Monday, November 29, 2010

nice and warm

Wondering what to wear when it's this cold?

Every year, it's the same challenge: how to keep warm enough - but not too warm - while biking the trails. I have my layers: including windfront bib tights and a windfront jacket. Yet no matter what I wear, when it drops into the teens and lower, I can't keep my bootie warm!

I noticed that my friend Amanda wears a skirt when she rides. I've seen people wear them when they ski or hike or snowshoe, too. I've heard that teachers pull them on over their pants when they have playground duty. The Skhoop insulated skirts are sold at Skinny Raven, a local running shop that also has some great clothes for the Alaskan lifestyle: good looking, comfortable and warm.

A couple weeks ago, they held a fashion-show fundraiser for the YWCA. Included in a goodie bag was a 20% off coupon. I pulled a plaid Skhoop skirt on over my twill pants. Finally, I was ready to join the cadre of Alaskan women who swear by this recent introduction to our outerwear toolbox.
Can I get some style points even if I don't ride the skinny bridge?
Thanks, Kevin, for the photo-shoot.

Sunday, when it was 10 degrees in the park, I decided to give it a try while on the bike. I pulled the skirt over my bib tights, then unzipped both sides almost as high as they would go, making it easier to swing my leg over the bike and pedal comfortably. I biked to the park and rode around for a couple hours. I stopped and chatted with Kevin, who works at the shop. It may have warmed up a tiny bit, but when I got home, my butt wasn't nearly as frozen as it normally is at those temperatures.

I think I have a new addition to my winter biking wardrobe. And it looks great while I'm strolling around downtown, too.

Monday, November 15, 2010

white rim washout 2010 (pt 4)

On Day 4, with wool baselayer and socks. The toe covers served me
well, but at the end of the final day, the bottoms became shredded
from climbing over boulders. My only gear casualty!

Part 4
The washout
All the photos used in this post were taken by my friend Corinne. Many thanks, Corinne!

On the last morning of the trip, I knew before climbing out of our tent that it was cold outside. I'd known it the night before as I'd left the firepan circle. Jon had held up a cloth he'd used to wash the river mud off his legs. It had frozen stiff instead of drying atop the tent. I thought of telling the girls who were still sitting around the hot charcoals, but Jon suggested that I not mention it. He was right: nobody needed to know it was already below freezing.

I could hear the low-roar of the stove as I emerged from the tent, found my wind pants in my drybag and pulled them on over my thermals. "Twenty-two," Brin told me from behind the cooking table. "Really?" The water for washing our hands had froze in the line. Camelbak hoses were frozen. My nose chilled in the morning air. It would be a long time before the sun reached the Potato Bottom campsite.

Divas emerged, some draping their sleeping bags over their shoulders to keep cozy just a little longer. They further reasoned that this way as the frost inside their tents melted, the water wouldn't rain on their gear. Coffee flowed. The sun rose. Omelets to order for breakfast. Jon and I moved our tent to the sun, shook off the water and let it stand longer. I hauled my gear to a sunny boulder, placing my black gloves over my Camelbak hose to get it to thaw. It seemed we would never get started. But a part of me didn't want to leave the White Rim. A part of me wanted to stay out on the trail with Jon and these women who kept their spirits up through wind, rain and cold.

Most of us were still in camp, packing our gear, when two cyclists entered camp. They had biked from the trailhead we were heading toward and would drive the gear van back out from the direction we'd come, allowing both our guides, Brin and Ben, to accompany us to the top of the canyon and drive us back to Green River.

By late morning we were out on the trail, going around the locked gate that closed off the washouts from all but bike and foot traffic. Climbing up Hardscrabble, I mentally prepared myself for a short but tough day. Parts of the trail near the river bottom held deep sand, some of it wet; some dry. The riding was a lot like snow riding: hold that wheel straight and just keep on pedaling. At one point, the trail had completely washed out leaving about a four foot drop to the sand below for anyone who wasn't paying attention. It took a moment to know which direction to go, but soon the gang was on track, beckoning me in the right direction through the sandy wash. This was the last time I saw Jon until the ride was done.
Years of sand that washes and drifts to the
canyon floor gets rearranged during floods.
Anne appears to be waving at me as I head
into the dune.

We passed an old stock corral and exited the national park (or was it the other way around?) Soon, we were at the bottom of the Mineral Road switchbacks. Since the road had washed out in August, one of the guiding companies had done a little work making a series of switchbacks so riders can hike their bikes past one missing switchback, then cross the washout and climb out of it on the other side. But before we got there, we had to bike up the start of the climb. Then cross a boulder field where the road used to be. Then climb some more.

I slurped down an energy gel, remounted my bike and started pedaling up the hill. It was surprisingly manageable; a gradual, sustained climb rising from the canyon. Rocks were scattered on the trail. I dismounted the bike where there were too many to navigate. Up ahead, I heard the cries of two ravens that were soaring on the updrafts of the canyon as the temperature rose. Their calls sounded unfamiliar, as though the Utah ravens spoke another language from our Anchorage ravens. I stood still, watching, listening. One dipped and climbed next to the canyon wall as the sun cast its twin of a shadow against the red rock. I could have watched it fly there all afternoon. Instead, I rounded the bend and climbed back on the bike, making my way toward a debris field where someone had swept the rocks aside to leave about a two-foot wide path on the road.

Anne and I reached the big washout at about the same time. Brin had been ahead of us with Jon and a couple other riders. He left his bike at the top, then hiked back down to help ferry bikes up the steep hike and through the washout. I chose to carry and push my bike as far as I could, sending Brin farther down the trail to help other riders. I wanted every inch to be accomplished under my own power. But once I reached the crossing point of the washout and saw I'd have to lower my bike more than 5 feet, I relented and handed my bike down to Brin, then climbed down to walk the bike across the rocky gap and back onto the trail.
Ben shoulders a bike along the switchback washout.

Another rider approaches the washout.

If you open the photo, you can see where the makeshift trail just
left of the washout helped us bypass the largest section of the washout.
It was pretty steep and precarious trying to carry or push the bikes
up the narrow trail. The guy in the white t-shirt is the Minnesotan
who gave us a hand. I was wrong: there is chivalry on the trail!

As people made their way up the crude hiking trail, we began passing bikes, bucket-brigade style across the gap. Hoisting bikes on his back, Ben carried one after another up the steep detour and handed it off. Brin lowered it into the washout and passed it to Anne who passed it to me. I lined up the bikes along the side of the road where they would await their riders. A couple visiting from Minnesota stopped to watch and the husband even stepped in to help in the bike passing. When all the bikes were across, we started heading up. I was able to pedal the final switchback, then crossed the cattle grate to where the van was waiting.

In case you're wondering what happened to Jon, when Brin returned from the top of the canyon to help us, he told me Jon had taken off to ride the road and requested that I make him a "respectable sandwich" for lunch. Okay... After making my own lunch and after everyone else made and ate their sandwiches, I put together a stack of meat, cheese, tomato and lettuce that he would love. Then we all piled into the van. All thirteen of our un-showered, tired bodies. A few miles down the road, we picked up Jon who had biked to where the dirt road met an intersection, then turned around. He was happy with his extra miles and even more happy that he was done climbing!

Plenty of people ride the White Rim in a single day, pedaling through some of the most beautiful canyon country in the Southwest. We took five days. I can't see myself wanting to ride it much faster than we did. I would miss so much.

Thanks to Anne for instigating this unforgettable trip.
Thanks to Corinne for allowing me to use some of her photos here since I had none for this final day. They really add scale & perspective to the washout.
And, thanks to our guides, Brin & Ben from Holiday Expeditions. They were always helpful (even when Brin's estimate for the daily mileage was a little shy of what my odometer read) and kept the coffee flowing each morning. They also made sure nobody lost any weight on this trip (not sure if I should thank them for that). They now have nine places to stay if either of them ever decides to visit the Anchorage area! Of course, they'll have to bring their Dutch ovens...

white rim washout 2010 (pt 3)

Part 3
I woke in the middle of the night at Murphy's and made my way to the outhouse. The nearly-full moon had risen, lighting the sky so much that all but the brightest starts and planets disappeared from view. I stood looking at the sky then returned to our tent. At around 2, I got up again and strolled toward the outhouse. I thought it would be a nice night for a walk, with the moon lighting the way. But Jon was asleep and I knew I needed sleep, too.

I should have gone walking because back in the tent I was restless. Maybe it was from eating too much guacamole or from the beans in the fajitas. Maybe it was the beers or the wine. Maybe it was the Gatorade. Whatever it was, I was wide awake and full of energy. And all I could think of were my parents. I remembered helping my mom sort through her dresser drawers before she moved. In that week after Dad's funeral, we "kids" kept ourselves occupied with the busywork of sorting and packing. It occurred to me, lying in my tent how we never just sat down together and cried. And how that would have been a very good thing to do. Instead, we kept things moving, organizing and being very practical about things. Leaving the room when we started to cry. Hiding instead of holding and consoling each other.

It's easy in the middle of the night, during the stillness around a camp to think about the bigger things, and that was what was going through my head. I recall now that one thing that had troubled me before my dad died this August was the fact that I'd had three back-country trips planned that would take me out of communication range for several days at a time. I'd worried that if something were to happen, I couldn't be reached. I'd even started writing a story about a funeral of a parent where the daughter hadn't been located so she missed it. Not even two weeks later, I got the call. When I'd visited in June and my siblings and I had talked with him about moving into an assisted apartment, he'd resisted and said, "In the fall. We'll talk about it in the fall." It makes me believe that he knew that his time was short but in his typical stoic fashion, he wasn't going to fill us in. He wanted to be home. Grieving is a long process and I was just beginning to learn that. It's also something that turns your relationships upside-down.

A few weeks after I'd returned from Wisconsin, I was listening to an interview with an author. He's maybe in his 40s or 50s. A few years ago, he'd lost a friend to suicide and it was then that he finally felt that he'd grown up. I understood what he was saying. For those of us without kids, the middle years offer the luxury of extending our own childhoods. We're responsible for ourselves only and that gives us lots of freedoms even as we work jobs, buy houses and establish relationships. We have free time and can afford to enjoy it. Then something happens. Finding out that Mom has Alzheimer's changed the way I talked to her and it changed the way I listened to her. I listen better; I encourage. I tell her that what she thinks or feels is normal and okay. It's intensified now that Dad is gone and I'm aware now of how much she needs me and each of my siblings and all the other people who are in her life. I have this new idea of what it is to be grown up: it's that knowledge that someone else not just depends on me but needs me. That's a huge responsibility. I didn't want to grow up.

My thoughts finally turned away from family and back to the trail, and I was able to recount the previous day: the hike, the ride, the evening surrounded by friends and the endless starry sky. I remembered that I'd packed some medicine that my doctor had recommended for my allergies that was designed for heartburn, took a dose and turned off my headlamp.

Lori and Anne

By the time I woke, the temperature had dropped to the low 30s and the wind had picked up. I was attuned to the roar of the stove heating water for coffee and, despite my lack of sleep, emerged from the tent. I tried to make conversation with a raven that was perched on our boulder. Instead of answering my throaty calls, it took flight and headed for the van. As it tried to land on the front wheel of Ben's bike, the wheel began to spin. Surprised, the raven flew off to the west as Brin and I watched, laughing. I quickly forgot about the long night as people emerged from their tents. We huddled with our hot drinks out of the wind, urging the sun to rise over the canyon, as we awaited our hot pancakes.

The day promised mostly gentle riding, except for a downhill to match the steepness of the climb from the day before as we now descended from Murphy's. The guides had proposed a short hike in a slot canyon that would leave from our lunch spot, but once there, decided it was too wet for hiking. Instead, we would ride a few more miles, then Brin would lead us up a cliff to an ancient granary that had been built around 800 years ago.
I'm writing our names in a logbook at the granary which dates
back to the 1200s. Thanks to Brin for sharing this place with us.

It was another sunny day (though cold), a great day for riding, gazing at the scenery and sprawling out on the warm rocks during the lunch break. The granary was in sight of the trail and just a short hike up a small canyon where it was built under an overhang. The walls were made of stone and the roof of tree branches. From the site, we could look down at the road where other cyclists rode by, unaware of the site we were exploring high above them. Back at the trail, we gathered our bikes and continued our ride. Soon we were descending, riding nearer to the river until reaching our camp in early afternoon.
Sunny, but chilly ride.

Again we had the luxury of setting up camp in calm weather. While the guys went off to check out the river, we Divas hung out in camp - some of us again in our colorful sarongs - enjoying wine and the sun's rays, knowing that this was our last night on the trail and that the next day would bring some tough pushing. The next day would be Washout Day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

snow ride

I don't know if there is anything as serene as following a tunnel of light over a narrow, packed line of snow. I sometimes search to find that calm place inside me. That place where I'm not worried, I'm not thinking about my next move; some big decision; what I'm writing. All thoughts just disappear and I'm following that tunnel through the darkness.

The trees are outlines of black and white. Light and shadow. I hear my tires rolling softly on the surface. It's in the mid-20s; not cold enough for the squeaky snow of mid-winter. I'm not thinking about my fingers or toes. I don't have to cover my face. I can hear myself breathing. I see nobody.

I'm one with bike and trail. I know where the bike will go; I don't have to think about rising from the saddle; don't have to wonder about braking or shifting. I'm flowing. Pedaling and coasting. I'm smiling.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

white rim washout 2010 (pt 2)

Snow on La Sal Mountains -
day 2

Part 2

Elevation plays tricks on us. Here in Anchorage, we live among the mountains but at or darn near sea level. A trip to the Canyonlands takes us a few thousand feet above sea level where the air is less rich in oxygen, our legs feel a little heavier and the liquor will more quickly go to our heads. (There has to be some bonus.) Luckily, Jon and I had been riding at higher elevations for over a week before the White Rim trip started, so that made it a bit easier for us. Most of the gang, however had little time to acclimate. Still, after the first day, we all knew what to expect: the sun sets quickly in the desert leaving cold nights when it's clear; too many breaks for photos on the trail might leave people once again arriving at camp after dark; and we would be well fed.

The second day of riding gave us clouds and winds, but the rain stayed away all day as it did for the rest of the trip. It was as though Mother Nature had thrown all her tricks at us that first overnight and we had passed the test. We made light of the weather: it's prettier with clouds in the sky; people don't remember the perfect calm, clear days; they remember the challenges. One of my challenges was staying awake long enough to jot down a few notes in my notebook before my nose landed on the page and I was asleep.
Lunch-time Raven.

Pools on slickrock.

The rain from earlier in the day left puddles on the slickrock alongside the trail and it was more fun to walk among these pools than to huddle in the wind eating my lunch. A raven kept guard near the lunch site, waiting for food to blow from careless hands. Of course, we were careful to not leave anything to reward the bird and he kept his distance while we ate.

Our second camp was 21 miles from the first. White Crack is over a mile off the main road, near the rim of the canyon. We made camp, grabbed beers (maybe not it that order) then strolled off on a short hike to watch the sun set while Brin and Ben made dinner. That was a huge luxury: having someone else look after the cooking and cleaning. We had no shifts to work; no division of labor. Only set up and take down our own tents and get our gear to and from the van.
Lounging poolside at White Crack Tent City.

Just a few minutes' walk from Tent City. Sunset in the canyon.
Tomorrow, we'd be hiking into the canyon.

We had dinner around a fire pan as the stars came out. The moon rose over the canyon and I don't know who started it but we all began to howl, our cries rising into the cold, starry sky. Next morning, I was the first one up (besides Brin, maker of coffee) and I crossed the camp to a low rock overlook to await the sunrise. It glowed a piercing white before it was fully above the canyon wall, then the light began to soften and the coffee was ready. The rest of the gang began to stir.
Sunrise at White Crack. All our gear, food & water
fit into this van. That's Brin making sure we all have
our coffee or water for tea.

This day would be a short ride; just nine miles to the next site. Brin knew of a hiking trail that starts at the top of the crack or gap in the white rock that gives "White Crack" campsite its name. We'd strolled right past it the night before without knowing a trail could take us alongside the canyon walls, to the bottom of the canyon and all the way to the Green River if we wanted. We'd decided the previous evening that after breakfast those who wanted could do a hike in the canyon, then we'd return to break down camp and have lunch before making our way to Murphy.
To get the scale, click to open this pic, then
look below the pinnacle to see the hikers.

A great way to stretch your calves after all that biking.

I've heard and read in a few places that most people who do group trips on the White Rim do just 2 or 3 nights out camping. They probably aren't scheduling a night at White Crack or any time for side trips or the all-important hanging-out time at camp. Though I know we could have done the trip in one less day, having the hike and a short ride made the trip feel just a bit more relaxed, especially after the first two days.

Following the short bike ride, day 3 ended with an impossible (for me) climb up Murphy's, then the entire group at the top cheering Ben on as he drove the support van up the steep, narrow road. And for several in the group, Day 3 ended with a chilly shower the guides (aka "The Boys) set up at camp.

Go, Ben! Go! (We just want our beers!)
Here's a tip: careful opening your beer
after it's spent a day in the van! Phtzzz!

I, instead, opted for hanging out in my sarong and t-shirt atop a viewpoint rock that was the focal point of our campsite and where the guides had placed a handful of camp chairs. Brin gave me a boost to get up onto the rock. From there, we could watch the sunset, see a raven fly and imagine it was a hot summer evening. Of course, eventually I had to get off the perch and Jon helped me out by climbing down first then letting me ease my way down onto his shoulders.

Corinne sent this photo of me
getting a shoulder ride from Jon!

We hovered over a huge bowl filled with guacamole, wary of a raven who was ready to swoop down if we were to all leave our post, then enjoyed dinner in our group circle. As the sky began to darken, we again looked to the starry, moonless sky, gazing at the constellations and the Milky Way. In the last hint of twilight, I could see a thin cloud layer draped like a puff of cotton over the snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the distance. It was the only cloud in the sky. It could be a cold night.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

white rim washout 2010 (pt 1)

and now, back to our regularly-scheduled bike posts...

Part 1

Day 1 on the White Rim.

It was in the works since last winter: a five-day fully-supported bike trip on the White Rim Trail in Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands NP, Utah. Ten women and four guys (two of the guys were our guides). Anne, our trip organizer, and a couple other women had done the trip last year. Their slide show compelled our little biking group to make the commitment to this fall's trip, but maps and photos can't begin to promise what will happen on the trail.

Especially this year. The year of the Mineral Switchbacks Washout. We found out in early September that a flash flood had caused the washout on the final climb that was to take us out of the canyon to the trailhead. The guide company presented alternatives: another trail, an out-and-back, a refund. Nope. We decided, we're doing the White Rim and if there's a way, we'll hike up the washout. As one Diva pointed out: it'll be an adventure. There's something to be said for doing something others have done, except under more adverse conditions. Maybe it's bragging rights. For me it's knowing that I've taken a tough route and come through it successfully. The bragging right is the internal one that says: you did that; now what else can you do?

Still, just when we thought we knew what to expect our first day, the plan changed before we even hopped on our bikes. Normally, people start the ride at an access trail called Shafer. But a day or two before our trip, a park truck had slid off the rain-slicked road and the Park Service closed the road. Nobody told us, though. So our van had to backtrack several miles then take us to a third trail, Potash Road, outside Moab to begin the ride. Believe me, the day we started the trip at Potash the thought crossed my mind that this was now the only open access point for our trip. I hoped nothing happened to close this road!
There's a biker somewhere...

That first 24 hours turned into the biggest challenge of the trip. A promised descent with a 20-mile ride to the first campsite became a 26-mile ride that started an hour late and with a climb. Some riders arrived at camp in the post-twilight darkness. Gear was distributed from the van, Brin & Ben made dinner as we scrambled to set up our cluster of tents in the Airport D campsite, fighting the evening wind that threatened to make kites of our little homes. But that was just the start of the wind.
After Jon took this photo (I think) and put the camera away, a few of us stood talking with our guide, Brin, who had his back to the canyon. We all heard a sound like tumbling rocks just below us. Brin got a nervous look on his face and we all turned to look down the canyon. Suddenly, a ram with 3/4-curl horns scrambled up out of the canyon onto the road, not 20 feet away from us. The ram looked at us, crossed the road and climbed up an impossibly-steep, sheer rock then disappeared. We looked at each other in surprise at what we'd just seen.

Jon on Musselman Arch, which I think should be
called Musselman Bridge.

Early in the morning the wind picked up. It blew the sides of the tents so fiercely that the walls hit our faces and campers braced to fight the fabric and claustrophobia. Fine desert dust had been blowing into the mesh walls of the tent for hours and the grit coated my lips, then my tongue as I inadvertently moistened my lips. Just as the wind seemed to be dying, the rain came. The wind returned with more power pushing the soaked tent walls one direction, then the other. I sponged up water with a towel. People stayed in their tents and waited. Then I heard some of the girls talking.

The rain let up. People emerged. Though I felt I had only slept a few hours, I didn't feel tired. Instead, I felt energized. Jon wanted to tell people that the rain was the best thing that had happened after the night of dust. We'd been in a similar storm two years earlier at the 24-hour race outside Moab. That dust storm lasted a day and when it was over we had sand dunes in our tent and the camera shutter refused to open or close properly. I'd finally given up and convinced Jon we should go into town & get a hotel room. To us, the rain was a welcome guest at the camp. It would put down the dust and clear the air. Besides, there was no going back to town. We had three more nights of camping. Our main hope was that that water wouldn't turn the trail to gumbo.

Near the outhouse a river of red-orange water flowed from a neighboring campsite, over the road, along the slickrock and finally poured over the cliff into the canyon below. I walked along its course and was impressed with how much water was flowing after what seemed to be a short storm, but when you're on a mostly rock surface, the water can't seep into the ground; it can only follow gravity.

During the lull after the rain, Brin and Ben got the coffee going and made our breakfast, Jon helped people with any bike issues they had and lubed chains. Everyone waited for the tents to dry before taking them down. It was just after breakfast, as the guys were cleaning up, that the hail came. Not huge hail, but it was cold and hard. Everyone dashed for their tents to again wait out the storm. It was a relatively short one and soon I heard the voices outside again: "there's a suckerhole." "Yep, I see another one."

Being a sucker for a suckerhole, I climbed out of the tent to study the sky. The day before the trip, I'd gone online and this was the only day for which the weather site had promised rain. I was going to take their word for it. I stood in the middle of the site with my arms outstretched as the sun began coming through. Though windy, it would be a good day to ride. A few at a time, riders left camp. By 12:15 I was pedaling away from Airport camp, bound for White Crack.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

one indian summer

Where did that sadness come from that woke me early this morning? I got up, made coffee in the press and sat on the sofa to finish the book I began while on our trip. When I don't want to face tough moments in my own life, reading about someone else's experiences distracts me. For a while.

Memories converged yesterday while talking on the phone with my mom. A month ago she asked me what day Dad died and I'd had to think: when I got the call it was still Monday, August 16. For her, it was the 17th. She had a hard time remembering. Yesterday she told me that she had relayed a memory to my oldest brother about seeing a man lying on the floor next to a bed. She asked Mike who it was. He confirmed that this had been Dad. I silently cried as I struggled to keep my composure. Her memories slip and slip. She sometimes interchanges the name of her beloved hometown in Ohio with the town in Wisconsin where she lived for over 40 years while raising us kids.

After Dad's funeral, we kids started going through each room of the townhouse they'd been renting for the past half dozen years, sorting through paperwork and clothes, books, trinkets and photos. In Mom's desk we found the guest book and all the condolence cards that had been sent when my brother John died in 1983. He was a month shy of 20, almost two years older than I was. I remembered getting the phone call.

I was a freshman in college, living with my aunt in Madison when my aunt woke me at what must have been 4 or 5 a.m. on November 4. "It's your mother." I immediately thought of my dad. Instead, Mom told me that John had died in a car accident. I slumped to the floor in Aunt Margaret's sewing room and listened. It was a Friday. I packed my bag, decided to go to my Italian class to take the weekly quiz, told a friend what had happened, then went outdoors to meet my aunt.

She drove the back highways to Elroy. It was a clear fall day. People were at the house. Other family members were on the way. Mom wanted my help deciding what John should wear. I chose a wool pullover sweater with a pattern on it. Still, it didn't seem real. I'd been home the weekend before. We'd talked; I'd borrowed a sweater from him that I liked. Bugged him while he got ready for a date; took his picture.

Going through a death is like walking through a dream. Only some moments are remembered. Like I remember telling my aunt, Anna Mae, that I didn't like that the funeral worker had matted down John's unruly curly hair. She walked with me to the casket and handed me a comb to rearrange his hair but I could barely move it and gave up. I also remember my young nephew Sean saying, "I know why we're here. We're here because John died." Children can speak what's going on; they just don't know what it means. Of course, I didn't either.

John was cremated and his ashed were kept at my parents' house. A few years ago during a visit to my parents after they'd moved into the townhouse, I met Aunt Anna Mae for lunch. We talked about my other aunt, her sister Maxine, who had died that spring. I hadn't been there for the funeral, but Maxine was buried in the family plot in the Catholic cemetery on the outskirts of town. Then Anna Mae mentioned John: "Nobody talks about John," she said. Through tears, I agreed, but because I hadn't lived there for such a long time, I was really in no position to agree. Still, the reminder of my long-ago grief was splayed on the table between us.

Rain was pouring in an August thunderstorm that promised a relief from the humidity. After lunch I drove to the cemetery and parked the car. The rain had stopped and I walked up the hill in the soggy grass until I found the plot where my grandparents were buried. I paused at Aunt Maxine's still markerless grave, then looked again at the spot where my grandparents were. Laying flat on the ground were two bronze plates. One was inscribed with my parents' names and each of their birth years. The second was inscribed with John's name and the years 1962 and 1983 on either side of the cover for his urn.

When they'd moved into town, my parents had John's ashes interred there. But in a family that doesn't always relay much news, nobody had told me. They probably didn't think it was worth mentioning. So I wasn't prepared to read my brother's name on the metal plate, just as I wasn't prepared to read my parents' names. The discovery tripped an emotional switch that had been tampered with all day and for the first time in years I cried at the loss of my brother.

I remember when I turned 21 and realized I was older than he'd been when he died. While at his grave more than 20 years later, I thought of some of the things I'd experienced; the places I'd been that he'd never had a chance to experience. I remember when I was in my twenties going to movies and wondering what John would think of them. But soon, the daily thoughts dwindled and promises to myself to remember him every day faded like the autumn leaves.

Now, it's my dad I think about every day. And Mom's failing memory. And those thoughts tangle together with that 27-year-old memory of our family losing John. How it aged our parents; what a stress it must have been on my two younger brothers who were still in high school at the time; how uncomfortable I was visiting and how I tiptoed around the unspoken emptiness and pulled away into my own world.

So, what can I tell you about my brother; what set him apart from my other eight siblings besides his curly hair and our closeness in age? In high school, he played the tuba in the band, sang in the chorus and played center in football. He went to a tech school to become a diesel mechanic and was just starting his career.

But what do I remember? For one, he taught me how to tie my shoes. Not very well, but I got the basics from him. Also, he taught me how to blow snot from one nostril when I didn't have a tissue handy (a critical life-skill). He allowed me (probably reluctantly) to hang out with him and his friends. We tossed the frisbee in the front yard in the summer and I believe he introduced me to the music of Warren Zevon. And how could I forget the time Mom scolded him for singing his own lyrics to the theme from Born Free? "Stay Free! Stayfree mini pads!" I imagine Mom was laughing because he was too young to know what he was singing about, though maybe this was why she boycotted any feminine product that was advertised on TV... but that's another story.

So, here's to crying while laughing and laughing while crying. Man, life is filled with those moments.