"Hoop Dancing" [The Audiobook] can now be purchased for $9.95 at My CDBaby webpage,as well as at ITunes. I'm quite happy with it. But perhaps you ask, "Stu, "Hoop Dancing" is a photo-memoir. How come an audiobook for a picture book?" Well, since I've been traveling a lot, shooting the world and all that, I listen to audiobooks while I drive. Now most times, I'm singing along to Ben Folds, or Dave Rawlings, or Neko Case or U2 as I journey about, but when it's late, dark and I'm on a lonely Interstate, I put on audiobooks like "The Lovely Bones", "Mountains Beyond Mountains," or "Into Thin Air." So, I love audiobooks. I hope you love audiobooks too, and perhaps you'll like this one as well.
I didn’t wear the right socks. Got cotton ones on, not my orange funky polar fleece pair. No matter. I’m only going to be up in the snow for a couple hours at most. God bless the plowman though, for not clearing the tiny parking area at the trailhead of the Red Ridge. Not a soul has walked this trail since the big snow a few days ago. (Below me on the mountain right now, are hundreds, if not thousands, of desert dwellers who came up for the day, to throw snowballs at each other, fill their pickup beds with snow to continue the fight tonight, and some silly drivers wreaking here and there, who don’t know that even if the road is relatively clear, the bridges are slippery with ice, and a shady road is an icy road.) For sure, there is no virgin snow now below milepost nine, but here on the Ridge Ridge, the trail has only been disturbed by the deer, judging from the prints on the trail. Funny, when I first saw the deer tracks in the foot-deep powder, I wondered what kind of person makes prints like that. Looks like some one walking in high heels. Silly rabbit, that person is a deer-person. I had decided to come up to the Red Ridge before I got the call this morning that Wally was sick, and it seems right to come up here no matter what happened today. Much of the Red Ridge was nuked by the Aspen Fire in the Summer of 2003, over four years ago. I don’t come up here often now. Simply too painful, to find this forest that was one of my personal sacred places, charred and sterilized by flame. Most, if not all, of the old growth Ponderosa Pines in this area were killed. The Three Surrender Trees, that I used as models, are now just twenty foot tall stumps, their dead tops having broken off last year. Took two of the three trees a full year to die. If I had a chain saw, I would have chopped them down rather than have them suffer so. Last winter, almost a year ago, I came up to play in the snow but the only apparent groundcover was thorny briars and a few odd plants. Really hard to be happy in the snow when so much was gone. Granted, I can hike down the Red Ridge about a half a mile and get away from the severely burned area, but that is below the northern overlook that I love so well. The view I’ve seen with every girlfriend I’ve had since 1988. A place where I’ve loved and been loved and had love, at night and during the day. I’ve heard it said that many people don’t like change, just for change’s sake. I say, I don’t mind change. I just hate Shitty Change. The Aspen Fire and the Burning of the Red Ridge was Shitty Change. But today, how can I mind this sight, of snow a foot to a foot and a half deep, beautiful ripples of powder around the bases of the black dead trees, the briars much thinner now, the few still living trees easily seen silhouetted against the bright sparkling snow. The fun but tough effort of even walking in my boots. (Wish I owned some snow shoes today.) And the love in the knowledge I have, of knowing just where the trail is, under all this snow, for I’ve walked it a least a hundred times. I imagine the Spirit of Wally running beside me through the snow, but I let that image go. Wally wouldn’t like this snow. I would freak him out. He was a house cat his whole life. Wally. Just thinking about him now, makes my eyes water. What a morning it was. Wally was diagnosed with an intestinal Cancer less than a month ago. The vet told Annie that she should start saying goodbye to him, that at some point, he’ll be so anemic that his breathing will be labored and it’d be time. The steroid shot gave him his appetite back but only for a while. Another shot was given and within days, he had stopped eating again. He was already skin and bones. I’d said my goodbyes to him a week or so ago, but my denial returned, me thinking he’ll hang on for another month or so. He’s always been a tough little guy, even if he was the runt of the litter. So why shouldn’t he hang around longer. Mostly, I know now, I just didn’t want to have to face him dying or use putting him down. Annie called on Friday night to say he had stopped eating and that we might need to go to the vets on Monday to put him to sleep. I’d said all the right words but I was thinking, over and over, I don’t want him to die. I love him so much. This morning, Annie called again and said we need to take him to the vet, today, Saturday. He is now leaking out of his anus. She asked if I could drive Wally and her to the vet hospital on the Northwest side. I said yes immediately, but underneath I did not want to go, but I knew I must. On the half hour drive to the pet hospital, I asked Annie a bunch of questions again about what her personal vet had said about Wally’s health. When she said that the vet had felt the tumor grown substantially in less than a month, I realized that we ain’t going to make it to Monday. I told Annie on the Interstate that we might have put Wally down today. She said she knew and we both cried just thinking about it. We didn’t put Wally in a cat carrier. He hates that carrier. Cries all the way if he is in it. Instead, Annie wrapped him in a towel and put him in a cloth bag. He looked very cute, but if he were feeling himself, he would have squirmed a bit. But this morning, he just relaxed in Annie’s arms, as she held him in the bag against her chest in the truck. The three of us went up the Interstate. My denial finally slipped away somewhere around Orange Grove Road. We got to the hospital and they put us in a room immediately. A nurse took his history for they didn’t have his chart there. That was at the other office. The nurse nodded when she said that we were thinking we might have to put him down today. A few minutes later, the vet-on-call came in. She was a young woman in her thirties with a kind face. “I’m sorry that you have to see a stranger on a day like today,” she said. Annie knew at that point, that it was going to be ok. They gave us as much time as we need to say goodbye. We took about twenty minutes. We had a lot to say to Wally. “You are the best cat.” “We love you very much.” “I love you Wally.” “You can soon chase those birds that you see outside your window.” “I’m sorry Wally.” And then we spent a long time just petting him and loving him. Then I went and got the vet. She took Wally away for a minute and put in an IV line. When they returned Wally wasn’t happy, and he actually growled at the vet when she was taking off the tape that held the port. Annie and I said our last good byes. Annie looked into his face, as the doc put in the needle into the port. “I love you Wally. It’s going to be ok,” said Annie. “I love you Wally,” I said. He breathed once, then again, and then one last big breath and he was gone. He was nine years old. Annie cried loud and hard, as she saw his eyes go lifeless. Tears ran down my face. The vet put a hand on Annie’s back and I soon did the same. Then the vet kissed Wally on the back, said that she’ll give us a couple more minutes, and left the room. We cried some more, and said goodbyes a few more times. In a couple of minutes, I got the vet, she came back, we said our last goodbyes to Wally and we left the room, before she moved Wally. Annie will get his ashes in a few days. As we walked through the waiting room, everyone there knew what had happened. No dogs barked and all eyes were on Annie and I. We were quietly inconsolable. When we got to my truck, Annie let loose again, with heavy sobs, while I smoked a cigarette outside the vehicle. My tears didn’t stop either. Not then. Not for a long while to come. After a while we drove home. Wally was a great cat, a superior cat, the best cat I had ever known. I remember when he was a twelve weeks old little ball of fire when Annie first got him. I remember how much he liked people but mostly on his own terms. I liked that about him. He would sometimes come when you called him, but only if he wanted to. However, he was powerless not to chase a Laser Mouse. He would sit on his perch, six feet up his cat pole and survey his domain. He would let you pet him for a few seconds or so, and then he would gently bite you to let you know he had had enough of that. And my very favorite thing to do with Wally was to place the top of my head by him, under his perch and we would rub our heads together. We would do that for as long as I was willing to do it. He would do it forever, if we had the time. He loved it and I loved it. And I loved him and he loved me and he loved Annie. He was great. I miss him so. I’m hiking up and out of Red Ridge now. Only an hour of sun left. I drew a ‘W’ in the snow down below. A ‘W’ for Wally. I saw a couple of Spruce trees that had escaped the Aspen Fire, which I hadn’t noticed before. Trees can grow tall in four years you know. The trudge up the trail, in sometimes knee-deep snow, is difficult but good. My feet are soaked but I don’t care. It’s all good, as the kids say. I saw a Harris Hawk just a while ago, spooked it out of a tree. The briars are less now than before and seem to have been replaced by some form of young tree. I wonder what tree this is? I look closely at it. There are many around me, ranging from a few feet tall to over ten feet high. Then I see a brown leaf still attached to a branch of one of the tiny trees. The leaf is only an inch and a half in diameter, but I recognized the shape. “An Aspen tree,” I say quietly to the baby tree. A big smile brakes across my face. I put down my mandolin in its gig bag. I place my camera bag in the snow as well, and pull out the 30D. Before I begin to shoot the leaf, I look around. Dozens of baby Aspens trees surround me. Every Aspen above ground was burned in the fire, but the root colony survived. The Fire may have actually been good for the colony, for Aspens don’t like the shade but thrived in direct sunlight. The Aspens have been reborn. In another ten years or so, there will be a young forest here. In another twenty or so, perhaps a full stand of Aspens will be here. I’ll be 73 in twenty years. I hope I’m still alive to see it. Maybe Wally will be reborn somewhere, in real life or in my imagination. Maybe he’ll come visit me in my dreams. Maybe his spirit will rub my leg some night. Maybe I’ll feel his head against mine as I lie in bed. Maybe. If Aspens can be reborn out of the ashes of a nuclear fire, anything is possible. One thing I know for sure: I love Wally and for as long as I live, I’ll always love him. Just like I still love Chester, the dog I had as a child. Thank you Wally, for loving me back.