The Ghost of Saint Francis

“Saint Francis” (Digital Art by Randy Wollenmann)

I’ve long been a fan of the Google Calendar app, even after switching my mobile from Android to Apple. Google Calendar allows the option to add “Christian Holidays” so I promptly checked the box. We’re talking Christmas and Easter of course, but how about the Feast Day of Saint Francis (last Sunday), Saint David (3/1), and Saint Patrick (3/17)? Saint Patrick sure, but why also Francis and David? There are hundreds of saints yet Google chose just three. My curiosity was piqued.

So begins my beyond-the-grave story, perfect with Halloween on the horizon. Google’s choice of saint days got me wondering if there’s a spectral connection between me (David) and Francis. So I dove into the details. Now all I can say is, be careful what you wonder about.

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy

The quick history of Francis. He’s the patron saint of animals. He was an Italian living in the 1200s from the central hill town of Assisi. Francis grew up wealthy but abandoned his riches to serve the Church and the poor. But it’s the animals that make him so popular among today’s saints. He (supposedly) communicated with wolves. He often preached to flocks of birds. He built the very first Christmas crèche, including live animals alongside the manger.

Now then, my Francis ghost story. Let’s cover this spookiness from present to past. I’ve discovered a pattern of events that has me convinced Saint Francis is trying to reach out. As a matter of fact, he’s been in touch every ten years back to when I was a baby. If you agree you can see why I’m expecting another “call” in 2023.

  • 2013: I’ve told you Francis is the patron saint of animals but guess what? He’s also the patron saint of avoiding fires. In June 2013, my family and I evacuated our Colorado house for a week (horses and dogs in tow) to escape one of the worst fires in our state’s history. When we returned, our house was not only intact but had no smoke damage. Meanwhile, over 500 properties within a five-mile radius were completely destroyed.

  • (Also in) 2013: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope. He promptly changed his name to Francis. There have been 266 Popes in history, but Cardinal Bergoglio is the very first to select the name “Francis”.

  • 2003: The Front Range of the Colorado Rockies experienced one of the worst blizzards in our state’s history. In a matter of hours a single storm dropped over thirty inches of snow, with drifts of five feet or more. My family and I were snow-locked in our house for over a week. 100,000 residents lost power while 4,000 travelers were stuck at the international airport in Denver. Saint Francis is also the patron saint of the environment. Was he making his presence felt with unprecedented weather?
    Assisi’s sister city

  • 1993: My family and I moved from San Francisco to Colorado. San Francisco (named for Francis) is the sister city of his birth town of Assisi. But here’s where I really paused. Francis is also the patron saint of… Colorado. And how many other U.S. states chose Francis as their patron saint? Zero.

  • 1983: I’m in my junior year in college, studying abroad in Italy. The patron saint of Italy is… Francis, of course. I also traveled to Assisi while I was there, including a visit to the church where Francis is buried. This is the only time I’ve ever been to Italy.

  • 1973: Acclaimed biographer Ira Peck writes, The Life and Words of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a short read, with easy language intended for middle-schoolers. Where was I in 1973? Starting my first year of middle school.

  • 1963: On March 21st, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed for good after thirty years. Alcatraz is the famous island prison in the San Francisco Bay. What does Alcatraz have to do with my ghost?  Back in 1202, a young Francis was thrown in prison for a year, captured while serving a military effort. His spiritual conversion from wealthy patron to humble priest, it is said, took place during this time in prison.

Our Saint Francis statue

And there you have it. Every ten years – starting the year after I was born – Saint Francis seems to have reached out to me. Oh, one more thing.  My wife and I have a statue of Saint Francis in our garden. “Of course you do”, says Francis.  He’s been standing quietly there for years, facing the house, just keeping his eye on us.

Francis will reach out to me again in 2023, I’m sure of it now. He’ll find another way to make his presence felt. When I read up on him I noted he’s also the patron saint against dying alone and the patron saint of needleworkers. Against dying alone? Am I destined to perish alongside several others in 2023? That’s not very nice of you, Francis.  I’d better take up knitting.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Late Night Racquet Sports

My newsfeed nets a lot of headlines, but I almost missed the one about the Saharan sandstorm last week, blowing its way across the southern United States. Our son lives in Austin and said you can’t miss it: eerie dusty brownish fog center-stage in an otherwise hot and humid Texas day. (The silver lining: the sunsets are spectacular.)  I can’t spin a sandstorm positive.  Instead, I picture every granule as a moth and every moth descending on my house like Japanese Zeroes, somehow finding entry and making my life a living hell.

They’re at it again, Mr. & Mrs. Miller and their countless compadres. The million (billion?) miller moth march made its way across the Midwest (today’s letter is “M”), destined for an oasis called Colorado and a house called mine. The little winged beasties arrived unannounced and in droves (awful word: drove). One night I noticed one or two of the millers performing their spastic dance around the outside lights and I thought, “Oh no… scouts“.  The next night one of them sounded a tiny bugle at dusk and the swarming commenced.  I’m convinced miller moths have air traffic controllers, letting them know “Roger that Moth 259 – you’re cleared for landing on any ceiling or wall in Dave’s house”.

Light is a moth’s drug of choice

From the minimal research I’ve conducted (like, I don’t want to know moths have 8,000 eyes or whatever), the high country of the Rocky Mountains is a miller moth’s summer resort.  Picture Colorado as their Motel 6 for the night (just don’t “leave the light on”), feeding on backyard flowers and storing up oxygen for the next day’s flight to altitude.  They seem to be headed towards Utah in particular.  Maybe the flowers are better over there.  Maybe moths are Mormon and the Utah state line feels like the pearly gates of heaven.  Here’s what I say: if Utah really is “The Beehive State”, train those yellow-jacketed armies to take down the miller moths as soon as they arrive.  The massacre would be an event worth pay-per-view prices.

I thought I’d developed a sound battle plan for Mr. & Mrs. Miller this year.  Turn out ALL the lights and live in hermit darkness for several nights (like Halloween, when you don’t want any trick-or-treaters at your door).  Then maybe they’d fly over to my neighbor’s place instead.  Wrong.  They see your glowing phones.  They see the little LED’s you can’t cover up on your electronic devices.  They just park in the dark in discreet places around the house, waiting for you to wake up the next morning so they can announce, “WE’RE HERE!!!”

There was no avoiding battle with this year’s crop of “Army cutworms” (an image even worse than “miller moth”).  At first I was a mercenary, developing a cupping technique with my hands where I could catch-and-release (moths are the devil’s mess if you squash ’em).  But I rapidly tired of saving their little one-inch lives one at a time.  Try getting ready for bed at night brushing your teeth while a half-dozen bombers circle your head.  Or reaching for the water glass only to find a miller has staged a glorious dramatic death at the bottom.

Armed with a fly swatter, I thought to myself time for a little badminton (actually, I just thought “kill”). But here’s the reality: moths have half a brain, wings, ears (or at least a sense of hearing), and endless energy.  They know you’re coming almost before you do.  They hover close to the ceiling, frustratingly out of reach just beckoning you to climb to unsafe heights.

Our bathtub’s too small to accommodate a ladder so I was forced to balance precariously on the porcelain edge while swinging the swatter skyward.  The best analogy I can give you is this: picture King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building, gripping with his feet and flailing with his arms, only in men’s pajamas.  Little buzzing machines dart about him.  He knocks down one or two (with an instant and satisfying plummet back to earth), but most of the time he just swings at the air while trying not to die in a bathtub.  It’s part-cardio, part-yoga (only you’re more stressed when you’re done).

Let’s visit the Army cutworm’s half-brain again. I believe moths are designed by Mom Nature to taunt their predators.  One of mine made it into the refrigerator and probably enjoyed a helping of leftovers.  Another survived a tumble of laundry dryer clothes and still came out intact (though it was hard to tell if he was dizzy or just flitting as normal).  Yet another spent the night in the soaking water of our dirty dishes, popped up the next morning when I approached the sink, and said, “Have a nice day!” as he darted away. Trust me; these mini-monsters don’t die easy.  Even a spirited swipe of the racquet (er, swatter) – picture enough force to explode a shuttlecock – doesn’t always kill a moth.  Bless their pitter-patter hearts – they sometimes need three or four good whacks before raising the white flag.

Enough about Mr. & Mrs. Miller, right?  To swat this topic once and for all, most of you know the movie monster Godzilla but what about his nemesis Mothra?  Back in the 1960’s, (sick) Japanese filmmakers created a “good-girl” winged creature; an awkward-looking mega-insect who defies the laws of physics by flying.  Mothra’s just what you picture in my worst nightmares: a moth the size of a jumbo jet.  She was labeled “the protector of island culture, the Earth, and Japan” and revered among the Japanese film-going public (especially women).  Mothra sold a lot of movie tickets.

Mothra

So, the Japanese think a moth is damn near a heroine, eh?  Well then, they should come to Colorado next summer for a visit.  I’ll leave the light on for ’em.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Hex Marks the Spot

In the opening scenes of the 1981 classic, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, intrepid explorer Indiana Jones navigates a deep jungle, a river, the betrayal of his fellow adventurers, and the lethal booby-traps inside a mountainside cave to capture a priceless statue of gold.  Indy’s return to civilization includes more death-defying maneuvers, yet he still completes the entire escapade in the first ten minutes of the film.  That’s far less time than it took another thrill-seeker to find the real-life hidden treasure of Forrest Fenn.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with Forrest Fenn.  Hardly anybody would be, were it not for Fenn’s decision back in 1988 to set aside $2 million of his amassed fortune as a reward for an ambitious treasure hunt through the vast Rocky Mountains.  Gold nuggets, rare coins, jewelry, and gemstones; all piled up together inside a twelfth-century bronze box and cached in a region of over 500,000 square miles.  Treasure hunt indeed… but no treasure map!  Instead, Fenn documented clues in the stories and poems contained in his self-published book, The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir.

Remarkably, Fenn’s treasure appears to have been claimed.  The whole story found its way back into national headlines just ten days ago, when Fenn himself declared, “I do not know the person who found it but… the search is over.  Look for more information and photos in the coming days.”  Conveniently, the one snap of the treasure chest in its hidden location does not indicate when it was taken.  Just as convenient, the finder has yet to be identified; only labeled “anonymous searcher from the East Coast”.

Forrest Fenn

Forgive my skepticism, but I’d say Forrest just raised the first red flag on this whole adventure.  It sounds good on paper but the more I read the more I sense fairy tale instead of actual tale.  To repeat, Mr. or Mrs. East Coast has yet to come forward.  The single photo of the treasure could’ve been taken by Fenn himself.  Do the homework and you’ll soon start to wonder, does the treasure really exist?  For that matter, does Forrest Fenn himself exist?  Even his name sounds make-believe.

Body-double aside, Fenn appears to be very much alive, but the case can be made for calling the man eccentric.  Consider, Fenn’s initial intent for the treasure was kind of an “X marks the spot” for his final resting place.  In 1988, diagnosed with cancer (likely terminal) Fenn was motivated to set up the treasure hunt before his demise.  But somewhere in the next 22 years, Fenn recovered from his illness and then penned the memoir, complete with treasure-hunt clues.  This sequence of events alone is suspect.  What was Fenn’s original intent: secret burial in the Rockies and whoever stumbled upon his grave (and thought to dig it up) wins the prize?

courtesy of oldsantafetradingcompany.com

Undeterred, thousands pursued Fenn’s treasure after the memoir was published.  Five died in the search.  Of those five, only one cause of death was confirmed – a fall down a steep slope in Yellowstone National Park.  The bodies of the other four, at first identified as “missing persons”, were found later (at different times and places) along the supposed route to Fenn’s treasure. No cause of death determined with any of them.  Add to that a dozen or more arrests, detainments, citations, and lawsuits with other hunters and you start to get a real mess on your hands.  Sounds more like a “hex marks the spot” doesn’t it? Fenn considered the request of authorities to suspend the hunt, but public opinion swayed him to keep things going.

Ten days ago, Fenn acknowledged the (apparent) hunt winner and he/she possesses the (supposed) treasure.  No doubt this isn’t the last of the eccentric tale of Forrest Fenn.  I hope we tune into the news one of these nights and see our latest Indiana Jones, posing in front of the heaping bronze chest like a lottery winner with a giant check (please also, with fedora and bullwhip).  I hope Forrest Fenn is posing right there alongside him/her, and prepared to detail this crazy adventure from start to finish.  Then we’ll know whether the inevitable production from Hollywood will be fact or fiction.

Some content sourced from the Fenn’s Treasure website, Westword, and  Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

St. Brigid’s Cathedral dominates the quaint urban landscape of Kildare Town in central Ireland. The centuries-old stone church beckons the short walk up the hill from the village square, for a tour around Brigid’s domain. And while you’re on the grounds, you’ll be tempted to climb the adjacent tower for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding county. I assure you; the vistas are breathtaking.

A bird’s eye view from my own locale would be just as breathtaking right about now.  In the last ten days, I’ve ventured beyond my driveway once, for a mundane grocery shop at the local market.  For all I know, nearby Colorado Springs has been erased from the map.  For all I know, all my neighbors in the surrounding county traveled to a tropical island where they’re making merry, while I’m left to keep an eye on things back here at home.  Who nominated me for that job?

Proceed with caution!
The tower “stairs”

No kidding, the view from the tower at St. Brigid’s is spectacular.  Not only do you see all of Kildare Town below, but you’ll be mesmerized by the lush green acreage of the adjacent Irish National Stud (and its countless roaming thoroughbred horses).  When my wife and I visited several years ago, targeting Kildare Town to see the cathedral of her namesake saint, I figured light a few candles and say a few prayers; not climb a ten-story tower.  I have a mild fear of heights so you can imagine my trepidation.  And here’s the kicker: there’s no code-sanctioned, easy-to-navigate stairwell within the tower.  Instead, you hand over a couple of Euros for the privilege of climbing a dozen ladders to the top.  I almost called it quits after the first few rungs.

My longing to “rise above it all” today is not just inspired by the pandemic, nor even my acrophobia-be-damned adventure up the tower at St. Brigid’s.  I also think about nearby Pikes Peak, the highest of the Rocky Mountains in this part of Colorado.  “America’s Mountain” tops out at 14,115 feet, and I’ve hiked to the summit several times (the trail begins at 6,000 feet).  You begin the journey on a series of easy switch-backing trails, which then give way to a remarkably gentle incline through a forest of Ponderosa pines.  For several miles under the treetops, you have no orientation to suggest you’re even climbing a majestic mountain.  But once you hit the tree line, everything upwards is a moonscape: rocks and dirt and scrub brush all the way up to the summit.  The view is stunning; as if you’re looking down from space.  You can see clear to Wyoming to the north and Kansas to the east.

Pikes Peak, through Garden of the Gods

I could use a mountain (or a ladder-filled tower) on my property right about now, just to connect with the world around me.  Oh sure, rural living means the stay-at-home rules are a minor inconvenience, but it’d sure be nice to confirm someone else is out there.  The local news shows human interest stories every night on TV, but c’mon, how many of us trust the media these days?

Here’s my very favorite climb-ev’ry-mountain memory.  I grew up in a narrow canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles; so narrow in fact, some stretches could only accommodate a single row of houses on one side of a winding two-lane road.  Biking with the cars was taking your life in your own hands, as was scaling the canyon trails into the domains of rattlesnakes and other wildlife.

Lucky for me, a steeply rising network of paved residential streets branched off the canyon floor less than a mile south of our house.  On foot, those streets became a kid’s adventure up and out of the isolation.  I’d stock a daypack with cheese sandwiches, Pop-Tarts, and anything else I could pilfer from the pantry.  Some days I’d go it alone; others I’d drag my brother with me.  Up, up, up we’d climb, rising breathless until we could peer almost straight back down to the canyon floor below.  The final stretch of the topmost street – with houses perched precariously along on its edges – afforded a view of Los Angeles and the nearby Pacific Ocean like none I’ve seen to this day.  There I’d sit, munching snacks, wondering what all I was missing down there in the big city.

Today it’s the same feeling, only different.  What am I missing out there in the big city?  Is Wyoming still to the north and Kansas to the east?  Are cadets still at the Air Force Academy, anticipating this weekend’s socially-distanced graduation ceremony?  Have the majestic red rocks of Garden of the Gods finally crumbled?  Truthfully, I can’t answer any of these questions, not while I’m stay-at-home.  But at least I can see the summit of Pikes Peak from here.  At least I’m confident St. Brigid’s Cathedral still stands in Kildare Town (Notre Dame in Paris, maybe not so much).  And at least I can revisit fond memories, the kind I never thought I’d yearn for again.  On that note, think I’ll make a cheese sandwich.

Toasty of the Town

College and professional sports offer the perfect environment for several strange team mascots. Here in the U.S. of A, a bear or tiger or some other animal just doesn’t make the cut anymore. Instead, we have a wide assortment of weirdos: “The Tree” (Stanford University), “Blue Blob” (Xavier University), “The Phillie Phanatic” (Philadelphia pro baseball), and “Whatizit/Izzy” (Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics). If you prefer downright creepy, look no further than “King Cake Baby” (New Orleans pro basketball). The Pelicans just won the #1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. They should keep King Cake in the closet ’til they sign Zion Williamson.

       

   

I’m an avid sports fan, so coming up with these examples was a no-brainer. I could add another dozen without too much thought. But even the weirdest of these characters – take your pick – couldn’t prepare me for a local newcomer, debuting next month alongside our minor league baseball team, the Rocky Mountain Vibes. Meet “Toasty – the fun-loving S’more“. You heard that right – a dancing, cheering S’more.

“Toasty”

Salmon and maple syrup?  Incompatible.  Grounds for divorce?  Irreconcilable.  Oil and vinegar?  Immiscible.  But a S’more and baseball?  Super-duper immiscible!

The Rocky Mountain Vibes – formerly the Helena Montana Brewers – must have a twisted front office.  I’d like to meet one or two of their decision-makers.  Consider the five finalists in their “name-the-team” contest:

  1. Colorado Springs Happy Campers
  2. Colorado Springs Lamb Chops
  3. Colorado Springs Punchy Pikas
  4. Colorado Springs Throttle Jockeys
  5. Rocky Mountain Oysters

If these are the finalists, I don’t want to see the rest of the entries. Happy Campers and Lamb Chops?  What the heck is a Punchy Pika?  And for those of you unfamiliar with a Throttle Jockey or Rocky Mountain Oyster, click the links at your own risk.  I repeat, at your own risk.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

With a passing degree of intelligence, the Vibes nixed all five finalists and came up with their own choice.  They claimed “Vibes” was something of a spin on “Happy Campers”; that euphoric feeling experienced in the Colorado outdoors.  Whatever.  Even without the reference, it’s a pretty good name.

Otherwise, this baseball team goes off the rails.  The Vibes’ major-league affiliate is the distant Milwaukee Brewers (not the Colorado Rockies right up the road in Denver).  They have five team colors – can’t wait to see those perky uniforms – “rubine” red, navy, gold, sky blue, and tan.  They’ve never, ever won a minor league title.  And then there’s that mascot.  I can’t get past it; a dancing, cheering S’more?  And then you had to go and name him “Toasty”?

If we’re just talking S’mores as a dessert – remove the Vibes – we’d be having a whole different conversation.  I love a good S’more.  Er, qualify that; I love a good S’more for about ten minutes.  Then I’ve had enough for the next six months.  It’s like those plate-sized German apple pancakes you gorge on at carnivals and amusement parks.  They sound good and smell good, but you pay too much for one and you’re feeling sick after just a couple of bites.  Don’t forget to wipe all that powdered sugar off your face.

S’mores are a basic, fun dessert.  Like the wheel or the hamburger, the origin of the S’more is debatable.  The most credible story in my book: a recipe published by the Campfire Marshmallow company back in the 1920’s.  Since then S’mores have been a favorite of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (or just about anyone with graham crackers, marshmallows, chocolate bars, and a nearby campfire).  You can order a S’mores Frappuccino at Starbucks. You can even purchase an “Electric S’mores Maker” on Amazon.

With no lack of embarrassing small-town flair, Colorado Springs has completely embraced Toasty’s upcoming debut.  A handful of local diners want you to “Vote for Your Favorite ‘S’more'”, with the following choices (restaurant names omitted in a desperate attempt to save their reputations):

  1. S’mores cheesecake bar (“healthier” with GF graham crackers!)
  2. “Sweet Victory” Tableside S’mores (including mini-campfire!)
  3. Smoky S’mores Cannoli (apologies to Italy)
  4. Savory S’mores Lamb Chops (no comment)
  5. S’mores Pancakes (i.e. dessert for breakfast)
  6. S’mores Florentina (with rum flambé, naturally)

Mark your calendar – August 10th is National S’mores Day.  You’ll probably get a free one if you’re watching the Vibes at the ballpark that day.  As for me, I’ll be sitting at home lamenting our former minor-league baseball team, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.  I’ve already forgotten the Sox mascot. Pretty sure it wasn’t a dessert.

 

Some content sourced from the Springs Magazine article, “Toasty S’mores Tasting Contest”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Not-o Lotto Reasons to Play

Ponder the number “6” for a minute and see what spins around in your brain.  A half-dozen eggs sitting neatly in their half-carton.  The perfectly-square sides of a cube.  Strings on a standard guitar.  A team of volleyball players.  The geese in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”?  A Star of David, a purchase of beer, or the largest roll of a die?  Forget ’em all; they pale in comparison to this week’s headlines.  Here in America – happening more and more frequently – “6” causes a nationwide frenzy for a wholly different reason: ping-pong balls.  Ping-pong balls?

Powerball, the American lottery game shared by 44 of the 50 states, has its jackpot blossoming into the stratosphere again this week. The five white + one red (Power)balls are spinning relentlessly into our hopes and dreams.  Local news is positively frothy over the $750,000,000 jackpot, the third-largest since Powerball began in 1992. Never mind the ridiculous odds of winning (1 in 292,201,338).  Never mind no one picked the winning numbers in twenty-six consecutive drawings since Christmas.  Also never mind not one of the 183 winning Powerball jackpot tickets has ever been sold in Colorado.  That’s 16 years + 1,664 drawings = 0 winners in the Centennial State.  Even tiny Rhode Island fared better than that (1 winner).  No matter; our broadcasters still push aside this week’s actual news to cry, “Get your tickets now, people – you could be the next Powerball winner!”  Yeah, right.

Powerball jackpot history does not favor Colorado

Admittedly, my wife and I have played Powerball – but only a handful of times.  It’s like we have an unwritten rule: no tickets unless the jackpot exceeds a half-billion dollars.  But it’s not the news alerting us to all that potential windfall; it’s my mother-in-law.  She follows the lottery like a hawk.  Whenever we step into her house, she always knows exactly where the jackpot stands.  Her tickets sit patiently on the kitchen counter, ready for that next biweekly drawing (as she unfailingly asks, “Have you bought yours?”)  Just this week my mother-in-law realized her winnings can be multiplied several times over if she’s willing to pay more.  That’s an important aspect of the game, Mom.  Not that I consider the woman a Powerball guru.  After all, she’s the one who holds up the convenience store line when she turns in her winning tickets… because she’s buying more tickets.  You have to wonder if she ever sees cash in hand, or if this drill is just an endless cycle of ping-pong balls.

Colorado wasn’t always a part of Powerball.  Our state came to the table late – in 2001 – almost a decade after the game began.  Before joining, I remember the “legendary” stories of Coloradans who would drive all the way to Kansas or Nebraska (hours) just to purchase Powerball tickets.  That mind-numbing trip to the east would cost you at least two tanks of gas, and the convenience stores at the borders would have hundreds of customers in line.  That’s a lot of effort for odds of 1 in 192,000,000.  A lot of gamble for a little game.  Too fortuitous a foray for me.

Speaking of “game”, Powerball really isn’t one, is it?  Yes, there’s a winner (and a whole lot of losers), but one can hardly claim to “play” Powerball.  There’s no rolling of the dice, no dealing of the cards, and no moving of the game pieces.  No strategy or rules.  Instead, it’s just plunk down a few dollars for a quick-pick ticket; then go home and watch the ping-pong balls roll.  “Fun”.

Admittedly (again), my wife and I play Powerball for those proverbial hopes and dreams.  We always start our conversation with, “What would you do if you won?”  That conversation alone is almost worth the cost of the ticket.  What would I do with $750,000,000? Well, let’s break it down.  The cash value of the jackpot (lump sum vs. 30 annual installments) is $477 million.  Federal/state taxes drop that number to an even $300 million.  Then I pay off the mortgage and any other debt.  Set up a fund to gift my three kids the maximum tax-free amount allowed.  Remodel the house and ranch.  Travel the world.  Give generously.  Orbit the earth in a SpaceX rocket.  The list does not go on and on.  That’s about all I can come up with, folks.

Roughly calculated, my fulfilled hopes and dreams leave me with about $250 million yet to spend.  This is exhausting.  I’d rather play ping-pong with the numbered balls.  Not that it matters – Powerball’s latest jackpot ticket was just purchased in Wisconsin.  (Called it – Colorado is now 0-184.)  That’s a lot of bread for a Cheesehead.

Revolving Roar

Whenever I talk about Colorado’s extreme winter weather, I tend to speak in glass-half-full generalities. “We need the moisture”, I say, or, “we’re making up for the dry winter we had last year”. Earlier this season I got nods of agreement when I said things like that. Then the nods stopped, because the avalanches began. Colorado has so much snow in the high country this year we’re triggering “intentional” avalanches, so the skiers don’t get buried.  But when yesterday arrived – and with it the first “bomb cyclone” storm in decades – I’ll admit; my glass edged precariously close to half-empty.

Haven’t heard of a “bomb cyclone”?  Don’t fret; neither had I until yesterday.  Bomb cyclones are roguish tropical hurricanes.  They choose the wrong season and they land in the wrong location.  Their formal name is even more ominous: explosive cyclogenesis or bombogenesis.  Bomb cyclones are the perfect storm of rapidly-dropping air pressure, causing rapidly-increasing wind speeds, combined with a significant moisture source.  BOOM!  That was Colorado’s weather in a nutshell yesterday.

From the front line (or front window), I can tell you bomb cyclones are best left to their own devices.  Stay inside, batten down the hatches, and brace yourself until all is calm again.  Several Coloradans chose not to heed that advice, and the result was headlines news last night.  1,100 cars stuck on the roads in our county alone.  Roofs ripped off buildings.  Trees uprooted.  One really stupid human rescued from a popular hiking trail.  You’d think we were Kansas with the word “cyclone” to our vocabulary.  Wait – come to think of it – we were Kansas yesterday.  Our bomb cyclone settled squarely over the Sunflower State, rotating its very bad side effects back around to the Centennial State.

Local media called yesterday’s weather “a storm of historic proportions”.  By some statistics they were correct.  The air pressure was the lowest on record for Colorado.  Two cities to the south of us received record rainfall for the 24-hour period.  More miles of state highway were closed than ever before.  200,000 residents in the Denver area lost power.  It was like being dropped into the New York City of the movie, “The Day After Tomorrow”.

Here on the ranch, the bomb cyclone delivered a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, our power never went out, even though many of the neighborhoods around us lost theirs.  Our gas went out, but not really because (courtesy of a Google search) I discovered our furnace intake/exhaust pipes were blocked with snow and ice.  On the other hand, we now have a couple of snow drifts seemingly as high as the Rockies.  We also have as much snow inside our barn as immediately outside its doors.  The horses are not happy.

Glass-half-full again: it could be worse.  For perspective, we’ve had several more impactful storms in our twenty-five years of Colorado living.  One dumped enough snow to block our street for a week.  Another knocked out the power for three days.  Yet another put a mountain of snow on our back deck, eventually melting into enough water to flood our basement.  If you choose Colorado, you accept the unpredictability of the weather, as well as its consequences.  Wildfires in the summer.  Snowstorms in the winter.  Enough wind to make both even worse.  Coloradans love the outdoors, but we know the adventures that come with the territory.  Glass-half-full or glass-half-empty.

By the way, our bomb cyclone is spinning off to the east now, just as intense.  The states in the Midwest should keep an eye out, oh, around “the day after tomorrow”.   So long, sweetheart – we won’t miss ya.

Purple Mountain Majesties

Aspen – the upper-crust alpine village high up in the Colorado Rockies – is a beautiful place to visit. Make that a stunning place to visit, if you wipe away everything you find on the surface. Aspen is for the obviously-wealthy, whether a night at a hotel ($350 and up, just about anywhere), dinner for two ($250 and up – the finer restaurants), a slope-side condo rental ($2,000/night), or any purchase in any of the village shops; the kind of retail you only find in London-Paris-Rome-New York.  You won’t see any of Aspen’s residents (probably because they don’t care to see you).  Drive past the nearby airport and you’ll see an impressive line of commercial planes… er, make that private planes.  Aspen is made of money – no different than its silver-mining days of old.

Aspen, Colorado (photo courtesy of blog.whatahotel.com)

Now, as instructed, take the chalkboard eraser and wipe, wipe, wipe away all of that excess.  Dust off your hands and stand back.  What remains of Aspen is its incomparable natural beauty, whether the towering Rocky Mountains on all sides, the rushing Roaring Fork river through town, or the stately aspen and bristlecone pine trees forming an umbrella over most of the residential area.  Speaking of Mother Nature, let’s talk about her most majestic contribution, just on the outskirts of town.  No visit to Aspen is complete without a trek to Maroon Bells.

Maroon Bells

The Maroon Bells – common knowledge to us Coloradans – are twin peaks in the Elk Mountain range, fifteen miles to the west of Aspen.  They get their name from their mudstone composition (a bright purple when the light is right) and from their broad profiles.  The Bells are “fourteeners” – two of the fifty-three mountains in Colorado with elevations +14,000 feet.  The approach to the Bells, through the Maroon Creek Valley with Maroon Lake in the foreground, lays claim to one of the most photographed locations in North America; no matter which direction you look.

Maroon Creek Valley

Remarkably (or maybe not – we all do this), we’ve lived in Colorado twenty-five years and never been to nearby Maroon Bells – until this past weekend.  Despite the must-see endorsement of many friends, I was immediately suspicious when I learned we had to buy “tickets” for the place.  Why tickets?  Because the U.S. Forest Service (bless them) won’t allow cars – and their harmful exhaust – into Maroon Creek Valley.  Instead, $8 gets you a twenty-minute propane-fueled bus ride from Aspen to the valley.  The bus ride adds to the experience for two reasons.  One, your driver gives an overview of the place, with just the right amount of history and sightseeing to keep your interest.  Two, you don’t see the Bells – not even a passing glimpse of them – until just before you’re dropped off at Maroon Lake.

  

Photographs don’t do the Maroon Creek Valley justice, let alone words.  Breathtaking, jaw-dropping, heart-stirring – take your pick. Everywhere you turn looks like a doctored picture postcard.  Everything looks undisturbed and peaceful – almost a sanctuary where you don’t belong.  I lost count how many times I just stopped and stared.  Add to that the brief late-summer window when aspen tree leaves change from green to a fiery shade of yellow, orange, and red, and the whole scene becomes surreal.  The stuff of dreams.

Kudos to the Forest Service for getting this experience right (score one for the U.S. Government!)  As I was reflecting on the Bells, I couldn’t help but think of the very different approach to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.  As majestic as the carved-in-stone presidents may be, they’re compromised by the several “sights” on the highway up the mountain (“Reptile Gardens”!  “Very Berry Winery”!  “Big Thunder Gold Mine”!).  You won’t find any of those traps on the way to the Maroon Bells.  Only Mother Nature at her most impressive.

Someday you’ll visit Aspen, bypass all of her excesses (or at least most of them) and ride the bus through the White River National Forest and on up to the majestic Maroon Bells.  You’ll hike around the lake, pause on the bridge over the stream, stare up at the mountains in every direction, and take a gillion photos – every one of them worthy of a jigsaw puzzle on your coffee table back home.  Then you’ll climb back on the bus, poised to add a check mark to your bucket list.  But you won’t make that mark.  Instead, you’ll be thinking, “When can I come back?

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Jack Be Quick

If the lazy days of summer sap your get-up-n-go, here’s an idea. Find a friendly donkey (not a stubborn one). Halter him and attach a solid lead rope – at least fifteen feet worth. Saddle your jack with thirty pounds of gear, including a pick, a shovel, and a gold pan.  Finally, don your running shoes and head out to Fairplay, CO. $50 gets you into the World Championship of Pack Burro Racing.  Welcome to the state sport of Colorado.

Pack burro racing seemed a little ridiculous to me… until I dived into the details.  For starters, its origin is as legendary as the Greeks and the marathon.  Back in the strike-it-rich days, two Colorado gold-miners hit it big in the same location, and supposedly raced back to town (burros in tow) – first miner to the claims office wins.  Here’s another detail: pack burro racing really is a marathon – 28-30 miles up and back with your donkey, making the halfway turn at an elevation of 13,000 ft.  My favorite rule?  No riding.  However, the runner may push, pull, drag, or carry the burro.  Carry the burro?  A thousand pounds of ass?

Capitals, flags, songs, and birds – of course – but I never knew states had official sports, until recently, when California considered its options.  If your first choice for the Golden State is surfing, California’s state assembly agrees with you.  The Wall Street Journal reports the assembly just passed the “bill”, and now the tiff moves to the state senate.  I say tiff because a host of other Cali residents say not so fast.  Those who don’t live near the beach choose skateboarding.  Why skateboarding?  Because surfing is already the state sport of Hawaii.  They also say skateboarding is essentially surfing on wheels.  Maybe.

I grew up in California, but neither surfed nor skateboarded.  Still, I deserve a vote.  I did my share of body-surfing, so know what it’s like to catch a wave.  I did my share of bicycling, so know what it’s like to cruise on wheels.  You can put yourself in either camp, but arguments abound for both.  As one state assemblyman said, “Hawaii may have invented surfing, but California ‘mainstreamed’ the sport”.  Others say, “Surf ranches” and their wave machines bring the sport to the inland areas of the state.  On the other side of the aisle, skateboarding is a sport enjoyed by the masses just about anywhere.  And skateboarding really was invented in California, evolving from crude combinations of roller skates and wooden produce boxes.  Marty McFly should get a vote too.

By coincidence, surfing and skateboarding will join the Olympics in 2020.  The lighting of the torch in Tokyo will surely reignite the debate in California, no matter which sport is chosen.  Or maybe the state will still be arguing one over the other, instead of dealing with – ahem – more important issues of government.

Only a handful of U.S. states claim a sport in their list of symbols.  Some make sense, as in Alaska (dog-mushing), Minnesota (ice hockey), and Wyoming (rodeo).  Others have me saying, “What the heck?”, as in Maryland (jousting), and Delaware (bicycling).  I don’t live in Maryland or Delaware.  Maybe they banned every other sport in those states.  Of course, Marylanders and Delawareans probably feel the same way about Colorado and its pack burro racing.

Admittedly, Colorado could wage a healthy state-sport debate of its own.  The Rocky Mountains alone inspire a half-dozen seemingly better options.  If on water, go with river-rafting or kayaking.  If on snow, go with skiing or snowboarding.  If on land, go with hiking or mountain biking.  Yet none of those acknowledge the state’s rich lore of gold-mining.  None of them combine a human activity with an equestrian one.  Come to think of it, Colorado has enough runners and horses to win the debate, gold-mining legend or not.

According to the Western Pack Burro Association (“Celebrating 70 Years of Hauling Ass”), Colorado’s pack burro racing series still has several to go this year.  The first three are considered the “Triple Crown”, but I can still catch the remaining action in the towns of Leadville, Buena Vista, and Victor.  It’ll be like the running of the bulls in Pamplona!

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Land of Flying Cars

My wife and I live in a rural area of Colorado known as the Black Forest.  The high density of Ponderosa Pines in our small geography gives us our name.  Remarkably, there’s only one other notable place on the planet named “Black Forest”: the region near Bavaria in southwest Germany.  As it turns out, I have personal ties to both places, though I’ve never been to the south of Germany.  Follow along as I connect the Forests.

Fill in the blank, “Best Childhood Movie: ________”.  Most of you would respond with an offering from Disney.  Including “Snow White…”, “Mary Poppins”, and “The Little Mermaid”, you’ve already covered sixty years of film-making, with countless other Disney classics in between.  I don’t think I missed a single Disney growing up in the sixties and seventies, yet – go figure – my favorite childhood movie doesn’t come from the Mouse.  It doesn’t even come from my home country.  My childhood choice?  The UK’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, based on the 1964 novel by Ian Fleming.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” – the captivating musical about the inventor and his kids who lived in a windmill cottage; about those wonderful-though-not-always-perfect inventions (my favorite: the eggs-toast-sausage breakfast machine); about the candy-maker and the toy-maker and the captivating castle world of Vulgaria; and most importantly about the magical flying motorcar itself – created figments of my imagination like no other movie.  The lyrics to the title song (“…Bang Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, our fine four-fendered friend…”) were burned into my brain.  Someday I vowed to visit the lands of Caractacus Potts and Baron Bomburst.

     

As it turns out, the Potts’ windmill cottage really does exist (and not on a movie set) – as the “Cobstone Windmill” in Buckinghamshire, England. The mansion where “Truly Scrumptious” lived is in the same area of the country.  And the Scrumptious Sweets Company was a working factory in Middlesex (today a steam-engine museum).  But it was the castle and village in Vulgaria I really wanted to see.  Not long after seeing the movie of course, I learned “Vulgaria” was a fictitious country.  Baron Bomburst didn’t actually lord over the land, nor did he ever keep all those children as slaves beneath his castle. But the castle and the village are based on actual places.  The village is Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria.  The castle is Castle Neuschwanstein, also in Bavaria.  And how ironic; both locations were inspirations for Disney as well: Rothenburg for the village in “Pinocchio”, and Neuschwanstein for the Cinderella castles in the theme parks.

To bring my journey full-circle, Rothenburg, Castle Neuschwanstein, and Bavaria sit in southwest Germany, adjacent to… the Black Forest.  Germany’s version of the Forest is a mountainous land of picturesque villages, castles, vineyards and spas.  This is the region that brought the world Black Forest Ham and “truly scrumptious” Black Forest Cake.  This is the land of glass-making and cuckoo clocks.  From the photos above, it looks every bit as charming as “Vulgaria”.

  

Colorado’s Black Forest barely amounts to a dot on Google Maps.  Within our pines, the “town” is a hodge-podge of nondescript businesses clustered around a couple of traffic signals, with nothing more alluring than a Subway, a post office, and a couple of coffee shops.  The terrain is fairly flat, with no windmill cottages or mountaintop castles or cuckoo clocks.  But it’s a great place to live, with its own unique charm.  And every now and then, when I’m deep in the pines, I’ll start humming that forever-familiar Chitty-Chitty tune, as I gaze up to the skies in search of a flying motorcar.