Sunday, January 27, 2013

Speak softly, big stick optional

Teddy Roosevelt, from a 1904 editorial cartoon

The resemblance between the 1969 doodle I presented in my previous post with this 1904 cartoon by William Allen Rogers is not pure happenstance.  My 'Ice King' novel's hero ought to live by my own personal rules of morality.  Now ...  I don't do this often -- I totally despise politics and all its manifestations.  But I've been bombarded by this so often recently that it's developed into a 'burr in my saddle':

The Second Amendment debate - my personal stance:

I believe that those who live by the sword are more likely to die by the sword.  Yet people who use the sword in defense of their version of ‘peace’ seem to prevail these days (Consider the fate of Hitler and Bin Laden as examples).  It seems the prudent thing to do is to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ (Theodore Roosevelt).

Roosevelt’s policy has proven successful at the international and ‘Well Regulated Militia’ levels.  On an individual level, however, most of us prefer a more ‘Civilized’ environment than the ‘wild west’ scenario where everybody is walking around literally carrying their ‘big sticks,’ ready to enforce their own personal version of ‘peace’.  Most people keep their big sticks at home when they go out, trusting to the ‘Militia’ to enforce the public law.

At home the big stick stands at the ready to defend against any immediate threat that might arise in that gap of time before the Militia can respond (or in case the established Militia fails to respond).  Maybe ‘speak softly and keep a big stick in reserve’ might be a better characterization of today’s practical situation.  If you need that crutch, I’m not interested in taking it away from you.

But I personally believe that if you need that crutch you are judging your neighbor badly, and your choice may become self fulfilling.

To return to the opening sentence, my personal position (which I don’t seek to impose on anyone else) is this:  Because I believe those who keep big sticks in the house are not just physically, but also psychologically more susceptible to violence, both as victims and as perpetrators, I prefer a lifestyle free of such a threat; and I choose to associate with peaceful folk who are free of the ‘big stick’ mentality.  That’s not to say that I won’t arm myself and use unyielding force if the situation calls for it – just try me (Matthew 26: 52-53).

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Eden's Womb: The formative years

The Seventh Shepherd: A doodle from 1969

'Eden's Womb' is my ‘pet novel’ – more than just a work of fiction, it’s been my companion for close to fifty years now—my life work, my ‘magnum opus.’

Early versions of Eden's Womb served as the venue where I learned how to write fiction—found my ‘voice,’ as they say.  Through uncountable rewrites I served a long apprenticeship, taught and inspired by a sequence of literary coaches, professional editors, and peer reviewers.

My early coaches were my teachers—from my first grade schoolmarm Mrs. Anderson who let me read to her from the adult books on her desk, through my 5th Grade Elementary school teacher, Mrs McMillan, who encouraged me to submit a short story to the school's creative writing contest--which I won--to college English and philosophy professors.  The most notable among these was Prof. Joseph L. Grucci (6/23/1911 – 10/30/1982).  Professor Grucci taught an undergraduate poetry writing course at Penn State.  I eagerly signed up for it as a college Junior in the spring of 1969.

The late ‘60’s was a time of polarization, cynicism, and a palpable appetite for rebellion.  I was no activist, but I was exquisitely tuned-in to the awakening ‘vibes.’  Like so many in my generation, I ached for a kind of change that would make these times meaningful.

But prose was not my primary interest.  I had written many short stories as a kid, but had turned to poetry by the time I was in High School.  So in 1969 I wanted to use poetry to distill the meaning of these turbulent times.

In the midst of Viet-Nam and Woodstock, of cold war and moon shots, of Charles Manson and Martin Luther King, I studied Dr. Grucci’s examples, tried to tailor his lessons to my style, and began work on ‘Becoming,’ where all my deepest sentiments could meld into an emotive symphony: no plot or character development necessary, no political commentary, just the kernel of my deepest reactions to the world—and how I hoped the story would end.

I wrote “It’s come: a dim awareness—churned and overwhelmed—rises, swelling with the ancient nimble ballet, when the wind-organ’s trembling pipes in thunderous discord fuses rocks and mind and water …

On March 6, 1969 I read the poem in class.  By Prof. Grucci’s rules I was not allowed to explain or expound on its meaning.  Yet the class reacted as if struck by a bludgeon – a response that was worlds beyond what I had expected. And in the end, Professor Grucci confirmed the sentiment.

Becoming’ won the A.J. Grucci Memorial Award.  I got a nice check, handed to me at a dinner at his home, and saw the poem published in Pivot, 1969: V.5 No. 20, p. 93; The Pennsylvania State University.

This poetry workshop taught me some critical writing skills, especially how to phrase a powerful image, and confirmed that I had learned the lessons well.  Maybe, just maybe, I could translate these lessons into prose—take this one-page poem and weave the overlying tale into its richly colored fabric – the tale of the young man who would become the leader I doodled on a piece of cardboard one evening that spring: a humble kid finding himself and his unexpected place within a hostile, indifferent world of tumult and change.

Portrait of the artist as a young man.  Me in 1969, at the time I won the award for the poem 'Becoming'.

For those interested, here’s the full text:


soon the twilight’s ashes
will filter from the audience of
dungeon mountains with the drone
of northern wind and settle here
where boulders churn the sea

their murmurs fade, the fugue of darkness swells
a somber one has left our balcony
oh, a more vacant universe for those behind
but ho!  The mind-hearse rumbles on
colossal glacier grinding forward
past the tiny witness —
and yet a timid sun ponders far
beyond the mist-veiled patrol of wooded islands
there a warmth, a thaw and trickle,
melt and flow

the soft cool shuffle through the leafy canopy
the rhythmic clamor, vacillating boughs
the flutter of butterflies of light . . .

the piercing mist annihilates
the time has come, the turbulence
of sweeping clouds, an endless drove
of torpid dirge-swept ghosts looms past
this barren face intensely southward

south the flop joints roar
and pungence oozes to the whizzing neon streets

it’s come, a soft awareness
churned and overwhelmed
dissolves, engulfed.
and rises, swelling with the ancient nimble ballet
when the wind organ’s trembling pipes
in thunderous discord fuses rocks and mind
and water, writhing through the stunning gloom
resounding from the cathedral mountain choir
the raging litany
the surging chant of conquest
the final chord, a quiet plunge, a drone …


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hiking the Holly Shelter Game Land - MST days 3-5

This is a summary of three wonderful days of hiking through the 75,120 acre Holly Shelter Game Land.

Yes, it took me three days to hike my proposed route through this unusual wild country.  A lot of what I passed through reminded me of savanna ecosystems, but in fact it's what's called the "Carolina Bay and Pocosin swamp habitat" and it's obviously much wetter than a real savanna.  It's home to some exotic plants such as the venus fly-trap.  The wettest parts are cypress swamp complete with their unique 'knees' protruding up out of the water.  And the dry parts are highly fire-prone even though the water table is just a few feet down.  In fact this entire ecosystem is highly fire dependent.  And that's a good thing, because Holly Shelter had a major fire that devastated 49 square miles of it in the summer of 2011.

I remember that fire well.  For weeks those of us who live nearby had to deal with the smell of smoke - a thick pall of it, visible from space, which turned the sky a reddish brown.  Sometimes it felt hard to breathe.  Sometimes it was so bad (both fumes and visibility) that they closed the adjacent highways.  At my condo on the beach I had relief from it on many afternoons when the sea breeze kicked in.

The fire started with a lightning stroke on June 19th, and quickly spread through the tinder dry forest.  It got down into the layers of peat beneath the surface and there it smoldered.  There was nothing that anybody could do to put it out at that point.  So it just burned and burned until finally the heavy rains from Hurricane Irene put it out in late August.

But back to my hikes.  All three of them were on very lightly traveled gravel roads that are open to traffic only during the winter months.  During summer the gates are closed.

On Wednesday I hiked outside the fire zone, hiking some really pretty open pine woods.  I'm showing a typical  view here at right.  There are two species of fire resistant pine that dominate the landscape here:

The first is the peculiar Longleaf Pine that starts out life looking like a clump of grass.  Then after five or so years, in a sudden burst of growth, it vaults up through the high-risk fire zone full of dry grasses and resiny shrubs and establishes a thick bark 'hide' very quickly.  This species has needles that are often more than a foot long, thus its name.  Nearly all the trees in the photo at right are Longleafs.

Second is the Pond Pine, a close cousin of the more common Loblolly Pine.  It is not so fire resistant, but like the Lodgepole Pine of the Rocky Mountains, its cones open and release seed primarily in response to fire.  At left is a good example of a mature Pond Pine.  It has a considerably denser crown than the Longleaf, shorter needles, and a much smaller cone.  The Longleaf cone is huge.  The only larger cones I've seen anywhere are on the majestic Sugar Pine, companion to the Giant Sequoias out west.

This was a pleasant peaceful hike (I only met three vehicles on the road all day) with mild weather and the forest birds for companions.

Thursday started out foggy, and sunrise through the woodland was magical.

My faithful hiking companion
Then as the fog dissipated under the morning sun I crossed into the fire zone.  In the heart of it there is not a tree left alive as far as the eye can see,  horizon to horizon.  Even the fire resistant Longleaf Pines died because the fire got down into the peat and killed their roots.  Yet two years later there are plenty of young seedlings springing up, and plenty of wildlife.  For what seemed like half the day I was chasing a great blue heron, who seemed to want to hunt the wetland channel beside the road, deepened when the road was built.  Whenever I got close to him, he launched and flew ahead a few hundred yards then dropped down into the water beside the road until I got close again.  This repeated at least a dozen times before he wised up and finally veered off to land behind me.  And then on my way back ... there he was ... and we played the same game all over again.  It was another fine weather day and I met just four vehicles as I hiked.
The fire zone

On Friday I finally emerged from the north end of the fire zone and into the only part of the game land where the land wasn't perfectly level.  There were some sand hills here, and in between them the road I walked was more like a lake in places.  There were more than a dozen of these road-wide 'car washes', and I don't think they ever completely dry up - at least not during the winter.  Because of the quality of these roads, only one vehicle passed me all day - an elderly man in a jeep with his dog.  I saw a flock of wild turkeys, too.  But they spooked and flew off before I was close enough to get a photo.

I actually have a few more miles of hiking to do within Holly Shelter before I'm out the northwest side of it.  But I've put in my quota of 100 miles for this month, so now it's time to get back to some writing.

Below are maps of the three daily tracks taken by my GPS, and each has a link to more photos:
MST Day 3 - Holly Shelter south at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina
MST Day 4 - Holly Shelter central at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Wilmington, North Carolina
MST Day 5 - Holly Shelter north at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Sunday, January 20, 2013

MST Day 2 - Surf City to Holly Shelter

Entrance to the 77,120 acre Holly Shelter Game Land at US 17
In my first hike report for North Carolina's Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), I started at the Pender/Onslow county line and began heading 'trail-west' (i.e. toward the Mountains).  That hike started on the beach and covered part of the proposed beach walk along Topsail Island and a bit of walking through mainland Surf City neighborhoods.  Today's reported hike continues trail-west on a road-walk link that brings the hiker to the threshold of the vast, wild Holly Shelter Game Land.

Fire tower beside US 17, no public access
It was all road-walking today - a necessary link, such as even the Appalachian Trail must do to make connections between the best of the scenic areas.   And about 4.5 miles of that road walking was along US 17, a busy four lane divided highway that is the major coastal artery through North Carolina.  There's no denying that this section of the hike is not particularly pleasing to the nature enthusiast, as the traffic noise and fumes are constant.  But the shoulders are exceptionally wide and there are some interesting landmarks, such as the old fire tower that, in bygone days, kept vigil over the adjacent fire-prone Holly Shelter area.   And there's promise that the US 17 road walk here can be entirely eliminated with the construction of some three miles of trail through a publicly owned arm of those Game Lands that comes out on US 17 right where it intersects with NC 210, the road to Surf City and the beaches of Topsail Island.  At this intersection the eastbound hiker will find the first welcome services and resupply after a long trek through the wild public lands (see upcoming reports).  Here there is a large Harris Teeter grocery store that is open 24 hours, and for a cold drink there's also a convenience store at an Exxon Gas station.

Foggy scene along NC 210 at Surf City city limit.
The walk along NC 210, about 2.5 miles, is a little more serene, though this is still a relatively busy thoroughfare.  All the road walking today was actually well off the pavement on wide grassy shoulders.  In fact, the west/north shoulder of US 17 is unusually wide because it incorporates an old abandoned railroad line and an existing fiber optic cable right of way.

The pay-off for this seven mile road walk comes with the next section, because today's walk ended at the entrance to the Holly Shelter Game Lands (sign shown in the headline photo up top).

My hike took place in variable and changeable weather.  It was very foggy early in the morning, then mild to warm, almost summer-like, before a wind shift brought cooler air down from the north.  But cool is a relative term in this case.  At no time did the temperature get below the upper 50's F and during the late morning I was uncomfortably warm with the sun shining, temperatures in the upper 60s, and noticeable humidity -- all in all not bad for a January hike in coastal North Carolina.


Below is a map showing the route of today's hike.  And there's a slide show with more photos included.  Just click the map title:

MST Day 2 - Surf City to Holly Shelter at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Wilmington, North Carolina

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the first hike

Surf City Pier viewed from the Kinston Ave public access, Topsail Island, NC

The 'trail' I hiked today is not the current 'official' approved route for the MST (Mountains-to-Sea Trail).  But the powers-that-be are considering these changes.  I'm scouting this route in hopes that it will become the chosen one.  It's a delightful choice.  Pictured above is the point where the east-bound MST thru-hiker would first encounter the 'S' in 'MST' - the Sea!  Pretty spot, eh?

My proposed route gives the hiker nine miles of beach walking before they plunge back inland for more wild walking through wooded wetland and pocosin (shrub bogs).  There's plenty more beach to come for the MST hiker - walking all of Okracoke Island and then a long stretch of the Outer Banks from south of Cape Hatteras up to Kitty Hawk.

Today I hiked a section inland from here and a section along the beach as well.  The weather was beyond glorious.  It was summer-like, with temperatures in the 70's, not a breath of wind during the morning, and, as you can see, wall-to-wall sunshine.

Little Kinston Road where it becomes Spot Lane
Following from west to east, my proposed routing for the trail takes it through the wild and woolly Holly Shelter Game Lands (watch for future posts, because this is where I'm headed in coming days), then takes up a peaceful rural road walk through a quiet sound-side neighborhood, shown at right:

Then it crosses the Intracoastal Waterway on the historic Surf City Swing Bridge and crosses over a quarter mile of wetlands on a boardwalk in the city's Soundside Park before reaching the beach.  Below is a view of the boardwalk in the morning mist:
Soundside Park, Surf City, NC - a quarter mile boardwalk
Pender-Onslow Co park as seen from dune crossing
The beach walk features several potential 'pit stops' with flush-toilet pavilions in public oceanfront parks.  I ended my hike today at one such park at the Pender-Onslow county line.  The flush-toilet rest rooms are in the building at left, and if you're in need of some refreshment at this point (just 2 miles up the beach from the fishing pier), there's a 24/7 Friendly Mart convenience store hidden behind the yellow condos at right.

As I did when I hiked the Appalachian Trail last year, I hiked every inch of today's route in both directions, chalking up just over ten miles of walking, so five miles of proposed trail.  And as I did every day of my AT hike, I'm planning to post the GPS track of the route.

I'm not going to 'thru-hike' the MST as I did the AT last year.  I'm going to do perhaps 50 miles of trail (100 miles of hiking) per month, and devote the remaining weeks of each month to writing - the AT memoir and my novel.  This, at least, is my plan - an attempt at building some 'balance' into my schedule.  We'll see ...


There are a total of fifteen beautiful photos that I've selected to present in the slide show that is linked below.  You can look at each photo individually as well, and the map gives you the perspective of where each photo was taken.  Enjoy.

MST Day 1 - Surf City, NC at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Wilmington, North Carolina

Friday, January 11, 2013

North Carolina's Mountains-to-Sea Trail

Pilot Knob, NC, taken 1-29-12 as I was returning to the AT after a 3-day 'business' break
North Carolina's Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) is a big deal - destined to become one of the great long-distance trails in the eastern US.

More than 1000 miles long, it stretches from Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the Tennessee border to Jockeys Ridge State Park on the Atlantic Ocean at Kitty Hawk, NC.  In between, it meanders along trails that roughly parallel the Blue Ridge Parkway, climbs Mt. Mitchell, highest mountain in the eastern US.  Leaving the Parkway vicinity near the VA border it heads east passing notable landmarks including the unique butte called Pilot Mountain (shown above, on a section of the MST that was just opened).  There is some country road walking before the trail begins to skirt the vibrant metropolitan centers of Greensboro and Raleigh, often following off-road trails beside reservoirs.

New planned MST hiking route (green dashed line)
And here is the big news that has me really excited:  There's a newly approved hiking route for the trail that takes it within a day's walk of my beach-front condo at North Topsail Beach (see map at right).  Turn-by-turn directions for this route were just finalized in December 2012 (by a GIS student working at a desk - nobody's actually hiked it all yet, so I may be the first).

In fact, there's a chance that the trail could even include Topsail Island itself.  I've just joined the Friends of the MST and spoken with their hard-working and dynamic Executive Director, Kate Dixon.  I'm volunteering my services as a scout and trail blazer for this new section.  I've already been out doing some scouting and have started walking what I hope will eventually be the final choice for a trail route, which would take the hiker through Surf City, NC's Soundside Park then walk the beach for nine blissful miles (including public rest rooms with flush toilets every few miles).
Part of the Soundside Park boardwalk, Surf City, NC

There's even a new book about the MST (in press) by Danny Bernstein, who thru-hiked the MST in 2011.  Look for its release in the next few weeks.  I've mentioned Danny before - she's the wife of Appalachian Trail Board Member and IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) contributor Lenny Bernstein, who I met on the AT during my 2012 double thru-hike.  Danny's an avid hiker and author, and her "This Hiking Life" blog is one of my favorites.

Plans for me are to start hiking west on the MST from my beach home, eventually connecting with the nearly four-mile piece of the MST that follows the AT from Clingman's Dome to the Fork Ridge Trail.  This connection is part of my 'Personal Continuous Footpath' project to link, via my own personal footprints, every place that I've ever lived.  And when I'm around home, I'll be scouting, and eventually, I hope, doing some trail building in places like the Holly Shelter and Stones Creek Game Lands.

It feels great to be back out on the trail with a clear 'destination' in mind again.  And the January weather here in coastal NC has been co-operating - some days lately, it's been in the 70's.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Eden's Womb: How it all began

When I was a first-term freshman at Penn State in 1966, away from home for the first time in my life, I used to spend way too much time sitting and writing in the downstairs common area of the “FUB” – the old Findlay Union Building at the center of the East Halls freshman dormitory complex. 

This was a cold, Spartan place as I recall it – colorless and rather dimly lit, faux marble floors of speckled black, gray, and white with narrow aluminum spacers separating the big square slabs.  In the middle of the space, splitting it lengthwise, was a ten-foot-high black divider protecting a row of vending machines: offering cigarettes and Coke and candy bars.  The cigarette machine presented three choices of unfiltered cigs--the only kind I smoked:  Camels, Lucky Strike, and my hands-down personal favorite:  Chesterfield Kings.

And there was a jukebox, too, set along the row with the vending machines and wired into the speaker system.

On the back side of the black divider, hidden from all those mid-twentieth-century mechanical temptations, and set against the high, aluminum-framed wall of windows that faced out over the grassy courtyard between Stuart and Brumbaugh Halls, was a row of small, lonely, white Formica tables, each with two black plastic form-fitting chairs on chrome-steel frames.

I would sit there by the windows writing for hours, with no-one else in sight, gazing out to the dreary late-autumn clouds that loomed over a world that was totally beyond my reach: the wistful hills and farms of Happy Valley.

The FUB was a place that few people visited during the middle of the day back in 1966.  East Halls had been just recently built and was set far out in a field nearly a mile from most of the classrooms, actually closer to Beaver Stadium than to any other campus building.  So it was a great retreat for a writer.

Though I rarely saw another person in there, I know somebody else liked the solitude too, and was often there when I was—somebody who kept feeding the jukebox with nickels, kept playing ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ by the Spencer Davis Group over and over and over.  I never met that silent benefactor.  But even today that famous song gives me goose bumps, evoking fond memories of my quiet mid-morning reveries, sitting, poring over my poetry, and formulating an outline for my first novel.

The story was going to be about me in the near future – a kid just out of college, embarking on a cross-country tour with my fast high-school friends Rog and Wilson, and getting stranded when a major socio-economic collapse destabilized the world.  It was a more-or-less typical apocalyptic theme at the time, and something I was truly hoping would actually happen.  I don’t even remember the resolution of the plot – don’t think I actually ever worked it through to a conclusion – because my interest was not in the resolution, but in the journey—the dynamic experience.  I’m still that way.

What I do know is that the book centered around a grueling quest to make it back home (or to a safe, Hanalei-like communal retreat away from the strife and complications of the wider world).  And to get there I would have to run the gauntlet of the madness, coping with change while at the same time embracing its cleansing effect on an ugly, polluting, uncaring industrial establishment.

Yes, this was so typical of the 60’s.  Rebellion and social revolution were brewing everywhere among my generation, bubbling just beneath a thin, decaying veneer of the old order. And like so many of my friends I could feel it coming, deep in my soul.  And I would participate -- I would make it happen.

Now, with the benefit of 45+ years of hindsight, I have to say that it turned out to be a fantastic journey, and, to quote Steve Winwood from the lyrics of the song: "I'm so glad we made it."

That first cut of the novel that was to become ‘Eden's Womb’ set the tone for the final product—it would be about a long, difficult physical and personal journey with an apocalyptic backdrop.  But that first draft never even got beyond the outline stage.  I was more interested in poetry at the time, and was to go on to write a deeply personal poem that won an award in 1969 and would add yet another layer to the ultimate plot.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in this ‘tale behind the tale’.