BIGGEST BONEHEAD TRAVEL STUNT OF ALL TIME

I love a good adventure. I love playing the travel odds. But even I got caught by the biggest bonehead travel stunt of all time. I was ready to embark on my three week excursion to Italy commencing on my birthday, Monday, March 23rd. They allow twenty-four hour advance check-in on line, so on Sunday, I attempted to do so. There was a request to check in with a ticket agent. Hmmm … *shrugs* oh well, it must be because it’s international. So with hours to spare and bags packed: lap top in carry-on (otherwise it’s considered an import) with slippers and change of clothing and shawl (aka blankie) and best damned travel pillow ever, I journey to Delta check-in. I tell the gal I think I need to talk to her because of the recommendation when I tried to check in early but I tell her I thought it was because it’s international. She is as confused as me until I point out that maybe it’s so close to my expiration date. At this point I’m still believing that I’m going on this trip. My passport is valid, I know so. I checked the date before I planned the trip. It was one of the deciding factors in when I was going. I wanted to get the trip in before my passport expired. I even got on the web site and perused “Renewal” to see if I had enough time to get that done before I left. Savvy traveller lesson #2: READ EVERYTHING. Not all web sites are the same. She asks me where I’m going and says she believes I have to have six months left on my passport before I can go. We read the web site. Yep, Italy requires three months out after your last day. So, I’m thinking, let me get this straight. I have a passport that has not expired, but it’s not valid? I ask her how a person is supposed to know that six month thing. I wonder out loud why they sell international tickets to people who do not have that six month window. Now here’s the part where the ticket agent’s face gets all stoney as she expects me to lose my cool. She says I must have missed that notice. I’m trying not to throw up on her counter. All I can think about is all that money I’ve racked up on this trip, my ticket, about a thousand dollars worth of frequent flyer miles on my Capital One Venture card, reservations secured with that card, friend contacts made … rather than say again, “Are you kidding me?” I ask her “What do I do now?” She gives me a Delta number to call and tells me to hurry down to the post office (federal, see) and speak to the passport representative, but she carefully — with her calm tone like she’s addressing a child who might pitch a tantrum — tells me she believes it will still be a couple of days before I can get an expedited renewed passport. I ask, “So, I’m not going to be on this flight?” She looks at the clock, and I give her credit for that, and says, “I don’t see how.” She then tells me how sorry she is for the inconvenience and I tell her it is not her fault and creep away with my humiliatingly fushcia carry-on slumped sadly atop my meticulously packed wheely bag.

So, since I put the cab company number into my phone ages ago, I call a cab to take me back to my vehicle and zoom to the post office down town, Great Falls, Montana. I used to live in Great Falls. I am a fourth generation Montanan, a state with an agricultural base. Very few of us consider ourselves worldly or well traveled or even particularly cultural. Some of us try to keep up digitally. The lady at the post office is not among those. She had a little placard in her window declaring she was currently taking passport pictures and would be right back. I waited, feeling dismal. Presently she came in, smiling benignly, said, “You must be my next appointment.” I responded that no I was not that but that I had travel problems. I told her the gal at the airport had sent me down there. I told her my passport was short of validity and I didn’t know what to do next. Seemingly offended by my lack of appointment, she instructed me it took a month to get a new passport. I asked her about an expedited passport and she backed that time up to a week and a half. Then she got out her big ominous looking three ring binder and gave me the U.S. passport services number which I have in my phone and suggested that maybe I could fly into one of the cities who have a passport service but she was very strict in telling me that I would have to make an appointment and get the passport and it might be done in a day or two. Clearly she considered me an idiot who wouldn’t make an appointment. I wrote down the number she gave me and was dismissed.

Dejected, miserable travel buffoon that I was, I wandered out to my vehicle to call the Delta representative. After a short wait, a Sherri Thomas came on the line. I began by telling her I had indeed pulled the biggest bonehead travel stunt of all time and I didn’t know what to do next. I told her I had been to the post office and that lady had suggested the going to Atlanta or Detroit or somewhere to get a passport while I’m in that city. I’d have to make that coveted appointment, leave the airport, and hang out over night and I still wouldn’t get to my vacation for several days. Trouble with that plan is I can’t use the already purchased ticket because it is international and I can’t get on the plane because my passport is short of validity. So dear Sherri begins to look up costs of flights to these cities. She says I’m looking at 3800 dollars and that wouldn’t include the return flight and I’d be better off trying to get a cheap ticket off the internet. But the very first thing she said was, my ticket was good until March 2, 2016. I told her I couldn’t afford 3800 and I was worrying about all those Venture Capital One miles. She said they’d be gone if I didn’t use the ticket I had. And then the wonderful helpful Sherri Thomas said she would waive the 300 dollar penalty fee on my ticket and even put it in the system and wrote it on the ticket. What it amounts to is a credit with Delta good until March 2nd of next year. It is no surprise to me that more people fly Delta than any other airline. Hence, travel rule #3 arises: be flexible!

But now to the issue of the passport. Really? I’m asking myself. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid. It’s a renewal. It’s not like the thing is expired. There must be a faster way to get your passport renewed. I get on-line. First of all, you need to fill out an application. The passport agent at the post office could have handed me the application. Maybe I needed to make an appointment to get that from her. There is a fee, of course, and you need to have two photographs taken within the last six months. CVS Pharmacy takes passport photos. So does Costco. Triple A does it for free. But here’s the thing. It can all be done digitally on-line. It is possible to fill out the application on-line, send your picture from your computer (most have cameras) or you can attach a file from your smart phone, and send your money electronically these days. You can pay extra for a RUSH. You can just get an expedited one in twenty-four hours. TWENTY-FOUR hours! They have passport books with chips in them now so your information is stored somewhere else electronically. It can also allow for quicker movement through customs. It’s sure too bad the passport agent at the post office didn’t know ANY of that. I would think that as a paid employee of the federal government behind her little window with “Passport Services” above it, she might be expected to be up to date on those services.

It took me two days to discover all of that information and get my reservations and contacts cancelled and refunds on my museum passes and wine tours. With the exception of the non-refundable room (which was my own fault for not adhering to Travel Rule #2: read everything on a site) I got all my money back. I could have soldiered on and made my vacation two days later, but I learned much from this experience and hopefully now so have you.  Now I can learn more Italian and lose more weight! So my Italian trip has been postponed but between now and … May?, September?, I’ll have more adventures to relate. And the minute I pick a new date — one minute after I have that renewed passport in my hand — I’ll start all over again on my Tuscan Corkscrew Adventure.

EIGHTEEN DAYS AND COUNTING

A funny thing happens the minute I walk into an airport. I become someone else. There is something … magical after four or six or eight or more hours on an airplane. It’s like re-booting a computer. I become someone — not different — but more. I become a better version of myself. Suddenly I’m more confident and witty and capable and worldly. Some people love to gamble. They like to believe that some strategy or skill or bit of good luck allows them to beat the system. Well, that’s how I feel about travel. Most people consider travel just a means to an end: that fabulous vacation spot perhaps. I might be weird, but I like the actual travel itself.

From the moment I walk in, the game begins. I compare every airport and their personnel. Print my boarding pass from my computer before I leave home? You bet. Check in curbside or at a kiosk? Yup. Buy a better bag so I’m hands free going through boarding or in the bathroom? Done. Read every article about how to make your flight go better? Yes, indeed. To travel comfortably you have to suspend your sense of control over what happens next. It’s going to be what it’s going to be and you have to learn to roll with it. My niece calls that “getting your Zen on”. I just like being released from having to be in charge. I’m kind of a control freak, but I also think I’m pretty smart. I embrace the slip on shoes, wireless bra, no belt, three ounce liquids in a clear plastic bag and carry-on size rules. I’m glad those people are serious about airport security even if they feel around on my body. I take my own blanket in the form of a wrap and have the best damned travel pillow ever. I’ve got the apps and the frequent flyer program. I drink the Airborne laced water, I use the disinfectant wipes on my seat and tray. I even clean up in the bathroom and brag about it to the flight attendants. I judge every person I come in contact with from the TSA agents to the waitresses in the bars. I have favorite airports and ones I’d rather never have to be in again. Often it’s the bathroom attendant or the grumpy looking customs agent who will make my day better. I’m at the ready with a smile and friendly greeting. And even though I like to pretend I know things about travel that no one else does, I know it’s basically playing the odds. Do it often enough and not only will you enjoy the vouchers and the discount prices and the occasional free upgrade, but you’ll also get your share of crap. It’s always the people who make the experience better and once I’m calm and friendly they will be too. You get what you give in an airport and mastery over one’s frustration is the best start — because there will most assuredly one day be frustration.

Now I haven’t been everywhere I’d like to be, but I’ve been a few places. My next adventure is taking me back to Italy. I’ve been to the Amalfi coast and enjoyed the sweet little sea side town of Sorrento, a fabulous trip that will be recounted on another blog entry one day. Yes, I’m headed back to Italy, in eighteen days. I’m going alone and leaving on my 54th birthday to Florence and then to Sienna and if I can successfully navigate, I’ll be visiting the tiny little town of Montepulciano — a name you may recognize from a wine bottle or two. This Corkscrew Adventure is taking me to the heart of Tuscany, people!

I’ve been studying Italian through Rosetta Stone so I might be able to order a salad (insalata) rather than soup (minestra) and talk to the locals about vintages and various dishes (pietanze). I know from past excursions in foreign languages that the most important phrase you can use is, “Please speak slowly” (parle lentemente per favore). I also think it’s respectful to be able to say “please” and “thank you” (grazie) in the native language. If you follow along with me here, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Obviously, before you can go on a trip, you’ve got to PLAN a trip and this is where your inner control freak can rule! I’ve studied maps and researched train tickets and museum passes and booked my Delta flight and my rooms. But this is when my first stupid travel stunt occurred. I used Booking.com but I did it late at night after a hard work week and got sloppy. I booked everything at once because, as you know if you’ve ever been on one of those sites, all the rooms are “filling up fast … one left at this price”, without making sure I was getting refundable rooms. Most of them you can cancel and change right up until the day before, but you have to be careful and book a refundable room. When I went back to research a little more I found a more reasonably priced room, but I had purchased one nonrefundable one. I could have saved myself a couple hundred dollars. Lesson learned! Don’t panic.

I’m increasing my language lessons and restraining my excitement, but I’ll be making regular entries for this trip and I hope you’ll join me. Perhaps next we’ll explore a little history. So, ciao, la mia amiche, I’ll be in touch.

FIRST THERE WAS PARIS

Once upon a time, thirty years ago, my Mother gave me the best present any daughter ever received. I was twenty two attending college on a quarter system about to transfer to a Catholic college on the semester system. It was about to be my spring break. Our small college had a couple of professors who took a group of students on a European tour every year. I would actually have to show up for the new term a week late. The sociology professor, Hans, was German. Our language professor, Dave, spoke French. We called him Westy, a shortened version of his last name. This year they were going to northern Europe. To go inexpensively, we’d drive to Canada and catch a flight to Amsterdam where we’d meet our bus driver. We had just ten days to explore, staying in Berlin one night, two nights in Paris, and back to Belgium. From there we’d head back through Frankfurt and home to Canada. Mom paid for that trip. That time I spent in college (we still called it college thirty years ago), was for me a period of deep confusion and lack of direction. My oldest sister called them my invisible years. I didn’t correspond with any of my family. I didn’t see them unless I had to. Not only did I not know what I wanted to do with my life, I had no idea who I was. Maybe Mom knew that, I don’t know but if it had been up to my Dad, of course, I would NOT have gone. There were things Mom believed were important for her girls. This trip for me was one of those things.

So it began with a caravan of cars full of country kids, some parents, a few adults from all around northern Montana, mostly strangers to one another, heading to Canada. Montana is a big state. We’re the fourth largest state in the Union behind Alaska, Texas and California. But we have the least amount of people. We have a lot of forests and plains and mountains and grasslands. In 1979 when I graduated from high school, Montana boasted about 500 thousand residents.  Farming and ranching was and remains the state’s number one industry.  At that time, we boasted two whole universities: the University of Montana Grizzlies, in Missoula, and the Montana State Bobcats, in Bozeman. It was assumed that most kids who graduated from Big Sandy High School would attend Bozeman. It was all about agriculture. I and about two others from my graduating class of thirty eight went to Missoula. We were the rebels. Even our principal and a teacher or two made mention of Missoula’s reputation and it is still known for an extremely liberal point of view. Students wore Birkenstock sandals and the girls didn’t shave their legs or (I assumed) their armpits. They were “au naturale”. Imagine a country girl’s astonishment to see rag wool socks on feet wedged into thongs under double tea length cotton skirts in the middle of winter! Everyone in Bozeman wore cowboy boots and Wranglers. It was beer versus pot; art and theatre versus ag-business; environmentalists or tree huggers (unless you were in the forestry program) versus econ and business majors. Both schools boasted excellent athletic and music departments. I had no idea which school was better for me. I hadn’t been a good student in high school except in English. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Helen Hashley, was the first teacher to throw me something onto which I might cling. She told me I was good at writing. She gave me the incredible gift of recognition and encouragement. To this day, whenever I sit down to express myself through the written word, I send a silent thank you to her. It was the only subject at which I had any measure of success. My eighth grade English teacher, Grahame Nicolson also boosted my esteem in that regard, and I was one of the few students in high school who actually looked forward to Mr. Lawrence Green’s senior English class. But years later, contemplating university, I wasn’t sure my application would even be considered. My SAT scores were nothing to brag about, but interestingly enough to now note, the high end scores in my writing and verbal skills matched my scores in mechanical aptitude. I enjoyed science, but thought I was dumb. It wasn’t until I took an intelligence test at university for a friend getting his psychology doctorate that I ever considered anything else. In high school, I had no guidance. I had not enjoyed a shining record even though I was in Girls State, President of the Speech and Drama Club, first French horn in the band and a member of the Sandy 16 choral group and from which I actually made it to All State Choir. I put my energies into the drama club and music although in that, as in most areas of interest, I felt like the world’s biggest fraud. I developed an eating disorder. I recall U of M’s career fair for incoming freshmen with a painful clarity. I wandered aimlessly through the stadium where it was held going from one table to another, picking up a pamphlet here and there, when across the way I spied “Aesthetics”.  Since I knew what the word meant, I ventured over. Clearly, very few students visited that table. The good looking, smartly dressed young man beamed at me, but our exchange was brief. My shrug of disinterest and stubborn false self-assurance bloomed out into the full, aloof, unapproachable demeanor I had built so carefully to protect myself until the poor guy behind the table shrugged as well and offered me another pamphlet and I strutted off.  Wrong turn, dearie, a tiny little voice in the very back of my brain mumbled. There were miniscule little signs all along the way that I ignored. I double majored in drama and English. The drama prof, my advisor, was weird and may have been sexually harassing some of the students. Once, entering class, we found him in a kind of loin cloth standing on a wooden straight back chair in the middle of the room, one foot on the back, the other on the seat, balancing the chair on two hind legs. He didn’t harass me, but I spent an uncomfortable hour crying in his office once trying to figure out some answers. He was useless. University classes were mostly easy, but my entrance scores betrayed me and I had to suffer through bone head math – a class in which the professor badly needed some sensitivity training in harassment.  There were weird experiences in theatre, excepting stage design because I knew how to handle carpentry tools, and a brief stint in broadcast media. An overall dissatisfaction and disappointment in my English courses, and my resolute wall of fear and mistrust kept me hidden from the successful writers in my creative writing courses from whom I desperately wanted recognition. My big time poetry professor told me I was not a poet but wrote lyrically. What he should have said is that I did not write poetry like HE did. I felt like he was more interested in his own experience than teaching any of the rest of us how to write. So, floundering and miserable, I transferred out of Missoula after one year. And then I was really lost. I went back home to the ranch.

Well, it was a nice respite, but even I knew I couldn’t hide very long. A high school class mate and neighbor from up in the mountains decided to go to nearby Havre to work and needed a roommate. I spent a great deal of time in high school at her house. Her folks had nine kids and they never noticed another one hanging around once in a while. Plus, her Uncle and my Dad were buddies. So, off we went to find an apartment, move in our meager stuff, and get jobs. I also went to school at Northern Montana College part time. She went to cosmetology school. There in NMC’s tiny English department I actually began to learn something – about myself. The professors, some with prestigious credentials, presided over classes of eight or ten students. For the first time ever, I enjoyed conversations about complex ideas and themes in literature with my contemporaries.

My roommate and I shared enough common history to make our stay together a great deal of fun. We even had another gal from high school join us for a time. We met other young women in our building and had more fun. There were boyfriends and drinking and time went by. My roommate moved on to bigger and better things and I moved into a tiny little apartment by myself and got a yellow tabby kitten I named Sarge but called Baby. He was there through my invisible years of over eating, over drinking, and toying with drugs and promiscuity. I was in trouble and no one ever knew it. I managed, much to my amazement, to earn the Jane Buttrey Memorial scholarship for the English department two years running. It was during this bleak time that one of my college professors, teaching writing incidentally, told me he had suffered from clinical depression and perhaps I might be slogging along those lines myself. I sought out a psychologist, got some helpful drugs, and started to come up for air.  I met a handsome highly sensitive guy with complementary emotional issues from Great Falls and decided it was time to move on, hence my transfer from Havre to Great Falls, and the corresponding trip to Europe.

So thirty years ago in March of 1984, in Westy’s car, I and three other people joined a convoy of other cars full of intrepid adventurers heading to Calgary, Canada. I looked forward to what I thought would be a lovely diversion and a rounding out of my not quite fine arts education. It was in the duty free shop at the border in Sunburst, MT, that my sociology professor, Hans, while buying wine or vodka or something like that, said to me, “Dieter [dee ter] is going to like you.” My response?  “What’s a ‘dieter’?” Hans, a traditional looking German, tall, mostly bald, with little brushy salt and pepper eyebrows and mustache and twinkling blue eyes behind his specs, guffawed loudly and told me Dieter was our bus driver. So, I tucked that little nugget into my imagination and settled in for the hop across the pond.

In the blur of getting my passport and picking luggage and finishing my finals and being ready to move into a new place in a different town upon my return, a week late for the first week of the next semester, I never once felt like I was doing the wrong thing. I needed something. Maybe this was it. I had flown before but never overseas. So when the rainy clouds over Amsterdam parted and I could see the ground, I was struck by how green everything seemed. Clearly these people did not experience the dry, cold, frozen grey of winter like we have in Montana. It was March. Maybe they had had some of that and now this was spring, I did not know, but the green drew me like a siren’s call. We wandered as a group, wrinkled and yawning, through customs, gathered our bags (although one older couple had left theirs sitting at the airport in Canada) and bunched around our guides awaiting the next step. We would head to our hotel first, deal with our jet lag, and begin our European road trip first thing tomorrow. Tonight we would explore Amsterdam a bit but first we must meet our bus driver. My roommate, Lillian, was a woman in her mid-fifties who was friends with our professors and on this excursion by herself. She was lovely, open, charming. Of course all our accommodations and the agenda had been settled before we ever left home, so all we had to do was find our niches in the array of personalities and keep up. Our bus driver was introduced to us all. He was a longtime friend of Hans. Dieter appeared tall and slender with short straight dark hair, a saucy mustache hiding a wicked grin, and eyes the color of water. There was some joking about him being a Bavarian and therefore a bit wild. We meandered out of the airport to a large tour bus waiting curbside. Almost everyone else my age on this tour had either a friend of the same age or a parent along. I was rather under the protection of my two professors and of course my roommate.

Almost immediately, a small group of us separated ourselves out of the pack. My professors had been doing this long enough to get a read on the group. As it turned out, my professors, Lillian, Dieter, and myself all went together to a restaurant. We walked Amsterdam’s narrow cobbled streets glistening from the recent gentle rain through the famous red light district to a place that I cannot now recall enough to describe.  We ate cous cous and drank a lot of wine, and got to know one another better. While Dieter and Hans were longtime friends and of course shared heritage, Westy was kind of on his own. Shorter, with longer greyish hair, a round face and an ample mid-section, Westy spoke French fluently, and used his jovial personality to the best advantage. They all three were seasoned travelers and loved the experiences each new city and tour group provided. Lillian and I got along fabulously. She was not introverted or imposing, she was shorter than I with a soft brown bob and lovely green eyes. I would have guessed her heritage to be Irish. She had a marvelous laugh. The five of us had an amazing first evening and sang loudly, passing our wine bottle around, on our walk home. Hans had been correct. Dieter did like me and I felt like a flower in the sun under the rays of his attention. The canals and Anne Frank’s tiny attic safe house in Amsterdam kept us busy the next day. The Van Gogh museum provided the biggest surprise however. Living in a rural state I had never seen art that wasn’t western. My education had not, sadly, included any kind of training in art. CM Russel was our artist of renown and his work looked like everyday life for me: horses, cowboys, cattle, tromping along dry wind scoured river bluffs. But Van Gogh’s strident flowers in a field, rough, almost blotchy portraits of skeletal visages left me stunned. His bold colors and breadth of strokes seemed less than delicate. I didn’t know an impressionist from a modernist, but Van Gogh’s images jangled in the forefront of my imagination for days.

And then there was an hour or so when our individual time allowed us to do as we pleased. Dieter and I took a boat ride on the canal alone. It is extraordinary to describe your life to someone whose first language is not English. There is no room for subterfuge, innuendo, exaggeration or denial. To be understood, one must strip the colloquialisms and idiosyncratic expressions from one’s conversation. To be understood, one must use simple language, simple sentence structure, and common vocabulary. In short, one must tell the truth. It is not as easy as it sounds. For some of us, it is nearly impossible. For those of us who have always hidden behind the “hint and hope” communication method, being up-front and direct is a bit of a stretch. Expressing one’s feelings, emotions, vague interpretations of the hearts’ desire in an appropriate fashion proves difficult if one has no exit plan, no hedge, no penchant for vulnerability or, horror of horrors, experience with intimacy. But the real trick is to listen to what you say about yourself. It’s the kind of thing you don’t think about, I guess, until the questions are posed.  Somehow it became more clear that what I did and how I lived my life at home were not WHO I was. I talked about home and my family and the ranch and school and began to hear how the responses were what I’d heard other people say, but I had no idea if I meant them. All I knew is that I felt more comfortable in the sunshine between Amsterdam’s ancient edifices whilst floating on the canal with tulips and trees blooming on all sides than I had ever felt anywhere else in my life or at any time. Aware only of an extraordinary feeling blossoming in my heart and mind, I chalked it up to the nature of this new experience. And I gave it no consideration at the time. I did not for an instant think it was anything other than a girlish adventure. Well, girlish adventure it may have been, but that was only the first couple of days and I felt myself roaring awake, as if up to this point I had been a ghost or a shadow, my spirit somehow in hibernation.  I was about to turn twenty three and Paris was on the horizon.

BEGINNING TO BEGIN AGAIN

Tuesday, April 30, 2013
One day I woke up, one month shy of fifty, a single white woman living on my parents’ ranch in north central Montana, and I was gut shot! How the hell did this happen? I was stunned. I had been keeping my head down and pretending for so long, I hadn’t noticed … anything. Idealistic blinders firmly attached, I ignored the misgivings in my head and came back here willingly some eighteen years ago. My three older sisters had lives to attend. I was sick of living in town, sick of my job, had the wrong degree and no money, and I was desperate to do almost anything else. So I stuffed all my things and self -delusions into Dad’s horse trailer and came home because I love this isolated arid place: rattlesnakes and sagebrush, horny toads and prickly pear, juniper and scrub pine dotting the volcanic shale hills and coulees, the usually dry mineral laced creek trickling through gumbo clay banks draining eventually into the Missouri.

You learn a lot of things by the time you’re fifty. I’ve begun to realize there will be no big payoff. This is it. I’ve never been married and I have no children. Between Dad and me, all the men with potential were run off. So I have been unmercifully alone living a life as a round peg in a square hole. The universe doesn’t like that sort of thing. Over the years, I should have made some changes. I came awfully close a couple of times. Still I did nothing, risked nothing, gained nothing. And now, I’m gut shot, with no one to blame but myself, and no one to even bring me a warm beer like they do in the movies. I’m really not much of a beer drinker although I drank my share in college. I’m allergic to wheat, so there’s that. White alcohol like gin or vodka gives me leg cramps. My mother taught me that. Whiskey, Dad’s favorite drink, is fattening and gives me the worst headaches. I prefer wine now, Italian wine in particular. So I threw my best clothes and a new pair of shoes alongside wrinkle cream into a bag and hauled my nearly fifty year old butt over the pond to Italy for a week in February as a birthday present to myself. I caught a deal on a travel site and put a deposit down so no one could talk me out of it. My birthday is in March, and all of my birthdays over the last eighteen years have been about birth of calves because as cattle ranchers, that’s when we begin calving. I can’t say I haven’t resented that, or sitting home alone on New Year’s Eve, but I didn’t want to be gone during the most important season for the ranch. I have experienced enough miserable March months when the lives of weak young calves were balanced precariously on the whims of Ma Nature. So, I responsibly chose February to be gone.

I have never enjoyed the month of February. Montana winters can be harsh. The holidays break up November and December. By the end of January I am tired of winter. There is nothing to do but endure February, to put the heavy bulky clothing on again every day and go about the chores, the chores, the chores: feeding hay, hefting buckets of pellets, chopping ice open for the livestock. By March I am desperate for the smell of warm earth, or one little sprig of green grass, for longer days and receding brown. So, by the time February rolls around, I’m over the splendor and drama of the American west and the freedom of working your guts out schlepping to ungrateful bovine all winter. And there’s that irritating capitalistic “holiday”, Valentine’s Day. So, Ciao, bebe, I lined up some old people/cow sitters, fired up the plastic and was off. Great Falls to New York to Madrid and what felt like two days later, our little plane dropped down through puffy happy clouds over Vesuvius on approach to Naples. The first thing I noticed: it’s all extraordinarily green! Unless you’ve spent eight months out of the year waiting for that color, you cannot fathom what a welcome sight it was. I might have been really tired, but I nearly burst into tears.

I went on a college sponsored trip to northern Europe back in 1983 and let stupid fear keep me from going back to study. It was a decision I’ve always regretted and that coupled with my upcoming half-century birthday made my choice easy. This time I didn’t talk myself out of it. This time I didn’t think about anyone else or their opinions. This time I was going to be pro-active rather than re-active. So, there, next to the intense azure of the Tyrrhenian Sea on the flying buttress cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, I peeled off the armor and allowed myself to breathe.