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Koppenhaver's Selected Travel Journal Entries

For the final eight miles,
Of Cold Stream Road,
High beams pierce the dimness,
As I pass no others.

Early Sunday drives,
While the world sleeps,
Are revelries in abandonment. 

I park beside the Miller House,
Setting out on foot,
Up a similarly abandoned path.

A No Trespassing sign is for others; not me.

With authority, I ascend,
To this path’s sandstone summit,
And it’s astounding westward views,
Of the meandering North River,
And the farms tucked into its bends.

From on high,
The world seems manageable.
Trifles and travails dissipate. 

A distant tractor growls,
Diverting the spell of a beautifully quiet sunrise.

My descent is graceful;
With gravity as an aid.
I wend through towering trees,
Under arching laurel canopies,
Through an algific talus chill,
And reach, with pleasure, river’s edge.

Green water flows imperishably,
Grinding and roiling,
Reshaping its path,
Imperceptibly and patient.

I’ve been to Ice Mountain before,
In groups with leaders,
Social and scripted.
But today, alone,
Free to wander,
And interpret the splendor
In glorious self-regard.
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The parking lot of the Pemberton Hotel is directly in-between Grimm’s Deli and the Blackbird Bakery, two competing breakfast locations in this small British Columbian mountain town.  Though Grimm’s has the more complete menu – including the fried potatoes I’m craving – it doesn’t have any customers yet.  Through Blackbird’s window, I see a smiling young lady attending to a customer.  Behind her in the prep area is another smiling young lady.  The customer is smiling too.  Though a bakery will have fewer food choices than a deli, I’m drawn to the happiness, and choose Blackbird’s over Grimm’s. 

Just outside the entrance, written neatly on a chalkboard easel, the happiness is of Blackbird’s is pronounced: “Come Inside, Get More Espresso, Get Less Depresso”.  As I enter, it’s a mix of young & old; French & English.  There’s a gray-haired man sitting at a table, but the bakery staff are all millennials.  The conversation glides easily between English and French, switching even mid-sentence at times.  After placing my order, a steady stream of customers comes rolling in.  In such a small isolated town, and at 6:30 a.m., the popularity of this bakery is perplexing, but also affirms my dining choice.  I note too that everyone seems dressed for the weather, which looks to be a cool wet Pacific-Northwest-type day.  Thankfully, I too am appropriately geared. 

I take my time savoring my fresh blueberry pastry, Americano coffee, and the atmosphere; all of which are outstanding.  I share a long wooden table with the old guy who hasn’t yet ordered anything.  Perhaps he’s here just for the happiness.  The banter in Blackbird’s is cheerful, and just what I needed after a long day of irritating travel yesterday.

I’ve been short-fused lately with humanity.  Yeah, that’s a broad statement, but I just have become less tolerant of my fellow humans’ often trifling exertions.  And on a travel day taking me across the country, which compacted a lot of humans into tight spaces, my annoyance with their exertions has been heightened.  The vastness of British Columbia has come at a good time.  After finishing breakfast, I’m off to explore a beautiful valley where the compactness of humanity will be replaced by magnificent natural splendor. 

Pemberton Meadows and the valley it’s located in are locally famous for a healthy agricultural environment, stunning beauty, and the milky-green Lillooet River flowing dramatically through it.  On its flanks are the iconic Coast Mountains of the Canadian Rockies, some peaks still covered in snow even at the end of summer.  The dramatic nature of this valley is quite attractive to bicyclists, fresh produce seekers, and beauty hunters like me. 

As I enter the valley, I’m immediately impressed, even beyond what I was expecting.  At every bend in the road, I’m presented with a new vantage point of awe.  The mountains are of a scale my mind is just not used to comprehending.  Their height, steepness and ruggedness are almost surreal to someone more accustomed to the smaller, softer Appalachians of my hometown. 

About halfway back into the valley, I turn onto a forest service road and the real drama begins.  It starts by cutting directly across a wide-open farm field whose crop rows point dramatically toward the canyon vertex.  It then crosses over the raging Lillooet River on a single lane haggard bridge and proceeds past a bank of warning signs, the most dramatic of which declares that you’ve enter Grizzly Bear territory.  Other signs point out that the road ahead is subject to landslides, avalanches, debris torrents, logging trucks, floods, and falling rocks.  Bring your rabbit’s foot; a trip down Lillooet Forest Service Road is a bit like walking under a ladder. 

Despite these warnings, the turn onto this gravel road brings a new level of beauty to my Pemberton drive.  As the valley narrows, the beauty is amplified.  The walls are closing in.  The mountains grow higher.  The river flows faster.  The trees are taller.  And the isolation intensifies. 

I stop frequently to photograph the remarkable scenes, but never stray more than twenty yards from my car; the Grizzly warnings have me on high alert.  The sound dampening effect of the thick, wet forest only shortens my tether.  Perhaps I’m overly cautious, but even the plunk of a pinecone dropping from a tree has me thinking it’s a bear sneaking up to maul me. 

When I’ve gone as deep into this valley as I feel my rented car can go, I pull over at a roughed-in side road; really just a path through the woods.  Tacked to a tree is a small hand-written sign with an arrow pointing north up a ravine: Landslide Safe Zone – 500m. Standing by the sign, I realize I’m as far from my home as I’ve ever been while still in North America – over 3,700 kilometers.  The safety of my home is a long way from where I stand deep in the heart of British Columbia, yet I feel quite peaceful. 

I’ll be spending the next five days here in British Columbia, most of which will be quite busily spent amid the compacted humanity of downtown Vancouver.  This visit to the beautiful Pemberton Valley has been a vaccination.  It’s given me a chance to reset before the upcoming urban whirlwind.  I suddenly feel less short-fused and I’m ready to take on humanity’s exertions again.

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From now until April 11th, 2016, my current public journal entries can be found here:

http://timkoppenhaver.blogspot.com/  I'll be posting near-daily entries there for a few weeks.  
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Goodbye office. Thanks Loudoun Mutual for allowing and supporting this mini-sabbatical about to unfold over the next 3 weeks. I’ve had a great 29-year career so far, and after this little break, I hope to come back even more committed to this great company that I work for. It sure has been a lovely space to earn a living, but for the next three weeks I’m trading fluorescents for sunlight, and climate controls for chaos. Time to take the top down.


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Third Haven Woods, Easton, Md
March 19th, 2016

For many of the places I’ll be visiting, and especially so here at Third Haven Woods, there is no Point B. 
My goal was simply to wander from Point A to where my whims take me.
"There is pleasure in the pathless woods".  - George Gordon (Lord) Byron

Nature Conservancy Link:                  Click her for more detail

Robinson Neck Preserve, Taylor's Island, Md
March 19th, 2016

This, and similar imagery, will be my office view for the next three weeks.

Robinson Neck features an elusive east coast feature: an unobstructed view shed.  In all directions, as far as you can see, it’s remarkably pristine.  But visit soon; the rising sea level is working hard to swamp this beautiful preserve, and in fact, all of Taylor’s Island.

Nature Conservancy Link:                  Click her for more detail

Lichens, Nassawango Creek Preserve, Furnace Town, Md
March 20th, 2016

The Paul Liefer trail weaves through a blending of a Pacific Coast rainforest with a southern bald cypress swamp.  Your neck gets a workout  – looking skyward in awe of how high the trees reach; and looking groundward stupefied at the oddity of the cypress knees, which look like wooden stalagmites.

With proper mindfulness, a stroll along the Paul Leifer trail will be one of the more peaceful walks of your life.

Nature Conservancy Link:                  Click her for more detail
Philanthropy (here’s your part!):      Click here to support The Nature Conservancy

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Honing My Skills Before Heading Off on Adventure...

It begins early tomorrow morning and looks to involve a race against a sweeping weather front.  We'll be ahead of it initially, but by Sunday night, I anticipate returning home soggy and chilled.  A wet opening act is on tap, but that's OK.  I’ve spent way too much of my life in a building at seventy two degrees, under florescent lights, and with no breezes blowing. Time to confront nature in all its moods.  Just ask Henry...

“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and wood... keep your spirits up.  Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”

- H. D. Thoreau

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Ten years before my fiftieth birthday, I hatched a plan.  I wanted to reward myself for reaching that iconic milestone.  The way things were lining up, fifty would be the year I wrote my last tuition check for my daughters’ educations.  Supposing I’d still be in good health, I started dreaming of a sabbatical as a reward for the sacrifices my wife and I made while rearing two delightful children.  Through all the iterations of those dreams, one thing remained constant… the sabbatical would involve one of my very favorite activities: travel.  A Kerouacian road trip, perhaps.  Or a hike up the Pacific Coast Trail.  Or a voyage down to Antarctica.

Through the years, other reasons began to emerge that started fueling the need for a sabbatical.  Most notably, work.  Recently, my company has been on a magical tear – one of the finest ten year stretches in the company’s 167 year history.  Heavy growth has nearly tripled our size necessitating many workflow, technology, and personnel changes, all of which have kept every single day full of challenges.  It’s been a wonderful whirlwind, but none of it has come easy.  My throttle has been wide open for a long time.  A pit stop seemed in order.

As I’ve dealt with the demands of raising a family and a full throttle career, a few outside interests have become neglected.  Fresh out of college in the ‘80s, I started writing a journal and have kept it alive ever since.  It’s been a wonderful mental therapist.  But the entries have slowed over the past few years.  Setting off on a sabbatical tangent would surely jump-start entries again.

Another outside interest that’s been neglected is simply being outside.  Like my journal, a few hours in the woods or on a mountain top are tremendously therapeutic.  They always refocus me away from the minutiae of an often too-artificial world to a more holistic view of life.  But those experiences have been infrequent lately.  I’ve spent too much time in a building at seventy two degrees, under florescent lights, and with no breezes blowing.  I want to get dirty, in an earthy kind of way.  To step in mud and be guided by daylight hours; not a clock.  To be cold and zip up my coat, or warm and de-layer.  I want to hear wind rustling and water trickling, and not give a shit about electronic dings.

As a final reason for this sabbatical, there’s this: I live a wonderful life that I enjoy immensely, but I often stay under the radar.  Being a bit introverted, I don’t share my wonderful experiences that well.  The forty hours I spent in Cochise County, Arizona last year, for instance, were some of the best of my life; yet few know just how spectacular that was for me.  Now though, I want to make a bolder statement.  Frankly, I want to have a story; one I can reflect upon with great fondness: a feather-in-my-cap when telling stories to the grand kids.

Last July, I took the most important step in bringing this sabbatical to fruition – I secured permission from my employer to take whatever time was needed.  Since then, the planning effort has risen to near-compulsive levels.  And now, extreme planner that I am, a thematic itinerary is in place to address all of the reasons feeding the need.  Here I am, one week from embarking upon the sabbatical of a lifetime.  I couldn’t be more ready for it.

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Seated on a front row stool, I’m tapping along as Barefoot Wade sings Pencil Thin Mustache – a song I requested.  He laughs while changing a few lyrics to mock his long hair and acknowledge that he slept until four.  There’s a real happy vibe in this place which is a mix of locals and tourists like me.  In other rooms are shelves and homages to some of the world’s most amazing beers, including a whole corner devoted to Belgians, my own personal faves.  In my cup, fresh from the tap served by a happy young barmaid, is a local, peach-infused – but slightly too sweet - wheat beer.  The couple beside me, for some god-forsaken reason, is drinking Bud Light, but they’re as happy as clams on this warm evening in the middle of winter.  When I left Winchester yesterday morning, I was not expecting peach beer or pencil thin mustaches to be part of my wife’s birthday getaway to the Crystal Coast of Carolina.  But Harrika’s Brew Haus has brought plenty of surprises and will be one of our strongest memories of this trip… or of any of our other birthday getaways over the past twenty years. 

These last few days have done wonders to shake the winter doldrums.  We drove six hours in hopes of finding warmer weather and succeeded.  But what we also found were two other gems: spontaneity and creativity. 

Harrika’s was not on our itinerary.  And actually, nothing other than our lodging was on the itinerary.  We simply came to the beach to explore with practically no strategy.  I’m typically an extreme planner, but for this trip I sensed that the spontaneity of following our whims would be the better itinerary.  As such, our days included the unexpected – a bench at the end of beautiful bayside marina, a Mardi Gras parade in Beaufort, sitting atop cannons at Fort Macon, buying Girl Scout cookies at a pizza shop, and of course, Harrika’s.

Through all the spontaneity, I had an old friend – my Canon EOS Rebel - dangling from my shoulder.  Composing images is such an energizing & creative endeavor for me.  I come alive finding patterns, seeing textures, and discovering colors that otherwise go undetected when I’m not carrying my pal.  In a beautiful place like the Crystal Coast and on a vibrant day the near-overload of creativity was quite welcomed after spending the past few months engulfed in the grayness of winter back home.

On our way home, I chose the slightly longer option of connecting to the interstate – a 20 mile winding ride through a longleaf coastal pine forest.   One last blast of spontaneity, and a beautiful way to end a nice weekend on the Crystal Coast.

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At 51, I’m by far the youngest patient in the Cardiac Rehab center.  The next closest in age, I’m guessing, is late 60s.  And by far, I’m working the hardest.  I’m burning 518 calories-per-hour on my fast moving treadmill set at a 7% incline, and it’s been at this pace non-stop for 40 minutes.  I’m here in pursuit of one goal: to gain confidence. 

In a little over a month, I’ll embark upon a 3 ½ week sabbatical which will involve 7,200 miles of travel by car, kayak, and airplane to four different states and - more importantly – will include 35 miles of hiking.  I need this time in rehab to build confidence; to show myself and other interested parties that my recovering heart can handle the upcoming hiking stress. 

Last December, in the biggest shocker of my life, I suffered a myocardial infarction - a stinking heart attack.  Luckily, I reacted promptly to the elephant sitting on my chest and received excellent medical care utilizing the latest technology.  The damage was minimized and the blockages are now opened.  Thankfully, I have been encouraged to cautiously resume life (and my sabbatical planning) as normal; hence, the rehab.

The itinerary for the upcoming 3 ½ weeks gets tweaked daily.  Although the big stops are set, the little details are continually being refined.  The big stops represent the skeleton of the trip and reflect my support of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) – an organization I’ve been volunteering with for years.  Since 1951, TNC has thoughtfully preserved ecologically-sensitive lands in every state in the union.  I plan on visiting up to twenty of these locations in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Arizona atop mountains, along streams, amid forests, and in marshlands.  Some visits will include escorts from TNC providing deeper insights than what I’d be able to gather alone.  My years of volunteering should be paying dividends on this trip. 

It should be a whirlwind, heart-pumping tour and I’m doing everything I can to prepare. 

Stay tuned… If my plan works, reports from beautiful preserved locations will be rolling in soon.

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I park on Manchester Avenue, cut through a small stand of trees, then connect to the San Elijo Lagoon loop trail. Very shortly thereafter, a dampening begins. The cacophony emanating from of one of the more popular locales in southern California begins to fade as I step further from its sources and deeper into this 1,000 acre ecological reserve. 

I’m a mere 300 yards from one of America’s most traveled highways - Interstate 5 - and 800 yards in the other direction is the world famous Pacific Coast highway.  At every possible spot around the boundary of this reserve is a million dollar home with an amazing combined view of both the lagoon and the Pacific Ocean.  Yet amid all of this popularity, I’m nearly alone on the trail this morning.  And it’s a welcomed break.  Airports, taxis, buses, crowded beaches and noisy restaurants have filled the past two days… and starting tomorrow for the next four, I’ll be in downtown San Diego for a convention with 2,000 attendees.  A short break on a quiet trail is a great pit stop on this six day trip. 

With the dampening comes an awakening; my frazzled mind turns from schedules, artificialities, and multi-tasking to a quieted, singularly-focused state, alert now for what nature has in store on this loop.  I step quietly and keep my eyes and ears open for experiences that you just don’t get on while traveling much faster on Manchester Avenue, I-5, or the Pacific Coast highway. 

This lagoon is a stronghold; a watershed of vibrant beauty that serves as a buffer against the swelling populations all around.  Somewhere in the past, someone stood up for this place and realized its native value.  A conservation organization now has authority to make sure this lagoon stays pristine as the development pressures increase. 

I consider myself a reasonable conservationist.  As populations grow, development pressures are a natural side effect.  Frankly, man needing a place to live and work is as natural as mallards needing a lagoon to land in.  Balance, though, is the key, and the San Elijo Lagoon is a prime example of how that can work - man and nature standing side-by-side with clear and protected boundaries between them. 

San Elijo preserves the space needed for nature to be nature.  But its secondary benefit comes by way of enticement.  Its easy access reminds us all to pull over now and then, step through the trees and appreciate - even if for just a few brief moments - that the natural world not only dampens the raucous in our lives but pit-stops the focus on multi-tasking, artificial possessions, and the crowded spaces that are the consequences of our swelling population.  

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: Cardiff by the Sea, California

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“You comfortable back there?” officer Kernan asks.  From the backseat of his squad car I yell through the bullet proof glass that I’m fine.

Actually though, I could use a little more leg room and the temperature is a bit steamy.  But comfort is not what the sheriff’s office had in mind for passengers in the back of their cruisers.  When I think about the alternative ways in which I could have left the accident scene – ambulance or hearse – the discomforts usually reserved for criminals are just fine.

I’m catching a courtesy ride to my office after having been run off the road this morning – and not just slightly off the road either.  I bounced and slid 200 yards out of sight and down into a ravine.  In fact, officer Kernan’s first question after arriving on the scene was “Where’s your car?”

I stayed upright and walked away from the wild ride unscathed, but my car got the shit beat out of it as I jumped gullies, ran over logs, and sheared the tops off rocks before fizzling to a stop completely out of sight from the road.  It easily could have rolled, flipped, or collided with a tree - thoughts of such possibilities will inevitably wake me in the dead of night sometime soon.

As I crested a hill, a small white car was completely in my lane and aimed right at me.  Survival instinct took over.  The combined speed at which our vehicles were approaching each other had to be 90 mph.  A violent head-on collision or a violent off road adventure?  Pick your poison.

After walking out of the ravine and back toward the road, I was a bit surprised by how few fellow commuters were concerned with my well-being.  A couple had pulled over, but neither of them was the little white car that caused all my fun.  After confirming that I was OK, and after waving the concerned drivers on, it was just me in a dewy field all alone making calls to 911, my wife, and my insurance company.

Twenty Five Minutes Later…

As officer Kernan and I made small talk, the driver from the wrecker service wandered the accident scene taking pictures and videos of my distant car and consulting with the home office.  This was a more complex job than first thought.  Ultimately, a second truck and expert were needed to figure out the right extraction plan, which was quite an engineering accomplishment, I must confess.  Cables, wenches, hydraulics and the ingenuity of two good old boys got the job done.

From the backseat of the squad car on the way to my office, I wondered if I should be thankful to be alive.  Perhaps that’s a bit too dramatic of a position to take in regard to this accident.  Had the car barrel rolled or had the poison I chose involved a head-on collision, I’d certainly feel thankful to be alive.   But through 29 years of commuting to work, which amounts to over a half-million miles driven, if the worst is a wild, off-road ride leaving me unscathed, I’ll take it.

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While alone along a ridge trail on a Maryland mountaintop back in the 80’s, a violent storm began brewing all around me.  Surrounded by large swaying trees and ever-increasing roars of thunder, there came that point where a switch flipped in my head.  With virtually no thought, I was turned and heading back toward safety as quickly as my boots would carry me.  I stayed focused on my pace, ignoring blisters, aches and other distractions and made a beeline for my truck several miles away.  It was a race against the storm.

Thirty years later, a few miles from safety, I was again on a trail wending through large swaying trees and increasing roars of thunder.  I continued onward, not yet ready to retreat, hopeful the odds were in my favor.  The temptation of making it around just one more bend drove me deeper.  But then, as in the early 80’s in Maryland, that ominous feeling took over.  A full sensory warning - the woods darkened, the wind howled louder, rain smells grew pungent and the temperature plummeted.  The decision to retreat no longer was a logical process involving odds; it was simply instinctual.  Before I knew it, I’d spun and was heading full speed back from where I came.  Another race against a storm.

Frankly, in both cases, a little better planning would have made me more cautious about heading into the woods on those two days.  But then I would have missed out on a few quite memorable run-for-your-life moments. 

Every now and then it’s invigorating to poke a bear or tug on Superman’s cape.
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Beach Week…

Sunday Night: I don’t normally talk with my hands, but for the point I’m about to make I set my drink down and display my overhand pitching technique.  It’s part of the longest toast I’ve ever given.  By the end, I’m sure those raising their glass have gotten tired of holding the position.  But my daughter only graduates college once, and her list of accomplishments and prideful moments is a long one. 

Monday Morning: Standing in the swash, I corkscrew my heels slowly into the sand of North Carolina’s barrier island.  The deeper I drill, the colder it gets.  It’s late spring and the air temp is quite warm, but my heels tell me winter’s leftovers are just below the surface.

Monday Night: The odds are in my favor – a full moon surrounded by stars positioned out over the ocean on a cloudless night while I’m here to see it all makes for a spectacular night stroll down the beach.  Perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

Tuesday Morning: My first attempt exploring the maritime forest in the center of the island ends quickly – the horseflies are overwhelming forcing me to run back to the safety of my car after just a few minutes of exploring.  The flies win round one. 

Wednesday Morning: I’m up early - as usual- before the sunrise.  I’m brewing the day’s first pot, but while it drips I get a hankering for a little more of last night’s much ballyhooed star – our homemade sangria.  Until the coffee’s ready, I might as well warm up with some more sangria.  And it’s just as amazing before coffee as it was after dinner.

Thursday Morning:  Round two.  I return to the forest, covered in chemicals and clothing.  The flies swarm again, but my defenses work.  For an hour, I wander at will - bite free - photographing the uniqueness and beauty of the stunted forest and the water’s edge just beyond.

Friday Evening: The sunset and its beautiful colors remain hidden behind a gray bank of thick clouds, but no one is complaining.  We’re afloat atop Currituck Sound in kayaks, far from shore, and far from the distractions of the world.  We’re drifting peacefully in the stillness – a stillness that has quashed all conversation.  Bobbing only slightly in the calm waters, there seems to be an understanding within our group - this is that special moment that we’ll all recall years from now when reminiscing about this adventure.

Sunday:  Corolla.  I’ve visit here three times in the past ten years.  I usually don’t like to repeat vacation locations, so the enthusiasm was a little dampened as I prepared for the trip.  But there’s something special about being at the end of the road.  The closer to the end, the better Corolla gets.  It’s been a great beach week.  …and I finally now pronounce Corolla the correct way, as the locals do with a short O.

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A few minutes after pulling away from the only dock on the seven-mile long, uninhabited Parramore Island, our small craft runs aground nearly knocking us passengers out of the boat.  A full moon has exaggerated the low tide and is threatening our return to the mainland.  When we left this morning, the crossing from Wachapreague to Parramore at high tide was a twenty minute, full throttle endeavor.    But now, low tide has us trickling along cautiously as the captain keeps a close eye on the depth-finder.

All aboard are whooped after spending the past seven hours completing a diabolical list of manual tasks.  My boat mates and I are volunteers who spent the day helping convert an old Coast Guard repair garage into a rudimentary educational shelter for the Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve.  Once complete, it will be used to showcase the tremendous value of Parramore Island and the 13 other pristine islands that front nearly the entire the coast of Virginia and form one of the longest stretches of uninhabited Atlantic coast.  These barrier islands are like a football lineman, sheltering the mainland from storms.  As important, they provide vital habitat for migrating water birds.  They’re also strong reminders that some places in this world are best left untouched.

Perhaps the grounding and the slow ride back to the mainland have been a blessing in disguise.  These perceived inconveniences helped prolong what will go down as one of the more memorable experiences in my life.  The slow, quiet return pace through the channels and bays allowed time for the day to fully sink in.  Parramore has long been on the extremely short list of places I’ve dreamt about visiting, and it did not disappoint in the least.  Its isolation and pristine nature only enhanced this tremendous opportunity.   And the slow float back enhanced it even more.

The hard work has been a bonding experience for this potpourri of volunteers – an army pilot, a lawyer’s wife, an insurance guy, a physicist, a marine scientist, and a soil conservationist.   The common thread, of course, was our interest in thoughtfully preserving and appreciating the natural elements of this world.  The diversity of our group, as well as this common thread (and a little alcohol), made for quite an enjoyable dinner together after our long return journey.   We stayed the night courtesy of the Nature Conservancy in a beautifully restored and stocked home at Brownsville Farm – the Coast Reserve’s headquarters.  Sharing travel stories with these folks, who appreciate naturally unique and beautiful places, was where the dinner chat flowed.  And what better topic for this group who just visited a place that’s surely near the top of their list of favorite places?   

Introvert that I am, throwing me into a house full of strangers, then boating us off to an uninhabited island and forcing us to make dinner together was a bit out of the norm.  But like running aground, these perceived inconveniences turned into blessings enhancing the unique and memorable experience of being one of the chosen few to ever to set foot on Parramore Island.

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The empty passenger seat shimmies violently in time with my rental’s out of balance tires.  Compounding matters is my speed - just the slightest tire unevenness is exaggerated at 80 mph.  I’m hurrying across southeastern Arizona, but I’m beginning to doubt my plan…

I left Phoenix two hours ago and I’m still 130 miles from my destination.  I’m on my way to Chiricahua National Monument – a uniquely high mountain chain peppered with otherworldly rhyolite spires.  It’s known both as the land of standing up rocks and a Madrean archipelago sky island, descriptions that have intrigued me for years.  For the past two hours though, I’ve been passing one mountain chain after another and it’s got me wondering if the descriptive intrigue I’m chasing is worth it.  Surely one of these other closer chains is as intriguing, right?

A bit later, I start to see warnings about the remoteness of my destination – road signs in big letters cautioning travelers that there are no services ahead.  Gas, food, and toilets don’t exist out here. I find these warnings actually comforting; affirming that, in fact, my mountain choice is a unique one.  The other chains I’m passing come with no such warnings.

The Chiricahua Mountains are located in Cochise County in the far southeast corner of Arizona bordering Mexico.  It’s as desolate a civilization as I’ve been to; Brigadoon-like in that it’s little known and hard to find.  Its barren wide-open spaces are vividly apparent, especially to an east coaster like me.  A lack of humanity is apparent as well.  Over a two day period, I drove over forty miles from my inn to the park entrance and never once passed another vehicle.  I could have set up a picnic table in the middle of Route 181 and enjoyed lunch before another car came.

Not surprisingly, Cochise is an extremely quiet place, which does wonders for clearing your head.  Your thoughts more easily mature in Cochise.  This was no more evident than on my first night when I drove to Massai Point.  At 6,825 feet above sea level, I experienced an amazing sunset in complete silence.  After hiking a hundred yards down from the empty parking lot, I tucked myself behind one of the many massive rock spires.  Here I sat alone for an hour with my thoughts, in the extreme quiet, enjoying the unobstructed vantage point until the sun had completely set.  Ironically, surrounded by the steadiness of immovable ancient rocks, I could actually feel the earth rotating, rather than the sun setting.  It was as if a reclining chair were being pulled back slowly as the sun faded.

Starkly, after being so relaxed watching the sunset at 6:37, I flipped the switch to hurry mode; zipping down the mountain and high-speeding across the vacant Route 181 for a 7:15 dinner date.  In Cochise County, dining options are quite limited, to say the least.  Graciously, the innkeeper where I was staying offered dinner to me and another guest couple who have lived in New York, Portland, and Patagonia.  After enjoying one of the best sunsets ever, I topped off my day with several glasses of local wine, great conversation, and a 5-star meal; after which was followed by one of the darkest, deepest, and quietest night’s sleep I’ve ever experienced. 

The next morning I returned to the top of Chiricahua and followed the 3-mile Echo Canyon loop trail.  It weaved for the first mile through an amazing sea of rhyolite spires at the top of the mountain, then began switch-backing down to the base of a ravine.  As I descended and looked up, it felt as if I were tempting fate - like walking under a ladder.  The illogically imbalanced crowns of so many of the spires that I had been weaving through earlier seemed poised to tumble at any second.

Once out from under the ladder, the last stretch followed a ledge trail through the aptly named Totem Canyon where lizards scampered with nearly every boot steep, and the smells of creosote and pine punctuated this amazing loop.   Here again, the quietness of Chiricahua was on full display.

Sensing the trail’s end, I began slowing and stopping more during the final stretch.  Not because I was tired, but because I wanted to hear more of the silence, and experience as much of the amazing Chiricahua as a single day would allow.

The Land of Standing Up Rocks was unquestionably worth the many years of anticipation… and worth a shimmying, service-free, four hour, doubt-riddled drive from Phoenix.   This trip to Chiricahua has been so much more than just seeing a cool spire-spiked mountain.  The whole peaceful experience over the past few days has been a real head clearer, and a reminder of just how powerful nature, silence, and open spaces can be.

If you believe that silence is golden, and rocks are steady, then Chiricahua is your paradise.

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Snowman 1

I sense my time outside on this amazing day is passing too swiftly so I stop and stand in the stillness to reset.   A fallen tree nearby lies nearly perpendicular; I clear a butt-width of snow, lay out a bandana, take a seat, and fire up a medium strength Nicaraguan.

I’m halfway down a broad, snowy ravine on England Mountain.  The mid-morning rays of a low hanging winter sun crown only the rims.  The rays won’t reach the deepest depths of this ravine until late spring.  It’s a fine place to rest… and to stall the swiftly passing time. 

Snow has dampened all sounds, but enough emanate to create a soothing cacophony. 

Breezes passing through what’s left of the deciduous canopy.

The creaking of a weakened tree as it fights for its life.

The calls of brown & black flittering Robins.

And the hammering of pair of ample-breasted woodpeckers.

Earlier, I had doubts I’d make it this far.  Four inches of top-crusted snow slowed my pace hiding the trail and its ankle twisting challenges that lay beneath.  I had to connect the dots – going from marker to marker as I trail blazed through the unbroken snow.  At times I hesitated to continue on, but the closer I got to halfway around, the more moot the decision became. 

Moot too was my reaction to spotting bear tracks.  Last month, discovering them caused a retreat.  Today though, I crossed them twice and didn’t flinch.  This place continues to grow in comfort, bear-n-all.

Though I’ve walked this loop now many times, I’m still surprised by its surprises.  Coming here on a regular basis I thought would ruin her.  I’m not much of a repeater; I prefer the magic of first impressions to become my only impressions of places – like Pingvellir, Burke’s Garden, and White Point.  Returning to those places, I feel, would only dull their lusters.  But routine returns to this loop have only been adding to the shine.  Today’s trail blazing experience has made for yet another unique outing.  The luster here comes from a building up of many layers.

In a month, I’ll be walking a similarly lenghted loop trail through a land of standing rocks within sight of old Mexico.  Trees and their woodpeckers will be sparse, and there won’t be a lick of snow, even at nearly 7,000 feet of altitude.  It will involve another cigar – likely to be had while stargazing from one of the darkest places in the country.  It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and has tremendous potential to join the list of those places with magical first impressions.  Nevertheless, it won’t ever generate the same feelings that my multi-impressioned and multi-layered England Mountain loop trail ever will.

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From the Summer of 2008...

Beside me, an early ‘90s Ford F150 creaks past and stops in the turning lane to wait for a green arrow.  I turn down the suddenly irrelevant traffic report emanating from my radio.  I deliberately want to take in the sights and sounds of my favorite vehicle in the history of automobile production.  I roll forward ten feet placing me side-by-side with the careworn truck.  Two old men sit inside, staring straight ahead as the F150 idles gutturally.  A rusted rear quarter panel shimmies in time with the inconsistent combustion.  The plain, boxy style is anything but aerodynamic, but Ford didn’t have efficiency in mind when building this workhorse.  Though I love the modest Japanese import I’m driving, I long to one day own a Ford truck again, preferably an older, noisier version like the one beside me.  To hell with rising gas prices.

A green arrow appears and the truck growls onward.  I watch closely as it fades into the masses on this summer afternoon and wonder where it’s headed, and know that the owner has no idea that someone in its rear view mirror is jealously watching.  As I pull myself into the masses, I keep the radio silent, letting this simple encounter linger for the last few moments of my ride home.


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Talbot 1

In 1849, Talbot Farm outside of Waterford, Virginia was the first property insured by Loudoun Mutual Insurance Company.  To this day the farm remains covered by Loudoun Mutual, and has been continuously for the past 166 years.  “Policy Number One” as we call it around the office.  There can only be a handful of other properties across this country that can claim as long of a streak of continuous insurance with one company as Talbot Farm. 

About a year ago, it was determined that we should acknowledge the legacy of Talbot by capturing four seasons’ of images from the farm and placing that artwork in our boardroom.  Being the de facto company photographer, the assignment came to me – a task I embraced with enthusiasm, though knowingly aware of the historic and challenging degree of the request. 

Talbot’s current owner has become a friend of our company.  When I asked last summer, she graciously afforded the green light to stop by anytime I want.  Today’s visit represented the third of four seasons… and it also represented the coldest day of the young year, not getting above 20 degrees during the two hours I spent creating 103 images.  The cold made for brutal work, but also it was quite invigorating.  I haven’t been adrenalized by the outdoors or any creative endeavor in a few months.   It felt good to be alive in the outdoors again.  The adrenaline was especially flowing when I was halfway across a snow covered field as the sun crested the horizon.  For just a minute, it flared through a barn window creating the perfect opportunity to fire shots uncharacteristically in quick succession before the earth rotated the sun’s rays out of the window.  (My normal photographic pace is turtle-like.  But when the sun flares, I’m a hare.)

After returning to normal pace and as I snapped my final shot - a boxwood covered in snow – I sensed for the first time that I was going to miss this place when the assignment was completed in spring.  I’ve greatly enjoyed focusing on the colors, seasons, and changes at Talbot Farm over the past year. 

A half hour later, back at the office gathered in the basement for a staff meeting, I could still feel the adrenaline rushing through me.  My cheeks remained red, and my chest and hands were shaking from the rush of my cold and creative early morning.  It’ll be a feeling I’ll recall with a smile next time someone mentions Policy Number One.

talbot 2

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: waterford, va

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Back at the beginning of the year, I began compiling a list of the twenty five songs I enjoy most.  I deliberately wanted to take the whole year to finalize the list, making sure I wasn’t overlooking any, or giving too much recognition to one.  I’ve been listening, thinking, and tweaking all year.  Some, like La Grange by ZZ Top, have been on the list from day one.  Others have appeared for a while (Angel by Jewel, for instance), but then have been cut.  Not surprisingly, as the year progressed, the list became more settled. 

As the songs came together, I noticed several patterns.  Many represented special times in my life.  Others were part of amazing albums.  And like La Grange, some were just fabulous tunes that always make me turn it up.

The songs are not in any order.  Music is hyper-mood-inducing.  The mood evoked by La Grange is far different from that of Schubert’s Moment Musical, so comparatively ranking the two is nonsensical. 

Let’s start with the guitar, clearly the instrument with the most influence on my list.  Being a self-taught strummer, I’ve learned to truly appreciate great guitar music.  My list includes both simple and convoluted works.  The Beatles and their basic chord structures, the melodic finger picking blues riffs of Mississippi John Hurt, and the insanely fast note patterns of Steve Morse all are equally intriguing. 

Again, in no order, here are some songs from my list that have heavy guitar influences:
La Grange by ZZ Top
Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin
Carnival by Natalie Merchant; a song that anchors my love of female singers, especially those paired with strong guitars.
Bodhisattva by Steely Dan; perhaps a foreshadowing of my stray from Christianity.
She’s a Woman by Jeff Beck; I almost always hit the replay button the second this one is over.
The Bash by the Dixie Dregs; Simply a mind-blowing song in terms of picking complexity.
Wheels of Fortune by the Doobie Brothers; brings great memories of drinking beer and playing pool in my neighbor’s basement.

Some Special Blues-related guitar songs:
Floating Bridge by Eric Clapton; Thank you Mr. Clapton for introducing me to the world of Blues.
Frankie No. 2 by Mississippi John Hurt.  A song discovered just this year, though probably the oldest recording on the list.  The simplistic way in which this Blues Hall of Famer nearly speaks the lyrics makes this tune so special. 

Some great guitar songs are part of what I call ‘needle-drop albums’.  You could drop the needle at any spot on the vinyl and not only the song would be great but any stanza within that song would be great too.  Three albums make this list:
Rubber Soul by The Beatles with Drive My Car best representing the album. 
The Wall by Pink Floyd.  I love the guitar work on the entire album but David Gilmour’s B-flat chord in the first stanza of Young Lust is my favorite chord in all of rock music history. 
Dire Straits by Dire Straits.  This was their first album… and mine as well.  The first record I ever bought is still my favorite album of all time.  The poetic guitar work on In the Gallery made this one of the very first songs on my list. 

Graceland by Paul Simon is another needle-drop album, though not guitar related.  The African and Acadian influences make this collection especially intriguing.   This album represents a time when I gave up all my habits to see what else might enter my life.  One of the entrants was Cajun music; the gateway being Paul Simon’s That Was Your Mother, my favorite song from this album.  From Graceland, I went on to discover a plethora of other wonderful Cajun and Zydeco songs, my favorite of which remains Paper in My Shoes by Boozoo Chavis. 

Another instrument having a strong influence on my list is the piano.   It’s such a rich and complete instrument, best listened to unaccompanied.  My three clear favorites:
Moment Musical by Franz Schubert
Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt; like The Bash, it’s mind-boggling that a human can play this complexity. 
Halling Op 47 by Edvard Grieg coming from another near-needle-drop collection of works: Lyric Pieces.  

Not all songs on the list though are connected to a pattern or special time in my life.  They simply are great songs.
Hallelujah, by many, but mostly Jeff Buckley’s dark & haunting version. 
Lonesome Road by James Taylor; from the album that was playing when I proposed to my wife.
Birdland by Jaco Pastorius, Weather Report, or Manhattan Transfer.  A great melodic bass guitar tune. 
Seven Bridge Road by The Eagles.  A modern day a cappella classic.
Shine by Collective Soul.  I can never turn this one up loud enough. 
Don't Think Twice by Bob Dylan. This is the most played song on my guitar.  Simple, yet beautiful, chord progression. 
Lil Maggie by Ricky Skaggs. Thank you Mr. Skaggs for introducing me to the world of Bluegrass… and to this day, his late ‘80’s concert at Wolf Trap is the best live show I’ve ever seen.
Superfly Sister by Michael Jackson.  Another first song to make the list.  I love the math and symmetry of the tight beats and layered instrumentation in this composition.  It’s impossible to listen to without tapping along.

And so, as 2014 comes to a close, these are the songs that have risen to the surface as I’ve thought for the past year about which ones I enjoy most.   Would any of these make your list?

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Strength Bell Cognitive Bell

Is fifty a sweet-spot?  The intersection of strength and smarts perhaps? 

Today I turn fifty, and realizing that it truly may be a sweet spot has me feeling good.

I’m a little past my prime physically; no longer able to do some of the things I could when I was younger.  But I’m also stronger now than I’ll be at any point in the future.  Strength is a bell curve, peaking mid-life.  At fifty, maybe I’m a little past my peak, but still not too far from that crest.

Mentally though, I haven’t quite peaked.  Older means wiser, right?  Alzheimer’s and old age stubbornness aren’t too far off.  But until then, I should continue in an older-is-wiser progression.   

Looking through rose colored glasses on my birthday at a chart of strength and smarts, today looks to be that intersection.  I plan on enjoying this sweet spot while I can… before I start forgetting how strong I used to be.  

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As I’m walking along the edge of a wintered field about to enter the woods, I hear three shots.  My blaze-orange hat and bright blue fleece imply that I’m expecting gunshots to potentially play a part in this planned day in the woods.  I’m not hard to spot on this first Friday of firearms deer hunting season.  I trudge on aware now that I’ll be sharing the woods with bullets… and having to put trust in my fellow man.

Then a second blast.  Now I’m concerned, but maybe it was just the final blow to a wounded deer and the gun will remain silent.  I stand and think for a few minutes.  Then comes the sign: two more shots.  Sounds like the civil war is going on in the woods, not just a simple deer killing.  I don’t feel like being caught in the crossfire, so I retreat and start cursing.  Two and a half hours of driving and only a quarter mile of trail walking.

When my cursing ends, the day takes a nice turn.  My geographic acumen kicks in.  It’s only 7:30 and there are so many cool places on this Northern Neck peninsula to explore.  It’s the perfect opportunity to wander freely.

Twenty minutes later when I spot water, I pull my car onto the side of the no-outlet, gravel road I chose to investigate.  I grab my camera and scale a pretty steep embankment.  It’s at an angle nearly qualifying as a cliff; each step has to be carefully placed.  The down-climb is worth it though.   It’s about as pristine of a river’s edge as you’ll find in this part of Virginia.  The photo ops of one of the state’s prominent rivers and the tranquility of its narrow beach are endless.  I’m a kid in a candy store… and know right away that this will become one of those remote spots I’ll always point to on a map with a smile.


Three hours later, on the flank of an old plantation, I pick up a woods trail again – this time without deer killing or civil war activities announcing themselves.   The only noises are the slight breeze rustling the trees and the crunching of my bootsteps over deep layers of dry foliage.  I again reach river’s tranquil edge and flit about for a while.  As I’m about to leave, I set my pack down and deliberately decide to linger a bit longer; not wanting the whim-following to end just yet.  I climb out onto a tree growing nearly perpendicular as they sometimes do near rivers.  I find a moss-softened notch that cradles me quite comfortably.  I’m ten feet above the beach surrounded by pristine beauty and the quiet sounds of water.  At my back, I hear a wind wave approaching through the trees.  I brace for the cold blast.  As it hits, my cradled position sways securely back and forth, then becomes still and quiet again.  It’s the best moment of the time I’ve spent following my whims.

A day that started with cursing has ended with complete contentment after recognizing the opportunity to wander about freely, which I find to be one of life’s best gifts.


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Looking past the empty chair at my table and through a large picture window, I have a clear view of the umbrella’d outdoor porch area which is filling up quickly on this early fall evening.  Despite ideal weather, I chose a quieter indoor table for dinner. 

Beyond the umbrellas is the iconic Chocolate Avenue, and beyond that the engineered steel of Hershey Park’s twisty rides pokes above the tree line.

Beside me sits my iPhone and its gateway to the world, but I don’t want it to be my company for this meal – its idled screen remains dark; its notifications silenced. 

How often have you spotted lone diners finding comfort by insecurely pecking at their phone?  I don’t want to be that guy. 

Moreover, the Mediterranean Risotto and Argentinian Malbec are a deliciously perfect combination that warrants fully attentive savoring.  Breaks for texts and posts would absolutely kill this moment. 

It seems the solo traveler, including me at times, too often overlooks such simple pleasures.


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: Hershey, PA

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Saturday Night.   Farm manager Kaine calls to confirm the gate will be open for me by 6:30 a.m. tomorrow, three and a half hours earlier than normal.

Sunday, 4:07 a.m. – The alarm suggests I get moving.  Enthused, I spring out of bed.

5:40 - I’m straddling the dashed white line on a deserted dual highway as I drive 65 mph through the dark.  The straddling positions me to better spot deer that tend to dash at this time of day.

6:45 – A big glass of water, two cups of coffee, and half a cantaloupe for breakfast have my bladder pleading for relief.  Mercifully, Wal-Mart has restrooms open 24/7.

7:30 – No sign of Kaine, but as promised, the gate is open. 

7:40 – The path starts along the edge of a soybean field before it disappears into the woods.  I pluck a fuzzed bean just to see what it feels like. 

7:45 – As I enter the woods, I pull out 40% deet, and hopefully, spray away Lyme disease.

8:00 – Life is teeming as I cross the bridge over Owl Hollow on this quiet, overcast morning.  Despite my instincts, I linger only a short time, then extract my weapon and get to work.

8:15 – At cliff-top overlook number one, it’s another non-instinctual short linger to save time for my responsibilities.  Overlook number two is my goal which is rumored to be overgrown.

8:45 – I’m about as far as I can be from civilization on this 1600 acre farm when I spot an illegal deer stand.  I snap a picture to geo-code its location so the mother ship can do the dirty work.

9:00 – Overlook number two is not overgrown.  I suspect the rumor started when someone expected a national park-like experience, complete with benches, placards, and a ranger to answer questions.  But this place is not that.  Its pristine beauty is understated and subtle, and apparently, unappreciated by the rumor starter.

9:45 – Near the Hollow Tree, I’m earning my pay.  I swing my weapon with nearly every step along the trail.  Ground cover is trying hard to overtake this already thin footpath.

10:00 – Back at overlook number one, the work is done.  My weapon has been stowed.  This time I follow instinct and linger longly, immersed in the view of the Rappahannock’s bend around Horse Head Point, content and peaceful. 

10:15 – Returning across Owl Hollow Bridge, I stop to watch bubbles ooze to the surface.  The earth is breathing.

10:35 – I’m walking beside soy beans again as grasshoppers spray in all directions split seconds before each boot step.  It’s a Red Sea parting, of sorts.

10:55 – I pull over at a country graveyard to strip off my sweaty, deet-covered clothing.  Fresh threads will be appreciated by my wife when we meet for lunch in Fredericksburg at noon. 

The past six hours have been more of what is becoming a fortunate amassing of life’s best.  The buzz is sure to linger with me a long, longly time.
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A drooping wire cable hangs between two large trees marking the trail’s end, and is a feeble attempt at serving as a barrier.  Most folks visiting this mountain ridge though, heed this barrier, and I have too in the past.  But today, I dip under and wander into the forbidden.  As I trespass, I recall the names of the trustees that nearly two years ago granted me permission to wander off trail.  If stopped, I’m prepared to drop the names of Dalke & Truslow to authenticate my trespass. 

The forbidden path I’m on was established in 1965.  To further dissuade trespassing, the sign has been unscrewed from a tree and tossed aside. The John Trail is not nearly as clear as the one I’ve been on all morning.  Undergrowth has reached in from both sides almost meeting in the middle of this now unblazed trail.  Fallen trees are obstacles simply left uncleared.  It’s primal woods walking. 

The John crosses Black Cotton Branch a few times before intersecting the equally uncleared Enon Church Trail.  As I approach this intersection I spot a few deer; head-down munching.  The slightest click of my camera makes their heads pop up.  Our eyes meet.  Ten seconds later, in perfect sync, they scamper.  One stops and looks back after a few bounds, then snorts a guttural warning.  It’s the deer-equivalent of fuck off.

I spot a vein of exposed granite poking through the forest floor.  It’s the perfect spot.  I sit, pull out an all-natural shade wrapped cigar and some lukewarm water, then begin a few precious moments of quietly sitting in this quiet haven.  The gentle hints of life are abundant in this vibrantly natural environment.  I feel welcomed, and return the favor by being as respectful as an intruder into the pristine can be.  The therapeutic benefit of woods walking becomes crystal clear in moments like this. 

After my therapy, I dip back under the cable and return to the wider, less-tresspassy trail.  I complete its 3-mile loop.  Today’s exploration is the longest I’ve walked in these woods – five hours.  I’m generally a quick striker in this familiar environment; getting in, around, and out in three hours.  But with a more relaxed schedule today, and curiosity having built up over the past several visits, the John Trail side trip was ripe for the picking. 

Other untapped side trips are surely in my future.  An old stone wall leading up and over a ridge might be my next pursuit.  Or perhaps following Black Cotton Branch to its source.  More good therapy waits in the unknown. 

How often is it in life that the side trips – the unplanned – make all the difference?  Choosing to dip under a wire cable today did just that.


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I lead with my shoulder as I weave between the wet rows of sweet corn.  When I find a ripe ear, I break it off, shuck it, and then put the cleaned cob in my pocket.  Four of us men have been tasked with collecting corn, tomatoes, and peaches for our party of eleven’s dinner.  Despite a heavy drizzle, I’m enjoying every minute of this very primal and wholesome endeavor. 

We’ve gathered at Uncle Ron’s familiar farm following the funeral of Uncle Charlie who recently lost a tough cancer battle.  The solemnness of the funeral has begun to fade.  The meal will transition us into the evening where surely life will return to the days of old.  Years ago, our extended family would gather regularly at Ron’s for too much food, unending card games, storytelling, and almost always, tears of laughter.  

Granted, you can find fresh produce at any grocery store, or at your local farm market, but I doubt enjoying that freshness could get any better than how I will on this Saturday evening in Hegins, Pennsylvania: handpicked from field to table in twenty minutes thanks to Aunt Deanna’s culinary expertise and efficiency. 

Back when we cousins were much younger, the corn harvest brought out our competitiveness.  Who could eat the most ears?  Eleven was the record, I think.  But we’re all adults now more focused on the health concerns of jamming eleven ears into our bodies.  No one at the table is seriously thinking about making a run at the record.  Still though, I can’t resist the urge to eat more than I should at this plentiful offering.  Four plump ears, along with several tomatoes, peaches, potatoes, shoofly pie and a Pennsylvania Yuengling to wash it all down have me glassy-eyed.  I’ve eaten to the point of bloatation, but it feels wonderful.   

Time now to clear the table, get the cards out, start the stories, and let the tears flow.  The days of old have returned.

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: Hegins, Pennsylvania

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