Tuesday, December 31, 2019


Out on a ledge at Machu Picchu
The ones that got away are always the most elusive. Their importance seldom diminishes over time. Instead they become encased in this fantasy framework of ‘what if’ and ‘I think I could have.’ For someone who was never athletic nor a team player, these fantasies of mine always seem to include incredible feats of endurance and mind-fracturing challenges. I’ve tackled a few but many more have managed to get away. Recently my kids reminded me what a thrill it is to actually complete such a challenge.

It’s called ‘C2C’ for those in the know, ‘Cactus to Clouds’ for the rest of us. One of the top ten toughest hikes in North America. It is, by far, the hardest and most challenging mountain climb in the Coachella Valley. This thanksgiving week my two kids, Brian and Melanie, completed ‘Cactus to Clouds’ in just 13 hours, which while not a record, still a remarkable time.

Granted, neither of my kids are novices at this sort of endeavor. Brian has climbed all 54 fourteeners (mountains over 14,000 feet) in the State of Colorado. Melanie has run numerous road races, marathons, half marathons and run up Pikes Peak. C2C was a gift to herself for her 40th birthday.

There’s a family argument as to who really brought up the topic of C2C. I’m convinced that I did and Brian is just as certain that he found it on his own. No matter, they did it after first talking for several years. So scratch one more fantasy venture that I probably won’t complete in my lifetime. To think it began with a Life Magazine article way back in 1961.

Hong Kong Ferry

Growing up, one of my many fantasies in land-locked Saint Paul, Minnesota was to sail the seven seas on a tramp steamer. At the time I probably wasn’t even sure what a tramp steamer was. But the name conjured up images of beautiful brown girls, swaying palm trees and vast blue oceans. Perhaps it was some ‘50s Errol Flynn movie that warped my malleable mind into wondrous thoughts of riding the high seas.

By my mid-teens, it had become a feverish dream burning a hole in my idle hours. I began perusing magazines, novels and seafaring books for clues on how to enter that maritime world. I devoured Joshua Slocum’s ‘Sailing Alone around the world’ and ‘Moby Dick.’ Jack London’s ‘The Sea Wolf’ gripped my imagination more than Dick Tracy or Tarzan ever could.

In fall of 1961, a Life Magazine article pushed me over the edge. It was entitled: ‘Before the Mast’ and subtitled: ‘A farm boy ships aboard a freighter.’ The article went on to chronical the adventures of an Iowa farm boy who was selected by the Seafarers International Union hiring hall in New Orleans to work aboard the M/V Del Monte that was sailing off to Brazil. By the end of the article the young sailor was in Rio de Janeiro and getting a tattoo. I was hooked.  I sent off an introductory letter to some maritime union in Detroit seeking employment on any ship available. Their form letter response demanded an in-person interview in Detroit and I didn’t have the bus fare to get there. Totally dejected, I went to college instead.

Fast forward several lifetimes and after college I went to live in Europe. I ended up working at a Danish laundry outside of Copenhagen. Weekends were spent wandering the harbor and talking to the marginal characters who inhabited that strange dockside world. After a month or so I applied for employment on a Norwegian freighter bound for who knows where. I can’t remember why I was turned down; lack of experience, my glasses or my foreign status. The only available work was as a deck hand or dish washer and I didn’t qualify for either. Go figure. A couple of rough weather weekend runs to Germany by ferry boat got that seafaring wanderlust out of my system for good. Or so I thought.

I began running at age 21, completed a couple of marathons, dropped out at mile 25 of a 50 miler and then read about the Western States One Hundred. I was hooked again.

The Western States 100 mile endurance run is the world’s oldest 100 mile trail race. Starting in Squaw Valley, California near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics’ and ending 100.2 miles later in Auburn, California. Following the historic Western States Trail, runners climb more than 18,000 feet and descend nearly 23,000 feet before they reach the finish line. No, I never get in good enough shape to even apply for the Western States One Hundred.

The Tram Road
Then there was the Tram Road Challenge in Palm Springs. It’s a road race on the road leading up to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Station. Beginning at 400 feet elevation, the road climbs to over 2,600 feet of elevation. With over 1,500 participants each year, ranging in age from 5 to 95, this road race is a local favorite. Still, I never got in good enough shape to compete. When my wife discovered my intentions, she put the kibosh to any future plans of running it.

Brian and Melanie ready to go
All of which leads me back to C2C and the tremendous pride I feel in my kids actually doing it. Also known as the Skyline Trail, Cactus to Clouds has the greatest elevation gain of any trail in the United States. It climbs 8,000 feet in the first 12 miles from the desert floor to Long Valley, then joins with the main trail to gain another 2,600 feet to the summit of San Jacinto Mountain.

Back in another lifetime, I had intended to do the climb with my kids but a lack to hardcore training, writing commitments and other distractions prevented me from getting in shape. In the end, I could only travel with them vicariously through their photographs.

Brian and Melanie began their climb at 2:00 am. They carried water, snacks, extra clothes and a treasured GPS to help stay on the trail in the darkness. They encountered and passed two other groups that had started ahead of them.

Sunlight greeted them around six in the morning.

Daybreak on the trail
The views were spectacular.

Snow, ice and windy conditions on the last 5 miles of the trail meant they had to wear their crampons and proceed cautiously to the top.

Putting on crampons

When they got to the summit, a ranger informed them that the mountain was being evacuated because of dangerous windy conditions. It took them and hour and a half for a normal fifteen minute tram ride to the bottom.

Brian and Melanie at the top
Now, what was probably the final conquest of my ever-searching imagination, the C2C, is just another missing notch on my belt of ‘hopeful wishes.’ So I’ll have to file away my three marathons, half of a 50 miler, numerous 10k and 5k races and 45 solid years of pounding the ground and call it my running past.

Thankfully, I’ve still got the Garstin trail among others here in town along with the Triple Crown (The Henderson, Shannon and Garstin loop) to satisfy my weekend jaunts. Nevertheless, C2C, the big one, passed me by.

Oh well, I’ve still got my kid’s pictures to ease the pain.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Hilde and the Old Man

Back around the turn of the century, Martin Noll’s neighbors would have been polite and simply said that Martin had a stern expression on his face most of the time. Today, medical research has a name for it: RBF. RBF, or ‘Resting Bitch Face’, is a configuration of facial muscles that make a person seem to carry a perpetual frown most of the time. Truth be told, it said a lot about him. Martin Noll was a stern task master of his farm, his large family and the surrounding community. To many folks in Sterns County, Minnesota, he was simply known as the old man.

Martin Noll was a taskmaster over his children and hired farmhands. He dabbled in several business ventures. He purchased the first automobile, a Studebaker E.M.F., in all of Sterns County. It had solid rubber tires, a fake door in front and carbide lamps on the front fenders for headlights.  Martin knew his way around local politics and never suffered fools in the town council who didn’t know how to run their town the way he knew farming. Over the years Martin bought and traded more cars but that first one was his most prized possession. 

Much to the chagrin of her older brothers and sisters, the youngest of his brood became the apple of Martin’s eye. Hildegarde, Hilde to her friends, wasn’t like the others. Her father sensed in this young child a longing for something more, something better, something undefined yet rock solid in its determination. He took a liking to his youngest and showed it. He taught her how drive horses at four, a car in her teens and travel solo in her twenties. Hilde always claimed her love of dancing came from her father teaching her how to dance the polka on Saturday night barn dances. He instilled in her a love of dancing that lasted a lifetime.

Life was always tough on the farm even for the youngest. It was a regular routine of field work, caring for the livestock, feeding the chickens, sewing old clothes and walking miles to school in nothing more than a woolen coat and rubber boots. A fireplace heated the farm house and there were corn husks for bed mattresses.

At four, Hildegarde took the horses and wagon out into the forest to gather wood. At seven, Martin let her take the wagon into town for supplies. She rode in her papa’s automobile and thought it great fun when he backed up over the outhouse by accident. By ten she was in charge of cleaning out the barn and managing the chickens, a main source of food and income. That same year, her father shot an American Bald Eagle that was killing their chickens. Hilde rescued the bird and when she realized it could no longer fly, she persuaded her father to sell it to the zoo in Minneapolis for ten dollars which she got to keep. Hildegarde shared one winter coat among her three sisters; each going to mass at a different service in their brand new Sears Roebuck catalogue coat.

Farming kitchen

Farming with horses

Hildegarde went as far as the sixth grade at the Catholic school in St Martin then dropped out to take care of the chickens and other livestock. Since she was the youngest it was expected that she would stay home to help out her aging parents and work the farm as her siblings gradually left for greener pastures.

The depression hit everyone very hard but especially the farmers. Sterns County was an agrarian society back then. Martin Noll had to free-range his cattle further north so they wouldn’t starve. A lot of his brothers and fellow farmers lost their farms. The largest town was St. Cloud which served as a magnet for most of the uneducated and unskilled young women anxious to get ‘off the farm.’ Hilde’s sisters all went off to secretarial school in St. Cloud. Hildegarde stayed home to take care of the farm.

Hildegarde grew up a beautiful and ambitious young woman. The Twin Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis proved irresistible to Hilde when she cautiously toe-stepped away from home for the first time. She was hungry enough to break free of the life-choking reins of farm work by testing herself in the cities. But with just a sixth grade education the only work she could get was house-keeping for wealthy clients, odd jobs as a seamstress and cooking. She became a maid on Summit Avenue. Not quite Downton Abby but close.

In her early twenties, Hildegarde struck out for the West Coast. She went to California at the bequest of an old girlfriend and for a short while led the life of a single young starlet. Together, they moved from San Diego to Salinas. By then there were four of them, young working girls just wanting to have fun. They had their employer’s new Lincoln to tour around town in. 

Hilde got a new job on ’17 Mile Drive.’ Even back then it was an exclusive enclave of retired Army Generals, titans of business and industry and movie stars. Her employers had her over to their house on the Del Monte Golf Course regularly to meet movie stars like Joan Fontaine and Olivia DeHavelund. Together they went to the horse races in San Francisco, the youngest trailing along as their guest.

Working days and hanging out with the movie stars at night. Hilde was making good money, dancing every night and having a grand old time. Then her father fell ill and wrote for his youngest to come back home before he died. She did and shortly afterwards Martin Noll died.

The farm was sold shortly after that and as had been tradition for hundreds of years, the boys got all the money. The girls got nothing. So Hilde hired an attorney and sued her brothers. They finally settled out of court.  Hildegarde and her sisters each got $4000 dollars. The brothers each got $6000 dollars. There was no extra compensation for the youngest and all the years she had spent caring for her elderly parents. Nor did her sisters ever pay her back for the money she lent them over the years. But that’s the way it was back then.

Hildegarde continued to do summer chores for her mother and work during the winter months in the cities. It was the height of the depression but the youngest had ambition. She worked hard, saved her money and knew how to spend it when she had to. While others were going broken because of the depression, Hilde took whatever jobs she could get and thrived. At her father’s encouragement she alone traveled to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934.

Hilde earned enough money to pay $326.00 cash for a practically brand new 1934 roadster. The previous owner had bet on the farm and lost both it and the car when the bank came calling. Her brother, Frank, lusted after that car but Hilde was no fool. It was never available for his forays into St. Martin Township or the Twin Cities.

Hildegarde met her future husband at an ammunition plant on the outskirts of Minneapolis around the beginning of World War Two. That chapter in her single life ended with her marriage to Arthur in 1942. 

It’s truly a shame that none of this rich fascinating ancestral information was passed on to me until just before Hildegarde died. She wrote out her life story in long hand on a faded gray tablet of paper. Ten pages, single spaced, documenting a lifetime of hard work, unbroken faith in her God, loss, rejection, betrayal, heartbreak, and a tremendous (though hidden) pride in her own survival and personal accomplishments.

Unfortunately by then they were just fractured words pulled from a failing memory that left me with many more questions than Hildegarde could possibly answer and leaving a vacuum in my life that has never been filled.

Mom and us kids
Martin Noll, my grandfather, died seven years before I was born. That’s really a shame. I’m guessing he would have been one hell of an influence on me had he lived long enough. So it was left up to his youngest, my Mother, to show me the value of hard work and steel hard, forged determination to get ahead. A legacy that has driven me all of my life.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Kopper Meets the Fire-Breathing Dragon or Not

One of my treasured rituals with the Minnesota grandchildren is to make up bedtime stories for them. Out of ‘I don’t know where’ I came up with this character called Kopper the Hopper. Kopper is a not too bright kangaroo who keeps getting hit in the head by golf balls as he wanders out onto a golf course.

Of course, when the story is being told (and usually made up on the fly) Brennan and Charlotte are under the covers and getting binged on the head every time Kopper gets hit by an errant golf ball. The kids love it and beg for more. I’ve had to expand the storyline to now include a shark in Nana’s swimming pool, tickle bugs on the golf course, a huge bear in the mountains surrounding the golf course and so forth. 

Since Sharon and I have an entirely different nighttime routine with the Colorado kids, I decided last year to write a play for them when both families came to the desert for Christmas. So last year the grandkids performed the inaugural staged reading of our first family play entitled ‘Kitten’s Bad Day.’

It was a staged reading that featured all five of the grandkids and Cash, the wonder dog. Our audience included parents and visitors alike, all of whom loved the performance. Sure enough, the kids were hooked. We just performed our second family play this Thanksgiving.

Spencer wanted to see a return of his favorite fire-breathing dragon. Brennan was lobbying for Kopper the Hopper to make an appearance. Neither made the cut. Instead we had a menagerie of hand puppets, discussions about ‘owning their role’ and a return of Cash, the wonder dog.

The play was entitled: ‘Animal Clappers.’ The children were as animated as their hand-puppets and even Cash seemed to enjoy his star status. I fear perhaps I’ve created a stage monster here since there have already been plenty of hints about next years staged extravaganza and who gets to play which role.

All five of my grandchildren seem to have a knack for the fine arts in one form or another. They’ve all been to art classes in Apple Valley, Palm Springs, Colorado, London and Hawaii. Wherever Nana and the gang gather, there are sure to be art classes.

Maya has been performing in plays since she was very young. She came to Minnesota to see me perform in a play at the Steeple Center a couple of years ago. 

We took all the kids to see ‘School of Rock’ in London at the Gillian Lynne Theatre with a lot of museums added along the way.

When the kids were here for Thanksgiving, we took them to the see ‘A Christmas Story, the Musical’ at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert.

So when the kids asked about this year’s play earlier in the year, they had a lot of suggestions for me. Spencer loved the idea of a fire-breathing dragon which never made the cut in last year’s play. Brennan was anxious to see Kopper the Hopper come to life and Charlotte seemed overly concerned about star billing and the attendant compensation. Spoken like a pro, she’s only eight.

Fortunately for us grandparents, all five of the grandchildren have taken to the arts in one form or another.

Samantha is a prodigious writer, piano player and budding actress. She also excels on her traveling soccer team.

Maya is a singer and an actress. She paints and plays on a traveling Lacrosse team. 

Brennan and Spencer are both vociferous readers and artists in their own right. Both love chess, video games and assembling puzzles meant to warp adult minds. Spencer loves gymnastics and Brennan his hockey.

Charlotte is an award-winning artist as is her brother. She is a flash on her hockey team and seems to have an’instinct’ for the game.

An introduction to the arts at this stage in their young lives will hopefully set all the grandchildren up for a lifetime of exploration and experimentation.

Add to those sports, cooking classes, art classes, music lessons, the theater and travel and I’d say the kids are hopefully on the right track.