Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Great Roaring Fork Rope Bridge Adventure

I wrote this tribute to a friend on her passing in May 2005.
Her monument is being unveiled this weekend.

I have a lifetime of wonderful memories of Rochelle, from the first time we met at a party when we were high school seniors to her radiant presence at my sister’s birthday celebration last November. We had many adventures over those 40 years, but I’ve recalled one in particular since her passing. Let’s call it the Great Roaring Fork Rope Bridge Adventure.

First some background: The Roaring Fork River starts near Aspen, Colorado and runs undisturbed, which is to say undammed, to its confluence with the Colorado River some 70 miles north near Glenwood Springs. The Roaring Fork is a river of many personalities as it wanders through meanders created over the millennia. At its source above Aspen’s toney chalets, it is a rivulet. At its terminus near the Glenwood cemetery where “Doc” Holliday of “Shootout at OK Corral” fame is buried, it is fairly wide, comparatively docile and navigable by raft and shallow draft boat.

At more or less the halfway point in the aspen and pine forests above the village of Carbondale, the Roaring Fork more than lives up to its name as it shoots through a basalt and limestone canyon. This is where our adventure unfolded in August of 1978.

The Roaring Fork Valley was a second home of sorts for Rochelle. She lived in Carbondale during the period when, as the joke went, it was first attracting the attention of the millionaires who were being driven out of Aspen by the billionaires. On her return visits, she was treated like royalty by the many friends she had made. She couldn’t pay for a coffee at the Village Smithy or a beer at the Hollywood Saloon.

* * * * *

As befitted her as a Libra, Rochelle was romantic, idealistic and pacifistic. She also was deeply spiritual, an extraordinary cook and baker, practiced practical joker and namer of names. Few people escaped her nom de plumage. The resident beekeeper at the farm where Rochelle and I lived in Chester County, Pennsylvania, was a former battlefield medic and PhD candidate and thus was dubbed Doctor Doc to differentiate him from another roommate, Doctor Duck. A mutual friend’s Italian surname morphed into Eatabunny. I was Captain Cab because I would ferry the farm’s multitudes around the block -- or around the country -- in my VW bus.

In this particular instance it was to a house outside of Carbondale where three friends whom Rochelle called The Slow Children lived. She had so named them because of the


sign on the road near their driveway, but now that I think about it, maybe for another reason as well. Rochelle immediately set about squaring away the Slow Children’s kitchen, which was in the kind of toxic condition you would expect for three guys who spent their days building houses for those millionaires and their nights throwing back cold ones at the Hollywood.

Her domestic diva duties done, we headed out with two of the three Slow Children for an explore along the Roaring Fork River canyon, which is situated a few miles below Marble, a mountaintop ghost town that was once home to thousands of people who worked what was then the world’s largest marble quarry, supplying the goods for the Lincoln Memorial, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and hundreds of other buildings. There are many old mine entrances in the area, most long overgrown with trees and vegetation.

The day was gloriously sunny and quite hot, and it being late summer, the meadows we crossed as we climbed to the canyon were a riot of columbine, primrose, lavender and sage. While our hike was not technically difficult, neither was it for the faint of heart.

There was only one way to cross the canyon for miles in either direction -- a crude wood and rope footbridge straight out of an “Indiana Jones” movie that screamed DANGER! A goodly number of the wood slats were missing, providing a vertiginous view of the Roaring Fork hurtling through the canyon 75 or so feet below, while the ropes holding the bridge together were not in very good shape, either.

One of the Slow Children was two or three steps onto the bridge when I sensed that Rochelle was no longer behind us. When I turned around, I saw that she had stopped dead in her tracks. There was a “You’ve gotta be nuts” look on her face that I had seen other times when she sensed, usually correctly, that sanity -- along with Elvis – had left the building.

As the smarty pants among you will know, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” did not premiere until a few years later, but the following snippet of dialog between Indy (Harrison Ford) and Willie (Kate Capshaw) from that movie fits the moment perfectly:
INDY: Anything can happen. It’s a long way to Delhi.

WILLIE: No, thanks, no more adventures with you, Dr. Jones.

INDY: Sweetheart, after all the fun we've had together?

WILLIE: If you think I'm going to Delhi with you, or anyplace else after all the trouble you've gotten me into, think again, buster! I'm going home to Missouri where they never feed you snakes before ripping your heart out and lowering you into hot pits! This is not my idea of a swell time.
* * * * *

We backtracked into the shade of the aspens, where a canteen and orange slices were passed around. A magpie squawked off in the distance, but other than the thrum of the Roaring Fork coursing through the canyon, it was quiet.

One of the Slow Children finally broke the silence. “So what if we carry you across?” he offered. “You can close your eyes.”

Fire leapt from Rochelle’s eyes.

More silence.

“Well, we could always throw the Ching . . . ,” I suggested.

The fire had gone out and there were now only wisps of smoke.

“ . . . Or we could just backtrack,” I added unhelpfully. “No big deal.”

“Screw all of you,” Rochelle replied.

It probably was as close as I ever heard her get to using profanity.

“I’m going to do it,” she added with an unchallenged finality. “I know how to fly this plane, I’m just not always sure about landing it.”

And then the most amazing but Rochelle-like thing happened. She suddenly was on the other side of the bridge waving her sun hat at us.

“Come on you Slow Children!” she laughed. “What’s taking you so long?”

You wouldn’t think that Rochelle had much in common with Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, the novelist and world-class misogynist. She didn’t, but they both did love cats.

I took this photo of Rochelle, who left her own cat of 18 years, King Wenceslaus, with her passing, at the aforementioned farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, not long after the rope bridge adventure. Rochelle is holding one of the farm’s many cats, Terrapin, a sweet little ball of fluff who was born at the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West, Fla.

Papa had stipulated in his will that his cats and their progeny were to be cared for in perpetuity. Terrapin was polydactyl because of generations of inbreeding, which means he had more than the normal number of toes, in his case seven each on his front paws and six each on his rear paws.

Meanwhile, Wennie died exactly one week after his beloved mistress.

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