Being resilient, Emigrating to America from Wales, Faithful Living, Family ties, Having hope about the future, How to get a hand up, How to start with nothing, Learning from our ancestors, Life in Winslow Arizona in 1930

Building the Ladder, Starting to Climb

We recently trekked west in the general direction of Route 66 for a winter sojourn in Arizona. The journey was filled with the ghosts and memories of my mother’s parents who grew up in Iowa in the shadow of World War I, finished their schooling and got married in the 1920’s, then hit the high, unyielding wall of the Great Depression.  With a baby on the way, they joined thousands of others headed west in search of work.

From this side of the story, I can tell you that they were resilient, adventuresome, optimistic, and robust, with a peculiar grace that sanded off sharp corners that worry might produce. They were not temperamental, argumentative, or condescending-although I do clearly remember my grandmother, when frustrated, saying in a peculiarly clipped way, “Isn’t that the LIMIT?”

They were kind. My grandmother was particularly creative and resourceful. Her mother Sarah, my great-grandmother, was born to a family of Welsh slate miners in Blaenau Ffestiniog, Wales, a hard-scrabble life at best. In the 1880’s, Sarah’s family emigrated through Ellis Island to Illinois, then on to Williamsburg, Iowa to farm the fertile, loamy black dirt of the Midwest. From slate to soil, from roofing the tenements of London to feeding the new Americans. Dust to dust. 

My grandmother Ella, Sarah’s third daughter, was born in 1902 into a farm life that did not suit her. She was a reader and a dreamer, with an early flair for drama and fun, and music and pageantry. Once, when she just couldn’t put down a book, she climbed a tree to read instead of doing her farm chores, “tickled” when no one could find her. She became a teacher, one who was much-loved by her students over a 50-year career. She was also a writer-today we’d call it a side-hustle-so apropos for the hustler she was. She produced hundreds of Sunday School circulars and 5 novels for young adults. Ella was the first in her family to go to college. To work off the farm. To seek out opportunities to develop her skillset and shape her character. She took almost any work she could find after she married (In 1928, Iowa did not allow female teachers to be married, so she lost her teaching job). She taught piano, was the camp director at Crystallaire Camp for Girls in Michigan, and directed the girls’ choir at her Congregational Church for nearly 30 years.

But it was Ella’s time in the American southwest that really made her who she was. My grandfather found work in Gallup, NM with the Santa Fe railroad, then was transferred to the Winslow, AZ office in 1930. My mother was born at the doctor’s office above the drugstore (yes on a corner in Winslow Arizona!), and they lived in a little duplex that is still there. What a time they had exploring New Mexico and Arizona! Long car trips, picnic lunches, keeping a shotgun in the car to fend off rattlesnakes. Arizona toughened them up for the long decade ahead.

My grandparents planted seeds and set down roots for a family tree that has cultivated three generations of “can-do” people. A daughter who was one of the first female chemistry majors at her university. A grandson who became a merchant marine captain on a supertanker. A granddaughter in the first generation of Ph.D. females in exercise physiology. And now the great-grandchildren have accepted the family mantle of hard work, deep faith, optimistic outlook, and plain old grit.  True, each successive generation had more privilege that the one before it. But my grandparents themselves began with little but dreams in the high desert of Arizona and the humility of moving back in with Ella’s mother in 1934 when work on the railroad dried up.

I have been nudged into thinking about where resiliency comes from. Surely it is a gift from the same God who promises us a hope and a future. But our inherited outlook also comes from the people he sends us to show a way. How else does one family go from the abject poverty of Welsh mines to the hardscrabble work of farming, to college, then graduate school, and even to sea? To becoming a professor, a published author, an energy expert in France? And all in just a few generations? 

This is not pie-in-the-sky pride at having a ladder to climb or from climbing it resolutely. It is about the faith and diligence and persistence it took our forebears to build the ladder.

From there they reached down to successive generations for a hand up. At my grandmother’s funeral, we were stunned by the dozens of people who told us stories of how Ella had influenced the trajectory of their lives. That’s the other half of the story-it wasn’t just Ella’s immediate family who benefitted from her drive. She mentored and influenced hundreds of children out there who came to believe in themselves and wanted to be just like her. She had that rare ripple effect that seeded generations of hard-working, civic minded people. Just think what she might have accomplished today as a social influencer.

Are you a ladder-builder? Ready to set it up, make the climb rung by rung, then turn around to give a hand to the next climber?  What a world we could have if we all did that.

Thanks for reading along,

J.A.P. Walton

Email me with comments:

adventure, Aging, Aging and growing in character, beauty, Creation, Developing good character, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, God, Hardiness, John Muir, joy, Lessons from the Wilderness, Living Faithfully, National Parks, Nature, New Year, Perseverence, Pilgrimage, Prayer, Retirement and bucket lists, sailing, Sierra Nevada, Silence, sunsets, Swallows and Amazons books, The rivers of Wales, US National Parks, virtue, visit the Roman Coliseum, what is mutual affection?, What is on your bucket list?, wisdom

The Kind of Bucket Worth Filling: A Divine Recalibration

In my youth I had a long list of the things I wanted to “do” someday: build a log home in Alaska, climb China’s Great Wall, explore the Roman Coliseum, watch Wimbledon from center court eating strawberries and cream, and complete a host of nature-conquering escapades. I most especially wanted to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, hike in New Zealand and Scotland and the Pacific Northwest, kayak the wild rivers of Wales, visit every US National Park, trace the ghost of John Muir in the Sierras and recreate the sailing adventures of the Swallows and Amazons in northern England.

Today we would call this a bucket list-making plans to “do” things before we die (as in kicking the bucket). Creating such dreams takes little energy, and I think we each have a natural longing to “do” and “see” as much as possible in our short lives, particularly now that global travel is so easily accomplished.

There’s an inbred alter ego that lifts us out of everyday humdrum life with fir-scented visions of creation’s beautiful, seductive allure.

Some people so over-romanticize their bucket list that the end (checking it off the list) is more fulfilling than the process (actually doing the activity). I have seen people race up to the sign outside a national park, snap a picture next to it, then turn around and drive away without even entering the park. Taking pride in having the deepest bucket but the shallowest mind is an ugly thing.

Lately, I have been doing a great deal of thinking about the folly of the bucket list.

True, in retirement we have visited several national parks and seen things we’d always hoped to see. But life has also narrowed for us, as naturally happens with aging. The parameters of the list have been newly dictated by life’s interruptions: our only child moved to France, our aging parents sorely needed us, the family home required maintenance and stewardship, and visits to the doctor became more frequent.

I do not resent the smaller bucket.

Moreover, I am thinking of remaking the bucket list altogether. It is a divine recalibration of sorts. I am no less adventurous (though Covid did do a gut-check on me), but my goals seem to be changing. Now it is less about the glory of doing and seeing, and more about the humble delight of being. Sunrises are stunning. Noontime is energizing. But the

sunset of life calls me to a quieter, more contemplative mindset, with a silent nod to the deep need to be present and prayerful.

In the Bible Peter encourages us to make every effort to add a 7-fold list of character qualities to our living, each built upon its predecessor like a great crescendo (2Pet1:5-8). He tells us that to possess these qualities in increasing measure will keep us from being unproductive in a life of faith. Goodness-right living and thinking; add to that knowledge-stay informed, and develop a deeper knowledge of who God is; add to that self-control-expunge petty selfishness and self-glorification; add to that perseverance-the patience of waiting on God’s timing for everything; add to that godliness-wise and moral thinking, speaking and devotion; add to that mutual affection-truly loving without judgment and fostering a kind and benevolent outlook; add to that love-the deep delight of living out the two greatest commandments to love the Lord God and to love your neighbor. I wrote earlier about the later years being an ascent toward heaven.

Practice this music of Peter’s teaching, and your life will awaken to the very kind of bucket that is worth filling.

Thank you for reading,

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

adventure, Affirmation, beauty, canoeing, childhood, Creation, Faithful Living, God, John Muir, Kindred Spirits, Lessons from the Wilderness, Marriage, Nature, River, Silence, Uncategorized, Water, White Water Paddling, Wilderness Paddling, wisdom

Where Words are Unnecessary

I must confess that I covet the times my husband and I paddle a river alone together. Being surrounded by boats, family, friends, and visitors, we are more often than not on the water in big groups.

He is a much stronger, abler paddler than I. He can read the currents and the wind in ways that let him slither downriver like a water snake-completely at home and at one with the boat. It is a marvel to watch him, when the edges of man, boat, and river blur into lovely moments of being in nature, rather than standing over it.

We met 57 years ago as children.  Now, the canoe and the wild river are symbols of our relationship. Stable and still in deep quiet water, swift and determined in the face of life’s challenges and submerged snags. We seek out the wilderness for our own restoration as individuals and as man and wife. We travel the rivers and lakes because this is how man has traveled the deep, dark forests for centuries, taking us where no road can go, no cell phone can reach. We go quietly. Reverently. Following the world’s first paddlers past rocks and pines, scrub oaks and scarred outcroppings, shallow sandbars and towering eagles’ roosts.

Out here, life hangs on; a tree’s roots cling with enduring hope, it’s branches reaching for God. Every breeze lifts a melody. The deer snuffs and stamps. The kingfisher scolds. The milkweed suckles the Monarch.

And all the while, the waters flow down, the land bowing to its power and majesty. John Muir said, “The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.”

My husband and I need to be where words are unnecessary that we too might glide, and where creation does all the talking and singing for us. Where there is healing at every bend.

Where the earth’s broad sighs, and the sun’s nightly farewell give the soul hue and heft, and space and weft. Like candy at a parade, the wilderness tosses us joy with remarkable abandon, and we unwrap each treat with childish wonder that our hearts, together, could know such timelessness and beauty.

It is breath. It is gift. It is life. It is marriage. And it is ours.


Thanks for reading!


adventure, Affirmation, beauty, Blue Skies, Creation, Fog, God, Growing Up, Home, Lake Michigan, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Risk Taking, sailing, Uncategorized

Safely Into Port

A peculiar delight of my childhood summers in northern Michigan involved the dueling foghorns of the Coast Guard stations in Frankfort and at Point Betsie. The old fog signals were automatically activated when sensors detected fog.

All through a foggy night, the two lighthouses would sing their duet, the throaty bass booooommm from Frankfort followed 30 seconds later by a nasal middle F note from the Point.

Big ships, obscured in the mist, would echo back with their own howls accompanied by their thrumming propellers. Whenever the horns were bleating at dawn, my brother and I could lazily roll over, cozy in the cottage blankets, sleepily glad because there would be no 9:30 a.m. swimming lessons today.

Just such a day occurred last week, when I had a dozen things on my to-do list, but awoke to the musical thrill of the foghorns.  I rolled onto one side to enjoy the concert, secretly glad that I would not waste a “good beach” day on so many errands. As I rolled, however, I could feel the sun on my face. What in the world? Why would the fog signals be singing out if the sun was out?  Sure enough, it was a clear morning with just a hint of mist on the far horizon.

The foghorns lied.

It turns out that, over the last decade, the US Coast Guard turned its automatic coastal warning system into one that is, instead, an on demand system for mariners.  It means that any sailor, or fisherman, or tugboat captain can activate the coastal foghorns from the cockpit of their boat.

Now, I find it disorienting to know that it can be densely foggy and the signals won’t sing. Or bright and clear yet the horns are bleating. It robs one of the assurance that things are as they should be. We can no longer rely on the signals to tell us the weather. Talk about getting your signals crossed!

It brings to mind a scary crossing in thick, disorienting fog that we undertook on a sailboat across Lake Ontario when we were newly married. The captain had paid us to help him crew his new boat from the Toronto shipyards, across Lake Ontario, and through the locks of the Welland Canal. He needed to get his boat into Lake Erie, and we needed the money. But, we should not have been out in that fog. It was my job to stand at the bow with a tight grip on the fore-stay (I am unsure, had I fallen over, if they would have been able to find me in that fog), and blow the air horn- one prolonged blast at two-minute intervals to indicate we were underway by engine.  Perhaps it would have been less nerve-wracking had we had the ability to summon the coastal signals at will.

Today’s onboard navigation systems make being fogbound a less daunting circumstance. Even so, I take great comfort in hearing a foghorn trill on a truly foggy day.

It is a lot like life; we can rarely see what’s ahead, and we often feel we are just barely muddling through, but we can have confidence that God will see us safely into port. He may even be calling to us on a sunny day.

~J.A.P. Walton



adventure, Affirmation, beauty, canoeing, Creation, Creator, Faithful Living, God, joy, Kindred Spirits, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Peace, Rain, River, Spring, Uncategorized, Water, Wilderness Paddling, wisdom

The Kindred Spirits of Water and Life

The brothers went canoeing last weekend, a spring paddle to quench a long-wintered thirst. Boats and paddles silently slip into waters roiling with snowmelt. Spring rivers are generally unpeopled, effortlessly pulsing on with energy and focus, down, ever down. How odd that their endpoint is called a mouth, opening wide in confluence with some other body of water.

As the brothers shove off, the water embraces each canoe like long-gone and dearly-missed friends, kindred spirits which understand and accept each other with the delight of contented belonging. It is a holy reunion. The brothers wave and paddle off in an unconscious identical rhythm, letting the water carry them downstream. They, too, are kindred spirits-they have been since the day of the younger one’s birth, perfectly matched in mutual respect and a shared understanding of the world and one another. It is a rare and beautiful friendship. They are silent, letting the water and the birds do the talking. What a happy picture of harmony and rightness!  And just like that, they are gone, carried by the water around a bend and on to the day’s adventure.

Water is so dynamic, ever on the move from lake to cloud to rain, from headwaters to the sea, where ocean currents bathe continental shelves. Eventually, their energies amass in swirling foment of wave and hurricane and flood.

I often wonder at the mystery and miracle of water’s global expeditionary nature. Where has it been? Where is it going? Can it be that this very water dripping from the paddle once kissed Jesus at his baptism?

Did this very water float baby Moses in a basket? Did it balk into walls so the Israelites could walk through the Red Sea? Was it one of billions of raindrops that floated the ark? Was it in the spit with which Jesus made mud to heal a blind man’s eyes? Was it in the roiling, storming waves so quickly calmed by Jesus’ rebuke?

Water, so critical to life, lives on long after we die. It passes through us like we pass through it. We are kindred spirits with it, even though we fail to care for it properly. Next time you’re out, dip your hand in the water- be it creek, pond, or lake. Feel the life in it. This too is holy reunion. Listen to its stories. Marvel at its travels. And be resolved to care for it like a dearly-loved brother.

~J.A.P. Walton