Friday, December 28, 2001


“I got some gumdrops!”
“I got a caramel apple!”
“I got chocolate!”
“I got a rock..”

- paraphrasing of typical trick-or-treat dialog in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”

As the above quoted-from-less-than-perfect-memory passage from an old cartoon might indicate, not too many people out in the wide world would be too thrilled to receive a rock in their Halloween goodie bags, or, for that matter in their Christmas stockings or wrapped up as a gift under their Christmas trees.

But we in Saratoga do not live in the wide world. We live in Saratoga. And this Christmas, the hot gift, the most coveted keepsake, the most memorable mathom it was possible to exchange as a token of affection, friendship or just as a jolly good joke, was a rock.

To explain why, I suppose I should hearken back a few months to Halloween, when a new artist-about-town (with a little help from his new reprobate friends, the chamber director/town councilman and the town recreation director) set out to introduce himself in the valley by the most creative means at his disposal: selling custom-painted pumpkins to area businesses and individuals.

It was a merry trio indeed who took a spooky Friday afternoon off to wander about Saratoga hawking pumpkins and introducing the new artist. It is perhaps a pity said artist met the movers and shakers of Saratoga’s business community while in such company, but it can’t be helped now, and doesn’t seem to have done quite as much harm as was originally feared.

Quite the contrary; those pumpkins, decorated with business logos, expressive cartoons, caricatures or nature scenes as the customer requested, became something of a status symbol, coveted and much prized.

My own pumpkin, some two months later, still sits proudly in my office window, still sound, not stinking at all, and still proudly sporting the chamber’s logofish for all to see.

Foreshadowing? Certainly.

Less delicately decorated, less carefully kept pumpkins were scarcely rotting in pieces in the post-Halloween streets before our artist had planned out his next venture.

When first he came bursting into my office with the news, I thought he’d already lost his mind as he waved around his first rock, which he presented to me as a token of thanks for helping him launch himself in Saratoga.

But what a rock! I’m holding it now as I write (a few minutes’ interruption here, the artist himself came in for a chat, and he can’t know yet that I’m writing about him. He’ll see it soon enough. That’ll teach him to bug me about when I’m publishing next!). It’s small and smooth and dark, and on its flattest surface is an exquisite small painting of a brown trout. On the reverse is his signature along with a note that both the rock and the water used in the painting came from our very own beloved North Platte River.

Little did I know at the time that I was holding this year’s Hot Christmas Gift in my hand.

Word about these rocks spread quickly, and soon all sorts of people were engaging my friend to paint all sorts of things on them - elk, rams, deer, pets, scenery, and of course trout. Lots of trout.

My own dear personal mother started joking about rainbow rocks and brown rocks and brook rocks.

Then the subterfuge started.

My poor friend found himself engaged in just about every Christmas conspiracy going on in town (well, except for the primary one, about which more in another column - believe me, the traditional Christmas Passing of the Poultry is something worthy of an entire book and not just a column). As he busily painted rock after rock after rock, he had to be constantly on his guard in his downtown studio lest the intended recipient of one rock get an early peek at his present whilst ordering one for the giver, and so on.

At this time I have to express my personal admiration for this artist, into whose studio I tended to come crashing several times a day throughout the holiday season, plotting this, planning that, making suggestions, inviting him and his wife to parties, arranging fishing excursions... while he worked, in fits and starts, on my own fabulous Christmas present: a set of river rock bookends emblazoned with an authentic image of an Athenian warrior in battle dress, one celebrating the Odyssey and the other the Iliad.

I never saw it coming.

How many times did he have to duck and cover? How many times did he have to rush and hide his work over the last month? My ice fishing buddy, for whom I commissioned a rocky cartoon depicting him standing eagerly on the shore of an unfrozen lake, his auger and pole and jigs in hand, eyeing a thermometer reading 70 degrees under a blazing hot sun, exhorting the water to “freeze, come on, freeze!”, nearly saw his own gift several times in the course of a single week.

Before December was even half gone, our artist was feverishly at work nearly every time I saw him, all the while wondering when he was ever going to get his Christmas presents made – for he had planned long ago to bestow trout rocks on all of his family and friends this year.

But as each rock was completed, it was sold. The faster he churned them out, the faster they moved (and without, let me add, any decline in quality; his latest rocks are just as beautiful as mine).

Towards the end it became quite entertaining as he worked ever harder, scrambling for more rocks, more paint, more TIME!

At least the guy who invented Cabbage Patch Dolls wisely farmed them out to a big manufacturing firm before that craze hit.

But of course, were my friend to have done so, the whole point of the thing would be missed; these are unique, beautiful, hand-made things that celebrate a specific place and specific personalities, things that all of us who know him now, and certainly the many who will know him in the future, will treasure always both as tokens of our new artist friend and the people who seized on his work and gave it as gifts this holiday season.

My own father had two rocks in his stocking this Christmas, one from me decorated with a buffalo (my friend saw the buffalo in the rock before anyone asked him to paint it; the rock was shaped just so, and his eyes lit up when I told him what my dad would really like was a buffalo), and a rainbow rock as a gift from the artist himself.

I could almost hear his delighted laughter here in Saratoga as he pulled out his prizes in faraway Portland, where he was visiting my sister.

As for me, I still have a big, stupid grin on my face every time I look at my new bookends, which are like nothing else in the entire world and will certainly confuse archaeologists someday when I am long gone.

Yes, my artist friend is well-launched here in Saratoga, and is still filling orders for late gifts. He is discovering, though, that one should indeed be careful what he wishes for.

For the ice fishing derby is coming soon, and with it visitors, all of whom, I am sure, will want to take home a brookie rock.

Brace yourself, Kevin.