Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Chasing History

I could try smuggling bullets onto the plane, but opt for transparency instead.  When I show the first TSA agent what I have, she shakes her head and summons her supervisor.   Fortunately, as soon as he lays eyes on them, he waves me through saying munitions of such historic nature are of no threat.

In a sense, history is the reason for this trip I’m about to embark upon to Germany.  The Civil War bullets and other accompanying artifacts that just passed through security are gifts for my hosts who will be showing me much of their country over the next eight days.  First and foremost, I’m going to Germany for business; to strengthen long standing corporate relations with three significant partners.  Second, and of more importance personally, I’m going to Germany to connect more deeply with my family history.  Both my maternal and paternal ancestry emigrated from Germany in the early 1700s.  My quest is humble; I simply want to spend time in the center of each town hoping to develop a strong memory and appreciation for the area. 

Following my TSA success, and after landing at Frankfurt International, my next challenge is simply to find my way.  In a land where I don’t speak the language, claiming my bag, clearing customs, and renting a car goes quite smoothly.  A few minutes later, I’m out on the Autobahn being passed regularly by zooming Germans.  I exit at Mannheim and follow a beautiful winding road along the Neckar River valley to Mosbach – home of my maternal ancestry.  Here I simply stand and absorb.  It’s a vibrant city center on a Saturday morning.  The cobbled streets and painted timber frame buildings are classic Germany.  Mentally block out a few of the modern signs and it’s easy to imagine what this city center was like 300 years ago when the decision was made to leave for America.  After an hour of wandering about this homeland and letting the imagery sink in very deeply, it’s time for me to leave too. 

Mosbach, Germany
An hour away is the much quieter village of Rublingen – a small cluster of farm houses surrounded by lush fields of corn and wheat. Only a handful of people are seen, and none speak English.  I hand a page written in German to an old man I found sweeping his driveway. It explains why I came to Rublingen and asks if anyone with my family name still lives here.  He seems to understand the question and shakes his head no, but then begins rambling in a language I don’t understand.  He’s smiling while talking animatedly and I would have given anything to understand what he was saying. 

On a ridge above town sits the ruins of an old castle which surely housed the lord of this land in the 1720s.  It’s easy to visually imagine the angst that an over-taxing lord forced upon my ancestry compelling them to leave for America. 

After walking nearly every street in town and letting the imagery sink in, it’s time for me to leave again. 

Rublingen, Germany

Just outside of Rublingen, the road spirals a few miles sharply downward into the Kocher River valley where I have reservations for the night.  Here I have perhaps the best celebratory drink of my life.  Savoring a German pilsner while deeply immersed in thoughts and images of my ancestral homes is nearly overwhelming.  In a biergarten full of weekend patrons, I doubt any have as meaningful of a reason as I for savoring this moment.  

At Schloss Dottingen

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Clearing the Way

On Friday the 13th, I went on a killing spree.  My victims were hapless tree saplings and other ground vegetation.  Imagine a baseball bat with a 12 inch serrated blade on the end of it.  A homerun swing easily wiping out several saplings at a time.  Three hours of swinging that blade left countless victims in my wake, and was an environmentalist’s nightmare. 

But actually, it was for environmental gain that I engaged in such a killing spree.

Voorhees Nature Preserve and its three mile trail along the Rappahannock River are intended to inspire a visitor’s appreciation for nature’s awe.   Being located in an area of flourishing vegetation during its most thriving time of year, keeping the trail clear is a real challenge for me and my fellow volunteers.  After today’s clearing, I was as exhausted and blistered as I had been in a long time, although it was a very satisfying discomfort.  I just hope visitors over the next few days appreciate my labors.

Trail clearing is a violent and noisy task, but I’m a seasoned enough woods walker to know that when approaching a field or water’s edge, it should be done quietly as these type natural attractions afford the best wildlife viewing opportunities.  At Voorhees, that attraction is its riverside cliffs - known roosting havens for the all-American bald eagle.  A hundred yards before reaching each cliff I’d stop the swinging noises and begin a slow, quiet creep.  In doing so, I was rewarded with eight sightings over my three hour visit.  Eagle-eyed as they are, they’d spot me long before I spotted them and take flight upon my approach.  The size and gracefulness of these birds as they fled took me aback.  Simply majestic.  At the northern-most cliffs one eagle simply stayed sentry-like, watching over me as I rested.  A guardian angel perhaps, on Friday the 13th.

This was my maiden volunteering effort at Voorhees.  It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for over twenty years and it did not disappoint.  Not only did the bald eagles take me aback, but this entire place had nature’s awe on full display.  It’s an isolated, hard-to-get-to preserve of surprisingly pristine splendor and undulating topography.  And if you’re inspired to visit it yourself, please leave now before my trail clearing efforts become quickly overgrown again.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Room to Breathe

Eighty two miles per hour would get me pulled over in my home state of Virginia, but in Kansas, I whiz right past the state trooper on I-70.  He doesn’t flinch.  It’s dusk and my rented shoebox-sized Fiat 500 doesn’t seem to be able to go much faster, which I think is probably a good thing when I spot a deer on the shoulder.  In this car, hitting that deer at this speed likely would be fatal for both of us. 

I’m rushing toward the Flint Hills of Kansas, near the geographic center of America.  My plan calls for an abbreviated night’s sleep followed by a very early morning two mile hike under the stars.  I’m hoping to make it to the middle of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve for sunrise on a day where the forecast calls for “brilliant sunshine”. 

A few generations ago, the middle of America was covered in a sea of prairie grass.  Now only 5% of that vast sea remains, most of which is in the rocky hills of Kansas.  Thankfully, much of what remains is now federally protected.  Prairies are an incredibly complex ecosystem and exceptionally good at converting solar energy into edible protein.  The prairie’s strength is subtle, and mostly underground.  Each blade of grass has a root system twice as long below ground.  Author William Least Heat Moon wrote, “The prairie is not a topography that shows it’s all, but rather a vastly exposed place of concealment.” 

So it was with child-like enthusiasm that I set out under the stars early this morning in my quest for the sunrise.  Though excited, I was also cautious.  Hiking in a dark, unknown territory past signs warning visitors about recent aggressive Bison behavior was a bit unsettling.  My senses were on high alert, but the further in I went, the more comfortable I became.  A half mile past the Ranch Legacy trail intersection, I found a set of tire tracks veering off toward the shoulder of a high ridge.  Instinct told me to follow, and I’m glad I did.  At the crest, a vast valley of intense green opened up as far as I could see.  I could not image a better promontory from which to experience the Tallgrass Prairie. 

Atop a lushly covered hill.
As brilliant golden sunshine rose.
With undisturbed beauty in all directions.

The cherries on top stood a hundred yards away - a herd of grazing Bison, none of which displayed any aggressive behavior for the hour I spent at this spot fully immersed in the openness.

Ruth Palmer, one of the stewards of the preserve, told me that if I was a fan of open spaces, I would love Tallgrass Prairie.   Others say it’ll take your breath away.  I did love my visit to Tallgrass Prairie – so much so it’s now on my Rushmore of favorite places.  And Tallgrass Prairie did in fact take my breath way… or more appropriately, gave me an incredible amount of space to breathe.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Run Hill Dune

I’m please to find no parking lot on 10th Avenue.  I simply pull onto the sandy shoulder across from the small, faded sign for Run Hill Dune.   I dip under a wooden fence rail designed to keep ATV’s out and then begin my trudge up one of the east coast’s highest dunes.   I consider going barefoot, but my sandals work like snow shoes in the loose sand.  Neither barefoot nor sandals though are ideal on this unstable surface, so my progress is slow.  I enjoy the unhurried pace; it affords more time to absorb the beauty.

About 5 miles south of Run Hill is Jockey’s Ridge - the more famous dune on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  In between is a four mile stretch of maritime forest. Run Hill is shifting southward, encroaching one grain at a time upon this forest.  In this collision, there’s intrigue.  I seek to find the unique when I travel, and a sand dune swallowing up a forest is something I find quite intriguing.

After fifteen minutes of trudging, I come across a steep, down-sloping ravine that seems to be the apex of the collision.  At the bottom is a pond, adding a third element to the mix.  This beautiful place – where forest, dune, and pond collide - instantly becomes my favorite spot I’ve ever found over my 40 years of coming to the Outer Banks.  I linger here, deep in the ravine, enjoying the sounds of intense quietness… and the gurgle of brackish waters… and the occasional tweet of birds that I’m certain are thrilled to have found a home in such a unique and beautiful place.

Forests are not the only thing that Run Hill collides with.  On the western edge, far from the 10th Avenue pullover, Run Hill meets the marsh of Albemarle Sound.  These intersecting ecosystems require a second day’s visit, so same time next morning I left in the dark for Run Hill again.

As a crow flies, Albemarle Sound is a mere 3,000 feet from my parked car; however, the zigzag-drunk-like path I chose as I ambled up and over the undulations of the dune made it at least twice a far.  Reaching the edge of the thriving marsh of Albemarle Sound elicited similar feelings to yesterday’s find: another favorite spots on the Outer Banks.  So unique is this intersection of sand and marsh that I linger even longer than at yesterday’s find.  And here too I spend time simply listening to the quietness, brackish gurgles, and happy tweets.

Sometimes when traveling, I gather in quantity – trying to collect locations, but at the cost of not becoming fully immersed.  There are merits in that approach, but having now spent back-to-back days at Run Hill has reminded me that going deeper and further, at a slower pace, and discovering the full uniqueness of a place brings real contentment.   At Run Hill, there are no more scratches to itch. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Bellhop

As the sounds of classic jazz quietly fill the lavish, timeworn lobby, the bellhop and I exchange a smile.  I sit alone on a red velvet couch at the base of a grand staircase, legs crossed, flipping through business documents as I prepare for a late afternoon meeting.  On the table in front of me a goblet of water brought by the bellhop sits glistening on a napkin.  With my loafers, blazer, and graying hair, I suddenly feel as though I might just be looking important. 

To the young bellhop, perhaps he knows I’m about to enter a meeting in which significant strategic business decisions will be made.  Maybe that’s what the smile exchange meant.  
Then again, he might just as well be thinking I’m a pompous ass.  
I guess I’ll never know.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Think Tanking

I’m standing on the bank of the Potomac River at Gravelly Point watching jets follow an s-shaped flight path as they line up to land at Reagan National.  It’s an impressive operation; especially so from my vantage point where the roaring behemoths fly a mere 100 feet overhead.  In between each landing, departing jets sneak down the runway before of the next behemoth drops in.  For plane-spotting geeks like me, Gravelly is a mecca. 

On one or more of those jets are surely some of my fellow committee members with whom I’ll be having dinner in a few hours.  Eight of us insurance geeks have been invited to Crystal City in a collaborative effort to contemplate what the market needs.  None of us has ever met before, yet we share a common character: we’re seasoned industry veterans whose experiences provide the qualifications necessary to help steer the ship.   After a heavy dinner at Morton’s and a good night’s sleep, we’ll be think-tanking for seven hours tomorrow.  I’ll be on the cutting edge of insurance for the first time in my life.  Hope I don’t disappoint the inviters.  I’ve brought some ideas with me; time to see if any take flight.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Embracing the Cold

In the winter of 1985, the wind chill in Garrett County, Maryland hit negative 120 degrees.  When it did, I was just over the county line, east of Garrett, in college at Frostburg State.  Though the wind chill on our campus wasn’t quite a cold as the higher elevated Garrett, I do remember the threat of a triple digit negative number.  It was the one and only time in my four Frostburg years that classes were canceled. 

Garrett County is Maryland’s western-most and highest-elevated county.  It’s bordered to the north by the Mason-Dixon Line, to the south by the Potomac River, and to the west by West Virginia.  It’s the only Maryland county who’s snowmelt drains into the Mississippi instead of the Chesapeake; an attribute of its extreme elevation.  A drive to Garrett County from the east is a long, continuous, unremitting uphill climb.   

The unique location of Garrett County positions it in a sweet spot for snow accumulations; averaging ten feet per year.  The current record though, from 2010, is twenty two feet.  It’s at the crossroads of multiple weather patterns.  Lake Effect Snows from Lake Erie and Nor’easters are regular contributors to the totals.  The main contributor, however, is Upslope Snows which happen when prevailing winds are forced skyward upon colliding with Garrett’s high plateau and ridges.  As the air ascends, it leaves moisture behind.  Or as my brother once referred to it, Garrett rakes the clouds.   

Sounds hellish.  So why would a non-skier and hater of winter like me actually choose to visit Garrett County in February?  One word: love. 

My wife’s birthday is in February.  Traditionally, we like to get away.  Last year it was Florida.  The year before, Arizona.  But this year, she wanted to embrace to cold.  I love her adventurous spirit, and it sounded reasonable when we booked it last fall.  Sounded practical too.  Why fly to Saskatchewan or Siberia when Garrett County was a mere two hour, steep drive from my home? 

Embracing the cold was precisely what we got.  A freshly fallen two feet of snow buried the cabin we rented in the hills above Deep Creek Lake.  I had to engage my vehicle’s 4WD to ascend the slick, vertical access road.  Then we had to trudge slowly through thigh-deep snow to reach the cabin door.  And from the time we arrived until we left two days later, the snow never stopped. 

Frankly, one of the reasons embracing the cold enticed us was knowing a roaring fire would be the antidote.  It had been two years since I last sat by a fire.  The Arizona birthday included a fire pit warm up.  After a day on the rim trail, the Grand Canyon Lodge had a nice big fireplace waiting for us.  But the fire in Garrett was much nicer.  First of all, I created it.  And second, we burned it as hot and as long as we wanted.  With snow approaching three feet deep outside and no signs of letting up, that fire was more welcomed than any other I can recall.  I loved every smoky minute of it.

Though I was not as confident as my wife about embracing the cold, I’m definitely happy with how it turned out.  It was an outstanding adventure and made for one of the most memorable birthday getaways so far.  The hellish conditions of Garrett County, and that awesome fireplace to counteract them, made for an exceptional trip.