Thursday, August 30, 2012

Two for the road

I've never been quite sure what she sees in me.
I know there's something, since our marriage has now lasted 40 years, a milestone we celebrated in our own quiet fashion this past Monday.  We anticipated it with an anniversary-eve spent accidently stripping wallpaper from one of the upstairs rooms in our big old house. I say "accidently" because she stoutly claims she was only "examining" the paper while wondering whether we should paint or re-paper some day, when an entire sheet shooshed off the wall, setting the tone for a long evening of spray bottles, scrapers and muttered curses.
So I was glad when the actual day rolled around, knowing, as I did, that we had plans that had nothing to do with steamy-hot water, tipsy ladders and tiny bits of still-sticky wallpaper drying on the floor. the ladder and the top of my head.
It was, of course, a road trip.
As regular readers of this column probably know, there's nothing I'd rather do than hop in a car and get it dusty via a long, slow, often-aimless backroads trek from here to somewhere else.
My spouse agrees, I think.
Or, at the very least, she has learned to be a good sport about the whole thing, thinking that it's good, clean fun and a harmless, economical way to keep me entertained and generally in line.  But unlike some of our forays, this one actually had a destination. In fact, it had two--the cemetery in Fort Madison, Iowa, where her parents and grandparents rest, and Mt. Pleasant, where I went to college and where we looked forward to dinner and a visit with some old friends.  But in the tradition of Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, and Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, the actual route we'd take was entirely up for grabs and open to interpretation.
"I'll drive, you navigate," she said, as we got in the car bright and early on Monday morning, which is her way of saying she's steeled herself for whatever misguided mishaps my misplaced sense of adventure and direction might land us in.
It was a beautiful morning. The long-overdue rains we had experienced the day before seemed to give the sky and landscape a newly optimistic look, as if to say things might finally be wetter and better. I first directed us to a favorite spot, the out-of-the-way deepwoods road between Oak Run and Galesburg where we, year after year, have the best luck harvesting bittersweet, the hard-to-find vine that is such a large part of our family's traditions and memories. Late August might seem early in the season for a plant most often associated with autumn, but we've discovered that once cut and left to briefly dry, the yellowish berries soon pop to reveal the darkish red-orange inner seed that gives the plant its distinctive appearance. I plunged through underbrush and climbed muddy banks, while clipping and gathering our finds and adroitly (I hope) avoiding the poison ivy that surrounded them in several places. It didn't take long to have more than enough, but we continued our slow, stop-and-start dirt-road pace, just enjoying the subtle changes that take place when days grow shorter and sunlight softens as summertime wanes.
In fact, our travel was so relaxed that even I, the ultimate meanderer, was finally compelled to say, "OK, pretty soon we're going to have to start driving like someone who's actually going somewhere."
Pretty heady stuff, I know, but we did finally pull onto our version of a super highway, a paved road with actual directional signs and a stripe down the middle.
Well, putt-putt actually, since our idea of highway driving often means cruising the nearest two-lane blacktop through the urban sprawl of burgs like Roseville, Raritan and Niota. It was in the latter that we, once again, plunged off the barely-beaten track onto some along-the-Mississippi River roads so narrow, steep and harrowing that even we kind of wondered if we'd come out alive.
Instead, we came out in Nauvoo, a last-minute sidetrip decision that put us so far off our already vague schedule that we were forced--after a brief look-around--to turn tail and drive the main road back to the crooked bridge that crosses the Big Muddy to Ford Madison, an historic river town featuring narrow cobbled streets, brick homes of virtually every size, shape and disposition, and the memory-soaked sight of the little bungalow where she spent summers with her grandmother.  It only took six hours to make that 90-mile trip, pretty good time for a pair of easily distracted wanderers like us. So, after our cemetery visit and a stop at the iconic Fort Diner, proud home of the massive one-pound Wallyburger (we passed) and a flattop grill that probably hasn't been really cleaned since the place opened in 1941, we felt we had enough time for a trip along one of our favorite routes, yet another winding blacktop that twists its way back and forth across the Des Moines River, a once-navigable waterway that borders a series of frozen-in-time villages that are now populated by an esoteric gathering of artisan entrepreneurs, small-plot farmers, aging hippies and a growing group of Amish settlers.
It's easy to go missing when you're lost in time, but duty called and we finally started heading towards our meeting with the friends who were probably wondering if we had decided to drive the hundred miles from Galva to Mt. Pleasant via Cleveland or Kansas City. And while distance, jobs, families and life in general have kept us from seeing those old friends often enough over the years, we quickly remembered that some friends stay that way because that’s the way it’s meant to be. We compared notes on the phenomenon of growing a little older, while enjoying how young we remain in our hearts and minds.  We talked about the wondrous experience of grandchildren, and we realized--as we always do--just how little the essential values and beliefs that made us friends in the first place have changed over the years.
We drove home in the dark.
As we did, I thought about how our willingness to do and see and share the little things we enjoy has been a constant in our lives. And as I did, I realized that, probably, that's what she's seen in me all these years. It's what I see in her, too.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Welcome to Skunkville U.S.A.

I always look forward to finding out what's been going on in my midwestern hometown whenever we return from our extended stays in the Eastern North Carolina beach community known as GrandmaLand, and other points east, north and south. Usually, it's not much, which is generally what I like about the place. But more recently, a number of newsworthy changes have cropped up, mostly in the form of the giant wind turbines that now cover the countryside on the westward side of town, and the devastating drought that continues to challenge our farmer friends.  So that's pretty much what I expected to hear about when we hit town a few days ago after several weeks away.
But instead, the buzz around town was wilder than ever. And smelly, too.
Galva has, I've learned, apparently been invaded by an ever-growing gaggle of the stripy little stinkers.
I've heard about it in the library, the grocery store, the post office and in the café where I eat lunch every week with a trio of fellow grandpas and wildlife fanciers.
Heck, I even read about it on the World Wide Web.
Skunks. Lots of them. In Galva.
Until I started my internet search, I hadn't been aware that it's part of a statewide trend that has seen the Illinois skunk population grow steadily over the past decade.  If I had been paying better attention, I would have noticed headlines and news stories cropping up over the past year or two.
"Chicago-Area Skunk Population Raises A Stink," noted National Public Radio awhile back, while the Chicago Sun-Times chimed in with a story that started,  "Raising a stink: Skunk population jumps in Illinois." Even the lofty Wall Street Journal commented on the odiferous increase, proclaiming that "Illinois Holds Its Nose as Skunks Flourish."
Our town fathers have reacted well to the crisis, with this bit of helpful information posted on the official City of Galva website: "The City employs a licensed trapper that will assist property owners that have been invaded by skunks, raccoons and other nuisances."
My first thought was that we, the citizens of Galva, should take advantage of this new claim to fame. After all, Olney has its white squirrels, Kewanee is the Hog Capital, Austin, Texas has bats, and everybody waits for the swallows to return to San Juan Capistrano. And while the name "Galva" has rich, Scandinavian roots, if skunks now, as it is feared, outnumber Swedes in our little town, why not go with the flow? Imagine the yearly Skunk Festival in the newly named city of "Skunkville." Think of the free-spending tourists who would flock to town, anxiously awaiting the crowning of the Skunk Queen and the kickoff of the annual Polecat Parade.  Even the local high school could get into the act, ending the controversy over "Wildcats" versus "Cougars" with the adoption of a new team nickname everybody could get behind (pun intended.)
The Skunkville Skunks.
Well, maybe not, but it's got kind of a nice ring to it, I think.
We, too, have noticed a certain musky tang in the air from time to time when we've been home this summer, but nothing so extreme as the malodorous scent-cloud that came wafting through our bedroom window one morning earlier this week.
"Whew," she exclaimed. "What's that smell?"
I thought quickly, counting the days since I had last changed my socks.
"It's not me," I mumbled. "Maybe it's Max."
And that's been a concern, because that semi-wild cat of ours truly does enjoy spending his nighttime hours communing with the great outdoors and its habitués. He's an ardent, mostly inept hunter of the birds, rabbits and squirrels that populate our neighborhood, but seems to play well with the other, larger members of the backyard jungle. So, I've had to ban him from the cat door I once foolishly installed in a basement window due to his tendency to invite pals in for a visit. Over the years, I've been buzzed by startled starlings that he's caught outdoors and released in the living room, greeted by neighborhood cats who stopped by for an early morning bite of breakfast, and alarmed by relentless raccoons peeking through the kitchen screen door at the cat food buffet that awaits within. And while the magnetized plastic flap that was his entryway has been securely blocked by a pair of heavy landscape pavers, he still manages somehow to occasionally unbar the gates and work his way back in via the now-forbidden passage.
So, what if he's making new friends?
Stripy ones.
Smelly ones.
What if he's thinking about bringing them home?
So, I'll do my best and renew my attempts to cat-and-skunk-proof the basement, the back door and my garden shed. We'll even try and encourage Max to curtail his nocturnal activities for awhile, though that generally means sharing a bed with a foot-biting, fish-breathed little beast who wants what he wants when he wants it, especially when he wants out.
But if all my efforts fail, you can count on me to be the first to sound the cheer our newly named sports teams might just hear next season.
Go Skunks, go!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Let there be music...eventually

"What do you want for Fathers' Day?"
She, in cahoots with my two sons, posed this question over fourteen months ago as FD 2011 approached.
I truly am the man who has everything, so my usual reply to such questions is something like "world peace" or "a gallon of milk, because I think we're almost out." But last year I really did have something in mind. And while I knew it was something I'd probably end up choosing and purchasing myself, It was fun letting them think they were finally getting the old man something he wanted.
A mandolin.
For both the uniformed and disinterested, a mandolin is a small, eight-stringed member of the lute family, most often heard in traditional folk, bluegrass and country music. I was interested in owning one because I like the way it sounds, and because hauling one on our crowed-car travels seemed a lot easier than packing and protecting a full-sized guitar, which is often like inviting another person along for the ride in terms of the space it takes.
It's been nearly 50 years since my first encounter with a stringed musical instrument. It was a Sears Silvertone nylon-stringed classical guitar that my brother was about to receive for his birthday. While in college, both he and my sister had become avid folk music fans. Jim eventually became quite adept at finger-picking the five-string banjo, while my sister's instrument of choice was a mellow-sounding baritone ukulele, aptly called a "buke." The candles were lit and the unwrapped guitar about to be presented, when my dad thrust it into my hands.
"Here," he said. "Play 'Happy Birthday.'"
Now, I was not, in any way, shape or form, a prodigy. But for some reason, I intuitively knew how to pluck that simple melody on the bottom string of the guitar, so I did.
Big deal.
Well, actually it kind of was, for me, at least. Because, from that moment on, I was hooked.
Soon enough, I had a guitar of my own, and pestered my older siblings into sharing the chords and lyrics for every folk song they knew. When the Beatles and the rest of the British musical invasion struck our shores, I quickly got an electric guitar, and spent the next few decades playing both rock and roll and rhythm and blues before settling back into the mellower, acoustic-guitar groove I'm in now. The mandolin, I thought, would be a nice addition to the collection of instruments I've gathered over the years, which includes a couple of vintage guitars and an ancient banjo that I kind of learned to pick years ago.
But first, I had to find one.
There just aren't quite as many music stores around as there used to be, and those that are, like the great little shop that recently opened in Galva, don't necessarily feature a full line of mandolins to pick and choose from. I found plenty of them for sale on the internet, but I have been unable to convince myself to purchase any kind of musical instrument online, feeling sincerely that you've gotta touch, feel, play and listen to it before you can possibly make the decision to buy it.
So it took awhile. Like fourteen months.
It was while on a visit to New Bern, birthplace of Pepsi Cola and home of Nicholas Sparks, that I discovered a place that billed itself as the oldest music store in North Carolina.
"They've gotta have a boatload of mandolins here," I said.
Well, they didn't.
But they had one. And it was just what I was looking for.
Moderately priced, reasonably well-made and with a good-enough feel and tone, it seemed like the perfect jumping-off point for my new musical experience.
But first, I've got to learn to play the darn thing.
As an experienced guitar player, I was, over the years, able to pick up and play other instruments, like the banjo, bass and ukulele fairly easily, because their tunings are similar.  But the mandolin is tuned in fifths, like a violin, which means there is a five-note interval between strings, instead of the 3-note standard (and its variations) that I'm accustomed to on guitar and banjo. This may not seem like a big deal, but to my habituated head and fingers, it feels like trying to learn a new language using an entirely new alphabet. In other words, it's pretty darn трудный.  Moreover, the tiny neck, narrow frets and eight string setup makes even my fairly-nimble fingers feel more than kinda-clunky when I try to move beyond strictly beginner level playing.
But I'm sticking with it. And while I know I'll never be another Dash Crofts, Levon Helm or David Grisman, that's OK. After all, I was never another Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton or Jerry Garcia on guitar, but I've always had a pretty darn good time.
Who know, maybe I'll really make some music.
But in the meantime, happy Fathers' Day to me.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A watched turtle never comes

It's turtle time on Topsail Island.
It's been a couple of months now since the giant loggerheads began making their way through the nighttime surf to deposit their eggs in deep-dug holes along the sand dune that borders the beach. This year, there have been upwards of 70 nests on our 26-mile island so far, with over 20 of them on the northern stretch where we live when we're here. It's a busy time for the members of the Topsail Island Turtle Patrol, with volunteers walking the beach every morning in search of new nests, and others anxiously awaiting the first wave of newly hatched babies.
Topsail Island is also home to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, one of only two in the U.S. The all-volunteer Center cares for and rehabilitates injured loggerhead and other species of turtles, and releases them back into the sea or finds other homes for those unable to survive in the wild.
While our "here today, gone tomorrow" schedule hasn't allowed my spouse to accept a full-time route along the beach, she has been an enthusiastic substitute beachwalker and volunteer who, last season, discovered the first nest on the island.  So you can imagine her excitement when she got off the phone after a longish conversation with the charming volunteer turtle honcho who manages our portion of the shore.
"Good news," she said. "We're going to be sitting a nest!"
Now, before you fall prey to the indelible image of the missus and me donning zippered feathered suits so as to better resemble giant-sized broody hens, let me explain that the term refers to the practice of keeping an eye on turtle nests that are due to hatch in order to, in some small measure, protect the hatchlings from predators and well-meaning tourists, plus attempt to steer them right if they are attracted by artificial lighting instead of the moon-lit sea that is their natural destination.  Even with those efforts, I have heard it estimated that only one in a thousand will survive to adulthood and return--in the case of the females--to the same stretch of beach to lay eggs of their own some 30 to 35 years later when they reach full maturity, due to both natural predators and man-made hazards. We were both pretty thrilled about the opportunity to be on the scene when over a hundred infant turtles took their first steps out of the nest and towards the ocean. It was a sight she witnessed last year, an opportunity I skipped because my night vision was all but nonexistent before the cornea transplant I received in the fall.
Because that's the thing.
They only hatch at night.
It is, apparently, part of the evolutionary development of the tiny guys that they instinctively know it's much safer to exit the nest when seagulls and other opportunistic predators are off duty.  Moreover, it's thought that bright light is damaging to the new hatchlings' eyes, so nest-sitters are limited to the use of dim red lights while observing the nest and the streams of young reptiles that "boil" from them at hatching time.
The nest we were assigned to was just down the beach from our own beach access, so getting there was quick and easy. A good thing, too, because we spent seven long nights sitting in near and total darkness, waiting for something to happen. An experienced turtle tender named Jane was in charge of the nest, and assured both me and the steady stream of onlookers who stopped by to see what we were doing that things were normal, in that every nest is unique in the way it matures and hatches. But after nearly a week had passed after what should have been the end of the normal gestation period, even she started wondering if the nest had somehow hatched undetected after we had left it for the evening, with the tell-tale turtle tracks concealed by late-night rain and offshore winds.
We stayed later, just in case.
Still nothing.
And later.
Our grandsons and I traced giant sea turtles in the wet sand near the water in an effort to create some good karma, but high tides washed away our artwork without any result.
By this time, I think we were all getting a little worried.
Then nature took over.
Megan walked down one morning to see if anything had happened in the wee hours of the night before, only to discover that the heroic hatchlings had made their break for freedom in a rare daytime race to the water just 45 minutes earlier. The miraculous minutes were witnessed by a fisherman and a tourist named Jim from Ohio, who had faithfully visited the nest each night and had, apparently, arrived for an early morning look-see at just the right time.
"He was one happy camper," said a turtle patrol member who arrived on the scene soon after.
I bet.
And though we were kind of disappointed we didn't get to see the little guys off, we were glad that it had finally happened and that 110 baby turtles had made their way to the ocean that will be their home for the rest of their lives.
A few nights later, we attended a "nest analysis," where the hatched nest is dug up, and egg shells, unhatched eggs and other evidence is examined. And while the experts among us exclaimed at the extreme rarity and high risks of a daytime departure from the nest, I couldn't help but imagine a happy hoard of sunglass-wearing loggerhead babies skipping into the warm surf, thumbing their tiny noses at sunshine, seagulls and turtle mavens alike.
You know, scientists estimate that sea turtles have been around for at least 200 million years.
After all that time, chances are, they know what they're doing.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Heading west from the Cumberland Gap

The recent Illinois-to-North Carolina trip we made to return our youngest grandsons to their mom and dad would not have been complete without some sort of rudderless jaunt through uncharted territory. It is, after all, what I do, just as some men are compelled to murder fish or hit small white balls into deep underbrush with the aid of overpriced sticks.  I can sense my spouse's trepidation when she watches me gleefully pouring over my tattered set of gazetteers and other highway maps as a journey approaches.
"How were you planning on getting there?"
She has learned to ask this question both casually and carefully, hoping, I think, to detect and defuse the worst of my misguided dreams before I plan something both stupid and dangerous. Actually, I think she's come to like some of my scenic detours nearly as much as I do. Or at least, she's gotten better at hiding her real feelings about the fact that I'd rather drive aimlessly down a dusty path towards parts unknown than almost anything else in the world. But, we've made the Illinois-Carolina trip so many times that it's a bit of a challenge to find a new, interesting route without going even further out of the way than even I am willing to go.
I usually find my information and inspiration about the places I want to see and the roads I want to take from fellow travelers, either in person or in the books and articles I read. But this time was different. This time it was a song that provided the idea for the most interesting part of our cross-country route.
The tune is called "Wagon Wheel," a popular folk song that I've been playing for a few years now, and have always liked, due mostly, I think, to its references to places where I've enjoyed spending time.  The song has an interesting backstory, in that the chorus was written by Bob Dylan back in 1973 when he was recording the soundtrack album for the movie "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid." The verses were penned in 1995 by folk-rocker Ketch Secor, of the group Old Crow Medicine Show, who heard the unofficially released Dylan material on a bootleg album when he was just 18. Dylan's unfinished song is generally called "Rock Me, Mama," based on a chorus that goes like this:

Rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama anyway you feel
Hey mama rock me
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey mama rock me

Secor expanded it to tell the story of a hitchhiking trip south along the east coast from New England, through Philadelphia, and on to Raleigh, North Carolina, where the singer hopes to "see my baby tonight."  But it's the next-to-last verse of his version that really influenced me to choose the route we took last week.

Walkin' to the south out of Roanoke
I caught a trucker out of Philly
Had a nice long toke
But he's a headed west from the Cumberland Gap
To Johnson City, Tennessee

Now, you might think a straight-laced family man like me could be a bit put off by the reference to smoking marijuana in that stanza. But I strummed and sang my way through a period of time known as the sixties, when it seemed like every other song title and/or band name contained some reference to an illicit substance or its effects. So the idea of a few tokes didn't scare me off, though the thought of a stoned trucker on a winding mountain road continues to be a little alarming.
The big deal for me was the idea of crossing via the Cumberland Gap, a pass through the Cumberland Mountains region of the Appalachian Mountains at the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. It's famous in American history for its role as a vital passageway through the mountain range that divides much of the eastern United States from the rest of the country.  It was long used by Native Americans of the region, then identified in 1750 by Dr. Thomas Walker, a Virginia physician and explorer. The path was widened by a team of loggers led by Daniel Boone, making it accessible to pioneers who used it to journey into the western frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee. It was an important part of the Wilderness Road that was the principal route used by settlers for more than fifty years to reach the West from the East, and is now part of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
In other words, it's my kind of place.
The park includes an informative visitors' center, an historic, well-preserved Kentucky mountain settlement, cave tours, hiking, camping and a winding drive to a majestic mountain overlook called the Pinnacle that had my co-pilot fervently hoping no one was toking or otherwise impaired while making the often harrowing car trek at the same time as us.
It was, I thought, kind of like Great Smoky Mountains National Park without the people, as the magnificent place was nearly deserted on the warm, sunny July day we discovered it.  Getting there was easy, too, as U.S. Route 25E is now a mostly four-lane highway through the foothills and mountains. A portion of the route has even been restored to an early 19th century wagon path since the 1996 completion of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, which replaced a 2.3-mile stretch of U.S. 25E between Middlesboro, Kentucky and Cumberland Gap, Tennessee that was once  known as "Massacre Mountain" due to the large number of travelers killed on the twisting mountain road--a fact I wisely kept from my traveling companion until we were safely on the straight and level.
After leaving the park, we headed for Johnson City, just like the song says. And it was then I realized something was a trifle amiss.
"Hey," I said. "According to the song, we're supposed to be heading west."
But we weren't. We were, in fact, going almost directly east, with a little southeastern portion right at the end that rolled us into Johnson City. This didn't really trouble me much. But I did have to convince my adult passenger that the song was wrong and we were, indeed, headed in the right direction. Later on, I read an article that discussed the song and addressed the whole east/west mixup.
“I got some geography wrong, but I still sing it that way,” Secor said. “I just wanted the word ‘west’ in there. ‘West’ has got more power than ‘east.’ ”
I guess I never considered the relative power of those two words. But right or wrong, it's a nifty little song, all the same. A great little drive, too.
And anyway, we got where we were going. And I'm pretty sure that's all that counts.