Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Toughest Section of the Appalachian Trail: Gorham NH to Rangeley ME (A Travel-tip Thursday Post)

It’s been a while since I have worked on writing up my experiences along the Appalachian Trail from back in 1987. In February, I ended my last section in Gorham, New Hampshire. This segment takes me into the north-woods of Maine and also serves as today’s “Travel-tip Thursday” post. Travel-tip Thursday is a writing prompt created by Pseudonymous High School Teacher.
After a restful night at the Breckenridge Rooming House in Gorham, New Hampshire, I set out to resupply for the next section of trail. The next thirty miles promised to be the most difficult on the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, as the trail climbed over mountains and fell into deep gaps.
As I was walking toward the business district of town, I stopped at Mike’s Exxon to fill my fuel bottle. A young woman was the cashier and came running out of the station, saying I couldn’t fill up my bottle. I complained, saying I had never had a problem before. She said I might spill some gas and I told her I had yet to spill any. Her attitude was snotty and I quickly became mad and told her it was a good thing I didn’t have a car here for I certainly wouldn’t buy any gas from her store and she said she didn’t give a shit and said she wished all us hikers would go home. As I walked off, I threatened to write the Chamber of Commerce and Exxon and complain about their service, but never did. Slim Jim and I met later at the grocery store and we both purchased food for the next section of trail. We then went to the Post Office to pick up mail. Outside, I packaged my food and put the excess into the box and mailed it on to Rangeley, Maine. After eating lunch in town, we hiked up the Mahoosuc Trail to the Appalachian and continued hiking north, stopping at the shelter at Gentain Pond. It was a short day, only 13 miles. Stephanie was at the shelter, decked out in her pink bikini., along with a couple of short-timers from Maine on a three day hike. The shelter was nice and sported a “21st Century” outhouse that used solar heat to turn the crap into compost.

Jim descending Mahoosuc Notch

August 9th was a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. There was no rest on this day as Jim and I left the shelter at 7 AM. The hike was much harder than the day before as we climbed up above tree-line at Success Mountain. As we descended, we crossed into Maine and then back up Mt. Carlo. Near the Mt. Carlo Shelter, there were many large rocks that had been sheared off in a glacier period and fallen on top of each other, creating cave-like caverns. Next, the trail headed over the East and then North Peaks of Goose Eye Mountain, then the South Peak of Fulling Mill Mountain before dropping into Mahoosuc Notch. The trail descends the south side of the notch, then turns east and runs .9 mile in the bottom of the notch. This mile is known as the most difficult mile on the entire trail as the path takes us up over and under and around house-sized boulders. At places we have to take our packs off and push them through or slide them down as we climb down ourselves. Jim and I spend an hour and a half exploring this section. In some of the deeper crevices, we find ice left over from winter. At one point, we’re overwhelmed by the smell of decay and then pass an elk that had fallen into the notch and died. Later, we learn that the Brits who are a day ahead of us stuck a candy bar in the Moose’s mouth and took a picture, saying it was truly a “chocolate moose.” On the far end of the notch, the trail climbs steeply out the north side. We hike another 2 ½ miles, arriving at Speck Point Shelter at 7:30, covering a total of 14.6 miles. There is a large group camping here, many who are a part of the Aloha Camp from Vermont. In addition to Jim and me in the shelter, there are three women. Camping around the shelter are probably twenty women (many high schoolers from the camp) and another eight or ten men. After dinner, I go for a swim in the lake (and find myself swimming with a beaver). It feels good to clean off before bed.

Jim climbing over rocks in the notch.

The next morning, we wake to the sound of rain on the roof of the shelter. It’s cold, gray and wet. We climb over Old Speck in the fog and drizzle, and on into Grafton Notch, stopping at the shelter there for lunch. In the afternoon, we continue on, over Baldplate Mountain with its mile of hiking above tree-line. The clouds were close in and we could only see one or to cairns ahead. The top of the mountain has been smoothed by glaciers, making it an easy trail to hike. We stop early after only 10.5 miles, at 4:15 PM, at Frye Notch Shelter, where we meet Wolfgang and his newlywed wife. They are from New Mexico and he’s an architect. A couple hours later, the group from the Aloha Camp comes into the area. They had planned to stop at the Grafton Notch shelter, but their leaders didn’t like the attitude of some hikers already there, so they hiked on to the Frye Notch Shelter. The campers set out to make a fire in order to dry clothes that have been soaked in the rain. I set out wool socks to dry and one of the campers, thinking she’s doing me a favor by turning my socks, drops one into the fire. Nevertheless, the fire was good for morale, after a cold and wet day. The campers roasted and shared marshmallows with us.
August 11 started out windy and cloudy, but by the end of the day, most of the clouds were gone. We hiked 15 miles, camping for the evening at the bank of a creek near the South Arm Road. The hike was tough, especially the south side of Moody Mountain which was enough to make anyone moody. We stopped at 5 PM. Throughout much of the day, I found myself thinking about journeys and pilgrimages and the difference, a thought I’d been exploring for most of the trip. I am enjoying the trip and although I am looking forward to completing the trail, I am also wishing I had a longer time to complete it. The hiking life feels good and I wish I could slow down and really enjoy it and not push myself to make miles and to finish the trail by the end of the month.
The next day, Jim and I hike 17 ½ miles. We run into Dave of the Brits at lunch time, Paul is somewhere behind us. We find this odd, as we didn’t see him along the trail. Dave joins us and we hike through the afternoon, stopping at the shelter on Sabbath Day Pond. In the trail register, Ben has left a note for me (he had skipped the Whites, having already hiked them, and is only a day or two ahead of me. Although the register mentions moose, we don’t see any, but there are plenty of loons on the lake and we enjoy their cry. In the evening the sky turns a beautiful pink color. As the color fades from the sky, we all get worried because Paul hasn’t shown up. He has the stove and pot for the two of them, so I lend my stove and pot for Dave to prepare dinner. By bedtime, Paul still hadn’t shown up and there isn’t anything we can do but go to bed.
The lake is beautiful the next morning. There is no wind and the water perfectly flat, except for when the occasional fish jumps. There are still no moose. It’s August 13, the birthday of two Sharons who have been in my life: my sister and an ex-girlfriend who was the best woman hiker I’ve known. Dave decides to wait at the shelter for Paul, saying he’ll give him till noon and if he hadn’t shown up by then, he’d set out southbound to find him. Jim and I leave the shelter a bit before 7 AM, hiking to ME-4. We arrive at 11:30 AM and set out to hitch a ride in Rangeley. The traffic is slow, but we wait for a ride as it’s almost nine miles from the trail into town. After an hour, a man stops and gives us a lift.

That's me, looking toward the end of the trail.
In town, we eat at the Red Onion, where the lady at the cash register tries three times to con us out of change. Several southbound hikers had warned in trail registers about attempts to short-change them in Rangeley, so we were on the watch. As we wash clothes, the Brits come in. Paul had arrived at the shelter at 10 AM, having spent the previous night out drinking with people he’d met at a road crossing. We brought groceries, including a couple packs of hot dogs and buns along with some beer for a “cookout” in the evening. Getting back to the trail is a little easier as people are getting off work and heading out of town. After we arrive at the trailhead, it’s only a mile and a half to Piazza Rock Lean-to. We all arrive back at the same time. Spending the night there are two women who are southbound thru-hikers and a guy who is a pilot in Alaska. We build a fire and share our hot dogs with them as we enjoy a cookout. The south-bounders agree to haul out our cans in the morning, making things even better.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Three Weeks with my Brother: A Book Review

Nicholas Sparks and Micah Sparks, Three Weeks with My Brother (audio books, 2004, 9 hours 20 minutes).
This is my second book by Nicholas Sparks (this one also has his brother Micah as a co-author). I read The Notebook shortly after my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, based on recommendations by those who knew my interest in the topic. At the time, I joked that The Notebook was my chic-lit for the year, but enjoyed it because Noah, the main character in the story, grew up in the salt marsh which was similar to my childhood. After my review of The Notebook, a number of people recommended this book, thinking I’d identify with their adventure. There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed and which drove me to tears and other parts of it that drove me crazy.
Three Weeks with my Brother centers on a round the world trip the two Sparks’ boys take. In telling the story of the trip, which starts in Florida, goes to Guatemala to check out Mayan ruins, then to Peru for Machu Picchu, then on to Easter Island. The trip next goes to Ayers Rock in the Australian outback, to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Taj Mahal in India, ancient caves in Ethiopia, the Island of Malta and finally to northern Norway… When the trip starts out, the two Spark boys are excited about his grand adventure, much like my dog pants and dances when I tell him he can go with me in the truck. They call each other Little Brother and Big Brother and pal around like preteens. They are quickly bored at looking at pottery and old stuff and didn’t seem to have much interest in the cultures they were visiting. It was more like they were interested in being able to say they’ve gone around the world than in the journey itself. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed with their journey. Furthermore, a pampered junket doesn’t qualify for an adventure in my book.
That said, I really enjoyed the other part of the book, where we learn about their lives growing up. For most of their younger years, their father was studying in an attempt to earn a doctorate. He later became a professor, but until then, the family endured a lot of hardship and even after that, they were never flush with material possessions. This leads the two boys to make a pact to be a millionaire by the time they were 35 (they both made it). We learn about the tragedies in their lives. Their mother died from injuries she sustained after being thrown from a horse. This happened shortly after Nicholas’ marriage. Then their younger sister came down with a brain tumor. While she was stable (and after the birth of her children), their dad died in a car accident. During this time, Nicholas was struggling with pharmaceutical sales, starting a family and writing novels. He sold the rights to publish the third book he wrote, The Notebook, for one million dollars and started a spree of best sellers and books being made into movies. His brother, who’d sold real estate, ended up starting several manufacturing companies and also became very successful. Then their sister’s cancer returned and she died, leaving the two Spark boys on their own. Shortly afterwards, they took off on a round the world trip.
As a travelogue, I wouldn’t recommend this book. As a memoir, I would recommend it. I listened to the unabridged audio version.
PS: In preparing the links to this post, I just reread my review on The Notebook. That review was in 2006 and I wrote that I was glad that my mother wasn't as bad as the woman in the book, but now I realize that she's been at that stage for probably the last two years... Last night I dreamed I had a conversation with my mother and she was talking, using full sentences without forgetting where she was going with her thoughts. I wish I could have stayed asleep.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Good Eats! A Travel Tip Thursday Post

Travel Tip Thursday brought to us byPseudonym High School Teacher. For today’s Travel Tip Thursday, I thought I’d review a couple of new restaurants at which I’ve recently eaten. One is a barbecue joint in North Carolina, the other a vegetarian Ethiopian restaurant in Michigan. I tried to get a picture of the Ethiopian food with my blackberry, but the shot didn’t turn out very well. I did get a photo of the sign to the barbecue establishment.

The Little African, Grand Rapids, MI. I felt a tinge of guilt for not being able to finish my plate at the Little African, a restaurant featuring vegetarian Ethiopian cuisine on Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. The food was delicious, but there was so much of it. I’d ordered a combo plate, picking three of their specialties. Kik is made from split peas and prepared with a sauce of tomato, onions, garlic and red wine. Gomen is the first collard dish I’ve had in Michigan. It is made with collard greens mixed with onion, Jalapeño pepper, ginger and garlic. I normally like my collards with hot vinegar, but the jalapeño and ginger made a good substitute. My third selection was soy curry (I forgot to write down the name) which was ground soy beans simmered in tomato paste, curry and cayenne peppers. The meal included injera, an Ethopian flat bread that also serves as an eating utensils. With no forks, slurping up the food with the bread was expected. For a drink, I had spiced tea. The Little African is just a small storefront, with maybe ten or twelve tables inside. The servings were plentiful (actually huge) and I had to stop after eating about 2/3 of my plate. But it was good and very reasonably priced. The combo was $9 and the pot of spiced tea another $2.50, quite a bargain. The first Ethiopian restaurant I ate at was on Jones Blvd in Las Vegas. It was ten years or so ago and I had no idea what to expect, thinking that Ethiopian food probably consisted of a few grains of rice and a half dozen peas. I was pleasantly surprised. That restaurant also served meat dishes and their lamb, which was fixed in a spicy stew, was delicious. I was hoping for lamb on this night, but I found the vegetarian fare to be pretty good.
The Pik n Pig, Carthage, NC. As you might have guessed this is a barbecue joint. It’s located just south of Carthage, NC, off Dowd Road near the Gilliam-McConnell Airstrip. Last week, with a bunch of us staying at my Grandma’s house, I asked around to find the best Q was in Moore County and was sent to the Pik n Pig. I picked up dinner to take home for the crowd. Their hickory smoked barbecue is delicious, especially with their hot vinegar sauce. The meat is cooked all night over hickory and hardwood charcoal and by daylight, it’s heavenly. They serve it pulled-pork style. Their Brunswick stew was okay. It seemed to have an overabundance of corn and not enough tomato, at least to my taste, but it was still pretty good. They have very good slaw. I like slaw where you can taste the cabbage and I hate slaw drowned in mayonnaise or other sauces; their slaw was of the first variety. Hushpuppies were also good, light and springy, obviously made from a combo of cornmeal and flour. Enough food to stuff five of us set me back $25. There motto: Some people say we're crazy for cooking our meat all night long over a wood burning fire. We say, "It's not polite to talk with your mouth full"
Where's a great place to travel? Why not use the Travel Tip Thursdays as a writing prompt and share your suggestions. Good eating!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Festival of Faith and Writing

Every other year, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan hosts a Festival of Faith and Writing. I’ve now been twice (in 2006 and last week). The conference is a blessing as over a hundred authors from a variety of genres and backgrounds discussing their writing to some two thousand participants. One of the interesting things about this writer’s conference is that they don’t limit their authors to those of Christian faith. Yes, most of the authors are Christian, but not all. There have been those who claimed to be atheists and agnostic as well as those of other faiths. I’m sure quite a few of the authors wouldn’t meet the Christian Bookseller’s Association standards. In 2006, Salman Rushdie (who described himself as an agnostic Muslim) was a keynote speaker. The key element for authors to be invited is that they must write about faith, or develop characters that deal with faith issues in their lives. I applaud Calvin College for this, as they live up to their namesake. John Calvin’s Geneva is often seen as oppressive (but then, it was the 16th century), but the city wasn’t as oppressive as is often portrayed. They went as far as to allow the publication of the Quran.
The three day conference is broken with six large plenary presentations where a major author discusses the role faith and religion play in his or her writing. This year, these six presenters included Scott Carins (poet, whose presentation I missed), Wally Lamb (novelist), Eugene Peterson (non-fiction), Richard Rodiguez (non-fiction), Parker Palmer (non-fiction), and Mary Karr (poetry and memoirs). In addition to these, there are a countless number of concurrent sessions that feature authors of all kinds of genres talking about their work. These smaller settings allowed for opportunities to get exposed to a wide variety of authors including one of the highlights this year, Michael Perry (I’ve reviewed two of his books: Population 485 and Truck). Another highlight was again seeing Thomas Lynch, whose book The Undertaking I reviewed a number of years ago.
As a way to give you a hint of what I learned, I will share one or two things I learned from each of the presenters whom I heard at the conference. .

Barbara Nicolosi is a film writer from in Hollywood. Her session was on how to use of pictures in writing, but the most interesting thing she said (at least, to me) was that when someone in Hollywood finds out that she’s a Christian, they will often say something like “Once I get my life straightened out, I’ll become a Christian.” She said she always wants to respond sarcastically with, “Oh yeah, like we all have our lives straightened out.”

Michael Perry was one of the reasons I decided that I wanted to attend this year’s conference and I had a few minutes after the session to talk with him and to have a couple of his books signed. “I’m just a bumbling agnostic,” Perry says. “I’m not looking for a fight, I’m just looking.” He did discuss his upbringing in a small and strict Christian sect and his respect for people of faith and why he sees to it that his children go to church regularly and why he doesn’t make fun of religious people. “I want my children to see good people trying to be good and do good,” he said. I also like how he says his step-daughter isn’t really his step-daughter; she’s his “given daughter.”

Scott Russell Sanders is known for essays and memoirs, particularly about nature. I’m currently reading his memoir, A Personal History of Awe. “Confusing is that which we are capable of clearing up; mystery is that which we can’t clean up,” he said. He went on to describe awe as a “fundamental human emotion.” In a discussion between Sanders and Kathleen Moore, a few illusions of mine were shattered. The solo experience of the author isn’t always that way in real life. Sanders noted that Edward Abbey wasn’t alone when he had most of the Desert Solitaire experiences, that he was with his wife and a child. Thoreau wasn’t completely alone at Walden and that Annie Dillard was with her husband at the time when she was writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Both Sanders and Moore includes family in their experiences.

Wally Lamb is a professor of creative writing at the University of Connecticut and has three bestselling novels: She’s Come Undone, This Much I Know is True and The Hour I First Believed (about the Columbine shootings). “I write because I am hopeful and afraid,” Lamb notes.

Rhoda Janzen memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress was recently reviewed by one of my readers. Just that title was enough to draw me to her sessions. She’s tall and although, to my disappointment, didn’t wear a little black dress, she was always outfitted with hot, knee-high boots. Janzen is a poet and memoirist, which she sees as an essentially Christian (and Jewish, as she later added) genre as memoirs generally deal with issues of captive or bondage that ends in release or freedom, much like the Exodus and salvation stories of Scripture.

Eugene Peterson is a prolific writer and Biblical scholar (author of The Message paraphrase of Scripture). He started out to be a religion professor, then became a pastor and finally ended up being a pastor/writer. His “patron saint” is John of Patmos (Book of Revelation) who is told to “write what he sees” (not what he knows!). He likes how John, in the 404 verses of Revelation, makes 518 references to Scripture without quotes. He sees a similar thing in the writing of Annie Dillard who alludes to scripture throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. For Peterson, who sees his field as pastoral theology, one uses stories like Jesus, to invite others into a salvation experience.

Tonya Bolden is an author of children and youth non-fiction, including recent novels on Martin Luther King and Mohammad Ali. She encouraged writers of children’s books not to assume children have prior knowledge of the subject, but to assume they are curious and can figure things out.

Kathleen Dean Moore is a philosophy professor at the University of Oregon and an essayist. I’ve read her book Riverwalking, which I enjoyed even though I never got around to reviewing. She describes the process of essay writing as the “art of the osprey.” One sails above and observes, but when something catches one’s eye (a shadow or a flicker of light), one dives in much like the osprey that goes down, fully committed to catch whatever it is he saw. The essay moves from experience to idea, as the essayist dives in. Moore’s voice was soft but strong and I loved the way she described the most loving word in English is “look.” She also said the most reverent posture isn’t on our knees but standing on the edge, in awe.

Thomas Lynch is a poet and has also written memoirs, essays and fiction. He’s also the only presenter, as far as I know, who sidelines in embalming. In a session with Rhoda Janzen, he (in good-humor as they were joking around) referred to her as a “Mennonite Floozy.” I liked what he said about faith and death. “You don’t need faith at a baptism or a wedding, but at death, with a corpse, a dead guy, faith is in the forefront.”

Richard Rodriguez writes non-fiction and memoirs including Hunger of Memory, The Last Discovery of America and Days of Obligation. He’s a regular NPR contributor. Rodriguez talks about how we write out of our loneliness (which he linked to experiencing God in the desert), but he said we can’t continue to write by ourselves, we need those who can respond to our writing.

Parker Palmer is a Quaker author of many non-fiction works, perhaps best known for The Promise of a Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life. “I write because I was born baffled,” he admitted.” “I chew on contradictions,” he noted, “Faith allows us to chew on contradictions and live well with them.” He went on to warn that if we “believe we can get rid of the contradictions and have all the answers, we’re worst than being faithless, we’re arrogant.”

Stephen Carter, a non-fiction author and novelist, spoke of how writing novels is both stressful and enjoyable, as he can be someone else. Carter spoke of his “partial retirement” from the public life, complaining about how few Americans are serious about anything that can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker. He argued that we need to again teach rhetoric in public schools.

Peter Manseau described himself as a Jewish novelist and a Catholic memoirist. His parents were both from the Catholic orders (priest and nun). Out of school, he began working for as a Yiddish Book Collector, which led to his first novel. Next, he started the website “killthebuddha” which got him into writing op-eds and into the public sphere.

Mary Karr is a poet and the memoirist who is credited with the recent rise in memoirs. Responding to the claim of how her first book, The Liars Club, started a new genre, she pointed out that Augustine wrote a memoir long before any of us had been around. She spoke of the story of her battle with alcoholism and of coming into the church, which is the subject of her recent book, Lit. Her presention was authentic and very funny.

And there were many more presenters there, but there was only three days to the festival…

Monday, April 19, 2010

Playing tag

Last week John at Full-On Foward tagged me in one of those seven things about you type of post. I’m to list seven things seven things about me and then tag seven others. I never tag others, but have occasionally done tags and told John that I would be proud to do this one. It’s been a while since I’ve done a tag… but I’ve written so much that it’s been harder to come up with seven things to surprise or shock you (especially when considering my self-imposed limitations in my blog), but here goes:

1. The first four years of my life we lived in a log cabin (unlike Abe, I was born in a hospital)
2. Like John, I love ballet. It probably has more to do with a fetish for women with shapely legs than for the art.
3. When I living in Western NC, I brought season tickets to the Charlotte Opera. It was to impress a woman with whom I hoped to share the season. It turned out that I attended each opera (there were 3) with a different woman. (that should give Murf something to chew on)
4. I taught myself semaphore when I was a kid. I was grounded in my room and one of my few books was the Boy Scout handbook. I no longer know it, but knowing it came in handy at a camporee when I was able to help our patrol win an event.
5. At one time, I was pretty good at reading CW (continuous wave or the way Morse Code is transmitted). I still know the letters but probably couldn’t translate anything above 5 words a minute.
6. I often battle feelings of melancholy.
7. I have never lived in a place that I didn’t find something about it to celebrate. Although I’ve never been a member of a Chamber of Commerce, I could have always been a spokesperson for them.

I spent Thursday through Saturday at an incredible conference, the Festival of Writing and Faith at Calvin College. I hope to post some about that in the coming week.
The photo was taken two weeks ago in North Carolina. The pollen was so heavy that it created a haze and gives a yellow tint to the steel rails.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Family memories around the old house...

The first time I remember seeing the house, I was barely into the double-digits. The house stood back on the edge of some woods that dropped down into the swampy creek known as the Lower Little River. It was nearly a mile from a paved highway. We followed the two tracks that ran beside my great-granddaddy’s bee hives and his house with the large magnolias out front, and the smoke house and corn crib and chicken coop out back. Then we took the right fork at Henry’s place, distinguishable by rusting tractor trailers and heavy equipment and other junk he’d collected. Although my grandmother would never say anything negative about him, I could tell she didn’t appreciate his collections. At the tobacco barns, we took the left fork, riding through a young growth pine forest that had once been fields. We stopped before the house where grandma showed us kids the press they used to squeeze the juice out of sugar cane. The long pole onto which Old Dan, the mule, was tied and walked in circles to turn the press was broken and rotted. The huge caldron where the squeezing was boiled down into syrup was long gone. From there, we walked over to the house, with its inviting front porch shaded by a beaten down magnolia.

The front porch faced the two-track road through the sand and an overgrown field out front. There was a small utility porch off the back. As far as I know, at the time no one had lived in the house for nearly a quarter of a century. The first thing my grandma saw was that someone had stripped the copper electrical writing out of the house. It was odd to think about electricity running into a house without indoor plumbing, but then the house was nearing the end of its original purpose when the REA finally strung power lines through these parts.

Inside the house, on this my first visit, I was overwhelmed by the sweet scent of cured tobacco. Bits of crumbly golden leaves were left in the corners and in the cracks of the heart pine flooring. The man working my great-grandfather’s allotment was utilizing the old place as a pack-house, storing cured tobacco inside as it was graded and bundled for market. But it was early summer, not quite time for puttin’ in tobacco and the house stood empty except for one room that was filled with tobacco sticks. In a few weeks, these would be taken out to the barns where tobacco leaves would be tied to them and they’d then be hanged in a heated born for curing. These sticks also made great sticks to tie up tomato plants and for growing string beans.

In the sittin’ room was a large fireplace with a heart-pine mantel; the floor in front of the hearth was brick. I loved the fireplace and dreamed of a day that I could rescue the mantel and put it in a house of my own. Over against the wall was an old pump organ which had probably not been played since my great-great grandma’s death, four years before my birth. I’ve been back to that house many times since, and at some point, the old organ went missing. The last time that I was there, six or eight years ago, someone had stripped the mantel and a tree was growing through the bedroom floor. Half the roof had caved in and the only things left in the house, as relics, were a few tobacco sticks. Tobacco no longer grew on my great-granddaddy’s land since the government buyout of tobacco allotments.

I didn’t get to visit the house last week, when I was in North Carolina. But I did get to visit it viscously as my grandma talked about her granddaddy (my great-great granddaddy whose death was long before my birth). This has become common in our visits of recent years, her talking about her granddaddy. Sitting around the kitchen table, my daughter and I listened intently as she told of loving to stay with her grandparents and to lie during winter before the large hearth, watching the fire reflect off the brick and listen to it crackle. She also told about her grandmother decorating it at Christmas, with a large cedar tree and holly branches.

My great, great granddaddy, James Duncan McKenzie was born in May 1862, the opening year of the Civil War. As my Grandma spoke, I did the math in my head and realized my daughter was hearing about people who were born almost 140 years before her and that if she lives into her early eighties, through my grandmother, would have connections to over two hundred years of history. And then, if my daughter sits around such a table with her granddaughter, another hundred years or more will be added to the cycle of births and deaths.

James Duncan McKenzie married Mary Eliza McDonald in the 1880s. Their first son, my great-granddaddy was a strong man that I was lucky enough to know. In his 70s, he was still spitting wood for my great-grandma’s wood stove. He’d place a log upright and swing, spitting it in two and then split the halves into quarters. Every few logs split, he’d take a break and allow me the time to gather up the wood and stack it. Great-grandma, who died when I was eight, didn’t like the gas range and refused to let go of her wood burning range.

Although their first son, my great-grandfather, would live a long life, many of their other children would struggle and die young. In a world without electricity, my grandma as a young girl would go to her grandparent’s home and take turns fanning Uncle Harrison. He was gassed in the First World War, in the trenches in France, and although he lived for another twenty years, never recovered and constantly fought bouts of pneumonia. My grandma also remembers the death of Aunt Molly. She was seven and they sent her out into the fields to get her dad. He was plowing with Old Dan, the mule. Her father unhooked the mule from the plow. Leaving the plow in furrow where he stopped, he handed my grandma, just a young girl at the time, the reins and had her lead Old Dan back to the barn while he cut through the woods to this house I described.

My grandmother spent the first six months of her life living with her grandparents, at this house, as her mother battled illness, perhaps influenza as that was epidemic at the time. In time, her grandparents would take more children, some related, some not, and raise them in this house. Grandma looks back with fondness on their hard lives and how they never complained, but were always grateful and willing to share what they had with others. The last I saw of it, the house was no longer salvageable and, I’m sure, will be reduced to a heap of rotten wood and rusty bent tin before my daughter is a mother.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Travel Tip Thursday: Airlie Gardens

Traveling Tip Thursday is brought to us by Pseudonymous High School Teacher. I've done a few posts for this prompt in the past and decided it's time to do a few more. I also encourage you to use this prompt as a way to get your writing juices flowing. Here's my post for this week, a trip to a garden near where I grew up (I actually went to elementary school in grades 4-6 across the creek from this garden!) Enjoy. By the way, I'm still not around much for the rest of the week as I'm at a writer's conference at Calvin College. The photos are from my recent trip to North Carolina.

Pembroke Jones was the man and nobody could keep up with him, not with his home on 5th Avenue and Newport and his “self-described” bungalow on the north side of Bradley Creek. Jones was born just a few years before the Civil War and his father, a captain, I think was also a blockade runner. He was involved in shipping, railroads and steamships and his “bungalow” near Wrightsville Beach was considered the finest house in North Carolina outside the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House near Asheville. Pembroke Jones purchased thousands of acres down bordered by the sound to the east and Bradley Creek to the south. Early in the 20th Century, Jones’ wife developed a 155 acre garden around their home. Today, 67 acres of this garden still exist and is open to the public. Starting in late winter, the camellias bloom, followed by daffodils and tulips, then azaleas.
When we moved to Wilmington in 1966, as I was starting the fourth grade, I found myself attending Bradley Creek Elementary School which was on the other side of the creek. The school, like Mr. Jones’ bungalow, has since been reduced to ashes. Back then, a family owned and lived on Airlee property and it was only occasionally opened, making it somewhat of a mystery. That’s no longer the case, as New Hanover County purchased the property a decade or so ago. In a way, my life will always be somewhat tied to Bradley Creek. Twenty or so years ago, my parents purchased grave plots at a cemetery at the mouth of the creek. At the time, my Dad joked he wanted to be buried somewhere that during high tide he could feel salt water on his toes… The good news is that he’s still in good health and able to get out and get his toes wet as he fishes the coastline and out in the open sea.

One of the older religious buildings in the county is a small Episcopal chapel that's found within Airlee Gardens. Today, it's primarily used for weddings and special services.

A highlight of our recent trip was seeing a swan chance a goose off it's lake. That's one pissed-off swan!

There are live oaks in the garden that were seedlings when the Spanish first explored the Carolina coast and were hardy trees by the time of Sir Walter Raleigh’s fateful settlement on Roanoke Island. In addition to the live oaks draped with Spanish moss (as if it was placed there by the Spanish), there are cypress and pine, including long leafs that tower over the other trees and (after all, this is the south) magnolias. The area is also blessed with freshwater lakes adjacent to the salt marsh.

If you’re in Southeast North Carolina during the spring, this garden is well worth a visit. The park cost only five dollars a person and can provide you with hours of wandering and taking in the sights, the smells and the sounds of birds, the joy of seeing how many turtles can sun on a log and watching boats motoring up and down the creek.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Stormy Weather (A Book Review)

I'm back home and will try to get around to checking in on everyone while I dig myself out of the pile I'm sure will be waiting for me on my desk this morning... Spoiler alert, I probably give away too much of the plot in my review of the book below.

Carl Hiassen, Stormy Weather (1995, released on Audiobooks in 2004, 14 hours and 8 minutes)
A hurricane strikes southern Florida, releasing a menagerie from an exotic animal farm. Loose animals combined with a menagerie of characters assure us they’ll be almost as much damage from the events after the hurricane than from the storm itself (and a lot more laughs). To borrow a line from the Flim-Flam Man, “there is no way to beat an honest man in the skin game.” This isn’t a problem. There is not over abundance of honest men or women in South Florida, setting up opportunities for con-artists to con one another. In the end, they get their rewards: the good guys come out on top, the so-so guys break even and the really bad guys end up dead.
The story starts with Max and Bonnie Lamb honeymooning at Disney World. In the aftermath of the storm, Max decides they should head south to get video of the destruction. There, with a very unhappy wife, he takes off with a video camera, gets attacked by a monkey who also steals his camera and ends up being kidnapped by a strange man who takes the shock collar off the monkey and places it on Max… Abandoned, Bonnie finds solace in Augustine, a strange but honest man. Augustine is looking for lost animals from his uncle’s farm (which he’d just inherited). As the plot unfolds, the two of them fall in love. Stink, the ex-governor of Florida, also plays a major role in this book. He’d been hoping for a large hurricane to clean up Southern Florida, but this isn’t quite it. He’s the one who kidnapped Max, finding him to be a lowlife, videotaping all the suffering going on.
Another character to be thrown into the mix is Edie Marsh, who’s been in Florida in search of a Kennedy to blackmail. Running out of money, she joins together with a fellow con named “Snapper” to pull off a scam. They fake an accident in the yard of a home destroyed by the storm, hoping to rip the owner off of his insurance check. Unfortunately, the owner, a Hispanic mobile home salesman, is involved in his own con game and isn’t amused and, armed with a shotgun, escort the two into his house when he decides to have Edie play the role of his ex-wife in order to get the insurance money and scam before his real ex shows up demanding her share of the house. But, it turns out, that prior to the storm he’d sold a mobile home to the wrong person, an old woman whose son is a thug from Chicago. Before he gets to cash in on his insurance, the thug pays a visit and carries him off. His mutilated body is later found. With his disappearance, Edie and Snapper play the Hispanic couple and attempt to swindle the insurance money, but the adjuster comes when Snapper is away. Recognizing something fishy is up, Edie charms him. The married insurance adjuster falls for Edie and her favors and the two concoct a plan to split the insurance money. While this is going one, Snapper has a run in with the State Police, and seriously harms Jim Tile’s girlfriend. Tile is the trooper who had been assigned to Stink when he was governor. Tile is now trying to look out for Stink while looking for revenge from whoever attacked his girlfriend. In addition to all these characters, there’s the shady former roofing inspector who’s into voodoo and a roofing scam, two college students who are on their way home from the Keys, a group of hillbilly workmen heading south to try to get a cut in the roofing business, and the ex-wife of the mobile home salesman who is coming in for her cut in the profit. There are a few more characters, but without the book in hand, I can’t remember them all.
In the end, it all works out and most of the bad guys get what they deserve. Bonnie and Augustine are together, Stink slips back into the swamp and Jim Tile’s girlfriend recovers. Max ends up with Edie. As or Snapper, the ex-governor takes care of him with a “Club” (a steering wheel locking device). Later, his skeleton remains are found and no one can figure out why his jaw is forced opened by a “Club”.
This is my fifth Hiassen book. He's a great satirist. Although not as funny as some of his others (I think Skinny Dip is my favorite), I still found myself laughing out loud often. The book seems over populated with characters, a number of which disappear and we don’t know what happened to them. I listened to the unabridged version of the book on an ipod at the gym.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Another Easter Memory

I’ve been in North Carolina since Monday and haven’t had internet access. I'll be back around on Tuesday and try to catch up on everyone's writings. Here is something I wrote right before Easter, a memory of my childhood. This memory was probably from 1964 or 65. The photo on the left was taken on Easter Sunday 1972 (my father was in a rebellion stage, driving a yellow car). Although the oldest, at this point in my life I was shorter than both my brother and sister.

As a child, there was always a small gift in our Easter basket. Mom had prepared our baskets with eggs that we’d dyed, along with a variety of candy. My favorite was the malt balls covered with chocolate and hard candy. Mom handled the candy and decorating, but I’m pretty sure my dad picked out the small gift, because it was almost always some sort of fishing gear. Over the years, there were packets of plastic worms and a variety of lures, but the one that I will always remember was a yellow jitterbug. I think this was the first year of the tradition, the Easter after my brother and I had received a Zepco fishing rod. I was either in the first or second grade. My jitterbug was bright yellow and my brother’s was black. They were both larger lures, maybe 3 1/2 inches long; my dad had a large ambition when it came to fishing.

Interestingly, I remember what happened to those two lures. My brother’s ended up on a powerline over my Uncle Frank’s pond and for years you could see it dangling there, beside other lures and tackle that hung along the lines, looking like a trotline for a flying fish. He got tired of me joking about his failure to catch flying-fish. I had my jitterbug longer; in fact, I never lost it. It was still in a freshwater tackle box, its paint having flaked a bit over the decades, when that tackle box was stolen from my car when we lived in Utah. There is no telling what happened to that lure, but I hope it’s still catching fish.

A jitterbug is an ideal lure to catch bass in the evening, as the fish move close into the shore to feed and often come up to the surface to feast on bugs. The lure stays on the top of the water and it waddles back and forth, much like giant water bug. The fish hears and feels its movement across the surface and are drawn in for a strike.

As I was recalling this tradition from my childhood, the giving of fishing lures, it dawned on me that a lure was an appropriate Easter gift. My favorite post-resurrection story of Jesus is him on the beach, roasting fish for the disciples who’d spent the evening on the water. A number of the disciples were fisherman and Jesus tells them that they’re to continue to fish, only for people. They’re to continue to cast out the nets, metaphorically.

Update: my memory may not be completely correct. I told this story to my brother and he said he thinks he still has his jitterbug, so maybe it was another lure that went over the lines at my uncle’s pond.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

A Moravian Sunrise

This is a repeat. I've been rather busy lately and am heading off next week for spring break. In the spirit of the season, I'm reposting something I wrote back in the spring of 2007. Some things have changed--there is no longer a bank named Wachovia... Enjoy and have a blessed Easter.

One spring in the early 80s, I made a pilgrimage to Old Salem for the Moravian Sunrise service on Easter morning. Some say the Moravians invented the Sunrise service, but I think that honor goes to a handful of women back in Jerusalem during the first century. The Moravians only revived the tradition and have been doing Easter Sunrise Services in America since the 18th Century. If you ever get a chance to attend such a service at Winston Salem or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, go!

Going to Sunrise Services wasn’t something my family did when I was a child. It was hard enough to make it to church on time later in the morning. Folks often joked we’d be late for our own funerals, something I still hope will happen. The only time any of us were ever up before sunrise was to fish, which is perhaps why as soon as I could drive, I began attending Easter Sunrise services. It seemed a natural thing to do. After all, there is that resurrection story about the disciples fishing at sunrise. For me, it didn’t matter what the preacher said or how the choir sounded, watching the sun come up was enough of a message and more glorious than any praise I might mutter. This is especially true when you live near a body of water. Some years I would watch the rays’ race across the ocean and up onto the sand, other years I’d go to a service on the sound and witness the marsh grass bask in the sun’s warm rays as ducks take to the air. From the time I was sixteen, I’ve attended many sunrise services, but the one I’ll always remember was at Old Salem in the early 80s.

It was bittersweet, as I look back on it. I was in a failing relationship, but for that weekend, it didn’t seem to matter. We were young, right out of college. We drove up to Winston Salem on Saturday and spent the day touring Old Salem. We checked into a hotel right across the freeway from the village, an 18th Century town now swallowed up within metro-Winston-Salem. I’m not sure Salem got the best end of the merger, but at least they got a cigarette named after them. Old Salem was one of the first settlements in the Piedmont of North Carolina, settled by Moravians who made their way to Wachovia (as the settlement was originally known). Today there’s a bank with that name Wachovia.

That Sunday morning, a wake-up call came at 4:30 AM. Washing the sleep out of our eyes, we dressed as warmly as possible. The weather had turned cold and we hadn’t planned on it. I didn’t even have gloves. We made our way out into the streets, as I shuffled along with my hands in my pockets. On the corner a brass quartet played. This was true all over Salem, as brass quartets played hymns in the predawn hours, waking people up to the celebration that was about to begin. We walked, with hoards of others, making our way across the freeway and into the old village where we gathered with thousands on the lawn in front of the old church.

Anticipation filled the crowed as we waited, not sure what might happen next. It seemed odd to wait, but that was what the instructions said to do. And we waited, our ears numbed from the cold, could make out the brass quartets playing in the distance. A light breeze blew and the dark sky began to spit sleet and snow. We continued waiting. Right before dawn, the doors of the church opened and the preacher stepped out and shouted, “Christ Is Risen.” We responded, “He Is Risen Indeed.” The preacher and his assistants then led the crowd out to “God’s Acre,” the cemetery. “God’s Acre” must be like God’s years (a day is as a thousand years), for its’ much larger than a standard acre. This is a good thing for there is no way that the crowd could have all gathered on a 200 foot by 200 foot parcel. We settled in, facing the sun which was hiding somewhere behind gray clouds. Then, from behind us, the band entered. All the quartets that had been playing on the street corners had come together. There appeared to be several hundred of them, trumpets and trombones and French horns and tubas. We joined our voices with them praising God and worshipping the Risen One. It didn’t matter that I was out of tune, others drowned me out.

I don’t remember the message and didn’t actually see the sun rise, but just being there on Easter morning with the sky spitting sleet and snow was enough. After the service, we made our way back to the hotel, stopping in the dining room for breakfast. A lone waitress tried to serve us all, complaining that management has once again forgotten to expect a crowd on Easter. No body complained too much. Instead, several of us took turns serving coffee, the least it seemed we could do, as she ran around getting orders and bring out plates. It was late-morning by the time we’d eaten and checked out the hotel. Driving back east, the clouds broke. Along the edges of the roads, dogwoods bloomed.