Saturday, November 28, 2009

1987 Appalachian Trail Journey--Vermont

For 98 miles in Vermont, the Appalachian Trail follows the footsteps of the Long Trail, the oldest hiking long distance hiking trail in American. Hikers jokingly refer to the Long Trail as the MRR (mud, rocks and roots), but I think it needs to be called the BMRR (briars, mud, rocks and roots). At Sherburne Pass (see photo to the left), the trail turns east, leaving the Green Mountains and heading toward New Hampshire and the White Mountains. Although I complained about the briars, mud, rocks and roots, the trail is actually wonderful and the State of Vermont beautiful. There are many shelters along the trail, making the hiking even easier and allowing for hikers to put in high mileage days. This is my account of my 1987 hike.

The photo below was taken early one the morning (I think on a ridge above Manchester Center)

I began my first full day in Vermont on July 19. Thanks to Scott, Denver Dash’s boyfriend, who’d driven out from Colorado to spend time with her, I along with a number of other hikers had taken the opportunity to slack-pack (hiking without a backpack) much of the trail in Northern Massachusetts along with the first few miles of trail in Vermont. A group of us had spent two nights at the hostel in Cheshire, capping off long days of hiking with nights of food and drink. On this morning, we all piled in the back of Scott’s truck and he drove us to a county road which we hike into the trail. It felt good to once again have a backpack. After hiking for so long with it (only two days), I find myself feeling a little naked when it’s not attached. I also found myself a little lazy. Raspberries are ripe and throughout the day, I stop and eat a few. From Harmon Hill, there is a great view of Bennington, Vermont with its tall monument commemorating the Revolutionary War battle which occurred there. Along the trail, I meet Edna Williams of Melrose, Florida. I’ve been reading about her in trail registers and am surprised to find that she’s 70 years old. I only cover a little over 12 ½ miles, stopping early at Melville Nauheim Shelter where I spend the afternoon and evening reading the Gospel of Mark and Steinbeck’s Travel’s with Charlie. I find myself pondering what Steinbeck meant when he writes that “maps are not reality, but they can become tyrants.” The shelter is crowded. Ben is here along with a man and his three son along with three of his son’s friends and a couple (she’s from Nashville and he’s from Ohio).

A beaver swimming with a branch in it's mouth.

With so many people in the shelter, things are noisy and I’m up early, leaving at 6:15 AM. I have my breakfast later, on the trail. By 10:15, I’ve clicked off nine miles and stop at the fire tower on Glastenbury Mountain. The mountain reminds me of a Christmas tree lot, with so many firs and spruce that the air has a fresh scent to it. A cloud are moving in and, as often seems to be the case when there is suppose to be a good viewpoint, I can see nothing. I hike another four miles to Caughnawga Shelter, where I stop for lunch. It begins to rain. I spend the afternoon putting in the miles in the rain, arriving at Bigelow Shelter on Stratton Pond at 7 PM. I’ve hiked a little over 23 miles, much of the last half in a downpour. Stu, who goes by the name of Stone Fish, is the caretaker at Stratton Pond. He welcomes me into camp and offers me a Pepsi, a welcomed gift. In the evening the clouds begin to break up and I go swimming in the pond with a beaver that’s not real happy with me being in his waters. The beaver is building a new hut just down from the shelter and he works the night shift, often waking me up. The mosquitoes are terrible here.
A porcupine crosses the trail.

Early the next morning I’m chased out of Stratton Pond by mosquitoes. It’s still cloudy at 7 A.M., but not so foggy. I make good time and have great views from Prospect Rock. I decide to make it an easy day and at Vermont 11, I hitch a ride into Manchester Center. There is a hostel at Zion Episcopal Church. Slim Jim and Daddy Longlegs are already there. In the afternoon I enjoy a long conversation with the rector, Father Jim. He’s from Virginia. When he hiked the Appalachian Trail in Maine, he was so taken with the beauty of the area that when he found a church in Rangeley Maine without a priest, he borrowed a typewriter at the town‘s drug store and sent a letter to the bishop. Three months later found himself in Maine and has been in New England ever since. More hikers come into the hostel throughout the afternoon, including Ben and Denver Dash (Jane) and a couple of south bounders. Most of us go out into a pub that evening, where I am introduced to a new beer, a “Samuel Adams.” It’s said to be an old beer from Boston, but when I read the label I learn that this bottle is actually brewed by Iron City Brewing Company in Pittsburgh. (Note: this was 20 years ago, when Sam Adams was just “reintroducing” itself.) I try another local beer, a Catamount, and then a bottle of “John Courage” from Britain. Before going back to the hostel, I call Debbie and we talk for a few minutes. I also try to call a few other friends, but no one is home.

I leave the hostel at 6 the next morning and after a few minutes, am given a ride back to the trail head. The skies looked clear in town, but back on the mountain, it’s cloudy. By 8 AM, I’ve climbed to the top of Bromley Mountain, where there is a tower and the tops of the local ski slope. According to a sign, you should be able to see five states from this peak (VT, NH, ME, NY and MA) but not today. Once again, clouds have ruined the view, although there are a few peaks that do rise above the clouds and stand like islands in a fluffy sea. To the north, I can make out Killington Peak. The air is already warm and there appears to be thunderclouds forming in the west.

The skies did clear off and I make good mileage in the morning, stopping at Lost Pond Shelter for lunch. Todd, who I’d met in Manchester Center, is the caretaker. I continued on hiking in the afternoon, stopping at Little Rock Pond where I fixed dinner on a rock by the lake. Teri, the caretaker for this section of the trail, stops by and I’m immediately in love. She’s beautiful. Petite, with long brown hair hanging down her back, skin well-tanned from spending a summer outdoors, I’m sure she’s an angel. She sits down on an adjacent rock and we talked about hiking and our experiences on the trail as I fixed dinner. We also talk about our interest in the environment and right before I decide to propose to Teri, she tells me she’s a practicing witch. I‘m thinking she‘s kidding and make a joke about her and her broom which doesn‘t go over well. She tries to explain and we talk late into the evening. The sun is going down and we both have to get down the trail. We write each others names in the other’s journal (but we never correspond) and head off in opposite directions. I have another four and a half miles I‘m hoping to cover. The sunset is beautiful, the fading rays striking the fir and spruce trees and lighting them up like Christmas trees. Then the light drains from the sky and stars can be seen through the clouds. I walk in the dark, my little flashlight off, but in my hand just in case. It‘s 9:15 when I finally arrive at the Greenwall Shelter. No one else is here, which is good since I‘d probably be waking them. I crash for the night after having hiked 24.5 miles.

The next morning I’m up at 5:45 AM. In the early morning light, I notice that the shelter is in good repair, for which I can thank Teri as this is her section of the trail. I fix my oatmeal and eat, but it doesn’t quite fill me up. I start out early, hoping to get some miles in before it gets too hot. Nettles line the trail and my legs are constantly burning. At 10:30, I stop at an overlook for the Rutland Airport. The hiker’s suspension bridge over the Mill River is a nice addition to the trail. The bridge is named for Bob Brugmann, who was 17 years old when he lost his life fording the river. Looking below at the boiling water, I’m glad we don’t have to wade it. It would be very dangerous in high water.

Twice today I take a wrong turn and both times take a mile or so detour. It’s hot. In the early afternoon, I stop at the Clarendon Shelter and sleep for two hours. When I wake, it is 92 degrees in the shelter. Not counting my detours, I’ve only made about 8 miles, so I push on to the Governor Clement Shelter, stopping at 6 PM. After taking a dip in a nearby pool in the creek, I spend the evening fixing dinner and reading Steinbeck. While reading, a “mini-bear” (Chipmunk) comes up next to me and eats peanuts out of my hand.
Sunset on Stratton Pond
I leave the shelter at 7 Am on July 24. A few miles down the trail, I come upon the top of the ski resort for Killington Peak. There is an alpine ride down the mountain and the operator at the tells me I can leave my pack with him and ride the sluice down to the bottom and could then return on the ski lift. It’s only a couple of dollars, but looks fun, so I take him up on his offer. Afterwards, I hike on to the Inn at Long Trail, where I enjoy the air conditioning and order a sandwich and salad. A radio in the inn says that the heat will continue and another record may be broken today. At Shelburne Pass, the Appalachian and Long Trail part directions. Interestingly, the familiar white blazes continue on north, on the Long Trail, which was the first trail to use such blazes. The Appalachian Trail breaks off to the east, and for the first bit is blue blazed, the normal color used for side trails. I hike off the ridge.

A few miles down the trail, I’m approached by a man who tells me about his bed and breakfast adjacent to the trail. In addition to the regular B&B, Mountain Meadows (as the place is known) also has bunkrooms for hikers, for which he charges $8 a night plus a few bucks for breakfast in the morning. He continues telling me about how he has a large group tonight and is doing dinner and needs help. If I would help him with dinner and clean up, he’ll let me stay and eat for free. I was hoping to make another five miles, but decide why not. I follow him to his place and, after taking a shower and wash out my clothes. My tasks are fairly easy. Fixing the drinks and helping man the grill. Afterwards, as we used paper plates, there isn’t much to clean up. I talk to the guests and to the few hikers who trickle in. As I want to be on the trail early the next morning, I’m shown where to get cereal and milk and fruit in the kitchen. I’m glad to be sleeping in the bunkhouse, as heavy thunderstorms move through the area during the night.

I’m up before dawn on the 25, ready to get back on the trail. I have breakfast with Marjorie, a south bounder, who is hiking the Vermont section of the trail. I eat 2 ½ bowls of cereal along with a banana and a couple of cups of coffee. The coffee was prepared the night before and we just have to turn it on. While we are taking a guy stops by and talks for a few moments, before heading back out. It’s still dark and he’s hiking with a headlamp. Later, when I pass the next shelter and read the register, I realize that it must have been the legendary Warren Doyle, who’s hiked the trail more times than anyone else. This time, he’s not backpacking, but day hiking between roads. Traveling light, he’s covering 40 miles or so a day.

Marjorie and I walk out to the trail and each takes off in our respective directions. The trail is wet, and as dawn breaks, I am hoping it’ll be a good day. I put in ten miles, stopping at “The Lookout,“ which should have a good view but there is still a lot of haze. In the west there are more thunderclouds building. I’m caught in a storm in the afternoon, hiking in the rain with lightning popping all around. There’s no place to stop, so I just keep walking. Between storms and along one of the road walks, I pass a house where a man is sitting on the porch. He doesn’t look like he wants to be bothered and as I get in front of his house, two dogs take off after me. I turn to face them, reaching down to pick up a stone. When they get closer, I point my stick at them, a technique that has always caused threatening dogs to back off. This time, the led dog which looks to be a Rottweiler, grabs the stick in his mouth and tries to twist it out of my hand. I twist back and he lets go. The one dog leaves, but the Rottweiler comes back growling and I whack him on the head. The dog grabs the stick again and I yell at the man on the porch to call off his dog. I keep backing up and after a bit, the dog lets go of the stick and remains standing in the road growling. I keep walking backwards, my stick ready as he continues snarling. I’ve covered some ground before I the dog heads home and I feel safe to turn around. In a trail register at the shelter that evening, I learn that several others have had similar problems with the dog.

I arrive at Cloudland Shelter about 7:30 PM and quickly fix a chicken noodle dinner and chocolate mint pudding for dinner. I’m camping with two fathers and their young sons, both around the age of five. One of the dads is an administrator for Temple University in Philadelphia and the other is a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journey. They have set a goal to hike the trail in sections with their sons by the time they’re in college. The unique thing about the Cloudland Shelter is the outhouse. This section of the trail is maintained by the Dartmouth Outdoor Club and built like a gazebo. There is a screen covering the top half and wood covers the bottom, so that one can sit on the pot and look out on the countryside. The outhouse also utilizes solar composting, allowing for the waste to be “cooked” and then used as fertilizer.
Church in Norwich, VT

I’m out early on July 27, hoping to make Hanover early enough in the day to take care of some business needs. At 7:45 AM, I take a break at the Bunker Hill Burying Grounds, which is filled with old graves. There are veterans from the Revolutionary and Civil War as well as both World Wars. And there are two recent graves, one without its permanent marker, but with plenty of fresh flowers. I poke around, reading gravestones, while swatting at the flies. For one on a journey, the quote on John Gibson‘s stone is sobering: “Stop traveler, as you pass by. As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you soon must be. Prepare for death and follow me. He died in 1815.

I stop for lunch in Norwich, in the center of town that’s dominated by the Congregational Church. Although it is Sunday, church has already let out for the day. A couple on a bicycle, with a small child, joins me. They’re from Seattle and on the seventh week of an eight week journey that has taken them from Nova Scotia through New England. They child rides in a carrier behind one of their bikes and they explain how the one who isn’t pulling the carrier, rides behind and out far enough to keep cars from getting too closer to their son.

After lunch, I cross the river into Hanover, and find myself in an interesting world. The place is truly YUPPIE, with college students driving Saabs. I first stop at a laundry mat, put on my nylon running shorts and put everything else in a washing machine. While there, I strike up a conversation with a Jewish couple on vacation from New York City. The man tells me that he’d maintained the Appalachian Trail from Bear Mountain Bridge to Graymoor Monastery in New York State until recently, when he was forced to give it up due to health. After everything is clean, I head over to the hostel at the Episcopal Student Center. The couple on bikes is there as well as Slim Jim, Denver Dash (Jane) and her boyfriend Scott. Jim and I attend a 9 PM Eucharist service. Afterwards, the center treats us all with slices of cold watermelon. As I’ve not taken a full day off hiking since Delaware Water Gap, I decide to take a layover day and search for boots while giving my body a rest.

My posts of my 1987 hike on the Appalachian Trail.
Hiking the Berkshires (the hike before this one--I wrote this post in 2007)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving Wrap-up

Sorry about the photo quality. Instead of digging out my regular camera, I used my Blackberry and there is quite a difference in the quality of photography between the two.

I woke up this morning to find the first snow of the season. It ain’t much and it ain’t even that cold, the thermometer hovering just around freezing, but it sure is nice to see the naked tree limbs, bare of any leaves, frosted in white. The dog seemed to love it too. When I took him out, he didn’t want to come back in so I put him on his dog run. Instead of Black Friday, I’ll celebrate White Friday. I’m saying away from the stores today, but will go out this afternoon and cut down a Christmas tree. It’s that time of the year and I have a party coming up, so things need to be decorated. Every year I tell my daughter we’ll put up the tree on Christmas Eve, but I’m only pulling her chain.

Yesterday was fun. Earlier in the week, I’d gotten a freshly killed 22 pound turkey from a local farm that raises birds without drugs or chemicals and does their own slaughtering. Tom was waiting in the refrigerator when I got up at 5:45 AM. I cleaned him, stuffed and prepared him and slid him into the oven and was back to bed for a “nap” by 6:15. That was thanks to the preparations I’d done the day before.

I’d made the sausage and cornbread dressing on Wednesday night, so it was all ready to go. In addition to the sausage that’s made by a local butcher, my stuffing consisted of cornbread and hushpuppies left over from last Friday night’s feed, a few pieces of crumbled toast, chopped onions, peppers and celery along with some seasonings. I rubbed the turkey with oil olive and peppered it well (in a non-Cheney fashion), put it in a large foil pan. As the pan was flimsy, I placed it on a heavy flat pan. Next I loosely filled the cavities with stuffing and put about ½ inch of water in the pan. I then created a foil tent over the bird, that I sealed up well and slipped the bird into the oven at 325 degrees. After seven hours, the bird internal temperature was at 180 degrees and it was done. I took the foil off and drained some of the juice to add to the stuffing that was in a baking dish, then cooked the bird another twenty minutes or so to brown it. I also took a cup or so of the juices from the pan and mixed in the stuffing I had in the pan and cooked it for 45 minutes. After taking the bird out of the oven, I dug out the stuffing from the bird and used it to mix with that which I’d cooked in the pan.

I wrapped the bird back up in foil and walked him over next door, where a group was gathering for the meal. It was all good: sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls, cranberries, corn and the onion rings on top of the green bean mess (I don’t eat green beans). There was cake and pie for dessert and bottles of wine to moisten our lips. The turkey was very juicy and the stuffing was to die for. For the rest of the day and on into the evening, I was more stuffed than Tom had been in the oven! I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day. I need to get some slides copied and I’ll be ready to post my next section of my hike along the Appalachian Trail--Vermont.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Raising Up (A book review and thanksgiving greetings)

Happy thanksgiving everyone. I picked up a fresh 20 pound turkey yesterday, from a local farm that sells turkeys at an outlet. Early tomorrow morning, I'll be stuffing it with a cornbread and sausage dressing and baking it for a good while. Then I'll take it over to neighbors where a dozen or so folks will gather to feast. We're still on the lookout for strays, so if anyone knows of someone in need of meal, tell 'em to come on by. Here's a review of a book that I'm thankful to have come across... Unlike most books, I couldn't find a photo of this book to steal off the internet, so I took a photo with my blackberry and posted it here.

R. C. Fowler, A Raising Up: Memories of a North Carolina Childhood (Wilmington, NC: Coastal Carolina Press, 2000), 309 pages

I’ve known the name R. C. Fowler nearly all my life, but to the best of my knowledge, never met him. He was a well-known businessman and real estate agent in Wilmington and when I was visiting my parents last summer, I came across his book, a memoir of growing up during the depression and World War II in a used book store. It sounded interesting so I picked it and have enjoyed reading it.

Fowler was born in 1927, in a cotton mill village in Wilmington, North Carolina. His early years were spent around Eastern North Carolina, with time in Columbus County and later in Fayetteville. In the heat of the Depression, his family moved back to where he was born, to Mill Hill, a community around the Spofford Cotton Mills, just off Wrightsville Avenue. It was a company town and his father and grandfather and many uncles worked in the mills. As a young child, he tells about staying with his grandmother and recalls memories of the candy counter in the store across the street. He learns about cockfighting as well as the way to “pay respects” for those who have died. He attends Sunday School at the Presbyterian Church, and his aunt longs for the day the Baptist can afford to build a church.

In 1937, when he was nine, Fowler’s family moved to a tobacco farm in Pender County, twenty-five miles north of Wilmington, on land that his mother had inherited. There, he’s taken “coon hunting” with his dad and learns the hard work of farming. Slowly the family prospered as they raised tobacco for cash and other crops to for food. They had a cow for milk and chickens and a mule to plow the fields. Fowler learned to plow as well as to cut wood for the stove and the for the tobacco barn. Still a boy, he was staying with the barns over night, keeping the fire going and the heat up, as his daddy drove into town to work in the mills and later, as the country went to war, in the shipyard and at Camp Davis. In time, the family acquired more land and another mule, electricity was extended to the home and they no longer had to huddle around two kerosene lamps.

Still a boy, Fowler learned about hard work, especially when his daddy became ill and wasn’t able to work a period of time. He helped set out the tobacco and the other crops, cut word, plow and chop down weeds, and even dug a shallow well to use as a cooler for milk and other perishables. Digging the well, he learned the meaning of the phrase, “as cold as a well-digger’s ass.” As he approached the age of twelve, he was filled with guilt as he’d been told this was the age of accountability (I can remember thinking about this when I turned 12). His aunts pushed him to get right with God and once, at a holiness service, he confessed his sins. When the holiness preacher wanted to hold services at his home, his father allowed it but decided that even though it was night, he needed to go into the woods to “cut stove wood.”

The book ends in the fall of 1945. Fowler is in the Merchant Marines, on a ship out of Norfolk, sailing off the Carolina Coast. After he graduated from high school, his parents ask him to stay on till the end of the summer, offering him the profits from an acre of tobacco. With money in his pockets, he heads back to Wilmington and takes a position within the office of the Atlantic Coastline Railway. Being inside doesn’t set well for a young man who’d spent most of his life outdoors, doing hard work, and he soon leaves high seas.

Fowler frequently uses dialogue to tell his story, which gives the book a down-home feel. He sprinkles his writings with sayings, many of which I haven’t heard since I was a child. This book gives us an insight into the world of my grandparents and it was a pleasure to read. Another book that I’d recommend as an insight into this time (one that combines a sociological study with personal memories) is Linda Flowers, Throwed Away: Failures of Progress in Eastern North Carolina. All though both families were poor on the farm, the Fowlers owned the land and that made a big difference in what he experienced compared to the Flowers family who were sharecroppers.

Monday, November 23, 2009

This and That

I’m working on a couple of memory posts--writing about another section of the Appalachian Trail, another couple of post about events in my past and there’s always book reviews that I can do. But since nothing is ready, I thought I’d share a few pictures from this past Saturday over by Lake Michigan, taken from the harbor entrance at Holland Michigan…

For a while, I wondered if the guy paddling out of the harbor in his kayak was going to keep paddling on till he got to Illinois or Wisconsin, but before I left, I noticed he’d turned around and was heading back in.

Last Friday, I had an opportunity to serve as chief cook and bottle washer. I had the privileage of working with a group of my colleagues in town on a chili fundraiser for a local non-profit endeavor. It was a lot of fun, joking with each other as we made chili, along with cornbread and hushpuppies. Notice the photo of hushpuppy friars!

It’s Thanksgiving week and there is plenty for which I am thankful. For one thing, I’m thankful to have a job because I know many who would like to find a job and can’t in this economy. However, lately, my work load has meant there hasn’t been much time for writing, that’s better than the alternative. I’m thankful that we’ve having such a nice November. Normally, I’d be longing for cross-country skiing weather, but this year, there is a construction project I’m worried about and every nice day is another day they can be laying blocks and bricks. Of course, that might change as they’re calling for the possibility of snow on Thanksgiving day. Then I’ll be thankful for the ability to cross country ski (but only after Bambi season is over, I’d had for some fool to mistake me for a skiing deer.) I’m also thankful for the opportunity to cook a turkey this week, for the first time in a number of years. Living in the land where everyone is related to someone else, a dozen of so of us “outsiders” are getting together and this year will be my turn to supply the turkey.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Exile Begins: Moving to Virginia, 1963

I will have to hunt up some photos for this post, but right now I‘m in the upper lower peninsula getting away for a few days. I’ll be home tomorrow night as on Friday, I’m the chief (volunteer) cook and bottle washer for a big fundraiser. Back to the story at hand. I’m pretty sure I have a photo of my 6th birthday, but it‘s not on this laptop. If I find it, I’ll add it. As any reader of this blog knows, I was born and mostly raised in North Carolina. However, there was a three year period that I jokingly refer to as “our exile.” Then, we lived in Petersburg, Virginia, where I attended Walnut Elementary School for grades one through three. This is the start of my Petersburg stories. Enjoy!

Mom was all excited as she stood next to the phone of the kitchen wall talking.

“We’re moving to Virginia,” she said with her hand over the mouthpiece. “Do you want to talk to your dad.“

It may have well been my first long distant phone call. I put the receiver to my ear and asked my dad if Virginia was another country.

Dad had started a new job several months earlier and had been in Baltimore, where ever that was, in training. He’d occasionally come home for a weekend and we’d pick him up at the train station in Southern Pines. When he’d go back, he’d take the overnighter on Sunday evening, arriving back on Monday morning. Once, when Mom was writing him a letter, I decided to write one, too. I was five and the only words I knew how to write where the names of filling stations, so on a piece of paper I wrote Esso, Shell, Sinclair, Gulf and Texaco. As the time to move got closer, Mom when up to Virginia with Dad and the three of us “youngins” stayed with my grandparents. I turned six then and my grandma threw a party; her dining room was cramped with cousins and friends from church.

We moved to Petersburg in January 1963, just a week after my sixth birthday. I don’t remember much about the move, except that Uncle Frank helped and all our stuff was loaded onto one of his farm trucks. I assume, since my Dad had just started to work for the company for whom he’d work for the next four decades, they didn’t provide expenses for the first move like they later did when they moved us back to North Carolina. It was after dark when we arrived at the rented cracker-box house on Montibello Street, overlooking toll booths along the Petersburg-Richmond Turnpike. There was a row of houses on the south side of the street, our backyards dropping into a swamp. Across the street was a chain-link fence that kept us from running out into just about all the traffic the moved between the Northeast and Southeast. Just south of town, I-85 and I-95 (although neither one was completed at this time) merged and if you heading north from New Orleans, Atlanta or Miami to Washington or New York, you drove right by our house. It didn’t seem such a problem that January night, as we moved in, but come spring, when we opened the windows, we heard the constant roar of trucks and cars as they braked for the toll booth and then accelerated as they continued their journeys into the night.

I have only snippets of memory about the house on Montibello Street. A gas floor heater in the hallway heated the house and when the gas was on, it was warm and you could stand on the grate and watch the first through a small window in the metal heater. When it snowed, my sister placed her wet shoes on the heater and turned it up. When my mother discovered this, our shoes were well-done and curled. Out back, the yard slopped down and there, my father taught me how to ride a bike. He had installed training wheels on the bike and blocks of wood on the paddles. After I got to where I could keep it upright, he took the training wheels off and I’d ride it down the hill and then turn and try to make it back up but generally gave up after a few stokes on the peddles. My grandma had given me some seeds, corn and peas if I remember correctly, and that spring I planted a small garden and was proud of my handful of peas that I harvested. I don’t remember if we got any corn.

Our next door neighbors, to the west, were the O’Neils. Mom was always telling us to be quiet when we were outside and they were home. I didn’t understand; they seemed stuck-up as they never talked or waved. I assumed that was because they were Yankees from New York. I knew they had a boy a few years older than me, but I only saw him in the backyard once, laying in a lounge chair sunning. Mom wouldn’t let us go out and meet him. Then he died and we had to be especially quiet. Mom made pecan pies and took them over and afterwards they became good friends. Ellen, who was a teenager, took me to the city pool when she introduced me as her new boyfriend. That made me feel special. Years later, I learned that her brother had leukemia.

On the other side of the O’Neil’s, at the last house on the street, lived a kid my age. His name was Robert and we became friends. His dad was in the Army and worked at Fort Lee. About the time school started, his family had a big party and Robert invited me, but my mother wouldn’t let me go because the adults were going to be drinking beer.

I should say something about church in Petersburg. Coming from good Highlander Presbyterian stock, albeit over two hundred years since leaving Scotland, we first attended Second Presbyterian Church. Maybe we tried First Presbyterian, but I only remember the Second one. There, in the sanctuary, someone took pleasure in showing us where a Yankee cannon ball crashed through the roof a mere 98 years earlier. The church had a big bell tower, but no steeple, the story being that the steeple got shot off during the Civil War. Afterwards, it was rebuilt to be blown off by a tornado. It was rebuilt again and in 1954, the winds of Hurricane Hazel once again removed it and the church decided that three strikes must mean God didn’t intend them to have a steeple.

That September, I entered the first grade at Walnut Hill’s Elementary School. As there was a shortage of teachers and classrooms, first graders went to school only a half day of class. I was in the morning shift and came home for lunch, passing by those going for the afternoon shift. Mostly, my parents took me to school and picked me up when it was time to come home. Once, I rode the city bus with Ellen. Mom had given me what she thought was the correct change, but I was a nickel short. I volunteered the nickel I had for milk, but the bus driver said I could pay him later. I never rode a bus again while we were in Petersburg. Well into adulthood I carried guilt with me for having cheated them out of a nickel. I was in my 20s, when I told my mother about it and she assured me that she was pretty sure she sent Ellen with the money I owed the next day. I’m not so sure, but it was a nice attempt to alleviate my guilt.

That fall, my parents brought a house on Bishop Street in Walnut Hills. Before moving in, Mom and Dad painted and fixed it up. We were still in the process of moving the day my father picked me up at school. When we got home, Mom had the TV and the radio on and was very upset. The President had just been shot. I will always associate that house with Kennedy’s assassination.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Future of Management (A Book Review)

It's Friday night and I'm writing a review of a business book and watching the Wizard of Oz...
Dorothy asks the scarecrow: "How can you talk if you don't have a brain?"
Scarecrow: "Some people without brains do a lot of talking."

Gary Hamel, The Future of Management (Harvard Business School press, 2007), 272 pages.

Our current management practices grew out of the rapid industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th century. In their time, they were very efficient at dividing up labor and responsibilities and creating hierarchies along with rules and regulations. These practices have raised productivity and increased our standard of living. Unfortunately, as the pace of change accelerated over the past few decades, those organizations holding tight to past practices have found themselves left behind. In The Future of Management, Gary Hamel calls for new management innovations to meet the new challenges of the business world where old corporate oligopolies now finding themselves competing with fast start-up companies; a world where the internet and the digitalization of media have shifted power from the producer to the consumer and threatened intellectual property rights; and a world where decrease costs for communication and the increase globalization now means every industry is faced with ultra-low priced competition. In this new landscape, those who hold on to the past will fail. Yet, change is hard because we have so much invested in the former ways of doing things. Change requires organizations to alter their corporate DNA.

In the past, no one expected managers to be innovators. Their task was to take ideas from other people and figure out a way to make a profit. (35) In the new organization Hamel foresees, the work of innovation will be everyone’s job and one of the task of those in management will be to create a company where everyone gives their best. We need to tap into the brain power of all members of an organization. One of the problems facing all companies and organizations is that only 14% of the employees (in a worldwide study) were seen as highly engaged in their work. With the changes we’re experiencing in the world today, passion, creativity and initiative are far more important than intellect, diligence and obedience. An organization with too much hierarchy and too little freedom will have a hard time navigating the continual changes that are now required. Organizations need to learn how they can broaden employee freedom without sacrificing focus, discipline and order, how they can enhance the community to bind people together (as opposed to the bureaucracy binds people together), and how to instill in everyone a sense of mission that calls them to do the extraordinary.

Hamel provides three case studies of companies who’s management practices are innovative. Whole Food Markets is a supermarket that takes on the challenge of reversing the industrialization of the world’s food supply and to give people better things to eat. The second group is a private company, W. L. Gore, started by a former Dupont Engineer, that attempts to do away with the traditional hierarchy of corporations and that encourages all employees to work on new ideas. The third organization is Google, who has a 70-20-10 rule. Seventy percent of one’s work time is on core business, twenty percent on new products that can extend the core and ten percent devoted to fringe ideas. Working at Google is often described as feeling like graduate school. All these companies strive to get the most of their employees by allowing them all freedom to be innovators. Unlike traditional companies that has a special department to develop new ideas, one that’s often kept at a distance from the rest of the organization, these companies see involve everyone in developing new ideas and products.

Of course, making such a change is not easy (Hamel describes it as escaping the shackles). Hamel uses life, markets, democracy, faith and cities as metaphors in describing how to generate new ideas. Hamel identifies six challenges to existing organizations:
  • Creating a democracy of ideas
  • Amplifying human imagination
  • Dynamically reallocating resources
  • Aggregating collective wisdom
  • Minimizing the drag of old mental models
  • Giving everyone an opportunity to opt in

    In the final chapter, Hamel describes the attempts by three organization to re-invent their management-- IBM, GE and Best Buy--as he makes the case that management is not at the end, but it needs an update (like a new release of a computer program)..

    Although reading business books isn’t exciting, there is much in this book that should cause us to look at our particular organizations and ask the questions that Hamel raises as we look to the future.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Graymoor Monastery through Connecticut: Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Over the past few months, I’ve been going through my journals and old maps and recalling the summer of 1987, when I hiked 1300 miles along the Appalachian Trail. Between 1983 and 1988, I hiked the entire 2100 miles of the trail. This section takes us from the Graymoor Monastery on the north banks of the Hudson River through Western Connecticut.

Father Brosco at Graymoor.
The day starts early at Graymoor. I wake up in the predawn hours and read from the Bible on the table by my bed. In my pack I only carry a copy of the Psalms and New Testament, so it's a treat to read from the Old Testament and go searching for a verse I’d remembered. After a bit of thumbing around I find it.

"The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me." -Leviticus 25:23

Although I’d been on the trail for five weeks, I still had not adopted a nickname with which I was comfortable. Slim Jim and Daddy Long-legs tried to get me to use “Dental Floss” as I had a habit of flossing while leaving camp in the morning, plus I’d used floss to sew up my boots and pack. But I didn’t feel the name fit. I’d been thinking about “Sojourner,“ a named confirmed after finding this passage. After reading for a few minutes, I go into the bathroom where I noticed there's a scale. I step on it and am shocked to realize that I weigh 164 pounds, less than I weighed when I graduated from high school. It's no wonder I'm hungry all the time!

I have breakfast with Doug (AT Believer) and Father Brosco and afterwards the three of us attend morning mass. I'm surprised when Father Brosco invite us both up to take communion. Not being Catholic, I politely declined and remain in my pew while Doug, an Episcopalian I believe, go forward. Afterwards, Doug and I take off in the misty rain. We spend the morning hiking together, talking about our experience at Graymoor. In a strange way, I feel God’s presence back in my life. I tell him about my new name, “Sojourner,” and he affirms that the name fits. We also talked about the monks at Graymoor and how hospitable they were to a bunch of dirty hikers and how they seemed to relish at the opportunity to answer our questions. However, upon further reflection, I find myself wondering if they enjoyed the dialogue as a way to learn or just as a way to dish out rote answers. Cynicism seems to be a personal demon attached to torment me, as it always seems to make its way into my thoughts, even after having such an incredible experience.

After lunch, Doug goes on ahead. I'd been slowing him down as my left thigh is numb and tingling. I was hoping my planned hike of nearly 20 miles would free it up, yet didn't want to hike too fast. Shortly after lunch, the skies open, but the temperature is warm. I’m hiking in just a t-shirt and nylon running shorts and my pack s dry under a rain cover. I kept pushing on, marveling at the beauty of New York State. Much of this area had been covered with glaciers in the last ice age and there are signs all along, of bedrock smooth by the grinding ice, mountaintops flattened and large boulders left behind. As I hike, I notice that the most common sign along this part of the trail reads “No Trespassing.” I think back to the verse I’d read early this morning and shake my head.

A part of the trail, just south of NY 301, is along an old narrow gauge railroad bed built during the Civil War to haul iron ore out of these hills in order to turn it into cannon balls to lob at my ancestors. I'm amazed a train could make the grade, but it's former path makes for good walking. I arrive at Ralph’s Peak Hikers Cabin at 6 PM. Doug's there along with two boys hiking together and a guy who goes by the name “Winds the Winowalker, whom I’d been reading about in trail registers since Maryland, where he’d started his hike on June 6. He’s living in Boston, but is also from North Carolina. The cabin is a wonderful place to spend a night that consists of one downpour after another. The rain on the roof provides music for sleeping and drowns out any snoring.

It was still misty the next morning, July 8, when I leave Ralph’s Cabin. Although I can’t think of anything I'd more want to do, it's hard to get motivated to hike after the rain. In my mind, I know I must to average 15 miles a day to reach Katadhin in time to get back to North Carolina and retrieve my car and then get back to Pittsburgh for school. But I fiddle around, taking my time to get going and don’t hit the trail till 8 AM, an hour after Doug. We never see each other again, but I kept up with him in the shelter registers. He'll climb Katadhin a few days before me.

I hiked almost ten miles in the morning, stopping at noon at the Morgan Stewart Shelter for a long lunch. An hour later, the Winowalker comes in and I stay around and talk to him for another hour before heading out. Although I'm clicking off the miles, the day's boring, the main highlight being the infamous hike around the fence-off “nuclear” lake. The trail has been detoured around a former nuclear test site where, supposedly, there's unaccounted plutonium. Luckily I don’t find any, but I wouldn’t have wanted to have carried anything that heavy if I had found some. My left thigh is still bothering me and the pain extends down into that knee. For the first time, I pulled out a small AM/FM radio that Shari had left with me when she got off the trail, thinking to myself I might as well listen to “the bearer of bad news” as a distraction. I hope to find out when the weather was going to clear, but instead catch up on Oliver North’s testimony in the Senate hearings on the Iran/Contra Affair. Later, I change to a music station and laugh when “Walking and Rhythm,” is the first song heard. Later, they play “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” a song I figure any woman interested in me should listen to at least daily.

I'm making pretty good time and click off another ten miles in the afternoon, when I come across a country restaurant along NY 22. I stopped for dinner and it's late when I got back on the trail, with less than an hour of daylight left. The trail has been following the side of roads and cutting through pastures and there had been no place to camp for several miles when it enters the Pawling Nature Preserve. A sign indicated that camping is prohibited for the next three miles. As there was no place to camp behind me, I head on, figuring that instead of camping, I’d find a hidden spot to lay out my bivy sack and to drop the tarp over me in order to spend the night. As I enter the woods, fireflies are coming out as are the mosquitoes and deer flies. I walk till dark, find a level spot hidden from the trail, spread out my bivy and sleeping bag and drop my tarp over me and am soon asleep.

I get up the next morning and am back on the trail in a hurry, starting to hike at 6:30 AM. Shortly after leaving the nature preserve, I take an early break at the Gates of Heaven cemetery, which must have been primarily an older Jewish cemetery considering all the Hebrew markings and symbols on the tombstones. The most recent graves I see are dated from the 30s and 40s. I continue on and stop for breakfast at Wiley Shelter. Reading the shelter log, I noticed I must be only a day behind the Brits and gaining on them. I laugh at their entry. They had clipped an ad from a newspaper for a revival at a Baptist Church that reads, “Smile America, God Loves You.” They’d “glued” the clipping into the notebook with chewing gum and underneath had added the slogan: “But He prefers the British.” I take my time in the morning, reading the last of Nouwen’s book. I like what he says toward the end, "a monastery is not built to solve problems but to praise the Lord in the midst of them.”

Near where I have lunch, at the Dogwood Corner, where the trail enters Connecticut, I'm shocked to discover someone had painted the letters KKK on a utility pole. I’d seen only one other such sign along the trail, in New Jersey, where someone had carved the letters into the white trail blaze. I hike a little over 17 miles, passing the Mt. Alto Lean-to and then walking half a mile down Schaghicoke Road into Kent, Connecticut, arriving right before the Post Office closed. There's a package from Shari with copies of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie and William Least-heat Moon’s Blue Highways and homemade oatmeal cookies. There are no other letters, but I figured that other mail probably went to the Cornwall Bridge and I’d be there in less than two days. I find the cobbler, but he's closed, so I grab a hamburger for dinner and read Shari’s letter and write a few of my own. She tells me about going with her brother down to the coast for a few days and then having to go home and call her friends who’d expected her to be gone all summer. “Bowser,“ she said, “has been fine since arriving back in civilization”. After dinner, I head back to the trail. A truck pulls up and a guy suggest I hop into the back, that he’d give me a ride to the trail. When he lets me out, he invites me to have dinner with him and his wife, but I declined, telling him I’d already eaten. I walk back up to the hill to the shelter.

Ben hiking in Connecticut
There's one other hiker at the shelter when I arrived, although he didn’t look like a hiker. He's wearing trousers and reminds me of the mysterious man at the shelter just south of Lehigh Gap, Pennsylvania. At Lehigh Gap, I was with Slim Jim and Daddy Long-legs, now I am alone and the man gave all indications he wants to be left alone, so I don’t say much. I prepare my bed, rolling out my ultra light pad and inflating it and fluffing out my sleeping bag. After reading a bit of Steinbeck, I crashed for the night.

I headed back into town the next morning and drop my boots off at “The Kent Cobbler.” The cobbler is a nice man named Len. I told him about the pain in my legs, and he suggests I try a pair of inserts with higher arch supports. While he's working on my boots, I stop at a drug store and pick up some new inserts and then do some grocery shopping and am shocked at the prices. I pack the food and head to the post office to mail letters and to send a box of stuff, including the Blue Highways book and extra food, on ahead. I have lunch with a southbound hiker from Great Barrington and we joke about how preppy the town is along with how cute the girls are. It's right at noon when I pick up my boots and head back toward the trail. It's 92 degrees and as I walked along the side of the road without any shade, I feel the heat.

Hikers along the trail in Connecticut can only camp at shelters or in designated campsites. I hike on through the afternoon heat, my left leg and knee still hurting despite the new inserts. I cover only seven miles of trail (not counting hiking in and out of Kent), stopping for the night at 4:30 PM at Steward Hollow Campsite. I'm surprised to see the same guy here who'd stayed at the shelter the night before. First impressions can be wrong. His name is Ben and we became good friends, hiking together for the next week and keeping up with each other for many years after completing the trail. I set up my tarp and then take swim in the Housatonic River.

I leave camp early on the morning of July 11, hoping to beat the heat. It's beautiful hiking along the river in the early dawn, the sun’s rays breaking through the trees and burning away the dawn. Unfortunately, my camera is stashed in my pack when four deer break out of the woods in front of me and crash through the river, the splashing water that creates prism colored droplets, one of the most beautiful sights I’d seen. By mid-morning I'm at Cornwall Bridge. I stop for a Danish and coffee at the bakery on the edge of town, then walk over to the Post Office. There are no letters from Debbie, but there is mail that Eric had sent me from school and a package from my parents. There was also a letter from another friend who’d once talked about joining me in Vermont. He's unable to make it, and I am both sad and glad. I’d resigned myself to hiking alone and was okay with that and also knew that it would take a few weeks for someone new to catch up with my speed on the trail.

I take care of the bills Eric forwarded and go through my parents package. I‘d stashed a number of mailers for slide development, so I send off the exposed film off to Kodak. There's another book that I‘d put in the package, Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldman. There's also a cigar in the package from my brother, who's celebrating his daughter’s birth. I realized that today is also his birthday. My mom, who always collected stationary from every hotel she stays in, has written a letter on thin rice paper stationary from the Palace Hotel in Tokyo. She mostly tells me about her beautiful and wonderful her new granddaughter (my niece) and admonishes me to be careful.

As I was taking care of business at the Post Office, I'm approached by a guy named Richard who owns the Package Store next door. He invites me to stop by and see him before leaving town, which I do rather reluctantly. He’s just opening up for the day and tells me that he likes to treat hikers to a beer and that I could have anything that he sells. As it’s still early in the day, I suggest I pass but he encourages me to take one for later in the day, suggesting that I could chill it in a stream. I ask him what he recommends and he suggests a Foster’s Lager from Australia. It was my first experience with this beer which comes in a 25 ounce “oil can.” I thank him and put the beer in the top of my pack. After Cornwall Bridge, the trail leaves the river valley and climbs steeply up a hill through Dark Entry and Cathedral Woods. The leafy canopy is tight and blocks the intense sun, but its still hot and humid and by the time I reach the top of the mountain, I’m sweating like a dog. I shed my pack and reach for a water bottle when I feel the can of beer, still cold. “Why not,” I think. Even though it’s not yet lunch time and I’m pretty dehydrated, I go ahead and enjoy the beer, the cold liquid tasting great as it goes down my parched throat. But the beer also goes to my head and I’m lightheaded as I make my way down the mountain. I stop at a stream and find a nice place with plenty of soft needles and take a nap through the heat of the afternoon. Later, I walk on to Red Mountain Shelter where I camp with Ben and Bill, a guy out for the weekend.

Housatonic River

The skies are clear and it promises to be a great night to enjoy the stars, so I camp outside, under the stars, in my bivy sack. As soon as the insect repellant wears off, I’m attacked again by mosquitoes. As my bivy has no screen and its so warm that I don’t need a sleeping bag, I stuff my bag at the top of my bivy to block the opening and try to sleep down inside the bag. But it’s off no use. I get up and put on more repellent and that gives me another few hours of sleep, but then bugs return. I’m up again at 4 AM and get out the cigar my brother sent me and smoke it, hoping to deter the mosquitoes. I hear Ben rustling in the shelter and he too is cussing the mosquitoes. He packs up and in the dark, hikes off. An hour or so later, when the stars have just begun to fade, I join him. This turns out to be my worst night on the trail.

The morning air is muggy and very still. I’m quickly sweating. By late morning, I catch up with Ben and we have lunch at the Village Diner in Falls Village, CT. It’s a fairly easy hiking day with the exception of Barrack Mountain which is steep. Ben suggests that it's my preview of the White Mountains. I find myself musing about what we eat on the trail (nuts, crackers and cheese, M&Ms, and smoked sausages) is often served at parties and I wonder if I’ll be tired of them by the time I return to civilization. We do an 18 mile day (a long day for Ben), stopping for the night at Limestone Springs Lean-to. It’s my last night in Connecticut.

Other posts on my 1987 hikes
Hiking the Berkshires (the hike after this one, I wrote this in 2007)
Delaware Water Gap to the Hudson River (the hike before this one)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

To the Field of Stars (A Book Review)

Kevin Codd, To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Santiago de Compostela (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2008), 271 pages.

Pilgrims have been heading to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain for more than a millennium. The site, believed to be the burial of the Apostle James, was one of three most popular pilgrimages during the Middle Ages, the other two being Rome and Jerusalem. I first heard of the pilgrimage when hiking the Appalachian Trail and it’s always been lodged in the back of my mind as something I would like to do someday. So, with that in mind, I recently decided to read up on the journey and selected this book as my starting point. Kevin Codd is an American, a Catholic Priest who spent seven years running a seminary in Belgium. During this time he made a 35 day, 500 mile pilgrimage,. His journey began in the French border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and from there he headed across the border and northern Spain, joining up with other pilgrims as they head east.

The pilgrim’s route is well marked and heavily traveled. Along the way, there are refugios (hostels) where for a few Euros, the pilgrims can spend the night. There are many towns and villages along the way, allowing the traveler to travel lighter and to carry only snacks. Codd quickly settles into a routine, leaving early in the morning in order to avoid the afternoon heat, stopping for coffee and a snack in the midmorning, often arriving at his destination by noon, allowing him time during the hot afternoons to nap, find a shady place to read, write, swim or drink beer and to wash clothes. In recalling the trip, we learn of his problems with blisters (he has this problem the entire time, possibly because he daily lathers his feet in Vaseline). He talks of being hot and dirty, the stiffness of muscles and the challenge of snorers in the hostels. Along the way, he has conversations with some mountain goats and a snail and, at the end, with Santiago. The mountain goats give him the best advice, “Remain humble on this road or the road will humble you.” (15) Santiago refused to answer if he was the one who saved him and his companions from a thunderstorm that split into two cells and missed them, telling Codd that he’d know the answer when he gets to heaven. (267)

Friendships become an important aspect of the journey and Codd tells about the many friends he makes as well as those who get on his nerves (including a number of fellow priest he meets along the way). His writing in introspective and he often begins to question his own feelings such as judging a priest harshly for a lifeless mass and then wondering what was going on in the priest‘s life or in his own to cause him to feel that way. In time, Codd settles into a group of pilgrims. As a group, they often eat their meals together (sometimes even preparing them, but most often eating in bars and restaurants along the way. They make fun of the “super walkers” who try to cover as much mileage as possible as well as those who make the journey with a car carrying their gear or who just do short sections of the walk. As pilgrims, they live by a creed, turistas manden; peregrinos agradeced (tourist demand, pilgrims thank, 145). Slowly, as they get closer to the end, they feel the draw of Santiago. There is also the problem of an increase in the number of pilgrims along the way and they have a harder time finding lodging, which necessitates them arriving at the cathedral at the end a day before they’d planned.

I love the title of the book, which is based on a Latin interpretation of “Compostela (Compo means field and stella means stars). However, I was sadden that Codd always spend nights inside and never got to experience the stars at night. He does tells of one pilgrim who decides to climb and camp next to an old castle just to watch the stars and I felt a certain kinship with that chap. As one who’d served Mexican missions, Cadd’s Spanish is good enough that few people realize he’s an American, which allows him to learn more about what other people in the world think about Americans (and it’s not always nice or pleasant).

Having done longer hikes, I related to a lot of Codd’s experiences along the way and enjoyed the book. As I’ve been working through my journals of my Appalachian Trail hikes, I realize that I was not nearly as detailed as Codd, who recorded thoughts and kept detail accounts of what his body was experiencing. For those who like to do long hikes, I recommend this book.

Since this hike, Codd has done another pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and blogged about it. There are many websites about the pilgrimage. This link is one that has maps as well as lots of photographs. Buen Caminio!

For more of Sage's book reviews, click here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

This and That

Sadly, the baseball season is over. Making it worse, the Yankees won. That oversized city loves to buy itself the best ball team has also elected itself the most expensive Mayor. Go figure. Speaking of politics, I have gotten to where I hate the news as they seem to always attempt to make news and their reporting on this past mini-election was so overblown. Two governors and one representative election in rural New York wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence on anyone’s agenda.


I spent nearly two hours in the dentist's chair yesterday, receiving my second crown. The last time I had such dental work done, I was rear-ended by a school bus driving home. This time, the only bad thing to happen this time was the Phillies croaking. The last time I wrote what was probably my most popular blog post ever as I sarcastically recalled my visit to a dominatrix. Looking at some of the people who found my blog via google in the weeks that followed, I’m sure many were greatly disappointed. I have a beautiful dentist. She so dainty, but when she approaches your mouth with a handful of metal instruments, her hands suddenly appear to be the size of a catcher’s mitt. Thankfully, she is merciful. I could get used to that gas she offers. I don’t know why it has taken me a lifetime to discover, but this is the first dentist office I’ve gone to that offers the gas and after once trying it, I’m hooked. I just hope I didn’t say anything too stupid.


I was so whipped out after the dentist, that I came home and laid on the couch and watched "Bound for Glory," a 1976 movie about Woody Guthrie… Although I don’t think I’m related to Woody (maybe I should have Ed Abbey check this out), I’m sure I inherited some of his wanderlust.


In a previous post on hiking the Appalachian Trail, several of you were impressed with Daddy Long-legs looking over a small rock outcropping. Not to let DDL get all the glory, I decided to post the photo to the left. This was taken on my last day of hiking the John Muir Trail, when I took a side trip up the backside of Half-dome in Yosemite. A wrong step and you’d have a couple thousand feet to make your peace with your Maker. After I finish my Appalachian Trail posts, I’ll have to dig out my John Muir Trail journals and write about those hikes which I took in 1995-1997.


Although I don’t normally talk about my family, I should at least brag that my daughter has made the state middle school honor’s choir. Of course, that means a lot of weekend trips to various corners of this state. It’s odd to have her in middle school, but she’s doing well. If I had ever gotten the kind of grades she’s earns, I’d been orphaned as my parents would have had massive heart attacks. On a personal bragging note, and one that should cause a dozen English teachers to spin in their grave, I sold another magazine article. Although I've had lots of stuff published over the years, most have been in academic journals that don't pay. It's always nice to get a check, even if it don't make me rich.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Road Home: A Movie Review

The Road Home, Zhang Yimou, director, 2000, 1 hour 29 minutes, Chinese with English subscripts

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, yet continue to ponder it’s meaning. The film begins in black and white. A son has been called back to his childhood village upon his father’s death and is driven across the snowy fields of northern China (interestingly, I’m pretty sure they’re driving a 4 wheel drive American Jeep). Upon arriving home, he learns his mother wants to do things the traditional way. His father was in the city when he died and she wants him to be carried by to the village by men, not by a car or even by a tractor. In this way, his spirit will remember the road. The widow also insists on making the funeral cloth on her old loom. Her son offers to buy the fabric, but she insists on doing it herself. The son then begins to think about his parents life, their forty years of love and happiness. As he recalls the familiar story (everyone in the village knows it), the film changes to color.

His mother, Zhao Di, is 18 years old. The village has a new school teacher, their first,
Lou Changyu. He is from the city, but comes to the rural town and helps the men build a school. Zhao Di and Lou Changyu notice each other, but their courtship consist primarily of glances as Zhao Di prepares meals for the workers on the school and walks further just to draws water out of the well above the school. She also weaves a fabric banner to hang from the rafters of the new school. Soon after the two meet and express their interest in the other, the authorities haul the teacher away for questioning. The next two years are unsettled times as the teacher is kept away from the village, but finally the teacher is allowed to return to the school where he spends his life teaching. His final task was to raise money for a modern school building, a task he was working on when he had a heart attack.

Much of the movie is about his parents courtship. When the film returns to the present, it’s again in black and white. The son has arranged the funeral procession for his father. Although the village didn’t think they had enough men to do the procession, hundreds of the teacher’s former students come back and take turns caring the casket back to the village. The teacher is buried in a grave, next to the now unused well (the town now has running water), a site that looks over the school. After the funeral, his widow gives her savings to the mayor for the new school and everyone is committed to the project. As a last gesture to his mother (and also father), the son volunteers to teach a day at the old school. He leads the class in recitations: “Know the present, know the past; In everything there is a purpose; Respect your elders,” etc.

The movie is beautifully filmed. The change of time is shown by the changes of the seasons. In the fall, when the aspen-like trees that dot the landscape are in full color, its beautiful. The road that connects the village to the city is also important, as the young Zhao Di waited patients by it for her lover to return, her brilliant red jacket standing in contrast to the white snowy landscape. The road is finally traveled one last time, when he is brought home. The love between the widow and her husband is vivid. It’s also an interesting political film, as we learn that at one point the young teacher must have been in trouble with the Communist party, although the trouble was never explained. His recitations (which his son continued to use when he teaches at the school) is steeped in Confucius thought and at odds with much of what Maoist China was about.