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40 Day Love Fest: Music Brought Us Together – The Van Manens are born

In the beginning, there was music.

If there is a thread that connects the entire length of our marriage, as well as the couple of years we were together before we were married, it is music. Making it and listening to it.

lovefestroseJust a few months before we met, Dave did his first public performance at his high school (Brooklyn Tech) after abandoning the plan to become a professional football player (his not-quite 5’7″ stature had something to do with this abandonment) and setting his sights on a music career. Helene’s vocals led to the two-part harmony that became one of the Van Manens’ trademarks.  We were in love and in love with the songs that fueled our desire to leave NYC…Country Roads by John Denver, Dark Hollow (David Bromberg), and Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles).

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Badlands National Monument in South Dakota, a couple of weeks after we were married.

Along with our friend Tommy Kessler, we made a demo of a few of our songs at A & R Recording Studio, Dave’s place of employment the year before we were married (Paul Simon, Billy Joel, and Judy Collins were among the artists who recorded there that year). The demo didn’t really go anywhere, but it sowed some recording seeds that would eventually germinate.

We were into the Eagles years before they became the super-popular band they later became.

We were lucky to go to some of the best concerts in the early years – Jackson Browne (Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ), James Taylor (Carnegie Hall), Eagles (2x at Capitol Theatre, one show 2nd row center, tickets were $5.65 each), and Janis Ian (Central Park).

singing at yule log 1977
Beulah Yule Log event in Pueblo Mountain Park, late 70s.

Not long after arriving in Colorado, we spent some time as students in the Music Department at the University of So. Colorado, Dave taught music privately and then at the University, and we were soon singing at weddings. We sang the Wedding Song by Paul Stookey, Follow Me (John Denver), and Longer (Dan Fogelberg) at a whole lot of weddings. We were soon doing music therapy at area hospitals, and our writing music together led us back into the recording studio.

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Recording at FTM Studios in Denver, 1986 or ’87.

We happily found ourselves drawn to making music for children, which led to traveling throughout the country during the late 80s and the 90s making a living on our songs, including We Recycle, Don’t Whine, I Love My Home… Libraries, schools, church basements, living rooms, parks, peace rallies, festivals – we sang in thousands of places.  Little did we know back then that our music would someday be uploadable through something called “itunes” and that a future generations of children would be singing the songs we wrote for our children and their friends.

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Street Performing, mid 80s.

 

 

 

 

Peace Rally with Elaine Lopez Pacheco

 With our lifetime friend Elaine Lopez Pacheco at a peace rally on the lawn outside the Pueblo, CO Courthouse, around 1990.

 Paul Simon recorded this song at A&R Studios the year Dave worked there. We love this song!

In 2000, ready to “retire” from the music business, we both launched new careers (Helene as a Coach, Dave opening the Mountain Park Environmental Center). But music continues to enrich our lives and nurture our connection as we take music into our present day work and play – on hikes, out under the oaks, with children, and into the desert in our ’95 Eurovan. And there is singing in our house most every day.

Our music has taken us a long long way since we first sang together back in the spring of 1974, on a picnic bench in Forest Park, or on the corner of Gates and Seneca where we “hung out.” Music has also moved into the next generations – our kids Sierra and Sequoia played piano, guitar, danced, and they sang on several of our albums and performed with us when they accompanied us on our tours. And now our grandkids play a variety of instruments and receive countless lessons in music appreciation and instrument instruction from us.

A deepening of our connection to each other often takes place when we listen to music and, especially, when we make music.

An unspoken clarity rings through us about who we are together, why we are living this life on the planet at this time, and what we are meant to be doing. It  ground us and helps keep things in perspective when the world seems too crazy or is moving too fast.

Most days you will find a well-played guitar taking a break on the couch, or the Beatles or Bach or David Wilcox filling the air, or the sounds of a uke coming from the back deck, or one or both of us  irresistibly dancing to the B-52s.  It’s a wonderful musical life!

 

 

dhvm canyonlandsDave and Helene Van Manen found each other as teenagers in their New York neighborhoods, left for Colorado and let love carry them as they grew up together. Today they are reaping the joys of decades of loving and learning together.

A Redrock Wilderness Retreat, Part 2

DAY TWO

I slept cold and poorly last night. The slow leak in the air mattress, which eventually eliminated the insulating layer of air between me and the cold rock underneath, might have had something to do with it. I was happy to see the light of the new day through the walls of the tent. Tonight I think I’ll do a middle-of-the-night refill and see if that helps.

I decide to warm my slowly waking body by exploring around the camp. Surrounded by slabs of slickrock poised at every angle, I scramble up some red sandstone that leads to a slab of white sandstone, and then another and another. My body now wide awake, it feels good to be warm. Oatmeal and hot tea finish the job. As if that isn’t enough, the sun slips up over the rock wall to the east and soon has me shedding a layer.

IMG_2729After hiking back down Elephant Canyon the way I came up yesterday afternoon, I reach a trail intersection sign after about a mile. Chesler Park: 1.0 m. I’ve hiked many of the trails in the Needles District, but this trail to Chesler Park is one I haven’t done. I climb out of the main canyon through a side canyon filled with a tortured hodgepodge of broken rocks, boulders, and an assortment of desert plants, some of which I can readily identify  – Utah juniper, Fremont’s mahonia, pinyon pine, dwarf mountain mahogany. It may still be winter, but I come across a few early spring wildflowers in blossom here and there – western wallflower, Newberry’s twinpod. I’ve never seen a flash flood here in the park, but I’ve read about them and know that they can make a real mess of these drainages. Make them look like this chaotic mix of earth, stone and hardy plants through which my morning trail travels. It does make for fun hiking though.

I reach a high point and turn around to a spectacular sight that I’ve seen from other trails that I never grow tired of. cnp 1Those same snowy La Sals that I saw while driving yesterday look even more stunning with a foreground dominated by the red and white striped spires that give the Needles District its name. It is all the more pleasing to see, not through the windshield of a car, but from the heart of this wild landscape that can only be reached by foot. I suppose one of the reasons I wanted to do a wilderness backpacking retreat for my 60th was to see if my body could still do it – enjoy hiking these slickrock up and down trails with a pack on my back. I admit I am feeling a bit sore, as I haven’t backpacked in awhile, but beyond that, I am having a blast!

I hike into the grassy Chesler Park, named after a horse rancher who operated in the area long ago. The day is soft and warm while I notice some patches of snow lingering on a north-facing slope off in the distance. I work my way through the Joint Trail, which is a series of narrow slot canyons, in places less than two feet wide where I have to lomatiumremove my pack and turn sideways to get through. I am now planted on a slab of white slickrock that is decorated with black, white, grey, and a few tiny yellow lichens. In a miniature crevice of rocky pink soil grows a small lomatium in bloom, its tiny lemon-colored blossoms saying that spring is, indeed, on its way. A high ceiling of thin clouds is weakening the sunshine, but the solar energy absorbed by the rock is keeping me warm. I watch a couple of chipmunks scurry across the rocks across the wash. They both jump into a just-greening shrub and seem to disappear. Oh, there they go, back across the rock and out of sight. Time to begin working my way back to camp – about three easy miles from where I sit.

The songs of a Say’s phoebe and a mountain bluebird accompany my own singing as I lazily work my way back to camp. ….Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill. But since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride…. I suppose that if I needed a theme song, or a summary of how I feel at 60, these lyrics from James Taylor’s Secret O’ Life work pretty well. Of course, 60 is a good ways beyond the top of the hill, but whether I am 60%, 75%, or 98% through my life, I so want to enjoy the rest of the ride. This sentiment is another reason why I am here on this little wilderness retreat in this favorite place of mine.

cnp 2Back to camp by mid-afternoon. The clouds have thickened, but the day is still mild and gentle. After hiking around seven miles, it feels good to shed my hiking shoes and just hang out at camp. It sometimes feels as if my life over the past several decades has had so little of this kind of unstructured, undistracted, unpreoccupied quiet time to slow way down and just be. I have with me the most recent issue of High Country News, a special issue devoted to our National Park System, which turns 100 this year. What a great invention, National Parks. That I have this wild place in which to retreat for solitude, reflection and wilderness immersion is one of the greatest benefits of being an American citizen. Our system of national parks is very high on my list of what makes this a great nation.

*****

I’ve never been much of a meditator, at least in the manner that meditation is often portrayed – sitting still, focusing on breath, keeping the mind free from extraneous thoughts. I have gone through stretches of days, maybe a few weeks, when I meditated in this fashion. But it would never last. I just returned from the backcountry ritual of finding and filtering water. This necessary backcountry practice here in the desert always goes like this: I mindfully approach the puddle and find the best place to position myself, careful not to disturb the water with additional stones, sand, sticks or anything a careless foot could kick into it. These desert water holes are usually harboring a fair share of insects (both dead and alive), maybe a surface covering of something slimy, silt settled at the bottom…disturbing it only adds to what the filter needs to remove.

Properly positioned, I am careful not to accidentally drop the filter or any parts of it into the puddle, except the end of the tube designed to be in the source of unfiltered water. Screwing this process up could result in contracting some sort of intestinal bug that could ruin a trip, or worse. With the end of each tube where it is supposed to be, I slowly pump – about 50 pumps per liter. No way to rush the process, as the filter can only handle a small amount of water per stroke. Slow, methodical, focused – kind of like meditation. Plus, the opportunity to gaze at the surroundings, which is always a pleasure, and absorb the music of the wildness that surrounds me. Three and a half liters filtered, plus a nice deep watering of my own parched self, I then carefully drain the filter and place it in its carrying case, ready for my next water meditation.

*****

Why solo? Why come out here by myself? I was struggling with this question yesterday. A taste of uneasiness accompanied me as I left the Elephant Hill trailhead, leaving the car and the road and civilization behind, and began hiking into this wild place. It wasn’t a fear of wild animals – even though I had seen a poster back at the Visitor Center: Warning! A mountain lion has recently been seen in the Elephant Hill area. I’ve hiked thousands of miles inIMG_2762 wild places, sometimes not necessarily at the top of the food chain, and I always take with me a strong belief in John Muir’s adage that a wilderness feared is a wilderness lost. But I do bring a healthy dose of respect for these wild animals.

So, it wasn’t fear. It may have had something to do with feeling like I was doing something wrong. Somewhere, maybe as a boy scout, I was told that traveling alone in the wilds is dangerous. A friend questioned why I would want to spend my birthday by myself in the desert, away from the people I love and that love me (I did have a little celebration with my wife, daughter and grandkids a few days before I left). My aging mom is not well, my daughter is crazy-busy with nursing school and can always use my help with the grandkids, and so I am certainly needed back home. And there I was, walking away from all of that. Am I being selfish? Whatever the cause, it was nagging at me. Not big, but still there.

As today wore on, I could feel the uneasiness dissolving as the red rock landscape worked its way into me (and onto me, as this red dirt has a way of finding every part of me to take a ride on). As I sauntered alone along desert trails, I thought of the numerous treks I’ve done in this park with many combinations of people. I began to recognize that the experience of being out here on my own has a different texture, a different flow, compared to being here with others. Not that I don’t love being here with others – I do. I love sharing this magical place. And, admittedly, I have had some moments when I wished I was here with my wife, kids, grandkids, friends. But this solo texture is now feeling like a good thing for me to be experiencing at this little blink of time in my life. Retreating into these wild canyons for a few days of solitude, with extended time to ponder, reflect, not talk, write, and be guided only by my own whims and wants, is feeling more and more like I am doing something right. Again I think of John Muir, “…for going out, I found, was really going in.”

*****

The cloudy afternoon has given way to one last show from the sun, shining through a narrow gap between the clouds and the western horizon, illuminating the very top of the sandstone wall to the east. It looks like the light is coming not from the sun but out of the uppermost part of the redrock wall itself. And then, in a matter of seconds, the light dissolves and the evening just became several notches darker. A canyon wren sounds like it is rehearsing its iconic canyon song of descending notes. Another bird whose song I am not familiar with adds some counterpoint to the wren. Dueling birds! The thin cloud cover above the eastern wall is now blushed with a peachy pink, once again brightening up the evening landscape. As I watch it becomes brighter. The color reveals that the clouds are moving to the north as they become brighter still against a backdrop of a bluish gray sky. I couldn’t ask for a better evening show!

I turn my gaze behind me and see that the western sky is just as alive with color. Feathery clouds of pink drift over the Needles on the northwest horizon, their red and white stripes still visible in the fading light. The evening show has many acts; just when I think it is over, another colorful act begins. The birds have quieted and the deep silence of the canyon, of the park, of the Universe fills my ears. Fills my entire self. Oh, it was a long drive getting here, but this, all by itself, makes it well worth it. The latest act is fading slowly, as if the silence is sucking the color right out of the sky.

Ah, the next act, stage west – the crescent sliver of moon, a shallow U facing almost directly up, is coming through the thinning clouds. Next, depending on the cloud cover, will be the stars. Will I ever get to sleep tonight?

A Redrock Wilderness Retreat, Part 1

DAY ONE

The clock in the car reads 6:21 as I pull out of my morning driveway and head down the dirt road. Destination: Elephant Canyon, Utah! I listen to NPR as I work my way south towards I-25, and then west on US160. Presidential candidates Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz seem to monopolize the news stories. Especially Donald Trump. I climb La Veta Pass and am happy to lose reception. Enough of Donald.

I leave Cortez on Hwy 491 and immediately see the snowy La Sal Mountains directly in front of me, probably 75 miles away as the raven flies. An island of white floating on a red dirt sagebrush landscape. I pass through Dove Creek, Home of the Anasazi Beans, and soon cross the Colorado/Utah state line. I approach the town of Monticello and see that a wind farm has sprouted just north of town since the last time I drove this highway a year or so ago. As I lose elevation heading north on US191, signs of the red rock country I am heading towards in Canyonlands National Park start to peak out from between the green pinyons and junipers.

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I arrive at the Needles District Visitor Center at 2:30 – eight hours in the car. My left sciatic, which turns 60 today, doesn’t like it one bit, being in the car for that long. A short and pleasant visit with the ranger, a quick late lunch, and I am soon hoisting my backpack onto my back. Not since I finished the Colorado Trail a couple of years ago has my body felt this familiar combination of sensations – the weight of the pack balancing between hips and shoulders, hip flexors saying “hello,” and that feeling that borders on euphoria, knowing I am going spend a few days immersed in what Gary Snyder calls “wild Nature.” This wild redrock canyon country very much qualifies as wild Nature!

This four-day adventure is a pilgrimage of sorts. I first came to canyon country about 25 years ago after hearing about it from a magazine article on the quietest places in the country. Being a passionate appreciator of natural quiet, I took note of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. As soon I could make it happen, I made my way to southeast Utah. I was accompanied by my two kids, Sierra, then around 13, Sequoia, 10, a friend of mine, Todd, his 12ish daughter Sarah, and Dylan, a good friend of and the same age as Sequoia. We arrived at the same Elephant Hill Trailhead I just arrived at and was heading for the same EC2 campsite that I am hiking to today. That first trip here forever imprinted this landscape deep into my spirit. I’ve been back to what has become my favorite national park nearly every year since that iconic first backpack into redrock canyon country – car camping, backpacking, day hiking. I’ve been here in rain, hellish summer heat, snow, wind, and days like today – warm, sunny, gentle. But I’ve never experienced this place solo.

The seed to come here on my own was planted exactly a decade ago, the day I turned 50. I was on a solo backpack along Frijoles Canyon in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument to say good-bye to my 40s and welcome my 50s. I decided then that, when I turn 60, I would acknowledge that milestone – which sounded a good long decade away – on another solo wilderness retreat, in Canyonlands National Park.

Well, that decade has come and it has, as of today, officially gone, and here I am, just where I said I’d be when I turn 60. All too often, we make plans to do something for ourselves, but life gets in the way, or, we let life get in the way, and those plans fall through. I’m guilty of it. But not this time; backpack on my back, sun on my face, I’m a just-turned-60-year-old pilgrim happily working my way into the backcountry of Canyonlands.

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I arrive at the campsite, set up the tent, and head down to where there should be a good source of water. This canyon country is a desert, so finding water can be tricky. It’s been a rather wet winter in this part of the world (thanks to this year’s strong El Nino, that warm water in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean thousands of miles away from this place), so the “puddle” I’ve found water in many times in the past is bigger than I’ve ever seen it. In fact, there is more water along this wash than I’ve ever seen. Good, finding water will not be a problem.

Dinner heartily enjoyed and cleaned up for the night, the evening sky is graced by a just-past-new sliver of a moon, sliding down into a gap in the backlit hoodoos that make up the western horizon. I locate the Big Dipper, standing on its handle, the last star of which is hidden behind the rocks that rise from across the main canyon. The sky begins to explode with stars. I check the time – 7:29. Hmm – nights are long on late winter backpacks. I’m glad I brought along something to read – a copy of Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s classic book about this redrock country – Abbey’s country.

I can still see all of us on that first trip here, listening to Desert Solitaire. We were preparing dinner one evening, the fading light of the day just barely discernible in the western sky. Sierra was reading aloud, the book illuminated by her headlamp. Everyone, even Dylan, who really liked to talk, was quiet, listening. Sierra was sitting on a log, knees bent, feet out in front, reading away, while a mouse scampered back and forth right underneath her legs. No one else noticed. I said nothing, as I figured she wouldn’t have appreciated knowing that little critter was as close as it was.

When we turned in for the night, we all decided to sleep out under the stars, lined up side by side by side across the slickrock. Haley’s comet was a part of the magical desert night sky for a few weeks that early spring, which was off to our front left as we lay there on our slickrock bed. I can close my eyes and see the bunch of us all those years ago, cozy in our sleeping bags on the same white slickrock where I ate dinner this evening. Sometime in the middle of the night, Sequoia, who was next to me, whispers, “Dad, are you awake?” “Yeah.” “A mouse just ran over my head,” he said in a rather nonchalant voice. “Are you ok?” “Yeah.” “Then don’t worry about it, it won’t hurt you. Go back to sleep.” “Ok. Good night.” “Good night,” I whispered, “see you in the morning.”

Looking Back at Turning 50 on a Wilderness Retreat

I turn 60 next month. I will turn 60 only once, and so I’ve been thinking about what I might do to acknowledge this milestone (and try to understand how I could already be 60!). This led me to dig up a little essay, which I called Living in Awe, that I wrote when I turned 50. I can now say without hesitation that I am so glad I carved out a few days to step away from my busy life ten years ago to acknowledge that milestone. A decade later, I can still remember lots of details from retreating into that late-winter, northern New Mexico landscape – my first good look at an acorn woodpecker, hiking up out of the drainage into a landscape healing from a wildfire that burned many years before, gingerly crossing the icy creek while questioning the thickness and strength of the ice…  

LIVING IN AWE

“Looks like you’ll have the whole place to yourself since this is the only backcountry permit we’ve issued. Have fun!” With these words from the park ranger fresh on my mind, I strap on my pack and begin a four-day solo in the 23,000-acre wilderness of northern New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument. A few raindrops and 30 minutes of easy walking and I have left the developed part of the park, including the ruins that are the park’s main attractions, behind me. Not that I am disinterested in these incredible remains of a centuries-old thriving indigenous village, but I am here for other reasons.

I am hiking up Frijoles Canyon, hopping back and forth across the partially frozen creek every few minutes. Frijoles Creek, which will be my water source for the next several days, has been eroding prolific deposits of “tuff” – rock comprised of ash from nearby volcanic activity – for thousands of years. As the ash solidified, countless air pockets created natural cavities in the soft rock, the larger ones becoming the cliff dwellings of the native peoples that called this area home up until about 450 years ago.

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The trees are all very familiar to me, dominated by ponderosa pine, Douglas and white fir. Replace the tuff with pinkish granite, and I’d think I’m hiking the Devil’s Canyon Trail in Pueblo Mountain Park. Ground dwelling plants that include holly grape and grama grass, accompanied by plenty of Gambel oak, make me feel right at home.

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After five miles of hiking, with camp set up and water bottles filled, I have the afternoon to do whatever I please. With a warmth-eating shadow already beginning to envelop my campsite, I scramble up the east side of the canyon and find a large flat rock on which to enjoy the remaining sunshine. A canyon wren sings its lovely melody as I notice some feelings of loneliness that often accompany the early hours of a solo. “More and more I am realizing the natural world is my connection to myself,” says Terry Tempest Williams. The loneliness is a good sign – without the distractions of the peopled world I left a little while ago, I am much more aware of the natural world I am immersed in, and I am much more aware of myself. That’s why I have come to this wilderness.

Satisfied after a simple dinner, I am sitting just outside my tent, dressed warm for a chilly evening, writing with gloved hands. The air is perfectly still. The ponderosa pines surrounding my campsite are black silhouettes against a still-bright but quickly fading western sky. I am facing an exquisite crescent moon, the illumined sliver facing up, gently cradling the remaining earthshined-lit orb like a cupped hand. A few small white clouds lazily drift by. The loneliness has already morphed into an over riding sense of pleasure, basking in the solitude and beauty of this place. In a few days, I turn 50. I am here in this wilderness to turn 50 deliberately. Just to have reached this age seems impossible – I was just 30 the other day, hiking the Tower Trail with my two young kids. A few days before that, I was 15, contemplating life on a lonely beach in eastern Long Island. How could I be 50?

These wilderness days have come and gone, and now my backcountry solo is nearly history. In an hour or so, I will hike out of here and return to the people I love, my work, my life. I have hiked, explored, watched birds. I did a lot of thinking. “To live life fully, to avoid devoting your whole life to accomplishing things, you have to be aware of death.” “Everything is transient. Without that awareness, how can you truly live in awe of what you see – the seasons, the sun.” Not that I expect to die any time soon, but, with fifty already here, these words by Lorry Nelson ring wise to me.

Accomplishing things. Living in awe. I think I am pretty good at accomplishing things. One thing I’ve landed upon during these wilderness days is that, as much as I may continue to get things done, I do not want “accomplishing things” to be the dominant theme of my life in my post-50 years. No, it’s the idea of living my life always in awe – of red volcanic cliffs full of ancient air pockets, of the mystery of indigenous peoples hidden in the ruins of their village, of the crescent moon graced by lazy clouds, of the song of the canyon wren, of the eyes of my grandchildren as they watch birds at the feeder, of three decades being married to my teenage girlfriend – this is what I am drawn to.

Frijoles Canyon_ Bandelier National Monument

So, I take with me from this wilderness experience a renewed realization that it is my love for the people in my life and my love for Nature that are responsible for all the meaning in my life – these loves make me the person I am at the half-century point in my life. And, I take with me the intention that “living in awe” will be the dominant theme of my life after 50. And, I’ll be back!                                       ~ Dave Van Manen, March 2006