In search of buffalo

These markers indicate where members of the 7th Cavalry fell to the Sioux and Cheyenne.

These markers indicate where members of the 7th Cavalry fell to the Sioux and Cheyenne.

by cheri sabraw

I hated to leave you  hanging in my last post, but the sheer size of Montana and the hours it takes to drive  from famous rivers (the Missouri, Yellowstone, Big Hole, and Gallatin) to a Western artist’s’ home  to a battlefield  to  famous bars DO tend to set one’s tight schedule back a bit. From Charlie Russell’s studio in Great Falls to the site of Custer’s last stand 20 miles outside of Billings to a good ol mahogany bar in Bozeman (14 North), we have covered vast territory efficiently, like a couple of Great Plains grasshoppers.

For those of you who wondered if we did, in fact, revisit the site of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, I am pleased to report, “Yes.” If you  remember, one of us had a hankering to go back, sure that it had changed. Funny. It looked the same to one of us as it did 30 years ago although the Indians’ point of view and sacrifices are now a part of the narrative and the monument, as they should have been in the first place.

I could have been dreaming but the same corny and over animated U.S. Government Park Ranger, let’s call him Marvin, gave the same talk he did thirty years ago about the logistics and personalities that clashed in 1876 on these dry Montana hills.

Does anyone feel sorry for George Armstrong Custer, other than his long-dead wife, Libby?

Does anyone feel sorry for George Armstrong Custer, other than his long-dead wife, Libby?

I erroneously reported in my last post that the site where Custer died was marked with a black headstone. Sorry. The headstone, in fact, is white but with a black shield to emphasize the white letters.

Satisfied to have seen the place where Sitting Bull’s warriors, for a brief moment in the late 19th century, rose upon their ponies with arrow and gun and successfully defended their way of life, we turned our mechanical pony south to Yellowstone, where I hoped to see the buffalo.

In the Lamar Valley, we glimpsed from far away, a herd of buffalo.

In the Lamar Valley, we glimpsed a herd of buffalo from far away or are those cattle?


Poor Hizzoner, trying to keep his eye on the road while responding to my entreaties to find a place where I could  see a buffalo other than through a pair of binoculars.

Here! Through those willowy cottonwood trees. Here! Cheri. See? There! See them? What a view? Doesn’t this scene look like the Serengeti?


Are those buffalo? I really cannot tell.

Oh my. Here come two buffalo bulls.

Oh my. Here come two buffalo bulls.

Then, to my ecstatic delight, these two creatures, representing in one sense, a lost time in Native American history, begin to approach our car.

At last, that iconic image of a gentle giant moved within 20 feet of my camera.

At last, that iconic image of a gentle giant moved within 20 feet of my camera.

And there he stands!

In order to steady my heart and draw me back from my thoughts about the heartbreaking devastation that was the Battle of the Little Big Horn, symbolic of Native American losses of land, spirit, and buffalo, I asked that we stop and gaze into the Yellowstone River.

IMG_5998Which we did.

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On the way to Great Falls, Montana… and the Little Big Horn




by cheri sabraw

We have begun to listen to Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, as we travel out of the stunning, rugged landscape found in Glacier National Park.

Great Falls, Montana, is the home to the Lewis and Clark Museum, as well as to the iconic Western artist Charles Russell. These rich deposits to our early cultural heritage we hope to see today.

Very quickly, the thick forests that blanket the sharp and towering snow-capped peaks of Glacier are gone, replaced by low hills topped by rock formations. As we approach Browning, a humble city in the heart of the Blackfeet Indian Nation, the Great Plains of Montana meets our eyes. The scene is hard to describe; to put such space and sky into words seems a task fit only for heavenly scribes.


Some further information must be supplied to this narrative, if not for informational purposes, then for insight into the mindsets of two people—we—who are eager to drive hundreds of miles through vast golden valleys shaded in splotches by clouds, floating like large comfortable pillows in an expansive and glorious sky that Montanans refer to as “Big Sky.”

Although one of the two of us has professed a lifelong desire to experience Montana—one of the least populated states in the Union (a million people)—one of the two of us has also carried a fascination with the events that occurred at the Little Big Horn in 1876, where George Armstrong Custer met his fate at the hands and guns of the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne Indian tribes.


Both of us, along with our two children, visited the Custer monument in 1988. If my memory serves me, we all walked in blistering heat along the knoll of the grassy hill, and inspected the soldiers’ gravestones, lying haphazardly where each of them  met his death in what historians have described as a furry of rage. In the middle of white headstones, our eyes focused on  a black one.

In short speed, we found ourselves staring down and only a few steps away from the spot where—as other historians have speculated— Custer’s brother Tom fired a bullet into Custer’s left temple, ending Custer’s life and the pain emanating from a fatal wound at the hands of the Indians. The Sioux had exacted their revenge.

That visit was our last to the Little Big Horn. After all, it is all the way across the State of Montana. It is one of those sites that only need to be seen once. Or so I thought.

I should have known that while on our way to Montana, as we listened to The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick,  the narrative would engender such keen interest that it would rekindle in one of us such newly minted curiosity that two of us now are headed, once again, to see where Custer got what he deserved.



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An earthquake of years

IMG_6576by cheri sabraw

In my walk around a little beach community where we have a tiny house, I am amused by all of those old folks feeding birds.

Some of those old folks, in their retirement, have taken up bird-house building. Three-story English cottages, Berkeley bungalows, and modern metal Deco homes–sure to entice the most discriminating of birds–dangle from eaves in front of breakfast nooks.

Oh those poor souls, I muse. Souls without active lives anymore. Souls who can’t wait to awake at 5:00 am to retrieve their morning Tribune, pour their cup of Folgers, and watch the birds chittering and tittering, from cottage to bungalow to Deco.

In that same beach town, on my usual walk with my dog tugging at her leash, her keen peripheral vision scanning from left to right for a pretzel or chip crumb, I crinkle my eyes, hidden under enormous sunglasses, and secretly smile at the collection of windmills, tchotchkys, and feel-good signs in these old folks’ gardens.

Welcome to Gramma’s Garden, Life’s a Beach, Relax!

Good God, I thought. Is this what it is like to get old? 

Last night, the San Francisco Bay Area experienced a serious 6.0 earthquake. Although not  on my fault line–the one that our home sits directly upon–the Hayward Fault line of the mighty San Andreas Fault, the temblor rattled every dish and glass in the house, awaking me from a deep sleep at 3:20 am. The dog barked.

I jumped out of bed with a start since my husband was not home.

I ran down the stairs and outside to our patio to make sure that my decorative glass hummingbird feeders had not fallen off their hooks.

Luckily the fresh bird-seed I had just purchased to fill my little nuthatch, junco, and finch feeder had not tipped off the counter, sending 20 pounds of cracked sunflower seeds onto the floor of my kitchen.

As I trundled back up the stairs in the dead of night, I glanced out our front door to see that the Welcome sign was still vertical.

All is well, dear.




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by cheri sabraw

Oh Swallowtail!

Oh Swallowtail!



Did the cotton candy clouds drop you from butterfly heaven?

Did the cotton candy clouds drop you from butterfly heaven?


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In Your Own Backyard



by cheri sabraw

Most of us  have read Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, the prototypical tale of a traveler’s search for meaning, who  discovers what he had been looking for in his own backyard. He accomplished this revelation by the hard work of wrestling with himself.

This journey–that of searching for meaning–is not one every person is prepared to embark upon. Those who go through life living theirs largely unexamined do so for a number of reasons: the Self’s protection, stubbornness, genetics, and laziness.

Great novelists and playwrights have told the stories of heart-breaking, agonizing, yet stimulating searches for meaning. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter,  a young woman pays a life-time penance for her adulterous indiscretion, a sentence exacted by community members  who shun her and her illegitimate daughter Pearl, for whom she paid “a great price.” Through solitude and aloneness (she lives at the edge of town) and charity (she sews and embroiders for community members), she grows stronger and the reader senses that by the novel’s conclusion, the woman’s suffering has contributed to her depth of character.

And then there is Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s tragic figure in Death of A Salesman. To search for meaning and examine his life would not be possible for him. Wholly unenlightened–a big-talking adulterer, selfish father, and braggadocio, Willy Loman is the conductor of his own family’s train-wreck. We find ourselves intellectually unsurprised by his suicide, brought on by the little bubbles of profound regret and anger trying to work their way to his consciousness, but that are unable to break the surface. He dies unenlightened.

I’d like to think that as death approaches, all of us ask the big questions about our lives, about those whom we have touched and not touched, about our deepest relationships, about what mark we had hoped to stamp upon our loved ones, our friends, our associates.

Strangely, many people go to their graves having done zero introspection, more concerned about the placement of their bedpan than the quality of their legacy.

Then again, how does the outsider, the family member, or the caring observer know whether or not someone is self-reflective?

We are all travelers.

We are all on a journey. It’s just that some journeys labor to go forward despite the tonnage of past generations, shackles that some people stubbornly refuse to uncouple from their present lives.

In what type of conversation with yourself and with others do you engage?

If such conversation explores your motivations, shortcomings, and deepest fears, then you are on your way to enlightenment, no matter what your age may be.



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Queen Joan


by cheri blockIMG_1837


Yesterday, handmaiden that I am, I paid a short visit to Queen Joan and concluded on my way back to my humble quarters that there are some people in the world who are so special that when in their presence, you are sure the world has a soul.

Queen Joan is one of those unique people.

When I entered her chamber, she sat on her throne–a throne that befits her limitations. Her walker and wheelchair rounded out her furnishings, along with a stiff kitchen-table chair for me, her loyal servant.

The Court Trainer had just left with strict instructions concerning the Queen’s diet. No more Oreo cookies! No more Sees candies! The Queen is putting on weight! Because she has no balance and no active life, no hearing and clearly no discipline, it must be her attendants that need culinary restraint!!

Joan is no stranger to court trainers, servants, and of course, the court doctors.

Her ebullient smile and soft eyes belie the circumstances that under her reign have provided a steady stream of work for the entire court medical staff: her audiologist, her pain specialist, her rheumatologist, her radiologist, oncologist, hematologist, gastro-enterologist, urologist, and dermatologist. As one of her heroes, Sir Mel Brooks, aptly stated, ” It’s good to be the Queen.”

My! I rheumanated, as I sneaked into the kitchen,  worried that the Court Trainer might return to  the Queen’s Chamber at any time. My! I rheumanated, shall I provide the Queen with a small sweet, sure to inject her pensive demeanor with a delirium of crunchy, chocolaty, and nutty delight?

Her bib in place, she opened with color like a kaleidoscope.

While she was relishing her treat, she looked over at me–her trusty attendant and inquired, “Who gave me this drumstick?”

“I did,  your highness.”



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The Annex

by cheri sabraw


This weathered structure  sits like an old, wrinkled Indian storyteller, waiting for a little one to beg for a tale about “the way it used to be.”

Once Tom and Kate Palache’s cook’s cabin, it has rested way too comfortably on our land for ten years. Although we do not know its exact age, we have learned that in 1923 the Palaches journeyed from San Francisco to buy acreage from A.A. Moore, who owned most of the property in the vicinity. Historians have told us that the house, in which the Palaches slept while staying on this property, appears on a land grant map in 1877.

Tom was an insurance agent. Kate was a medical doctor. They lived in San Francisco on Ellis Street. Tom was an amateur photographer: we found his camera and many boxes of lantern plates taken before the turn of the 20th century. We even have a slide of U.C. Berkeley in 1898 and the San Francisco Bay before the Bay Bridge was built. A framed stock certificate with Thomas Hood Palache’s name and his purchase of one share  sits above our library door. One intriguing side note we learned some years ago was that Tom Palache was William Keith‘s insurance agent. When Keith lost many of his paintings in the San Francisco 1906 earthquake, Palache was more than helpful.

Tom and Kate were childless. When unable to spend time on the TK Rancho, they sold the property to Kate’s niece, Margaret. She and her husband Ed lived in the Palache’s original home which was 50 feet from the cook’s cabin– until Margaret died in 1982. Ed wanted out of the dark house, made so by the enormous canopy of non-native trees the Palaches had planted. After selling some of his property to us, he moved across the creek and onto a treeless, hot spot where he plunked  a mobile home down that he called The Establishment.  Ed died in 1993, a year before we finished building our house.

Ed called the Palache’s cook’s  little cabin The Annex.

The Annex is about 215 square feet with a bedroom, a sitting room, and a bathroom. Our son Ben was forced to inhabit the Annex while we were living in a fifth-wheel trailer, building the house. A junior in high school, he was a good sport; that is, until a big black spider bit him on the chest and left a welt the size of a dried apricot. Things really soured when he brought his gorgeous Junior Prom date, Laurie, up the road for pictures, and as he was pinning on the rosebud corsage,  she burst out laughing. Those days in the early part of the 1990’s seem long ago.

I’ve always thought the Annex would be a perfect place for me to write without the distractions of a Labrador Retriever whose nervous system is calibrated to my every movement.

So, today, I decided to clean it up. The process, I think, will be glacial.

I’m impressed with before and after pictures, so today, I catalogued the before.


This is the back of the Annex. We found a number of treasures though that little door on the lower right. I might add that mice, rats, and squirrels have also appreciated the darkness of the Annex’s underbelly.

You can see the overgrowth of Vinca, the thick pile of oak and walnut leaves, and dirt that has solidified into a cement.

You can see the overgrowth of Vinca, the thick pile of oak and walnut leaves, and the dirt that has solidified into a cement.

To walk down to the front door is a hazard. The rock walls that the Palaches built all over the property in the 1920’s are now camouflaged , buried under adobe dirt and sycamore, oak, walnut, pine, and mulberry leaves. I know there is a “secret sidewalk” somewhere near the Annex that provided hard footing for the cook to deliver the meals to the Palache’s house, so today, like an archeologist, I intend to locate it and resurrect it to its former function.

With my rake in hand, a leaf blower, a shovel, gloves, and a long gizmo to trim the branches, I began my labor.

My project for today: to clean around all of the bricks and rocks.

My project for today: to clean around all of the bricks and rocks.

The Annex has potential!

The Annex has potential!


As you can see for yourself, if you don’t stay on top of the land, it will stay on top of you.

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The Door

Tby cheri sabraw

Most of us take doors for granted, like we do our feet and teeth.

Only when a door is unhinged does the privacy it creates become appreciated.

Surely, the door is a fine literary symbol used in contrast to the window.  Kafka opened doors and then closed (and sometimes slammed) them in the faces of his frustrated protagonists. Standing at their windows, shut out from the status quo of society and its bureaucracy, his characters viewed their world and its misery through their own ocular windows and the ostracism was complete.

Think of all the doors you have opened and then closed in your lifetime. Some you have left open; some you have shut with authority; others you have carefully secured in the early dawn before you left.

A door offers a tantalizing but fierce choice–to engage, go out, go in, and do. As the Doors’ lyrics remind us, Light my Fire.

I tend to notice how people present the front doors to their homes. I think (and perhaps this is the downfall of the English major) that a door indicates more than its functional use.

Does it need to be refinished? Do cobwebs settle on the top of it? Is an old-soul plant resting at its base? Is a chubby Buddha sunken into silver river rocks there by its side to remind all who enter to be at peace? A front door says a great deal about the person behind the entry.

I will admit that I have been a door-slammer. As a willful child, I took great satisfaction in throttling up my dramatic show of anger with a piercing scream of defiance in the family room and then running at full tilt down our long hallway, unmuffled,  finally reaching my bedroom. There the crescendo would build to a cracking climax–that of the solid-core door being slammed against its jambs with the wind-up of a skilled pitcher, say like Juan Marichal. The walls would reverberate, only to followed by the ominous click of my father’s footsteps coming down the hall at lightening speed and with authority.

In my marriage, I have thrown a few doors hard against their bearings and then dissolved onto my bed in a temper-tantrum of tears.

Too, I have opened many doors to complete bliss–seeing a grandchild for the first time in the hospital nursery, entering our hotel room on my wedding night, or stepping into a cozy beach house, escaping from a turbulent rain.

And then there were those doors whose knobs I hesitated to turn–the door to my parents’ bedroom, wherein lay my father, moments away from death, nineteen years ago this Thursday; the door to my classroom, N-9, a chamber where magic and fire, tears and laughter reigned for so many years, and the last glance into my house on San Martin Street, where we raised our children during their teenage years and where we were young, vigorous, and anticipatory.

The door is a paradox: it shuts us in and protects while it opens to possibility and beckons; it reminds us of finality while at the same time, suggests that we consider whim.





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How to remember vocabulary for the rest of your life

The French Canadian coast of Clare in Nova Scotia. 2009, photo by cbs

The French Canadian coast of Clare in Nova Scotia. 2009

by cheri sabraw

Have you ever discovered that you have been using a vocabulary word incorrectly? For example, do you think the word non-plused means unimpressed? Or what about the word diffident? Do you think it means aloof?

Non-plused does not mean unimpressed; rather, it means “to render utterly perplexed; to puzzle completely.” *

Diffident does not mean aloof; rather it means, “lacking confidence in one’s own ability…timid, shy.”

Part of the problem is the remembering. When did you learn the meaning of a word? In what context? Most importantly, how did you encode the word into your memory? The way you remember new vocabulary is the key to a lifetime of accurate word recognition.

If there is one thing I know it is this: every student I have ever taught throughout the course of forty years knows what the word ubiquitous means. They all remember. When they hear the word ubiquitous, they think of me, of their junior year in high school, of that Bic pen with the u-shaped eraser, held by hands of stick figures drawn on a globe– all in a picture I drew on my well-worn chalk board. They will remember that ubiquitous means seemingly everywhere at the same time, as Bic pens are.

Deauville and Trouville, France, 2010. photo by cbs

Deauville and Trouville, France, 2010.

When they hear the word salient, most will remember the sailboat, with its angular sail jutting out, drawn on that same dusty chalkboard. They will remember that the salient point is the one that is most important.

In that same lesson I taught on memory by association or how to remember vocabulary for the rest of your life, they will recall the word capricious and see a stick-figure drinking a Capri Sun, then a Coke, then a Capri Sun, and then a Coke. My does he change his mind frequently! They will remember that capricious means fickle.

Athens, Greece, 2011. photo by cbs

Athens, Greece, 2011.

To this day, I train myself to remember vocabulary in the same manner.

For example, here is a sample of my running vocabulary list this week (with thanks to Vladimir Nabokov in his autobiography Speak, Memory).

You will see the word, its definition, and the way I will remember it:

1. palimpsest (n.)- a manuscript in which writing and pictures have been erased to make room for more writing. An overlay, almost a collage, like a limp piece of erased parchment.

2. palpebral (adj.) – having to do with the eyelids. In my wearinessI will palpate my eyelids.

3. photism (n.)-a hallucinatory sensation or a vision of light. When I had pho noodles at the Vietnamese restaurant, each bright noodle looked like a beam of light.

4. hypnagogic (adj.)- “of or pertaining to drowsiness.” Upon my hypnosis, I fell fast asleep.

Then, I might try putting four or five words into a silly sentence because humor can help us remember things.

On a dark and stormy night, I tried to close my eyes but a photism appeared on my wall, very close to a photo I have of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the most famous writers of magical realism. That beam of light and its intensity stimulated my hypnagogic state of mind  like a cattle-prod. I leaped from my bed, taking my fists and rubbing each eye like a startled child. My palpebral attempts to come to terms with the other-worldly beam of light were stymied by my sense of rationale and the ticking of my alarm clock. And then I saw IT on the floor, next to my Peet’s Coffee mug and the Harvard Business Review–a palimpsest. Where is Harrison Ford when you need him?


*All definitions in quotation marks taken from



July at the Rancho

Four little babies taking a rest; three facing east and one facing west.

Four little babies, taking their rest-three facing east and one facing west.

One stately hawk, resting on a branch-scanning for hors, here at the ranch.

One stately hawk, resting on a branch-scanning for hors, here at the ranch.


A husband and his wife, existing by design-one providing beauty and the other drinking wine.

A husband and his wife, existing by design-one providing beauty and the other drinking wine.

Fifty-eight olive trees, firmly in the soil-we in the house, hoping for the oil.

Fifty-eight olive trees, firmly in the soil-we in the house, hoping for the oil.

One llow lab, in per-pet-u-al motion-searching for rocks, balls, and devotion. ( with thanks to Peter and Linda for their perfect suggestion.)

One yellow lab, in per-pet-u-al motion-searching for rocks, balls, and devotion. ( with thanks to Peter and Linda for their perfect suggestion.)


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