It’s been over two weeks since I wrote my last travel blog from the road in Arizona. We are back in Idaho feeling the chill of shin-battering wind and the threat of hard ice on the back patio. The snow piles we fled have been sucked into the throat of cold rain and a northwester Chinook. The soaked birch and aspen leaves of October are stuck to pavement, concrete and remnants of front yard grass. I wonder if the skiffs of ice in the cold spots have invaded my hands. When I try to compose this blog, the words are like thick molasses stuck to the ends of my fingertips. The syllables ooze just behind my eyeballs, gumming up the pathways of my brain.

Most of our trip we ran point for heavy weather that battered the west. In Utah the skies clouded but fortunately the snow pulled into a climatic rest stop and let us visit the stark, flat sadness of Topaz and shoot pictures of the Vermillion Cliffs where the fractured skin of the earth seems a simile for our species’ millennial bleeding. When we arrived in southern Arizona the temperatures hovered in the eighties with T-shirt mornings and red skies at dusk.

We finally encountered rain in Oakland as one of the big blusters blew in and slapped against our windshield. On 12/18/2010 we attended a remembrance for our deceased Sonoma County friend, Trisha Pedroia. The weather spit rain and sulled-up with black clouds all day long and added gloom to an already gloomy moment. Tree frogs croaked in the garden that already misses her tending.

On the trip we spent time with our kids and their kids in Arizona (the first quality time in years), made and ate awesome tamales. We spent time with our kids in San Francisco (but not enough) and with Betty’s family in Placerville. Along the way we met and broke tortillas, biscuits, cookies and Portuguese sweet bread with friends when we could and as I stand here at our kitchen counter and compose this blog, I remember all the laughs, jokes, giggles, hugs, meals and tears we shared with family and other loved ones. It is interesting to me how after all the journeys Betty and I have embarked upon (both real and metaphorically), and all the places we have domiciled, the people who know us still like us . . . they still love us (almost in spite of us, or at least me, anyway).  And it makes one feel the effort spent in trying to keep in touch . . . hell, even if only sporadically . . . means something.

And now, here in Boise, the forecast is for bitter weather, five degrees or colder, and I need to polish my boots, and I need to work on the movie we are making. But pondering those things, my mind refuses to budge from thoughts of Trisha Pedroia, how she could have lost control of the tractor (was it too muddy, did she focus her attention on a bobcat, a coyote as she went down the road towards the riding arena, did she hear the cry of a spotted towhee, or the scree of a red tail hawk and look up and run off the track?) What happened?

I recall the last night we spent with her, at her house in the midst of the syrah and pinot grapes at Cherry Camp. The fog came in and hugged the house. Outside after dark, great horned owls sat in the boughs of redwood trees and hooted back and forth. Just before our retiring for the night, a pack of coyotes showed up outside, just below our bedroom window, and began to yammer to each other as if they were calling our names, “Hey Trisha, hey Betty, hey Rodgers,” to come outside and play. We laughed and Trisha wore a look of amazement in her smiling eyes. And then we left the next morning and now she’s gone, too, but not to Boise.

And some day we will all be gone and that’s the way the world operates and nothing we can do will alter that. So on to polishing my boots and staying in touch with the living. It starts here with a belated Merry Christmas (or Chanukah or Solstice or Kwanza) and a wish for an ebullient New Year.

On Tamales

Chopped green chilies, corn husks soaked, masa mixed with manteca and red chilé. Meat—roasted beef, roasted pork—cleaned and shredded, then mixed with chilé. The masa spread thin on the inside of the husks. The meat mixture spread on the masa. Occasionally a green olive. The husk rolled up. The tamales steamed so the masa is not soggy. If you steam it too much, the masa is soggy. If you steam the tamale too little, the masa is soggy.

Mix in grandmas and grandpas, moms and dads, daughters, sons, granddaughters, sisters, brothers, NFL Football, Coca Cola and coffee, cookies, babies feeding out of bottles, old dogs, new bicycles, sun sprays in the backyard, the grass gone dead, Christmas lights strung on the palm trees, and you have tamale-making time in southern Arizona.

Seventy-nine degrees outside. Whiffle golf balls dot the backyard green, some chipping irons and wedges, the swing set, the tree house, the block wall. Laughter. Talk. About how to spread masa, the Cardinals versus the Broncos. Siblings’ verbal sparring, spitting darts and spears and knives, the metaphors of banter, harassment, but not like knocks on the noggin, but like caresses, sweet finger-tip touches on the forehead. A decorated tree in the living room. George Strait on the iPod singing whiny love songs of broken hearts and lost romance. How to find it, bring it back.

Generations, generations, spreading the husks on the table, spreading the masa with spoon and knife and fingers. Spreading meat mix, chilé and rolling, rolling, rolling tamales. Life rolls along. I ate tamales as a child and then as a young man and now as an aging man. The time rolls along like the season of a Big Jim chilé plant. Bursting emergent from the soil, bolting up in the young sun of late spring, erupting with white blossoms, the smell and the greedy bees, the tangy scent of lust and loving. Then the fruiting, heavy on the stems drooping green, then luscious radiant red. Then plucked and roasted and gone, like life, gone into the gullet of time to steep in the stomach of ages.

Now we are eating tamales, eating them, peeling off the husk, the firm masa marked with the ribs of the husks. The masa a husky red, the taste a fiery bang in the palate, the sweat on the top of the head. The enchiladas on the other side of the plate. Hot, too, the mix of green and red chilies a war in the mouth, no peace here. Just live it out, this war. Let the head buzz its little lovely respite of capsaicin heaven as the sweat drips down the forehead. The sweat of fine eating, of hot tamales. Of life.

Navajo Sandstone

The Vermillion Cliffs reminded me of hard red foreheads, big red chins, broken promises, busted white molars, black slag pits, cracked vermillion nose bridges, ancient sand-colored Spanish castles soaring above rivers. But below the towering Pariah Plateau there are no rivers, just red and rocky washes—arroyos, the Spanish Conquistadores called them.

This is the land of the last American polygamists, cattle ranches, Kaibab deer with trophy sets of horns, elk, scraggly juniper, the Kaibab Paiute tribe, scraggly piñon trees, the memories of the Mormon pioneer s at Pipe Springs, Fredonia, Lee’s Ferry, scraggly Ponderosa trees, chamisa, red tail hawks, the Navajo.

We stopped and shot photos of the dark, ruddy faces we saw etched in the Navajo sandstone looking south from the escarpment. No pronghorns or big horn sheep in sight, but hopes that lodge in the throat every time we descend from Jacob’s Lake down into the arching curve of US Highway 89-A at the base of the cliffs. For years we’ve hoped for a glimpse of the California Condors turned loose here over the last twenty or so years.

California Condors are one of North America’s largest birds but were eradicated from Northern Arizona in the 1920s. Now they are back, or so we have heard. But we have never seen the wide expanse of wing, the red head of this mighty raptor.

Yesterday, December 9, 2010, was a beautiful day to photograph the reds, the blacks, the whites, the yellows of the land, the faded gray clouds caught swirling in the sky, the blue behind, a doors-wide-open blue that beckons like a siren, or a Circe, beckoning you to fly into the wide arms of the universe.

But we didn’t have time to get entrapped, so we forged on for the Colorado River that cuts away a ragged jag of sandstone, limestone, and shale in multi-hued layers. At Navajo Bridge in Marble Canyon, we parked to walk over the old bridge, now closed, an early stab at white-eyed civilization in the cold, hot, windy, sere, dry, red land. Three Navajo women displayed jewelry and horse hair ornaments in the parking lot.

We walked out on the bridge to take photos and Lo and Behold, there stood Betty making wild gestures, pointing, bending, waving at me to hurry up and there on a span on the new bridge just east of us, perched, their black backs turned towards us; California Condors. I pilfered digital pictures with my digital zoom lens, the hard straight walls of the vermillion canyon as backdrop, the partially iced-over Colorado, the red peaks beyond and again, the luscious arms of the wide-lipped blue on high where condors soar. If they like.

Topaz, Utah

Today, virago curtained in the four cardinal directions. A harsh gray pallor coated the bottom of the sky. A wind caught in the bristly bushes and threw sprinkles of rain around. Off to the west, the hinterlands of eastern Nevada, snowy Topaz Mountain. I turned in all directions and assayed the harsh flat land, the barbed wire fences, the desolation that swept all the way to the icy peaks all around. Not even a Northern harrier or a kestrel, a raven, or a magpie.

The Topaz Relocation Center. Or what’s left of it. Some stone footings, some muddy roads coated with slick caliche. White signs that read, “Sentry Box,” “Main Gate,” “Administration,” “Guard Tower.” The signs are new, an Explorer Scout Project to try and keep alive a memory of the US Government’s internment of Japanese-American citizens from 1942 to 1946.

Relocation. In this case a euphemism for imprisoning. How about stealing assets and then imprisoning? If it was just relocation (for their own safety, as FDR said), why did the government pick the most god-awful spots? Hot: Gila River, Manzanar, Poston, Jerome, Rohwer, Topaz. Cold: Minidoka, Heart Mountain, Tule Lake, Manzanar, Granada…Topaz.

I remember Gila River, about sixteen miles from my home town. The barracks, the fences, the towers (I remember imagining guards up there with machine guns), the isolation. The camp was empty by the time my father drove us by Gila River on the way to my grandmother’s house. But still standing, as if waiting for the next tenants. My father called it the “Jap Camp.”

Betty and I went back to Gila River five years ago but it was gone. Zilch, zero, kaput. And today, Topaz, too.

If it was a battle where Americans had defeated (or had been massacred by) a foe, there would be a monument, a pillar, a National Park. But at Gila River and Topaz, nothing to memorialize locking innocent American citizens up in hellholes far from their homes. At Minidoka, Idaho, the locals wanted to build a feedlot next to the old “Relocation” camp and memorialize the location with invasions of flies and the scent of cow dung.

We drove back to Delta, Utah, and on to I-15 South, towards St. George. Tomorrow:  the Vermillion Cliffs, Marble Canyon, Cameron, Camp Verde, Casa Grande.

The Cigarette Tree

This morning I woke to dreams of a cigarette tree in my neighbor’s back yard. One of many strange dreams showing up around here lately where hags with stringy gray hair ramble through dark rooms, ogle my sleeping carcass and croon ugly funeral tunes. My neighbor doesn’t have a cigarette tree. I don’t even know what a cigarette tree is. I imagine it, though, the red-tipped, smoking twigs like Camels or Lucky Strikes, or Pall Malls. Not the fancy, filtered kind we puff on now, if we still puff, but the older, stronger ones where, when one smoked them, left flecks of tobacco on the tongue, and on the teeth of swanky women, along with red lipstick and brown coffee stains. Cigarettes are associated with death. So are gray-haired hags roaming through the house in different dimensions, slipping past eyesight, earshot—seeding distrust and tension in their wake.

The only kinds of trees my neighbor owns are deciduous and lose their leaves this frozen time of year. And this year the freeze and blast of arctic Canada arrived way too early. Some years it refuses to come down here at all, but this year it made its way into our homes before Thanksgiving. My ash, my maples, my willows, and aspen dropped their leaves weeks back. And my neighbor’s trees all lost their leaves, too, all except one. It stayed bright orange, even at nine degrees. That’s better than a smoking-twigged cigarette tree, all those bright leaves burning in the cold—one of those colds where a hint of ice is in the air, you can see it, feel it on your lips and tongue, feel it in your nostrils.

What a sight, that bright orange when everything around is steeped in the deep death of early winter. The bird bath frozen, the peonies long gone, the roses turned a rotten shade of gray. I love looking out there at dawn, seeing that tree stand out. And I wonder how it could do that…stay brilliant like a flame in a dying fire in the face of Alaska’s rip-roaring swoop south. Maples just can’t do that.

But then I wondered if it wasn’t a symbol. I like to write poems and in the craft of poetry we deal with symbols—images generated by thoughts of one thing are turned into something else, metaphor, simile, that kind of thing. And maybe the flame-orange maple is a metaphor for something—for the insistence of existence in the face of daunting assaults from nature.  You know, a symbol of everlasting life, the ongoing resistance to time’s passage, that kind of thing. Or it could be my reminder of how life forges on, even in the face of dying and sorrow.

We have some sorrow around this house, this week. Our friend Trisha Pedroia died unexpectedly just before Thanksgiving. She was too young, but often death comes too soon. You know that old saying, “Death is no respecter of persons.” Trisha was vibrant and electric, energetic with her horses, her Sassy dog, her vineyard, her photography, her cowboy poetry and music, and with her friends, too.

But she is gone and there is no way to reverse that. I think that’s what pains the most, that there is no reversal and it also reminds us that we will be in that same set of cowboy boots someday. Maybe sooner than later. And even though I try like hell, I can’t escape the fear that lurks behind that notion. Yes, we’ve lived good lives. Yes, it’s something that happens to all of us.  Yes, it is all part of the process. Yes, they are all waiting on the other side , maybe….

We are faced with the loss of the only thing we can really, without qualification, say we know. Life on earth. And we have now been reminded that we too, are like sheep and pigs and birds and bugs and corn and seaweed. We will die.

And there is another kind of ache that we deal with. That’s the hole unfilled when a close friend dies. Trisha wasn’t always a friend. I knew her late husband Vince first. When he and I found a common link with poetry, we grew close, and Trisha always seemed to be a bit dubious, a bit cautious. But then Vince died, and through all the anguish we shared, she accepted me, us, and a whole lot more.  And “Whoa,” like she’d tell one of her horses, Andy or Red, “Whoa.” When she accepted you, you couldn’t have a better friend. One of those relationships where you know where you stand, what’s what, who depends on whom, one of those relationships you want to be engaged in.

And now that is gone—memories and keepsakes can’t replace it.  Like I said, the hole is unfilled. No shovelfuls of anything will replace it and I think that’s where so much of the grief is centered.

I remember a friend of mind getting killed in 1976 in a gun accident. He was twenty-one, funny, quirky, irreverent. And he was dead. Bam, gone, kaput. “Who shot him?” I asked. “What does it matter,” someone said. And I stuttered to answer that question….”because it hurts, down here and ….” There was a hole, as if the bullet barged right through me and left something that to this day, stings, thirty-four years gone.

At his Rosary, the air was like ten thousand wet sheep pelts and the room was packed with tough Basco herders. They sobbed. Like a full sack of wool on your back, four or five hundred pounds. Pressing the lungs into the heart into the diaphragm into the stomach down into the guts. I thought I’d suffocate. Outside, in the cool wind of Arizona spring, I coughed in huge draughts of night air, the scent of orange blossoms, and fought that need to ball up and petrify.

Later a fiend talked to me, to a bunch of us. Standing there with a Marlboro in the corner of her mouth, smoke circling up, burning her eye, she said, “It’s not that he’s dead. It’s because you have been reminded of your own mortality. That you too, are going to die. Someday, somehow.”

I wanted to reach out and slap her arrogant face, but I bit my lower lip and shut my mouth. Something I’m not too good at doing. Because, she was right. We grieve because we too are mortal.

But there is something else, a deeper grief when we lose people who mean a lot to us. I won’t say people we love, because that word is not specific enough to describe the wide varieties of emotion we can and do have for particular people. So let it be said that we grieve at loss, at the loss of those we will truly miss, whether they die of old age, accidental gunshot wounds, accidents of other types, IEDs in Afghanistan, cancer before their time—death at the hands of Father Time, or their own lack of caring—something like tobacco or smack or hooch.

Let it be said, Trisha is gone. The hags of discard are loose in my house. The flame-orange leaves have now fallen from the maple tree in my neighbor’s yard.