Sunday, December 30, 2007

The South Shore Line--Back from Chicago

I spent three days in Chicago this week, enjoying the Science and Industry Museum, biting my tongue repeatedly in the obligatory stop at the American Girl Store (the only time I long for my daughter to be older is when I'm near this store), and meeting long lost friends from Utah who now live up north of the city. I don’t like driving into the city, but I really hate to pay an additional 45 bucks a day for parking at a hotel that is already over priced, so the train is my best option, especially when you can get anywhere via public transportation. When I tried to get a ticket a few weeks ago, Amtrak was sold out so I decided to try another option, driving to South Bend and taking the South Shore Line into the city. Below is my description of the trip back to South Bend. This is a first for me (catching the train from South Bend). A number of years ago, when living in Utah, I’d flown into South Bend—to do something at Notre Dame University and was impressed to learn that from the airport one could also catch a train into Chicago. What a novel concept—linking together various forms of transportation. I think San Francisco recently extended BART to the airport. Why can’t cities have the foresight of South Bend? The photo was taken through the dirty window of the train, near Hudson Lake, Indiana.

We wait by the tracks at the Van Buren Station. Salt that has liberally applied to melt the ice, cracks under our feet as we walk back and forth across the platform, trying to stay warm. The concrete shows signs of age as do much of the station; rust and decay have over taken too many years of little maintenance. The salt, while a safety measure, will only hasten the decay. It’s cold, but not bitterly. At least the wind, from which this city is famous, isn’t blowing. Soon, through the tunnel in the distance, you can see the train snake its way toward our platform. People began to come out of the station and join us on the platform, waiting to board the South Shore Line.

We all climb on board. This is only the second stop of the run, but already the only seats available are those facing backwards. I stow our luggage overhead and pull out a copy of Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, and plop down, watching the tall buildings and parks and museums fade away as we pass the McCormick Place and New Comiskey Park, now known as U.S. Cellular Field, a name that just doesn’t seem right. Soon, we’re in the tenements, high rise housing projects that are surrounded by boarded up warehouses and depilated factories. I wonder why it is that I, who have a nature dislike for cities, have fallen in love with Chicago. Maybe it’s because I know from Chicago I can quickly retreat home, even though such a retreat, whether by train or on the highway, will take me through the less desirable sides of the city and tempers my desire to return.

After the stop at Kensington, the line turns east, with stops at Hegewisch and Hammond and a host of other places as we pass the mills at Gary. Along the way, old boarded up buildings and small bars with a car or two out front dot the landscape. There’s snow on the ground, but not enough to truly cover up things and transform the landscape. This could be a setting for a Tom Waits song or, if it was out west, one of the vignettes for the hopeless characters in the Richard Ford book I’m reading. Leaving industry behind, the train picks up speed, running through the sand dunes along the lake and then into the hardwood swamps and fields of cut corn, their stubble sticking up out of the snow. But all that is short-lived as the train slows down and the conductor cries out, “South Bend.” We re-enter an industrial zone then ride beside the runaway till we arrive at the station, affixed next to the airport terminal. Covered in snow and ice, my vehicle awaits in long term parking.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas Post

Years ago I had a cat. Her name was Happy (one day I’ll have to tell her story). She loved climbing the Christmas Tree. One year, I think it was the year before her death; she got tangled in wires and jumped from the top of the tree. This was at 3 AM. I woke to a fierce growl, and then a bang as the tree hit the floor, breaking ornaments. Happy screeched and ran, dragging the light cord across the living room. I don’t think she ever toured the tree again. For this Christmas day, in honor of Happy, I’ll take you on a tour of Sage’s tree, telling you about some of my favorite ornaments. Maybe later (or next year), I’ll show pictures and tell stories of all the ornaments my mother made and/or purchased for me. That’s another whole collection and an era that has now gone by.

The Boot: This ornament was a gift from a man that I met in Pennsylvania while hiking the Appalachian Trail. He had retired to Florida but was spending time day hiking on the AT. He had been carving one of these boots and told me that if I made it to Katadhin in Maine and sent him a post card with my address, he’s send me one of his carved boots. This ornament has been on Sage’s tree for twenty years.

The Canoe: I was given this ornament six or seven years ago. If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll know why it’s on the tree.

Lighthouses: I have a number of lighthouses on the tree. I’ve tried to limit the lighthouses to ones I’ve actually climbed which include both the Cape Hatteras and the Bald Head Island Lighthouses in eastern North Carolina.

Bald Head is the island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. I also have some Michigan lighthouses on the tree.

Boy Scout Ornaments: I used to receive a Boy Scout ornament every year from a former boss and long time friend. Ron was the Scout Executive for the National Capital Council in Washington, DC and the council would produce an ornament every year. This is the last in the series, one done by the council after his death and shows a picture of the cottage named after him. Ron died of brain tumor in 2005.

Violin: This is my daughter’s. She has been playing the violin since she was four and now has a “Hannah Montana” guitar to learn how to play.

Vacation Ornaments: There are many different bells from various places. The first bell I purchased in Yellowstone National Park back in 1989.

The Chateau Lake Louise ornament came from a stay there in the fall of 1995.

There are also a set of tropical birds from Honduras. These are glass and it seems that there is one fewer every year!

Another set of ornaments are from places I’ve lived: Ellicottville, New York.

Cedar City, Utah is home of the Utah Shakespearean Festival.

And now, thanks to a wrong turn off the Indiana turnpike, I’m in Michigan (that’s a mitt carved out of a Petoskey stone, which has some special meaning to the folks in this state—maybe Murf or Karen can you explain)

My sister has given me a set of sand dollars ornaments she’s made.

Merry Christmas to all of you!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Around the World

It’s been a while since I posted a puzzle picture (the last was of the Edmund Fitzgerald back in 2006). Things have been busy and stressful and I haven’t done much blogging, but one of the ways I work out my stress, especially when the gym is closed for the evening, is to do a puzzle. Of course, I’m not sure I reduced my stress by trying to work this size of a puzzle on a table that not quite large enough (each of the corner pieces hung off the edge and once the dog’s tail cleared off an entire section). But last night I finished—a trip around the world. There are 36 different cities represented in this 1000 piece puzzle (the 1000 Places to See Before You Die folks published this puzzle). Anyone want to see how many cities you can get right? There were several surprises for me. (If you take me up on the challenge, start at the top left and work across and then down, like you’re reading a book--thanks Murf for correcting me as I don't think I have many native Hebrew readers.) You can click on the photo to have it blown up to super-size. I’m sorry the picture isn’t the best. I may try photographing it again with some daylight adding to the mix and if I get a better shot, I’ll change photos.

Weather Update: The wind has been blowing crazy since about 3 AM (that's when the dog first woke me to inform me of the problem). I got up at 5:15 and it was 50 degrees outside. It was warm yesterday (in the low-40s) and with all the rain, our snow is now gone. Overnight, the temperature actually went up. But we’re in a winter storm warning and sometime this morning, the temperature is to nosedive and the rain is to become snow and between noon today and tomorrow morning, we’re to get our white Christmas. I’m hoping we get enough to ski on, but ain’t holding my breath.

Thinking of others: This is the season to think about others and at least three of the regular folks whose blogs I read are going through tough times. Kontan lost her dad and step-father this fall and this past week, Bone's mother had a stroke and Dawn lost Dakota, her loving beagle. Say a prayer or send a good thought in their directions.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Getting Ready for Christmas

Life is hectic; why does Christmas have to come so near to the end of the year? I’m trying to track down the last of my gifts for the holidays. If you were a member of my staff, this is the kind of gift you’d be receiving tomorrow (I got the shipment in last week. The Moravian cookies are wonderful. They’re from Old Salem (now a part of Winston Salem) and are paper thin and stored in a wonderful tin box. My favorite is the Walnut, but the Ginger, Sugar and Lemon Cookies are also really good. For the nuttier staff members, there’s fruitcake. I know, make your jokes, but you can’t find anything any better than a Southern Supreme Nutty Fruitcake (they’re like the ones my great-grandma made). They’re baked in Bear Creek, North Carolina (better have a good map to find it) and are wonderful. No, they’re not soaked in brandy (but my great-grandma didn’t soak hers either). What do you have to do to finish getting ready for Christmas?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Look around my library

A few months ago, Deanna (Friday Night Fish Fry) invited me to join Shelfari—a place where you can put your book titles and reviews online. Over time, I’ve added to the list of books I have there (over 300) and have finally gotten around to posting it onto my sidebar (I had to upgrade the blogger template to do that). If you are like me and like to look at other people’s libraries, I invite you to come on by. I don’t have anywhere near all my books online (and I'm surprised that quite a few of my books I can’t find on Shelfari), but what I have will give you an idea of some of the stuff I read. Enjoy, and let me know if you get a Shelfair site. Click here or hit the sidebar.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Deep Survival: A Book Review

Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why (New York: W. W. Norton, 200), 324 pages.

Drawing from his vast experience as a reporter of natural disasters, an acrobatic pilot, a prison guard, his family, literature and philosophy, Laurence Gonzales sets out to discover what traits are needed to survive a disaster? Why is it that someone lives while someone else, who would seem to be even more qualified to survive, dies? Looking at climbing accidents, hikers lost in the mountains, those adrift in life-rafts on the sea, and airplane crashes, Gonzales finds that the one who survives is often not the one who was most prepared. In his book, he integrates personal stories of survival with current research on how the brain works and processes information, especially looking at the relationship within the brain between cognitive functions and emotions. Both play a role in survival and need to be held in balance, for the extreme of either position (too emotional or too logical) often proves fatal.

This book is sprinkled with tad-bits of wisdom. “Fear is good; too much fear is not.” The survivor must know and understand his condition. He or she often fights fear with dark humor, laughing at the hopeless situation they’re in. Humor then becomes the balance between the cognitive and the emotional. One trainer taught his clients: “Fear is like fire. It can cook for you. It can heat your house. Or it can burn you down.” (41) Yet fear can also be addictive, “it can be fun and make you feel more alive.” (49) Prayer plays an important role. Quoting Peter Leschak, ‘Whether a deity is actually listening or not, there is value in formally announcing your needs, desires, worries, sins, and goals in a focused, prayerful action. Only when you are aware can you take action.” (180) Gonzales reminds his readers that the human being can endure much more than we think we’re capable of enduring. He quotes from Dostoevsky’s Memories from the House of the Dead, ”Man is a creature who can get used to anything, and I believe that is the best way of defining him.” (215) Gonzales gives this definition of survival: “Survival is nothing more than an ordinary life well lived in extreme circumstances.” (240)

Gonzales spends a chapter talking about the role memory plays in survival situations. We all have brain bookmarks (somatic markers) that help us quickly recognize both fear and pleasure. These bookmarks can both help us survive (by realizing the gravity of the situation) or cause us to stumble (by causing us to make bad decisions in the hopes of quickly getting back to where we are comfortable). Gonzales gives several examples of people whose bookmarks for the pleasure over road their rational senses and caused them to make bad decisions. One example involved climbers coming down from a mountain in bad weather. The desire to be in the lodge was so great that they moved too quickly and got into trouble. Another example is a scuba diver who has a feeling of suffocation and pulls the regulator out of their mouth when under water. A third example is the naval pilot who losses his focus and his only thought is to be back safe on the ship, which causes him to ignore warnings and to abort a landing. Survival of a life-threatening situation can actually become addictive, which can create its own problems. The true survivor enjoys the challenge, but also knows the danger.

Gonzales devotes a great deal of space showing how we all map our world. For the most part, this is a good trait, one that helps us make sense of our surroundings. The problem arises when our map is faulty and we tend to make our surroundings jive with our mental map instead of taking in new information (I know the camp is right over the next hill). When our maps are wrong, we need to realize it and not just react. We have to shift from emotional to cognitive action. Other common traits of who survive is that survivors are rule breakers (whose those who cannot break the rules have the most trouble) and they are also those concerned about others (helping others caught in the situation or wanting to live to see loved ones left behind).

In his last chapter, Gonzales outlines twelve things he seen survivors do:

1. Perceive, believe (look, see, believe)
2. Stay calm (use humor, use fear to focus)
3. Think/analyze/plan (get organized; set up small, manageable tasks)
4. Take correct, decisive action (be bold and cautious while carrying out task)
5. Celebrate your successes (take joy in completing tasks)
6. Count your blessings (be grateful—you’re alive)
7. Play (sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your heard.
8. See the beauty (remember: it’s a vision quest)
9. Believe that you will succeed (develop a deep conviction that you will live)
10. Surrender (let go of your fear of dying: ‘put away the pain’)
11. Do whatever is necessary (be determined, have the will and the skill). Know your abilities, but do not under or overestimate them.
12. Never give up (let nothing break your spirit).

I enjoyed this book and think it has a lot to offer. Gonzales has a talent for weaving good stories with scientific knowledge and theory. This book isn’t a how-to manual for survival, but in a way it is a manual on how to fully live life. As the author states on the last page: “We can live a life of bored caution and die of cancer. Better to take the adventure, minimize the risks, get the information, and then go forward in the knowledge that we’ve done everything we can.”

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Wrap-up of my trip to North Carolina

It was mid-afternoon when I left Harkers Island. Driving south, parallel to the coast, I go through Beaufort and by the state port at Morehead City, through Jacksonville, passing the tattoo parlors and topless bars that line the highway which skirts Camp Lejeune, then down Highway 17 to Wilmington. When we first moved to the coast, this was a two-lane road. Then, about the time I got my driver’s license, they updated the road to a three-lane highway, the center being a passing lane shared by each side. There were some head-on wrecks and at the time, my dad wondered if it had been designed by an Undertaker. Today, it’s four-lanes and mostly a divided highway with cars speeding in both directions. That’s not the only changes. Gone are the old rusty tin shacks where, in years passed, you could buy fresh shrimp, oysters or collard greens. Gone are the little gas stations at crossroads, with their Coca-Cola chest coolers and screen doors advertising Sunbeam Bread. Now, multi-colored convenient stores with shaded gas pumps dot the highway. Also gone are the large sections of forest. The pines that exist are now in plantations, which grow a hybrid version instead of the traditional long-leaf pines. The remaining long-leafs now stand sentinel around colonial-styled homes. The few ancient live oaks left, with their beards of Spanish moss, serve as decorations for entrances to housing developments. There’s been a lot of change since I was a kid.

I stop and pick up some barbeque for dinner, along with cole slaw and hushpuppies, and arrive home a little after dark. I relieve my brother and for the next three days am responsible for Mom. It’s a role that I’m not use to and I immediately find out that no only will I have to take care of her, I will also have to watch over her dog that appears to have the runs. The little mutt (he’s actually some special bred) is named Prince… He doesn’t look like a Prince, but the last dog my parents have had (a collie) was named Prince and my father thought that keeping a dog of the same name would help my mom. But when I ask Mom about the other Prince, she doesn’t remember the dog even though at the time he’d gotten out of the fenced backyard and was struck by a car in front of their house, my mother called me balling over the phone. I cleaned up the dog’s mess, washed my hands, and then we ate dinner.

The next morning we’d planned to go to Pinehurst to see my grandmother (father’s side), who still lives by herself and also to give my mother a chance to see her sister. Getting ready was a challenge as I tried to make sure my mom had everything she needed for the overnight stay. I asked her to get a change of clothes; she came back with a dressy suit. I told her that we weren’t going formal, so she came back with a sweatshirt. I told her that was probably too hot. She came back with a blouse that seemed more appropriate. I sent her back for slacks. It was weird realizing that she wasn’t quite sure what was going on, and I felt like I was dealing with my daughter when she was about five or six.

We loaded up the car, putting the dog in his carrier, and I drove the familiar way, through town and across the river and up along the south banks of the Cape Fear, through Brunswick, Columbus, Bladen, Robinson, Hoke and finally Moore County. Most of this use to be tobacco and peanut country, but every time I make the trip, there are fewer and fewer curing barns and those are the newer bulk barns. Much of the tobacco land is now planted in cotton (or in corn by farmers hoping to cash in on the ethanol boom). Along the way, I was hoping to find some boiled peanuts, which are only available during and right after the harvest. After making several stops, I finally found an old gas station in the town of Dublin that had a few bags left in their drink cooker. Boiled peanuts are wonderful and I brought a three pound bag, heating up a few in their microwave to eat on the drive.

We got to my grandma’s early in the afternoon. She’d fixed dinner: pork chops, cornbread, collard greens, homemade apple sauce, three-bean salad (my grandmother forgot that I’m the one who hates green beans) and left-over pumpkin pie. It was all very good after I picked the green beans out of my salad. We spent the night at grandma’s, watching antique shows on TV before bed.

I offered to make breakfast the next morning. Grandma agreed, and then started showing me where things were at. She got out eggs and sausage and canned biscuits from the refrigerator.

“What?” I asked, “Canned biscuits?”

“They’re pretty good,” my grandmother insisted.

I refused to have anything to do with it. “I’ll make biscuits,” I volunteer, thinking that breakfast at grandmas had to have homemade biscuits.

“When did you learn how to make biscuits?” my grandmother asked.

“I learned from you, when I was about 14,” I told her.

“We’ll that’s good, ‘cause I don’t make ‘em from scratch anymore.”

So I got busy and made a pan of biscuits, fixed eggs, sausage, grits and coffee. We had us a real southern breakfast.

Later that morning, I walked down behind her house to Joe’s Fork, a small creek. When I was a kid, the beavers had dammed up the creek in several places, creating nice ponds for fishing. I love this country—the Sandhills. Tall long-leaf pines, interspersed with blackjack oaks, their leaves looking like mittens for a giant. (see photo) There’s American holly and red cedar and growing high in the trees along the creek are clumps of mistletoe. I couldn’t find any beaver, but was surprised to see a golf course maybe 100 feet from the creek on the other side. I’m sure the ground-keepers kept the beavers out of the creek, as the last thing they’d want would be an unexpected water trap.

We later visited my aunt and cousin, then drove back to Wilmington. The next day we drove out to the beach and did a bit of shopping. My sister came down to take over, and on Thursday morning she and my mom dropped me off at the airport.

It was good to be back in the South and back home for a few days. But every time I go I get a sense of loss. I’m sure this is heightened by my mothers deteriorating condition.

Other stories from this trip:
Catchin' Blues
Camping on Cape Lookout

Friday, December 07, 2007

3 Word Wednesday: A Nevada Jack Rant

Bone’s Three-word Wednesday writing assignment this week is to come up with something using the following three words. I assigned the task to Nevada Jack. Sorry that he’s a few days past deadline, you just can’t find good help these days. This week’s words are: absent, notebook and persuade.

The primary season is coming soon, yet for the most part, the candidates have been absent from Michigan. We’re not overloaded with TV ads trying to persuade us to vote for this or that candidate. There are no reporters running around with notebooks, asking folks on the street questions of national importance such as what we think about Edwards’ hair cut or Mitch’s underwear. There are no candidates dropping dollars into our struggling state economy, tipping the waitresses and kissing the babies. All this is happening because the bright minds in our state legislature decided to usurp the political process and schedule an early primary on January 15. This is before the “legal” date for primaries and caucuses, as set by the two major political parties. The parties want to protect the two states known for their corn or granite to get first dibs on selecting the next President. In a state where there is absolutely no bi-partisan effort to balance the budget, we’re hearing lots of bi-partisan rhetoric citing reasons why Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn’t have a lock on being first. It's being fought out in the courts right now and it seems as if it's on again/off again, I can't keep it straight. But if the courts allow the primary go forth, we’ll have a primary election with little campaigning and the possibility that our delegates to the national political parties won’t be certified!

Enough ranting—it’s snowing and time for a long winter nap…

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sick Puppy: A Book Review

I decided to move this book out of its “queue” and review it earlier so I can lend the book out. This is the second Hiaasen book I’ve recently read. I reviewed the other book, Skinny Dip, on Saturday.

Carl Hiaasen, Sick Puppy (New York: Warner Books, 1999), 513 pages.

Twilly Spree is a young, unemployed, multi-millionaire living off his trust fund and spending his time harassing litterbugs and developers. One day he happens to run across Palmer Sloat, a lobbyist who seems to think the state’s interstate highway is his own personal dump. Soon, and unbeknownst to Palmer, Twilly is on his tail. He dumps trash in Palmer’s sports car, kidnaps his Labrador Retriever name Boodle and renames him McGuinn, finds himself enchanted with Palmer’s lovely wife Desie, and sets out to destroy the lobbyist’s current project—a state funded bridge to aid the development of Todd Island.
This book is filled with interesting characters. Robert Chapley, the developer who hires Palmer to help him develop the island (at the state’s expense), is a man obsessed with Barbie dolls. This obsession started with him playing with his sister’s dolls and as an adult takes a new twist as he, now with money, sets out to have the real thing. He finds two tall young women from Eastern Europe, Katya and Trish, entices them to move in with him and with the help of a plastic surgeon, begins their transformation into real live Barbies. Chapley’s demise at the end of the book comes at his attempt to obtain a rhino horn, the powder from which his Barbies believe is a great sex drug.

Another interesting character is Clinton Tyree (Skink), an ex-governor who lives off the land in the middle of the Everglades. The current governor seeks his help in finding the eco-terrorist that’s sabotaging the Toad Island project. In the end, Skink and Twilly join forces in bringing about the end of the Todd Island project. The finale occurs on a private game reserve where Chapley is hunting a live rhino. In the party is the current governor, a member of the state legislature, Spree and a couple of guides. The rhino (named El Jefe) is on his death bed, but when Spree’s dog breaks lose from Skink’s hand and charges the rhino, biting its tail, the beast comes alive. Chapley misses his shot, the bullet striking Sloat’s gun, ends up impaled on the rhino’s horn. Sloat, his rifle ruined, is trampled to death by the beast.

As this is my second Hiassen book that I’ve read, there seems to be some patterns to his characters and plot. In both Skinny Dip and Sick Puppy, at least one character has an inheritance large enough to allow them to pay their way as they try to right wrongs. In both books, one of the main characters is a puppet for a more powerful person (Sloat works for Chapley and in Skinny Dip, Chaz worked for Red). In both books, the good guys get off easy; the bad guys get their due. The powerful figures in both books have hired goons that do their dirty work: however, the thug in Skinny Dip changes his way while the thug in Sick Puppy ends up on the wrong side of a bulldozer. Finally, there is a loveable dog in each book. Even with the similarities, I enjoyed both books.

A Side Note: Hiaasen talent is to make unbelievable characters believable. The exception in this book is Estella, the call girl who only does Republicans. I can’t imagine tightfisted Republicans paying good money for sex when they’ve been screwing the entire country for free for the past dozen years. But then again, after Bush, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a tightfisted Republican.

A Side Note #2: Twilly reminds me of Hayduke in Edward Abbey’s novels. Both are essentially eco-terrorists, the difference being that Twilly has money and enjoys a more active sex life than Hayduke. Hiassen seems to relish in the sex lives of his characters and this book is “adult oriented.”
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sunday Scribblings: A Sunday Morning Walk

"Walking my mind to an easy time…"
-James Taylor, “Fire and Rain”

I haven’t done a “Sunday Scribblings” in a while. When I read Guatami’s blog, I saw that today’s topic is “walking,” I knew I’d have to write something. After all, I’ve done my share of walking. Often, I walk the mile into town. I also often walk to my office. Other times, I go for longer walks, the Appalachian Trail being my longest. Then there’s the John Muir Trail and a host of smaller ones, like the Ruby Crest in Nevada, the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania, the Uwharrie in North Carolina, portions of the Finger Lakes in New York and the North Country Trail here in Michigan. And of course, there are others too. But after thinking about all my hikes, I decided to write about an early morning walk I took the last time I visited one of my old haunts, Virginia City, Nevada. The first photograph is a copy of a slide that I shot back in 88-89 when I lived on the Comstock (Virginia City). The second, taken in 1989, was of the bartender at the Silver Dollar Saloon. I’ll have to see if I can make some copies of the many slides I have of Virginia City, taken from the Combination Shaft. I also need to see if I can retake the first picture (of the wildflowers) as it appears my copy is a bit out of focus.

I can’t believe it’s been this long, but the last time I was in Virginia City was in the Spring of 2000. Then, I’d been nearly a dozen years since I’d lived there, and it was kind of on a whim that I decided to take off from San Francisco where I was engaged in research and head to Nevada for the weekend. I’d told no one that I was coming to town and got there late Saturday afternoon and checked into the Sugarloaf Motel. That evening I walked through town, stopping for a drink at the Union Brewery. The last time I’d been in town it was closed. Rick and Julie, the proprietors when I lived here, had split up years earlier. The Brewery, now under new management, felt more like a bikers bar than a local hangout. I went next door to Muldoon’s and ordered a hamburger. The last time I’d eaten there Norm was still the cook, but I’d heard he’d succumbed to cancer. I stopped in a few shops, finding a few folks I knew, but I now felt like a stranger. In the early evening, I walked out to Boot Hill and through the various cemeteries: one for the Masons, one for the Firemen and a third for the Catholics. It dawned on me that I probably knew as many people buried under this hard ground as I did in town. Then, after darkness had descended, I walked back through town, stopping for another beer at the Silver Dollar. I couldn’t remember the bartender’s name, it was French and we use to talk about literature. When I described him, I was told he too had died. Sad, I headed back to my room, called it an early night and was in bed before 11.

Sitting on the east flank of Mt. Davidson, morning seems to come early to Virginia City. I woke at first light, before sunrise, and decided to give the Comstock another try. Dressing, I pulled on my boots, grabbed my camera and stuck a water bottle in my coat pocket and headed out to see if the surroundings had changed as much as had the people in the town. I walked down to D Street, headed south along the tracks of the Virginia and Truckee, till I got to where the siding used to cut off to the Combination Shaft. Then I hiked along the old bed to the head frame that straddles a shaft which once dropped nearly 3000 feet under the surface. When I arrived, the sun was still below the horizon, but its rays were striking the top of Mt. Davidson, some 1600 feet above the city. As the sun rose, its rays descended further down the mountain, till the city bathe in warm light that reflected off the glass windows. This was a magical time. I pulled out my camera and shot a scene that I’d never tired of photographing, the city in the background, St. Mary’s of the Mountain in the center, with the gallows frame over the shaft in the foreground and off to the side.

As the air was still cool, I decided to start hiking in order to warm myself up. I headed east, along an old road, out to Flowery Cemetery. Unlike the main cemetery on the north side of town, there are no elaborate gravestones here; this was a pauper’s graveyard. As I kick around through the graves, I come across a rock path. Following it, I visited the Stations of the Cross. Then, out on a ledge, I come to the white picket fence around the grave for Julie Bullete, Virginia City heroine prostitute who was murdered in 1867. Legend has it that she was buried here because as a prostitute she wasn’t allowed to be buried in the main cemetery, but the truth most likely is that she’s buried here because like most women in that profession, she was poor. It seems odd that her grave would be so prominent, in a location that it can easily be seen through binoculars from the porches behind the businesses on C Street, but that’s because this isn’t her real grave. No one is sure exactly where in the cemetery she was buried, but back in the 1960s, some of those with tourist interest in the community decided she needed a grave that they could point out from town. Every year or so, someone comes out and whitewashes the picket fence, so her plot remains visible to the throng of tourist who stream through the city every summer.

Leaving the graveyard, I continue to head east, walking through pinions and junipers, the sage and rabbit brush, passing along side a ventilation shafts for the Sutro Tunnel. The tunnel was an ambitious 19th Century project, in which a drift (a horizontal mine shaft) from the valley to the east was dug into the mines under Virginia City, a feat which helped drain the mines as the water didn’t have to be pumped all the way to the surface. Along the way, several jack rabbits jump up and dart away. There are still a few spring flowers in bloom, mostly lupine and paintbrush. Gradually, I drop of the side of the hill, down into Six Mile Canyon near the base of Sugarloaf, an outstanding geological feature, probably the core of an old volcano. I cross the small creek and stir up a coyote, then turn west and head up Seven Mile Canyon, toward the Geiger Grade. There, just below the road to Reno and north of Boot Hill, is the old Jewish Cemetery. Not much remains, but a simple wood Star of David stands above the small fenced plot. I pause to look around, then head south, cutting across Boot Hill and back into town. I stop at the Wagon Wheel for coffee and pancakes, before heading back to my room, where I shower, clean up, and get ready for church.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Skinny Dip: A Book Review

Carl Hiaasen, Skinny Dip

Warning, Carl Hiaasen can be dangerous to your health. Let me explain. I listed to Skinny Dip on my Ipod, mostly while working out at the gym. There is nothing more dangerous than being on a bench, with a bunch of weight over your head and your arms beginning to fatigue, and then be hit with one of Hiaasen’s incredibility funny lines. Numerous people wanted to know what I was listening to and one guy said that he’d never seen anybody have a much fun as I was having at the gym. Yes, I enjoyed this book.

Skinny Dip begins with Dr. Charles “Chaz” Perrone throwing his beautiful and rich wife Joey off the back of a cruise ship. It’s the last night of their anniversary cruise. Far from land, there is no way she could survive both the fall and the sharks, or so Chaz thinks. But Joey does survive, clinging to a stray bail of marijuana. She’s picked up by Mick Stranahan, a retired cop who lives on a deserted island. With Mick’s help, Joey decides she’ll let Chaz think she’s dead while she torments him for all he’s worth. As her pranks play out, a detective who main preoccupation (other than his pet snakes) is to get back to Minnesota and away from the crazies in South Florida, also gets on Chaz’s tail. But he can’t prove that Chaz threw her overboard, and in the end is satisfied to know that justice is being carried out although not through the court system.

In trying to cover his tracks, Chaz sets out to kill two other people, his mistress and his boss’ thug. In both cases, he thinks he’s done the deed perfectly, only to find out that they’ve survived. Chaz is 0-3 as a murderer and must known the fear Pilate and the Roman soldiers felt. Every time he thinks he’s gotten rid of a problem, they’re resurrected.

One of the classic scenes in the books is following Joey’s funeral. At this point, all but a few think Joey’s body has been lost at sea. Joey has a trusted friend attend the funeral dressed as a slut and then, acting grief struck, has her to hit on Chaz. Sure enough Chaz follows her home like a dog in heat. After a number of drinks, she suggests he go into the bedroom while she “freshens up.” In a scene reminiscent of Scrooge in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Joey then takes over, causing her inebriated husband to think he’s seeing ghost and to flee the house in fear.

Chaz is a biologist in name only. Although he works for the state, his real employer is Red Hammernut, a large scale farmer who needs Chaz to fake water samples so he can dump his fertilizered run-off into the Everglades. Red assigns a “body guard” to Chaz, a man who’s got a bullet in the butt and who snoops low enough to steal morphine patches off dying patients in nursing homes. He also steals highway crosses that have been put out by families who lost love ones in accidents, planting the crosses in his own back yard. In the end, after befriending one of the patients, Red’s thug has a “conversion” and gives up his more crooked ways.

This is an adult book (ie, there’s lots of sex). It's filled with lots wacky characters. In the end all the good guys seem to get hooked with a partner--Joey and Mitch, Joey's brother and Chaz's former mistress, the thug and his nursing home friend. Hiassen neatly wraps up the book, only leaving us to spectulate as to what happened to Chaz (hinting that his outcome was probably not good). I’m not sure what took me so long to get around to reading Hiaasen. My sister recommended him to me some time ago and Diane has spoken highly of him in her blog. Although funny, Hiassen’s goal is more than entertainment. He wants to raise awareness of the ecological damage being done to Florida. This week, while flying home from North Carolina, I began reading another of Hiassen’s books, Sick Puppy. It’ll go in my list of books to be reviewed. After that, I’m sure they’ll be more, but there are so many authors to read...

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.