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.    

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Nature's Compass

Nature's Compass
As I step out of my office, forty minutes later than planned, I open the settings on my phone to disconnect my email account.  I need clean separation.  My morning was intensely work-focused, but this afternoon, it’s all about the trail. Silencing the phone will go a long way toward transitioning me into the outdoors.

The silent hour of driving to the trailhead works its magic.  By the time I take my first few steps, I feel in tune with my environment.  It’s a bright, crisp winter afternoon and I have four miles of trail ahead of me.

The mature main trail at Wildcat Mountain is all clear today, meaning the freshly oiled folding saw stays in my backpack the whole afternoon.  It’s my first visit in which no maintenance is required.  The extra time this affords enables me to wander along a few of the many side trails that are not open to the public.  One leads down the Black Cotton Branch ravine to a narrow, multi-plateaued waterfall – a new favorite spot at Wildcat, although access will be more challenging during the thick undergrowth seasons.

Another first involves my gear – new boots, new hiking pants, and a new, stylish Tilley hat.  All perform quite well.  Muddy, bloody, and sprinkled with cigar ash, my gear is now officially broken in.  I also begin using a new macro setting on my camera which allows me to focus up close on the subtle beauty of Wildcat.  Lichens, wood grains, thorns and glimmering snow crystals afford opportunities to view my surroundings from a different perspective.

The human eye is particularly good at recognizing patterns.  Just before descending the mountain, I enter a forested area in which all of the trees have snow clinging to just one quarter section of their trunks - the side in which the sun shines least.  Like with moss growth, the snow is pointing north.  Not that I’m lost, but nature’s compass is a welcomed and beautiful sight.

As always, nature points me in the right direction.  Transitioning from the office to the natural beauty of Wildcat Mountain this afternoon has been a wonderful course corrector in more ways than one.

Tilley Hat

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Infamously Cursed

In the very early morning hours I step out of my car into an empty, dark parking lot.  Twinkles catch my eye and I turn my gaze skyward.  The view above is ablaze with the pinpoints of countless stars emanating from unfathomable distances.  It’s pure beauty.  In a usually light-polluted world, there’s rarely enough darkness to accentuate the glimmers. What great luck to stumble upon such a cool moment.  It makes me realize I simply don’t spend near enough time staring at the stars - always a welcomed, perspective-resetting experience.

In just the short time I’m staring, a meteoroid enters the atmosphere.  It’s Friday the Thirteenth, and standing quietly in the early dark dawn, I’m hoping that shooting star extends the good luck I’ve just experienced on this infamously cursed date.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Wrinkled Rocks

Veach Gap Anticline
 Four hundred million years ago the Appalachian Mountains were formed by the incredible forces of colliding tectonic plates which thrust the earth’s crust skyward.   As the crust thrust, rocks wrinkled.  Some wrinkles were extreme, creating what geology nerds call anticlines or “ridge-shaped folds of stratified rock in which the strata slope downward from the crest”.  In other words, layers of rock shaped like horseshoes.

It was one of these horseshoe layers that I went into the woods searching for today with a handheld GPS to guide the way.  But before even turning on the handheld, I followed one of the prettier roads in the Shenandoah Valley leading me to a valley within a valley.  Fort Valley, with only thin twisty roads for access, is Brigadoon-like… and home to an ancient anticline.     

After following Veach Gap Road to its end, I set out with technology in hand.  Having done my homework though, I actually could have left the handheld in the car.  I knew the anticline had to be somewhere in the very narrow Veach Gap where erosion from Mill Run had exposed the wrinkles.  As I approached the gap, more and more rocks became exposed, most of which were covered in brilliant green lichen.  Amid a sea of lifeless brown leaves, the green rocks stood out vividly. 

As the GPS was zeroing in, I spotted a tube-shaped vein of exposed rock about 30 yards away and knew I had found the anticline.  Upon close inspection, it looked like a sliced yule log cake with rich layers; although this cake took millions of years to bake.  It’s one of the coolest things I’ve found with my GPS.  Another fifty yards away was another vein of similar shape and bake, making this a buy one, get one adventure. 
Perhaps only geology nerds like me get excited about wrinkled rocks.  Finding the Veach Gap anticlines was a really enjoyable adventure, and full of visual treats.  But for me, it was more than just rocks and fancy geologic terms.  This outing helped to keep the big picture in my mind.  Understanding how the world was formed and is changing, and appreciating the incredible time lapses involved, helps keep my own life and time lapse in perspective. 

 There’s a lot to be learned from rocks.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Welcome to Kentucky

A year and a half ago, through sweltering summer heat, I helped moved my daughter to Arlington, Virginia, just across the river from the world’s most powerful city.  For nearly a year, Arlington provided a vibrant, modern, and eclectic lifestyle, full of tall buildings, urban culture, and hurried people.  Over the past few days, as the weather turned cold, I helped move her to a place where she’ll be experiencing a vastly different lifestyle.

Pikeville, Kentucky is the heart of Appalachia; home to the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s; and a place where coal is king.  Instead of tall buildings, there are tall mountains in every direction bunched up so tight that level land comes at a premium.  In fact, part of Pikeville was built in the flat riverbed of the Levisa Fork when it was re-routed in the ‘80s to keep the city from flooding.  The newly exposed level land immediately became a prized development site.  

There are many routes to Pikeville from my home, but what on a map looks to be a good decision, can easily turn out harrowing without consulting the locals first.  I was advised that the best route - seemingly illogical - was to go north at Beckley, then turn almost directly south in order to avoid a switch-backing stretch of road that would take hours to traverse if you followed your normal map instincts.  In the hills of Appalachia, you often have to go north to go south.

In the hills of Appalachia, the animals are a bit wilder too.  A thriving elk herd exists in eastern Kentucky; so much so that the normal deer warning highway signs have been replaced by massive-rack elk warning signs.  Along highway 119, just outside of Pikeville, the wildness became plainly evident.  Within a 10 miles stretch I watched a coyote dash across the road, then a few miles later spotted a beheaded elk carcass in the median.  Perhaps it was road kill and someone thought the rack might look good hanging in their living room – Appalachian-style art, I suppose.

Though the area is famous for its violent and deadly feud, I found Kentuckians to be quite friendly.  With an accent as thick as anywhere I’ve been in America, their southern draw is so hospitable you can’t help but feel welcomed.  This quality was especially evident in their waitresses – all of which on this trip were outstanding.  When they call you honey, you know everything coming out of the kitchen is gonna be just right.  Kentucky is the land of awesome waitresses.

To me, Belgium is the land of awesome beers, but the Kentucky-brewed Bourbon Barrel Ale I had in Pikeville was as good as any I’d ever had from Belgium.  The limestone hills of Kentucky act as a natural iron filter, creating groundwater ideally suited for Bourbon production.  Hence, Kentucky produces 95% of the country’s Bourbon.  Apparently, some brew-master figured out that using uncleansed Bourbon barrels in the production of beer makes for one fine tasting drink.  That unique hint of Bourbon will surely affect my beverage selections on future visits to Pikeville.

As for my daughter's future?  Who knows how this Kentucky adventure will turn out, but for now it seems to be off to a good start.  I feel comfortable knowing that my first born is in what seems to be a welcoming community with more vibrancy and heritage than I was expecting.