Thursday, October 2, 2014

Distracted Dining

Looking past the empty chair at my table and through a large picture window, I have a clear view of the umbrella’d outdoor porch area which is filling up quickly on this early fall evening.  Despite ideal weather, I chose a quieter indoor table for dinner. 

Beyond the umbrellas is the iconic Chocolate Avenue, and beyond that the engineered steel of Hershey Park’s twisty rides pokes above the tree line.

Beside me sits my iPhone and its gateway to the world, but I don’t want it to be my company for this meal – its idled screen remains dark; its notifications silenced. 

How often have you spotted lone diners finding comfort by insecurely pecking at their phone?  I don’t want to be that guy. 

Moreover, the Mediterranean Risotto and Argentinian Malbec are a deliciously perfect combination that warrants fully attentive savoring.  Breaks for texts and posts would absolutely kill this moment. 

It seems the solo traveler, including me at times, too often overlooks such simple pleasures. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Six Hours

Saturday Night.   Farm manager Kane calls to confirm the gate will be open for me by 6:30 a.m. tomorrow, three and a half hours earlier than normal.

Sunday, 4:07 a.m. – The alarm suggests I get moving.  Enthused, I spring out of bed.

5:40 - I’m straddling the dashed white line on a deserted dual highway as I drive 65 mph through the dark.  The straddling positions me to better spot deer that tend to dash at this time of day.

6:45 – A big glass of water, two cups of coffee, and half a cantaloupe for breakfast have my bladder pleading for relief.  Mercifully, Wal-Mart has restrooms open 24/7.

7:30 – No sign of Kane, but as promised, the gate is open. 

7:40 – The path starts along the edge of a soybean field before it disappears into the woods.  I pluck a fuzzed bean just to see what it feels like. 

7:45 – As I enter the woods, I pull out 40% deet, and hopefully, spray away Lyme disease.

8:00 – Life is teeming as I cross the bridge over Owl Hollow on this quiet, overcast morning.  Despite my instincts, I linger only a short time, then extract my weapon and get to work.

8:15 – At cliff-top overlook number one, it’s another non-instinctual short linger to save time for my responsibilities.  Overlook number two is my goal which is rumored to be overgrown.

8:45 – I’m about as far as I can be from civilization on this 1600 acre farm when I spot an illegal deer stand.  I snap a picture to geo-code its location so the mother ship can do the dirty work.

9:00 – Overlook number two is not overgrown.  I suspect the rumor started when someone expected a national park-like experience, complete with benches, placards, and a ranger to answer questions.  But this place is not that.  Its pristine beauty is understated and subtle, and apparently, unappreciated by the rumor starter.

9:45 – Near the Hollow Tree, I’m earning my pay.  I swing my weapon with nearly every step along the trail.  Ground cover is trying hard to overtake this already thin footpath.

10:00 – Back at overlook number one, the work is done.  My weapon has been stowed.  This time I follow instinct and linger longly, immersed in the view of the Rappahannock’s bend around Horse Head Point, content and peaceful. 

10:15 – Returning across Owl Hollow Bridge, I stop to watch bubbles ooze to the surface.  The earth is breathing.

10:35 – I’m walking beside soy beans again as grasshoppers spray in all directions split seconds before each boot step.  It’s a Red Sea parting, of sorts.

10:55 – I pull over at a country graveyard to strip off my sweaty, deet-covered clothing.  Fresh threads will be appreciated by my wife when we meet for lunch in Fredericksburg at noon. 

The past six hours have been more of what is becoming a fortunate amassing of life’s best.  The buzz is sure to linger with me a long, longly time.  

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Side Tripping

 A drooping wire cable hangs between two large trees marking the trail’s end, and is a feeble attempt at serving as a barrier.  Most folks visiting this mountain ridge though, heed this barrier, and I have too in the past.  But today, I dip under and wander into the forbidden.  As I trespass, I recall the names of the trustees that nearly two years ago granted me permission to wander off trail.  If stopped, I’m prepared to drop the names of Dalke & Truslow to authenticate my trespass.   

The forbidden path I’m on was established in 1965.  To further dissuade trespassing, the sign has been unscrewed from a tree and tossed aside. The John Trail is not nearly as clear as the one I’ve been on all morning.  Undergrowth has reached in from both sides almost meeting in the middle of this now unblazed trail.  Fallen trees are obstacles simply left uncleared.  It’s primal woods walking. 

The John crosses Black Cotton Branch a few times before intersecting the equally uncleared Enon Church Trail.  As I approach this intersection I spot a few deer; head-down munching.  The slightest click of my camera makes their heads pop up.  Our eyes meet.  Ten seconds later, in perfect sync, they scamper.  One stops and looks back after a few bounds, then snorts a guttural warning.  It’s the deer-equivalent of fuck off.

I spot a vein of exposed granite poking through the forest floor.  It’s the perfect spot.  I sit, pull out an all-natural shade wrapped cigar and some lukewarm water, then begin a few precious moments of quietly sitting in this quiet haven.  The gentle hints of life are abundant in this vibrantly natural environment.  I feel welcomed, and return the favor by being as respectful as an intruder into the pristine can be.  The therapeutic benefit of woods walking becomes crystal clear in moments like this. 

After my therapy, I dip back under the cable and return to the wider, less-tresspassy trail.  I complete its 3-mile loop.  Today’s exploration is the longest I’ve walked in these woods – five hours.  I’m generally a quick striker in this familiar environment; getting in, around, and out in three hours.  But with a more relaxed schedule today, and curiosity having built up over the past several visits, the John Trail side trip was ripe for the picking. 

Other untapped side trips are surely in my future.  An old stone wall leading up and over a ridge might be my next pursuit.  Or perhaps following Black Cotton Branch to its source.  More good therapy waits in the unknown. 

How often is it in life that the side trips – the unplanned – make all the difference?  Choosing to dip under a wire cable today did just that.   

Monday, September 1, 2014

Farm Fresh

Dietz Farm, Hegins, Pennsylvania
I lead with my shoulder as I weave between the wet rows of sweet corn.  When I find a ripe ear, I break it off, shuck it, and then put the cleaned cob in my pocket.  Four of us men have been tasked with collecting corn, tomatoes, and peaches for our party of eleven’s dinner.  Despite a heavy drizzle, I’m enjoying every minute of this very primal and wholesome endeavor. 

We’ve gathered at Uncle Ron’s familiar farm following the funeral of Uncle Charlie who recently lost a tough cancer battle.  The solemnness of the funeral has begun to fade.  The meal will transition us into the evening where surely life will return to the days of old.  Years ago, our extended family would gather regularly at Ron’s for too much food, unending card games, storytelling, and almost always, tears of laughter.  

Granted, you can find fresh produce at any grocery store, or at your local farm market, but I doubt enjoying that freshness could get any better than how I will on this Saturday evening in Hegins, Pennsylvania: handpicked from field to table in twenty minutes thanks to Aunt Deanna’s culinary expertise and efficiency. 

Back when we cousins were much younger, the corn harvest brought out our competitiveness.  Who could eat the most ears?  Eleven was the record, I think.  But we’re all adults now more focused on the health concerns of jamming eleven ears into our bodies.  No one at the table is seriously thinking about making a run at the record.  Still though, I can’t resist the urge to eat more than I should at this plentiful offering.  Four plump ears, along with several tomatoes, peaches, potatoes, shoofly pie and a Pennsylvania Yuengling to wash it all down have me glassy-eyed.  I’ve eaten to the point of bloatation, but it feels wonderful.    

Time now to clear the table, get the cards out, start the stories, and let the tears flow.  The days of old have returned.  

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.