Holiday Traditions

My earliest memory of an actual Christmas tradition in our family was that of the annual Christmas Tree Hunt. There may have been years where we purchased a tree from one of the many vendors around town—we would likely have bought ours from the guys set up on the church parking lot— but buying a tree was rare for us.

The hillsides and mountains around Reno where I grew up were covered with any number of trees. The Sierra Nevada mountains had pine trees, though little in the way of the traditional conical-shaped Douglas fir or noble fir. Those showed up in the parking lots around town, shipped down from Oregon. The ponderosa pines and sugar pines in the Sierra were a scraggly lot in their smaller sizes, though beautiful and stately once they were grown. But a five to six foot ponderosa pine had few branches from which to hang ornaments. 

Our Christmas tree hunt generally focused on the smaller hills to the south of town, an easy hour-long trip to the hills outside Virginia City. There we could find the tree my Dad favored: Nevada’s pinion pine. The pinion pine is a squat, rather bushy style of tree. Very aromatic, quite a bit of pitch which would often be hard to clean off your hands, and lots of pine cones. 

But because most of the trees we found ran towards the beachball shape, it would take a lot of trekking the hills until we found one that was suitable. Never mind if there were bare spots, those could be filled in later with strategically placed branches, cut and reattached with a bit of wire. 

When I married, one of the holiday traditions I wanted to continue with my family was that of the Christmas Tree Hunt. My wife was onboard, and my son enjoyed the trips out to Ticonderoga Farm in Chantilly, especially the year it snowed. Most years the weather was warm and the hunt for a beautiful scotch pine didn’t take long. Acres of trees grown in well-tended rows took some of the “adventure of the hunt” out of the experience, but sipping hot chocolate around the fire pit while we waited for the tree to be bagged with netting more than made up for lost adventure.

Years later I finally broke down and we purchased a prelit artificial tree. We spray it with some winter scent (this year it is “Snowy Night”) hoping to enjoy some of that fresh-cut smell. Not the same, but it’s nice. I saw cars and trucks on the road coming back from Middleburg over the weekend, each one with a nice plump tree strapped to their roof. We just bought a new, prelit tree last year when we downsized to a townhouse. So we won’t be taking part in the Annual Tree Hunt any time soon. And truthfully, I think my days of wandering around the hills looking for that perfect tree are over.

I did plant a small spruce in the yard last year. Who knows but in a few years, it might be large enough to string a few outdoor lights on. But I’m not giving up my Balsam Hill tree. After all, it’s prelit.

What I Want You to Know

This year, well actually tomorrow, our first granddaughter turns thirteen. I have taken so many pictures of her over the years, many on my iPad or sitting in frames around the house, that I’m having a hard time seeing her as the young woman she is becoming. I see her, but really I see That Little Two-year-old in the ladybug costume at Halloween. Or the child in the pink hoodie and purple straw hat, holding a flower she had just picked from the yard. Sometimes I see the young girl in shorts and a helmet sitting on a pony, unsure if she wants down or to keep on riding. 

Living in such close proximity we’ve had the extraordinary blessing of being able to see her and her sister regularly. Growing up, my grandparents lived in another state. We saw them only occasionally for holidays, or perhaps when they passed thru town pulling their travel trailer behind the big Oldsmobile on their way to my aunt and uncle’s home in Oregon for the summer. Our visits were always brief, the years passed quickly seemingly marked by the exchange of school pictures we sent them annually. 

My wife and son got to meet my grandmother only once. We arrived at my aunt and uncle’s home in time to join in a birthday celebration for Grandma. She was 98 that year and though her eyesight was failing, still her health and spirits were good. The excitement of opening gifts, cake and ice cream, meeting my family and talking more than she was used to must have been taxing on her. She soon retired to her small room to rest. It was the last time we would see her. She died two years later, just days shy of turning 100.

Oh, I love my new hat!

All that to say, what time we had spent with grandparents over the years wasn’t spent in reminiscing or talking about the past. Other than what could be gleaned from a few black and white photos, I know very little about the lives of my grandparents. 

So I was encouraged when my wife Deb picked up a special gift for our granddaughter. It’s in the form of a journal, really a collection of letters that you write, to be opened at a later date. It’s called “Letters to My Grandchild,” with the clever subtitle “A Paper Time Capsule.”

There are twelve prepackaged envelopes in booklet form. Nicely packaged, beautiful graphics and stickers remind one of those special airmail envelopes from generations ago. Clever titles like “The best advice anyone ever gave me,” or “It may surprise you to learn that…” are great topics for discussion starters. There are envelopes that focus on the past (“One positive change I have seen in the world”) and there are ones that allow a glimpse into the future (“My wishes for you are”).

Over a recent weekend getaway, Deb and I sat down to fill them out, each of us writing a short couple of paragraphs to seal up for the future. For one title, “Here is a special story about our family,” we’ve included the story about our drive through Florida during Hurricane Frances-2004. Not one of my better decisions, but the story of a rescue by strangers will hopefully be encouraging to her. 

The teen years can be challenging for everyone—the teen, her parents and siblings, and even grandparents who have a rough time seeing the person of today and not the small child of our memories. It’s important to recognize and see the person standing before us and not the imagined child from the photo albums if we are to be allies and mentors. Watching them grow up, we have been blessed to live in close proximity to our young extended family— Lord knows I can’t see myself pulling a 22 ft. trailer cross country to visit grandchildren!

The Long Reach of Memory

I was on Facebook the other day, scrolling past political arguments, pictures of cute dogs, homes being made ready for the holidays. It’s funny how you can be brought up short, suddenly frozen in the moment by an image from your past.

It was a photo of a barn in Washoe Valley not far from where I had grown up in Reno. The barn was red, not an uncommon color, the steeply pitched roofline common for the area’s barns which were designed to hold bales of hay thru the winter. It’s nestled up against the mountains and set off by striking gold leafed trees, made even more pronounced by the early dusting of snow. A small fence can be seen in the foreground. (Photo by Sharon Voss, from Facebook group “Only in Nevada”)

I had seen similar barns on a recent vacation in central Virginia. Similar, but not the same. A beautiful horse barn on the Montpelier mansion property had caught my attention and we stopped to get a few pictures of it and the unusual green color of the siding. The barn shape reminded me of buildings I had seen out West, not at all like the many dairy barns we have here in Loudoun County. 

Later that day we found our way to the 1804 Inn at Barboursville Vineyards, our home base for the weekend as we explored the area and vineyards near Charlottesville VA. As we settled in, the afternoon sun was spectacular on the trees and really set off the red siding of the farm equipment structure across the lawn from us. Trees with brilliant tones of gold and orange contrasted with dark limbs. A white fence lead the eye through the idyllic composition. Again, the scene was oddly familiar. 


My stepmother Dorathy and my Dad both passed away within weeks of one another in 2007. He was 81 and had slowly succumbed to the effects of Alzheimer’s. She had predeceased him by a mere three weeks, a victim of respiratory failure. She would have been 97 this year on the 18th of November. We flew out for their memorial service, and later gathered with my brothers and their wives to go through what remained of my folks’ belongings at the home they had lived in for 38 years. I brought back a painting of the Sierra Nevada mountains that I had grown up enjoying. As a young artist it had been a goal of mine to be able to paint as well. There were other paintings of their’s but those must must have gone into storage. 

When I saw the photo on Facebook of the Washoe Valley barn, it all fell into place. The barns we had seen on our recent vacation, and then the photo of the Nevada barn, all reminded me of a painting which had hung in my parents’ home for years. A red barn. Set against the mountains. Trees in autumn, a rail fence. Though strangely enough, a lake curiously close to the barn reflecting the scene. 

And as I remembered it all, the painting had been done by Maxine Peters, my stepmother’s sister, of a red barn in Washoe Valley back in the 1960s. She loved the site but had painted it with Washoe Lake (or perhaps a pond) coming right up to the barn in order to maximize the color in the scene. An artist’s vision had altered the landscape to create something that only existed in her mind, but which had lived on for years in our home. She had some repute as a genre painter, exhibiting at local galleries and art shows, and we were quite proud to have one of her paintings hanging in the living room. 

Dad and Dorathy at the Lake cabin

They are a tricky thing, memories. There are times when I feel I have completely forgotten everything that happened before last week. When I talk with my 92-year-old mother, I am always surprised at how much she can still recall of her childhood. I’ve relied on photos of people and events to jog my memory, and that only recently. I’ve become the family photographer and archivist in part to ward off the eventual dimming of memory. We often say in jest, “if I didn’t take a picture, it didn’t happen.” Some truth to that, though as I found out this week, it can be surprising how long the reach of memory can be.

Seasons Change

I was in the 8th Grade when I heard the song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” by the Byrds. I didn’t know that it had been written and recorded years earlier by folk musician Pete Seeger. I only knew it from that jangly guitar version from 1965. And it was literally years later that I learned the lyrics were from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The wisest man in the known world certainly had a way with catchy lyrics.

This week during my walks thru the neighborhood, I was astounded by the rich color and utter confusion of fallen leaves along the path. Deep reds, bright chartreuse yellows, golden orange tones made walking slow trying to soak in all of the colors. 

The wooded area near our home is bisected by an intermittent stream providing fresh water for the many animals (deer in the area?) found here, though primarily birds and squirrels are all I ever see. But this week we had several rains and strong wind storms. The stream rose up and washed clean a lot of the debris along its shore. The winds and rain had ground down the leaves or blown clear the walking path. Today the few remaining leaves are faded to grays and tans; the exuberant color display is over signaling a change in the season.

It strikes me as not coincidental that our national election comes at the end of the year.  November has much to be thankful for, chief of which is that it is the last month before the slog thru winter. December, followed by January and then February. All cold months, colors faded to dark and light. But November seems to offer a brief moment of rest before the seasons change. An election offers the hope of future change just when we are beginning to think about the seasonal change to winter. “Winter is coming” somber voice, GOT; but first, let’s vote. 

Wikipedia is a useful source for information regarding the National Election Day. 

“By 1792, federal law permitted each state to choose Presidential electors any time within a 34-day period before the first Wednesday in December. A November election was convenient because the harvest would have been completed but the most severe winter weather, impeding transportation, would not yet have arrived,

Development of the Morse electric telegraph funded by Congress in 1843 and successfully tested in 1844, was a technological change that clearly augured an imminent future of instant communication nationwide. To prevent information from one state from influencing Presidential electoral outcomes in another, Congress responded in 1845 by mandating a uniform national date for choosing Presidential electors. Congress chose the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to harmonize current electoral practice with the existing 34-day window in federal law, as the span between Election Day and the first Wednesday in December is always 29 days. The effect is to constrain Election Day to the week between November 2 and 8 inclusive.”

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace,  and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence,  and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Let’s all be encouraged that whether you think this is a time of weeping, scattering, casting away stones, or a time of hate: that God has a time of peace ahead for us. 

Making New Old

When I closed my small business a couple of years ago, I thought that it was likely the end of my decorative-painting career. I had started Turtle Hill Originals as an opportunity to market and sell the small, home decor items I had been painting, and up until then, selling thru local craft shows. A business brought with it business cards, brochures, a website, an Etsy storefront, Facebook page, and access to wholesale pricing on materials. But after three years and minimal sales, we decided that enough was enough.

I was about twelve years old, as I recall, when I first became interested in refinishing furniture. I had found a small footstool set out for trash pickup one day and decided to bring it home. The cushion would need to be replaced, the wooden legs and frame sanded smooth, stained and varnished. But I was confident that I could make something old look new again.

The next project I tackled was a rocking chair and after that it was a stream of small pieces that found a new life, refreshed and useful again. The smell of sawdust, walnut stain, and varnish at that time competed with my desire to be a fine artist. And looking back now, both shared similar skills but with differing goals.

I don’t know when, but sometime over the intervening years I lost interest in bringing old pieces back to life. It could have been the many years I spent in the museum and trade show industry helping to create graphics for many of our Smithsonian museums. The casework we created was gorgeous, beautifully finished pieces I would love to have had in my home. Their pristine surfaces were lacquered and glowed in the soft museum lighting. But I was being drawn towards the textured, roughly painted surfaces of scenic reproductions.

Starting with new materials, the scenic and props department turned New into Old. Whether it was a rusted time-worn metal finish, or desert-bleached wood, the trompe l’oeil effects of the paintbrush were magical and I loved it. Learning to use brushes, sponges, and spatter techniques served me well when I was called on to help create props and stage sets for our local church’s dramatic Easter productions.

Once I retired, I found I had the time to continue my decorative painting. I haven’t felt the self-imposed pressure to create pieces for sale that I had been under when I was struggling to promote a business. Contrary to popular belief, I had found that there isn’t always a market for what you love to do.

But after we downsized and moved to a smaller home, small projects keep popping up. Another side table for my recliner, a whimsical plant stand painted in a harlequin pattern, even a refresh of the painted pumpkins I had made several years ago are all projects I’ve enjoyed doing recently. Below are some of the pieces that I’ve worked on this past month. I might not be making old new again, but I am enjoying aging along with the process of making new things appear old. “Gracefully aged,” I should say!

Zoom Hacks

By now, I think we all know what is working for us on Zoom. Or at least we know what hasn’t worked for us. I opened a Zoom account March 18 to lead our Wednesday night small group Bible study as an online discussion group. What I thought would last for a few weeks, at the most a month or two, has continued on thru October with no plans for stopping any time in the immediate future.

At first we used our iPad propped up on a few books on a table as our only device to log in and connect with friends. That worked fine until I knocked it over a few times reaching for my coffee. So that has lead us to a continual improvement mode and our own list of Zoom Hacks.

  1. Tripod: We bought a Joby iPad holder to attach the iPad to my camera tripod. Now we were always in the frame without looking for a stack of books to prop up the iPad.
  2. Lighting: The lighting in our living room is nice, but not what you would consider studio quality. Quite often we were silhouettes against the lighter background, or you couldn’t see us at all. I found an inexpensive LED studio umbrella light on Amazon that has worked great. It’s lightweight and is easily stored when not in use.
  3. Webcam and Microphone: the iPad worked great for a time but when we hosted a meeting for friends IRL and online, we needed a better solution than the iPad’s built in camera and microphone. A recommendation from a friend out in Oregon (who also demonstrated his for me) lead to purchasing a webcam with two microphones suitable for picking up the voices from people spread out in a classroom.
  4. External Speaker: the tinny sound from our Mac book wasn’t adequate for the folks in our classroom to hear the comments from our online participants. So we bought a portable Bluetooth speaker. Great sound, small investment.
  5. Lazy Susan Turntable: With a large group sitting six feet apart, it was impossible for the camera to pick up everyone. So we placed the web cam on a small tripod and set it on a turntable in the middle of the table. Now we just spin it around towards whoever is speaking. Problem solved.


If this keeps up for much longer, I’m sure we will come up with a few more improvements to our portable home Zoom Kit. The biggest improvement has been the best hack of all. 

It only took one Zoom meting for us to realize that I am terrible at multitasking. I would forget to admit people who were in the meeting room, or forget to read the comments in the chat room while we were meeting. So from that first meeting, my wife has graciously served as our online host while I lead the discussion. She monitors the online participants, replies to messages in the chat room, and operates our swivel camera/microphone setup ensuring that the online participants can at least see who is speaking and not getting a view of the ceiling or the back wall of the classroom. AND participates in the discussion, proving to be a great multitasker!

We have accepted the idea that some routines just won’t be going back to the old normal. And that’s OK. In the past, if you couldn’t be physically present for a meeting, a study or group discussion, Too Bad. Your Loss. Now we are seeing even greater participation, often from members who are on travel, logging in to take part and offer their voice to the discussion. Modern technology has offered more, affordable ways to stay in touch than ever before. Whether a cellphone or a laptop, and iPad or a desktop computer, it’s easy to stay connected and not miss out. Not quite like being in the room, but close.


Here is a list of the products we found helpful; you can find them all on Amazon.

  • DOSS SoundBox Touch Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speakers
  • Victure Webcam with Dual Microphones, 1080P Full HD Streaming Webcam for PC, MAC, Desktop & Laptop
  • JOBY GripTight PRO Mount for Tablets
  • ESDDI Softbox Lighting Kit Photo Studio Light

Holidays on Zoom

Really? Are we actually thinking of doing our upcoming holidays on Zoom? 

For years, like many families I’m sure, we have spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with extended family. Whether potluck buffet-style or sit down dinner for a few, we have enjoyed Thanksgiving in a group setting, too many people around a small table. 

Small or large, Thanksgiving means turkey, except when it doesn’t.
What do you serve for the holiday?

Though one year’s Thanksgiving main course ended up with an oven fire, and an overzealous use of the fire  extinguisher (sheepishly raises hand), we all have memories of holiday meals that didn’t go quite as planned. Our Hallmark-movie-Martha-Stewart-Instagram-perfect table setting might not have made the cover of Southern Living Magazine. Our signature dessert might have suffered irreparable harm on its way to the table or an excitable dog might have crashed the side table. Every family has a holiday memory that, years later has grown with the telling.

My brother shocked me one year with the confession that his wife had cooked two turkeys. And a ham. Along with the usual panoply of side dishes. And rice and kimchi. As a Korean-American, cooking an American-style Thanksgiving dinner had been a new experience for her. But like everything else she sets her hand to, she excelled at it. Why so much food? Dave said that he never knows how many have been invited, or who all eventually shows up. But it’s always a crowd.

Which brings us back to this year’s holiday preparations. We just finished celebrating my Mother’s 92nd birthday over Zoom with the family last month. We’ve attended church online for months now and attended countless Zoom meetings, studies, and social events. We’ve even become somewhat proficient at hosting live Bible study with members participating in person and online.

But I’m not sure if I’m ready to wave a turkey leg at family members sitting across from us at a table, toasting with a glass of wine, sharing that second slice of pie…on Zoom. I know the CDC has offered guidelines for attending and hosting holiday events (see here). But I do know, like those early Americans celebrating their first holiday of Thanksgiving, that we will be thankful for our many blessings, regardless of who shows up. And for the record, I have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Just for emergencies. You do want to be prepared.

Celebrating 100 Years of Rodeo

Last summer we flew out to Las Vegas and drove out to visit the Grand Canyon. On February 26, 2019, the Grand Canyon National Park celebrated 100 years since it’s designation as a national park with events and activities scheduled all year long. When I discovered this year that 2019 was also the centennial of the Reno Rodeo, I nearly had a heart attack. We could have celebrated two centennials in one year! It wasn’t until this year, long after we had canceled plans to visit Reno, that I found an online article outlining last year’s events for the centennial of the Reno Rodeo.

It was over the July 4th weekend, July 3-5, 1919 that local promoters had scheduled the first Reno Round-up. The community celebration was led by the Commercial Club at the time, which merged with the Reno Business League in 1919 to form the Reno Chamber of Commerce. 

Nevada Round-up, from The Yerington Times, Yerington NV 1919

In 1937 the Reno Rodeo and Livestock Association was formed to manage the event. In 1987, they celebrated their 50th anniversary and reorganized as the Reno Rodeo Association. Reno Rodeo Association has led this signature event which has grown into a 10-day romp entertaining 140,000 fans each year. https://renorodeo.com/about/history/

But going back to the beginning of it all, The Silver State newspaper of Winnemucca, NV published an article in July of 1919 in which they mentioned that the Round-up would “mark the first representative gathering of Wild West riders, buckaroos and range experts since the beginning of the war nearly five years ago.” 

The first rodeo advertised $5000 in prize money. During last year’s rodeo, June 21 thru June 29, contestants were expecting to  compete for their chance at nearly $500,000 in prize money. Wow. That’s some growth!

The annual rodeo was a major event when I grew up in Reno. My pals and I attended as much for the adjacent carnival as we did to watch the bull riding and calf roping events. But it’s been decades since I’ve seen a rodeo in person. 

When I learned that last year was the centennial, I decided to create my own commemorative poster. That, and the hand painted frame to showcase my Nevada roots, became my most recent project.

A vintage frame, a silver dollar and two bucks in mercury dimes from my Dad’s estate, turquoise cabochons I cut back in my college years, red coral cabochons I found on Etsy along with cowhide from an outlet in Texas to serve as a backdrop for my state: all found there way into my mini memorial. An Ode to Cowboys!

I was given a vintage picture frame several years ago and have waited to find just the right project to use it on. I decided to go with a whimsical western-style frame decked out in red coral cabochons, silver to commemorate Nevada’s position as the Silver State, and several of the turquoise gemstones I’ve had stashed away in a box for the past 40-some-odd years.

One of the outstanding features of Nevada, at least to those in the Northern part of the state, are the beautiful high-mountain waters of Lake Tahoe. Using another piece of turquoise to represent the lake, it is set on a cowhide background featuring the silhouette of Nevada.

The completed project will find it’s home in our guest bedroom along with a number of other graphics, books on the area, and memorabilia I’ve collected thru the years. I might have missed out on last year’s celebration, but I’ve at least got my own souvenir of the celebration, and it’s definitely one of a kind!

Home Means Nevada!

Backroads

Several weeks ago we took a long weekend to get out of Northern Virginia and see some of the beautiful countryside that surrounds us. We ended up in Western Maryland, but rather than take the Interstate (US 15 to I 70, head west) we decided to take the more scenic route. Passing thru Strasbourg, we drove along US 48 thru farm land and on thru the rising foothills of West Virginia. 

A side trip along Capon Springs Road dropped us off at Capon Springs and Farms, a family resort begun in the 19th century. The bandstand out in a landscaped park looked like it might have been the site of many evening concerts in the past, entertaining guests at this charming old-style resort. Definitely a place to check out in the future. The Main House, which was originally called the Annex, was constructed in 1887 under the proprietorship of a Captain William Sale. The Pavilion once housed thirty-two soaking baths during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, being transformed into guest rooms during the 1930s.

Driving on, we came to Carpers Pike and cruised along in the pick up until we stopped at the Visitors Center in Wardensville, rejoining US Route 48. 

The Visitors Center appeared to have originally been a school building and the older couple, who evidently were the caretakers, confirmed our guess. Perhaps we were the only visitors they had seen that day, or maybe that generation just likes to talk. Whatever, they were happy to share about their efforts to have the school building preserved as a Visitor Center. At 84 years young, he was a talkative docent, giving us the local history while she argued with someone on the phone about the poor internet connection, or the reasons why the WiFi was down last week. Sounds just like at home.

When I asked if there were a place in town we could get a cup of coffee, he suggested the place across the street, “If you want to pay four dollahs for a cup a’ coffee.”

So we tried it out, The Lost River Trading Post, which seemed to be a mash up of a Starbucks, artisans outlet, and a retail store. We had a couple of lattes (large vanilla latte, $4.75) and commemorated the visit with the purchase of a boots-wearing-cow magnet. The shop did seem out of place for a very small town in West Virginia, though with its mix of handmade soaps, vintage kitchen ware, and framed artwork it must feel right at home for visitors from Northern Virginia.

One final stop before we reached our destination, a quick pullover to snap pictures of the ridgetop wind turbines we had seen for miles as we drove thru the mountains. The Fourmile Ridge Wind Farm has 16 turbines and has been operational since 2015. They are quite a sight to see, and whether or not they will eventually begin to replace fossil fuels power plants on an economically feasible basis remains to be seen. They are visually striking, but after seeing them at a distance for miles, and then up close, I fully sympathize with the “Not In My Backyard” sentiment.

The Interstate Highway System has been a mixed blessing, I’m sure. Wikipedia reports that “After Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1953, his administration developed a proposal for an interstate highway system, eventually resulting in the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Construction of the Interstate Highway System was proclaimed complete in 1992. The cost of construction of the Interstate Highway System was approximately $114 billion (equivalent to $530 billion in 2019).

But the highway system has left behind many smaller towns and communities, completely bypassed as we motor along those smooth roadways. As I’ve gotten older, I really do try and make the effort, remembering that The Journey can often be more rewarding than The Destination. 

Yurt Life, Part Two

From luxury accommodations to real-world portable homes, the yurt (or ger as it is known in Mongolia) has provided shelter and a sustainable way of life for thousands of years. While the construction materials may differ from those used here in the United States, the shape and suitability of these portable structures are very similar to the one in which we recently stayed.

Several years ago, Julie Stoll and her daughter Jean had the opportunity of a lifetime, traveling and experiencing a bit of the nomadic life on a visit to Mongolia. While there, they visited with camel herders and sheep shearers, seeing a way of life that included solar panels and satellite dish antennas as a means to stay connected with the rest of the world. Modern technology accompanies these families as they travel across the vast landscapes of their homeland, carrying their homes with them. 

I spoke with Julie via Zoom this week as we both shared our “glamping tent experience”, her’s at the Gorkhi-Terkel National Park in Mongolia, mine at the Savage River Lodge in western Maryland. Separated by thousands of miles and different cultures, these structures are essentially the same: a cylindrical tent featuring a conical roof, either with a central tent pole in large structures, or without one in the smaller tents. But interior furnishings, decoration, and even the presence (or absence in their case) of windows puts them worlds apart.

The Gers are round enclosures made from wood and wool felt, usually hand made by the family. A central hole in the roof allows both light in and smoke from the cooking stove to vent. Whether lavishly decorated, with embroidered fabrics and bed quilts, or the more rustic homes with small wood burning stoves for heat, these structures all have a single door and no windows. The wood latticework supporting the walls help to make the entire construction easily collapsible for transport. Rugs cover the interior floor and allow seating anywhere. 

Traveling for a couple of weeks in this remote country, there were many cultural events to experience. Julie had hoped to attend the Naadam Festival in Mongolia. The popular festival showcases traditional sports including wrestling, horseracing, and archery. Julie and Jean were able to attend a local event during their stay and saw much of the athletic ability for which the Mongolian people are known. A performance of throat singing made a great impression on these two.

Julie Stoll recorded this performance of Mongolian throat singing during her 2016 visit to that country.

The Smithsonian website has an informative write up on this mysterious vocal technique. Throat-singing, a guttural style of singing or chanting, is one of the world’s oldest forms of music. For those who think the human voice can produce only one note at a time, the resonant harmonies of throat-singing are surprising. In throat-singing, a singer can produce two or more notes simultaneously through specialized vocalization technique taking advantage of the throat’s resonance characteristics.

Our yurt was made with vinyl covered canvas, had hardwood floors and radiant heat, a tiled bathroom, two doors, windows and air conditioning. The gers Julie experienced were designed for portability, one door, few furnishings, a small wooden stove for heating and cooking. Yet it’s a remarkable aspect of adaptability that the same structure, with only slight modifications, has become a popular and trendy vacation option here in the States. There is a lot to be said for that type of design simplicity.


All photos courtesy Julie Stoll. Julie reports that they traveled with Dream Mongolia (dreammongolia.com). Private tours…they organized great guides and accommodations. Julie and I first met when we taught ESL at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA a number of years ago.