Thursday, July 31, 2008

Handling Sin (A Book Review)

I have not had internet access since Sunday afternoon. I know there’s lots of great posts out there and I need to do some catching up. But not today. Rest assured, where I’ve been the fishing has been okay and the views from the lake wonderful and this is doing great things to my stress (see previous post). I’ve been able to sail a bit and do some reading and much needed planning. I also had a chance to write a book review for Maggie’s Summer Southern Reading Challenge. This is my third book and completes the challenge, except that I need to write a post about what I learned and I will review another book so I can say something about a mule (allowing me another opportunity to win a copy of a book I’m planning on reading; who thinks up these things?). I had to come back to town today for some meetings and I’ll be back to civilization on Saturday—for just a week—then it’s off for a canoeing and fishing adventure in the wilds of Western Ontario.

Michael Malone, Handling Sin (New York: Washington Square Press, 1986), 656 pages.

In the last fifteen days of March (which falls on this particular year at the end of Lent) Raleigh Whittier Hayes watches his life collapse only to experience a resurrection between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The turmoil begins on the Ides of March at a luncheon for Thermopylae’s Civitans Club, held at the Lotus House. All the leading business leaders of this Piedmont town in North Carolina begin to receive bad news in their fortune cookies. Some advise that they’ll be betrayed or will die of cancer. The paper in Raleigh’s fortune cookie reads: “You will go completely to pieces by the end of the month.”

Raleigh is a successful businessman. He owes an insurance company and has a nice home, two oceanfront rentals, two automobiles, and a retirement fund. He’s well thought of by other people in the community as a man who can be trusted and who is honest and does what is right. He’s extremely loyal, moral, and decent, and even though he’s a member of a Baptist Church, he really doesn’t put much stock in God. His lack of faith occurred when he first joined the church. Raleigh thought he’d made an agreement with God, to believe in the Almighty if he was given the strength of Samson. Feeling that God didn’t keep up his end of the bargain, Raleigh assumes God isn’t interested in human affairs.

We learn in the Prologue that “The day came when the members of the court of Heaven took their places in the presence of the Lord.” Like Job of old, Raleigh will be tested. It all starts with him learning that his father has escaped from the hospital with a black teenage girl and is driving a new Cadillac to New Orleans. The older Hayes wants his son to do a few errands for him and then to meet him in the Crescent City. Thus begins Raleigh’s adventure.

Raleigh’s father is the (ex) Reverend Earley Hayes, a former Episcopalian priest who had been removed from his church for extra-martial affairs. Among the things Raleigh is to collect and bring with him to New Orleans is a statue of one of Thermopylae’s leading citizens, a trumpet, an old chest, a bluesman from Charleston, and his half-brother Gates. His father also wants Raleigh to buy for himself a piece of lakefront property. Raleigh is torn, but because of loyalty to the father and fear he’ll be written out of the will, he begins the quest. He buys the property for way less than its value because the man who owns it thinks Raleigh is blackmailing him because of his extra-martial affairs (of which he assumes Raleigh knows about, but he really doesn’t, which makes for perhaps the funniest real estate transaction ever put to print). Raleigh, in a complete out-of-character manner, also breaks into the library to steal the plaster statue residing in the basement. In addition to his father’s request, Raleigh brings along Mingo, his best friend (who has accused Raleigh of having an affair with his wife). Along the way they are rolled by punks, spend time recovering with nuns, encounter Marines when they trespass onto a military base (mistaking the sign for Topsail Beach for Top Soil and driving a dirt road at night onto the Marine’s domain. While Raleigh is having his own adventure, his wife back home is becoming a leader of the “Mothers for Peace” and taking on the local congressman.

This book is filled with characters. Many have ties to the Blues, but then there’s a Jewish thief (whose family leaves out two empty chairs on Passover, one for Elijah, the other for the wayward crook), mobsters, drug runners, Klansman, and a pregnant teenage girl (Mingo helps her deliver the baby). The events take place on a journey to New Orleans, with a detour over to the coast of North Carolina, stopping around Jacksonville and then Kure Beach, on to South Carolina with stops at Myrtle Beach and on to Charleston, and then Atlanta. While in Atlanta, the folks now travelling with Raleigh has it out with a group of mobsters and drug runners at Stone Mountain, in what may be the funniest chase scene ever written. They finally make it to New Orleans, where Raleigh catches up with his Dad on Good Friday. Along the way we learn some interesting family secrets such as the identity of the girl that was in his father’s Cadillac when he escaped from the hospital (if I said anything more, I’d spoil the book and by the time I explained it, this review would be qualify as an extended essay). Finally, on Easter Sunday, an enlightened Raleigh is back at Thermopylae in church, sitting with his beloved wife, who is now a candidate for Mayor.

This is a grand book, with many twist and turns. It’s amazing that Malone can tie most everything together.

In an interview, Malone admitted his novel is a modern retelling of the Don Quixote. Malone, in his acknowledgments credits Miguel Cervantes along with Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens. The book is filled with insight into issues of faith as well as family secrets. It deals with Southern issues such as racism, in a humorous way. I recommend it! You’ll have many days of laughter.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A dream

Photo of a stormy morning at Cape Lookout, NC, November 2007.
I woke this morning dreaming the most bizarre dream. I was on a cruise, but the ship looked more like a large research vessel. It was early in the evening and the ship was sinking. I started running around, from one end to another, gathering stuff and getting ready to abandon ship. The lights kept blinking and I was worried about them going off, but was assured I’d be okay as I had a head lamp with me. I had my priorities! I gathered in my laptop backpack my laptop, ipod, a notebook (a black leather one I write in) and some apples (I often take an apple like this to work). The other bag was a canvas shopping bag (the type you take to the grocery store to avoid having to use plastic bags). In this bag I stuffed as much food as I could find, some canned goods, bananas and an old package of spinach and some broccoli. I don’t know why I didn’t think of water. Many people were just staying on the ship drinking, resigned to their fate, but four of us eventually got off and onto a lifeboat. But the lifeboat somehow became a barge that was rusty and listing badly… We got back on to the ship to get more stuff; I kept saying get food but this one guy insisted on collecting all these pipes and pump parts. He had a huge box of parts. We then got back onto the barge and, early in the morning, the ship sank, rolling over on its side and slipping beneath the waves. As I was busy figuring out what we had, the guy with the mechanical parts fixed a pump and began to pump water out of the hull of the barge, the water spraying like a fireboat’s water cannon. We weren’t sure how much we should pump since the water in the hull was acting as ballast. Then we were approached by a Russian destroyer, who had seen the water spray. They came along side of the barge to save us, but before we got off the barge and saved, the alarm rang… Wow, am I under stress or what?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Who Moved My Cheese (a book review)

Spencer Johnson, M.D., Who Moved My Cheese (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998), 94 pages.

I have invited Dave, a retired school administrator, to facilitate an annual staff planning retreat next month. In planning the retreat, Dave asked if I’d read a little book titled Who Moved My Cheese. He suggested he use it in his presentation and dropped me off a copy to review. This is a short book (It’ll probably take me longer to write this post than it did to read the book), but don’t sell the book short. There are some valuable lessons about change on these few pages.

This is the story of two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two littlepeople, Hem and Haw. They live in a maze and spend their days in search of cheese. One day they come upon a great find (Cheese Station C). There is an abundance of cheese and they settle in, growing fat and lazy. Hem and Haw begin to see themselves as “owners” of the cheese. But then, one day, the cheese is gone. Sniff and Scurry put back on their running shoes and begin to explore the maze, looking for new cheese. Hem and Haw feel bitter as they’ve come to think they’re entitled to the cheese. They have become afraid of the maze and sulk around. But one day Haw decides it’s time to go out in search of new cheese. Hem refuses to join his quest. Haw finds his running shoes, laces them up and goes out in search of new cheese. Along the way, he finds morsels of cheese, but nothing that can sustain him for long. He keeps searching as he learns new truths, such as “what you are afraid of is never as bad as what you imagine” (63). He draws graffiti on the maze, pictures of cheese with tidbits of wisdom inside, in case Hem decides to follow him. Examples include:
“If You Do Not Change, You Become Extinct.” (46)
“What Would You Do If You Were Not Afraid?” (48)
“Movement in a New Direction Helps You Find New Cheese.” (54)
“Old Beliefs Do Not Lead You To New Cheese” (64)
Along the way, Haw begins to enjoy the journey. He discovers that you “can believe that change will harm you and resist it. Or you can believe that finding new cheese will help you, and embrace the change” (65). He also begins to use his mind to envision himself finding something that is better. He reflects on his mistakes and plans for the future and, in the end, discovers an even more abundant cache of cheese than had existed in Cheese Station C. But as he enjoys all the cheese in this new station, he keeps his running shoes nearby for the time he’ll have to return to the maze in search of cheese.

At the end of his journey, Haw summarizes wisdom learned:

Change Happens (They keep moving the cheese)
Anticipate Change (Get ready for the cheese to move)
Monitor Change (Smell the cheese often so you know when it’s getting old)
Adapt to Change Quickly (The quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy new cheese)
Change (Move with the cheese)
Enjoy Change! (Savor the Adventure and enjoy the taste of new cheese)
Be Ready to Change Quickly and Enjoy it Again and Again (They keep moving the cheese) (74)
This is a wonderful parable about change and about the difference between leadership and management. The forward is written by Kenneth Blanchard, Ph.D., who coauthored with Johnson the One Minute Manager, another little gem that I read back in the mid-80s. I recommend both books.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Lesson Learned: A 3WW Writing Assignment

Yesterday’s Three Word Wednesday assignment, brought to us by Bone, is to write something with the following words: Avoid, Class & Sticky… Like I often did in school, I’m turning in mine a day late. My poem is about a lesson learned early for Sage, whom you see as an elementary school student in the photo to the left. I’m glad that today I have an electronic desktop.

A lesson learned

When in class and bored
avoid exploring under your desktop
where gross sticky remains from ages past
lurk and wait
for unsuspecting fingers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Beards, Growing Older, Daughters and the Spirit of the Age

My beard is about to have a birthday. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, it will have been twenty years since a razor last scraped my face. This isn’t the first beard I’ve grown. I’d had a few others, grown like this one during backpacking trips. Most of these beards I shaved immediately after getting home. In 1987, when I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I kept the beard for a few weeks, but then succumbed to the razor. The next summer, when I was in Idaho, I decided to grow my “last beard.” I have no plans to shave it off and if it turns all gray, so be it. Maybe I’ll look distinguished. Some of my family and a handful of long-term friends are the only ones to have seen me without facial hair. My mother stopped telling me ten years ago that I’d look younger without it (she may have been right as the last time I was carded was right before I started growing my beard).
The powerpoint “post card” shows a photo of me a few months before I grew the beard, and a few photos of me in the months afterwards… It’s just a rumor that I got rid of all my suits when I grew a beard.

My beard is here to stay; yet, this morning, I about did the unthinkable. I came too close to shaving it all off. You see, about once every two weeks I trim my beard (I decided a long time ago that trimming every two weeks is a lot better than shaving every morning!). This morning, right before the shower, I decided it was time. I set the adjuster on the beard trimmer to where I thought was number 4, and ran the trimmer through the beard. It was wrong, it was set on number 1, the closest you can get without being shaved. I feel naked with my short stubby beard. It’s also further proof that I’m getting older, something I don’t like to admit. You see, I didn’t use to have this problem of being unable to read without glasses, but now it’s gotten to a critical point. Up close, without glasses, I no longer know my numbers! They just blur together.

My daughter, who has never seen me without a beard, is my secret to youth. Just this past weekend, I was playing with her and a few other kids in a pool when one of the kids asked her something about me. She responded, “He’s 51, but he acts like he’s 15.” It was the best compliment I’d received in a while.

Of course, my daughter has also been the source of me receiving scorn. When she was about two and we still in Utah, the two of us were shopping one day. This Grandmotherly lady was in the line behind us. She was probably my age, but in Utah, if you don’t have grandkids by the time you’re in your early 40s and great-grandkids when you’re in your early 60s, you’re not with the program and risk missing out on an eternity of eating Lucky Stars in the Celestial Kingdom.
“Did you put your shoes on by yourself?” This grandmotherly lady asked my daughter.

“No, my Daddy did,” my child proudly proclaimed.

“Well, he put them on the wrong feet,” the intruder said as she cut me a dirty look.
I’m sure as my daughter gets older, she’ll find more things she can blame on me. All children are wonderful, I just happen to think mine are more wonderful than most, despite the blame I receive. She knew her ABCs before she turned two. When we use to hike, with her riding on my back, we’d make a game out of trying to see how many words she could come up with for each letter. As you know (thanks to the tenacity of the Brits, the brutal winters of Russia and the efforts of Eisenhower’s army), there are not many English words that begin with the letter “Z.” In trying to expand her vocabulary beyond “Zoo” and “Zebra,” I introduced her to the word “Zeitgeist” (which we borrowed from the Germans, as opposed to having it forced upon us). For months, zeitgeist was her favorite word, causing another intruder in a grocery store to ask if we were German. I shook my head and goose-stepped away. Best to keep 'em guessing.

Is there a point to this post? Not really, except that I’m feeling sorry for myself for having nearly shaved off my beard, for being old enough to have had a beard for two decades and for being unable to slow down the growth of a young girl who is growing up way to fast for my likings. And, to take the focus off my aging, I thought I might as well offend any Mormon or German readers I once had.

By clicking here, you can read about the hike in Idaho where I grew this beard out.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The County Fair and Memories of My Granddad

It’s been a rainy weekend here. I’m glad I took my daughter to the county fair on Friday (when it was just occasionally drizzling instead of during Saturday’s downpours). Ours is truly a county fair where agriculture is highlighted. We spent a few hours looking through sheds of pigs and cows and sheep and goats and rabbits… You get the picture. We also spent more time than I would like watching the hog auction. The 4-H animals were auctioned off—with some pigs going as high as $6 a pound! I thought I must be in the wrong business, but then realized I’d have to have grandparents in the crowd to obtain such a price. That pig contains some expensive pork chops! We only rode one ride, the Ferris Wheel.

My favorite section at the fair is the old tractors. They were all present: John Deeres, McCormick Farmalls, Fords, Cases, Co-ops, and Allis Chambers. There was even one old steam tractor that was fired up and running. I pointed out my daughter a tractor that looked like my granddaddy’s: a 1947 Allis Chambers. He used it to raise tobacco till his death in 1967. When it wasn’t running, he parked it up on the hill across from his driveway, under a huge longleaf pine. There was always a coffee can over the stack to keep rain out and a blanket on his seat to keep the pine tar off. Two years ago, at a family reunion, I asked what happened to the tractor and was surprised to fine that it’s still running and a cousin of mine has it.

Granddaddy F. never had a large farm. He raised 3 or so acres of tobacco and a few acres of vegetables. He used the tractor to prepare the fields. As the tobacco grew, he’d use his mule, Hoe-handle, to pull a plow through to knock down the weeds. When the bottom leaves matured, Hoe-handle would pull a drag (or sled) through the fields, keeping pace with the boys doing croppin’ or pickin’ the mature leaves off the plant. When the drag was filled with leaves, Granddaddy would hook an empty one to Hoe-handle, who’d continue to stay up with the boys croppin’, while he attached the full drag to his tractor and pulled it back to the barn where a crew awaited to tie the leaves onto sticks and hang them in the barn to cure. Looking at this tractor, compared to the new models on display, it seems agriculture has come a long ways. Or have we? There are not very many small farmers left in business.

This afternoon I plan to read and hope to grab a nap. What’s your plans for the waning hours of the weekend?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Virginia & Truckee (and a 3WW)

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Three Word Wednesday. The words this week just seem to fit a post I’ve been trying to get around writing and encouraged me to get busy. Last month, while in Nevada, I took a large number of photos of the old Virginia and Truckee Railroad. This week’s 3 WW words are “history, narrow and spent.” The first is a card I created, the second shot (click on each photo to enlarge).
The history of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad is colorful. Built in the late 1860s to haul supplies from the Carson Valley into Virginia City, it was known as the crookest railroads in the world, with the line having the equivalent of seventeen 360 degree turns in the 21 miles of track between Virginia City and Carson City. Prior to the coming of the railroad, all supplies into Virginia City had to be hauled in by horses, mules, oxen and even camels. Transportation cost made commodities expensive and the roadways were crowded and dusty, or muddy, depending on the weather. In the era when it was customary to use narrow gauge lines for railroads in the mountains (the smaller gauge allowed for tighter turns), the owners of the V&T decided to spend the extra money to have a standard gauge line. Overnight the line became a success, hauling supplies in the town and ore out to the mills along the Carson River. In the early 1870s, a line was extended from Carson City to Reno, which was then just a town on the Truckee River and a stop along the newly laid transcontinental railroad. This was a prosperous time on the Comstock and businessmen were able to board a plush sleeper in Virginia, early in the evening, and wake up the next morning in San Francisco. Although the V&T continued to operate between Reno and Minden till the 1950s, service to Comstock ended in the 1930s. By then, the rich ore bodies of the Comstock were spent. The tracks were removed for scrap.
In the 1970s, the V&T was resurrected. An old steam engine was purchased and iron tracks were laid from Virginia City to the edge of Gold Hill. One of the things I loved about summer on the Comstock, when I lived there, was hearing the steam whistle and seeing smoke as the train chugged back into town with cars filled with tourist. In later years when I visited, I was excited to see that the tracks cross the highway in Gold Hill and stop by the station there.
When I came into town last month, I was depressed to learn the steam engine had been out of commission for five years. During this time, an old diesel electric switcher was used to pull the passenger cars. It just wasn’t the same. But, on a happy note, I was told they’d laid tracks all the way down into American Flats and if I took the last train of the day, they’d run to the end of the iron. I hopped abroad. The train kept going south of Gold Hill, across what use to be the Crown Point trestle (which was made into a solid bed by using 1000s of truckloads of mining tailings), and on to the north edge of American Flats. It was exciting to know that after Gold Hill, I was riding on a rail bed that hadn’t been used in nearly 70 years. The community hopes to have the train running all the way to the edge of Carson City in two years. Then, people will be able to park their cars in the valley and once again take the crookest railroad as it winds its way up the mountains to Virginia City. After a day in the city, they can take the train back to their cars in the evening.
Now, my story isn’t quite over… While riding the train on Sunday afternoon, one of the employees told me that the next day, if all went well, they’d bring back the old steam engine for a trial run. They were hoping to have the engine going in time for the July 4th weekend. I got to be there to watch the train make its run. Listening to her chug back into town was a real treat! I hope you enjoyed the photos...
I've always wanted to be an engineer!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

From Lake Superior

The photos making up my "post card" from Munising Bay were taken the morning after my story. As I’ve done for the past several years, I was in the UP this past week to help out on a Habitat for Humanity project and to do a big-feed for 53 hungry workers, many of whom were high school and college students. The church basement where they were staying was crowded and too many of them snored, so I decided to take the peaceful option and spend my nights there in the back of my pickup (yes, there’s a top over the bed). This is the experience of one of those nights… Enjoy. Looking across the bay, the town looks peaceful. Straight across from where I’m parked, maybe a mile away and on the other side of the bay, is a small paper mill. The town wraps itself around the south end of the bay between us. The glow of the lights, the flicker of fireflies and the hint of fog upon the water create an idyllic scene. Looking above, I notice the Scorpion in the sky, perched just above the ridge to the south. To his right is Libra, the scales and a little further to the west is the crescent moon. To the left of Scorpion is the archer, his arrow aimed at the bright red star in the heart of the giant insect, supposedly to avenge the death of his friend Orion, the Hunter (hence, Orion is noticeably absent from the night sky anytime the scorpion is present). High overhead are the dippers, with the North Star positioned over the spot where the bay opens into the deep waters of Lake Superior.

I crawl into the back of my truck. The air is cool and the wind brisk. I leave the windows open, enjoying the fresh air, but as soon as I strip into shorts, I slide into my bag and zip it up for warmth. The foam pad covering the truck’s bed makes a comfortable nest and I lay listening to the clanging of the riggings of sailboats just off shore. This was once a busy harbor for shipping of lumber and shingles. Today, only pleasure boats and tourist junkets offering a water level view of Pictured Rocks leave Munising Bay for the big waters.

Across the bay I can hear a train come into town. Railroads use to crisscross the Upper Peninsula, but today only one line crosses the eastern potion of the peninsula, running from Wisconsin to Sault Ste. Marie and on into Canada. Branching off this line are spurs, one running into Marquette and another running from Trout Lake to Munising, where I am tonight. The abandoned lines serve mainly as snowmobile routes in the winter. Just after the Great War, Hemingway took a train from his family cabin on Walloon Lake to the Mackinaw Straits, where he crossed on a ferry and then continued on the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Line, from St. Ignace, up through the swamps to Trout Lake, where it crossed the Minneapolis, St Paul & Sault Ste Marie Line, and on to right before Seney where he and friends departed and spent a week fishing the spreads on the East Fox River. As I’ve noted before, this trip would provide Hemingway with the material for his classic Nick Adams story, “The Big Two-Hearted River.” The line no longer runs all the way to St. Ignace, it stops at Trout Lake. It hasn’t been that long since the line continued on from Munising to Marquette, but now the track ends at the mill at the east end of town. I listen to what appears to be the shuffling of cars and before I fall asleep, I hear the train leave, its engineer whistling at each crossing as it pulls up the ridge and on into the night.

A few hours later, I wake up to a fine spray on my face. It’s raining and the wind drives the rain through the screens. I slide the windows almost closed, leaving only an inch open for ventilation. Lying here, I listen to patter of the rain on the truck cover. A few minutes later, I’m surprised to hear another train coming down into Munising, its lonesome whistle wailing at each crossing. I listen for a few minutes to more shuffling of cars, then fall back asleep and don’t wake again until the sun is up and a mosquito is buzzing around my head. I squash it before he does damage, pull on pants and a shirt, and crawl out of the truck. I walk over to the edge of the weeds around the lake and brush my teeth. The sun’s rays are streaming across the bay, melting the fog away. I then head into the kitchen where others are already mixing batter and frying pancakes.
A photo of the job site on Thursday (on Monday, only the foundation had been laid). A Lake Superior sunset (taken from the dunes at the mouth of the Au Train.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Bloomin' Desert

I’m back from the UP (Upper Peninsula)… maybe I’ll post something about that tomorrow or Sunday, if I get time. As for now, here are the promised photos of flowers in the desert—these were taken in my hikes around Virginia City. I bet these hills were beautiful in early May. I was surprised to see so many flowers hanging on at the end of June, but as I pointed out, it’d been a wet winter. Of course, that extra rain also brings out more grasses and, as the good book says, “the grass withers and the flowers fade” and with the extra vegetation, a wet winter often means a more intense fire season as there’s more fuel available. Enjoy!
Fading roses (these were in a vacant lot in town)
Lots of berries this year
Cottonwood trees in Six Mile Canyon
I could have had a "cotton-pickin' good time"
Fields of flowers or weeds; don't ask me what kind, I ain't no botanist.
but this is a variety of Lupine.
and these are Desert Paintbrush...
Purple sage...
Showy Thistle...
and some yellow flower...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Hiking around Virginia City

I’m posting this without having time to do much editing… I’ll look it over again in a day or two, but I need to get on the road and head up to the Upper Peninsula, to the land of Cornish Pasties. The hike around Virginia City is one of my favorite, one that I’ve taken many times and one that I’ve even blogged about before (click here). For this hike, taken early last week, I’m including a number of photos taken (the photos were taken over a period of three days). I even made some of my own postcards! The first picture is a “postcard” of the Combination Mine, the second is of St. Mary’s of the Mountain Catholic Church, the third is of Ponderosa Pines north of town, the fourth is of the Jewish Cemetery and the final picture is of “C Street.” I'll try to do another post with wildflowers and cottonwood scenes. Enjoy!
You got to be up early to beat the sun in Virginia City. It’s 5:45 when I set out. I’m staying with a friend on the divide (between Virginia City and Gold Hill) and from this vantage point I can see the sun’s rays are already streaming up the canyon and striking the top of Mount Davidson, or as it’s also known as Sun Mountain. The air is still cool, but the winds have died down overnight, as they always do. Unless there is a storm, the morning air is almost ways still. I lengthen my stride and head downhill, startling a horse in a stall just off the two-track I’m following. At the bottom of the hill, I pick up the highway and cross over the cut for the Virginia and Truckee tracks. As soon as I cross the tracks, I turn left and take the road out to the old Combination mine. This dirt road used to be railroad tracks, which served the mine till it shut down in the ‘20s. The gallows frame over the shaft is one of the most photographic spots on the Comstock and I expect I’ve shot a hundred or more photos from the site, in all kinds of weather and conditions. Morning always has the best lightning, with the soft light cascading down over the city. Over the years, I’ve shot numerous photos of the city with the old gallows frame of the mine in the foreground. Today, I’ll shoot another dozen or so.

At one time, this was the site of an industrial complex; today, on only the head frame and a small building housing the hoisting works remains. The Combination mine was the result of four mines pooling their resources to sink the shaft that descends down 3,000 feet. Beneath the earth was a labyrinth of tunnels running north and south, connecting all the mines in Virginia City and Gold Hill together. It was hard work for the miners who labored at those depths for the air in the mines were often at 140 degrees Fahrenheit and there were always the danger of puncturing a hot water vein that would scald the miners as it filled the chambers. Mining at such depths required large pumps to remove the water. As the ore bodies on the Comstock began to play out in the early 1880s and mines began to close, the cost of pumping water became more and more expensive as fewer mines did all the pumping. Having all the mines interconnected provided safety, but also meant that water from one mine would seep into adjacent mines. By the mid-1880s, only a few mines were left operating in Virginia City. The Combination continued on till the 1920s, but after the 1880s, their mining was limited to that above 1600 feet, the level of the water.
I continue to follow the two-track around the mountain, heading east, stopping to visit the graveyard and the site of a stations of the cross that’s situation on an adjacent hill. I’m surprised to only find the path, lined in stone. The markers have all been removed; souvenir hunters have always been a problem here. I’m also not able to find the old wooden fence around what’s use to be pointed out as Julia Bullette’s grave and assume it too must have been removed. I pause and glance back at the city up against the mountain. The budded cross atop St. Mary’s of the Mountain glows in the morning sunlight, as do many of the east facing windows of the town. Here along the north side of the slope, flowers are still in bloom and even more of them have faded away. Although the ground is now dusty, it appears to have been a good snow year. Insects are singing from the pinions, another sign of a yet spring. I drop off the mountain and make my way down the sage and pinion covered hills, into six mile canyon. In the canyon, cottonwoods have shed their yearly harvest and at places the ground is covered. I cross the creek below the waste water treatment site and don’t linger long for the effluent water stinks.
I hike up the canyon and cross over to the ridge on the north side, heading up into seven mile canyon. At 7:15, AM, I cross the site of the old Con Virginia Mill, the richest on the Comstock, where I scare up a cottontail. The bunny darts away. The sun is higher and the air warmer. I wipe away sweat from under my hat and stop for a swallow of water. A tall cross stands on top of the hill ahead of me, the Catholic cemetery. Like the cross on St. Mary’s of the Mountain, this too is a budded one. I skirt around the east side of the cemetery and climb a knob to the northeast, with great views of the city and the cemeteries—the Catholic, the Masons, the Firemen and the Oddfellows. All the cemeteries are now ringed with a metal picket fence, designed to keep the wild horses out and hopefully to deter the theft of tombstones by forcing entry into the cemetery at one point.
Hiking west, north of the cemeteries, across the site of the North End Mines, I stop to ponder the Ponderosa Pines growing here. In the 19th Century, all the trees were cuts off the side of the hills and used either for mining timber or firewood. Ponderosas grow freely on the west side of the Virginia Range, but this is one of the few places that on the more arid east side where I’ve found the trees.

I hike across the tailings of the North End Minds, in search for the Jewish cemetery. It turns out that it’s further up in the canyon that I remembered, and it too is now ringed with a metal picket fence. I’m saddened to see the rustic “Star of David” missing. When I lived here, the star along with some markers in Hebrew were the only indications that this was a Jewish cemetery. After paying my respects, I hike back to town.
It’s 8:30 AM when I start down C Street. I’m surprised to see that Dave, a guy I use to play basketball with, is already in his jewelry shop. I stop in and we talk for a bit. Then I hike up C Street, stopping at the Mark Twain Saloon for a cup of coffee and to chat with locals. By 10 AM, I’m back on the divide, taking a shower and refreshing after my morning walk.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Fourth of July and memories of Jesse Helms

I have no idea of the name of the plant, and it doesn't go at all with my story, but I felt I needed a bit of color. I shot the photo earlier this week while hiking around Virginia City, Nevada.


The fourth was a nice lazy day here in West Michigan. I didn’t do a whole lot. I wrote a blog post, put the new sidebar on my blog (thanks to Ed Abbey’s help), read some, and then headed into town to watch minor league baseball. There I had a traditional fourth of July dinner of hot dogs washed down with a Sundog amber ale (New Holland Brewery). Sorry, no apple pie, but I did have some strawberry shortcake. You can’t get any more American than baseball and hot dogs; unfortunately the West Michigan Whitecaps lost to the Fort Wayne Wizards, 8-7. After the game, there were fireworks. If there had been a few more fireworks in the game, maybe the Whitecaps would have won.

The big news from yesterday was the death of Jesse Helms. As a kid, I remember listening to his angry diatribes on WRAL TV out of Raleigh whenever we’d visit my grandparents (luckily for us, WRAL’s signal didn’t make it to the coast). I know the man always maintained he wasn’t a racist, but if it walks and talks like a duck… At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, below is a story I wrote in a post titled “Suppose I’m just a Southern Democrat.” The post was written in 2005, when I had even fewer readers of this blog. It began with a review of the book Whistling Dixie, and went on about my take on Southern politics. The excerpt below has been cleaned up a bit; it’s my most vivid memory of discussing “Jesse.”


During the run-up to the 1988 election year primaries, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. It was a great way to get away from it all and I missed all the news about who was in and out of the campaign during the summer of ’87. That was okay with me. For most of the summer, or at least for all but one day of it, I didn’t think about the elections. But there was that one day in New Hampshire (the state that hosts the first Presidential primary) when another hiker and I detoured down a paved road at the promise of good pancakes served with real maple syrup. The Thompson Maple Syrup Farm was just a half mile or so from the trail and they’d posted fliers to entice hikers. It sounded good and hikers are always hungry, so the two of us hiked to their roadside pancake house and ordered up a couple of stacks. As the proprietor fried the cakes, I read the framed news articles and stuff on the walls and quickly surmised that her husband had been governor of the state of New Hampshire. Trying to keep up the reputation that Southerners are friendly, I asked if her husband was still in politics.


“Oh yeah,” she replied, “right now he’s out trying to jumpstart Paul Laxalt’s campaign.” (Laxalt had been Ronald Reagan's campaign manager and a Senator from Nevada.)


“What,” I asked with a puzzled look, “Laxalt is running for President?”


“Oh yeah,” she said and then asked accusatively, “Who are you for, George Bush?”


Thinking back on this conversation with the vantage of hindsight, the ideal comeback could have been: “I’d be proud to vote for him if he had a vasectomy half-century earlier.” Instead, I just dug a deeper hole when I said, “I suppose if I had to vote Republican, I’d vote for Bush.”


Then she asked me what I had against Laxalt. At the time, I’d never even been to Nevada, Laxalt’s home state (and now my home away from home). Nor did I know at that time that Paul Laxalt has a brother, Robert, who is a wonderful writer specializing in the Basque experience in the American West. So, having shot my mouth off, all I could think to say was, “He’s good friends with Jesse Helms. And Helm’s is an embarrassment to my home state.”


“Oh,” she said with a deep breath, “we do differ.” She said this very slowly and deliberately, each word coming out for emphasis. “We are good friends with Jesse. My husband wanted him to run for President.”


At this point, I realized I’d dug my hole a full six feet deep and if I didn’t shut up quickly it’d become my grave. So I let her run off her diatribe about what’s wrong with the world (which had something to do about there not being enough conservative Republicans) as I tried to eat my pancakes. This lady obviously hadn’t learned the philosophy that the customer is always right. I paid my bill, but I didn’t leave a tip. She’d already given me enough tips and I didn’t think she needed any more.


Two more things about this experience: I’d hiked down to the pancake house with another hiker who was from New Hampshire. We’d meet on the trail that morning and through all of this, she sat in the booth across from me snickering. As we hiked back to the trail, she said she knew I was digging a hole for myself and didn’t know how to tell me to shut up. Secondly, as we were shouldering our packs on the porch, ready to head back toward the trail, a truck drove up and out jumped two men in suits. One was her husband, who introduced us to Laxalt. We shook his hand. Of course, Laxalt didn’t win the primary; I think he dropped out of the primary before I finished the trail. The 1988 election went to our current president’s father (for those of you who didn’t get my comment about a vasectomy).

Friday, July 04, 2008

Two Trips Over the Sierras (1863 & 2008)

I photographed the truck at Strawberry, along US 50, between Placerville and Tahoe.

I left the wedding party in San Jose mid-afternoon on Saturday and headed north on 680. As much as I love this part of California, driving here always reminds me why I have never attempted to live here except for a few semesters as a student. So far, I had been spoiled on this trip, having only driven my rental car from the airport to the hotel. I was staying near a light rail station, so I took the train into the Convention Center for my meetings. Not driving was a pleasure. My rental car remained parked for four days—with the parking lights on. I’m not sure how I did that, I don’t even remember turning them on, but then with my truck the lights come on automatically, so I’ve gotten out of the habit of checking them. I knew something was up as soon as I hit the clicker and the door didn’t open. At first, I wondered if I had the wrong car (there were many silver cars in the lot). I had to use the key to open the door. When I turned the ignition, nothing happened but a faint “click.” Thank God for AAA and that I still had plenty of time before the wedding. In no time they had a guy there providing me with a jump and I was on my way… After the wedding, I replaced my suit with shorts, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt and took off, knowing that I didn’t have to dress up anymore or have anything on my calendar till late Tuesday, when I’d catch a redeye back east.

Now back to my Saturday drive. With gas at 4.75 in the Bay Area, I figured I’d better enjoy the ride. I was surprised to see so many cars on the road. At least my compact rental gets twice the gas mileage as my truck! I take 680 North, across the high bridge over the Sacramento River, then pick up I-80 and headed east. At Sacramento, I take US 50, one of my favorite highways, although US 50 in California isn’t nearly as lonely as it is in Nevada. Having stuffed myself at the reception, and feeling the call to the mountains, I forget about dinner and push on passed Folsom, then Placerville, and up the South Fork of the American River till I get to Strawberry. I thought about grabbing a bite to eat, but since I'm officially on vacation, I decide that dinner will be two scoops of mint chocolate ice cream. This I savor as I walk around the grounds of this historic stage coach tavern, under the tall Ponderosa Pines, listening to the sounds of the headwaters of the American River. As I walk, I think about David Henry Palmer.

The Reverend David Henry Palmer died in 1910. Even though my grandparents were not yet born then, I feel I know him as well as I know a brother. I’ve read stacks of his letters, transcribed several diaries and published an article on him in a historical journal. On July 13, 1863, ten days after the Battle of Gettysburg and during the infamous New York Draft Riots, Palmer and Jennie, his wife of only a few weeks, left New York. They sailed on the Steamer “Northern Lights,” bound for Panama. There, they crossed the isthmus on rail, then took the steamer “Golden Age” to San Francisco, arriving in early August. During this time, Palmer wrote little in his diary, noting mainly that they were both sick. The couple spent a week in San Francisco and Oakland, with Palmer preaching in several churches as the two of them regained their strength for the next leg of the journey. On August 19, Palmer and his wife took an overnight riverboat to Sacramento, arriving at 6 the next morning. That morning, August 20th, they boarded a train for the run to Folsom, where they switched to a stagecoach. That evening, they dined in Placerville, at the foothills of the mountain. Then they took off for Nevada, on a stage that frequently had to change horses as it climbed up into the mountains on rocky and windy roads. Writing to his parent's, Palmer described his experience this way:
As the road became more difficult and dangerous, the speed of the coach seemed to increase also. Soon we found ourselves circling around lofty hills and deep valleys. Many miles of travel were but few of progress. The grade was nowhere very steep, but at times we could look from the windows on one side up hundreds and even thousands of feet to the summit above us, and from the other side as many feet below us upon the rocks at the bottom of the ravines. On this narrow crooked road, with no protection at the edge, with six galloping horses before the coach, which was rocking and jolting about, I felt none or little sense [of] danger, but was most deeply interested in the strange, grand, and awful scenery through which we were passing.
Later that night they stopped at Strawberry, where the coach changed horses before heading in the dark over Johnson Pass. In the early morning hours, they would skirt the south shore of Lake Tahoe and Jennie would later write home describing the moon as it shined over the lake. Although traveling by night meant that they would not be able to see much, it allowed the stage to make better time as the grades were filled during daylight with teamsters hauling freight over for the mines. Palmer’s stage continued on, leaving Tahoe and descending the steep Kingsbury Grade to Genoa, where the line turned north toward Carson City. They arrived on the morning on August 21 and checked in at the St. Charles Hotel, which Palmer wrote home describing as the dirtiest hotel he’d seen. After cleaning up from their journey, they had lunch with James Nye, the Governor of the Nevada Territory. Palmer didn’t have much of an opportunity to rest, for his arrival allowed the pastor of the Carson City Presbyterian Church to take a break. During his first two days filling in at that church, he officiated at three funerals which he described to his parents in this fashion: "The first an awful drunkard, the second one of the greatest gamblers and the profanest man in the territory, and the third was murdered."

My drive over the Sierras only takes only a couple of hours and that includes stops and the traffic around Tahoe. Instead of Kingsbury Grade, I come down over Spooner Summit and into Carson City. The sun has already dropped behind the mountains by the time I arrive in the valley, although it’ll be light for a good hour or more. I park the car and walk a bit in town, shocked by all the growth around the state’s capital. The St. Charles is still open, obviously having survived Palmer’s complains. The air is dry and a strong wind rustles the leaves in the old Cottonwoods around the capitol. It all feels so comfortable. “I love the wind. I love this land. I was once happy here,” I think to myself. I get back in the car and head toward the Comstock. I’m excited; I’ll be in Virginia City before nightfall.
Sage's note: The route from Placerville to the Carson Valley was made popular through a tale by Horace Greeley. He travelled the route in Hank Monk's stage in 1859. Mark Twain also writes about this in Roughing It.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Elias Chacour and an Update

I’ve been away from the internet since leaving the Bay Area on Saturday morning. After attending days of meetings, I was at the wedding of a hiking partner, and then made a three day trip to Virginia City, Nevada where I spent my time seeing old friends and hiking the hills that I love. I’ll write more about Virginia City later and promise many photographs. I'll also try to catch up on everyone's blog, but it may take me a few days. The photo is of Bishop Chacour.

While in San Jose, I had an opportunity to hear and to meet Bishop Elias Chacour, the Archbishop of Galilee for the Malkite Greek Catholic Church. Twenty or so years ago I read his classic work, Blood Brothers. In this book, Chacour describes life in Palestine before and after the establishment of the state of Israel. He continues to live in Israel as a second class citizen (he’s not Jewish), yet he works for peace as he strives for dignity for the Palestinian people. I enjoyed listening to Chacour. He’s quite funny and not bitter, which is an accomplishment considering the difficulties he and his people face.

In discussing American Christians making pilgrims to the Holy Lands, Chacour said we need to recall what the angels said at the tomb, “He is not here.” After a laugh, he reminded us that the angels then told the disciples to go to Galilee and invited us to come and to see their situation for ourselves.

One of his funniest stories was about his first encounter with James Baker’s wife (the former United States Secretary of State). I’m not sure how much of the story happened this way, or if he embellished it for our pleasure, but he has been friends with the Baker family. According to his story, he was told that Mr. Baker was the American official with whom he needed to discuss the plight of his people, so he went to Washington and called at Baker’s house. When Mrs. Baker came to the door, he introduced himself as “Father Elias Chacour, the other guy from Galilee.” When asked if he had an appointment with Mr. Baker, Chacour said, “No, we men from Galilee don’t make appointments, we make appearances.” He went on to tell how he got invited to Mrs. Baker’s Bible Study and about how she gave him this terrible drink—ice tea—which he described as "drinking medicine." (Mrs. Baker must of fixed him a glass of syrupy sweeten tea!)

Chacour pointed out the problem of having so many Palestinians packed in Gaza as refugees. For 60 years, Palestinians have been locked up there and, he noted, the only right they have is the right to have children. So, with nothing else to do, they have children and more children who grow up without hope and that when you have no future, it’s not difficult to decide to put an end to your life. So they become suicide bombers. According to Chacour, if Israel wanted to end the bombings, they must find a way to regenerate hope. Instead, they build walls and increase despair.

“Most people believe the Palestinians just want to throw Israel into the sea,” Chacour noted, “but they haven’t talked to the Palestinians.” He noted how, before Israel, the Palestinian Arabs were the educated people in the Middle East. When they first had a chance to vote, they voted for peace (for Arafat instead of Hamas) by an 80% margin. But Arafat wasn’t able to get Israel to fulfill the promises he’d negotiated. While Arafat was talking, Hamas was busy building schools and medical clinics, which is why the Palestinians voted for them the next time around. The people have seen action from Hamas, not just empty promises. Speaking of the broken commitments the Palestinians have experienced, Chacour proclaimed that Israel is no longer the Promised Land but is the Land of Promises.

Chacour also grieved the decline of Palestinian Christians. In 1948, most Palestinians in the region were Christians. Bethlehem which was 60% Christian just 25 years ago is less than 10% Christian today. Only about 25% of Palestinian Christians live in Israel, the rest are either refugees or exiled or have moved overseas.

Speaking frankly about the tense situation in the Middle East and the danger of Nuclear Weapons, Chacour said in that culture, if your neighbor has something, you also want it. Unfortunately, this also goes for nuclear weapons. He suggested that the best solution would be to get rid of all nuclear weapons in the regions, noting that people there have to be willing to talk to one another. “You make peace with your enemies, not your friends,” he pointed out.

Chacour’s speech provided hope and a more realistic look at the problems of the region. “It is healthy to have questions,” he noted; “it is dangerous to have only answers.” Certainly, there are more questions than answers when it comes to achieving peace in the region. I now have a copy of an autograph copy of We Belong to the Land: The Story of a Palestinian Israeli Who Lives for Peace and Reconciliation, Chacour's most recent book.