Mammoth Cave

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Mammoth Cave

 Superman effortlessly flew through the air. As Clark Kent he carried himself with dignity and restraint. Batman lived in a cave. Next question. – L. Bryce Bolger

To get to Mammoth Cave from Shenandoah, you have to pass through a town that has great meaning in my life. Morehead, Kentucky carries the weight of my mother’s history,  the memories of my childhood and where an immature 19 year old kid enrolled as a college freshman in 1974. It’s where my grandfather rode a mule over the ridge to Hogtown and the Louisville & Portsmouth Fire Brick Company and where my mother left home at the age of 13 in search of a tethered lifeline. It’s where we came every summer of my youth. Where I worked in my uncle’s tobacco fields for ten cents an hour and watched my great aunt tenderly braid my grandmother’s hair. Morehead and its people, have always held a large piece of my heart. I thought I could return and reclaim it, but it slipped away in a blink. Stones thrown at my feet for the price of my thoughts.

THIS IS A PHOTO OF MY MOTHER’S CHILDHOOD HOME UP ON CHRISTY CREEK. NO RUNNING WATER, NO ELECTRICITY. WHEN I WAS RECENTLY IN MOREHEAD, A FRIEND AND I DROVE FROM THE SPOT WHERE THIS HOUSE STOOD, TO THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL MY MOTHER ATTENDED. 4.2 MILES EACH WAY, IN SHOES STUFFED WITH NEWSPAPER FOR WARMTH. EMMA LEE WAS THE OLDEST GIRL IN A FAMILY OF 13 KIDS.

THIS IS A PHOTO OF MY MOTHER’S CHILDHOOD HOME UP ON CHRISTY CREEK. NO RUNNING WATER, NO ELECTRICITY. WHEN I WAS RECENTLY IN MOREHEAD, A FRIEND AND I DROVE FROM THE SPOT WHERE THIS HOUSE STOOD, TO THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL MY MOTHER ATTENDED. 4.2 MILES EACH WAY, IN SHOES STUFFED WITH NEWSPAPER FOR WARMTH. EMMA LEE WAS THE OLDEST GIRL IN A FAMILY OF 13 KIDS.

With perhaps the exception of the Grand Canyon, Mammoth Cave may be the most aptly named National Park. As currently surveyed, Mammoth Cave is an underground system of 390 miles, with the potential to grow in excess of 1,000 miles. On any given day, researchers are crawling into small clefts and crevices in an effort to find and detail additional passages. Over 200 caves, in the form of disconnected fragments of the larger system, dot the park’s 80 square miles of rocky outcrops, yawning valleys and flat ridge tops. Many are associated with local drainage features, known as karst basins, the most thoroughly understood conduit flow aquifer in the world. Or in terms even I understand – water draining through limestone to create magnificent otherworldly caverns that even Dante couldn’t imagine. All made possible by a thick protective cap of shale and sandstone.

There are two ways to explore many of the caves at Mammoth. Since the park is riddled with holes, you can strap on a headlamp and dive into the opening of your choice. (I believe this is frowned upon.) Or you can choose from a variety of ranger guided tours. I opted for the ‘history tour’. A two hour, two mile tour that begins at an opening in the earth discovered by settlers in the 1790’s, but inhabited by Indians thousands of years before their arrival. As you begin the decent, you enter a ghostly world, where the only sound is the echoing of water falling on porous rock. A world void of light, but warmed by the subtle movement of air. You’re lead through roomy passageways that suddenly open to a vaulted space called the ‘Rotunda’. Large relics of the nitrate mines that were instrumental in the making of gunpowder during the war of 1812, still lie intact. Hollowed out logs, hauled into the cave by slaves, were filled with water and sand from the cave floor, producing nitrate crystal laced brine – the residue of which was used to make gun powder. I tried to imagine the electricity-less working conditions of 200 years ago. Where a wind prone lantern was your only source of light in an environment suited for bats and eyeless, colorless amphipods. My imagination, for all its wanderings, failed.

A GHOSTLY, SILENT WORLD CARVED OUT OF EARTH BY WATER AND TIME. AS WITH ALL PARKS I VISIT, I TRY TO IMAGINE WHAT THE PEOPLE WHO DISCOVERED THESE PLACES FELT. THE COURAGE OF EXPLORATION, BORN OUT OF CURIOSITY AND NEED.

A GHOSTLY, SILENT WORLD CARVED OUT OF EARTH BY WATER AND TIME. AS WITH ALL PARKS I VISIT, I TRY TO IMAGINE WHAT THE PEOPLE WHO DISCOVERED THESE PLACES FELT. THE COURAGE OF EXPLORATION, BORN OUT OF CURIOSITY AND NEED.

Leaving the ‘Rotunda’ behind, ever descending, you enter a series of large halls known as ‘Methodist Church’ and ‘Booth’s Amphitheater’. They believe church services may have been held in ‘Methodist Church’ in the 1800’s, and it is said that Edwin Booth, brother of the man who ruined Lincoln’s night out, recited Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in the amphitheater that now bears his name. I can’t help but think that if Edwin’s best known gig was in a cave, be probably wasn’t a great Shakespearean actor.

IN THE 1800’S, OWNERS OF MAMMOTH CAVE BROUGHT IN BANDS TO PERFORM FOR VISITORS. THIS BAND PLAYED IN 1855. EDWIN BOOTH TAP-DANCED IN BETWEEN NUMBERS.

IN THE 1800’S, OWNERS OF MAMMOTH CAVE BROUGHT IN BANDS TO PERFORM FOR VISITORS. THIS BAND PLAYED IN 1855. EDWIN BOOTH TAP-DANCED IN BETWEEN NUMBERS.

The most unique part of the tour was following a tall, chubby, gaseous man in jorts through ‘Fat Man’s Misery’. A length of thin, low ceiling passages, rubbed smooth by centuries of hands and bodies, forces you to contort your body. Much to my astonishment and displeasure, with each new distortion Earl would let one squeak out, always followed by an apology. “Sorry. Taco Bell.” Or, “Sorry, too many beans.” Or the forever memorable, “Sorry, blame my wife.” Thanks Earl, you’re a real gem.

SORRY. WHITE CASTLE.

SORRY. WHITE CASTLE.

A large chamber known as the ‘Great Relief Hall’ marks the end of our descent, 310 feet below the surface. Here we are given a brief talk preparing us for what lies ahead – ‘Mammoth Dome’ and the winding staircase that lifts us from the depths via 150 steep steps. Like we have a choice. (Note to self: Look into viability of starting Uber underground.) The staircase was as advertised. A winding set of seemingly never ending, metal fire escape-like steps that you can look through as you climb. Fortunately, Earl had moved further ahead and the climb was only punctuated by the sounds of panting and puffing, with the occasional ‘sheeeeeit’ thrown in. Along the way, there were several small landings where you could step out of line and look up or down the 192 foot hole, created by water dripping through a sink hole over millions of years. Standing on one such platform, it was easy to think of hellish analogies, and I did. Then I looked up and my mind drifted to a summer’s day on the fire escape overlooking the George Washington Bridge at 181st and Broadway. I smiled and started to climb.

IF AN ATTORNEY IS READING THIS, PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS HAS EXPIRED FOR WHAT ALLEGEDLY HAPPENED WHEN WE ALLEGEDLY HIT GOLF BALLS FROM OUR FIRE ESCAPE IN THE DIRECTION OF THE ALLEGED G W BRIDGE.

IF AN ATTORNEY IS READING THIS, PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS HAS EXPIRED FOR WHAT ALLEGEDLY HAPPENED WHEN WE ALLEGEDLY HIT GOLF BALLS FROM OUR FIRE ESCAPE IN THE DIRECTION OF THE ALLEGED G W BRIDGE.

As we were exiting our tour – I am always in the back of every tour I have taken since 4th grade – I struck up a conversation with Park Ranger Abby. When the subject of a decline in young visitors came up, she said something that rang basic and true. “They’ve lost their sense of wonder.” In many respects Abby nailed it.  I believe this ‘loss of wonder’ is an unintended consequence of Al Gore’s internet.  We should remind ourselves that we are only a single generation removed from a time when the great mysteries of earth couldn’t be found and explored in less than 30 seconds. One generation removed from a time where the only form of exploration was exploration itself. Unless they are introduced to nature and experience it in it’s purest form – the very essence of our National Parks – current and future generations are in danger of believing a screen is a viable substitute for the nobility, grace and wonder of life itself.

EXITING THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO MAMMOTH CAVE. YOU AREN’T ALLOWED TO USE FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY AT ANY POINT IN THE CAVE. THE OFFICIAL REASON GIVEN IS THAT IT MAY CAUSE SOMEONE TO HAVE A SEIZURE. A COUPLE OF PEOPLE TESTED THE THEORY. SH SH SH SHERRY IS SUING.

EXITING THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO MAMMOTH CAVE. YOU AREN’T ALLOWED TO USE FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY AT ANY POINT IN THE CAVE. THE OFFICIAL REASON GIVEN IS THAT IT MAY CAUSE SOMEONE TO HAVE A SEIZURE. A COUPLE OF PEOPLE TESTED THE THEORY. SH SH SH SHERRY IS SUING.

WE WERE GOING TO EAT AT POP’S BUT IT WAS CLOSED.  I HOPE I GET ANOTHER CHANCE.

WE WERE GOING TO EAT AT POP’S BUT IT WAS CLOSED.  I HOPE I GET ANOTHER CHANCE.

A NATURAL SPRING, FLOWING THROUGH ROCK AND WINDING ITS WAY ALONG A NARROW STREAM TO THE GREEN RIVER BELOW.

A NATURAL SPRING, FLOWING THROUGH ROCK AND WINDING ITS WAY ALONG A NARROW STREAM TO THE GREEN RIVER BELOW.

I WOULD LIKE YOU TO MEET MY DEAR FRIENDS OF ALMOST 40 YEARS, KEITH AND KIM AMMETER OF LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY. I SPENT A FEW NIGHTS WITH THEM BEFORE HEADING SOUTH TO CONGAREE. I LOVE THESE GUYS. TRUE FRIENDS ARE A RARITY. HOLD THEM IN YOUR HEART LIKE SUNSHINE.

I WOULD LIKE YOU TO MEET MY DEAR FRIENDS OF ALMOST 40 YEARS, KEITH AND KIM AMMETER OF LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY. I SPENT A FEW NIGHTS WITH THEM BEFORE HEADING SOUTH TO CONGAREE. I LOVE THESE GUYS. TRUE FRIENDS ARE A RARITY. HOLD THEM IN YOUR HEART LIKE SUNSHINE.

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Shenandoah

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Shenandoah

 

I was born in a house with the television always on. Guess I grew up to fast and I forgot my name – Talking Heads

After spending a quiet night in Luray, Virginia, home of roadside T-Rex, I drove north along Stonewall Jackson Highway and entered Shenandoah National Park through the Royal Front entrance. My plan was to drive the length of the park on Skyline Drive, then retrace my steps and camp at the park’s only open campground, Big Meadows. I knew I was in trouble when after two hours I had driven roughly ten miles. Shenandoah is not a park to be hurried through. It is a park to be slowly savored and taken in for what it is. A visual feast in blue.

By the time I arrived at Big Meadows and quietly backed into my spot, it was pitch black. I crawled into bed, flipped on my fancy night-lite and managed to read a single page before falling asleep.

SKYLINE DRIVE HAS A SPEED LIMIT OF 35 MPH. I FOUND MYSELF DOING 5 MPH MOST OF THE TIME. WHEN CHILDREN ON SMALL TRICYCLES GLIDE PAST YOU, IT’S TIME TO PICK UP THE PACE.

SKYLINE DRIVE HAS A SPEED LIMIT OF 35 MPH. I FOUND MYSELF DOING 5 MPH MOST OF THE TIME. WHEN CHILDREN ON SMALL TRICYCLES GLIDE PAST YOU, IT’S TIME TO PICK UP THE PACE.

Less than a mile from the entrance to Big Meadows, is the trail-head of Dark Hollow Falls. How can you not hike a trail with a name so foreboding? My trail guidebook warns that the descending hike to the falls is very steep and some may have trouble hiking back to the top. After walking downhill for about 30 minutes at what seemed to be a 45 degree angle, I tipped my hat to the guidebook. I also decided that I would gladly hike an additional 5 miles to avoid ascending the same trail. They say there is a fine line between determination and stupidity. I tend to err on the side of stupidity.

At the bottom of Dark Hollow Falls, you are rewarded with an uphill view of a series of cascading falls. Water spills gracefully over lime green boulders, pooling for a moment before sliding downward to the next platform of ageless rock. From here the trail branches off onto the Rose River Loop Trail. As my finger traced the loop on the map, it finally came to a fire road and ultimately out to Skyline Drive at Fishers Gap Overlook. Ah ha. I can avoid the steep trail that brought me to the bottom. I congratulated myself for outsmarting the guidebook and set off following the Rose River, heading ever further down into the hollow. Author’s Note: See paragraph above with respect to erring on the side of stupidity. This is called foreshadowing.

DARK HOLLOW FALLS. THERE ARE SIGNS AROUND THE FALLS WARNING OF THE DANGERS FROM CLIMBING ON THE ROCKS THAT MAKE UP THE VARIOUS LEDGES OF THE FALLS. OBVIOUSLY THE FAMILY OF SIX FROM BILOXI, EITHER COULDN’T READ OR HAD A BLATANT DISREGARD FOR CONVENTIONAL WISDOM.

DARK HOLLOW FALLS. THERE ARE SIGNS AROUND THE FALLS WARNING OF THE DANGERS FROM CLIMBING ON THE ROCKS THAT MAKE UP THE VARIOUS LEDGES OF THE FALLS. OBVIOUSLY THE FAMILY OF SIX FROM BILOXI, EITHER COULDN’T READ OR HAD A BLATANT DISREGARD FOR CONVENTIONAL WISDOM.

Rose Falls is a not quite as high as Dark Hollow falls, but heartier – stronger. It is also the exact spot where the skies decided to open up a few hours earlier than forecasted. Tucking my camera inside my jacket, lowering my head against the rain and wind, I turned north and almost immediately slipped over the falls. I caught myself on a perfectly placed birch and pulled myself back from the edge. At this point you may be asking yourself, why is he so close to the edge? Well, that’s how you get a good shot of the falls. (Moving forward, please ask yourself harder questions.) The rain insisted on continuing for the next hour or so, which would have made the hike less than ideal, had I not met a couple that trivialized the rain.

Whenever I see a couple or a few people taking a photo of each other, I always ask if they would like me to take a photo of both of them, or the group. On this occasion, the rain had finally let up and I was crossing a foot bridge across the Rose River. A dark haired couple, speaking a language I didn’t recognize, were taking photos of each other. I asked if they would like me to take a shot of them both. “Yes, please.” They had a genuine smile. A smile that makes you want to smile in return. I took several photos of them and handed back the iPhone. (I was not paid to insert the brand iPhone. However, I would gladly accept their money and insert iPhone several times into each piece I write. I would actively seek out iPhone users and insist I take their photo – wrestling them to the ground in the process if need be.) They asked if I wanted them to take a photo of me and I said yes, handing them my iPhone. As they started to take the photo I took off my hat and said – I hope I don’t scare the small children. They laughed – a belly laugh. Uh oh, I have an audience.

What is that accent I detect? “We are from India.” It’s a beautiful lilting accent. What is your name? “My name is,” and he said something I didn’t understand. “In English it means Song of God. This my wife,” again saying something I didn’t understand, “which means Honey.” I’m sorry, I thought you said Song of God. “Yes,” still smiling, always smiling “we are Sikhs. In our religion you take a new name. I was given,” yet again something I didn’t understand, “which means Song of God.” And your name is Honey? “Yes.” Let’s review. I’m with Song of God and Honey and my name is Smitty. I’m not worthy of your company. At this point I think they are going to wet themselves they are laughing so hard. “You should convert Smitty. You would get a new name.” Can I be He Who Must Not Be Named? More laughter and I’m actually holding up Song of God. “You are a funny guy. What do you do?” What a great audience I’m thinking as Song of God and Honey look at me for my answer. I can sneeze like Donald Duck.

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE YOU MEET A LOVELY COUPLE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE THAT TOUCH YOUR HEART. MY ONLY REGRET IS THAT I DIDN’T USE MY IPHONE TO TAKE A PHOTO OF SONG OF GOD AND HONEY. 

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE YOU MEET A LOVELY COUPLE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE THAT TOUCH YOUR HEART. MY ONLY REGRET IS THAT I DIDN’T USE MY IPHONE TO TAKE A PHOTO OF SONG OF GOD AND HONEY. 

After entertaining my new Sikh friends and telling them to try the veal and tip their waiter, I started the climb up River Loop Trail. According to my brilliant map reading skills, the trail would intersect with a fire road and then drop me on Skyline Drive down the road from where I began. Thus skirting the steep path I had originally descended. My arm hurt slightly from patting myself on the back as I rounded the final loop in the trail and found myself staring at the end of the very path that I had worked so hard to avoid. This is a joke right? Who moved the waterfall? In all my effort to eschew the original climb, I had missed a turn in the trail and was now confronted with a mile walk straight uphill. Once again erring on the side of stupidity. Maybe I should convert. I can be Chorus of Calamity.

NOT THAT DIFFICULT TO SEE WHERE BIG MEADOWS GOT ITS NAME. I WISH I COULD HAVE BEEN THERE IN THE SPRING WHEN ALL OF THE WILDFLOWERS ARE BLOOMING. 

NOT THAT DIFFICULT TO SEE WHERE BIG MEADOWS GOT ITS NAME. I WISH I COULD HAVE BEEN THERE IN THE SPRING WHEN ALL OF THE WILDFLOWERS ARE BLOOMING. 

As with many national parks, you can get a broad sense of the land by driving its main artery. Similar to Acadia in that you can visually digest large swaths of the park from your car, or in the case of Shenandoah, from any of the 75 overlooks along Skyline Drive, where each overlook competes with the last. Nature’s one-upmanship. One view shyly permits a glimpse of a distance family of ridges, bathed in blue. Next an offering of timeless forest, where colors compete for your adoration. All lovingly hovered over by a blanket of ever-changing clouds. Rising from the horizon, using an endless palate of color, a stygian sky may glide into velvet blue in minutes. Deeply bruised storm clouds silently drift between ridges. A breathtaking canvas of heavenly blue, melding into the textured blue of earth.

EARTH AND SKY – WITH APOLOGIES TO BOB DYLAN – TANGLED UP IN BLUE.

EARTH AND SKY – WITH APOLOGIES TO BOB DYLAN – TANGLED UP IN BLUE.

It’s difficult to explore Shenandoah without recognizing the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office during the depths of the Great Depression. In an effort to restore faith in the economy he created the largest series of public works projects in our history. Young men were given work building roads, bridges and dams across the country. Throughout the national parks, camps were established so that crews could develop trails, build lodging and in the case of Shenandoah, develop the 75 cutouts that allow us to view the park’s beauty from above. Each park owes a debt of gratitude to FDR. Without his foresight in creating the CCC, many of the trails and elements of infrastructure that we now take for granted wouldn’t exist. Here is a link to a brief, but well documented history of the Civilian Conservation Corps work in Shenandoah. https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/historyculture/ccc.htm

MANY OF THE TRAILS IN SHENANDOAH INTERSECT THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL.  THE CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS PLAYED A KEY ROLE IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF MANY SECTIONS OF THE TRAIL.

MANY OF THE TRAILS IN SHENANDOAH INTERSECT THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL.  THE CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS PLAYED A KEY ROLE IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF MANY SECTIONS OF THE TRAIL.

Hiking to the top of Blackrock is not terribly difficult. The trail is a steady climb – not too steep. But nothing prepares you for what the top of black rock presents. Thousands of grey menacing boulders, seemingly pushed up from the earth, piled on top of one another in a truce established thousands of years ago. Sitting at the summit of this great glacial scrape of earth, looking down at the seemingly unending ridges and hollows, you could easily imagine the sense of wonder the early settlers of the valley must have felt. Countless millennia have done little to change what I was seeing. It was a wonderful moment.

VIEW FROM BLACKROCK. TEN MINUTES AFTER THIS PHOTO, THE VALLEY WAS FILLED WITH CLOUDS AND THE RIDGES BECAME INVISIBLE. TEN MINUTES AFTER THAT I TRIPPED OVER MY WALKING STICKS.

VIEW FROM BLACKROCK. TEN MINUTES AFTER THIS PHOTO, THE VALLEY WAS FILLED WITH CLOUDS AND THE RIDGES BECAME INVISIBLE. TEN MINUTES AFTER THAT I TRIPPED OVER MY WALKING STICKS.

Part of the fun of what I’m doing is meeting people from all over the United States and the world. Like Jeff from California, who had just finished driving from San Francisco in his VW Microbus. He had been on the road for two months, with his puppy and told me he had paid to camp only twice. That is no small feat. Then there’s the couple I met in the laundry, who have been traveling for the last four years. They lit up when telling me about the places they’ve been – the experiences they’ve shared. Each year they return to their hometown in Kentucky for a doctor’s visit and immediately set out on the road again. They struck me as two of the happiest people I’ve ever met and I admit to letting a little envy enter my heart.

I met Earl Varona and his friend Nellie on a turn-out while helping a woman break into her car where she had left her keys. Apparently I look like a seasoned thief. I asked Earl if he had climbed Old Rag Mountain, because due to weather I didn’t get a chance and the view is supposed to be stunning. He said yes, pulled out his phone and showed me a few very cool photos of him at the summit. I asked him to email a photo so I could post. I think I also asked him to send a photo where hopefully he couldn’t be recognized so I could say it was me at the summit. Thanks Earl. It was pleasure meeting you and Nellie. Stay in touch.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, EARL VARONA ATOP OLD RAG MOUNTAIN. IF YOU LOOK CLOSELY THAT’S ME DOWN IN THE VALLEY TALKING TO SONG OF GOD.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, EARL VARONA ATOP OLD RAG MOUNTAIN. IF YOU LOOK CLOSELY THAT’S ME DOWN IN THE VALLEY TALKING TO SONG OF GOD.

RUSHING WATER IS FOUND ALL THROUGHOUT SHENANDOAH. THE STILLNESS OF A DOWNED BRANCH AND WHAT IT HAD CARELESSLY GATHERED CAUGHT MY EYE. 

RUSHING WATER IS FOUND ALL THROUGHOUT SHENANDOAH. THE STILLNESS OF A DOWNED BRANCH AND WHAT IT HAD CARELESSLY GATHERED CAUGHT MY EYE. 

ALL ALONG THE ROSE RIVER ARE POOLS THAT WOULD MAKE GREAT SWIMMING HOLES. HUCK FINN KIND OF SWIMMING HOLES. 

ALL ALONG THE ROSE RIVER ARE POOLS THAT WOULD MAKE GREAT SWIMMING HOLES. HUCK FINN KIND OF SWIMMING HOLES. 

DEER ARE LIKE SQUIRRELS IN SHENANDOAH, ONLY MORE INDIGNANT.  AS I TOOK THIS PHOTO THE DEER TURNED TO ME AND IN A RATHER RUDE TONE ASKED “WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?”

DEER ARE LIKE SQUIRRELS IN SHENANDOAH, ONLY MORE INDIGNANT.  AS I TOOK THIS PHOTO THE DEER TURNED TO ME AND IN A RATHER RUDE TONE ASKED “WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?”

BOTH OF YOU THAT FOLLOW THIS BLOG KNOW THAT I HAVE BEEN RELENTLESSLY PURSUED BY PODS. DISGUISED AS MILKWEED, THIS ONE CONTINUES THE STALKING.  IF I SUDDENLY DISAPPEAR, QUESTION THE PODS.

BOTH OF YOU THAT FOLLOW THIS BLOG KNOW THAT I HAVE BEEN RELENTLESSLY PURSUED BY PODS. DISGUISED AS MILKWEED, THIS ONE CONTINUES THE STALKING.  IF I SUDDENLY DISAPPEAR, QUESTION THE PODS.

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park

American Indians, the original inhabitants, called the Cuyahoga River “Ka-ih-ogh-ha”, meaning crooked. In the early 1700’s, waves of various European immigrants looking to settle on the fringe of the ever-moving west, began establishing trading posts and homes in the valley. Later, settlers from New England began to populate the valley, developing small towns along the river. Insert into this mix the grand idea of building a canal connecting Lake Erie and the Ohio River. As the hand dug canal became a reality, followed by the railroad and 20th century paved roads, the valley communities changed forever. What remains, along with scattered remnants of these bygone eras, is a unique magnificent valley perfectly serving the needs of the urban areas that make up her borders.

REGARDLESS OF WHERE YOU ARE IN THE PARK, EVIDENCE OF THE PROXIMITY TO CLEVELAND AND AKRON IS ALWAYS PRESENT. ODDLY, I NEVER HEARD A PLANE. ONLY SAW THEIR TRAILS.

REGARDLESS OF WHERE YOU ARE IN THE PARK, EVIDENCE OF THE PROXIMITY TO CLEVELAND AND AKRON IS ALWAYS PRESENT. ODDLY, I NEVER HEARD A PLANE. ONLY SAW THEIR TRAILS.

Most National Parks have a road that loops around or runs down its center. A main pathway that allows visitors to see much of the park. Cuyahoga Valley has an 85 mile towpath running north-south along its spine, mirroring the Cuyahoga River and a canal that once brought prosperity and connection to the rest of the world. In its heyday, horses slowly marched the towpath, leading boats along the canal and through its multiple locks. Today the easily accessible, spacious towpath winds its way through the park, home to hikers, joggers, bikers and people out for a leisurely stroll. Pick any section of the towpath on any given day and you will find people on that stretch. A green wooded slice of nature minutes away from the bustle of an urban pace, it is a haven for over two million visitors each year.  I was visitor 1,989,001.

RARE SIGHT ON THE TOWPATH.  IMMEDIATELY AFTER I SNAPPED THIS PHOTO, A COUPLE ON BIKES AND A JOGGER PASSED BY.  HOWEVER, I DID NOT SEE A SINGLE UNICYCLE.

RARE SIGHT ON THE TOWPATH.  IMMEDIATELY AFTER I SNAPPED THIS PHOTO, A COUPLE ON BIKES AND A JOGGER PASSED BY.  HOWEVER, I DID NOT SEE A SINGLE UNICYCLE.

I met Park Ranger Lidia at The Boston Store Visitors Center. As with most National Park Service employees that find out about TheMountCo Project, they enjoy having a conversation with someone who is trying to help the parks.  Lidia told me that her love of nature was passed on to her by her father, who immigrated to the United States many years ago. She beamed with pride when she spoke of her dad and what he had overcome during his life. We discussed several topics related to the NPS, but one topic caught my ear, because I have heard this from multiple rangers. There are myriad issue to tackle when it comes to the future of our National Parks – funding and the steep decline in visitors under the age of 25 are two that we want to create a dialog around. But a third issue that should be placed on the table is the homogeneous makeup of NPS employees. I have mentioned this before and it is not intended as a knock on anyone. However, we can’t look away from the reality and avoid this question: If the next generation continues to fail to see themselves reflected in the people that care for our parks, will their numbers continue to decline? I don’t have the answer and Lidia admits she doesn’t either, but we both know that it must become part of the larger discussion.

HI LIDIA. THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR STORY, THOUGHTS AND IDEAS.  IF EVERYONE HAD AS MUCH PASSION FOR WHAT THEY DO, WE WOULD BE IN PRETTY GOOD SHAPE.  THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE.

HI LIDIA. THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR STORY, THOUGHTS AND IDEAS.  IF EVERYONE HAD AS MUCH PASSION FOR WHAT THEY DO, WE WOULD BE IN PRETTY GOOD SHAPE.  THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE.

Hiking from the old Boston store to Brandywine Falls leads you past Stanford House, with its stately barn and curving landscape, before settling into a series of tree encircled meadows. About a half mile before the falls, the path follows a shale strewn stream, winding its way to the crest. As with all falling water, you hear it before you see it. You also hear the sound of traffic running along I-271, only steps from where the trails guides you across the top of the falls. Again I am reminded of the fact that this park has been carved out of a large populated area. The integration of national, state and local parks have been brilliantly woven together and seeing I-271 only steps from Brandywine Falls is a sharp reminder.

IT’S HARD FOR ME TO PASS AN OLD BARN WITHOUT TAKING A PHOTO.  MUST BE MY CHILDHOOD DAYS UP ON CHRISTY CREEK. (SHE SENDS ME, IF I SPRING A LEAK, SHE MENDS ME.)

IT’S HARD FOR ME TO PASS AN OLD BARN WITHOUT TAKING A PHOTO.  MUST BE MY CHILDHOOD DAYS UP ON CHRISTY CREEK. (SHE SENDS ME, IF I SPRING A LEAK, SHE MENDS ME.)

TUMBLING 65 FT, BRANDYWINE FALLS HAS SEEN ITS SHARE OF JUMPERS. FUNNY THING IS, THERE’S NOT REALLY A GOOD DEEP PLACE TO LAND.  OTHERWISE I MAY HAVE GIVEN IT A TRY.

TUMBLING 65 FT, BRANDYWINE FALLS HAS SEEN ITS SHARE OF JUMPERS. FUNNY THING IS, THERE’S NOT REALLY A GOOD DEEP PLACE TO LAND.  OTHERWISE I MAY HAVE GIVEN IT A TRY.

When I was in high school, my closest friend was Robin Alexander. He was intelligent, funny, athletic and had the worse hairdo on the planet (I’ve gotta find a photo). We used to hitchhike all over the place. Have a week off school – great – let’s walk over to I-75, put out our thumbs and see how far south we can go. We would get in the car with anyone who would stop. Sounds rational, right? Of the dozens of rides we had, only one proved to be a mistake. But that’s a story for another time. Today’s story is this. I’m walking down an isolated trail in Cuyahoga Valley – haven’t seen another person in about an hour. Suddenly my phone starts vibrating. My first inclination is to ignore, but instead I look at the screen. Facetime – Robin Alexander. WTF! I answer immediately and there’s Robin! WTF! Before I can tell him how odd and wonderful it is to hear from him he says, “Sorry, it was an accident.” Pffffffftttt. That took a bit of the air of of my excited balloon. Hey, Robin. That’s okay. It’s great to see your shiny face. “How are you?” I’m good – followed by a conversation that was as awkward as you may have guessed. But somehow as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. The next day I got a text that said “Send me the link to your website.” I hope you see this Robin. My dear friend.

I COULDN’T FIND A PHOTO OF ROBIN (I WILL) BUT HERE’S ONE OF YOURS TRULY. GOOD LUCK PICKING ME OUT OF THIS FINE LINEUP OF CHAMPIONS. ONE HINT: I’M NOT THE GUY LOOKING OVER COACH’S SHOULDER.

I COULDN’T FIND A PHOTO OF ROBIN (I WILL) BUT HERE’S ONE OF YOURS TRULY. GOOD LUCK PICKING ME OUT OF THIS FINE LINEUP OF CHAMPIONS. ONE HINT: I’M NOT THE GUY LOOKING OVER COACH’S SHOULDER.

My strategy on exploring a National Park is as follows. 1. Study history and layout of park. 2. Find a base camp. 3. Find closest bathroom and laundry. 4. Map out a driving route through the park. 5. Decide which trails to hike – ones that will take me into the heart of the park and provide a true sense of the park. 6. Write about what I find. 7. Rinse and repeat.

The hike around Kendall Lake, snakes through the woods on a well worn path, without much change in elevation. In short, it’s a great hike that doesn’t make you break a sweat. But let’s talk about what constitutes a lake, say, versus a pond. I noticed in Maine, many large bodies of water were referred to as ponds. In Ohio, several small bodies of water are referred to as lakes. Kendall Lake being a prime example. Let’s be honest, it’s a pond. A lovely pond, with lily pads, swaying reeds and more ducks than I could count. But in size, it’s a pond. I will be petitioning The National Park Service to have Kendall Lake re-designated as a pond. I do this with no malice in my heart.

IF I CAN THROW A ROCK ACROSS, IT’S NOT A LAKE. ACCORDING TO THE NEW WEBSTERS DICTIONARY, THIS IS THE NEW DEFINITION OF A POND.

IF I CAN THROW A ROCK ACROSS, IT’S NOT A LAKE. ACCORDING TO THE NEW WEBSTERS DICTIONARY, THIS IS THE NEW DEFINITION OF A POND.

At the northern tip of the park is the Canal Exploration Center. Opened in 2014, it is a storehouse of park history. There are several photos of the valley as it was in the days of the early settlers, including several structures that remain in use today. You can listen to John Malvin, a free African American, recall his experiences as a canal boat captain and watch an actual film clip of a horse towing a boat along the canal. As with every information center in a National Park, you’ll also find more literature than you can possibly digest in several sittings. Outside the center is an actual working lock – I think it’s #38 – the only functioning lock of the 44 locks that were once part of the canal. When they were built, the sides of the locks were built with stones, cut at local quarries and hauled into place, mostly by Irish and German workers. The white oak wooden gates held back the water of the 90 foot long and 15 feet wide locks. In its day many considered it one of the great wonders of the engineering world. Today, the towpath that led countless boats through the canal continues to thrive.

ONE OF THE 44 LOCKS THAT MADE UP THE OHIO ERIE CANAL THAT RAN THROUGH WHAT IS NOW CUYAHOGA VALLEY NATIONAL PARK.  THE RAILROAD MADE THE CANAL OBSOLETE, BUT MANY OF THE PEOPLE THAT LIVED ALONG ITS ROUTE REMAINED.

ONE OF THE 44 LOCKS THAT MADE UP THE OHIO ERIE CANAL THAT RAN THROUGH WHAT IS NOW CUYAHOGA VALLEY NATIONAL PARK.  THE RAILROAD MADE THE CANAL OBSOLETE, BUT MANY OF THE PEOPLE THAT LIVED ALONG ITS ROUTE REMAINED.

Bridal Veil Falls is a short hike, but filled with all kinds of wonder. Slow moving water over rippled sheets of shale, light bouncing on the many leveled stream. Small ferns hiding in billion year old rock, while mosses clinging to the edge of a piece of granite put in place by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1030’s. Sometimes you don’t have to venture too far off the beaten path to see nature showing off. But you do have to venture off the beaten path.

SOMETIMES IT’S DIFFICULT TO SHOW DEPTH IN A PHOTOGRAPH.  I CALCULATED THAT THE STREAM WAS APPROXIMATELY 3,421 FEET BELOW ME.  OR AT LEAST 95.

SOMETIMES IT’S DIFFICULT TO SHOW DEPTH IN A PHOTOGRAPH.  I CALCULATED THAT THE STREAM WAS APPROXIMATELY 3,421 FEET BELOW ME.  OR AT LEAST 95.

DOES ANYONE ELSE SEE A BACKWARD AMPERSAND? A CATERPILLAR WITH TENNIS SHOES?

DOES ANYONE ELSE SEE A BACKWARD AMPERSAND? A CATERPILLAR WITH TENNIS SHOES?

I RAN ACROSS THESE ‘PODS’ IN VARIOUS PARTS OF THE PARK.  I’VE WATCHED FAR TOO MANY BODY-SNATCHER MOVIES TO OPEN ONE. I THINK I SAW ONE MOVE.

I RAN ACROSS THESE ‘PODS’ IN VARIOUS PARTS OF THE PARK.  I’VE WATCHED FAR TOO MANY BODY-SNATCHER MOVIES TO OPEN ONE. I THINK I SAW ONE MOVE.

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The Mundane Life of Trees

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The Mundane Life of Trees

BECAUSE HE CAN’T SWIM, MILTON LIVES IN CONSTANT FEAR OF BEING PUSHED INTO THE WATER BY HIS BUDDIES. 

BECAUSE HE CAN’T SWIM, MILTON LIVES IN CONSTANT FEAR OF BEING PUSHED INTO THE WATER BY HIS BUDDIES. 

IT WAS DURING COLLEGE THAT CAROL’S POLITICAL BELIEFS TOOK A DRAMATIC TURN TO THE LEFT.

IT WAS DURING COLLEGE THAT CAROL’S POLITICAL BELIEFS TOOK A DRAMATIC TURN TO THE LEFT.

DONNIE SWORE IF ONE MORE PERSON ASKED WHAT WAS EATING HIM, HE WAS GOING TO LOSE IT.

DONNIE SWORE IF ONE MORE PERSON ASKED WHAT WAS EATING HIM, HE WAS GOING TO LOSE IT.

IT’S GETTING HARDER AND HARDER TO FIND A STRAIGHT TREE AROUND HERE ANYMORE, THOUGHT LINDA.

IT’S GETTING HARDER AND HARDER TO FIND A STRAIGHT TREE AROUND HERE ANYMORE, THOUGHT LINDA.

SEPARATED SHORTLY AFTER BIRTH, FRANK WAS STILL ANGRY THAT BOB COULD GROW BRANCHES AND HE COULDN’T. TO COMPENSATE, FRANK CONSTANTLY REMINDED HIMSELF THAT HE WAS THINNER THAN BOB.

SEPARATED SHORTLY AFTER BIRTH, FRANK WAS STILL ANGRY THAT BOB COULD GROW BRANCHES AND HE COULDN’T. TO COMPENSATE, FRANK CONSTANTLY REMINDED HIMSELF THAT HE WAS THINNER THAN BOB.

JIM WAS PLEASED THAT MOST OF THE OTHER TREES ACCEPTED THE FACT THAT HE OPENLY PRACTICED HIS RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.

JIM WAS PLEASED THAT MOST OF THE OTHER TREES ACCEPTED THE FACT THAT HE OPENLY PRACTICED HIS RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.

AROUND 1 AM EACH NIGHT, THE BEARS SECRETLY PLAYED TOUCH FOOTBALL. FRED DIDN’T DARE OBJECT WHEN THEY TOLD HIM HE WAS GOING TO BE THE GOAL POSTS.

AROUND 1 AM EACH NIGHT, THE BEARS SECRETLY PLAYED TOUCH FOOTBALL. FRED DIDN’T DARE OBJECT WHEN THEY TOLD HIM HE WAS GOING TO BE THE GOAL POSTS.

CONNIE HAS BEEN WAITING 56 YEARS FOR SOMEONE TO HANG A SWING FROM HER PERFECTLY FORMED BRANCH. SHE NEVER SAID A WORD, BUT WONDERED WHAT LIFE WOULD HAVE BEEN LIKE IF SHE HAD BEEN RAISED IN THE SUBURBS.

CONNIE HAS BEEN WAITING 56 YEARS FOR SOMEONE TO HANG A SWING FROM HER PERFECTLY FORMED BRANCH. SHE NEVER SAID A WORD, BUT WONDERED WHAT LIFE WOULD HAVE BEEN LIKE IF SHE HAD BEEN RAISED IN THE SUBURBS.

IRWIN KNEW HE WASN’T LIKE THE OTHER TREES.

IRWIN KNEW HE WASN’T LIKE THE OTHER TREES.

SARAH STAYED GREEN ALL YEAR. SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS BETTER THAN HER NEIGHBORS, WHOM SHE CONSIDERED FLIGHTY.

SARAH STAYED GREEN ALL YEAR. SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS BETTER THAN HER NEIGHBORS, WHOM SHE CONSIDERED FLIGHTY.

‘AT LEAST I’M NOT EDGAR’, THOUGHT BIG BALLS BILLY.

‘AT LEAST I’M NOT EDGAR’, THOUGHT BIG BALLS BILLY.

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Acadia

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Acadia

Southwest Harbor was asleep when I arrived, so I quietly found a spot, curled up and began dreaming. My iPhone started jumping at 5:00 AM. If I wanted to see dawn from the top of Cadillac Mountain I had to hustle, even though it’s a relatively short drive from Smugglers Den Campground. Slipping into last night’s clothes and grabbing a hat, so as not to scare small children, I started the 18-mile drive to Cadillac. For the record, there are a few ways to get to the top of Cadillac Mountain. 1. Walk. 2. Bicycle. 3. Drive. I concluded the night before that anyone choosing options 1 or 2, at 5 AM, should be immediately treated for a multitude of brain disorders. As it was, driving to the top in the dark was a test of cornering skills. Skills I began acquiring at the age of 12. But I digress.

Several people beat me to the parking lot near the summit of Cadillac, apparently shunning sleep for fear of missing an opportunity to be the first person on the east coast to see the sun rise. Considering the sun rises at a particular time regardless of who’s watching, I didn’t mind being an also-ran. After bundling up and exchanging slippers for hiking boots, I made my way to the top and tried to shelter from the wind. The horizon appeared to be back-lit from across the Atlantic, presenting graying light along its rim. As my eyes adjusted, stars twinkled atop islands as they slipped from darkness and began to take shape. Slowly the distant sky began to take on color, pushing the gray upward and replacing it with shades of yellow, orange, red. Then, as if hung from a heavenly string around the finger of God, a tiny blazing sun rose from the ocean, sat on the edge of the earth and stared back at all of us gathered to see its arrival. Flat clouds skittered along the horizon and I wondered if they were as mesmerized by this display as was I. Then I remembered they see this every day and haven’t once had to drive to see it.

SUNRISE FROM ATOP CADILLAC MOUNTAIN, ACADIA NATIONAL PARK. GOES WELL WITH COFFEE.

SUNRISE FROM ATOP CADILLAC MOUNTAIN, ACADIA NATIONAL PARK. GOES WELL WITH COFFEE.

An odd thing happens five minutes after the sun has fully risen. The top of Cadillac Mountain turns into a ghost town. If you booted myself and a couple other folks taking photos, Cadillac would be void of people. Apparently the enchantment of a big orange ball in the distance fades quickly. When I eventually walked back down to my van, with the exception of a few people who had obviously continued to hit snooze on their iPhone, I was alone.

PIKACHU WAS LESS THAN IMPRESSED WITH THE FIRST RAYS OF SUN.

PIKACHU WAS LESS THAN IMPRESSED WITH THE FIRST RAYS OF SUN.

To fully experience a National Park, you have to hike. Find a trail and begin to explore what prompted individuals to petition our government to protect this land. Discover the physical traits that make an area special and worth preserving for future generations. Acadia begs to be explored. Countless miles of trails guide you to mountain tops and lead you back to its craggy coastline. In between, timeless forests thrive, hiding their treasures from those who only dabble on the edges. On the way down Cadillac, I stopped at Bubble Mt trailhead and started hiking. In the wrong direction. I wasn’t lost, it’s just that there is usually more than one trail leading to the summit and I had not chosen wisely. Or, I had deliberately chosen one of the only trails in the park that was ‘natural’. I will allow the reader to decide which, but suffice it to say the trail was made up exclusively of boulders. Ever rising boulders of every size imaginable. And since boulders by definition are not flat, this made for two-hours of climbing that I will not soon forget. Boulder by boulder I inched my way to the top. Sometimes the crevices were so thin that I had to turn sideways and shimmy upward by pressing my knees against the wall in front of me and pulling myself up. Stopping several times on the way up to see an ever expanding view of the Atlantic and lakes below – and more than a few times to catch my breath and rub my knuckles – there was no way in hell I was turning back until I set foot at the summit. Which eventually I did, only to meet a wonderful couple that had hiked up the other side and said it was “a piece of cake.” I described the route I had taken and when they finished laughing, we all agreed it was well worth the effort. The Atlantic and her distant islands, lakes surrounded by sloping trees and massive rock outcroppings, all laid at our feet. Stubbornly, I finally turned and hiked back down the way I came.

AFTERWARD I CONSULTED A TRAIL GUIDE AND THIS PARTICULAR TRAIL WAS MARKED AS STRENUOUS. SUCH A POLITE WORD FOR LAUGHTER.

AFTERWARD I CONSULTED A TRAIL GUIDE AND THIS PARTICULAR TRAIL WAS MARKED AS STRENUOUS. SUCH A POLITE WORD FOR LAUGHTER.

Jordan Pond is a glacier formed tarn with clear water to a depth of nearly 50 feet. (Author’s Note: Tarn is a fancy word that I only recently discovered. It means small mountain lake, which moving forward I will probably stick with.) Hving sharply rising bluffs on two sides, it is a lovely oasis on Mt Desert Island. With trails branching out from the pond, I made an afternoon of finding my way around much of the shore. Each turn putting a new view of the pond on display. Afterward, I spoke with a Park Ranger at Jordan House who said, “About 95% of our visitors drive the park loop and leave. They may pull over a few times and take a picture or two. But for the most part they drive and leave. A nice day trip.” After walking the trails around Jordan Pond, I found this inconceivable. Given its breathtaking vistas, with countless photo ops, the Acadia park loop is unquestionably one of the great National Park drives. But to experience the heart and soul of the park, you have to venture inside – if even for a few moments.

JORDAN POND. THE SOUND OF SOFT CLEAR WAVES TUMBLING OVER SMALL ROCKS BEFORE GREETING THE SHORE OF THE SMALL MOUNTAIN LAKE. ALSO KNOWN AS A TARN.

JORDAN POND. THE SOUND OF SOFT CLEAR WAVES TUMBLING OVER SMALL ROCKS BEFORE GREETING THE SHORE OF THE SMALL MOUNTAIN LAKE. ALSO KNOWN AS A TARN.

eturning to Smugglers Cove (I just like saying Smugglers Cove. Makes it sound like a dangerous place instead of a campground nestled into the woods with rather large RV’s and a great bank of showers) I decided to circle through the seaside village of Northeast Harbor. With magisterial homes leaning out over the water, or tucked into the woods only to be seen by those sailing by, this area has long been known as an enclave of wealthy summertime residents. Secluded with architectural styles and materials that blend into the landscape, I was tempted to meander up one of the lengthy driveways and see if perhaps the occupants were looking for an older gentleman to adopt. One can always dream.

Hulls Cove Visitors Center is a beautiful building, set high above the parking area. Ascending the 50+ steps, you take note of how carefully the man-made structures blend seamlessly into the natural environment. A deliberate attempt to meld into what was there long before man set foot on Mt Desert Island. Inside, as in most National Park visitor centers, rooms are open and high ceilinged. On this warm day, even late in the season, several people waited in line to ask questions of a Park Ranger. This is where I met Ranger Emily. We began talking about the various trails in the park and she asked if I had had the opportunity to hike during my visit. Yes, quite a bit – and I mentioned the trails. She smiled. “I see you managed to find one of our only natural trails over by Bubble. How was it?” Hard. Still smiling. “Yep, that’s a hard one.” And to make it worse added, “You know the other side up is much easier.” Yes. I’ve been told I’m not very bright.

When I informed Emily about TheMountCo Project she opened up about funding and what it takes to “keep a park running smoothly.” She mentioned something in a context that I hadn’t considered. “People think we just set aside land and that in itself makes up a National Park. What they don’t realize is that it takes enormous resources to develop access to these pristine pieces of land. And once access is developed it requires enormous funding and manpower to maintain that access and all the attendant services.” She spoke with conviction. “I wish we could make people understand that a National Park, in particular one such as Acadia that presents unique geological challenges, is a living breathing space that must be tended to. Constantly nurtured, while integrating spaces for the public. It’s much more complex than simply setting aside a piece of land.” Well stated. I can’t improve upon Emily’s assessment.

ACADIA HAS HUNDREDS OF MILES OF TRAILS. SOME MORE DIFFICULT THAN OTHERS, BUT ALL MAINTAINED BEAUTIFULLY.

ACADIA HAS HUNDREDS OF MILES OF TRAILS. SOME MORE DIFFICULT THAN OTHERS, BUT ALL MAINTAINED BEAUTIFULLY.

The following day, I decided to give my legs a morning of rest and drive up to Elsbury for an oil change since I was over 4,000 miles into the trip. During the drive, my battery light came on, so while at Route 2 Oil Shop, I asked them what they thought the problem was. “Could be a low baaattary. Or the altanataaa.” I think it’s the alternator. “You a mechanic?” Nope. Hardly. “Yep. Could be the altanataaa.” Oil changed, heading back to Bar Harbor to take some photographs, every indicator light on the dash comes to life. Then she dies. No warning, just dies. But with good fortune I coast into a gas station. AAA informs me that I have used up my free services (doesn’t everyone lock their keys in the car at least 3-4 times a year?) and a tow truck would be out for the small fee of $60. And my choices are? Eddie pulls up about 45 minutes later and we head to Skip’s Auto Repair, where it’s confirmed, “The altanataaa is bad,” as he hands me the large metal part. $500 later, thanks to Shaun staying late – with his young daughter Katie watching his every move – and a paaaats store next door, I’m back on the road. Could have been worse. Could have decided to quit on the back-roads of Canada. I’d still be sitting there waiting for AAA to deliver an altarnataaa.

BAR HARBOR CAN BE A SCARY PLACE THIS TIME OF YEAR. RANDOM PUMPKIN PLACEMENTS AND ALL THAT WACKINESS.

BAR HARBOR CAN BE A SCARY PLACE THIS TIME OF YEAR. RANDOM PUMPKIN PLACEMENTS AND ALL THAT WACKINESS.

Before heading down to Uncle Mike and Aunt Amy’s blueberry farm in Alna, Maine for a couple days of apple picking, good laughs and good food, I needed one more hike. I wanted a few more views from above the treeline. Beech Mountain, at a little under a thousand feet and its fire tower at the summit looked like a good choice. And in one of my rare moments, I was correct. The trail leads up through trees still bristling with color, shoulder to should with pines and evergreens. Along the way there are large slabs of rock, perfectly placed millennia ago by mother nature in anticipation of mere mortals sitting and viewing her work. Which I did several times before reaching the top,  climbing the fire tower, taking in every inch of the view and reluctantly heading back down.

VIEW OF LONG POND FROM THE FIRE TOWER ATOP BEECH MOUNTAIN. IF LOOSE METAL STEPS THAT YOU CAN SEE THROUGH ARE AN ISSUE, AVOID CLIMBING THE TOWER.

VIEW OF LONG POND FROM THE FIRE TOWER ATOP BEECH MOUNTAIN. IF LOOSE METAL STEPS THAT YOU CAN SEE THROUGH ARE AN ISSUE, AVOID CLIMBING THE TOWER.

On my way out of Acadia, I stopped for one last meal. I had another long drive in front of me and was starved after hiking all morning on a few scoops of peanut butter and a mug of coffee. Luckily, the Lobster Pound & Real Pit BBQ on Bar Harbor road had yet to close for the season. I ordered a bowl of clam chowder and a BBQ pulled pork sandwich. Oh my. Oh my. I kept biting into clams that were only slightly smaller than my head. Fresh, meaty clams in the perfect blend of potatoes, celery, pepper and melted butter. I thought I might cry, so I ate with my sunglasses on. Then I took a bite of the BBQ pulled pork and I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from making that Mmmmmm sound too loud. Topping it off was a side of creamy homemade potato salad and a glass of freshly brewed iced tea. Days later I still drool just a touch when thinking of this meal.

LOBSTER POND & REAL PIT BBQ, TRENTON, MAINE. I ASKED MY SERVER TO WRITE THE COOK’S NAME AS WELL AS HIS OWN ON THE BACK OF A CARD. HE WROTE MATT AND ORION. OKAY – ONE OF YOU CAN REALLY COOK AND THE OTHER PROVIDED GREAT, FRIENDLY SERVICE. I’LL LEAVE IT TO YOU GUYS TO FIGURE OUT WHICH IS WHICH

LOBSTER POND & REAL PIT BBQ, TRENTON, MAINE. I ASKED MY SERVER TO WRITE THE COOK’S NAME AS WELL AS HIS OWN ON THE BACK OF A CARD. HE WROTE MATT AND ORION. OKAY – ONE OF YOU CAN REALLY COOK AND THE OTHER PROVIDED GREAT, FRIENDLY SERVICE. I’LL LEAVE IT TO YOU GUYS TO FIGURE OUT WHICH IS WHICH

ONE OF ACADIA’S SIGNATURE CARRIAGE ROAD BRIDGES. JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, JR. BUILT THE 45 MILES OF CRUSHED STONE ROADS BETWEEN 1913 AND 1940. THANKS JOHN.

ONE OF ACADIA’S SIGNATURE CARRIAGE ROAD BRIDGES. JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, JR. BUILT THE 45 MILES OF CRUSHED STONE ROADS BETWEEN 1913 AND 1940. THANKS JOHN.

ROOT STREWN FOREST FLOOR ALONG ONE OF ACADIA’S MANY TRAILS. PRETTY SURE I TRIPPED ON THAT LARGE BIRCH ROOT.

ROOT STREWN FOREST FLOOR ALONG ONE OF ACADIA’S MANY TRAILS. PRETTY SURE I TRIPPED ON THAT LARGE BIRCH ROOT.

FINDING A SMALL SQUIRREL IN MY BEARD SHORTLY AFTER THIS PHOTO, I HAVE SINCE TRIMMED IT A BIT. THE SQUIRREL WAS UNHARMED, BUT HAS LODGED A FORMAL COMPLAINT WITH THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE ABOUT BEING DISPLACED.

FINDING A SMALL SQUIRREL IN MY BEARD SHORTLY AFTER THIS PHOTO, I HAVE SINCE TRIMMED IT A BIT. THE SQUIRREL WAS UNHARMED, BUT HAS LODGED A FORMAL COMPLAINT WITH THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE ABOUT BEING DISPLACED.

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Cape Breton Island

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Cape Breton Island

Mainland Trans-Canada Highway 104 intersects with Nova Scotia Highway 105 as you cross the Strait of Canso onto Cape Breton Island. The August 1955 opening of the two lane causeway of stone and blacktop, was attended by thousands and 100 bagpipers were scheduled to march and play. In what still remains a mystery, only 99 bagpipers showed up. Unconfirmed rumors had Angus MacFee refusing to play with Tommy McDonald. Angus was quoted in the local pub as saying, “Tommy’s a poser. Ask his mum. I won’t pipe with a poser.”

I was scheduled to meet Peg and Duncan MacEachern in Baddeck, a small town on Bras d’Or Lake, an hour and a half north of Port Hawkesbury. They had gotten me a ticket for a Celtic Colours concert featuring Rhiannon Giddens, along with two groups of local artists. When I arrived at The Inverary Resort, we were joined by Uncle Mike and Aunt Amy. Like me, they were also staying at Duncan’s family’s place over in Judique on the other side of the island. But tonight, we were staying in Baddeck to listen to some music.

FROM THE WEB SITE – “CELTIC COLOURS IS AN EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER. FOR NINE DAYS IN OCTOBER, CAPE BRETON ISLAND IS ALIVE WITH MUSIC, ENERGY AND EXCITEMENT AS PEOPLE COME FROM FAR AND WIDE TO CELEBRATE OUR RICH CULTURE. FROM CONCERTS TO DANCES AND WORKSHOPS TO COMMUNITY SUPPERS, WE OFFER A FULL RANGE OF EVENTS AGAINST A GORGEOUS BACKDROP OF AUTUMN COLOURS.”

FROM THE WEB SITE – “CELTIC COLOURS IS AN EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER. FOR NINE DAYS IN OCTOBER, CAPE BRETON ISLAND IS ALIVE WITH MUSIC, ENERGY AND EXCITEMENT AS PEOPLE COME FROM FAR AND WIDE TO CELEBRATE OUR RICH CULTURE. FROM CONCERTS TO DANCES AND WORKSHOPS TO COMMUNITY SUPPERS, WE OFFER A FULL RANGE OF EVENTS AGAINST A GORGEOUS BACKDROP OF AUTUMN COLOURS.”

MacAulay Conference Centre is about 100 yards behind the resort and seats about 200 people. As we sat down Mike ordered a bucket of beers and we settled in. The night’s performers included, Ben Miller and Anita MacDonald, “blending the rich traditional sound of the Cape Breton fiddle, with the fiery edge of the Scottish Border pipes.” Along with The Hanneke Cassel Trio, featuring Mike Block on cello and guitarist Keith Murphy,  “fusing influences from the Isle of Skye and Cape Breton with Americana grooves and musical innovations, this group creates a cutting-edge acoustic sound that retains the integrity and spirit of the Scottish tradition.” But the headliners were  Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell, “with roots in North Carolina and Kentucky, their musical heritage springs from places where the mix is particularly potent. Rhiannon brought African-American string-band traditions a new and beautiful vitality through The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and has launched a versatile solo career that confirms her status as a major American artist for this day and age.” Got all that? We were in for a unique evening of music, performed in a small intimate setting. Woo.

While I do not profess to be anything approaching an expert on music – in particular Celtic, Gaelic and Scottish music – I do have a pretty good ear. During the next hour, Ben Miller, Anita MacDonald and The Hanneke Cassel Trio, treated my ears to a joyous, raucous tour of fiddle, pipes and guitar playing. The best of which was done, so I’m told, in traditional Cape Breton style. Which to my untrained ear sounds a lot like the fiddle players my parents listened to on The Grand Ole Opry radio show when I was a boy. But the headliners…oh my. If you do nothing else after reading this, Google Rhiannon Giddens and find out were she’s playing, buy a ticket and send me a thank you letter the next day. She and Dirk Powell were beyond that good. It’s seldom that a performer can reduce an audience to complete silence in anticipation of a note. But she did. It is a rare performer that can hold an audience in the palm of her hand and coyly toy with them at will. But she can and did. Her version of the Patsy Cline standard, ‘She’s Got You’ moved every person in the room to the edge of their seat and then as if willed to levitate, gave her the standing ovation she deserved. It was a stunning display of stage presence, raw talent polished until gleaming with confidence and a voice that hit notes from the deepest bottom to the highest reaches. She was something to behold.

The following morning, Duncan and I drove across the island to the inn his father, Duncan Sr. had designed and built by hand, over a period of three years between 2000 and 2003. I had heard about the Inn on the Intervale for several years and it did not in any way disappoint. Carved out of the woods on a sloping bank of the Intervale River and built with the downed timbers, the 15 bedroom, 17 bathroom inn is a work of art, by a man who loved his home of Cape Breton Island. When I walked in the front door I instantly felt comfortable – at home. Duncan gave me a tour and you can’t help but come away impressed with Duncan Sr’s vision, skill and drive. He created a home for his large family of boys (8, 9, 10 – I forget how many Mac boys there are) and a family that extends in a thousand directions through aunts, uncles, wives, children, grandchildren and friends. It’s a masterpiece matched only by the hospitality of the innkeepers.

THIS IS VERY SELFISH ON MY PART, HAVING ONLY BEEN THERE ONCE AND NOT HAVING TO SHOULDER ANY OF THE PROBLEMS THAT ARISE FROM RUNNING A LARGE INN, BUT I HOPE NO ONE BUYS IT, JUST SO I CAN RETURN.

THIS IS VERY SELFISH ON MY PART, HAVING ONLY BEEN THERE ONCE AND NOT HAVING TO SHOULDER ANY OF THE PROBLEMS THAT ARISE FROM RUNNING A LARGE INN, BUT I HOPE NO ONE BUYS IT, JUST SO I CAN RETURN.

Most of the day was spent walking around the grounds, exploring the great barn, fishing hut and listening to stories. Peg and Dunc, along with Mike and Amy and their friends Connie and Gary from Alna, Maine who were also staying at the inn. Gary had pinched something in his back on a hike earlier in the week and had spent several days lying on his back in pain. Of course being an outdoorsman from Maine, Gary shrugged off the pain as a city dweller may offhandedly wave at a pigeon. It was impressive Gary. When I first heard of your plight I sloughed into the closest bathroom and cried.

UMA AND JULIA WERE PLAYING WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED AT THE INN. ALONG WITH THEIR PARENTS, YOUNGER SISTER AND DOG, THEY ARE TRAVELING FROM BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA TO A DESTINATION AS YET UNKNOWN. COULDN’T BE SWEETER PEOPLE. I HOPE THEY FIND WHAT THEY’RE LOOKING FOR.

UMA AND JULIA WERE PLAYING WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED AT THE INN. ALONG WITH THEIR PARENTS, YOUNGER SISTER AND DOG, THEY ARE TRAVELING FROM BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA TO A DESTINATION AS YET UNKNOWN. COULDN’T BE SWEETER PEOPLE. I HOPE THEY FIND WHAT THEY’RE LOOKING FOR.

As the end of daylight approached, Duncan asked if I was interested in taking a hike along a trail that borders the Gulf of St Lawrence – the body of water on the western side of Cape Breton. Of course. He said that the trail ran along the back of a few properties where the two women that take care of the inn, also are caretakers. Marie and Little Marie. “You’ll love em. Marie doesn’t say much, but Little Marie doesn’t stop talking. She has a story for everything.” So at dusk, we hopped into two vehicles and made the 15 minute drive with Gary laying down in the backseat of his truck. We were going to lead Connie to a point on the hill where she and Gary could watch the sunset without having to get out and walk. The rest of the group drove over to meet Marie and Little Marie.

We were met by two women and a friendly golden dog. The women looked like a textbook page labeled ‘mismatched clones’. Marie wore blue jeans, a blue beanie, a hoodie under a navy jacket and big rubber boots. She also carried a large walking stick and had a ready smile. Little Marie was, well…little. She also wore blue jeans, a blue jacket, rubber boots and carried a walking stick. Her cheeks were as red as a freshly picked rose. You got the sense that one was a no nonsense type of gal, while the other never met a joke she didn’t repeat. I immediately liked them both and when we shook hands I knew I was being led by two Cape Bretoners. You could feel it in their hands.

LEFT TO RIGHT: DUNCAN, LITTLE MARIE, AMY, MARIE, THE DOG WHO’S NAME I CAN’T REMEMBER, MIKE, PEGGY (YOU CAN OPEN YOUR EYES NOW).

LEFT TO RIGHT: DUNCAN, LITTLE MARIE, AMY, MARIE, THE DOG WHO’S NAME I CAN’T REMEMBER, MIKE, PEGGY (YOU CAN OPEN YOUR EYES NOW).

LEFT TO RIGHT: MIKE, MARIE, LITTLE MARIE, AMY, GARY, PEGGY, DUNCAN, THE DOG WHO’S NAME I CAN’T REMEMBER AND CONNIE.

LEFT TO RIGHT: MIKE, MARIE, LITTLE MARIE, AMY, GARY, PEGGY, DUNCAN, THE DOG WHO’S NAME I CAN’T REMEMBER AND CONNIE.

We walked along a trail that curved above the open water a hundred feet below, never more than a few paces from the edge. Then through a brief stand of pines before opening once again to the sea. The sun was beginning to dip, yet on this mostly cloud covered night, still managed to throw light on its decent. As we made our way back along the trail, Duncan turned to me and said, “Where else can you walk along a stretch like this on private land, where the owners encourage people to take in the view? Not many.” I would agree Duncan. It was a remarkable stroll.

REMNANTS OF A WEATHERVANE NEAR THE WATERS EDGE, ALONG THE PATH BEHIND THE MACDONALD HOME.

REMNANTS OF A WEATHERVANE NEAR THE WATERS EDGE, ALONG THE PATH BEHIND THE MACDONALD HOME.

The next day was moving day. Mike, Amy, Connie and Gary left before dawn. They had about a 12 hour trip south to Alna, Maine and wanted to get an early jump. When I woke up an hour or so after they left, my first thought was we hadn’t really said a proper goodbye. My second thought was hoping Gary could get comfortable on what was to be a long day. Peggy and Duncan were also leaving to begin their journey back to Michigan, the inn was closing for the season and it was time for Marie and Little Marie to begin care-taking duties in earnest. My plan was to head up to the Cabot Trail, eventually making it to the northern tip of Cape Breton and spend the night in Meat Cove. So after the pumpkin tossing ceremony, I said goodbye to Peggy and Duncan, thanked them for their warm welcome and hit the road. Meat Cove was a long drive and I knew there would be countless stops along the way.

NOTICE THE PERFECT PUMPKIN TOSSING FORM. WEIGHT ON THE BACK ARM, ELBOWS AT 90 DEGREE ANGLES, FINGERS SPLAYED, EYES ON THE RIVER BELOW. PERFECT I TELL YOU.

NOTICE THE PERFECT PUMPKIN TOSSING FORM. WEIGHT ON THE BACK ARM, ELBOWS AT 90 DEGREE ANGLES, FINGERS SPLAYED, EYES ON THE RIVER BELOW. PERFECT I TELL YOU.

Virtually every year, the Cabot Trail, named after the explorer John Cabot, is voted one of the world’s most beautiful drives. Whether winding along both raggedy coasts, dipping to the sea, following the Margaree River or turning inland to cross the spectacular rugged highlands of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the Cabot Trail endlessly amazes. My journey took me up the west coast of the island, before leaving the trail at Cape North, heading northwest to remote Meat Cove. My plan was to spend the night in Meat Cove and then finish the rest of the Cabot Trial on the eastern side of the island the following day. So onward and upward I traveled. Until all semblance of a normal road ended. But just as suddenly as it ended, pavement began again. Then stopped. Then magically appeared again….You get the picture. Where there was road it was decent blacktop. Where there was no pavement, it was a rutted dirt, rock strewn, narrow, cliff hanging 5 miles per hour test of will. The good folks of Meat Cove know how to keep people out. But when I arrived at the top, a saw that a few of us had made it through. Two RVs to be exact. One which was mysteriously on the other side of the rope in the Meat Cove Campground, obviously and unfortuntely closed for the season. Undaunted, I walked over to the one fellow traveler parked next to me and told him I had planned on spending the night. “Me too.” Not much separating us from a spot to park. Just that rope. I say we take it down. “Tell you what. You take it down and I’ll put it back after we park on the other side. That way we are both complicit.” I walked over to the rope, clicked the carabiner and he drove in. I followed suit and he returned the rope. Co-conspirators at the top of Cape Breton.

MY VIEW FROM MEAT COVE. THE WINDS WERE SO STRONG THE VAN WAS LITERALLY MOVING ALL NIGHT. AT ONE POINT I SWEAR A GUST LIFTED US OFF THE GROUND. I DID NOT SLEEP WELL.

MY VIEW FROM MEAT COVE. THE WINDS WERE SO STRONG THE VAN WAS LITERALLY MOVING ALL NIGHT. AT ONE POINT I SWEAR A GUST LIFTED US OFF THE GROUND. I DID NOT SLEEP WELL.

The next morning my fellow camper – from Rhode Island – and I repeated the rope removal process and were on our way. I was heading to Ingonish Beach, historic Keltic Lodge and the trail leading to a point jutting into the sea behind the lodge. Ingonish Beach is made up of two distinct materials, one following the other, but rarely overlapping. When you first approach the beach through the sea grass, you are greeted by smooth rocks of all shapes and sizes. Literally a beach made of stones. As you walk further toward the sea, a great mixture of surfaces and textures on your feet, the rocks give way to perfect golden sand, stretching down and into the water. It’s as if the ocean has pushed the rocks back so that the sand can flourish. And I appreciated that.

INGONISH BEACH WITH THE KELTIC LODGE ACROSS THE BAY. I ONLY STUBBED MY TOES 3 TIMES BEFORE REACHING THE SAND. DIDN’T MATTER. I COULDN’T FEEL MY TOES AFTER DIPPING IN THE ATLANTIC.

INGONISH BEACH WITH THE KELTIC LODGE ACROSS THE BAY. I ONLY STUBBED MY TOES 3 TIMES BEFORE REACHING THE SAND. DIDN’T MATTER. I COULDN’T FEEL MY TOES AFTER DIPPING IN THE ATLANTIC.

A short drive around the bay – I think the drive up the property is longer – the Keltic Lodge regally sits, flouting her elegance and dominance over Middlehead Peninsula. Built on land that was expropriated from Thomas Edison’s good friends Henry and Julia Corson of Akron, Ohio, the Keltic Lodge was in operation for two seasons, before the government closed the hotel in 1942. In 1946, after the end of the war, the hotel reopened and has been a landmark destination ever since. Tucked behind the lodge is the trail-head that leads you to the end of Middlehead Peninsula. About a two mile walk through posted coyote country – pardon? – the trail leads through pristine forest that teases you with small glimpses of the ocean between their branches. This day was sunny and uncommonly warm and by the time I reached the point I had shed my coat and shirt – down to just a tee shirt. The roar of the surf, taking out the end of its thousands mile journey on the rocks, was deafening. The wind added its vocals to the symphony and I sat for a long time listening, before rising and heading back up the trail. I was off to Bay of Fundy and Maine below.

WHERE MIDDLEHEAD TRAIL MEETS THE OCEAN. A STUNNING SETTING THAT WAS ALL MINE FOR AS LONG AS I SAT.

WHERE MIDDLEHEAD TRAIL MEETS THE OCEAN. A STUNNING SETTING THAT WAS ALL MINE FOR AS LONG AS I SAT.

ABOUT 10 FEET BEHIND THE VAN IS A SHEER CLIFF. PEOPLE HAVE WEIGHED IN ON STUPIDITY VERSUS DARING MY ENTIRE LIFE. TYPICALLY THE SCALE TIPS TOWARD STUPIDITY.

ABOUT 10 FEET BEHIND THE VAN IS A SHEER CLIFF. PEOPLE HAVE WEIGHED IN ON STUPIDITY VERSUS DARING MY ENTIRE LIFE. TYPICALLY THE SCALE TIPS TOWARD STUPIDITY.

WALKING OUT TO THE END OF MIDDLEHEAD. NOT A COYOTE IN SITE. I MIGHT ADD THAT I’VE NOW TRAVELED OVER 5,000 MILES THROUGH MOOSE COUNTRY AND HAVE YET TO SEE A LIVE MOOSE. IF IT’S POSTED IT’S GUARANTEED I WON’T SEE IT. HOPING FOR LOTS OF BEAR POSTINGS AS I HEAD SOUTH.

WALKING OUT TO THE END OF MIDDLEHEAD. NOT A COYOTE IN SITE. I MIGHT ADD THAT I’VE NOW TRAVELED OVER 5,000 MILES THROUGH MOOSE COUNTRY AND HAVE YET TO SEE A LIVE MOOSE. IF IT’S POSTED IT’S GUARANTEED I WON’T SEE IT. HOPING FOR LOTS OF BEAR POSTINGS AS I HEAD SOUTH.

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Crossing Canada

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Crossing Canada

The border crossing at International Falls, Minnesota is about as inconspicuous as an international crossroads can get. Nestled into a series of industrial buildings and a web of railroad sidings, the small booth seems right at home. The border guard, who was just a little to perky for 6:00 AM, smiled and asked me where I was headed. I said I was going to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. “Geez, Louise, what for?” It’s a rather long story, but I’m traveling to all 59 National Parks in the United States and I’m on my way to Acadia National Park, via Cape Breton. “Holy smokes. Hey are you the bearded guy on the van?” In a sense, yes. “You got room in there for one more?” Uh….stammer, stammer. “Just kiddin, eh. But I’m jealous. Now git.” Living in Michigan, I have crossed into Canada many times. I’ve never been told to ‘git’.

The first thing you notice when you enter Canada, is well, nothing. A few different stores, the traffic lights seem to be a different shade of red and green and the speed limit is so slow you just accept that at some point you will end up in jail. Then there’s that whole miles versus kilometers nonsense that any speedometer can translate. But for the most part – at least on the surface – it’s the USA with more Tim Hortons.

ANOTHER SUBTLE CLUE THAT YOU’VE ENTERED CANADA. CURLING CLUBS. I JOINED THIS ONE. THEY SAID I COULD USE ALL THE CURLING FACILITIES IN THE US FOR FREE.

ANOTHER SUBTLE CLUE THAT YOU’VE ENTERED CANADA. CURLING CLUBS. I JOINED THIS ONE. THEY SAID I COULD USE ALL THE CURLING FACILITIES IN THE US FOR FREE.

For those of you who have never driven across the top of Lake Superior, from Ft. Francis to Thunder Bay, to Ste Sault Marie, I can sum up the overall experience in a few words. A glorious time-warp. A combination of being off the grid, obviously at peace with nature – or at least you’ve called a truce – and not having more than a single Walmart for every million square miles of population. I passed billboards that were last changed when Kennedy was President. I drove through small towns and villages with people that looked at me as if I was one of the first settlers. But across that mighty stretch, there was beauty everywhere. At times what I was seeing around each bend was more magnificent than the last. A seemingly unending string of postcards waiting to be captured and sold at the local Circle K. The beauty was relentless and I found myself stopping every ten minutes, turning my drive into an all day meander and a bit of the night affair.

WATER, LIGHT AND LAND ON A FOGGY MORNING ABOVE LAKE SUPERIOR.

WATER, LIGHT AND LAND ON A FOGGY MORNING ABOVE LAKE SUPERIOR.

As I rolled into Pukaskwa National Park on the northeastern shore of Lake Superior, it was pitch black. No lights, the dead of night. For just a moment I stopped on the narrow blacktop road leading into the campground and turned off my headlights. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me. While I don’t mind the dark, I do like my hands and this was a darkness that you rarely encounter, so the headlights returned. Five minutes later, I spotted something about fifty yards ahead in the middle of the road. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it was sauntering down the middle stripe like it owned the damn thing. Finally, it was close enough to recognize as a wolf. A wolf was walking the yellow line directly in front of my now stopped van. In shock I watched as it hesitated in front of my vehicle for a moment and then passed within foot of my window and disappeared into the inky black night. If the window had been down I could have pet him. But then the hand I professed affection for a few sentences ago may well have been eaten. Or at best nibbled. I still can’t believe a wolf strolled by my door. That’s going to leave an indelible impression.

OLD WOMAN BAY. I GUESSING THE GUY WHO NAMED IT IS EITHER DIVORCED OR UNHAPPILY MARRIED. I WOULD HAVE OPTED FOR YOUNG MAIDEN COVE.

OLD WOMAN BAY. I GUESSING THE GUY WHO NAMED IT IS EITHER DIVORCED OR UNHAPPILY MARRIED. I WOULD HAVE OPTED FOR YOUNG MAIDEN COVE.

Camping in parks, as I have been doing, requires you to occasionally interact with fellow travelers. For the most part – and this is my own assumption – people in parks tend to share a few traits. For instance they like being outdoors. They like to travel. They appear to be rather fond of large pickup trucks and Subarus, which seem diametrically opposed. They like bonfires. And in this particular campground, they like weed. Unknowingly into this cannabis-fest I drove, finding its source parked but two small spaces to my left in the form of a minivan and two young French Canadians. This is the exact transcript of our conversation, which took place with headlamps glaring into my eyes, temporarily blinding me, but causing no concern from the headlamp’s baked owners. Hi guys, how’s it going? “English…no…French…oui…oui…uuuuhhhh…errrrrr…hahahahahah…sorry, must we goodnight.” As my eyes began to water and Snoop Dog lyrics suddenly rambled through my head, I bid them a fine evening and walked back to my van. I slept like a baby.

DAN AND HIS WIFE TIPPIE, COULDN’T DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH THE RV AFTER THEIR LAST TRIP TO WINNIPEG. EVENTUALLY THEY LANDED ON A SOLUTION.

DAN AND HIS WIFE TIPPIE, COULDN’T DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH THE RV AFTER THEIR LAST TRIP TO WINNIPEG. EVENTUALLY THEY LANDED ON A SOLUTION.

For the next fours days I traveled across Canada, passing through Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury, North Bay, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, Riviere du-Loup, Grand Falls, Fredericton, Moncton and New Glasgow. Every day was filed with grand vistas, tiny diners with great food, great weather and good people – like Reny. When I stopped for gas and coffee early one morning, I asked the young ladies behind the counter where I could find a good breakfast. It was Thanksgiving in Canada and the chances of finding something open were slim. Both answered in unison, “Across the street, eh.” Canadians really do say eh by the way. A lot. “Our aunt owns it. Tell her we sent you, eh. Maybe we’ll get a referral fee.” This followed by laughter. I paid my tab and drove across the street to a tiny little, unassuming building – more like an old house – and waked in. The dark haired, ruddy faced gentleman who handed me the menu reminded me of an old, scarred hockey player. I asked him what a Denver omelette was. “It’s when we use bacon instead of ham, eh. I make a good Denver omelette. Two cheeses for you.” And off he went. His only customer was happy. When he returned a while later with what looked to be a perfect omelette, we struck up a conversation. Have you lived here all your life? “Oh yeah. I’m French Canadian. Born and bred.” Is there weed in the back? This is what I thought but didn’t say. “Where you heading? Is that you on the van?” I explain my journey and what we hope to accomplish and he says, “I was a scout, yeah. We had a great scout leader here. Took us camping all the time, eh. One time a snow hut collapsed on a guy. Almost killed him. Dug him out with shovels.” As it so happens, that actually happened to me about ten years ago. When I told him the story he just kept shaking his head. “Could have died, yeah. You could have died, yeah.” Reny was a good man and I was lucky to meet him.

THAT’S RENY ON THE LEFT. I’M THE GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE HE’S DOING A POOR IMITATION OF CASTRO.

THAT’S RENY ON THE LEFT. I’M THE GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE HE’S DOING A POOR IMITATION OF CASTRO.

Five days and about three thousand miles later, I crossed over onto Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. If I had to make that same drive across Canada tomorrow I wouldn’t hesitate. I saw more beautiful landscapes than I could describe in a dozen posts. I was fortunate to meet wonderful people at virtually every turn – and a few of them even spoke English. I discovered why Tim Hortons is an institution and had my coffee cup rinsed by a gal in Moncton, without even asking her to do so. “Oh just doing my part to make your day a little better. Yeah.” That kind of sums it up.

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Voyageurs National Park

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Voyageurs National Park

Although not an island, think of Voyageurs National Park as Isle Royale multiplied a thousand times. A vast stretch of land nestled against the Canadian border at the northern tip of Minnesota, Voyageurs is home to four large inland lakes – Rainy, Namakan, Sand Point and Kabetogama – countless small islands and webs of waterways. This complex network of land and water is home to myriad animals and plant life. The marriage of land and water in it’s most glorious form.

TINY ISLANDS SPROUT FROM THE LAKES. IF GOFUNDME WORKS I MIGHT RENT ONE AND DEVELOP AN UNDERGROUND LAIR.

TINY ISLANDS SPROUT FROM THE LAKES. IF GOFUNDME WORKS I MIGHT RENT ONE AND DEVELOP AN UNDERGROUND LAIR.

The drive from Grand Portage, Minnesota to Voyageurs takes about five hours and passes through Superior and Katetogama National Forests. Colors are peaking, so around every corner nature tries to one-up herself with gaudy displays. Of course the occasional human display crops up, but somehow manages to always feel small in her shadow. Then there was the Ron Paul sign. The owner of the gas station displaying this work of art, told me they understood the election of 2012 was over, but they just loved the sign. For what it’s worth Connie, so did I.

BEST DRAWING OF RON PAUL, AS VOTED BY THE ROYAL ORDER OF MOOSE – DULUTH, MINNESOTA.

BEST DRAWING OF RON PAUL, AS VOTED BY THE ROYAL ORDER OF MOOSE – DULUTH, MINNESOTA.

I arrived at Voyageurs Headquarters just prior to closing, so that I could get my bearings for hiking the next day. It was a lucky stop, because I happened to meet Voyageur’s Chief Park Ranger, Ben Welch. Like most people who find out what I’m doing, Ben takes an interest and the conversation is always pleasant and informative, with me gaining much more insight than I provide. In Ben’s case, he was generous with his time, staying well past closing while outlining some of the challenges facing the Park Service. In particular we talked about the homogeneous makeup of most National Park Service employees and how this may be a contributing factor to various young ethnic groups not attending the parks in greater numbers. If everyone you see is different than you, it may be difficult to relate to the experiences they offer. Conversely, when a young person sees someone they identify with relating an experience, the impact is far greater. When I asked Ben if I could take his photo, he said, “Should I get my flat hat?” Yep – grab your hat. And he did.

THANKS FOR SPEAKING FRANKLY WITH ME BEN. IT WAS A PLEASURE. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK.

THANKS FOR SPEAKING FRANKLY WITH ME BEN. IT WAS A PLEASURE. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK.

Unless you are backpacking into the wild after crossing a body of water, there are no campgrounds available within Voyageurs. So Arnold’s RV Park and Beef Jerky Emporium, which borders the park, became home for the next few nights. This is where I quickly realized that each time I would call a campground and asked if they had a vacancy, they would try to stifle their laughter before saying “yes, we have a few.” Of course they have a few. Who goes camping in northern Minnesota in October? Answer – with few exceptions – no one. On my first night at Arnold’s I met an exception. Five of them to be exact.

Where are you fellas from? “Wisconsin.” “Minnesota. We work at da paper mill and dey send us wherever dey need us, eh. You?” Michigan. “Whatcha doin ear?” I proceed to tell them about TheMountCo Project and to my great surprise, they are captivated. Near the end of my explanation, the burliest of the group – and decidedly the drunkest – appears to be weeping. Not sobbing, just a bit of a tear in the eye as he approaches me. “Ear – take dis,” and he shoves money into my hand. I can’t take this. But thank you. “Take it. Fer da voyagers you know.” Jesus, this guy is pie faced. “Put it in da collection box over der.” And with that he pushes the bills into my coat pocket. “Oh yeah…have a brat. They’re good and hot.” The next day I reached into my pocket and pulled out three $20 bills. Fer da voyagers don’t cha know. And the brat was delicious.

I spent two days hiking various trails throughout Voyageurs, crossing creeks, ponds and rivers. Trying to capture the essence of a place so vast and as old as time itself is difficult. Each trail offers a new path into water and tree filled landscapes, one more beautiful than the next. It can begin to overload your senses unless you relax, sit and take in one vista before venturing to the next. Much easier said than done. Both days were perfect October weather, with blue skies, mild temperatures and clear, star scattered nights.

FOREST FLOORS ARE ALWAYS ALIVE WITH NEW GROWTH. KIND OF REMINDS ME OF NATURE’S HAIR CLUB FOR MEN.

FOREST FLOORS ARE ALWAYS ALIVE WITH NEW GROWTH. KIND OF REMINDS ME OF NATURE’S HAIR CLUB FOR MEN.

SMALL EMPTY DOCKS ARE EVERYWHERE. MOST OF THE BOATERS TAKE THEIR BOATS OUT IN EARLY OCTOBER. EXCEPT FOR BUD. NO ONE TALKS TO BUD.

SMALL EMPTY DOCKS ARE EVERYWHERE. MOST OF THE BOATERS TAKE THEIR BOATS OUT IN EARLY OCTOBER. EXCEPT FOR BUD. NO ONE TALKS TO BUD.


Along the way I met a few people. Like the gentleman from New Hampshire, I met at the Rainy Lake Visitors Center. Last year he spent several months in Alaska. He described his experience with much detail and at the end added, “My fear is that they are going to begin drilling up by the Arctic Circle. That could be disastrous for The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For forty years they’ve been trying to drill and they might just get it done this time. Sad.” Afterward he smiled – kind of a forlorn look – and walked away. Then there was the mysterious ‘couple’ I encountered on a remote trail by Kategama Lake. He was around 55, she was maybe 19. He introduced her as his daughter. Now, perhaps I was thinking of Nabokov, when I should have been thinking adventurous father/daughter trip. Perhaps I was thinking Lolita, when I should have been thinking…forget it. Perhaps I should stop reading for a few weeks. In any case, they couldn’t have been friendlier. They wanted to discuss all the parks they have been to and the ones I have visited. It was an interesting, lively conversation and I can’t wait to visit Big Bend National Park after they’re glowing review. (Authors private note: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.)

I FOUND THESE SMALL LEAVES TRYING TO ESCAPE THE LAKE. THEIR PLAN WAS TO FORM A CHAIN AND ONE BY ONE CLIMB ONTO THE DOCK. BEYOND THAT, THEIR PLAN WASN’T FULLY DEVELOPED.

I FOUND THESE SMALL LEAVES TRYING TO ESCAPE THE LAKE. THEIR PLAN WAS TO FORM A CHAIN AND ONE BY ONE CLIMB ONTO THE DOCK. BEYOND THAT, THEIR PLAN WASN’T FULLY DEVELOPED.

On the day of departure I was up at the crack of dawn. Ahead of me was a five day, 2,150 mile crossing of Canada, with Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia as my destination. It was 6:30 AM, I had a fresh cup of coffee and the lady in the customs booth was smiling. Good to go.

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Heading North

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Heading North

As you travel up north from southern Michigan, things change. Somewhere around Standish or West Branch. Everything falls away except trees and small breaks into open landscapes. You know you are up north. But when you cross the Mackinac Bridge and enter the Upper Peninsula - the U P - that's where true north begins. This is remote, hardscrabble country, filled with hardy souls that relish the cold and scoff at many of the hardships that come from this type of living. It takes a certain daring to live in this part of the country. Or maybe just the desire to be left alone. 

Nestled into this landscape is Marquette, Michigan, a postcard pretty town on the shores of Lake Superior and home of Northern Michigan University. If you plucked it up and plopped it down in southern California, people would flock to Marquette. But it's on the north reaches of the U P and you have to enjoy winter if you're going to live or be a student here. If you don't ski - or snowshoe, or ride a snowmobile, or dogsled - I think your sanity would be questioned. Skiing is a religion and that's why my brother from another mother - Cambo - chose to attend NMU. Cambo worships at the foot of the mountain.

After a chilly night and visits to numerous waterfront parks to introduce myself to Lake Superior, I met Cambo and we drove out to Presque Isle. About a ten minute drive from campus, Presque Isle is home to Black Rock, an outcropping of rocks that jut into Lake Superior. Perfect for jumping about twenty feet into ice cold water. Who wouldn't want to do that on a beautiful fall day? Certainly Cambo and I would. So we parked, walked the mile or so to the rocks and climbed to the edge. We hemmed and hawed for a moment and then one after the other - Cambo first - jumped into the frigid water. My initial reaction was 'Dear God, my lungs have frozen.' My second thought was 'Dear God, my lungs have frozen.' But we survived. After our walk back to the car, which was filled with warm conversation and plenty of laughs, I said goodbye to Cambo. I thanked him for skipping class to join me at Black Rock and hoped he wouldn't tell his parents. Then I proceeded to post it on Twitter. Sorry Cambo.

Hiking up to Black Rock on Lake Superior. Please note the serious hiking shoes.

Hiking up to Black Rock on Lake Superior. Please note the serious hiking shoes.

Cambo - Your parents called and they want tuition back.

Cambo - Your parents called and they want tuition back.

The drive from Marquette to Grand Portage, Minnesota and the ferry that would take me to Isle Royale National Park, is about eight hours. Eight hours of breathtaking landscapes, closed mom and pop hotels, Betty's Pies, Bingo Hotel, dazzling trees and water. Always water.

How can you not pull into Bingo's? They have TV.

How can you not pull into Bingo's? They have TV.

The morning of the Isle Royale ferry, a pink-hued sky broke over the Grand Portage Casino / Marina / Lodge / RV Park where I had spent the night. When traveling to Isle Royale this time of year, you take it with you or you're out of luck. I had to scramble to assemble my pack before the 7:15 AM departure, so naturally I took too much, giving me a pack that weighed about 35-40 pounds, with much of that being water. So be it. I climbed aboard the Voyager II with six other men that were catching the last ferry of the season. One last shot at the wilderness before the season ends. One more chance to feel removed from everything and everyone.

On the bumpy ride over, I met Mitch Mitchell. Twenty two, from Atlanta and high-pointing all of the national parks in the lower 48. Isle Royale was his 38th since the beginning of June. I asked Mitch what was driving him. "There are only a few times in life when you have this opportunity. School can wait. Career and money can wait. I thought I should experience a bit of life first." I told him how much I admire his attitude and asked why the majority of twenty-somethings didn't seem to share his sense of adventure. His answer was short, but direct. "Way to busy chasing the dollar. Afraid of falling behind." Except for the fact that he smelled like a goat, I liked everything about Mitch.

We were met at the Windigo dock by Park Ranger Kaitlyn Knick, who gave us a few tips. Most notably, she informed us that it was rutting season for the roughly 1,600 moose on the island. Her exact words were, "Moose can be very aggressive during this season. If you see a moose, your best course of action is to hide. If you hear a moose nearby, hide. Do not confront a moose." And with those words ringing in my ears I set off for my 4.1 mile hike to Hugginnin Cove. About 100 yards from the dock I saw my first moose track.

IMG_9572.JPG

I would like to make a general disclaimer at the outset of what will be a rather lengthy set of blogs over the next 12-15 moths. I am not young. Please bear this in mind when I am describing certain events - such as hiking 4.1 miles over soggy, rugged terrain. If I were to tell you that this was an easy task, I would be lying. At least the initial mile. It takes me about a mile to catch stride, then the weight and uphill, downhill struggles lessen. But that first mile - whew - that was tough.

Other than your own footsteps, the first thing you notice on a wilderness trail, is the absolute absence of any sound except the wind. The wind across the forest floor, lifting leaves and scooting them along. The wind high in the trees, gentle in perfect pitch. It is your constant, unbroken companion. Several times along the trail I would sit and listen to the wind. Such a foreign sound to someone accustomed to the noise of daily life.

Over ninety-eight percent of Isle Royale is designated as wilderness. A mile into the hike I realize I could be a thousand miles from anyone and the effects would be the same. Surrounded by northern white cedar, red rooted black spruce, tamarack, red maple, and black ash, you are alone. As the trail begins to spiral upward, leading through moose tracked marshes, before descending back to the rocky shoreline, I was aware of being alone in a great forest - on an island - in the middle of a great lake.

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My campsite was right out of a travel brochure. On the edge of Lake Superior, the sound of waves hitting the rocks below, mingled with a rushing brook finding its way down from the hills. I set up camp, got out of my boots and promptly fell asleep. It was dusk when I awoke and decided to walk a few trails, take a few photos. The sky was bluing with steely dancing clouds and the waves were louder than earlier in the day. In time a full moon slid from behind the eastern cliffs and the night was never fully dark. Or silent.

After a pretty good sleep, considering the full moon was like a headlamp gazing cyclops-like into my tent all night, the first thought I had the next morning was uh-oh, my muscles are stiff as a broom. And they were. A few laps around the campsite loosened things up a bit. I threw on my pack and headed back to the boat, completing the second half of the 9.5 mile Hugginnin Trail loop in about two and a half hours. Along the way I heard the longing moans of a moose - where are you my love - but none crossed my path. Only the wind and the ever present rustling of leaves.

Shed of my pack I headed up to the Windigo camp store to see if they had the retro poster for Isle Royale. Being the last day of the season, the store was essentially empty, except for NP Ranger Valerie Martin, so we struck up a conversation. She wanted to know what I was doing on Isle Royale and I explained TheMountCo Project. Valerie immediately perked up and began telling me about northern Minnesota school programs that bring kids to the island, untethered from electronics and how that was having a positive effect on the kids. "I tell them they own the island. This is their land, their responsibility. And they respond well to the challenge of preserving the land when they understand that it belongs to them." She also added, "And I've never had one student tell me they missed having their phone while they were here. Not one." I think northern Minnesota schools and Valarie are on to something.

Isle Royale National Park Rangers Valerie and Kaitlyn. Thank you for sharing your stories and ideas. I hope to see you again.

Isle Royale National Park Rangers Valerie and Kaitlyn. Thank you for sharing your stories and ideas. I hope to see you again.

As the Voyager II pulled up to the dock and we handed up our gear, I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay a few more days. Explore more of this vast island, home to  sixteen hundred moose and two lone wolves. Sit by mighty Lake Superior and listen to her roar as she slaps the ageless rocks. But October 5 is the last boat off the island and as much as I wanted to stay, I didn't want to miss that boat. So as we pulled away from the dock, Valerie and Kaitlyn waved goodbye to the last visitors of the season. Gliding past Beaver Island and into the rough waters of Superior, I knew I would be back. But for today, I was heading to the tip of Minnesota on the Canadian border. Voyagers National Park.


 

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now what?

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now what?

This is what sitting around does to me. Have you ever had a song stuck in your head? A tune that continuously repeats and there's nothing you can do to make it stop? A little ditty - inevitably a song you don't particularly care for, but the beat or lyrics just happen to be catchy. I know this has happened to everyone on occasion and at this moment, 'The Macarena' is on a non-stop loop in my brain. HEEEY Macarena! God I hate that song.

I've decided I need to get out more often, so last night I went to a county fair. It was a mistake. Allow me to list but a few of the ways I did not fit in. A. I was overdressed. By overdressed I simply mean that I did not have on a beater or jorts. In fact, my shirt actually had a collar, which after last night, I can only assume has been outlawed. B. I have most of my teeth, which is kind of self-explanatory. C. I didn't even know they made cargo jorts. D. I was sober. E. I do not have a tattoo of Jesus or an ex-girlfriend on my neck. F. I did not have a posse, pack, gaggle, or gang. Apparently this is required. G. I wasn't chewing gum or tobacco. G (part 2). I was not spitting into a cup. H. Lastly, and perhaps it's just me, but clowns in general creep me out. I always think there's a body in the basement. So in summation, the whole episode was slightly depressing for someone who considers himself a man of the people. The tasty elephant ears, corn dogs and pulled pork barbecue platter took some of the sting out of the evening. They were out of fried pickles. 

Willing to bet everything I own that one of these guys doesn't have to put on additional makeup to perform. 

Willing to bet everything I own that one of these guys doesn't have to put on additional makeup to perform. 

On to my second brilliant idea. When I was a kid, my dad loved taking his six kids to the zoo. (It is worth noting that we lost at least one kid on each visit because my dad never did a head count until we got home. Those of us not lost simply waved as he drove 80 miles an hour down Kenneth Street on his way back to the zoo.) Easily my favorite attraction at the zoo was the chimpanzee show. Every afternoon at The Jo Mendi Chimpanzee Theater, Jo would roller skate, walk a tightrope, ride a scooter, unicycle, bicycle and motorcycle, balance on stilts, and drive his own electric car. Always in a diaper and occasionally while smoking a cigarette. My dad would double over in laughter every time Jo rode the unicycle. Something about a chimp on a unicycle got him every time. Fortunately we finally figured out that bikes, scooters and cigarettes aren't part of a chimp's natural habitat. In 1983, the Zoo Director, Steve Graham deemed the shows to be cruel and ended an almost 50 year run. The Jo Mendi Theater was dismantled and a new four-acre habitat was created. It was touted as the most naturalistic habitat of any chimp exhibit in the world. But sadly when I walked into the zoo last week I was thinking of only one thing. A chimpanzee riding a scooter with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Not even the mating zebras could top that.

Jo Mendi the Wonder Chimp, seen here with two of my older brothers. The man on the right is Jo's agent Felix Dexstein. Every time Felix gently squeezed his belly, Jo passed gas. Much to the delight of my brothers and more than likely the dismay of Jo Mendi the Wonder Chimp.

Jo Mendi the Wonder Chimp, seen here with two of my older brothers. The man on the right is Jo's agent Felix Dexstein. Every time Felix gently squeezed his belly, Jo passed gas. Much to the delight of my brothers and more than likely the dismay of Jo Mendi the Wonder Chimp.

Okay, so the carnival wasn't very satisfying and the zoo only served to bring back odd, unreachable memories. Now what? Time for brilliant idea number three - The racetrack. After all, what's better than standing at the rail, slapping your program into your palm and shouting at the top of your lungs as your pony comes flying down the stretch? Right? Well, for one thing there is the unending line of people that I had stand behind to place a bet. Then the sea of humanity you pass through to get to the rail. Was Fellini in town casting a movie? Am I the only guy who doesn't own a piece of John Deere clothing? Is there a comb-over contest after the second race? These are the thoughts rummaging through my brain as I stroll through Darwin's waiting room to take up my place at the rail. 

"Springdrops in the seventh," I overheard a man say. "I know the trainer. It's a sure thing." Now we're getting somewhere. "They're dropping him in class. Get on him," said the man who happened to be wearing a magical toupee that moved ever so slightly when he spoke. Now keep in mind that none of this conversation was directed at me. I was clearly eavesdropping, while being entertained by his dancing hairpiece. "Trust me." Oh I trust you. Springdrops was on the board at 28 to 1. That's about a $58 return for every $2 bet. Put $50 on the nose and the payout is around $1,450. So I plunked down $100 and waded back to the rail, giddy thinking about how I was going to spend the $2,900 I was about to win. 

"And they're off," says the PA announcer who sounds like he was the G-man in every Bogart movie. "Springdrops jumps to an early two length lead, with Tenderfoot second, Brutus three lengths off and Sherry, Penny Earned and Solo rounding out the field." I'm feeling pretty good. My program is coming apart at the seams as I pound on the rail. "Come on Springdrops, Daddy needs a new pair of shoes." And down the stretch they come! Springdrops still in the lead by a solid length, Sherry on the inside and Penny Earned pushing hard three wide. I'm screaming "AAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!" (It wasn't an articulate scream.) And then it happened. Springdrops suddenly looked like he stopped running. He didn't of course. It's an optical illusion that takes place when every other horse passes you. "AAAAAAHHHH!" (Even less articulate.) "And it's Penny Earned by a nose over Sherry. Tenderfoot takes third, followed by Solo, Brutus and Springdrops." As I drop my program and mope toward the exit, muttering profanities under my breath, I pass the cashiers window.  And there he is. The man with the magic toupee is cashing in tickets. What the....? "Hey pal, who did you have in that race?" "The winner. Penny Earned. How about you?" "I had Springdrops." He shakes his head, hair doing the bosanova. "Come back next week. He's dropping in class. Sure thing." 

Springdrops jockey, Ted Koezinsky, seen here winning by several lengths the week after I bet on him. The couple in the background, Bobbie and Kip Jordache, had won a radio contest and were allowed to watch the race from the infield. They did not bet on Springrops to win. Losers.

Springdrops jockey, Ted Koezinsky, seen here winning by several lengths the week after I bet on him. The couple in the background, Bobbie and Kip Jordache, had won a radio contest and were allowed to watch the race from the infield. They did not bet on Springrops to win. Losers.

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Home

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Home

I've been home for almost a week. Still trying to process the events of the last 100 days. Fairly safe to say I didn't foresee being abducted by the F.B.I. when I started my 50 state bar tour. Nor did I anticipate being held in an empty white room for days on end. Or jumping from buildings, only to be knocked out - yet again - and interrogated by guys straight from the set of Men In Black. Seriously poor planning on my part. Obviously I should have anticipated being drugged, kidnapped and mistaken for a spy. Happens all the time, right?

With respect to the 50 state bar tour, I only made it through six or seven states before getting hit in the noggin. So I'm chalking up this adventure as having reached an unfortunate conclusion. A bit of an understatement, but why cry over spilled milk as they say. I may shed a tear over spilled bourbon however, but why belabor the point. The dozen or so bars I visited were a mix of howling blues and shit kicking fun. As always I met a few memorable characters that will hang in my memory for years to come. People that I enjoyed having a drink with, a few that I couldn't get out the door fast enough to avoid and every type of Tom, Dick and Sally in between. That's the beauty of an adventurous soul. 

This photo was taken the night before I arrived in Vegas. When I asked Barb about the significance of her tattoos she said, "Obviously they represent peace." In that moment I knew I should just be quiet. 

This photo was taken the night before I arrived in Vegas. When I asked Barb about the significance of her tattoos she said, "Obviously they represent peace." In that moment I knew I should just be quiet. 

So what's next for The Bearded Man? I'm not sure, but I know I have to get back on the road pretty soon. For now, I'm going to lay low and hope some guy in a dark suit, brown shoes and a bad haircut doesn't come strolling up the road. These days I keep looking over my shoulder, thinking a hand is about to reach around and cover my mouth. It's a bit unsettling, but will eventually fade away, only to be found as an occasional tickle in the stilted corners of my mind. In short...I'll be fine. By the way, tomorrow is my birthday and I need a new pair of jeans.

This photo came in an email today. The email read, "Hope all is well Mr. Porcello. Look forward to seeing you in Vegas some time. Your pals at the F.B.I." There was a smiley face emoji at the end.  

This photo came in an email today. The email read, "Hope all is well Mr. Porcello. Look forward to seeing you in Vegas some time. Your pals at the F.B.I." There was a smiley face emoji at the end.  

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The Man in The Panama Hat

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The Man in The Panama Hat

Large pieces of memory were coming back to me. Clearly. Like awakening from a dream with absolute detail. Four men repeatedly calling me Mr. Porcello. Four men repeatedly asking why I was in Las Vegas. When was I meeting my handler? Where were the documents? "You have the wrong man," I insist. "This can happen two ways - The easy way or the other way." "I'm not Mr. Porcello. You've mistaken me for someone else." "You're not going to like what comes next Mr. Porcello." And in that moment, I went from being The Bearded Man to Mr. Porcello. All it took was one injection.

The man in the dark suit was growing impatient, slowly laying the photograph on the bed. "Are you sure you don't recognize any of these men?" "I'm sure." Pieces were beginning to fit, but with a few unyielding sharp edges. Kidnapped and held in a white room. By who? Escaping, only to be picked up by four men. Men I had not seen in the white room. In both cases drugged. In both cases referred to as Mr. Porcello. Ending up in a hospital, with a man in a dark suit sitting across from me. A man who also refers to me as Mr. Porcello. A man who is walking toward me with a needle in his hand. "Time for playing games is over Mr. Porcello. I need to know the names of the four men in the photo. Why did they hide you? What information did you give them?" He grabbed my arm with force and as the needle began to puncture my skin, a man wearing a cream Panama hat entered the room. "Put down the needle Agent Scriff. Now."

I came to learn this man's name is Turnstill. Agent Turnstill. This photo represents his happy face. 

I came to learn this man's name is Turnstill. Agent Turnstill. This photo represents his happy face. 

The man in the Panama hat walked up to me and gently rested his hand on mine. He was clean shaven and I picked up a soft scent of aftershave. His glasses reflected the ceiling's white light, making his eyes inaccessible. His clothing carried no labels. "Good evening," he said before sitting on the edge of my bed. "My name is Federal Agent Turnstill. I know that you are not Mr. Porcello. Let's start there." The cheek of man in the dark suit twitched. He was clearly uncomfortable. "I need information," said Agent Turnstill in a flat voice. "I need to know what happened in the white room." "I've told this gentleman everything I can remember. I didn't really interact with anyone. I was held against my will, but I was never interrogated or punished. It was as if they were simply housing me for someone else. Was it for you?" He showed no recognition of a question having been asked. "Did they ask you any questions about documents?" "No." Do you know why you're here?" "No." His hand was still on mine when he said, "There has been a mistake." 

As my memory slowly reappeared, my itinerary - something about visiting bars - began to grab a foothold. The Horse You Came In on Saloon. I think that's where I was supposed to be. I hope I still don't have an open tab.

As my memory slowly reappeared, my itinerary - something about visiting bars - began to grab a foothold. The Horse You Came In on Saloon. I think that's where I was supposed to be. I hope I still don't have an open tab.

"Mr. Porcello is a foreign national wanted by several agencies in connection with espionage," said Agent Turnstill. "You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. You match the description given to us by Interpol. You see, we've never actually made contact with Mr. Porcello." Agent Turnstill was emotionless. "I had you taken to the white room. We allowed you to escape - notwithstanding the shots fired by Agent Scriff. There was no intent to harm. The white room was intended as a psychological primer for what came next." As I listened, I felt as though I had been inserted into a Tom Clancy novel. What happens now that they know I'm not Mr. Porcello? Do I represent a threat? "Mr. Porcello was captured in Chicago last night. He was carrying documents in the frame of his glasses. He intended to hand them off to a Pakistani diplomat. Before I entered your room I was handed a photo. This is Mr. Porcello." He reaches into his shirt pocket and unfolds a regular sheet of paper. Before handing it to me he smooths the creases. "It's an uncanny likeness. I'm sure you'll agree." I sit up in bed and take the photo. I'm nervous. I turn the sheet over and staring back at me is a black and white photo of me. 

I've been driven to a remote parking lot, secured by tall chain link fence with razor wire resting on top. Agent Scriff and Agent Turnstill sit on either side of me in the back seat of a black Suburban, driven by a young man with a perfectly squared hair cut, just above his collar. As we get out of the vehicle, an older man in jeans and a sweatshirt that said HARVARD on the chest, shakes Agent Turnstill's hand and nods to Agent Scriff. "Tom," said Turnstill. "It's over here," said HARVARD. "We've replaced what we damaged in the work out and detailed the rest. That's a hell of a nice RV you've got there sir." "Thank you," I said, still reeling from the past 24 hours of this Clancy-like affair. Turning to me Agent Turnstill extended his hand. "Here's my card. If you're ever in DC, give me a call. I owe you one." The smallest hint of a smile crept across his lips. "Thank you, I will. But right now I just want to head home. I still have a couple of blank spots and I hoping time on the road will help fill them in." I shook hands with all three gentlemen and opened the door to my Sprinter. They were still standing there when I looked in the rear view mirror and turned onto Interstate 15.

Back on the blue roads heading home. The Bearded Man abides.

Back on the blue roads heading home. The Bearded Man abides.

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