An Empty Nester’s Tour of the American West

Monument Valley, Arizona

My husband and I left our adult sons behind while we took our first “empty nest” vacation out to the gorgeous American West. We explored areas in Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. We also finished–unsuccessfully–our search for Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure that we’d begun during Easter weekend, when we were foiled by three feet of snow.

{Note: I wrote about searching for the treasure here and here.}

Iron City Cemetery outside St. Elmo, Colorado

Outside the ghost town of St. Elmo, Colorado, we visited the Iron City Cemetery, which gave a poignant glimpse into the hard lives of those who settled in the old mining town.

A directory provided details about the people buried there:

  • Iver Gilbertson, who was “injured at the Decorah Mine at Grizzly Gulch by a premature powder explosion. He had been thawing dynamite by the fire at his forge” and died in 1884.
  • Greisser Severn, who died when “the shaft house caught on fire, while he was in the tunnel. He was smothered by the smoke” in 1886.
  • Tom Rupp, who was “killed by falling timbers in the Mary Murphy Mine” in 1889.
  • William E. Brown, who “fell 75 feet down a mine shaft at the Mary Murphy Mine” in 1891.
  • Robert Gaebner, who “became snowbound, probably was starving and finally froze to death. No one had seen him since November until his body was discovered in January of 1909.”

Iron City Cemetery outside St. Elmo, Colorado Iron City Cemetery outside St. Elmo, Colorado Iron City Cemetery outside St. Elmo, Colorado

We next toured the ghost town St. Elmo, with its well-preserved main street and houses scattered throughout the area. (People still live there, too.) At one point, a hail storm broke out, and we took shelter under what looked like an old railroad car.

St. Elmo, Colorado

St. Elmo, Colorado

St. Elmo, Colorado

As we got into our car to leave, a semi passed us, laden with building materials. We watched for a good 15 minutes as it tried to back into a housing lot. With anxiety, we told each other that he was going to get stuck and block the only way out. And that’s exactly what happened, trapping us for hours, along with eight school busses on a field trip and some other cars. Finally, a resident cut the lock on a gate to a rocky dirt path, and we four-wheeled our way out of there. I don’t know how long the others were stuck, and it was hard to imagine how they were going to get that huge truck out of there.

Stuck semi, St. Elmo, Colorado

Leaving the mountains, we traveled south to the iconic desert landscapes of Monument Valley in Arizona. We toured the area by car before hitting the desert for a hike to and around West Mitten Butte.

Monument Valley, Arizona

Monument Valley, Arizona

As we hiked, the sun sank lower and lower until it hid behind the buttes we were walking among, changing the landscape from orange to brown.

The next day, we took a guided tour of Cathedral Canyon in Arizona, passing through a few narrow slots and climbing a ladder to reach the “Cathedral.”

Cathedral Canyon, Arizona

Cathedral Canyon, Arizona

Cathedral Canyon, Arizona

Cathedral Canyon, Arizona

Finally, we visited Arches National Park in Utah on a hot and beautiful day, hiking to some remote arches and touring the rest of the area by car.

Marcy and Randy at Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Trail to Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Randy at Arches National Park, Utah

While I’ve never been one to fantasize about sudden wealth, I’ve caught myself imagining over the last few months how our life would change if we found a treasure valued at $2-5 million. As I left the West, I let that dream go, and I imagined this new “empty nest” phase of my life stretching out before me, no treasure chest stuffed into my duffel bag, but the path ahead strewn with gems just the same.

Desert highway, Arizona

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How to Hike Mount Washington When You’re Young and Clueless (in 33 Easy Steps)

Mount Washington boulder field 1991

In the early days of our marriage, my husband and I would disappear every weekend to hike in the White Mountains. While I loved hiking, I never quite enjoyed it. Mount Washington proved to be especially formidable.

  1. Set your alarm for 4 a.m. to drive five hours to the mountain.
  2. Hit the road at 6 a.m. after snoozing too many times.
  3. Hiking Mount Washington New Hampshire 1991Arrive at noon when it’s 100 degrees and the exact worst time to begin hiking a mountain.
  4. Gasp for breath at 12:10 p.m.
  5. Ask yourself why you are doing this at 12:11 p.m.
  6. Stop hiking to take a photo to fool your husband into pausing so you can catch your breath.
  7. Stop hiking to take a drink.
  8. Stop hiking to take another photo.
  9. Realize you’re not fooling anyone.
  10. Mount Washington stream 1991Spy an achingly beautiful moss-filled landscape just off the trail — photo opportunity!
  11. Eat lunch during a blissful lack of movement.
  12. Observe after several hours that the trees might be getting smaller.
  13. Rue that you’ll be climbing over boulders for the next two hours.
  14. Think you are at the summit, but turn a corner and realize you’re not even close.
  15. Reach the summit.
  16. Feel annoyed that people who drove up in a car are all around.
  17. Have your summit joy cut short because you have a long way to go to reach the campsite by nightfall.
  18. Think you reach the campsite and see signs that say, “Revegetation Zone — No camping allowed.”
  19. Fail to find a flashlight as it gets dark.
  20. Stumble through the “Revegetation Zone” that wasn’t on the map.
  21. Twist your ankles on rocks.
  22. Tell yourself not to cry.
  23. Say things couldn’t get worse.
  24. Experience that scene in the movie when someone says things couldn’t get worse and, with a crash of lightning, a downpour starts.
  25. Cry.
  26. Mount Washington tent on boulder 1991Set up your tent on a boulder at the side of a river because you’re not allowed to camp anywhere.
  27. Curse your husband.
  28. Tie your tent to a tree because you are afraid the river will rise and wash you away in the night.
  29. Toss and turn on a boulder.
  30. Rise before dawn and hurry away so real hikers won’t scold you for camping where you’re not supposed to.
  31. Begin an eight-mile trail back to your car.
  32. Arrive at your car hours later, exhausted and miserable.
  33. Dream of your next hike on the long ride home.
Just take one step back...

Just take one step back…

Stop Mount Washington weather sign 1991

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Cantering: As Easy as Falling Off a Horse

Different horse in 2004 when no decisions were needed

Different horse, different course: We followed a trail, and neither the horse nor I had to make a decision.

I bounced along in a fast and much too dangerous canter, which I’d just learned is like a gallop with a missing beat. I had been trotting so well, too, even lifted a hand from the saddle to give my mother-in-law a wave as I went by. I’d given the horse a little kick, as instructed, and here it was a mere two seconds later and everything had changed, all confusion, like a wave knocked me over from behind and its pal the undertow snatched me and dragged me away.
Falling off a horse circle quotation
I’m not good at making decisions even when calm, and now I was just one yippee-ki-
yay away from a broken neck if I didn’t do something fast. That pommel was there for a reason, and I clenched it with both hands as hard as I could, the exact strategy I’d used when whitewater rafting
block everything out and focus all my will on staying on, never get out of the boat, don’t give an inch,
the opposite of the relaxed confidence I needed while riding a horse.

During all this bouncing and clenching, I got the impression that the horse was beaming a message to me:

Um, you’re aware that you have to tell me whether you want to go left or right up ahead, right? Um, human, excuse me and all, but a wall is approaching us, and you don’t expect me to canter straight into a wall, do you? Is that your plan or what?

Even though I picked up on an inkling of this, I was quite busy with my whole holding-on-as-tight-as-I-can strategy, so I started to imagine that the horse would turn left. The wall continued to approach us, and at the last possible second, the horse went right. Meanwhile my whole being, my legs, my hips, my arms, all my bits everywhere, were still operating under the idea that we would turn left.

At that point, it didn’t matter what my bits were expecting. They all leaned one way while the horse went the other way, and basic physics decided for me that it was time I made a clean slide off that horse, a fluid smashing of my face into a fine silt that seemed to rise up to meet me, that covered me so completely that my mother-in-law, who was one of the nicest women in the entire world, had to make sure I was not grievously injured while trying her hardest to suppress a smile at how much I was utterly caked in dirt.

I had thudded onto that ground hard. I was gripping and gripping the whole way down–never get out of the boat!–not even turning to instinct to break my fall. I just slid right off that horse like a diver off the 10 meter platform slides right into the water.

I looked at the horse standing a few feet away, twitching its ears at me. It beamed:

Really? That was your plan? Are you happy with how that plan worked out? Did you even realize that you were in charge?

Was it suppressing a smile? It was hard to tell with its horseface and horsemouth, but I think it was trying its hardest not to laugh. I made a decision right then and there: I would not get back on that horse.


This is part of an occasional series, Scene from a Memoir.

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Appointment at Tooth-Hurty

Pink flower Mardi Gras New Orleans 2007

Her hands are in my mouth, poking, scraping, setting up X-ray cards. I bide my time for a chance to complain.

I stare at a spot on the ceiling, bright blue sky, white clouds, pink spring blossoms in the corner of the light box. I once would have clung to this, a haven in my anxiety, but now I don’t care. Throw whatever you want at me. Pain. Blood. Small talk. Scheduling. I’ll endure. I tell myself, “You think this is bad? This ain’t bad.”

A lull in the small talk. It’s on the tip of my tongue. I was disappointed the last time I was here. At my now-an-adult son’s appointment, they ganged up on me. Bad hygiene. He’s got to floss. I don’t know that? It’s been a twice-weekly argument since he slept in a bed full of Beanie Babies. Wisdom teeth. Crowding. Risk of nerve damage. And the first I heard of “gummy smile.” I signed a paper to arrange the painful and expensive procedure, got home and Googled it, and it was just cosmetic, a way to make some sweet, sweet profit. I’d been scared, trusting them.

I have a deteriorating filling, but I get a reprieve. My gums are pronounced beautiful. She loves looking at my teeth. I rinse and keep my complaints to myself.

She writes down a date for six months from now. I stick it in my pocket. Two steps, and I’m outdoors, free. I look up at the bright blue sky, see white clouds and pink spring blossoms.

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Dance Like Pachamama’s Watching

Village square Amantani Lake Titicaca Peru

A lone woman, burdened by sticks, enters the village square.

Soon there’s another … seven … twenty.

Their bonfire warms our cheeks, ignites our imaginations.

They’ve circled, in blurs of accelerating joy, since before Spaniards arrived to conquer a land, but not a people.

Festival on Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

42 New York City subway station

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Deleted moments

I love the move to digital photography with its endless chances to get the shot right, and I delete the bad ones as I go along. When I sifted through a box of old, curled up family photographs, though, I realized all those deleted moments must have held some gems, and real history isn’t always composed just so.

In a film roll of 36 prints, I’d find at least a few good pictures, sharp and perfectly lighted, with a facial expression of my own I could tolerate, or my baby looking angelic, or a loved one’s eyes sparkling with affection. The other 33 pictures might be slightly out of focus, or have a head chopped off here, an angry expression there, or maybe a messy background that I didn’t want to advertise to the world. Those shots got stuffed into a drawer.

The rejects contained elements that it took decades to appreciate:

  • The kind of lousy shot of my parents with my son has in it my only photograph of the “Macquarium” my dad made out of an early generation Apple computer, a lasting reminder of his quirky ingenuity.

Macquarium, Apple aquarium

  • The series of pictures of me and my brothers sticking various numbers of fingers out reveals codes for the new camera settings my dad was experimenting with; as we goofed off, he earnestly took notes on the settings.

Brother secret code 1979

  • Dorky me, my dad, and my little brother pose with the heartbreaking Twin Towers looming behind us; to our naive selves it was unfathomable they could ever come down.

Twin Towers New York 1980

  • My brother and his curls that “grow so incredibly high,” as his beloved Beatles themselves might have described them.

Brother hair style 1979

Years after my father died I found an old camera with a half-used roll of film from an afternoon my kids and I spent with him in his backyard pool. I had switched to a digital camera and never finished the roll. After my nostalgic afternoon going through the drawer of old photos, I shot off the rest of the roll and dropped it off to be developed.

As I drove to the store to pick them up, I thought about how picking up developed pictures was a treat that’s been lost to the digital age. I would always rush through the photos looking for the surprises, the perfect iconic moments. Then I would go through again slowly, scrutinizing. I’d go through a third time, selecting the ones to save in a photo album, condemning the others to the drawer.

In the roll from my dad’s pool, there weren’t any hidden gems as I had anticipated. No unusual expressions captured, no special portraits of my dad. But I held the photos in my hands, and in those ordinary shots I saw my dad watching the boys see who could hold his breath underwater longer. He egged them on, as he had egged me on when I was small.

I saw a perfectly mundane afternoon by a backyard pool, one that was long gone and almost forgotten, and I was glad that those mundane moments weren’t deleted.

Boys underwater 2003


yeah write 260 staff picks nonfiction

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If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d’ve Baked a Cake in a Shoe Box

Cake in a Shoe Box 2

I’ll admit it: I am drawn to the kooky. Whether it’s a challenge to host a Spambalaya Jambalaya dinner party, visit kitschy roadside attractions, or make guacamole ice cream sandwiches, I’m your woman.

And since I never know when something I should have thrown away will come in handy, I smiled when I came across a recipe in the New York Times that featured a shoebox as a cooking vessel.

Cake in a Shoe Box? Of course!

Cake in a Shoe Box 3

I knew mischief was afoot when it was published on April Fool’s Day, but I also got a kick out of it. Since I don’t bake often, I had to step up my game. Making a delicious cake is quite a feat. So how was it? I can’t say my family was head over heels, but it did foot the bill as a sweet, nutty ending to a Sunday supper, especially since my sole purpose was to make something goofy. Please don’t judge me until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes.

If you’d like to follow in my footsteps, it made enough for a size 8 cake. Just take it one step at a time.

The recipe: Cake in a Shoe Box

Cake in a Shoe Box 4

Cake in a Shoe Box 5

h/t to Reddit for the plethora of foot puns

Cake in a Shoe Box 1

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Up a Creek, but Unsinkable: Weekend in Denver

Snow covered creek Colorado

{In a previous post, I told how my husband is convinced he’s solved the mystery of Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure–Seeking Treasure: The Thrill of the Chase.}

“From there it’s no place for the meek,
The end is ever drawing nigh;
There’ll be no paddle up your creek,
Just heavy loads and water high.”
     — from Forrest Fenn’s poem of clues to the treasure

Ah, springtime…

I awoke to news that a massive blizzard had dumped a foot of snow and canceled 1200 flights in Denver, the city I was planning to land in during that night’s wee hours to search for Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure. After some harried Googling, I learned my flight was still scheduled. My husband and I flew in late that night and headed for the mountains early the next morning.

Heading for the mountains Colorado

We made it to our secret location the next afternoon to search for the treasure. It was fun to be traipsing in the snow for several cold hours, but we found no treasure chest of gold.

Checking out a creek Colorado

Although the treasure eluded us, piles of snow four feet deep made it impossible to rule out the area. As one of Fenn’s clues states, we were up a creek without a paddle. Or something like that.

Checking out a creek Colorado

As far as we know, the Denver blizzard had no relation to the deep snow that messed up our plans in the area we searched, and we were probably just guilty of scheduling our trip too early in the spring.

Without a thorough search, though, we couldn’t determine that the site was actually wrong, so my husband is planning to go back after the snow melts. That’s also why I am still maintaining an air of secrecy about where we searched and why I can’t share most of my photos from the site that we hope is the one Fenn called “no place for the meek.” 

Maybe the treasure is still out there, waiting for us.

No worries, though. We had a weekend ahead of us in Denver before we had to return to the workaday East.

Denver Biscuit Company

We set out the next day for a late breakfast at the Denver Biscuit Company. We were already hungry, and there was a 75 minute wait. This interlude gave us the perfect chance to explore the neighborhood. We walked down the street to browse a record store, Twist & Shout, featuring thousands of vinyl albums — yay! — and the Tattered Cover Book Store, where I bought some pencils that I can bury later to grow basil and cilantro plants. We bought books, too, but how about those pencils?

Twist and Shout record store Denver Colorado

Dog mural Denver Colorado

An hour later we wandered back for what was now a short wait.

And those biscuits delivered!

Denver Biscuit Company Facebook post

We toured the house of the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, a truly inspirational woman, and the Denver Botanic Gardens, an incongruous visit with lush tropical plants followed by a stroll through the snow-covered grounds. Then it was time for a night on the town.

Molly Brown House Denver Colorado

Denver Botanic Gardens

Whiskey Bar Denver Colorado

I loved Denver (and the secret Colorado location we searched). Overall, I was struck by how laid back and polite everyone was out West.

Soon enough, I was back in the highly stressed East. I got into an argument on the plane with a rude passenger, and he flipped me the bird. I yelled at him, and multiple groups of people yelled at me, not at the man who had just flung an obscene gesture at a complete stranger on a plane.

After my fantastical weekend, I was clearly back to reality, the treasure still hidden across the Great Divide under a mountain of snow.

Update: We made a mini vacation out of one more search (still no treasure): An Empty Nester’s Tour of the American West


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Seeking Treasure: The Thrill of the Chase

Treasure chest closeup

My husband pores over web sites, explaining his line-by-line interpretations as he toggles between a Google map and a poem that holds clues to the hidden treasure. He points out canyons and creeks, hots springs and abandoned mines. He has a feverish gleam in his eyes.

I know that look.

I grew up watching It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World roughly every Sunday afternoon of my childhood, sitting next to my father on our seventies-orange couch. So I’ve seen that look plenty of times.

It is the look of a man who thinks he is about to claim a hidden treasure as his own.

It is a look that cannot be denied.

Each night for a week, Randy uncovers additional clues and struggles to convince me that he’s found the secret treasure hidden by Forrest Fenn somewhere between New Mexico and Canada. I get random texts like this one, left vague for security reasons:

Screenshot treasure nugget

Randy makes his case, a strong one, that he knows where the treasure is hidden. He wants to book a flight and search for it out west.

treasure circle quotationI hold back. While I consider myself an optimist, it’s an eggshell optimism, a Cinderella faith that expires at midnight. As I try to think of a synonym for “eggshell optimism,” I realize there is one: pessimism.

Still, I decide to support him. How could I not? He’s convinced he knows where a million-dollar treasure is hidden.


“Honey,” I parry, “all these guys who are professional treasure hunters, you know, they’ve gone out 40, 50, 60 times looking for it, convinced they were gonna find it. The thing is, those clues are vague, and the West is lousy with hot springs and mines, and the clues might not even be for hot springs or mines. The thing is, they could be interpreted a hundred different ways.”

Randy is undeterred.

My older son hears Randy’s theories on the drive home for spring break and texts me his concerns about his parents’ midlife crises, but I assure him I am skeptical:

Steadfast against his family’s rebuttals, Randy opens some new maps, finds some new clues that confirm the location for him.

Randy with The Thrill of the ChaseWe’re flush with free airline miles, so we’re going to hop on a plane during an upcoming weekend. We’ll rent a car and travel to that spot my husband found on Google maps. I can’t tell you where we’re going because it’s a secret, a top secret, and if I’ve learned anything else from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, it’s that you’d better not let a secret about treasure get out.

We’ll claim our treasure at best, or give it our best try at worst.

Because that look cannot be denied.

Treasure chest

Would you support your partner’s search for hidden treasure?

Update: We went out there for the weekend and didn’t find the treasure–this time. Our search–Up a Creek, but Unsinkable: Weekend in Denver

Update #2: Foiled again! We made a nice vacation out of a second trip out West, though: An Empty Nester’s Tour of the American West

Forrest Fenn’s clues (in the poem at the right): The Thrill Resource Page


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Schadenfreude in My Facebook Feed

Ceramic tchotchke

Schadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortune of another, or, just maybe, from the fortune he never wanted

Although he was my mortal enemy and chief bully during my formative years, my brother Steve and I reached a détente when I reached my 30s, and he saw me for the first time less as a four-eyed, fat and ugly, lazy loser and more as a hard-working, loving mother of two. By the time we’d helped our second parent die of cancer, we saw each other with something approaching respect, two good-at-heart people trying our best to make it through this perplexing world.

Marcy's catfish and a classic MustangGrowing up, Steve was a proud misogynist, calling women “Ws” for “wenches,” as in this I-swear-it’s-true command to an old girlfriend: “W, get me a beer,” in front of our family while watching football.

To my never-ending horror, she got up and got him a beer.

I still cannot hear Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” without hearing it as Steve’s frequent serenade: “You … are … so … ug … a … ly … to me. Can’t you see?” The song came out in 1974, which means it’s been playing this way in my head for over 40 years, interpreted here by a guy I paid five bucks on Fiverr to sing it:

(Source: Vikastomar)

Everyone admits Steve’s a funny guy. Living in the same small town, I would occasionally hear first- and second-hand stories of the hilarious stand-up monologues he gave to packed barrooms about how pathetic I was.

I worked as a cashier at Caldor, and one time as I stapled a customer’s receipt to his bag, he read my name tag and said, “You don’t seem that bad.” He’d heard Steve’s monologue the night before at the bar at Chuck’s Steak House.

bully circle quotationWhy Steve was obsessed with hating me I never quite understood, but I went toe-to-toe with him in profanity-laden screaming matches, his spittle flying toward me as his face reddened. When a certain vein would pop out on the right side of his forehead, I knew it was time to back off. A big bull of a man, he never struck me, but the worry of that was always lurking. I was more careful when I was home alone with him and comforted that I knew “9-1-1.”

During our bouts, I constructed lawyerly arguments against him, and I shared the psychological theories I was learning in college, like the view that his homophobia probably stemmed from latent homosexual tendencies. That vein made a quick appearance, but the phone was nearby, and I rehearsed in my head: “9-1-1, 9-1-1, 9-1-1.”

Even when not spouting off against women, homosexuals, or one of our family members, Steve was difficult to get along with. He wouldn’t cooperate for something as simple as posing for a family photo. He also scorned marriage along with any of his buddies who fell victim to it.

That makes the latest twist in our relationship the funniest of all.

Steve met a single mom in the Philippines and married her. She Facebook friended me, and I now see regular updates in my news feed from half a world away of my big brother Steve posing at an underground river, posing in Hong Kong, posing at the beach.

By all indications, his wife is a loving, family-oriented woman. I wish Steve the best and hope he has found happiness with his new family. I, too, feel the sweet stab of schadenfreude to see him posing stone-faced for those photos, part of his new married life, part of his ninth circle of Hell.

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