Saturday, February 25, 2012

Difficult Highways in Life

 It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage,
that we move on to better things.
- Theodore Roosevelt

Tom and I were driving across Wyoming in February on our way home from Salt Lake City.  The weather was sunny when we left but became increasingly windy, snowy and cold as we traversed the state, causing the Interstate to finally be closed due to snow and ice.  We were forced to stop for the night in a small town along the highway and I found myself feeling irritable and annoyed that my trip would be so rudely interrupted.  I was three hours from home and I wanted to be in my own bed for the night, not here in some small, windy town in rural Wyoming with nothing but miles of empty land and blowing, howling wind and snow around us.  We had been traveling for several days already and I just wanted to be home.

We checked into the local Holiday Inn Express and as I looked around the packed lobby with all of the stranded travelers, I abruptly realized that I had prayed for safety on this trip and my prayers were being answered.  I was safe, in a clean hotel and I would not be left to sleep in my vehicle, stranded on the side of an icy highway in sub-zero weather.  I felt shame at my attitude sweep over me and was thankful to hear that we would have a room for the night.  As I looked around the lobby, my eye caught sight of a mother with four young children, all under the age of 7.  She looked worried but I could tell that she was trying to keep up appearances for her children's sake.  I heard her promising snacks and a trip to the hotel pool once they had checked in and I smiled, remembering the times we took our kids to a hotel for a weekend of swimming and fun.  I knew that she was not stopping here for purposes of entertaining her children, but appreciated her attempts to make the unscheduled stay seem like fun, making the best of the situation. 

As Tom and I sat in the breakfast lounge the next morning listening to the news and hoping for the Interstate to open, mom and her brood came down to partake of the free cereals and yogurts.  She sat at an adjacent table and caught my eye, smiling shyly.  I leaned in to speak with her.  "Where are you headed to?"  I asked.  She hesitated for a moment, then spelled out "T E X A S".  I was surprised - she was a long way from Texas!  She looked at her children to make sure they were occupied with their breakfast then slipped into the chair next to me, obviously feeling the need to talk and share more.  "I am leaving my spouse", she whispered.  "He's abusive and doesn't know that I've left.  I took the children while he was at work.  We don't have anything but our clothes and our van and I'm traveling to Texas to be with my parents."  I searched her face - she was anxious, yet determined.  "Where are you from?"  I asked.  "Oregon," she answered.  She looked at my pleadingly.  "How long will this interstate be closed?  I need to get my children back on the road."   I shook my head.  This was Wyoming - who could tell?  I've seen this interstate be closed for days at a time.  We discussed her travel plans and I provided her with as much information as I could about her route and what she could expect.  My heart ached as I thought of her driving so far, all alone with four children.  I did not know what the circumstances were that had prompted this drastic step, but I silently prayed for her safety and her future. 

The Interstate remained closed and Tom pulled out the Wyoming state map.  We found an alternative route that was open, although it would add an additional six hours to our trip and we had no idea what the road conditions would be.  We opted to leave and as we checked out of the hotel I glanced back into the lobby.  Mom and her kids were still there, waiting out the storm.  She waved and gave me a weak smile and I acknowledged her with my own wave.  "Lord," I prayed, "protect this woman.  Provide her with safety as she travels and bring peace to her and her children." 

We arrived home hours later and the Interstate remained close for another two days.  I was glad we had made the decision to re-route but I could not stop thinking of that young mother, stranded alone with her children, anxious to be with her parents and start a new life.  I mentally followed her travels, thinking about how far she would get once the roads opened and how soon she could be joined with her family in Texas.  I don't know why she felt the need to share with me, but I'm glad that she did and as a mother myself, my heart goes out to her and to her parents.  I will continue to pray for her and the challenges ahead, praying for courage and wisdom as she recreates her future in "T E X A S".
Give me your eyes for just one minute, give me your eyes so I can see. Everything that I keep missing, give me your love for humanity.....Brandon Heath

What did you see today?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Le Boat: Lessons on the Lock

Le Boat, Canals and Locks

It is one of the phenomena of the inland waterways that you can go for hours without meeting another boat, then will encounter one on the sharpest and nastiest bend in the system. ~ From Journeys of The Swan by John Liley (1971)

We arrived at the boat dock at the appointed time, ready and anxious to board our floating home for the next week.  As Jacques, the boat attendant, walked us from the check-in station down to the river front he explained to Tom and Jim that they would receive a lesson in operating the locks that we would be encountering along the canals.  Many of them were manned by attendants who lived at the lock stations, he explained, but others would be manual and when we approached the manual locks we would have to operate them ourselves. 

“Here is your boat”, he said in heavily accented English.  “Let me show you around”.   We all climbed aboard and looked at each, grinning and chuckling as we attempted to follow Jacques through the narrow hallway towards the galley of the boat.  Jim is a tall guy and it was quickly clear that he would not be able to stand up inside this boat.  Thank goodness we had an open top with a table, chairs and a second station for driving the boat, because Jim would be walking in a bent fashion through the inside and would need somewhere to stretch out!

Jacques moved quickly and surely through the small interior, pointing into the 3 bedrooms as we passed the doorways.  We quickly tried to peer in as we passed and I caught glimpses of small beds and even smaller bathrooms.  We moved into the more open galley area and here was our kitchen and dining room for the week.  As Jacques moved on to show Jim and Tom the engine and teach them the basics of the boat operation, Jan and I stopped to explore the cupboards of the galley. 

I was astounded as I discovered delicate china cups and plates in the small wood cupboards and held them out to Jan.  “Look at this!  China dishes on a boat in the canals!”  I exclaimed.  She looked up and laughed for she had made some equally fun discoveries.  She pulled up a glass French press coffee maker and tiny ceramic egg cups and spoons for our 3-minute eggs in the mornings.  We laughed and laughed – only in France!  I was used to camping with chipped and dented metal military mess kits and an old cast iron skillet to perch on a grate over the open fire.  I was not anticipating delicate china dishes, formal silverware, cloth napkins and cut glass salt and pepper shakers in my camping stock!

When Jacques and the guys came back into the galley area, Jacques inquired if we had purchased food to stock our boat.  It was Saturday, he explained, and all the shops in the little villages along our route would be closed on Sunday.   We had not had the chance to shop so Jacques offered to drive Jan and me to the closest grocery store while Tom and Jim packed our belongings into the boat and filled the water tank with fresh drinking water from a hose that Jacques supplied. 

Jan and I were laughing as we jumped into the van with Jacques and drove away, leaving Tom and Jim looking a bit confused with the piles of luggage at their feet and a green rubber hose hanging from their hands.  The grocery was set to close at 6:00 and it was 5:30 when Jacques pulled up.  “Hurry!” he said as we jumped from the van and headed towards the entrance.  “I must run to a store for my wife, I will pick you up at 6:00”, he called as we dashed away.  Jan and I looked around in confusion as we entered the store – where should we start and what did we need, we wondered.  There was a short suggested stock list that our boat welcome package included, but beyond that we had no idea what to expect.

With Jan leading the way and interpreting the signs, we began to gather our groceries.  Our refrigerator was tiny and would not hold much and we knew that we would have to picnic often, since we could not always plan to be near a village at lunch time.  We quickly gathered what we felt were the basics, finding cheese and meat delicacies in the open meat cases, crusty French bread in the bakery and fresh fruits, eggs and milk in the dairy.  All that was left was the French wine and this is where the confusion set in.  So many varieties to choose from!  I finally devised a plan – I watched the locals that came through the wine aisles and I followed them to see what their selections were.  There was a particular Bordeaux that seemed quite popular and the price was right, so I loaded several bottles into my cart and off we went. 

We paid for the groceries, bagged them in our own shopping bags and dashed back outside the store right at 6:00.  Jacques was just pulling up to the front when we exited, exhausted but proud of ourselves for navigating so quickly through a French grocery store with no list.

“You are done already?” Jacques exclaimed in surprise when he saw us.  “I was sure you would take much longer”. 

“Oh no, Jacques,” Jan said as we loaded our bags into his van.  “You said 6:00 and we didn’t want to keep you waiting, you have been so kind to bring us here.”  He grinned and thanked us, driving us back to our boat. 

After helping us carry the bags down to the boat and into the galley he led us toward a small boat house for our lock training.  We were all excited to learn but a bit unsure about the lesson being conducted in the boat house.  How could we learn to operate manual canal locks without seeing the lock and experiencing opening it, we wondered?  Jacques proudly pulled 4 chairs around a small television set, pushed an old video tape into an adjacent VCR and said with a flourish, “This movie will show you how to open the locks on your own.  I will be waiting outside and you can leave when you are done.”  He pushed START on the VCR, waved his hand, and disappeared out the door. 

The video began with a friendly man smiling and standing atop a lock.  He began to demonstrate the operation of the lock, providing important instructions throughout the process.  The instructions, however, were all in French and we could not understand a word.  We sat in shock for a moment then, when the absurdity of the situation struck us, we burst out laughing.  Soon we were wiping tears from our eyes we were laughing so hard and it was impossible to focus on the video.

“Well”, Jim said, “I guess we’d better watch closely because we have no idea what he’s telling us.”  He got up and pushed REWIND on the VCR and after collecting ourselves, we pulled our chairs closer to the old TV set and proceeded to attempt to memorize the steps we saw demonstrated on the tape.  Fifteen minutes later the video ended and we were officially trained.  Look out France!

Cruising through France at 3 Knots

The lovely thing about cruising is that planning usually turns out to be of little use.
- Dom Degnon

Toms’ Take:
Our friend Jan came up with the idea of cruising through the countryside of France on, basically, a house boat.  Sounds like fun we all said, so the research started. The funny thing about research is it doesn’t matter how much you do; some things are just meant to be figured out when you do it.  And we had some great laughs doing just that.  

We were told we would get some training on navigating and operating the locks before we took the boat out.  I think something got lost in the translation of the word “training”, to me it sounded like, “there is your boat, see you in a week”.  Okay it was a little more than that but we reasoned, how hard could this really be?  We just had to keep it between the ditches – literally. 

Within an hour after we had arrived to pick up the boat, we were cruising down the canal towards our first lock at a blistering speed of 3 knots.  For those of you without nautical experience, that translates to 3.445 mph.  That, by the way is top speed for this beast.  The boat was about the size of a 12x60 trailer, and the locks are a generous 14 feet wide.  After a quick math lesson it became apparent that getting this boat through the locks was going to prove interesting, to say the least.

Upon approaching a lock it was important to slow your speed down so you can maneuver into the lock.  Additionally, there was usually a boat in front of you going through the lock themselves or sometimes two or three waiting in line in front of you to go first.  We often had to wait our turns, allowing us ample time to build our anxiety as we watched others go through with seeming grace and ease. 

Now let me explain something - when you slow the boat down, your steering ability is greatly reduced and it felt like half the time we tried to enter the lock sideways, which explained why the front and both sides of the boat were decorated with big blue bumpers.   And those bumpers are bouncy.  We looked very much like a pinball every time we went into a lock and to add to our joy, most locks are a gathering place, so we never lacked for an audience.  My French is bad, but “Crazy Yank” is easy to translate.  We left most of the lock entry duties to my buddy Jim, for two reasons.  One, I didn’t want to do it, and two; I didn’t want to do it.  I used the excuse that I needed to man the ropes.

Most of the locks are manned, but as you get further into the countryside the locks are unmanned and you need to operate the lock yourself.  This Job fell to Sandy and Jan, for two reasons.  Really, I needed to man the ropes.  About half way through the fifth day of our seven day journey, we were actually starting to feel somewhat competent with this process.

I know it’s hard to imagine, so I’ll do my best to explain how a typical lock entry went.  In the morning after a great breakfast, Sandy and Jan would take the bikes from the roof of the boat and ride along a beautiful trail beside the canal, headed to the next lock.  With the fresh breeze blowing their hair, the sun shining, beautiful flowers creating a heavenly scent in the air and occasionally stopping to snack on fresh wild raspberries they would peddle along gaily, having great conversation and discussing their wonderful husbands.  Their goal was to arrive at the next lock ahead of us and begin the process of opening it for “the beast”.    Jim and I are on the boat deck zipping along at 3 knots, the steady hum of our diesel engine creating a constant background noise, “Burrrrrrrrrrrrrr”.  

Since Jim was driving the boat I would serve as his gofer.  “Jim you want something to drink?”  Burrrrrrrrrrr.  “Sure.”  Burrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.  “Here you go.”  Burrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.  “Thanks.”   Burrrrrrrrrrrrr.  The sun is beating down on us so I put up our little beach umbrella and we sit side by side to share the shade.  Burrrrrrrrrrr.  Good thing we are in France.  Burrrrrrrrrrrr.   “There’s the lock,” I say.  Burrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.  Jim slows the boat down, Burrrrrrrrrrrr.  The noise gets louder as the engine throttles backwards.  We start to drift sideways, Burrrrrrrrrr, the engine revs as Jim puts it in reverse, Burrrrrrrrr, we drift the opposite direction, Burrrrrrrrrr, and we don’t see the low hanging branch on the tree at the edge of the canal.  SNAP, there goes our beach umbrella, caught on the branch and dragged across the deck and into the water.  Burrrrrrrrrr, Jim’s moving forward as I’m trying to fish the umbrella out of the water with a mop handle, Burrrrrrrrrrr, the motor groans as we start our pin ball entry into the lock, Burrrrrrrrr,  I nearly go overboard rescuing the umbrella.   Burrrrrrrrr.   

One and a half hours of sheer boredom followed by one and a half minutes of utter terror. After we clear the lock and wipe the sweat from our brow, it starts over.  Sandy and Jan are merrily on their way to the next lock and Jim and I fire that bad boy up, Burrrrrrrrrr.   “Jim, do you want a drink?” Burrrrrrrrrrr. “Sure.”   Burrrrrrrrrrr.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Abbey in the Ocean

The creation of Mont St Michel

In 708 the Archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, and commanded him to build a chapel on the top of Mont Tombe, a rocky island in the middle of an immense bay. Overawed by this apparition, Aubert obeyed and built a sanctuary to the glory of God and Archangel Michael.

I had seen pictures of Mont St Michel but nothing prepared me for the actual sight.  As we drove from Ducey towards the historic Abbey, we could see the imposing fortress rising from the haze and mist, guiding us like a beacon as we traveled west.  It seemed to move and shimmer among the clouds, its tall spires reaching heavenward, pointing to the sky and declaring it as a holy place.  As we traveled comfortably and quickly in our little French rental car I thought of the pilgrims that had journeyed to this site throughout the last 1200 years, crossing the barren land on foot, horseback and perhaps even in a rough cart, anxious to pray with the monks and touch these holy rocks.  Their journey may have taken weeks and perhaps months and often at a great toll of personal health and loss.  

The Abbey was built on a rock island in the ocean and the rising tides created a natural wall of defense for the fortress.  People could cross the soft wet sand of the ocean bottom during low tide but when the tide came in at the end of each day, those who did not belong on the island had to be off and gone or the rising saltwater would obstruct their path back to the main land.  Today there is a modern raised road that allows tourists to drive to the base of the rock island and park but one must still be aware of the tide and at times, even this raised road has been known to flood causing cars to be swept away.

As we drove towards the monument we passed through flat pastoral lands, rich with grazing sheep.  Jim navigated us deftly through this countryside at dusk and as we rounded a final corner on our journey, he was forced to put on the brakes and pull over.  There, in front of us, a shepherd was driving his sheep back from their day in the pasture and across the road that we were traveling to gather safely into their barn for the night.  We all leaned forward and lowered our windows, craning our necks to see what was happening.  The sights and sounds that we witnessed during this unplanned stop was utterly amazing.  We heard the soft bleating of the sheep and barking of the herd dogs, nipping at their heels to keep them moving.  Bells tied around the sheep's throats tinkled softly in the twilight air and the shepherd was calling to his dogs and encouraging the sheep forward.  He raised his hand in a silent wave of acknowledgement to us as we parked off the side of the road to watch his evening ritual and as though in a trance, we raised our hands in return, symbolically thanking him for allowing us this unique experience.

 All of this was a spectacular sight, but the backdrop was what made this vision truly surreal - for rising above the field and framing the shepherd and his sheep was the fortress of Mont St Michel.  Tom and Jan quickly reached for their cameras and began snapping pictures but I could only stare, burning the image deep into my mind and marveling that I was truly sitting here, beside the road, watching the sheep cross in front of me with the abbey behind them, on their way home from their day of peaceful grazing.

When the sheep had safely crossed we looked at each other in amazement.  Tom said, "I feel as though I am seeing a mirage - there is nothing out here except for this amazing abbey rising from the ocean and a few grazing sheep.  It's truly amazing."  We all agreed with Tom's observation and when I looked back towards Mont St Michel I could see tiny flickers of light beginning to burn, illuminating the impressive rock the as the sun set in the clouds behind it.

We toured Mont St Michel in the lamplight, picturing how life must have been so many years ago.  The abbey had been built by Monks transferring large granite stones from the mainland to this island, carefully crafting this amazing structure.  It took several hundred years to construct and the small village at its base housed the supporting community, comprised of tradesmen and crafters who sold their wares to the sequestered monks and supplied the traveling pilgrims as they made their journey to the sacred site.   As we drove away that evening we were in awe of the men that built this monument.  Their fortitude, vision and dedication to the construction of this holy site is beyond anything I could comprehend happening today, and I was truly honored to have walked these sacred rocks.

Travel Tip:  Always take time to learn the history of sights on your itinerary.  It will bring the reality of the place home to you when you visit, allowing you to consider how the sight contributed to the formation of the people and the area.