Friday, April 10, 2015

Uninhabited

A few minutes after pulling away from the only dock on the seven-mile long, uninhabited Parramore Island, our small craft runs aground nearly knocking us passengers out of the boat.  A full moon has exaggerated the low tide and is threatening our return to the mainland.  When we left this morning, the crossing from Wachapreague to Parramore at high tide was a twenty minute, full throttle endeavor.    But now, low tide has us trickling along cautiously as the captain keeps a close eye on the depth-finder. 

All aboard are whooped after spending the past seven hours completing a diabolical list of manual tasks.  My boat mates and I are volunteers who spent the day helping convert an old Coast Guard repair garage into a rudimentary educational shelter for the Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve.  Once complete, it will be used to showcase the tremendous value of Parramore Island and the 13 other pristine islands that front nearly the entire the coast of Virginia and form one of the longest stretches of uninhabited Atlantic coast.  These barrier islands are like a football lineman, sheltering the mainland from storms.  As important, they provide vital habitat for migrating water birds.  They’re also strong reminders that some places in this world are best left untouched. 

Perhaps the grounding and the slow ride back to the mainland have been a blessing in disguise.  These perceived inconveniences helped prolong what will go down as one of the more memorable experiences in my life.  The slow, quiet return pace through the channels and bays allowed time for the day to fully sink in.  Parramore has long been on the extremely short list of places I’ve dreamt about visiting, and it did not disappoint in the least.  Its isolation and pristine nature only enhanced this tremendous opportunity.   And the slow float back enhanced it even more.

The hard work has been a bonding experience for this potpourri of volunteers – an army pilot, a lawyer’s wife, an insurance guy, a physicist, a marine scientist, and a soil conservationist.   The common thread, of course, was our interest in thoughtfully preserving and appreciating the natural elements of this world.  The diversity of our group, as well as this common thread (and a little alcohol), made for quite an enjoyable dinner together after our long return journey.   We stayed the night courtesy of the Nature Conservancy in a beautifully restored and stocked home at Brownsville Farm – the Coast Reserve’s headquarters.  Sharing travel stories with these folks, who appreciate naturally unique and beautiful places, was where the dinner chat flowed.  And what better topic for this group who just visited a place that’s surely near the top of their list of favorite places?    

Introvert that I am, throwing me into a house full of strangers, then boating us off to an uninhabited island and forcing us to make dinner together was a bit out of the norm.  But like running aground, these perceived inconveniences turned into blessings enhancing the unique and memorable experience of being one of the chosen few to ever to set foot on Parramore Island.


See more of Virginia's Eastern Shore at this link: 


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sky Island



The empty passenger seat shimmies violently in time with my rental’s out of balance tires.  Compounding matters is my speed - just the slightest tire unevenness is exaggerated at 80 mph.  I’m hurrying across southeastern Arizona, but I’m beginning to doubt my plan…

I left Phoenix two hours ago and I’m still 130 miles from my destination.  I’m on my way to Chiricahua National Monument – a uniquely high mountain chain peppered with otherworldly rhyolite spires.  It’s known both as the land of standing up rocks and a Madrean archipelago sky island, descriptions that have intrigued me for years.  For the past two hours though, I’ve been passing one mountain chain after another and it’s got me wondering if the descriptive intrigue I’m chasing is worth it.  Surely one of these other closer chains is as intriguing, right?

A bit later, I start to see warnings about the remoteness of my destination – road signs in big letters cautioning travelers that there are no services ahead.  Gas, food, and toilets don’t exist out here.  I find these warnings actually comforting; affirming that, in fact, my mountain choice is a unique one.  The other chains I’m passing come with no such warnings.

The Chiricahua Mountains are located in Cochise County in the far southeast corner of Arizona bordering Mexico.  It’s as desolate a civilization as I’ve been to; Brigadoon-like in that it’s little known and hard to find.  Its barren wide-open spaces are vividly apparent, especially to an east coaster like me.  A lack of humanity is apparent as well.  Over a two day period, I drove over forty miles from my inn to the park entrance and never once passed another vehicle.  I could have set up a picnic table in the middle of Route 181 and enjoyed lunch before another car came.  

Not surprisingly, Cochise is an extremely quiet place, which does wonders for clearing your head.  Your thoughts more easily mature in Cochise.  This was no more evident than on my first night when I drove to Massai Point.  At 6,825 feet above sea level, I experienced an amazing sunset in complete silence.  After hiking a hundred yards down from the empty parking lot, I tucked myself behind one of the many massive rock spires.  Here I sat alone for an hour with my thoughts, in the extreme quiet, enjoying the unobstructed vantage point until the sun had completely set.  Ironically, surrounded by the steadiness of immovable ancient rocks, I could actually feel the earth rotating, rather than the sun setting.  It was as if a reclining chair were being pulled back slowly as the sun faded.  

Starkly, after being so relaxed watching the sunset at 6:37, I flipped the switch to hurry mode; zipping down the mountain and high-speeding across the vacant Route 181 for a 7:15 dinner date.  In Cochise County, dining options are quite limited, to say the least.  Graciously, the innkeeper where I was staying offered dinner to me and another guest couple who have lived in New York, Portland, and Patagonia.  After enjoying one of the best sunsets ever, I topped off my day with several glasses of local wine, great conversation, and a 5-star meal; after which was followed by one of the darkest, deepest, and quietest night’s sleep I’ve ever experienced.    

The next morning I returned to the top of Chiricahua and followed the 3-mile Echo Canyon loop trail.  It weaved for the first mile through an amazing sea of rhyolite spires at the top of the mountain, then began switch-backing down to the base of a ravine.  As I descended and looked up, it felt as if I were tempting fate - like walking under a ladder.  The illogically imbalanced crowns of so many of the spires that I had been weaving through earlier seemed poised to tumble at any second.  

Once out from under the ladder, the last stretch followed a ledge trail through the aptly named Totem Canyon where lizards scampered with nearly every boot steep, and the smells of creosote and pine punctuated this amazing loop.   Here again, the quietness of Chiricahua was on full display.  

Sensing the trail’s end, I began slowing and stopping more during the final stretch.  Not because I was tired, but because I wanted to hear more of the silence, and experience as much of the amazing Chiricahua as a single day would allow.  

The Land of Standing Up Rocks was unquestionably worth the many years of anticipation… and worth a shimmying, service-free, four hour, doubt-riddled drive from Phoenix.   This trip to Chiricahua has been so much more than just seeing a cool spire-spiked mountain.  The whole peaceful experience over the past few days has been a real head clearer, and a reminder of just how powerful nature, silence, and open spaces can be.  

If you believe that silence is golden, and rocks are steady, then Chiricahua is your paradise.  


See more about the Chiricahua Mountains and Cochise County here:


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Luster Layers

I sense my time outside on this amazing day is passing too swiftly so I stop and stand in the stillness to reset.   A fallen tree nearby lies nearly perpendicular; I clear a butt-width of snow, lay out a bandana, take a seat, and fire up a medium strength Nicaraguan.

I’m halfway down a broad, snowy ravine on England Mountain.  The mid-morning rays of a low hanging winter sun crown only the rims.  The rays won’t reach the deepest depths of this ravine until late spring.  It’s a fine place to rest… and to stall the swiftly passing time. 

Snow has dampened all sounds, but enough emanate to create a soothing cacophony. 

Breezes passing through what’s left of the deciduous canopy.

The creaking of a weakened tree as it fights for its life.

The calls of brown & black flittering Robins.

And the hammering of pair of ample-breasted woodpeckers.  

Earlier, I had doubts I’d make it this far.  Four inches of top-crusted snow slowed my pace hiding the trail and its ankle twisting challenges that lay beneath.  I had to connect the dots – going from marker to marker as I trail blazed through the unbroken snow.  At times I hesitated to continue on, but the closer I got to halfway around, the more moot the decision became. 

Moot too was my reaction to spotting bear tracks.  Last month, discovering them caused a retreat.  Today though, I crossed them twice and didn’t flinch.  This place continues to grow in comfort, bear-n-all.

Though I’ve walked this loop now many times, I’m still surprised by its surprises.  Coming here on a regular basis I thought would ruin her.  I’m not much of a repeater; I prefer the magic of first impressions to become my only impressions of places – like Pingvellir, Burke’s Garden, and White Point.  Returning to those places, I feel, would only dull their lusters.  But routine returns to this loop have only been adding to the shine.  Today’s trail blazing experience has made for yet another unique outing.  The luster here comes from a building up of many layers.

In a month, I’ll be walking a similarly lenghted loop trail through a land of standing rocks within sight of old Mexico.  Trees and their woodpeckers will be sparse, and there won’t be a lick of snow, even at nearly 7,000 feet of altitude.  It will involve another cigar – likely to be had while stargazing from one of the darkest places in the country.  It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and has tremendous potential to join the list of those places with magical first impressions.  Nevertheless, it won’t ever generate the same feelings that my multi-impressioned and multi-layered England Mountain loop trail ever will.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Policy Number One



In 1849, Talbot Farm outside of Waterford, Virginia was the first property insured by Loudoun Mutual Insurance Company.  To this day the farm remains covered by Loudoun Mutual, and has been continuously for the past 166 years.  “Policy Number One” as we call it around the office.  There can only be a handful of other properties across this country that can claim as long of a streak of continuous insurance with one company as Talbot Farm. 

About a year ago, it was determined that we should acknowledge the legacy of Talbot by capturing four seasons’ of images from the farm and placing that artwork in our boardroom.  Being the de facto company photographer, the assignment came to me – a task I embraced with enthusiasm, though knowingly aware of the historic and challenging degree of the request. 

Talbot’s current owner has become a friend of our company.  When I asked last summer, she graciously afforded the green light to stop by anytime I want.  Today’s visit represented the third of four seasons… and it also represented the coldest day of the young year, not getting above 20 degrees during the two hours I spent creating 103 images.  The cold made for brutal work, but also it was quite invigorating.  I haven’t been adrenalized by the outdoors or any creative endeavor in a few months.   It felt good to be alive in the outdoors again.  The adrenaline was especially flowing when I was halfway across a snow covered field as the sun crested the horizon.  For just a minute, it flared through a barn window creating the perfect opportunity to fire shots uncharacteristically in quick succession before the earth rotated the sun’s rays out of the window.  (My normal photographic pace is turtle-like.  But when the sun flares, I’m a hare.)

After returning to normal pace and as I snapped my final shot - a boxwood covered in snow – I sensed for the first time that I was going to miss this place when the assignment was completed in spring.  I’ve greatly enjoyed focusing on the colors, seasons, and changes at Talbot Farm over the past year. 

A half hour later, back at the office gathered in the basement for a staff meeting, I could still feel the adrenaline rushing through me.  My cheeks remained red, and my chest and hands were shaking from the rush of my cold and creative early morning.  It’ll be a feeling I’ll recall with a smile next time someone mentions Policy Number One.


Friday, December 26, 2014

Top 25 Tunes

Back at the beginning of the year, I began compiling a list of the twenty five songs I enjoy most.  I deliberately wanted to take the whole year to finalize the list, making sure I wasn’t overlooking any, or giving too much recognition to one.  I’ve been listening, thinking, and tweaking all year.  Some, like La Grange by ZZ Top, have been on the list from day one.  Others have appeared for a while (Angel by Jewel, for instance), but then have been cut.  Not surprisingly, as the year progressed, the list became more settled. 

As the songs came together, I noticed several patterns.  Many represented special times in my life.  Others were part of amazing albums.  And like La Grange, some were just fabulous tunes that always make me turn it up.

The songs are not in any order.  Music is hyper-mood-inducing.  The mood evoked by La Grange is far different from that of Schubert’s Moment Musical, so comparatively ranking the two is nonsensical. 

Let’s start with the guitar, clearly the instrument with the most influence on my list.  Being a self-taught strummer, I’ve learned to truly appreciate great guitar music.  My list includes both simple and convoluted works.  The Beatles and their basic chord structures, the melodic finger picking blues riffs of Mississippi John Hurt, and the insanely fast note patterns of Steve Morse all are equally intriguing. 

Again, in no order, here are some songs from my list that have heavy guitar influences:
La Grange by ZZ Top
Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin
Carnival by Natalie Merchant; a song that anchors my love of female singers, especially those paired with strong guitars.
Bodhisattva by Steely Dan; perhaps a foreshadowing of my stray from Christianity.
She’s a Woman by Jeff Beck; I almost always hit the replay button the second this one is over.
The Bash by the Dixie Dregs; Simply a mind-blowing song in terms of picking complexity.
Wheels of Fortune by the Doobie Brothers; brings great memories of drinking beer and playing pool in my neighbor’s basement.

Some Special Blues-related guitar songs:
Floating Bridge by Eric Clapton; Thank you Mr. Clapton for introducing me to the world of Blues.
Frankie No. 2 by Mississippi John Hurt.  A song discovered just this year, though probably the oldest recording on the list.  The simplistic way in which this Blues Hall of Famer nearly speaks the lyrics makes this tune so special. 

Some great guitar songs are part of what I call ‘needle-drop albums’.  You could drop the needle at any spot on the vinyl and not only the song would be great but any stanza within that song would be great too.  Three albums make this list:
Rubber Soul by The Beatles with Drive My Car best representing the album. 
The Wall by Pink Floyd.  I love the guitar work on the entire album but David Gilmour’s B-flat chord in the first stanza of Young Lust is my favorite chord in all of rock music history. 
Dire Straits by Dire Straits.  This was their first album… and mine as well.  The first record I ever bought is still my favorite album of all time.  The poetic guitar work on In the Gallery made this one of the very first songs on my list. 

Graceland by Paul Simon is another needle-drop album, though not guitar related.  The African and Acadian influences make this collection especially intriguing.   This album represents a time when I gave up all my habits to see what else might enter my life.  One of the entrants was Cajun music; the gateway being Paul Simon’s That Was Your Mother, my favorite song from this album.  From Graceland, I went on to discover a plethora of other wonderful Cajun and Zydeco songs, my favorite of which remains Paper in My Shoes by Boozoo Chavis. 

Another instrument having a strong influence on my list is the piano.   It’s such a rich and complete instrument, best listened to unaccompanied.  My three clear favorites:
Moment Musical by Franz Schubert
Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt; like The Bash, it’s mind-boggling that a human can play this complexity. 
Halling Op 47 by Edvard Grieg coming from another near-needle-drop collection of works: Lyric Pieces.  

Not all songs on the list though are connected to a pattern or special time in my life.  They simply are great songs.
Hallelujah, by many, but mostly Jeff Buckley’s dark & haunting version. 
Lonesome Road by James Taylor; from the album that was playing when I proposed to my wife.
Birdland by Jaco Pastorius, Weather Report, or Manhattan Transfer.  A great melodic bass guitar tune. 
Seven Bridge Road  by The Eagles.  A modern day a cappella classic.
Shine by Collective Soul.  I can never turn this one up loud enough. 
Don't Think Twice by Bob Dylan. This is the most played song on my guitar.  Simple, yet beautiful, chord progression. 
Lil Maggie by Ricky Skaggs. Thank you Mr. Skaggs for introducing me to the world of Bluegrass… and to this day, his late ‘80’s concert at Wolf Trap is the best live show I’ve ever seen.
Superfly Sister by Michael Jackson.  Another first song to make the list.  I love the math and symmetry of the tight beats and layered instrumentation in this composition.  It’s impossible to listen to without tapping along.

And so, as 2014 comes to a close, these are the songs that have risen to the surface as I’ve thought for the past year about which ones I enjoy most.   Would any of these make your list?

Click Here for a small taste.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Fifty


Is fifty a sweet-spot?  The intersection of strength and smarts perhaps? 

Today I turn fifty, and realizing that it truly may be a sweet spot has me feeling good.

I’m a little past my prime physically; no longer able to do some of the things I could when I was younger.  But I’m also stronger now than I’ll be at any point in the future.  Strength is a bell curve, peaking mid-life.  At fifty, maybe I’m a little past my peak, but still not too far from that crest.

Mentally though, I haven’t quite peaked.  Older means wiser, right?  Alzheimer’s and old age stubbornness aren’t too far off.  But until then, I should continue in an older-is-wiser progression.   

Looking through rose colored glasses on my birthday at a chart of strength and smarts, today looks to be that intersection.  I plan on enjoying this sweet spot while I can… before I start forgetting how strong I used to be.    

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Day Takes a Turn

As I’m walking along the edge of a wintered field about to enter the woods, I hear three shots.  My blaze-orange hat and bright blue fleece imply that I’m expecting gunshots to potentially play a part in this planned day in the woods.  I’m not hard to spot on this first Friday of firearms deer hunting season.  I trudge on aware now that I’ll be sharing the woods with bullets… and having to put trust in my fellow man. 

Then a second blast.  Now I’m concerned, but maybe it was just the final blow to a wounded deer and the gun will remain silent.  I stand and think for a few minutes.  Then comes the sign: two more shots.  Sounds like the civil war is going on in the woods, not just a simple deer killing.  I don’t feel like being caught in the crossfire, so I retreat and start cursing.  Two and a half hours of driving and only a quarter mile of trail walking. 

When my cursing ends, the day takes a nice turn.  My geographic acumen kicks in.  It’s only 7:30 and there are so many cool places on this Northern Neck peninsula to explore.  It’s the perfect opportunity to wander freely. 

Twenty minutes later when I spot water, I pull my car onto the side of the no-outlet, gravel road I chose to investigate.  I grab my camera and scale a pretty steep embankment.  It’s at an angle nearly qualifying as a cliff; each step has to be carefully placed.  The down-climb is worth it though.   It’s about as pristine of a river’s edge as you’ll find in this part of Virginia.  The photo ops of one of the state’s prominent rivers and the tranquility of its narrow beach are endless.  I’m a kid in a candy store… and know right away that this will become one of those remote spots I’ll always point to on a map with a smile. 


Rappahannock River
Three hours later, on the flank of an old plantation, I pick up a woods trail again – this time without deer killing or civil war activities announcing themselves.   The only noises are the slight breeze rustling the trees and the crunching of my bootsteps over deep layers of dry foliage.  I again reach river’s tranquil edge and flit about for a while.  As I’m about to leave, I set my pack down and deliberately decide to linger a bit longer; not wanting the whim-following to end just yet.  I climb out onto a tree growing nearly perpendicular as they sometimes do near rivers.  I find a moss-softened notch that cradles me quite comfortably.  I’m ten feet above the beach surrounded by pristine beauty and the quiet sounds of water.  At my back, I hear a wind wave approaching through the trees.  I brace for the cold blast.  As it hits, my cradled position sways securely back and forth, then becomes still and quiet again.  It’s the best moment of the time I’ve spent following my whims. 

A day that started with cursing has ended with complete contentment after recognizing the opportunity to wander about freely, which I find to be one of life’s best gifts.