Monday, May 31, 2010

The Appalachian Trail in Central Maine, more of my 1987 hike

This is another installment of recount of my 1987 hike on the Appalachian Trail. I’m getting close to the end, with probably two more post, one telling about my time in Monson, Maine and the second post on the last 116 miles of the trail, from Monson to the top of Katadhin. Somehow, I’ll have to then link all the post together (including posts about the southern 800 miles of the trail, some of which isn’t yet written). When that’s done, you’ll be able to follow me along the entire 2000 mile journey. The photo below is of Paul, one of the "Brits."
“I don’t know how anyone can live in a country,” Dave said as he swatted another mosquito, “where something is always biting you.”

Hiking with the Brits have been enjoyable. On August 14th, we’d camped on Spaulding Mountain, after having hike over Saddleback, the Horn and Lone Mountain, a three and a half mile stretch above tree line. Having been on the trail all summer, we were not in tune to what was happening in the world and unaware that less than a mile north, on the summit of Spaulding Mountain, there had been a celebration this afternoon for the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian Trail. This section of the trail, over Spaulding Mountain, was the last part of the trail finished by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937.

Sitting around a fire that evening is Slim Jim and me, along with the Brits and two French Canadians. The Canadians asked us about our travels and we shared our tales. Dave and Paul tell about their two encounters with skunks on the trail. Coming from Great Britain and not being familiar with American wildlife, they were sleeping in the north Georgia Mountains, just after starting the trail. It was cold and they had set up the tent and placed their packs right outside the door. The two shared a lot of equipment, including a single flashlight which they called a torch. Unlike the mini-lights most of us carried, they had a five cell mag-light, one like the police used. That night in north Georgia, Dave heard something gnawing on their packs and woke Paul up, asking for the Torch. Taking the light, Dave unzipped the tent and reached out and pounded the critter. The skunk wasn’t amused and sprayed into their tent.

Over the past few days, I’ve witnessed several mini dramas along the trail. Today’s by a ruffled grouse, was really impressive. The bird stepped out into the trail, right in front of me and ran in front of me, leaning to her side and acting as if her wing was broken. After a good 25 yards or so, she took off and flew perfectly, having led me away from her nest. Along the trail, I’ve seen spruce grouse and pheasants also act out being injured in order to draw us away from their nest. As we keep walking, they must assume their little dance is working and that they are the master of their fate (or at least the protector of their brood).

With the exception of the miles above tree-line, the day had been long and I had a hard time getting into the flow. I took a long nap at lunch. I wasn’t feeling the best. Then, as I began the climb up Spaulding, a strap on my waist belt broke, causing the pack to list to one side. I sewed the strap back on with dental floss and one of the large leather needles that I carried in the small New Testament and Psalms Gideon Bible that my dad had given me when I set out to do the trail. I did a quick job, sewing it enough to hold it together till evening. I then took another nap, sleeping on my back on a rock. I then pulled out my little radio and finished the day’s hike listening to a classic rock station that played a lot of Motown along with the Doors. Jim Morrison belting out, “Don’t You Love Here Madly,” helped me get into the grove. As we sat around that evening, Paul fixed a joint from some pot we’d found the day before hidden in the rafters of a shelter. Some hiker must have forgotten his stash. As we talked, I put in a bunch more dental floss stitches in my pack’s waistband, hoping I could keep it together till I reached Katadhin. I also wrote in my journal, crediting the station with getting me through the day, only to come back early in the morning and write that I’d prayed for strength and the credit I’d given to rock stars really belonged to God.
That night I had two weird dreams. In the first, I was with a bunch of people in a secure bomb shelter, waiting for the beginning of a nuclear war. There was, in the shelter, a small blonde woman whose attention I kept trying to get, but to no avail. I was more concerned about meeting her than with the pending war, but soon the radio announced that the war had been averted and it was safe to leave the shelters. We all stepped out into the streets of a deserted town. In the second dream, a war had occurred, but only a few bombs had been dropped. I was with the woman in the first dream, in a fallout shelter. It was just the two of us and we were preparing to wait till the worst of the radiation was over. Although I had not gotten high, I wondered if the smoke had affected my dreams.

August 15 was long and hard. We climbed the rest of the way over Sugarloaf, then Spaulding, the two Crocker Mountains. I took a late break in the afternoon, noting that Bigelow Mountain was about to kill me. It was the last 4,000 foot peak before Katadhin, 180 miles to the north. The day had been was hazy and muggy with light rain. I finally found the strength to push on and after 18 miles, arrived in the rain at the Horn Pond Lean-tos at 6 PM.

The next morning, August 16, was Sunday, the Lord’s Day. I felt like crap. In the morning, my whole body ached and after a two hour lunch break, only my stomach hurt. Something wasn’t ticking right inside. I tried to distract myself, listening to the radio and learned that in Lewiston, Maine the temperature was 97 degrees. It was a heat wave in Maine. I turned the station and picked up some radio Bible Study and listen, thinking it would be like attending church. After a few minutes of listening to a teacher, I decided he was full of crap. It has always amazed me how those who claim to approach scripture so literally can have such vivid imaginations for interpreting text as to how the world was going to end) literal imagination for a few minutes before deciding the teacher was so full of it that I could do without listening to him… We only hiked about ten miles, which was good for me as I was fighting off some bug (or bad water).
I’ve lost my flashlight. We bivouac on the ground, under the stars. I dream of my ex-wife. She calls me and asks me to come over (she’s at her parent’s home). As I’m driving over, I debating if this is the right thing to do, but when I get there, she runs from her father’s ham shack out back and grabs a hold of my neck and kisses me with tears in her eyes. I wake up and have a bad case of the runs. I pull on my boots, grab my toilet paper and head off into the woods a ways and kick a hole just in time. The stars are out but there is no moon. After I finally finish and my butt is sore and on fire, I kick dirt over my load, hoping I got it covered, and then head back toward where I thought I was sleeping but get turned around. I try to look for large trees where we were camping, but the ones that I pick out are not the right ones. I stop and debate on what to do. I could yell and wake up Jim and the Brits and Dharma Bum (a hiker from Vermont who’s taken his name from one of Jack Kerouac’s novels), or I could just sit and make the best of it and wait till dawn. I’m just about ready to wait for the sun when I stumble over Paul and am then able to reorient myself and find my sleeping bag.

The Brits take off early the next morning, hoping to catch the Kennebec River hiker ferry today (it runs only between noon and 2 PM). They are planning on climbing Katahdin on the 27th and then head to Portland Maine and stay with Larry and Mo and work to earn enough to get back to Britain in time for Paul’s sister’s wedding in late September. I’m sad to see them go as we’ve been together, off and on, since central Pennsylvania.

The heat wave continues and my stomach remains unsettled, but I am able to make 10 miles before lunch. At least my whole body isn’t aching like yesterday morning. I stop for lunch at East Carry Pond, spending time afterwards lying on grass. A brown garter snake comes up to me and gives me a “one-over” before heading back into the brush. I’m reading Fredrick Buechner’s novel, Treasure Hunt, and am amused at the Evangelist Leo Bebb, the protagonist, desire to “do something big for Christ and how he’s realized the only really big thing he’s done is to sell Bibles door-to-door. Much of the trail today follows the Arnold Trail, used by Benedict Arnold on his attempt to attack Quebec during the Revolutionary War. I reach Pierce Pond Shelter at 4:15 PM. The lake is beautiful and I take a nice swim. I’m feeling better. During the evening, Jim and I are joined by a group of four adults with a four year-old boy, all from Rhode Island. The boy’s name is Josiah has a small day pack with Ernie of Sesame Street sticking out of it. They also have a black lab in tow, named Thunder. As we sit around watching the sunset from the falls at the mouth of the lake, one of the men tells about Kenneth Robert’s novel, Arundel, which is about Arnold’s invasion of Quebec. He also recommends Alfred Lansings book, Endurance: Shackleford’s Incredible Voyage. Slim Jim tells about a book he read earlier in the hike, Henry Kid Doylan’s I Rode with Stonewall.

We make a slow start of it on August 18, knowing that we don’t have far to go till we’ll have to wait for the ferry. The nearby lodge at the mouth of the lake (near the falls) serves pancakes. We head over to the place, “Harrisons” and eat some of the best pancakes I’ve had in my life before completing the 3 ½ mile hike to the river. We get to the river well before noon and take a swim. The only safe time to wade across the river is early morning, before the dam upstream starts releasing water. Jim and I swim in the river. It’s deep. The ferry, which is just a canoe, is operated by volunteers. The guy is early today and we place our gear and boots in the boat and swim across the river as the volunteer paddles our gear. It’s only a mile to the town of Caratunk and we’re there a little after noon. Jim has a mail drop here, but the post office is closed till three. There’s not much to the town, not even a store, just a two room school, a one truck fire department and the part-time post office. We fix lunch and then nap behind the school waiting for the post office to open. A guy staying in a nearby cabin comes in for his mail and greets us. He’s got a jug of lemonade, knowing he’s liable to run into hikers. Although it’s not as hot as it has been, the lemonade taste wonderful. After Jim gets his mail, we hike on a few miles to Pleasant Pond Lean-to. I’m surprised to find that I didn’t lose my flashlight. I was thinking I’d have to find a new one in Monson, but I find it at the bottom of my food bag.
Slim Jim looking north
On August 19, Jim and I continue at a slow pace. We stop for lunch at Joe’s Hole, cross a two-wire cable bridge over Baker Creek (an experience in a full pack), enjoy great afternoon views from Moxie Bald fire tower. From the peak, we watch thunder clouds build and hike on north. At 4:30 PM, we reach Moxie Bald Lean-to, where we stop for the day. The lake is beautiful and we watch loons fish for dinner, seemingly unfazed by the threatening storm clouds building overhead. A little later, we’re treated to an incredible lightning show, but receive only a little rain.

The loons wake me the next morning at 5:15 AM. I walk down to the water and in the predawn light can make out a cow moose and calf feeding out in the water. By the time the sun is rising, I’m eating oatmeal and drinking tea on a rock overlooking the pond. Today’s hiking is easy and Jim and I quickly make the 17 miles to Monson, arriving a little after 2 PM. We get bunks at Shaw’s Boarding House and set out to see the town. This is the last town on the trail and the last public road we’ll cross before we reach Baxter State Park and Mt. Katadhin, 116 miles to the north.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A rant on last night's ballgame

Life is a whirlwind and I haven’t had time to do any writing for my blog nor have I been very good at keeping up with those blogs I enjoy reading… And the next few weeks look crazy and although great things are happening, this summer promises to be the craziest on record.

Yet, I did get out yesterday evening a minor league baseball game; the West Michigan Whitecaps taking on the Dayton Dragons. The Whitecaps lost it in the ninth and also lost a catcher as he was creamed trying to block home plate. That said, Dayton has one heck of a 3rd basemen in Frank Pfister. With his glove and arm, if last night was at example of his talent, I doubt he’ll play at the Single A level very long if the Reds (their franchise team) has need of a 3rd baseman.

Minor league ball has a lot of silly stuff that would never be tolerated in the big leagues. Most of it is fun, but I had to take an exception with “President Barack Ollama.” The donkey (or was it a llama) was dressed in a blue suit with red white and blue boxer shorts made his debut at in the 7th inning, leading the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” from one of the cooperate balconies. Then, the character started dancing and showing his boxers and vomited confetti onto the crowd below. Later, he appeared on the Visiting Team dugout, singing and wetting those sitting around the dugout. As I didn’t have my camera, the pictures I have of him are from my blackberry (and are not very good). I found the whole skit to be disrespectful and, although I enjoy parody, lacking of taste. It felt like something from a minstrel show of the 1920s. Proudly, my daughter and her friend both made the similar comments. She couldn’t believe I was taking a picture of something so rude (she didn’t know that I wanted it for evidence).

I should say, we didn't come away from the game empty handed. They gave out "Sparta brand Barbecue Sauce." I should be grateful, but now for the rant. I read the ingredients and wasn't impressed. I've had candy with less sugar. And where were the peppers? Being from Eastern North Carolina, the number one ingredient in barbecue sauce has to be vinegar. If you want to be fancy, use apple cider vinegar. I'll even use a little tomato sauce, but corn syrup, never! Well, maybe someday I can use this bottle to make some of those sweet meatballs... But as barbecue sauce, never.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pondering the death of a classmate

The photo was taken on my recent trip to North Carolina.

I was shocked to learn of the death of a classmate from Jr. High and High School. Tony died suddenly, in his sleep, last week. We were never close friends. He was in the band and that fraternity while I was the kid who couldn’t carry a tune, and ran around with those who like to march in JROTC and argue on the debate team. But I knew who he was and was shocked to read about his death on Facebook. A good friend of his, who was also a friend of mine, wrote a moving tribute. Furthermore, as Facebook tries to match you to “new friends,” it was a little haunting to see Tony’s name and picture come up in the corner of my screen the day after his death… I clicked on his profile and his privacy settings allowed me to read his news feed. I was moved by comments from classmates who’d been close friends. Tears then filled my eyes when I got to the comments written by his “little girls,” his daughters, who appear to be in their 20s. They’d just lost a father and their grief was great. Tony was 53 and, from what I knew, in good physical health. It seems as if we have lost a number of classmates in the 35 years since graduation. Of course, there were 750 or so of us and according to actuarial tables, we’re bound lose a few. Still, such deaths cause me to ponder my own mortality.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Tocopa Hot Springs, California (Travel Tip Thursday)

I know its Friday, but this is my Travel Tip Thursday post. I didn’t get it finished last night. I’m sure I have photos somewhere of the desert around Tocopa Springs, I seem to remember photographing the marsh area to the west of the spring, but I haven’t found them (and didn’t have time to look for them). The photo is from a mining camp on the east side of Death Valley that I took in 2000 and digitally copied.

Deep in the Mojave Desert, east of highway 127 and about half-way between the towns of Baker, California (with the world's largest thermometer rising above Interstate 15) and Death Valley Junction (home of the Armargosa Opera House) is Tocopa Hot Springs. My first visit to Tocopa Hot Springs was on December 30, 1994. Clinton was President and the Republicans had just taken over Congress and were talking about a Contract on America. After Christmas, we’d gone to San Diego and planned to come back to Utah through Death Valley. Our reservations at Furnace Creek started on the 31st so with a tent and sleeping bags in the car, we wandered around the desert looking for adventure and a place to spend the night. We ended up at Tocopa Hot Springs, which I found delightful. The water is hot and laden with minerals. The pool was open all night (they close it for a couple hours around mid-day for cleaning). The area is barren, but there were plenty of campers in tents and RVs, across the road from the bathhouse.
I’ve been back to Tocopa Hot Springs on two other occasions, stopping there after trips of exploring mining camps around Death Valley. The springs had been a familiar hang-out for prospectors and miners needing a break. They’d make their way out of the hills and recuperate in the steaming waters. On each occasion that I happened to be nearby, I stop and enjoyed a soak in the pools. Some believe the minerals have healing powers. I can’t attest to that, but I do know that an hour sitting in a corner of a pool, breathing in the moist steam as my body cooked. The experience was relaxing enough to draw me back again and again.
The pools are segregated, one for men and another for women. There are three pools, at least on the men’s side, and they’re housed within a cinderblock building. Because the minerals in the water which can leach out the dye in a bathing suit, one must bath in the nude. It’s not a pretty sight, but the water makes up for it.
In their heyday, the springs were a stop along the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, which ran along the mostly dry Amargosa River. The tracks are long gone, but the railroad bed is still there and one can hike along it. The Tecopa Springs is not far from the Old Spanish Trail, and long before the miners, weary travelers from Santa Fe to California stopped to soak and rest. And before them, it was the Paiutes, who named the spring Tecopa which supposedly means “wildcat.” Today, the springs are off the beaten path, a few miles east of the main highway that brings people into the east side of Death Valley. Not far away from Tocopa, in a secluded canyon, is a true oasis, the China Ranch Date Ranch. Their dates are wonderful and they have a store with baked goods and other items made from dates harvested from their trees.
I haven’t been to the Spings in nearly a decade. The last time I was in Death Valley, in 2005, I came in from the west and didn’t get that far south. When I was visiting, the pool was maintained by Inyo County as a county park, but from looking up the springs on the internet, it seems that they have since been “privatized.” Someone is now trying to create a resort and make a buck out of the springs. So I have no idea what you’ll find today, but if you make the trip, let me know… By the way, my comment earlier about the Contract on America had to do with the government shut-down that occurred around the next New Years Eve. I had planned a similar trip out across Joshua Tree National Park and the southern deserts, but the government shut down closed national parks and monuments and the trip had to be scrapped.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Play Ball!

I took the day off and headed to Detroit to catch a ballgame. Last night's game was rained out. It was drizzling when this game began and cold--temperature at 1:05 PM, game time, was 51 degrees.
The grass was wet enough that when people slid after a ball, you could see water... Here, at the beginning, you couldn't see the tops of the buildings. By the end of the game, the clouds were breaking up.
Another foggy shot... This was an afternoon game played under the lights! Sadly, the Tigers lost to the White Sox, 6 to 2. The vendors were also suffering. With a light jacket, I wasn't interested in a "cold beer.' Others fans, some dressed in heavy coats, didn't seem very interested either. Later, the vendors were back selling "hot chocolate." At $4 a cup, I decided I wasn't that cold...
This fellow stopped by to see me (or see if I had anything to eat). Teams are named after birds, but I've yet to see a Cardinal, Oriole or Blue Jay in a ball park. But I've seen plenty of pigeons and seagulls!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Rocks (A Travel Tip Thursday Post)

Blogging has taken a back seat lately. I have several projects that are taking all my writing energy and it seems have been spending too many days sitting in long meetings. Although I have many things I want to blog about, I just haven’t had the time or energy to be very productive. But that’ll change! As I have a few minutes, let me take advantage of the Travel Tip Thursday blog prompt and tell you about a special place in North Carolina.

“The Rocks” is a special place located as far south as one can drive in New Hanover County. Once you get across Snow’s Cut Bridge (the intercoastal waterway) on US 421, keep driving till the road ends and you’ll be at the rocks. If you want to travel on from here, you’ll either have to turn around or take the ferry across the river to Southport. “The Rocks” is an engineering feat that was designed to close off “New Inlet” which was silting up the main channel to the Cape Fear River.

In the 18th Century, a hurricane created a new inlet into the Cape Fear River and, maybe because folks back then had revolution on their mind, they named it the “New Inlet.” This new inlet was shallower than the main channel, but because it cut time for those shipping to the north, by keeping them from having to navigate the river on down past Smith Island (Baldhead) and then out into the sea for a ways to get around Frying Pan Shoals, the inlet was seen as a blessing.

During the Civil War, having a second entrance into the Cape Fear River helped Wilmington to become a major city as blockade runners took advantage of the two inlets. With Frying Pan Shoals sticking out nearly fifty miles into the water, the Union had to have more ships to guard the mouth of the river and fast shallow draft blockade runners enjoyed an advantage of getting close to the beach and then running into the inlet before they could be caught by Union warships. The inlet was too shallow for most warships. To further discourage such warships, the Confederates built a series of land batteries were installed along the lower part of the peninsula. If the blockade runners could make it close to the beach, they could run just outside the breakers and be protected by these batteries with their large rifled cannons as they made their way down the coast to the inlet. At the mouth of the inlet, Battery Buchanan protected them as they sailed into the river. (The photo above is looking back toward Battery Buchanan).
This photo was taken out on the rocks. Although the rocks are slippery and during high tide can get wet, it is (or at least it was as I haven't done it in years) possible to walk all the way over to Zeke Island.
A beautiful girl who is close to my heart, running off the battery toward "The Rocks." When I was her age, I was under the mistaken belief that the rocks were put into the channel by the South to keep the Yankees out! It's interesting how mistaken we can be.

Today, the New Inlet is closed, but there is a large tidal area between “The Rocks” and the beach head to be explored. Much of this area is protected wetlands and now a National Estuarine Research Reserve. One of the best ways to explore it is by kayak. In the future, I’ll do a post on Fort Fisher, which is located a few miles north of “The Rocks.” Another sight to see is the North Carolina Aquarium that's located next to Fort Fisher. It's one of three aquariums the state runs along the coast.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mother's Day

This is my Mom when she was in high school. Obviously, I wasn't yet here. I had not seen this photo before my recent trip home last month. My dad had it on his dresser and I made a copy of it. Mom is standing on the two-track that ran down from the highway to her home. The scene is familiar to me as it wasn’t much different when I came along. My granddaddy was a tobacco farmer, but his tobacco was raised on land across the highway. The sandy fields on either side of the two-track path running from the highway to their house were mostly used for vegetables. The fields haven’t been cultivated since the ’66, when my maternal granddaddy died. Nobody has lived in that house since my grandmother’s death in ‘75, just a few weeks after I graduated from high school. You can no longer drive down to the house as it’s all grown up. There are mature trees in the fields and part of the house has fallen in. My mom never talked much about her childhood or growing up. Much of what I know about it, I have learned from her older sister, who has over the past few years shared with me some stories, some of which I have posted here.
I need to call my Mom and wish her happy Mother’s Day, but she won’t understand or know who I am and I’ll mostly talk to my Dad. It’s been five years since she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I miss her terribly.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Playing with Fire

I often check out the The Ultralighter's blog and he's turned me on to some other interesting blogs by people who try to really travel light. There seems to be a contest going as to who can make the lightest backpacking stove. Two blogs in particular had an interesting post on stove making. Dressed in Dirt combined making stoves and ice cream floats. Her technique was even refined more by Mungo (I wish I had followed his directions on how to make a cleaner cut of a pop can). Anyway, last weekend I decided to see if this all worked and built a 20 cent backpacking stove that burned alcohol. I say it's a 20 cent stove because here in Michigan, we have a 10 cent deposit on pop cans. My goal was to build the stoves using only a Swiss army knife--thinking that the ability to make such a stove might be a good thing since airline security makes it harder these days to bring smutty backpacking stoves through security. Here's my effort.
Next, I decided to test my stove using both denatured alcohol (which you can find in the paint section of any hardware store) and regular rubbing alcohol (which is only 70% pure, so doesn't put out as much heat). The alcohol gets poured into the middle of the top (larger holes, the flames come out the side holes). I put a pot of similar size with 24 ounces of water in each. The rubbing alcohol stove had a harder time staying lighted, so I ended up lifting the pot up over the stove with a few rocks I garnered from the flower bed...
Notice, the denatured alcohol stove also had a little duct tape applied as the can split (which I noticed when I poured in the alcohol. The water in the denatured alcohol stove, by the time I had burned up all the alcohol, was beginning to have bubbles rise to the top, but it wasn't a full boil (but hot enough for coffee or tea). The other stove had water about that was warm enough to wash one's face in.
I now feel I can make such a stove from easily obtained products, but when possible I think I'll stick to my MSR multi-fuel stove. This is the second of these I had (the first was the original and sounded like a jet taking off and still works, 20 some years later. This whisper-lite is really nice, as it is quiet and doesn't use as much fuel.) I would recommend paying the extra ten bucks for the multi-fuel variety as it allows you to buy fuel from a gas station and not having to pay the expensive (and deal with having the extra fuel you don't need) Coleman fuel.
Now an ethical dilema: If they extend the Appalachian Trail another 300+ miles, to Flagg Mountain Alabama, should I hike the extension? Check out this article.

For those interested in the Appalachian Trail, there is now an online profile of trail elevations--when I was hiking the trail, I referred to these as "misery maps."

I was going to go canoeing today, but there is a huge band of thunderstorms heading our way. Time to dope the dog.

PS: Here is another variation of a home made alcohol stove that seems to be a design that may work better than the above (but it requires a few more tools than I normally have in a backpack).

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Sailing Faith (A Book Review)

Gregg A. Granger, Sailing Faith: The Long Way Home (Middleville, MI: Gregg Granger, 2010), 247 pages plus a 20 page insert of color prints.
There are men who, during a mid-life crisis, strike out for the territories, leaving their family behind. Gregg Granger is not such a man. He has his crisis and he literally sails off into the sunset, but he takes his family with him. This book is Gregg’s story of sailing a fifty-four foot sailboat (named Faith) around the world. For four years, Gregg along with his wife (Lorrie), two teenage daughters (Amanda and Emily), and a younger son (Greggii) live aboard the boat. Gregg’s children are home schooled as they sail from Hampton, Virginia, through the Caribbean to the Panama Canal, then across the Pacific, stopping at the Galapagos Islands, then to the South Seas and on to Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Oman and Yemen, through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, through the Mediterranean and then back across the Atlantic. This was a wonderful adventure for a family whose previous experience at sailing was a Hobie Cat on an inland lake. In telling the story, we learn of the tension the family sometimes faced living in tight quarters, but more importantly we get to see the love they shared for one another and for the people they met along the way.
Once they announced their intentions, everyone kept warning Gregg about the dangers. “You’re going to a lot of places where they don’t value human life like we do,” he was told. (I suppose I was even guilty of this misconception when I met Gregg and looked at the map on the cover and pointed out that his journey took him through two of the most pirated areas of the world). This misconception becomes the family’s mantra as he finds people most everywhere value life (one of the places he finds this not to be true is in Israel with the way they treat the Palestinians). Interestingly, the two places the Grangers enjoyed the most are areas we, in the United States, are often warned about: Indonesia and Yemen. Along the way, the Grangers share their Christian faith, but also learn to respect the faith and tradition of others. Another area that the Granger’s are surprised is the quality of medical care they discover while on their trip, a discovery that allows Granger the opportunity to take a swipe at the expensive care we have here in the United States.
Sailing Faith is primarily a travelogue. I would have liked to have read a bit more about life on the boat, the smells of the sea, the clanging of the hardware, descriptions of sunrises and sunsets, how they navigated, what’s it’s like to step on land after a month on the water. Instead, journeys across vast amounts of water are covered in a few pages, highlighting the catching of a tuna or the struggle to keep equipment working. Granger focuses more on their time in port and with those with whom they become friends (other families on living on sailboats as well as those who are native of the lands in which they explore). The family often spends extended time on shore and in Malaysia they spend nearly a year as the boat is taken out of the water and rebuilt.
I enjoyed reading this book. The experiences of the Grangers give me hope for the world. Unfortunately, it’s privately printed and, as far as I know, is only available at their website. The website also contains some wonderful photos of the family’s journey. I met Gregg at the Festival of Faith and Writing I attended a few weeks ago.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Remembering Charlie

The photo to the left is of the Aberdeen, Carolina and Western Line. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of the old Atlantic Coastline that I refer to in this post. The track mention was removed in the late 1970s.

"We’ve lost a good friend, Sage,” Terry said after we’d exchanged greetings. I’d forgotten my cousin knew Charlie. Charlie’s wife had inherited a track of land and my cousin had harvested longleaf pine straw off of it. Terry told me about the old homestead near Cowpen Landing on the Northeast Cape Fear. Although I’d heard about the place, I’d never been there. My cousin told me the old house had fallen in, but the chimney was still standing and Charlie had pointed out to him an indention in the brick where his mother-in-law would stop and sharpen the blade of her butcher knife, running the metal along the brick, before walking out to the smokehouse to cut a slap of meat off for a meal.

I came to know Charlie during my time at the bakery. I hired on the summer I was nineteen, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Charlie would have been almost sixty then and had spent most of life working for the bakery. You could always count on Charlie to lighten things up with a good joke and you knew that any joke he told would be clean. Charlie worked hard, but could laugh harder.

One afternoon, there wasn’t much to do in the plant as we’d run out of flour and the railcar, which was scheduled to be delivered that morning, had been delayed. We sat out near the loading dock where we could look down the tracks. Charlie came by and told us about growing up next to the railroad tracks, out north of the Green Swamp, east of Wilmington.

His daddy had been a section foreman for the Atlantic Coastline, maintaining the rails and water tower along a section of the mainline between Delco and Bolton. It may not look like much to those who speed by these days on Highway 74-76, but it’s a magical place. He land is as flat as a pancake and grows some of the most interesting plants on earth including the Venus flytrap. In some areas, there’s sand upon which grows stately longleaf pines and huge live oaks. In other areas, its swamp and you have cypress trees growing up out of the water, their sparse limbs dangled in Spanish moss. This is black-water country, water darkened by the tannic acid produced by the cypress. Often, in the evenings, fog will develop over the waters, making it all the more mysterious.

“Charlie,” I asked, “have you seen the light?”

Just down the tracks from where Charlie grew up was Maco Station. There, just a couple years after the Civil War, at a time the line was known as the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad, a brakeman named Joe Baldwin was riding in a caboose. His car became decoupled from the rest of the train and started to slow down. When Joe realized what was happening, he grabbed a lantern and ran out on the back deck of the car, swinging his lantern back and forth, a universal sign on the railroad for trains to stop. He knew there was another train following them and he hoped to signal the engineer in time. But in the foggy swampland, the engineer didn’t see the signal until it was too late and the engine collided into Joe’s car, destroying it. Joe was killed, his head severed from his body. As they cleaned up from the accident, they never found his head and Joe’s body was buried without it. Most just assumed the head had rolled down the embankment and into the black waters.

Shortly after Joe’s death, people started reporting a strange light in the swamps near the Maco sidings. Some suggested it was Joe’s lantern swinging along the tracks, moving through the swamps and a legend developed that Old Joe was still looking for his head. Charlie had seen the light, but he didn’t believe it to be Joe’s lantern. If I remember correctly, he brought into one popular theory that the lights were caused by swamp gas.

Living by the railroad tracks, hearing that lonesome cry from the engine pierce through the night as freight rolled toward the port in Wilmington must have been sealed in Charlie’s memory. But that lonesome wail can also bring sadness, as Charlie shared with us.

A year into the Great Depression, when Charlie was still just a boy, finishing up grade school in Acme, the lonesome wail wasn’t being heard as much. There was so little freight moving then that the railroad laid-off every other section foreman. Charlie’s dad lost his job. The next day, Charlie went with his dad into Wilmington to look for work. But there were none to be found. Coming back home, late in the day, discouraged, they noticed smoke over the distant pines. As they got closer, they realized their house was totally engulfed in flames. The family lost it all. Charlie’s life was forever changed. He went to live with family in Wilmington, where he worked hard and earned little until the war came and he joined the Navy.

You’d think that after such hardships, Charlie would have been bitter, but there wasn’t a bitter bone in his body. Charlie was one of the most joyous and positive individuals I’ve known. He seldom complained. Even when he had good reason to complain, he’d just shuck it off. He always gave people the benefit of the doubt. He was a good man. Thinking about him, I’m left to wonder why it is that some people can endure tragedy after tragedy and still be joyful about life and positive about the future. In Charlie’s case, I’m sure it had to do with his faith. He knew he was loved by God and he found joy in creation, in life, in laughter and in good friends.

My cousin met Charlie long after I had left the bakery. “Charlie thought a lot of you,” Terry said, “he was always asking about you.” “Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about Charlie lately, too.” He died this year, two weeks before Easter, at the age 91. Hearing of his death, it seemed as if a part of my past had died along with him. Charlie was the one person from my time at the bakery that I would occasionally see. After he retired, Charlie found a home in the church I grew in and whenever I visited my parents on a Sunday, Charlie and I would get together during the coffee hour after worship and talk about old times. I’m going to miss him.

Other stories about working in the bakery: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5,Part 6