By Hal Walter
As I was pulling away from the feed store I noticed the early evening light on the headstones of the small cemetery on the hillside about a mile away. I’ve seen so many great photos of cemeteries in the Southwest, and had tried some photography in this graveyard a couple of times with no luck. But this evening the light and the clouds looked interesting and I thought I’d drive up there and take a look around.
Harrison and I got out of the car and stepped across the cattle guard and into the fenced-in area. There was a warm breeze and the little flags on the veterans’ graves all fluttered in unison. It seems there’s always a breeze at this cemetery. But it’s one of the most peaceful places I know. Harrison began running around looking at the headstones, reading the names, some of them of well-known Wet Mountain Valley families.
For the past few years it’s been common for us to hang out at the playground after school lets out so Harrison can play with the other kids. But he had become less interested in the playground or his friends, and more commonly bothered their parents, asking for their cell phones or their keys, interrupting conversations. One afternoon his behavior was such that I realized I needed to physically remove him from the playground. Like so many of these incidents over the years, after it’s over it’s all a blur, difficult to remember the sequence of events and the deciding factor that led to the decision to take extreme measures. He had been rude to his friends and their parents. He had yelled and screamed. He had talked back when I asked him to stop, and continued on with the misbehavior. At some point I took his backpack over to the car then returned to pick him up and carry him kicking and screaming and swinging from the playground with a group of parents of neurotypical children as an audience. I know deep inside few of these people could do what I just did without the guidance of both a personal trainer and a psychotherapist. This is the sort of behavior and consequences one might expect when dealing with much younger children, but at 9 years old it’s physically like picking up and carrying a very uncooperative and loud bale of hay, and psychologically as flattening as being run over by a truck.
Afterward strikes the realization that as a parent I could avoid this entire scene repeating itself by simply avoiding the playground.
Now Harrison was running around the graveyard like it was a playground. He asked if it was a maze. I told him no, that this was a cemetery, and anticipated the next question but there was none. In recent months he’d had questions about death and dying, and I’d tried to explain as best as I could, keeping in mind that such abstract notions seemed the most difficult for the autistic mind to reason. I recalled the sheer terror when I was about his age and learned about death and that some people were buried after they died. I stayed awake at night in a claustrophobic panic at this notion. I didn’t want Harrison to have this same experience, but then many grown-ups battle with this fear.
We walked the little two-track dirt road through the graveyard, and I focused on a tall white cross with some headstones and iron grave fences behind it, clouds for a backdrop. I took several shots at different angles. I knew the images were somewhat less awesome than, say, Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” for example.
When I turned around I found Harrison sitting in a painted white wrought-iron bench at the foot of a nearby grave. As I walked up to him I could see the massive and dark-polished stone, the actual grave covered in decorative gravel — white with a red pattern. Harrison was inspecting a weathered teddy bear that was wired to the bench as if to keep the ever-present wind from carrying it away. I looked to the stone and saw the grave belonged to a girl who had died when she was 15.
What is this? Harrison asked.
Well . . . it’s the grave of a girl who died, I said. She’s buried here.
Let’s dig her out, he said with an air of concern.
No, son, she’s gone . . . her spirit lives on but her body is dead. Just her body is buried here.
Is her spirit gone to outer space?
No, her spirit is in heaven. This is a just a place where her family can come and sit and remember her, talk to her.
OK. he said.
We walked down the little two-track road and I paused to take more pictures. Harrison read more names from the stones. I surveyed the little cemetery and its collection of graves. A big white stone Santo stood at the entrance with arms outstretched. The graves were marked with everything from simple hand-painted wooden crosses and small flagstone slabs to ornate granite and marble stones, some with spires and crosses. Fences around some of the plots. Little pots of plastic flowers. We went back to the car. I looked through the windshield at the sweeping range of the valley. Because of my childhood fear of being buried I’d always wanted to be cremated, but I thought if I were to change my mind this would be the place to be. On the wind there was the sound of music, like someone playing a flute very badly. I stuck my head out the window trying to determine what this sound was and where it was coming from. I asked Harrison if he heard it too and he said yes.
Finally I stood back out of the car and listened. The sound was coming from the cemetery. Perhaps some wind flute over a grave, or the breeze breathing through a fence, a headstone or some other ornament placed by those left behind. Or perhaps the music of a friendly spirit playing a tune to a weathered teddy bear.
Nine-time World Champion pack-burro racer Joe Glavinick died this past week. He was 85. When I first started racing pack burros back in 1980, Joe was 52 and still a force to be reckoned with. A legend in the sport, he was written up in Sports Illustrated, The Denver Post and featured in a booklet advertising the International Scout 4WD vehicle.
In his burro-racing career he won World Championships on the Leadville-Fairplay, Fairplay-Breckenridge, and current 29-mile Fairplay routes. His titles spanned an amazing 21 years, winning his first race in 1955 and his last in 1976.
Here’s a story I wrote about Joe back when I nominated him to the Leadville-Lake County Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
For the past couple of days I’ve been searching around the house for two small things I’d not seen in a while. I looked on shelves, in drawers, in boxes, in plastic containers of odds and ends. These items I was looking for had not seemed all that important for the nearly three decades I’d had them, but suddenly finding them seemed paramount.
I was looking for my Boston Marathon medals.
To me they’d always been just another couple of trinkets among a collection of hardware won throughout the course of my running “career,” if it can be called that. As I sorted through the various medals stashed away I found some that brought back memories. “The Rawhide Marathon,” “Skyline Drive 10K Overall Winner.” “Leadville Trail 100” . . . all great memories but I wanted to find the thick gray medals, the ones with the unicorn on them.
And all this time I was looking for the darned things what I was really trying to sort out was my feelings about the tragedy at the Boston Marathon. Were my feelings any different from those who had never run the race? Did I have more empathy because of my past connection with the marathon? Maybe. Maybe not. And really, what does that matter, and who cares anyway?
Finally I did find one of the Boston medals. I held it in my hand and thought of that day when I had run the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to the “Pru” in a driving rainstorm, then went with friends for fish and chips and to a RedSox game. That day so long ago when the world seemed so different than the one we live in today.
In recent days on my daily runs around the neighborhood, I’ve noticed people waving more enthusiastically than usual as they drive past. Some are neighbors. Some are people I’ve never seen before. I doubt any of them know I have a medal with a unicorn on it but somehow I think seeing someone out running means something totally different to them now.
And while splashing through the slush yesterday I suddenly realized why I felt the way I did about the Boston bombings, why I so badly wanted to find those medals, why running is important, why those people were waving. I knew now what the Tarahumara of Mexico know. And what the Maasai of Africa know. Running — this ancient form of travel, of hunting food, of spreading the news — builds tribal cohesiveness. And the lack of tribal cohesive is really what’s at the core of tragedies such as Boston.
So do this today. Go run. Run however far you can. However far you want. Run for 6 seconds or run for 60 minutes. Run 10 feet or run 10 miles. Run from your office to your car or run from your home to your office. Run because light drives out darkness. Run in place. Run around your house or run around a track or around a park. Run up your driveway or across town. Run because love beats hate very time. Run from your desk to the coffee pot or run across a mountain pass, a prairie, a desert, or on a beach. Run for the chance to wave to people you may or may not know, or to connect with someone you may have forgotten within yourself. Run for those who no longer can and for those who never will again.
Run because we’re all in this together.
Just go run.
By Hal Walter
For some of us a lifetime is marked not so much by the years, but by the lifespans of our animals. Like small eras within the journey, each is etched by the memories and adventures of our four-legged friends.
Which is all to say that for the first time in many years, this house is without a dog. Our little rat terrier Ted died recently.
He was a gift from my friend, the late Rob Pedretti. Rob’s brother Rick helped acquire the pup from an Amish family in Wisconsin. Then Rob’s mom flew Ted out here in a laundry basket on a jet. Somehow he wound up in Grand Junction where Rob was guiding. I took possession of Ted at Cotopaxi, where Rob handed him over one winter evening 14 years ago on his way home to Cañon City. Ted was so tiny he could sit on an upright palm.
I did some research and found that the rat terrier breed was developed by blending the smooth fox terrier, with whippet and beagle. The breed was said to be favored by President Teddy Roosevelt. Therefore the name “Ted.”
When Ted moved in we had just lost our big dog Golden, a possible border collie/golden lab cross who I’d found alongside the highway one late night on my way home from my newspaper job. We also had an aging cocker spaniel named Spats who initially was not amused by the young whippetsnapper moving into the house.
The little dog proved to be a big presence. Not needy or pushy but always in the background. I never had to worry about picking up any food I dropped while cooking. He had long legs for a dog his size and could run mile after mile, and for many years he followed along on workouts and other adventures all over the mountains around here.
Back when the old rancher was still running cattle on the ranch north of us, a huge bull appeared here at the house one evening. A friend was visiting and we were busy in the kitchen when we saw the red monster stroll through the front gate. We opened the front door to get a better look and Ted flew out past us barking and charging right after the bull. The big bovine was startled by the little dog, and turned and ran. Ted, all 16 pounds of him, chased the 1,600-pound critter right out of here. You would’ve had to be there to believe how hard we laughed.
A few years later our new neighbor who raised border collie dogs drove her purebred female all the way to Montana to be bred by a high-blooded stud. The morning following her return she was startled to find her border collie keeping company with Ted, and the result was a single pup specifically engineered for herding rats.
On the evening of the Summer Solstice a couple of years ago Ted was attacked by coyotes. How he managed to escape I’ll never know. Somehow he managed to fight his way back to the house. He had two pairs of puncture wounds to either side of the ribcage where one of the coyotes apparently had bitten him across the back. He was sore, bleeding and covered in dust. The next day a country vet treated him on the tailgate of a pickup truck and within a few days he seemed nearly back to normal, but I’ll always wonder if there were some lasting effects.
When he suddenly started to have the seizures in his final days he acted like he might puke, but when I called him to go outside he couldn’t move. I carried him outside and he flailed about, kicking, unable to stand. I ultimately drove him to a local veterinarian. Pharmaceuticals stopped the convulsions, but I left him there overnight expecting that I would not see him alive again.
However, Ted rallied and the next day I brought him home. He showed some improvement but the seizures continued periodically, and his eyesight and balance were impaired. On his last Saturday night he was up and around, acting 90 percent his old self. But the next day was a downward spiral. At one time he wandered away while I wasn’t looking and I eventually spotted him on the hillside a good way north of the house. When I went to retrieve him he initially followed me back toward home, but then turned and headed back to the hillside. I carried him back to house and wondered, was he totally disoriented, or just looking for someplace to die?
That evening the seizures became more severe and longer in duration. By the next morning he was weak, and I wondered if he could see anything at all. I decided it was time to make the long drive back to the vet. And there with a pat on the head and a “See ya, Ted,” I said goodbye.
Late on the still night of the winter solstice I pulled on my boots and waded through the new snow back over to the hillside where Ted had been trying to go in his last day. The moon, just past half-full, was bright with rings in the West and the Big Dipper sprawled over the northern sky.
I climbed up to the top of a big rock and opened the urn. Ironically the only other ashes I’d ever placed were those of the friend who’d given me this dog. When I tossed the ashes I’d imagined they would scatter, and so I was surprised when they held together like sand in the moonlight, with most of them landing on and near a bush at the foot of the rock. I guess that is where they were meant to be.
I walked slowly back to the house where everyone inside was sleeping and I could see the lights of the yule tree in the window. I stopped and took in the silence. It’s amazing how loudly the pines on a neighboring hillside can whisper even when there is no breeze at all.
By Hal Walter
The demand for local food has outstripped supply — and that demand is still growing.
That was local food proponent Michael Brownlee’s message to Arkansas Valley Organic Growers on Thursday. Brownlee is the spokesman for Transition Colorado, a Boulder-based movement aimed at promoting local and regional “foodsheds” through its Local Food Shift program. The program urges consumers to buy 10 percent of foods they consume from local sources.
By Hal Walter
Of all the holidays, Halloween is the one festivity that seems to turn out the entire Westcliffe community.
If it’s a school day the kids strike out as soon as the bell rings at 4 p.m., swarming in costume, many with parents in tow, to the downtown business district. Some of the adults wear costumes as well.
It amounts to a street party as the kids trick-or-treat the various shops and restaurants in the golden sunlight. For the grown-ups it’s a chance to socialize, and take time to actually talk with people you often only share waves with on the highway.
Over the years, the trick-or-treat routine has become less stressful. Our autistic son Harrison has gotten much better at the drill. In fact, this year in his “No. 2 costume” he often led the way in his little group of friends’ quest for candy.
It wasn’t always this way. I can still remember the first years when he’d follow the other kids into the establishments, and then quite often not find his way back out. Inevitably Mary or I would have to find our way through the sea of kids to locate him wandering around in the store or sidetracked by something inside. A couple of times he passed right through the store, through the back office and into the alley.
Some social skills are still lacking. Rarely does Harrison greet the proprietor with a proper “trick-or-treat” or say “thank-you.” We’re still working on that. But at least he doesn’t vanish inside the store.
It’s become customary for one family to host a Halloween dinner party for kids and parents. Afterwards we take the kids out to hit up some of the neighboring homes for more candy.
Actually candy and autism are a really bad mix. It’s a concession we make to allow him the social experience. After Halloween is over we toss most of the sugary GMO-laden junk.
But this year Harrison definitely ate too much of the junk early. At the party there were a couple of disruptive outbursts. Afterward, when we went out in the dark for more trick-or-treating, he did what he had not done in years — at one doorstep he dashed past a woman holding a bowl of candy and disappeared inside. His friends crowded the doorway, and I stood on my toes trying to see what was going on. Suddenly he came rambling back out the front door.
At last another Halloween appeared to be over and we were driving home from the festivities. At the point where our road turns off the highway there was another vehicle out ahead in the oncoming lane moving very slowly. I judged its speed and distance, then went ahead and made the turn.
As I drove down the county road, I noticed in my rearview that the car had turned off the highway then stopped. About a mile later I noticed it was moving. As we rounded a bend it appeared the driver was flashing the brights.
I kept on driving. But the car drew closer and the headlights were clearly blinking more frantically. Here it was, Halloween night, and I wasn’t sure if it was someone needing help or whether it was some drunken crazy person, highway robber, a case of road-rage or whatever.
Finally we reached a place where there’s a sharp hill, a cattle guard and a driveway pullout on the right. As I passed over the cattle guard I cranked the car around in the driveway entrance, facing the driver of the following car and ready to roar away in the opposite direction if necessary.
What pulled up was an old man with Alzheimer’s, disoriented and lost. He first apologized for alarming us, but beyond that the discussion was muddled at best. He was aware enough to acknowledge he was lost and wanted help, but when I turned our car back around he apparently then thought he had been talking to two different people. He was 83 years old, driving a car around on Halloween and didn’t seem to have a clue where he was or how to get home.
Mary went into nurse mode with evaluative questioning while I found the miracle of cell-phone service right there and called the sheriff’s office. The dispatcher seemed to know exactly who we’d found, and said his wife had reported him missing that evening. Could we wait with him until the deputies arrived?
We tried to make conversation as we waited. He was incredibly polite. We asked about his career life, his family; despite his lapses he was still quite sharp about these matters. Meanwhile he seemed preoccupied about his oxygen bottles. Were they in the back seat? Yes, they’re right there I told him. He asked this two more times. Once he got out and checked the bottles for himself. Then he asked me about the bottles again. It was a strange mix of memory loss and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which I have struggled with most of my life and which I now am aware also often accompanies autism.
All the while Harrison sat in the back seat of our car, happily sorting through his Halloween candy. The bright but waning gibbous moon was low in the sky over the Wet Mountains and I stood outside between the cars, my son with autism in one and the old guy with Alzheimer’s in the other. One in his early years and the other surely in his final few. One preoccupied with candy and the other with oxygen bottles. One with poor social skills and a near photographic memory, the other ultrapolite but unable to remember where his house is. The differences were striking, but some of the parallels were unnerving.
Finally the deputies arrived. The old guy asked if he could drive his car home and one of the deputies courteuosly told him they wanted to make sure he made it home safely. The old gent politely agreed.
They helped him into the passenger seat and soon he was on his way.