Today is a rare day. I'm getting out of the house and into my car and out the driveway --away for a couple of hours for the first time in months. Alone. Just me. Today I am going to practice the art of listening.
The car I'm getting into is parked in front of my home -- a wood house on a dead end street, facing up snow walled Paradise Divide deep in the upper Gothic reaches of the towering Colorado Rockies.
I am one of the few lucky souls to have made my home log by log in an historic former mining village called Crested Butte, Colorado. My husband and I and our two girls settled here eighteen years ago, like pioneers, after some pretty easy living on San Francisco Bay and Carmel by the Sea.
Crested Butte is breathtaking at 9,000 feet way above and beyond sea level anywhere.
The altitude is not the only thing about it that takes your breath away.
The town sits high in a valley that dead ends at the foot of the mountain it is named after and is surrounded by dozens more -- lots of thirteen hundreds with sharp, hard, stony peaks rising above the tree line. When I look up at them they look like grey bearded stern faced gods in white robes watching our every move.
Crested Butte is the wildflower capital of Colorado, an extreme skiing and mountain biking Mecca, it's is hikers' heroine, and does NOT have all the stuff cities have which is its jewel in the crown.
It's a place that boasts our men are men and the women are too. The winters here are severe and long. They keep our permanent population at about 1,000 tough, lucky souls. The dog population is three times that.
Like it's former mining inhabitants, our first home was a small vintage wooden dwelling heated by a wood burning stove. With seven months of winter and lots of 40 below days, I learned quickly how to chop chords of wood and turn logs into kindling without losing my thumb. (There's a rule of thumb here about where to place your thumb when hacking logs into kindling with a heavy axe. It wasn't until I nearly lost mine that I learned about the rule of thumb -- told to me by an exasperated old timer who knew we would be run out of town carried downstream by surfing the waves of snow melting on their return to the sea.)
We used to get so much snow in the winter we had to board up our first story windows to keep them from caving in. Our girls could step out onto the back yard from a door on the second story -- no balcony or deck. Just a door the miners put on the second stories of their homes to step outside onto the backyards from there because the lower doors were buried in the winter.
Like voles we had to shovel and maintain snow tunnels to walk through from the street side to the front door. Same way to get out the back doors to our wood pile to chop wood and kindling all winter to feed and feed and feed our big black bellied insatiable wood burning stove in hopes our home would hold the heat through the night -- keep us 20 degrees above on 40 belows.
One hard winter when all the homes were buried, I looked down at our town from a ski lift and only the tops of the homes made it above the snow line -- tilting out of it like tombstones.
We have four seasons here -- seven months of winter, about six weeks of summer, a few weeks of gold plated autumn, and the rest of it is called "mud season."
It's mud season here right now. That's when people without kids in school head south or to any place that's warm and has an ocean. And return home when the ski resort opens for the winter.
For those of us who stay, it's a time when we make our annual pilgrimage to our doctors to get any kind of checkups and the usual joint surgeries in time to ski hard for another winter.
Our main street is dusty and quiet. We have no mailboxes on our homes and there are no lines at the Post Office. People walk the streets and the sidewalks are bare. The tiny grocery store has upped its prices and lowered its stock and the fresh produce is rotten.
The valley is brown, the naked aspens are grey, pine trees are green and blue. Our boots are caked with brown mud. The streets are streaked with dried brown tire marks. The cattle being rounded up from wandering in the mountains to be transported south for the winter sport hides dusted a crusty brown.
This is what it looked like when I left town to drive down 2,200 feet to Gunnison 30 miles away to see my doctor. It was a grey, chilly day -- about 32 degrees. Around here, anything above 20 degrees is merely a chilly day.
I was alone and heading down the valley. I had read a meditation this morning about listening. It stuck to me. I wanted to think about listening today. How would it show up? What would it look like? What would happen if I did? Or didn't? I was so inspired and galvanized by it, I decided I would focus on and practice being a better listener for the day. I know my husband would have appreciated that big time.
So I brought along one of my inspirational CD's to listen to on the sixty mile round trip. The person speaking on it was a man named Bob. Just Bob and Me. I was Free!!!
I breathed in with lust and exhaled stingily and turned on Bob with the mouthwatering expectation of biting into a chocolate truffle. And shushed my monkey mind to focus on him and listen with purpose and intent.
Only a few minutes into my drive Bob was blathering away when I noticed a bunch of brown leathered cowboys astride brown horses kicking up dirt in a hay colored meadow, whistling at their cow dogs rounding up, yes, brown cattle -- all huffing and puffing grey vaporous clouds from their nostrils. Like they were all pulling on cigars.
I got all stirred up at the thought I might end up in a cattle drive on the highway. I love being in the middle of them. The cars have nowhere to go. You just get in line behind the swinging hips and tails of the herd in front of you or sit there and let them stare at you when you're going against traffic. There was a cattle drive, but I missed it! The evidence was all over our small two-lane highway.
Okay, Joan, Back to Bob. Remember, we're listening now. We're listening.
I turned again to Bob and noticed the open spaces, the brown hills and mountains peaks digging into the granite sky vying for space, the traces of snow left in dark shadows and avalanche paths from the last snow storm that melted off. And I realized again I was not listening to Bob and tried very hard to listen to him.
For ten more minutes I kept trying to listen to him and my mind meandered. Poor Bob. He started to sound like noise to me -- like the incessant, insipid chatter of a TV show in another room. (We don't have TV but that's what it sounds like when I'm exposed to it.)
I was failing my listening class.
Then a small inner voice managed to break through the yakking and nudged me to simply turn him off and drive in silence. What? Listen to silence? I finally paid attention to that nagging voice and turned off Bob.
I was just approaching the curve where bald eagles make their nests every winter in the trees along the river. The river too exhales clouds upward into a river of mist. I thought it was too early in the season for them to arrive but looked at the black barren trees to see if I could find the first one of the season. In our family we vie to be the first to spot one.
And there it was! One fat, tall, proud bald eagle -- all black bodied and white headed -- perched on the end of a thick naked branch. I slowed to a crawl. There was nobody else on the road. He looked like he was standing at attention -- like he just started the day watch. He reminded me of a penguin -- wings behind his back caught up in serious thought, so still and dignified, like a butler. He was stunning, bold, with a bald head chock full of shocking white feathers.
Seeing no other eagles and no sign of nests, I wondered if he was sent ahead of the others like a scout for his tribe. Sent ahead to see if the coast was clear for the annual migration to the trees along the river.
For just an instant we were both alone and gazed at each other. I wondered what he thought of me in my machine. What kind of animal I was -- predator or prey.
What a moment. Frozen in time where time has no meaning. I was so caught up in my pilgrimage to listen that I almost missed it.
It turned out I needed to listen to silence. And I got to hear the quiet voice deep inside that taps me on the shoulder and whispers surprises to me.