Thursday, August 21, 2014

Late August: A Snapshot

(This is NOT part three of the AT series. That will come in the next couple of days.)

I have been afflicted with an acute case of Late August and we’re all waiting with bated breath to see if I can pull through to see September.

If I’m being honest, late August has never really been my time to shine. I am always the
last one on the back to school bandwagon, kicking screaming crying , clutching my sand bucket and shovel—it’s unsightly.

This year, I took on yet another class, topping last fall’s record of teaching 4 classes at 2 universities and taking one at another. This fall, I am teaching 5 courses at 2 universities, and still taking one at the other. As alarming as that is, it’s even worse than it sounds as I recently discovered (and by recently I mean pretty much hours before class began) that my remedial class is no longer pass/fail, which is a good development for the legitimacy of the program, but also means that I have to actually grade things which my friends, family, and readers know is my eternal bane. Additionally, I discovered that they raised the enrollment cap on my Freshman Comp course at U1 which means, again, more grading (are you seeing at pattern here). The class I am taking at U3 is a wildcard—not a writing workshop, as I have been advised not to take those for awhile, but, rather a 700-level new media class which really could mean anything but seems to involve an alarming number of text books. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I got talked into taking a one credit class that involves an independent study with a writer in residence. I forgot to mention it, because, I, well, sort of forgot about that. If memory serves me correctly, I have to turn in some sort of manuscript any day now.

Also, in a new Late August tradition, my editor has taken to assigning me grim breast cancer stories in preparation for the October issue, and, this year, threw in a feature about a children’s hospice, as an added bonus. She thought I’d find it “heartwarming.” Of course I can crank out impassioned, gut-wrenching missives about this stuff—I am a hypochondriac, for crying out loud—but the psychological risk it puts me in should qualify me for Hazard Pay.

From the selfie I posted above, you can clearly seem the sum toll all this has taken on my psyche. My anxiety shot through the roof yesterday; I even took to chanting (think Tom Hanks in The ‘Burbs), which, my sister will tell you, is always a Bad Sign.

So. When does May happen again?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Characterizing the AT, Part 2

(our story begins here)

“It’s the last time,” I promised Audrey, hoping her canine ears wouldn’t pick up the uncertainty in my voice.

It was the fourth time I’d traipsed her over the same, narrow bridge of three boards with cavernous gaps. Huskies hate uneven or oddly textured surfaces. Convincing her to go across once was difficult enough; two and three were a huge stretch; now, faced with the prospect of a fourth trip over the Scary Boards, she simply refused, forcing us to fjord a creek back to the trail junction where our new friends, Boy Scout Troop 767 were in respite.

We’d meet the guys about a half hour earlier when Lisa, our map bearer, had conferenced with the scout leader over some directional uncertainties.  Maps were compared, compasses were activated, and we were advised to go back from whence we’d come, across the narrow, gapped bridge. Only problem was, not once, but twice, we’d get a few hundred yards down the path and see a sign or marker that raised uncertainty. Twice now we’d retraced our steps back over the Scary Boards for yet another conference.

I had little to offer the Map Summits. I knew, in a general sense, that we were hiking the area around Grayson Highlands State Park and Mt. Rogers, the highest elevation in Virginia. Prior to this hike, I’d camped twice in the park, and had even scaled Mt. Rogers. Every so often, I’d gaze into the horizon and nod, thoughtfully, “I’ve been here before,” but that was about all I had to contribute.

In the end, Lisa concluded that her map was more accurate, and we went on our way. The Scouts evidently followed our lead, as they came up behind us about an hour later. “I see what went wrong back there,” the leader offered. He and Lisa started talking maps again, and then the conversation turned to gear, good places to camp, watering holes, and the like.

The Troop was subdivided into a fast group and a slow group. As the day continued, it was clear that we were keeping pace with the frontrunners (at one point, we were talking with the faster scouts as they waited for their stragglers, who, when they arrived were greeted with: “You finally caught up with the women”).  These meet ups would occur every couple hours, during which time trail news would be swapped: anyone see the twenty-something with the red ball cap who got separated from his group? Or the girl who got irritated if you spoke to her because she was “in solitude?” or notes compared: “did everyone get their fill of the wild blueberries?”

One particularly glorious break happened in the late afternoon at Massie Gap, a clearing favored by the most delightful characters on the entire trail: a herd of wild ponies. We’d been reclining against our packs, soaking in the scenes and sun when the herd emerged in unison, as if taking the stage for a scheduled showtime. 

After spending time enjoying the ponies, we realized we had about 2 miles left to get to some good camping and, apparently water, which was good because we were running low. Lisa and I had used some filtering equipment to drink from some creeks, and my sister was still in possession of a small amount of pool water.

The terrain grew rocky and steep, and the sun burned potent, deep afternoon rays. Horses grazed along the trail and in the thickets.We scaled rock formation after rock formation. We tunneled through a cavernous opening called Fat Man’s Squeeze. Somewhere along the way, Lisa lost her guidebook, but there was no going back.

We climbed and climbed for what seemed like miles, although we never arrived at the shelter that was supposed to be less than 2 miles from the pony show. The numbers seemed fuzzy, but, as I mentioned, the book was gone so there was nothing to do but go onward.

Finally we reached a clearing that looked inviting, and we simultaneously dropped our packs and staked our claim for a night’s lodging. Every bit of our water was gone, every last drop. My sister thought the promised shelter must be around the corner, so went to look, but came back forlorn and empty handed, finding nothing akin to a shelter or water.

Lisa was already pitching her tent, and I was assembling raw materials to try to rig mine up for use. Astute readers may recall that I snapped a tent pole on last year’s hike, and efforts to secure a new one had failed. Before we left home for this year’s hike, we attempted to patch up the pole, but the prior evening, it had snapped again, just before twilight slipped into dusk. A long line of paracord from Lisa and some quick thinking by my sister had secured the shelter enough to get through the night, but I knew I needed something with more stability, particularly as the trees in this camping area weren’t arranged as conveniently.

If I am going to be completely honest here, the tent collapse was one of the scariest things that has happened to me on any adventure, ever.  One of my big fears on the trail is losing my dog. Dogs go missing on the AT with some frequency, typically due to poor human judgment (for instance, dogs go missing at Massie Gap because they are off leash and fall in league with the horses). Although pictures will confirm my canine was always super-leashed, huskies fast, unpredictable, and prone to taking off after…anything. So the thought of being in the middle of the woods with my dog and no shelter was frightening enough to spur me into serious, tent-making action.

About that time, familiar faces came over the crest. The faster Boy Scouts had arrived, tired and also without water.  (At this point, can we all just collectively appreciate the full impact of the fact that hearty, teenage Boy Scouts and their Leader were on pace with us and without water: both are key points when assessing the veracity of our guide’s claim that he could walk our route in 2 days (we were NOWHERE NEAR the halfway point) and that we shouldn’t bother ourselves with carrying much water).

“That was rough,” the leader said, resting his palms on his knees and catching his breath.

“No kidding,” we agreed.

“Do you know how much further the shelter is?” my sister asked.

“We lost our guide book,” I offered.

“We have it,” the leader said, producing the book from a side pouch in his pack. Excitement coursed though the camp.

“Are you guys just staying here?” the leader said, surveying the scene.

“Yeah, we’re just done. We think we can make it until morning and I need time to construct my tent out of raw materials.”

“Let’s take a look!” he said.

About three minutes and a yard or so of duct tape later, my tent was probably stronger than the day I purchased it. (Side note: on future trips, I plan to wrap a few yards of duct tape around various cylindrical pieces of equipment: perhaps my mug, or even a tent pole—just to have it on hand).

“Would you like some food?” my sister asked, emptying out the contents of her backpack. We’d already decided that we were tired of carrying the food and had been actively looking for a place to ditch it. Two points here: never again will I criticize Katz in A Walk in the Woods for tossing his food, and, I can, evidently go for days with little more than a jar of Nutella and peanut butter.

We spread our food across the grass and, to our delight, the young scouts parsed out the goods. Everyone was exceedingly happy, albeit a bit thirsty. The scouts decided to go a bit further down the trail and we strung up our now-much lightened laundry bag of food and called it a night.

Tune in next episode when we'll meet the Creeper Keeper and a trail legend.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Characterizing the AT, Part 1

“I’ll bet you’re happy,” Lisa said. “You’re meeting people, making trail friends, all the stuff I wouldn’t allow last year,”

It was true. Long time readers may recall my disappointment during last year’s Appalachian Trail section hike over issues like, well, not meeting people or making trail friends. Added to the fact that neither of us had Trail Names and it seemed to me that our AT experience was missing some key components.

Friends, I am please to share that those ills were remedied on this hike. We met characters, people, I mean, authentic, Appalachian Trail char-act-ors, straight from central casting. I couldn’t be more pleased.

We were able to leave our vehicle in a parking lot in a small little trail town in Western Virginia. My sister, who joined us this year, arranged for Dave, a weathered, bearded old soul, to take us out to a pre-selected trailhead. On the 45-minute drive, my sister peppered him with questions, to which he gave what proved to be the most useless answers.

“Will we need to string up our food to keep it away from bears?” she asked, nervously.

“Nah, I wouldn’t bother,” he said, overturning every bit of published or anecdotal wisdom on the subject. After insisting that bears didn’t frequent the area, he offered a follow up story about a man whose backpack—chock full of credit cards, cash, and gear—had been stolen by a bear earlier this summer. “We still have teams going out to look for it on occasion,” he said, shaking his head.

“How long should the route take?”

“Eh, I can do it in two days,” he said, which, we’d discover, was basically the same as saying, “I set a land speed record over some treacherous terrain—I’m surprised you haven’t heard.”

“What about water?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t carry much, certainly not more than a liter. There’s so much water everywhere.” Which completely explains why we spent a whole night and an hour’s walk the next morning, seeing not so much as a mirage, as my dog liked dew from the grass.

“Well, hopefully you won’t need me,” he said, cheerily. “After I drop you off I’m heading home. No phone or electricity. Only way to get a hold of me is smoke signals.”

Unvoiced doubts about the veracity of these reports surfaced in all of our minds within the first half hour of our vertical, rocky trek, although audibly we all chalked it up to solid planning on our part. “Good to get the tough part out of the way early,” one of us would say, to which another would reply, “Yes, if he got it done in two days, it surely gets much easier quite quickly”; or, my favorite: “Really, since we didn’t start hiking until 4:00, everything we do today is just a bonus.” At this point, the only outward sign of doubt in our guide we my sister’s refusal to empty her bloated waterskin, filled from a hose at Dave’s shop with what tasted like warm pool water, although further cracks in our collective confidence in his facts were evidenced in our clunky efforts to string up a laundry bag laden with victuals.

“Oh say, does that overstuffed white bag still hang!” My sister’s voice greeted me before I left my tent the next morning.  Indeed, the bulging bag swung, unmolested from a limb on the outskirts of camp. After cutting it down, I pulled out the coffee and brewed some with the pool water. And with that, we went on our way, surviving  our first night in the backwoods by basically reversing everything that old coot told us.

Tune in next time when our little band of travellers falls in league with a Boy Scout troop, a trail guardian, and an AT legend.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Simple Post

“She had pared herself down to an essential something that I wanted.”
---quote from an otherwise inconsequential novel I perused earlier this summer.

Saturday night found me crashed on the couch in a post-Appalachian Trail stupor, clicking through information about zero waste lifestyles, tiny space living, and recipes for homemade versions of drug store staples.  It’s fascinating reading to be sure, but why I’m drawn to the cause of hardcore naturalism is the larger puzzle.

The events of my summer have revolved around questions of simplicity: what it is, and what it means.  The summer months have seen me poking through the detritus of strangers and family alike as I simultaneously discovered estate sales and assisted in two major moves.

Although I have acquired some great pieces at the estate sales (a gorgeous antique scale, a wooden treasure box, and some vintage cameras, to name a few) it hasn’t escaped my attention that the process was really just an epic yard sale of someone’s life: the dishes they ate from, the art that inspired them, and even the photos and scrapbooks they kept, all up for grabs to any stranger waving a bit of cash.

One of the moves I helped with involved serious downsizing, and, at times, it seemed that the pile of stuff not going to the new house rivaled the one that did. As the piles accumulated, I wondered if I were required to reduce my belongings by half, what would make the cut?

While those around me were shedding stuff, I was shedding weight: my own form of ridding myself of excess.  Then, as if by design, circumstances pulled me away from comforts I would have previously deemed nonnegotiable. It was as if an invisible ratchet tightened around my metaphoric backpack of essentials, squeezing out half the contents and challenging me to make do with the rest.

I packed for Haiti with an air of confidence: it was familiar; I knew what I needed, I knew what could stay behind. I knew what health precautions to take, and which ones were overkill. At one point, my confidence rose so high as to yield the thought that it really wasn’t THAT much different than packing for Florida.

Yeah…because I apparently forgot that Florida has electricity and running water, and roads and all sorts of amenities that the remote Ohso community in L’Asile, Haiti does not.  See, the thing was, I thought we were going to stay at a mission base, when we were actually venturing into the forgotten outreaches; the Haitian equivalent of our Appalachia. Even our Haitian guides from Port au Prince were alarmed by our conditions, which included staying in an concrete building and the use of a communal chamber pot. Because I had packed for nothing more bracing than a Sunshine State sleepover, I spent the week bedding down on a concrete floor in my thin sleeping bag.

And you know what? It was OK. All of it: the concrete, the creek we had to fjord multiple times a day, flowing with mud and animal feces, even the chamber pot. It was all nbd.

Ditto for this year’s Appalachian Trail section hike. A last minute change of route took us deep into the wilderness: no camp sites, no showers, no bathrooms, no potable water—just hardcore, backwoods, girl vs. nature type stuff. And that was OK, too.

Which brings me to this concept we call “simplicity.” How exactly, is scaling endlessly rocky inclines hauling 30 extra pounds on my back simpler than sitting on my couch staring at screens? How is growing and preparing food easier than popping a can or pouch? Why is DIY anything more minimalist than prefabbed? Simply put, can what we label “simplicity” accurately be called “simple?”

I am not sure. I just know that there are areas in which I’d be happy to pare down: fewer chemicals, less waste, reduced clutter. I want to breathe fresh mountain air and pick my dinner from a tree. I want sunshine to bake itself into the fibers of my drying clothes. I want to scavenge raw materials and transform them into functional art, creating a living space of sensory delight not available in any catalog or display. I want to eliminate go-to plastic solutions in favor of creativity; to stop reaching for the paper towels every 5 minutes, to stop cleaning my pores, my pots, my floors with chemical-company potions. I just want it to be…simpler.

Only time will tell if this is a rant or a renaissance. For today, it’s just baby steps: leaning less on the Bounty I can buy on a roll, and more on the abundance I’ve already been given.

This week’s reading List:

And…to be fair: even though I am not reading the novel, the excellent quote at the top came from Jessica keener’s Night Swim, a Friday freebie from Nook.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"When Tomorrow Comes"

“There’s some really good ear candy happening there,” Robbie, a producer at The Minister’s recording studio nodded in response to a tweak his partner, Rob, at the soundboard made with a slide of a switch.

The session was going well, but after an hour plus of tweaking what had already been christened the second “final” cut of the track, I knew we weren't done yet.

I was excited that The Minister invited me to the recording session for his first ever single, “When Tomorrow Comes,” and even more excited that he hired me as his photographer (and by hired, I mean he suggested he might buy me a cup of coffee). We’d shot several hundred pictures in various lighting conditions, with myriad equipment, and from sundry angles. “Turn toward the camera,’ I’d say, or “Let’s try closing the shade.” Photography is a medium with which I’m comfortable; I know the language, and well versed in the lingo.

But when the Rob(bie)s started fine tuning, I felt like a visitor in a foreign land. They’d pontificated over issues I couldn’t hear: “It’s like a ball of music pushing the vocals,” Robbie said, frowning in response to about 2 seconds of melody they’d replayed at least a dozen times; or, “It takes the microphone away,” one would offer. “In a good way,” the other would respond. “Yes.”

I tried to hear the nuances: when an adjustment added “tons of aspiration,” or when they decided to “sweeten up the high end,” but I was operating at a primal, grunts-and-gestures level. Then Robbie sat back, crossed his arms behind his had and made an observation: “”Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” he said. Rob agreed so heartily, he grabbed a marker and scrawled the quote across his board.

I suppose it’s appropriate then, that my son is proficient in a medium that defies words, because I am bereft of prose when it comes to describing the experience I have had over the past weeks, waking up in the night with his song running through the corners of my brain, trying to remember through my half-awake stupor the name of this musician and then recalling that it’s my son.

“When Tomorrow Comes” is out there now, on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon—probably wherever else you might go and look for music.  I encourage you to drop a buck on this piece of ear candy and, if you can find verbiage to describe your experience feel free to give it a try in the comments!

Brandon Davis "When Tomorrow Comes"--available now from all major outlets


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