Saturday, October 28, 2017

Ditch the hair dye! Going gray into that good night

If you've lived long enough, you'll remember the Clairol ad with the tagline, Is it true blondes have more fun?  Notice that blondes is underlined in the ad. You say that word LOUDER.

I tested the verity of that line for, oh, about 50 years, and found that it was sorta true. Except maybe for the years when we were raising two boys, one of whom was born when I was 41. I had a few "not fun being blonde" years juggling work with sketchy childcare. But for the most part,  it's been all good. Did being blonde make a difference? For all those years? Probably not.  
High school and college graduation photos.
I had a lot of fun being a young blonde.
Then I just went on being blonde until I was gray,
and became gray with a golden tinge.
My sister points out these two photos make me look
better than I ever did in real life. True. 

Age 17 was my first year of blonde-from-a bottle. I was decades from denying gray, but I was in full assault against light brown. Mousey brown, as it was called. People asked me for years if it was true that "Blondes have more fun." My standard response was the shameless lie, "I don't know. I've never been anything else."

By the time age 17 turned into age 71, (how did that happen??!!) no one asked whether grays have more fun. In fact, female grays are largely ignored, except by surgeons pushing facelifts and companies preying on women's fears of aging. Magic wrinkle creams and other potions promising to turn back time are ubiquitous in our culture, which  despite the social and cultural changes that have occurred since Clairol ads, including the rise of feminism, remains skewed grotesquely toward youth and beauty., 

But somebody has to occupy the "elder" positions. Women who are only in their sixties, like most of my friends, may not quite be copping to the "elder" handle. 
  But at age almost 73, I'm  acclimating to the higher elevation and at the same time being alarmed at physical transformations. What happened to my neck, for example. And my once-flattish stomach? I haven't gained weight, so what's with the rolls of blubber?

Then there's the wrinkles and sags - no cosmetic "work" has been done,  nor is any being planned. I've given up trying to make my gray (white) hair appear blond with a golden tinge, and I'm adjusting to my new and evolving position in the march from womb to worms.

In my early seventies, I am what I am.  I'm getting used to how old 70 sounds, and concentrating instead on how much I'm enjoying myself.  In the seasons of life, I'm mid-to-late fall, and so is the time during which I've been writing this post. I can't help but draw parallels. I look my age, but I don't feel old. I really don't. Not unlike the trees glowing with color being at their most proud before winter sets in.

A serene scene along the Upper Rogue River trail. In a month or so the trees will be bare and the trail thick  with snow. Wintertime, folks. It's a-comin'.

A significant source of contentment and stimulation growing older is having ongoing friendships reaching back 30-40-some years. My girlfriends and I have seen one another through all kinds of crap, including ugly marriages, recalcitrant children, and  life-threatening illnesses. But we've   celebrated together more often than not our successes and luminous moments, many of which have occurred during shared outdoor adventures.

We're now embracing life as age continues to take its little nips. Mostly retired, each of my friends profiled briefly below demonstrates gusto for the freedom retirement offers and a life that wasn't possible during her naturally pigmented-hair-and-wrinkle-free work-centered days.

We've all suffered losses, but I know that these girlfriends, all in their sixties, accept the gathering of years, embrace their new-found freedoms, and are moving toward the great beyond with a spring in their steps. I hope to keep up! (Well, they can keep up with me; I'm the oldest.)

Apologies to wonderful friends not pictured. I included a handful of girlfriends who live in my community, go with the gusto, and who've demonstrated aging acceptance, in part,  by sticking with the gray hair, wrinkles and divets that ages delivers. No "work" to smooth the wrinkles, no nips and tucks elsewhere, and no hair dye. Just a calm going with the flow, like on the rivers we've rafted and trails we've walked so many times.

Sueji and I met when she was in her twenties and I was in my thirties. She was a white-water river guide and I was a journalist/photographer doing a story about a woman-owned rafting company with all female guides.What a trip! Our adventures continued through the decades as we were two of four women who rowed, for 17 years, on an annual all-women whitewater trip down the Wild and Scenic Rogue River. (The two others are Michele and Margaret, pictured below.) We continue to hike, socialize, confide, and enjoy our longtime friendships. Sueji is a retired community college counselor, and always has a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on.
Margaret is as sassy and fun as she looks in this photo
taken about 10 years ago when she was president
of her Rotary Club and Communications Director
at the local community college. We were both
journalists and worked at the local newspaper
when typewriters and actual cut-and-paste was
how editing was done. She says she's had more
compliments on her straight gray hair than she ever
did when she dyed and permed it.
I'm not sure when Jeanne and I met, but I'm sure we
   made a quick and lasting bond 30-some years ago. She's an avid
gardener and creative cook. She's also fierce,
principled, and quick to call bullshit on
racism, misogyny and the like. Jeanne
made her living first as a cabinet maker
then as a community college instructor teaching
everything from basic living skills to
carpentry. She's a champion for women in the
trades. When I asked her about being included
in this piece, she said, "If it's about not worrying
about appearance, I'm all in." 
Michele was the first friend I made after we
moved to Southern Oregon in 1973. We were both
substitute teachers looking for kindred spirits in
our little rural town. This photo is from a few years
back, but now at 68 she still has but a wisp of gray hair.
"It's my genes," she says, "which also gave me migraines
and breast cancer." She's a 19-year survivor. Michele joined
the Peace Corps in her early 60s and spent a couple
years in Swaziland. Wow. Recently, on a limited
budget in a super-tight housing market, she bought
a fixer-up with great promise. Guts and brains.
"I've learned to be comfortable in my own skin," she
says of moving into her later years. 

Denise, 68, is a yoga and art teacher, making her way in the world on her own terms. She taught me, and numerous others in her classes, that doing the splits, and many other outrageous moves, are possible no matter your age. She's my hero. I started doing yoga with her about 25 years ago, and we've gotten gray together. She never dyed her hair or even used make-up. Still, she glows and has tons of energy. She is not among those enjoying retirement, however, as her mother, age 104, remains healthy and lives with her. Denise says she's never been tempted to alter her appearance. "I am curious about how I'll look," she says. I predict she'll still be doing splits in her 100s. And her mother will break longevity records.

Me in July, au naturel. Grays really do have more fun!
Photo credit Rose Cassano.

Accepting aging

Working to Disarm Women’s Anti-Aging Demon  - A New York Times article persuading women to embrace rather than deny the inevitable. The inspiration for this post.

Camping with gray-haired girlfriends - my post about a quick get-away and some

quality bonding with longtime friends.
Pauline - another way to look at aging. Hair dye and estrogen all the way. At age 96, it 

still works for her.

Taking charge of aging with Yoga! See Denise, above. All about her yoga class and the 

people in it. Let's say it's an older demographic.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

New take on marinara, time-saving tips and gardening ambivalence

The basics for a grand marinara sauce are right here: Sun Gold, Brandywine and San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, onions and basil. Even a few Romas.
I've been making homemade marinara sauce since we started gardening lo these 40 years ago. If that sounds like a lot of years to you, believe me, it sounds even more unbelievable to me. The years fly by and blah blah blah.

So maybe I've learned a few things? Well. Maybe. If so, among the tidbits is a new revelation; when making marinara fresh from the garden, use the sweetest, ripest and most tasty tomatoes no matter the variety. Duh!

Usually those are not Roma types, which have been the mainstay of ALL previous marinara/tomato seasons. Every single batch! This year, it dawned on me, after searching around for new ideas for marinara, to simply use the tomatoes with the best flavor.

Our generous garden obliged with luscious Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, succulent Brandywines and  the marvelous San Marzanos. The San Marzano is a cherished Italian tomato grown in a specific soil type in a small area. We have three wild San Marzano plants, snaking their indeterminate tendrils in all directions.

Thick, rich, almost creamy marinara made mostly with San Marzano tomatoes. If you don't grow San Marzanos, as we didn't for most of our gardening years, they're also sold in cans and are reportedly excellent for making sauces.
San Marzanos define tomato goodness.They're super sweet when ripe, and meaty, meaning that they don't have a lot of seeds. 
They're not bomb proof like Romas, but they have deeper flavor. 
I was able to make one batch primarily with San Marzanos from the garden. But other batches made with mixed varieties have also been good. My stainless steel fry pan holds five quarts of whirred up tomatoes and estimated quantities of other ingredients are based on starting out with five quarts of liquefied tomatoes.

A typical harvest. Most above are Roma types with a few San Marzanos
in the white box, and small Brandywines peeking out from below.

Guidelines for making fresh-from-the-garden marinara and time-saving tips*

If you're hunting for a recipe with precise measurements, this is not for you. If you're an adventurous cook eager to make it work with what you have, stick around. The idea is to use tomatoes in season and freeze the resulting sauce to produce wow-worthy dishes during the dark days of tasteless expensive supermarket tomatoes. (Isn't it odd that mealy tasteless tomatoes can be found in supermarkets even during tomato season?)

* Do NOT peel the tomatoes!

Well, you can, but I NEVER do when making marinara, and no one has noticed. Peeling is time consuming and unnecessary.

I've had enough of dipping tomatoes into boiling water and "slipping off the skins, ha ha" to last a lifetime. Done with that!

In perusing recipes online I noticed that peeling skins from tomatoes, or not, is a point of contention with purists. Let them contend! Maybe they don't have food processors or good blenders, maybe they have all the time in the world, maybe they like peeling tomatoes. But if you don't have the time or inclination, but have a kitchen device to do the trick, use it!

For years the Cuisinart food processor was my marinara friend, but recently I bought a Vitamix blender, which does an even better job of pulverizing lumps, seeds, and skins. Plus it can handle a greater volume, making for even less work.

What you'll need, more or less
  • Enough dead-ripe tomatoes, preferably heritage, sweet cherry tomatoes, and/or San Marzanos, but also Romas, Celebrities, Big Boys and other varieties, enough to make around five liquid quarts. The tomatoes must be ripe ripe ripe. About 15 pounds of fresh tomatoes.
  • One large or two medium onions, preferably not sweet,  chopped
  • Six to eight large garlic cloves, or more, chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • Generous handful of fresh basil to add late to the party
  • Dried blend of Italian herbs (not herbs that have been languishing in your cupboard for 10 years, but recently purchased or dried by you. The fresher the better.)
  • Olive oil to saute onions, garlic and herbs, but not the fresh basil
  • 4-oz can of organic tomato paste, if you choose to reduce cooking time
Onion, garlic, Italian herbs,Saute before
 adding blended tomatoes.
Seasoning your sauce

There's also a camp that goes super simple using canned tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos, maybe a bit of onion and/or garlic and a sprig or two of fresh basil. The basil is added late to the party, and is dragged through the sauce to extract flavor.

Maybe they do this in Italy. Doesn't work for me. I'm good with fresh basil, without stems, added late, but just leave it in the sauce.

Depending upon what's in the larder or the garden, I may add, along with ingredients listed above:
  • chopped sweet peppers 
  • chopped hot peppers, just a kick for back flavor
  • garlic chili or Serrano sauce, a Tbsp or so
  • crushed fennel seed (love this flavor in marinara) 
  • a sprig of fresh rosemary (remove after cooking)
  • What it looks like to add browned onions and herbs to marinara-in-progress, soon after a frothy aerated blender batch of tomatoes has been added. It already tastes rich. 


First prepare the onions, garlic, and herbs, and lightly brown them in olive oil in the same pan you'll use to cook your sauce.* Browning, according to numerous sources, adds depth of flavor whether you're making soup, gravy, or sauces.

Then rinse, core and cut in half the tomatoes before whirring up in a food processor or blender, about 15 pounds in batches. You should have enough liquid tomatoes to fill a five-quart heavy metal pan, preferably a stainless steel skillet. A soup pot may be used instead, but it takes longer for evaporation  to produce a rich thick sauce.

Simmer for 3-4 hours until volume has been reduced to roughly half. A 4-ounce can of organic tomatoes paste hastens the process, in case you're planning marinara sauce for dinner. Let me know how it goes!

*Time-saver: Instead, whirr up the tomatoes first and get them on the stove to start cooking down. Then use your food processor or blender to chop garlic, onions, and herbs. Add to the sauce without browning. I just recently started the brown-the-garlic-onions-herbs-first business My last batch, however, I was in a big hurry and didn't do it.  Couldn't tell the difference. Shhh. 

More - if you're interested in my mental state, plus links to earlier garden-fresh recipes 

If you've read earlier posts, you know I have a continuing struggle with gardening, trying to cut back so we're not tied down. Trying to get a grip on the reality of being retirees and getting older every minute, and not needing all this food and work—spending hours in the kitchen chopping, blending, and trimming to can, freeze or dry the tons of stuff that lands in the kitchen. No no no!

But then there are the other parts. The tender parts. The pleasure, during the drab winter days, or even spring, while tomatoes are still a dream, of grabbing a bag of frozen tomato deliciousness and turning it into an easy feast.

The spring asparagus feasts. The blueberries all winter. The onions and garlic hanging in the

And also the garden immersion experience, which occasionally transports me into the sweet world of birdsong, bees, and butterflies. The wild randomness of volunteer sunflowers, cosmos, clover, spearmint and dill make a fragrant disorder that somehow makes order in my life. Even the  work - the tomato harvesting, the weeding, the flower deadheading - is a methodical Zen practice where my hands and body do the work but my attention is elsewhere. Floating.

I can lose myself writing (once I drag myself to the computer and get started) but also in gardening chores, which need to be done. How can I give this up? How can I not?

There is a time, turn, turn, turn, you know the Pete Seeger song made famous by the Byrds?  One of my favorites.
To everything - turn, turn, turn There is a season - turn, turn, turn. And a time to every purpose under heaven.A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap. A time to kill, a time to heal. A time to laugh, a time to weep.
Now. Which way to turn, turn, turn?

I loved being in the messy volunteer garden recently, with the wildfire smoke rendering breathing unpleasant but whose eerie light heightened colors. The garden is a reliable rest and release valve, a place of comfort at being alive. Why do I sometimes resent it?
I also love hearing your thoughts and feedback. 

Earlier posts about feasting from the garden

Our go-to salsa recipe - We keep returning to this one, cutting back on the black beans
Tomato Love Casserole - Too good!
Rich, thick homemade marinara sauce - this precedes the recipe above, but is still good, using Roma tomatoes.
Eggplant Parmesan with Low-Carb notes - I went through a serious low-carb period and posted lots of recipes. If you'd like to see some, type "low-carb" into the Search box on the upper lefthand corner of the page.  Warning: some of the older posts have lost their photos. No idea why. 
Ratatouille with Rosemary - Roasted, not fried. 

spaghetti squash lasagna is here - Our spaghetti squash crop failed this year, but half a squash is all that's needed for this and most recipes. I hear they have spaghetti squash down at the Farmer's Market.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Gal-camping get-away to Lemolo Lake, OR

Girlfriends are happy to be at Lemolo Falls, via a 1.5-mile steep trail 
at the end of an off-the-beaten track 4WD road. 
Photo credit - Margaret Bradford
You notice I didn't claim that my girlfriends and I were glamping, which has, I think, taken on a commercial twist. But the term still includes excursions in amped-up vintage trailers with lively paint jobs, coquettish decor, and enthusiastic owners, mostly female.

That's not us. Instead I'm talking about women friends who own plain vanilla RVs, most often with a man, but who are capable of handling said RV without the man. And also, they occasionally want to get the H out of Dodge with their girlfriends. Hence our three-day getaway to one of Southern Oregon's most iconic areas - the North Umpqua River corridor along highway 138.
Ten waterfalls. Thirteen public campgrounds. Numerous trails. Beauty abounds.

Our camp was close to Lake Lemolo. 
Lemolo Lake in the early morning, steam rising from lake water that's warmer than the air. Mt. Thielsen is reflected. Crater Lake is close by. A few hours later, this view was obscured by wildfire smoke.
Just a few miles from Lemolo Lake is a short easy trail to Warm Springs Falls.
The way we roll has nothing to do with glamour but is a giant step up from tent camping. We're done with that! (Except for two of the seven women on this trip who still backpack) Our group included two ride-alongs, one who was new to camping, and one who wasn't, but she's done plenty without a man, including raising a musical man-child with dreads and a lion's heart.

We all have petite rigs. Gail pulls a Casita and Margaret an ECON trailer, a bit more commodious with a 3-foot pullout, but still smallish. Jeanne drives a 4WD truck with a cozy pick-up camper. Sueji pilots an older Pleasure Way van and I enjoy road tripping in a 2008 Roadtrek Agile van.

Nothing wrong with a little wine on a before-dinner hike around the lake, is there? 
Most of us are in an extended group of friends-for-decades who are aging together. We've all turned gray. What a trip! We've seen one another through the harried childrearing and work years and slogged together through menopause. We're now bounding into the last third of life, where friendships are more nourishing than ever. And the view from our backyards is always beautiful.

Lots of gray hair here, but not an "old lady" in the bunch. Spirited? Yes. Even feisty.
Gail  is the only one of us who has taken a solo RV trip. We won't get into detail about that episode, but getting away by herself was just what she needed.

And our recent trip together was what we all needed, in one way or another. Sometimes it isn't just getting into the outdoors, but who you're with when you go there.

We caravaned about 100 miles from our Southern Oregon homes to Lemolo Lake, not far from Crater Lake. What did we do besides hike to waterfalls and around the lake? Talked a lot about life changes, ate voluptuous salads and allowed ourselves ginger bars and thin slices of coffeecake dripping with icing. We drank wine and a tad bit too much vodka.

We did not spend even one second man bashing. Of a certain age, between 62 and 72, we explored the new reality we're all facing in different stages. (Sorry, Paula. You might be younger.)
I'd never seen this butterfly, but Jeanne knew
 its name immediately -  a mourning cloak.
One camper's beloved husband died in March, a fresh wound that we know could be ours. Or our mate's. We all know people who are gravely ill or dying, including parents. We know, we know.

One thing we reaffirmed.  Life is bitter sweet. Grab every moment and run for the hills, the ocean, the rivers, the woods and the wild places while you still can.

And don't forget to spend quality time with your friends.

If you want to visit the Lemolo Lake area

Here's a guide to all the North Umpqua River waterfalls along Highway 138.  Including ones accessed via Lemolo Lake. Note that the directions for Lemolo Falls do not lead to the view-from-the-bottom as my photo above depicts. It's a lot easier to reach the trailhead described. But if you want to see the falls from below (way better) check with the resort for directions and condition of the 4WD road. Muddy may not be good. Otherwise, no problem except clearance.

I'll leave you with a photo of a close-by waterfall we'd all seen before and didn't visit this time. 

Even without a kayaker in it, I think Toketee Falls
is the most spectacular of the North Umpqua's waterfalls.
That is son Chris Korbulic in 2011. 

An addendum : I got this in an "Only in Oregon" email today and just had to add the link.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Big Bend National Park. Sigh.

An expansive view from one of Big Bend National Park's many tread-worthy hiking trails. Hmm. Wonder how and where Trump's wall would fit in here? Big Bend borders Mexico.
I added a new national park to my LOVE list during our spring 2017 SW road trip -  Big Bend in the far southwestern reaches of Texas. I'd visited there in what seems another lifetime, my twenties, long before the Internet provided easy access to everything you need to know before you go anywhere, do anything.

In the 1970s I knew nothing, about the park, took one short, steep, HOT walk and was on my way. I had no idea what I was missing!

PK and I, bolstered with online advice, were revved up for Big Bend, having read how great it is and also how the park's precious campsites, both in established areas and in dispersed sites, are hard to come by during peak seasons, one of which is early spring. Reservations are possible, but we didn't have any.  If you're a member of the didn't-plan-worth-crap club, of which I am president, you would be subject to the first-come, first-served method of securing a campsite.

This involves getting up early and maybe waiting in line, as we've endured at national parks elsewhere. We were up before 7 a.m. at Marfa, (see post) where we'd spent the previous night (don't laugh, that's early for us) and then on to Marathon, the small town closest to the park's Panther Junction headquarters 69 miles south.

At Panther Junction we learned that all the coveted backcountry sites were booked out for four days  They may not have worked for us anyway as they're all on gravel roads, many requiring 4WD, which we lack. They were booked four days out. 

A surprise about Big Bend NP is that it encompasses an entire mountain range. The Chisos Mountains provide much of the park's stunning scenery - a green island in a desert sea, according to park literature. The park is huge, 1,252 square miles, and the Rio Grande forms a 118-mile border between Texas and Mexican states. We headed to the campground at 5,401 ft elevation, fingers crossed that a first-come, first-served site would be available. 

We were in luck! An incredibly cheerful volunteer campground host greeted us the moment we arrived and  guided us to one of the remaining sites, which happened to be among our best ever. The view was spectacular, and because we were on the bottom tier of the hillside campground and we had only a couple neighbors. If you want to camp at Chisos Basin, and can score a reservation, ask for site 60 or 59. Sixty is the BEST. (Somebody beat us to it) No complaints! Neither would work for large RVs. Our Roadtrek Agile is 19 feet long.
A Torrey yucca decorated our camp area, which was also a great birding spot. Another bonus of this campground is that it is way cooler than at lower elevations. While campers at the popular Cottonwood Campground were enduring temps in the 90s, we were basking in the mid-70s. Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Low elevation camps are closed in summer when temperatures on the ground can reach 180 degrees! Instant death!

The road into the Chisos Basin provides a campground overview and a look at the Window, that deep V between mountains. The Window is a popular hiking destination, and we found out why.
The Window at sunset viewed with a telephoto lens close to our camp.The trail leads to the point of the V. 

Here's PK at The Window's V. The drop-off is a pour
over for flash floods and is scary high. The path

has been polished slick by hiking  boots. We did not
go any closer fearing death or inconvenience from
a misstep. 

 The trail leading to The Window is equipped with carefully carved or constructed
 stairs. PK, in his trendy khaki outfit, is camouflaged. 

Rocks I loved.
  And more rocks. The park's geology has been described as a 
geologists' paradise due to all the exposed rock strata. According 

  to park literature, the abundance, diversity and complexity of rock

outcrops is "staggering." For me, their beauty is staggering.

Wildflowers, including numerous cacti varieties, were around every bend in the trail and along roadsides at all park elevations.

Claret cup cactus.
Prickly pear cacti were flagrant show-offs.

A century plant, which actually lives about 30 years, blooms once and dies.
We were fortunate to see this grand specimen.
Ocotillos made art all over the areas we explored.
This jay appears to be giving us the stink eye. Dozens of jays and other birds and butterflies delighted us en route to The Window. The park attracts around 450 bird species throughout the year. 

One of hundreds of unidentified butterflies along The Window trail.
Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande dwarfs  a
kayaker. The canyon is a stopping point for tour
buses and one was disgorging tourists when we pulled in. The short 
hike up the canyon has a few steep spots. Combined
with the 90+ degree heat, it was a challenge to
some of the elderly sightseers. Later an ambulance
was called to the canyon to rescue someone who'd
collapsed on the trail. Because of heat at lower elevations,
we confined most of our hiking to the Chisos Basin. 
We hiked a couple other trails out of the Chisos Basin, in addition to The Window, and weren't necessarily smart about it. The popular Lost Mine Trail, on the road to the Chisos Basin campground, is only a few miles long. We intended to hike it in the morning, but by 9 a.m. the parking lot was full. Later, when we decided to give it a try, much of it was in the sun and even at high elevation, it was  bloody hot.  It's steep, rocky, and strenuous. It was worth the effort for the panoramas at the top, but we wish we'd had an earlier, cooler start.

The bottom line about Big Bend National Park is that
it's well worth your time and energy to explore. We stayed but three nights, having reservations and obligations down the road, but I understand how many other visitors tromp the trails and ride the roads for a week or more.

Big Bend National Park has a comprehensive website.

Earlier posts about Spring Road trip 2017

Marfa, TX, a lesson in road-trip planning

Arizona, a zone of its own

Joshua Tree National Park  

Marfa, Texas - A lesson in road-trip planning

Marfa, Texas, surprised us with a big ole dust storm and widespread fame.
We arrived in Marfa on our 10th day away from Oregon, having driven 240 miles that day from Las Cruces, NM. That doesn't seem like a lot of miles, but we'd had a rough morning hunting for yard art in Mesilla, NM. Fun! And then grocery shopping at Wal Mart for the next five days of van cooking. Definitely not fun, the shopping or the cooking.

Then, halfway to Marfa on Interstate 90, I discovered that we were within striking distance, with a half-day detour, to the McDonald Observatory. TripAdvisor confirmed it as a five-star attraction, and reports we heard later from travelers who'd managed more informed planning, said it was fantastic. I'd somehow missed it.

We had a timeframe that commanded obedience. And on we went. 

Next time.

We let go of the planning crisis as our son, Chris, called and we pulled off the road for a 30-minute conversation. He was about to embark on a 700-mile kayaking expedition into the Amazon basin. His  expedition ended with high drama that resulted later in the FBI showing up at our Oregon home

It's good to be clueless about some things in advance. When he's out of country, we're always grateful to hear from him. It makes trip-planning snafus meaningless. As it should.

I knew nada about Marfa, which turned out to be a Mecca for lovers of minimalist art. I include our illustrious RV park in that category. Minimalist. 
Our RV park. It even had tumbleweeds that rolled around during the wind storm.
With a population of just 2,000 Marfa is a national, if not international, art center. As such, it draws all kinds of quirkiness and plenty of star power. It even has an NPR station serving a "wide range." (We still listen to the Marfa station when programing on our local Jefferson Public Radio fails us, which isn't often.) 

Had we known that Marfa was a celebrity art town, perhaps we would have known to stop on Interstate 90 not far from city limits to gawk at the Prada installation. 
Oblivious, we bombed right past this roadside oddity in the West Texas desert, which is a minimalist art installation. Photo from the Internet.

Lesson, and note to self

If you book a camp or hotel in advance, at least take a look online to see what's there, even if there's practically no hope of anything fun or interesting, as was my mistaken opinion regarding Marfa.  A couple minutes on TripAdvisor would have had us hurrying to catch more daylight hours there, and perhaps built in a day to visit the McDonald Observatory.

Marfa revealed itself in stages during the late afternoon hours as we explored its wide tidy streets, slunk around a luxury art-and-fancy-guest-filled hotel, and strolled past closed art galleries and shops.

We were there fewer than 24 hours, but wish we'd had time to explore the art and other intriguing stuff. As it was, we were bombing along the highway by 7 a..m. the next morning to reach Big Bend National Park early enough to score a campsite, either in the  backcountry or  a campground.

Handmade stone church compares well with Marfa's water tower. 

What's the hurry? 

Why didn't we just chill and spend another day? Sadly, we'd violated a road-tripping rule by tying ourselves to a schedule anchored in reservations at a non refundbale Austin Airbnb and a date-specific commitment to friends in East Texas. (Later we were thankful for hurrying to East Texas for a most unusual and fun house concert/party and other great stuff with our hosts.)

Next road trip? If immutable plans must be made, such as for a music festival or wedding, at least build in unplanned days on either end just in case another McDonald Observatory or Marfa-type thing springs up.  

We're road -tripping. We're retired. We can hang a little bit looser. 

Earlier posts about Spring Road trip 2017

Arizona, a zone of its own

Joshua Tree National Park  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The day the FBI came calling

Chris Korbulic shot this self portrait along the Apaporis River in the Columbian Amazon in April this year. The five-person expedition planned to paddle 700 miles, but something unexpected interrupted their plans. 

Hardly a week goes by without someone asking about our son, Chris, 30, who's sort of a local celebrity with tales of his kayaking adventures often making their way online and into newspapers, magazines, films, and, occasionally, TV.
It hasn't been uncommon for photos such as this, documenting Chris enjoying waterfall moments around the world to show up on media. This was in Brazil.

So I wasn't surprised in a hardware store in Grants Pass, OR, when a man behind me at check-out inquired, "What's your son up to these days?"

A store employee swung around and joined the conversation. "Yeah," she said. "Where's Chris?

I thought I'd have some fun with them.

"Oh, he's fine," I said.

"The FBI was at our house for three hours last week alerting us that he and four other kayakers had been held hostage by guerrillas on a river in the Amazon jungle. But no worries. They were released after a few days, and he's back in the USA."

I told the tale as if being held hostage by guerrillas in the jungle was no big deal, happens all the time.

Astonished looks all around.

"Sheesh!" blurted the clerk. "I'm sure glad he's not my son! How can you sleep at night?"

How many times have PK and I heard that?

I got a charge out of the stunned reactions. Now everyone within earshot was leaning in.

It was easy to be glib and milk the moment, but the actual day that the FBI showed up at our house, and the ensuing 24 hours—that was a different story.

For us it began Friday, April 21, 2017.  (For Chris and the expedition team, it began April 18 when they first encountered their captors.)

 I 'd left the house for a bike ride and saw PK talking in our driveway with two men in suits and a nattily dressed woman. I pegged them as purveyors of the Watchtower and prepared to bolt, head down, eyes averted.

"It's the FBI," Paul mouthed as I approached with my bike.
They'd already shown their IDs to PK and stated their purpose, but I was clueless.

The FBI? Is something going on in the neighborhood? I thought.  It did not occur to me that their visit had to do with Chris .

We'd received a text message from Chris within the past few days, or had it been a FB post?  Or was it four days ago? On Instagram? I lose track.

Whatever. His expedition team of five traveled with their best friend, a Garmin InReach satellite device, which enables them to send texts anywhere from anywhere. Hence, they're able to placate parents and other people who care with frequent communications.  Almost daily communicating created a sense of security. False, it turns out.
One of few rapids on a 700-mile expedition, unlike previous expeditions that have been rife with roaring falls, canyons, and cataracts.

In addition, through InReach, a friend in California was updating the team's location though the Amazon wilderness. The map link was available online to anyone interested. We'd seen it  but weren't checking every day, so we were unaware that InReach reports had stopped

Just stopped. The screen had gone blank. Big trouble.

Well, isn't that the perfect definition of "ignorance is bliss"? We would have been emotional wrecks, had we been paying attention. But after enduring 10 years of our son doing seemingly impossible feats and taking unacceptable (to us) risks, we've become calloused to his living on the edge.

He's strong, smart, humble, skilled, and somehow happily enmeshed in a culture that puts him amongst an elite group of modern-day explorers and adventurers. He continues to amaze and delight us as we live his adventures vicariously.
Not a photo a mom can enjoy. Chris on the first
descent of Toketee Falls on Oregon's North
Umpqua River in 2011.

I removed my bike helmet and PK and I and three FBI agents took seats in our living room. PK and I exchanged glances. What the hell's going on?

"It's about your son, Chris," said the lead agent, who introduced himself as a hostage negotiator.

Hostage negotiator?

The other male agent was an FBI special investigator, the woman was a victim specialist.

Victim specialist!

PK and I exchanged glances, and I know we're in the same boat, so to speak, of shock and disbelief. This can't be happening!

The reason for the FBI's visit unfolded.

Out of what the lead guy described as an "abundance of caution," we were told that Chris and his expedition team in Colombia's Amazon Basin appeared to have been detained by FARC, a rebel guerrilla group. FARC had been mostly disarmed in 2016, after 50+ years of conflict. But holdouts exist.

Some of the FARC holdouts were apparently holding hostage all five members of the expedition.

Team members Ben Stookesberry, Jessie Rice, Aniol Serrasoles, Jules Domine, and Chris Korbulic. Ben was allowed to take the photo above, the only one during their captivity. Actually, on that very day, April 21, perhaps around the same time we were hanging on every word uttered by the FBI agents, the armed group was telling the detainees that they would be released the next morning. Although the FARC rebels confiscated cameras, electronic devices and memory cards, camera lenses were returned and the rebels did not take thousands of dollars from their captives. Chris managed to hide five memory cards, losing only the one that remained in his camera.

The seven FARC members, led by a woman, didn't realize that Ben managed to hold onto an InReach device and had been surreptitiously communicating with a contact in Columbia and another in California.  Chris also had a GPS unit that was signaling the group's location.

Chris told us the only time he was afraid, and planning  an escape into the jungle with his GPS, was the night before they were to be released. He was in his hammock when Colombian military planes began flying over the encampment. The FARC went ballistic.

"They were running around, yelling, asking where is the GPS? Who has it?" Chris had hidden one on his body. The planes left. Things calmed down. The next morning, the team was released and paddled four miles downstream to catch a bush plane to a tiny airport in a tiny town. There, much to their amazement, they were met by representatives of the Colombian military and the FBI.

The greeting party was but a small contingent of the agents and agencies in Columbia and the USA interested in the case.

A brief account of the hostage situation is here:  Outside Online -  How 5 kayakers were taken hostage in the Amazon. It's a series of photos with longish captions outlining the basics of what happened.  The photos, all but one by Chris, provide a sense of the ethereal Amazon. A more in-depth print article about the episode is in the works by the Men's Journal.

I don't want to repeat what you can read on Outside Online, but PK and I  have some thoughts about the US government's response.

We are grateful. 

We were impressed that three FBI agents came to our home, and others to the families of two other US citizens on the expedition. Chris' girlfriend, then in Hawaii, was also contacted by an FBI agent who offered assistance.

We learned that when US citizens are held against their will in foreign lands, it's a no-holds-barred commitment to get them out safely. 

What I've described was a small part of what was going on. The agents informed us that representatives of various US government agencies cooperate in hostage situations involving US citizens.  The agents didn't mention the  FBI-led Hostage Rescue Team, but I looked it up and understood that had the kayaking team been held for ransom, or even detained for a longer time, their captors could have been subject to measures similar to what Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT ) teams do. Drop in, rescue hostages, take no prisoners.

Impressive. Check it out here.

What was the FBI's purpose in visiting us?

Learn about Chris 
They asked multiple  questions about Chris, most designed to determine how he might handle being held hostage.  Does he have medical issues? What kind of person is he? How does he handle stress? How might he react to being pressured?(tortured or threatened)

Admiring parents as we are, we described Chris as a "real nice guy." Humble, quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent, strong, and centered. Because of what he does for a living, we know that he's able to focus on the moment, shut out negative thoughts and maintain a calm center. We think he'd avoid stupid moves or emotional or angry displays.

Educate us about how to respond to ransom demands
A large part of the visit had to do with "proof of life, requiring the captors, should they call us, to provide evidence that our son was still alive. 

And on it went, all the way through the mechanics of "how to get you your money,"to responding to threats that the hostage will be harmed or killed. I was beginning to disconnect.

It was surreal. Absolutely unbelievable. If this was really happening, our lives could be changing forever, right here, right now.

The hostage negotiator said that if we got a ransom call, he would be moving into our house. As it was, he left us with a recording device should we receive a ransom call. If we were contacted by a captor, we were instructed to call the hostage negotiator any time, night or day.

We didn't have to. Thank you, Universe.

Instead, we learned the next day that the team had been released and flown by a US military plane based in Columbia to Bogota, site of the US Embassy. All were debriefed by FBI and Columbia officials, lodged in a hotel, provided meals and offered air transportation to anywhere they wanted to go. The US citizens were asked to stay three days to satisfy intelligence needs.

The Extreme Kayaking Athlete Moms' Club
One more thing. Chris K. and expedition leader Ben Stookesberry have been frequent kayaking partners for going on 10 years, covering thousands of miles around the world and sharing both magnificent and horrendous experiences. The worst, of course, was in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010 when a monster crocodile rose out of the Lukuga River and snatched from his kayak their good friend and trip leader, Hendri Coatzee.

Hendri's death was international news and a deep personal tragedy to Ben and Chris. Both had been within feet of the crocodile attack and were profoundly affected. Ben created an award-winning film, Kadoma, about Hendri and their expedition and tragedy, still available on iTunes.

 The 40-minute film is gut wrenching and beautiful at the same time. Hendri Coatzee was an extraordinary human being and a gifted writer. He wrote a book that was edited and published following his demise,  Living the Best Day Ever. 

PK and I were in Costa Rica when this tragedy occurred. We were pursued by media, and so was Ben's mom, Bette Campbell. During this blurred tragic time, we began communicating with Bette.

Chris and Ben were being held by the dysfunctional Congolese government. It was making us crazy. That lasted about a week before they were flown out by the United Nations.

Bette and I kept talking. And later, for a few wonderful but heart-wrenching days, we were with Hendri Coatzee’s mom, Marie Nieman, when Ben’s film debuted at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival in 2011.

Bette and I talked again on April 22 this year after we were assured that our sons were safe.

Bette told me about her interview with the FBI agents, and how she described to them her remarkable son, Ben.

"He's humble," she said. "He's generous. I'm proud of him being who he chooses to be. He couldn't handle being stuck in an office, making do with what's expected. I'm glad he is who he is."

Right on, Bette. Me too. I couldn't be more proud to be Chris' mom, and as for Chris' father, PK,  he can barely contain his enthusiasm for telling Chris stories to whatever man, woman, child or dog will listen.

We know that if  Chris wasn't doing what his soul requires, we'd worry about him being depressed and downtrodden. He's fortunate to be able to pursue his passion and have the skills, courage and inner strength to do it.
Started young. Won't quit until he must. Despite
how much he sometimes scares us, gotta love him.
But please, no more FBI visits. 
Plus we could stand a bit less of this type of action.