Saturday, August 15, 2015

Poison Choice

“You comfortable back there?” officer Kernan asks.  From the backseat of his squad car I yell through the bullet proof glass that I’m fine.

Actually though, I could use a little more leg room and the temperature is a bit steamy.  But comfort is not what the sheriff’s office had in mind for passengers in the back of their cruisers.  When I think about the alternative ways in which I could have left the accident scene – ambulance or hearse – the discomforts usually reserved for criminals are just fine.

I’m catching a courtesy ride to my office after having been run off the road this morning – and not just slightly off the road either.  I bounced and slid 200 yards out of sight and down into a ravine.  In fact, officer Kernan’s first question after arriving on the scene was “Where’s your car?”

I stayed upright and walked away from the wild ride unscathed, but my car got the shit beat out of it as I jumped gullies, ran over logs, and sheared the tops off rocks before fizzling to a stop completely out of sight from the road.  It easily could have rolled, flipped, or collided with a tree – thoughts of such possibilities will inevitably wake me in the dead of night sometime soon.

As I crested a hill, a small white car was completely in my lane and aimed right at me.  Survival instinct took over.  The combined speed at which our vehicles were approaching each other had to be 90 mph.  A violent head-on collision or a violent off road adventure?  Pick your poison.

After walking out of the ravine and back toward the road, I was a bit surprised by how few fellow commuters were concerned with my well-being.  A couple had pulled over, but neither of them was the little white car that caused all my fun.  After confirming that I was OK, and after waving the concerned drivers on, it was just me in a dewy field all alone making calls to 911, my wife, and my insurance company.

Twenty Five Minutes Later…

As officer Kernan and I made small talk, the driver from the wrecker service wandered the accident scene taking pictures and videos of my distant car and consulting with the home office.  This was a more complex job than first thought.  Ultimately, a second truck and expert were needed to figure out the right extraction plan, which was quite an engineering accomplishment, I must confess.  Cables, wenches, hydraulics and the ingenuity of two good old boys got the job done.

From the backseat of the squad car on the way to my office, I wondered if I should be thankful to be alive.  Perhaps that’s a bit too dramatic of a position to take in regard to this accident.  Had the car barrel rolled or had the poison I chose involved a head-on collision, I’d certainly feel thankful to be alive.   But through 29 years of commuting to work, which amounts to over a half-million miles driven, if the worst is a wild, off-road ride leaving me unscathed, I’ll take it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Poke a Bear

While alone along a ridge trail on a Maryland mountaintop back in the 80’s, a violent storm began brewing all around me.  Surrounded by large swaying trees and ever-increasing roars of thunder, there came that point where a switch flipped in my head.  With virtually no thought, I was turned and heading back toward safety as quickly as my boots would carry me.  I stayed focused on my pace, ignoring blisters, aches and other distractions and made a beeline for my truck several miles away.  It was a race against the storm.

Thirty years later, a few miles from safety, I was again on a trail wending through large swaying trees and increasing roars of thunder.  I continued onward, not yet ready to retreat, hopeful the odds were in my favor.  The temptation of making it around just one more bend drove me deeper.  But then, as in the early 80’s in Maryland, that ominous feeling took over.  A full sensory warning - the woods darkened, the wind howled louder, rain smells grew pungent and the temperature plummeted.  The decision to retreat no longer was a logical process involving odds; it was simply instinctual.  Before I knew it, I’d spun and was heading full speed back from where I came.  Another race against a storm.

Frankly, in both cases, a little better planning would have made me more cautious about heading into the woods on those two days.  But then I would have missed out on a few quite memorable run-for-your-life moments. 

Every now and then it’s invigorating to poke a bear or tug on Superman’s cape.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The End of the Road

Beach Week…

Sunday Night: I don’t normally talk with my hands, but for the point I’m about to make I set my drink down and display my overhand pitching technique.  It’s part of the longest toast I’ve ever given.  By the end, I’m sure those raising their glass have gotten tired of holding the position.  But my daughter only graduates college once, and her list of accomplishments and prideful moments is a long one. 

Monday Morning: Standing in the swash, I corkscrew my heels slowly into the sand of North Carolina’s barrier island.  The deeper I drill, the colder it gets.  It’s late spring and the air temp is quite warm, but my heels tell me winter’s leftovers are just below the surface.

Monday Night: The odds are in my favor – a full moon surrounded by stars positioned out over the ocean on a cloudless night while I’m here to see it all makes for a spectacular night stroll down the beach.  Perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

Tuesday Morning: My first attempt exploring the maritime forest in the center of the island ends quickly – the horseflies are overwhelming forcing me to run back to the safety of my car after just a few minutes of exploring.  The flies win round one. 

Wednesday Morning: I’m up early - as usual- before the sunrise.  I’m brewing the day’s first pot, but while it drips I get a hankering for a little more of last night’s much ballyhooed star – our homemade sangria.  Until the coffee’s ready, I might as well warm up with some more sangria.  And it’s just as amazing before coffee as it was after dinner.

Thursday Morning:  Round two.  I return to the forest, covered in chemicals and clothing.  The flies swarm again, but my defenses work.  For an hour, I wander at will - bite free - photographing the uniqueness and beauty of the stunted forest and the water’s edge just beyond.

Friday Evening: The sunset and its beautiful colors remain hidden behind a gray bank of thick clouds, but no one is complaining.  We’re afloat atop Currituck Sound in kayaks, far from shore, and far from the distractions of the world.  We’re drifting peacefully in the stillness – a stillness that has quashed all conversation.  Bobbing only slightly in the calm waters, there seems to be an understanding within our group - this is that special moment that we’ll all recall years from now when reminiscing about this adventure.

Sunday:  Corolla.  I’ve visit here three times in the past ten years.  I usually don’t like to repeat vacation locations, so the enthusiasm was a little dampened as I prepared for the trip.  But there’s something special about being at the end of the road.  The closer to the end, the better Corolla gets.  It’s been a great beach week.  …and I finally now pronounce Corolla the correct way, as the locals do with a short O.  

Friday, April 10, 2015


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.