Staring Down the Ugly American

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“Let’s see if we can find some shade,” Lynn says.

“How about over there, behind the baseline?” I respond.

We work our way around the tennis court stands. The south end has a large shady section that’s beginning to get filled. We find a small space midway from the top. It has a good view of the court. We’ll have a birds-eye view of the player on this end.

I unroll the match schedule and glance at the names. It’s qualifying day at the Western & Southern Open here in Mason, Ohio. The players today are lower ranked and are trying to win a match or two to qualify for actual tournament play, so most of the names are unrecognizable. But the name “Tipsarevic” jumps out. I’d seen him on TV, competing in one of the big Grand Slam events. I’m surprised he has to qualify here. But it’s not too unusual. Sometimes the big names get injured, their rankings drop, then they have to work their way back up again. Maybe that’s the case with Tipsarevic.

Tipsarevic is from Serbia. Same country as Novak Djokovic, one of tennis’s best and most well-liked players.

The other player is from the U.S. He’s a tall, thin, African-American named Chris Eubanks. I’d seen him practicing earlier on one of the side courts, and he looks good. Should be a fun match.

The emcee on the court says a few things, as the last spectators take their seats. It’s a hot day, so a lot of people head to our shady area. Lynn and I are packed in tightly. The guy next to me looks to be in his 60s. In front of him is a pregnant Asian lady with her husband or boyfriend. Just below us are two older couples holding small, plastic glasses of champagne. They’re conversing and laughing like old friends on a yachting excursion. I hear the name “Isner” mentioned several times. This would be John Isner, the second highest-seeded American player, ranked 19th in the world, a 6’11” power server who will be playing later this evening.

Other than Serena Williams, Americans haven’t done well in tennis lately. Especially the men. There are Isner, Jack Sock, Sam Querrey, Stevie Johnson… names known to tennis fans, but not the general public. Distant are the days of Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Ashe, and Connors.

Just before the players are introduced, three men approach our section. The guy in the rear stands out. He’s pale and chunky, and he’s wearing baggy blue jeans. Not your typical tennis fan. His two companions, though, look more the part. They appear to be in their 40s. One is athletic looking, and has scruffy grey whiskers and wraparound sunglasses. He’s holding a drink and smiling.

***

“… from Georgia Tech, his first Western & Southern appearance, please welcome CHRISTOPHER EUBANKS!!” announces the emcee. The crowd cheers. Several young guys seated close to the court stand up and swing their arms.

“They must be college friends of his,” says Lynn.

The three men who arrived late take seats several rows behind us.

Then the other player, Tipsarevic, comes into view. He’s a tanned, muscular guy with a close-cropped beard and shiny black hair. He’s wearing a bright turquoise shirt. He also wears two large wristbands, and a pair of white plastic sunglasses. Looks pretty sharp, like he stepped out of a GQ ad.

“… and from Serbia, the former number 8 player in the world… JANKO TIPSAREVIC!!” The crowd cheers, but noticeably less than for Eubanks.

The players begin a casual rally, warming each other up. Baseline shots, some net practice, some soft overheads, then a few serves. Eubanks is closest to us. He’s extremely tall and wiry, looking more like a basketball than tennis player. But his shots are crisp and clean.

Tipsarevic looks good, too. Very relaxed. He’s seeded third amongst the qualifiers, whereas Eubanks is unseeded, so it should be an easy match for him.

But soon after the match starts, Eubanks breaks Tipsarevic’s serve. In these days of power tennis, that’s not a good sign. However, Tipsarevic appears unconcerned. He doesn’t push himself to chase down balls. His cool, relaxed manner seems to say “Hey, no big deal.”

“Come on, Chris!” several spectators call out, getting excited. “Looking good, keep it up!” Eubanks wins a few more games. He pumps his fist at the stands several times, egging the crowd. Then he wins the first set, 6-3.

The applause is very one-sided. But this is expected. U.S. tennis fans, like everywhere else, are partial, and they’re hungry for a homegrown star, another Sampras or Agassi. Eubanks is young, fresh out of college. Like many others throughout the years, he could be the “future.”

Like Isner, Eubanks is a powerful server. But his backhand looks weak, and he favors his forehand.tennis player

“I wish we could see his service speed!” says one of the champagne ladies.

“Me too, but I think the speedometer’s broken,” says her companion.

Behind us, the grey-whiskered man with the wraparound sunglasses has kept up a loud chatter. “Yeah, I got some games off him, but I think he was deliberately hitting soft” he says to his companions, describing some match from his past. As we enter the second set, though, I hear him make a few comments about Tipsarevic, mispronouncing his name. It starts when Tipsarevic questions a line call.

“I’m surprised he could even see it, he has no depth perception with those awful sunglasses.”

Then, somewhere toward the end of the first set, Tipsarevic wildly mishits into the stands what should have been an easy return. The man claps.

This is considered dirty etiquette in tennis. Imagine a golfer missing a putt and a member of the gallery clapping. It just isn’t done.

After the first set, a few people leave our area. Lynn suggests moving up a row, near the aisle. Not because of the man, but because of her claustrophobia. We move.

Eubanks rolls through the second set. Tipsarevic doesn’t seem energized. When he should be chasing balls, he sacrifices points. About halfway through the set, he re-strings one of his tennis shoes. A few points later, he removes his shoe, walks to the sideline, then asks for an injury timeout. The trainer arrives and examines his foot.

“Just go ahead and forfeit!” comes the loud catcall behind us.

“I wonder if he’s faking injury to shift momentum,” says Lynn.

“You never know,” I reply.

After a five-minute break, Tipsarevic returns to the court.

“Come on Chris, make him move, he can’t even walk!” hollers the loudmouth. Tipsarevic wins a few points. Then Eubanks regains the edge. The score is 4-2. Only two more games for Eubanks, and he’s got the match.

Tipsarevic is now serving. His first serve goes into the net. I hear a slow clap behind me. Again, it’s the grey-whiskered man with the wraparound sunglasses. He’s the only one in the stands to clap, so the sound is jarring.

I turn partway. I want to yell something like “Grow up.” Then I think, no, just explain that it’s impolite to cheer when a player misses a serve. But I stay silent.

Tipsarevic makes his second serve, but loses the point.

He serves again. The first serve, once again, goes into the net.

Clap…clap…clap…clap…clap…clap.   The only sound in the grandstand. Nobody turns around. Nobody tells the man to shut up.

Then something cool happens. Tipsarevic, who is right below us, turns around. I’m certain he doesn’t know who clapped. But he stares upward, straight at the man. His white sunglasses shield his eyes, so it’s hard to tell whom he’s looking at. But he appears to be staring straight into the man, who is maybe 20 rows up. He holds the frozen pose for a full ten seconds. Not long enough for a time violation, but just long enough to make his point.

I join him. I’m not sure if anyone else does, but I turn around and stare at the man. He makes a few nervous giggles. Then the match resumes.

There are no more hate claps from the man.

***

The tennis match in Mason, Ohio was no “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are many differences. But there are also similarities, even if hate-clapper merely didn’t like the guy’s sunglasses. There’s always been ugliness in society. It just seems like we’re seeing more of it these days, more adults behaving like petulant children.

Humans are imperfect creatures. Ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, prejudice, religious intolerance, misogyny etc. will continue to taint society. But maybe we need to reassess how we react to such hatred when we see it, whether it’s on a large stage, or on a bleacher seat away from the cameras.

Maybe, instead of either ignoring hatred or freaking out about it, we need more long, cold stares.

 

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100th Blog Post

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I started longitudes to try to sell copies of my book (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”). Well, the blubber book sales tanked, but the blabbering blog has taken a life of its own.

Someone said that blogs… (the word “blog” is short for “web-log”)… have an average lifespan of 2 1/2 years. Longitudes is now over 4 years young. So I’m actually beating the odds, which is rare for me.

To recognize the insignificant occasion of my 100th post, I’m attaching links to six of my older essays. These essays either got a lot of response, or are special to me… or both.

Since I’m honoring myself, I’d like to thank everyone who’s “liked” my stuff or offered comments: Tad, Mary K, Brian, Neil, Frank, Phil, Rich, Leah, Thom, Dennis, Cindy, Dean, and everyone else who drops in for coffee.

Nobody likes writing in a vacuum, so it’s a huge thrill to know someone has read and been affected by something I’ve written. Some of my thoughts may have struck a nerve on occasion. While I think it’s important to express opinion, and while I may not respect certain views, I nevertheless try to respect the reader (it’s an alien concept in these days of instant communication, but it is possible). Anyway, I hope I’ve never offended anyone. If I have, I apologize.

So here are six blasts from the past… just click the titles. Thanks again, everyone!

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It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Leaving (Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown)

I wrote this travelogue after visiting Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. I used the present tense because I wanted the reader to feel like he or she was on the journey.

The underlying theme is how one person’s hero can have little or no impact on someone else. Also, that it’s difficult or impossible to identify genius or from where it arises.

A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

I sent this essay to a National Public Radio (NPR) show hoping they’d publish it. Too much competition, I guess. So I submitted it to longitudes, and it was accepted! It’s about our family dog, Brownie, a rambunctious Australian Shepherd who didn’t exactly endear himself to outsiders, but was totally devoted to the family. His sudden death brought a lot of tears, but he gave us many good memories. The top photo was taken just before he died.

America and Guns

The Sandy Hook tragedy hit me hard, as it did most everyone else. How can something so horrifying happen? The answers are very complex. But to deny that one of the factors is firearms, and America’s refusal to address why it leads the world in per capita gun violence is, to me, ridiculous.

Remembering Biff

After I write something I usually forget about it. But I keep returning to this essay. It’s a tribute to a friend from childhood that I’d lost track of for many years. Then I suddenly learned about him. He’d taken Horace Greeley’s advice and gone West, doing things I’d always wanted to do (“living the dream,” as the cliché goes), but for which I never had the courage or ability. Then his life was tragically cut short.

Visiting the past has opened a few doors for me. Such is the case with learning about Biff. He reminds me that life is momentary, and we need to (try to) live it to the max while we have it… as Biff evidently did.

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking Glass

This is about an Appalachian Trail hike I took, and it got more feedback than probably any other post (which isn’t saying much!). I guess it’s because people enjoy reading about adventure and unusual experiences. This hike wasn’t all that adventurous or unusual, but maybe folks found a certain vicarious thrill. A lot of the “likes” and “follows” came from people who have their own travel-related blogs. After writing this, I realized that there are many vibrant people around the globe who are in constant motion, immersing themselves in the outdoors and different cultures, places, and experiences.

The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things

I created a sub-category called “50 Years” to highlight people or events on their 50th anniversary (and also because the decade of the 1960s fascinates me). I’m also real big on conservation issues, and these things came together with this Earth Day essay recognizing 50 years since the signing of America’s Wilderness Act. The title is a pun on an old Cowsills song, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things.”

At one time, there was a lot of wilderness but only a few people. Now, it’s just the opposite, and this paradigm is too often taken for granted. I believe it’s crucial to protect as many wild places as possible, for our spiritual well-being in addition to the well-being of other species.

This essay didn’t get a lot of views (I have an annoying tendency to sound like I’m preaching – see above). But that’s okay. Maybe Henry Thoreau and John Muir gave it a nod of approval, which is reward enough.

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I’ll Have One Hurricane, One Blonde, and Some Bob Marley, Please

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Now that it’s getting warmer, and my wife is threatening another cruise, I’m starting to once again smell coconut oil and think of palm trees and flaming sunsets.

And since I seem to have a soundtrack for everything in my life, I’m also smelling ganja, visioning natty dread, and hearing choppy reggae rhythms.

On our last cruise to the Caribbean, I brought along a book to flip through while sunning at the pool with the other overweight Caucasians. It was “The Encyclopedia of Reggae” by Mike Alleyne. The rebel inside me wanted to stir it up; to flaunt my rock credentials and prove that not every hedonist was reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “The Art of the Deal.”book

The only favorable comment I received on my reading material was from the English couple we met. Reggae music has always been very popular in England, and the woman was adamant about expressing her appreciation of Millie Small and her 1964 bubblegum reggae hit “My Boy Lollipop.”

Sweet. But I would’ve preferred a high-five from one of the Jamaican waiters toting trays of pink-orange hurricanes and Bahama mamas. Instead, all I got were shouts of “Sippy-sippy!” and “So nice!”

So many rivers to cross.

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Like a lot of folks my age, I discovered reggae music in the mid-1970s, when Bob Marley and the Wailers were riding high. I already knew the pop-reggae of Johnny Nash, and Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff.” But the live version of “No Woman, No Cry” by the Wailers was the first pure reggae song I ever heard, on FM radio, while enduring hormonal changes at a boys boarding school outside Pittsburgh.

The song was a minor revelation. My roommate was slightly hipper, musically, and he gave me a 30-second crash course on reggae. Jah music, mon! I was intrigued.

Then in college I got to hear live reggae, which is the best way to hear it. I fondly remember one band in particular: I-Tal. They hailed from Cleveland, but they sounded like they’d blown in from the Government Yards in Trenchtown. The fact that they had a cute blonde percussionist may have added to my admiration.

I also started buying reggae records: Marley and the Wailers’ EXODUS and LIVE!, Peter Tosh’s LEGALIZE IT, Bunny Wailer’s BLACKHEART MAN, and Toots and the Maytals’ FUNKY KINGSTON. I think all of these were on legendary Island Records.funky kingston

There were other records I’d heard about through the grapevine, but they were very hard to obtain. Culture’s TWO SEVENS CLASH and Dr. Alimantado’s BEST DRESSED CHICKEN IN TOWN were two that I craved. Disappointingly, both were on small Jamaican labels and available via import only, so they were hard to get and cost a king’s ransom. Back then most of my expendable cash went toward records or beer. Usually beer. I have many regrets about that (the beer, that is).

All of the records I mentioned are highlighted in that reggae encyclopedia, by the way.

Reggae followed me after college, too. I remember playing a CD of Jimmy Cliff’s classic THE HARDER THEY COME in the car one day. My then-nine-year-old son Nick was in the back seat with his friend, Derek. Suddenly, a spate of Rastafari gibberish exploded from the speakers. toshNick and Derek broke out laughing and asked to hear it again and again. Next thing I knew, Nick was sporting a t-shirt of Bob Marley.

Kids do the darndest things.

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Burning Spear’s anthemic album MARCUS GARVEY. So reggae must still be following me. In case you’re curious, though, I’m not Rastafari, and my messiah isn’t the Emperor Haile Selassie I. My messiah is actually John Quincy Adams.

And I don’t catch a fire with collie herb. Well… at least… not in a while.

But reggae music is still a soundtrack in my life. And if anyone has a clean, affordable, vinyl copy of BEST DRESSED CHICKEN IN TOWN let’s do business. I and I will seal deal with soul shake down party.

Mon, ‘twill be so nice !!

A Wrong Turn: The Haunting Disappearance of Inchworm

Trail leading to Winding Stair Gap2

On Monday morning, July 22, 2013, a woman named Geraldine Largay vanished while hiking the Appalachian Trail in southern Maine.

To this day, the details of her disappearance are a mystery.

Largay, whose trail nickname was “Inchworm” due to her slow hiking pace, was an intrepid 66-year-old grandmother from Tennessee.  She was also a veteran backpacker. She and a friend had started their hike at the AT halfway point at Harpers Ferry, WV.  But her friend had a family issue arise and had to bow out in New Hampshire.  She tried to talk Gerry into also quitting, but Largay insisted on continuing solo to the endpoint of Mt. Katahdin in eastern Maine. Her husband had driven their car and was periodically rendezvousing with her at road crossings.

The Maine section of the AT is known for having long stretches of isolated, rugged, and densely forested country.Print

On the night of July 22, Largay shared a lean-to just east of Saddleback Mountain with five other hikers. The following morning, one of them took her photograph. The photo shows a lean, muscular woman with a beaming smile almost as big as her backpack.

Largay was to meet her husband at a road crossing the next day. She was looking forward to a hearty meal and a soft bed. But she never arrived.

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After George Largay reported his wife missing late on July 24, the story spread like a brush fire. Hundreds of volunteers and search and rescue workers fanned out to search for her. The Largay family posted a large reward. But for over two years, there was no trace of Inchworm. Authorities were baffled. Although they publicly denied foul play, this was only because they had no tangible evidence. It was as if Largay had been swallowed by the earth.

Then, on October 14, 2015, an environmental impact researcher found human remains inside a tent in a thicket of woods near an overgrown logging road. The site was only a half mile from the AT. It was a hundred yards inside a restricted area of forest owned by the U.S. Navy. The navy uses this area for P.O.W. simulation training (and, according to the alternative Maine publication The Bollard, some of this training involves torture).

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(photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

Medical analysts eventually confirmed that… yes… the remains were that of Inchworm. Police say there was no evidence of crime (but after two years in the forest, how much evidence would there be!). Her death was officially ruled as “inanition.” It’s a rarely used term that means “a state of being empty.” Empty of food… or, perhaps, empty of will.

How could a woman totally disappear for over two years despite the largest manhunt in Maine history??

I ask this question because it makes no sense why Maine authorities could not rescue her in time, and her family should have to suffer so long without knowing anything. Their grief at her disappearance was bad enough without having a huge question mark hovering over it.

But I guess I’m also asking for selfish reasons. One is, I hate to admit it, morbid curiosity. But the other is that I plan to soon hike the White Mountains in New Hampshire, very close to where Inchworm disappeared. If (heaven forbid) something happens to me, I would want my family to immediately know the whys and the wherefores.   One of the appeals of solo hiking in the mountains is the challenge. Although not considered an “extreme” sport, there is an element of danger. But at the same time, I don’t want my family being interviewed by “Inside Edition.”

________________

Gerry Largay disappeared on a sunny day only three miles from the lean-to where she was last seen. The Maine Warden Service now believes she descended Poplar Ridge, crossed Orbeton Stream, then strayed from the main trail on either an old railroad road or logging path.

The AT guide that I own calls either the railroad road or logging path a “Woods road.”  It’s at the 1982.3 mile mark (northbound) on the AT.  The guide also has an instruction to follow this road a short distance east.  It’s not uncommon for the trail to coincide with a road like this.  But the Woods road soon veers north.  It’s possible Inchworm wasn’t paying attention, missed the sign to continue east on the AT, and followed the Woods road north a great distance.  Then when she realized there were no white diamonds painted on the trees, instead of backtracking she panicked and headed into the brush in hopes of a shortcut.  When a person does this in the unforgiving Maine woods, unless he or she is proficient with a compass, well…

The following day, Tuesday, July 23, it poured rain all day.

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Old railroad road that Inchworm may have mistakenly taken (photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

If it’s true Gerry got lost, God knows the terrors she experienced while awaiting the end. She undoubtedly heard the helicopters whirring overhead. Maybe she also heard distant bloodhounds. Hopefully her final hours were peaceful.

But there are many gnawing unknowns. The Appalachian Trail is well-marked, and Inchworm was an experienced hiker, having trod the southern half of the AT and most of the northern half.  If she chose the wrong trail at some point, why didn’t she backtrack?  Didn’t she have a GPS, or compass and map to use once she got lost? Why did she pitch her tent in such a thick, inaccessible patch of forest? Didn’t she have enough food and water to last for at least several days, more than enough time to relocate the main trail? Didn’t she have dry matches to create a smoke fire? Was she able to write a last message? Have authorities kept this under wraps? Why didn’t they gain permission to search the military grounds?

Another mystery: at the beginning of the investigation, police reported a strange phone call to the Stratton Motel, where George Largay was staying. The receptionist claimed an unidentified person called saying that Gerry was delayed and would be arriving late. This call came on Wednesday, when only her husband knew she was missing.

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And there was a police report of a man leaving threatening messages in AT shelter logbooks in Wyman Township, directly adjacent to where Largay disappeared. The police report was dated July 6… only twelve days before Largay went missing.

But most annoying is why the Maine Warden Service was unable to locate her in time. Largay’s remains were only thirty yards from the logging path. It beggars the imagination why search parties weren’t instructed to flare out from this path.

Mysteries have intrigued us for centuries. But some mysteries are more unsettling than others. Such is the case with Inchworm’s disappearance.  From all accounts, she was a wonderful person.  What happened just makes no sense.

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Location of Gerry Largay’s final campsite. The white cross was placed by her family (photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

 

On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner (Part 2)

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I pitched my tent at the Browns Gap campsite, only about 20 yards from the AT. Then unrolled my sleeping bag, and tossed it inside the tent, along with my nighttime needs: flashlight, foam pillow, some fresh clothes, my journal, and a yellowed copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

I set up my stove on a flat rock, and found a bigger rock to use as my dinner chair. Quickly got some water boiling, dumped in my packet of Ramen noodles, and hunched over the pan with my spoon poised. Then I heard a noise behind me.

Turning around, I saw a young woman come sidling down the trail, swinging two trekking poles. She either didn’t see me, or decided to ignore me, because she continued toward the road crossing a half mile away. It was getting near twilight, and I wondered if she’d be able to find a decent campsite, since I hadn’t seen much between here and Dundo Picnic Grounds several miles back.

Ramen noodles ain’t gourmet, but, for me, it was a feast. I’d covered over 17 miles that day, and I was as tired and sore as a pack mule. I also had some serious chafing on my inner thighs due to sweat-soaked underwear. After supper, I hung my bear bag high up on the log beam, and scrubbed my skillet, using just my fingers and a little water. I packed my skillet in my backpack, which I leaned against a tree. The skillet had a slight residue from the noodles. But I wasn’t too concerned.

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Summit of Blackrock Mountain

I smeared some antiseptic lotion on my thighs, then crawled into my tent. Too tired for Huck and Jim, I waited for darkness to fall while laying spread-eagled on my back. Then clicked off my flashlight as a multitude of insects began their nightly symphony.

It was a long while before I fell asleep. I was buzzing from the day’s activities, and one alpha cricket kept an incessant screeching for hours on end. But eventually I fell into a deep, deep slumber.

At home I wear earplugs. They help me sleep more soundly. But I promised my wife I wouldn’t use them out here in the woods. So the sound that awoke me was loud and unmistakable.

Still spread-eagled on my back, in the midst of some weird, cozy dream, my eyelids suddenly shot open. “Oh, boy. That’s no cricket outside my tent.” It was a combination of sniffs, snorts, and grunts. Beastly and guttural. And it was right outside my tent’s mosquito netting, which was at my head. Later, I remember thinking it sounded like a gigantic pig. But there were no wild pigs in these mountains.

I listened to the snorting for a few seconds. “The only animal around here that could make those baritone notes is a large bear,” I thought.

I recalled something I’d read about loud noises helping to scare off bears.

“HEY, WHAT’S GOIN’ ON!!!?” I yelled in a shaky voice (not expecting a reply).

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Ursus americanus

There was a spooky silence for about a second. Then what sounded like a locomotive crashing through the brush. Then silence again.

I lay still for about five minutes. I turned on my flashlight and glanced at my watch: 3:02 a.m. I think I was more sleepy than scared. The damn bear had awakened me from one of my best sleeps in days. But, eventually, I strapped my flashlight on my head, unzipped the netting, and stepped into the clearing.

I first checked my backpack, which was about 30 feet from my tent. “Looks ok.” Then I walked a short distance to the right, over to the bear beam. I shone my flashlight into a void of blackness. “Bear bag undisturbed.” Everything seemed fine. The cicadas continued their rhythmic drone. But there were no other sounds.

I ducked back into my tent, but not before pulling out an old fishing knife that was buried in my pack. I knew I’d probably never use it, but it gave me a sense of security. Didn’t help much. I remained wide awake until the first rays of sunlight

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I’m not sure why the bear got so close to my tent. Certainly he smelled me and my sweaty clothes and skin (if not the antiseptic lotion). Maybe he was attracted by my skillet. I hadn’t used soap on it, but it was still fairly clean other than the slight film on the surface, and I’d stuck it deep into my pack. He may have smelled my bear bag. All foodstuffs were wrapped in either plastic or foil. But supposedly a bear can detect human food from up to a mile away. So who knows?

I felt like a zombie from lack of sleep. But I knew that once I hit the trail, I’d be ok. After packing up my gear and chomping on a Pop-Tart, I looked around for telltale signs of my nighttime guest. The only evidence was a small patch of dirt that looked like it may have been clawed up. It was about 20 feet from the head of my tent. Hard to believe I was that close to the beast.

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Valley view from Big Meadows

As I started down the trail, I had a humorous thought: “It’s too bad I never saw him. We might have hit it off.” I wasn’t more than a hundred yards from my campsite when I heard the now-familiar crashing sound. I looked to the right and glimpsed a large, black form pounding through the undergrowth, over the hillside. He turned his head, once, then disappeared. I gripped my camera tightly for about five minutes, hoping he’d peek over the hill. But he never did.

Looking back, I’d probably invaded his feeding grounds earlier that night, and he was waiting for me to leave the next morning. The homemade bear beam was there for a reason.

So I did see him. And, he saw me. He was an adult bear, and black as the previous night’s darkness. He was the second bear I’ve seen in the wild. I saw one in the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado in 1983, while hiking with a friend. But that encounter wasn’t nearly as, shall we say, “intimate.” Now I can claim to have seen wild bears on both sides of the Mississippi. Could there be a grizz in my future?? Do I want one in my future??

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Three days later, on Labor Day, I arrived at Skyland, the end point of my hike. I met a lot of nice people between Browns Gap and there: Rob and Paul at rain-soaked Hightop Hut; the couple from Charlotte whom I met at Big Meadows Campground; Katie and her “pack dog;” not to mention the Honeymoon Hikers and Jackson. The Shenandoah AT around Labor Day sees many visitors, which is good in some ways, but bad in others. With the popularity of books and movies like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” more and more people are taking to the woods and trails. It’s great that folks are shedding the shackles and manufactured pleasures of the cities and suburbs, and finding some spiritual peace in places “where things work like they’re supposed to work.” But where there are crowds, there are problems. The trail litter I saw each time I approached Skyline Drive is ample proof. Not to sound preachy, but hopefully the Millennial Generation will use their smartphones to protect the wild places better than my generation and my parents’ generation did.

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At about 7 p.m. outside crowded Skyland Lodge, my driver Dubose Egleston Jr. pulled up, his yellow pickup plastered with signs advertising his shuttle service. I loaded my gear in the truck bed and hopped in front. Dubose was interesting. Short and pudgy, he talks with a sometimes incomprehensible Southern accent, and as if he’s chronically short of breath. Dubose relishes conversation (and Coors beer), and at one time he served on the Waynesboro City Council (“Ah never talk ‘bout national politics. Gits ya into trouble. But ah’ll talk yer ear off ‘bout local and state politics”).

Sunrise at Hazletop Mountain, highest point on my hike

Sunrise at Hazletop Mountain, highest point on my hike

Dubose has been shuttling hikers for 13 years, and estimates he’s hauled several thousand of them. On our drive back to Waynesboro, he told me about some of the more memorable ones: the guy he picked up at the airport who wore a three-piece suit and penny-loafers, and planned to buy all his gear at Wal-Mart (“He gave me the creeps”).

Also, the mysterious man who carried nothing but a white duffel bag (“He never said what was in it, and I never asked. He was creepy, too”). And the guy he called “Rambo,” who wore full camouflage, a handgun, and a knife the size of a bayonet (“He looked like he was goin’ into battle. We didn’t talk much. Just ‘bout the weather”).

I told him about my bear encounter at Browns Gap.

“Ah shuttled two young women from Wisconsin one time,” he said. “They were real ‘cited ‘bout hikin’, but tole me the only thing they were ‘fraid of was bears. They had convinced themselves they were goin’ to be attacked by a bear.”

I laughed.

Dubose Egleston Jr.

Dubose Egleston Jr.

“I said ‘Lemme get some gas here, an ahm goin’ to set you straight.’ After ah got back in my truck, I tole ‘em ‘Black bears ain’t the same as grizzly bears. They don’t attack people.’ I said ‘There has never been a bear attack on humans in the state of Virginia.’”

“What did they say?” I asked.

“You’d a thought ah lifted five pounds offa each of their shoulders!” he said. “They were so relieved to hear that. They practically threw their arms around me. Ah don’t know what it is, but somewhere ‘tween the Midwest and here, people get this notion that black bears are vicious man-eaters. It just ain’t true.”

I asked Dubose if he heard from them after their hike.

“Yep. They couldn’t git over what ah tole ‘em ‘bout bears. After they got home to Wisconsin, they sent me a big block’a cheese. That was nice. But ya’ll take a look at me. Cheese is the last thing ah need.”

boo-boo4

On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner

yogi_sign

“Aren’t you worried about bears?” (my boss)
“Oh no. Now I have to worry. Aren’t there bears and wolves in those mountains?” (my mom)
“Why do you do these things to me?” (my wife)
“Are you gonna pack a sidearm?” (my friend Dave)

These are a few of the reactions I got this past summer when I announced that I’d be doing a solo hike through Shenandoah National Park, on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s something about camping in the woods that scares the bejeebers out of people. It might be the stories we read as children: Hansel and Gretel, Peter and the Wolf, Where the Wild Things Are. Later on came feature films: The Wolf Man, The Night of the Grizzly, The Edge. Be it bears, wolves, cougars, giant venomous snakes, bloodthirsty bats, witches, goblins, headless horsemen, Texas chainsaw killers… dense, dark forest has become a metaphor for danger and fear.

black bear

American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The reality, of course, is that our cities – and increasingly, our suburbs – are far more dangerous. But humans can’t seem to shake certain embedded fears. And of all creatures in the woods, nothing seems to worry people more than bears.

Bears are big. An adult American black bear (Ursus americanus), averages 125-550 lbs. Its cousin, the more aggressive grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), averages 400-790 lbs. Some freak grizzlies grow even bigger. Both species are omnivores, eating both plants and animals. But a grizz standing on its back feet can reach over nine feet in height, and can take down large mammals such as bison, moose, elk, and caribou. His claws can grow to four inches in length.

Also, although extremely rare, bear attacks do happen. The most infamous occurred in Glacier National Park on the night of August 12, 1967. On that night, two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were dragged from their sleeping bags by two hungry grizzlies… unbelievably, in separate incidents nine miles apart. Their bodies were eventually located by searchers. Helgeson hung on for a few hours before succumbing to blood loss. Only portions of Koons’s body were found.

grizz

Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilus)

But horror stories like this occurred back when little was known about bear behavior, and campground bears were still feeding at open-air garbage dumps. The two grizz that killed Helgeson and Koons were later tracked down. One had glass imbedded in its molars, and the other had a torn paw pad, probably from stepping on broken glass. Wildlife officials speculate they were in extreme pain when they attacked.

But I didn’t need to worry about grizzlies when I began my hike. The only grizz in the lower 48 are in Yellowstone and in small pockets of Montana and Idaho. However, there are a lot of black bears along the AT, particularly in Shenandoah National Park, which has a number of public campgrounds (“Hey, hey, hey Boo-Boo, do I smell a pic-a-nic basket?”). Like many people, I was hoping to see a bear on my hike. But I never thought I’d share my campsite with one.

____________________________

I started my hike at Rockfish Gap, outside Waynesboro, Virginia. The first day I covered six miles, some of which found me slogging through a relentless rainstorm. I camped near a large cairn at the top of Calf Mountain. It was a good campsite, right next to the trail, with good, flat stones for setting up my campstove, and enough tree branches on which to drape my soggy clothes.

I got an early start the next day. Watered up at a spring near the shelter halfway down the mountain. While filling my canteen, I met a hiker coming from the shelter. She was a middle-aged woman who was trekking 100 miles to Manassas Gap. She called herself “Owl.” Hmm. Shouldn’t she be hiking at night??

Sawmill Run Overlook2

Scenic overlook at Sawmill Run

At the base of Calf Mountain at Jarman Gap, I officially entered the park. It was at a fire road near a huge gnarled tree, maybe the oldest I’d see on the entire hike. Later, at Sawmill Run Overlook, I gobbled some trail mix and provided a curious spectacle to a few tourists who were cruising along Skyline Drive.

Then at Turk Gap, I met my first thru-hikers, a college-age couple who’d started way up in Maine months earlier. They were headed for the Springer Mountain trailhead in north Georgia. They represented the “advance guard” of southbound thru-hikers, and they had the lean, muscular look of swift, veteran hikers. Surprisingly, they gave off no odor, and they also looked really clean and manicured – even the man’s red beard looked shapely.

Near Riprap parking area I met a young woman. She was an emergency nurse from nearby Charlottesville, out enjoying a sunny day hike. Then I lunched at the edge of the parking lot, where I met another solo day hiker. I would bump into him again, the following day, at Loft Mountain campground. His name was Jackson, and he was a high school senior from Richmond, Virginia. He was just bouncing between campgrounds, doing short hikes on the AT, and squeezing in some summer kicks before the school year started. Nice kid, long blonde hair, really laid back. I noticed his truck had a plate that said “Don’t Tread On Me.” I wondered if his parents might’ve named him after exalted Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

As I approached Blackrock Mountain, I started to get really thirsty. Also, worried, since I only had a few drops left in my canteen. Two years earlier I’d hiked the AT through Georgia, and I’d crossed a lot of mountain streams and springs. But Shenandoah was extremely dry. Climbing the straight ascent up the side of Blackrock was taking a toll.

Blackrock Mtn summit2

Summit of Blackrock Mountain

Help came in the form of two more thru-hikers coming down the mountain. They were a married couple, the “Honeymoon Hikers.” They’d already done a northbound hike on their wedding honeymoon, and were now hiking southbound. Amazing! Mr. Honeymoon told me the summit wasn’t far ahead, and after that it was smooth sailing. He said Dundo Picnic Grounds was only a few miles ahead, and it had a water pump.

Blackrock Mountain summit was aptly named: huge, dark boulders stacked a hundred feet high, like a scene from Planet of the Apes. I rested on one of the rocks, then savored a smooth downhill trek into Dundo Picnic Grounds. At Dundo, I replenished my water at the pump, and took a refreshing sponge bath. There were lots of picnic tables here, but the only visitors were an elderly couple enjoying an early supper at one of the tables. Before exiting the grounds, they circled their car over to the water pump and kindly offered me some granola bars and bananas.

Now it was time to find a campsite. I was hoping for a nice, quiet, trailside site similar to Calf Mountain. But at Browns Gap, where Skyline Drive again crossed the AT, there was just an empty parking lot and a couple lonely fire roads that meandered into the woods. It was getting late. A few cars whizzed by on Skyline Drive. I started to clear out a primitive tent site near the parking lot. But it just didn’t feel right.

When all else fails, hit the trail. So I started up another incline. About a half mile up… voila! There, on the left, was my home for the night: a clearing, moderately used, with flat ground for my tent. And at the far edge of the clearing were two skinny trees, about ten feet high. A horizontal log beam was resting on two forks carved at the tree tops. It looked a little like a pole vault bar. Someone had built this thing to hang his or her food bag so marauding bears wouldn’t get it.

Usually, backpackers will seek out a single tree that has a high, horizontal limb on which to hang their bear bags. So this designer bear beam was really convenient. Surely this construction project took a lot of time. But why would someone devote so much time and energy to building it? Maybe a ranger built it.

Was Yogi or Boo-Boo in the vicinity??

(end of Part 1)

boo-boo

“Journey”: A Wolf Too Famous to Kill

OR-7

His official name is OR-7. No, he’s not a robot from the latest installment of “Star Wars.” But he is a star.

OR-7 is the first gray wolf to be sighted in California since 1924 (when the last wolf in that state was shot). He crossed the border from southern Oregon on December 28, 2011, having traveled over 1,000 miles from a small pack in northeastern Oregon.

Since then he’s returned to the Cascades of southwestern Oregon and mated with a black female, who has given birth to at least three pups (this family is now referred to as the “Rogue Pack”). And just a few days ago, another wandering wolf was photographed by a trail camera west of Keno, Oregon (GPS tracking showed that OR-7 was far away at the time).

Not long after OR-7 was sighted, a conservation group, Oregon Wild, held an art contest challenging children to come up with a more interesting name for the wolf (OR-7 was used by biologists because he was the seventh wolf radio-collared in the state of Oregon). The winning name was “Journey.” Fans of Journey track his wandering activity, and a documentary was recently made of him.  His fan club hopes that this celebrity will engender awareness of wolf conservation, and they refer to him as “the wolf too famous to kill.”

pups

Two of Journey’s pups, peeking from den

I can’t think of a reason why anyone would want to kill a gray wolf. Aside from the fact that Canis lupus is an intelligent and majestic creature, a cousin to “man’s best friend,” and a symbol of North American wilderness, wolves are just not the bloodthirsty creatures that populate so many fables, storybooks, and films. Yes, they’re carnivorous. But they pose little risk to humans. They do pose a threat to livestock, but only when wild prey has been depleted.

The history of wolves in America is not unlike the history of Native Americans. Originally, the mammal occupied most of continental America north of the Florida keys, including all of the eastern U.S. As human settlement and agriculture expanded between the 18th and 20th centuries, wolves followed their own “Trail of Tears” and gradually dispersed northward and westward. As hunters brought the American bison to near-extinction, wolves lost a major food source and also disappeared from the prairies. By 1960, guns and poison had eradicated the gray wolf from all of the U.S. except Alaska and parts of northern Minnesota.

Then they began a slow comeback. Bounties for wolf carcasses ended in 1947. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act gave them protection in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Then in 1995, amidst a flurry of publicity, 66 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

Remote capture photo of one of Journey's pups

Remote capture photo of one of Journey’s pups

Some of these wolves eventually migrated to northeastern Oregon, and three separate packs were soon confirmed there: Walla Walla, Wenaha, and Imnaha (Journey’s original pack).  There are now nine packs in Oregon with an estimated 60-something wolves.  Wildlife biologists tend to key in on whether a pack has breeding pairs, which determine the pack’s long-term viability.

Oregon Wild believes that much of Journey’s success in relocating and mating is attributed to his utilization of Oregon’s wild and roadless areas, where both roads and development are prohibited. This was a direct result of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, initiated during the Clinton administration.

Map of Journey's journey

Map of Journey’s journey

Despite the recent good news about Journey and other wolves in the U.S., their comeback attempts are fraught with difficulty. In 2003, due to political pressure from hunters and the livestock industry, wolves were reclassified from Endangered to Threatened (a weaker designation).  In 2005, the Bush administration diluted the original Roadless Rule and capitulated to livestock lobbyists, allowing states to determine their own roadless areas (Bush’s actions were eventually overturned by the courts). And Alaska has its own way to decimate wolves: in that state, wolves can be legally shot from helicopters during hunting season.

Unfortunately, despite public pressure and polling that indicates vast support for wolf reintroduction, there are still vocal minorities who would rather treat wolves, as the National Resources Defense Council phrases it, “like vermin rather than an endangered species.”

If wolves like Journey, his mate and pups, the lone wolf near Keno, and other reintroduced wolves are to survive and proliferate, it’s important that Americans speak out in their defense.  As thrilling as the story of a celebrity wolf is, we should be reframing “a wolf too famous to kill” as “the mammal too magnificent to murder.”  As Oregon Wild notes, “the extermination of wolves is one of our greatest environmental tragedies. But their return represents an opportunity at redemption.”

The second wolf sighted, near Keno, Oregon

The second wolf sighted, near Keno, Oregon

Here are a few links where you can learn more about OR-7 and make your voice heard (the first link will take you to an article featuring a SoundCloud button where you can actually hear the howl of Journey’s father, OR-4).

http://www.oregonwild.org/wildlife/wolves/the-journey-of-or7

http://www.or7themovie.com/#!watch-movie/czpx

http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/dnagami/good_news_for_wolves_californi.html

To Cruise or Not to Cruise, That is the Question

GoldenPrincess

Everyone has that one favorite vacation. The memorable honeymoon in beautiful, green Ireland. The trans-Canadian rail trip. The ski excursion to Vail, Colorado. The pilgrimage to Pigeon Forge to eat cheap fudge inside tacky wax museums while Dolly Parton is piped in over the intercom.

My favorite vacation was the month our family spent in a cottage at Stone Harbor on the Jersey Shore. I was only eight. I remember sprinting into the frothy ocean surf the moment we arrived. Flying kites on the beach as the sun dipped into the west. Catching crabs on the docks with my dad. Going to the theatre in town with my brothers and cousin to watch “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” I still recall chewing on chocolate saltwater taffy as Don Knotts’s eyes bulged from the screen.

Other than almost drowning the day I was caught by an undertow, it was an idyllic summer that I’ll never forget.

These days a lot of folks like to “cruise” for their vacation. Lynn and I have gotten some good deals and enjoyed two Caribbean cruises, and we’re planning a third. Actually, she’s planning. I’m nodding my head a lot and mumbling.

Ocean cruises have become very popular today. The cruise industry is expected to reel in profits of 37 billion dollars by the end of 2014. The number of passengers on cruise ships is expected to exceed 24 million by 2018. (http://www.statista.com/topics/1004/cruise-industry/)

So, despite disasters like the Costa Concordia and frequent, well-publicized outbreaks of noroviruses, cruising is as popular as ever.

But even though I had a wonderful time on our two cruises, I can’t help feeling a trifle guilty. Let me explain:

cruise food

Great food, great service

First, there’s the eating part. On a cruise, they give you as much food as you want. Some people spend two hours gorging on breakfast, take an hour break for sunshine, then dive back into the cafeteria for another couple hours binge eating their lunch. And, judging by the two Royal Caribbean cruises that we’ve done, the food is very, very good. The evening meals and service are 5-star quality (at least to my pedestrian tastes). Lobster bisque, Dungeness crab, smoked salmon for appetizers. Veal chops, filet mignon, seared diver scallops with chorizo sausage and parsnip purée or caramelized orange drizzle for entrées. Crème brûlée, coconut and lychee gâteau, and other dishes with words with letters that have accents for dessert.

Of course, if you’re restrained enough, you don’t have to eat like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But for me that’s very difficult. And the overeating – aka gluttony – induces guilt.

Secondly, I always have a nagging sense that I’m being indolent. On a cruise, other than dressing and undressing yourself, there’s absolutely no work. Minimal walking, and no cooking, cleaning, planning, driving, gassing. This is really tough for an impatient neurotic like myself. Running 30 loops around the rubberized track on deck while dodging tipsy tourists helps a little, but not much. My trail friend, Paul, deliberately avoids cruises due to their hedonistic aspect. He believes a vacation should be earned, that one should work for one’s leisure.

“Well, we worked our regular jobs all year for this vacation,” I explained to him. “So didn’t we earn it?”

“No, I mean you should have to work during your vacation as well. Like run a marathon, or spend a week volunteering on the bike trail.”

Then again, Paul is a self-admitted anal retentive proctoid, so maybe his opinion doesn’t count.

promenade

Promenade on ship

Thirdly, there’s the problem of the ship itself. These things are like miniature cities. They’re behemoths. And they keep getting bigger and bigger. The biggest passenger ship in the world used to be Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, built in 2006. This ship featured several pools, a basketball court, miniature golf course, boxing ring, FlowRider surfing simulator, rock-climbing wall, ICE SKATING RINK, indoor mall, and dozens of lounges, eateries, and shops.

In 2009, the Freedom of the Seas was surpassed by the record-setting, 225,000-ton Oasis of the Seas. This ship has everything the Freedom has and more: a teen spa, science lab, carousel, tattoo parlor, indoor AquaTheatre, two surf simulators, and the piéce de résistance: a Central Park-styled indoor park that includes (mixed in with the boutiques and bars) 12,000 plants and 56 trees.

Central Park at sea

Central Park at sea

Actually, this park idea should be viewed as good news. With dozens of plant and animal species going extinct worldwide every day, bottling up a few of them on the ocean for the enjoyment of sunburnt tourists with perpetual indigestion is probably a good thing.

Of course, with size also comes environmental concerns. Royal Caribbean has a pretty good green initiative compared to most cruise ships. But they still have a ways to go. At a talk given by the Environmental Officer on our last cruise, I asked about several rubber balls flying over the edge of the vessel during the dodge ball tournament. She told me they plan to build a higher restraining net. Also, that each time a ball goes overboard, the ship sends out a report.

Now, really. Am I supposed to believe that RC sends out little PT boats to round up these floating balls? With all the worldwide cruise ship lines, their ships, their excursions, and their dodge ball tournaments, all I can say is there must be a helluva rubber lining on the Earth’s ocean floor.

So, even though, like most people, I love to eat and relax and be pampered, there’s always that nagging guilt. It’s probably why, periodically, I plunge into the woods to sleep in a moldy tent and eat processed cardboard. This way I get a little balance. My friend Paul would be proud: I actually earn my vacation.

I also get to gaze on some plants and trees in their native habitat. Without burping.

 

concordia

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Leaving): Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown

highway 61_3

I cross the Fond Du Lac Reservation on Highway 2 and approach the little town of Floodwood. The road’s empty save for one car about a football field behind me.

I wonder if the driver sees my out-of-state plates. It’s a long way from southern Ohio to northern Minnesota. The driver’s probably rolling his eyes right now. Another tourist wanting a piece of the local celebrity.

I’m in Minnesota to do the popular Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, located north of Minneapolis on the western rim of Lake Superior. Only a short distance northwest is Hibbing, a small mining town tucked away in the piney woods. Hibbing is also the hometown of one Robert Zimmerman, who later became Bob Dylan. It’s ironic such a musical giant emerged from this tiny, isolated place. And also a bit surreal, like the man’s songs. Dylan was a reluctant pied piper for a generation. Much of his appeal stems from the fact that the man and his music can be difficult to grasp. That, and because he was writing song-poems in his twenties with the wisdom of one who’d lived a hundred years.

When did Robert Zimmerman become “Bob Dylan”? At one time he was just a pudgy Jewish kid whose dad worked in an appliance store. There must’ve been some kind of epiphany here in Hibbing. Maybe I can conduct my own mining expedition and unearth it. But I feel more than a little self-conscious about invading this town, half-asleep with ghostly memories. Hibbing was, at one time, a major exporter of iron ore. But the mines dried up long ago.

Interviewer at 1965 press conference: Do you consider yourself a musician or a poet?

Dylan: I think of myself more as a song and dance man.

I make a right onto route 73. “Hibbing: 38 miles” reads the road sign. Now I have the road to myself. I only see two cars the rest of the journey to Hibbing.

The first thing I notice when I enter Hibbing is the usual nauseating commercialism: a Home Depot, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, an Apple computer store, etc. Then I see a sign pointing to “Downtown.” Yeah, this is what I want. The town as it was in the 1950s, when Bob Zimmerman was chewing bubble gum underneath a streetlamp.

The buildings grow closer together, and I start seeing people on the sidewalks. I’m looking for a restaurant I read about in my old Rand McNally road atlas. It’s a tourist trap with Dylan memorabilia plastered on the walls. But it supposedly has good food. Maybe I can locate someone who knew Dylan as a kid. Not sure what I would ask him, though.

I drive slowly down First Avenue, but no signs about the “Z Man.” Then I make a right on Howard Street. Lots of old, dirty buildings with large, painted letters stenciled on the brick and which have faded over time. A few restaurants, but nothing related to Dylan. Half of me anticipates a huge billboard announcing Hibbing as “Hometown of Bob Dylan.” I’m surprised I haven’t seen this yet, but also a little pleased at the town’s restraint.

At the end of Howard Street, on the corner, I finally see something. A large sign, “Zimmy’s,” with a huge photo of early ‘60s era Dylan. I quickly swing into the side street and find a parking spot.

But it turns out that, although lunchtime on a weekday, Zimmy’s is closed.

Bob Dylan's Boyhood Home

Bob Dylan’s Boyhood Home

I need to talk to a local. Someone who might know where the Dylan sites are. I duck into a Goodwill store. Too crowded. I don’t want the customers to hear me ask the clerk “Excuse me, where can I find…?”

I find a sporting goods store with one employee. She’s a teenage girl. An easy target. When I ask her, she says there’s a street named after him, but that’s all she knows. I pretend to be interested in the Hibbing Bluejackets t-shirts that are on sale. Then I thank her and saunter out the door.

Feeling hungry, I decide to find a restaurant for a burger and beer. Walking down Howard Street, though, I glance down a side street and see an odd sight: a white camper trailer sandwiched between buildings, with a patio table and blue-and-white striped umbrella in front. A sign on the trailer advertises “GYROS.” This gyro trolley seems so out of place, I just have to give them some business. I approach an elderly man and a young girl who are chatting underneath the umbrella. When the girl sees me coming, she jumps up excitedly and asks if she can help me. I order a gyro. Then I start a conversation with the man.

Hibbing Gyros Trolley

Hibbing Gyro Trolley

“Nice little restaurant you have here. I didn’t know there was a Greek restaurant in Hibbing!”

“Yep, yep. We got ‘em all. Yessir, anything you want.”

He has a thick Minnesota accent, reminiscent of one of the extras in the movie Fargo.

“I’m up here from Ohio to run the marathon in Duluth” I tell him. “But I had to stop by Hibbing to see Bob Dylan’s hometown.”

“Oh, that’s a big race, yeah, real popular. You gonna win it?” he asks with a chuckle.

“Well, I doubt it, but I’ll try!” I laugh. Then I get back to the subject at hand.

“Are there any Bob Dylan sites in town?”

“Oh, I think there might be something in the Memorial Building. I was never a big fan. Not my type of music. I was more, uh, sort of…”

“Country?” I venture a guess.

“Yep, yep. Country. Dylan just wasn’t my cup of tea. I was in the Air Force, then on the police force. Can’t say I’ve heard much of his music.”

The girl hands me my gyro, which is gigantic. She’s been smiling the whole time. Despite making very little progress regarding Zimmy, I like the people in Hibbing.

“Does he ever return to Hibbing to visit?” I ask.

“No, I don’t think he ever has, at least that I know of. He sort of turned his back on us.”

“He’s pretty private, from what I hear,” I offer. “Maybe he’s tired of being a spectacle.”

“Yep, yep. That’s probably it.”

“Well, guess I’ll check out the auditorium. Nice talking to you!”

“Yep, nice talkin’ to you too! If you win that race, bring back some of that prize money to Hibbing!”

I tell him if I do, I’ll buy a dozen gyros, which gets him laughing.

I soon find myself on another side street, where a cop is getting out of a car. He looks like he’s in his late ‘30s or so. I walk up to him.

“Excuse me, sir, do you know where I can find Hibbing Memorial Building?”

He gives me a quizzical look. “Straight down this street, then left at the third intersection. What exactly you want there?”

Typical suspicious cop. “I was told there might be something there about Bob Dylan.”

“Oh. Well, the historical society’s in the basement. They might have something.”

“Are there any other sites in town associated with Dylan?”

“Well, there’s 7th Avenue – or Bob Dylan Drive, the street he lived on. There’s also Zimmy’s, a restaurant. But they closed down for some reason. I don’t think the owner was paying taxes. Other than that, I don’t know of anything. I was never a fan.”

“Ok, thanks.” I can’t understand the indifference of these people. Even if you don’t like his music, HE’S BOB DYLAN FER CHRISSAKES!!

(People) walk up, they think they know me because I’ve written some song that seems to bother them.  So they walk up as if we’re long lost brothers or sisters or something.  Well, that’s got nothing to do with me.  And I think I can prove that in any court.

On the way to the Memorial Building, I see the town library. I make a beeline for it. If they don’t have anything on Dylan, it’s a lost cause.

The library is small, just one floor. There are scattered posters in the glass lobby, including one advertising Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, scheduled to appear at Memorial Building in July. A smaller poster advertises a Bob Dylan Exhibit in the library basement. Hmm.

I wind my way through the glass in the lobby and find a staircase. Down I go. In the basement, there’s a long hallway with a wooden door at the end. I follow the hallway, past a room with three or four people seated in front of computers. They glance up at me as if I shouldn’t be here. They must be either hunting for jobs, or wasting time on Facebook.

I reach the door. In the center at eye level is a shabby photo of Dylan with the words “Bob Dylan Exhibit” taped underneath. I turn the door handle. Locked.

I climb back to the main floor and shyly approach the woman behind the main desk. She’s 30-ish, gangly, long black hair, thick black glasses. Very librarian-ish.

“Yes, I’d like to see the Bob Dylan exhibit, but the door is locked.”

“Oh. Ok, just a second.”

She picks up a phone. “Chrissy, could you please unlock the exhibit room?”

She looks at me and says “Chrissy will let you in.”

I go back downstairs, past the Facebook people, down the long hallway, and stand in front of the door. Soon, the door opens, and I see an attractive blonde girl.

“You must be Chrissy!” I say.

“Yes!” she responds with a smile.

Chrissy lets me in, then disappears into another room. I wander around the exhibit room. On the walls are about 50 or so photos of Dylan during various phases of his life, from the time he was in kindergarten on up to his being presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. There’s also a life-size dummy, a giant Dylan-and-guitar scarecrow. A large rectangular conference table occupies the middle of the room, but nothing’s on it except a small binder with identifiers that describe the photos.

Zimmy and Me

Zimmy and Me

I spend about 45 minutes here, concentrating mainly on the pictures of Dylan while he was in Hibbing. It turns out he led two rock bands as a teenager, the Cashmeres and the Golden Chords. He was also a big Little Richard fan, judging by the remarks in his high school yearbook. Also a member of the Latin and Social Sciences clubs.

There’s also a photo here of a beautiful, Nordic-looking woman with creamy blonde hair. She looks a little like the French actress Brigitte Bardot. I soon learn this is Echo Hellstrom, whom Dylan dated. They spent a lot of time watching movies together at the Lybba Theatre, which was named after Dylan’s grandmother. In fact, his mother’s side of the family lived in Hibbing as far back as his great-grandmother.

I wonder what this icy beauty saw in young Robert Zimmerman, who wasn’t exactly the handsomest teenager. She must have seen a few kernels of genius beyond those chubby cheeks.

I spend about 45 minutes reading the “exhibits,” then sign my name in the visitors’ register. “Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters.” I peek in the back room to ask Chrissy a few questions, but she’s nowhere to be seen. No other visitors have joined me.

I leave the library clutching a pamphlet, the “Hibbing Historical Walking Tour.” I learn that Boston Celtics center Kevin McHale, Yankees great Roger Maris, Manson Family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the guy who started Greyhound Bus Lines, and various distinguished politicians and hockey players are also from Hibbing. Most importantly, the pamphlet has a mapped walking tour of Bob Dylan sites: the aforementioned Zimmy’s and Lybba Theatre; his boyhood home; the synagogue where he worshipped with his parents; the Androy Hotel where he had his Bar Mitzvah party; even the bowling alley where his bowling team, The Gutter Boys, won a local competition.

The walking tour makes my Hibbing visit worthwhile. The townsfolk may be short on information, but the pamphlet guides me through Dylan’s past. “Positively 4th Street” wafts through my head as I gaze at the odd-looking blue house where Dylan lived as a kid. I stand on the street corner and stare at a second-floor window. Here, 60 years ago, the budding poet/singer was tuning a cheap radio to a distant Southern station, picking up the alien sounds of Blind Willie McTell and Dock Boggs.

***

The volunteer at the historical society is a rugged-looking ex-miner wearing a red and white plaid shirt.  He has little to say about Hibbing’s most famous citizen, but he gives me an informative lecture on the importance of the mineral taconite to the area. Although I greatly respect people like him, who worked so hard for so long at a dangerous trade, I’m not all that eager to honor his request that I visit the large open pit at the edge of town.

Similarly, the elderly tour guide at historic Hibbing High School is extremely knowledgeable. He’s anxious to explain the architectural history of the building, called the “Richest Gem in Minnesota’s Educational Crown” when it was built in 1924.

The volunteer peppers me with information about the school’s architectural opulence, as we watch a video about the building in the principal’s office. This is all very impressive. But isn’t the main goal to educate young people?

The only time he mentions Dylan is when we enter the ornate school auditorium.

“This is where Bob Dylan was booed offstage” he wryly notes.

The tour guide looks to be about Dylan’s age. And he definitely knows a lot about this school, almost as if he has firsthand familiarity.  Hmm.  It’s certainly possible. I take the plunge.

“Did you attend school here?” I begin my query.

But he shoots me down midstream.

“No. I’m from Minneapolis.”

Hibbing High School

Hibbing High School

The Rain, the Trees and Other Things

yosemite

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones… God has cared for these trees… but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.

– John Muir, from Our National Parks (1901)

In Austin, Texas there’s a Southern live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) called the Treaty Oak. Its branches stretch 127 feet across and it is believed to be over 500 years old. The tree was sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes. According to folklore, Texas icons Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston paid respects here. In 1989, a vandal dumped buckets of herbicide around the base of the Treaty Oak. Two-thirds of this monumental tree is now dead.

In Trinidad, California a mighty redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) known as the Crannell Creek Giant stood for an estimated 3,000-plus years. Until a few decades ago, it was the largest living tree known to man, estimated at over 400 feet tall. But in the mid-1940s it was cut down by a logging company.

In Birmingham, Michigan, a patch of woods stood at the corner of Cranbrook Road and Lincoln Street… just across from Seaholm High School. In 1968-‘69, my friends and I box trapped small animals there. Some of these traps we built from scraps of particle board and coat hanger wire. Seaholm Woods was one of the few wild enclaves near our suburban Detroit neighborhood. We formed a “Safari Club” and spent countless hours scrambling through the hardwoods, feeling the scrape of briars on our skin, and peering into a small murky swamp abundant with strange, hidden creatures. But like so many other wooded glens in the ‘burbs, Seaholm Woods fell victim to a housing development. The raccoons, foxes, opossums, crows, grackles, and bullfrogs have long since disappeared.general-sherman

Tree and rock, bird and mammal, swale and swamp. Wild places provide nourishment to the soul. Fraught with hidden activity and complexity, the rainforests, alpine meadows, deserts and rivers also give us tranquility and space. Whether we realize it or not, wildness is an essential antidote to industrialization, commercial and residential sprawl, and an increasingly mobile and high-tech culture that seems to be dragging us further away from not only each other, but also the earth.

Long-distance hiker/folksinger/wilderness activist Walkin’ Jim Stoltz was once asked by the “Wall Street Journal” how he defined the term “wilderness.” Stoltz thought for a moment. He then offered this: “Wilderness is a place where things work the way they’re supposed to work.” I can’t think of a more appropriate definition.

But the term “wilderness” also has a legal definition, at least in the U.S. It was interpreted by Congress 50 years ago, on September 3, 1964. Although it took eight years to happen, eventually the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson. It established the National Wilderness Preservation System and declared that:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.wolf

The Wilderness Act is one of the most significant environmental achievements in the U.S., just as important as the national park system. It designated nine million acres for protection from commercial and recreational use. This has since expanded to about 108 million acres, managed (and sometimes mismanaged) by four agencies: The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

Designated U.S. wilderness areas contain 157 ecosystems with extensive flora and fauna, including such endangered or threatened species as whales, wolves, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, and numerous migratory birds. The ecosystems encompass national parks and forests, grasslands, wetlands, trails, wild and scenic rivers, monuments and cultural sites.

The 50-year-old Wilderness Act may not have saved the Treaty Oak or my own Seaholm Woods. Had it been around in the 1940s, though, it certainly would have prevented the murder of the Crannell Creek Giant.

But, as significant as the Act is, there are still millions of acres of mountain, forest, glacier, and other fragile eco-habitat without protection; magnificent public lands that are susceptible to drilling, mining, logging, over-grazing, damming, and road-building. And the money-changers won’t rest. If they can’t turn a profit by gouging the planet one way, they’ll find another.

So, if you’ve had the stamina to read this far, and value the concept of “wilderness,” try to make a difference. Sign a petition, make a donation, plant a tree, invest in a rain barrel. Trade in your gas hog for a fuel-efficient car. Avoid synthetic lawn chemicals. Cast a green vote.

America is blessed with some of the most awe-inspiring biodiversity on the planet. We all share the bounties of this ecological Eden: tree huggers, free-market junkies, Democrats, Republicans, top 1% and lower 99%. In the long run, it’s about our own physical and mental well-being, but it’s also about the other 21,714 vertebrates and plants in America who share our “home.”

HAPPY EARTH DAY!

centennials