IN SEARCH OF A WHITE CHRISTMAS

By definition; a White Christmas is having at least one inch of snow. Statistically speaking, the chances of having a White Christmas is 60% or better over the Northern Rockies, the Northern Great Plains, the Great Lakes, and most of New England. If you live in the southern third of the country, your chances of seeing snow are less than 20%.

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Living at an altitude of 4,000 feet, I looked to the town of Jacob Lake for a White Christmas. A scenic forty-minute drive to Jacob Lake would not only double my altitude, but also increase my chances of snow.

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Jacob Lake offered an escape from the desert heat in the summer and glowing aspens in the fall. I was hopeful Jacob Lake would complete the trifecta of my seasonal experience, by giving Shadow his first snow encounter and a white Christmas.

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Before retiring to bed on Christmas Eve, I chatted with the perfect stranger and checked the weather forecast. The overnight temperatures were expected to drop below 30 degrees with a 50 percent chance of snow. I felt the odds were in my favor; White Christmas here we come!

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On Christmas Day, a sleepy-eyed Shadow and I headed out to the kitchen to make the morning coffee. From the back window, I could see the clouds hovering over the cliffs. The temperature felt colder than usual; it was starting to feel like snow weather.

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By mid-morning, the view from my front porch was nothing but grey clouds. A final weather check reported snow flurries on the Kaibab Plateau and up to four inches of snow at Jacob Lake. It was official; a White Christmas for Shadow!

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Outfitted in snow gear, Min, Shadow, and I left Vermilion Cliffs bound for Jacob Lake. Ascending over 3,000 feet, we traded the desert valley floor for a snow storm in the Kaibab National Forest.

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The snowy road conditions caught Shadow’s eye. He had never seen snow before, but it did pose the question: do dogs have an understanding of weather?

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Shadow was not a fan of hiking in the rain, yet he had no problem swimming in the cold Colorado River. Would Shadow enjoy the fresh snow under his paws? Well, we were about to find out!

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I am not sure who was more excited, Shadow, Min, or me!

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Dressed in his Michael Jackson Thriller vest, Shadow galloped through the snow. Min and I took turns playing photographer, as we both wanted to capture Shadow’s first snow experience.

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While Shadow continued to run himself ragged, thoughts of the perfect stranger ran through my mind. Had it only been one week since we said our goodbyes at Kingman Airport? Would you believe we had talked on the phone every day since? Call me selfish; it wasn’t enough! I needed to see her. I missed her company!

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Even though I felt fortunate to be spending Christmas Day with my family; Min and Shadow, it felt incomplete. My special someone was a few thousand miles away and it was snowing. I wanted to share my White Christmas experience with her too.

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With the snow continuing to fall at an inch an hour, Min and I decided to head back to Vermilion Cliffs. Neither one of us wanted to get stuck or stranded in the snow storm, although Shadow wouldn’t have minded. How do you tell this face it’s time to go home?

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As Min headed to the car, Shadow and I enjoyed our final run in the snow. Shadow was a natural in this winter wonderland, and I could only hope for more snow opportunities in the New Year.

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Perhaps Mother Nature could overnight a winter storm to Vermilion Cliffs. Ideally, she’d deliver several inches of snow to my desert front door. I wanted to experience a desert winter wonderland!

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Walking back to the road, I had so many questions running through my head. I wondered if Shadow would remember the sensation of snow under his paws. Would Shadow and I get the opportunity to share some winter adventures together? When would I see the perfect stranger again? How would I spend my winter break? None of my questions required answers; I was content to let life happen.

Letting life happen is a lifestyle that dogs model for humans on a daily basis. A dog owns nothing; they live in the moment, yet they seldom seem dissatisfied. Companionship is their currency to happiness.

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In recent years I’ve had friends tell me they are more likely to find companionship with a dog than with a human. It makes me wonder, has human companionship become such a foreign concept that we fear it as much as loneliness? Is it our lack of companionship that places the focus on consumerism at Christmas? Has Christmas become more about giving presents than offering our presence?

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I returned home to a clouded in Vermilion Cliffs. With the temperature dropping, I grabbed a hot shower and heated up some homemade soup. I spent the rest of my day camped out on the porch. Yes, this was how I spent my Christmas.

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THE PERFECT STRANGER – PART 3 – HIGHWAY 18

“ At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear. It is those we live with and love and should know elude us. You can love completely without completely understanding.” Norm Maclean

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With less than a few hours sleep between us, we gathered our gear and checked out of the “Brokeback Room”. Tired yet still cheerful, we hopped into the car and continued our drive along Route 66 bound for Highway 18. Ten miles west of Seligman the sunrise revealed a break in the storm and a light show that only Mother Nature could orchestrate.

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On this morning I felt blessed that I operate in the currency of time. Time has no dollar value, you cannot buy stock in it, and your 401k will not harbor it. Time, either you have it or you don’t! To say I don’t have time to pull over and enjoy the beauty of a sunrise would be rather tragic. Even sadder, not being able to share Mother Nature’s light show with a fellow human being.

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Note to self – you know you have met someone special when they cosign your living in the now and want to capture it with you.

Initially, our plan was to be at Havasupai trailhead by 9am. Fortunately, our time frame was written in sand and not cement. The focus of this trip was about enjoying the freedom of time. Clarissa and I were both open to the possibilities of the day. If it meant delaying our hike by one day, the world would not come to an end; however, ten years ago my world would have!

In my 20’s, I feel I was incredibly rigid with time. I feel this rigidity robbed me of living, but then again maybe the rigidity was more a protective measure. Somehow holding time hostage empowered my low sense of self, yet in hindsight, it disabled my self-growth.

Do we willingly give up our freedom by clock managing the day away?

Does every aspect of our life have to be planned, scheduled, and structured?

Is our time really managed when our daily mantra begins with “I don’t have time?”

How do we even prioritize our time?

Have we become so disconnected that we have forgotten what our priorities are?

In my 30’s,  I had to redefine my relationship with time. Time was no longer a minute, an hour, a month or a year. Time had become an emotional connection to the nature of life and living. No longer would I be too busy to live, instead I would be living.

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Leaving route 66 we turned north onto Indian Highway 18. We were now only 60 miles from the trailhead parking lot.

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How long do you think it took us to drive 60 miles?

Three hours? Four hours? Six hours?

Try the entire day, yes that’s right, the entire day.

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Initially, it was a gold-lit desert floor against a limbically driven sky that warranted so many stops and photo opportunities.

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As we started to gain altitude it was the snow flurries that demanded our attention, followed by a brief encounter with the desert Grinch.

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A few miles down the road we blamed our stopping and starting on the desert winter wonderland. Last night’s rain in Seligman had delivered a dumping of snow in the higher elevations.

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My dreaming of a white Christmas had arrived two weeks early. I did not need a Christmas tree or a traditional dinner. I was perfectly content with Santa’s gift.

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Santa delivered a new friendship wrapped in a picture perfect winterscape; however, he failed to include a pair of wire cutters.

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Have you ever found yourself and your womanhood caught on a barbed wire fence?

The slightest move could rob you of a lifetime of sexual pleasure, yet you remain hesitant to ask the perfect stranger for extraction assistance.

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If this was a roadside accident the ‘jaws of life’ would be called in; however, fence side there was a definite need for the ‘claws of life’.

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My interpretation of faith and trust was redefined during my extraction procedure. How do you trust someone who considers the ‘Operation Game’ as surgical training?

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With only millimeters to spare, we both had to stop laughing at the severity of the situation and try to regain our composure.

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Like a seasoned bomb disposal officer, the perfect stranger strategically removed my girlhood from the barbed wire fence. They say laughter is the best medicine; however, I do not recommend it during delicate procedures. One simple sneeze could have sent me to a plastic surgeon’s office.

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On this day, the morning of December 13, 2014, my girlhood was saved by the magic claw.

After the rescue, I think Clarissa was either considering a cigarette or perhaps wondering she could explain the fence procedure to her friends. Is it a simple, ‘Yes, I saved Sherpa’s labia today’, or was it just another day playing in the snow?

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Either way, the experience fast tracked our friendship cementing a bond of trust for life.

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As we continued our drive along Highway 18, we encountered deeper snow packs. Deeper snow packs meant additional play time and more photo opportunities.

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Over the years friends have asked me why I prefer to travel in the off-season. My reason is very simple; no crowds! It’s a far more intimate experience when the only noise you hear is your camera’s shutter. Call me selfish, but I would rather not share this snowscape with a large group of people.

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However, I would share it with the perfect stranger!

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Sharing had undeniably been the underlying theme of our past 24 hours together. The only time we had alone time was in the bathroom. We shared our meals, hotel, transportation, and even my camera. Yes, I let the perfect stranger use my camera, the Fuji Hs Exr 50.

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There is something rather sacred about witnessing someone’s passion in action. Clarissa was a natural with my camera. You can study the art of aperture and speed, but you cannot teach an eye. Either you have it or you don’t. Clarissa has the eye and the art!

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As Clarissa was filming I wondered what the next few days would be like. It seemed we both flourished living in the now and embracing the unknown. Whatever Mother Nature threw our way I was confident we could handle it as a team. We were still 30 miles from the trailhead, yet there was no rush as we both knew we would be car camping in the parking lot. Overnight temperatures would be dropping below 15 degrees; it was going to be cold in the car.

As we continued our drive along Highway 18 this photo kept surfacing in my mind. Who was this free-spirited joyous breath of fresh air?

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By birth, her name is Clarissa. Regarding her spirit, I see her as Joy. Joy, the feeling of great pleasure and happiness. Joy, because it radiates off her and rubs off onto me.

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WOULD YOU CARRY MY ASHES?

“We’re all strangers connected by what we reveal, what we share, what we take away, and our stories”

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A couple from New Mexico sat down at Lees Ferry Lodge to have lunch. As I handed them menus, I asked them in my mixed Australian/ American accent, “So what brings you to this neck of the woods?” Smiling, the women replied, “The vastness of space”. “Wide open spaces tend to make people less guarded,” I replied. “Perhaps the desert permits a vulnerability that city landscapes tend to imprison”.

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The husband nodded in agreement, as his wife enquired about my experiences with people visiting the lodge in Vermilion Cliffs. I told them it seems people who venture out this way seem to be more willing to share their life, thoughts, and dreams. Spend five minutes with a patron and you will learn more about their life than they would ever share in the city.

As I took the couple’s order, the husband asked where I was from. “Australia,” was my reply. It seems my accent tends to be an icebreaker for both American and foreign tourists. For American’s, they insist I sound like Crocodile Dundee, while Aussies are somewhat horrified as to how American I sound. The Brits are relieved to find out I’m Australian, because they know I will bring them milk for their tea and coffee, as opposed to America’s coffee whitener, half n half. Europeans are somewhat relieved as they know I will understand when they share a meal, as they find American portion sizes to be rather gluttonous.

During their lunch, the wife who I will refer to as Dr. C, told me she studied Tibetan Buddhism, which led her to traveling and working in remote areas of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. I told her about my experiences in Northern Thailand, in addition to studying Shinto Buddhism, while living in Japan.

As I prepared their bill, Dr. C signaled for me to come to her side of the table. With a very sincere, yet serious face, she reached for my hand and said, “Leigh, you are someone who travels to remote areas, you would be the perfect person to scatter my ashes after my passing”.

Surprised by her request, yet feeling very honored, my answer without a moment’s hesitation was “YES”. Dr. C’s husband looked me square in the face and told me his wife was very serious about her request.

In a gentle tone, I kindly asked his wife to leave her chair and approach the counter. I wanted to show both her and her husband I was serious about keeping my word and carrying part of her ashes with me throughout my travels. It was at this point, I got my co-worker to grab my camera and capture my promise in action.

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“By carrying you in the living, I honor my commitment to carry you in death” were my promissory words to Dr. C ,as we began our piggy back ride up and down the bar.

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Terrified I would drop her, her husband watched on until he realized I could carry his wife comfortably around the bar.

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While many of us may fear death, there are some people like Dr. C, ensuring a death that involves frequent flyers miles and hiking boots. I have always hoped I would pass on a mountain. It seems more serene than a hospital bed or dying of a terminal disease in a nursing home.

For me, perhaps the idea of being henpecked by buzzards on a mountain ridge seems more natural than lying on a cold tray at a mortuary, and being injected with formaldehyde. Yes, cremation is an option; however, being turned into human powder remains just as unappealing.

As Dr. C and her husband left for New Mexico, my co-worker was quick to comment, “Leigh, now that was destiny”. If destiny is a hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future, what do we call experiences and events that happen in real-time, the now?

Was Dr. C meant to play a role in my destiny, or could it be that I am predestined to play a role in hers? I feel we are all destined to play a role in each other’s lives. Life really is one big undirected movie, and you just never know who will play the lead and supporting roles in your life. In the meantime, piggyback rides now have a whole new meaning for me.

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