Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cousins...




We have certain days in our lives that take on significance. They stand out from the others in either great joy, or like today, great sadness. The memories of them take on a certain hue, be it a brilliant lightness when we fall in love, or see the smiles and hear the laughter of our children. Or the dull grey and black stillness after a storm has passed with more dark clouds on the way. My cousin died today, and though the sun shines brightly outside and the skies are a flawless blue, all I see, all I feel is the grey. A shadow that has its hand upon my shoulder touching me with unrelenting grief and guilt at my distance from the unfolding of these events.

I had an older brother whom passed away over 20 years ago now, when I first arrived here in New Zealand. I never felt for him what I am feeling now inside for my cousin. The reality is I was far closer to Roger, far more of a brother to him than I ever was to my own brother and so the shadows of grief are far more consuming and mist filled in direct proportion to the love I felt for him. And although our paths physically only crossed a few times in the years since I moved here, he was always in my heart. We never missed a beat. We never judged, we never lectured, we never shook our heads at our flaws and our mistakes. We just loved each other and took the moments when we could. I think we both carried the same sort of melancholic sadness and searching that truly made us kindred souls. We understood each other completely and without need to explain. Today has left a deep hole in many hearts....

We were born six weeks apart. Those two little babies on the laps of our mothers would grow into very large men. How I wish I could sit in that lap and be comforted just one more time...

The most special times of anticipation for me growing up was when we travelled to Chicago, or when our people there were coming up to Green Bay. Waiting for those cars with Illinois license plates to pull in the drive and watch those people emerge...my grandparents, my great aunt and uncle, my aunt and uncle, and most of all my cousins! Be it Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, or a Packer - Bear game, it didn't matter, the fun was about to begin.


    
My dad, me, my grandfather and Roger, my Uncle Roger and older brother Steve. The men of my youth. I am the only one left from this moment, those men in their prime and we boys. A high water mark.


      
Families eh...Roger adored my older brother Steve. Steve was a pretty awesome guitar player and Roger was highly interested in that. He was probably closer to Steve than I ever was. He seemed to understand him and Steve had far more time and patience for Roger than he ever did for me. My sister Trish and I would be entertained for hours by Roger. He had that gift of just being able to look at you and make you laugh. We spent a lot of time teasing, or being teased by our older sisters as well.

Through the years we developed different interests and activities. Roger acquired a beautiful '57' Chevy and a biker jacket. I wore my letterman jacket. Yet it did not matter if we were on his turf or mine. Amongst his friends and their world I was included and accepted, just as he was in mine. I like to think of that as a quality in ourselves and the friends we chose. We had some interesting times as teens, and in our 20's. I will leave it at that.


  When I was in my mid 20's I graduated from college and moved to Minneapolis. Roger stayed in the Chicago area. We saw each other a bit less frequently. I got a call from my mom one afternoon, which surprised me a bit as I knew she and my dad were traveling out east. My dad had had a heart attack and was dead. My mom was in South Carolina and needed me to come and get her. I arranged a flight schedule that took me on 3 different flights to get to Charleston. I arrived there 12 hours later and found my mom in a hotel. It was the first time I ever saw age on her. We made whatever arrangements we needed about my dad and immediately began driving home to Wisconsin, I would stop and call my sisters to inform them of our progress and try to comfort them. We drove straight through. The next few days were a blur of activity and people coming and going and over that 72 hours I would have been lucky to have slept 5. I had not cried, I had not really thought much at all, I was numbed to everything. The funeral wake came and I recall my friends hugging me and people paying their respects as if in a dream. Then in walked my Chicago family. When I saw Roger everything cleared and the enormity of it all hit me like a sledgehammer. I collapsed into his massive frame and powerful arms and I wept and wailed. I felt like he and I were entirely alone, and that he was the only one whom could bear my weight, my grief, my sadness. He just held me. He understood. Until today I have always known those arms were still there for me and now they are gone. If I close my eyes and release myself I can still feel that hug.

The last time I saw Roger was in Chicago a few years ago on my last visit home. I was so pleased that he finally got to meet my youngest son Charlie. It was stifling hot and most of the last evening there at my Aunt Jean's house he and I sat outside on the porch. Me drinking whiskey, Roger smoking cigarette after cigarette. He no longer drank. We talked long into the night about our lives, about our families. Roger had finally found a real passion with photography but we didn't much get into the future. We never did much of that in our 50 plus years of each others company. We were always just in the moment. A blessing and a curse. I think we both always knew that as well. When I hugged him goodbye in the early hours of that hot summer morning I did as if at may be the last hug ever. You learn to do that with people when you live on the far side of the world away. As it turns out it was our last hug. But not my last tears. Those tears for that goodbye, for all the embraces, hugs, laughter, honest tears, sadness, Old Style beer, Elvis Presley, basketball camps, 57 Chevy's, Packers and Bears, up all night talking in smoky hotel rooms, getting me out of fights, for him loving my brother, for being tender when my friend Kevin killed himself, for picking me up at airports, and most of all, for that long beautiful hug when my father died....I love you cuz. I love you my brother. Keep the fire warm...


Friday, July 24, 2015

Sharing a fire with Wordsworth...

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.... Wordsworth, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud


  My birthday approaches rapidly. Seemingly as rapidly as the years seem to slip by. I have spent the last 14 birthdays in the Ruahine, something of a tradition it has become for me to roam a bit and reflect. A few trips have been with other notable friends, but most on my own. The best Gift my lovely and understanding wife and family can bestow upon me. This year, my 15th, I am healing slowly from a knee injury and so the trip I normally take at or around my birthday will be delayed until mid August. Giving my knee proper time to rest and heal and then a few weeks to gain a bit of condition. So I sit back and am reminded of Wordsworth reflecting back on his wanderings. It is good to have memories just as to have dreams...
 I think of a few other trips, one in particular, when the true power of the mountains suddenly and brutally revealed itself. Had this little hut not have been there I would have been in serious trouble...

2 August, 2007 4:30 pm...Top Maropea

There will be no getting across the exposed saddle today. It is a full blown blizzard outside and the hut is rocking and shaking in the gale force winds. It is -7 celsius, in the hut! I arrived here around noon from Maropea Forks. The weather was eerily still when I left and began the walk upriver.The cloud that has hung over the valley the last 3 days still persisted. A slight foreboding feeling shadowed me as I walked up the wild river. By the time I reached the side creek after 3 hours the wind had picked up and the skies cleared. I stopped a few minutes up the creek in the first patch of sunshine I had seen and felt in four days and ate some beef jerky. Within 20 minutes the skies had blackened, the temperature dropped to a freezing swirl of wind and blowing snow. It sounded like a freight train was passing right next to my ear. I climbed up the creek, up into the forest, and up to Top Maropea. I could hear tree branches snapping off  like gunshots. The high pitched creaking and swaying of the trees played a frightful tune with the howling winds. I arrived wide eyed and thankful at the hut.

  I waited until 2:30 and decided to at least walk up to the start of the exposed tops and see what the situation was up there. It is not the route across the exposed 1 hour plus walk that is the problem, it is the wind and cold that is the worry. It is only 20 minutes climb through the forest into the tupare and then the tops. By the time I arrived there I must have resembled a snowman. The accumulated snow falling off the tawhairauriki onto me. The noise of the storm, the cold, the chill all around me was stunning. When I got to the very edge of the tupare and tops my jaw dropped and I just stared. What I saw just stopped me in my tracks. The entire scene in front of me was devoid of life, drained of colour. It was death itself and I knew it. I took some photos, and by the grace of the mountain God's I was able to get reception on my phone. I sent texts to Tara, her family, a friend. Several times. Then I retreated back down to the freezing hut....


The approach to the saddle, just outside the tupare zone and forest that very day. The sound, look and feel of it is far beyond what this photo manages to portray.

2 August continued....

   The water tank is frozen but plenty of snow to melt for a few hot drinks and soup to warm up. Though out of the wind the hut is like being inside a freezer. I have changed into all my dry clothes and a few still wet ones as well. I have the choice of crawling into my sleeping bag and trying to get warm, or busy myself and try to build a fire and get at least the illusion of warmth.
 I put my wet gear back on and went into the storm. I knew where some chunks of old tupare were and pulled them from the snow. I worked them into a box shape open on my end in the fireplace. Then used my saw to rend the driest beech in the wood bin into pieces of various sizes. Then I used my knife to shave off kindling into my billy and dried them over my stove. Using a candle stub I worked the shavings and kindling into a small fire and by patience and perseverance got it worked into a flaming crackling cauldron of warmth. At least when I sat directly in front of it. Once the tupare chunks warmed up and then caught like coal I have a real slow long lasting fire. A bit smokey at times but who is complaining. I am able to hang and dry my gear, or at least get it from wet to just damp, have removed a layer of clothes even, and warmed the hut to a balmy 3 degrees. This is the best fire I have ever built, and probably the most necessary...

 I had dinner of noodles and tuna. Left in my supplies are a full gas canister, a tin of smoked mussels, a packet of 2 minute noodles, 4 instant soups, cashews, chocolate, some porridge and powdered milk. Lots of tea. There are some old instant mashed potatoes here at the hut.. I have no idea how long this storm will last so want to know exactly what I have at hand. Seems enough for several days if need be...it has been good to stay busy and focused. In spite of everything I feel calm and content. The hut even seems to brace itself for the gales and gusts which reach down and make it rock. Then we settle back into our rhythm. There is a certain beauty to this day...I have my down bag ready, and my bivvy bag as well, time to ride out the dark night and try and sleep...



Top Maropea fire...not the fire from that day but the idea is abundantly apparent....

3 August, 7:15 am...Conditions are not improved at all, except the snow has stopped. The nor'west wind still howls over, occasionally blasting low down through here and I hold on. The roof blew off the dunny upsetting my normal morning constitutional routine to no end! It is now -2 here in the hut. What wood I have left I must preserve if I need to stay another night. All I can do is wait and hope the wind drops at some point today. Pen and paper comes in handy...
  You wanted solitude Robb..here is an adult portion. I come here because it is a place I feel whole and at ease with myself. Which is easy, I guess, when skies are blue, winds are light, and the rivers are clear. I am glad to write I still feel that. I feel in control of what I can control. There is no point in a tantrum or anger. The nor'wester will simply roll on, the mountains will just do as they do...time for a cup of tea and some porridge.



Next morning. Tupare and tawhairaurinui covered in ice and snow...

Coda:  
   Later in the afternoon I sensed a slight dropping off of wind. The severe gusts came less frequently. I made the decision to pack up and go for it. It was less severe up top but still very cold and windy. At the very top of the climb is a near razor back ridge of perhaps 400 metres or so. It was solid ice. A few times gusts came on and literally had me sliding forward pushed by the wind. My poles came in handy as brakes. After that I just hunkered down and hurried through the gusts and arrived at Sunrise hut. I was safe. A quick brew and I headed down to my car. As I got lower down the mountain it got warmer and by the time I got to my car I was sweating and stripped down, surrounded by mushy melting snow and green pasture below me. I looked back up at those hills high above where it felt not long ago I was in a fight for my life. I wondered if I would tell anyone or if I would even be believed if I did. What I knew for sure was that there was still a feeling a wistful regret I was leaving them and already looking forward to returning. I sit here now and pause and drink my coffee and feel this day again. My knee feels better already.


Self portrait in the hut at -7 celsius. The camera lens kept frosting over. About to build a fire...

Cheers!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Early Evening at Top Maropea




"Early Evening at Top Maropea"

It is still and quiet within this misty coccoon
far below I can hear the endless murmur of the creek
punctuated by the occasional eruption of a stag's bellow
other moments it seems all I sense is the beating of my own heart
Warmly attired to ward off the southerly chill, wee dram at hand
I am in no hurry to move
My wood is chopped and piled high
the fire awaits only the touch of a match
water for my tea and thirst filled in billy and bottle
Warm down nest awaits with comforting embrace
Four days in the Ruahine makes my life
very simple.
Robb - Top Maropea 14-04-12. Early evening

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Day Ahead


 Early starry morn
steam rising off breath
off coffee
off damp clothes absorbing
my freshly un-bedded warmth
The day unfolds as a lovers caress
calling to go upwards and beyond
to distant places
mind free of other burdens
echoes of the past fade
as only footsteps in the tussock matter
leading to the rivers song
far below...

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Birthday


What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and often I found in the son the unveiled secret of the father.
Friedrich Nietzsche 

  The above photo is my most significant Ruahine moment spent with my oldest son Taylor. I'm not quite sure why, as it is slightly out of focus. Then again maybe that is exactly why. The whole scene fairly well represented our relationship at the time, and to be perfectly honest still does. A bit out of focus, a bit unsure and the ground just below very dangerous and steep. It is only a 10 minute climb from where he sits down to the stream below. Yet it is 10 minutes that requires total concentration and the consequences of a mistake are possibly quite severe. This was perhaps the 5th time Taylor would do this climb down, starting from age 8 until here at age 18. Yet this one had me nervous and tense and I was very glad when he made the final small jump from the steep bank to the stream bed.

  Getting from the stream to the river, and the river down to Maropea Forks is pretty straight forward, just a matter really of one foot in front of the other. I relaxed and started to just enjoy the day. The sun shining and sparkling on the water, the pools deep and clear with a tinge of green. We came across a pair of whio and I stopped to spend a bit of time watching them and getting a few photos. Taylor carried on ahead....I didn't see him for the next 20 hours.

   Getting Taylor down that steep cliff seemed easy when he was little. I am not sure why it felt so hard when was older. Or why I didn't keep a closer eye on him down on the river, that I simply assumed he knew the way or would wait for me. Much a metaphor for my being his father. And being smacked between the eyes with the reality that fatherhood, parenthood, never really gets easier. It instead gets harder. Our own worries and expectations never really wane. I see so much of my own self in Taylor yet the words choke inside me, or are spoke in vain when I try to express this connection. The fragility of it freezes me or brings the words in ways I do not mean. I cannot steer his ship.

  Today is his birthday. I will not see him for another few weeks yet, I wished him a happy day and that I loved him. We have a long way to go down that river yet...



     

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The End of the Road



I came across something yesterday on my Facebook feed that stopped me in my literal tracks. FB now shows us posts from the past, something I actually agree with in the very temporal sound byte social media world...it was a song an old friend had shared to my page back in late 2011. A Chris Whitley tune called the Cool Wooden Crosses. I listened to it again and felt tears coming and a lump gathering in my throat.

My friend Kregg and I go way back. From the last few years of Grade School and Junior High. It wasn't till actually in high school that we really began to hang out, part of the same small group of friends from those days whom I will always keep close to my heart. My best friend, Kevin, had killed himself at age 15, and for a year or longer I actually felt quite mad and dis attached. Nothing made sense anymore, nothing seemed important. I still battle with that from time to time, and having a small group of friends whom accepted me was literally life saving. And at age 16 highly important. I began to laugh and smile again. Kregg and I were never the best of mates, but we always had a mutual sort of understanding. A connection through pain. When Kregg was only 7-8 years old he saw his mother pick up a .22 rifle and shoot his drunken father 7 times and killing him. He was eating a bowl of cereal with his brother, it happened right in front of him and he saw he whole thing. His father had been abusing her, and them for years. She became, to my knowledge, the very first woman to begin the battered wife syndrome. She still served time in prison and the boys went to live with their grandparents. Kregg rarely ever even mentioned it, but a few times we shared quiet moments over seeing and being part of such darkness. We would talk and then suddenly he would just stop. I knew at times Kregg struggled much as I did. That was our bond.

After high school we went our separate ways, seeing each other during the summers and college holidays but more and more drifting into our own lives, our own paths. His keeping him close to our hometown, mine carrying me to far off places. Still when I returned home our little group always managed to catch up, have a few laughs and recall those moments way back when that even then grew a bit hazy. Except the ones based around pain. Those don't fade so easy. We spent a fair a bit of time at a cabin he owned with another good friend. He was an excellent hunter and fisherman. Very patient and very skilled. Those walks in the woods with him and our other mates were stirring something deep inside me. A view and a feeling of the woods, lakes, streams that ran deeper than just mere appreciation.

Eventually those occasional meetings dried up. I moved to New Zealand, got married, had kids, got grown up. Kregg too got married, though never had kids as he never wanted to and never did. I had heard he had a business that was flourishing, a big house, and by all accounts was doing very well. I saw him on a few visits back home but probably had been 10 years or so since we had last seen one another when out of the blue I got a Friend Request from him on FB. We began to exchange a lot of views, mostly in agreement, sometimes not. Mostly I was struck by how his taste in music was so similar to my own. So when he sent me that tune I, at the time, gave it a precursory listen and forgot about it really. Till it popped back on my feed a few days ago.

Back in the summer of 2012 we went back to the states for a visit. We arranged an evening celebration at one of our old gang's place. Everyone showed up and it was a wonderful time. The passing of the last 30 years pretty obvious, and the hugs and laughter seemed very genuine.

Less than a month later back in New Zealand I got a phone call one afternoon from the friend whom had hosted that gathering. He told me to sit down. He proceeded to tell me that Kregg had driven from his house, checked into a hotel, and had proceeded to kill himself. In his note he wanted no obituary, no funeral, and no grave. He was to be cremated and his ashes scattered as if he had never existed. I just sat there staring at the wall in front of me. Kregg was dead.

So to see his name pop up was a bit startling. To listen to that tune for the first time. To Listen To It! Hit me like a brick. I understood why he had known I would get it. The haunting, bare, and uncompromising sound of it was something we shared. Not just in music. It was like opening a gift from him. That hot summer night in Wisconsin I never really sat alone with Kregg and asked him what was really happening in his life. I didn't take his face in my hands and look him in the eye and ask him that. I don't write that from guilt. I know what lurked deep in there, and still does within me, wasn't going to come out in him just because I asked. Only the mirror tells us the real truth. My friend Kregg is dead. But he can't erase his presence here. He can't because he sent me a song....

From bitter to empty Go the bridges through town From valley to valley Before she burns them down Before she burns them down Well they gather by the river Many miles above the ground In a tower of mirrors Before she burns them down Hear the peals of opinions Weigh your words to waste no sound Cool wooden crosses on the mountain Before she burns them down......words by Chris Whitley


That hot summer night July 2012...Kregg is in the back with the red shirt. Keep the fire lit e hoa

...

Monday, July 6, 2015

Trees


             Ruahine trees

The bleached bones of the tawhairauriki
reach to the heavens
beseeching
their lives spent on these forlorn
wind battered, thin soiled ridges
clinging on for sustenance and life
beseeching and moaning not for their own fate
they accept this, put your ear upon them
lean against the seemingly dead bulk
and feel the life within, the whole ridge sways
and moves as one
No, they do not bemoan their own fate
they bemoan ours
and what we so callously do to the places
we should be the closest too
they wail at how misguided, how disconnected
we have become from these truths
Look to the bones, see how they return to the earth
with such grace
They are not mournful for themselves
they mourn for us and how we will not Listen!
This is the wairua, the spirit, of the mountains.