Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rocks and High Places

"He maketh my feet like hinds' feet, and setteth me upon my high places." Psalm 18:33

Should I ever retire as a traveling gypsy, there is only one place I wish to stake my tent.  It is here where I go to escape the furious world and my own flurried living.  It is my heart and so it is home, a space that offers a teaspoon dose of the healing peace we might find when we return to our true home.  It is called "Shindler's Bar," a name with double meaning, for the 24 hour in-home open bar, and the gravel bar, two city blocks of rocky shoreline that mark the Shindler haven along the Rogue River in Oregon.  

Shindler's Bar is more than a cabin high on a hill, constructed by hand, inch by inch, from third-story roof to the sawdust covered basement floor.  More rare than the landscaped labyrinth of trails and terraces, some shored up by walls of stone carted up from the gravel bar below.  To me this place is even more than family heritage. Purchased in 1941 by my great grandparents, it is securely locked into collective ownership under my grandfather’s legal authority.  It can never be sold unless every living descendant agrees.  There are six children, eleven grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.  Getting 26 kin from Shindler’s list to sell the bluff along the river would be like negotiating the Gaza strip.   It is sacred land with a history that stretches beyond its boundaries, carried wherever the children go.

What is unique about Shindler's Bar is its isolated location; like heaven, only some are willing and able to get there.  It requires a long drive and boat ride, or an hour's hike on the lower Rogue River trail, not easily found, nor listed on popular trail maps.  The logger’s road to get to the trailhead is winding, mostly gravel, and without signs to indicate direction.  The way to Grandpa’s cabin is a fairy tale path that follows the river, bridging over singing creeks.  One feels small and humble under the wings of the old-growth coastal rainforest; human significance is overwhelmed by deciduous tanoak that share existence with mighty cedar and Douglas fir trees. The weight of the woods is light and liberating. Any resistance I bring from the world is worn away with each step.  After two miles the trail divides, the left continues on to the village of Agnes, the right is the peak of the descending path that ends at the massive estate.   I always stop to stand at the height of the trodden walkway, my soul smiling in exaltation: my grandpa built this!

It is here that I discovered God’s supremacy, where I admitted while kayaking down the river, "It doesn't get any better than this.” Here, God is.  Seen in the diamond studded night sky viewed lying down on the highest porch of the house, surrounded by shadows of towering trees stationed like sentinels all the way up the mountain's height. God is felt in the steady pull of the river's current, heard in the crooning creek. Yet this setting is not so exceptional in and of itself.  What makes this home extraordinary is the person who lived here, my grandfather, now gone, passed March 26, 2009.

Anyone who ever encountered Franz Otto Shindler knew he was exceptional.  A Swiss German-English man, his character was complicated.  Yet, he was, by example, simple: eat good food, keep good company, live in a good place.  My uncles each have differing views about him.  The same is true for my aunts.  My mother revered him.  I idolized him.  He was more than grand, for me he was father.  When I told the father of my youngest he had passed, he expressed the truth succinctly: "Your first love."  Yes, he was; heart warming and heart breaking at the same time.  Grandpa was a drinker. Alcoholics and children don't mix.  The ugliness that can manifest, can and did reveal itself often enough to leave scars on his children.  I've heard the stories, but they could not alter my view of him.  With him I was safe and protected, welcome, loved.  

I could hear it in the way he would say my name as he was just sitting about.  I'd walk behind him, hug him, nuzzle my nose behind his ear.  He rarely smelled good, but even his funk was tolerable, sour but not old.   He'd sigh, "Well?" then say my name.  If he'd been drinking, he'd mumble something more but I'd only half listen to his words, focusing instead on his voice.  It resonated ease, like walking barefoot on the beach at the far end of the gravel bar.  The rocks there are more like rough sand, the heat of the day absorbed in the shells and stones.  That was his voice, and his voice spoke of the man; rough but warm, conflicted but comforting.  In this sense, Grandpa was very much the naturist, not just because he could often be seen walking around his house butt naked, but also because his personality was like his natural surroundings.  Being in Grandpa's presence was like a walk on the gravel bar on a hot summer day.


The bar itself is a quarter mile stretch of rocks that range in size, though none too large for the average man to carry without strain.  In the sweltering summer months, one can see the waves of heat rising from them.  As children, we used to speed race across the bar, hopping from stone to stone to avoid burning our tender feet.  I would often fantasize I had wings, leaping into flight as high as the eagles my uncle identified during his days as a riverboat guide.  The distance between the shaded, sandy trail that leads up to the cabin and the beach at the end of the bar takes about five minutes walking, three minutes leaping.  If you’re leaping, the sensation of soft gravel marks the beginning of the far end beach and the last steps before reaching river relief for scorched feet.  Once our feet cooled in the water we could lie down and relax, breath in the river's breeze, listen to the cry of the osprey. Searing to soothing best describes the time spent with Grandpa; like hot rocks, I learned to avoid his temperament and then enjoy his presence when he would cool down.  It was an exercise in making my “hinds' feet.”  To be agile in life and reach great heights, one must be deft in maneuvering through rough places.  At Shindler's Bar, the place and the person were the same.

The bar may look barren; to the casual observer it's just a pile of rocks. Only when you get down on your knees can you see otherwise.  I would lie on my belly, facing a pile of rocks collected on the walk to the beach.  I'd build rock houses, creating mini Flintstone villages.  Once I found a red rock shaped like a heart, not the Valentine version, but like the human heart, small enough to fit comfortably and hold in my hand.  Then there are the flat rocks, smooth and circular, perfect for skipping, a serious contest for those who have any skill.  My favorite beach activity is the art of constructing rock towers, balancing the flat stones with the sometimes perfectly round.  

It is the balancing act that Grandpa had trouble negotiating.  He was never able to master moderation.  This is what set him so far apart from others.  His passions were absolute, and whatever he believed, he did so from the heart and without regard for who it might offend.   He was an independent, true to the issue not the party.  He and I disagreed on most political and religious matters, but he listened to me because he cared about my beliefs, and I listened to him because I wanted to understand his way of thinking.   Though we never saw eye to eye on some issues (he was an avid hunter, I am a vegetarian, he loved the bagpipes, I prefer the Native American flute,) I never felt judged by him.   He accepted me unconditionally. That is a rare quality; it is the foundation of love, without it, the highest places can never be reached. 

Keeping company with the likes of Grandpa required the same approach needed to traverse the hike in to visit him:  be surefooted, level, and careful along cliff sides. Know about the topic before joining the conversation, remain levelheaded when it heats up, and take care when engaging in controversial issues like gun control or animal rights. Grandpa never bothered with political correctness or decorum.  His confrontational commentaries could make Gandhi go to war. He reveled in contention, more so if he’d been drinking.  He could turn a slight skirmish into a full-blown battle; mind-to-mind combat could last all night.  Unfortunately for those who were so miffed they had to leave his presence, the hike back from Grandpa’s is all uphill and takes twice as long as it does coming in, which may have been of benefit.  The return march might have worked out irked nerves or hurt feelings, a necessary therapy as one could not expect an apology; the river does not say sorry for flooding, nor does the bear ask the salmon for forgiveness.  It’s not in their nature, and Grandpa was as close to nature as a human can get.

Despite his irreverence for decency, Grandpa lived a modest life.  For over 20 years his lifestyle was eco-friendly. Long before the term self-sustaining became popular he was practicing what green lobbyists now preach.  His water came from a mountain stream.  He generated his own electricity; hydro and solar power, a single generator, and careful use of wattage insured he had enough energy to get through the day and into the evening.  Water was heated by fire, either from the fireplace or the wood burning stove.  He bought supplies in bulk, enough to last for months if necessary.  He grew his own produce and killed his own meat with his own weapons.  It was Grandpa who taught me to shoot using selected rifles from his antique gun collection.  His lessons started early and aptly apply to life: pick your target, take time to aim before you shoot, and “don’t shoot anything you’re not prepared to eat!”  This was his mother’s warning, given to him when he received his first gun.  He shot a seagull, she made him eat it.   Perhaps that is where he acquired his dietary habits.  His rule was to try anything at least once, and he insisted I do so as well, from octopus to cow tongue.  He is part of the reason I became a vegetarian.

Grandpa was the king of hospitality and great feasting.  He welcomed company and entertained graciously, granting free self-service access to the liquor cabinet and food pantry. Company meals were considered with care, cooked slowly, and always served with wine.  His kitchen, steeped in the smell of rosemary and elephant garlic, is the only space that has a skylight, making it the brightest and most welcome room in the house.  From the kitchen window is an open view of the garden, growing the herbs and vegetables he would often sauté with generous servings of real butter.  Near the garden he built a smokehouse to prepare fresh caught steelhead or any other meat my uncle might bring from one of his hunting trips.  He was an epicurean to be sure, from rosemary chicken to clam chowder, using secrets like fish sauce or sardines in his roux. But not all meals were so grandly planned. I remember one visit in particular; I was following him around his garden like a doting puppy.  He stopped along the eastside pathway to point out blue-black huckleberries.  His German sausage fingers picked a handful to give to me.  I was in my late 20s, but with this small gesture I was like a five year old given permission to eat cake before dinner. This was often the way Grandpa made me feel, as did my stays at the cabin. Surrounded by ripe beauty, I was forever young and cared for, privileged, free.

It takes a certain kind of man to live the way he did - off the grid, on his terms, committed to his home and land.  His wife Sonja, God bless her, is testimony that he was not as self-reliant as he might have seemed. While he bought the seeds, she tended their growing.  She was his right hand, day after day, night after night – often long and uproarious - for decades, until the very end.   I missed his last years; living on the opposite side of the country makes it more difficult to stop in for a visit.  I am told his last days were demanding and draining, but mostly disheartening.  I wanted to say good-bye before he left, but then my final memories would have been of him dying, his body suffering.  I was selfish in my need to hold onto the romance of this first love of mine.   I struggled with his death. 

To be continued...... 

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