Day 4 – Easter on the Kohala Coast

Panoramic view at Anaeho’omalu Bay

Easter breakfast was macadamia nut cookies, fruit, and coffee. I “McGyvered” a coffee maker out of a sawed-off United Airlines water bottle and paper towels. It worked tolerably well until I found a portable coffee cone at a Starbuck’s later in the trip, which was obviously better. Besides, the water bottle shrunk a bit with each pour, so its days were numbered anyway.

We’d booked a whale watching trip online with Hawaii Nautical, so we drove west from Waimea to Anaeho’omalu Bay (locally known as A-Bay) and waited as instructed by an orange sign, taking in the sights. At various times, depending on the cloud cover, we could see six different volcanoes from A-Bay: the active Mauna Loa and Kilauea, dormant Hualalai, Haleakala, and Mauna Kea, and the extinct Kohala. Haleakala peeks above the ocean from the Island of Maui, and Hualalai looks like a classic cinder cone sprouting from the flanks of Mauna Loa. The tour boat was operated by two women: the captain had been touring for just over 20 years, the same time I’ve been doing contract work for the Department of Energy. There were no humpback whales, not surprising because it was the end of their mating season in Hawai’i. I learned that two thirds of the world’s humpbacks come to Hawai’i (the others go to Baja California), and that dolphins and porpoises tend to avoid this coast until all the whales leave. So, no spinner dolphin or porpoise sightings either, but it was a great boat ride, and we did get to see a bunch of honu (Hawaiian sea turtles [Chelonia mydas])! The water was a gorgeous, turquoise-blue near the shore and deep sapphire beyond. It was a sparkly, sunny day and the sea was choppy with plenty of small white caps. There was a lot of refreshing ocean spray in my face coming back. Joseph had the bulk of it going out, so it was only fair.

The “Lava Lava Beach Club” has a name that is so cliche that we almost didn’t try it, but there was a line forming out front when we returned from our boat ride, and that usually means something.  I’m glad we took the chance because it was a classy, breezy, socially distanced pub with excellent food and local brews on tap. I tried the Maui Big Swell IPA, and Joseph had the Kona Kua Bay IPA. Our server, Wyatt, brought ahi poke for me and fish tacos for Joseph. We also ordered beer-battered onion rings to share. Magnificent!

After lunch, we visited nearby Puako Beach, recommended by our whale tour guide. Here, we saw urchins, anemones (all closed up), and various shorebirds. It was not crowded, and while Joseph soaked up some sun, I walked the length of the beach, finding treasure in the form of a large sea turtle doing acrobatic swimming maneuvers beneath the waves. Growing along the beach were Naupaka shrubs with their beautiful little half-flowers.

North of Puako Beach is a National Historic Site called Pu’ukohola Heiau, where the first king of Hawai’i, Kamehameha I (Kamehameha the Great), oversaw the careful building of a temple, or heiau, which helped Kamehameha unify the Hawaiian Islands into one nation. Pu’ukohola means “hill of the whales,” as they can be seen from the hill when in season. Kamehameha’s heiau is high on the hill and about 200 years old. It’s built above Mailekini Heiau, 300 years older. The audio tour (which you can access via your cell phone) advises that as outsiders or commoners, we would have been executed for coming so close to these sacred sites. There is an underwater heiau (Hale o Kapuni Heiau) in the bay below where human sacrifices were once offered to the shark gods. Evidently, sharks still like to come to Pelekane Bay. We looked for their fins for a while, but alas, we saw none.

The journey back to Waimea first took us north to the end of Highway 270, where we tried to hike down to a cove from the Pololu Valley lookout. However, it was raining, and the trail was slick and steep, so we didn’t get far. It was an amazing place, though, with tall, dark cliffs plunging straight to the shoreline and mist settling in over deep rainforests above.  The drive back to Waimea wound through magical country where little black and white cattle grazed on steep, impossibly green, grassy slopes, surrounded by flocks of white cattle egrets and the occasional, enormous prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). Near the town of Hawi were native, wiliwili trees (Erythrina sandwicensis) that look like they came out of a science fiction landscape. I spotted a white tern (Gygis alba) flying along the north coast. They’re the cutest little birds. Look one up. You’ll see what I mean.

Day 3 – The Slopes of Mauna Kea

Saturday April 3, 2021

It was cold outside and fresh from a long rain when we woke up at 6:00 at the Volcano Inn. That early, I was the only one who decided to try the hot tub, and it was beautifully peaceful. The water was a toasty 104 degrees, and I wilt easily, so I didn’t stay long. Afterward, Joseph and I went to the main house for breakfast, which included fresh papaya boats (papaya halves with lemon juice, stuffed with fresh pineapple, banana slices, yogurt, and almond slivers), home-made banana bread, tropical fruit juice, and Kona coffee. I would recommend the friendly Volcano Inn to anyone!

The morning’s route took us back through Hilo and over the Saddle Road between the world’s most massive mountain, Mauna Loa, and its tallest, Mauna Kea. We stopped for a hike at the Pu’u O’o Trail, named for an extinct native Hawaiian bird species. The o’o flaunted fluffy yellow feathers that were prized for making Hawaiian royal capes. Cape making didn’t drive it extinction, but instead it was the introduction of invasive species (especially mosquitoes carrying avian malaria; native birds have no immunity). Along the trail, we heard lots of lovely songs and saw lots of lovely dark blobs darting across the sky. Unfortunately, we couldn’t identify anything because the birds were far away and very active, not liking to perch long, and avoiding visible places like treetops. We didn’t recognize any of the songs, but they were sweet. Some of the little dark blobs were likely native ‘elepaio (Monarch flycatchers, [Chasiempis sandwichensis]), but nobody held still long enough for us to be sure.

The Pu’u O’o Trail was rough in places with “aa” and easier in places with “pahoehoe.” (Aa is the sound you make when you try to walk across this sharp, rough rock. Pahoehoe is smooth and flows, like its name.) Along the trail were ohi’a trees, ‘ae ferns (Polypodium pellucidum), and kukaenene (Coprosma ernodeoides). The ‘ae are tough little plants with only one to two fronds that grow straight out of lava rock. Native Hawaiian Island geese, or nene (Brantus sandvicensis), like kukaenene, and they also like to eat ohelo (Vaccinium arborea), with little red, crowned berries. Said to be edible, I sampled one or two ohelo berries, but they were kind of bland, at least when raw. Along the trail were also pukiawe shrubs (Leptecophylla tameiameaie), with small red, pink, or white berries and no crown. Nene like these too, but they’re not edible to humans.

Ferns on Mauna Kea that are probably ‘ae, growing among kukaenene

At the top of the saddle, we drove the six-mile spur to the visitor center on Mauna Kea. At 9000 feet, the center was only about 1000 feet below the alpine zone. A four-wheel drive vehicle was needed to go further, but there was a happy surprise for a plant geek like me waiting behind the visitor center: a tiny forest preserve with threatened ahinahina (Mauna Kea silversword, Argyroxiphium sandwicense ssp. sandwicense). This species and others in “the silversword alliance” descended from a single species of California tarweed (Centromadia or Madia spp.) that adaptively radiated several million years ago into widely different forms across the Hawaiian Islands.

The slopes of Mauna Kea are striped with different ecological zones. These are some of the species I’m pretty sure I identified correctly. Many resemble plants I know back home in arid western Colorado, making me think that the climate on parts of the mountain is similar in some ways.

  • Mamane (Sephora chrysophylla) – a tree-shrub that reminds me of Scotch broom, a friend from California
  • Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) – the flower spike looks different than that of the same invasive species back home
  • Aheahea (Chenopodium oahuense) – its leaves look a lot like desert species of the same family growing back home
  • Lots and lots of grasses including nodding needle grass (Nassella cernua)
  • Conifers – plenty of pine species grow on the Big Island. All are introduced, as are other conifers like cypress, redwood, and Cook pine (Araucaria columnaris). Cook pine isn’t really a pine; it resembles “Norfolk Island Pine,” which only appears in potted form back home

At the base of the Mauna Kea road were the remains of a Native Hawaiian camp where people were protesting a new telescope at the summit. The telescope was proposed without consulting Native Hawaiians. In fact, the existing Mauna Kea telescopes were built without their consultation. I am a scientist, and I highly value what the scientists are discovering there, but the telescopes should not have been built in this way. I have heard that Native Hawaiians have an adaptable culture. They essentially journeyed from the stone age to the modern age in a generation, after all. Their belief in Mauna Kea as an umbilical cord between earth and sky may mesh well with the study of the universe, if only their concerns had not been ignored. The camp looked unoccupied, but there was a sign reading, “Tourist Go Home!” This was the only sign of hostility we saw during our whole visit, and the sentiment is certainly justified, especially to those who bolt to conquer the mountain’s sacred summit without a second thought.

Rainbow at the Waimea Country Lodge

We drove down the other side of the saddle road toward Waimea. The ecology continued to change as we approached Waimea. Here are some of the life forms we saw there:

  • Jacaranda tree (Jacaranda mimosifolia) – a South American native with bright purple blossoms
  • Chickens (Gallus callus domesticus) – in particular, there was a colorful rooster who was a bit of a character scratching and crowing with his flock behind the motel. It was hard to tell if the fowl were domesticated or wild
  • Saffron finch (Sicalis flaviola) – native to South America, with brilliant yellow and yellow-green feathers and an orange head
  • Zebra dove (Geopelia striata) – a cute little bird native to Southeast Asia
  • Red-crested cardinal (Paroaria coronata) – a striking South American who is actually a tanager
  • Strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) – an invasive weed in Hawai’i, but at least it has the grace to bear sweet, edible fruit
  • Blue morning glory (Ipomaea indica) – with big blue blossoms, it also grows wild in the grasslands surrounding Waimea
  • Lots of grasses – it’s drier here than in other parts of the Big Island, making grasslands abundant, so Waimea is a cattle ranching community

Some rooms at the Waimea Country Lodge were still being remodeled, but ours was finished nicely, and it had a full kitchen (aside from the very obvious omission of a coffee maker). We went shopping at Foodtown, a grocery chain from Honolulu, and found some local sweet potatoes, Asian greens, shutome (Hawaiian swordfish), and ahi (tuna) along with Kona Brewing Company Hanalei Island IPA. At the motel, a full-arc rainbow stretched across the sky. We would come to learn that rainbows are common in Waimea, so much so that the locals don’t seem to notice them. Unfortunately, we needed a key to access a grill to cook the fish, but there was nobody at the front desk, and nobody could be reached. So rather than settling for sushi, we pan-fried.

Day 2 – Volcano

Friday, April 2, 2021

We tried to sleep in, but the local time is four hours faster than Mountain Time, so it was a tall order. Before breakfast, we took a short walk around Lili’uokalani Park near the hotel. (Lili’uokalani was the Kingdom of Hawai’i’s last queen. Popular with her people, she instituted programs to give them more power. She ruled from 1891 to 1893, until the United States overthrew the government of Hawai’i and made it into a territory.) There was a nice swimming beach with tan sand and black rock outcrops. In Hawai’i, black or green sand comes from pounded volcanic glass and rock, and white sand comes from sea life, mainly corals and shells. Tan beaches are a mixture. At the edge of an algae-filled tide pool, we admired a pair of kolea (Pacific golden plovers, Pluvialis fula). These small shorebirds are one of Hawai’i’s few migrant species and make a marathon 3000-mile journey between Hawai’i and Alaska each year, with three or four solid days of flying each way.

Steam vents along the crater rim trail at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Ken’s House of Pancakes, a Hilo landmark diner, has been “jammin’ since 1971.” For breakfast, I enjoyed my first authentic Hawaiian loco moco (Loco moco is a hamburger patty over a bed of rice, topped with mushroom gravy.), and Joseph had crab cake eggs Benedict. The coffee at Ken’s was weak, and we’re self-confessed coffee snobs, so we tried a nearby kiosk called Just Crusin’ Coffee. Their brew was no stronger, but the dirty chai was tasty. We visited the Hilo Farmers Market, where we bought some longan fruit, apple bananas, and an enormous Hawai’i avocado. Every color of produce filled this classic tropical market. Before leaving town, we stopped by “Two Ladies Mochi,” where I ordered some ginger mochi, only made on Fridays. I also ordered a signature strawberry mochi, crafted with adzuki bean paste, and fresh pear mochi, made with green tea. All were excellent! Photos below, Jammin’ since 1971 and the colorful Hilo Farmers Market

Though we traveled less than thirty miles from Hilo to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, we rose in elevation nearly four thousand feet. The ecological changes were obvious as we climbed the the slopes of Kilauea. Hilo is a true tropical rainforest, but the town of Volcano is more temperate with a mixture of native trees and tree ferns. The Volcano Inn, a bed and breakfast, was a lucky find. We stayed on the second floor of the annex in the “Lava Room,” with big picture windows that overlooked the rainforest. The room was welcoming with fresh anthurium flowers and orchids on the table. 

After settling in our room, we left to visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. First, we stopped at a small store in Volcano Village for some snacks, including peppered tuna jerky (yum), Maui style onion potato chips (yummier), and Kona Brewing Company Castaway IPA (yummiest). The photos below, left to right: fiddlehead from a tree fern in the rainforest, flamingo flower, uluhe (false staghorn fern), and a tiny Brahminy blind snake.

Kilauea has, in my estimation, the second best volcano name in the world (surpassed only by Iceland’s “Grimsvotn.”) Kilauea’s last eruption was 35 years long and manifested mainly as reliable lava flows from the Pu’u O’o Crater on the East Rift Zone. All that ended with a big eruption at the summit crater (Halema’uma’u) in 2018. There was no lava in the park until December 2020, when the Halema’uma’u Crater began to ooze lava. However, the crater had become so deep that no lava was visible from publicly accessible areas when we were there. The National Park Service did not widely advertise this or they may have risked losing visitors until the end of 2021, when the crater’s lava lake is expected to fill up and become visible from the caldera’s rim. The caldera was formed around 500 years ago, and it houses the crater, which rises and collapses, and fills with lava and drains, over time. Though the crater was over 1200 feet deep, and we couldn’t see lava, we could see and smell clouds of volcanic fumes and admire sulfur cliffs, fissures, and steaming vents from the rim trail. Photos of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, below, left to right: sulfur cliffs, tiny sedges and other plants growing near the summit, the edge of the Halema’uma’u Crater from the caldera rim, and a native ohi’a lehua tree in bloom.

Ohi’a lehua is a native Hawaiian tree with red flowers favored by birds like honeycreepers. It’s an early colonizer of lava flows. Legend says that the volcano goddess, Pele, became infatuated with the warrior, Ohi’a, but he was already pledged to Lehua, his love. Pele angrily turned him into a twisted tree for refusing her. But later, she felt sorry for the grieving Lehua, so she turned her into the tree’s beautiful blossoms. If you pick a blossom, it’s said it will rain that day, symbolizing Lehua’s tears. (I say if you’re near Hilo, rain is a fair bet anyway because it’s said to be the rainiest city in the United States.)

In a light rain, we hiked three or four miles around the edge of the caldera, enjoying the native ohi’a forest. There were several beautiful birds, including a bright red ‘apapane (crimson honeycreeper, Vestiaria coccinea), and we heard the calls of many others. We saw a tiny bird that was possibly a Hawaiian ‘amakihi (common honeycreeper, Hemiagnathus virens) that tumbled onto the trail and flew away in about half a second. The forest near the crater rim was a striking sight with the ohi’a’s bright green leaves, scarlet flowers, and dark bark adorned all over with tufts of light green lichens. Back at the Volcano Inn, we enjoyed our snacks and beer, relaxing in our cozy room until darkness and silence swallowed everything. 

Vapor mixed with volcanic fumes at Kilauea’s caldera

Day 1 – The Trip to Hilo

April 1, 2021

Dawn from our balcony at the Hilo Reed’s Bay Hotel

The journey to Hilo lasted about eighteen hours and included two long layovers. Hilo’s airport had the flavor of a World War II-era military base, even though predates the war by two decades. Apparently, the U.S. military assumed control during the 1940s and named it after General Albert Kuali’i Brickwood Lyman, the first U.S. brigadier general with indigenous Hawaiian blood. It has since been renamed Hilo International Airport. Our flight from Denver to Los Angeles was on an infamous 737 Max (The 737 Max was grounded for nearly two years due to design flaws. The month before our trip, the model was briefly grounded again for possible electrical problems.). I felt more at risk from this aircraft than from the coronavirus, but the flight was thankfully uneventful. Los Angeles International Airport was practically a ghost town. The worst part was being the captive audience of a public address system blaring seventies rock ballads on a loop. When a pub, “Rolling Stone,” eventually opened, we discovered an Angel City IPA on tap, and this mitigated the ballad-induced ear-worm torture a little bit.

Before any passengers could leave the terminal in Hilo, we had to wait in line for more COVID-19 testing, but we were happily surprised at the end to find we could bypass the test because of our vaccines. It was also nice to discover our rental car waiting, even though it was late at night and well past the advertised hours. The rental car agent said, “of course we’ll take care of you!” There would be other experiences like this on our trip. Despite profiteers who long ago made “Aloha” into an adage, Aloha is a real thing. In Hawai’i, being considerate of others seems to be more important than rigid rules, and Hawaiians seem reluctant to tell others that they’re on their own unless there is no other way.

We found our hotel easily despite an array of “No Trespassing” signs lined up like security guards across the entrance. Some even sported a handwritten, “THIS MEANS YOU!” When he saw our gestures of confusion, one of the owners came out to the parking lot and explained that they had reopened that day for business after the pandemic shutdown. He seemed surprised by our confusion. When we pointed to the “No Trespassing” signs, he vaguely said,“Yeah, I guess it’d probably be a good idea to take those down now,” but the signs were still up the next day when we checked out, waiting for the next guests.

The Hilo Reeds Bay Hotel takes a visitor back in time. It was nicely vintage, with real keys, and the rooms had no phones. The hotel was clean and quiet except for the peeping of coqui frogs outside at night. Native to Puerto Rico, these tree frogs apparently arrived in the late 1980s as hitchhikers on nursery plants, and they came to stay. We didn’t see the tiny critters, but we surely heard their loud little voices. In between waves of frog-song, we could hear ocean waves outside through the room’s jalousie windows. In the morning, we saw the waves swirling around jagged black rocks not far below our window. Surrounded by colorful tropical vegetation, the hotel was in a nice little spot on Banyan Drive. Banyan Drive was named for huge banyan trees planted by celebrities since the 1930s, many with commemorative plaques. The trees were covered in all manner of epiphytes that created little ecosystems and frog homes on the branches. The oldest banyans survived several tsunamis, the largest from earthquakes in the Aleutian Islands in 1946, the coast of Chile in 1960, and a quake off the coast of Hawai’i in 1975.

Banyan tree outside the Hilo Reeds Bay Hotel

What I Didn’t Get to Say at My Mom’s Funeral

Linda and MomOf her three children, I am probably most like her. I’m proud to be hers, proud to be like her, proud of the spun silver hair I inherited from her, proud of the big, warm heart that I got from her that most people can’t see. I am proud to have attended her funeral and honor her even though I was not acknowledged during the service as one of hers. Neither were her grandchildren or my sister. Mom would have acknowledged us if she could, if only with a squeeze of her small, gnarled hand.

Mom nurtured me, valued me, embraced me even when she didn’t really understand the unconventional thing that was her middle child. She was the last of my protectors, and now she is gone. The whole world is diminished, and it hardly realizes it. I miss her deeply.

Mom taught me how to sew, what a selvage is, and a bolt, and a seam. She stitched her love into my childhood shirts and shorts and dresses. She stitched love into my children’s beautiful costumes every Halloween when they were little. These costumes held such love and creative power that her granddaughter became a costume designer, and her grandson became a builder of worlds.

Mom taught me how to cook and how the power of food, lovingly prepared, could care for people and heal them. She taught me how to wrap hamburger in a ring of bacon and make it as wonderful as any filet mignon. We, her children, dubbed these little creations “gorilla ears.” It made her smile. On rare occasions, her steaks were tough, and my brother would pretend his steak knife was a chain saw. She laughed right along with him. I laughed too — he was and still is really funny — but I remember also feeling a little bit sad because I could sense what was underneath that tough steak.

When Mom patiently showed me embroidery stitches — lazy daisies, backstitches, French knots — she encouraged me to turn each piece over. You want the back to look as neat as the front, she’d say. Even though nobody can see the back, you’d know that there was a knotted mess back there, and you wouldn’t want that. She taught me that the underneath matters. I’ve been able to see it ever since, often to my peril. I later realized, with children of my own, how much of her went into those dinners, even when the steaks were tough.

I knew that before she met my Dad, she played the piano and composed award-winning poetry in high school. I never got to read any of her poems because she didn’t think enough of them to keep them, but I did get to cherish the little notes she’d send in my lunchboxes and inside greeting cards after I had moved far away. The curve of her handwriting was full of love.

Mom had an eye for good art. She came from poverty but was more cultured than those who were bred to it. I treasure memories of her and me at the Denver Art Museum, discussing French Impressionists, what she liked about certain pieces, what was just too weird. I am no Picasso, but I offered her a choice of my oil paintings once, and a little grin broke out on her face as she chose what we both knew was the best one.

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She was musical and literary and creative and brilliant, but she was content to defer to the light of lesser people. She was content to let them take the stage and the credit, content to cover her light with the proverbial bushel basket. Because I could see underneath, I could see that light. I would have been nothing but another arrogant narcissist without her. She made me into a human being. She gets all the credit.

Her light was bright like a supernova, but it never burned because she never shoved it at anyone, never allowed it to blaze except through the slats of that bushel basket. I didn’t always let her know that I saw her light. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t show her often enough how precious she was and how much I recognized and valued her.

There was a fierceness to her that can only be called purely Irish. Growing up, we all believed that there was a streak of English blood in her father, from whom she inherited the Mudd name. But when her sister discovered in a search for ancestry that every drop of Mom’s blood was Irish, I was not surprised, and neither was she. At her funeral, I wore a pin she gave me years ago: Erin Go Bragh! (Long Live Ireland!). Few knew it was there.

Mom once told me that she could see what her soul looked like. It was a small, clean little room, simple and well swept, bright and quiet and well cared for. My first painting was of such a room. It hung in her house for a long time. When she died, I didn’t have the heart to keep it.

Linda's painting (first good painting)

Mom knew how to love people, not in spite of their flaws but because of them. If she liked someone, she was warm like a cup of hot cocoa. If she didn’t, she could be colder than space. She was never loud about it, never obvious, but if you were spaced, you knew it. Mom was a Grand Master of passive aggression.

She was tiny and beautiful and held a universe of marvelous, hidden things inside her. She deserved a host of angels singing at her funeral, the best choir in the world, a crowd of thousands grieving her loss. But she would have been content with the single, beautiful voice and piano, and the COVID-exhausted priest’s simple prayers and eulogies that she had.

I miss her. Someone, somewhere needs to know this. You didn’t know her, but she was important. I miss her.

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A Balance Between Dark and Light

Gothic Christmas Ornament
My daughter made my new favorite Christmas ornament, a balance of light and dark. (She sells these on Etsy at  JailerCostumeShop).

In the cold, starry darkness of Winter Solstice, life’s breath becomes visible, vaporous music. The body’s tropical warmth pushes back against the chill, sustaining life. Fingers’ frigid ache is a reminder of their worth. It’s both the longest night of the year and the promise of returning light, completely both, without contradiction — my favorite day.

Why is Winter Solstice my favorite day of the year? Why the longest night, not our other solstice that bears the longest day? Maybe it’s because I was raised with an overabundance of light. Maybe I didn’t have enough opportunity to celebrate the sacred darkness. I’ve noticed that many of us were brought up on a steady diet of light-stories and were taught to avoid, exclude, or even fear the dark. Seeking a better balance, many of us begin to search out dark things, especially in the winter. Take Krampus, for example.

Krampus is a Christmas demon celebrated in parts of Europe, the dark counterpart to bright Saint Nicholas. In Austria, on Krampusnacht (December 5), people dress up as the part-goat, part-human creature, romping with horns and long tongues among crowds of people, whipping them with little birch switches. Krampus is rapidly gaining popularity in the United States. 

The origins of Krampus are thought to be a Pagan ritual designed to dispel the ghosts of winter. In old Scandinavia, Yule was the solstice time when the ghosts of the dead were believed to return, so people left out food and drinks for them overnight. Yule ghosts evolved into one Yule Ghost, and eventually into Krampus. The American Santa Claus comes mostly from St. Nicholas, but not completely. There’s a little Krampus in Santa, too. Krampus bells, which announce his arrival, bear an uncanny resemblance to sleigh bells. Does the custom of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa come from feeding the ghosts of Yule? 

Consider that Santa is said to put coal into the stockings of naughty children, while Krampus leaves birch sticks. Why do we have such dark customs at Christmastime? Is it to frighten children into acceptable behavior? Is it to teach them that there are scary things out there? It’s hard to navigate through a world that’s too safe because we can’t learn what to be wary of. Or is it to remind us that life isn’t fair? After all, if you’re out on Krampusnacht, you might get smacked with a switch, even if you’ve done your best to be good. But there could be a balance here, too. Coal and sticks are both fuels. Both can be transformed, with a spark of will, into light.

There is a hazard in dwelling too much on dark things. Those of us susceptible to depression can vouch for this. But there’s also a hazard in dwelling too much on the light. Light is beautiful, but only when it’s real and not a veneer that comes out of desperately avoiding the dark. As a child, I heard a lot of light-stories, most of which aren’t even true. At Thanksgiving, we were fed turkey and cranberries along with light-stories about how there was nothing but joyous feasting between the Pilgrims and the Indians. The light-stories left out Europe’s disrespect and disease, genocide and grave-robbing, ungratefulness and self-righteous destruction. Light-stories remind us to chin up, always look on the bright side. Everything will (magically) be alright. With this steady diet of light-stories, no wonder there’s so much violence, so many dark-stories howling to be heard. The more we deny the darkness, the more it grows out of control and crushes in around us. And how are we told to respond? By looking on the bright side, of course.

I recently heard a podcast by Sam Yang on feeding the “gray wolf.” He tells a parable where a Cherokee elder describes two wolves inside him — a light one and a dark one — and the wolf that “wins” is the one he feeds. Sam points out how this was a bit of cultural appropriation. The actual Indigenous story was about feeding both wolves, not just the black or white one. If a person only feeds light or the darkness, there will always be a war between them. They are two sides of the same thing, and you need to feed them both so neither wolf gets hungry.

On this Winter Solstice, I invite you to embrace both bright Saint Nicholas and dark Krampus. I invite you to honor the holiday gifts and lights as well as the loneliness and want that always swirl around with them. And I wish for you the gift of the Winter Solstice: that beautiful balance between the dark and the light.

The Old Red Bike

This year for my birthday, my husband, Joseph, reunited me with an old friend. I’d been wanting to ride my bicycle to work, but the years had deteriorated it to the point I couldn’t ride it anymore. Instead of finding a new bike, Joseph had my old friend restored, and he gave me a lot more than just a way to work.

Joseph understands that there are memories in my old red bike’s chrome-moly frame. It was made before most people knew what mountain bikes were, before these machines had titanium stems or shock absorbers, before my young dreams of adventure in mountains, deserts, and forests turned into old memory.

Some of my memories are still on its fire-engine-red frame, so Joseph asked that the frame not be repainted.

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He understands that I still love the sticker from Alamosa Schwinn Cyclery because it takes me right back to the frigid February day in 1984 when we newlyweds spent everything we had to order these wondrous new “Rockhoppers.” Some of the rusted little pits in the paint must have come from rides in the South San Juan Mountains, where I collected samples of the flora of Colorado for my early botany classes at Adams State College. Some must have come from the gravel roads of the San Luis Valley.

Some of the pits, too, must have come from pebbles and sand at the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. We arrived early in the spring of the bike’s first year and asked the park ranger on duty where we could ride. He asked to see the Rockhoppers because he’d heard of them, and he admired them as he told us that the best place would probably be the four-wheel-drive roads at the park. Who could have guessed that the Canyonlands would soon become one of the great mountain bike meccas in the United States?

Joseph knows I love the California licenses adorning the frame below the Schwinn sticker because they are memories of California. There, I studied botany in grad school at the University, and I rode my red bike all over the Berkeley Hills and beyond. During those years, we had no car, so I even rode the red bike to the grocery store.

Joseph remembers how I pedaled this bike all over trails in California until I became too big with our first child and had to switch to hiking instead. He remembers how we mounted a baby seat on the back so I could take that little child, Kerry Joseph, riding. We explored trails along the Missouri River in South Dakota until I grew heavy with our second child, Lorien Rose. Not long after, back in Colorado, she was the little one on the back of my old red bike while Kerry rode alongside.

I rode to work at a plant nursery when the children were small and to my job as an ecologist as they grew older. I rode in the desert, in places with names like “Rustler’s Loop” and “Widowmaker” and sometimes in the mountains through groves of pine and aspen. This bike saw some wildflower-filled miles near the black bears and coyotes in the Ponderosa forests near our home northern New Mexico, where I tried — and failed — in a career as a schoolteacher.

These days, I need to be reminded to surround myself with the things I love. I need to remember that more adventures are possible. Joseph understands. This is why he restored my old red bike for me, taking care not to paint over any memories in the process.

 

Total Eclipse of the Sun

Yesterday, we got back late from a long drive – or was it a short campout? – to a wild place in the middle of Wyoming. We had gone there like hundreds of others to witness the total eclipse of the sun. I had chosen the most remote place I could think of under the band of totality: the Gas Hills, thirty miles or so north of Jeffrey City. Jeffrey City swelled decades ago during the uranium boom but is now nearly a ghost town. The road north is all dirt and gravel, with ruts that challenged the abilities of our rented sedan.

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The light looks like early evening, but the shadows look like midday a few minutes before the total solar eclipse in the Gas Hills of Wyoming

On the drive up, we stopped at the visitor’s center in the small town of Baggs, Wyoming, and the docent there told us that Thomas Edison had witnessed the last total eclipse in the area in 1918. It was on this trip near here, she said, that he came up with the idea for the incandescent light. She looked skeptical. So did I, but I now understand how a totality could spur the mind of a genius in such a way, so I’d like to believe it’s true.

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The moon’s darkness approaches from the west

Nothing is ever exactly as you think it will be. No photo or video can really capture the experience of a total eclipse of the sun. It felt like the air temperature dropped ten degrees as a chill set into my hands. There was a scattering of stars in the midday sky, and crickets started to sing. The moon’s diffuse shadow engulfed us from the west as the sun’s light blinked out and in an instant, my solar viewing glasses went completely dark.

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No photo can completely do it justice, but this is the best my iPhone could do

Pulling the glasses away, there was the corona, an iconic image high in the sky. What had been over my head but completely invisible to me for the past fifty-plus years was now revealed. It looked like a crown of vapor, a thin, glowing mist, immensely beautiful. It was a glimpse of a star from the heavens as it sent off its molten gases into space, but it was also oddly familiar, as if this image was somehow carried in human DNA. After only a couple of minutes, it was gone. One of the moon’s huge craters revealed a flash, followed by a sliver of searing light along the sun’s rim. The moon shadow’s darkness raced away to the east, and it was like late evening again. The crickets went silent, and three antelope in the distance went back to their grazing.

Within the hour, the day had fully returned, and we were – along with thousands of others – headed south toward home. The drive back was complicated by traffic, and we didn’t get in until after 11:00 pm, but the ancient dance between the sun and moon was well worth a little trouble.

The Upcoming Totality

A few of us are headed up to Wyoming today. The weather forecast is favorable to see the total solar eclipse tomorrow morning! It will be my first opportunity to see a totality.

Even if you are outside of the totality, nature can still put on a good show. During the eclipse in May 2012, the totality passed south of us. We looked through a pinhole camera at an image of the eclipse projected onto the sidewalk in front of our home. The real surprise came when we turned back toward the house, finding it bedecked with little eclipses!

Shadows of eclipse on the house

The points of light created by gaps in the canopies of trees can serve as pinhole cameras and create quite a beautiful display. I wish all eclipse seekers and travelers a safe and happy day tomorrow!