Sunday, January 31, 2010

A bit of bragging and a review of Michael Perry's TRUCK: A LOVE STORY

Let me start out breaking my role not to talk about family and work here and brag about my daughter. I’ve told about how, as a 6th grader, she made the State Middle School Honor’s Choir. Last weekend was their concert and before hand, we were warned against taping it as it was against copy law and professional tapes would be available for an arm and a leg…. Someone didn’t obey and this week, the concert showed up on You Tube--a set of seven segments for her group. With such a large choir, it would be impossible to point out my daughter, that said, to prove I didn’t have anything to do with this unauthorized taping, my daughter is one of the girls hidden behind the post holding a mounted microphone! There’s some great music here and I’m providing the link to three of the songs: “Can You Hear Me", “Turn the World Around", and “For the Beauty of the Earth. "

Michael Perry, Truck: A Love Story (New York: Harpers Perennial, 2006), 281 pages

Michael Perry must be a Southern Yankee. He tells stories in a slowly and deliberately with an eye on details. Often he’ll go off in what seems to be a tangent, only to slowly circle back to his original topic. He‘s in no hurry as he tells you about a year and a few months of his life, weaving together numerous strands. It’s the year he set out to restore an old International Truck. As a bachelor, he’s trying to cook better food and gets lost in the world of cookbooks. He plants a garden and goes on book tours, but getting thrown into the mix is Annalisee, a woman who he met at a book signing. The two of them develop a relationship after she texts him and invites him for coffee. The book ends with the resurrection of the truck and their marriage.

The truck was quite a project. Perry’s barber suggest that the best way to resurrect his truck is to jack up his radiator cap and drive a new one under it.” (85) But Perry and his friend Mark, who has a body shop and is use to making things he needs, sets out. They find another old truck to salvage parts and make parts when they find that both trucks parts are rusted out. Throughout this effort, Perry contemplates the purpose of trucks and of work. He’s thrifty, not flashy. His philosophy is utilitarian. He has no need to keep up with his neighbors. He drives an older car and lives simply. He considers his wants and needs, although he admits restoring the truck isn’t a thrifty activity and purposely doesn’t tell us what its costing him. In addition to thrift, there is a sense of doing things right with him. Early in the book, during his January introspection period, he wrote:

I blame this on my genes and my waste-not, want-not penny-pinching proto-Calvinists roots, which imbued me with the feeling that to be in possession of a useful thing and not use it is to allow the devil to wedge his big toe in the screen door of your soul. (24)

Perry often complains about things. He doesn’t like the way things are going in the world. After a triad of complaints on credit card debt, an attempt by International Trucks to build a super truck, and Spam in a pouch, Perry comes to this conclusion: “Since I have neither lobbyists nor sufficient mercenaries on retainer to handle the difficulties to come, I will have to satisfy myself with muddling along and engaging in manageable self-improvement projects.” (250) He thinks of the internet as the “devil’s mind-fryer” (28) and muses about seed catalogs being “responsible for more unfulfilled fantasies than Enron and Playboy combined.” (30)

I really recommend this book. Slowly we witness Perry move from being a bachelor to a committed family man. I thank TC (who like Perry is a Cheesehead) for introducing me to Perry. This is the second of his books that I’ve reviewed (Population: 485 was the first.) . I especially recommend this book to my friend Ed Abbey. First of all, Perry shares Ed’s (and my) low view of Walmart, referring to the “cavernous aisles of the High Church of Cheap Consumption.” (52) An as Ed is the resident Colorado River expert in my blogroll, I thought of him when Perry tells about chatting with a 20 year veteran of Grand Canyon guiding and asking the river runner what he’d learned. “’There’s a jackass on every trip.’ Then he grinned. ‘And if you haven’t figured out who is it by day five… it’s you.” (251)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Death Valley (Travel Tip Thursday)

It’s cold. The temperature is well into the single digits and the wind chill is well below zero. The wind has been bitter today and this evening a rapidly moving clouds kept blocking the nearly full moon as it rose in the sky. At times you could see the moon covered by sheer clouds, other times it was blocked, with just a light spot in the heavens. It was quite eerie and as I walked back from the gym, the snow squeaked under my feet. This cold weather got me thinking about the desert--the low desert and you can’t get any lower in the United States than Death Valley (in truth, you can’t get much lower anywhere as the valley floor is -262 feet below sea level. This is my “Travel Tip Thursday” entry. This is a great writing prompt and I recommend it for those of you who like to travel. Below is the author standing in Death Valley with the snow-covered Panamint Mountains in the background.

I’ve been to Death Valley a half-dozen or so times. I’ve never been there in the summer, but have been there many times in the winter. It’s a great place to hike and explore when the temperature isn’t so oppressively hot. In the valley floor, it’s never really cold. Once, on New Years Eve, we spent swimming in the pool (warmed by hot springs) late into the evening. On another trip, in late February when the temperature had climbed to 100 degrees at mid-day, a small sidewinder (a type of rattlesnake) set up camp in front of our tent at Stovepipe Wells. The best time to visit the park is in early March during a year in which there has been a lot of rain in December and January. This just might be such a year! During these years, the valley explodes with flowers.

In 2005, during the same trip that I was in Randsburg, Ralph and I decided to head back to Utah through the valley. We left Ridgecrest early in the morning and headed east on California 178, driving through Salt Wells Canyon to reach Searles Lake. The lake is dry, but there the underground water there is filled with chemicals and minerals. The landscape is barren, but the town of Trona sits on the edge of the lake. We stopped there for coffee. The town exists because of two chemical plants that pump water from the ground, removing the minerals and then returning the water back to the ground. A railroad spur runs into the town, hauling out car loads of product more efficiently than the old twenty-mule teams that worked this region. These chemical plants have been mining the groundwater for nearly a century and they show no sign of running out of raw material to extract.

After Trona, we headed up and over a ridge before dropping into the Panamint Valley, which runs parallel to Death Valley. The highway looks like a ribbon pulled tight, running straight, north and south. As we drive, Ralph tells me about traveling with Sam, an old prospector, from his home near Randsburg to Death Valley back in the early 40s. The route they took when by several old mining camps, but is now closed off and part of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. As we were talking, a Navy jet, flying just above the highway, scared the crap out of us as it. I think that if he had his landing gear down, he would have touched the top of the car. We found Panamint Valley beautiful, with some flowers out and I was excited about getting to Death Valley as I’d heard lots of good reports about this years flower crop.

Just east of Panamint Springs, we turned onto California 190 and headed up the steep highway over Toumes Pass. At nearly 5,000 feet, we were surprised to find ice and snow along the road. I turned on the heat. But then the road snaked down into Death Valley and soon it was warm and we rolled the windows down. In the northern part of the park, we found a few places with flowers, mostly draws and seeps. We stopped at Furnace Creek and had lunch. Then we continued south, passing bad water and the lowest point in the United States. The further south we travel, the more flowers we see, with our best views being between Ashford Junction and Jubilee Pass. We stop along the way to hike and photograph. After leaving the park, we headed over through Shonshone and on down to Tecopa, where we ended the day soaking in hot springs.
My travel tip--if you can make it to Death Valley in late winter, after a rainy season, do it. It is something to see the desert in bloom! I should write more about Death Valley as there is plenty of places one should see there. Although I didn’t make it this trip, one place you won’t want to miss is Dante’s Point, which overlooks the valley from the eastern ridge. I need to find my photos from those other trips.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ode to Lovers Lost and Unknown (a poem)

The “postcard below was created from a photo I’d taken on Wrightsville Beach earlier this month. It was a cold morning and I was the only one on the beach. The inserted photos are of the Lumina, a landmark on the beach that was torn down in the early 70s to make room for condos. I “borrowed” the photos from the Wrightsville Beach museum. As it features in the story below, I created this post card and have included a poem I wrote about the Lumina and lost loves… I mentioned in yesterday’s post about how Cathy and my family would both go to the beach at the Lumina. Below is a poem that I first published in this blog in 2005. The Lumina was quite a place. Even David Brinkley wrote about in his memoirs.

Ode to Lovers Lost and Unknown

I never danced upstairs at the Lumina.
The ballroom, exposed to offshore evening breezes
cooling guests Jitterbugging and dancing the Charleston,
under the bright lights that guided ship captains
following the coastline, that was until ‘42,
when darkness prevailed and German U-boats prowled.

And I never laid in the sand on the beach
watching silent movies projected on a screen
beyond the breakers that provided a constant rhythm,
for the antics of Mr. Fields and company
until a nor’easter flatted the screen,
by then obsolete with the new talking shows.

And I never rode the electric trolley
the ten miles from the beach to Wilmington,
late at night under live oaks haunted with Spanish moss,
passing the new bungalows on Wrightsville Avenue,
the summer air scented with honeysuckle
and the sky filled with lightning bugs and Perseids meteors

I did get to shoot some pool, a quarter a game,
in the shell of a building once called the Lumina
and I showered underneath the rotting building
rinsing my salty body in brackish water,
unaware of the splendor long past,
soon to be wrecked and cleared for condos.

Time passed me by
and I’ll never had a chance to dance with you at the Lumina,
to watch the light reflect in your eyes
and the wind to blow your dress and toss your hair.
But if I had the chance, I’d pull you tight,
my arm around your waist, my chin tucked on your shoulder,
savoring the moment.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Old Friends & Facebook

We’re having weird weather. It rained this weekend and warmed up—it was 40 degrees at 5:30 AM on Sunday morning. Today, it’s spitting snow and the temperature is dropping and isn’t supposed to rise back above freezing in the ten day forecast. Winter is still here.

This weekend, via Facebook, I reconnected with a good friend from elementary school. Billy was in my class from the fourth grade (when we moved to the Wilmington area) through the seventh grade. We both got in a trouble a lot and are partly to blame for one teacher—Mr. Biggs—leaving the profession. We’ve exchanged several emails. Probably the last time I was at his house was in the seventh grade and it was a ruse for me to see Cathy, the love of my life. Cathy lived just across Oleander drive and a few streets over from Billy. We were a hot item in the 6th and 7th grade. As a good Italian Catholic, she’d gone to Catholic School through the fifth grade. She sat in front of me in the 6th Grade and we gave each other multiple Valentines, at a time when you had to give Valentines to every student in the class… To receive multiple Valentines meant something. In the summer, our families always went to the same place at Wrightsville Beach, out in front of the Lumina, a landmark on the beach that no longer stands. Her brothers were older and did their best to drown me, but that didn’t cause my love to wane.


I’ve told this story else where in my blog, but that summer between the sixth and seventh grade, my grandparents were down and the whole lot of us went to the beach. Cathy and her family were there and I was proud to introduce her to my Grandma. When I got home, I overheard my Grandma warning my mother about “that Catholic girl,” saying I’d convert it I married her. My mother told my Grandma that we were just kids (that hurt!) and she wouldn’t worry about it at this point in our lives. Truthfully, I was just a kid, but I felt in my heart that Cathy and I would stay together and marry and live happily together watching the sunset. That wasn't to be. Toward the end of the 7th Grade, Cathy and I had a fight. Trying to act big and tough, I called her a bitch (This was a hard way to learn the lesson that you don’t call someone that!). I pleaded for forgiveness and she forgave, but the magic had been broken. A few days later she said she had enough and broke up for good. At the last day of school, we talked for the last time. The next year, due to redistricting, she went to another school.


I’d often wondered what had happened to her. I don’t remember which year it was, but in the 90s, I spent several summers in San Francisco, doing the course work for another degree. One day, I was in a bookstore with a few other classmates. We got to talking to the cashier whose voice had a comfortable, familiar feel

“Where are you from?” I asked.

North Carolina,” she said.

“Where?” I asked.


“What year did you graduate from high school?” I pried further.


“What school?” I asked. “New Hanover High (known as New Hangover, to those of us who went to Hoggard—you can only imagine the names they had for us).

The bookstore wasn’t busy and we talked for another 30 minutes about people we knew—she’d even dated a friend of mine in high school and had worked at a McDonald’s across the street from the grocery store that I worked in. I asked her if she knew Cathy, telling her she was my first real love. She got quiet for a moment and turned white and asked if I’d heard what had happened. From a stranger, I learned that Cathy had recently died in a golf cart accident.


Reconnecting with Billy, he too told me about her death and about having run into Cathy and her husband at a party before her death, which has got me thinking about her. I’m happy to reconnect with Billy. I’ve often wondered what happened to him and I’m glad he’s doing well. We both are dealing with issues with our mothers. They were so young back then, now his mother is in a nursing home with dementia and mine has Alzheimer’s. Thinking about all that’s past and that I’ll never run into my first love at a reunion, I’m feeling a tinge of sadness come on.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wildlife in North Carolina (On how to outsmart a fish and a "What?" for a canteen)

I grew up with Wildlife in North Carolina. It’s a fine magazine published by the folks of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the same group that commissions the guys that check your fishing license and deer tags. We had a subscription to it as far back as I remember and when I moved out on my own, I started subscribing myself. I think it was $4 a year to subscribe back then, or $10 for three years. Somewhere along the way, I let my subscription slide. After all, next year it’ll be a quarter of a century since I lived in the state and in one of those lean years, it fell to some pencil sharpening and budget cuts. Now, when I return to my parent's home, one of the first things I do is to find my dad’s stash of the magazine and scan through them. I'll pull out a few issues with interesting looking articles. When I was home a few weeks ago, I found the December 2009 issue to be an interesting one. A number of articles caught my attention.
In “The Truthfulness Problem,” Bruce Ingram sets out to explode many myths that sportsmen and women take for granted and pass on to others. Now why did he want to go do that? The myth that hurt was of the intelligence of fish. Quoting a recent article in Fly Fisherman magazine, he suggested that trout have an average IQ of 6. I suppose the good news here is that we will not have to worry about trout taking over Mensa International anytime soon. Of course, I’m going to rethink my fishing tales, especially discussing my tactics for outsmarting an animal with only marginal more intelligence than a chair. Such feats no longer seem to be something worth bragging about.
In another article, “Surviving Carolina” T. Edward Nickens prepares us for an unintended stay in the wilderness. Having spent more than a few nights in the wilderness, I decided to study his helpful hints and learned how to use a bullet, a 9 volt battery and an outboard motor to get a spark for a fire. He also makes suggestions for good tinder such a duct tape or pieces of an old inner tube. I can’t imagine using an inner tube to start a fire. He does warn that the tube will burn with a rank and smoky flame, but it will help dry some better wood allowing you to build a real fire. Another fire building tip involves a beer can and gasoline, which seems to me to have the potential to become a bomb. Isn’t that what the Polish underground used on the Germans in 1944? But the thing that really shocked me is the contents of his “supercharged” (his words) survival kit. Along with trick candles (they won’t blow out) and bailing wire, Nickens tosses in a handful of unlubricated condoms. “The best emergency canteen made,” Nickens’ boasts. I swear, I’m not making this up! I am not that creative. Nickens must be a high-priced lawyer as he sure can think fast on his feet. I can see it now, his wife attempting to slip a love note into his backpack as it sits waiting for his next adventure… and she accidentally discovers the contents of his “supercharged’ survival kit. Confronted by a hysterical spouse, a red-faced Nickens comes up with the perfect excuse! I found myself wondering if he wasn’t planning an Appalachian Trail hike with his friend, the governor of South Carolina. In fact, I thought this article must have been written with the lesser of the Carolinas in mind.
The magazine is still a good deal. It’s only $12 a year (a buck an issue) or $30 for 3 years. Click here to learn how you can support my home state. But with my Scottish blood, I think I’ll just read my Dad’s copies when I’m home.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

1987 Appalachian Trail Hike: Into the White Mountains of New Hampshire

I've been meaning to get back on my journals of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Interestingly, I find that the I wrote as much in the last 1/3 of my summer hikes of 1987 than in the first 2/3. During this summer I hiked from Central Virginia to Maine, having previously hiked the southern portion of the trail. Enjoy (and consider this my Travel Tip Thursday)! That's me on the left, heading down a mountain. I often used my pack as a clothes line, having a 1/2 towel, socks and underwear out to dry. I used baby diaper pins (which lock) to attach my laundry to the pack. Warning, some of you have already read the story of my discussion of politics at the Mt. Cube House.

I thought I could eat a lot. On my first morning in Hanover, I headed over to Thayer Hall at Dartmouth College, where I they had an “all-you-can-eat” breakfast for a reasonable price. I piled food onto my plate: eggs, pancakes, hash browns, sausage, bacon, and had another bowl of nothing but fruit. In my two months on the trail, I’d lost any excess I had, but I felt that I was taking advantage of the college by eating so much. Then I saw the rowers. The college was hosting some sort of camp for collegiate rowers and these guys, who were eating breakfast after having already done an earlier workout, could really shovel in the food. I ate alone, taking time to read Steinbeck‘s Travels with Charley and to write less than pleasing thoughts about the book. It’s a shame that such talent was wasted on something so trivial,” I noted in my journal. “He makes observations and never gets into the “how” or “why” of things.” Twenty years later, I can’t believe that I was so uncharitable toward Steinbeck.
Although a preppy college town, Hanover had a lot to offer hikers and I was in need of a break. It’d been nearly a month and almost 500 miles since I’d last taken a day off (at Delaware Water Gap). I decided to use the day to prepare myself for the White Mountains. First order of business was to find a new pair of boots. The chaplain at the hostel told me I could ride with her into a larger town this afternoon if I was unable to find boots here, but she wasn't sure that they'd have anything more to offer. I spent nearly an hour at the Dartmouth Co-op, trying on boots. Nothing seemed to fit and I was about ready to give it up when one of the employees remembered some boots that were last years model stored upstairs. Sure enough, there was a heavy pair of Merrell’s, single-piece leather hiking boots, that fit. Since they were last year’s boots, I was able to purchase them for $80, about half their original price. I also picked out of a bargain bin a bright red polypropylene sweater. It was only $10 and weighed half of what the gray wool sweater I’d had mailed to Hanover. I spent the rest of the day picking up food and going throw my mail which included letters from two ex-girl friends with who I’d stayed somewhat friendly.
Much of the day I hung out with David, “the Cosmic Yankee” who was heading south on the trail. It felt like I was palling around with Jesus, as his long hair and eyes make him look like he could have been a model for one of the Dutch paintings of Christ. We talked philosophy and religion. David, who’d read the Bible and most Buddhist texts, was now learning about Native Spirituality and trying to live his life like Thoreau. While purchasing food, I took his advice on trying out lentils on the trail and purchased a bag. We spend time in the bookstore and he recommends two books to me: Angrka Govida, The Way of the White Clouds and Joseph Goldstein, Experience of Insight. I also find another interesting book, Eleanor Murro, On Glory Roads: A Pilgrim Book about Pilgrims. But did’t buy any of them as I couldn't carry anything more.

I left Hanover the next morning, June 28. It was good to be back on the trail especially since the weather was cool and the forecast indicated clear and cool weather for the next several days with temperatures down into the 40s at night. I made 10.8 miles in the morning, stopping for lunch on the south peak of Moose Mountain. My pack is now heavier as I’m carrying a sweater as well as a pair of lightweight wool pants that I had mailed to Hanover. I check my feet and am pleased to see that without breaking in the boots, my feet are blister free (of course, they do have some pretty nasty calluses from two months of hiking). After lunch, place half a bag of lentils in a half filled water bottle. The Cosmic Yankee had suggested soaking them for the afternoon to help them cook faster. I continue on, hoping for a nice view at the Holts Ledges, but am surprised to find the ledges closed off for falcons.
I arrive at Trapper John Shelter a little after 6 PM and set about making dinner. I’m not sure how long its going to take to cook the lentils. David promise that lentils don’t take nearly as long as beans, and I fantasize eating the poor man’s diet of the Middle Ages or the diet of the Crusades. As the lentils cook, I pull on my long pants, the first long pants I’ve worn since May. It’s quite chilly. The boots haven’t bothered my feet, but it’s a different story around the top of the boot on my left foot. That area is sore and I’ve happy to take the boots off and replace them with running shoes. The lentils take forever to cook and I begin to worry about what they’ll do to my fuel supply. After nearly 40 minutes of cooking, I eat them and there still a little crunch to them. I decide that as long as I’m cooking on a stove, to forego the life of a medieval peasant.
I’m slow to get up the next morning. When I wake up at 6:45 AM (at a time I’d normally been on the trail), I find it’s 45 degrees. The morning I spend climbing Smart Mountain and enjoy lunch from the top, at the fire tower, with great views. The air is clear and, unlike most of the summer, I’m on a mountaintop without haze. I take photos looking back at Holt’s Ledges I continue on hiking and by 4:45 PM, I arrive at Cube Mountain Shelter where I stop for dinner. As the weather promises to continue to be clear, I plan to head on to the top and camp at the ridge, an idea suggested by Warren Doyle in the trail register at Smart Mountain. There are no other hikers here, but there appears to be enough gear for ten, with coats and clothes and sleeping bags scattered around the shelter. Dinner is another new idea I found in Hanover, Spinach tortellini noodles stuffed with cheese. I take my time with dinner, then load up and continue hiking. A short distance after the shelter, I run into four counselors and twenty campers from Camp Norway, a girls camp and the campers are between the ages of 8 and 16. They’d dropped their gear at the shelter. I’m now glad that I decided not to stay to move on. I stop at the top of Cube Mountain, having only covered about 15 miles. I’m not making great time as the trail is more challenging than Vermont. I camp out in the open, enjoying the sunset and watching the distant ridges turn purple.

Jane and Happy outside of the Mt. Cube House
The next morning I lay in my bag for a while watching the weather change as there appears to be overhead clouds blowing in. Then I pack up and head down the mountain to find a place with water for breakfast. In the hollow, just before a highway crossing, there is a sign on a tree advertising the “Mt. Cube House,“ located a short ways south along the highway. The thought of pancakes and real maple syrup, made from the trees on this mountain, is too appealing and I decided to splurge on breakfast. As I come to the clearing at the road, I encounter another hiker, a south bounder named Jane with a beautiful dog named Happy (looking back on the photos today, I realized that her Happy and my dog, Trisket, could be siblings). Together we walk down to the Mount Cube House and I learned that she was spending the summer hiking through New Hampshire and Vermont. Somehow we got talking about her family. Her mother was an Episcopal priest and her grandfather a Methodist minister, both of whom who‘d attended Union Seminary in New York City. After her hiking was done, Jane was moving to Massachusetts to teach outdoor education.

The Mt. Cube House was a quaint place, just a few tables. They served pancakes with syrup, sausage, coffee and also sold maple syrup by the bottle or jug. Jane and I dropped out packs on the porch and Jane tied Happy’s leash to a post and we went inside. After the woman took our order, I walked around looking at the photographs and news clippings on the wall. I quickly came to realize that the woman who’d waited on us was Mrs. Thompson, who owns the farm with her husband, a man who’d been governor of New Hampshire. This fascinated me as I’d never been served breakfast by the first lady of any state. When she brought us our pancakes, I asked if her husband was still involved in politics.

“Oh yeah,” she replied, “right now he’s helping Paul Laxalt in his presidential campaign.

“What,” I asked with a puzzled look, “Laxalt is running for President?” (This was 1987, the summer before the first primary in the 1988 elections.)

“Oh yeah,” she said, “Who are you for, George Bush?” (This was before anyone but the law, liquor stores and pissed-off National Guard commanders knew that he had a son with the middle initial of W.)

Thinking back on this conversation with the vantage of hindsight, the ideal comeback should have been: “I’d be proud to vote for him if he just had himself a vasectomy half-century earlier.” Instead, I dug myself a deeper hole when I laid my cards on the table and said, “I suppose if I had to vote for a 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 and the subject of my dissertation). All I could think to say was, “He’s good friends with Jesse Helms, who’s an embarrassment to my home state.”

“Oh, we do differ,” she said. “We’re good friends with Jesse. My husband wanted him to run for President.”

She wanted to know why I didn’t like Jesse and I mentioned something about his policies on Central America and she asked me if I wanted to Central America over to the communists.

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 as I tried to eat my pancakes, not feeling a bit guilty about pouring on the syrup. This lady obviously hadn’t learned the philosophy that the customer is always right. We paid our bills, but I didn’t leave a tip. She’d already given me enough tips and I didn’t think she needed any more.

Once we got outside, Jane busted out laughing. Being from Vermont, she knew of the Thompsons and their politics and could see I was digging myself in deep, but didn’t know how to tell me to shut-up. As we were shouldering our packs, preparing to hike back up the road to the trail, her husband and Laxalt pulled up and came over to say hi, before going in and learning what kind of radicals we were. This was New Hampshire, six months before the primary, and I had my first experience with the type of politicking the state takes for granted.
At the trail head, Jane headed south, up Mount Cube and I continued on north. On the shores of Upper Baker Pond, I’m lured to stop by the sound of an English woman asking where I was heading. I walked over and we talked for a bit. She was working for a camp on the other side of the lake and had paddled across to escape for a bit. After she paddles back toward her camp, I take a swim, photograph some flowers and lily pads, then store my camera and then hike on. About a mile from the lake, I am startled to hear something scrambling up a tree. I stop and look up to see a small bear cub on a limb, maybe 15 feet over my head. He’s peering down at me and I think it’d make the perfect photo, but my camera is in my pack. Then I decide I better look around and sure enough, maybe 50 feet away in some heavy brush is Mamma Bear and she‘s looking straight at me. I decide to forego any photographic pursuits and slowly continue down the trail, feeling her eyes sear into me as I walk. Afterwards, I’m a little shaky but also glad to have been able to see the cub up close, even if only for a moment. I stop for the night at Jeffers Brook Shelter. It had been a lazy day, with long stops at Mt. Cube House and Upper Baker Pond, yet I covered nearly 16 miles.

The next morning, I began the climb up Mt Moosilauke. I’d heard it was a tough climb, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. This is the first mountain on the trail that is truly above tree line. Down south, along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, there are bald areas on the mountain tops, but they are not truly above tree line. As I climb higher, I enter an evergreen forest. Continuing higher, the fir and spruce become smaller. Then, as I approach the top, they are little more than shrubs and finally they’re no more, just rocks and grass and alpine flowers. There are number of other hikers on this section. I talk for a while with a researching measuring the acid level in the clouds. Another guy gave me what was left of a bag of pita bread. I shoot mostly black and white film on the climb up and down the mountain, but change to color slides when I’m at the top. I stop at Eliza Brook shelter (isn’t that the name of a whiskey?) for the night, after hiking 16 miles. I’m later joined by three New Hampshire good-ole-boys who are in their mid-20s. They have a friend hiking the full leant of the trail this year, the four of them having hiked together since they were in their teens. They have a large bottle of vodka and offer to share with me. I pour myself a cup. Later, as I’m getting ready for bed, they build a bonfire with flames leaping a dozen feet into the air and stand around the fire talking and smoking hash as I try to sleep.
On the first day of August I am treated with views along the Kingsman Ridge and Lonesome Pond. I sit up on the Kingsman Ridge for a long while, looking over at Lafayette Mountain. For some reason, I think about how it was to be married. I know my ex would not have wanted to make this trip, but it seemed sad to know that I’d never share with her my feelings and I looked in awe at the glorious mountains.
I now realize that the trail in the White Mountains are going to be tougher than anything I have experience. The trails are steep, seeming to go straight up or down mountains with large boulders and what little flat area seems to be marsh. Also, because of the number of hikers, I’ll now be limited to camping at designated sites or staying in shelters. I make only 11.5 trail miles today, stopping at Liberty Springs Tent-site. The two and a half mile, 3,000 foot climb from Franconia Notch to the campsite is tough, but not nearly as hard as some folks had made it out to be and I make it in approximately an hour and a half. I arrive fairly early in the evening and after dinner, climb up to the top of Liberty Mountain for sunset. From this vantage point, I can see just how rough Franconia Notch is, with its sheer cliff walls. There are wonderful views of the Presidentials: Lincoln, Garfield and Washington. I can also see Mt. Lafayette and Gyot. I stay on top till 9:15 PM, not only watching the sun set but also the light drain from the skies and the distant peaks of Vermont become a purple silhouette as a few stars appear. There are a number of others on the top and we talk and walk together back to the campsite, going slowly with only the light of a waxing moon and small flashlights to guide our way. The air is now quite cool. Having seen the mountains I’ll be traversing over the next few days, I’m psyched.
My posts of my 1987 hike on the Appalachian Trail.
Hiking the Berkshires
Hudson River through CT

Delaware Water Gap to the Hudson River
Photos of PA
Duncannon to Delaware Water Gap, PA
Duncannon, PA
Maryland and Southern PA
Northern Virginia

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Moore's Creek Battlefield (Travel Tip Thursday)

I'd been to Moores Creek Battlefield many times as a kid, but it’s been over 30 years since I was last there. Last week, when I was in I North Carolina, my brother and I toured the site. I you remember from my post on how much Tarheel blood flows in my veins, I had ancestors fighting on both sides of the Revolutionary War, so the battle has a bit of a family tie. I took the photos last week and this is my “Travel Tip Thursday” post.

Early in the morning of February 27, 1776, in the dark swamps of what is now Pender County, the first serious fight between loyalists and patriots occurred in the South. The battle of Moores Creek Bridge (known then as Widow Moores Creek) would last only a few minutes, but it altered the British plan for dealing with the American revolution. At the time, the war was just beginning to break out. The British governor of North Carolina, Josiah Martin suggested raising a army of Highland Scots from the Sandhills of North Carolina to help stabilize the Southern Colonies and give the British a base to quall the revolt. Many of the Highlanders who’d settled there had sworn allegiance to the crown after their defeat by the English in 1745. Others, having been given land by the crown, felt they owned allegiance to the king. Martin had hoped to raise an army of 10,000, but his military commanders were only able to raise an army of approximately 1,600. In late February, the troops lead by Donald McDonald assembled at Cross Creek (now Fayetteville) to begin their march to the port in Wilmington, where they were to be united with British soldiers who were coming in by sea. They found the main road, on the south side of the Cape Fear River, to be blocked at Rock Creek by Patriots led by Col. James Moore. Unwilling to fight, McDonald moved his force northeast, crossing the Cape Fear, and they began to move south, along another road that paralleled the Black River. There were a few skirmishes along the way.

In addition to Moore’s main force, who was moving toward Wilmington, two other units were converging at Moores Creek, some twenty miles from Wilmington. The site was considered an ideal location to stop the Loyalists as the swamp around the creek kept the army on the high ground which allowed for the colonist to create an effective field of fire. Col. Alexander Lillington and his unit of 150 men who’d been with Moore, were first to arrive, digging in on the eastern approach. The next day, Col Richard Caswell arrived with 850 men from New Bern and dug in on the opposite bank. As the Loyalist approached, they sent a messenger to ask those in rebellion to give up their arms. The messenger only saw only Lillington’s men in front of the bridge. Thinking there was only a small contingent of men guarding the bridge, MacDonald’s soldiers prepared to attack in the early morning hours on the 27th. After a six mile hike on a spooky road that ran through a swamp with trees draped with Spanish Moss, they prepared to assault Lillington’s forces in the early hours of the morning. They discovered his camp to be deserted. They continued on ahead, finding the planks removed from the bridge and the girders greased. McLeod, who was leading the attack, led his men carefully across the bridge and gathered them for an attack. At daybreak, with a heavy morning fog, they supposedly charged into the Patriot lines, shouting “King George and Broadswords,“ (I wonder if this is true as most of these Scots would have spoken Gaelic at the time). The Patriot force held their fire until the Loyalists were only 30 paces from their lines and then opened fire with muskets shooting “buck and balls” and two small cannons shooting grapeshot. The battle is said to have only lasted three minutes. Soon, there were over 30 Loyalist dead, more wounded, and the rest in a quick retreat. Over the next week, Patriots captured most of the Loyalists along with their weapons. Many of the leaders and their families (including Flora MacDonald, a Scots heroine) were banished from the colony and moved to Nova Scotia or back to Scotland.

It was a small engagement, but early in the war the battle discouraged the British from trying to conquer the Southern colonies and their forces moved north where most of the fighting would occur for the next several years. The battle also helped the colonists in North Carolina by providing weapons and supplies. Interestingly, most of their Patriot weapons had been given to them by the British during the French and Indian Wars, a lesson that we still haven’t learned from history.

The battlefield is a National Park site. The earthworks have been reconstructed and numerous monuments have been erected, most given by the people of North Carolina in the great monument age (1890-1920). Two of the larger monuments are for Pvt. John Grady, the only death on the Patriot’s side, and a monument for those Scots who were fighting as loyalists. After 120 years, old grudges had died and the state (which after the Civil War entered into a Scottish revival era) no longer harbored ill feelings for the losing side. In addition to the battlefield trail, there is a small museum with a number of period weapons. There is also a short “Tarheel” interpretive trail that talk about the role the longleaf pine played in the development of the “naval stores” industry in this region of the country. Interestingly, all the native longleafs have been cut and although some younger ones are growing, all the mature pines are loblollies.

The battlefield trail takes you along a boardwalk into the swamp around Moores Creek, allowing up close views of a cypress swamp. The water is stained brown from the tannic acid of the cypress trees. These trees also have “knees” that protrude up from the muck. The Spanish moss gives the swamps an eerie feeling and in the summer, there’s a good possibility of encountering snakes and perhaps, if lucky, of seeing an alligator. When I visited the site last week, there was ice in the swamps, something one doesn’t see very often.

As for my travel tip, I'll take the lead from Pseudonymous High School teacher and encourage you today to give to those in Haiti. It won't give you a better trip, but it may make you feel better.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Myself and Strangers (A Book Review)

Another book review… I know, but I haven’t felt up to finishing some of the other stuff I’m writing. However, I do hope to write a travel piece for Travel Tip Thursday and publish it late tomorrow. This is one of the books I read while in North Carolina. Last year, I read another of Graves’ books, Goodbye to a River, which I really enjoyed. This book is interesting, but not as enjoyable. In other words, read my review, not the books! Hope you’re having a good week.
John Graves, Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship (New York: Knopf, 2004), 235 pages, a few photos, mostly snapshots.
Favorite Quote (he's discussing off-shore fishing): Nor was such a team endeavor, aided by the boats powerful motors, an agreeable kind of angling to me, being too far removed from the personal poking about on rivers and creeks and salt inlets that has always been my favored form of the sport.” (228)
As a returning Marine from the South Pacific, John Graves set out to discover more of the world as he prepares himself to become a writer. In the ten years after the war, Graves married, finished school, divorced and traveled and lived in Mexico and Europe. In Europe, he primarily lived in Spain, a country a decade after it’s own Civil War that reminded him of the American South (165). There, he spends his free time sailing and touring on a motorcycle, keeping a notebook of his activities while writing magazine articles and a novel. The novel was never published. In the mid-50s, Graves returned to America. Although he completed his novel manuscript on Long Island, it was in his home state of Texas that he eventually returns and finds his first publishing success with his book, Goodbye to a River, which is still in print some fifty years after its first publication.

Myself and Strangers draws heavily on Graves’ notebooks during this era of his life, notebooks that he burned after the completion of this book. Although he was in his eighties when the book was published, he sees himself as saying “adios” to the Young John, a man fifty years younger. (235) Certainly, as he points out, Young John was often naïve and prone to make generalizations (152). He was also narcissistic as he went from one love affair to another. Although he leaves out a lot of the details, he recalls many of the women he was involved with in Europe. He was very found of Simone, a French woman living in Spain, till she became possessive. Even then, he noted that he couldn’t stay away from her, “for she was very good in bed.” (54) He describes another woman as a “a young person of beauty and charm though no overload of intellect.” (71) Then there was Lena, who’d married for life even though her and her husband had separated and were no longer together. She had “a slim responsive body and a wry earthy intelligence” (81) And then there was Paula, who’d he’d hoped to have a casual affair, but realized at the end that she wasn’t content and wanted more. Graves laments, “Maybe I was simply not drawn to hedonistic women, or they were not drawn to me…“ (212) Despite looking at woman in this way, he’s bold enough to suggests in his journals that the difference between him and “the great lovers and cocksmen of the world is that he sees women as people.” (218) Two weeks later, he also wrote in his journal, comparing himself to other men, that he’s “preserved the illusion that integrity is possible.” (221)

Unlike Theroux, whom I recently reviewed, Graves avoids other writers. On several occasions, he crosses path with Hemingway, but he never goes to present himself to the table where the writer is “holding court.” (67) Interestingly, though, he often reflects on things with his own internal dialogue with Faulkner, the subject of his Master’s thesis, and an author who was content to stick around Mississippi and not spend long periods of time in traveling or in Europe.

Throughout the book, Graves reflects on his reading. He dislikes Michener and although he didn’t want to meet Hemingway, does like some of his work. He reads Thomas Wolfe and the classics and sees himself influenced by Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, F. M. Ford, O.Henry, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Mark Twain. (219) Commenting on the Bible, he notes that he’s always been a “sometime Bible-reader,” and while the reverence that drew him to the Scriptures have changed, what hasn’t changed is his reverence for the King James Version. (173)

There are numerous parallels that draw me to Graves. We’re both Southerners (although I’m loathe to include Texas in my South). Graves noted that he’d believed “until he was twelve or thirteen that Yankees were malevolent creatures who had destroyed the world of my forebears.” (77) He enjoyed fishing, especially in streams (see quote at beginning) and with a fly rod. Once, while fishing off Sags Harbor, he noted that he’d caught some nice fish, “though I wish now that I’d had the sense to use a fly rod on them, which would have given double the pleasure.” (224) He also enjoyed sailing, not for the competition, but for the pleasure of being on the water. He criticizes one friend for being too competitive. "Sailing with Wally, even when there was no race, was a straining to get the most of out of the boat, with no time for simply basking in the pleasure of the water and the wind and the day."

Although I enjoyed the book, I don’t really recommend it as it seems to be mostly patched together. At the end, Graves refers to his younger self as a “backward bastard’ and wished he’d “been a bit quicker to discern and pursue right directions.” (235) He has tried to tie the book together, showing him coming home to find himself and his true purpose and his connection to the land; however, little is seen of that when he’s wandering around the world, enjoying parties and bull fights and chasing women. The book does show us how he struggled as an author and reminds me that I might want to destroy my earlier journals before I am in my eighties. I also wished he'd revealed how his financed his travels as he certainly didn't sell enough magazine articles to live like he did.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (A Book Review)

It's cold up here this evening. As I spent today waiting for my daughter's choir practice, I had time to finish this book review. Enjoy.
Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), 492 pages

Favorite Quote: “Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about reaching your destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.” (367)

The mature Paul Theroux, now in his 60s, seems bent on discovering how the world has changed in his life as he revisits the travels of his past. In the mid-1970s, at the age of thirty-three, Theroux set off on a train trip that took him from his home at the time in London, through Europe to Turkey, across Persia and India, through Southeast Asia and Japan and finally to Europe across the Trans-Siberian Railway. That book, The Great Railway Bazaar established Theroux as a travel writer and was the first of his books that I read, some twenty years ago. Early in the new millennium, Theroux traveled overland through Africa, revisiting many of the places he‘d lived as a Peace Corp volunteer and later a college professor in Uganda. Afterwards, he published Dark Star Safari, which recounts his journeys in after a thirty-year absence. In a similar vein, Theroux next set out to cover the same tracks he’d written about in The Great Railway Bazaar. Although he no longer lives in London, he flies to the city to begin in his journey. His first notice of the difference in his journey is in the crossing of the English Channel. In 1973, he crossed the channel on a ferry boat. Today, he boards the train in London and is whisked through a tunnel, under the English Channel, to France and soon is in Paris. Although this train was ultra-modern, that would not always be his experience in his travels.

Theroux’s journey takes him through poverty-stricken Eastern Europe to Turkey. In 1973, he traveled from Turkey through Iran and on into Pakistan and India. This trip, he‘s unable to obtain a visa for Iran and is nervous about the political troubles in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so he heads northwest and travels through many of the former Soviet states that are now countries. Starting in Georgia, he makes his way to Turkmenistan and through Uzbekistan and then flies to Amritsar in India. After visiting the Sikh holy sites, he takes the train south through the subcontinent, checking out the development of the nation as well as religious sites. He heads next Sri Lanka, an island nation devastated by Civil War. The train hugs the southern coastline through villages rebuilt after the deadly tsunami of 2005. 1500 people drown on the train that fateful morning when the wall of water swept the train from its tracks. Next, he flies to Myanmar and travels by train from Rangoon to Mandalay and on to a small resort in the mountains which he’d popularized in this earlier book. After Myanmar, he flies to Bangkok and takes the train first north Laos and then south to Singapore. He then heads back to Bangkok and travels through Cambodia and then on a bus to Saigon where the travels north by train through Vietnam, stopping at Hue and Hanoi and then on into China, where he flies to Tokyo. He travels throughout Japan on train and then flies to Vladivostok, where he picks up the Trans-Siberian Railroad back to Europe.

“I avoided making friends with politically powerful people, Theroux said, “because the nearer you are to such people, the more morally blind you become.” (63) That said, Theroux meets briefly with Prince Charles when in India. (174-175) However, this appears to be an exception. Theroux generally avoid government connections, preferring to meet local people or authors. The book is filled with political observations. In Turkmenistan, a rich nation ruled at the time he was there by Niyazov, a madman, Theroux suggested the country be called Loonistan and considered it an example of what happens when political power, money and mental illness are combined. Niyazov had banned beards, gold teeth and ballets. But he had money that came from gas wells. Speaking to an American there, he was told that the capital Ashgabat was you’d get if you mixed Las Vegas and Pyongyang together in a blender (105). Niyazov published his own book which “contains more exclamation marks that a get-rich-quick ad..” (107) Niyazov promised his reader that if they read it three times, they would go to heaven (a promise Theroux suggested wasn’t enough to get him to read it two more times). In Myanmar, the only country where he “met nothing but generosity and kindness,” the people were the “most ill-treated, worst-governed, belittled, and persecuted of any people I met.” (267)

In Singapore, a country where he had once taught in a university, was the most changed of the places he’d visited. He spoke of it being filled with cameras and snitches, where there was little privacy, but great loneliness because “Singaporeans are encouraged to spy on each other; the rats are rewarded.” (319). Although the place was “safe and clean,” Theroux found it to be a city-state of “potting kittenish women and frowning nerdish men.” (324) “Because they can’t criticize the government,“ Theroux suggests, “they criticize each other or pick on foreigners.” (324). Theroux has harsh criticism for Lee, Singapore’s puritan leader, a man who praised the Chinese handling of the1989 Tiananmen Square protests and who bans chewing gum. Yet, even in this strict society, Theroux found the dark underside that included, to his horror, underage prostitutes being smuggled in from other Asian countries. In fairness to Singapore, Theroux may have an ax to grind as his teaching contract was not renewed due to political reasons and he found himself criticized in the local media while there.

Interestingly, Theroux made his travels at the height of the American engagement in Iraq. He found, in his 28,000 mile journey, only two people who supported the US invasion: a man in Baku who also wanted the US to also invade Iran and a man in India who thought it the only way to deal with Islam. (204)

As he often does with his travels, Theroux connects with many well known writers. In Turkey, he meets with Orham Pamuk, (My Name is Red), and ponders the danger authors often face in other parts of the world… From another Turkey author, Elif Shafak, he learns why that the country’s storytelling is so strong because of their nomad background. In Sri Lanka, he meets with Arthur C. Clarke (Sir Authur), just before the science fiction writer’s death. He was shown around Tokyo by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author. Even where there were no authors, Theroux often “dialogued” with writers about the area in which he was traveling, such as he did with the Russian authors who traveled through the city of Perm (the site of an infamous Gulag and a gateway to Siberia).

Theroux isn‘t overly fond of religion, but in his travels, he keeps coming into contact with Zoroastrianism and, as he critiques other faiths, seems to have a soft-spot for the ancient Persian religion. “The humane aspects of Zoroastrianism probably accounted for its diminution as a faith, if not its failure,” Theroux writes. “A religion needs harshness and hokum to succeed, and all Zarathustra taught was understanding the earthly elements, the turn of the year, the one God. And three simple rules to live by: good thoughts, good works, good deeds. Also a belief in the purifying nature of fire, which was central to the faith and a symbol of the Almighty.” (94) Theroux is also critical of big cities, although he did find Istanbul as a “city with a soul,” one he could live in. (42). Arriving in Tokyo, he notes again his hatred for big cities, noting that he dislikes them “probably for the same reason many city people hate wilderness (which I love), because I find them vertiginous, threatening, monochromatic, isolating, exhausting, germ-laden, bristling with busy shadows and ambiguous odors.” (400)

Theroux often explores the underside of life. He seems to enjoy talking with and learning from prostitutes, seeking their insights into a society. Much of the area he travels is known for sex tourism and he shows how such an industry exploits those trapped in its web. As he travels in South East Asia, he also spends time exploring our country’s involvement there. He finds the Vietnamese people forgiving, but he’s outraged in Cambodia that our country turned its back on the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, even indirectly supporting Cambodia when Vietnam invaded in the late 70s to put an end to the horrors of the killing fields.

I've read six books by Theroux, five of which are travel journals. This is also my favorite of his books as it seems he’s mellowed and is more compassionate. He often goes to bed early as opposed to spending nights out drinking. He helps a man in Mandalay and tells the story of another American traveler who buys a boy in Cambodia a motorbike to help him raise money to go to college. He seems obviously moved by the plight of young women caught in the sex trade. Yet, Theroux narcissism comes out such as when he discussed with an American backpacker the book she’s reading (one of his!). Although I’m sure such encounters happen, they get a bit old as I can recall (off the top of my head) other such encounters in Dark Star Safari and Riding the Iron Rooster. That said, I still recommend the book.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Things could always be worse...

This sailboat must have gotten in trouble coming in Carolina Beach inlet and ended up washed up on shore on Masonboro Island.

I got back in late Wednesday night from North Carolina and greeted with six or eight inches of new snow. I wish I had time to ski. I had planned a “Travel Tip Thursday” post, but didn’t get it done. Maybe next week. I’ve got a bunch of posts that I need to finish, but haven’t felt like writing much lately. And now that I’m back, I’ve got stuff stacked up on my desk waiting for my attention. I’ll write more, later, promise!

Monday, January 04, 2010

You Can't Go Home Again (well, you can, but it ain't the same)

I'm in North Carolina. Although I seldom write about my family, I have on occasion broken this rule to write about my parents. This is an update I wrote the second morning I was here. The photo of the tidal creek was taken on New Year's Day, near my parents home.
She mostly sits. She needs help getting up and down. Once up, she walks slowly and on a stroll from one room to the next, she‘ll stop and get lost looking at something. She has to be helped to the bathroom and reminded to eat and drink. Her peek-squeak dog dropped his bone in her lap yesterday. She picked it up, looked at it and then held it for hours. When I talk to her, she looks at me as if she’s trying to figure me out. She sleeps a lot, even sitting up, and she often hums to herself, mostly hymns. She doesn’t say much; if asked if she wants something, her normal answer is ‘no.“ Yet, if you fix her a drink or prepare her food, she’ll say “Thank You.” Sometimes she laughs at herself and her limitations, but not nearly as often as before. It’s as if she no longer knows how much she doesn’t know. On occasion, she’ll start to ask me a question. For a brief moment, she sounds like her old self: “I thought you were… Will you please… What are you… Can you get…” I immediately jump to attention, but before she finishes the sentence, she forgets her question or request. When I ask her what it was, she gives me a blank stare and seems to retreat into the recesses of her mind. The unfinished questions remind me that there are words still needing to be said, but how? She’s my Mom. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2005.

I spent much of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day here with a shovel in my hand. When friends stopped by and asked what I was doing, I told them I was trying to discover where my father had buried the family’s gold. In truth, I dug a trench and placed a conduit and ran a ten gauge line to the shed by my dad’s boathouse (160 feet), so he could move a small freezer there for ice and bait. Digging in this sand is easy, but it's not always sand. There are plenty of roots. Then my father had problems with the down flow well on his water-to-air heat pump (the well that the water flows back into the ground). There were lots of digging to discover the problem (a hose clamped had failed). I’ve still not found the gold. It’s been good to spend time with Dad. On January 2nd, I drove upstate to spend time with my Grandma and to see my younger brother and my sister. I got back this evening and after dinner, came down to a nearby coffee shop for internet access. We don’t talk much about Mom; there’s not much to be said. When we do talk, we get melancholy.