Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Journey

The ice did a number on the Black Lotus in front of our home
Yesterday morning, we left the land of ice and snow and are now in Georgia, with a trip to North Carolina planned before we head home in early January.  The past week was a whirlwind as we had one of the worst ice storms in memory.  Someone reported that there were 60,000 people in our county without power, which is a little surprising as I thought the population was closer to only 55,000.  We spent 36 hours, without power, huddled around the living room fireplace.  But with smart phones and car chargers, we never felt like we were unconnected!  Others are still without power and some may go for well over a week in the dark.  But down here in Georgia, it’s going to be about 50 degrees and I am upset that in forgot to bring flipflops!  Here is my memoir of another Christmas journey.  The year was 1966 and I was just a couple weeks shy of turning ten.  

Christmas always began early in my childhood home.  We’d get up before daylight.  My brother was generally the first to get up, usually around 4 AM, and he’d go between our room and my sisters, encouraging us to get out of bed and to get ready.  We would ignore him for a little while, but soon we were up.  We also had to wake my parents who had sent us to bed under the threat of bodily harm if we went into the living room before they were up and ready for us to arrive, which meant my dad had to set up his Super-8 movie camera with the oversized flood lights that would greet us as soon as we stepped into the living room and were literally “blinded by the light.”  All those old Christmas movies show us with the color bleached out of our faces and our eyes squinted with hands covering them as we come in and try to find our presents in a room that was as bright as if a nuclear explosion had just occurred.
            But there was another reason that Christmas often began early this particular year.   Like the first family of Christmas, we had a journey to make; only we started ours on Christmas and not before and instead of a donkey traveled in a Ford.  After an hour or so of playing with our toys, and a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage, sweet breads and fruit, we loaded up the car for the trip to our ancestral home—to Pinehurst, in the Sandhillls of Moore County.   It was a three hour trip—all two lane secondary roads that cut through the pine forest and tobacco farms of Eastern North Carolina.  Although we knew they’d be more presents to open once we arrived, my sister, brother and I didn’t relish the thought of the drive. We also didn’t like the idea of leaving most of our toys behind, as there wasn’t enough room in the car with the three of us and an infant. As we drove past homes, we’d see kids out riding new bikes and passing new footballs with their dads.  Such scenes only made us feel sorrier for our imprisonment in the car.
            Once we got to Pinehurst, we began the circuit of visiting our grandparents and great-grandparents.  The particular occasion I have in mind, we stopped first at my mother’s home.  I received a Kodiak 126 camera. My grandfather, as was his tradition, had large boxes and crates of fruits and nuts and he’d give everyone who stopped by a bag containing an orange and a tangerine, apples and an assortment of nuts.  It was his way of sharing and making all who visited feel welcomed.  As we waited for the first of our Christmas dinners to be served, all of us kids, which now included our cousins, ran around in the fields laid fallow for winter. 
            What I remember most about my mother’s parents’ home at Christmas was the cedar tree—an Eastern Red Cedar, the kind which gives off a wonderful fragrance that fills the house.  This bushy tree was simply decorated: white lights, red ornaments and silver icicles.  It seemed much prettier than our skinny store-brought tree and since my grandfather had cut the tree down made it even more special.
After lunch, before we headed off to see other relatives, I was able to snap a photo of my grandparents out by the holly bushes in front of their house.  It was a little crooked, but they stood close together for me, my grandmother thin and my granddaddy, a little chubby (like me).  It would be the last photo taken of them and in a few weeks, we’d again be making the trip to Moore County for his funeral at Beulah Hill Baptist Church.
            Dinner, late Christmas afternoon, was at my dad’s parents.  Before eating, we exchanged gifts.  If my memory is correct, I received a Boy Scout hatchet and soon became the terror or trees and fence posts everywhere.  That hatchet served me well (and got me in trouble) for a number of years before I lost it on a scout camping trip.  Since it was already dark, I didn’t get to try out the hatchet.  Instead, we moved into the dining room for the last of the day’s feasts.  We certainly didn’t need dinner for after stopping at two sets of great-grandparents, who both gave us candy and fruitcake and other goodies; we were stuffed.  But my grandmother had prepared a feast and we indulged ourselves on ham as well as sweet potatoes, collard greens, biscuits and homemade pie.  It would be late in the evening when we were ready to head home.  My grandmother fixed a few biscuits with slices of ham, just in case we got hungry and set us away with a pan of her famous persimmon pudding, a going-away tradition that continued until she moved into a care facility. 

            Driving home, I pressed my nose to the window and peered out into the dark night.  From the east, the tree stars of Orion’s belt rose over the horizon as my breath formed frost on the car window.  I scrapped it off with my hands so I could continue to see.  As we passed the same houses in which the kids played outside that morning, I saw families gathered around the Christmas trees in their living rooms.  Smoke from fireplaces filled the air.  These houses seemed warm and cheerful, but I no longer wished to join them.  It had turned out to be a special day and I was satisfied.  I felt loved and a part of an extended family who cared for me.  Somewhere in the night, as my dad drove and he and mom talked, the three of us in the backseat fell asleep.  When I woke the next morning, I was home, in my own bed.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

Soon, Men may really be from Mars

Nevada Jack Reporting

Recent reports on a Dutch company with over 200,000 applicants to be the first humans to settle (and die) on Mars caught my attention.  According to reports, the first humans could arrive on the red planet in 2025, but it may be later, as the same report admitted they are about five years behind.  Funding for the project is a secretive, but it appears the company expects to raise most of the needed funds on the ultimate survivor show.  After all, what does some remote South Sea island have over Mars beyond water and air, bananas and coconuts?  I’m sure a small amount of the money will come from the personal accounts of those flying off to Mars, for as soon as they leave the atmosphere, their folding money, stock portfolios and ATM cards will be useless. 

Sage has been running around the country like a chicken without a head and ignoring his blog.  With time on my hands, I decided it was time to do some investigative reporting and to figure out just what kind of person would sign up for a one-way trip to the fourth planet.  After some digging and fancy statistical work, this is what I learned
  •         50% Applicants unknowingly signed up by disgruntled spouses or significant others
  •          10% Signed up to get away from a spouse or significant other
  •          5% Dopey Dutch citizens who figure this is the ultimate high
  •          5% Dutch citizens who thought Mars was an abbreviation for Martinique, a nice moist island not far from the equator
  •          20%  Women who want to go to the planet from where men supposedly originate
  •          4%  Men who think it’s a chance to go home
  •          3% Dutch citizens who figure global warming leaves them with no other option
  •          2% Floridians who feel the same way
  •          1% People who thought they were entering a contest for a life-time supply of Mars candy bars.

This applicant pool doesn't exactly rise to the brainpower found in traditional groupings of Astronauts and Cosmonauts, which is why I suggest these modern day pioneers be called Martian-nuts.   The success of such a mission is highly questionable, but those on the earth will be rewarded with a richer gene pool.   Maybe Mars Candy can get in on the profits and start a new line of candy bars.

Check out the latest photo that Sage sent from his cell phone.  The dude is stuck on a prop-plane.  I hope he remembered his ear plugs…  
Like Sage, I can't always get the picture turned right on Blogger
Just turn your computer screen 90 degrees to the left

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A ride of a lifetime... In the Cab of a Steam Locomotive

Backing down the mountain
This has been a crazy fall and I have not finished writing about an incredible trip I took out west this summer.  I’ve already written about Benton Hot Springs and Mono Lake as I made my way from Las Vegas to Virginia City.  And I have also written about a mountain biking trip along the rim of the mountains above Lake Tahoe.   This trip had so many highlights (including time with my grandson in Cedar City) but second to that was a ride in the cab of a 1914 steam engine on the Virginia and Truckee.  Five years ago, I wrote about how they had planned to rebuild the Virginia and Truckee to Carson City, Nevada.  Today, the tracks go from the Carson River to Virginia City, a curvy 16 or so mile run that includes a steep climb up into the Virginia Range.    I had to ride this line when visiting, but thanks to Dee, an old friend who does the books for the railroad, I didn’t have to ride in coach with the other tourists, I got to sit up in the cab with the fireman and the engineer!

I arrive at the V&T shops a little after 7 AM.  As they were getting the engine ready for the day’s run, I walked around the machine shop where the Virginia and Truckee has the capability of repairing and rebuilding old locomotives.   Maintaining a steam locomotive requires a lot of work and a shop is a necessity as parts often have to be fashioned to replace those that have worn out.  The complexity of a steam engine led to their demise as it is much easier to maintain diesel-electric locomotives.  Today’s locomotives may be efficient and easier to maintain, but they lack the romance and the “life-like character” of a “breathing steam engine.”

Heading uphill, looking back over the tender

Our run today is aboard a ninety ton Baldwin locomotive built in 1914 for logging railroads.  The locomotive features a smaller wheels and a large boiler, which also made it a perfect engine to pull trains up a steep line that snakes around the Virginia Range as it climbs from the Carson River to Virginia City.    In its “working life” the locomotive hauled logs for the McCloud Logging Railroad which ran around Mt. Shasta in Northern California.  Today, she hauls tourists to the Comstock Lode and has been trucked offsite (she is the largest locomotive capable of being trucked) for movie appearances.  Some of the guys from the V&T ran her in “Water for Elephants” and I was told the crew had a photo of themselves with Reese Witherspoon, who starred in the film. 

Fireman Ed checking smoke
At about 7:30, Tim, who served as conductor and brakeman, tells me to hope aboard.  He introduces me to the crew, Brian and Ed, and gives me some instructions such as watching my feet so that I don’t ruin a pair shoes by them being pinched by rotating the sheet metal flooring between the tender and the locomotive.   We wait for the go, the iron horse is hissing.   Every little bit there is a booming sound which I learn are the air pumps working to keep a nice draft in the fire box.  When we get the “all clear,” I find a comfortable place to stand and hold on as Brian, the engineer moves the throttle into position and releases the brakes.  We’re off, pulling three empty passenger cars.  Because there is no longer a working turntable, we’ll pull the cars down the grade with the tender in the lead.  At Moundhouse  (Carson Eastgate), where we’ll pick up passengers, we can drop the cars, move the engine to the front as in a normal train, and the pull the cars back up hill.   

Map of  the modern V and T

It’s cool in the morning, but it promises to be a warm day.  Because the grade is so steep, the descent must be controlled.  I watch Ed, the fireman, as he maintains the boiler, making sure there is enough steam for both movement and brakes.  Ed learned to fire a locomotive on a miniature (5 ton) steam trains in California.  Brian jokes that he has the easy job and Ed agrees.  Even though this locomotive is fired by oil and not coal (which requires shoveling), watching the boiler requires constant vigilance, especially on a grade like the V&T which has a few places that you might be going down, only to find yourself heading uphill for a short stretch.  Besides keeping enough steam so that Brian can operate the train, he has to make sure the water level is always high enough to cover the plates within the boiler.  On level ground, this is easier, but when the locomotive is pointed uphill, the water runs into the back of the boiler and when it goes over a hump and points downhill, the water moves to the front of the locomotive.   Exposed metal to the temperatures of the fire, without water to cool it down, could seriously damage the boiler and risk spraying those of us in the cab with steam.

Brian, our engineer for the day, is in charge of the train itself.  Brian is a Virginia City native.  He graduated from high school on the Comstock in 2000 and that summer went to work for the railroad.  He’s been at it ever since.  For years, he was seasonal and had to find other employment in the winter, but a few years ago, was hired on full time.  In the winter, they make a few runs (last year’s Christmas run was infamous as the snow was heavy and it took them nearly three hours to make the run back up the mountain.  Brian and Ed can do each other’s jobs and often switch back and forth.  As the engineer, he’s in charge of the operation of the train, but must depend on the fireman to watch the boiler and to provide him the steam needed for a smooth operation. 

A few minutes later,  Virginia City is out of sight as we cross the tunnel at the Divide and move toward Gold Hill.  Down below us is the Crown Point Mine and Mill site.  We cross the highway, by the old station and the run on over a fill that once was connected by the Crown Point trestle.  The trestle was torn down in 1936, but is widely believed to live on the Nevada Seal, which is a myth since the seal was designed in 1863 and predates the building of the trestle by five years.  Interestingly, there wasn’t even a train within the boundaries of the Nevada Territory when the seal was designed, so the trestle on the seal expressed a hopeful dream of the artist.      

After Gold Hill, the tracks make a long circle around American Flats.  There is a new mining operation with its cyanide leach fields on the north side of the Flats.  Also along this section is a herd of horses.  Ed and Brian seem to know well as they have names for many of the wild animals.  At Scales siding, the half way point, we stop and Brain and Tim checks the brakes.  There is some smoke in one and they are afraid it is overheating, but after checking it, all appears well.  We loop around the south side of the Flats, above the old American Flats Mill, which operated up into the 30s.  Then the tracks turn south and we slip into a tunnel.  On the other side of the tunnel, we can see Moundhouse, the site of where the Virginia and Truckee and the Carson and Colorado Narrow Gauge used to connect.  The train continues to hug the hillside.  The tracks mostly follow the original route except through Moundhouse.  Brain, the engineer, tells me that the original tracks went straight through Moundhouse and picked up the Carson River near where today are several brothels.  Figuring the whorehouses didn’t need to be disturbed by trains, they relocated the tracks to the west.  We cross over Highway 50 on a trestle and soon are at the station.  
Brian oiling the locomotive in Moundhouse (Carson Eastgate)
The parking lot is filled with cars and people have lined up to ride a piece of history.  The cars are dropped and then the train is unhooked and switches tracks.  On the far track, we stop and fill up with water.  I learn that although the train will only use 300 gallons of oil during the weekend, each trip up and down the mountain will require nearly 8000 gallons of water.  Once the tank is filled, we run up to the front of the cars, then switch tracks and couple up with the cars for the run back up the mountain.  Before leaving, Brian oils the working parts of the locomotive

As we leave Moundhouse, Ed pours a couple of cans of sand into the firebox.  The draft is such that the sand is sucked through the boiler tubes and out the stack, cleaning out any build up on the tubes and hopefully making the train run smoother.  As the sand runs through the boiler, or perhaps because of the addition air of having the firebox open, the smoke turns black for a few minutes.  Although it was a relaxed trip going down the mountain, running uphill requires more work, especially from Ed, who has to constantly keep checking on the boiler and making sure there is enough steam for running the train.  It almost seems he is as much of an artist as a mechanic as he both watches gages and makes adjustments to the amount of water going into the boiler or the amount of fuel pumped into the firebox.  But it’s not just the gages that he watches; he also keeps an eye on the smoke, occasionally glances into the firebox, and is always listening to the boiler breathing.    

Arrival in Virginia City
The sun is now high in the sky and it’s getting hot, but I’m not prepared for the experience of the first tunnel.  When we enter it, a hot wind blows across the boiler and into the cab and the temperature must have risen by 30 or 40 degrees.  Coming down, with the boiler behind us, the tunnels weren’t hot, but with the boiler in front, we feel all the heat.  This was the reason the last steam engines built for the Southern Pacific were “cab-forward” varieties.  It was harder to build a cab-forward locomotive when the fireman had to shovel coal (or you had to have the fireman and engineer in two different ends of the train which created communication problems).  But once the railroad began using oil, they could move both to the front of the boiler.  Not only did this allow better views of the track, it keep the cab more comfortable in long tunnels and the miles and miles of snowsheds the locomotives traveled as they made their way through the Sierras. 

At Scales, we stop for a few minutes and Brian gets out and oils various parts of the engine.  We then continue on until the Gold Hill Station where a few people get off in order to have lunch at the Gold Hill Hotel, but most continue on as the train makes the climb into Virginia City.  There, everyone gets off.  They’ll have three hours to tour the town before making the run back south.  I skip the ride south, but go out into the heat and photograph the train as it makes its way down the mountain.  Ed, Brian and Tim will leave the train at Moundhouse overnight.  The next morning they’ll pick up passengers and run them up to Virginia City and at the end of the day, after dropping the passengers off in Moundhouse, will take the empty train back up the mountain where it will be used during the week to shuttle tourist around the Comstock between Virginia City and Gold Hill.  The steam trains only run between Moundhouse and Virginia City on Saturdays and Sundays.  
Ed and Tim at the end of a run

Friday, November 15, 2013

Things That Are

Amy Leach, Things That Are (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2012), 192 pages.

In these essays the author ponders over the mysteries of nature and science, from the smallest animals to the vastness of the universe.   Nothing is too small to escape her awe as she provides a fresh look at the world in which we live and the universe in which our world travels.  Of course, Leach tends to have certain favorites within creation as turtles and hippopotamuses often reappear.  To the science she uses to weave her stories, she adds mythology, history and folklore, which creates a delightful collection of essays.  This book provides the reader new lens for looking at the world in a novel way.

I was hooked by Leach’s prose in an early essay within the collection.  In “Goats and By Goats,” she discusses the eating habits of goats and sheep and how sheep, when the grass dies, wanders aimlessly looking for more grass.  Goats, on the other hand, look for new sources of food and have even been known to climb trees to eat the sprouts and leaves at the end of branches.  “Goats are generalists,” she writes, noting that as explorers set out in the 16th Century, they placed goats on deserted islands knowing the goats would survive and would be there for the taking if they, or another ship, was ever marooned on the island. (15)  In the meantime, the goats enjoyed the freedom of the island.  This essay caused me to recall an incident from my childhood.  We were fishing at night in a tidal creek off a barren island on the Carolina Coast, which still had wild goats at the time.  That night we heard a ruckus and when dad shined a light, we saw two rams fight it out, not more than fifty feet away.  Leach gave me a new appreciation for a specie that’s been maligned ever since Jesus told the parable of the separating the sheep from the goats. 

Leach sprinkles humor throughout her essays.  “What happens to jellyfish out of water is similar to what happens to bridesmaids hairdos in water,” she writes in an essay about jellyfish and light.   (84)  Later, in the same essay, she pronounces: “Your blessing is your curse and your curse is your blessing.”  (90)  I begin to wonder I she’s been reading some of the same stuff on polarity thinking that I have been studying recently?  In an essay upon which she muses about the possibility of a modern day “Noah’s Ark,” she tells the animals there is not enough room for everyone because we need to save our junk (electronics, refrigerators, cars, planes, etc), however there will be plenty of room for animals with rumps and ribs!  She names Noah’s first boat “Fantasy” and the new ark “Reality.”  (106)  Unlike Noah, we are more focused on luxury and maintaining our standard of living than saving a planet! 

Her opening essays are grounded on earth as she sticks to animals and plants, but about midway through the collection, she turns her thoughts outward, to the stars and the galaxies and on to the divine.   In a short essay on God, she writes:  “The people say the word repeatedly, and the more they repeat it, the less I can understand it.” (99)  I wondered if we say the word more and more as a way to attempt to give God meaning (which would be a form of blasphemy), and was reminded of a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent.  Taylor makes the claim that God’s silence may be a defense against our glut of words.  In a later essay, in which Leach muses about oracles, she writes: “Who needs a priestess with the divinity at hand?” (166).   I am sure I would read too much into Leach to see her affirming the Protestant position on the priesthood of all believers, but I do think she has a point in that the divine is all around.   When it comes to our connection with the stars, she foretells of a potential crash (or merger) of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy (a mere three billion years away).  When it comes to the stars, we’re really alone, she reminds us:  “Living in a galaxy is like living in a neighborhood where the house down the street might have burned down four thousand years ago but you wouldn’t know it for another three thousand years.”  (144)

These are essays to be savored.  I enjoyed reading them and will reread them.  I came across this book in the promotion of the Calvin Colleges “Festival of Faith and Writing."  Leach will be one of the participants (there are generally sixty five or so) at the 2014 Festival.  This every other year event is a treat and I would recommend it to you, if you are able to make it.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Morning in Watkins Glen

I spent the first five days of November in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.  This is the story of one morning walk when we were in Watkins Glen

The day before, the rain turned to a mixture of snow and sleet before stopping and the wind had ruined many kids plans for Halloween had died, having blown the clouds away.   It was 19 degrees at 6 AM.  Two days earlier it would have been 7 AM, but daylight saving time had ended and it felt like I’d slept in.  I crawled out from the plush covers at the Harbor Hotel, a four star hotel that must cater to lowlifes for everywhere I turn in the room are signs and notes about not stealing.  They seem concerned for their fluffy towels, terrycloth robes, the pen set on the desk, the corkscrew and the wine glasses on the cadenza…  The signs inform would be thieves that such items are available in the gift shop (or was that shoppe, as this is one of those kind of hotels that likes things to sound fancy).  If just take them, they threaten to charge you even more when they tack it to your bill.  I figured I didn’t have a need for any of the items.
True Love in dry dock
There’s coffee by the elevators and I pour myself a cup before heading out into the cold.  Crossing the old Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, now Finger Lake Rails, which run down the west side of Seneca Lake, I head to the town’s pier.  Things are quiet and a mist is rising from the water that’s warmer than the air.   There seems to be no one around. There is a sign by the empty berth indicating where “True Love” is moored in summer.  The old schooner has been featured in a number of movies.  The pier itself is a little slippery from the frozen frost.  Only a couple boats remain in the boat slips, most having been pulled from the water for the season.  At the end of the pier, along the rock break wall and behind the shack, I’m surprised to find a lone man fishing the deep water.  Wearing heavy insulated clothes, he drinks coffee from an oversized insulated mug.  We talk for a few minutes and I realize he has had some luck when a couple of perch in a bucket flop around.  I’m surprised there’s no ice on the lake and he tells me that the lake has only frozen over a few times in recorded history, the last being in the 1940s.   

The boat in front is Hagar (the hotel is to the back)
As I head over to the marina, the 7 AM horn blows at the mill on the east end of town.  At the marina, there are three boats are still in the water.  At the end of the marina pier a classic 63 foot schooner named “When and If” is tied up.  I later learn from the morning paper that the boat, which was once owned by General George Patton, had just sailed in a few days earlier and would winter in Watkins Glen.  The owner, who runs a vineyard, plans to sail it out through the canals in the fall (he’ll have to take the mast off to do this) and out to the ocean where he’ll sail along the northeast coast before taking the boat south for the winter of 2014-15.  The boat was launched in 1939.  Patton and his wife had plans to sail it around the world after the war, but his death in an accident just after the European War ended kept him from enjoying the boat.   There are two other classic wooden sailboats still in the water at the marine; both more to the size I prefer.  One is named Hagar and I wonder if the owner’s name is Abraham.  If not, I’m sure she’s named Hagar because she’s his other love. 

One of the plaques in the sidewalk

Waterfront bathed in sunlight
As the sun rises over the hills to the east, bringing a bright red glow to the trees that still have leaves.  I walk back across the waterfront and into town, looking at some of the older buildings.  In the sidewalks are marble plaques honoring race car drivers that have won at Watkins Glen, a quaint town that has a long history with auto racing.  As I come back to the hotel to pack up, I stop at a wonder bakery and deli, the Glen Mountain Market for a wrap with spinach and egg along with some pastries for breakfast.  We eat in the hotel room and soon are back on the road, heading south to Corning where we plan to once again tour the Glass Museum before heading west and visiting friends for the night in Ellicottville.  

Friday, October 25, 2013

An afternoon of paddling

I haven’t been on the water since I took my sailboat out late in September and was itching to be out while there were still some leaves on the trees.  Surprisingly, this fall hasn’t been as colorful as last.  This year, we got adequate water.  There are some nice splotches of color, but nothing as spectacular as last year when we were in a drought.  I was only on the water for a little over two hours, paddling about six miles.  There were numerous ducks and kingfishers, a few great blue herons, nearly a dozen abandon hornet’s nest, lots of falling leaves and one turtle.  I would have thought the turtles would have found their winter homes already, especially since there was no sun to speak of today.  It was cool, in the low to mid-40s with a few moments of sleet.  The wind was strong which made it feel cooler at times.   Paddling by myself, I was attentive to the scenery as I listened to the ripple of the water and the wind howling in the trees.  It was soothing to my soul, a desperately needed outing.  Enjoy the photos…
I always take a few reflection shots

Calm waters and leaves

shallow and fast water

Great Blue Heron taking flight


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Art Prize 2013 and Checking In

I have been really busy and distracted the past few weeks and haven’t spent very much time on blogger as I’m sure you know.  Or maybe you don’t know, or even worse, maybe I’ve not been missed at all.  I’d be like the tree falling in the wood and no one hears… Well, I could throw a pity party, but I don’t have time...  So instead, I am going to share a bunch of random photos that I took a couple weeks ago at Art Prize in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  This year’s show ran from September 18 to October 6.  Art Prize is one of the largest displays of public art (and much of the art is also over-sized, such as the flags flying in the Grand River).  This year’s winner was a massive mural of Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, which was beautiful but might also show some regional pride as the art is judged by votes and the natives voted!  One thread that seemed to run through much of the art was recycling as all kinds of old junk (old tires, scrap metal, driftwood, glass bottles, etc) were converted into artwork. Check out the "Top 10." Enjoy the photos and I’ll try to write or share more about what’s been going on later…
Cubism isn't dead after all
notice the boat, the barrels, the old license plates!

Earth Giant (6 Place) with a fishing line out into the river

Waves on the Grand (or a giant canoe obstacle course)

Recycled tires created into a panda (10th Place)

Giant Quakers (but do they float like the one in Pittsburgh)

One junkyard depleted...

The Ford Museum has always been a venue
due to the government shutdown, everything had to be moved outside

This year's winner

My attempt at enhancing art by adding my photo to it!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Private History of Awe (and a photo)

I'm spending a couple of days up north, on Lime Lake, with a friend talking philosophy and theology while we fish and I help with some stuff around his cabin.  I have read a number of books recently that I would like to review...  this is one of them.

Scott Russell Sanders, A Private History of Awe (New York: North Point Press, 2006), 322 pages.

This is a beautiful book.   Sander’s writing is graceful and eloquent, even though I did not always find myself in agreement with his theology.  It is evident that Sanders has left his childhood faith behind.  Yet, and it may seem strange for me to suggest this from a man who questions the deity of Christ, his writings appear to me to be incarnational.  Sanders experiences the Creator’s hand throughout the world and especially in other people.  In this memoir, Sanders weaves together the story of his first twenty-five years (up to the birth of his daughter) with the present (experiencing the world through his granddaughter and the decline of his own mother).  

Although born in the rural South, Sanders’ family moved north when he was just a boy.  His father took a position at the Arsenal, a huge military compound in Ohio where they build bombs for the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  Later, the family moved outside the Arsenal, to a home with land along a creek (that would later be dammed for reservoir, requiring the family to move again).  Here, Sanders began to love nature.  Sanders’ father often drank and could be abusive, especially to his mother.  As a young boy, Sanders hated his father for how he treated his mother, but in later years he seems to have made some peace and realized there were good characteristics to his father.  For one, his father challenged racial assumptions that were common in America during the 1950s and early 60s.  The contractor he worked for also saw this and when Sanders was older, they sent his father to Louisiana to help foster peace between African-American and white workers.  Sanders himself grew up admiring Martin Luther King, and he relates much of what was happening in his life to national and international events including the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War and Vietnam. 

As a high school student, Sanders attended a camp for students who showed promise within the sciences where he met a girl named Ruth, from Indiana.  The two of them struck up a close friendship that lasted through their senior year in high school and through their college years.  (Ruth stayed back in Indiana for school while Sanders headed to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island).  While in college, Brown changed majors, leaving science behind for English.  After college, Sanders had a scholarship to study in Great Britain while Ruth had a scholarship for graduate study at Harvard, but they ended up marrying and both going to Britain where Sanders earned a PhD, focusing his dissertation on the writings of D. H. Lawrence.   Coming back to America, the couple decided to settle in Indiana, with Sanders teaching at the University.  This decision went against the suggestions of many of their friends who questioned such wisdom of attempting to become an established author in the Midwest.   However, the decision reflected the role of place and the importance of family in the Sanders’ lives.

This book contains many wonderful stories.  We learn about how Sanders first encountered and later dealt with racial issues, with the Vietnam War and the possibility of being drafted, with the two-sides of his father, with his place in the created world and awe for nature and a desire to do no harm.  Grace is seen throughout these pages.  Sanders may have moved away from the childhood faith of his parents, but he retains the awe and is disturbed that awe is often missing from churches today. 

There were two places where Sanders got me questioning his understanding of nature or remembrance of an event.  Both are minor mistakes, but I will note them.  He speaks of the seed heads of poisonous sumac turning brilliantly red in the fall (92), but that plant doesn’t have a seed head and its berries don’t turn red don’t turn red but a grayish white.   I think he is referring to staghorn sumac.   On another occasion, he tells about going to a room at the university (in Great Britain) to watch the first man on the moon.  As they walked to the building, the clouds parted long enough for him to see the waxing crescent of the moon…  Early that next morning, as he’s walking back from having spent most of the night watching the moon footage, he also sees the crescent moon setting.   If it was truly a crescent (new moon), it would have long set when he headed home.  As a said, both of these are minor and really don’t distract from the power of Sander’s prose.  
"A moment of awe"
before sunrise at Lime Lake

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Last Sail (of the season)

Jim and Todd (notice my busted seat)

Things have been rather crazy in my sageless domain recently.  Michigan seems to be void of sage except in gardens.  I haven't even finished writing about my trip to sageland (Nevada and Utah) back in July.  But the leaves are beginning to change color and the temperature is dropping.  Yesterday,  I had the last sail of the year with two friends who helped me take down the mast.  The boat is out of the water now.  Before storage, I have some work to do on it--cleaning the hull and repairing a seat that busted.  It was a good summer with lots of days on the water with all kinds of wind.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Pretty good, I think

These are some musings from a Labor Day drive I took with my daughter who now has her learner's permit and needs to log 50 hours of driving before she turns 16 so she can get her driver's license.   I realize I didn't do a Queen Anne's lace poem this year, as I have often done in the past, and the long-legged lacy flowers are all but gone for the season.

Replaced by golden rods with their yellow tassels waving in the wind, Queen Anne has rolled the last of her lace into tight balls as if to be stored in the bottom drawer of a dresser.  The top leaves of the beans are also turning yellow and the corn is drying as the farmers make their final cut of hay

“Take a right,” I say, and my daughter flips the blinkers on and slows down to almost a stall before she navigates the turn and picks up speed. 

“How’s that?” she asks.

“Pretty good, but you don’t have to slow down so much.”

The road runs along the river for a bit and at the town of Irving, which is just a cluster of houses void of any commercial interest, we cross the Thornapple at the dam and head northwest, winding around countryside on a Labor Day morning.  She needs hours behind the wheel and I need to look at the countryside, so I direct her around the back way to Freeport, a town a little more prosperous than Irving that sits just north of the Coldwater, a pristine trout stream, or so I’m told as I can’t seem to make time to fish it even though it’s only a dozen miles away.  Then we make our way back toward Hastings and take State Road out to Vermontville, a community that host the annual Maple Syrup festival in early spring and, in keeping with towns in the state from which it was named, sports a whitewashed wooden Congregational Church at the center.   Between Vermontville and Nashville, we cross the Thornapple again, but here it’s just a small stream and only canoeable at high water.

The leaves of sumac in the swamps have turned bright red, and I wonder if it is a warning of what’s ahead.  Even a few of the maples have a splash of color, a good month early.  And the apple trees seemed to be overly blessed as they droop with fruit.  Things are changing; it’ll be an early fall.  Does such a blessing indicate a hard winter?  

“Watch for buggies,” I tell her as we pass a yellow warning sign. 

"I know, Dad.” Her voice is sweet but I’m sure there is an eye roll behind her sunglasses.  But this is Amish Country and one has to be alert to slow moving buggies. 

“Take a left,” I tell her as we approach Nashville.  She signals and slows to a stop at the sign, before turning onto Main Street.   “How’s that?” She asks as we pass the café and the bar, the hardware and the grocery store, the playhouse and the old Michigan Central station before turning left for home.  “Pretty good,” I say.

For a while the road follows the Old Michigan Central Grade.  Next year it’ll be thirty years since they removed the track.  On the left a few miles out of Nashville is the Octagon barn, a novelty in these parts.   At places beside the highway are strands of dead ash, waiting for a good winter wind to send them back to an earthly grave that they’ll share with the chestnuts.  We take a left on 37 and drive through town.  It’s time for lunch. 

“How did I do,” she asks as she navigates the driveway around the house.

“Pretty good,” I say. 


Thursday, August 29, 2013

Wind, beards, a silver anniversary and the news

At mooring, waiting for the wind...
Summer has flown by and recently I’ve noticed the bright green hues of spring have faded as the undergrowth leaves begin to turn colors.  After last year’s drought and terrible harvest in these parts, the corn stands tall, soybeans are all bushy and apple trees appear loaded with fruit.  It appears creation is blessing us with a bounty.

Since arriving back from my trip out West last month, I have spent most available afternoons sailing.   Some days, the wind has been nearly non-existent and I recline in my boat, using life jackets as cushions as I let my troubles drift along with the boat.  Other days, the sailing has been fast and my troubles disappear as I focus on the wind, the water ahead, and the shape of the sails.   The wind on smaller lakes change more often than on larger bodies of water, so when the winds are strong, concentration is a must.  However, the thrill of the boat heaving as it slices through the water is exhilarating and makes the effort worthwhile.  I have yet to capsize to the boat (but this past Sunday had it heaving on a reach to where the port side of the cockpit was just inches from the water line).  Since my boat is a classic, built in the mid-60s and before they began to install self-bailing contraptions on this type of boat, the thought of capsizing and me-bailing isn’t appealing.

Me and my beard at the tiller on a light wind day
This month I’m celebrating a silver anniversary for my beard!  That’s right; it has now been 25 years since a razor has scrapped my cheeks and chins.  As I had a few beards before this one, when I grew the hairs out on a backpacking trip in the Idaho mountains in the summer of ’88, I had no idea I would have kept it this long, but I don’t have any plans on shaving it anytime soon, maybe never.  Of course, as I’ve aged, I have found I need to keep the beard trimmed for when it gets too long the gray spots become too prominent.  With the celebrations of my bread, I’ve been hearing a lot about other beards lately.  On the radio the other day (I think NPR), I learned that Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame dyed his beard early on in order to create his image.   Another NPR report discussed beards and politics in Iran!  Then there’s BrianWilson, a pitcher for the LA Dodgers and his beard.  And then there is a viral youtube post about a magic beard that I watched thanks to Sherry, one of my blogging buddies.  With all this media and blogging talk about beards, you’d think there is nothing important going on in the world such as us sticking our nose into the mess in Syria.  

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bless Ewe

For the past week, I’ve mostly neglected blogs as I’ve spent my time sailing.  The weather has turned cooler but there have been some days with great wind and others when I sat relaxed and waited for the air to begin to move.  Either way, it’s been great and as the sailing season is short up here, I’m going to make the most of it.  However, I did want to get this review down before I forget some of the details.  Enjoy!

Jeff Kunkel, Blessed Ewe: More Stories for All Seasons (Shorewood, WI: Face to Face Books, 2000), 181

These ten short stories are all set in the Midwest and along the Great Lakes at various times over the past century and a half.  The common thread running through the yarns is change and transitions that forces those within the story to accept a new reality.  In the opening story, “Stone Fences,” a daughter of Lutheran farmer decides to marry a Catholic.  The father must decide whether or not he will support his daughter’s decision.  In “Buck Haven,” a group of men who have hunted together for decades and have worried when there are no sons willing to join them are surprised by the willingness of a daughter-in-law.  There is the tale of a young woman going to work in the steel mills during the Second World War, as her family frets over their Russian homeland as Hitler’s tanks advance.   My favorite story, “Come About!” is an account of a terrible storm on Lake Michigan at the end of the shipping season 1880.  Kunkel tells the story of one ship’s struggle to survive a blow that sunk dozens of ships.  The title story, “Bless Ewe” is heart-wrenching and humorous story of a young pastor celebrating his first Christmas at a new church is surprised (as with the congregation and the farmer whose sheep he borrowed) when a four-legged member of the Nativity cast gives birth during the Christmas Eve service.  

The author is able to draw us into the story using very ordinary events and with an attention to details that make the stories seem even more real.  Kunkel’s writing is crisp, filled with subtle humor, and a pleasure to read.  I must admit that I was surprised as I picked up this book with apprehension.  The title seemed cheesy, but from the first story, I was drawn into the book and enjoyed devouring the tales within the collection. 

I met the author at a recent conference I attended at Lake Tahoe and, as a disclaimer, was given a copy of this book. However, I was not asked to review the book.   Kunkel, a United Methodist minister, has one additional book of short stories, several children’s books and an adventure/historical book set in Alaska.  For those of you who may be baseball fans, this Jeff Kunkel is not a backup catcher for the Detroit Tigers.   

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Drive North (part 2): Mono Lake

Looking at the Sierras
 This is a second part of my "drive north."  I spent the last two weeks of July in Nevada, Eastern California and Utah (In addition to my "drive north," I have already posted about mountain biking and watching the moon set in the early morning along Lake Tahoe),   I love this country!  Because of the beauty of the scenery, I've made most of these photos larger, so if you click on them you can enjoy them in a larger format.

On Friday morning, July 19, I had a decision to make.  Not being expected in Virginia City until late in the day, I had time to explore.  I could backtrack a little on US 6 and then take Nevada 360 back through US 95 (following the old railroad bed of the Carson and Colorado), or I could continue on California 120 to Mono Lake.  Although I had never driven the 23 miles of Nevada 360, I’d driven 95 up through Mina, Hawthorne and Yerington many times. I’d also been by Mono Lake many times, but only once had I spent time walking along its shore and that was back in 1988.  I decided to head to the lake. 
The roller coaster road bed on CA 120

Although I had also driven California 120 many times, heading from Utah to Yosemite, I had forgotten how much part of the highway is like a roller coaster.  From Benton Hot Springs, the road climbs the sage covered hills and once on top, it seems as if they forgot to grade the road and just laid asphalt on the rolling hills, with short pitches of roadbed followed by quick short drops that leave your gut hanging a 100 feet overhead.   You also worry about what’s on the other side of the pitch because you can’t see down into the trough until you're headed down.  Although there is little traffic on this road, this is open range and it’s always possible to find a cow loitering around at the bottom, something that wouldn’t do either of us any good.  However, I enjoy the drive and after about 30 miles, the Sierras began to loom in the distance and Jeffrey Pines begin to replace sagebrush and the occasional pinion pine. 

Young Jeffrey Pines at site of old mill
I stop at a new interpretative site for Mono Mills, a sawmill that stripped the largest forest of Jeffrey Pines in the world.  I have always liked this variety of pine and think of them as kin as we share the same name.  Today, the Jeffreys growing here, whose bark has the distinct smell of vanilla, are all second growth.  During the heyday in Bodie (a mining town north of Mono Lake), there was a short-line railroad that ran to this mill, but the train (which never connected to another railroad) was abandoned in 1917, as the mines died out and the forests were depleted.  You can still see a few railroad ties at the site of the mill.  According to the interpretative signs, when the railroad was abandoned, it was sold for scrap and brought in more money than the investors had originally paid to build the line.  I expect World War 1 and the high price of scrap metal had something to do with the bonus its investors received.  

Looking toward Yosemite from Mono Lake

A little further down 120, I take a right on a gravel road that leads out to the shores of Mono Lake.   It still feels as if I’m far from civilization, but as I am walking up to the ranger station to pay my three bucks for a day-use permit, I’m shocked with the ringing of my cell phone.  I didn’t even realize I was again connected to the larger world as I’d pretty much been disconnected since leaving Tonopah yesterday (yes, there are still places beyond the reach of a cell phone).  I take the call, but then turn the ringer off.  

Brine flies that line the lakeshore
Mono Lake is a unique place.  Nestled in a basin, the water runs off the backside of the Sierras and down from the Bodie Hills and from the volcanic craters to the south and ends up in an evaporating in the lake where the water leaves behind its mineral content.  As a result, the lake is extremely salty, as are similar bodies of water:  The Great Salt Lake in Utah, Pyramid Lake in Northwestern Nevada and the Dead Sea in the Middle East.  Although there are no fish in these waters, the waters are full of brine shrimp and flies, the later which do not bite but cover the shoreline and at times look like moving carpet as they make a way for you to walk through them.  The flies and shrimp attract birds and the lake is home for many species of birds as well as a stop-over point for many others during migration.   Also unique about the lake are tufas that line the shoreline, limestone statues created over the centuries as spring water laden with calcium percolate into the waters of Mono Lake.  The calcium in the spring water bonds with the carbon in the lake water to create calcium carbonate.  As the lake level falls (it has a history of rising and falling), it exposes these unique statues, giving the shoreline of Mono Lake an appearance that seems as if should be from another planet. 

For much of the past century, the lake has been falling rapidly as tributaries that bring water from the surrounding mountains have been diverted to Southern California to wet the thirst of those in the Los Angeles basin.  However, in the mid-90s, a lawsuit was settled that forced the water authorities to allow more water to drain into the lake, allowing the lake to rise to its 1963 level.  This level is still way below the 1930s level, but is significantly above the level it was in the early 1990s.  The ranger informed me that the lake has risen at least 10 feet since I’d walked along it’s shoreline in 1988.  When the lake reaches the 1963 level, the water authorities can again tap into the streams coming into Mono Lake, but must allow enough water to flow into the lake to keep it at a constant level.
Birds feasting on shrimp and flies
The next hour or so I spend walking along the lakeshore, watching the birds feast on the brine shrimp and flies and observing the clouds’ reflections on the water.   It’s warm, but not too hot and there is a breeze that’s keeping the temperatures down.  I spot a group of kayakers paddling on the lake.  There are signs warning people that the lake is subject to violent storms that can quickly rise, such as the one Mark Twain endured with his friend Higbie when they camped along the lake in the early 1860s.  Taking a rowboat to one of the islands, they came back in a violent storm.  Twain also noted how clean their clothes were in that camp, for the water was nearly pure lye and their washings didn’t require much scrubbing.

In the early afternoon, I leave the lake.  I wished I had more time to explore but I was getting hungry.  I continued on west on California 120, toward the Sierras that were now looming over me.  Reaching US 395, I turned north and drove to the small community of Lee Vining.  I have to resist the temptation to take a left and head up Tioga Pass and into Yosemite.  Not seeing anyplace that I want to eat in the overly touristy town of Lee Vining, I continue on to Bridgeport (again, resisting the temptation to turn, this time to the right and climb up into the heights and visit, once more, the town of Bodie—a ghost town turned state park).

In Bridgeport, which I’d always considered a cow town, I stop at the Burger Barn, where I enjoy an Elk Burger.  While there, I talked with a northbound thru-hiker along the Pacific Crest Trail.  She gives me her trail name, but for some reason I don’t record it in my journal so I won’t be able to look and see if she makes it by the end of the hiking season.   She’s waiting at the Burger Barn for a promised ride back up to Sonora Pass (this is quite a drive and she's lucky to have someone going that direction).   Leaving Bridgeport, which I found to be busier than it was the last time I’d been through here in the late 1980s, I drive on up 395, through the Walker River Valley, amazed at the number of new businesses that have popped up since my last time in this part of the country.  Also amazing is the growth south of Carson City.  The towns of Gardnerville and Minden no longer seem separate from the state capital.  In Carson City, I take a right on US 50.  One last surprise was at Mound House, just east of Carson City and my turn on Nevada 341 for the drive up the mountain to Virginia City.  Above the highway was a trestle for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad which now extends all the way from Virginia City to the Carson River. 
Kayakers on the lake
I arrived in Virginia City around four, in time for dinner and some music and to make plans for my Saturday’s adventure.  Stay tuned.  The next installment will tell about my trip in the cab of a 1914 steam train.