Thursday, July 26, 2012

How I've Spent My Summer Vacation...So far

My very white feet and Lake Michigan.
Holy wow, it's almost the end of July and I've missed almost two months of posting!  I'm assuming that someone has noticed this...

So where have I been?  Well, this summer has been...shall we say "eventful?"  I guess it's not over yet, but I'm going to go ahead and log my 3rd-grade-ish back-to-school essay early.  So, read on if you've wondered where I disappeared to -- or if you just want to hear about my crazy summer.

To begin with, my cousin got married June 2 in Escanaba, Michigan.  My mom and I left to drive up there May 29 -- my sister, who was to be a bridesmaid, couldn't afford to miss that much work so she flew up later and then home the day after the wedding.  We were on the road for two days and had some interesting results from my iPhone's directing us through some two-lane highways during construction season in Wisconsin.  Still, we made it -- and even had fun listening to and singing along with music and then listening to Lamb (by Christopher Moore) on audiobook.  The drive up was scenic and uneventful.  We got to Michigan a few days before the wedding and did what we could to help, but mostly visited -- my aunt and cousin had most things under control by the time we arrived.

The driveway leading away from the house in the woods.
If you've never been to Michigan's upper peninsula, I highly recommend it.  It's beautiful country.  My aunt and uncle live in a house in the woods, 45 minutes to an hour outside of Escanaba.  We occasionally heard cranes calling in the mornings -- which is honestly just such a cool sound that I wanted to record it, but never did manage to.  Anyway, the house only has electricity when a generator is turned on.  Their plumbing is a pump in the kitchen.  The only technological connection to the outside world is a telephone line.  It's like camping, only slightly more civilized...which is good because I've never liked camping.  But I digress.  The house itself was built in many stages and is mostly one level, but there is a loft bedroom above the original home.  The stairs to this loft are very -- very -- steep...

Mom's broken finger -- guess which one!

The night before the wedding, Mom was trying to carry some blankets down from the loft to take outside to one of the trailers (it got pretty cold at night) for some friends who had just arrived.  She had gone up and down these stairs many times and decided she knew where each one was without looking.  Yeah, I'll bet you can see that this isn't going to end well, can't you?  She fell forward and in trying to catch herself, broke the tip of her finger.  It was instantly swollen and she was white as a sheet.  We quickly decided that a trip to the emergency room was in order so I drove her into town to the hospital where she got a prescription for Vicodin and a brace to wear on her very swollen, purple finger.  I think we got back to the house around 1 a.m., less than 12 hours before the wedding.

The ceremony.

The wedding was medieval-themed and very do-it-yourself.  She even made her own wedding dress, though my aunt did the embroidered embellishments on the trim.  They made planters and grew their own flowers.  The groom and his best man even made chain mail for themselves and the groomsmen!  (In fact, they're starting a business, Peasant Approved.)  They wrote their own vows and conducted a sand ceremony -- which is like a unity candle, but less worrisome if it gets knocked or blown over.  Our 87-year-old grandfather played the processional music on his keyboard.  The ceremony itself was brief partly because the couple wanted it that way and partly because it was a cold and drizzly day.  My mom (an ordained minister since before I was born -- for just such an occasion, I'm sure) officiated, giving some sage advice in the process.  The reception was held in the groom's parents' back yard where a large cardboard castle had been constructed.  This was a great surprise for the bride and groom, who may still have it (disassembled) in their garage.  Overall, despite the weather and Mom's broken finger drama, it was a lovely occasion.

My mom and I at the reception --
and my uncle imitating sasquach in the background.
This wedding gave me the chance to meet people I'd heard stories about for years but had never actually met (including the groom).  I had begun to suspect that some of these people were only figments of my relatives' active imaginations.  (Okay, not really, but it seemed like they had to be made up after only hearing stories about them for decades.)  And afterward, besides visiting with relatives and new friends, I spent the next week reading and becoming enchanted with the idea of gardening.  My aunt loves to garden and was showing us what she has planted that is already growing and painting verbal pictures of what was still to come.  She gave me some seed catalogs to take home and drool over.

A pretty butterfly in Michigan that posed obligingly.
After a week and a half of vacationing we drove back to Colorado with Granddad in tow.  His health declined rather suddenly last year and he's been living with my aunt and uncle since then but he needed a change of scenery and they needed a break.  So two days again on the road.  Mom was still taking Vicodin somewhat regularly for her broken finger so I drove all but maybe 100-150 miles or so of the second day.  I decided after she sliced another finger on a stray razor blade that it might be best if she doesn't drive -- if we wanted to get home alive.  Fairly early in the second day (around noon, locally) I got a call from a friend at home telling us about a wildfire that had just started fairly near our home in the foothills.

Some pretty iron work in a lighthouse I climbed in Michigan.
I was interested and looked up what I could of it on my phone, but it wasn't something we were overly concerned with.  Wildfires aren't uncommon in Colorado, and when you live in the foothills or anywhere in the mountains everyone is always asking how close they got to your house or if you're okay.  This is not unappreciated, but during the more than 25 years that we've lived in the foothills we have never been evacuated or significantly affected by any of the wildfires.  Still, we were aware of it and that was about all that could be done anyway, as we were hundreds of miles away.

This is smoke (at least for the most part), not clouds.
As seen from just south of Cheyenne.

But partway through Wyoming we started to see the smoke.  It was a menacing plume that made the sunset a brilliant orange.  As we continued to get closer alarm grew when we could barely see any of the familiar skyline over Fort Collins.  We got home safely, though exhausted, late June 9.  We decided not to unpack the car, save for our overnight bags.  My dad had left town that day (or the day before, I forget now) so the house was quiet.  Within half an hour I had my best friend's mom (who's basically my second mom) calling to see if we were okay; I assured her that we were, then went outside to watch the glow from the fire reflecting on the smoke as it billowed over the ridge.  I went to sleep in my own bed, thankful to be home, only slightly worried about the fire, and slept soundly.

The glow from the High Park Fire as seen from my back deck.
...Until about 5:30 a.m., when we got the evacuation call.  I called my friend, who is a vet student and search and rescue volunteer and had offered to help with our animals if we did get evacuated, and started to get the important things together: pictures, computers, papers, keepsakes.  We had clothes enough still packed in Mom's car from the trip.  Granddad had unloaded a few things that we had to then repack.  My friend came up with carriers for the cats but we only managed to get one -- the other two were hiding rather well, one outside, and one inside the walls of our basement.  We got Buster and loaded everything else up and fled through the smoke.  My friend took the cat home with her and I dropped Buster off at another friend's house then we went to the evacuation center to find out what we could and catch our breath.

The smoke turning everything orange,
and my dad's truck filled with food from our
refrigerator, bound for the dumpster.
The High Park Fire was big news in Colorado; 259 homes were destroyed as it ripped through the beetle kill and dry forests.  Very fortunately, ours was not one of them, but the fire was so erratic -- and the weather was not helping with weather in the 90s and 100s every day and very windy -- that we still weren't allowed home for a week.  The homeowners insurance paid for us to stay at a motel, me, Mom, and Granddad.  Granddad was able to go visit a friend outside of Pueblo for a few days, though, and then Daddy came back home from his trip.  It was a bit of a juggling act to find places for everyone, with so many families displaced and I ended up going to stay with friends elsewhere while my parents and Granddad stayed at the hotel.  After a week, though, of mandatory evacuation, we were allowed back into our homes at 6 p.m. June 16. I got to the house first and started the airing out process (the smoke had been rather thick and I have asthma and allergies that make me very sensitive to smoke) and checked on the kitties that had been left behind.  Mom didn't come up that evening so I took pictures of both of them to show her that they were okay.  Sunday morning we all headed back home to start the cleanup and try to make it ready to move back in again.  After spending hours throwing food away (and spending hundreds of dollars on a new refrigerator full of food) and cleaning the refrigerator very thoroughly, we got another evacuation call at 6 p.m. June 17.  That's right, 24 hours of being allowed to stay at home before the fire shifted toward us again.  Mother Nature is kind of a witch sometimes.  So a few more days of evacuation before it's lifted again.  We were still under pre-evacuation orders until June 29, when those were also lifted, but were were allowed back home one June 19 or 20.  However, it was so smokey and there was a layer of soot and ash on everything which made it difficult for me to breathe, so I stayed in town a bit longer.  The first night I spent back at home was July 3 -- which means I spent less than 6 hours asleep in my own bed during the whole month of June.  I know, poor me (considering how many people lost a lot more than a bit of sleep), but it is rather exhausting feeling homeless even temporarily.

One of the many firefighting helicopters flying over the sunset.
The sound and sight of the firefighting helicopters got to be nearly as normal as the smell of the smoke.  If it hadn't been for the tireless efforts of the firefighters -- not only those of northern Colorado, but reinforcements from many other states, as well as the National Guard -- I have no doubt that our entire neighborhood would have been decimated.  They did a great deal of amazing and heroic work and I am pleased to report that the outpouring of support and gratitude from all of Fort Collins has been at least as enthusiastic as that of the victims of the fire.  The parade of fire trucks between the base of operations and the mountains was met daily with people standing on the side of the road with signs and bells and cheers of thanks and encouragement.

One of the many magnificently fire-inspired sunsets.
I was staying with my best friend's family until everyone started to descend on the house for the annual 4th of July family reunion.  The theme of this year's extravaganza was 1776 and almost everyone dressed up and there were lots of fun activities for the many grandkids.  That was sort of the beginning of getting back to normal for me, since this craziness happens every year.  My best friend visits and we get to chat a bit between kids crying or needing to be fed, and the rest of the time I'm absorbed into the rest of the family, chatting with her siblings and in-laws or watching over the chinchillens.  I love them all dearly and appreciate them even more after their hospitality toward me this year.

The red line of fire retardant -- and the scorched earth to the right.
So, that's most of my drama this summer.  (Not quite all of it because I'm getting tired and my thoughts are beginning to blur -- plus, there are some things that you just don't share online.)  I haven't run since our first morning in Michigan, but hope to get back on the treadmill soon.  I actually do miss it, but can't seem to find the energy to get started again.  I've only been working two days a week, plus a few student appointments, and spent a lot of the rest of the time either cleaning, reading, or trying to get things in order for school this fall.  Things are looking more normal, but this is the calm before the storm.

From the top of the lighthouse, I'm not
ashamed to say that this descent scared me.
I have attended orientation and gotten registered for classes.  I've also gotten the financial aid sorted out (as long as they don't add anything else to the list of requirements now).  I've even looked up the textbooks that I'll need to get and started shopping online to get a budget together.  I am registered for 16 credits this fall and, as far as I've mapped out my undergraduate career, will be taking 14-15 credits every semester till I graduate in spring 2015.  So right now I'm in recovery mode, but also trying to condition myself to getting a lot more done in a day and still having energy to do it all well...Wish me luck!

And tomorrow the Olympics start!  Whoo!

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