Tracking the trackers

Sunday afternoon was sunny and warm. I was tired of working away in the basement, so I popped upstairs to the kitchen for a cup of tea and ran into Barry’s father, Dave.

“I just shot a deer,” he said, calmly rolling himself a cigarette.

“You WHAT?” I squealed, my jaw dropping. For as long as I’ve known Dave, he has hunted deer with a bow. In Ohio, he used to drive out to the country on the weekends, but for as long as I’ve known him, he’s always returned empty-handed. Here in Washington, he just walks out into his own wooded backyard, where he’s built a lovely tree house that he calls a “tree stand.” He’s an excellent shot, and I’ve seen enough deer in the neighborhood to know they’re out there. But for some reason, they avoid Dave when he has his bow.

There’s a carving in the family room that illustrates the scene of Dave’s last successful bow hunt, several decades ago. Although it has the feeling of a family legend, it’s decorated with real antlers from the buck he got. It’s proof that he can kill a deer with a bow, he just hasn’t done it in the years I’ve known him.

Now he was telling me he’d just shot a deer, no drama, no excitement. Where was it? I looked out in the backyard, expecting to see a dead deer. Dave explained that the deer was still out in the woods someplace. If it doesn’t just drop dead when you shoot it, it’s no good to chase it immediately. It will run that much farther and faster. It’s better to wait a half hour, then track it. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement, while he calmly waited out the half hour.

He and Sharon put on their boots and headed out to the woods to find it. “I’ll help you drag it back, if you need help,” I offered. Barry and I went back to our own projects and waited for the deer trackers to return.

A couple of hours later, there was no sign of them. We couldn’t stand it, so we followed them into the woods. Near the rear of the property, we saw a square of white toilet paper on the ground. Next to it was a patch of deer blood. We followed the toilet paper squares for a while, eventually coming to a forbidding bramble. “Who knows how far they had to go,” I said. “Maybe a couple of miles,” said Barry.

We turned back, not wanting to obliterate the trail or crawl through the thorns, and then heard their voices. They appeared from the thicket, disheveled and dejected. They’d followed the deer a long way, but eventually the blood stopped, and they could track it no further. “We spent an hour searching around the last spot, but there was nothing to follow,” Dave said.

I was in the lead as the four of us headed back down the trail to the house. As I approached the spot where Dave had shot the deer, I saw movement. Standing on the path, right at that very spot, was a doe. She looked at me reproachfully, then turned and ran through the woods.

A shiver went down my spine. Why was she standing right where the first piece of paper marked the trail of her fleeing friend? Did she know? Was it a coincidence? Are deer telepathic?

I know the deer population has to be controlled, and if we humans don’t act as predators, they’ll starve. But it’s hard for this soft-hearted former vegetarian to reconcile that with the look on the doe’s face. Still, I hope one of these days Dave manages to get a deer. The one that got away just doesn’t make much of a family legend, and it doesn’t make much venison steak, either.

Food for thought

Every morning, I wake up with the cat on my feet. That’s normal, for people who sleep with cats. But it’s become a source of terror for me, and I spend my first few moments contemplating my fear. What happens if I move my foot and the cat doesn’t? Finally, I get up my nerve and slowly slide my foot out from under her inert body. She twitches in response, and I breathe a sigh of relief. We have both lived another day.

Trying to get her to eat is my daily challenge. After a week without food, she finally consented to sip some of that magical elixir, tuna water. We even snuck some tuna into the water, and she ate that. But then she stopped, and we got desperate.

Perhaps the tuna water wasn’t fresh enough. We abandoned the open can in the fridge and opened another. And another. And … We talked with a good friend about the problem. “Try Fancy Feast. I don’t know what they put in there, but any cat will eat that stuff.” It worked for a couple of days. Now the half-full cans of Fancy Feast sit on top of the half-full tuna cans in the fridge. “Have you tried baby food?” asked the checker in the grocery store. Now there’s a half jar of baby food in there, too. Barry remembered a cat that lived to the ripe old age of 25 on cottage cheese. Prussia ate a teaspoon of the stuff. Now she has two shelves of half-eaten food in the fridge.

In the middle of respiratory bug that had me flat on my back for three days, I dragged myself into the kitchen, got out the saucepan, and set to work. I used tuna oil, butter, and flour to make a particularly odiferous (even with a stuffed-up nose) roux. I thinned it with fish and chicken stock and seasoned it with nutritional yeast, Prussia’s favorite. Then I spooned out a small dish of this “kitty gravy,” cooled it slightly, and presented it to the patient. She sighed, stood up on wobbly legs, and turned around, her backside facing the dish. “Suit yourself!” I harrumphed.

Barry and I are like anxious mother hens, using every excuse to go into the bedroom and check on her. She spends most of her days at the foot of our mattress on the floor, sleeping or sitting quietly. I try not to pester her, watching from the door until a twitching tail or ear lets me know that it is still “business as usual.” Occasionally, she gets annoyed with the attention and retreats under another bed. Then I have to get all the way down on the floor to see her tiny dark form. She glances up at me, serene, making me feel like a total fool, groveling on my hands and knees after the cat.

She has always been a proud cat, strutting gracefully with both head and awe-inspiring tail held high. I’m sure that’s the way she’ll want to be remembered. Me, I’m not proud. Maybe I can get her to eat by crawling around on the carpet on my hands and knees with this jar of baby food in one hand and a spoon in the other. The poor cat will probably die laughing. And I’m sure she’ll remember me that way.

Christmas traditions, from oysters to chainsaws

When I was thirteen, we stopped having traditional Christmases. Twenty-plus years of shopping, decorating, and cooking for six children had worn my mother out. Mom and Dad and I fled the Midwest for Florida that year. I still feel guilty, leaving my older siblings with a crummy artificial tree while I frolicked among sable palms. On the other hand, they were delighted to have the house to themselves, unsupervised.

Years later, when I met Barry and his family, I was astounded to find all the Christmas traditions, alive and well. Here was a family that actually decorated the house and played carols on the piano. They wrapped every single present, including the ones that go in the stockings, embellishing them with ribbons and bows. Barry was famous for his creativity at disguising presents, as well as for doing his wrapping between midnight and 5 a.m.

The house was full of holiday goodies, buckeyes to bourbon balls, artichoke dip with King’s Hawaiian bread, spinach balls, Chex mix, and homemade ice cream. One year, there was a crown pork roast, with paper frills that we put on our fingers as puppets. Grandma always sent a massive box of homemade cookies, each icebox cookie or cherry chew wrapped individually,

As if this wasn’t enough, the Stellrechts did not merely buy a Christmas tree. They always cut their tree. In Ohio, for many years, this entailed a drive to Timbuk Tree Farm. There was a lot of walking around in the mud — “How about this one? This one?” and finally, “This one!” Then each family member would take a turn on their knees, sawing at the base with a bow saw until the tree fell down. An ancient school bus came around to pick up chilled people and their trees and return them to the farm hall, with a crackling wood fire, hot chocolate, and carols blasted over Army-style PA speakers.

Arriving home with the tree, there was still work to do. The bottom had to be re-sawn, providing Barry’s sister Julie with a slice of wood to make into an ornament. The tree was set up and festooned with lights and silver garland, which they call “rope” to distinguish it from the tinsel.

There were boxes and boxes of ornaments, made of glass, wood, paper, metal, fabric — even a plaster Santa that weighs a ton (and always goes on a fat, sturdy branch!). They represented school projects, gifts from old friends, memories. The ornament with the smoke alarm received new batteries, while an ancient angel perched on the top branch. We spent more time discussing the “ormanents” than actually hanging them!

Meanwhile, a pot of oyster stew bubbled on the stove, a tradition from Dave’s family. On the farm in Wisconsin, with plenty of home-grown meat and produce, I bet those Christmas Eve canned oysters were a treat! It reminded me of Christmas Eve with my family in South Carolina — we’d dig fresh oysters from the mud, clean ’em, roast ’em, and slurp ’em out of the shell. No Christmas trees, but we Schultes did have some traditions.

Julie and her family have continued the tree tradition in Ohio, visiting Timbuk Tree Farm every year with their two kids. Barry’s parents retired and moved to Camano Island in 1997, choosing a home with a view of Port Susan…across their neighbor’s tiny Christmas tree farm. A mixed blessing, as the darn trees grow higher every year.

In December, Dave and Sharon march across the street with their bow saw, select the biggest view-blocker they can find, and carry it home. One year, they cut down a hemlock –free, but lousy for decorating. All the old traditions continue: Christmas music on the record player, the familiar ornaments, oyster stew. Even the precious leaded tinsel, removed from the tree each year and saved for the next, because you can’t buy it.

This year, the day was cloudy and cool. I’d gone into the bedroom to put on an extra sweater and find my hat. I hesitated, then grabbed the camera. I knew we had digital photos of the tree-cutting from 1999; surely we didn’t need more of the same? Outside the front door, I stopped in my tracks.

What’s this I see? The garden cart — are we going to roll the tree back, instead of carrying it? When my eye fell on the chainsaw, I started laughing. This was family tradition, with a twist!

Dave and Sharon had already selected their tree, a monstrous 20-foot Douglas Fir. Dave disappeared from sight when he crawled into the lower branches to hack some off with a hatchet. Then, with a loud roar, he fired up the chainsaw and began trimming branches up to 6 feet from the ground. Sharon and I loaded them into the cart, and Barry gamely hauled three heavy loads to the chipping pile. One branch held a tiny hidden bird’s nest, to bring us good luck.

Carefully removing the nest The nest, retrieved

Then Dave sawed most of the way through the bottom. Sharon and Barry, on their knees, did the last bit with the bow saw, the traditional way. I took photos and hollered “timberrrrrrrrr” when it finally toppled.

Six-and-a-half feet of the trunk went to the woodpile, and four feet of silly, straggly stuff was lopped off the top. We threw the rest atop the cart and dragged it, ignominiously, back to the house.

The tree on the garden cart

What do you do with a tree that’s nine and a half feet tall and ten feet across? Prune it carefully! As Sharon said, trimming away with her favorite pruners, “It won’t grow back if I mess up.” Even trimmed to eight feet across, there’s only one place for it: Smack dab in the middle of the living room. It dominates the room; when you sit in a chair on one side of the living room, all you see is TREE. You can’t see anyone on the other side of the room.

Sharon pruning the tree
The decorated tree

Remember that silly, straggly branch that got lopped off the top? It didn’t go to the chipping pile. It’s right here, in our living room, decorated with our collection of ornaments. It may be the funniest Charlie Brown tree ever, but it has two advantages: You can walk all the way around it, and yes, you can still see the person on the other side!
Our funny little tree stub

I'm Gettin' Nuttin' but Christmas Spirit

Some years, I have a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. I hear Christmas music in the grocery store and think, “What is that weird music?” Christmas lights seem lost, tiny white bulbs against the glaring loom of the big city. People going into stores to shop seem unrelated to me, as though I’m adrift in an alien culture.

This afternoon, another day working on our house, was filled with plumbing and mini-blinds, difficult discussions, deferred decisions. I put on some Christmas music, James Brown singing “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto” and the Roche Sisters’ wonderfully nasal rendition of “Fraaawsty, the Snowman.” Still no spirit.

Around 6 pm, we knocked off work and drove to Greenlake, where some friends of ours were planning to gather. On this one evening, the entire lake is lined with white luminaria, and thousands of people stroll around it, enjoying the lights. The e-mail from Tina mentioned caroling, and a friend of hers planned to bring a wheeled antique wood stove (I didn’t know there was such a thing!).

From where we parked, we had to walk quite a ways around the candlelit lake on our way to meet our friends. People were strolling in both directions, ambling along in small groups accompanied by children and dogs. Barry and I, being in a hurry, zoomed around them, weaving in and out like two-legged sports cars.

The problem with events like these is that it’s cold. And dark. So everybody is bundled up in hats and scarves, looking like shadowy Polar Fleece blobs. I was afraid I wouldn’t recognize Tina, who we’d only known in the summertime, in bathing suit weather.

When we arrived at the Bathhouse, there was a group standing under the streetlight, caroling. Yikes! I hoped that wasn’t our group — these folks were actually performing with a conductor! A bit further on, we found the wood stove.

The portable antique woodstove stood on the path on a wheeled cart with a pot of cider steaming on its top. A tall fellow in a fuzzy Santa hat was tending it. “Hello, are you our party?” we asked. Howard was a friend of Tina’s, and he invited us to pour some cider into the cups we’d conveniently brought along. A small group circled round the 2-burner stove, and Howard passed out songbooks.

What a blast! We belted out all the old standards, like “Deck the Halls” and “Let it Snow.” “Here We Come A Wassailing” was a big hit, and by the time we made it through all the stanzas of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” there was a small crowd, applauding. They left in a hurry when we did “I’m Gettin’ Nuttin’ for Christmas,” either because they were afraid of gettin’ nuttin’ by association, or because we sounded so bad.

Children kept coming by and making requests — always “Rudolph” or “Frosty.” One woman wanted to put money in my cup. When she realized we were just singing for fun (there was cider in my cup!), she gave me a hug (a total stranger) and thanked me profusely. Heck, all I was doing was standing around, drinking cider and singing off-key!

It was one of those heart-warming experiences, where you go out just to have a good time, and what happens? You end up making a lot of people happy. Somewhere along the line, I picked up that Christmas spirit I was missing. Maybe somebody slipped it into my cup when I wasn’t looking, but I definitely brought it home with me.

Ghost Dancers

I’m sitting in a cozy warm house on Camano Island, a cup of tea beside me. To my right, the view is blue, looking across the shallow misty waters of Port Susan to the distant Cascade Mountains. To my left, the view is green, a broad expanse of lawn leading to woods, framed by towering evergreens.

This scenery is the best of the Puget Sound area, and one reason why we returned home.

In a little while, we’ll be meeting a very good friend for lunch. The whole year we were traveling, I missed our friends, people we met sailing or dancing or working. Last night, at a meeting of the Puget Sound Cruising Club, I collected hugs from many friends who welcomed us back to the area.

That’s another key reason why we returned.

I’m looking forward to Tuesday, when Barry’s parents, who own this delightful Eden where we are housesitting, return from Hawaii. Their home, where we have stored most of our worldly goods, is full of photos of Barry’s nephews, family artwork, cozy furniture, and support for this crazy lifestyle we’ve chosen. We love hanging out with Sharon and Dave, talking and taking walks in the woods.

Living near them is another reason to come back.

When we arrived a couple of weeks ago, we were bone-weary, exhausted from the long drive across the northern part of the country. We had been moving too fast, trying to see too much, having a hard time staying ahead of the cold weather. We also wanted to make it back in time to celebrate Barry’s Dad’s birthday.

A couple of days after our return, Dave called us all out on the front deck. It was late, and very dark. But the sky was lit with the most amazing thing I’d ever seen: Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Since the four of us had moved to the Northwest, we’d never seen it; I’d never seen it in my life. Barry wisely suggested that we watch it from the hot tub.

We laid our heads back and watched the beautiful moving light show. Soft white streaks, sometimes with a hint of color, appearing and disappearing, with a strange ghostly rhythm. I was reminded of the name the native people gave the phenomenon: Ghost Dancers. It was silent, and then a shiver went down my spine as an owl hooted in the woods.

This was our reward. A true welcome home, from the Ghost Dancers.

Visiting Home

A week or so ago, I sat alone in the hot tub in Barry’s parents’ backyard. A silvery bright half moon shone over the black silhouettes of towering conifers. The only sounds were the soft gurgle of the water and a chorus of distant frogs. I relaxed completely, leaning my head back and wondering about this strange concept of “visiting home.”

To Brian, Cayenne is truly a home where he has invested time, emotion, and blood. Although he didn’t like New Orleans much, he was not terribly interested in returning to Seattle before we began cruising.

But Barry and I were willing to drive for three days straight in exchange for a few days visiting home, family, and friends. Coming over Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 on Wednesday morning, I was exhilarated. The road was lined with pine trees, frosted with snow. The air smelled like wood smoke. In places, there were waterfalls beside the interstate. Even the drivers were better, using turn signals and driving considerately. Their license plates all had Mount Rainier on them.

I am not a native of Seattle. I have only lived there for eight years, far fewer than my twelve years spent in Columbus or nine early years in the New Jersey shadow of the Big Apple. But those places did not fit me, so they’re not my home.

The Northwest is a place apart from the rest of the country. I felt that strongly, viscerally, when we drove the pass. The flat lands of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and eastern Colorado ran together. The mountains of Colorado and Utah and Idaho did, too. But crossing the Cascades was like coming up the front walk of a home that you haven’t been to in a while.

What exactly is “home?” Is it possible to have more than one?

While in New Orleans, we called Seattle “home.” But while visiting Seattle, I said things like, “When we get home, we should…” Which is it? The place where you fit in and your soul feels at rest? Seattle, for me, is this place where I fit in, where the horizon ringed with mountains is like a border around my life. If so, why am I content cruising the rest of the world in a sailboat? There must be another home, one where you spend your days and nights. For me, that’s Cayenne — and like a happy turtle, I love the fact that we take our home from place to place.