Monday, August 14, 2017

Sicilian Fishermen

Harbor in Siracusa, Sicilia
photo by Gretta Larson
          Preface: The best times during travels are when you discover something unexpected. That was the case in the city of Siracusa, in the summer of 2012 at the far southeast tip of Sicily. All of the elements came together for a great moment on a trip: quiet time with the one you love, anticipation of a big day, good food, and discovery of the unfamiliar. It was a brief point in time I'll never forget.

Sicilian Fisherman
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson
Accordion player in Siracusa
photo by Gretta Larson

           I sat up in bed after the short night of sleep, running fingers through my hair and rubbing my eyes. The vivid memory of the last evening returned in the sights and sounds of the seafood restaurant. Wine, laughter, and clapping to the accordion music of Sicilian folk songs  was combined with visions of endless plates of steaming pasta and seafood — everything imaginable from tender calamari the size of onion rings, to scallops and a variety of fish from anchovies to swordfish.
          But there was no time to waste, as Gretta and I packed our bags and prepared for an epic day ahead on the bicycles. It was necessary to begin a mental focus on the proposed route that would put us in morning rush-hour traffic and eventually take us to the countryside where we would traverse over mountainous ridges along the eastern coast of Italy’s largest island.
          As the sunrise was breaking, we were the first to arrive at the breakfast buffet on the rooftop of the Grand Hotel Ortigia in Siracusa, at the harbor’s edge.  We ordered our cappuccinos and filled our plates with powdered pastry, fruit, and cheese, then sat out on the rooftop deck of the hotel to appreciate the cool, quiet moment before the long hot day began. I put the scene in my memory to recall it later in the day when it was hot and the climbing was difficult.
          The town was barely waking and the pastel colors of the sunrise on the sea at the city’s edge painted a serene picture from the rooftop deck. That’s when I noticed a fishing boat entering the harbor. It was but a speck about a half-mile away. Other boats of various shapes and sizes were lined up behind the first boat, all spaced about a quarter-mile apart. It made me think of the airliners cueing up to land at an airport. What’s going on? My interest was sparked and I stood up at the railing to get a better view.

Fishing boat in Siracusa Harbor
photo by author
          I looked down at the stone quay at harbor’s edge and noticed two men standing by a white van, peering out to the horizon. My guess was the boats were arriving at the prescribed time to sell their overnight catch to the men in the van, who would then distribute the seafood to the restaurants in town. It was a simple scenario that I’m sure had continued in some fashion for as long as man inhabited the island.
          Being a Kansas man, I wondered what it was like to go fishing on the ocean at night and complete the day’s work at dawn. Did the men swap stories and a bottle of grappa while the stars shone overhead? What kind of fish did they catch? Were their wives happy or sad when they returned home after sunrise? These were a few of the questions that popped into my mind. I assumed the small boats were collecting mussels or other creatures from traps, because there wasn’t much space or equipment on board. The larger boats probably brought in the bigger fish.
Sicilian fishermen in small boat - June 2012
watercolor painting by author
          From the railing, I was able to photograph a few of the boats as they approached the inner harbor. My favorite boat was the tiny, three-man craft with the bright yellow and black stripes. The scene was so simple and worthy of a painting: three men in a boat. One man steered the motor in the glassy harbor, the second man wrote on a note pad (probably calculating the money they would receive), and the third man leaned over a tank, checking the ‘take’ for the night to make sure it was still fresh. It was a scene from the Hemingway era, one that was played out day after day, year after year. 
          For a few brief moments, Gretta and I stood at the railing to watch the discussion between the fishermen and the market men — then it was back to thinking about the big day ahead.
          With words unspoken, we sipped our cappuccino and enjoyed the quiet of the morning, happy to have witnessed a simple ending to the fishermen’s workday, and wanting to savor the moment just a bit longer before our journey continued.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

I Met the Beauty and the Devil in Haarlem.

Typical bar in North Holland, Netherlands
photo by the author

I Met the Beauty and the Devil in Haarlem
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           From the inside of the dimly-lit bar on the narrow, cobbled side-street in Haarlem, Netherlands, I watched through the windows as the lithe, Dutch woman spoke to a few of the bar owners in the neighborhood. The sunlight danced on her short, blonde hair, and the male barmen seemed to hang on her every word, hand gesture and smile. I had the sense that the thirty-something woman had the ability to put every bar owner in Haarlem into a trance and walk them into the North Sea. I think they would have gladly followed.
           A fortuitous fate had brought me face-to-face with this Dutch beauty and her sparkling blue-green eyes. Now I was trying to make sense of it all while I stuffed my face with mixed nuts and sipped on my fourth beer (two beers past my normal limit).
          I thought back to how we came to meet. After a day of biking across the countryside of North Holland, I decided to wander from the barge on which I was staying to find a small bar or café, connect my iPhone to the wi-fi (pronounced wee-fee in Europe), and check on the status of the junk emails which had floated through the cyberspace and landed in my inbox. I didn’t want the sheer number of them to become unwieldly. Who knows? Maybe the house had burned down back home and the neighbors were desperately trying to get in touch.
           I wanted a cool brew to ease the sore muscles. It was to be an innocent, relaxing afternoon, before returning to the four-course meal awaiting me that evening aboard the barge.
          After finding the out-of-the-way bar with the round Amstel Bier sign above the door, I sat at the empty counter and listened to the young owner tell me about his twenty Dutch and Belgian beers on tap.
          He helped with my selection by stating, “I think you’d like Affligem. It’s a nice blonde pale ale.”
          “Affligem it is!”
          I watched as he selected the proper glass from one of the shelves. One of the joys of drinking beer in Europe is getting a specially-designed and branded glass to showcase the beer. He poured the beer, then set it on a coaster in front of me and said, “So tell me about American beers.”
          “Well, craft beers and brew pubs are all the rage. The old standbys like Budweiser and Coors are just commodity beers now.”
          We had a long conversation about beer and sports, and I ordered a second Affligem. He talked about the upcoming weekend that was going to be his busiest time, but he said, “I’ve not put any televisions in my bar, and I’m not going to. The football (soccer) crowd is too rowdy.” Then he asked, “What’s so special about the American craft beers?”
          “To some extent, we are copying the beer you have here in Northern Europe. Americans are learning to enjoy different hops and flavors in the taste. I come from Kansas City and there is a brewery there called Boulevard Beer. They have tried to create Belgian-like beers with lots of flavor and alcohol content, and they’ve been successful. Boulevard Beer was bought a few years ago by Duvel, the Belgian beer company.
          At that very moment, the beautiful blonde Dutch woman walked into the bar. As if on cue, the bar owner pointed to her and said, “She works for Duvel!” I almost fell off my bar stool, but was too awestruck by her eyes and smile. I reached out, shook her delicate hand and said, “Hello.”
          In a cute, European accent she replied, “My pleasure.”
          The bar owner explained to her, “This man is from Kansas City in the U.S. and he’s telling me all about the Boulevard Beer Company.”
          I turned to her and asked, “What do you do for Duvel?                  
          “Oh, I’m a beer rep for them. My territory is all of North Holland, except for Amsterdam proper. I visit about twenty bars a day. Some of them are out on the north islands and I have to take a ferry to get there. I promote our brands, including the Boulevard Beer from Kansas City.” She put a finger to her lips and then pointed outside. “I have something to show you. I’ll be back.” She disappeared for five minutes and returned with two bottles of Boulevard beer. One was a bottle of Tank 7, a Boulevard Beer of which I was familiar. The other bottle was Boulevard’s The Calling, which I hadn’t tried.
          She said, “These are two of the three Boulevard beers we are promoting in Belgium and Holland.” She looked at the bar owner and said, “I think the three of us should give them a try. I usually don’t drink much beer during the day, but . . .” She turned to me and winked, “every so often I like to do some tastings.”
          The bar owner grabbed three glasses and opened the bottle of Tank 7.
          She turned to me and said, “So tell me what you know about beer in America, and about the Boulevard Brewery, too.”
          “Craft beers and home-made beers are becoming very popular. In fact, my neighbor had a big brewing party in his garage the other day. He and his buddies gave their wives the day off, and the dads brought their kids with them. They rented a big bounce house in the driveway to let the kids jump and play while the men brewed their batches of beer. It looked like fun.”
          We continued to sip the Tank 7.
          I asked her, “Do you know how Tank 7 was named?”
          “I little bit. Tell me what you know.”
          “The story I heard was that Tank No. 7 at the brewery was considered cursed. Every time they used it, hoses would break, valves would stick, and the batches were nasty. Then one day they brewed a beautiful batch with a unique flavor, and they knew it was a good one. When they named it, Tank 7 was the obvious favorite. The label was designed using the font from the Ouija board to compliment the strange happenings around the cursed tank.”
          She smiled and said, “I didn’t know about the label design. I’ll have to tell that one to my superiors!” We laughed and I realized I was starting to get a little giddy from all the beer.
          I added, “I have a friend whose softball team nicknamed the beer Tanked by 7 because of the high alcohol content." Then I explain that tanked was an English slang term for being drunk.
          We finished the Tank 7 (8.5% alcohol) and the bar tender opened The Calling (also 8.5% alcohol). I wondered, was The Calling named for a siren call from the Duvel? Duvel, which is Belgian for devil, was a centuries-old family beer made in Belgium. Supposedly, in the old days, one of the neighbors couldn’t stop drinking it, so he called it the devil. Now the company has become a world-wide beer conglomerate.
          I realized I’d had too much to drink, but decided to tell her another story about homemade beer. “One of the guys in our bicycling group made some beer in his basement.”
          “Oh?” she asked. “Tell me about it.”
          “He brewed up a good batch and realized he didn’t have any filters to strain it, so he used some of his wife’s panty hose. He called it Panty Hose IPA. The label he designed had a pair of legs on it.”
          The beautiful woman stared at her beer glass. She laughed and made reference to the panty hose, “I hope they were clean.”
          We laughed some more.
          I was getting a bit woozy, so I looked at the bar owner and asked, “Do you have something to eat? I’d take some chips or nuts if you have some.”
          “Sure.” He reached under the counter and a small bowl of mixed nuts appeared.
          All of a sudden, the woman and the bar owner were on their cellphones, speaking in Dutch. The bar owner looked at me and said, “She’s going to visit with some of the other bar owners in the neighborhood.” That’s when they went outside into the sun-filled street and I watched her through the windows. She kept them in rapt attention while I sipped on the remnants of The Calling. After about fifteen minutes she returned inside with the bar owner.
          I decided it was way past time for me to go back to the barge for supper. If I had another beer, I might not be able to find my way. We said our good-byes and she disappeared out the door. I thanked the bar owner and walked out onto the cobblestone sidewalk, being careful to walk slowly and stay close to the building walls in case I needed something for balance.
          I didn’t know what her name was, but that didn’t matter. I’ll always remember those blue-green eyes. What a story, I thought. How would it begin? Let’s see . . . “There was this man who walked into a bar . . . that would be me.”
          I began to laugh as I gingerly walked down towards the canal.
Early morning view of the canal at Haarlem, Netherlands
photo by the author

 Author’s note: Duvel Moortgat USA, a subsidiary of the Duvel Brewing Company of Belgium announced the purchase of Boulevard Brewing Co. in October of 2013. The price was not disclosed, but industry publications estimated the cost exceeded $100 million U.S. dollars.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Strangers on a Paris Night

Paris, with its tree-lined boulevards and over-sized monuments.
2017 photo by Gregory E. Larson

Strangers on a Paris Night
travel memoir
Gregory E. Larson


We all meet strangers. They are everywhere. Most of the time we don’t know their history, their past, or their psyche. We don’t know who they are or where they are going. When we do meet and learn about them, we find that our first impressions can be wrong. I’ve always said the truth is stranger than fiction, and on this encounter in Paris, I still believe it.

           Ah, Paris! Big. Bold. Beautiful. It was good to be there again. The grand, tree-lined Boulevards, the wide sidewalks, the oversized buildings and monuments — they all embraced me. And it was springtime, with sun, rain, crowds and traffic.
          There’s a quieter side of Paris that I like, too. It’s where the less notable places exist, off the main thoroughfares, down narrow streets and tucked around corners – boutique hotels and shops, little restaurants and neighborhood parks.
          On my way to dinner one evening, I rode the subway to The Bastille, one of the larger monuments and traffic roundabouts in Paris. Before going to the restaurant, Gaspard de la Nuit (Treasures of the Night), I walked to Place des Vosges, one of the first neighborhood parks built in Paris. It is so hidden among the buildings that you have to purposely go there to find it.
          Near sundown, the park was full of people. It was all a park should be — a place to enjoy the day. Parents with strollers, elderly on benches, children bouncing soccer balls, lovers and friends picnicking on blankets – it all pulled me in, and I sat there for a few minutes, soaking up the dwindling sunlight and the jovial atmosphere.
Place des Vosges - one of the first parks in Paris
photo by Gregory E. Larson
           It was time for dinner, so I left the park and walked the two blocks, down the narrow Rue des Tournelles, and stepped into the restaurant.
          “Bonsoir, Monsieur!”
          “Bonsoir, Madame!”
          After we exchanged greetings, the smiling woman offered me two options for sitting by myself. I noticed a man sitting alone in the corner of the restaurant, and I chose the table next to his. A small leather cap adorned the top of his head of dark curly hair. The thirtyish-year-old also had a neatly-trimmed black beard. I pictured a Parisian who rode a motorcycle through the busy streets.
          He was reading a technical paper while eating his dinner, so I gave him some space and purposely didn’t bother him. I counted twenty-four seats in the small restaurant, and eventually all of them were filled. I made my dinner selection and was pleased with the starter course of salmon salad, and the main course of roast duck with sauce.
Gaspard de la Nuit on the Rue des Tournelles
Google street view
          The man in the corner folded his papers and took a sip of wine.
          That’s when I introduced myself. Assuming he was French I said, “Bonsoir! Je suis Americain (Good evening. I am American). Est-ce que vous Parisien (Are you from Paris?).
          “No, I live in Asia. I assume you speak English?”
          I detected some type of European accent in his voice, and I responded, “Yes. Isn’t this food great? I always say if you can taste three or four flavors in one bite, it’s a good place.”
          “I’ve been in Paris for a month and a half. The food is so good here, I keep coming back.”
          “Are you originally from France?”
          “No, I was born in Italy.”
          My curiosity was raised. “What took you to Asia?”
          “I was unhappy in Italy. I had a tough childhood and when I turned eighteen, I disowned my family and left the country. My family was immoral.”
          “What do you mean - immoral?”
          “They were immoral business people.”
          Immoral business people in Italy!?  I wouldn’t pry much further. I did wonder where in Italy. I assumed Sicily. I asked, “Where did your family come from?”
          “Northern Italy. My dad was from Milan and my Mom’s family was from Turin. I couldn’t take it any longer. I had to leave. The family believed that if you tried to be honest, you were stupid, and if you learned how to lie and cheat, you were smart. I saw corruption and immorality in the church, too. I had to leave. I went to Asia got interested in Buddhism, but I realized I needed a job to survive, so I began working on computers. That’s what I do now. Every so often I have to come back to see Europe.”
          I didn’t know how to respond, but I said, “You really had a tough decision to make at an early age. I can tell you didn’t make it lightly.”
          He shook his head. “I had to do it. I felt I had no choice.”
          I replied, “As I get older, I realize what an idyllic childhood I had. I am a baby boomer, and families around me were happy raising their kids in the U.S. The dads were glad they were still alive after serving in the war.”
          It was time for dessert, and I noticed that he was obviously interested in talking to me, because he had not ordered his dessert for quite some time. We both decided to get the chocolate crumble cake and some espresso.
          He paused and took another sip of wine. “What brings you to Paris?”
          “I ride bicycles. I went on a bike and barge trip in the Netherlands, and now I am visiting Paris before I return to the Kansas City area. My wife showed me how to travel in Europe, and on this trip I’m using everything she taught me. She passed away last July from cancer.”
          He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure it’s a big loss.”
          "I miss her and I’m sad, but I’m not angry. I’m really grateful for the fifteen years we had together. We went on several bike trips in Italy and France, and we had a tandem bike that we rode all over Kansas City. Life was good.”
          He pointed to my hand. “I notice you are still wearing a ring.”
          “Yeah, I just don’t feel like I want to take it off yet. I loved her that much. Things were so good when we were together.”
          We ate the crumble cake and savored the espresso while we continued to talk.
          He changed the subject, “Are you a member of the Catholic Church?”
          “No, I’ve attended many different protestant churches during my life and now I attend an Episcopal Church.”
          He said, “I’m an agnostic. I believe there’s something out there . . . some big plan, but that’s about it. I just got fed up with people in the church. What do you think about Christianity?”
          I sensed that he was still making important decisions in his life, and he wanted to hear different viewpoints. I thought of the advice that my dad gave me when I was a teenager. He told me to choose words carefully when talking about sex, politics, or religion. Otherwise, the thoughts might get misconstrued. I also thought of an Ingrid Bergman quote I read in her biography. She said, “It’s presumptuous to offer unsolicited advice, and I am no oracle of wisdom.”
          But it was obvious this man was searching out opinions.
          “Well,” I said, “My faith and the Word have been much more important to me than the denomination of the church I attend. My faith is what keeps me going each day. It helps me deal with both the good and the bad that I encounter, whether it is people or situations.”
          He asked another question. “What do you think about luck?
          “Fate . . . luck . . . whatever it is, it happens to all of us. I also believe in answered prayer, and I think there’s a type of luck that should be defined as knowing when to seize an opportunity.”
          He laughed and said, “I don’t think I’m smart enough to know the right opportunities to seize.”
          “Oh, I think you are smarter than you realize.”
          He turned and looked at me with a smile, then paid his bill to the woman.
          As he stood to leave, I reached out both hands and shook his hand warmly. Our eyes locked and I said, “Fate, good luck, answered prayer — I wish them all for you.”
          The patrons had become noisier from all the wine that had been consumed.
          He had to practically shout his response, “Thanks, and good luck to you, too.” He turned and walked to the front of the restaurant, then vanished in the night.
          I tried to process all the conversation I’d had with the young man, but I didn’t linger much longer, and paid the bill. As I walked to the door I said, “Au Revoir” to the woman serving all the restaurant guests.
          “Sir, did you know it’s raining?”
          “Thanks . . . no problem.”
          I pulled out the pocket umbrella, popped it open, and walked out the door. As I turned the corner to find the subway at the Bastille, the lights and street reflections lit up the night. The dampness had not diluted the party atmosphere under the awnings at the big cafés. The wine was flowing and the laughter was loud.
          I hurried down the steps and into the subway tunnel where a saxophonist fondled the keys and wailed a tune to all the strangers passing by. Boarding the subway, I wondered . . . where did all the people come from? Where were they going? Each of them has stories of their own.
          At the subway stop near my hotel, I stepped out of the car and onto the platform. In a screech, rumble, and blur of the lights, the train pulled away. A cold rush of air filled the vacuum and ruffled my collar. I turned and watched the last car disappear into the dark tunnel.
Paris Metro
youtube image
          A violinist’s tune echoed off the white tiles in the exit way. I dropped a coin in her violin case and kept walking. I thought about the man I’d met at Gaspard de la Nuit. We were total strangers, yet, in that tiny restaurant we had bared our souls to each other. Then, on our separate ways, we vanished like subway cars in the night.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Deep Roots in Santa Fe

Palace of the Governors - Santa Fe, New Mexico
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          Travel across the high plains today isn’t what it used to be in the 19th Century. Satellite radio, iPods, and CD’s kept me entertained while the GPS map and the voice directed me to the destination. Coffee and fast food were within arm’s reach. In one day, I was able to complete a journey that took four months to travel in the 1800s. The latest trip to the Southwest didn’t diminish my focus on history as I pulled off the Interstate highway and drove to one of my favorite destinations.

Deep Roots in Santa Fe

travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

          I walked alone down the narrow streets of Santa Fe, along the historical road that once held countless wagon trains, and funneled them to the heart of the enigmatic city. It was good to be back, although just for one evening on my quick journey through New Mexico. Something tugged on my spirit while I absorbed the sights and sounds. My thoughts wandered to all of the people who walked or rode down this street at the end of their long journey across the plains. What were they thinking? Were they relieved to have survived the months-long trek and its dangers of storms, drought, heat, robbers, and native tribes? I can imagine the cool breeze was refreshing to them as they crossed Glorieta Pass, viewed the chimney smoke and smelled the piñon and aspen on their approach to Santa Fe, which was established in 1610 as the northern colonial capital of Spain’s presence in North America.

Oldest House in the U.S. (circa 1646), Santa Fe, New Mexico
watercolor by Gregory E. Larson
          Before I walked past the La Fonda Hotel, I took a short diversion along the narrow Vargas Rd. to see the oldest house in the United States. It was built (circa 1646) on top of pueblo ruins which were estimated to have been part of a native village that existed around the year 1000. The unassuming adobe structure has survived many revisions as well as potential destruction. I walked through the gift shop and down some steps, ducked my head at the doorways and viewed the two small, simple rooms. It was my kind of destination, one that is probably missed by many tourists, even though its roots are deep.
          As I left Vargas Rd. and walked down the street towards the city center, I passed young millennials, old hippies, Native Americans, Hispanics, vagrants, and people from all points along the socio-economic strata. The mixture is hard to describe. You have to see it for yourself: tourists, artists, locals, all passing through a portal of time and space. Time itself is a strange commodity here. Centuries are fleeting but the clock seemed to stop on that late afternoon as I stood in the center of the plaza, where the inscriptions on a monument/obelisk celebrate the Union troop’s 1860s victories over the local native “uprisings.”
Monument in the Santa Fe Plaza
photo by Gregory E. Larson
            The Palace of the Governors, on the north side of the plaza, is the oldest continuously-operating public building in the United States, having been established by the Spanish sometime between 1610 and 1618. The Native Americans have been selling their wares along the sidewalk at the front of the building for centuries.
          Sounds of Harley mufflers punctuated the air while a group of motorcycle riders circled the center of town.
The Palace of the Governors - Santa Fe, New Mexico
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          Unceremoniously, two Native-American men approached the obelisk. They wore everyday jeans and shirts, and carried a large drum. Without hesitation they began to beat the drum and sang a soft chant. I stood near them while the sunlight shafts filtered through the trees, and wondered the significance of their song. Were they giving a memorial to their ancestors? Was this a centuries-long protest next to the monument that celebrated the demise of their older relatives? Was it a prayer for the living or the dead? I didn’t know the answer, but I felt they had tapped another deep root of this special place, and struck a nerve of the spirit of Santa Fe.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Snowshoeing in the Rockies

Hallett's Peak above the frozen Bear Lake - Rocky Mountain National Park
          When invited by my brother-in-law to go snowshoeing in Colorado, I jumped at the chance for a winter trip of a different sort. In retrospect, I think Gretta would have loved snowshoeing, and like so many things she did, she would have easily mastered it.
          Reflecting on the trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, I was amazed at the contrasts of each day. The same area around Bear Lake looked so different due to clouds, sunshine, wind, temperature and time of day. The first day we were greeted with low temperatures, no wind and falling snow. The second day the mountains were swept with strong winds (30 to 50 mph) and variable cloudiness. The snow was blowing so strongly through the mountains and forests that the large peaks were not visible. On the third day, the wind kept blowing, but the peaks stood out in all their glory. The trip reminded me that high altitude and the weather are powerful forces that must be respected if one wants to be safe and enjoy the unique environment.

Snowshoeing in the Rockies

travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

          The snow continued to gently fall as we strapped on our snowshoes. I had assumed the snowshoes would look like tennis rackets on the feet, but the outdoor equipment has evolved into high-tech gear. The shoes, made of plastic with aluminum grippers on the bottom, are much narrower and have parallel sides, which prevent imbalance and tripping.
           The snow base for the entire winter of 2017 was sixty-three inches deep, and six inches of new snow had fallen the previous day. Our guide commented, “This is the most snow I’ve seen up here in the park since I moved here thirty-five years ago. It will be a muddy mess during the thaw, and that will last all the way through June.”

           He made sure we had the proper clothing before we put on the snowshoes. With single-digit temperatures, he wanted to make sure we wore several lightweight layers to trap the air and keep the body warm. I had learned long ago from the bike-riding days that the proper clothes, along with drinks and snacks were essential for a comfortable day. I made sure that everything was tucked, zipped and snapped to my satisfaction before we started. My head was covered with a balaclava, ski goggles and a hood. The only exposed skin was my nose for breathing.
All of the clothes and gear used (snowshoes and poles not shown)

          The snowflakes continued to drift down through the trees around Bear Lake as we began our hike on an unmarked trail towards Nymph Lake. Immediately I felt I had been transported to some other world as the snow-covered Engelmann spruce towered above us, cutting off part of the daylight which existed during the snowfall. We moved up the trail like slow-paced gnomes. Whoosh! An overloaded branch dropped an avalanche of snow down onto the trail. The guide remarked, “It’s kinda fun to watch as long as it doesn’t hit us!”
Heavy snow on the spruce trees
          While we stopped to rest, he showed us bobcat tracks and porcupine claw marks on the tree trunks. “Porcupines are slow tree-climbers, so every now and then I’ll spy one rustling up in the branches.”

          Up the trail we went, learning to move the left foot with the right pole, and the right foot with the left pole. We arrived at Nymph Lake and walked out onto the snowy, frozen surface. Our guide explained that in the fall, thousands of toads burrow in the mud to try to keep warm, but they all eventually freeze and their hearts stop beating. Miraculously, they revive themselves to make noise again in the spring.
Standing on frozen Nymph Lake
          The snow continued to collect on our hats and packs, and the massive peaks were not visible because of the cloud cover.
          The next day we hiked without a guide. Snow was swirling off the peaks and the trees. In the valleys, the wind speed was 30 mph with gusts up to 50 mph. We selected a trail at a lower elevation in the forest, and were amazed at how calm it was among the firs, spruces and aspens. The sun cast long shadows through the aspen groves and we spied giant boulders coated with snow and ice. I sensed the streams would be overflowing and noisy in the spring. The quiet enveloped us. I heard myself breathing as I continued to put one foot ahead of the other. An occasional gust of wind broke the silence, causing snow to swirl in the sunlight while the tops of the tall spruce trees swayed violently.
Watercolor impression of the
hike through the aspen groves
          The final day was sunny and windy, but we were able to see Hallett’s Peak and its rocky neighbors above Bear Lake. Long’s Peak, to the southeast, stood higher than the others. As flatlanders we talked about how nice it would be to have a view of the peaks every day during the sunrise.   
          Our destination was Bierstadt Lake, about two miles from Bear Lake. The gusts kept us cold at the beginning, but once we crested a ridge and hiked down into the forest, we were comfortable again. We noticed other hikers with all types of skis and snowshoes.
          I had not anticipated how difficult it was to take photos in the cold, windy environment. Many things worked against success, including batteries that didn’t want to provide power when they got too cold. Polarized lenses on the goggles and double gloves prevented me from easily snapping the camera button. Fortunately, we weren’t in a hurry, and I was able to take the time to warm the batteries, pull off the gloves and raise the goggles. It was a lengthy process, and the fingers got cold each time the outer gloves were removed. I snapped only about one-third the photos that I normally would have taken in a warm environment.
          We arrived at the Bierstadt Lake perimeter trail, but the lake was a half-mile down the trail, hidden by the forest. After a vote, we decided to return to Bear Lake to make sure we had enough energy to finish the hike. Before we started, I cleared the snow from the trunk of a fallen tree to create a frozen bench for us to take a break and have a snack. The temperature was about 25 degrees and it was the first time in three days I was able to vent and unzip part of the coat to keep from overheating. The breaks were nice and were part of our unhurried pace.
          Hiking in the cold, snowy woods at high altitude is not something everyone would enjoy, but I liked the focus on the trail, moving forward, one step at a time, listening to the silence, and wondering what it would be like to live somewhere in a cabin in the woods, with the peaks towering above.
Hiking partners Brandon Henry and Richard Henry

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Ghost in the Chateau

Chateau de Roumegouse
A Ghost in the Chateau
by Gregory E. Larson

           Do you believe in ghosts? Whenever I’m asked that question, I tell the story of a dark night on a hilltop in south-central France in the summer of 2007, when Gretta and I were guests at the Chateau de Roumegouse near the town of Rignac. It was at the beginning of our bike tour along the Dordogne River Valley.

          “Larsons,” The chateau manager and the tour guide spoke in unison as they looked up from their lists to my wife and me.  
           The manager held the last room key and dangled the leather strap with a wood medallion. All the other keys had been handed out to the tour participants who were leaving the chateau lobby to search for their assigned rooms. He turned to us and spoke in a hushed voice with a French accent, “You have the Roumegouse Suite!” The two men looked at us as though we should understand it was something special. The manager continued, “Charles de Gaulle was a guest at our chateau after World War II, when he wanted a quiet summer vacation.” He raised one eyebrow and said, “The Roumogouse Suite was his favorite. Enjoy!” He laid the key in the palm of my hand.
          Our footsteps echoed off the stone steps and walls of the stairway as we grabbed the massive rope railing. The look and smell of the place shouted “ancient!”
          I was baffled as to why we were given the key to the main suite. Maybe it was the Gretta factor again – good things always happened when I was with her.
          I jiggled the key and asked “Why did we get this?”
          She leaned toward me as we approached the hallway door and said quietly, “I think it’s a perk for being a repeat tour customer and for getting along so well with the guides and the riders.”
          I inserted the large skeleton key into the keyhole and slowly opened the doors, one on each side of the eighteen-inch-thick limestone wall in the hallway. We stepped in and peered around the room.
          I made sure the doors were shut and said, “Oh my God, don’t tell anyone about the size of our suite or they’ll be ticked. It’s just our little secret.” Gretta jumped up on the giant bed with the antique wood headboard, and I flopped down on the sofa in a separate seating area with oriental rugs, tables and lamps. Massive French windows filled the exterior wall, and the view was of a verdant lawn with woods beyond. “Wow!” I couldn’t believe it. The huge bathroom had a “his” and hers” area with closets and heated towel racks.

Greg and Gretta at the end of the first day

          We had finished the bike ride for the day, so I let Gretta take her shower first. I lounged on the sofa and looked at the magazines and literature on the table. A brochure, which had the history of the chateau, caught my eye.
          The Roumegouse chateau was built in the 10th century and served as a hilltop outpost for Castelnau, one of the large castles along the Dordogne River. Early in the history of the chateau, its resident knight decided it was his moral obligation to join the crusades to the Middle East. The fateful trip cost him his life and caused extreme grief to his wife, Resplendine de Rignac. According to legend, she died of a broken heart and her ghost still haunts the chateau. Rumors abound of lavender scents, ghostly images and nighttime shuffling noises in the hallways.
          Late in the afternoon while we were exploring the grounds, I shared with Gretta the story about the chateau being haunted. We didn’t give it much thought while we looked at the stone-shingled outbuildings covered with moss. Another discovery was a bizarre path to nowhere, a spiral ramp which had no purpose. Gretta dubbed it the “folly.”

The "folly" - spiral ramp to nowhere
           We spent the remainder of the day relaxing on the patio, and whet our appetites on a fine French dinner with the bike tour group. Late into the evening we tipped our wine glasses and shared stories. Finally, Gretta and I said our “goodnight” to the remaining folks and walked along the dimly-lit stone hallway. I quickly grabbed her waist from behind.
          “Watch out for ghosts!” I said.
          “That’s not funny.” She gave me a look that said “don’t scare me like that.”
          Once in the room, I knew I’d be in bed and asleep in five minutes. Hmm . . . so Charles de Gaulle slept here. I wondered if he snored with that big nose of his. Did French snoring sound the same as American snoring? As I drifted off to sleep, I heard Gretta say she would probably read for a while.

Charles de Gaulle slept here
          All of a sudden, I awoke in a state of semi-consciousness and disorientation. Where was I? What time was it? I stirred . . . then my body froze. Oh, my God . . .  the image before me was a glowing wall which created a silhouette of a woman! I shifted from drowsiness to sheer panic. It’s the ghost! In milliseconds the adrenaline shot through my body. Am I in danger? What will happen next? What is the ghost going to do to me? She could stab or strangle me to death! I tried to scream but the only sound that came out was a tiny, gurgling groan.
          “Greg, are you awake?”
          I rubbed my eyes and looked at the glowing wall. It was Gretta standing in the bathroom doorway.
          “This bathroom is so big I can’t find the switch to turn off the lights.”
          I fell back on the pillow with my heart racing a mile-a-minute. “Oh my gosh, I thought you were the ghost! I was afraid you were going to strangle me.” I took a deep breath and we both laughed and laughed, and we couldn’t stop laughing.
          I raised my hands, made a cross with my two index fingers, and turned toward the large room. I spoke with a stern voice, “In the name of Jesus, do not haunt us tonight. Stay away!”
          We laughed some more, and I went to sleep for a second time. It’s quite possible I snored, but I never heard a thing the entire night.

French countryside near Chateau de Roumegouse