Mountain iPod

I’ve done a fair amount of hiking this summer and have seen some pretty ridiculous landscapes over the last few months.  I cannot understand how anyone can claim that God doesn’t exist as a simple jaunt in the open spaces leaves little room for doubt.  The wilderness is simply a reservoir of God’s majesty that spills over into lush plateaus and mountain streams that lead to emerald meadows.  Every time I’m out there I marvel at the creativity of our God.

Earlier this summer my family and I were hiking in the Crazy Mountains north and west of Big Timber, Montana.  If you’ve never been to this incredible range you really owe it to yourself to check it out.  Actually, incredible is an inadequate word to describe this rugged maze of twenty-three almost vertical peaks each leaping over 10,000 feet into the air.  On this particular trip our goal was Granite and Blue Lakes.  The trail to these modest bodies of water provides a steady climb until the last mile and a half.  From there on it’s an all out assault on unconditioned legs and lungs up a series of switchbacks until you reach the flat housing a barely recognizable forest service cabin.  One hundred yards later you’re at Blue Lake – a destination worth every step.  Another fifty yards takes you to Granite Lake: the non identical twin of Blue.

If you’ve ever gained elevation while hiking, I think this observation is going to resonate in you.  God just seems closer when you’re on or near a mountain.  Not for the obvious reason of proximity (assuming God is somewhere up there…) but for an almost unexplainable reason: a reason that perhaps Jesus knew and understood.  I’m often puzzled when I read in the New Testament that Jesus went up a to the mountain or on a mountainside to pray.  For instance, Luke 6:12 says, “In these days He went out to the mountain to pray, and all night He continued in prayer to God.”  And Luke 9:28 says, “He took with Him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.”  These aren’t the only instances in the Bible that describe Jesus praying in this location.  Mind you mountains weren’t the only places Jesus prayed but he did spend lots of time praying on a mountain.  Why?

A few months ago I was talking to my friend Shawn Brookhart and he related something to me that Dave Hagstrom said about this very thing.  From Dave’s perspective God isn’t any closer on a mountain than anywhere else but that that location is free from the distractions inherent in our normal, everyday lives.  Therefore, providing a better atmosphere in which to connect with God.  Hmmm…

On our return trip back to Billings, a mile after leaving Half Moon campground the public road turns private announced by a sign that reads, “Private land next three miles.  Stay on road.”  Another mile and you come to a gate stretched across the road near the Lazy K Ranch.  The ranch appears abandoned with a couple of seemingly discarded vehicles and a couple dozen range horses.  The only real evidence of human life is some laundry hanging from an old clothesline that borders the road and one of the out buildings.  And to my surprise I noticed a young man about sixteen years of age come out of the barn on the other side of the road wearing white iPod headphones.  The contrast of my mountain rumination and his from a gadget was stark.  I think creation has it’s own song.  Here we were amidst a mountain paradise having been exposed to the anthem of nature and here was a kid ignoring it.  All this has reminded me of a great truth.  We often overlook the familiar and abhor the simple.  Sad…

The Duel

A quick look around the lake revealed eighteen mainsails drifting about so finding an opponent wouldn’t be difficult.  Even sailors cruising for an afternoon scarcely pass on a race.  I can only compare it to two teenage drivers stopped at a traffic light.  Though only casual glances are exchanged there’s a scamper to the next light.  The winner sports a grin and the looser beats his palm against the dash.  Sailing is a complicated game that combines technical, strategic, physical and social challenges. We tacked into the wind with our J34 and noticed another vessel, a J24 Severe J piloted by a husband and wife, one hundred yards off starboard doing the same.  Though no words were spoken and glances too far away to be noticed, everyone knew it – the race was on!

Suddenly, our previously calm sailboat became a cacophony of sounds and movements.  The lines cranked through their housings, the sail fluttered, the boom clanked and everyone on board shifted position.  I think you use every muscle in your body to pull the jib line on the other side.  You constantly watch how the sails react to the wind and make adjustments as needed. Sailing upwind is similar to driving a car up a mountain; you have to zigzag through the water, which is called tacking.  Every time you tack it involves changing the position of the sails.  Knowing when to tack and the time it takes to accomplish a tack is where races of this nature are won and lost.  We coaxed the sails from one side of the boat to the other, working as a team as we glided through the water.  The wind was coming out of the south with heavy gusts on the leading and trailing edge.

The adrenaline was flowing and our performance was at its apex.  We were holding the boat pretty deep, keeping her balanced as we stood on the high side and tried to keep the rudder planted.  By the end of the first leg we were ahead by two boat lengths – a fair distance for our makeshift racecourse.  Our skipper instructed us to prepare the spinnaker and to wait for his command to “fall off”.  Turning the sailboat away from the wind is to fall off or bear away.  Turning into the wind is to head up or harden up.  We were waiting to fall off while preparing the spinnaker.  In that moment gear is flying everywhere.  Now was our chance; the tactic we rehearsed all morning, the most important maneuver of this race, was being deployed.  The command to “fall off” came from the helm and everyone leaped into action.

Something went wrong.  Honestly I cannot even recall what it was.  What populates my memory is the emotional and physical let down we all felt when we looked up and saw our previously behind adversary now five lengths in front with a full head of wind stretching their spinnaker.  We were devastated.

No fingers pointing.  No blame cast…just the reassuring voice of our skipper reminding us that this race was not over. We got back to work and quickly noticed we were gaining on them.  Once the spinnaker flies it must be carefully trimmed to be effective. To trim the spinnaker properly, the first requirement is setting the pole at the right height and correct angle to the wind. The correct height is when both clews are at the same level and the pole is horizontal.  The corner with the sheet attached will rise and fail with varying wind strength. The pole must be raised or lowered to put the other clew at the same height. With the vertical trim of the pole correct, the next task is to work on horizontal trim. The best way to do this is to keep the pole perpendicular to the wind direction. Some skippers even put telltales in the middle of the pole to obtain an accurate reading.  Our kite was trimmed perfectly and we hoped we had enough real estate on this leg to stretch out ahead.

We gnawed at our opponent’s tail for several minutes getting closer with every bite.  Within a couple hundred yards from where this challenge first started we slipped past our competitor.  We cheered and they took pictures.  It felt awesome; teamwork and determination paid off.  We won our first official non-official race.  We were one win – zero loses.  In retrospect, the inequality of the boats and crews really made this an unfair contest.  But, it was still fun!

A Jibe, a Tack and a Beautiful Chute

We couldn’t wait to ‘fly the spinnaker’; the larger-than-life wind trapping sheet that propels a yacht like none other.  In the world of sailing there’s simply nothing more beautiful than a robust sail full of prevailing wind.  We are novice sailors learning a competitive sport that the honor of nations has hung on.  There’s a rich tradition than governs each ambitious schooner tacking upwind to the next marker.

We were on a mentoring trip for my youngest son, Austin, designed to use the principles of sailing to illustrate how real life is played out in the existence of every man.  Here’s my reasoning:  As a man you are part of a system – both as a contributor and as a consumer.  Since there are no successful ‘lone rangers’ in this life we must rely on those around us to advance successfully through it.  On a sailboat, there’s a determined sequence of tasks that must happen systematically and with precision to best position the sails to harness the wind.  And here’s the catch; if one component of this sequence fails, the whole process fails.  The results can be catastrophic but generally your boat just decelerates.  And, when you’re in a sailing race, precision and speed matter.

It’s race season on Flathead Lake.  The 2009 Montana Cup Regatta is in a couple of weeks and teams are readying themselves and their vessels for some of the finest sailing that Montana has to offer.  One of the privileges of capturing the Montana Cup is hosting next years race from wherever the winning team hails.  The North Flathead Yacht Club isn’t too eager to let their long winning streak go and less eager to race at Canyon Ferry Reservoir.  There have been races for weeks here – all in preparation to retain the ‘Cup’.

As our ship cuts through the waves, the sound of water laps against the hull.  We were tracking a stiff wind and loving every minute of it.  Since most of the crew had never sailed before the deck is a proverbial classroom.  Our skipper has been sailing since his youth and with the patience of a tee ball coach, he shares his knowledge.  First the basics:  mainsail, mast, headsail, and halyards.  Cleats, port side, starboard side, and rigging.  When there was no wind we tied knots and measured them when the breeze blew against our faces.

While underway, the standing question among the crew was, “How many knots?”  We cheered every time our speed gauge told us we eked out another couple of tenths thereby setting a new speed record.  Thirty-six hours into our training we had accomplished several flawless maneuvers and recorded a maximum speed of 7.42 knots.  Our teamwork and confidence was as abundant as the wind driving our sails.  We felt battle ready and wanted to join the fray; we were ready to race.

Coming next…The Duel.

The Haunted House

From the bay you can barely make out the outline of the decaying homestead on Cedar Island.  A quick jaunt up the bank and through the trees reveals an eerie sight.  Once the grand summer home of the Marshall’s, the pleasant noise of laughing, carefree children has been replaced with the squeaks of hundreds of bats living within its deteriorating walls and ceilings.  Area locals suggest the house is haunted.  I picture the scene of cheerful gatherings as I step onto the fifteen-foot deep porch that lines the front and sides of the house.  This place must have been incredible.  My friend tells us how he and a couple of childhood friends used to spend the night camped on this very porch when he was growing up.  As he reminisces we step though the front door.

The place is in a painful shambles.  More than one misguided can of spray paint discloses hordes of nefarious riffraff identified with names like Joe, Brian and Shelly.  Are we to care that Sam was here or that Steve loves Mary?  Couldn’t Bob have given us his last name when he sunk his knife into the windowsill thirty-two years ago in 1977?  Doesn’t he realize how many Bobs there are in the world?  How are we supposed to applaud his carving skills?  Oh, careless Bob!  What where you thinking?!  I’ve never understood vandalism.  I wonder who the first incongruous artist was and if they know or even care what their handiwork has produced.  Do they regret what they started?

Standing in the middle of that house is almost surreal.  The dull fragrance of guano has long replaced the scent of summer BBQ’s that surely wafted to the children and guests as they swam at the beach.  Peering out the picture window I see how the calmness of the bay contrasts the tension now resident in the house.  At the risk of sounding too sentimental, it’s sad to see such a grand mansion die like this.

We stroll up the path to a gated fence erected to protect an apple and cherry orchard.  The trees were cut down several years ago to prevent a worm infestation from spreading throughout the Flathead Valley.  The forgotten roots must have gathered strength through the years and we inspected several new trees with ripening fruit.  However, at the gate was the most puzzling cement building:  Four sturdy walls and a roof.  I’m glad that my father-in-law was with us.  As we stood baffled by its existence he quickly painted the scenario of what this building was used for.  It was a water storage shed and provided water to the house fifty yards away through submersed pipes.  He excitedly showed us the ninety-year-old trench where the pipe was laid.  The elevation of the water shed would have produced a good amount of static water pressure and was pure genius.  We walked to the end of the island and back the way we came.

It’s too bad, you know – that old house.  Too bad the State didn’t take better care of it during the last sixty years.  The Marshall family sold the island to the State in the 1950’s and the house has been abandoned since.  In May 2009, the State wrote the Flathead Lake Island Management Plan.  This forty-nine page document describes plans to tear down the Cedar Island House sighting several reasons for its removal.  I’m glad to have walked through it and imagine it’s former effulgence before it’s finally put to rest.

The Garbage Man

Remember when you were a kid?  Perhaps you’re still a kid or just one in your heart…  When I was a kid I had the usual fantasies of being GI Joe, Superman and Batman.  I wanted to be able to pump my fist in the air and yell the mysterious two-syllable word, “Shazam” and be transformed into something omnipotent.  Didn’t the world need someone like me to save it from all the villains reeking havoc on its surface?  More years brought the more sensible aspirations of being a doctor, lawyer and even a scientist.  I dreamed of discovering the cure for cancer and many other seemingly incurable diseases.  There was a span of time that I thought of joining the Navy and becoming a nuclear engineer.  I was fascinated by the ocean and thought a lifetime on the water would be ideal.

Every kid grows up watching cartoons.  They’re more readily available today than ever.  You might remember the not so distant time when these animated masterpieces were only available on Saturday morning.  Life was bliss until American Bandstand came on at 11am.  Every boy hated that show and every girl loved it.  I still don’t understand why anyone would want to watch a show produced to display teenagers dancing to top 40 music.  All that frolicking can be summed up in two words:  Yawn Fest.  My brother and I left my sister prancing in front of the TV more than once as we grabbed the door headed anywhere Dick Clark wasn’t.

Sunday morning TV was a virtual entertainment wasteland and only religious shows aired.  I watched preachers like Robert Schuller, Jimmy Baker and Jimmy Swaggart.  I remember wishing I had a big black Bible to whirl around and envisioned myself on a similar stage wearing a similar black pressed suit with similar slicked back hair that showed tremendous resilience under the bright lights.  At the time I didn’t have any faith in God to validate such a dream.  I still don’t have a big black Bible to whirl around or the hair.  But, I have deep faith and a considerable assortment of pressed suits some of which are black.

Several years ago I thought of being a garbage man.  I even filled out the necessary application at BFI.  I was going through a difficult time in my life and picking up the curbside trash of others looked increasingly attractive.  Consider the benefits of such an occupation; baring holiday interruptions, you have a relatively consistent schedule day-to-day and week-to-week.  People are almost always prepared for your arrival and welcome you with a smile.  You could even say that people are upset if you don’t come by their house.  You can make a more than average living and who knows what treasure disguised as refuse might be waiting for you.  If you think about it, it’s representative of a very simple life.  Right now, simple would be good and curbside garbage looks particularly appealing again.

Cylindrical filaments, rabbits and really smelly fish

Cylindrical filaments, rabbits and really smelly fish.  Your inquiry might be ‘what do these three have in common?’.  Other than being fruit of the creation, not much.  But these were the subjects of a conversation that I had yesterday.  Have you ever heard the expression or idiom, “have a wild hair”?  Or is it, “have a wild hare” or even “have a wild herring”?  The whole affair came up after I described a gutsy move I made as having a ‘wild hair’.  My friend Suzanne stated, “you mean, ‘a wild herring’.”

I burst out laughing (I’ll spare you an idiom about busting a gut).  A wild herring?  What was she talking about?  Suzanne grew up and spent most of her life except the last few years on the east coast.  I, on the other hand, grew up on the west coast so you can imagine the varied opinions we bring to the table.  At times I wonder if Suzanne and I know the same English language.  It’s a veritable East vs. West most days.  We actually share an office so we have lots of time to interact.

Another notion in the room referred to having a wild ‘hare’ placing the emphasis on four legged furry creatures.  And even offered a follow up question wondering if a herring is really ‘wild’.  Ok, ok, I’m ‘getting off the beaten path’.  Now, do you see the connection between cylindrical filaments, rabbits and really smelly fish?

We were having a conversation using idioms, but which one of us was correct?  I’ll let you decide.  Consider a herring:  a small, oily fish found in the shallow, temperate waters of the North Pacific and the North Atlantic.  Herrings are forage fish, which move in vast schools.  Perhaps a having ‘wild herring’ is akin to one who makes up his own mind, leaves the school behind and goes his own way.  There seems to be some logic in it but I question who naturally has one.

Or consider the hare:  a fast moving Leporid that can run up to speeds of 45 mph.  They live solitarily or in pairs and rarely found in a drove.  Hares have been known to be domesticated and turned into pets.  Perhaps a ‘wild hare’ is like someone breaking free from the chains of domestication and back into the wild.  They do run fast and wild.

Now, consider the most troublesome of the three; a ‘wild hair’ is a filament that grows in an unexpected or inappropriate place (say off your ear lobe or tip of your nose).  Having one is an embarrassing event that demands quick action.  Removal options include a dermatologist for laser or electrolysis or simply plucking it by hand or a small tool such as tweezers.  Have you made up your mind or is the ‘jury still out’?

Tempest Mountain

The next time I plan to hike over 20 miles on less than three hours of sleep…someone please pinch me.  A van full of us left at 3:30 a.m. to conquer Tempest Mountain on Saturday, June 20, 2009 but Tempest set it’s will against ours.  This trip was to be a training expedition for the one-day trip to Granite Peak that we’re attempting later this summer.  The early morning light misled us into believing it was going to be a beautiful day.

The elevation at the Mystic Lake trailhead is 5800 feet above sea level.  More than a few well-intentioned people thought the best route to the Plateau would be from East Rosebud on the Phantom Lake Trail.  The rationale behind taking this route is more sunlight bearing down on the south side of the range where there would be less snow to contend with.  However, getting to East Rosebud requires driving on more gravel road than West Rosebud.  I had some friends who camped at Mystic Lake last week tell me there wasn’t much snow in the area although they didn’t attempt the switchbacks.  I don’t know if it was stupidity, stubbornness or both but we opted for the path from the West.

We made the three-mile hike to Mystic in record time.  The water level at the lake was surprisingly low and Jazzy wasted no time getting into the water for an early morning swim.  We passed a few comatose camps littered with beer cans as we hung a left onto the Phantom Creek Trail #17.  From Mystic Lake there are twenty-six switchbacks to get to the Plateau.  After switchback number two we encountered small amounts of snow.  Every switchback from there was more unforgiving than the last.  By switchback number seven the trail was impassable because of snow pack.  We had to pause.  After a short conversation, consensus guided us straight up the mountain as we intersected the man-made aisle through the trees a half dozen times.  There’s a section of the trail that heads east for some distance and leads you through a bowl with a small creek spilling over the trail and down the ravine.  Above the trail is nothing but a scree field.  It’s as if two mountains collided and the explosion scattered chunks of granite over a couple square miles of steep hillside.  The trail is buried by snow and the broken trees below it is evidence that more than one avalanche slid through the area during the last few months.  There was really only two ways to go – back or continue up.

Choosing up, I should have remembered that freezing and thawing ice leaves scree unstable.  A couple hundred yards into the charge, the large piece of granite I was hiking over gave way and sent me toppling end over end down the hill.  After two rotations I landed on my back and slide another few feet down the mountain.  I stood up and instantly felt the pain in my right leg.  Looking down revealed blood soaking through my torn pants.  My right elbow and left hand were also dripping.  The education I received during the last 30 seconds caused me to reevaluate my heading.  Down and over a quarter mile I could see the trail was mostly open with only a few patches of snow obstructing it.

Remember that I have my dog with me?  I just figured out that dogs could go up and over a scree field way better than they can go down.  Three of us basically had to carry Jazzy down the hill trying to balance our own weight and hers until we found more stable ground.  In the process Jazzy tore her leg on a sharp piece of granite.  Even now she’s licks it as I type.

There’s a large cairn on the trail as you approach the Plateau.  We stopped to feed a chipmunk some nuts from our trail mix as it scurried around base of the cairn.  After a couple hundred more yards we decide to eat lunch too.  The scene and elevation of the Plateau is simply breathtaking.  The air is clean, thin and cool.  After lunch we head southwest toward Tempest Mountain.  The Plateau shows evidence of winter’s brutality and is mostly covered with snow pack.  The trouble we experienced with the drift on the switchbacks helps us decide that Tempest would have to wait for another day.  But, we can see a clear path to a peak sitting to the east.  We head there instead.

One piece of equipment you should always take to the Plateau is a GPS.  I had one but forgot to click a waypoint.  Dumb.  It’s more than a little jaunt from the cairn to our new destination.  About half way there we experience our first low hanging clouds.  At first, they’re beautiful and provide a scent that is incredible.  We drink them in as we continue hiking.  Standing on the summit at 10.4k, we’re completely engulfed in brume.  Even though our cameras can’t prove we were there – our sore limbs and butts remind us.

With only 25 feet of visibility a GPS with that waypoint I mentioned earlier would have been helpful.  We struggled to get back to the cairn but eventually found it after hiking in the rain and clouds for over an hour.  I heard the first peal of thunder at 2:04 p.m. just as we were about to leave the Plateau.  Just in time because you don’t really want to be on the Plateau during a lightning storm.  The only thing taller than you are a handful of furry, white Mountain Goats.  After the goats are glacial wild flowers and alpine grasses which are both twelve and six inches tall respectively.  It’s just not a good place to be under these conditions.  We quicken our pace down to Mystic Lake.

During the three hour descend we were pounded by rain and fatigue.  I was only nervous once during the plunge when we had to march through fifty feet of snow steeped at a forty-five degree angle that cleverly hid the trail.  Slipping there would have been a quarter mile ride to the bottom of the ravine and a few broken bones or worse.  We all safely navigated that segment of the trail.

Surprisingly we passed a few people, driven by aspiration, hiking up as we hiked down.  I hope they made it.  I’m glad that we weren’t the only idiots headed to the Plateau that day because misery loves company.

Sunglasses

I think I’ve owned 100 pair of sunglasses throughout my lifetime.  I never seem to be able to keep a pair very long.  I’ve broken them, misplaced them, had them stolen.  They’ve been victim of accidents, boots, canine cuspids and general carelessness.  Really cheap ones nearly liquefy after a few hours of dash time in the August sun.  I don’t know the actual lifespan of a pair of sunglasses.  I imagine a Pizza Planet scene from Toy Story every time I get another $5 pair from Wal-Mart.  Except Woody isn’t trying to protect three-eyed space aliens from Sid Philipps but trying to protect the sunglasses from me.

Many summers ago I was at the lake with some friends playing chicken with canoes and having a blast.  It wasn’t the first time these canoes had been immersed in chaos.  We’d reenacted the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac many times with the aid of bottle rockets, firecrackers and ski goggles.  This particular episode didn’t involve any munitions just the velocity that three oars could provoke out of a fourteen-foot Coleman.  Our aquatic battering rams were scarcely off their mark every time we attempted a strike.  Amid the misses and howling nobody realized that Emery couldn’t swim.  He was in the center of my vessel.  We were trying to make a turn but we were not fast enough.  As our opponents charged full-steam-ahead our canoe had taken on the characteristics of a slow swinging barge.

A couple weeks before the lake fun, I was at the gas station with my friend Rod.  He was driving his parents’ 1980 Chevy Citation.  It had a four speed manual transmission and Rod knew how the coax the last bit of muscle from its four-cylinder engine.  He was a master at using the clutch and shifting at just the right time.  Riding with Rod was always fun.  While at the fueling station I saw a pair of sunglasses on top of the adjacent gas pump.  With my curiosity peaked, I exited the vehicle to explore.  They were black Vuarnets.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Finding Vuarnet sunglasses added more excitement to the moment than finding $100 on the ground.

During the school year my class transacted a fundraiser and we sold Cat Eye sunglasses.  I was one of the few from the entire student body who couldn’t afford to purchase the Chinese merchandise equipped with faux leather goggle sides installed to provide added protection against high mountain glacial sunlight.  Since there wasn’t any high mountain glacial sunlight conditions for hundreds of miles and since I didn’t have 15 bucks, I never got a pair.

The providential pair of Vuarnets were superior in every way to the Cat Eyes.  I wondered who left them there.  I carried my prize into the store to see if anyone had inquired about loosing some black sunglasses.  The clerk said “no”, so out of obligation I left my name and home phone number and asked if anyone came looking for them to have them call me.  I left the store with a smile and the black Vuarnets on my face.

I was wearing the sunglasses as I struggled with the canoe turned barge.  We were seconds from taking a beating and our opposers were bearing down on the center of our hull.  The collision sent Emery in to the lagoon and the impact carried us several feet away.  At first all we saw were arms, then bobbing arms.  He was disappearing and reappearing from the black.  Without thought I jumped into the water.  We all jumped.  Our bloodthirsty quest for destruction had become a struggle for salvation.  In all the commotion Emery pawed my face banishing the Vuarnet sunglasses to a state of sunken treasure.  They were gone.  Emery was saved.  It was time to go home.

Last summer I spent $20 on four pair of sunglasses – no idea where any of those are.  A few weeks ago I picked up another pair.  They’re already scratched.

The Things You Remember

Two of my favorite scents in life are freshly mowed grass and the natural fragrance that rain brings.  I inhaled both this week.  Mowed grass accentuated by rain makes me think about baseball.  I like baseball.  I like to play it, coach it, watch it and in that order.  (For you baseball enthusiasts, I know that the coach is actually the manager.)  I couldn’t help reminiscing about my baseball career…

Suddenly, I was back in high school.  It was the spring of 1982.  I was a freshman and it was time for baseball season.  In Washington, baseball is a school sport that runs parallel with softball.  Being a freshman provides it’s own circumscriptions but weighing about 120 pounds adds insult to injury.  I was a barely pubescent kid who was teamed with juniors and seniors who knew how to use a razor. The manager of the team was Pete Penrose; a burly man equipped with a burly voice whose first love was football.

The third contest of the season was a home game against our nearest rival, Almira – a school about 20 miles away.  By the eighth inning the scoreboard was not favorably disposed to our team and all indications pointed to another loss.  Penrose barked into our dugout, “Burgin!”  My heart sank.

I can remember standing in left field praying that the ball wouldn’t be hit anywhere within 200 feet of me.  After some well produced pitches, the first batter struck out.  The second batter hit a line drive right into my airspace and called me to attention.  All I could hope for now was to make the play and not screw anything up.  Amazingly, I fielded the ball cleanly and tossed it to second base stopping the runner as he rounded first.  My confidence soared as Penrose clapped his hands and pumped his usual right fist signifying delight for a well-executed defensive play.  The third batter fouled twice and fanned the umpire on a dropping left curve.  It closed the top of the inning.  The bottom of the eight and top of the ninth passed without incident.

As we started our hitting rotation during the ninth inning, I was to be the third batter.  After the first two struck out, I wasn’t looking forward to bringing the game to a close as the last batter and handing Penrose our third loss.  It was only about 40 feet from the dugout to the batters box but it had all the qualities of a 40-mile hot dusty road to certain failure.

The first pitch was released – foul tip.  The second and third pitches, both balls – high and away.  I was ahead in the count and I was praying for two more balls.  As the forth pitch came down the line I knew it was a strike.  You can see the way a ball rotates in the air as you watch the stitches and within a split second you have to make a decision.  Do I swing or let it pass?  For weeks Penrose had been demanding that we swing the bat at anything close.  So, almost as if in autopilot, I gritted my teeth and…

Some of my best moments in life have come with my eyes closed.  The first time I kissed Selena – eyes closed.  My first hunting trip – eyes closed while I shot and harvested a mule deer buck.  First brussels sprouts – eyes closed.  Nose plugged too for that one.  My first hit on the high school baseball team – eyes closed and teeth gritted.

You can always tell when it’s a good hit.  There’s a smooth, almost euphoric contact as the bat meets the ball and all you hear is a hollow sounding “pop”.    I opened my eyes just in time to see the ball soar over the center fielder’s head.  As I was rounding first base I could see the defense chasing my convincingly hit ball to the fence.

That’s when it happened.  Feet grow first.  I guess every boy becoming a man needs a firm foundation for everything else to rest on in the same sense that a building needs a firm foundation.  As I was rounding first, I was watching the fielder and was not paying attention to my feet which I’m certain doubled in size during that winter.  I tripped.   But it was a slow painful trip accompanied with 20 feet of stumbling and flailing arms.  I came to a halt about midway through the 90-foot baseline.

Have you ever seen a movie that depicted a plane crash and upon impact all kinds of debris come flying over and through the cockpit?  For me, the one taking a nosedive into the dirt, that’s what it seemed like; all in super slow motion.  In a state of disorientation, I literally crawled to second base – and made it!  I was safe.  I had hit a double.  A more skilled runner might have been able to eek out an infield home run.

My hit, my double hit, sparked a rally in the last inning with two outs and one man on second base.  I felt like a hero who had helped his team win that day.  I don’t remember how many games we won or lost that season.  But, we won that game.

Road Trip

I find it amazing that the finest leather seats in the General Motors macrocosm can begin to feel like vinyl after a 5-hour road trip.  Eleven of us, weekend worn, poured into a couple of vehicles looking for the nearest Starbucks to infuse some vivacity into our enervated carcasses.  Coffee is like liquid toothpicks for your tired eyelids.

There’s a sense of reserved anticipation about the next three days.  We work, care and serve together but have little time to know each other.  I mean really know each other.  We are by no means strangers but when you go to work at 8 in the morning and leave at 5 in the evening you only show the part of your life you want to be seen.  I was gifted these flannel lounge pants for Christmas last year that have 3 cent postal duck stamps spotted throughout the print; nobody has seen them.  The point is each us is shrouded by a different office and our tasks keep us insulated from each other.  We’re on a road trip…this venture calls us for a single purpose that might just help us know each other better.

When you travel in more than one vehicle, there’s always a subordinate; someone leads and someone follows.  I think there’s an innate disdain that surfaces if all we see is the bumper of the car in front of us.  It’s why State Troopers write speeding violations.  And, stepping back, it’s why Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree.  Not tasting of its fruit meant following God.  Something they, and we are unwilling to do most of the time.  You can see that disdain on the face of a child the moment you tell them “no”.  Everything in them screams back, “yes!”.  We don’t really want to follow – we’d rather lead.  Even if it is just a side trip to Starbucks, part of a 5-hour road trip.

This road trip had stages.  During the first 60 minutes the conversation is lively, energetic and shallow.  You’re to that place 75 miles away without notice because you’re too engrossed in the conversation to look out the windows.  Hours 2 and 3 are accompanied by 60 to 90 second lulls about every 12 minutes and conversations get more localized.  Our coach had three rows with two bodies each.  Unless there’s a question or comment relative to the group (potty stop, fast food, gasoline, the Harley Davidson dealer) each row stays to themselves and respects air space.  As you head into hour four the lulls expand until it’s all about the iPod.  The lesser fortunate pull out a book or a magazine.  If you’re in the least fortunate designation all you get is a window and two eyes watching everyone else enjoy their private universe.  Then, just when your knees hurt the most, your bladder is weakest and your back the hottest, you enter the last stretch.  The last stretch seems be the tortoise that offers the most reward.  Universes merge until at last you have a perfect reverse bell curve of conversation.  Everyone’s engaged as if we we’re pulling out of the parking lot for the first time.

I actually like the ides of a road trip most.  It’s when I think the most and have the most clarity.  Any conversations happening then act like pings on a roof during a rainstorm.  We had a rainstorm yesterday morning.  I wasn’t the only one who slept in.  There’s just something relaxing about the sound of rain that opens our minds and takes us to levels of thinking that are all too rare.

Here’s a quick thought and then I’m done…How do they get the deer to cross at the “deer crossing” road sign?