Friday, March 31, 2006

Rantings about Westboro Baptist and Funerals

I have a hard time with folks whose religion leads them to commit acts of violence or causes them to becomes assholes. There are plenty of examples of the first group in this dangerous world we’re now living and right now they’re not on my mind. Instead, I want to address the second group and leading the way is Westboro Baptist, a small church in Topeka, Kansas. This church is the poster child for homophobia. They believe the reason we’re stuck in a quagmire in Iraq is because of our nation’s liberal views on homosexuality. They have therefore taken it upon themselves to picket funerals of servicemen and women killed in Iraq, claiming that their death is because God is taking out his vengeance on America. That’s right, because America allows civil rights to gays, God allowed an Iraqi insurgent to shoot and blow up an American soldier, because they weve "defending America." Or so Westboro's misguided congregants say.

There was a funeral this week for a young man who graduated from a local high school three and a half years ago. A member of the 101 Airborne Division, he was killed by enemy fire on March 17. Westboro Baptist showed up at the funeral to protest. This is disgusting and has gotten so bad that legislation is pending in both the Michigan legislature and in Washington to make it a crime to protest near a funeral (I think the Washington law addresses just military funerals). It’s a shame we need to have a law to force folks to act decent and behave themselves at funerals.

I’m glad churches like Westboro Baptist are in the minority. If my only experience of the faith had been at hands of folks like that, I’d become like Crosby Stills and Nash who back in the 70s sang:

Open up the gates of the church and let me out of here.
Too many people have died in the name of Christ for anyone to heed the call.
Too many people have lied in the name of Christ that I can’t believe at all.

Luckily, not all churches are like Westboro Baptist and I’ve been blessed to experience other churches in which following Jesus’ example of love and humility and compassion is encouraged. Such a view is a contrast from making an ass of yourself in Jesus’ name and a mockery of his teachings.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Books, Movies, Puzzles and Daylight Saving Time

I’ve been doing a variety of readings lately, finishing two books this week. I came across the first, Water and Sky: Reflections of a Northern Year by Alan Kesselheim, in a museum last December. When I read the cover about them spending a year in northern Canada, I was hooked. One of my lifelong goals is to spend a winter in a northern cabin, something that has intrigued me since reading Bradford Anglier’s book, At Home in the Woods, as a high school student. With Kesselheim, I was in for a treat. His mastery of language is wonderful. The book describes a river trip he and his partner Marypat took across Northern Canada. Starting at Jasper, Alberta, they paddled northwest on the Athabasca River to Northern Saskatchewan where they wintered in a cabin. The next summer, they continued on, ending up at Baker Lake, deep in the Northwest Territories near the Hudson Bay. Check it out.

The second book sounds morbid. I came across Patience, Compassion, Hope and the Christian Art of Dying Well by Christopher Vogt while searching for information on Ars Moriendi (art of dying), which was a popular genre a couple hundred years ago. Although I enjoyed the book, I don’t know if I’d recommend it (unless you have an interest in Reformation era theologians or the changes in the way we die over the past several hundred years or ethics around the issue of death). This book reads like an excerpt from Vogt’s dissertation, which makes it a little dry. Vogt is a lay Catholic theologian.

I am currently reading Mark Kurlansky's, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World. So far, I'm enjoying it. I'm also enjoying listening to Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I'd read this book in college, nearly 25 years ago and it's good to regain familarity with it. I listen to it when in the gym, unless of course I'm swimming.

Last night, I finally got around to watching "The Scent of the Green Papaya," a Vietnamese film from 1993. The film that is about a young girl (she is 10 at the beginning of the movie) who experiences through the senses, the beauty and uniqueness of the world. There is no plot, but the movie is beautifully filmed and the sounds of crickets at night were so realistic that my dog keep waking up and looking at the television. It’s still a little early for such insects. I liked the way she prepared the papaya, by striking it with a knife long-ways, then shaving off noodle like pieces. There is little dialogue in the movie, the lines that are there are in Vietnamese which mean I had to read the subtitles. But since there was little talking, I got to starch a dozen shirts, catching up on my laundry, while watching the film.

Tonight we finished the fourth puzzle of the winter. It has puppies all over it (what can I say, my daughter picked it out) and looked to be easy. Looks can be deceiving and it was with this one. Now that days are getting longer and Daylight Saving Time takes effect on Sunday, we’ve at the end of puzzle season.

I'm now so sleepy, I'll need to come back tomorrow and edit this.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Great Fairbluff 4th of July Bicycle Race of 1981

This July 4th will mark 25 years since I won the Great Fairbluff 4th of July Bicycle Race. I had almost forgotten about it, but it came to mind recently when reading about Ed Abbey’s love for the bicycle on Monday.

I took up bicycle riding in college, using a bike to commute to classes and work. I was a budding environmentalist. My bike commuting continued for several years in which I was putting only a few thousand miles on a car and most of those were during kayaking trips to the mountains. I never had any plans on racing, bicycling for me was just another way to be outdoors. But in early 1981, I changed jobs and went to work for the Boy Scouts. My district chairman was a businessman from Fairbluff, North Carolina and he knew of my interest in cycling, so he encouraged me to enter his town’s 4th of July bicycle race. I think he even paid my entry fee, which wasn’t more than a few dollars. I had thought about entering their canoe race on the Lumber River, which flows through town, but was encouraged to enter the bike race cause it was their first year and they were trying to ensure they had enough bikers to make the race feasible. It was to be a ten-mile race along the backtop that cut through tobacco fields east of town. We’d start and finish at a park on the edge of the community. I didn’t exactly train for this race. At this time in my life, I could have sprinted nearly ten miles on flat roads and there are no hills in Columbus County.

I arrived early on race day, dressed in funny tight-fitting shorts and a jersey. I took my bike off the car. It was a Ross touring bike, designed for long road trips, not for racing. I got my bike ready (I think I even took off the pannier frame over the rear wheel to shave weight). Then I sat at a bench and changed into my cycling shoes as I checked out the competition. I was shocked. Farmers were driving up in pickups, with old bikes thrown in the back. A few people were riding to the park from their homes in town. Gathering were a collection of Murray single speeds like the one I got for Christmas when I was seven. There were a few old Schwinns, like the bike my uncle had when I was a kid, with gears (all three of them). There were even a few ten speeds that had been purchased at the K-Mart in Whiteville. I felt embarrassed with my bike that was by far the most expensive on site.

The organizer called us all together and informed us the race had been shortened to five miles. Instead of starting at the park and riding out of town and back in, they would load us up in the back of trucks, haul us five miles out of town, and we’d ride back in. We were separated into divisions, adults racing each other and teenagers and children in two other divisions. Riding out to the starting point, feeling foolish in the way that I was dressed, I knew that only a couple of the younger guys with their K-mart ten speeds even had a chance to keep up with me. I feel foolish even being there. But I also felt that I had to win, or I’d feel even more foolish. It turned out, winning wasn’t much of a problem. One guy, who was probably 18 or 19, stayed with me most of the way, but whenever he tried to pass, I’d pump a little harder and he’d fall behind. I cross the finish line several lengths ahead of him and way ahead of everyone else.

In the crowd at the finish line was a newspaper photographer for the News Reporter out of Whiteville. She snapped away and commented to the woman that I was with whom she didn't know, which got her all jealous, about my smile. The next day my picture was in the newspaper (I wish I could find it since I had much more hair back then). I stood by my bike, holding the trophy and grinning like a cat, surrounded by two kids who had won their divisions. People thought my smile meant that I was as happy as if I’d won the Tour de France. The truth was that I was grinning to keep from laughing.

I decided that afternoon to retire from bicycle racing while I was on top. I never raced again and can still claim I’m undefeated.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Jim Leyland, the Detroit Tigers and the Old Spice Controversy

Some folks just got to have something to complain about. Baseball season isn’t even yet here and people are already complaining about Jim Leyland, the new manager for the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers are a franchise that has set the wrong kind of records over the past decade or so. They’re a perennial favorite for the cellar. Even Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes fame is more feared than the Detroit Tigers. Leyland had to do something to shake things up getting ready for this year so he encouraged his team to get some pizzazz, complaining that they smell like "Old Spice."

In the spirit of fairness, I should disclose that I’m not exactly an apologist for the after-shave industry. I’m approaching two decades since I’ve needed any such products and even then didn’t particularly care for the smell. I preferred to go natural. The only bottle of Old Spice I’ve owned was a gift from some well-meaning relative for graduating from high school. If I’d know that was the prize, I wouldn’t have studied so hard. Come to think of it, I didn’t study very hard, but received this nice gift set none-the-less. There were two cream colored bottles in a nice box. One bottle contained after-shave and the other cologne. I don’t remember what happened to those bottles, but I’m sure they were discarded before they were emptied. The only bottle of Old Spice that I came close to emptying belonged to my grandfather. I was about ten years old and in my youth and naivete, thought the stuff made me smell manly. Using such flawed logic, I assumed the more I used, the more manly I would smell. I don’t think I had to say "excuse me" once that day, as people just opened up a path for me to walk through. It was the closest experience to royalty I had until last November when I got to pet the "first-dog elect" of Honduras.

Back to Leyland’s comments about Old Spice. Michigan’s Old Spice fans couldn’t believe their ears. Was the Tiger’s Skipper, known for his terrible smoker's breath, saying that Old Spice was feminine? Is there something wrong with this after-shave that lures pretty women to sailors as they walk off the docks? Well, yeah, cause he ain't in charge of Merchant Marine morale nor does he want a fancy smelling team who can whistle a tune. Instead, he wants a team that stinks up the locker room after playing hard and beating their opponents. And if I’m going to become a Tiger fan, that’s what I want too. Otherwise, I’ll just go on living in a fantasy world, reliving the days when Jim Leyland managed the Pirates and took Pittsburgh to the National League finals for three straight years. Yeah, those were the good old days.

In case any of you wondered where I've been--we went on the road for a few days, taking my beloved daughter on a birthday trip to an INDOOR waterpark. It was an exchange to keep from having another party this year, so instead of three hours, it cost three days and no telling how much in greenbacks. But I’m back and waterlogged and tired, but had a blast. I read about this on Thursday (I think this link will only be active for 14 days) and wrote my response last night in the hotel after everyone crashed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Not much to say today...

It's been kind of busy these last few days and I ain't been up to doing any new writing. I started to do something about the NCAA basketball tourney, but don't have much to say after Carolina's loss on Sunday. Only consulation is that Michigan State got beat first, so I don't have to take much ribbing from folks around here. However, I can't complain too much. Carolina won the tournment last year and the Steelers won the Superbowl. Now maybe the stars will align themselves in the right order this fall, whatever order that may be, and the Pirates will go on to win the World Series, but I ain't holding my breath.

For the last couple of years I was out West, I had a monthly newspaper column. And since I'm not into writing anything much new right now, thought I'd post one of these columns. This ran back in the summer of 2002. I don't remember the title the newspaper gave it (they always changed my titles so I stopped giving 'em one). Enjoy and maybe one of these days I'll share with you how to fix lamb chops up right...


I recently spent time chatting with Eddie, a semi-retired sheepherder in our community. In his living room hangs a photograph of the trunk of an aspen tree. Carving names on aspens has been a pastime of sheepherders who spend long hours on the mountain and a friend found this particular tree in which Eddie, years ago, had carved the name of his wife and young daughter. His wife died a decade ago and his daughter is now middle aged, but the tree grew and the carving became more prominent and reminds him of his time spent on the mountain.

It has been a tough few years for those in the sheep business. Last year, the price of wool didn’t pay the cost of shearing and lambs were sold at historic lows. Although the price of lamb and wool is up this summer, the drought has dimmed the prospect of any profit. Without enough feed, some herders are selling their lambs early. To make matters worse, the fire on Cedar Mountain last month burned many fences in addition to charring acres of feed.

The sheep business is difficult. "When I was in my 20s and starting out," Eddie said, "a retired herder told me shepherding was a young man’s job. I now believe him." Raising sheep requires constant attention. Compounding troubles include the difficultly hiring reliable help, a problem that goes back to the Second World War when there were few available young men to stay with the herds. At that time, many of the herds were sold and other livestock operations were converted to cattle. And then, there were those above ground nuclear explosions creating fallout on the winter ranges of Eastern Nevada.

Southern Utah was once a leading sheep producing area. The Gould’s Sheep Shearing Corral alone, on the Hurricane Mesa, sheared over 130,000 sheep every spring. Photographs of Cedar City, early in the twentieth century, show long trains of wagons hauling wool from Gould’s to the railroad north of town. But those days are gone. In addition to low prices and the problem of finding herders, the development of rural lands and addressing the problem of overgrazing has led to smaller herds. Today, only about 20,000 sheep remain in Iron County.

Around election time, we always start to hear elected officials advocate supporting "traditional agriculture." These buzz words are sure to rally those involved in farming and herding, but are they just a hollow cliché? After all, I know of no restaurant in Iron Country that regularly serves lamb. And finding 100% wool clothes takes some effort. Even our grocery stores don’t help, as one recently advertised a sale on imported New Zealand lamb. If we’re really interested in supporting our "traditional agriculture," we should support the men and women who herd sheep by at least occasionally enjoying a good lamb chop. Although I don’t want us to go back to the day when sheep overgrazed the mountains, it would be a shame for all the herds to disappear and for the only reminder of their importance in our local economy be aged carvings on old aspens trees.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Snake Stories

It was early spring. Daytime temperatures warmed under the western sun, but as soon as the sun dropped behind the mountains, the thermometer plummeted below freezing. One afternoon, I headed out by myself, hiking up a ravine I’d not yet explored. The northern wall of the ravine basked in sunlight. It was steep, almost straight up, but there were many ledges and it wasn’t that high, maybe 30 feet or so. It would be an easy climb and the view from the top would provide an overview of the Virginia Range of Northern Nevada. Sure enough, it was a lot like climbing a ladder. When my feet were about three or four feet off the ground, I reached up to a ledge. Pulling my body up, I peered eye to eye with a coiled rattlesnake. I quickly dropped back down lower and moved sideways, only then to hear the ominous buzzing of another rattlesnake near my foot. I jumped. Luckily, I landed safely and quickly moved away as a number of snakes began to buzz. I could hear them for the longest time and even longer in my dreams.

The air was still cool enough that the snakes, soaking in the warmth from the sun and rock, would have been sluggish. That may have been the reason they didn’t strike, which would have been deadly as far away as I was from help. Or maybe they didn’t strike because they just wanted me to go away. If that’s the case, I was glad to oblige.

What is it about snakes that make our hearts pound? According to the Good Book, we once had a good relationship with a particular snake who, like traveling salesman in the skin game (a con artist), encouraged our first Mother to take a bite of the forbidden fruit. There after, we’re told, the snake was cursed to crawl on its belly and enmity or hostility has existed between the woman’s and the snake’s off-spring. Snakes are subtle, and are feared for they seemingly appear out of no where as that one did on that ledge. In a fraction of a second, my trip changed and from then on, the only thing I’ll remember about that ravine is the encounter with rattlesnakes.

I grew up with a mother terrified of snakes. When I was kid, and I’m sure the only reason I remember this is because of the story being told over and over, my father found a colorful snake in the yard. He put the snake into a gallon pickle jar, punched some holes in the top so that it could breath, and put it out on the porch. Though he wasn’t sure; he thought it might be a coral snake; the most deadly snakes in the United States even though they are not particularly vicious. They cannot strike like a rattlesnake and other members of the pit viper family. My mother decided to take no chances with her children around, so she emptied a can or bug spray into the jar, killing the snake. It turned out to be a king snake.

Perhaps my mother’s fear of snakes came from my grandfather. He often told stories about encounters with aggressive snakes. One of the memories I have of my this Granddaddy, who died when I was nine, is him showing a large rattlesnake he’d killed at his tobacco barn. According to my granddaddy, the snake attacked him. I was probably six or seven at the time, and my granddaddy came back to the house with this snake dangling dead over the double barrels of his Savage Stevens twelve gauge. A decade later I’d use that same gun to take down my first and only buck.

Granddad’s rattlesnake was good sized, but not nearly as big as the rattlesnake I saw along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. I was hiking alone one afternoon, my partner way up ahead. The trail descended through switchbacks, dropping toward Rattlesnake Creek. And sure enough, when I’d gotten down into the ravine, where the trailed leveled out, I heard that heart-stopping buzz and froze. "Where is it," I thought to myself as I stood straight as a soldier. Looking around, I then saw the largest rattlesnake I’ve ever seen alive. The snake was longer than I am tall and its body as thick as my calves. The snake was stretched out, parallel to the trail, only inches from my foot. It didn’t coil, instead it just picked its tail up and shook it long set of rattles, giving me fair warning. I quickly sidestepped and circled through the woods back to the trail a far piece from the snake. There I dropped my pack, took out my camera and headed back toward the snake who decided he wasn’t going to hang around and quickly slid away.

And then there was a sidewinder that stopped by the door of the tent in Death Valley. It was night. Stepping close, he began to buzz. Sidewinders aren’t that big, but they are fascinating and several of us got lights on him and watched him throw his body back and forth as he moved out into the desert, losing him in a clump of creosote bushes. Most of my snake encounters have been like that, a little encouragement and an open path, they’ll run away leaving you alone.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Book Review: Riding the Iron Rooster

Blogger has been having problems, so my blog hasn't been available since late Thursday. Hopefully this will post soon. Sorry if you've had problems accessing me. But rest assured that you're not alone, lots of people think I'm inaccessible.

I lifted the cover image of the book from "Travel Books by Paul Theroux."

Recently, when writing about travel journals, I mentioned Paul Theroux and it occurred I hadn’t read Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China. A decade or so ago I read his classic, The Great Railroad Bazaar and then several years ago read The Old Patagonian Express. A few weeks ago I atoned for that sin and read Riding the Iron Rooster, although I wondered why. The more I read of Theroux, the more I think he’s a jerk. I can only assume he travels by himself (even though he often traveled in China with an bureaucrat in tow), because he can find no one who he can stand riding a train with him that’s any longer than one found in an amusement park. He probably would complain just as much at home, so why not travel.

Theroux spent a year traveling in China in 1985, less than a decade after the Cultural Revolution. The country was just waking up and as Theroux traveled around, he often ran into Americans who were making investments there. Twenty years later, those investments have paid off as the country makes just about everything we use including a lot of stuff we don’t need such as happy meal toys. But in 1985, China itself was unsure of its future. Theroux found lots of disgruntled Chinese, mostly those in their 30s and 40s who felt robbed of opportunities for education by the Cultural Revolution. Theroux shows some of the absurdness of the Revolution. Students were given free reign to torment their teachers (I can’t imagine what I might have done if I’d been given such an opportunity at age 15). Intellectuals were sent into the countryside to learn to work with their hands. And areas with large Muslim populations were turned into hog farming regions. Perhaps the best purpose of this book is the snapshot it provides of China as it turns its back on Mao and begins openning up to the rest of the world. A second is Theroux’s descriptions of snorting, spitting and laughing among the Chinese—a topic of which I now know more than I need to know.

That said, there are some wonderful parts of this book. I’m always a sucker for a train ride. Coming into China from Russia, taking the Trans-Siberia, then the Inter-Mongolian Express, had to have been a wonderful experience. Cherry Blosoom, his government bureaucrat shadow in Dalian whose English consisted mainly of cliches, was a delight. Another interesting tidbit was the German influence in Chinese brewing. I can only assume they lost something in translation (although for a lager, Tsingtao isn’t too bad). But the best parts of the book are his travels through Mongolia, Xinjiang, the Gobi Desert, and to Tibet. Theroux took the train as far as he could toward Tibet, then had two "exciting" days of riding in a car in order to reach Lhasa. Along the way through Tibet, Theroux handed out illegal photos of the Dali Lama as a way to secure favors.

I have another of Theroux’s books to read—his recent one on about traveling the length of Africa. Reading the Iron Rooster got me daydreaming about travelling in China via train. I wondered constantly how things have changed in the past two decades since Theroux traveled there. I've always wanted to go to China but in my two visits to Asia, I've never been able to get there. Theroux may not be the person I would want to have tagging along on a trip, but that aside, his use of language is masterful and, despite a lack in social graces, he's a pleasure to read

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

An interlude--time for jokes...

This morning I posted a rather serious post about a Quaker in Iraq. Coming back to my blog this afternoon, I recall my favorite "Quaker" joke from my childhood. It came from an article in Mad Magazine on various religions. I don't remember what they said about any of other churches or religions, just what they said about the Quakers, which went something like this: "Quakers do not believe in war. There are a million Quakers in the United States. President Nixon says he's a Quaker. That makes 999,999.

A few years earlier (and this is the first joke I can remember telling), I went around asking people: "What do you get when you stick your finger in the President's ear?" Know the answer?

Update and Answer (March 16, 2006). Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) was the President before Nixon. The answer to the question about what you got when you stuck your finger in the President's (Johnson) ear is................ (don't moan).......... "Johnson's Wax." I can tell nobody who reads this blog have been waxing floors lately. At the time I was telling this joke (6-7 years old), they were advertising it on TV (in black and white, of course). And, I believe, you can still buy Johnson's wax here in the US anyway.

Voice of a Martyr

Tom Fox, the Quaker who was recently murdered by terrorist in Iraq, maintained a blog. (Parts of his writings are also available here.) The quote below is intriguing. Although I have never adopted a pacifist philosophy, perferring a more "realist" approach, as a follower of Jesus, I stuggle with pacifism and often feel guilty and a bit of a coward for not embracing it. My thanks to the Chronicles of an Indestructible Life for this link. Here's Tom Fox's quote:

"When I allow myself to become angry I disconnect from God and connect with the evil force that empowers fighting. When I allow myself to become fearful I disconnect from God and connect with the evil force that encourages flight. I take Gandhi and Jesus at their word - if I am not one with God then I am one with Satan. I don't think Gandhi would use that word but Jesus certainly did, on numerous occasions. The French theologian Rene Girard has a very powerful vision of Satan that speaks to me: 'Satan sustains himself as a parasite on what God creates by imitating God in a manner that is jealous, grotesque, perverse and as contrary as possible to the loving and obedient imitation of Jesus.' "If I am not to fight or flee in the face of armed aggression, be it the overt aggression of the army or the subversive aggression of the terrorist, then what am I to do? ... Here in Iraq I struggle with that second form of aggression ... how do you stand firm against a car-bomber or a kidnapper?" -Tom Fox, 1952-2006

Monday, March 13, 2006

North Carolina and March Madness

Don’t mean to be bragging here, but humility wasn’t one of those things taught where I grew up. When I looked at the seating from the NCAA tournament today, I discovered that out of the 64 teams, five are from North Carolina. That sounds fair from my warped perspective. Duke has a number one seed, University of North Carolina is a number three seed. University of North Carolina at Wilmington (I am one of their more infamous graduates), North Carolina State, and Davidson College are the other three. The state I currently reside in boasts only one team.

Friday, March 10, 2006

A Soliloquy for Howard--a Poem

I haven't posted much poetry lately. I wrote this poem last November about a man that is going to be missed in these parts. He was a great guy who could tell stories for hours about how things use to be. He also enjoyed showing his farm off to children, regardless of your age. I notice that my formating and indentation didn't transfer over to the blog page! O well. c2005

A Soliloquy for Howard

Meticulous and proud,
Howard bragged they’d never been an auction
in the 133 years the family had the farm.
His grandfather, Caleb Dean,
a driver on the Battle Creek stage line,
facing competition from newly laid track,
purchased the property back in ’73.
At first, they lived in town,
driving the cows out to pasture each morning
‘till they finished the house that still stands upon the hill,
with hand-hewed floor joists, bark left on one side,
still visible in the Michigan basement he’d dug.

Much has changed in 89 years.
Then the world was young and more innocent
before the Great War, the Depression and more wars.
In the Spring of ’16, his mother brought forth life
in the house on the hill overlooking the lower fields,
the road to Grand Rapids and the Michigan Central
with its coal-fired hogs pulling freight and passengers
along the banks of the Thornapple.
For those holding the reigns of a mule,
the train served as a siren,
its whistle reminding them of a larger world
luring some, but not all.

Though he traveled around the globe,
following the lines of the highway,
the whistle of the train and the contrail of jets
off to India, Africa, New Zealand with winters in Arizona
Howard never really left Rutland Township.
He lived in the same house,
attending a one room school until high school,
when he went into town where he met his wife Kathryn,
who commuted to school each morning from Shultz,
on the old C, K & S, christened the Chicago, Kalamazoo & Saginaw
(though it never made it to either end)
and locally dubbed the Cuss, Kick and Swear.

After marriage, he continued with his daddy,
farming the high ground south of the Thornapple:
milking Guernsey, raising beef, growing corn
and always tending a large garden
whose bounty, sealed in Mason Jars, were saved for winter.
Together, he and his dad brought one of the first tractors in these parts,
a ‘39 General, made at the Cleveland Tractor works.
As the seasons came and went
he dabbled in politics and farmed less,
but always kept his equipment as good as new
and for anyone who’d stop by, he’d tell stories
about working with oxen or plowing behind a mule.

Each fall, Howard harvested black walnuts,
primarily because they were there and that’s what you do,
when the Good Lord gives you a harvest.
As the years wore on, he came to depend upon other
But with an eye to detail, he demanded that those who assisted
to follow his instructions precisely:
husking the nuts through a corn shucker,
washing ‘em in an old cement mixer
and drying ‘em in racks in the barn,
then a keeping ‘em a week or so in the basement by the furnace
‘till the nuts neatly cracked open and the meat fell
into a cake or a batch of homemade ice cream.

Last Saturday, with walnuts drying in the basement,
harnesses and an oxen yoke still hanging in the barn,
Howard called his son to come quick and donned a fresh shirt,
for a trip to the hospital.
Heading toward the highway, where the two-track end,
out by the grape-vines,
he heard the distant wail of a train long pasted.
Kathryn had gone on ahead, but he knew the whistle,
and could hear the engine chugging through the swamps south of town,
as before,
carrying the girl he loved and who become his wife,
Listening, Howard gasped and breathed his last,
in sight of the house in which he was born
on the land he loved
where his family farmed
for 133 years.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hiking Sticks

Since several of my readers remarked on how those of us hiking in canyons all had sticks, I thought maybe it was time to introduce you to my favorite hiking stick.

I’m the guy in the photograph to the left at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. This was a few years ago when I still had hair. With me is my favorite hiking staff and have just completed the trail. The stick leaning against my shoulder had traveled almost the entire route. I had set out the AT several years earlier. After my first hike, I decided I needed a good stick. In a swamp on the north side of the Cape Fear River, I cut several possible young trees. These I skinned, then hung so that they would dry. After a few months, I choose an eastern holly to be my staff. It was strong and lightweight. Over the next 2100 miles, the stick and I traveled together. And in this period it probably lost 5 or 6 inches off its bottom as it wore down from constantly striking rocks. Over a period of three years, I hiked the southern 800 or so miles of the trail, from Springer Mountain, Georgia to the beginning of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Then, after going to grad school, I took a summer off and hiked from Virginia to where the trail ends, on the summit of Mt. Katadhin in Maine. After being on the trail for nearly three months, I’d lost all my excess fat and was as lean as I’ll ever be despite my diet that included 4 pounds of M&Ms every 10 days.

I was living in Virginia City, Nevada two years later. One Saturday in late fall I hiked across the Virginia Range. At a break, I left my stick. By then the stick had probably covered more than 2500 miles of trail along the Appalachian Trail as well as in Idaho and Nevada. I didn't realize I had left my staff until an hour or so later and it was too late to go back as darkness was descending and I still had a few miles and a long climb and descent before getting back into town. I planned to retrace my steps the next weekend in the hopes of finding the stick, but it snowed that week. The mountains were never completely snow free until late spring. Although I made other trips across the mountain that spring and summer, I never found my stick. Today, the stick that held me up, defended me from bad dogs, encouraged snakes to get off the trail, and was available to slay dragons and part the sea had the need arose, is recalled only in my mind and in pictures.

And yes, I am making a toast at a celebration on Katadhin. Three of us finished the trail that day. My sierra cup contains Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch. The other two hikers also had refreshments—one a bottle of champagne, the other a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Crème.

Let's Kiss and Make Up

Sharon Stone is offering to kiss "just about anybody" to help bring about an end to the Israel/Arab Conflict. Is this going to end the conflict or just bring more people into it? I'm left to wonder what it would take for me to be considered a part of the conflict.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Vignettes from a butterfly exhibit

Picture to the left from the Meijer Garden Butterfly Exhibit Webpage

Late winter, especially when out-of- town visitors drop in for a few days, is a perfect time for an afternoon in the Butterfly Exhibit at Meijer Gardens. The two-month exhibition just started and in addition to having hundreds of butterflies hatching daily, the greenhouse is filled with orchids, a stream complete with a waterfall and a pond. Since I didn’t pack a camera (and wasn't wanting to steal massive photos of butterflies, you’ll have to be content with my written observations.

1. Lying prostrate upon the water, a Longwing floats. She’s caught in the eddy of the small pond that draws her toward the falls under the bridge where I watch. The markings look like a Postman (Heliconius melpomene). She struggles occasionally, especially when the current pulls her close to the edge, teasing her with the hope of freedom. But her skinny legs are unable to make headway against the current and soon she’s caught in the swift current from the falls, which pushes her quickly back out into the pond. She bobbles on the waves, as they played out, before once again trying to free herself, frantically waving her thin legs to no avail. Like a capsized sailboat, with the weight of the water upon the sails keeps her crew from righting her, the weight of water on the butterfly’s wings secures her to a watery tomb. A boat crew has the options of furling the sails, but these magnificent black wings with splotches of red and white conspire to keep her a prisoner upon the water. Hers was a fatal sip of water that’s so necessary for life. As she circles back to toward the falls, she struggles less. Why doesn’t one of the large goldfish hasn’t risen to the top and with a single gulp, put her out of misery. But then I read that the markings on a Longwing inform predators of their bitter taste. But how do the fish know, I wonder?

2. On few feet away a Giant Owl (Caligo memnon), feasts, his wings closed like a child clasping hands in prayer. The dark spot in the middle of the wing of this member of the "brush-footed family" resembles an owl’s eye. Squiggly brown lines surround the eye as if his wing is nature’s topo map into a dark hole. Nearby, a Common Rose (Pachliopta arisolocia), a member of the Swallowtail family, flutters in what can only be described as orgiastic excitement as she draws life from the flower. Why the contrast. Why is one so active and the other so passive when they sup?

3. And then there’s the hatching room, under glass. Hundreds of cocoons hang, waiting the hour of their metamorphosing. Does caterpillars ever have second thoughts about zipping up their chryalis? Do any suffer from claustrophobia? Am I crazy to try to get into the mind of a caterpillar?

Friday, March 03, 2006

Slot Canyon Hiking

In my previous post, I talked about hiking in SW Utah and NW AZ. These photos give a sense of the feel within the slot canyons I wrote about.

I took most of these photos during a backpacking trip through Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River in October 2003. The one with high canyon wall (to the right) was taken on a hike through the Zion Narrows in 2002.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Ready for a hike...

This morning I got to read Ed Abbey’s post about hiking in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. Afterwards, while scrapping ice off the windshield of my “bent up truck,” I began to long for May. Actually, I hate to see winter go, but this winter has had so little snow, so I’m now anxious for a trip. In mid-May, I’m scheduled to travel out to my old stomping grounds in Southwest Utah to take care of some business. But that’s not going to take but a day or two, so I plan on packing in a four or five days for hiking and reacquainting myself with the desert. My dilemma now is what should do when then, as there are so many canyons and mountains to explore. I’ve narrowed my options to three. I’d love any advice you have as to which option sounds the most enticing. .

Option 1: Paria River from US 89 to the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry (38 miles)

I hiked the first six or so miles of this trail on a backpacking trip through Wirepass Canyon and Buckskin Gulch. . Buckskin is the most amazing slot canyon I’ve hiked in, but it’s not the place to get caught during a flash flood Buckskin ends in the Paria and there, in a hike in 2003, I turned north and hiked out to US 89. I’ve also day hiked along the Paria north of US 89. The Paria is wider than Buckskin and a trip down to Lee’s Ferry would be three long or four easy days. There is a lot of wading in the upper parts of the river, but the water shouldn’t be as cold as option 2. This is a popular hike so one disadvantage is getting permits. Another is the long shuttle run.

Option 2: Zion Canyon from the north via Deep Creek (22.6 miles)

Deep Creek starts south of Cedar Breaks, at Webster Flats and flows south into Zion Canyon where it merges into the Virgin River in the Zion Narrows, supplying the bulk of the water in the Virgin. While hiking the Zion Narrows is popular and requires a permit and limited to 50 people a day, Deep Creek is not very popular (but much more difficult with steep descents and deep pools). I had planned to hike this back in 2001 or 2002, but a fire in the region which has destroyed many of the Ponderosa Pines along its upper sections, caused me to change my plans and I headed over to Great Basin National Park for a backpacking trip through Bristlecone Pines. Most people allow three days to hike from Webster Flats to Zion Canyon. One disadvantage of this hike is the cold water which is coming from springs and snow melt high in the mountains. It would be a difficult hike if there was heavy snow runoff, but this hasn’t been a particularly heavy, but that can change in the next six weeks. I have hiked the last eight miles of this trip several times, hiking the Zion Narrows from the east side of the park and up from the south.

Option 3: Pocum Cove and Sullivan Canyon, Paiute Wilderness Area (approximately 25 miles)

This is the least known of all the options. The Paiute Wilderness is in the Arizona Strip (the part of Arizona that’s cut off from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon. It does not feature the tight slot canyons through Navajo Sandstone that the others offer, but the desert area has Joshua trees, plenty of cactus and some unique wildlife included Gila monsters and several species of rattlesnakes. There shouldn’t be any wading except at the end of the trail where one has to ford the Virgin River to get to the Cedar Pocket Rest Area along I-15 (where the hike would end). If there is a threat of heavy rain, this option becomes the only real option as it’s too dangerous to hike in the Paria or the Zion Narrows when there is a threat of a flash flood.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Pigging Out on Fat Tuesday

I spent yesterday in the kitchen. It was Fat Tuesday and several of us who had gone to New Orleans in January put on a dinner to beat the band for a couple score of our closest friends. What fun! (to learn about the New Orleans trip, see my post from December 31 through January 7 and January 13) What fun! We served beans and rice, jambalaya, salad and bread. We did our shopping on Monday, picking up shrimp, chicken, sausage, bags of onions, celery, bell peppers, beans, #10 cans of tomatoes and tomato paste, rice, french bread, salad makings and some other things that I can’t recall at the moment.

We got together yesterday morning at 9 AM. First order of business was to get the beans and chicken cooking into big pots. For good measure, we threw in bacon with the beans and celery and onions with the chicken. Then we set out to slice and dice 20 pounds of onions, 12 bunches of celery, cloves of garlic, parsley and cilantro. We finished chopping about the time to pull the chicken was done. We pulled the meat off the bones, diced it up, threw the skins away, and tossed the bones back in the pot to make our broth. Good chicken broth is important for jambalaya. I took off to do some errands, while one guy watched the stove. He also browned the sausage for the beans and jambalaya. At some point, his wife came in and suggested (an understatement) that he remove the shells of the shrimp. My plan was to toss the shrimp, shells and all, right into the concoction, but it was too late. So instead, we boiled the shells for an hour or so in water to get out what flavor we could, and added the liquid to the broth.

In the afternoon, we added cans of tomatoes and tomato paste to the beans and plenty of chopped onions, celery, peppers, and other spices. Somehow, the cilantro and parsley got added here too. It should have been held till later, but that was just a little oversight. Then we went to work on the jambalaya, sautéing a peck of onions, celery and peppers. Then we added a can of tomato paste and caramelized it, tossing in a can of crushed tomatoes and a collection of spices and some cilantro for good measure, a bit of broth, the chicken and sausage and shrimp. We cooked this until the shrimp were done (I had to try several just to make sure), then added rice and about two times the amount of broth and as soon as it came to a boil, put a lid on it and let it cook on low. Our next task was to cook rice for the beans. This we did in large pots, using some of the left over broth to make it especially good. As the rice was cooking, other guys got to work making pitchers of ice tea and lemonade, perking an urn of coffee, cutting up the french bread (so that it would go further, it really should have been torn apart), and getting the salad stuff ready. One of the wives fixed lemon squares which we served as desert and we were ready to serve the feast at 6:15, a full fifteen minutes before kickoff.

Everyone left stuffed. After the meal we showed slides of what we saw and did in New Orleans and passed the hat, raising a fair piece to be taken down to New Orleans when some of the group returns to help rebuild. Since we were serving this in a church fellowship hall, no alcohol was served. But when I got home after cleaning it all up, I enjoyed a nice tall bottle of "The Poet" a porter made by a local brewery.