Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hiking/biking Jacksonville NC's Rails-to-Trails Greenway

Convo of MST mavens on Northeast Creek as viewed from Jacksonville's Rails-to-Trails Greenway

6.5 miles of hiker-biker-exclusive greenway through the bustling metropolis of Jacksonville, NC.  Kudos to this progressive city for making this happen.  Just look at the photos.  Much of this route is peaceful and serene, despite the urban setting.

After crossing the New River on a bridge with dedicated sidewalk,

the trail parallels Military Highway, passing plenty of hiker-friendly pit stops then turns right to parallel Bell Fork Road

in a peaceful and secluded right-of-way.

Then there's an elaborate and costly trail overpass of the major highway that is NC 24,

and the trail parallels that highway with Camp Lejeune Marine Core Military Base just across a chain link fence on the south side.

The publicly available trail ends at Camp Lejeune's main gate.

From there the MST uses the ultra-wide grassy shoulders of the divided highway NC 24 for just under a mile before plunging into a major shopping center and turning onto Piney Branch Road, then after another mile onto the relatively lightly traveled Rocky Run Rd.

Few cities of this size offer such a comprehensive through-trail.  It's an example of urban diversity that the MST thru-hiker is sure to appreciate.

Here's the map of the route, with link to all the photos worthy of a second look:

Biking Jacksonville's Rails-to-Trails Greenway at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Monday, October 21, 2013

Hiking NC's Stones Creek Game Land - a seven lake tour

Located in Onslow County North Carolina near the beach and right across the road from the massive Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, Stones Creek Game Land is one of North Carolina's smaller state wildlife tracts.

But its 2978 acres are packed with natural beauty.

Today's tasks:

1.) Scout the best route for North Carolina's state-wide Mountains-to-Sea Trail which will pass through this Game Land.

2.) Circumnavigate all seven of the small picturesque lakes on the property.  Every one of the lakes has a trail or road that runs completely around it.

3.) Enjoy the peace and quiet - hunting season hasn't started yet - and bask in the beautiful fall weather.

4.) Accomplish all this in just over ten miles of hiking.

Now for a photo tour:  I've numbered the lakes in geographical order (south to north) rather than in the order I visited them.  Lakes four through seven are strung together like beads in a necklace with only narrow berms separating them.  Lakes one and seven are the largest, and also my favorites.

Lake One
Lake One beauty shot
More Lake One beauty
Lake Two
Lake Three
Lake Four
Lake Five
Lake Six
Lake Seven
Biggest web spinning  spider I've ever seen: three inches across
Tree and sky in the Longleaf Pine Savannah

Not exactly a 'best kept secret' - Stones Creek Game Land is well known by locals - this is nevertheless one of the more unexpected and underrated little gems of eastern North Carolina.  Below is a map of the GPS track for the hike:

Stones Crk Gameland - seven lake tour at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Wilmington, North Carolina

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The 'Wild' effect - get out and Hike!

A recent New York Times article has highlighted a wonderful positive effect of the best selling book 'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed: It's inspired people to get out there and hike! I reviewed the book here.

'Wild' was named as an Oprah book club selection, and that gave it the public exposure it needed to become a best seller--over a million copies sold to date. The result: it reached people far beyond the 'insider clique' of long distance hikers.  It opened the eyes of a new audience.

As a 'guide' for hikers Strayed's book is hopelessly flawed - exactly the way Bill Bryson's 'A Walk in the Woods' is.  (Here's my review of Bryson's book).  But in a peculiar way, that wanton imperfection is the whole point.  It gives the armchair dreamer permission to 'give it a shot' - to turn their dream into reality.

The statistics are in: Both of these best selling books have produced a 'hiking bubble' - a significant increase in the number of people hitting the trail.  People read the book and feel enabled, inspired to get out there and take a risk.

Cheryl Strayed was at wit's end.  She had little to lose and much to gain by leaping totally unprepared into a long distance hike.  It was a life changing decision.  She made rookie mistakes, put herself at risk, but persevered to hike more than 700  miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.  She came away from the experience a much stronger person, more able to cope with her 'demons'.  (Oh ... and she wrote a book about it and got rich.)

And that's the lesson for all of us: stop thinking about what you've got to lose and take the leap.  Get out from in front of your computer screen and 'get physical'.   Experience the real world.  Take on the adventure that you've always dreamed of doing, or crash and burn in the attempt.

Whatever the outcome, the experience will feed your soul. I guarantee it. You'll create memories that you'll cherish for the rest of your life.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World'

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Happiness is a ... harder master ... than truth." I love Mustapha Mond. In giving him some of the best lines in 'Brave New World,' Aldous Huxley betrays his bias: He believes, perhaps even hopes, that his well-constructed vision of an orderly, happily infantile, benevolently controlled future society might some day come to pass.

Well, in many respects it has. (I speak largely of the United States here - the country that Huxley had in mind as he wrote.) Viral internet memes, if not the reality-numbing internet itself, replace his hypnopaedia. Take your pick of countless prescription and illicit psychoactive drugs, adding up to his 'soma'. The decline of the nuclear family and the proliferation of promiscuity and casual sex, though lately dampened somewhat by HIV/AIDS, came into full flower with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1961. Despite an overtly democratic government, increasingly sophisticated Corporate tyranny and its relentless hypnopaedic political propaganda/lobbying have gradually built an economic caste system not unlike that of Huxley's Alpha-to-Epsilon structure. Consumerism is rampant. What sport/leisure activity these days does not adhere to Huxley's mandate that it require the purchase of vast amounts of ever-more-specialized and expensive equipment?

When a book proves to be this prescient over such a long time span, it deserves its status as one of the classics. I first read BNW as a high-school student, and thought myself a kindred spirit of Huxley. I tried to emulate his somewhat pretentious poetic style in my own poetry. But when I recently re-read the book, nearly fifty years on, I found myself sometimes getting annoyed at the 'full-of-himself' passages. His poetic excess sometimes gets in the way of his story telling. His worship of Shakespeare, though understandable, sometimes comes across as blatant evangelism. And sometimes he eschews interactive dialogue in favor of two-plus-page-long single-paragraph monologues.

What I love most about Brave New World is that Huxley manages, with such seeming ease and naturalness, to populate the pages with a whole slew (and slough) of diverse, richly painted characters. From the perpetually conflicted Bernard Marx to the intriguingly conformist Lenina Crowne, who manages to be subtly but pointedly shaken by the Savage's denial of her instant gratification, right down to the distinctive traits of minor characters like the overly hairy but ever pleasantly equanimous Benito Hoover, Huxley's skills at characterization shine. I have only one small quibble: where are the Alpha-plus females?

I have not bothered to present an outline of the story since there have already been thousands written. Instead, I'll finish with a quote spoken by the eminently capable Helmholtz Watson after being subverted by his contact with the Savage: "You've got to be hurt and upset; otherwise you can't think of the really good, penetrating, X-rayish phrases." Happiness - true, mature happiness - is indeed a complex nut to crack.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

The myopia of today's American politicians - a sorry example

Congressman Mark Meadows speaks at the
Congressman Mark Meadows speaks at the "Exempt America from Obamacare" rally, on Capitol Hill, 10 September 2013. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
I very rarely talk politics. I abhor it. But this story is local for me, and it's a stunner: an amazing case study in likely political 'self immolation'.
North Carolina's 11th congressional district was gerrymandered in 2011 to create a heavily Republican, 99% white district. They elected French-born, Florida educated, Tea-Party-backed Republican Mark Meadows to the House seat, replacing a local boy, home-town hero, and ex-NFL quarterback, democrat Heath Shuler.
Meadows, in congress for just ten months has been credited with being one of the strongest behind-the-scenes advocates of the 'defund Obamacare at any cost' movement (see his Wikipedia profile for more detail). 
The irony: Meadows' district is heavily economically dependent on Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and on the Appalachian Trail - every mile of the AT in North Carolina falls within his district. Apparently he's just now realized that--in the past week and a half.  His constituents are revolting and Meadows has "fallen conspicuously silent since the shutdown started to bite" according to this recent Guardian article.
Amazing.  An example of how voters didn't do their homework and got the wool pulled over their eyes.  I'll be watching his 2014 campaign with great interest.

  • Now, adding further background info from Wikipedia
    Mark Meadows' Role in the 2013 federal government shutdown

    Meadows has been described as playing an important part of the United States federal government shutdown of 2013.[10][11][12] On August 21, 2013 Meadows wrote an open letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor encouraging them to "affirmatively de-fund the implementation and enforcement of ObamaCare in any relevant appropriations bills brought to the House floor in the 113th Congress, including any continuing appropriations bill."[13][14] The document was signed by 79 of Meadows' colleagues in the House.[10][14] Heritage Action (which opened operations in North Carolina in January 2011[15]), ran critical Internet advertisements in the districts of 100 Republican lawmakers who failed to sign the letter by Meadows.[16] The letter has been described as being controversial within the Republican Party.[10][17] Republican Richard Burr, the senior Senator from North Carolina, called threatening a government shutdown over defunding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as "ObamaCare", "the dumbest idea I've ever heard of."[18] In response to Burr's remark, the Senate Conservatives Fund bought a radio ad to attack him.[16]

    The New York Daily News said Meadows put the federal government on the road to shutdown, saying calls to defund "Obamacare" through spending bills languished until Meadows wrote his letter.[12] Meadows downplayed his influence, saying "I'm one of 435 members and a very small part of this."[12] CNN described Meadows as the "architect of the brink" for his letter suggesting that "Obamacare" be defunded in any continuing appropriations bill.[10] Meadows said that was sensationalizing his role.[11] The New York Times reported that plans to defund "ObamaCare" began soon after President Barack Obama started his second term as President, mentioning a "coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III",[16] who is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus in the The Heritage Foundation.[19] In February 2013, FreedomWorks signed onto a memo which said "Conservatives should not approve a CR unless it defunds Obamacare", and Edwin Meese III was among the signers.[20] The Asheville Citizen-Times said FreedomWorks is a well-funded national organization aligned with the Tea Party, and holds lawmakers accountable by keeping track of how they vote, which letters they sign, etc.[10]

    John Ostendorff of the Asheville Citizen-Times wrote Meadows "said it's best to close the government in the short term to win a delay on 'Obamacare', despite the potential negative impact on the economy."[11] Ostendorff wrote that Meadows said he was doing what Tea Party members in Western North Carolina wanted him to do.[11] Meadows said his constituents wanted him to fight against "Obamacare" "regardless of consequences."[10] Jane Bilello, head of the Asheville Tea Party and political action committee said Meadows "truly represents us" on the issue of "Obamacare".[10] Meadows reportedly holds conference calls with members of the Asheville Tea Party, telling them what's going on in Congress, and about challenges he faces promoting their agenda.[10]

    Patsy Keever, vice-chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said, "Here we are in October and it's tourism season and our economy depends on that. We are shutting down the reason people come here."[11] North Carolina's 11th congressional district includes Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States with over 9 million visitors per year,[21] which is closed during the shutdown. And also parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a national parkway managed by the National Park Service and built to connect Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. The Blue Ridge Parkway is not closed to traffic during the shutdown, but 195 federal employees along the parkway were furloughed, and about 200 concession employees were forced off work.[22] Along the parkway, campgrounds, historic sites, picnic areas, restrooms, and visitor centers were closed, as well as the 51-room Pisgah Inn on the parkway with 100 employees located 25 miles from Asheville, North Carolina.[22] The federal government owns the inn and the land it's on, and owner Bruce O'Connell has leased it since 1978.[23] The Asheville Tea Party protested the closure of the inn.[24] O'Connell filed a legal complaint, and the U.S. Department of Interior allowed the lodge to reopen on October 9, 2013 in exchange for dropping the complaint.[23]

    National Park Service data indicated that North Carolina would be the 4th most economically harmed state by a shutdown of national parks, with a loss of $4.4 million per day, and affecting 11,915 jobs. The state also has the 3rd largest number of jobs that are dependent on spending in national parks, behind only California and Arizona.[21] In public comments, Meadows stated he was working on a compromise that involved passing appropriations bills that would fund only parts of the government, such as a bill to fund the National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, National Gallery of Art, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a bill to fund the National Institutes of Health. However, partial or "mini" funding bills were rejected by the Democratic majority in the United States Senate.[11]

  • And ... further background regarding the redistricting that enabled Meadows to be elected: the changed boundaries of NC congressional district 11.
    In 2011 the NC legislature was in the stranglehold of the Republicans, and the 2010 census mandated a redistricting. The result statewide was a shameless 'gerrymandering' of the districts. Prior to redistricting, District 11 had been a mildly Republican district (purple, lower panel). The Republicans railroaded through this new map (top panel) in which all the liberal precincts around Asheville were moved into District 10 (dark blue). Their strategy worked. District 11 had been represented by former NFL quarterback and democrat Heath Shuler. When the district was changed, Shuler saw the handwriting on the wall and announced his retirement from the house.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review of Stranger in a Strange Land by R.A. Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange LandStranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What an interesting way to write a story about the first manned missions to Mars, in which an ancient culture of living, intelligent Martians is encountered. Not only do we never see Mars or get any real description of the Martians, there isn't even much focus on them. The book is about an orphan human raised by them from birth, Valentine Michael Smith, and everything we learn about the Martians comes to us from his somewhat inscrutable point of view and from the manifestation of the abilities that the Martians taught him.

Yet even that doesn't turn out to be the subject that the book spends most of its time on. Most of it is spent exploring the tedious ramblings of a phlegmatic old curmudgeon named "Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B., M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, and neo-pessimist philosopher" who is positioned as the only person (outside Smith's cult) who secures and maintains full access to Mr. Smith as said "man from Mars" transforms from naive alien to Earth's latest messiah. And yet Harshaw doesn't achieve that rapport because he deserves it. In fact I'm not really sure what the transcendent personality of Smith sees in him. There's not much to like. Harshaw would be the first to admit that. Maybe it's his 'friends in high places' connections.

In any case, none of the above accounts for the popularity of this novel. What gained it attention at first was a 'free love' cult following enamored with Smith's portrayal as an advocate of open nudity and unfettered sex. The book arrived on the market just as the hippie revolution was evolving out of the earlier 'beatnik' culture: a culturally pivotal time for the baby boomer generation. In some ways it was just the right story at the right time.

I picked up this book only fairly recently and read it as part of my program to back-fill my 'education' with some of the classics I'd missed. How could I pass up a book billed right on the cover as "the most famous science fiction novel ever written?" Well, I personally kept losing interest as I waded through the passages where Harshaw rambles and pontificates. Nowhere in the book did I ever identify with him, sympathize with him or care what happened to him. Seemed to me that the story could have been better told without his presence at all, or even with him present and doing just what he did, but barely noticeable to the reader: a minor character at best.

"Stranger" was written at a time when Mars was still believed to have canals, and when people still believed it possible that there was, or had been, a widespread advanced civilization on the red planet. I remember those days fondly, and would have liked to have more of the author's creativity devoted to Mars and the Martians. In retrospect I see I was hoping to get blood from a turnip. Heinlein was firmly focused on extrapolating American 1950's culture and mentality forward a few decades without making it appear the least bit out of touch with those times, or with his existing stable of fans.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The 1960's - Humanity's greatest years

The pinnacle of human first-person achievement. Never, since, have we so boldly gone.

... and we, as a species, have been on the decline ever since.  My premise is simple.  I could write a book elaborating the details (and I might), but in a nutshell it is this: Real, first-person human experience has been steadily retreating since men stood on the moon.  The frontiers of human physical accomplishment have been abandoned, and the wilderness is creeping back in.

In one of the last truly epic promises made and delivered by a politician, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced his plans to send a man to the moon within the decade.  On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong fulfilled this promise.  Man has not gone that far since.  We've retreated from the physical frontier of real first-person experience.

Then on October 29, 1969 the first messages were relayed across ARPANET and the internet was born.  That (and television) assured the full-on retreat of personal human experience.  Most people now live bland, sheltered real lives and enjoy unprecedentedly vivid vicarious experience unimaginable in the 1960's.  It's Aldous Huxley's 'soma' made real. With the introduction of the birth control pill, in 1960, the sexual revolution was delivered.  The Beatles, drugs ... need I go on? Folks, the 'Brave New World' is here.  (Astoundingly, Huxley died the very same day that Kennedy was assassinated.  Furthermore, AIDS arrived in the US in 1969, brought from Haiti by a single unnamed individual.  The decline had begun. More about the medical aspects of human decline below.)

The above statements imply a pessimistic prediction: that we will never go back to the Moon, and surely never send men to Mars.  The current government shutdown in the US is a perfect example of why.  Leaders have become increasingly petty, wasting time and energy butting heads rather than working to advance the quality of life of their voting constituents.  Corporate entities spend billions to influence voters to their cause, and voters, increasingly lacking enough broad, honest first-person physical experience of life, are ever more vulnerable to swallowing the distorted virtual-worlds depicted in the corporate/political propaganda.  It's Huxley's 'hypnop├Ždia' brought to life.

Now, private corporations might ultimately be the future successful space pioneers.  And if they do succeed, I'll happily admit my error.  There are quite a few serious private space programs being developed.  The problem is that ultimately no corporation can assure a sufficiently stable growing economy necessary to provide financial backers and paying clients for space travel.  It takes government to do that--and the across-the-board cooperation that only (good) government can sustain.  Corporations are intrinsically cutthroat and competitive with one another, and they seem to be doing their best to infiltrate government and steer it toward their dismal self-serving mindset.

Okay. I've laid out the basic premise.  As I said, I have plenty more lines of evidence and argument to support the idea that humanity has already begun its long, slow decline to oblivion (if not a sudden collapse).  But I need to keep this post to a reasonable length.  I'll only touch on two additional generalized supporting concepts:

First: Many may argue that since the 1960's, medicine has made magnificent progress curing and controlling health problems.  Major medical progress began long ago with surgery and antibiotics.  Since the 1960's we have decoded the human genome and are able to begin to target specific problems with a precision never before thought possible.  My counter-argument is this:  *all* of the things we call medical intervention are actually physical setbacks to the vigor and strength of the human physical being.  We are sustaining the weak and encouraging them to propagate.  My argument is that the average human being's *intrinsic/potential* health was at its greatest long ago, when we had only our body's built-in natural defenses to combat disease and injury.  Only the strongest genes survived to propagate.  The populations of those times were much more concentrated with people of great valor and prowess, capable of accomplishing the epic deeds that nowadays we can only fawn over in video games and movies.  Yes, since the 1960's humans have pushed forward the boundaries of a few specialized physical accomplishments, but some of that is not natural--it is technology-aided.  And overall, the numbers of these physical achievers, as a percentage of the total population, had precipitously decreased. The obesity epidemic is just one glaring example.

Second: In a similar vein to society's introduction of medical intervention and its effect on average human *potential* health, society's invention of the 'rule of law' intervening to bypass personal responsibility, has led to a deterioration in the average human's *potential* moral strength.  As world populations grew, the tight-knit extended family unit (clans, tribes, villages) grew into cities.  And cities were only manageable by means of the establishment of laws and government.  Humans began to be held accountable to an impersonal 'code' rather than to the real first-person influence of their village sages, shamans, and elders.

Okay, enough of this.  My argument is that Man's ultimate Golden Age is past: humanity is declining.  And I have a motive for making that argument: it establishes the basis for my set of seven books entitled 'Eden's Womb.'  But I would be delighted to hear other opinions.  Tell me how you believe humanity is still advancing and improving, and why you believe we will continue to do so, rather than decline.  Above all, I treasure open-minded discussion.  So let's have at it :-)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review of Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis


This is a review of seven books all in one volume, and they are billed as classics.  I did not know about this series as a child, and in my adulthood the books never seemed to have any appeal to me.  But now, in my maturity, and as a writer in the fantasy genre myself, I felt that my 'fantasy' education would not be complete until I read them.

Well, the books are decent - some better than others. I liked 'The Horse and his Boy' better than most, although the xenophobic, or at least insensitive representation of the Calormenes (obviously modeled after Arabians) bothered me.  And to my surprise I liked 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' least. The former is the best Lewis ever gets at developing realistic, complex characters. The latter rambles pointlessly and then seems to deteriorate into pure hallucination.

My biggest pet peeve about C.S. Lewis is his seeming tone-deafness to the ring of his place names and character names. 'Narnia' itself sounds like a complaint of the lower bowels. 'Aslan' would, therefore, naturally be the treatment. Neither have any majesty or elegance. Tumnus? Dufflepuds? Reepicheep? Perhaps Lewis' apoetic handicap is best exemplified by his few attempts at inserting something 'lyrical'. Here, directly quoted from 'The Last Battle' is the refrain of an 'Old Narnian marching song':

"Ho, rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble
Rumble drum belaboured."

I'm sure that the friendship between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien served both men well. But frankly I have a hard time envisioning how the cross-pollination worked. Tolkien's prose is magical. Lewis's is workmanlike. Tolkien's Middle Earth mythopoeia is epic. Lewis's Narnia has a hard time getting out of the Wardrobe.