient. I’ve been at the front too long. Like cellular waste in the amoeba, I will be sucked away from the nucleus to the edge of the crowd creature and disgorged.

People yell from the back – “Dodeci!” Twelve noon. They are a million miles away. Just stay the hell away. The man shakes his head, waves his arms around our now intimate group – the in crowd – the undici quarantacinque crowd – and says it with polite resignation: “Undici quarantacinque.”

Hours seem to pass. Suddenly he looks right at me. He says it out loud, “Undici quarantacinque,” with a finality in his voice, a beautiful fatalism, and I, gripping my wife’s hand, surge ahead, realizing our time has come. The rope comes off its hook, and I thrust my little scrap of paper into his face, and he inspects it and nods his head resignedly. We pass beyond, through the ropes, the glass doors, into the lobby, and head toward the ticket window. I am ecstatic. I’ve done it. Four thousand miles and I’m here. And it will be fantastic.

And as we enter, I hear in the background, faintly now, that voice: “Undici quarantacinque…undici quarantacinque.” And I always will.

The Nose of the Boar

My wife and I just returned from a week in Italy, Florence to be exact.

This whole thing started by planning a run-of-the-mill trip to San Francisco. It was last September. I was on the Web, checking out fares and accommodations, getting a line on some pretty good deals. Then I started thinking about it. What, exactly, were we going to do in San Francisco? We could visit some friends and relatives, maybe see an art opening, but in fact we had already seen all of the “sights” on our last trip there. And in truth I had no great desire to go back.

Then I started thinking, “Well, then, where do you really want to go?” And I knew right away it must be Florence.

I had visited Florence once before, when I was a lad of twelve. My family was living in Naples at the time (a great place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit there). We drove up to Florence for a two or three day visit.

When we got there I was immediately blown away. The city itself is a work of art. The narrow cobbled streets, the ancient buildings, the winding Arno and its beautiful bridges, all surrounded by the rolling Tuscan hills. This is the city of the great Medici, the city of the Renaissance. Here is Brunelleschi’s famous dome for the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (AKA the Duomo). Here is the Uffizi, the greatest museum of the world (with the added feature that it is not in France). Here are dozens of important basilica, cloisters and cappella. Here is the home of Dante, of Galileo, of Michelangelo. Here is the birthplace of modern art and science.

Of course, I didn’t quite see it that way at age twelve. But I knew I was in a magic place, a place that exists outside the mundane world of office towers, malls and suburbs. I knew the streets were for walking, and that the cafes were for idling, and that the people were alive to it all. I saw Botticeli’s Birth of Venus and knew I was in the presence of a masterpiece. I drank wine in a family-owned Trattoria and strolled to the Mercato Nuovo, an open-air market famous for leather and stationery, where I rubbed the nose of the boar.

And in truth, that was it. I had forgotten, until some days after I had convinced my wife that Florence was our destiny, after I had booked the flight and the townhouse, after I had checked out my Italian language CD from the library–I’d forgotten that on that chilly night in 1974 I had in fact rubbed the nose of the boar at the Mercato Nuovo. The boar in question is a large bronze statue of same, one of the several symbols of Florence. Its nose is kept perpetually shiny by the hands of a thousand tourists a day, all of whom know that a visitor who touches the nose of the boar is guaranteed to return to Florence one day.

As I did. And I am forever thankful to that boar.

Niobrara Nights

You may have noticed that I let the whole month of September go by without a word.

Not without reason. Like Eliot’s April, I find September the cruelest month. By September I’ve about had it with the Plains version of summer–a sort of relentless boiling–but no, summer will not pass. Around mid-September you start to think it should begin cooling down, but it doesn’t. It just keeps on, in the 90s or better, every day. And the rains stop. No rain. Just hot, humid, sweltering dog days.

And here’s the clincher – they close the pools in August. Early August. So no relief there. We went all the way to Niobrara in September just to get to a pool that was open.
And it was delightful.

niobr2bMy wife’s father and stepmother, in a flash of brilliance and spending, purchased a massive chunk of land in the Niobrara river valley a few years ago. Then (and this was a years-long ordeal worthy of Hercules, or at least his contractor) they plopped a big house down on top of a ridge overlooking the river itself. It’s a wonder. After driving all day from our city, ever deeper into farm territory and then, in the valley itself, ranch territory, then up a never-ending gravel drive to the lonely ridge, you find it (unless it’s dark – then you drive right by it). It sits alone on the ridge, with no other sign of civilization in sight.

Beyond the ridge is the valley and the river.

The first time we visited was a bit odd. The three of us just piled in the car and drove up there one hot August day. It was as if we were visiting a three-masted schooner in the middle of a squall. Because they had built on the high point of the ridge, they got the full fury of the ranging wind. And that night was outrageously windy. You had to yell at someone just a few feet away — and I’m talking about inside the house. We had to crack the windows (no air conditioning), so the wind came in whistling and flapping the blinds all night. And yes, it was hot.

But they got the air conditioning in (a necessity in this place, not a luxury), and about a month ago they had the deck put on. The deck! We came up in early September with some friends, planning a mild weekend in the country. We arrived at night–I was in horrible shape. It had been a crushing day. I had been crushed. But when we arrived, we grabbed a cold beer and we went out on the deck. And the sky exploded.

I imagine there are people in the city, plenty of them, even in my city of the Plains, who have never seen the galaxy they live in. I myself had not seen it for some time, given that I, like most, spend my days locked in a straight-ahead stare at responsibility, tasks and the specter of tomorrow. Oh, you’ll step out on the patio at night and detect a few stars in the glare–look, I think that’s the Big Dipper! But in the dark of that lonely valley, we walked out on that deck and looked up, and we didn’t go back in until bedtime.

The stars, the stardust, the Milky Way, and Mars himself–they all were there for us, stretched across that impossibly wide and cloudless black bowl, to gaze on and to get to know again.

How wonderful to feel infinitely small and large again.