Baker City Booming with Life

“What’s there to see in Baker City?” a friend asked when told that my husband, Michael, and I had stopped there on a recent (and rare) road trip.

“The town!” Michael declared emphatically,

Indeed, we turned off the highway at Baker City, Ore. for a lunch break and ended up spending an unplanned three hours in the town of 10,000. Most people stop here to visit the town’s excellent National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretative Center located just five miles east of Baker City or the Baker Heritage Museum found just off the highway as you enter the main section of town.   Both are good museums and offer a glimpse into pioneer life for those who came through here during the gold rush of he 1860s.  For many, Baker City was one of the last stopping points before traversing the Cascade Mountains that separate Eastern and Western Oregon.

Welcome to Baker City! The sign denoting the town’s historic center.

Some are now crossing back to settle in Baker City.  Like the architect from Portland (and a graduate of Kansas State University) who has retired in Baker City because it’s a ‘real town, with a walk-able downtown and doesn’t live behind walls.”  Larry and his wife now own one of the many historic buildings in downtown Baker City and have been restoring it for new tenants.

As Larry pointed out, Baker City is almost an anomaly these days in America in that this town, with a fabulous view of the snow-capped Cascades, is a fully preserved and functioning small town.  It’s what people who visit Disneyland’s Main Street expect, except that it’s not fabricated.

The Baker City trolley runs through downtown.

The buildings that line Baker City’s Main Street have been there since the late 1800s when Baker City was known as the “Queen City of the Mines.”  At the time, the town’s population exceeded that of either Spokane or Boise.  Miners, cowboys, ranchers and gamblers were drawn to its dance halls and five saloons.  Those who needed a place to stay could pick from any one of the town’s ten hotels.

The Geiser Grand is open for guests and on the National Historic Register.

One of the grandest of these, the Geiser Grand, is still in business and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  During our self-guided walking tour of the town, my husband and I wandered in to the lobby of this corner hotel to be greeted with  a decor reminiscent of its glorious days past.  The hotel was only reopened and restored in 1997 after having been shuttered for nearly 30 years.  Today, the front desk clerk says the hotel is a favorite choice of government and business people who come to town.  The hotel offers tours of its interior once a day at 2 p.m. but unfortunately one wasn’t available the day we visited.

In the 1890s the Geiser Grand was a grand place to stay.

I learned from the bartender on duty at the hotel that the people of Baker City made a conscious decision ten to 15 years ago, not to permit the big box discount stores to build in town.  The nearest one of these you’ll find is an hour’s drive away in either Le Grand or Ontario.  As Larry, the architect, explained, Le Grand is Eastern Oregon’s center for the Arts; Ontario is for the shopping and Baker City is all business.

The stores and shops in Baker City’s downtown appear to be thriving and cater to those who live there, not just tourists.  There’s a fabric store, a toy store, a stationers, a couple bookstores, a home store, legal and financial offices, a radiator repair shop, a jeweler’s, a women’s clothing boutique, an eye clinic and a movie theatre–the kind of places you’d expect to find in any American small town not that long ago.  If you’re hungry, as we were, there are plenty of tempting cafes, bakeries, breweries and restaurants from which to choose for whatever suits your appetite.

One of several restaurants and cafes in downtown Baker City is Charley’s Deli.

Don’t miss the town’s Crossroads Carnegie Art Center housed in what was once it’s public library.  In fact, we started our tour of town there.  Formerly a Carnegie Library, designed in the classic colonial style typical of so many Carnegie Libraries, the building was constructed entirely of “black speckled stone” quarried from the area, according to a docent I met there.  The interior was similar, if not exactly, as the one I remembered from my hometown.  The stacks have been removed to create an open gallery for rotating art exhibits, one of which was hanging when we visited.  Downstairs, once occupied by the children’s library, is now an art studio and small space for lectures and special presentations.  It’s well worth spending some time.

The 110-year-old Carnegie Library now serves as the town’s art center.

One of Baker City’s biggest events was brought to our attention by Larry, the architect. The Great Salt Lick , an art auction that occurs the third week of September, benefits Parkinson’s Disease research.  It’s an event befitting the agricultural and ranching center and goes towards a good cause.  Local ranchers and others scour the fields looking for the most creatively licked salt blocks by elk, deer, cows, horses, etc. The blocks are then named, poems are written about them and both are displayed for the auction.  There’s even a sculpture downtown now commemorating this truly unique art form.

The Baker bull sculptre stands on Main Street outside one of the local art galleries.

We stopped for lunch and ended up spending a little more than three enjoyable hours, strolling through downtown, looking at the building, talking with locals and finally finishing with a tasty late lunch at the Lone Pine Cafe on Main. I’d recommend it.

Driving out of town, I spotted what I thought was the official post office, again nearly an exact copy of the same post office in my hometown. But it turned out the building was now private offices; the official post office has moved up the street into a newer, less impressive structure. That was the only disappointment during our brief visit to Baker City.  I’d happily drop in again, eat, visit the Oregon Trail Interpretative Center and maybe even spend the night because Baker City’s an authentic step into the past that’s living in the present.

The old post office was a near duplicate of that in m own hometown.

 

Race Day Brings Excitement, People, Surprises

Today is unquestionably the biggest day of the year in Bellingham.  An estimated 35,000 people come to watch or participate in the Ski to Sea race.  It’s a seven-leg 93-mile relay race that starts at the top of the 10,000 foot Mount Baker and finishes in Bellingham Bay at Marine Park.  During the course of it, competitors ski, bike, canoe, run and kayak.  It’s likely to be one of most demanding and grueling competitive races in the country.

The race began more than one hundred years ago in 1911 as the Mount Baker Marathon organized by the Mount Baker Club as a way to call attention to the area’s spectacular scenery.  But it was suspended when a racer fell into one of the mountain’s crevasses.  Then, in 1973, it was resurrected by Bellingham’s Chamber of Commerce with 177 people competing on 50 different teams. This year, there are 414 teams entered in the race of eight people  each.

A few years ago, I was one of those.  My team, the Angst-Ridden Mamas, made its first appearance in the big race in 2004.  I had decided that to be fully considered as a Bellinghamster, I needed to do the race at least once.  So I signed up a few of my most active friends, paid our entry fee and started to train.  This is a race that attract not only local and amateur athletes but professionals and Olympians who come to be on teams sponsored by local business.  Ours wasn’t one of those.

Team member Terri early on the morning of the race about to head up with other team members to the mountain where the race begins.

There are several different categories under which a team can enter.  We chose to skirt the ultra-competitve professional categories and opted instead to put ourselves into the Whatcom County Women’s Recreational division.  Not only did we think this gave us our best shot at not coming in last, we thought it best fit the skill level and activity of our team members, who like myself were all mom’s with school-aged kids.

That didn’t mean, however, that we didn’t taken ourselves seriously as competitors.  Each of us were signed up for a leg in the sport that we competed or participated in regularly.  As a kayaker who frequently paddled in Bellingham Bay, I took that, the final leg of the race.  Mine was a five-mile course that started at Bellingham’s marina and ended at Marine Park across the water in the historic section of town known as Fairhaven.   In some ways, I felt I had one of the lighter legs in the race compared to the 8-mile run down Mount Baker or the 18.5 mile canoe paddle on the Nooksack River.

The reality is, that each of the seven legs presents its own set of challenges so that none are a ‘piece of cake’ when it comes down to it.

Connie, on her cross country skis, got us started at 8 a.m. on Mount Baker.

My paddling partner, Pat, who also entered on another team that same year, and I increased the frequency of our kayaking practices out in the Bay and lengthened the amount of time that we were in the water as the weeks leading up to race day drew closer.  We tried to improve our stroke technique and build up the distance we could get on each one.  We usually put in our boats early in the a.m. or late in the day when the water conditions are most optimal and the wind less likely to be a major factor.

On race day, however, you don’t have the luxury of choosing your time and the conditions can be considerably treacherous with wind, waves and currents.  While the first professional and Olympian-level teams often enter the water about 1 p.m., we were left sitting by our kayaks, waiting for our mountain biker to arrive well into the afternoon.  I don’t believe I got the hand-off from Carolyn, my mountain biker that first year, until after 4 p.m.

Waiting to go out on race day is one of the hardest parts of the race

The water was choppy but thankfully without white caps. I must note here that no one is allowed in the water without wearing a certified life vest.  You’re also supposed to verify that you know how to get back on or into your boat should you capsize.  I had both qualifications, as did my co-competitor Pat.  Even with all the official chase and spectator motor boats along the course, there was a possibility that you’d need to be prepared to be in the water.  The first turn around the buoy way out in the bay was especially difficult when the wind, coming from the west this particular year, kept pushing you off-course.

I rounded that buoy giving the other nearby paddler plenty of room.  My heart was thumping pretty hard as I did so.  Just as I completed my turn, one of the racers ahead of me dumped out.   Kayakers are also required to stop and assist if another racer needs help but as one of the observation boats was already headed towards that paddler, I kept on course.

The wind was the biggest factor on the second of the three legs of my course.  It seemed to pick up and kept shoving the bow of my boat back and forth .  My rudder was almost ineffective at countering the force as my boat bounced up and down over the waves like a bucking bronc trying to toss its rider.  One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to wind up in the water.  I wasn’t concerned about passing other paddlers, I just wanted to get to that second buoy, safely go around it and start down the final leg which I thought might be calmer water since it was more protected.

Valerie, our team’s road cycler, after finishing up her 40-mile ride.

I managed to do just that and though the water was still choppy, I no longer was battling the wind as much and could actually start to make some headway towards the final buoy and the stretch to the beach in the park.  I could hear voices from the shore cheering on those of us in the water. I even heard someone who recognized my yellow kayak and me call out my name.

With the hardest part of the race behind me now, I felt a surge of adrenaline in my tiring arms and lateral muscles, from where a kayaker really generates their power.  I could make it.  My team might not place but I we wouldn’t be the last ones in either.  I expected that we would end up about in the middle of pack in our division.  I had passed one other woman who I knew was also in that division.  My friend Pat, was somewhere behind me.

As I neared the last buoy and I could now see and hear the crowd that had collected on the beach to watch the finishing leg.  I pushed harder, grabbed the sides of my kayak with my thighs and put everything I had left into the homestretch.  I wasn’t likely to make up much time on this last approach but I was determined not to lose any more either.

Our team’s canoers Sue and Joanne bring their boat up to the finish line of the canoe leg with a little help from Carolyn, our mountain biker who took over from there.

With a few final strokes, my kayak rammed into the pebbly beach where Boy Scout volunteers were waiting to grab the bow and help stablize the boat so I could get out.  My legs wobbled and quivered as I lifted myself outside of my cockpit and scarmbled up the sloping bank to the big brass bell waiting for me at the finish line.  I grabbed the cord still swinging from the previous competitor and gave the bell one big clang.  I had made it. And I hadn’t capsized or lost my paddle or come in last.

My teammates waiting for me rushed over to give me a group hug. There was Connie who had started us off at 8 a.m. that morning on the cross country ski leg on the mountain, and Kathy, who took over from her for the downhill ski portion.  Terri, who’s now on the Board of Directors for the race, had run down the mountain.  Valerie gave us a big lead during her road biking leg to put Sue and Joanne in good position when they took off in their canoe.  And Carolyn delivered to me the sweaty orange elastic wristband that we were all required to wear when she rolled across the finish line of the mountain biking leg. And our support crew–Marla and Gaye.

In my kayak, giving it my all to push through the water on race day.

I was weary and dehydrated but felt exhilarated by the race, the camraderie of my team and the sense of having accomplished and completed something I wasn’t entirely certain I’d be able to do.  Now, came the best part–the party!

I carted my boat back to the community storage shed then went home to quickly shower off the salt water and sweat before going to the party.  I put on my yellow competitor’s t-shirt, given to each team member registered in the race, and walked around the corner to Vicki’s house where we were joining two other teams and friends for food, drink and fun The parties are what many regard as the best part of the race!

I had barely stepped in the door when my teammates surprised me with the declaration:  “We won third place!!”

Much to our surprise, the Angst Ridden Mamas took third place in our division in the Ski to Sea race in 2004.

“What?” I said in disbelief.

“Yes, we came in third,” one of them explained.

Then someone slipped the bronze-colored medal attached to the blue ribbon over my head. They weren’t kidding.  We had managed to medal in our first race ever.  None of us were expecting it. We all just wanted to finish.  So when the “Angst-Ridden Mamas” was called out by the race officials to come to the podium and receive our medals, only one of our team members was still there to receive them.

The third-place medals taken by our team in a surprise ending to our first race.

In my wildest dreams I hadn’t thought we’d place in a race of 300 teams with 2,400 competitors!  I was so surprised, as were my teammates, and proud of what we had done together for fun and so that I could feel a full-fledged Bellinghamster.

Our team competed in the race the following three years. While we didn’t repeat the glory of our inaugural appearance, we had a lot of fun and pride in participating and giving it our best on this one big day.  As I watch racers come in today, I’ll be thinking of how it felt, how hard it was and what a great time I and my team had being part of a very memorable Memorial Day weekend!

 

 

Fremont Church Answers Flood Victims’ Prayers

The carillon of the First Baptist Church in Fremont, Neb. plays every hour on the hour during the day.  Chimed music gently floats over the neighboring area and reminds one of a time gone by, when people dressed in their Sunday best strolled down the brick streets lined with big, two-story American Craftsman and Victorian-styled homes nearby, on their way to morning services.

My brother, Richard, and wife Nola, at the church where he is pastor in Fremont, Neb.

The 150-year-old church sits on the corner of C and Fifth Streets and within sight of the Episcopalian, Lutheran and the former Catholic churches.   These churches likely were built about the same time. First Baptist’s founders met and started their church in 1869, just two years after Nebraska became a state, in a private residence down the street that still stands and is the second oldest structure in Fremont today.  Their current red brick Romanesque Revival style church building is their third and was dedicated in 1923.

The sanctuary reflects the simplicity of a time when it was built in 1923.

Inside, the sanctuary is dignified but simple with massive dark wood beams arching up to the ceiling above the two sections of wooden, upholstered pews divided by a center aisle leading up to the altar area. The minister’s pulpit and choir director’s podium stand on either side of the stepped-up altar area with the choir pews directly behind the massive wooden altar with a large blue stained glass window rising behind in the background. The church still has its pipe organ too with the banks of pipes hidden behind arched screens on either side of the altar area.   Crisscrossed leaded stained glass windows on either side of the sanctuary flood the interior with golden light when the sun shines through.

Golden light illuminates the church’s stained glass windows.

But the heart and soul of this small town church isn’t its brick and mortar building, it’s the people.  During the past two months, have been one of the most generous and helpful to those in Fremont and the even smaller, surrounding towns that are still trying to recover from the massive flooding in mid-March.  This happened when the two rivers in the area, the Platte and the Elkhorn, overflowed after sudden warm weather melted piles of a recent snowstorm and rainstorm after rainstorm dropped more water than the land or rivers could absorb.  The area was literally turned into islands, cut off from one another and outside aid by washed out highways and interstates that are just now re-opening.

From the air you can se the flood water that still stands over much of the area.

Led by its minister, my brother, Richard, his church has provided assistance to 30 outlying communities and “scores and scores of people.”  The church’s family center was turned into a major distribution center and filled with supplies once they could be delivered.  Financial aid, to purchase essentials and food or to replace damaged hot water heaters or propane tanks that had been washed away, was given to those who needed it.  On a recent visit, I went with Richard to give gift cards for these items to three flood victims who were grateful to tears.

Recovered propane tanks that were washed away by the flood waters stamd abandoned and await disposal.

 

We also spent part of an afternoon handing out bottles of energy drinks, packages of athletic socks, cans of vegetables and soups, 5 pound bags of rice and boxes of nutrition bars to those who lived in one of the hardest hit areas of Fremont.  These were largely low income Hispanic families whose mobile homes were livable but badly damaged. Five families took refuge in a local Hispanic church, staying in the basement until they were reassured that it was okay to return to their home.

Maricella emerged to lead the relief effort with the Hispanic community.

One from their community, Maricella, began the relief effort for these people by giving out donations from a truck at a corner Mexican food market in town.  When Richard and his church discovered this, they stepped in and offered to contribute supplies and people to help.

Buckets were filled by church funds and distributed to flood victims/

With help from her organizational skills, they put together a plan and a place for people to safely come to get what they needed. “We don’t ask where they come from or if they are citizens, or church members or what political party they belong to. If they need help, we help them,” says Richard.

During my brief visit, Richard drove me around the areas so I could see the impact the flood had made.  In the tiny town of Winslow, where 81 people once lived,now only three households are there.  They still have no running water and electricity, if they have it, is created by portable generators.  One couple is living in their garage. A giant mountain of ruined possessions, including appliances and furniture is piled along one of dirt streets awaiting someone to come pick it up.  As we were surveying it, one of the remaining residents walked up and tossed something else onto the pile. Richard stopped to talk with him.

The man, probably in his late 30s, told him that his house had been deemed ‘livable’ by diaster authorities but that he had four inches of mud in his basement. Insurance would cover some of the damage but not all. He was lucky, in some cases,  insurance companies are refusing claims because the water came into the house through the basements, not the ground floors, my brother explained.  Richard wrote a name and number on his business card and handed it to the man telling him to contact them for assistance.  The man’s eyes teared up as he thanked us and we said good-bye.

Richard offers some words of comfort and suggestions for help to a flood victim.

These are the kind of interactions that have occurred over and over as Richard and his church have encountered flood victims. People needing help, not knowing where to find it in many cases or denied aid for various reasons from outside government and disaster relief agencies, grateful to learn that this little Fremont church is offering to come to their aid however they can.

Richard carries out boxes of supplies from the church to deliver to the flood victims.

Donations have come from the church’s national association and through many outside individuals in addition to the church members themselves. The last of the relief funds was used for the three gift cards.  There’s still a Donate button that takes you to PayPal on the church website.  If more donations come in, they will provide whatever aid remains to done, not asking for proof of insurance, or citizenship or political affiliation or church membership.

The Sunday I was in town, my brother delivered a message to his congregation that included the story of Jesus feeding the multitude 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes.  I’m sure that he chose to relate that particular story because it illustrated so well what his little church itself has done recently to respond to the flood victims.  They have made a difference in the lives most in need and have made their funds and supplies go further than anyone would have thought.

Richard retells the Biblical story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 people to his Sunday congregation.

 

 

Mother’s Day Memories Are Homemade

I hadn’t planned to write about Mother’s Day for this posting, after all, what more can be said about it?  But then my sister-in-law asked if I would trimming drawings– some in colored-pencil, some with markers–done by the children and teens of her church to give their Mom’s.  As I slid the blade of the paper cutter up and down, along the lines of each child’s message to Mom, a flood of memories came back to me.

I remembered the homemade cards my own sons had done for me, mostly made in their classroom at school, of construction paper and cut-out flowers glued to the fronts with their simple, hand-lettered messages scrawled inside: “I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.” Construction paper doesn’t hold up as well over time as other paper mediums, it crumbles into flakes so I no longer have many, if any, of those lovely greeting cards.  But I can see them in my mind’s eye just as if they had given them to me yesterday.

Handmade cards by children of the church will be given to their Mom’s.

 

More lasting were some of the handcrafted gifts that they created at school for the special day.  In particular, are the little square boxes made of wooden popsicle sticks stacked like a Lincoln log house and glued together in the corners. Each was painted and had a top individually decorated with various shaped pasta pieces.  One is a delicate pink with pieces of shell-shaped macaroni pasted to it. Another is plain wood with rainbow colored twisted pasta pieces, rotelli and macaroni.  The third is golden, again with the rotelli, bow-tie and twisted pasta attached to the top. There’s also a small block of wood on this one, a handle by which the lid can be lifted.  I keep them in a drawer and use them to store my costume jewelry where I see or touch them almost daily.

Among my most treasured items are the homemade boxes by sons made and gave to me on Mother’s Day years ago.

On another Mother’s Day, I received baked clay figurines.  One of my son’s sculpted what appears to be a steagosaurus, the length of my forefinger and painted blue and green and nicely finished with a shiny glaze.  I keep it on a little shelf near by kitchen along with some other collectible figurines that  aren’t nearly as precious to me.

As they grew older, the gifts changed or stopped entirely.  One year, however, I asked for and received from my youngest son, who was writing poetry, if he would write a poem for me.  He did.  It was about dusk falling over New York City, where he now lives.  I placed it in clear glass and it hung, for a time, in his old bedroom at home.  Now I have it among my keepsakes.

Made for me by one of my sons, this tiny steagosaurus has a place on a shelf in my home.

My oldest son, also a fine writer but different, made a card with a photo of a lighthouse, of which he knows I’m fond, that he found on-line and printed a simple, but heartfelt message inside.  This stands on my bookshelf in my studio where it’s easily in view.

Sure, over the years I was given some lovely Mother’s Day presents, a lot of flowers and treated to brunches or dinners out.  But truly, the ones that I treasure are those simple, handmade, hand-crafted or handwritten gifts or cards.  Who knows where the pictures I trimmed this morning will end up?  In some shoe box saved along with other, similar drawings? In a little frame that sits at work on a desk?  Or slipped into a scrapbook with the grade cards and photos from school?  One thing I do know, the will certainly bring a smile, maybe even a tear to each Mom who receives them and maybe, like my own, become an enduring memory of the little one who created it and gave it with love.

 

 

Believe It or Not, Tulip Fields and Festival Top Unbelievable List

A blog that I follow, Culture Trip, popped up in my e-mail the other day with an article entitled:  15 Unbelievable Places You Probably Never Knew Existed in America . Of course I couldn’t resist the challenge to check it out.  As it turned out, I actually was aware of several of them and had visited four.  To my amusement, topping the list was “Skagit Valley Tulip Fields, Washington.”

The Skagit Valley tulip fields attract photographers, professional and amateurs alike, because of the beautiful settings it provides/

Amusing to me because the tulip fields lie just 20 miles to the south of where I live and have been the subject of my own blog twice.  (Tourists and Locals Love Tulip Time and A Trip to Skagit Valley’s Tulip Farms)  I had already planned to make my re-entry this week to my blog  about the tulip festival (after an absence due to my preoccupation with my duties as Executive Director for CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival) .  The idea was prompted by a notice that this weekend would be the last for the tulip festival this year.  It’s always a little sad to learn that those beautiful flowers will be clipped and harvested starting tomorrow bringing an end to another display of fields of color.

Visitors are asked to stay out of the fields and park only in designated areas.

I’m sure those who live in the immediate area are a little happy and relieved to see the month-long event come to a close as literally thousands of people are drawn to see the brilliant blooms causing residents to post ‘no parking’ signs along their property and take alternate routes to avoid the traffic back ups leading to and from the nearby freeway.  For visitors, finding a place to park along the roadways becomes a challenge if you opt not to pay the fee asked by those with the lots.  But it all seems worth the time and money spent to admire the planted ribbons of color and masterful landscaped gardens of the various growers.

Mount Baker rises in the distance with bulbs of bright red in the foreground .

Among the most popular of these farm stops is the RoozenGaarde owned by Washington Bulb Company.  The company flourished under the ownership of William Roozen, a Dutch emigrant who purchased the business in 1955 from its original founders and the first bulb growers in the area, Joe Berger and Cornelius Roozekrans. Today, the Washington Bulb Company is the largest tulip-grower in the country with  350 acres of tulips and 70 million cut flowers shipped throughout the U.S. annually.

In addition, the company also plants 500 acres of daffodils (not nearly as much a draw as the tulips), 150 acres of iris and 600 acres of wheat (no one goes to see that.)

Boxfuls of tulips are cut from the fields and shipped throughout the country.

Someone, I can’t recall who, once told me that the tulips cultivated in the Skagit Valley when harvested are shipped to Holland where they are propagated then returned to the U.S.  and marketed as “Dutch” tulips. Whether or not this is true or just legend I don’t know and haven’t, as a good journalist should, followed up to ask company officials.

The flowers were late this year due to an unusually longer cold spell of weather and didn’t come into full flourish until mid-April.  The festival itself, begun in 1984 by the town of Mount Vernon, starts April 1st, regardless.  What began as a three-day event now is a month-long celebration that includes not only self-guided visits to the fields, but a parade, a ‘tulip’ run,’ concerts and a street fair.

Photographing the tulips looking skyward, the cup-like blooms remind me of colorful balloons on strong green strands.

I’ve not seen the figures but I can only imagine what the economic impact of this highly attended annual festival has on the town and the surrounding area as people make the trek from all over the state and British Columbia just to take in the splendorous display by nature and the bulb farmers. Kind of nice to know that in this day and age of virtual reality and high-tech devices that people can still find such enjoyment and pleasure in what nature has to offer.

I didn’t make the trip down to the fields this year, opting instead to satisfy myself with the tulips growing in my own garden.  But it’s likely I will, as in years, past, go again along with the thousands of others because the beauty of the tulip fields of Skagit Valley is still compelling no matter how many times you’ve seen them.

Food, Family and Fun Times around the Christmas Table

This year for Christmas, I made a photo book for each of my brothers titled:  “Food, Family and Fun Times.”  I was prompted to do so when my younger brother, Brad, asked if I had any of the recipes from my mom and my aunts.  He was looking for one in particular, the red-hot salad that was on our table at nearly every Christmas dinner.   Maybe you know the one I mean:  cherry or strawberry jello combined with applesauce and those pill-sized red-hot candies that are melted before you stir them into the mixture.  You chill it to congeal.  It’s tasty but full of sugar. That’s probably one reason I too liked it so much as a kid.

One of the photos I found while assembling my photo gift book was this one of my Dad slicing green tomatoes for his pie.

Everyone has their own traditions when it comes to Christmas dinners, if your family is fortunate enough to be together for the holiday and can afford this one big feast.  As I assembled the photo book, I searched through my parents’ old photo albums, many of which I have, as well as my own to find photos that I could include in the book.  Originally, I was looking for snapshots taken of my parents and my aunts in their kitchens, preparing some of the foods for which I had the recipe cards.  But I discovered that I had very few of these photos and the ones I had were mostly of my Dad taken just a few years before he died making his favorite picalilli relish or green tomato pie.

One of my Dad’s favorite recipes was this one for the piccalilli relish.

Instead, what I  had were several snapshots taken at the family dinner tables before the meal commenced.  Many were taken on holidays or special occasions, such as birthdays. As I sorted through the years of photos, I studied the dishes placed on the table. Some I could easily recognize, like the fluffy lime green jello salad with pineapple and whipped cream (usually the artificial Cool Whip product) folded in.  Sometimes there was turkey, often ham as the main course.   Mashed potatoes, especially for the Thanksgiving dinner, but at Christmas it often was scalloped potatoes that I recall my Aunt Marie prepared.

There were dinners at the table in the make-shift dining room at my parents’ house at the motel my parents co-owned with my aunt and uncle and where grew up.

The dining room wasn’t large at my parents’ home at the motel where I grew up but the Christmas dinners always took place.

It was a pretty tight squeeze to get everyone seated around my mother’s Duncan Phyfe table, even with the leaves put in.  My mother’s nice china was set out with the centerpiece a little  handcrafted tiered Christmas tree made from red netting material.  Some years my Aunt Oleta and Uncle Joe who had moved from my hometown to another small town 45 minutes away joined us; sometimes it was just my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale.

Two of my favorite Christmas dinner photos were taken years apart of the family together in the basement of my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale’s home where we gathered for big celebrations.  The first was made when I was eight-years-old (I can tell by the dress I’m wearing). This photo special because one of my aunt and uncles from California, along with my cousin, is there as well as my aunt and cousin who lived in Hutchinson, Kansas,three hours away in Kansas. My cousins, Kevin, Leland and Debbie–just a baby–are there too with their parents, my Uncle Jiggs and Aunt Bernice.  It’s quite a photo because so seldom was this many of the Crooks clan together at Christmas.  Even though we’re not sitting at the table, I know that the table is set just on the other side of the camera with dinner no doubt waiting for us all.

The family gathers for a Christmas dinner.

The other recalls the another big Christmas gathering the first year I was in college.  (Know that from my hairstyle.) We’re all there again, minus the California and Hutchinson families and plus my youngest brother who is standing beside my uncle and just peeking over the back of one of the heavy, tall, carved oak chairs at the table’s end.  And again, the cousins who lived in town, are there, with my aunt and uncle.  This time, however, the photo is in color, the color film technology having long since become readily available.

Taken years later from the first gathering, the family comes together for another Christmas dinner in my aunt and uncle’s basement.

I carry on the Christmas dinner tradition with my own family. My parents, aunts and uncles with whom we ate have passed on but there’s a new generation who gather round the table that includes my sons and when possible the grown children and now grandchildren of those aunts and uncles.  I still insist on taking a photo of everyone once we’ve all sat down for the holiday dinner so we can relive these priceless moments in the future through the photographic memory.  The foods, the fun and the family time together are the real recipes for what makes the season bright.

An Illustrating Lunch in a Little Museum

“Can meet for quick lunch at 1:30.  You need to pick place.”  The text from my son, Tim, came in at 11:30 a.m.  I had just enough time to change clothes, walk to the subway and travel from where I was staying in Brooklyn to 63rd and Park in Manhattan where my son was working for the day.

Fortunately I had a little extra time because I accidentally round myself on the wrong train. Luckily, I soon discovered my mistake and was able to get off and switch to another train that delivered me within blocks of my destination.

I walked from the station up Lexington Avenue looking for a restaurant where my son and I might meet to eat.  At 62nd I turned to head over to Park Avenue and then up towards 63rd Avenue.  I saw the building where my son was working but no restaurants or cafes.  So I started back towards Lexington.  I hadn’t quite gotten to Lexington when a sign on a wall caught my eye.  “Maurice Sendak Exhibition and Sale,” it read. The poster featured an illustration I recognized from the Sendak’s classic children’s book, “In the Night Kitchen.”

The main gallery for the Museum of Illustrators is open to the public and free of charge.

Curious, I opened the red door, stepped inside 128 E. 63rd and found myself at the Museum of Illustration.  The museum, founded in 1981, is the home of the Society of Illustrators, established in 1901 to promote the art of illustration.  Its membership has included such illustrious artists as N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, among others.  The five-story townhouse was purchased in 1939 by the society for its headquarters and over several years was renovated to create offices for the society, two galleries and a bookstore on its lower floors for special exhibitions and programs and on the third floor a lounge and library for its membership. In the 1960s, that space was converted into a handsome bar and a cozy but airy dining room that, I discovered, is open to the public from noon to 3 p.m. for lunch.

Among the works on display at the museum were illustrations from Sendak’s “The Night Kitchen.”

It was an ideal spot for my lunch with my son and sent him a message to join me there. In the meantime, I walked into the main gallery where the works of illustrator Maurice Sendak were on display.  Sendak is regarded by many as “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century,” according to the New York Times. “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Night  Kitchen” were two of the best read books on my sons shelf when they were growing up so it was a treat to see Sendak’s original sketches, watercolors and ink drawings in this special exhibition. More than one hundred pieces hung on the walls representing some of Sendaks’ rarest work from his books, theatre designs and commercial assignments.  Incredibly, all of them were for sale but at prices beyond my pocketbook.

I hadn’t quite finished viewing the entire exhibit when my son came in. Given his limited 30-minute time for lunch, we went directly upstairs to the bistro, took a table and quickly ordered.  I chose the Cobb salad which was fresh and delicious and reasonable.  Halfway through my meal, Tim received an alert on his phone from a friend.

The bistro serves food for lunchers with illustrators’ works on the walls.

“Where’s your meeting?” he asked referring to my appointment that afternoon.  I told him. “You’re not going there,” he said firmly.  The area, he explained, had been placed on ‘lock down’ when pipe bombs, delivered to various locations throughout the city, had been discovered.

Some of Sendak’s rarest works, such as this sketch, were displayed in the museum’s special exhibit.

With my meeting postponed, I suddenly had two free hours. I decided since I was already there, and somewhere safe, to spend the afternoon at the museum and its relaxing bistro. I went back to the Sendak exhibit and finished looking at the Sendak exhibit.  Then I worked my way up the artwork hanging on the stairway wall to the narrow halls of the second floor where illustrations by the members and now in the society’s permanent collection of 2,500 were

The bold, black and white art from comics such as The Vault of Horror was displayed on the museum’s bistro walls. There’s a bit of humor, along with horror in this illustration of a detached arm hanging onto a subway holder.

displayed.   Magazine illustrations, comic books drawings and cartoons was included.

I returned to the third floor bistro so I could have a closer look at the Norman Rockwell mural that permanently hangs over the bar in the lounge and the illustrations from Mad Magazine and E.C. Comics in the Tales from the Crypt special exhibit. A number of the bold, strongly stylized black and white comic book illustrations came from horror titles, appropriate since Halloween was just around the corner.  Weird Fantasy, Weird Science, Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt were among the comic book titles represented.  The illustrations were detailed, gory and violent in some.  Their graphic-ness disturbed some when they first appeared but their creators were also pointing out hypocrisy, prejudice and inhumanity.  More than 70 pen and ink drawings from the 1950s by some of the genres most celebrated comic artists were on view. I took my time examining each and reading the extensive commentary written by the curator Rob Pistella.

The red canopy of the museum welcomes visitors to the home of the Society of Illustrators.

The afternoon went by quickly.  Before I knew it, it was time for me to leave for my appointment rescheduled from earlier that day.  My plans had taken a sudden turn and given me the unexpected time to spend in this little unassuming New York museum.  In future trips, I’ll check the museum’s calendar and gladly return to the bistro for another lunch.

 

Popping In on Pink at FIT

One of the things I love about travel is the surprises it often brings, even when the trip is tightly scheduled, as it was for me on a recent visit to New York City.  In town for both business and personal reasons, I managed to work in some unexpected stops at a couple of places in the city I’d not been previously.

The first came on Tuesday. My day was full of meetings with me running back and forth from Greenwich Village to  the lower West Side on the subway. It started with a lovely lunch meeting at Mary’s Fish Camp in the Village; then I hopped the Number 1 train to my next appointment on 29th and 7th Ave after which I returned to the Village to drop in on a filmmaker at her office in the West Village.

The sign at the top of the stairs leading to the exhibition clearly says it all.

With my day over, I had a couple of hours free before I was to have dinner with my son.  I had learned about an exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology called quite simply: “Pink.” In all the years that I’ve been to New York, I had never gone to this little museum, located  on 7th Avenue and at 27th street on the college’s block long campus. FIT is part of the State University of New York‘s system and focuses on those disciplines related to the fashion industry.

The Ralph Lauren gown worn by actress Gwyneth Paltrow to the 1999 Academy Awards was intended to recall Grace Kelly. It is one of the items displayed in the Pink exhibit at FIT.

The special exhibit, “Pink: The History of a Pretty, Punk, Powerful Color,” explores the changing significance of the color pink in fashion over the past three centuries.  It’s eye-popping displays of mannequins dressed in clothing from the 18th to the mid-20th century are elegant, colorful, curious and brilliant.  Represented in the 80 ensembles is everything from glamorous gowns to hip-hop influenced threads.  Children’s clothing from the past are presented as are contemporary men’s and women’s suits, dresses, pants and lingerie.  From high fashion to the everyday, it’s all included in this special exhibit.

You’ll see designs by such contemporary fashion industry giants as Valentino, Gucci, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. And there are styles by the more avant-garde such as the Japanese designer,  Rei Kawakubo.  It’s quite a treat to see some of these styles up close and so beautifully shown.

Pink was a fashionable color for men in the 18th century as well as for women.

Hot pink, pastel pink, pale pink, bright pink. Every imaginable shade of the color can be found in the exhibit.  “Pink” curator Valerie Steele also places into perspective the color culturally and explores how it came to be so strongly gender associated with women. That was not always the case. In fact, you learn in the exhibit that pink had neither a feminine nor masculine connotation in the 18th century but rather was associated with “elegance, novelty and aristocratic splendor.”  Perhaps one explanation for this is because the dye used to produce the brighter shades of the color popular at the time was newly discovered and came from Brazil, undoubtedly making it an expensive and limited to only those who could afford it.

The idea that pink was for girls didn’t taken hold until the early 1900s and was further reinforced with the highly publicized purchase in the 1920s by railroad tycoon Henry Huntington of artist Thomas Gainsborough‘s renowned paintings, “The Blue Boy” and “Pinkie” by Thomas Lawrence.  In the 1950s, according to the curator’s commentary, that the stereotype solidified.  But the exhibit also explores how other non-Western cultures have embraced and continue to use the color in dressing both sexes.

Not only is outerwear on display but historic pink undergarments, such as this corset, is included.

I spent nearly two hours browsing through and photographing the exhibit. Pink is, after all, one of my favorite colors (as long as it’s a warmer toned pink).  I have had and still have a lot of pink in my wardrobe. When I was a teenager, my bedroom walls were painted a hot pink.  So the FIT show was  an appropriate stop for me to make.

The clothing in FIT’s exhibit is handsomely and tastefully lit against black backgrounds that make the clothing and the color stand out.  If you find yourself headed to New York between now and Jan. 5,  plan to visit the FIT exhibit and museum.  Admission is free, it’s fairly easy to get to by public transit and it’s certainly not an exhibit that you’re likely to find elsewhere.

As for my other ‘surprises’ from this trip, you’ll need to wait for an upcoming blog.

A luxurious pink bodice from one of the gowns displayed embellished with a bouquet of silk flowers.

Crab Fishing Outing Ends Summer Season

With the arrival of autumn, I’m taking this opportunity to look back at the summer which seems to have gone by all too quickly.

One of the summer pleasures of living in the coastal region of the Pacific Northwest in the U.S. is crab season.  The waters of the Salish Sea are typically abundant with delectable Dungeness crab, yours for the taking with a crab pot, some bait, and a valid crab license from Washington Fish and Wildlife Department. It also helps to have friends with a boat to carry you out to the deeper waters where these shellfish tend to congregate.

When looking for a good spot for your crab pots it helps to have a map with the water depths.

I am lucky to have such friends and was invited (okay I ‘fished’ for the invitation). to go along with them one summer Sunday ‘crabbing’ in the bay.  The thought of coming home with a bucket of Dungeness for dinner set me in action. I hopped out of bed early to meet them at the boat launch by 7 a.m. I grabbed my plastic bucket, my camera, a thermal bag with packed snacks and a bottle of water and headed out the door. Low tide had just passed; the water was flat and smooth.  It would have perfect for kayaking if the skies hadn’t been so smoke-filled from the fires burning in British Columbia to the north. The sun was a ball of red, as seen through the smokey cover.

We had the bay to ourselves as we headed out towards nearby Portage Island where my friend Roger’s brother reported catching his limit of crab the day before.  Each license holder in Washington is entitled to five crabs. They must be males and measure more than six and three-quarters inches across the back of their shell from point to point. Roger pointed the bow of the boat towards the West and we sped off.

With chicken used as bait and placed in a red plastic bag, friends Tina and Roger lower the crab pot over the side of the boat.

Portage Island is a small, uninhabited island located just off the Lummi Peninsula, north of Bellingham, WA.  and is part of the Lummi Nation‘s Tribal Lands. During very low tides, it is possible to walk from the island to the peninsula, which is how. it is said, the cattle that roam free on the island arrived.  People too are welcome on the island for day trips to explore its 1,400 square miles and observe the bird and wildlife that live there.

As we approached the southeastern point of Portage, Roger slowed the boat and switched on the radar. We were looking for a spot that was ideally 65 feet for the crab pots.  We bobbed around for a while until we found a spot closer to Hale’s Passage that was deep enough. Roger cut the engine and lifted one of the two rectangular metal cage pots onto the side of the boat. Tina, his wife and my friend, opened the bag of chicken parts that had been soaked in sardine liquid to make the bait more attractive to the crabs.

After a couple of hours, Roger pulls up a crab pot to check the take.

The pot was tossed overboard, along with the buoys attached to them so that we could find then later.  Roger steered the boat out further looking for another possible location. After cruising around a bit, we settled on a spot that was about 70 feet deep and threw the second crab pot, loaded with the chicken bait into the water.  Now we had only to relax and wait an hour before we would haul up the pots and pull out our fresh shellfish.

Tina turned on some rock music on the player as we kicked back, munched on our snacks and enjoyed the cooler temperatures brought by the smoke-covered skies. Part of the ritual of crabbing is this waiting time filled with talking, laughing and eating. Before we knew it, an hour had passed.  Roger started the boat and we motored back to our first crab pot.

Only crabs that measure to the legal size and are male may be kept. All others must be returned to the sea.

Roger attached the handle to the pulley and began to crank in the metal wire pot. All three of us were anxious to see just how many of the shelled creatures we’d caught.  Water streamed from the pot as it lifted out of the water. About half a dozen crabs sat in the bottom. With the pot balanced on the side of the boat, Roger lifted them out of the pot one by one, their large claws pinching as he did. Carefully, he rotated each one so that Tina could measure each one.  Disappointed, we tossed one after another back as they weren’t large enough to keep. By the end, we had one keeper.

But we weren’t discouraged, we still had another pot to check. We moved the boat over to that buoy and repeated the process. Unfortunately, none of the crabs in that pot measured up.

When the water is boiling, it’s time to lower the day’s catch into the pot.

Not dissuaded, Tina loaded the pots with more chicken and we pitched them overboard once again to give it a second chance.  And again we waited patiently another hour with our hopes still high that we’d haul in a mess of the tasty crustaceans. When the hour had passed, we pulled up the pots once again.

Our luck was slightly better this second time but not overwhelmingly so.  Although there were several crabs in each of the two pots, only three were large enough for us to take home.  By now, we had invested nearly four hours of the day to this adventure and though we had started out early, it was already nearly noon.  We still had to get back to shore, hose off and clean the boat, take the crab back to Tina and Roger’s house where we’d cook them in a pot of boiling water (the worst part of the process for me) so that they’d be ready to eat later that day.

That evening, we sat down to our separate dinners to savor our catch of the day. To say that there’s nothing like a mouthful of that sweet, white and flaky crab meat taken fresh from the water that very day is an understatement. I’ve now lived in the Pacific Northwest for a little more than 20 years and I still am grateful and excited whenever I have a meal made of food caught, grown and cooked right from the waters and farm fields of my surrounding area. There truly is nothing that compares to the taste.

For me, catching and eating fresh crab is now part of my summer. I can not imagine a summer without it.  Crab season lingers into the fall as the leaves begin to turn color but the activity is mostly something I  now associate with summer. And although autumn is clearly here,  and gives me something to look forward to for next summer.

 

Solomon’s Story Pole Is Towering Artistic Achievement

“We are all one. No matter whether the color of our skin is brown, black, white, red, yellow; no matter whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist; no matter where we come from. We are all one,” said artist and former timber businessman David Syre welcoming guests to the dedication of  the 38-foot story pole he commissioned to stand on his Whatcom County farm.

Lummi carver Felix Solomon speaks to those gathered at the dedication ceremony of his most recent commissioned piece.

I was fortunate to have been among the 100 who attended that recent rainy day having been invited by a friend who was the guest of the artist, Lummi carver Felix Solomon.  I had met Solomon just the week prior at his home where he graciously took me out to his workshop where the totem lay awaiting transport to its new home.  The 35-foot cedar log had been transformed by Solomon over the past several months from a rough piece of timber into a majestic and colorful totem.  Solomon had been given little guidance by the commissioning Syre, leaving it up to the master carver to come up with the figures and design for the pole.

The various tools of carver Felix Solomon used when working on one of his projects await their master’s hand.

Solomon drew on his familiarity with the work of carver Joseph Hillaire,  in carving this pole, to carve both sides of the pole instead of just one. Hillaire (1894-1967) is regarded as one of the greatest Coast Salish artists and carvers of the 21st century.  His work was extensive but may be best remembered for his two friendship poles carved for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, one of which went to Kobe, Japan where it was placed. Hillaire and a generation of Lummi carvers ahead of him instituted what is known as ‘story poles,’ according to Seattle Art Museum curator Barbara Bretherton. The poles are tall like totem poles but they tell a story.

Topping the story pole is an eagle with its wings outstretched.

Solomon’s story pole represents “The Creation of Life Story.” At the top of the pole is the eagle, the being that flies closest to the spirit world but is still connected to the earth, according to Solomon.  The moon in its talons represent feminine energy and the reproductive cycles.

Directly below are placed the faces of five animals found on Mount Baker, the Nooksack River and in the Salish Sea–the wolf, the mountain goat, the bear, the cougar and the sea wolf or Orca.

Next comes the design which Solomon received special permission to use in this pole, the Sun Dog, which was on the door of the Lummi Nation chief when they signed the Treaty of 1855 with the United States. In that treaty, the Lummi relinquished much of their native homeland but they retained the rights to the natural resources found there, specifically the salmon, and have seen themselves as protectors of these resources ever since.  It is one reason the Lummi Nation has been a key activist in local, state and regional environmental issues.

The River Woman holds a basket of life in her hands.

Below the Sun Dog design is a concave oval that Solomon says represents the Lummi elders and ancestors.  The crescents on the side are the voices that pass down the tribe’s stories from one generation to

another.

On the back side of the pole are rain clouds that pour into the Nooksack River with the River Woman holding a basket of life in her hands.  At the bottom can be seen spirit dancers, two-legged humans who were the last to be created.

Solomon has received considerable recognition for his carvings and creations.  One of his ‘story poles’ is located in Bellingham’s International Airport; another can be found in the Silver Reef casino in Ferndale,  Wa.  The National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. honored him for his canoe carvings.  But the Creation of Life Story pole is the largest piece he’s done to date.

Carver Felix Solomon with his completed story pole in his workshop only a week before the pole was dedicated.

In order to accommodate the 39-foot cedar log from which the totem was carved, Solomon had to expand his workshop by building on an addition.  The massive totem took Solomon months to hand carve once he worked out the design.  It had to be specially engineering with hidden reinforcements from the bottom so that it would stand securely once positioned into place.  Just sliding the pole from Solomon’s workshop and hoisting it carefully onto a flat-bed truck for transport to the Syre farm was in itself an engineering feat. Solomon gratefully recognized those responsible for that part of the project during the dedication ceremony.

Originally, the ceremony had been planned to take place around the totem. But  rain forced organizers to move it to under the tent that had been erected for the grilled salmon luncheon that followed. Before the ceremonies began, Beverly Cagey brushed the pole with branches of cedar, blessing it while her husband, Jack and their grandson, Hank, accompanied with singing a chant and drumming.

Beverly Cagey brushes branches of cedar over the story pole prior to the dedication ceremony.

Guests gathered beneath the big tent, just steps away from the log cabin that stood close by the Nooksack River.  Nooksack tribal drummers led the small procession that included both the artist and the patron down the short path from the cabin to the tent where Darrell Hillaire, Lummi Nation elder, stood at the microphone waiting to introduce  the speakers and witnesses and welcome the day’s guests.

Lummi Nation member Darrell Hillaire welcome the Nooksack drummers, the host and artist in the opening processional.

Syre spoke and told how he viewed this story pole as one of unification.  Solomon thanked him for the opportunity, gave a brief description of his work on the pole and recognized those on his team who had assisted during the process. Then, as is tradition, Solomon presented the four ‘witnesses’ he had designated for that day with ceremonial blankets which each of them draped over one shoulder for their turn to speak about what they had ‘witnessed’ that day.  Among them was a childhood friend of the host, a Nooksack tribal member, who remembered the times the two had together playing along the river and in the woods on the farms where they grew up.  They had not seen each other in nearly 50 years and had, as

Jack Cagey, foreground, awaits his turn to speak as a witness as host David Syre welcomes the guests.

the friend put it, “a lot of catching up to do.”

Jack Cagey, a Lummi Nation elder, stood from his place at the table where I was sitting and spoke of the need for greater communication between generations, for the need to talk face-to-face and not just through electronic devices.  Another of the witnesses, Candy Wilson, read a poem that I found particularly moving, the name of which I unfortunately missed in her introduction. Their words were eloquent, appropriate and heartfelt. Clearly they were speaking about more than just the pole; they were making a case of for humanity and the practice of it towards one another.

The dedication ceremony program with a description of the story pole, an art piece by Syre along with cedar and feather were set at each place.

Ninety-minutes later, the ceremony drew to a close and everyone was invited, elders first, to share in the grilled salmon luncheon that had been prepared especially for the day. The meal is as much a part of these ceremonies as the ceremony itself because it gives time for those who gathered that day to share not only food with one another with stories across the table.

Solomon’s story pole towers over those who came to the dedication ceremony on a rainy Pacific Northwest Day.

By the end, the rain that had steadily fallen had stopped so that people could walk across the field to where the story pole towered and admire Solomon’s finished work.  Indeed, it is a commanding and colorful piece. It is one of Solomon’s finest accomplishments to date. The public isn’t likely to see this fine story pole unless they catch a glimpse of the eagle’s upward extended wings from the country road that passes close by the pole’s location., ut it’s sure to stand for a very long time on this private property as a powerful reminder that, in the words of Syre: “We are all one.”