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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A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

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(I submitted this essay to the NPR series This I Believe several years ago, after our dog Brownie died.  Anyone who’s lost a beloved pet knows how difficult it can be)

 

I open the front door and step onto the tiled hallway floor.  I grasp the brass doorknob of the coat closet, turn the handle, then reach in and shuffle the hooks on the coat rack.  Before draping my jacket over the wire, I hear a flurry of rapid clicking sounds on the porcelain.  By the time I hang my jacket, he’s lunging at my waist, panting heavily, gaping jowls and eyes afire.

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While he was alive, I never thought of Brownie as being my best friend.  He was the one, more than anyone else, who anticipated my arrival home. Sometimes, instead of accosting me at the coat closet, he’d rush into the den, and I’d hear his big paws thumping the carpet, in joyful harmony with the sound of his favorite squeaky toy.  Happy because I’d finally returned.

Brownie and I both loved to run, and he treated every evening jog like an exotic vacation. There were all sorts of smells to be investigated, squirrels to be corralled, fenced-in dogs to strut in front of, shrubs and street signs to be marked. As we approached home, I always felt refreshed, but also relieved that my exercise was over. I’m not sure how Brownie felt. But I have a feeling he’d delay even his evening meal to do it all over again.

One often hears the expression “unconditional love.” I believe that phrase was coined over a dog. Yes, children too offer love without condition. But eventually they mature, lose their innocence, and often grow distant. One time my temper got the best of me after Brownie became, shall we say, “casual” with the carpet. He patiently tolerated my yelling until I made the mistake of grabbing his neck fur. Then, only in defense, he let me have it (I still bear the scarlet letter, on my right palm). But only seconds later, he was nudging up to me, pleading for my love and forgiveness.

Brownie was an Australian Shepherd, or “Aussie.” This breed is very family-oriented and protective. Brownie was happiest when the whole family was together. He expressed his contentment by laying at the nucleus of our little circle in the den and licking the carpet. “Brownie, stop licking the carpet!” my wife would scold. It didn’t bother me. Perhaps this was his way of licking all of us at the same time.

We didn’t know Brownie had cancer until it was far advanced. One evening I led him out the front door on his leash.  But this time he didn’t prance in front of me.  The leash suddenly became taut.  I turned around, and saw Brownie sitting like a lump on the front walk.  Something was wrong.  “I’m leaving Brownie inside tonight,” I yelled inside to Lynn.  “I don’t think he feels good.”  As I walked down the driveway, Brownie gazed after me through the glass, his fluffy ears upright as if to say “Why aren’t you taking me with you?”  I walked slowly until I was outside his range of vision.  Only then did I start to run. When I returned home, he was waiting for me by the driveway.  While I stretched my legs on the grass, he ambled over to me, his head lowered. The vet later said that the moisture under his eyes was probably caused by a fever. But I don’t know.

So now I’ll be running alone. I knew this day would come.  But, as when a close family member dies, I never expected it to hurt so much. My partner, my compatriot – my best friend – is gone.

I believe that, even though I didn’t know it when he was alive, Brownie knew he was my best friend. That thin little pink line on my right palm reminds me. Strangely, the scar doesn’t elicit a bad memory. The brief anger I felt toward my friend – a very human moment of weakness – was obliterated by what transpired immediately afterwards.  Something far more powerful: Brownie’s unconditional love and forgiveness.

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A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – The Little White Dog

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On Day 2 I encountered my first wild animal.  But first…

Dustin and I soon came to a beautiful waterfall called Long Creek Falls.  Four young guys had made this their own water playground, frolicking in the pool below and on the cliff above.  The water looked so inviting, after a hot, sweaty hike, but we had a lot of mileage ahead, so we moved on.  But I was able to rest my left shoulder, which was starting to get a little sore.

Eventually we came to a blue-blazed path (blue rectangles indicate AT side paths, while white rectangles, painted on trees or boulders every hundred yards or so, indicate the official AT).  The path led to our first shelter.  These are three-sided wooden structures that provide a sleeping platform and protection from inclement weather.  They’re located about a half-day’s hike apart, usually near a spring or stream, and they have overhead cables for “bear bags” (hikers are urged to put their food and waste in sturdy bags and tie them overhead at night, at least ten feet high and four feet from the nearest tree).

Here at Hawk Mountain Shelter we met three guys on a Labor Day weekend hike: Steve, his son Travis, and their friend Joe.  I talked with Travis and found out he played trumpet for his high school marching band in Gwinnett County, Georgia.  He reminded me of my son, Nick, at that age.  I also saw the blonde woman I’d met near Springer Mountain.  Her name was Sanna, and she and her husband lived in Ft. Benning, Georgia (her hometown was beautiful Lake Tahoe, California).  I asked her if she was the infamous “Rainbow Slug,” but she laughed and said she wasn’t much for trail aliases (Dustin and I had dropped ours, too).

We all had a nice respite at the shelter, and shared some trail mix and candy bars.  Sanna then decided to join Dustin and me for the remainder of the day.

Sometime in the early afternoon we got drenched when a thundershower struck while climbing Sassafras Mountain.  Rain has always plagued me when I camp.  It’s even more irksome on a distance hike, because it’s so difficult to dry your belongings when they’re stuffed all day inside a backpack.  My pack was an outdated outer frame model, at least 35 years old.  Maybe this is why everything inside got wet.  Cotton clothing is another problem.  I should’ve bought some good wool socks, because my white athletic socks became increasingly dirty and smelly, and never completely dried out the entire hike.

At the bottom of Sassafras Mountain, at Cooper Gap, we had a nice surprise: several plastic jugs of fresh water sitting in the shade.  I then remembered that Ron said he was going to put water out along the trail.  These small acts of kindness are referred to as “trail magic,” and those responsible are called “trail angels.”  Trail magic seems to happen randomly, but usually when it’s needed most.  We were pretty thirsty after Sassafras Mountain, and getting low on water, so the timing was perfect.  Great guy, that Ron.

By the end of the day Dustin figured out we’d covered 15 miles.  Tack on another mile for my backtracking from the forest road near Springer, and 16 total miles was pretty impressive – although I remember Ron saying to expect only seven or eight miles after the first day.We overnighted at Gooch Mountain Shelter, meeting up with Steve, Travis and Joe, as well as a few other hikers.  The shelter itself was full, probably due to Labor Day Weekend, so Dustin and I pitched our tents about 50 yards away.  He got a good fire going, where we attempted to dry out our shoes and socks, but all I managed to do was singe the end of one of my sneakers.

Dustin needed a bandana (a very valuable piece of clothing on the trail), so I gave him an extra one I had.  In return, he let me sample some of his homemade wine.  Wow!  Best vino I ever tasted.  There is nothing like a shot of cherry-blackberry wine after a long day of hiking.

I slept pretty soundly that night, which I attributed to my insomnia on the grubby Greyhound bus.  But a couple things happened overnight.  One was another rain shower, which drenched my backpack and all the clothing I’d hung out to dry.  Another was a chorus of noises in the darkness.  Bears?  Raccoons?  Wild boars?  Nope.  I’d read about them, and now I encountered them: AT shelters come fully equipped with extended families of mice.  And some of these vermin venture into the woods, where they know they’ll find bags filled with yummy food.  One of them chewed a hole in my bear bag (which doubled as my sleeping bag holder) and partially consumed one of my Nutri-Grain bars.  If the rain hadn’t interrupted his feast, it could’ve been much worse.  Not sure, but I think poor Joe lost even more food than me.  Though you wouldn’t guess it, because he always had a smile on his face.

Sanna got an early start in the morning, and Dustin and I pulled out just ahead of Joe, Steve, and Travis.  I felt pretty strong, at first.  Occasionally we passed day hikers, easy to identify due to their light packs.  Some had their dogs with them.  I was wearing an old marathon t-shirt, and a few folks asked me which was harder, marathons or AT hiking.  I replied “Well, it’s hard to compare, they each use different muscles.”  By the end of my hike I had a more definitive answer.

I soon noticed, though, that I was falling slightly behind Dustin.  Maybe 30 years does make a difference?  The last thing I wanted was for him to feel like some old guy was holding him back.  My biggest problem at that point was my left shoulder.  But I discovered it helped if I shifted the pack weight to my right one.  Also, reaching back with my left hand and pulling up on the frame eased the load a little.  You find little things to help you when you’re distance hiking.

If anyone lost a Jack Russell terrier, he's near the north face of Big Cedar Mountain, Georgia

If anyone lost a Jack Russell terrier, he’s near the north face of Big Cedar Mountain, Georgia

Somewhere near Woody Gap we encountered our first “wild” animal.  He was on a mountainside and staring a hole in us as we passed: a little white terrier.  I noticed a line of trail mix on the path, probably due to a leak in some hiker’s pack, and I guess this little guy was waiting for us to move on so he could continue licking up M&Ms.  Dustin and I both loved dogs, and we felt a little sorry for him way out here by himself.  But I guess it’s better than being tied up all day in a smog-draped city.  Whether he lived nearby, or was abandoned by a thoughtless owner, we never found out.

In the afternoon, while taking in the view on Ramrock Mountain, we saw Joe whisk by, grinning and swinging his walking poles.  I couldn’t understand him.  He looked like he was on a casual, mid-morning stroll across the hills of Tuscany!  I related more to Steve, who came by next.  He was suffering from awful blistering, as was I at that point.  His son Travis pulled up the rear.  At Woody Gap, we found out they had completed their hike and were shuttling home (Joe continued onward, and is probably still whistling along as I write this).  Before saying goodbye, Steve gave us some of his leftover food, as well as much-needed bandages and moleskin for my blisters, one of which had broken. I thanked him heartily, and told Travis good luck with his trumpet playing.

Just before climbing Big Cedar Mountain, we saw more trail magic: somebody had placed several candy bars on a large rock.  This carbo-load helped get us to our campsite at Woods Hole Shelter, giving us a daily total of 13 miles.  A slight dip, but I was still on target for NC, and the mileage was much better than Ron had predicted.

On the path to the shelter we met two new people: a real extroverted guy from Savannah named Thad, and his wife (whose name I never got, unfortunately).  Then at the shelter were two people from the previous night: a young woman from Orlando named Traci, and her friend, who had a foreign accent and a name that sounded like “Bouillon.”  This was a name just begging for a trail alias (unless Bouillon was already his alias).  Thad eventually tagged him “Gold Bond” due to some problems Bouillon was having with skin chafing!

I took a refreshing sponge bath in a cold mountain stream and boiled some Ramen noodles, then joined the others at the shelter as the sun was setting.  And hoping I wouldn’t get burdened with the alias “Ramen Noodle.”

Unlike Thad, I’m a little shy and awkward in social settings.  But I pushed myself to socialize.  I’m glad I did, because I discovered Thad grew up in dinky Mt. Gilead, Ohio, just a few miles from my hometown of Mansfield!  We commiserated over our hapless Cleveland Browns for a while, and I offered him an extra cigar I had (he declined – probably a good idea, since I discovered the tobacco was pretty cheap).

Next morning fared a little better: no rain, and no mice.  But I spent about a half hour swabbing and bandaging my blisters (wet cotton socks!), one of which was now an open sore.  Dustin and I were the last to vacate the shelter.  I felt a slight foreboding.  With this sore on my right heel, would I make it to Franklin, NC in time, or would Ron’s mileage prediction come true??

Continued…