Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Cruising Strip

The speed limit was only 15 mph, but that wasn't why we drove slowly. I'm not sure whose car we were in, but the music was cranked up blaring REO or Rod Stewart, the windows down, the summer air, still damp with humidity and warmth, blowed our carefully feathered hair. We pulled into the parking lot by the skating rink and drove around, hoping to spot a few people but always watching our speed. Police cruised the area as avidly as we did. We probably stopped and talked to a few people—or maybe we parked our car and hoped a few boys would stop and talk to us.

Every town has its cruising strip and when I was in high school in Pittsburgh, it was the convergence of townships in a district park of open space called South Park. Because it was centrally located within easy driving distance of several high schools, kids in various letter jackets would group together. Girls would check out girls from other high schools with looks of snide comparisons, while the boys simply saw fresh flirting ground.

During the winter, an ice skating rink took center stage. I spent many hours going around in circles trying to catch the eyes of a boy. I don’t remember having any success with it, though. When it got too cold, I’d head inside to the concessions in the skate house and self-consciously sip hot chocolate while my eyes constantly roved the groups of kids, comparing myself to other girls and falling short or daring to hope a boy would look at me.

Once, I hooked up with a couple of high school girl friends, but not ones I usually hung with. We drove around, eventually stopping to chat with boys from another school, boys my friends had met before. They coyly chatted, playing with their hair, while I tried to strike up conversation about music and how much I liked Dan Fogelberg. To me, his music and words were sheer poetry and struck my heart with their poignancy.

After a couple of uncomfortable moments and looks passed between my friends, we got back in the car. They gave each other meaningful glances. I don’t remember if I asked what was wrong or they just felt it was their duty as friends to tell me, but the gal I knew a bit better, with her cute figure, and flipped blonde hair and thick eyeliner turned to me and said, “You just don’t flirt the way we do.” 

She was being kind, of course. I knew what she meant. I rehashed the conversation in my head both trying to dissect where I’d gone wrong and secretly cringing, mortified I'd embarrassed myself and my friends.

South Park is just over 2,000 acres with several side roads leading to named picnic areas. There was one particular area, whose name had significant meaning in high school but now completely escapes me, that was known for being the parking area for making out. Good girls didn't go there.

Except I was a good girl and somehow I did manage to go there with a boy once. And I was driving. I remember the delicious feeling of kissing and liking this boy, even though a part of me knew he was just using me. But it was nice to imagine this boy, cute and kind of popular, may actually like me. Still, when his hands started to wander to second base activities, I panicked and drove out of there like my car was on fire. Needless to say, he never asked me out.

Perhaps my friends had been right. Maybe my flirting skills did need a little help.

Years later, I took my fiancé (now husband) to this same make out location, more as a joke and to show him my high school haunts. It was the week we were to be married. We were kissing but mostly just talking and laughing about my memories when a knock on the window startled us. Staring at us from the other side of the glass was a police officer. “You can’t be here,” he told us as I rolled down the window. I'm pretty sure he was smirking a bit.

I was embarrassed, and explained in a nervous stammer that we were here as a joke. This was my fiancé. We were getting married this week. We weren't high school kids. Really.

He didn't really care. He shooed us along anyway.

My flirting skills, it appeared, still needed honing. But this time, I must have done something right.          

Thursday, March 21, 2013

In The Big City

Main Street in my home town.
We’re in the big city this week, visiting colleges with my daughter and hanging out with my husband’s family. While we’re here, we're taking advantage of the shopping. If you’ve never lived in small town, you may not understand what a treat this can be. The closest chain store (other than the discount drug box store that’s in every town, no matter how big or small) is over an hour away from our home.

I appreciate our small town stores. The merchandise is unique, usually hand selected by the owners, and reflects the personalities they infuse in their shops. Last time I went shopping for my sister's birthday, I dropped in on Hope and Glory, a cute florist-slash-country-kitsch shop. Jerri, the owner, chatted with me about my sister, my kids, her kids, church and other random hometown happenings as I looked around and selected a few items. She even wrapped them up with pretty paper and ribbon so they would look nice. 

While in the Big City, my 17-year-old daughter was on the hunt for a prom dress. Of course, while we were out, I had to visit the local big chain bookstore. It was wondrous with rows and rows of books and best sellers, cute journals and fancy pens, even a coffee shop and free wifi.  But when I needed help finding a book, there wasn’t anyone to be found. When I finally flagged down someone walking around with a harried but official look, she told me she was busy with other customers and to please go to the service desk. When I went to the service desk, no one was there until the same harried and official lady came up to the desk to help the other three customers already in line.

Our Main Street has an independent bookstore called the Bookworm. It’s small and carries a few best sellers along with a couple locally published indie writers.  It also has an eclectic stock of small gift items, postcards, and locally crafted jewelry. They may not have every book stocked, but they’re happy to order whatever you need or want.

At one point, craving a pick-me-up, we stopped in at one of those chain coffee stores that are on every block in the city. No kidding—there are more of these coffee shops per square mile than we have cows in our ranch town. The coffee always tastes a little burnt to me, and the menu boards carry the same stock items. It’s all good though, and the product is predictable and tasty. But I missed the college student baristas of my favorite hangout at home and choosing my selection from an artistically hand-written chalk board. 

We finally found my daughter a prom dress. It was no easy feat. (People really spend $200 on a prom dress that’s worn once?) We had to visit three or four stores, but we found a dress that makes her look like a womanly princess and didn’t break the bank. Of course, there's no way I'm letting her go to a dance looking like this. I hear rumor they actually let boys go to these things.

While cruising through the stores, we saw lovely shoes, clothing, earrings, necklaces and other things I had no idea I wanted until I saw them. I’d forgotten the allure of stuff. It’s much easier to feel content with what I own when I’m not being confronted with all the things I think I might wish I owned.

We decided to cut our trip short and head home tomorrow. Turns out Spring is still fighting for life and Winter is still winning. Since our drive home involves a couple mountain passes, we want to get ahead of the weather. I've enjoyed my time here. It was fun shopping with my daughter. But I'm ready to get home to our slower pace and forget about the material goods I might have wanted to buy. 

Next time I need a gift, I'll look forward to visiting Main Street. I know when I push open the shop door and a bell jangles my arrival, a familiar voice will call out to me, ask after my family and help me find the perfect little gift. It will take me twice as long to buy something-- I'll need to plan for visiting time. But I know I'll be in fine company.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

In The Company of Critters

Photo from Microsoft Clip Art
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, we had our share of wildlife sightings. Squirrels scolding us from tree branches were plentiful as were the rabbits hopping through the yard. Cute chipmunks, which my father was forever trying to exterminate, ran freely in the wood piles. Occasionally in the woods that used to be at the top of the street, we’d see graceful deer. There were probably other animals around--skunk, woodchucks--but I don’t remember seeing them very often in our domesticated neighborhood.

I always wanted to live in the mountains, so when the opportunity came up for my husband and I to move to western Colorado, we were thrilled. Being a citified gal, it never occurred to me to think about what beasts might be lurking in our less tamed wilderness. We were fortunate just shortly after moving, to rent the quintessential mountain home. It was log with thick beamed ceilings, hand made stained glass windows and a rustic balcony. A gurgling stream with a quaint covered bridge ran behind the house, followed by acres of fields dotted with grazing cattle, all against a backdrop of mountains. How serene. How bucolic. And yet…

One of the first warnings our landlords gave us was to watch for our dog with the coyotes. I didn’t understand. “Well, he explained, they like to call your dogs out in the evening, tricking them into thinking they are part of the pack, just playing. Then, when they have ‘em in the field, they’ll surround your dog and attack him.” I gulped. Evidently the Wile E. Coyote name was well-deserved but not near as cute.

Keeping his cautions in mind, I began to watch for the canine-like animals. In the early morning hours, they wandered to the creek behind the house for a morning drink. In spring, the high-pitched yips of pups learning to imitate their elders would wake us up. If we were lucky, we'd catch a glimpse of their scrawny, still adolescent bodies. How did a critter start out so cute and end up so menacing? 

Eventually, we were able to identify a few of the coyotes. One was easily recognized by his three-legged appearance. He’d lost a leg at some point in his life-journey. Maybe he'd got caught in a trap. It wasn’t unusual for the ranchers to set them. I hated to think about it—the spring-loaded claws seemed so cruel, but I knew it was a reality in many ranching communities. We nicknamed this hearty fellow, Tripod. Many mornings we’d stare out the window until we saw him. “Here comes Tripod,” one of us would call out.

My first encounter with a coyote in the wild happened while hiking with my husband. We had moved from the log house and into our new home. It backs up against undeveloped acreage managed by the Bureau of Land Management providing open wilderness as far as you can see. On this particular hike, we trekked along a trail following a creek with our newly acquired Weimaraner, Blue. We ventured out as far as the trail would take us, enjoying the water and marveling at the rock formations. Being able to go no farther without bushwhacking our way through low brush, we decided to head back home. We crossed through an open area and heard the familiar yip and howl of a coyote. Quickly glancing up, we scanned the landscape until we recognized the tawny and lean dog-like animal halfway up the hillside watching us. 

We made sure Blue stayed near us and kept a wary eye on the critter. Not only did the coyote keep up its howls, he began to follow us, slowly easing down the hill as he traveled, getting nearer and nearer. My husband urged the dog and I ahead of him and grabbed a couple big rocks, muttering that next time he’d be sure to bring his gun along. I picked up a couple large rocks too. Blue looked up curiously from time-to-time to see what was making all that unnecessary noise, but he didn’t seem too eager to join the coyote or too disturbed by him either. We kept walking, nervously eyeing the bold animal. We must have finally reached a point where he lost interest or felt we were no longer encroaching on his territory. To our relief, he quit trailing us and turned back around.

When I think about mountain life and the people I know in this small community, I don’t usually stop to think about the critters who also live among us. But when I do--when I meet a bear or fox or coyote along a trail--I try to keep in mind and respectfully remember, this is their home too.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Six Degrees Or In My Biz

According to Wikipedia, the source for all that is factual and true, the phrase “six degrees of separation” is the theory that everyone and everything is just six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world. If that’s true, then living in a small town keeps everyone just two steps away from knowing everyone else...where they work...if they've been divorced...where they live. And when that small town is nestled in an isolated mountain community, people might as well accept we're all really just one, baby step away from knowing all these facts about each other, plus pet names, car models, preferred coffee and latest physical ailments.

I came from big cities where I was lucky to even know who my neighbors were two houses down. If it wasn't for the circle of people I knew in my church or school, I’d have easily been a loner in a crowd of suburbia. As it is now, I try hard to be a hermit in the midst of 5000 people I know or at the very least recognize.  

When my kids were small, we ventured to California for the requisite Disneyland visit. In the midst of the enchantment of castles, dressed characters and throngs of milling people, we ran into a family we knew from our home town. What were the odds? Well, apparently the odds dramatically increase in a small town where there is nary an unfamiliar face, compared to a huge city where the circle of friends is limited.

Within our alpine village knowing a person goes beyond just recognizing their face, it also extends to knowing their vehicles. I learned this lesson early on. For years my husband was a church minister in town—the opportunity for folks to know who we were before we learned who they were rose exponentially. One day I stopped at the local liquor store to restock my cooking wines, one each in red and white. Before the week was over, some well-intentioned saint let me know he'd seen my car out and about. “Oh really,” I asked, still naïve and therefore a bit surprised.

“Yeah, saw you were at the local liquor store.”

I peered at the good brother. Was that meant as a judgment? I never was quite sure, but from then on I resorted to bootlegging our alcohol. Out-of-town friends and family soon learned to ask us before a visit, “Can I bring you anything from the liquor store?”

With a hand cupped secretively around the mouthpiece of the phone, I’d whisper in conspiratory tones, “Yes. Please. Some beer and a bottle of cooking wine would be much appreciated. Use the back door.” 

Years later, when my little red Toyota was a fixture in town, friends and colleagues at work started teasing me about seeing me in my car, waving and being ignored. “I swear,” I protested, “I never saw you.” But my apparent sightings increased and people continued to inform me about my supposed snubbing. Funny thing is, I noticed people waving at me with enthusiasm and smiles from inside their cars, and yet I couldn't have said who they were. But maybe I just wasn't in the habit of recognizing people by their cars yet.

Even my husband joined in, “I saw you in your car today and gave you a wave. You totally looked at me and looked away.” I was stumped. Was I that zoned out to people around me once I got into my car?

Finally after several weeks of this, there was a crack in the case of The Car Snubbery. I pulled into my work parking lot just as another little red Toyota pulled in next to me. The driver stepped out—a young woman with long blonde hair…just like mine. As I gazed at her, blinking, I started to put the pieces together. “We have similar cars,” I said in way of a greeting. She smiled patiently at my astute observation. “Do you ever get people you don’t know waving at you?” I asked, hoping she’d help me solve the mystery.

Her eyes widened slightly as she too put the pieces together. “Yes, I do,” she said. 

“One of us needs to cut or dye our hair or something,” I said. We introduced ourselves. Turns out, not only did we drive similar cars and were mutual victims of mistaken identity, but we worked at the same college, just a building away from each other. And now, I was one degree closer to knowing and waving to all her friends, a whole new subset of fine company in this small town.

What're the odds?