Bellah Brothers Reunion Trip: Three

Can you imagine how Rip Van Winkle felt after his long nap? I thought about Irving’s protagonist today after visiting Red River with Bob and Craig.

In the early ‘60s my dad bought a small grocery-store-ski-rental shop and a jeep touring company in Red River. Then, he sent Bob up to run the store and Craig to manage the jeeps (amazing in itself since Craig was just 18). Well, Bob, his wife Adrianna and Craig lived in the popular tourist village for nearly four years.

And none had been back—until today.

Their reaction: “It wasn’t the same Red River,” said Craig. “There’s too much glitz.”

“It’s not the sleepy little tourist town where everyone knew everyone else,” added Bob.

And so I’m wondering. Is it age that gives us that perspective? Do we old-timers always romanticize the past and mistrust the present?

Or is the present truly not as good as it used to be?

Can’t say for sure, but I know one thing: If I’m visiting Mayberry, I want Floyd to own the barber shop, Wally to own the filling-station (not a convenience store), Gomer to work there; Barney must be a deputy (with no more than one bullet in his revolver) and Andy simply has to be sheriff.

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Bellah Brothers Reunion Trip: Two

I’m not going to name names, but one of us snores. Loudly. Not as though I didn’t plan ahead—Pandora on the smart phone and earphones. Tomorrow, I’ll buy bigger earphones.

Had some of Santa Fe’s best Mexican fare tonight. Tomasita’s in the Depot District. A lady in line (a lengthy one by the way) said all the locals eat here. I know why. Had the special—a chile relleno, beef enchilada and taco with rice and posole. The enchilada was smothered in red sauce made with New Mexico’s famous hatch chiles. Yummy but not for novices.

Turned out the lights at 9:30 p.m. but spent another hour sharing old family stories. Some made us laugh; others, not-so-much. It’s interesting how each brother remembers the same events but with different points of view. Seems my parents were way too strict with their firstborn male and way too lenient with the youngest (that would be me).

Two thoughts: one, all parents are flawed. Most do the best they can. Ours did. Two, it’s easy to be oblivious to things going on in your own house, especially as a child. Tonight, I gained a new understanding of and appreciation for Bob.

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Bellah Brother Reunion Trip: One

The three of us haven’t taken a road trip together in over 50 years—since Craig (then 15) and I (13) traveled to see our brother Bobby (19) at his summer job in Arizona.

Bob, who was working as a tour guide at Grand Canyon Caverns near Kingman, had invited us to see the caves and meet his newly minted fiancée, Adrianna.

I guess he invited us. It’s just as likely our parents put us on that westbound Greyhound in Amarillo to get some peace and quiet.

Anyway, our journey began on an early morning in early August, and before we returned, we would have experienced our first overnight stay in a bus terminal (the thing broke down in Gallup), our first sight of the Pacific Ocean (a 20 hour suicide run where we parked Bob’s ’61 Chevelle Super Sport beside a busy California Highway 1, jaywalked to the beach, shed socks and shoes and waded into the not-so-ideal surf at Long Beach), and our first experience hitchhiking (a Havasupai Indian in a new Cadillac took us the 10 miles from the bus terminal in Peach Springs to the Route 66 attraction of Grand Canyon Caverns).

It’s only the three of us now. Mom and Dad or gone, as is little sister D’Lynne. So Bob, who lives in Lubbock, and I decided in the Spring to invite Craig to travel from his home in Omaha, and spend a few days together in our old family vacation spots in northern New Mexico.

I’ll pick him up later this afternoon at the airport in Albuquerque. Will let you know how it turns out.

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Walking by the Old House

Walked by my old house yesterday. The four-bedroom ranch structure that Sternenberg Lumber Company built for Bob Bellah in 1957 hasn’t been occupied by my family since 1968.

It’s only a few blocks from where I now live, but I hardly ever pass it—one, because it’s not on the way anywhere and, two, because the memory is bittersweet. You see, only half of our six are left. Mom and Dad are gone, as is my little sister, D’Lynne.

Thought of her when I noticed the narrow, brick entrance to the long pear-shaped driveway. Every few weeks my sister—who never seemed able to back her car in a straight line—managed to topple a few bricks on one side or the other.

I grinned to see that there were recent signs of similar damage and wondered if the current family has a similarly challenged driver.

The towering willow is gone from the front yard. They don’t last long in our West Texas soil. But the blue spruce is still there—a giant where we planted a sapling. Again I smiled, wondering what the current owners would think if they knew they were nurturing a stolen conifer, plucked illegally over 50 years ago from the Carson National Forest outside Red River.

There were other memories: teenaged boys playing Horse on the hoop over the garage, Dad with his boys hosing off the ski boat after a weekend at Buffalo Lake, eager children unwrapping presents beneath a huge Christmas tree framed by the big picture window which faced the street.

Seemed strange—to walk by my house, a stranger. I felt I deserved a wave, a smile, some kind of recognition. But no one was home—wouldn’t know me anyway—and  the neighbors are all new.

Made me wonder what my kids will one day think when they walk by the house where I no longer live. Anyway, I have a bit more appreciation for others with similar feelings, like the fearless Commanche who once hunted buffalo here or the rugged cowboys who followed.

Maybe the Indians had it right. The land doesn’t belong to us as much as we to the land. We just get to enjoy it for a while.

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The Last Shall Be First

I knew it a week before the climb. But I didn’t tell the others until the night before.

What I knew is that since we had settled on a smaller mountain, then we could get everyone to the top. Everyone—even those who told me they didn’t care to summit Wheeler—who were content to hang back, enjoy the surroundings, encourage the others.

And, I had begun to make peace with that—it was unrealistic to think that everyone  could or should climb a major peak.

But then the students chose Atalaya, and I knew what I must do.  It would be a stretch—probably the hardest thing some of them had ever done—but it was makeable.

So the night before our climb, I gave a brief pep talk ending with a hiking order. And, as that famous prophet from Galilee once said, the last became first, and the first, last.

My words were greeted with silence mostly. But I have it from a good source that there was plenty of talk in the hotel room later—am pretty sure I was compared to all the major dictators and serial killers of our era.

But the next day we began with the stronger hikers at the end, and, although we didn’t end that way, we did end with everyone on top.

And at least one participant (who will go unnamed) has promised to start speaking with me again in the spring.

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Atalaya Mountain

Rising from the high desert plateau just north of Santa Fe, Atalaya Mountain culminates in a 9,121-foot peak that looks down on both New Mexico’s capitol and the rugged Rio Grande River Valley. The Atalaya Trail, which starts on the north perimeter of the city near St. John’s College, climbs over 1500 feet in under three miles.

It’s the perfect “half-marathon” for a Wheeler attempt, and it’s where our Finisher hikers decided to go this Friday. It wasn’t an easy decision. They still have their hearts set on New Mexico’s highest, and I don’t think they’ll be satisfied if their peak-climbing ends at Atalaya.

But it’s a good place to start. Because it’s much more likely we can do this as a team—getting everyone at or near the top—which is what Finishers tries to do with students’ academic dreams.

And the students didn’t say this, but I think it illustrates another point: Sometimes one must lower expectations in order to meet higher expectations later—like taking those dreadful remedial classes to get ready for College Algebra. No one likes them, but they’re part of the deal. And if we’re too impatient (or proud) to take them first, well, you know what happens.

That said, Atalaya is no “remedial hike.” The trail guide rates portions of it as “difficult,” and, when I’ve led other college teachers on it, less than half decide to reach the top.

I’m not expecting those results with these Finishers. :-)

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A Change of Plans

How do you prepare folks for their first peak climb? Turns out I’m not the person to ask. Seems I’m a better teacher than I am a coach.

That’s what I told our Finishers hikers about a week ago when I confessed I had not prepared them for the trip up Wheeler. And I thought I knew why.

Few budding distance runners attempt a marathon (about 23 miles) before running a half-marathon. The shorter race prepares for the longer. It lets you know how your training is working (so you can adjust if need be) and it gives you a good idea how the longer race will feel (so there are no discouraging surprises).

And the problem is, though we had done training laps up and down the Palo Duro, the distance and difficulty didn’t match half of a major peak climb.

So I sat down with Donna, Mauricio and Christy (the three who have been most faithful with the training), and, as we enjoyed the burgers at Smokey Joe’s, they decided what we should do.

Which I’ll tell you in tomorrow’s blog.

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Parnell, Texas

Parnell, Texas—it’s a ghost town now—a collection of old concrete foundations, dilapidated lumber, some sheets of corrugated tin that once served as roofs, all barely visible above the tall weeds.

It was April of 2006, and my buddy Clark and I were taking a final mountain-bike ride down the lower portion of the Caprock Canyon Trailway. Due to funding cuts, Texas Parks and Wildlife would close this section of our favorite rails-to-trails path later in the year.

So I was understandably nostalgic about the ride, and Parnell, located near the end of this 30-mile stretch between Turkey and Estelline, accentuated those thoughts.

For Parnell was once quite a place. In 1929, when the Fort Worth Denver Railway laid tracks through here, the town boasted a population of 500 and had three stores, a hotel and café, two barber shops, two cotton gins, a lumberyard, a garage, a church and a brick schoolhouse.

As we rested beside the old Parnell Station sign, I thought about those people, whose works, in less than a century, had been reduced to weeds and rubble.

So this is the place in the blog where I’m supposed to talk about values—i.e. the importance of spending one’s life building things that last.

But that’s not what was on my mind that spring day. I was sad. Because I know what it’s like to invest in stuff that dissipates. The problem is you’re clueless at the time. Who knew the Parnell railway would one day go away? Who knew Lehman Brothers would do the same in 2008?

Even for the best informed, life is somewhat of a guess. I like to think those Parnell people knew that. They dreamed big, worked hard, accomplished a lot and moved on when the dream dried up.

Which is all any of us can do.

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The Wheeler Challenge

We’re calling it The Wheeler Challenge, an attempt by our Finishers group to climb New Mexico’s highest peak. So at 5:00 a.m. MDT, August 25, when we strap on camelbacks and headlamps at the Taos Ski Valley trailhead, my adrenaline will be in overdrive.

One, because I love peaks—the views, the discovery, the challenge. And this route up Wheeler is especially challenging—over 3,500 feet of vertical gain in just three and one-half miles.

Two, I’ve climbed with my sons, daughters and guy friends, but never with students, never with Finishers. The camaraderie on the trail is going to be exceptional. Also, Dr. Biggers is sponsoring this with me, and those of you who know Claudie know that fun (crazy?) things happen when she’s around.

And, three, I love the symbolism. Finishers is all about reaching your dream while/by helping others reach theirs. That’s exactly what we intend to do on the mountain.

Stay tuned. I plan to take you along via blogs and videos. Wish us well!

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Finishers: Lucky To Be Here

Why is Finishers successful? I will do a workshop in a couple of weeks when I’ll be expected to answer that question.

My first response is to be cautious. We don’t know yet how well it’s working. The fast growth is promising, but we’ll know we’re successful when the data say we are—when students involved in Finishers graduate at a higher rate than their peers. Until then, we can only guess.

So here are my guesses. These are the reasons I think students come to and stay with Finishers:

The Power of a Pledge
Nothing particularly innovative here—lots of groups do this. There seems to be something about formal pledges (which students sign to join Finishers) that helps folks follow through on their promises.

The Power of a Dream
But pledges, by themselves, are just words on paper. Finisher pledges begin with articulating one’s dream. The idea is to remind students what life goals are dependent on their academic ones.

The Power of Relationships
Every Finisher must both be and have an encourager—someone to check on him or her regularly and encourage/help with whatever obstacle one might be facing (including the nonacademic—rent, health, depression).

The Power of Example
Some things (commitment, hope, resilience) are caught more than taught. At every monthly meeting at least one student shares his or her story. These inspiring tales are my favorite part of Finishers.

The Power of a Movement
Early on I almost ruined things by letting a well-meaning student start dividing us into committees with officers and job descriptions. Then, the core group got me alone and reminded me what I had told them—we’re more of a movement than a club, with a shared passion not program. Thus, our leadership is more bottom-up than top-down. And spontaneity is as important as planning.

This last point helps me see the unifier in all my points. Why is Finishers working? I can answer in one word: students—these incredible students who somehow came together at this time and place.

I’m lucky to be here. :-)

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