Hell’s Half Acre in Actuality and in Metaphor

I don’t have a bucket list. When I first heard of the idea of making a list of stuff I absolutely wanted to do before I died, I was a little confused. Who has that much certainty that they can KNOW before they do something what they want to do next? “Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough. Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades. Forever and forever when I move.” (Alfred Lord Tennisball, “Ulysses”)

I don’t even know what’s going to happen on a simple trip to pick up my groceries or to visit Del Norte. The major journeys I’ve taken in pursuit of a particular outcome never panned out the way they were supposed to, either. That and the actual reward of a journey might not be clear for decades. Lord Tennisball was completely right when he wrote, “…margin fades forever and forever when I move.” I just don’t ever get there, wherever I’m going so how can I have a bucket list?

There’s a town in Wyoming by the name of Chugwater. Back in the 50’s when family road trips took us from Denver to Montana we often stopped there for gas. There was a drugstore there with great ice cream, but that’s a blog post for another day when the prompt is “ice cream.” My dad wanted a shortcut to Hell’s Half Acre (now that’s a line deserving of some meditation!) and the guy pumping gas said, “Nope. You can’t get there from here.”

My dad started to laugh and thanked the guy. “You can never get there from here,” my dad said in the car, and laughed again. I’m not sure what my dad thought was so funny or even meant by “you can never get there from here.” He might have just meant in Wyoming which can be a difficult place to travel in. 

But…I think when you stand at a gas station in Chugwater, Wyoming, you’re not the person who left home at an ungodly early hour that morning with two cranky kids. The journey — or part of a journey — has transformed you. The person asking the question won’t be the same person who arrives at Hell’s Half Acre. The journey ITSELF might have physical obstacles like washed out roads or car wrecks. You might see something along the way that captures your attention and you decide to forget Hell’s Half Acre altogether. Who knows? 

Life is constantly transforming us, that “arch leading to the untraveled world.” 

We got to Hell’s Half Acre an hour or so later, after backtracking substantially (and using more gas). So what is it? Researching it this morning so I could tell you, I learned a lot. In the interval since I was last there (1957 or so) it’s gone through some changes itself. 

I thought it was pretty big for a half-acre so I challenged my mom on that. “Oh honey, it’s just a name.”

Adults are/were seriously confusing.

I’ve thought of that trip pretty often, even including the story in a reader I made for my international students. Our destinations and our destinies are not the same thing. We can’t get anywhere from here, so what’s the point of a bucket list? How could I possibly know where the Martha of tomorrow absolutely MUST go before she kicks the bucket? 

I guess it might have been in China that I first got a glimmering of the real (to me) meaning of travel which is, in simple terms, “go with the flow.” Even taking off on my bike, self-directed and independent, didn’t mean I’d ever get where I thought I was going. And, with the government pretty much in charge of me? Even then I couldn’t know. It was a university car that took me to the bank by Shamian Island, but it had nothing to do with the grandfather and his son who stopped me on my way and tried to sell me a baby. 

Still the idea didn’t really hit home until I was on a train  returning to Milan from Venice. At first I shared a compartment with a young couple who were obviously in love. Venice is renowned as a romantic city and it’s full of luv’. The couple got off at Pescheria, and I was alone. I dozed off, my head against the window. The conductor came by to look at my ticket and gently woke me up. He came back later and sat down with me. He wanted to chat which was great. 

It had been a hard trip in which my dreams hadn’t come true and I hadn’t been able to get to the metaphorical Hell’s Half Acre. I would be returning to the states in two days. I’d wandered around Milan for 10 days with a broken heart, angry and confused. BUT I was staying with kind, sympathetic people, and I had an incredible Italian city to get to know. Most of that hadn’t sunk in, but as we talked something happened. 

“Do you like Milan? Most foreigners don’t like Milan.”

“I like it very much.”

“What do you like about it?” It was the conductor’s home town.

“I…” We were speaking Italian. What I wanted to say might be beyond my ability to say it. 

“Say it in English,” he said, seeing I was struggling.

“No, no, I can do this. I can say it in Italian. Wait.” I took another minute and assembled my thoughts. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized I had had a GREAT time in that city. I hadn’t realized that I loved it and I hadn’t perceived all it had shown me about art, history and myself. “OK,” I said. “I love the mix of the classical and the modern energies. They live together in Milan.”

“Wow,” he said. “What do you do? You’re not an ordinary person.”

“I’m an ordinary person.”

“No. Ordinary people do not say ‘mix of the classical and the modern energies.”

I would get out of the train at a station built by Mussolini. I would get on one of the fastest and most modern subways in the world. I would get out at a gate built by the Romans. 

I never did get to “Hell’s Half Acre” on that trip. Maybe it would have been wonderful, but it wouldn’t have been that journey. So, no bucket lists for me. 

Hell’s Half Acre photo by By Carpenter, Kenneth – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=101754600

Featured Photo: Wyoming Sign: Howenstein115</a> – <span class=”int-own-work” lang=”en”>Own work</span>, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Hell’s Half Acre from Wikipedia — whoever wrote this was GOOD!!

Hell’s Half Acre is a large scarp located about 40 miles (64 km) west of Casper, Wyoming on US 20/26.[2] Encompassing 320 acres (1.3 km2), this geologic oddity is composed of deep ravines, caves, rock formations and hard-packed eroded earth. Hell’s Half Acre was used as the location for the fictional planet of Klendathu in the movie Starship Troopers.

The location was known as “The Devil’s Kitchen”, “The Pits of Hades”, and “The Baby Grand Canyon” until a cowhand appeared and thought he was at Hell’s Half Acre, an area southwest of Casper full of alkali and bogs.

Native American tribes used the ravines to drive bison to their death during their hunts.

As of December 2005, the roadside restaurant and motel/campground sitting atop the ravine were closed. The motel and the abandoned restaurant have since been torn down.[3][4] The area is fenced off and there is no public access to the cliff edge nor the valley itself, but there is an interpretive sign west of the former restaurant. As of July, 2021, the fencing was still in place, but two gates in the fence were open, allowing vehicular access to a large gravel lot (with potholes) and a closer view of the topography.

Oh Man, I have to write about THAT?

Sometimes I end up hating my good ideas. When I began writing prompts for RDP I thought, “Hey wouldn’t it be cool to do them in alphabetical order?” It was just a gimmick to help me think of words. And now, here I am, X letters (ha ha) later having to write about Xenophobia. Merde. First and foremost, I’m not xenophobic. Probably the opposite. “Hey cool! You’re from the outer reaches of the galaxy? (aka another country, culture, language) I want to know about it.”

In my recent somewhat strange conversation with my next-door neighbor we were complaining gently about our town and I said, “Yeah, if I’d seen it first, I’d live in San Luis.” San Luis is an even smaller town on the east side of the valley, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains; it’s the oldest incorporated town in Colorado. It’s beautiful and old-fashioned, a small Mexican style town with a town square; a tiny Tecate, really. She said she wouldn’t, and as we chatted on that subject a little thing began to penetrate my brain. She wouldn’t live there because it’s mostly Hispanic? Was that why? I don’t know but after living here 9 years, I know there are definitely some, uh, “issues”…

I experienced xenophobia when I moved here. It was pretty bad and pretty surreal. I’m a comparatively non-judgmental person so realizing I was being judged for having come here from California was a shock. I mean, why? But small towns are famous for attitudes like that. I survived it and, over time, some of the most rabidly xenophobic among my earliest acquaintances came around. Others? Not worth my time. One of them — the worst — carried her behavior around for four years before she had a chance to divest herself of it in one of most moving encounters of my life. I felt sorry for her having to be in a position where she had to beg for my forgiveness, but she did it. A lot of people would’ve just talked themselves into believing they were justified, but that isn’t what she did.

A problem I have here is that people in my town are mostly white (91%) and I haven’t lived in a mostly white world since I was a kid. I’ve lived in a very mixed world and, for 30 years, my world was mostly Hispanic. I feel a little alienated at times here in the ultimate whiteness, but maybe that’s xenophobia, too. Are a people ‘my’ people just because of the color of their skin? I don’t think so. People are ‘my’ people because of their attitudes, customs, and behavior. I don’t get the skin color thing at all, but here we are.

All this said, I think xenophobia — fear of foreigners — is a natural human impulse and maybe not 100% unhealthy. A people has to feel very safe and secure in their culture to welcome outsiders. Lately, I’ve read a lot of articles about ending racism. I am not sure discussion, encounter groups, and the airing of grievances (this is what I’m seeing in the articles) will solve the problem and violent street demonstrations — however justified — didn’t solve the situation. I believe one way to solve Xenophobia (racism) is probably Ray Bradbury’s idea of having every high school kid in the world go live in another country for a year.

One of my favorite contest books this year was written by an American black guy who had the wanderlust. He admits early on that that is unusual among his “demographic” and makes a case against “demographics” and for individuals. He started by working in a hotel where he met people from everywhere, joined the Peace Corps, then the Navy and is now working for various NGOs all over the world. He wasn’t a middle-class black kid, either, but the at-risk kind of black kid. His argument is that curiosity is an important weapon in changing the world and opening minds. His idea is that racism is ignorance.

I think he’s right.

Bucket List

I’ve had — besides the cold from hell — occasion to think about the meaning of the word “adventure.” That led to my thinking about that thing I’ve never had, which is a bucket list. When I was a kid, my idea of adventure was to grow up to be either Lowell Thomas or T. E. Lawrence. For various very concrete reasons, neither was possible, but the idea of world travel = adventure stuck with me and when I was 30 it propelled me to the People’s Republic of China.

A lifetime is pretty short when it comes down to it (and it does and will). Last night I was thinking how lucky I’ve been to teach international students and how, over the years, the world has come to me. In China the world stopped being places and started being people. When that happens, it’s a major psychical shift. After that, the lodestones to my journeys were no longer things to see, but people to see and, oh god, yes. Sometimes the lodestone was luv’.

It’s good because THAT lodestone brought me into another vision of the world, one that I had the hubristic belief wouldn’t be any big change from the old U, S, of A but which is, in fact very different. It brought me to art and trains and incredible beauty I never expected and the love (not “luv'”) of new family and friends. When memories of adventures in a place involve the experiences you’ve shared with people you love, the adventures have depth.

One of those accidental adventures led me to realize a dream I’d also always cherished — of writing a really good novel. One lodestone led to another, to the coincidental opening into my own personal history and that of my blood family.

Through all of this I learned that adventure is an accident, that I couldn’t go looking for it, I could only go, and, if were lucky, it would find me. It would be beyond my expectation.

Meanwhile, “real” life went on and I found myself living in a California mountain town with some inherited money I used to repair a roof and build a shed as an art studio. None of that seemed like it was an adventure, not at all, but over the last few days I saw how, for so many years, precisely 71, I’ve been struggling to get here, to this beautiful wild place where I can paint and how the “adventures” were my painting teachers. That is adventure to me and perhaps it has always been. Maybe “I want to be an artist when I grow up” IS a “bucket list.”

The Inevitability of Spring

Back in 2000, when I was on my involuntary pilgrimage around Milan, vaguely looking for Leonardo’s Last Supper, I found myself — by mistake — at the Basilica Sant’ Ambrogio. I wandered around this church in complete and total ignorance of where I was and what I was seeing. In the basilica (as I now know is normal in such churches) were many small chapels to individual saints. One was a chapel to San Satiro. I read the placard beside the gate which led to the altar where many candles had been lit beneath a painting of the saint. I learned that San Satiro’s thing was the overcoming of egoism and indecision.

“Wow,” I thought, “this is my guy.”

Before my time in Milan was over, I had lit a candle to him and visited him two or three more times. I really liked him. I didn’t know then that there was a whole church dedicated to him, but you can only do so much on foot, without a guidebook, and struggling against the strong emotions of anger and disappointment.

Turns out San Satiro was Sant’ Ambrogio’s brother. I like Sant’ Ambrogio because he was St. Augustine’s teacher, and I like St. Augustine. I figured his teacher must have been something.

Maybe I have been unduly influenced by Goethe’s idea of a labyrinth and I’ve been too content to wander around blindly, still, it’s kind of cool not to know where you’re going (do we ever know where we’re going?) and end up somewhere surprised. Four years later when I went back to Milan on purpose, I went to a Latin mass at the Basilica. I sat quietly on a folding chair, behind a column, away from the other parishioners and thought of how wonderful it was to be there.

Dionysius and his band of Satyrs are fighting their way into Colorado, but it’s an uneven fight since winter WILL go. My beloved friends from Colorado Springs were coming this week, but the forecast was harrowing, including red warnings and all kinds of evil. After my experience in the wind at the store Tuesday I called my friends and talked them out of coming. I regret that very much because really NOTHING HAPPENED. That’s what I get for trying to overcome egoism and indecision…

Teddy and I were out yesterday, and the lovely thing I saw was a woman so enraptured by a group of cranes that she stood watching them for an hour, equipped with pair of binoculars and wonderment.

Not Going Anywhere

The last time I traveled
I seemed to unravel.
My Achilles tendon was torn
TSA was not to be borne
It rained sideways for days
there was no way to play.
My bed was a couch and a chair
pushed together just there.

My passport is valid
I could easily roam
But whenever I think of it
There’s no place like home.

My trip to Hellnar, Iceland, in 2016 pretty much cured me of the travel bug that had, uh, bugged me most of my life. I really don’t have it any more. Sometimes I think, “I would really like to be in Zürich,” which is pretty much ALWAYS true, but then I start planning a journey. The realities of travel, the expense and the complexity make me lose interest. Board the dogs for what, two weeks? Get to an airport. Yeah, the downside of living in a remote area. There’s an airport in Alamosa but flying out of there adds $$$ to the flight. Trans-continental air travel hasn’t gotten more pleasant for humans over the past years. Then there’s TSA and all the metal parts in my body. Good god.

Besides… “The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n. What matter where, if I be still the same,” John Milton, Paradise Lost

It’s true. Ultimately you come home and there you are, several thousand dollars poorer, in the old same place. I want a transporter…

Featured photo: Fun-filled, scenic Hellnar, Iceland as I knew it.

Horizontal Travel

After thinking about vertical travel yesterday, a comment made me think about horizontal travel. Val of A Different Perspective wrote, “Having just returned (almost) from a horizontal vacation, I find it was a vertical exploration of my self.” That’s the thing. Most travel teaches us about ourselves. It’s wonderful that way.

Yesterday I started the next essay in The Spell of New Mexico, an essay by Carl Jung. It starts with the idea that we learn about ourselves by looking at others and traveling to other nations and cultures. Jung writes how he was looking for something in particular that is related to the psychology of the Taos Pueblo Indians, particularly about their religion. He found it. I think it matters and might be a whole ‘nother blog post, but essentially it is their belief that their actions moved the sun and moon from horizon to horizon; in other words, they saw themselves (see themselves?) as active participants in the welfare of the world. I don’t think that’s so far from our troubling discussion over human culpability in climate change. Jung made the point that Christian religions are generally so abstract that the human is removed completely from participation in the universes. Thinking about Jung’s interpretation of the Taos Indians’ beliefs, yeah. Maybe we should see ourselves as a lot more involved than we have. It also made me think of vertical travel. If a people never leave the small world of their ancestors, everything will look different to them than to the Lawrences, Jungs, me, my friends and other horizontal travelers; all travel will be vertical and god will be right there. Whoa…

Moving on…

One of my favorite traveler’s birthday is coming up this Sunday. I “met” him through an accidental encounter with his book in the library at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA. I was heading to Italy to spend Christmas with a man. I didn’t know Italy (ha ha like that’s possible) though I’d been in Venice and Trieste. While my composition students did a scavenger hunt (and drove the librarians mad) I decided to find a book about Italy. I found Goethe’s Italian Journey. I’d had a very superficial meeting with Goethe on a street in Zürich, but didn’t know his work at all. I didn’t have an ID card. The librarian asked, “Are you a Goethephile?”

“That’s a word?” I thought, but I said, “I don’t know. I’ve never read him.” That’s when the librarian checked out the book for me.

It was not a book for me. It was a life-changing experience for me. Goethe set out on a trip to Italy in the dark of night, secretly, determined to escape things that were confining him in Weimar — a hopeless love maybe at the top of his list — and writer’s block. He wasn’t even sure at that point he was a writer any more. He was trapped by his bestseller, Sorrows of Young Werther.

I’ve since read the much smaller book he wrote during his trip which is a little different from Italian Journey. He was looking for himself and believed it could do that best through horizontal travel. In the 18th century that wasn’t so easy. Travel was in coaches. Roads were unpredictable. Weather was a palpable problem. Inns could be sketchy. One of Goethe’s goals was to discover himself by looking at Italy as objectively as possible. He lived in Rome for a while and in Naples. He succeeded somewhat in his objective study of Italy, but like most travelers, he found what he hoped to find — his idealized view of the Classical world made real. He was looking for it. His first classical building was the Arena in Verona.

In this journey, he succeeded in distancing himself from the hopeless love and he began writing again.

Goethe tried to go to Italy again ten years later, but his journey was stopped by Napoleon’s Italian campaign. He tried again the next year, but turned around in Switzerland. If I remember right, one of the reasons he turned around was a sudden awareness that “Italy” was in his mind. I always found it a little odd that Goethe didn’t see (?) all of the classical world that exists in what is now Switzerland, but maybe it has only been excavated since his death. I don’t know, but there are whole Roman towns near the Rhine.

Like a lot of travelers, Goethe took home souvenirs — in his case plaster casts of Roman sculptures. I’m trying to imagine TSA dealing with that. 🤣

At this point in my life, I think both horizontal and vertical travel are important. I think Val is right; we learn about ourselves through horizontal travel and that’s supremely useful in life. In vertical travel, we learn about a place outside ourselves. If we know ourselves well enough, we’ll be able to truly SEE the small place through which we travel vertically as a realm outside of ourselves, our preconceptions and it will teach us.

Anyway I’m not partaking in the wonders of horizontal travel right now, though I wish I were. No money. A brake light in my car needs to be replaced. Until I do that, I’m not leaving the Valley. I can’t sit longer than 30 minutes, but my hip is steadily improving. I don’t have a choice when it comes to travel at the moment. It’s vertical or nothing. Luckily, the days will be cool for the next week, and I can go hang out with the mayflies and the raptors. The cranes will be back soon, followed in a few more months by the soft crunch of fresh snow.

Where would I go if I could? I get ideas all the time. My latest was Newfoundland. I sent for a map and book and looked at all the places I’d love to see — including the excavated Viking community L’anse aux Meadows. It’s a very complicated journey from here. But my dad always said our ancestor, Lief Erikson, discovered America. I’d like to see it.


Looking at albums in the nostalgia store in Del Norte the other day made me think of one in particular — Janis Ian’s self-titled album. When I first heard it (on my own turntable in my very living room in my very apartment in Denver in 1981) I fell in love with it. One song spoke especially to me at that moment. I had recently returned from my first ever trip to a big city by myself. I went to talk to a man, a long-time lover, who wanted us to get married. It was problematic because he was gay(ish). Many letters and phone calls persuaded me to take a flight over Labor Day weekend to Chicago where he had moved with his, yes, boyfriend. Suffice it to say, the love aspect of that journey didn’t go well. Among the less surreal adventures, I took the El to downtown Chicago and spent hours in the Chicago Art Institute. It was my first venture out like that, on my own, looking at art, and experiencing a big city.

Completely filled with incredible images, I left and walked down the street looking for lunch. I walked into a restaurant that looked as if it had come out of Sister Carrie, took a table and looked at the menu. A girl at the table next to mine (the booths were separated by low dividers) said, “I’m having pizza. You want to share?” Sure, why not? She walked around to my table, sat down, I said I’d get dessert and we shared a pizza and talked. She was from Poland.

A few months later I was in Washington, DC for the Foreign Service Exam. Again I found myself alone on the streets of a major city with one day to see things. I knew all the things there were to see in the nation’s capitol and I just figured I’d go to the mall area and look. I went into the capitol building which didn’t do much for me, then out again to the row of museums. Remembering Chicago, I entered the National Gallery where my life changed, my eyes were opened, the world exploded and I saw Picasso’s linoleum cuts. I saw much, much more, but now, 40 years later, that’s what I remember. The next day I flew back to Denver a changed woman. I didn’t know how, or even that, I had changed, but I had.

I waited for the results of the exam, pondered life without the long-term (five years!) lover-like-man (who was spectacular and we were eminently compatible except for the obvious), and fretted about leaving the country for a great adventure. When? How? Would I ever? I learned to X-country ski, skied a lot — downhill and X-country, bungled a relationship with a good guy, had a one-woman show of my paintings, met the Good X, had my appendix out, did linoleum cuts (learning from Picasso) and and and and and and listened to Janis Ian. Let it be known I didn’t like any of her popular songs and still don’t. At 17? Pulease….We’re all ugly teenagers.

So…after a little chat here on my blog with a reader about old albums, I looked for the song.

At the time I owned this album, I lived in an urban neighborhood in Denver, Capitol Hill. I am 100% sure I didn’t imagine then that I would live in the back-of-beyond as a 70 year old woman. But I also didn’t imagine the magnificent cities that I would meet — and in some cases get to know well — over the intervening years or all the experiences that would make this song a completely different song in 2022 than it was in 1981.

As I listened to it Sunday night, I saw Milan where I spent ten days wandering around on foot looking at art. Venice which, even after 3 visits, is incomprehensible to me. Verona where I lived for a month doing a close study of 13th century frescoes and studying Italian. Beijing where I felt so strangely at home. Shanghai which is? Good God, I have no words. Most of all, Guangzhou, that ancient wonder that I navigated by bicycle, and Zürich where, for a few years, I had a family, a city once described to me as “the crossroads of Western Civilization.” I scoffed at that because I was ignorant, but now? Zürich gave me the inspiration to realize one of my life’s biggest dreams.

There are other cities I’ve loved, but images of these cities went through my mind as I listened to this song, images I wanted to show that young restless woman in Denver in 1981 to show her that she was completely right to want to go, and that she would go, much sooner than she knew. ❤

The featured photo is a painting I did after I returned from Chicago, an expurgation of that whole adventure. I think it’s one of the best paintings I’ve ever done.

Article this morning (or yesterday?) interview with Janis Ian…

Let’s Go?

Bear is ready for another rawhide pencil. I’m ready for snow. Teddy is ready for anything. That’s the state of readiness in this house this morning. I’m also ready to go somewhere, but where? I have no idea. My friend Lois recently suggested we return to Iceland. But, Iceland and I are, well, I don’t accuse Iceland of malice or anything, I wasn’t in the best shape for that trip (torn Achilles tendon. Yes I’ve realized I’m a litany of injury), and the weather was beyond description (see how I’m sparing you from a tedious description of horizontal rain, Arctic wind, landscape-obscuring fog? See how I did that?) which is OK because Iceland didn’t owe me anything. I remember telling my friends in Zürich we were going to Iceland, and they both leaned forward across the dinner table and said, “Iceland???” with looks of horror on their faces. Still, grueling as that “vacation” was, I did see this which is, for me, the equivalent of the Parthenon. ❤


SO Bear, Teddy and I will be here for the nonce hoping some great idea wafts past our (meaning my) consciousness and we (meaning I) get a good idea. For now? Allt er í lagi.


Just another Mafioso

One of the first castles I ever saw was referred to by my friends as Castello Erasmo and it’s in Predjama, Slovenja. The story that brought me there is long and probably incredibly interesting in tabloid news style, but I’m not writing it here (maybe no where). The original structure (long gone) was built in 1274. The castle has since been rebuilt many times. Its protective palisade is the mouth of a cave. The castle butts up against a rock face.

I had not become a Swiss Medievalist Historian yet. It was my first trip to Europe — 1994 — and the trip was fraught, plain and simply fraught, but being born is NEVER easy and being born as an adult into a new life is REALLY not easy.

The guy for whom the castle is named was a robber baron who got into trouble with the Hapsburgs (pretty easy to do, I think, since they were everywhere). Legend has it that he met his demise (always wanted to write that) when he was hit by a cannon ball while sitting on the toilet. The coolest thing about the castle is that there is a way out the back that leads to the top of the cliff, pretty handy in times of siege especially as there was water up there.

“Wow. I didn’t even know Erasmus was in Slovenia.” I remembered reading In Praise of Folly in college. It was an interesting if fairly inaccessible satire for me at 18.

I did not know that Erasmus was a common name back then. In fact, I didn’t know anything. I got home from Europe and found myself reading Erasmus (the famous one, the one who wasn’t a mafioso). I struggled with the Latin (never been one to take the easy or sensible or even POSSIBLE route) then gave up and read the words on the facing page (English). Sigh.

Live and learn.

I have a lot of respect for ignorance. THAT benighted journey took me to the Reformation, not Slovenia. OK.

You never know where ignorance will take you — ignorance + curiosity have taken me a lot of places I never imagined I would go. There’s something cool about being a self-taught kind of person, I don’t mean the person who ignores science and believes what they “learn” on Youtube about the Corona virus, I mean the person who wants to find out more about something and does real work, real research to find out. It’s different from school which goes in arbitrary stages — grades, exams, finals, finishes, OK, kid, you got this — but that doesn’t stop. As a teacher I really didn’t think I “taught” anyone anything. I just put the stuff in front of them and showed them something about how to do it and how they would know if they succeeded. I couldn’t “teach” them if they didn’t want to do the work needed to learn it. It was really ON them. At best I showed, facilitated and guided. The best thing I could do — I thought — was inspire in them the desire to learn it, to help them become open to a new experience (writing). Sometimes the magic worked and sometimes it didn’t.

One thing I learned about school in my later years is that it gives you skills you can use your whole life to learn things.

There are other castles built against cliff faces. I wanted to write about a castle like this and found one in Switzerland. I wanted to go see the ruins during one of my trips to Switzerland, but it turned out to be impossible for a lot of reasons — weather, family illness, time… It’s in the Canton of Solothurn, Ruine Balmfluh. It’s built against a cliff in the Jura Mountains.

It’s true what Europeans say about Americans, that we like castles. 🤪 Oh, and the word “palisade?” It is a pretty word, but not such a pretty thing. Some of them were pretty sinister.

Sometimes a Bottle of Wine is Just a Bottle of Wine, but, Sometimes…

I arrived in Verona by train from Munich. I was renting an apartment for a month from Famiglia Cera, but hadn’t thought that on Sunday no food stores were open. It was a bit of a conundrum. I’d written to ask if they could please please please please have coffee in the apartment.

They wrote back, telling me what tram to take to my apartment which was on the south side of the Adige. I’d traced the route from my apartment on the map many times. I felt I “knew” where everything was. I wasn’t sure how things would go the next morning when I started school, but I believe it’s a good idea to let the “morrow take care of itself.” I arrived at the apartment. Signora Cera was there to meet me, and we went up to the apartment which was a large room with a beautiful bathroom and a kitchen against the wall.

On the table was basket of very strange things. Dates, olives, olive oil and (thank you Signora Cera) coffee and milk. I would survive the coming morning. That’s really all it takes.

After we had chatted about this and that, trams and school and phone numbers (hers), she left.

I was in Verona because Goethe had gone to Verona and had written about it rhapsodically. It was the first place he’d seen a classical monument — the beautiful Arena around which the city is built. I also wanted to study Italian. I don’t remember why, but partly because I’d seen from my own experience as a teacher of international students that going to language school was a GREAT way to be a tourist.

I put things away, looked again at the strange basket of odd things and headed out and down the street I’d traced with my finger so many times. My goal was the Arena. I wanted to see it.

It fills an enormous square. It’s faced with pink marble and in the late afternoon summer light was incredibly lovely. I walked around it and then, seeing a woman in an outdoor cafe eating prosciutto melone (slices of cantaloup wrapped in Italian dry ham) I realized I was hungry. I looked at all the possible restaurants and choose the one named “Martino e Michele” because those are the names of the two main characters in my novel, Martin of Gfenn. When in doubt, follow your personal arcana, that’s what I say.

I ordered prosciutto melone, a pizza margherita and a bottle of the local wine, Valpollicella.

As I ate my lovely dinner, and drank my wine, the sun dropped lower and the pink of the Arena intensified. Soon I would hear an opera in that Arena, two of them as the month wore on. I would learn some Italian, I would see many beautiful frescoes, I would make some friends and travel to Padova, Mantova and visit a friend in Trieste. I would see ochre clinging to the sides of a limestone cliff and someday I would paint with that very ochre, but that moment? A moment of perfect imminence.