Leaving New Jersey

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July 10 …

Leigha was my gracious host for more than two months. She offered me a home base where I could commute into NYC from Lawrenceville, NJ to be with my daughter and son-in-law and 4 grandkids, plus a sanctuary where I could recover from a nasty bronchial infection, plus the space to update my book. Together, we also worked on a project of hers. Ten years ago, Leigha photographed me for the author portrait of my first book. This is her most recent work …

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Time to fill my tank …

In NJ, this means sitting in your car as an attendant runs out. Well, you never know what might happen when you open a conversation. A guy from India or Pakistan – gray beard, bad teeth – came out to fill my tank. I could have chosen to say nothing, but you never know. So I made a stupid joke about how I knew I was in NJ. He probably heard it a zillion times before from out-of-state drivers. But he chose to comment in my CA plate. Next thing, some of my story came out. Then HIS story came out. This involved 10 or 12 days in a coma he wasn’t supposed to emerge from. He dreamed he had an animal head and a human body and that numerous docs were trying meds on him to revive him. Turned out his dream was more or less true. The fifth doc found the med that brought him out of the coma and saved his life. So here were the two of us, now sharing a precious bond, both of us enjoying a the miracle of a new lease on life. And to think I would have missed out on this by being too proud to make a stupid conversational opening remark.

Finally, one last friend to drop in on …

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Onward …

 

 

 

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Precious Moments

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Late April, May, June …

This is granddaughter, Olivia, just shy of three. On three separate occasions, I was able to commute by train into NYC from New Jersey to be with daughter Emily, son-in-law Hamish, and my four grandkids, ranging in age from seven to six months. Each visit lasted about four days. Owing to a three-week bronchial infection and work I needed to catch up on, visits two and three were separated by some five weeks.

Anyway, some highlights: A trip to the Museum of Modern Art. Emily takes the kids here all the time. The two oldest ones, Ted and Maggie, have a high level of sophistication. Van Gogh is Ted’s favorite artist, Matisse Maggie’s. Here they, are, posing by their favorite pics …

 

But I simply love this one of Ted not posing, seemingly lost in a Jackson Pollock …

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And this one of Maggie, in front of Warhol’s soup cans …

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Maggie and Olivia sharing the moment at a nook (or is it a cranny) at Central Park …

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Ted and his hoop dreams …

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And baby Mary …

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I’m about to walk the two kids to school. I will return with a couple of bagels and a quiet moment or two with Emily …

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And how could I leave this one out …

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Alas, the time has come. I drop off the two oldest ones at school one last time. Then a final coffee and bagel with Emily. The bedtime stories, the games of checkers and hide-and-seek, our excursions to parks and museums, the didgeridoo sessions, our sit-down meals as a family, all that and more – they’re now memories, precious moments in time.

At the time of writing this, my family has just touched down in Brisbane. And I’m about to hit the road again.

If we think of our identities – our sense of self – as built around our memories, then I have been blessed by quite a few really good ones. I now have a refurbished heart with an extended warranty. More precious moments are in my future …

Homecoming

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April, May, June …

Here I am, with the second-youngest of my grandchildren, Olivia, a few weeks from turning three. We are on the Chelsea High Line, NYC’s most recent local amenity and tourist attraction. The first section opened in 2009, the second in 2011. The project is the realization of some forward-thinking people, who got the idea of turning a section of abandoned overhead rail line into a pedestrian walkway. They preserved portions of the old track and turned them into gardens that feature the kind of plants that had settled in.

It’s all a matter of perception. As an abandoned rail line, we would ordinarily say the track has been over-run with weeds. As part of a community asset, however, we see a special beauty. The enlightened ones in our midst, of course, see beauty in unlikely places. The visionaries responsible for the High Line, needless to say, saw it all along …

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And here is a view, looking out into the city. Daughter Emily is posing with Olivia and my newest grandkid, number 4, Mary. On a side note, I love the name, Mary. No one calls their kids Mary, any more. I hope this is the beginning of a trend.

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Okay, let’s rewind a bit …

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This is the interior of a NJ Transit train taking me into NYC to see my family. Ever since my heart surgery back in July, I had dreamed of seeing my family again. I was living outside San Diego, and my daughter and son-in-law Hamish and my three-and-a-half grandkids had just moved from Brisbane to NYC. They paid me a visit in late June, on their way to their new home for a year. Two weeks later, my brother was driving me to the emergency room.

I had wanted to hit the road in late Oct, after I had sufficiently recovered from my surgery. But eye surgery and other complications pushed the time back to late Dec. Plus I had projects that needed completing, plus a massive reorganization of my life to attend to. In late Jan, I was finally ready to pull out.

I had a deadline. My daughter and her family would be returning to Brisbane in early July. Hamish had a one-year surgical residency at Sloan-Kettering. I needed to see them in May at the latest, before they were caught in the mad scramble to return to Brisbane.

Quick background: Back in the 70s and 80s, I had lived in New Zealand. Two years after arriving, baby Emily came along. She grew up in New Zealand, got a law and marketing degree, and entered the workforce marketing NZ wine. Ten or eleven or so years ago, she met Hamish, then a surgical resident. Seven years ago, Ted came along, and, two years after that, Maggie.

Then Emily and Hamish settled in Brisbane. Soon after, Olivia made her entry into the world. Then, in New York, came number four.

Now here I was, back from the dead, miraculously alive, May just around the corner, about to realize my dream. I had driven through 16 states and was now commuting into number 17, the end of the line less than an hour away. Two days before, I landed in Lawrenceville, NJ. There, I was staying with an old friend, Leigha. But that is another story for another time.

I get out at Penn Station, and after getting lost several times, I finally board a subway on the new Q line, which will take me into Emily’s neighborhood on the Upper East Side. Don’t let the address throw you. The Upper East Side is associated with Manhattan socialites, but an aspiring professional class also dwells here. Emily and Hamish and kids are living in a two-bedroom shoebox subsidized by Sloan-Kettering. The building doesn’t even have a doorman.

I alight at my designated stop, and make my way to the surface. In the mist, visibility is low. I cross the street. Over on the other side, I make out a woman in hat and rain jacket, boots and thick leggings, sheltering under a canvas overhang, back toward me, child in one hand, rocking a stroller with another. Emily? Hard to tell. I cross to her side of the street.

“Is that you, Emily?”

She turns.

Emily!

Lucky Me

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Late April, May, June …

Yes, that’s a real four-leaf clover. Here’s the story …

That’s Ted, at age seven the oldest of my four grand kids. We’re in Central Park together, with my daughter Emily and son-in-law Hamish. The kids have been playing in a nook – it could have been a cranny – and now we wander off to a grassy expanse bordering the Met. The place is carpeted in clover, and Ted gets it into his head that he’s going to find a four-leafed variety.

This is my opportunity to impart some wise grandfatherly wisdom. This is based on a Calvin and Hobbes strip from way way back. Boy Calvin asks his imaginary tiger friend if he had a wish, what would he wish for? Hobbes replies a sandwich.

“A sandwich?” responds Calvin. “What kind of stupid wish is that?” Calvin pointedly reminds him of all he is missing out on. The last panel shows Hobbes, content with his sandwich. “I got what I wished for,” is his reply.

I once wrote my own version of this, as a parable involving a sage holding up a three-leaf clover. Now, here in the park, I venture for my three-leaf clover, salivating over the lesson I am about to teach. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot Ted making a beeline for a certain clover. Thanks to cataract and lens surgery from five or six months before, my eagle eye spots a certain anomaly in the clover my grandson is zeroing in on.

No! It can’t be! Ted is holding up a four-leaf clover.

Later, I find out that the odds of finding a four-leaf clover are something like one in ten thousand. I never found one in my life, nor do I recall any of my childhood associates ever finding one.

So now, thanks to an odd twist of fate, I find myself humbled: The teacher has become the student, the student the teacher. This, of course, is as it should be. Every day, our kids and grandkids are presenting us with unexpected lessons. If we’re smart, we pay attention and maybe acquire a bit of wisdom in the process. And maybe, over time, we earn the right to pass ourselves off as old sages. Or old fools. Same thing, really …

Update

Within hours of posting this, I happened to be walking down a side street in a town in NJ. I looked down at the greenery below, admiring the micro-universe of dew drops sparkling along the clover leafs. I thought of my grandson’s incredibly lucky find. I peered down. I didn’t see anything specific, but already I was reaching down, as if to retrieve something. Then the object presented itself. Unbelievable!

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Interstate Meditations

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April 24 …

A phrase you will never hear uttered in a sentence in any language: “As scenic as an interstate.” Just to show you the sheer ridiculousness of the proposition, here’s the phrase translated into Mongolian: “Харь гаригийнх шиг үзэсгэлэнтэй.”

To illustrate my point: Above is a screenshot from the home page of the PA Turnpike website. There is no photo of anything remotely scenic on this page or any other. The idea of a photo gallery never even occurred to the designers of the site. Why would it? And, to add insult to injury, note that the shape of the logo at the top bears a remarkable semblance to the labeling of the Heinz ketchup bottle. For comparison …

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Heinz, of course, is headquartered in Pittsburgh. As a side note, years ago, at a restaurant in Pittsburgh, I once said to the server: “And I’ll have your fine local ketchup.” After the server stopped looking at me funny, I learned that even though Heinz is located in Pittsburgh, they do not manufacture the ketchup there. It makes more sense, instead, to locate the ketchup factories near the actual source. As I now know, ketchup is extracted from the sap of evergreens on plantations just below the permafrost in northern Canada.

The one thing that interstates are good for is getting you from point A to point B at breath-taking speed. This does not apply to CA and urban areas throughout the US, where gridlock is the norm. My journey thus far has been a series of strategic compromises between interstate and back roads. For instance, thanks to I-20, I was able to put a lot of Texas in my rearview mirror. Nothing against Texas, mind you, but I had a schedule to keep.

It was along a stretch of I-20, between Fort Worth and Dallas, by the way, that I had my most terrifying driving moment, ever. Compression is the only word to describe the traffic conditions there – far too many vehicles compressed into far too little space. To extend the comparison, I felt the dread of four or so lanes about to compress into the one I was on. At any moment, I knew, the next ten seconds of my life could involve the sensation of being turned two-dimensional by something out of the Book of Revelation, perhaps the Four Trash-compactors of the Apocalypse.

Furnace heat out of the Book of Daniel was also an option. That nearly happened when an oil truck to my left and a school bus to my right decided to converge on the same square inch of space immediately in front of me. At the very last moment, the two vehicles decided to unconverge. They swerved like constrictors back into their proper lanes.

I cast my mind back to my heart surgery the year before. I’m sure the medical team who labored so hard to restore me to life had no intention of seeing their handiwork being combusted in a 4,000-degree Biblical inferno, Old Testament or New, take your pick. I can see them now, having coffee:

Head surgeon: “My best work. That second artery I stitched together, a masterpiece, an absolute masterpiece. It’s bad enough that we have to close things up so no one can ever view my work. But to have it all go up in a puff of Apocalyptic smoke.  For what?”

Nurse: “Shit happens.”

Anesthesiologist: “It is what it is.”

Moving right along …

I had started my day sipping English breakfast tea in an idyllic location along the Potomac at Harpers Ferry, W Va. I had already decided I would be spending the night under a roof in NJ. My daughter and her family live in NYC. The last time I had seen them was in San Diego in late June the year before. They had just flown in from Brisbane, on their way to their new home for a year. We enjoyed a precious three or four days together. Two weeks later, I had my heart attack.

Now, here I was, eight months later, miraculously alive, having driven just about as far as I could longitudinally and a rather impressive distance latitude-wise. The end was virtually in sight. No tarrying, no dawdling. No scenic drives, no more nights out in the open.

Okay, I did stop off at the Gettysburg battlefield (see previous blog post). But just one Civil War battlefield. Antietam, scene of the bloodiest day’s fighting of that war, was just a tantalizing stone’s throw away from Harper’s Ferry. Further south were Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Manassas, and the Wilderness. Ground made holy by the blood of tens of thousands, worthy of a three-day pilgrimage. Alas, no time.

A quick tour of Gettysburg, then north through rolling farm country till at last, my rendezvous with the interstate. After one wrong turn, I was on the PA Turnpike. Instantly, the scenery disappeared and it started raining. To make matters worse, heavy construction closed off at least one line. That dreaded constrictor feeling entered into my psyche. It was like being squeezed through a, through a – I pass a Turnpike marker – through a Heinz ketchup bottle, that’s it.

Fortunately, the Turnpike has decent rest stops. I pull off at one and calculate my miles. I’m now able to give my host in NJ an approximate ETA. I pull off at my second one and treat myself to a meal. My last stop before I reach my destination. I can literally smell it. A home base in NJ. A day or two to recoup, then regular commutes on the train to NYC to be with my daughter.

Days before, at a pull-out along either the Blue Ridge Parkway or Skyline Drive, I had informed her of my imminent arrival. Back in San Diego, I had held three grandkids in my arms. Now, for the first time, I would be holding a fourth.

I’m heading down the last stretch of Turnpike. The signs are getting tantalizing, indicating routes toward Philly and New York and New Jersey. Trenton looms ahead. This is my exit. I have my ticket in hand. I’m guessing the toll will be something like five dollars and forty cents. I have a five and some ones handy. The toll booth operator says sixteen and change.

What?!!! Now I have to pull out my wallet. I sense traffic backed up behind me to Pittsburgh. I have a $100-dollar bill. I hand it over. A wad of bills and some coins come back. I stuff the money into a small space near my cup holder and hit the gas. I’m now winding down a concrete corkscrew, cars dropping into my field of vision from out of the sky. I make my landing in NJ. From here, it’s but a short ride to where I will be spending the next few nights.

I’ve made it. Deliverance ..

 

Gettysburg

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April 24 …

Third day of the battle. We are on the Union lines dug in along Cemetery Ridge. Over on the other side of the field, Lee is preparing to attack. Here’s what things look like from his end, at Seminary Ridge …

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The decisive moment in the decisive battle of the Civil War has come. Lee’s cannons open fire. More than 12,000 men from Virginia and North Carolina are about to charge into the center of the Union lines.

Here is the scene from two days before …

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Advance Union and Confederate units literally stumble into each other near the site of a seminary on which Gettysburg College is located. As more troops enter the fray, the skirmishing turns into serious fighting. Casualties mount. A major battle is in the making. By the end of the day, Union forces occupy the higher ground along Cemetery Ridge and the surrounding hills. The Confederates dig in on the lower ground along Seminary Ridge.

In most cases, the lower ground is a distinct disadvantage, but the Union forces need to spread out over a much wider area. A coordinated and concentrated attack can punch a hole in the thin Union line. Or the South can attack along one of the Union’s flanks, which would put them in a position to roll up the Union Army like a carpet.

On Day Two, they go for the second option …

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Here is the scene from Little Round Top on the Union left flank. We are looking down at Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field, and the Peach Orchard, where ordinary men on both sides become heroes and martyrs. Of all things, Little Round Top is undefended. Too much area to protect, too few troops. It’s now late in the afternoon, and General Gouverneur Warren, pictured here, is having a holy shit! moment. He spots Alabamans and Texans about to proceed unmolested to where he is standing. If they make it to the top and are able to hold their position and get reinforcements and artillery up there, the South will have the decisive advantage. All seems lost …

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But wait! Out of nowhere, at the end of a long day’s march, a column of blue looms into into sight – the 20th Maine, headed by a professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College, Col. Joshua Chamberlain. He and his forces answer the call. They fend off two attacks and suffer serious casualties in the process. Badly depleted and low on ammunition, Chamberlain orders a counter-intuitive bayonet attack. His line swings like a door on the Alabamans in his path and stops them in their tracks.

Elsewhere, Warren is scrambling other troops to the scene, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, Michigan. The fighting is fierce and the outcome is far from settled, but by the end of the day, Little Round Top is in Union hands, and their thin blue line is secure.

Day Three looms ahead. Time for Lee to punch a hole in the center …

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The Confederates open with a fierce cannonade. They have more artillery, but their rounds miss the mark. To deceive the Confederates, Union artillery gradually stop firing back, as if their batteries have been taken out one by one. In the smoke and dust and fog of war, the Confederates fall for the ruse. At three in the afternoon, Lee gives the order. Pickett’s Virginians and Pettigrew’s North Carolinians lead their celebrated charge …

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They are advancing uphill into a meat-grinder. Union muskets and cannon mow them down. But the thinly spread Union line has a major weak spot or two. The picture at the very top captures “the angle,” defended by just two Union artillery and a smattering of Pennsylvanians. Confederate forces overrun the position and turn the cannon on Union forces. Victory is within reach, awaiting more Confederates to swarm into the breach.

Alas, there are no men left standing. The South has spilled the blood of its finest. Union forces rush in to plug the gap. The only soldiers on the Union side of the field are now wearing blue uniforms. The Confederacy has reached its high water mark. From this day forward, theirs would be a lost cause.

The aftermath, hallowed ground …

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A great leader rededicates his divided nation to its founding principles …

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

Lincoln and Me

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April 24 …

Here I am, at Gettysburg PA, with my good buddy Abe. Seriously, I cannot hear or speak or read the name without getting a lump in my throat. I suppose our favorite heroes are our childhood heroes, and this guy is no exception. From the moment I was old enough to pick up small objects such as pennies and put them into my mouth, I was literally feasting on Lincoln.

He freed the slaves, split rails, and wore a cool hat. What more could a kid want? This was part of the Abe that we were presented with as a role model, Role Model Lincoln, the poor and humble kid who made good, the funny guy who was a natural at telling jokes but who knew when to get serious, who buckled down and got ahead, who overcame every bad break and persevered, and in the process saved the nation.

Then, at an age where I was much too young to appreciate adult emotions, I learned how vulnerable he was, how he agonized, literally went to pieces, over the world-shaking decisions that no man or woman should ever have to agonize over. This somehow made him human to me, someone with whom I could identify.

Washington? Too aloof and Olympian. Jefferson? Perhaps if you are a New York intellectual. Lincoln? This was a guy who cried, shed real tears. Not just any tears. Christ tears, the type of tears certain beings emit when contemplating the sheer weight of human suffering and folly. So he wasn’t just human, in my estimation, he was a saint.

But not the sort of saint with special powers who worked miracles. His special powers were far different. Contemplate human suffering long enough and something in your psyche shifts. You either cave into despair or become enlightened. In most cases, it’s both. Despair first, then, maybe, enlightenment.

It was as if Lincoln had an all-knowing third eye, access to a higher wisdom. But this only had the effect of adding another order of magnitude to his suffering.

“He looks so sad.” Seven or eight years ago, I paid a visit to the Lincoln Memorial. It was night, and from the outside the floodlights on the white marble imbued the building with a shrine-like essence. Inside, inscribed on the walls, were some of the finest words ever uttered in the English tongue. I looked up. One of his hands was open, as if extending a welcome. The other was clenched in a fist, as if grappling with forces beyond human limits. And then the face …

“He looks so sad.” From the mouth of a school girl right behind me.

Just to make matters complicated, there was Lincoln’s practical side. A lot has been written of his failures, but we tend to forget he had a very successful legal career and lived in the right part of town. When the right moment came along, he was wily enough to get onto the national stage and get himself elected President. Then he managed to forge the type of coalitions that allowed him to lead a deeply divided nation through its worst crisis.

If he were a mere saint, he might have sealed himself off in a metaphorical cave somewhere and been the role model for a few Christian mystics, nothing more. Or maybe he would have authored a short book that the hippies of the sixties would have discovered, then completely forgotten about.

A poor boy going from log cabin to White House is one thing. But a saint? A transcendent being the product of his own deep humanity? One who embraced his fellow humans rather than turned his back on them, one who recruited his practical side in the service of his saintly side. One who engaged in a mission that to this day defines us as humans, to right a vast wrong.

This was the Lincoln that stayed with me through adulthood and into old age. For his efforts, he paid in full measure. Now he belonged to the ages. Lincoln, my Lincoln …

My Last Night (For Now) Outdoors

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April 23 and 24 …

This was totally unexpected. What you are looking at is the view from my campsite on the Potomac, in Harper’s Ferry Harper’s Ferry, W VA. Let’s rewind to earlier in the day …

From my earlier posts, you will recall that I struck camp late morning in Shenandoah National Park, needing to make tracks northeast. Soon, I was on a road in the valley, wondering where I would pitch my tent for the night. A zillion alternatives present themselves. Veer off into a national or state forest? Stay on the road I’m on?

I’m now going through farmland and the occasional settlement, edging closer to what we call civilization. A million possible landing points present themselves, involving three states, Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Thirty minutes further into my drive, I decide to head to where two of these states – Maryland and West Virginia – practically overlap: Harper’s Ferry.

I cross into West Virginia, and here’s the sign as proof:

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My original intention had been to just pass through, maybe grab a bite to eat, then head further up the road in search of a campsite. You really don’t want to save finding a suitable spot for too late in the day, especially if it involves venturing on lonely roads in the dark.

I spot another sign, one that announces Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. I have all of ten seconds to take stock. I’m making good time, ahead of schedule, even. I decide to pull off. From Park headquarters, I determine that there is a campground in the area. I grab a Park shuttle that goes into the historic city. By keeping to a disciplined schedule, I am in and out of Harper’s Ferry all too soon. My impressions are recounted in my previous post.

Now to find that campground. The sun is getting low in the sky. I’m cutting this a bit fine. I get a GPS reading and head out. I immediately get lost. I pull over at a gas station at the foot of a forbidding cliff, with a river – which one? – in my rearview mirror. My GPS is as confused as I am. I do what it says and head off, across a bridge. Next thing, I’m in Maryland.

I can’t recall how many times I crossed and recrossed that bridge. Maybe it was ten times. Maybe it was just once to get back. I’m now thinking that maybe this campground is not worth all the effort, particularly one so close to the city, but my internet searches on an appallingly slow connection reveal nothing else in the area, at least nothing I can get to before sunset.

I head down a windy road and through a one-lane pass under an ancient stone railroad bridge and turn toward my campground. Whew! It actually exists.

The place caters to river pleasure-seekers, the type who boat and fish and grill burgers on the shore. There is even a zip line on the premises. But at this time of year, on a week day, I have the place largely to myself. I pitch my tent mere yards from the Potomac and pull up a folding chair. Check it out …

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And here’s a view looking the other way …

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At first, I thought the background roar I was hearing was highway traffic. Turned out to be nearby rapids. Totally unexpectedly, I have stumbled into my best camping spot ever. Tranquil, peaceful …wait! The train tracks just behind me are no mere decoration. Serious rail traffic plies this historic route. Here’s the bridge I passed under earlier …

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And here’s my car, parked just outside my camp spot, right beneath a speeding train …

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For a total sound immersion, there is no experience to rival lying on the ground in your tent at night as a diesel monster hauling a zillion tanker cars hurtles by just overhead. The sound comes over you through the sky and beneath through the earth. The full frequency range – throbbing, screeching, rumbling, clacking. Then, nothing. Nothing but the twitter of birds, the splashing of fish, and the soothing roar of the nearby rapids. Unforgettable …

The Ghosts of Harpers Ferry

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April 23 …

I confess: I can’t recall which river here I photographed. It could be the Potomac. It could be the Shenandoah. What I do feel confident to say is that I am Harper’s Ferry, W VA, where the two rivers converge. I was here, as a kid back in 1964. From the McManamy photo archives …

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Note the head of hair, the erect carriage, the proud bearing, the facial aspect of a youth ready to take on the world.

It’s all a sham. I was posing for a photo, at the pleasure of my domineering dad. What the photo doesn’t reveal is how short I am, one of the shortest in my high school. I am also a hopeless nerd. By virtue of my late birth date, I am at least one year behind in my social development. Add another year to being a bell curve laggard, and some extra time owing to the dynamics of my strange family.

I literally went through high school in a trance, a comma, and it’s impact would resonate deep into adulthood and old age. One day, I’ll write about it. Wait, I already am. It all comes out in small bits and pieces. Anyway …

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Here’s a photo I took two or so blocks away and 52 years into my future. At the confluence of two rivers, which opened up transport to markets in the interior and on the coast, this was a logical place to situate a town. In no time, in the early 1800s, Harper’s Ferry became a leading industrial center. The catch was that the town’s greatest asset proved its greatest liability. Perennial flooding doomed the place to near-extinction. Now it exists as a museum piece, part of an historical National Park administered by the National Park Service.

But oh what a history. As every school kid knows, this was the site of John Brown’s raid on the Federal Armory, that helped kickstart the Civil War. The plan was to use the seized weapons to arm a slave uprising. Ironically, a stray bullet killed an innocent bystander, a free black man.

Give John Brown credit. With just 21 men, he pulled off the daring raid. But after that, he didn’t have a plan, other than just expecting a slave uprising to materialize on its own. A federal force led by Robert E Lee (then a US officer) easily put down the rebellion.

Because of its strategic location, the place changed hands eight times during the Civil War. In 1862, Lee, now leading a Confederate force about to invade Maryland, sent Stonewall Jackson to take the town. The Battle of Antietam that would eventuate soon after would get all the attention, both as the bloodiest single-day battle in American History and as the battle that gave Lincoln the political opening he needed to issue his Emancipation Proclamation.

But at Harper’s Ferry, we had the largest surrender of US forces during that conflict, more than 12,000 men.

In the meantime, the collaboration between man and nature was nothing short of spectacular. In the west, we tend to regard the scenery as a solo effort, God working alone, such as His Grand Canyon or Painted Desert or Redwood Forest. In the east, the Wow! effect comes from Man’s contribution to God’s handiwork: Iron bridges spanning rivers, stone walls through second-growth forests, derelict brick mill ruins along wooded streams, old barns in fields. As far as iron bridges over rivers goes, it’s hard to top this …

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And this view from on high …

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Note the church steeple. It’s the same one that appears in the background of my old family photo, albeit from a different angle. The ghosts of a distant past lie in this town, including my own.

 

A Walk in the Woods

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April 23 …

Appearances are deceiving. You are looking at segment of the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. I have pitched my tent in a campground nearby, in Shenandoah National Park. There is wilderness you can easily get lost in, but down the Blue Ridge mountain chain on both sides are towns and farms. Civil War battles raged fierce in the Shenandoah Valley to the west. To the east, Washington DC is within easy driving distance.

Skyline Drive, which runs through the Park, can best be regarded as an extension of the Blue Ridge Parkway (or vice-versa). Together, the Drive and the Parkway constitute one of the most scenic drives in the world. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, people conceived of a national park that those living in the populated east could easily get to. That vision was realized in the 1930s, with the building of the Drive and the creation of the Park.

Accomplishing the mission required a bit of people removal. Not Indians, this time. White people – people living hardscrabble lives farming in the gulches and hollows and along the slopes. Hillbillies. To the city folk, these people were savages, which provided the justification for kicking them down into the valleys.

Decades later, they would get their revenge: First they became Reagan Democrats, then Republicans. Now they are part of Trump’s faithful. Back to the narrative …

Now we had another problem. Virginia, then a segregationist state, insisted on separate campgrounds and facilities. The FDR administration fought this tooth and nail, but they weren’t going to win this fight. Instead, they made sure African-Americans would enjoy the same amenities as whites. Where I pitched my tent that night was part of that history. The signage offers a clue …

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Also, part of the signage …

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I have used this quote on many occasions, along with other John Muir quotes. We can probably thank John Muir for the fact that we can still view two trees standing together, along with the added bonus that the air we breathe is at least one-fifth oxygen. One of Muir’s hiking buddies happened to be a sitting President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. TR was already an ardent naturalist, but Muir appeared to be the one who turned him into a conservationist. The result was a legacy of National Parks and Forests and Preserves.

Last we get complacent: There are forces that would turn every tree into wood chips that we export to China and Japan and reimport as particle board for buildings whose only useful purpose is to occupy the land now cleared of trees. Anyway, I had my short morning walk …

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In one 30-second stretch, I spotted a robin, bluebird, a finch-like bird, and a woodpecker, but the leaves and acorns on the ground were much more cooperative in posing for the camera. I take it they used to be attached to the flying skeletons of the oaks that dominated my overhead view …

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For good measure, my home for the night …

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Soon after pulling out in late morning, I found the northern part of Skyline Drive sealed off. No choice but to pick another route heading northeast. Minutes later, I’m on a road in the Shenandoah Valley …

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I am in a new world. The one I left behind is but a scenic backdrop in the far distance. I have already let my daughter in New York City know that I am just days away. In theory, I could be there by the afternoon of the next day. I will give myself more time, but already I am shifting into a different mindset. I have maybe one more night out in the open. Then I will be sleeping under roofs. They call this progress. It’s in the contract we all signed, the one where we neglected to read the fine print: The depressions and anxieties, the sleep deprivation, the cardio and autoimmune diseases, the alcohol and substance abuse. I could go on and on.

I should have a tee-shirt that reads: “I met my contractual obligations and all I have to show for it is my heart attack.”

Or, more accurately, the scars from my quadruple bypass surgery, but that would be problematic fitting onto a tee-shirt.

We really have no choice but to live our lives according to the terms of the contract we all signed, but within its many terms and conditions is a lot of wiggle-room. For starters, we can follow John Muir’s example: We can go out for a walk. We can stay. In the process, we can find a new sense of home.