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The '68 Jeep

In my 49 years on earth, I've learned only one thing with total certainty: it's that any bad day can be cured by a drive into wild spaces in a classic Jeep. This fact has accompanied me through life. Pretty sure my dad taught it to me. If so, he was right.

This is the story of my Jeep. Not any Jeep, mind you: it joined the family before I did. I laugh when I see ads for "vintage" Jeep Wranglers that date back to the early 2000s. Mine was a 1968, older than me. Before the Wrangler was the AMC and before that was the Kaiser, only one short generation removed from the old Willys that had served hard time in World War II. And it was still largely unchanged in design. The Kaiser was still so simple you could airdrop it to troops in a palletized container and have them assemble it in the field. In the winter you froze, in the summer you cooked. If it rained, you stood a decent chance of getting wet. But it was a Jeep: worth it!

Continue reading "The '68 Jeep"

Slumbering Giants: the End of Rail

Back when North Carolina was called the Rip Van Winkle state, asleep while industry raged on all sides, local industrialists shared a vision of prosperity that only rail builders could usher in. It was the late 1800s, just four decades after the cease of Civil War hostilities, and North Carolina was suffering. But before the century would end, a network of steel rail would connect North Carolina's textile mills and tobacco farms to the markets of Virginia and harbors on the Atlantic. And there they would stay for about a century before consolidation, truck traffic, and changing interstate markets would make some of them superfluous.

Rail lines are tough to make disappear, though. So if you know where to look, you can still find their bones slumbering under forests. And Lord they are beautiful. Continue reading "Slumbering Giants: the End of Rail"

The End of the Road

Nothing gets the pulse racing like escaping from the world we're living in now, and discovering the worlds that lived before us: it's a reminder that nothing lasts forever, not even this.

North Carolina's Haw and New Hope River valleys were formerly prone to horrific flooding. The hurricane of 1945 was one of just many hurricanes that laid siege to what was already a poor valley, putting it under water. The US Army Corps of Engineers came up with a plan to flood it permanently, offering a mechanism of flood control and providing hydropower for electrification of the region. When it was done, Lake B Everett Jordan had become a permanent fixture on the Piedmont landscape. Continue reading "The End of the Road"

The Bay of Fundy

Maine gradually turned quieter and quieter as I passed Portland and the roadway passed almost exclusively through trees. Northern Maine has some of the most gorgeous scenery of the Northeast, and yet so few live there to appreciate it. More than once I worried about running out of gas on the more distant stretches. By that measure, the border town of Callais (pronounced "callous", ha ha ha) was a metropolis of international shopping and dining under both New Brunswick and American flags.

The weather was cooling already in early fall, though it was hard to tell by glancing up at the omnipresent conifers. The water had turned a deeper shade of blue with the arrival of September's chill, and I didn't relish jumping in it. The road was long and life was good. Continue reading "The Bay of Fundy"

Hiking the Rim of Lake Okeechobee

I had a Saturday free and decided to get out and do some hiking, South Florida style. That is: at risk of being chomped by a 'gator, in land only marginally drier than the swamp from which it emerged.

Lake Okeechobee was my first destination: it draws your eye inexorably as you gaze upon the southern half of Florida, and around it was a massive earthen dike with a hiking trail at its top. Built in the early part of the 21st century to control the sloshing floods of Lake Okeechobee, it thoughtfully included a hiking trail that permitted you to essentially circumnavigate Lake Okeechobee if you had enough time, stamina, and a decent rain jacket. The thing is perfectly flat, like tracing a doughnut. In fact, the lake's low profile is behind the flooding: it's basically a shallow lens of water, that passing hurricanes and storms were able to coax into sloshing up and over the low rim and into the surrounding farmland. Continue reading "Hiking the Rim of Lake Okeechobee"

For the Love of Maps

It is one of the most prevalent misperceptions that the purpose of maps is to show you how to get from one place to another. They do serve that purpose, of course. But more importantly, they seduce you into exploring places about which you'd otherwise never have known.

I can understand the lure of GPS units: I use them too, navigating and learning the streets of big cities. And it's tempting to have a battery-operated unit in your hiking backpack that shows you your location in the mountains with a reassuring precision (assuming your unit has batteries, and your bag hasn't fallen into a river, and ...). But when it comes to coaxing you away from home and into new adventure, I find GPS units fail roundly. Just gaze at a big map you've posted on your wall some cloudy morning while you drink your coffee, and see if your boots don't start tapping. Continue reading "For the Love of Maps"

Shorebirds of Long Island

In 1995 I found myself – to my surprise – back in the Hamptons for a summer. And what a lovely summer it was.

With neither job nor job prospect, I spent a lot of late spring and early summer down on the shore armed with a pair of binoculars and the good sense to stay quiet. Here's some of what I saw pecking around at the edge of the Atlantic: Continue reading "Shorebirds of Long Island"

Cold River and Moose Pond: Traverse of the High Peaks Wilderness

November, 1992: I’d just copied this from The Prophet, by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran: “And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.”

The correct way to test that hypothesis, obviously, was via a grueling, 50 mile hike through the Adirondacks’ High Peaks region. And as the autumn entered its wan, second half, that’s what we did.

The moon was full the evening before we entered the Adirondack park, after - as usual - a long drive northward and eastward from Ithaca, and a night stuffing as much of Dave’s mom’s fantastic cooking in our bellies as we could. Autumn was becoming early winter, but what we wanted wasn’t green canopy over our heads, but the perfect isolation of wilderness, and a chance to soak in the scents and sounds of the world. With boots laced up and bags strapped on our backs, we set off walking through birches that looked yellow and tired, and set our sights on the far side of the empty woods. Leaves were still falling, but there was more color pooled around our feet than over our heads. Above us, the empty boughs conspired to let in the light of the late autumn moon. Continue reading "Cold River and Moose Pond: Traverse of the High Peaks Wilderness"

Bird List: Lititz, Pennsylvania

screetch owl in tree

This is a list of birds I spotted in Lititz, Pennsylvania, between June 1994 and March 1995. Not much else remains for me of that long, cold winter. But I do remember the leaves around the lake turning auburn in the fading light of summer, the glass-like warble of the Hermit Thrushes in the forest stand behind the house, the Barn Swallows turning circles in the air, and the acrobatics of the Fly Catcher.

Such is life: a few things we carry with us, but most of it we don't. And time alone is the judge of what mattered and what didn't. Keep singing, little birds. Keep singing.

The picture is of a tree in which a family of Screetch Owls had nested – so amazing to see them peering out at me. Continue reading "Bird List: Lititz, Pennsylvania"

Six Nights on Fourth Lake

Camp Monroe, Viking Village, Old Forge

We spent six nights on Fourth Lake in the southeastern Adirondack Mountains, a trip comprised of several hundred miles' travel, as well as about 60 years' time travel back to an age that ended before I ever knew it.

You could hardly hope for a more lovely get-away than the Viking Village on the south shore of Fourth Lake, closer actually to the hamlet of Inlet than to Old Forge. Through a dark fringe of pines and spruce, the broad, still waters of the lake reflected the morning sunlight and then evening stars in turn. Mornings, the coffee tasted better in the cool, mountain air, and before turning in we'd kindle wood fires in the fire pit, roasting marshmallows and listening for black bears or the rustling of the raccoon. Some nights we had neighbors in the other cabins, and a few nights we were practically alone out there. And as I explored the land and then the facilities it became clear we were glimpsing another world. Continue reading "Six Nights on Fourth Lake"

Mount Gretna

mount gretna

There are a lot of things I learned to love about Pennsylvania the year I lived there: the broad fields of deep, rich soil and the Amish farms that seem to have to limit to their production. The way the locals call it "P A", and the endless tables of starchy, white food. But that's just the view from Lancaster County, and this enormous state is full of surprises. One of them I found just down the road from me.

Mount Gretna is nestled just south of the first folds of the Alleghany Mountains, in a strip of forest flanked by plowed fields as though the disks had just separated a bit in passing. It would've remained unknown to me had relatives not chosen to retire there. And it amazes me to this day. Continue reading "Mount Gretna"

Speedwell Forge: the magical disappearing lake

Speedwell Forge, 1994

I returned from Indonesia in the summer of 1994, and spent a lonely year in an unlikely place: Lititz, Pennsylvania. That I would find myself in Pennsyvlania was unexpected, but this quiet corner of Amish Country was lovely and enchanting. It was Speedwell Forge, an artificial lake built in the 1960s and the well-loved fishing hole of a generation of Central Pennsylvanians. More than once I canoed around its perimeter, scouring its surrounding hillsides for signs of deer and searching in the wetlands for Heron and Ibis. This is one of very few pictures I took that year, but I recall it fondly: early fall in the treetops, and the glassy water's surface. Continue reading "Speedwell Forge: the magical disappearing lake"