In 1983 President Reagan was seeking a second term by promising reduced government spending and lower taxes, while simultaneously increasing cold war tensions with verbal assaults against communism and promoting a strategic defense system comprised of nuclear missiles, which he believed would halt the nuclear arms race. Reagan’s oxymoronic pipe dream became the fate that brought my friends Ursula and Andrew together. They met at an anti-nuke rally on the University of Wyoming campus. It was the first week of school for Ursula, an exchange student from Germany. When she met Andrew, a well-traveled, German-speaking kid from Wyoming, the stars clicked into place.
Education took them to various schools in the States and in Germany until they both completed their course work in International Studies. With her better-than-a-spy English and his nearly-as-good German, they made a formidable pair. To defray college expenses, they teamed up to translate academic theses from English to German and vice versa.
After graduation, Ursula landed a position with Germany’s Grüne Punkt corporation, dedicated to issues of recycling and sustainability. Andrew, being a scholar of the world, created his own company of one by providing history, background, political understanding, and wisdom to explain the untenable gyrations of American politics to German readers and television audiences. Andrew’s calm, and reasoned approach contrasts starkly to chatter that we endure with our limited news sources here in America.
After seven years of dedicated, bi-continental companionship, and with careers established in Germany, Ursula and Andrew returned to Wyoming to formalize their commitment to each other. Their wedding was held on property owned by Andrew’s family in the mountains between Ft. Collins, Colorado and Laramie, Wyoming, not that far from where they’d met.
Twenty one years ago, there wasn’t much to the property except earth, sky, trees, a small shelter, and rights to spring water pumped from the neighbor’s well. But the property is a touchstone for the Denison partnership and expanded family.
Though living and working in Germany, Ursula and Andrew make frequent trips back to the States with their two boys. Blessed with generous German vacations, the cabin is their place of refuge, restoration, reunion, and constant home-improvement projects. Rather than chasing far-flung friends and family across this vast nation, they invite guests to join them at their private retreat, which is a delight for hosts and guests alike.
When I visited eight years ago, an open loft had been added to the one-room, wooden cabin. Meals came together outdoors, with propane tanks, camp stoves, and ice chests. A new string of solar-powered lights expanded their reading time in the evening. In addition, with the help of family and friends, they had constructed a delightful gazebo about 200 feet from the main cabin. To my delight, I was assigned to sleep in the gazebo on that first visit. The gazebo has a wooden floor; wooden walls about three feet high, and a wooden open beam roof. Between the top of the walls and the ceiling, Plexiglas windows slide open or shut depending upon the weather. From a sleeping pad on the floor, I could gaze out and see the stars at night. In the morning I sat up to see the ears of a mule deer strolling by outside. Out of olfactory range of the living area sat a sturdy outhouse with a spectacular view of the neighboring forest-covered hill. A solar shower with a wooden pallet for a floor hung from a tree limb. Their two small children whooped down a newly installed zip line.
During the ensuing years, lengthier stays required a higher degree of sophistication. Two years ago, the Denisons stayed in the States for an entire school semester. Andrew fulfilled a guest professorship at the UW while the bilingual boys attended classes at the campus school. It was an experiment in full cultural emersion and winter survival. Cooking moved indoors for the winter. The boys made many friends with whom they have stayed in contact, thanks to the miracles of Facebook and email. The howling winds of a Wyoming winter reinforced the value of cooperation and self-reliance.
Andrew and the boys are again spending a school semester at the cabin. This time, while the boys attend classes in Laramie, Andrew will be mining solitude for work on an upcoming book. After her month of vacation dries up, Ursula will return to her job in Germany.
During my recent visit to the Denison cabin, I found a few changes. The privy has gained some Martha Stewart touches. The shower has moved indoors and relies upon a bucket or two of stove-heated water. The kitchen has expanded to a U-shaped model of outdoor efficiency. The upstairs loft gained privacy paneling. Perhaps most important, three solar panels now struggle to keep up with the increasing electronic needs of a family containing an 11-year old and a 15-year old. Satellite radio and Wi-Fi Internet service for four computers vie for power with a few strategically placed LED lamps, electric toothbrushes and razors, and a guitar amp. As the evenings grow longer, the sunny days grow shorter, and cramped quarters wear down family civility, it will be a challenge for the author and the students to make the most of a finite power supply.
This seems like the logical outcome for the family of a man who can smile at American political gymnastics and come to the mic with an eternally optimistic world view. May the power be with them through the coming months and may Andrew’s calm smile prevail over inevitable power shortages on the home front.