Saturday, August 17, 2013

Hiking home from the Appalachian Trail

PCF - Blackhorse Gap to Bedford, VA

EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

My 'big picture' hiking project is to walk between every place I've ever lived--that is to connect my life via a continuous string of footprints.  I call it my Personal Continuous Footpath (PCF); and I've made the backbone of it the Appalachian Trail (AT).

Two years ago I lived in Eldersburg, MD and did the hike from there to the AT at Raven Rock Hollow.  From Eldersburg I've also connected my footpath to most of the other places I've lived in the vicinity.

But now I live in North Carolina on the beach, and the closest way to make the connection by foot is about 300 miles of road walking.  Fortunately a good chunk of that can be hiked on the Mountains-To-Sea Trail, and I've already made a start on that in the vicinity of my beach home (just check posts here with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail tag).  But over the past few days I've made progress on the other end, hiking from the Appalachian Trail at Blackhorse Gap, VA to the south side of Bedford, VA.

The first piece of that hike, down from Blackhorse Gap to the Day Creek trailhead is off-road, and I hiked it on December 30, 2011 as a warm-up hike for my 2012 AT double thru-hike.  But I've included that in this trip report for completeness.

The rest of this leg to Bedford VA follows the major highway US 460.  But I did very little hiking along the actual highway.  There is a nice country road called Irving Road that parallels it for part of the way.  There's another piece of back road in the town of Thaxton that I took advantage of.  Then there's the railroad tracks that parallel the highway.  I did a couple pieces on the tracks.

The weather was perfect.  An early cold front had pushed through Virginia and North Carolina and stalled where I live at the beach.  So it was a rainy, chilly, cloudy spell of weather at the beach.  But up in Bedford, VA the sky was clear, humidity low and temperatures ranged from morning lows in the low 50's to highs in the mid 70's F.  Wind was light, and because of the wet summer, everything was lush and green--unusual for mid-August.

Bedford, VA is a beautiful small town with a thriving historic downtown district.  The economy seems to be thriving there, in part because of an influx of higher income commuters and retirees--people who choose to live there but work in Roanoke or Lynchburg.  I wasn't there to check out the historic sites like the D-Day Memorial or Thomas Jefferson's 'rural' retreat/getaway at Poplar Forest, so I'll let the reader explore those via the links provided - well, here's a Google Map preview of Poplar Forest, just for fun.

The sights I did take in along the way are recorded in the photos that are part of the slide show I set up on Every Trail.  Hope you enjoy.

If the 'flash' enabled map at the top of this post gives you problems, let me know, and I won't use it any more.  But just in case, here's the non-flash version which is a link that will take you to the web page where you can browse the photos, etc.

PCF - Blackhorse Gap to Bedford, VA at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Review of On the Beaten Path by Robert Alden Rubin

Robert Alden Rubin is a talented writer.  He writes fluidly, sometimes lyrically, and always with the competence of a professional.  His writing style seems to aspire to what writers call 'literary' prose.  An author whose writing has literary quality is one who could write about a toilet plunger and keep the reader enthralled.  The interest is in the fresh turn of phrase, the crafting of simple ideas into vivid experiences that jump off the page, the music and flow of the sentences, the emotional vice grip of the story.

Does an Appalachian Trail hike memoir lend itself to literary prose?  Rubin thought he'd give it a try.

Here's the background.  Robert Alden Rubin is a professional in the writing industry.  He holds creative writing degrees from two colleges.  He worked as an editor for a national trade publisher.  He has edited a National Best Seller.  But his editing job was becoming increasingly unsatisfying to him--even burdensome.  It appears he was having trouble keeping up with the demands and pressures of his responsibilities.  Maybe it was just a mid-life crisis, or maybe he had come up against his personal limit of competence.  Or maybe the routine was just beginning to bore him.  Whatever the reason, Rubin decided to quit his editing job and hike the Appalachian Trail--to embark on what he describes as a personal pilgrimage.

And not surprisingly he wrote a book about it.

The pilgrimage theme is Rubin's attempt at encasing the story in a single narrative arc.  Yet by his own admission, he could never quite put his finger on what the object of that pilgrimage was supposed to be.  It's not like the Hajj, where personal and community meaning is created, clarified, affirmed, and reinforced in a time-honored crescendo of spiritual energy.  The AT is no Mecca, and Katahdin is no Ka'aba.  The Appalachian Trail pilgrims have as many diverse reasons for making the journey as there are religions.  Even on a personal level, Rubin confesses that the process of hiking doesn't lend itself to deep reflection and doesn't lead to any personal clarity.  Instead it effectively forces the hiker to set aside the personal quest for the meaning of 'real life' in favor of the trail-life's much more elemental daily struggle to overcome pain, cold, hunger, thirst and exhaustion.  So the over-riding narrative arc of Rubin's story comes off as less than compelling - no vice-grip here.

One of the things Rubin does relatively effectively (for a male) is to invite the reader into his emotional inner workings and the turmoil that is there.  Rubin knows he is hurting his wife with his irresponsible decision to quit his job and then to physically abandon her in favor of the trail.  But he just hurts too much inside to do otherwise--he has to get away.  He never goes so far as to say he 'needs some space', and maybe that's my cliched interpretation, but in any case, he makes abundantly clear that he loves and misses his wife but is not willing to abandon his pilgrimage.  Yet even here the emotional arc is less than riveting.  Rubin and his wife have no falling out.  She travels to visit him throughout the journey and he reveals that she has a good government job at which she is excelling.  By the end of the book, when he has returned home but has failed to find a new job after seven months, I began to question whether he was little more than a freeloader in the relationship.  So in the end, the emotional narrative doesn't endear the reader or inspire any empathy - no vice-grip here either.

On a chapter-by-chapter level Rubin alternates between direct description of his hike and a series of passages that encompass a 'bigger picture'.  Many of these passages describe the psychological or cultural backdrop of the hiking experience, a few are flashbacks to his life before the trail, and many more are intended to add historical and physical context to his hike, describing the setting.  There are passages about the Civil War as related to Harper's Ferry and the Mason-Dixon line, about Walt Whitman and Thoreau, about geology and the Appalachian 'Great Valley,' etc.  These serve to add spice to the telling of his tale, and each such vignette is very well written.  But the net effect of these digressions does not depend on the quality of the prose; and to me the fact that he goes to great effort to write them in a literary style only distracts.  These passages tend to draw attention to themselves rather than blend into the story.  I asked above: "Does an Appalachian Trail hike memoir lend itself to literary prose?"  The answer seems to be "no".

Bottom line: 'On the Beaten Path' is a good quality book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, and the author's skill at writing prose is abundantly evident.  But the disconnect between these two elements makes the whole, in this case, a little less than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review of 'State of Fear' by Michael Crichton

State of Fear
First of all a little background: I am a retired climate scientist. I was given the hardcover version of 'State of Fear' as a Christmas gift and devoured it quickly, and became nauseated almost as quickly. I gave the book away as soon as I finished it.

State of Fear has moments of delightful entertainment. The suspense scene in the Antarctic crevasse was the highlight for me.

But this book is really about Crichton crow-barring his way into something he has no useful expertise in, and *seriously* doing a disservice to science. It's been said many times before, but his unabashed cherry-picking of the facts in order to support his pre-conceived bias is shameful, and would be laughed off the stage in the arena of climate science.

I am of the opinion that Crichton's book, set as a backdrop for the more recent "climate-gate" controversy (emails between scientists that appear to conspire to distort results) probably had a significant cultural influence, even among people who never read the book.

Crichton used the bully pulpit given to him by adoring fans, and his reputation for imaginative use of real science, to make the case that radical environmentalists were fear-mongering (creating an artificial 'State of Fear'). But in the process, he has engendered disrespect for science and the scientific process that, had he lived long enough and grown wise enough, I'm sure he would have come to regret.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Eden's Womb - the completed manuscript at last

Some time in late 1978 I sat down with a new idea and a blank piece of paper and began to outline a revised plot, which has survived largely intact to become the novel 'Eden's Womb'.  Here is that original piece of paper - capturing the 'where it all began' moment.

This is a major big deal for me.  It's a bucket list item that has turned into a life project.  It began before I turned 20 years old and has finally reached this milestone just before I turn 65.

I have completed the full manuscript of the epic tale I call 'Eden's Womb.'  It consists of seven 'books,' about 350 chapters, and as currently written it comes in at a total of just under 430,000 words.  For comparison Diana Gabaldon's debut novel 'Outlander' is about 320,000 words and Tolkien's entire 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy (not counting appendices) is about 450,000 words.

I actually wrote the final word about 3:30AM this morning and have been 'celebrating' today by digging back through my notes and revisiting the history of this life long quest.  For my own reference (since I doubt that this would matter much to anybody else) I've consolidated a brief history of this project below:

Around 1987 I had a full working chapter-by-chapter outline - about a page of notes for each of the 21 chapters - but I had actually written only the first few chapters.  This piece of paper was my attempt to consolidate my working outline into one page.

  • April 4, 1968 (the day Martin Luther King was assassinated) I wrote this in my diary: "My next poem will be about the world during and after a 'catastrophe' when the poles switch and great upheavals and earthquakes occur.  It's a great thing to think about - most of civilization would be destroyed.  They would be hard times but great times for an adventuresome life and great experience"  I did start that poem, meant to be a long epic poem, but the only finished result was a highly abstract one-page version that won a cash prize in spring 1969 - the poem 'Becoming'.
  • 1970's: First thoughts of turning the tale into a prose novel.  About 1975 or 1976 I wrote a multiple-page rambling outline for a book entitled 'The Dawn of the Millennium' describing the travels of a character named Luke.  It begins in June 1987 when Luke and his friends, including Wilson, travel west from the east coast of the US and meet up with more friends in Albuquerque.  My notes say this (interesting to see how my 'predictions' stood the test of time):  "Meet group seeking to form commune in west.  Bought desert land in E. AZ, met there, hear guns, get tied up by para-military group.  Economy: worsening after 15 years of inflation, recession.  Gas expensive - $1.50 to $2.00/gal. People say 'to hell with govt.' very alienated with continued govt. ineptitude.  Dec 1987 they get away from para-military group and head to Calif.  Earthquake predictions.  Dec. 6, 1988.  Big Jim Thompson from Ill. is president.  Ice slides off West Antarctica - tidal wave, ocean rises, widespread panic.  Calif. falls into ocean.  Flee to Colorado ..." etc.  The outline describes years of Luke's travels as civilization steadily collapses toward Dystopia.  I never began writing this book.
  • Then in 1978 I had a brilliant idea.  Instead of writing about Luke's travels, I'd set a new story in the post-Apocalyptic world 250 years later in which a new ice age has begun.  I'd follow a character whose ancestor 'Luke' had visited his city of Saskatoone, now surrounded by a 200-foot-deep glacial ice sheet.  The character would set out from Saskatoone to travel across the snows to 'find out where Luke went.' The day I first set these ideas down on paper is captured in the image at the top of this post.  Many of the essentials of the plot I outlined that day have not changed since.
  • Early 1980's I wrote the first few chapters of the book, as established in a fixed 21 chapter format (see the image at the top of this bullet list).
  • Late 1987 and early 1988:  I got serious about the novel and wrote about half of it - everything through Chapter 12 and also the last two chapters.  All this was written by hand using a pen (!) with liberal cross-outs and marginal insertions.  The stack of hand-written pages from this era is about ten inches thick.
  • March 31, 1988: I bought my first home PC - a Mac Plus.  Forward progress in novel writing stopped as I transcribed every one of my handwritten manuscript pages into the computer, making extensive revisions as I went, and stored everything on 3.5 inch floppy disks.
  • October 1989: my first child was born.  This began a long 'back burner time' for novel writing.  I would occasionally revisit the project during the 1990's but never stuck with it for very long.  In the early 2000's the book had essentially gone dormant.
  • May 2006:  a year after I retired I started a notebook that revived the novel project.  I began to explore new themes that added a new layer of depth to the story.  These included exploring the spiritual and cosmological aspect of the world I was creating, incorporating more of a positive environmental theme, and - most important, I chose to re-cast the setting in the far distant future rather than the immediate future.  The primary reason for this change was that I had learned that the next time the earth's orbital parameters will be favorable for an ice age would not be until 630,000 years in the future, and I wanted to adhere to a physically realistic setting for Ice Age Saskatoone.  The consequences of this change were that I had to think a whole lot about how humanity could survive that long without self-destructing and without relying on what I firmly believe to be a pure fantasy that humans will exploit space enough to establish any form of interconnected galactic social order (communication at light speed and the physiological effects of space on the human body are the greatest barriers).  Nor will humans be usefully able to exploit unlimited energy sources (such as fusion) because the elemental matter at our disposal will continue to be limited. In other words, if we colonize other planets every one of them will effectively be as isolated and autonomous as we currently are and thus have to seek a path of long term sustainability in the same way that Earth will.  Okay - in the end these are all debatable issues.  The point being that my plot decisions are meant to reflect what I believe is most likely to happen in the real-world future.
  • November 2010:  I finally made it past a long-standing 'barrier' and began writing the second half of the tale--the stuff after Chapter 12 of the outline above.  Up until then, every time I revisited the book I would go back to the start, make extensive revisions, and run out of time or momentum by the time I got to the point I had first stopped writing in 1988 when I got the first PC.  Thank 'NaNoWriMo' for this.  I wrote 50,000+ new words in the space of 25 days during that month.  From then through the early months of 2011 I continued to forge ahead, eventually finishing what was to become all of Books Three through Five.  But in the second half of 2011 book writing ground to a halt as I began to plan and train for my Appalachian Trail hike. Needless to say, I didn't write a word while I was hiking--January 1 through the end of October 2012.  But I had submitted the book (the first 7000 words) to a novel contest. And ...
  • October 20, 2012:  I was notified that the first 20,000 words, as then written, had won third place in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy category of the Maryland Writer's Association bi-annual novel contest out of a field of 25 submissions.  This was all the validation I needed to spur me on to finish the project.  Starting on January 22, 2013 I opened up the first file and, starting from Book One page one, I did a thorough re-edit of everything I had written.  Then on May 7, 2013 I started plowing forward, writing new text - Book Six.  68,000 words later ...
  • August 1, 2013:  Done!  The entire manuscript from start to finish, reasonably polished and largely internally consistent and free of most typos (few minor issues to be addressed).  If I do say so myself, Book Six is *killer*.  There are entirely unexpected twists and an epic ending.  All the books have great action, but since the original concept was that this is all one story, the tale steadily builds to a final climax at the end of Book Six.  Yet that's small potatoes compared with what Book Seven reveals.  I can't wait to share it with you.

Of course this is not the end of the project.  Just because I'm turning 65 doesn't mean I plan to 'retire.'  I'm posting chapters of the book here while continuing to tune them by posting on Amazon's Write On site, where a community of authors and readers come together to read and comment. 

But to have written those final climactic words--words I've had in my head for years and years--is a major milestone indeed.

What's next on the writing docket?  I've promised myself I'll write a couple books about my hiking.  These would be memoirs and chronicles--non fiction.  One will share my experience hiking the Appalachian Trail end-to-end twice in one year.  Stay tuned.