say that mountains hold secrets. I am inclined to believe.
are driving across the top of the continent. Perhaps you
have been here—Trail Ridge Road
in RockyMountainNational Park. The road curves
up through the eco-zones, starting in ponderosa pine, then up to lodgepole
pine, and then englemann spruce and subalpine
fir, and finally breaks out into tundra—treeless, and at this time of
year, mid-June, covered with large patches of snow and interspersed
patches of brown-to-greening tundra grass. A group of ptarmigan ambles
across the road and we stop to admire their plumage which is white in
the winter, but now already mottled brown and grey. Three marmots sit
on a group of rocks just five feet from the car window, and my children—two
girls, ages seven and nine—admire their friendly furriness. They look
like mountain groundhogs, or like very overgrown versions of the gerbils
caged in my daughters’ bedrooms back home in Fort
And of course, we can see forever, which almost gives the kids enough
to think about to keep them from asking, “Are we there yet?”
“Not quite,” I say. “Just a little bit farther.”
Unbelievable scenery. Snow-capped mountain peaks, a carpet of green
below, a carpet of mottled brown and white up here. A perfect, sunny,
day, postcard-like. And true to my word (this time at least), it really
is only a little bit farther.
We pass by the Trail Ridge Visitor’s Center which on this mid-morning
weekday only has a few cars and tourists trampling around on the tundra.
And then we start winding down and down, down the other side of the
country, toward the Pacific Ocean. Another mile
and we will cross the Continental Divide.
And finally we reach our destination.
“We’re here,” I yell to the back seats of the van.
“This is it?” Caroline, my oldest asks. “LakeIrene?”
“Yep,” I say. “LakeIrene,
named after dear old Granny Hootenany. Last
time I was here was 1987, with Granny.”
“Is it really named after Grandma Irene?” asks Julia, my youngest.
“No, I’m just teasing,” I say.
What I don’t tell them is that, indeed, 1987 was the last time I stopped
at this lake, and I was with Granny Irene, but we were both extraordinarily
hung-over. Headachy, near-vomiting, blurry-eyed—simply and obscenely,
we were poisoned with alcohol. Both of us. I was twenty-six years old
and she seventy-three. And we were an alcoholic team.
Today though is quite different. Completely sober, me
and mine walk the lichen-covered path a couple hundred feet through
tundra and the stunted englemann spruce to the lake. As the water emerges, it is
as beautiful as the last time I saw it—just a few acres of raging blue
contrasting against the sparkling green of the trees which contrasts
again against the perfectly blue sky. The kids know why we’re here,
but their attention immediately turns to the edge of the water. There
is something about watery edges and kids, something that draws them
in, and after a few seconds they’ve found shiny rocky treasures, floating
algae, and all sorts of objects to create whatever make-believe world
courses through the lucky not-yet-civilized minds.
“Here we go,” I say. “Let’s throw them in.” I pull a little zip-lock
bag out of my fanny pack containing a broach and two earrings. It’s
a large broach—gold-colored metal inlaid with plastic greenish-blue
stones, all in the shape of gently curving leaf, about three inches
long and two inches wide. The earrings are the same shape, but much
smaller. They all glitter in the bright sun with a fun, plastic-like
sheen. I was back in Illinois
two weeks ago and I picked these pieces out amidst a pile of jewelry
that my mother had collected from the detritus of Granny’s apartment
after she went into the nursing home. “Gaudy, costume jewelry,” said
my mom as we looked through the pile. “True,” I said. “But that’s our
Granny.” I think I had seen her wear this broach and earring combo a
time or two back in the old days of Granny craziness.
I open the zip-lock bag and hand each of my girls an earring. I take
out the broach.
“One, two, three,” I say. “Throw!”
And we all do, tossing the jewelry out into LakeIrene. Three little splashes
follow out in the small lake, all within twenty feet of the shore. As
I watch, I can see the broach gently settle to the sediment in the perfectly
clear water. It has caught the sun slightly and a reflection of greenish-blue
sparkles like lost treasure.
“I wonder if anyone will ever see them?” Caroline
“I think so,” I say. “Look at the big one. See how it sparkles?”
The three of us wait and watch for a minute or so, and I finally say,
“She really liked it here.” I wait a little longer, and say, “Goodbye,
Granny.” To myself, I am thinking, “There’s not much of you left.”
A few weeks earlier on my visit to Illinois,
I sat in the Alzheimer’s unit of the WatsekaHealthCareCenter (a nursing home) feeding
Granny. She had fallen the week before and broken her hip, and the combination
of Alzheimer’s, Vicadin, and the general scene
in “B-wing” was about as difficult as life gets. Granny was just barely
coherent—her eyes faded open and shut, and she mumbled incoherently.
Her hip had shattered and then been screwed back together making her
wheel-chair bound. She had peed her pants but
the nurses only changed her twice a day because it caused her so much
pain getting up and out of the chair. Every now and then she would perk
up and scratch herself near-violently, trying to soothe a “nursing-home
rash” that was a common affliction on the Wing.
But, compared to the motley crew in the small dining hall, Granny was
generally in good shape. The crowd in the Alzheimer’s unit, to say the
least, was a rough, tough-to-look-at bunch. Some screamed, others bobbed
and slobbered, many were utterly catatonic, eyes fixed but unfocused.
After lunch, I pushed Granny outside onto a small patio, and uncharacteristically
the sun was shining brightly through a blue Midwestern sky. I talked,
and sometimes she responded with a word or two, other times not. There
wasn’t much left of Irene Wooten, a.k.a., Granny Hootenany, now eighty-nine years old. Things used to be
all started during spring break of my seventeenth year, 1978.
With the car packed and heading south of Indianapolis on I-65, me and
a friend named John sat near-giddy in the front seat of my 1972 Mustang
fastback as we listened to Boston’s “More than a Feeling” at ear-breaking
levels on eight-track. We had convinced both of our parents that we
were going to Florida
to visit Granny Irene, when our intention was to stop for a night at
Granny’s in Central Florida and then head straight
to Daytona Beach. As we
drove, we schemed up a story we were going to tell Granny about why
we had to leave after staying only one night. We had read about certain
wholesome tourist destinations—Cape Canaveral,
for example—that we thought would answer any of Granny’s questions and
allow us a clean, quick break from her house. If that didn’t work, we
made up fictitious stories of John’s cousins on the coast. As the week
ended, neither the Cape nor the cousins ever
materialized, nor did Daytona Beach.
We stayed the whole time at Granny’s.
I knew Granny was a little crazy before we went down there but I didn’t
know exactly how crazy she was. The minute we walked in the door of
her backwoods trailer-home, she handed each of us an ice-cold can of
Pabst Blue Ribbon, and for seven straight days our hands were never
empty. Granny, it turned out, wasn’t just a little crazy -- she was
a bar-stool Granny, a foul-mouthed Granny, and a tell-it-like-it-is
Granny. She danced, sang, knew every bar in Bellview, Florida
and every bartender’s name, and after a wild raucous night of flat-out
drunkenness, she’d wake up early and cook us eggs and bacon for breakfast.
She was the Granny of a 17-year-old boy’s dreams.
Granny stood about five-feet-one and weighed about one-thirty-five.
She had dark brown hair and dark brown, almost black, eyes. She walked
fast, talked fast with a sharp tongue, and over our week of making the
rounds, we got to see her in full-Granny action. She had a certain swagger,
a life’s-too-short outlook, and a live-for-the-moment attitude that
all seemed to combine during her daily meanderings. Our first stop of
the day was often at the Dixie Bar, just down the road from Granny’s
trailer. At in
the afternoon, two or three other patrons sat forlorn at the bar and
stared into their light-colored beer or at the food floating in jugs.
Old Style cost fifty cents for a draft and it was with two thin quarters
that our day began.
By , we got to
a place down the street named, “Stagger Inn.” And then by five, we often
made it to “Highway 41,” a mile or so farther. By , as the soggy jug-food started looking
real good, Granny took us to “Jackie’s” for oysters on the half-shell.
A dozen oysters for a buck and they slid down slippery and cool. And
as we sat at the bar, Granny would utter her favorite line in her perky
devil-may-care voice—a line that I heard many times over the next ten
years as she looked up at the bartender—“Hey barkeep, how about another
When we weren’t at the bars, we were hanging out at one of her boyfriends’
houses drinking more and playing euchre. Her men were always on the
Harley-riding tough-side and often looked askew at my straight teeth
and combed hair. I tried to deflect the looks by focusing on the beer
and cards, appealing to the camaraderie of drunks and gamblers. And
it was at the card table where Granny’s persona took even stronger hold.
At pairs euchre, she often took her partner’s best, called trump, and
played it alone. And when she did allow her partner to play, her favorite
line was, “Don’t send a boy when you can send a man.” If she had a bower,
she played it first; she threw the nines at the end of the game. She
won more than not, and shit-faced and all ears, we young boys simply
marveled. As that visit wore on, Granny’s name morphed into its current
form. Her last name, taken from her previous husband, was Wooten, and
so after several beers we turned Wooten into Hooten,
which still after more beer became Hootenany,
rhyming nicely with Granny and flowing smoothly off our thick, slurry
Over the next few years, the Granny-Hootenany
trip to Central Florida became a thrice-a-year
pilgrimage for me and whoever I could drag along. As the trips continued
through my Midwestern college years, my roommates initially scoffed
at a spring-break trip to visit Grandma, but then after our arrival
they soon marveled at her drinking, trash-talking, and card-playing
prowess. And I, for the most part, sat proud as I paraded her out and
about amongst the middle-class kids that joined me.
There were times when a darker side emerged, if not directly from Granny,
then from our fellow barroom patrons. There was a certain forlorn look,
an emptiness, often a look of low ambition
or down-and-out luck in these backwoods, working-class bars. And every
now and then, there were genuinely bad scenes.
I remember one grisly afternoon in a place named “Louie’s” in Oklawaha,
just down the road from Bellview, a town at
the southern end of LakeOklawaha which consisted of
a few houses, a gas station, and Louie’s. The owner, Louie, and his
wife sat in a torn, vinyl-covered, curved booth at the end of the small,
smoke-drenched, empty tavern. As Granny and I, and another college-friend
sat and listened, Louie and his wife told us about their recent story
of carnage and poverty-stricken chaos. They had been in a car-wreck
the week before, and she had broken several ribs and punctured a lung.
Both were aged, broke, drunk, chain-smoking, and uninsured, and as she
hacked and coughed through the story, she periodically touched a smeared
hanky up to her mouth to wipe away the convulsing blood.
A bit like Granny, these stories suggested that the barstool was more
an escape than a pedestal. At about four beers, Granny just got more
playful. Her jokes came quicker, her laugh harder, and the fifty-cent
beers went down faster. At six beers, Granny would begin to slur slightly,
the grin on her face would get a certain gritty teeth-clenched look
to it, and her right eye would wink. At eight beers, her head would
bob a little, her eyes would often sink, and she would start to get
a little maudlin. “Gary,”
she would slur after her ninth or tenth beer, “life is full of heartaches.”
And then she would tell me a couple of hers, usually about her two dead
The first husband, my granddad, she divorced in her late forties. It
was a turbulent marriage; four-letter words were sprinkled through her
story. The second husband she found dead in bed beside her a few years
before my first visit. He died of a stroke at age forty-eight, and dear-old
Granny had a tough spell every time she told the story. They had left
Illinois and moved to
Florida together a few
years before his death in hopes of starting a new life.
Despite these dark stories, Granny most always held her head high, dressed
well, and always looked a notch above everyone else in the bars we frequented.
She had a certain dignified air, and though she lived in trailers, hers
was usually one of the nicer in the park, and the car out front was
usually newer and very clean. Her niche, it seemed, was the high end
of low-class. It was an easy spot for her to fill, required little work,
and without too much effort she could out-class most of her friends
and acquaintances, which in part, I think, is what most of us are really
after. And though we sometimes drank to excess, I never thought of her
as a drunk.
The last of our official escapades came in the summer of 1987 when she
came to Boulder, via Denver
on Amtrak, to visit. I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree (eight-year
plan) and in part she was coming out to help me celebrate. Granny had
only completed fourth grade, so for her a college education was an actual
cause for celebration. It was a whirlwind of a week, visiting all of
my haunts in Boulder and
many mountain haunts at higher elevation. The main drunken highlight
came the night before the trip to LakeIrene, when we officially
did the Boulder Mall Crawl.
As it was known back then, the Boulder Mall Crawl was a drinking fest
where you started at the west end of the Pearl Street Mall and stopped
at every bar on Pearl Street, drank one beer, and then walked ever eastward
until the mall stopped. The word “Crawl” came from the idea that by
the end of the mall, you would be in a literal, drunken crawl, which
occured at on many weekend nights. The Mall Crawl became famous
every Halloween when thirty-thousand people all tried to do it at the
same time—an alcoholic cacophony of chaos complete with rampant, near
mob-like vandalism and police paddy wagons at every corner. And even
when it wasn’t Halloween, the Mall Crawl had a certain allure so that
whenever friends came to town, that’s what you did. Granny was my friend,
so that’s what we did. At that time, I believe there were sixteen official
bars, and we hit every one, closing them out at about , side-by-side, me and Granny, drinking buddies.
And then the next day, to sober up, I took her on the drive up to RockyMountainNational Park,
and then back on the Peak-to-Peak Highway
through Ward, Nederland,
and down to Boulder. What
happened during that week and on that drive added another little notch
to the story as I now see it. Granny had never been to the mountains,
and on seeing them, she was in utter speechless awe. Of course they
are awesome, but I think there was something more to it. The scale and
scenery, the beauty, and the immensity of it seemed to calm her in ways
the barstool never could. At LakeIrene, she was genuinely
child-like. Her soul seemed at peace, and those heartaches seemed miles
The end of her visit to Colorado
foreshadowed the end of our escapades. On the way back to Amtrak the
next day, Granny collapsed and blacked-out in a restaurant in downtown
Denver. She woke up a few
minutes later and said all the week’s liquor wasn’t mixing well with
the medication she was taking for her heart and blood pressure. And
so it was that Granny quick drinking soon thereafter, and we quit escapading. She grew old and I grew up.
June of 2002, Granny was still living on
her own, soberly, and driving everyday, at eighty-seven years
old. But then a few weeks later, her health failed, she required major
surgery, and after recuperating for two weeks, she had a stroke. All
of which took its toll and combined with the slow onset of Alzheimer’s
so that Granny took the permanent step to the nursing home. A few months
after that, the story of Granny Hootenany
and her “life full of heartaches” took a steep and interesting turn.
The history of this turn runs thus: My mother was born in 1937, daughter
to Granny and her first husband, at which time Granny was twenty-three
years old and my granddad twenty-five. Granny had eight brothers and
sisters, and when my mother was a small girl, the numerous cousins would
gather out back on the Illinois
farm and tell stories, and occasionally a story arose about a secret
previous child of Granny Irene’s. Yes, another baby, prior to my mom.
The cousins told conflicting versions, one that the baby died at birth,
and another that the baby was born severely retarded and given to an
institution. Rumors and secrets took the place of details and truth,
but then the story always ended, and the cousins quit talking because
nobody really knew what happened. The baby was gone and no one new why
or where, and the only tangible consequence was that my mother was raised
an only child. Granny’s firstborn, if there was one, was simply a secret
never thereafter mentioned by anyone in the family or out, never discussed
by Granny or my granddad.
All of which changed in March of 2002 when my mom decided, at the age
of sixty-five, that she was going to find out what happened to her sibling.
Why she waited so long to look for her sibling is a complicated question
without an easy answer. Her quest was even more complicated, in part
because Granny and my mom never got along well. The reason for their
sour relationship is also complicated, though I think it’s because Granny’s
general life-approach was present much before I met her. A fun-loving,
live-for-the-day granny is a much more entertaining picture than a fun-loving,
live-for-the-day mom, and I am told that her fun-lovingness wasn’t usually
present during her mothering years. In any case, over the years, my
mom never asked Granny about her other kid, and never asked anyone in
the family about her sibling. By this time in 2002, Granny was in the
nursing home in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, having some lucid
days and some not. Her mental and physical health was a big concern,
so it did not seem like a good time to ask questions about life-long
regrets, should they be.
Other sources, though less direct, came through. A couple of those cousins
still had additional information and offered it freely, even after several
decades of silence. One of Granny’s sisters was still alive, and also
spoke freely for the first time ever. Records were unearthed in an old
county courthouse. In a matter of a few weeks, the details emerged.
Granny Hootenany and my granddad had their
first child in May of 1930, a healthy girl named Betty. Granny was fifteen
years old; granddad seventeen. It was the middle of the Great Depression
and the new parents were mere kids themselves, dirt poor and uneducated,
and both had come from families that could offer no assistance.
Legal papers from the old courthouse vaguely describe the aftermath.
Three months after the birth, Betty was turned over to the Children’s
Home and Aid Society of Illinois, an orphanage. The court papers say
the State found the parents to be “unfit,” and thus forced the parents
to bring the baby to court and then took the baby away. The terminology
is legalese, and even for that day is hard to translate. Cousins filled
in a few more details. Grief and chaos caused Granny and her husband
to temporarily separate, though they eventually got back together, and
the exact definition of “unfit” is unclear and may have been connected
to severe domestic strife among other things. However it’s worded, Granny
had to give away a three-month-old baby apparently against her will.
Heartaches, indeed, perhaps enough to fill many glasses of beer.
But as in many things, one person’s darkness becomes another’s shining
light. Armed with this new information of sisterhood, my mother’s heart
then filled in a very different direction. After many internet searches,
phone calls, and a few letters, Betty’s life emerged, which also had
its share of heartaches. Betty was adopted in 1934 after living in an
orphanage in Chicago for
four years. Her adoptive parents also raised her as an only child. Tragically,
both of her adoptive parents died when Betty was fourteen years old,
and Betty went back to the orphanage. At seventeen years old, Betty
was loosed on the world, and in the intervening fifty-five years kept
within a close circle of Chicago.
She was alive and well, living in a north-Chicago suburb, and had four
kids, several grandkids and great grandkids, and did not know she had
a sister. A couple more phone calls and the story coalesced, as it should
on the day it should.
On Mother’s Day, 2003, Betty visited Watseka. The two sisters met for
the first time. Tears, hugs, and laughter filled the afternoon. Two
hours later, my mom and Betty went to the nursing home to visit Granny
Hootenany, my old drinking buddy, still suffering
badly from Alzheimer’s. I am told that Granny looked inquisitively at
her guests, and recognized my mother for the first time in a few days.
The excitement of Mother’s Day seemed to have jutted through the crust
on her brain. A few times Granny also asked who this other woman was,
and for the time being at least, Betty’s true identity was not revealed
for sake of causing Granny severe emotional if not physical trauma.
But for the first time, after seventy-three years of waiting, a woman
had a birth-mother, and an eighty-nine-year-old mother had her two children
beside her, together.
the children and I walk back to the car from LakeIrene, the kids are in a
satisfied mood. We stayed for over an hour after we threw the jewelry,
and the kids played at water’s edge all the while watching the sun shimmer
against the Lake’s secret treasure. We drive
back across the high tundra, and then down, down, and down from the
high peaks toward the mountain valley below. Arriving in EstesPark, we drive to Dairy Queen
for chocolate-dipped cones, and then drive over to an elementary school
which has a huge, fort-like playground. The air is crystal-clear, almost
wet-looking, as if I could dip my finger into it and wipe it on my shirt.I find myself caught with an urge to stop
and buy a house and make a life amidst these peaks and valleys. The
scenery looks more like a painting than an actual place, and for a moment
I think I could actually walk into it, immerse myself, and perform another
Great Escape, which I used to do so well, and which Granny had nearly
But the urge settles and dissipates as I look across the playground
at the two giggling and tumbling kids. Different priorities emerge.
Civilization down in the Front Range—no longer
the dark ominous monster, now the nurturing guardian—awaits.
On previous visits to the mountains, I used to frequent the local mountain
bars instead of the playgrounds, and on those barstools, I often heard
stories like Granny's, of escape and hiding, a common theme in the High
Country, one I also used to frequent. But unlike hers, these mountain
stories often contain an additional theme—healing. Mountains and nature
can heal, something Granny's barstool never
quite gave her.
I’d love to hear her say one last time, “Hey barkeep, how about another
beer?” with that perky smile on her face and her arm on the bar. But
as she also used to say, “The world is full of heartaches.”
We’ll never know the exact details of why she gave away that baby, but
as I watch my children on the playground, I cannot blame her attempts
at barstool solace. Tougher people have found the same solace for much
lesser reasons. What glitters in the bottom of a lake, glitters in the
bottom of her soul—a secret, hidden.
They say that mountains hold secrets. I am inclined to believe.
Author’s note: This story was written
in the Fall of 2003. In the winter of 2005, my Aunt Betty died of emphysema,
a disease she had been battling for several years. A few months later,
Granny Hootenany finally died too. During Granny’s last two years
in the nursing home, her mental health never returned. My mom held Granny’s
hand as she took her last breaths in the nursing home.