Archive for the ‘travels’ Category

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This Land Is Your Land

August 25, 2016
Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

One hundred years ago this day, an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. The monumental task of protecting the existing 35 national parks and monuments as well as any future additions fell to this new federal bureau. The current system of National Parks and Monuments covers more than 84 million acres in all 50 states and several territories.

These national parks have been called by some our country’s greatest treasure, and I would find that statement hard to argue with. The fact that these irreplaceable areas of natural beauty have been set aside and preserved from the rampant and often irresponsible overdevelopment by private interests that has plagued so much of our landscape is a credit to the foresight of those who led the preservation movement. And that is as it should be, for as Woody Guthrie sang, “This land was made for you and me.”

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Some ask why we should care about setting aside these natural areas. The answer seems clear to me. That we can still find pristine beaches along which to walk, lakes and rivers yet unsullied by pollution, mountain ranges that haven’t been ravaged by mining companies, and forests still abundant with the flora and fauna native to this great land should be of comfort to all who take pride in this country. These places manifest the very soul of our nation. Even if everyone can’t see these parks in person, just knowing they exist can provide a kind of spiritual satisfaction.

Yosemite

Yosemite, California

In the excellent documentary series entitled Our Nation’s Best Idea, Ken Burns retells the story of the parks and the people who were so vital in their establishment and protection, some well-known and some unheralded: John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, Charles Young, Harold Ickes, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Along with many ordinary unsung heroes, they often had to battle against those who sought to gain individual control or personal wealth. It took time and persistence, but the result of their staunch efforts and great vision is available for all to appreciate, for these park lands belong to us. They are part of our American heritage to be entrusted to each successive generation as living proof of the glory of this land.

Mt. Denali, Alaska

Mt. Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska

The desire on the part of some to violate the compact made to uphold these grounds as untouchable doggedly persists, though. Proposals of logging, mining, and drilling are a constant threat. I am among the many who hope that those who seek to intrude upon the sanctity of these areas in the name of exploitation of “needed” resources can be kept at bay. These shortsighted actions purportedly for our benefit need to be blocked because once the incursion is made, the damage done will be irreparable. We as a people deserve better than that.

Grand Teton

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Another concern is accommodating the increasing numbers of visitors. That requires a delicate balance that must be struck between the desired mass access to these areas and restrictions imposed to help retain the character of the parks. Those who have experienced the overcrowding during Old Faithful’s scheduled eruptions or bumper to bumper traffic on the Cades Cove Loop through Great Smoky Mountain understand this quandary. However, no prospective visitor should let the possible crowds dissuade him or her from visiting, for simply pulling over to park at one of the many trailheads will provide a portal just a short walk away from the throngs into the wonders of the land.

Zion, Utah

Zion National Park, Utah

I have been fortunate enough over the years to be able to spend time in many of our National Parks and Monuments. Their size and diversity are nothing short of staggering: the vast chasm of Grand Canyon, the incredible stone structures of Arches in Utah, the raw coastal grandeur of Acadia in Maine, the primal power of Volcano in Hawaii, the majestic peaks rising in the wilderness of Denali in Alaska, the serene other-worldly expanse of White Sands. Each has a character and beauty of its own. Every time I go, my spirit is restored as I reflect upon and appreciate the wonders of this land and all its natural splendor, and I am grateful to be a part of this grand American enterprise.

White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

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Katie and Me

March 18, 2012

Life is filled with innumerable random incidents. Why they occur as they do is a mystery. Some believe each is a small piece in a great puzzle, fulfilling a preordained design for that particular life. Others feel that these are a product of the chaotic coincidences of our existence. Most have little significance and are forgotten no sooner than they occur. But for some reason, I tend to remember them quite clearly, especially the ones that seem to be of no great consequence. The day of my brief encounter with Katie Couric was one of those.

My family was on the first of what was to become our annual family vacation. By family, I mean my wife’s family: her parents, brother, sister-in-law, and their two kids. I’m not sure exactly how it got started, but it continued for thirteen years, starting from the year my nephew Luke was born. We traveled to many marvelous places together from Hawaii to the Mediterranean. Many of our trips were to the West, and this first one brought us to the beautiful state of Wyoming.

The year was 1995. Emma was five years old and a bit anxious about being in such unfamiliar surroundings. Luke was seven months old and quite oblivious to all but his next meal, diaper change, and the loving arms of his mom. We had flown to Arizona and rented a van to haul our crew of eight through the natural wonders of that area.

On this particular day, we had taken a trip to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. A shuttle boat took us across the lake to a trail on the other shore suitable for hiking in the shadow of the surrounding peaks. The trail led to places with such enticing names as Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, but since we had both oldsters and youngsters in our party, our goal was a leisurely walk in the glory of the countryside. As was her normal practice, Emma made frequent stops to pick up, examine, and then have me hold onto various specimens of flora along the way. Had they all been saved, she would own one mighty collection of sticks and flowers and leaves.

Emma and her Uncle Muskie

The shuttle boat operated on a loose schedule, so when the time approached for the boat to return to pick us up, we headed back along the trail to the small dock. As we approached the spot, my mother-in-law turned around to see another small group approaching us.

“It’s Katie Couric! It’s Katie Couric!” she excitedly whispered. And sure enough, right behind us was Katie Couric with her small band of fellow hikers.

As soon as my brother-in-law heard this, he pounced. Not because he was a TV groupie (that was more my mother-in-law’s angle), but rather because she had recently done a story that was anti-pharmaceutical industry, and that was his bread and butter. I didn’t get to hear his harangue because I was busy occupying Emma since the boat was nowhere yet in sight.

Emma wanted to head directly for the water as most kids would. The bank was a bit steep for her five year old legs, so I carefully ushered her to the edge of the water. And what activity is better suited for a child by the edge of a lake while waiting for a shuttle boat than throwing rocks in the water, which is exactly what we proceeded to do. My task was to search for smaller stones which I handed to Emma who then tossed them with great gusto but less than stellar accuracy towards the water. It was great fun.

In the meanwhile, Katie was trying to make a gracious escape from my brother-in-law, not so easy to do on a narrow trail. Her little daughter Ellie saw Emma happily engaged in her waterfront activity and immediately wanted to join her. Though clearly not thrilled with the prospect of a potential wet-shoes afternoon, Katie may have seen this as good exit strategy and edged her way toward the bank with Ellie, who joined right in with the fun. I poked around for more stones and handed them to both Emma and Ellie who quickly bonded in their mutual pursuit of beholding the wonder of the displacement of water when struck by a solid object.

The shuttle boat soon appeared, and its timing could not have been better. I was running out of stones to give the girls, and they were inching ever closer to the water on the muddy shoreline. I began easing Emma away, but she insisted, “One more, Uncle Muskie, one more!” Of course I obliged (I could never turn Emma down), and little Ellie then wanted the same. Katie turned to me and said in a firm but gentle voice, the smile never leaving her face, “Okay, Uncle Muskie. I think we’ve had enough rock throwing for one day.”  I smiled in return as she gathered Ellie up and we all headed our separate ways.

Countless people pass through our lives during the course of events both great and small. The crossing of paths may be as simple as an exchange of glances or a few words. This one particular incident took only a few minutes. It happened a long time ago (by my hasty calculations, 22,830 days have gone by since). I was by no means a star-struck fan enchanted by an encounter with celebrity. She said exactly a dozen words to me. But I can recall it as clearly as the day it happened.

Now, I realize that Katie Couric is a busy woman with many things on her mind, far more than me, I’m sure. Still, I wonder if she ever sits down on a rainy day to look over her old vacation photos and, coming across the ones from that Wyoming vacation in 1995, recalls the afternoon when Ellie was throwing rocks in a lake with Emma’s Uncle Muskie.

Katie, if you happen to read this, drop me a line and let me know.

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The Vinegar Monk

October 16, 2011

This is a test.

What?

This is a test.

Whaddaya mean? What’s a test?

This. That. Everything.

Huh?!

Relax. It’s not like you’re Job, you know.

You mean… this… is a test?

Yes. If it helps, just think of it as practice. For the other ones. The harder ones.

Gulp…..

Perhaps if you spent a bit more time on your spiritual development?

Gulp….

In any event, I’ll be in touch.

Gulp….

 

Autumn had arrived. There were many events that signaled it beyond the changing of the foliage.

I had gotten off the phone with the doc, who got results from another round of tests and wanted to start me on another medication. What is this phase of life that we enter when our bodies start failing us?

Before that, I picked up from the shop our new-but-now-violated car ($1,342 violated) that was the target of an attempted theft. In my own driveway.

Before that, installed a motion sensor light by the driveway as a hopeful deterrent to further episodes (with the dubious side effect of shining into my neighbor’s bedroom window every time a breeze blows the surrounding trees).

But before that too was a weekend in the autumnal glory that is rural upstate New York (a long weekend, both of us playing hooky Monday). It was the occasion of my birthday and our anniversary, so we said what the heck and went. It was wonderful.

And before that was the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the last ever at Waterloo Village in northwest New Jersey (closed due to lack of state funding). It went out with a bang.

And even before that, it was Sidewalk Sale day in Montclair, and we, on our way to a craft fair in a park, stumbled upon it. My wife, an aficionado of such events, was off to the races, so I picked a nice bench on which to wait. Figuring she was good for at least an hour, I strolled over to the church, which was having a rummage sale on its lawn in conjunction with the sidewalk sale, and saw boxes of used books, three for a dollar; how can one go wrong? I thought I could find something to pass the time, and indeed I did, The Best American Essays of 2004. Perfect! I could read some shorter pieces without the kind of commitment I wasn’t ready to give to a novel.

I reclaimed my spot on the bench, flipped through the essays, and spotted an interesting title, “Bullet in my Neck,” noticing that it was by a poet I like, Gerald Stern. It seems that Stern and a female companion, who was driving, got lost leaving Newark airport on the way to a poetry reading and found themselves in the heart of Newark. They were stopped at a light. He looked over at her and saw that beyond her, outside her window, was a young guy with a gun pointed at her, about to squeeze the trigger. The gun misfired, but when he turned his head, he saw the guy outside his window, and his gun did not misfire. The bullet struck him in the neck. They raced off to find help and ended up at the hospital (where a guard tried to stop him from going in the wrong entrance). The bullet was lodged dangerously close to an artery, so the doctors decided it would be best to leave it be (hence the title of the essay). The heart of the essay was the aftermath of this event, the struggle with one’s desire to be understanding of the human conditions that cause such behavior versus the anger over what-the-heck-did-you-have-to-shoot-me-for, as I am now struggling with the milder what-the-heck-did-you-have-to-break-into-my-car-for.

At the Dodge festival several weeks later, I saw on the schedule that none other than the selfsame Gerald Stern was going to be reading. I attended his small-group session (somewhat ironically about poetry and disruption), and when it was over went up to him and told the story of reading his essay (my car not yet having been broken into). He was quite funny for a cantankerous old poet, and ended our brief conversation with, “And you know, the bullet is still  there!”

Ah, the connectivity of Life.

My wife Bernadette, ever the lover of esoteric cooking and food information, saw an article in the NY Times about a Benedictine monk who lived by himself in upstate New York making homemade vinegar (viewed by the outside world as a gourmet item). After it was decided that we would go away for the weekend, she went back to the article, and, Lo and Behold, that very monk’s monastery was in a town not so far from where we were going. We plotted various routes on Mapquest, and we found ourselves driving along country roads near LaGrangeville, NY, looking for the isolated sanctuary of the Vinegar Monk, which most of the locals, having been asked, had never heard of. Finally, in a small roadside convenience store a customer, looking for all the world like a Mountain Man, overheard my query to the clerk and pointed us in the right direction. Several miles later, there it was, a small sign at the entrance of a winding dirt road leading into the woods.

After driving up the narrow road which was punctuated by small religious statuary on posts, we arrived at a farmhouse in a somewhat overgrown yard with dogs barking and chickens and cats running about, suspiciously eying these intruders of their bucolic world. The farmhouse (which had crosses on it; it must be the place) had no public looking “entrance,”  so we found ourselves standing around wondering what to do next when we heard tapping coming from one of the upstairs windows.

Moments later, Brother Victor-Antoine D’Avila-Latourrette appeared, bald headed and wearing a cassock and sandals, one’s very image of a monk. He invited us in, and we sat in his dark and rather musty parlor. He was genuinely hospitable in spite of being busy (“Please excuse me; I was making pesto sauce for the Christmas Festival”). He told us, in his slight French accent,  all about his vinegar making (using a twelfth-century recipe from France), the writing of the Times article, the interns from nearby Vassar who sporadically worked on the farm with him (and from where the writer of the Times article came), how he ended up being alone at the monastery, and what life was like on a small farm in upstate New York. He showed us his chapel, a simple but elegant stone-walled room off the back of the farmhouse, and then came the vinegar.

He had an assortment of bottles, some white, some red, several in “fancy” Christmas bottles (“Oh, they’re so hard to come by”). Bernadette was ready to buy, but he insisted that first we smell (Wow!!) and then taste using a teaspoon from his kitchen. And indeed this was special stuff, each handcrafted batch having its own distinct personality described with obvious love by Brother Victor. On a table were some old and dusty cookbooks which Bernadette discovered were written by him, a 1966 graduate of Columbia University. She bought one of them, too, with peasant recipes from France interspersed with homey religious quotes. Two of my favorites: “For a small reward a man will hurry away on a long journey, while for eternal life many will hardly take a single step.” (Thoms A Kempis) and “Three enemies of personal peace: regret over yesterday’s mistakes, anxiety over tomorrow’s problems, and ingratitude for today’s blessings.” (William Arthur Ward). One book, which I was tempted to get, was entitled Twelve Months of Monastery Soups.

At that point, Brother Victor, almost apologetically for what he seemed to consider his lapse of social grace, asked what our names were, and when he heard “Bernadette,” he became nothing short of ecstatic. It turns out that he was born not far from Lourdes, and his grandfather knew THE Bernadette. He ushered us back into the chapel to show us the special shrine he had for Saint Bernadette as well as other very old religious icons including an eleventh century statue of Mary. We then went outside to view the Grotto of Bernadette in front of the farmhouse, followed by a tour of his little farm (“Oh, I’m so glad I came out here with you; I left the water running in the hose for the sheep!”). He showed us the vegetable garden and the herb garden, all the while telling us stories of the difficulties of running the farm on his own and trying to make vinegar as well as keep up his religious life. He had been selling vinegar through the nearby Millbrook Winery, but it got to be too much. Once a prominent restauranteur from California had found out about him and wanted to fly him out (“But I’ve never been to California, I told him. I’m a monk; I don’t get out much”).

We finally bid him adieu and drove off in wonderment over the unexpected and magical interlude we had just experienced. Miles from New Jersey. Light years from Newark. The next two days were filled with walks through the beautiful autumn woods, drives past pastures with mellow cows and meandering stone walls, my upcoming rendezvous with medical consternation still days away.

Yes. The three enemies of personal peace: regret over yesterday’s mistakes (attempted car thefts, bullets in the neck), anxiety over tomorrow’s problems (the ever-increasing medications and the encroaching old age it symbolizes), and ingratitude for today’s blessings (Bernadette’s mysterious and ceaseless love, the golden leaves blowing about).

Ah, the connectivity of Life.

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Cape Cod Rhapsody

August 18, 2011

Cape Cod National Seashore

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Coincidentally, it is the year I became eligible for my Lifetime Senior Pass, entitling me to free entry to this or any other national park (“Good for as long as you are,” said the smiling young park ranger who issued it).

And this year also happens to be the 50th anniversary of my first journey to Cape Cod. This narrow arm of land flexing eastward of Boston has become a very special place to me. Visits here are now an annual affair anxiously anticipated as the summer grows near. I may have grown old, but traveling to this wonderful place has not.

It all began in the summer of 1961 when our boy scout troop leader decided to institute a camping trip that went above and beyond our normal monthly ones to the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania areas. This was to be our Great Adventure Trip, and our first destination would be Cape Cod.

Mr. Harriman, a robust former Navy man, carried this excursion off like a mission. We bussed it up to our center of operations, a campground in Nicholson State Park, by itself a fantastic taste of the Cape. From there, we participated in all manner of activities. Of course there were the usual cooking out and hiking and fishing, but the Cape had special twists to offer. I was not a beach kid even though I was born and bred in New Jersey, so fun in the sun, sand, and surf was extra special in the natural environment of the National Seashore, unsullied by honky-tonk boardwalk interferences. Mr. Harriman had a connection at the Coast Guard station in Chatham, and my memories are still vivid of our ride on an amphibious vehicle called a Duck to a beach where I had my first exposure to the prehistoric-looking and fascinating horseshoe crab. Between the natural beauty of the park, dunes, beach, and my new, exciting experience of the ocean, I was sold. This is a place I wanted to come back to.

And come back I have, countless times over the ensuing years. People sometimes ask why I spend five hours in the car to drive to Cape Cod when the Jersey shore is close at hand. After all, a beach is a beach, isn’t it? Well, no. The Atlantic Ocean meets the sandy coast in both places, but there the similarity ends. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Jersey shore, which has its own unique flavor, including some personal favorite spots. It’s that their character is entirely different, and it is the character of the Cape that draws me back. The character of which I speak is a combination of laid-back New England charm, a variety of attractions and activities in close proximity, and natural vistas dominated by the influences of the sea. It seems to me that there is something here for everyone.

By no means am I a shopper, but I actually enjoy my wife’s stops at the many flea markets, antique shops, and thrift stores on the Cape. Meandering amongst the treasures and junk reveals a rich source of assorted oddities of Americana, both humorous and historic. People-watching at places such as the Wellfleet Flea Market is well worth the $2.00 admission.

lobster roll, Sesuit Harbor Cafe

The Cape is also a gastronomic delight, especially if you like seafood. Everyone develops their own personal favorites after a few visits; clam chowder and fried clams at Arnold’s, a lobster dinner at the Lobster Claw, specialty fish dishes at the Brewster Fish House, and lobster rolls at the Sesuit Harbor Cafe happen to be mine. Some ice cream from Cobies, and the evening is complete.

Exercise comes easily here and in many enjoyable forms. There is kayaking in the tranquil ponds or the calm estuaries along the coast. Bike riding is safe and pleasurable along the picturesque miles of bike paths. Hiking on nature trails or simply strolling along quiet byways or the wide expanse of tidal flats at low tide on the bay shore fills many a contented hour. For the more adventurous, surfing and sailing opportunities abound.

One isn’t limited to lying on a beach blanket, for there is no shortage of things to do here. Small museums of all sorts are to be found virtually anywhere, as are places of historical interest such as the site of the first encounter between the Pilgrims and Indians, Marconi’s first transAtlantic wireless transmission station, or the Kennedy family compound. Depending on one’s interest, there are all manner of small diversions and discoveries. Book stores, the real kind, thrive, from The Yellow Umbrella in Chatham to Herridge Books in Wellfleet to Provincetown Bookstore to the grandaddy of them all, the sprawling barn-like Parnassus Book Service in Yarmouthport. Visit the offbeat Edward Gorey House. Stop at the Atlantic Spice Company in Truro, if even just to inhale the myriad aromas of all the spices of the world. Picnic in the shade of the trees and taste some local wine at the Truro Vineyard. Take a boat ride to Monomoy Island to see the hundreds of grey seals basking on the beach or frolicking in the surf. Bird watch in the salt marshes or along the dunes. Photograph lighthouses of all sizes, shapes, and colors from the majestic Highland Light to the squat Three Sisters. Day trip to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket by ferry. Drive up to Provincetown for a walk amidst Portuguese bakeries, street performers of all stripes, and flamboyant cross-dressers; book a whale watching expedition to see the leviathan in its habitat; steep in the burgeoning art or poetry scene.

But most of all, behold the majestic beauty in the places where salt water meets sand: the miles of dune-lined beaches of the National Seashore, each different in its own way with pounding surf and passing seal heads bobbing up to curiously watch the beachgoers and “talking rocks” rattling in the changing tides, or the gentle bay beaches, perfect for small children to splash about or chase scuttling sand crabs or build sand castles. At the end of the day, witness the glorious celebration of this oceanside existence, the sunset, with favorite beaches to which travelers and locals alike return — Skaket, First Encounter, Rock Harbor. And as the sun goes down in a changing kaleidoscope of yellows, oranges, and reds against the darkening blue sky and dusk turns to night, my thought is always the same.

This is a place I want to come back to.