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


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.

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.