Mitigating​ Factors

I’ve known this tree since I was 16 or so. The first time I saw it, my friend Kathleen and I climbed up the cliff face. Back then the “Bluffs” was a quiet, seldom visited, mildly wild-and-woolly place. It was Sunday afternoon after church. Kathleen and I went to the same church, lived in the same hood and went to the same high school. We walked to school together every day and hung out on weekends. She had a horse named Irish Luck and a great dog, a Border collie named Ronco. We had a lot of fun rambling around up there and life was (mostly) good.

Life in my family wasn’t so good. My dad’s abilities were deteriorating quickly from his MS, and I was scared about losing him. There were family fights almost every night. I avoided home as much as possible by doing lots of extra-curricular activities at school and getting a job.

So anyway, one Sunday afternoon Kathleen, Ronco and I went up to the bluffs, found a trail, took it until it petered out, saw the sandstone cliff, climbed up and arrived at this amazing tree. I was stunned. Out of the ‘dead’ trunk of this Rocky Mountain Juniper rose a straight new tree, back then about 18 inches tall.

I grew up with poetry and the whole thing of metaphors and symbols. I immediately saw in that tree a metaphor that was useful to me. The tree grows in sandstone. There’s no soil or anything from which you’d think it could derive sustenance. It’s hundreds of years old. Where it looked like it might have been on its last roots, it wasn’t. Right then and there I took the lesson. Whatever’s going on around, you don’t let it defeat you. You just quietly and according to your nature, keep growing. It may seem strange, but that tree became a kind of surrogate mother to me.


From then on, pretty much every time Kathleen and I took a hike, we’d visit the tree for a few minutes unless it was our destination and then we’d go there and hang out. Today, you can drive to it if you want, but back in the late sixties, that wasn’t the case. Also, we walked from home. I’d pick up Kathleen and we’d trounce across a then nearly-deserted Academy Boulevard, run across a hay field, and into the thickets of scrub oak of the lower Bluffs, the neighborhood wilderness. That world is gone.

The day before yesterday, I saw my orthopedic surgeon. He X-rayed the hip replacement, examined me and said, “No restrictions. Go run up a mountain. Go ski. Where will you ski?”

Yesterday, my friend Lois (who grew up in the same neighborhood and also rambled around in the Bluffs with her brothers) and I went to see my tree. I had a lot to tell it. I can’t say I went up the hills like a mountain goat, but I did OK. My only struggle now is a lack of confidence in my footing. I will have to relearn the confidence I once felt on rocky slopes and sharper hills. We got near the tree and noticed a small one, pretty much just like my tree, but younger — maybe only fifty years old! It could easily be my tree’s daughter. They are the only two Rocky Mountain Junipers in this immediate area.


Young Rocky Mountain Juniper

At my tree, I did what I did as a girl. I wrapped my arms around her. I cried, releasing all the emotion of the past several months, and I told her everything. Then, my feelings spent, I looked at her and saw how well she is doing. She has secreted sap and she was loaded with juniper berries. ❤

Have you seen God in His splendors,
heard the text that nature renders?
(You’ll never hear it in the family pew).
Robert Service, “The Call of the Wild”

Olden Days

I just saw this trailer for a film coming out this fall, and I want to see it.

I learned to ski on the “back” side of Pikes Peak. When I left Colorado in the mid-eighties, there were copious ski areas. The morning ski report was long. When I look at a ski area map now, it’s not like that. It shows the “mega” resorts that remain.

These ski areas weren’t resorts at all, many of them. They were places you could go in a day. Pikes Peak Ski Area was right off the Pikes Peak Highway — easy access. It was small, some rope tows, a poma and a chair lift. The snow was usually pretty good because it was on the north side of Pikes Peak — it was high, shaded and fairly well sheltered from the wind.


Pikes Peak Ski Area

These ski areas often didn’t have many runs or amenities — no fancy hotel to spend the night, no shopping, food was often burgers cooked on the mountain on oil-drum grills and eaten standing up, but with season passes that cost $25 for a family, they made the sport accessible. The focus was on skiing.

Back then, too, there was a little reverse snobbery. Real Coloradans didn’t wear fancy ski clothes because skiing was part of who they were, an every day thing, nothing to get dressed up for. Fancy ski clothes revealed that the skier was from Chicago — or worse — Texas. For a while it was popular to ski in bibbed overalls. I didn’t; but I did ski in jeans. When I started X-country skiing, I wore those clothes to the down hill ski areas because there was political contention over “skinny skiers” using downhill slopes. I had to make my point, right?

Andy and Me, A-Basin, 1982

A friend and I at Arapaho Basin, 1982. I’m wearing knickers, high wool socks and layers.

Some of the small ski areas have grown up — Arapaho Basin back in the day was smallish and funky, but now it’s expanded and appears to be more closly linked to its neighbor, Keystone. I can’t say for sure; I haven’t been back.

Right now the local ski area — Wolf Creek — is the center of a big fight between conservationists and a rich Texan who wants to develop it into a resort. A ski resort would pretty much destroy the vibe that Wolf Creek wants to maintain and that the people here are comitted to. It’s a tense and murky situation since the economy of Southern Colorado is depressed and a ski resort would help, but, at the same time, it would put “our” ski area out of the reach of most people who actually live here.

I like the idea of small, local ski mountains, but economically, I can see they stopped being viable. Climate change has made the snowfall less dependable than it was when I was a young woman. Maybe there’s no connection between thousands more people driving into the mountains every weekend from Denver to Vail, Aspen, etc. than there were thirty years ago and the fact that we have less snow. No idea.

Dreams DO Come True

Yesterday I drove to Colorado Springs and checked into my beautiful B&B — the Crescent Lily Inn. This is my “summer vacation” so to speak. It’s beautiful. Colorado Springs has many gorgeous Victorian homes and when I was a kid I dreamed of living in one someday when I grew up — well, I get to live in one for two nights. My room even has a four poster bed, another thing I dreamed of as a little kid.

If you just wait long enough and have a couple hundred bucks your dreams might come true.



Of course there’s my reacher and computer case because it’s NOT the 19th century…

Along with the fufillment of childhood dreams, comes breakfast. 🙂

Today’s the big day when I go see my surgeon for my 6 week exam. I’m going to make his life easy and mine less embarrassing by just wearing shorts. Sure, my legs look like proof of the evolution of humans from apes, but I was able to mitigate that to a limited extent yesterday by using a rubber band to fasten my razor to the end of my shower brush, again setting the humans apart from other animals (except ravens) as the masters of tools. And considering that THAT man has seen me start naked, unconscious, and cut open, really what’s there to hide?


Hanging On

In my Sunday hike in the Bluffs (Palmer Park) I noticed a lot of erosion. It’s been a wet winter, but one erosion channel was very disturbing. It was as wide as a one lane road.

I think what happened was a flash flood tore through there, upended a very large dead tree and the space held by the roots of that tree opened up the channel. The roots were amazing.

It doesn’t seem to take a lot for a tree to make it in the semi-arid land of the high plains of Colorado. The juniper that is “my tree” seems to have nothing to grow by, just looking at its roots, yet it’s been hanging on like that as long as I’ve known it and that’s 50 years. The branch that comes out from the top is three times larger than it was when I first met my tree. As a model for how to live life, I cannot imagine anyone better.


With Dusty T. Dog at my tree, November 2014

The Strange Familiar Place

I was in Colorado Springs for a few days, and yesterday was my friend’s birthday. We celebrated at a German restaurant (he’s Swiss) where there actually have good bratwurst. Not as good as St. Gallen bratwurst or the little weisswurst I ate in Munich, but very good. Nonetheless, I had chicken.

We also took a hike up to my “tree”.

My tree

Pikes Peak in the background, my tree in the foreground

It’s located in a place that was my hiking sanctuary when I was in high school. Now that Colorado Springs has more than doubled in population, and this geologic outcrop is no longer the northern edge of the city, the Bluffs (now known as Palmer Park) is full of people, parking their cars where no cars should be. And there are a ton of mountain bikers. I love mountain biking, but too many mountain bikes cause erosion.

What can I do about this? Zip. Nada. Nothing. Niente. Zero.

So I just enjoyed that I was there, climbing familiar rocks and hanging out with my friends. I was also aware of how nature quietly persists and decided that was a good strategy for me, too.


Top picture: Sand Lily Above: Astragalus (milk vetch)

and THEN… Calhan Paint Mines

I spent the last weekend with friends in Colorado Springs. It was good to leave Heaven for a while and do different things. Anyone who’s read Martin of Gfenn knows I’m intrigued by the way pigments are made. Outside Colorado Springs is a place called the Paint Mines where for centuries local Indian tribes got paint for face painting and clay for pots. Some of the people I knew in high school used to go there to get clay but I had never even heard of it until I moved back last fall. My friends and I visited this weekend and it was really beautiful. Here are photos.


The pink rock is very soft. Unfortunately, it’s now illegal to take pigment out of this place because I’d love to try it!


Trail into the heart of the Paint Mines


I had to wonder what put the hole there — weather or people over the ages taking the ochre clay?

But the biggest discovery of all is that I can now walk well enough to keep up with my friends so I decided to put off the knee surgery at least until summer and probably until Medicare can foot (ha ha) some of the bill.

Gives Me the Willys

Yeah, it was a jeep. A Willys. WW II surplus. It came in a kit. Everything but the tires.  It was bright orange and disassembled when it was delivered to Eddy for his 16th birthday. Delivered to Eddy’s dad’s garage, that is. If Eddy was going to drive, his dad figured Eddy could put the car together first. Sort of like the dad that makes his kid build his first computer or something. Sort of but not quite.

Eddy built the jeep (with his dad’s help) and had big dreams for it. Someday it would be black. Someday it would have a top. He’d make that, too, in time to take his girlfriend to a dance, though, ultimately, his dad let him borrow the car.

When Eddy got a girlfriend it was sort of surprising since Eddy was a shy guy, soft-spoken and absurdly kind. They met on a church mission trip, on the way to Montana. They couldn’t help meeting, or, for that matter, getting close. They sat next to each other on the front seat on the drive up. The girl had already had a bad boyfriend and thought all those attributes of Eddy’s were great. They were better than charm any day.

When Eddy picked her up for their first date, she was thrilled to climb up into the tattered bucket seat of the Willys. On the floor were three gear knobs. The normal four speeds and reverse and two more that put the Jeep into different ranges of four wheel drive.

They had a lot of fun in that jeep. Eddy was happy to learn that his girlfriend liked doing crazy things in wild places. She was happy to learn to shoot a rifle, happy to four-wheel up any hill and happy to cruise around through flooded ditches east of town. With an 18 inch clearance, the jeep could go pretty much everywhere. They even managed to get it stuck in the mud.

Spring had been rainy and the mud in the coulees and ditches east of town had turned to something like quicksand. They were tearing across the country when Eddy decided to try to plow across a ditch. “We can do it,” he said. His girlfriend and her big red dog, Avis, were up for it.

Down they went. Up they…didn’t went.

“We’re stuck.”

“What do we do now?”

“Well, we gotta’ get more weight on the front end to, you know, kind of tip the jeep forward.”

“Avis and I can sit on the hood.”

“That might work.”

She climbed up on the hood of the jeep and called her dog who was all too happy to jump up beside her.

“Go as far forward as you can and hold on,” said Eddy from the driver’s seat.


She held onto her dog, her feet on the bumper. The dog was 80 pounds. She was about 130. It was something combined with the weight of the engine. Eddy put the jeep into gear and slowly the jeep inched forward. The ditch ahead was dry. If they could just get to the dry part they’d be, uh, home and dry?

Slowly, slowly, the jeep moved. The back wheels lifted out of the mud; the front wheels grabbed the ground.

“You can jump down now!” Eddy called out. He was worried that the girl and dog would be thrown off and get hurt.

“Are you sure? We’re fine!”

“Yeah, get down, no, wait.” He decided to be safe rather than sorry and let the jeep go a little further forward, further away from the mud. Slowly, slowly, until the jeep reached dry ground. “OK now. We’re good. We’re out of the mud. I thought we’d never come back from that one. No one’s going to believe we got a jeep stuck in the mud, either. Look at it!”

It was covered in mud. Mud up to the hubs. Mud on the floor boards. Mud all over Eddy, his girlfriend and the dog. “We need to find a hose,” she said.

“Yeah. Let’s go to my house.”

“Mine’s closer.”

“Uh…” Eddy didn’t want the girl’s mom to see the jeep covered in mud. He didn’t want to look like a bad boyfriend.

“It’s OK.”

“How about one of those carwash places?”

“With Avis? I think we need to go home, but maybe your house is better. Can we wash Avis there?” She thought of her mom’s probable reaction to the muddy jeep, two muddy teenagers and a muddy dog. She thought of the likelihood of a lecture. She shuddered.

“Of course.”

They drove through the ditch until they reached a deserted county road. The day had turned hot and dry and the jeep thumped and bumped up slightly whenever it hit a dead rattlesnake. The city lay spread out in front of them like a foreign country and Pikes Peak stood sentinel over all of it. The girl felt that the ditch, the mud, the dog and the snakes were more in line with the mountain than the few tall buildings and the plume of steam rising from the stack of a power plant.


Freedom — Reflections on Riding a Horse on Christmas Eve

Daily Prompt Happy Happy Joy Joy We cry for lots of reasons: sadness, pain, fear . . . and happiness. When was the last time you shed tears of joy?

I’m pretty easily moved to tears of happiness; tears of sorrow? Not so easy. That’s something to hide, the vulnerable underbelly of our lives, a soft spot. But happiness? I’ve learned that the moments of life’s beauty are fleeting and I want to be fully present when they arrive. Most of the time the moments are bits of the passing parade. My neighbor’s third grade daughter pretending to be Laura in Little House on the Prairie and collecting snow for maple syrup. A little boy running toward our shared fence yelling, “Martha! Martha! Martha!” as if the sun rises and sets with me. The look on a student’s face that says, “I got it!” My friend’s mentally challenged son helping me make Jello. It sounds, maybe, Pollyanna-ish but I think it’s healthy to turn attention to the beautiful moments. Once in a while, though, I’m the central character in a beautiful moment.

That happened last week, Christmas Eve.

I used to be a contender. I mean by that I used to run and hike on hard hills almost every day. If you do that, you’re going to fall and you’re also going to put a lot of wear and tear on your joints. I knew this. I knew that sooner or later (I hoped later) I’d have problems. I’d been told this but no one went farther and said what the problems would be. So, when I was 52, 2004, I started experiencing terrible pain in my hip not just when I was hiking, but all the time. I thought it was a pulled muscle or??? Time passed. I went to the doctor who misdiagnosed it because I was so young — but truth will out and it was advanced osteoarthritis in my right hip. Three YEARS later I had surgery — hip resurfacing — to repair it. By then, other damage had accrued. My knees, both with historical injuries, had been carrying more than their fair share of the burden of me. They were not in good shape, either.

After that, because of that, I was different psychologically. Formerly, the best part of my life was out in nature, challenging my body and seeing what there was to see. Afterward? No. I tried to return to my former pursuits but with the restrictions I had (no running among them) and the knowledge that I could be HURT, it was not the same. It was confusing. All I’d wanted during those three or four painful years was to get back on the trail. When I was able again? There was a core of sadness and fear where there had been nothing before except maybe joy and anticipation — and freedom.

So…move on, right? Other things — good things — found their way into that hollow place and pushed the sad part further and further down. Each age has its beauty, they say.

But…it wasn’t what I wanted. It would be OK. I would make it fine. Great other things existed, right? I could do them — did them. Then, one morning in January I walked out my front door and saw…


I’d known about him. I’d talked with my neighbor and explained it was OK with me if he used one part of my fence as the horse’s corral. I explained I didn’t mind the smell of horse and I basically liked horses, not with any grand passion. I was never a horse crazy girl, but horses were OK with me.

In fact, in 2005, I’d had an experience with horses related to my arthritis that had made me regard them with respect and affection. The day when my (inept) Dr. had finally made a correct diagnosis, and had his office staff call me, the day I learned I had osteoarthritis in my hip, I was completely bewildered by the information. No one explained what that meant and I was scared. That evening I took my Siberian husky, Lily (then a young dog) for a walk in the pure mountain darkness of Descanso, California. Walking always helped me think.

We just walked down the road — a mile. At the end of the road was a large paddock filled with horses. I never paid any attention to them on my walks, and they never paid attention to me. I knew they were there but? So what. There were more horses than people in my town and, anyway, I’d never related all that well to horses. But that night…in the dark I heard them nicker. I walked over to the fence. In the pitch darkness I couldn’t see them. There were eight or ten, I don’t know, all pressing against the fence asking to be petted. I stroked necks and noses and felt them push each other away to get close to me. I stayed for a while petting them then turned toward home, passing the next paddock, also filled with horses, who did the same thing. That night I must have patted sixteen or twenty horses. It was a strange and intense experience, and I felt I’d been given a gift. Until the next day, I didn’t know the magnitude of the gift.

Grateful to them, I decided to buy a big bag of carrots and visit them in the day time. When I did, I saw that they were all old horses with varying levels of arthritis. All of them returned to the fence, some slowly, each step painful and hard. One had a very hard time reaching me and when she did, I saw her teeth were down to nothing and though she wanted a carrot, she couldn’t easily take it. I chewed it and spit it into my hand and gave it to her. Somehow these immense and alien creatures had KNOWN everything about me the night before. From then on, I have loved horses and wondered about their abilities, their understanding, their empathy.

So, this past January walking out my front door one morning and seeing a horse essentially in my front yard was a real thrill. I’d have done a little dance if I could.


I got to know Brownie well and I really loved him. My neighbors tried to persuade me to get up on him and ride, but I didn’t think I could. I spent a lot of time with Brownie, though, talking to him, feeding him carrots, giving him his hay when his people were gone for the weekend. Mostly, though, I just liked hanging out with him. Knowing Brownie made me very happy and I missed him a lot when he and his family moved away.

I have known for a while that horses have been trotting into my heart, but what, I wondered, would I do with them if I couldn’t ride them? Could I learn to care for them and train them? Maybe. Could I work at a horse rescue, mucking out stalls? Well, the physical limitations that kept me off a horse also didn’t make it that easy for me to lift heavy shovel-loads of manure, but maybe. Then, last week when I was in Colorado Springs, I went with my friend to her riding/horse knowledge lesson at RCA Equestrian.

I was going to watch. That was OK with me. I liked it a lot, just being outside and being around horses and I am completely behind what my friend, LM, is trying to accomplish. I love it.

My friend’s lessons involve not just getting on a horse, but getting the horse out of the barn (putting the halter on and leading her out), brushing her down, saddling her, leading her to the ring, “talking” to her with body language and a whip (not to strike the horse but to talk to the horse). My friend is learning to tell the horse to walk around the ring to the right, the left, to come to her, to back away from her. My friend is learning to speak “horse as a second language.” Her horse is a good teacher.

When my friend got her horse out of the barn, the teacher, Rebecca, brought another horse out of the barn. She told us about the horse, how he was a lease. She told us about some of his qualities and that she’d only had him out to ride once. She tied him next to LM’s horse.

I watched for an hour or so and enjoyed it very much. Other horses were all around, some in fenced paddocks, a couple of them running free. It was a glorious day on the open prairie and except that I could feel my lips getting sunburned, everything was GREAT! The kind of compromised great I’ve known since my hip surgery. “I can’t ride, but I can be here,” kind of great.

There’s a lot to be said for acquiring that kind of philosophy. It’s the lesson of my experience. In a bizarre way, the pain and suffering and fear and so on led me to a peaceful resignation with each passing moment. Love it or lose it, what it amounts to.

Then, suddenly (it seemed to me) Rebecca told her daughter to saddle the other horse. “Use my saddle,” she said, “With the soft pad.” I imagined the next step in LM’s lesson was going to be “talking” to her horse while another horse was in the ring. I thought it would be cool to watch.

Rebecca’s daughter brought the saddled horse over to the ring and Rebecca called out, “Martha, do you want to ride?” I was stunned.
“I don’t think I can.”
“Do you want to try?”
“I don’t think I can get on the horse. I’ve had this surgery and I can’t swing my leg over the horse. I guess I could try getting on from the wrong side.”
“Do you want to try? I’ll hold him and you can use the steps. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, OK?”

Oh, I wanted to. I was deeply tired of what I could not do and, anyway, I’ve never been afraid of trying.

“OK. I’m not afraid to ride, Rebecca. I’m not afraid of the horse. It’s getting on. It’s a mechanical problem.”

She uses horses as therapy animals for lots of physically disabled people, people with MS, MD, paraplegics. I KNOW I’m a person with no problems in comparison to that. I was simply afraid of dislocating my femur or cracking the femoral head or shifting the acetabular cup. I had also NEVER attempted to mount a horse from the right.

I climbed the steps. Rebecca held the horse (Spanky). I put my right foot in the stirrup, and awkwardly swung my left leg over the back of the horse. I was on. Rebecca is short like I am and the stirrups were already fine. She let go of Spanky. I felt an intense rush of absolute joy run through my body. I was on the horse. I began to sob. Here was something I could do. This wonderful species who’d shown me — out of no where — so much care and affection, I was ON him. I leaned forward on my saddle and wrapped my arms around his neck, I was so incredibly happy. I was embracing all those old horses and Brownie and this horse who held me standing perfectly still.

After that? I can ride. I rode. I was liberated from everything on Spanky’s back. Liberated from the arthritis in my knees. Liberated from the inability to move across the earth. Here was freedom.


Merry Christmas! Christmas 2014, I Ride a Horse



Today I rode a horse. I did not even think I could get up on one with my hip machinery but all it took was a good teacher, a set of steps and a kind horse who likes people. It was great and I was/am so happy. I had not forgotten how to ride and I think each time I get on from now on I’ll find it easier and easier. The best Christmas present I could have had and a complete surprise.

I wish all the kind people who read my blog a very happy Holidays!

You Can Go Home Again (if you’re a snail)

I’m in Colorado Springs some 43 years after my last Christmas here. To go back to that event? Sad and painful. It was my dad’s last Christmas. We did our Christmas Eve gift thing in the nursing home with him. He gave me a beautiful pen and pencil set and scrawled in late stage MS penmanship, “keep writing.” He also gave me his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam inscribed with a message that I should regard it as a book of advice. I kept the gift tags and they are safe somewhere in a packed box I have yet to open.

Of of course I never imagined coming back here for Christmas. I could not imagine there would ever be a reason. I left, right?

The city has grown and changed. Many familiar places remain — and they are still familiar. The adage “you can’t go home again” is not strictly true. This city is still sort of “home.” When I left at age 20, the pain of the previous few years was unbearably intense. I thought such pain was tied to this place and by leaving here I would leave that behind, too.

I know better now. Loss and pain are everywhere in life.

Today was coldish but with a fierce wind. My friend LM is taking lessons in riding and understanding horses and we went out to the stables this morning for that, but the wind was too brutal for her to ride or, really, for the horses to be long outside the barn. I got to hang out with some wonderful horses for half an hour or more. One was a small yearling mare — half Arabian and half quarter horse. Another was a sorrel quarter horse whose friend was a gray Persian cat. There was an immense (to me) gray horse with a sense of humor who decided I’d hung out long enough with the yearling. He came up behind me and bumped my elbow to say, “My turn!”

Since last January when Brownie came to live next door and I got to know him, I’ve liked horses and have become very curious about them and the way they seem able to communicate with me. It always seemed kind of bogus, the relationship between, say, a cowboy and a horse, but Brownie clearly knew me and loved me and knew when I was there and when I was not. He knew when to expect me home on which days. If I said, “I’ll be right back,” he waited. Now I want to know more.

Horses were part of my life here so long ago, too, but like everything they were sharp and scary and pain inflicting. My best friend back then had a horse who actively resented me. It was true. But I made the mistake then of thinking that was horses. I didn’t see the intelligence behind her jealousy just as I didn’t see that pain is a part of life in general, for everyone, not just for me in this one place in one moment of life.

Maybe when you’re young it’s impossible to see the big picture just because you haven’t lived long enough to have turned over many pieces of the puzzle…