Wednesday, January 6, 2016


Abraham Wylie Bettinger

1986 - 2015

“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” 
 Lao TzuTe Tao Ching

This is a story about a truly unique young man who cut a wide swath during his short life.

Wylie's illness made it impossible for him to sit quietly for any period of time, making school difficult.  Many of his teachers lacked even a molecule of empathy making matters even worse, but he didn't take it passively.  It could truthfully be said that, in teacher-speak, he 'acted out' often.  In 5th grade he organized a strike against a teacher that would not allow him to run for class office.  In junior high art class he was assigned a project to draw a cartoon.  He drew an Al Hirschfeld-like (New Yorker fame) caricature that was impressively sophisticated.  But in tiny, almost imperceptibly small, letters he wrote 'eat shit' in the eyes.   His teacher first displayed the remarkable piece in a place of prominence.  An alert classmate pointed out the epithet causing riotous guffaws amongst the adolescents and anger from the teacher.  She destroyed his work of art and banished Wylie to the furnace room to spend the rest of the day with the janitor.  This turned out well for both Wylie and the janitor, as they became fast friends.  John Cougar Mellencamp sang it, but Wylie lived it, "I fought authority, authority always won."

Wylie's business may have been on the cusp of greatness.  Shortly before his death he signed a three-year lease for expanded space, bought a new labeling machine, upgraded the printing for his labels, added three new flavors, and engaged a distributor expanding his reach to stores from Portland to Northern California, including New Seasons Markets, the regional equivalent to Whole Foods.  Bottles of Wylie's Turmeric, Ginger Ale, and Root Beer had some how found their way into a Whole Foods in NYC.  His next major project was the installation of an automated bottling line.  Unusual for a near mystic, he was a skilled brewer and an astute marketer of his healing jun soft drinks.  It was clear from recent business decisions that his plans didn't include dying.  Wylie's Honey Brews was poised to take off like a rocket.

Michael is a Native American man in his 40's, ruggedly handsome with a wispy beard and moustache and was one of Wylie's closest friends.  They shared many common interests as members of the Red Earth Descendants, and they sang and drummed in the same longhouse group, an eclectic group of native and non-native Americans who once performed before the Dalai Lama.  He told how they met shortly after Wylie arrived in Ashland.  "A group of Native Americans were playing stick ball, a form of lacrosse, in the park.  It's a pretty rough game, and this little red haired boy was sitting nearby watching.  I would later learn he had recently recovered from a bicycle accident where he suffered a spiral compound fracture in his leg.  He asked if he could play, we said 'sure', and he's been part of the Red Earth Descendants every since."

Michael, continued, "I've known several tough Native American men who were terribly racist.  They hate whites passionately, but they loved Wylie.  They learned so much from him, and he learned from them.  He had the ability to relate to a wide range of people.  I've never met anyone who better bridged the gap between native and non-native peoples.  He would approach a homeless man the same way he would a rich man.  He would be respectful and listen with sincere empathy."

 "Wylie is a minor celebrity in Ashland.  People in Eugene also know of him.  He has an almost mystic quality that enables him to connect to people from all walks of life. He greeted every new person in his life as a friend. Perhaps because he didn't have a wife or children, it made him approachable to everyone, almost like a shaman."

The Celebration

Ashland is a town of about 20,000 located in the Rogue River Valley about 10 miles north of the California border.  It is home to Oregon Southern University, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and a large, but transient, community of people once known as hippies.  Wylie loved Ashland, and Ashland loved Wylie.  Over 300 souls packed the Ashland community center adjacent to Lithia Park to celebrate his life.  For one who trod the earth so lightly, he left large footprints.

Michael served as the informal master of ceremonies.  Wylie had been warmly welcomed into the Native American community, and his celebration was conducted accordingly.  Six singers sat around a large drum and opened with several Indian burial songs.  Their leader spoke of how the next journey can take up to a year as the spirit winds its way to a new home by way of the Milky Way.  He explained that they wouldn't mention the departed by name, so as to not confuse the spirit world.

Two elders, both significant personages, spoke of their love for Wylie, Roy, the great grandson of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe and Eddie, the great grandson of Sitting Bull of the Lakota tribe.  Family members were pleased but puzzled when Roy privately referred to Wylie's as an elder.  He explained that Wylie was wise beyond his years, and his departing spirit was now worthy of that tribute.  Roy loved Wylie deeply, and Wylie often spoke of 'Uncle' with reverence.  Michael explained that had Roy been in charge of the ceremony, there would have been 3-4 hours of songs not 3-4 songs.  Michael told me, "After you meet Roy, go online and look at a picture of Chief Joseph.  The resemblance is startling."  He was spot on.

The room was built for 100 and there were chairs for 100, but the overflow crowd filled every inch of space.  All listened intently and politely as friends of Wylie came forward to share stories.  The Native singers / drummers finished with a few more songs, followed by a potluck dinner and sampling of Wylie Honey Brew beverages.  Eighteen cases, three of each of his six flavors, were devoured.

It was instructive to mix, listen and learn how people knew Wylie:

Stella Jane

Stella was one of the people who came forward during the celebration and spoke lovingly of Wylie.  She also spoke passionately of corn and how Wylie helped her plant and harvest the various ornamental varieties that are important to Native Americans.  She urged young people to take up the task as she is 70, and her knowledge must be passed on.

One doesn't really chat with Stella; one gets cornered.  She holds some pretty radical views, but as long as the listener nods appreciatively, no one gets hurt.  I asked her how she met Wylie.

"I live in a yellow school bus that I park near the Wellsprings Center.  I farm a few rented acres nearby.  It was a Christmas morning, and I heard a knock on my door, and it was Wylie and his sister Cory.  I'd never seen him before in my life.  He said, 'I don't know if you celebrate Christmas or not, but could we come in and share some of our tea?'  We spent the rest of the afternoon together, and I've loved him ever since."


While waiting for the celebration to begin, I sat next to a tall, thin young man with crutches.  When he stood up, I noticed he was missing a leg, and I would later learn that resulted from a motorcycle accident ten years earlier.  His face, neck, and all visible parts of his body were covered in tattoos.  We talked for some time giving me the chance to carefully look at him, but I could find no perceptible design or pattern for the markings.  He had matching rings stuck in his lower lip, and his hair was cropped on the sides with a Mohawk-like band of long hair running across the top of his head.  His manner of speaking reminded me of the Beau Bridges character, Dude, in the movie The Big Lebowski.  Oddly, I looked more out of place at the gathering than did Infinity.  He had just returned from the 'give away' table proudly displaying Wylie's former backpack, explaining how much he needed such an item.  We introduced ourselves and chatted.

"Wylie and I were kindred spirits.  I'd see him around town, and we'd visit and maybe share some of our possessions.  He would always be interested in what and how I was doing.  We were brothers."

I asked him how he came to be known as Infinity, and he explained, "My name used to be Rex, but about a year ago I used that word in response to a question, and it didn't feel right.  I believed that was a sign from God, or whatever label you choose for your spiritual father, and He told me to change my name.  I looked at the tattoo of the infinity symbol on my left wrist, and I had just started a drug rehab service I dubbed Infinity, so I decided to call myself Infinity.  My full name is now Infinity Ra El." 

"Is that on your driver's license?"

"I don't have a driver's license."


"I visited Wylie when he first went into the hospital in Ashland.  He took his briefcase and some work with him.  In typical Wylie fashion he insisted that we not tell anyone he was in the hospital.  He called the day before he died to tell me that he loved me.  The night after he passed I dreamt of Wylie dressed in a bright blue shirt with polka dots accompanied by an unrecognizable friend.  He was skipping and happy.  It was totally out of character for cynical Wylie.  He was a friend to everyone, but he only let a few people get close to him."

Hawaii Guy

"I owned and operated a perma-culture organic farm in the Pangaia Region on the island of Hawaii, when I met Wylie.  He was only about 15 or 16 at the time.  He came as part of a Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) group, and we became acquainted.  I introduced him to the healing benefits of turmeric and ginger, my two primary crops.  These ingredients would later form the basis of his two best selling sodas.  Wylie was a sponge for information.  He was willing to do whatever was necessary to learn more about everything."

"I moved to the Ashland area in 2004 continuing to farm turmeric and ginger.  Serendipitously, Wylie came to the area, started Wylie Honey Brews and became one of my best customers."

Banjo Man

An older man was sitting in the back of the hall holding a Deering Good Time banjo in his lap.  He was wearing a Tyrolean style hat, a loose fitting, nearly ragged, wool sports coat, and dirty khaki shorts.  A meaningful portion of his teeth were missing, and his fingernails were nearly one inch long, unusual for a banjo player.  After the formal celebration people were gathered on a nearby patio eating their potluck delights and drinking Wylie's beverages.   Banjo guy was playing and singing accompanied by a pretty young girl with a percussion instrument.  He had a raspy, but pleasing, voice.  In between songs we chatted, and he explained the long fingernails and only played chords fretted with the flat of his finger.  Then he asked if I'd like to hear his version of Wylie's Honey Brews done to the tune of Bascom Lamar Lunford's Good Old Mountain Dew?  It was pretty darn clever, and he kept the critical phrase, 'Them that refuses are few.'  It would have been the perfect theme for Wylie's ads.

Older woman with Bernie Sanders button

"Did Wylie dye his hair?"

After laughing, I replied, "No.  Why do you ask?"

"I don't really know Wylie.  I would see him around town, and he would greet me with a warm smile.  I would see him leaving Tai Chi when I was going in, and he just seemed like a wonderful young man.  When I read about his death in the paper, I thought I would just come and learn more about this wonderful spirit."

"But his bright red hair seemed to be a slightly different shade each time I'd see him."

I explained about his illness and how it affected his skin color and perhaps his hair coloring as well.

From a business associate

"I was walking in Lithia Park when a commotion caught my eye.  There was a grouping of deer surrounding something that I couldn't see.  I was intrigued so I moved closer and saw Wylie in their midst performing some form of meditative Tai Chi exercises.  The deer were mesmerized."

From a pretty young woman

"I met Wylie ten years ago.  I was having a bad day, so I walked down to Lithia Park.  I saw Wylie sitting alone on a park bench.  I didn't know him, but I felt comfortable joining him. I sat down, and we chatted, I felt better instantly, and we've been friends every since."

Another pretty young woman

"A group of us were living communally in a large house on Ohio Street.  One day, Wylie showed up in his blue truck filled with 1,000 lbs of pears and a fruit press.  He needed help juicing the load before he had to return the borrowed tool, and we all pitched in.  It was hard work, but we've laughed about it forever and that's how we met Wylie."

And another pretty young woman

"He wanted his sodas to be perfect.  I remember helping him in the early stages of fermenting and brewing his sodas.  He'd bring them to my house to test taste, but they would mostly blow up when you'd twist off the cap.  Everything was a huge mess, but he kept working at it until he perfected the product.  Later, Wylie would contribute sodas to every event we organized.  I'd offer to pay, but he'd always decline."

And another

"I remember Wylie's fig phase where he started dozens of fig trees and planted them up and down the highway."

A young man
"I didn't really know Wylie, but I knew of him.  I figured there'd be a lot of hot chicks here."

Wylie's House

On Sunday morning family and friends again gathered at Wylie's house to help clean up and dispose of his remaining possessions.  A 10-point buck stood in the midst of beehives in the apple orchard in Wylie's front yard.  His back yard is shaded by large Douglas firs and Lodgepole pines and is bordered by Lithia Creek, a tributary of the Rogue River.  Two bucks, a half dozen does, and an abundance of squirrels appear to have made the place their home.  As we were about to leave, a large gray owl watched over us from a perch high in one of the Douglas firs.  The owl waited until everyone came out from the house for a suitable viewing, and then it flew off.  Wylie's rented property was a veritable Snow White scene, lacking only bluebirds holding a cape and singing.

Wylie loved bees.  He once observed a swarm of bees balled together at the top of a Douglas fir in his yard.  He climbed to it, swatted it down to the ground and managed to get the swarm safely in a hive.  He later found a queen and introduced it to his hive, repeated the process, and started producing his own honey, the principal ingredient for his honey brews.  It was a sad moment when a knowledgeable beekeeper came to take Wylie's beloved hives.

Wylie's illness caused constant itching making rest difficult, and he rarely slept for more than a few hours at a time.  He made the best of this bad situation by never allowing his mind to be idle.  Wylie's possessions spoke volumes of his interests.  He did not own a television or electronic games.  He did own several guitars, mandolins, ukeleles, fifes, ceremonial drums, and thumb pianos.  He played them all well, and he had a beautiful singing voice.  His books were about oaks, acorns, plants, bees, herbs, spices, Native American culture, and philosophy.  He had boxes of exotic spices and herbs with which he experimented to discover new flavors and ingredients for Wylie Honey Brews.  He left a collection of his beautiful fabric art creations and clever promotional items he designed to market his brews.  His music assemblage consisted of artists unknown to his totally un-hip 70-year-old uncle.  Most pronounced was the presence of baskets of acorns in varying states of processing to become flour.  His outbuilding contained unique tools designed specifically for acorn processing.

A common theme was sincerely expressed, "He was always there for us.  He was kind and gentle.  We loved him so.  He was an inspiration."  But those were his acquaintances.  There was also a very small group who really knew him and knew of his suffering.  They knew he couldn't sleep and was in near constant pain.  They knew he had forestalled death on several occasions, yet he still kept fighting.  He used his limited energies to build a remarkable business, pursued his artistic and musical inclinations, was supremely curious, and stayed active in causes about which he was passionate.  His inner circle saw him and knew him at his low points, when the steroids made him crazy, when the healthcare system attempted to rob him of his dignity, when the pain made him want to withdraw and quit, and when he felt all alone.   And like his family, they loved him deeply.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

San Miguel de Allende

November 2015

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Earlier I wrote of having dinner with 84-year-old friend, Bob Fay, when he shared stories of friends he has come to know while spending the last sixteen winters in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  I was mightily entertained, and he assured me that his retellings represented merely the tip of the iceberg.  I told him, "I would love to meet these guys."  By the next morning Bob wrangled an invitation from Howard and Bill, former Kansas Citians, now permanent residents in San Miguel, to stay in their home to listen and record some of their remarkable adventures.

Below is a snippet from the emerging story about their time with Sally Rand, the celebrated burlesque fan dancer from the 1930's:

Anna was an elderly black lady who oversaw the operations of Bill and Howard's 8,000 square foot Hyde Park (KC) mansion.  They would explain,  "Anna ran the household, she just let us live there."  On the first morning of her stay, Howard was in the kitchen with Anna when Sally walked in totally nude.  "Good morning.  Got any coffee?  Do you have any garlic salt?"

Anna handed her a cup of coffee and poured a dash of garlic salt in Sally's hand, and she disappeared.  She was 70 at the time, but she had the body of a 30-year-old.

On the third day Howard encountered an irritable Anna in the kitchen.  "What's the problem?"

"Mmm! Mmm! Mmm" she murmured, "We're sure seeing a lot more of Miss Rand than we want to.  I have a feeling she is going to be here for some time."  Sally followed the identical routine every morning for the next five years, much to the delight of the gardener who timed his coffee breaks accordingly.  And after the prickly start, Anna and Sally developed a deep friendship becoming inseparable.

We arrived at Queretaro two hours behind schedule, but Howard was gracious and waited even though we were responsible for his being over an hour late for the fundraising luncheon he and Bill were hosting for 70.  

We drove down a narrow, cobblestoned street surrounded by tall stone walls and entered the handsome gate leading to Howard and Bill's one-acre estate.  We walked into a courtyard packed with well-dressed people.  Howard made introductions and began working the crowd.  Liveried waiters offered margarita’s and hors d'oeuvres.

We were seated at a table set up on the lawn and began the first of a five-course dinner. A 10-piece Mariachi band serenaded the crowd.  Howard took me aside to comment on the piece being played, "Lost Child."  One of the trumpets played a wailing lament from somewhere distant in the house.  A second answered boldly from the gardens.  This continued as the trumpeters moved about, finally coming together, all to the accompaniment of four violins and four guitars.  

Bob introduced me to our dining companions, and several said, “Oh you’re, the Nude Nuns guy”, and they would recite a portion of the book.  Bob told them I had come to write about Howard's stories, and I was quickly invited to Chicago to speak  to a ladies' book club. 

Their home is one part art gallery, two parts Architectural Digest gracious living, and three parts world-class botanical gardens, all enclosed in immaculate white adobe, tile-capped walls 9' high.  There are over 100 different species of trees in the garden.  A museum quality display of American Indian and pre-Columbian artifacts fills the entryway. The living room is long and narrow with art covering the interior wall. Even though my art appreciation capabilities are non-existent, I did note the presence of a Thomas Hart Benton.  The exterior wall features a large fireplace bracketed by glass doors leading to a veranda and on to the gardens. Bill's jewelry studio occupies one corner of the hacienda with a separate entrance off the front courtyard.  I was most impressed by the bronze-framed and beveled glass doors and windows.  It was like looking through a chandelier.

We rested after lunch in preparation for a 6:30 dinner party.  Our guests arrived, both attractive 50ish women, neither of whom knew the other. The first just moved to San Miguel from Palm Beach having just sold her orchid growing business.  She knew all of the characters in the book, The Orchid Thief, and proclaimed that she, too, was an orchid thief.  She told of a trip to the Peruvian Amazon basin searching for orchids.  Her companion, the chief botanist for the St. Louis botanical garden, was arrested, but she escaped.  The also spoke of a trip to Burma in search of exotic orchids.  She is tall and slender and told of once losing to Chris Evert in a national level junior tennis tournament.  She is an heiress of a family whose name you'd recognize, and she despises Chilangos, the nouveau-riche Mexicans who apparently treat everyone shabbily.

The second lady hailed from Toronto’s aristocracy and was uncommonly gracious. She seemed genuinely interested in my book and the stories that brought me to Howard and Bill’s.  We learned that her godfather was Edward Brooke, the late senator from Massachusetts, and her cousin is Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  I told them that I know the owner of the now defunct Prairie Village Standard station.  At one point in the conversation, I mentioned ‘my wife’, and she seemed mildly disappointed saying, “Oh! I thought that you and Bob were partners.”   

Howard kept us on a busy schedule throughout our seven-day stay attending cocktail parties, lengthy comidas (lunches), dinners, impromptu gatherings and house calls in and around San Miguel.  We made side trips to nearby Queretaro and Celaya, traveling by car and bus. The premo bus from Queretaro to San Miguel offered luxurious accommodations, think first class on Lufthansa, for the modest sum of 115 pesos ($7 U.S.).  My expectations upon arriving in central Mexico had sadly and erroneously been formed from exposure to border towns.  Open eyes quickly dispelled these misconceptions.  San Miguel and Queretaro are beautiful and prosperous cities.  

Our visit was timed to coincide with the Dias de la Muertas festival.  I'll readily concede that the Mexicans do a superior job of honoring their dead.   On Sunday, November 1, deceased children are honored.  We strolled past several blocks of street vendors en route to the cemetery.  They offer everything needed to create shrines and decorate tombs for the dead.  They also sell tasty treats, my favorite being long sugared donuts.  The cemetery was packed wall-to-wall with celebrants.  Men were scraping and repainting the white gravestones.  Children played nearby, even sitting on the tombs.  Artistic shrines were created from the petals of yellow magnolias, colored sand, and photos and personal items of the dead.  Mondays are even more crowded when adults are honored.

The dominant architectural feature of San Miguel is the Parroquia, located in the center of a 64-square block section of town dating back to 1520.  It towers over the Jardin (Garden), the largest of the town's plazas ringed with laurel trees manicured in the shape of giant drums. Seventeenth, and eighteenth century haciendas border the square.  They were once the homes of the wealthy owners of the silver mines in nearby Guanajuato.  Most, but not all, of the grand haciendas are repurposed as hotels, restaurants, museums, government buildings, and retail shops. They are typically two-story edifices built around a large courtyard.  Entry is gained through a wooden or metal gate sufficiently large for carriages, and each stone threshold reveals the wear of centuries of carriage traffic. One can almost imagine the grand lifestyles enjoyed by their 17th century inhabitants.

San Miguel de Allende was recently designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  Situated at 7,200 feet, it is known for its moderate temperatures, flowers blooming year round, steep cobblestone streets, and 16th and 17th century colonial architecture.  There are no stop signs, stoplights, fast food restaurants, or evidence of use of motorcycle helmets.  There is a large expat community estimated at 5,000 full time and another 5,000 seasonal residents.  The restaurants, shops, parks, and plazas bustle with activity.  A car is unnecessary.  Most destinations are in easy walking distance, cabs are readily available, and first class inter-city buses are easy to navigate. 

In the evenings, party-goers packed the Jardin and the surrounding areas.  On Sunday morning we watched teams of artists build shrines around the square. The two adjacent cathedrals on the square held mass before a full house.  At night people dress in black and paint their faces in varying interpretations of what the dead might resemble.  This usually involves a white base with the mouth outlined in black and extended with stitches like the Frankenstein monster.  Everyone was friendly and festive.  Hank's New Orleans Oyster House and Bar, just off the Jardin, is one of the most popular bars in town, and they were showing the Royals / Mets game.  Go Royals!

One evening Howard and Bill hosted a cocktail party for a dozen people, and everyone gravitated to the veranda.  Abell, the butler, expertly served drinks and hors d'oeuvres, an interesting assortment of guests chatted, and all was convivial.  Howard called for everyone's attention and said, "You may not realize it, but we have a famous author in our midst."  I thought to myself, "Cool.  Who?"  Then he held up a copy of Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People and continued, "It is customary that we have the author come forward and read the last page of his book.  Chuck."  I was caught unaware, but I was able to stumble through the story about the Nude Nuns in the hot tub, and I appreciated Howard's kind setup.  He would repeat the stunt on two more occasions with different audiences. 

We met Hugh Carpenter for dinner at The Restaurant .  He is a friend of Howard and Bill's, a frequent visitor to San Miguel, a wine and food critic from Napa, CA, the author of several cook books, and a nice guy.  After being introduced, he said, "Oh, so you're Howard's biographer?" 

I noticed that his publisher was Andrews McMeel in Kansas City, and I shared the story of receiving a speedy rejection letter from that fine firm and being told, "We don't accept book submissions from people like you."  He explained the fickleness of dealings with publishers,  "I've had books that did well and sold over 200,000 copies, and I've had some that were bombs, barely selling 100,000.  By the way, how many have you sold?"  I mumbled into my hand with a barely audible, "closing in on 1,500."


Howard, 80, is the scion of a pioneer KC family, an art collector, former college administrator, the headmaster of a private school, a horseman still riding 2-3 hours daily, and a hands-on philanthropist. He is funny and uncommonly irreverent, and he gets away with it.  He will say or do something outrageous, and the recipient will say something like, "Oh, Howard!  You're such a pill."  Anyone else would be clubbed to death like a baby seal.  Bill, 72, is the son of a barber growing up in Mexico, MO (later creating confusion when in the process of becoming a Mexican citizen), a decorated combat Vietnam War veteran, a one-time escort to Imelda Marcos, and now a celebrated jewelry designer.  He is also a calming influence on Howard.

Howard, Bill, Bob, and I shared three formal story-telling sessions, each lasting 3-5 hours.  As Bob foretold, the Sally Rand tale, was but one layer of the onion.  Once home, I wrote feverishly trying to get as much on paper as possible while still fresh and ended up with 33 pages of material.  The Howard and Bill and Sally story is still a work in progress, but it will definitely find a prominent place in Book II. 

I'm still chasing a few other stories, but my goal is to self-publish Book II in the next few months.  I am confident that dozens await. 


Being run ragged by an 80 and 84-year-old this past week has given me an entirely new perspective on aging.  A few years ago, a 95-year-old acquaintance told me, "Chuck, if you've got anything that needs doing, best get it done before 80."  I somehow let that self-limiting notion settle in my impressionable psyche.  Time spent with Howard and Bob has proven to be the perfect antidote.

Quite a few sales trickled in during the trip to San Miguel.  People who said, "I'll go online and buy your book," did.  On a totally different note, Lucy and I had articles published in the November issue of 'Mission Hills Living Magazine.'  I'm sure father / daughter articles have appeared before in a single publication, but it can't be that commonplace.  Go Lucy!  She is far the superior scrivener.  I'm now gaining confidence that I might some day earn literally tens of dollars from this writing gig.  I'm not exaggerating! At the very least, I'm meeting some interesting people.

And that is what passes for news from here.


p.s.  If you have any interest in additional San Miguel tidbits, read on:

One of the many interesting people we met was Mary Calderoni, a strikingly pretty artist from a small town in Texas.  She once earned her living whipping cigarettes from peoples' mouths, ala Lash LaRue.  She offered to demonstrate, but I declined.

The highways to Queretaro and Celaya follow valleys bracketed by distant mountain ranges.  The natural terrain features scrub trees, grasses, and cactus of varying kinds.  There are large swaths of land reminiscent of U.S. corporate farms lying in stark contrast to smaller cornfields still harvested manually with hand-stacked cornstalks dotting the fields.  Ancient stone fences border many of the properties, especially the vineyards.  It's not England-like tidy, but I found the countryside to be surprisingly pleasing.

Queretaro is a large, modern city, 1.5 million, founded in 1530.  It is growing rapidly, presumably as the spillover for commerce from the overwhelmingly large Mexico City, population 25-30 million.  The dominant architectural feature is an aqueduct built in 1738 that still brings water from the nearby mountains to the central city.  The parks and plaza are beautiful, clean, and busy.  The cathedrals compare favorably to anything one might see in Italy. 

The road system is not radically different from the U.S. with two-lane and four-lane highways. The two-lanes become four when the slower traffic moves onto the shoulder.  This forms a 'sort of' passing lane in the middle.  It was a bit disconcerting at first, but I eventually calmed down.  One must die of something.  The biggest surprise was the ubiquity of speed bumps.  Hitting one of these treasures at 40 mph would launch a vehicle skyward and destroy every working part.  Accordingly, people slow down, but then speed up quickly.  It's not quite as terrifying as riding in a car in China, but it's close.

The roads in the colonial district of San Miguel are extremely narrow with room for one car only, having been designed for burros. There are wider streets that allow two small cars to pass, only if one stops, and the other inches past.  It's absolutely amazing that cars retain their side view mirrors.  The major thoroughfares are paved with flat stones, offering a smoother ride, and easily accommodate trucks, buses, and the heavy traffic for the city of 150,000.

Houses require neither heating nor cooling systems.  Fireplaces are used infrequently in December and January.

While traveling back to Queretaro to catch our flight, we encountered two disheveled young guys standing in the middle of a busy, high-speed two-lane highway at the intersection of the KC Southern rail line.  They held up signs saying, "Need money to get to U.S."  Howard speculated that they were most likely from Central America and would soon be hopping a northbound train, assuming they don't first get squished by an 18-wheeler.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival
October 2015

In September Judy and I journeyed to Winfield, KS for the 44th annual Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival.   The town population doubles for four days as many of the assembled enthusiasts settle in the tree-lined campgrounds nestled in the oxbow of the Walnut River. 

People-hauling tractors collect day-trippers from the parking lots, and the sounds of fiddles, banjos, and mandolins resonate.  Four stages at the Cowley County Fairgrounds offer nonstop performances starting at 9 in the morning ending after midnight.  Thirty-four acts are staggered throughout the weekend along with amateurs vying for top honors in one of seven contests.  Dozens of campground jam sessions proffer opportunities for players of all abilities.  The abundance of unheralded, but gifted musicians, amazed and entertained.  The crowd was festive, and, apparently in tribute to last year's World Series appearance, those wearing Royal's attire outnumbered those with tee-shirts proclaiming, "Paddle Faster I Hear Banjo." 

While rushing from one venue to another, I noticed a pretty young woman in a wheel chair, one with canted wheels like those used by athletes.  I didn't want to stare, but I did gaze furtively.  She had a little girl, about three I'd guess, sitting in her lap, but she didn't have a lap.  She had no legs and only a vestige of stubs.  She appeared too young to have been a victim of the Thalidomide disaster dating back to the 1960's.  Whatever the origins of her misfortune, she carried herself with a quiet dignity, and one couldn't help but admire her grit.  And we continued on our way to the mountain dulcimer contest.

Later we were sitting in the bleachers of Stage III awaiting the performance of a Scottish band, The Tannahill Weavers, as they were setting up.  My mind wandered aimlessly wherein I pondered that the Winfield High School teams should have been named the Wipers.  What a missed opportunity!  Then I saw something that touched me to my core.  The young lady who earlier caught my attention was wheeling our way, once again with the little girl sitting in front of her. 

It rained hard earlier in the afternoon.  As her wheelchair reached a grassy surface, the wheels slipped and started to sink into the soft earth.  Then the little girl hopped off and started running forward but immediately circled around and began to push her Mother's wheelchair.  She was consciously building up speed to insure she would be of the greatest assistance.  It appeared the little tyke had done this before.  Together they managed to reach drier ground and settled in for the rousing performance featuring pipes, fife, fiddle, and four strong voices.

And she was joined by a second woman, also legless and wheel chair bound, presumably her identical twin.

And I was reminded of the ancient proverb, "I cried because I had no shoes, and then I met a man who had no feet."

Other stuff

The first draft of Book II is now about 80% complete.  I'm chasing stories that have taken me to Wickenburg (AZ), Gig Harbor (WA), Lakin (KS), New Orleans, and soon to Mexico.  It would please me greatly if people enjoy reading the stories as much as I have had seeking them out.  I'll keep you posted.

NNAOPP continues to plug along.  Sales have now eclipsed 1,450.  I'm now down to the last 6 copies in my fulfillment center and will soon be ordering a sixth printing, 25 more.  It's not too soon to start thinking about those stocking stuffers.

That's it from here.  All the best.

Charles A. Wells, Jr.
3317 W. 68th Street
Shawnee Mission, KS 66208
816 289-1924
Author of: Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People
Now available at and
Available at:
  Rainy Day Books, 2706 W. 53rd Street, Fairway, KS
  Sanibel Island Bookshop, 1571 Periwinkle, Sanibel, FL
  Twisted Sisters Eclectic Gifts and Floral, Albany, MO

  Bruce Smith Drug Store, Prairie Village, KS 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mt. Evans

Mt. Evans
August 2015

Mt. Evans is unique in many aspects, mostly because one can drive on a paved road to a 14,150' elevation visitor's center.  This leads to a well-maintained and relatively short walkway to the 14,264' summit.   We chose a more challenging route.

Mt. Evans is also the rockiest of the Rockies with which I've gotten up close and personal.  The top 1,000' consists of a pile of unimaginably large boulders.  Near the summit one could behold a boulder the size and shape of a small office building cantilevered into space.  We wondered with amazement at the geological magic that made this possible.  At lower elevations we passed rocks resembling windswept sculptures, almost as if they were cast out of bronze.  One boulder formed a perfectly shaped rock bridge about ten feet long and two feet wide.   Slipping off the uphill side would take you down a few feet into a darkened cavern. A misstep towards the downhill slope would have required a helicopter rescue or recovery.

We chose Mt. Evans thinking it would be the 'easiest' of those not yet hiked by our group of four.  The website describes a route with a relatively modest 2,000' ascent, a 5.5 mile roundtrip, and an exposure (to danger) rating of 2 (on a scale of 4).  The trailhead was nearly 500' above the tree line eliminating the often, soggy slog through the tundra.  A cakewalk, I unwisely thought, although wisely concealing any hint of hubris.  Mt. Elbert, in contrast, features a 4,100' ascent and an 8.5-mile roundtrip from trailhead to summit.  But we were younger then.

We left our motel in Georgetown at 5:15 am and drove the 30 miles to the trailhead, arriving in time to see the city lights of Denver give way to the rising sun.  The headlights provided a narrow view of the road, cloaking the surrounding terrors of hairpin turns on shelf roads giving way to steep drops.  Like other roads to 14er trailheads, there were no guardrails.  On the return trip I tried to comfort myself by silently calculating how many times our Ford Explorer would roll before hitting a boulder or reaching the bottom.

Three veterans and one rookie formed this year's climbing team.  With seven 14ers under my belt, most of the anxiety associated with the unknown had dissipated.  My worries were confined to the questions of training, body parts, and weather.  Had I prepared sufficiently?  Will the weather hold?"

We followed the forecasts and radar closely, which indicated there would a window from sunrise to 1 pm before the rains began, providing sufficient time for the round trip, absent any misfortune.  The sky was regrettably red, as we were all familiar with the sailors' ditty, "red sky in the morning, sailors take warning." Rain squalls showered Denver and the plains to the east, and dark clouds dominated the western horizon.  It was windy and cold, 30 mph winds and temps in the high 30's.  We assembled our gear and departed.

The views were possibly the most majestic of those I've experienced.  We hiked through a pea soup mindful of the movie The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the misting clouds opened periodically yielding sightings of the nearby craggy peaks and verdant valleys below. 

Early in the climb we began to express doubts about the '2' rating assigned to Mt. Evans on the website.  We encountered a succession of rock walls requiring us to secure our hiking poles to our packs and climb hand over hand.  Shannon, a fit veteran of nine 14ers and the strongest in the team, proclaimed, "This is real mountaineering.  I love it."

During the periodic breaks in the clouds, we would garner a glimpse of Mt. Spalding, elevation 13,842', over which we would pass en route to Mt. Evans.  Somewhere around 13,000' the trail disappeared, and we subsequently relied exclusively on cairns.  They varied from a few fist-sized rocks to those resembling a mini-temple.  They were not always easy to spot, so we spread out and called to one another when we identified the path.

We crossed several false summits before finally reaching the top of Mt. Spalding.  It was unusual to actually ascend the summit of Spalding, rather than passing by a shoulder.  The reason quickly became apparent, as there were no shoulders.  We then hiked down about 1,000' to the saddle between the two peaks, and made a mental adjustment to the website notation of a 2,000' ascent.  It started to mist, and I put on my rain pants.   The wind was ferocious with periodic gusts that would push you off your feet.  Everyone's hands and feet were cold, in spite of the high level of exertion.  I was fortunate to be wearing heavy-duty ski gloves and three layers of clothing.  I never once broke into a sweat.

We encountered a young man returning to the trailhead after his trip to the summit.  He had to have started several hours before daylight.  We learned he was a firefighter at Ft. Sill, OK, and he looked the part.  We were two hours into the hike and figured we had to be covering ground at 1 mph putting us close to the end.  "You're about half way,' he said, and our hearts sank.

So we marched on.  Shannon was hiking in the lead a few paces ahead of me when we reached the first of several false summits.  I heard her exclaim, "Holy crap!"  When I joined her, we beheld an intimidating view of a boulder field knifing skyward into the clouds.  A large cairn was visible leading directly towards the edge of the knife.  I entertained thoughts of retreat, as this route appeared to be beyond my abilities, and I was worried about the increasing likelihood of an unwelcomed rainstorm.  We were comforted somewhat as we climbed down to the cairn, and viewed a second marking revealing a less dangerous passageway along the steep shoulder of the boulder field.  Fortunately, we had crossed to the lee side of the mountain providing relief from the constant assault of the wind.

On the few occasions when the clouds would break, we garnered a view of Mt. Bierstadt to the west and a large mountain lake several thousand feet below.  Because of our relatively slow pace, we were now being passed by a handful of younger climbers.  They greeted us warmly before speeding ahead.

It took a little over 4 hours to reach the summit.  Oddly, we descended several hundred feet into the Mt. Evan's parking lot, and walked a few hundred yards to a well-maintained path leading to the final 100' ascent to the summit.  The enjoyment of the view and feeling of accomplishment was in no way diminished by sharing the moment with motorists.  While taking pictures of the panorama we conspicuously avoided the incongruous green pump truck parked near the highest public toilets in North America.

We visited with a park ranger, who told us that sleet and snow were fast approaching.  He recommended that we hitch a ride down.  Needing little encouragement, we did. 

Trip captain Fred, now a veteran of 18 such climbs, is six weeks shy of his 75th birthday.  His wife, Linda, 72, successfully completed her first 14er.  Shannon and I were the relative youngsters.  Fred later summarized, "I thought I selected a relatively less difficult 14er, Mt. Evans, for Linda's first.  Wrong!  The weather was cold, extremely windy, and foggy.  The trail was rated a class 2, but it was really a significantly more difficult 3 as the last half-mile crossed a steep boulder field.  We were often on all fours getting up and around the big rocks.  Fortunately, she handled it well."

The ride down the mountain was predictably horrifying, and again Shannon said it best, "I feel very good about myself after doing this."  All agreed, and amazingly, we started planning our 2016 climb.  Lord willing.

p.s.  The hike was undertaken on August 27.   Aspen leaves and ferns were already losing their color.  Surprisingly, wildflowers were still in bloom at the higher elevations.  The picture below of a living bouquet was taken in a cranny of granite at 14,050'.


I recently read a letter from a friend about the daughter of an acquaintance whose book has now sold 2 million copies.  NNAOPP is only 1.9985 million shy of her staggering achievement, and if the current pace of sales continues, I should reach that level well before the next ice age.

That's it for now.


Charles A. Wells, Jr.
3317 W. 68th Street
Shawnee Mission, KS 66208
816 289-1924
Author of: Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People
Now available at and
Available at:
  Rainy Day Books, 2706 W. 53rd Street, Fairway, KS
  Sanibel Island Bookshop, 1571 Periwinkle, Sanibel, FL
  Twisted Sisters Eclectic Gifts and Floral, Albany, MO

  Bruce Smith Drug Store, Prairie Village, KS