Wednesday, November 06, 2013

When Things Come Together

It's nice when things come together. Like when the shortest and quickest route from Point A to Point B also happens to be the preferred route.

I'm somewhere in Research Triangle, which I guess is where research mysteriously disappears, or something. I am here for a couple of days to learn something, and because it is relatively nearby, it made sense to drive rather than fly. The time driving to and from the airport, getting through security, waiting at the airport, renting a car at the other airport, then reversing the process less than three days later would be more productively applied to driving.

I say this because I have always enjoyed driving as a pastime, and consider time on the road an opportunity to experience something different. It is productive, and to have the opportunity to meld a business trip with a mild adventure was too good to pass by. In this instance, I had the opportunity to trace a "Blue Highways" route from nearly one end to the other, and a great deal of the trip was over terra incognito,  a transect of my home state I had never seen any of before—a double bonus.

The first hour-and-a-half was pleasant and familiar, covering well-known roads and terrain. Following that, indulging in a little map-less, GPS-less, directions-less dead reckoning offered me the opportunity to get mildly lost and explore some rutted and sinuous dirt roads, more pothole and washboard than road proper. Eventually, I was reunited with my intended route, a minor, two-lane state highway,

I saw hidden gems like the town of Scottsville, (pop. 566) on the James River; skirted Willis Mountain, which has been gnawed away by years of mining the kyanite it contains to feed the spark plug industry, a field somewhere in between with a flock of forty wild turkeys blissfully browsing in the early morning light, and not much later a field with a scattering of bison quietly grazing like clenched fists. All this transpired beneath a November sky of increasing overcast and mood.
Willis Mountain, in the distance

The thing about taking a "Blue Highway" route is that you're never more than a few feet from people's lives. For better or worse, you are witness to ten thousand silent vignettes, snapshots of the endless variety of the human condition. In a brief moment you witness and absorb joy, bliss, sorrow, despair...and then they are all gone, replaced by some other moment of insight into another world.

The road, mostly two-laned, rolled southward through deep hollows and ravines of the piedmont resplendent with the yellow-orange cloak of hickories, oaks and beech, then onto more gently rolling hills given to fieldcrops and pasture. Round bales in abundance; fields of some undetermined cover crop, bleached gray by the frost but still standing. The farther south the road ran, the more the land alongside it was given to plantations of pine and clearcuts now grown back with a low understory of riotous autumn colors, as if to compliment the pumpkin-orange clay.

Roads like this are not the arteries of our world anymore; they're not even the arterioles. They're more like capillaries, essential in aggregate but no one in particular is indispensable—but to those whose lives revolve around and are connected directly to them.

I would contrast this route of choice with my alternative, the first choice of Google Maps and Garmin alike—the inevitable interstate corridor, in this case I-95 and I-85. While the "Blue Highway" places you squarely in the middle of people's lives, what you can observe from the interstate highway is generally determined by those who want to be seen. It is a calculated, calculating, deliberate effort to shape and present a very narrowly tailored message to a specific audience. There is no spontaneity within it, there is no humanity in it, there is no serendipity in it. It is commerce, reduced to lowest terms. You can assume that you are being lied to, in one form or another, when you see something from the interstate. When people live in close proximity to an interstate, they try and screen themselves and their lives off from it, to maintain a modicum of privacy.

There is no need for this screening from the "Blue Highway," because there is no dichotomy between inside and outside; the highway is a part of their life.

In a couple of days, I will retrace my route, perhaps with a few minor tweaks learned from my southbound passage, hopefully with enough time to make a stop in Scottsville. I'm looking forward to it, as much as i looked forward to today's trip.

I saw so much.


  • The bleached gray crop was soybeans. I know this because at one point I pulled over on the shoulder and walked to the edge of a field, where I bent down and snapped off a branch from a plant. The leaves were completely wilted but the pods and the stems remained intact, giving a very odd look to the whole thing.
  • I filled the tank in the middle of nowhere, for $2.99 a gallon...full service. Yep, Full Service. Who knew? My receipt was hand-written on a receipt pad made from yellowing newsprint. It might just be the only full service station outside of N.J. 
  • What is it with company trips and Bald Eagles? I'm driving down a divided highway, and an oncoming car spooks a juvenile bald eagle from the median with something in its beak/talons. I slammed on the brakes and pulled to the shoulder; it flew up and circled above the road long enough for me go get a good look at it but not long enough for me to get a picture. Amazing.
  • On the way down, I came around a bend in the road and had to slow down sharply for a woman crossing the road from the mailbox to a small business. On the way home...I came around the reciprocal bend, and had to slow down for the same woman (hairdo) crossing the same road from the same mailbox to the same business. How odd is that?
  • What is it with company trips and bison/buffalo? 
    Yep. Those are buffaloes. Or bisons. 
  • Scottsville is a gem of a little town. I had no idea that places like that existed in Virginia. Lunch at the Tavern on the James was amazing. Enjoyed chatting with Tom at James River Brewing about where they are now and where they're heading. I will definitely be seeing more of Scottsville in the future.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Baptism by immersion

I hadn't given it much thought until just recently, but one of the things that means to most to me about living where we do is the road into our place.

To get here from anywhere means a long stint on the highway, at least some time on the interstate, transitioning from the city fringe and suburbs through the exurbs into a rural area of rolling fields and woodlots, past some working farms and past lots of 'estates' with expensive horses and miles of black three-board fences.

The highway leads to where the balance finally tips to 'country,' to where the mountains reveal themselves in the distance. The spaces between houses widen and the houses begin to diminish to where nobody is looking at 'estates' or living in McMansions so much. It's all pretty much just regular people living in regular houses, just farther apart from each other than they live in Fairfax or Arlington. Some of the houses still stand as remnants of the village that once was— before the highway tore the heart out of it. Others seem freshly squirted from the same extruder that spews generic drywall-and-vinyl sided dreck across the whole continent—suburban tract homes, minus the suburban tract.

The two-lane rises and falls, twists and turns, passing dozens of homes great and small as it snakes along the gentle, open ridge top; an undulating ridge frames the western view. Then the road comes to an abrupt end, leaving two choices: straight ahead, down the gravel road towards the river, or left, down the gravel road to home.

The rough, dusty lane drops west along pastures of sheep and horses, views of long driveways and far-off houses. Then abruptly, it curves and enters the deep dark cool woods.

The trees overarch the road. The sudden shade is disorienting. The lane winds downhill, following an old wagon road for a bit,  through a craggy rock garden of lush ferns, rough-tossed boulders and cobbles, and broken tree trunks, before straightening and rushing to the bottomland cathedral of sycamore and cottonwood and butternut and black walnut. The quiet cool air of the bottomland is rich with smells of earth and water and leaves and plants, and has a physical impact as you abruptly descend into it, and emerge just as abruptly on the ascent of the other side.

That immersion and baptism into the air of the bottomland washes the dirt and sweat and tension of the city off of me like nothing else could. I ride the last bit home refreshed and renewed, and I know that I am home to a most special place.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Stopping By Woods (with apologies to Robert Frost)

Whose woods these are, I think I know.

These are my damn woods. Heh heh. That's pretty cool...

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

R is For Rocket, S is For Space

When I was in elementary school—maybe third grade—I discovered Ray Bradbury through his anthologies of short stories "R is For Rocket" and "S is For Space." Of course, Bradbury was just a gateway author to others...Heinlein, Norton, Herbert, Vonnegut, Tolkien, Wells, Verne, Poe, Lovecraft...

But Bradbury had a special touch. He managed to seamlessly meld a nostalgic remembrance of an idyllic post-Victorian Midwest with an idealistic idealized future. I still periodically re-read 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' just to enjoy the essence of childhood he captures, and the wonder of small-town life at the edge of mystery and fear.

I thought of Bradbury, who died just last year, the other night.

I lay in bed next to my beautiful wife, watching a live video feed on the viewing computer (connected to a network of other computers that encircles the globe) perched on my lap. I was watching a rocket being prepared for a launch to orbit the moon. I could listen to the various voices giving their go ahead for the launch, one after another. Then, with the go-ahead given and a few minutes left before ignition, we both set our computers aside, put our shoes on, and left the house to drive up the road a mile or so.

There, with a clear view to the eastern horizon, we waited. After a few moments, we saw it.

A sodium-orange teardrop of flame, heading into the cold clear night sky. It looked like a flare from a gun, or a cheap firework. But it left an unmistakable trail of smoke through the darkness. And then it faltered and disappeared. A few second later, it flared up again, and another teardrop of flame arced into the sky...a parabola of light from where we stood, appearing to fly upward then sink back to earth again. But in reality, it was climbing ever moon-ward, gaining altitude by the kilometer as the rocket soared from Wallops Island across the Atlantic towards Africa, and eventually the Moon.

We saw the first stage, then burnout and separation, and second stage ignition and burn. It faded from our sight with the second stage still burning. When it was gone, we went back to our house and in a few minutes were asleep in our bed.

Today, from the parking lot at work, I watched another rocket leave the Earth. This one was not going to the Moon. This one was taking food and supplies to the Space Station that is currently orbiting our planet. Once it is offloaded, the Space Station crew will fill it with their refuse and send it all back towards earth to burn up in the atmosphere.

We really are living in the future. Nice call, Ray.

Postscript: What an interesting character. Ray Bradbury was discovered by Truman Capote, and was friends with Gene Kelly.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Thought of the Day...

I wonder what the fifteen year-old me would think of the fifty four year-old me? I mean, besides "...who's the fat guy?"

I think he might be pleasantly surprised...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is there a Librarian in the house?

So I'm looking at the bookshelf, and I notice that "Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap" is on the shelf with the brewing books. Because Margaret Mead, I guess.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Heated gear, two mornings in a row! 48 degrees & 46 degrees...woo-hoo!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Indian Country

The other day I did something I rarely do anymore, which was to take a mid-afternoon ride to get some air and help clear my head. A hundred-mile commute tends to make optional rides less appealing, somehow.

The destination was about fifteen miles away by road, half that as the crow flies; an area that back in the day we referred to as ‘Indian Country.’ It was a crude shorthand for that transitional area between the far edge of the suburbs and the beginning of ‘country.’ It comprised scattered development and industrial parks tossed among fields of scrub and cedar, areas that had stopped being farms and pastures a while ago, but had neither reverted to the wild nor fallen to the developer’s bulldozers. My brother and I both found ourselves exiled to different purgatories in this god-forsaken wilderness for different reasons at a concurrent nadir of our careers.

In any case.

I headed out to ‘Indian Country.’

It may have been most of a decade since I rode out there; the last official record I have is from a cold December morning circa 2004, and maybe a quick traverse a year or two after. But I can’t recall any visits since we left the burbs for the hill in the woods. During that time, the crowding fields of cedar scrub diminished, displaced by more ranks and files of tract houses and strip malls of cellphone stores, fast-food drive-throughs, nail parlors, Chinese carryouts and tanning salons. Office parks, Business parks, Industrial parks—everything but real parks.

You know, every ride must have a destination, if nothing more than an apogee where you cease heading away and begin returning. In this instance, that point was a little country store tucked tight inside a dusty elbow of the road, with a meager swath of gravel outside the front porch and a little more gravel just beside for a parking lot.

When I was billeted in 'Indian Country,' I frequented this little store quite often. It was a timeless oasis smack in the middle of nowhere that sold cold beer, hard-boiled eggs, laundry soap and clothespins, acrid coffee, big sacks of no-name kibble, hunting licenses, any kind of potato chip, night crawlers, deli sandwiches, fishing tackle and live minnows from a converted set of concrete laundry sinks with a big sign overhead, warning all to not shut off the switch or else the minnows would die. The clerks were amiable and laconic, not eager to waste a word when a grunt would do or a grunt when a nod would do, and there was a dusty, sepia-toned quality about the place.

I recall it as the kind of place where you could pull a long-necked bottle of pop from a cooler of crushed ice, pry the crown cap off with the opener bolted to the counter, then stroll out to the worn front porch and sit by the sleeping hound to watch traffic drift past. A nod and a single raised finger acknowledged all who passed by. It probably was never actually like the way I remembered it, but whatever. I liked to stop there, and drop a buck of two from time to time as an investment in keeping places like it around a few more years. It was easy to find a way to make it en route from Point A to Point B, especially when I had no particular desire to be in either Point A or B.

The approach to the store had changed (heavier volumes of heavier traffic demanded such) but the joint was still where I had left it. A sportsbiker on a Ninja was parked in the lot, chatting up a girl in a dusty muscle car. A van full of dusty painters in paint-spattered white overalls pulled in, nicely crushing the safety cone posted to warn-off the ginormous pothole that now threatened the van’s rear axle. The pile of ladders on the roof clattered violently as the van pitched to a halt.

I ungeared a bit and nodded to the sportbiker as I walked to the front porch. He nodded back, sized me and Beast up, then returned his attention to Miss MuscleCar. I opened the creaky front door into a cleaner, brighter, more open, more airy, more spare…mercadito. Tienda.

Hmm. Instead of tackle, and minnows with warning signs, and nightcrawlers, I find international calling cards and Jaritos, Inca cola and pan dulces, prayer candles and sugarloaf, masa and corn husks for tamales. In the cooler beside the usual red-white-and-blue cans of mediocre domestic beers are Sol and Tecate and Corona and Dos Equis—mediocre imported beers. The clerks, who I can barely see over the top of the sparkling clean deli case, are speaking animatedly (en espanol) to the handful of customers gathered around.

But this particular afternoon I’m neither hungry nor thirsty. For better or worse, there's nothing for me here this time. I slip back out the front door, hoping to not seem rude or abrupt. I really only wanted to come here and see if it still existed. It’s a touchstone; a destination; an apogee. And to hell with the ignorant, hateful people who rail against newcomers. It’s a passing of a torch, a brand new coat of paint on a long-standing tradition. I expect that under the new management, I’ll be able to count on this as a destination for some time to come.

More power to ‘em; I’m now looking forward to swinging out to ‘Indian Country’ sometime just to grab an Inca cola y un pan dulce and sit on the porch y ver pasar los coches por un tiempo.

Friday, July 26, 2013

BMW Motorrad drops out of World SuperBike competition at the end of 2013.

And after all that work on the S1000rr. What a shame...strategic realignment, et cetera, blah blah.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Details and background on "Song of the Sausage Creature"

A long time ago, in one of my very first posts, I quoted a passage from Hunter S. Thompson's essay, "The Song of the Sausage Creature. I noticed that the link I posted to the full text is broken, and it's getting harder to find a good source to link to, so I figured I'd cheat and post the full text below for posterity's sake.

But in looking, I also came across a great Cycle World article from December 2012, written by the poor woman whose job it was to try and get a publishable piece of writing from Thompson to CW's editors while he possessed their brand new, very expensive, very exotic motorcycle. Here's the article about the essay.

And here's the original "Song of the Sausage Creature" from Cycle World, March 1995:
There are some things nobody needs in this world, and a bright-red, hunch-back, warp-speed 900cc cafe racer is one of them - but I want one anyway, and on some days I actually believe I need one. That is why they are dangerous.
Everybody has fast motorcycles these days. Some people go 150 miles an hour on two-lane blacktop roads, but not often. There are too many oncoming trucks and too many radar cops and too many stupid animals in the way. You have to be a little crazy to ride these super-torque high-speed crotch rockets anywhere except a racetrack - and even there, they will scare the whimpering shit out of you... There is, after all, not a pig's eye worth of difference between going head-on into a Peterbilt or sideways into the bleachers. On some days you get what you want, and on others, you get what you need.
When Cycle World called me to ask if I would road-test the new Harley Road King, I got uppity and said I'd rather have a Ducati superbike. It seemed like a chic decision at the time, and my friends on the superbike circuit got very excited. "Hot damn," they said. "We will take it to the track and blow the bastards away."
"Balls," I said. "Never mind the track. The track is for punks. We are Road People. We are Cafe Racers."
The Cafe Racer is a different breed, and we have our own situations. Pure speed in sixth gear on a 5000-foot straightaway is one thing, but pure speed in third gear on a gravel-strewn downhill ess-turn is quite another.
But we like it. A thoroughbred Cafe Racer will ride all night through a fog storm in freeway traffic to put himself into what somebody told him was the ugliest and tightest decreasing-radius turn since Genghis Khan invented the corkscrew.
Cafe Racing is mainly a matter of taste. It is an atavistic mentality, a peculiar mix of low style, high speed, pure dumbness, and overweening commitment to the Cafe Life and all its dangerous pleasures... I am a Cafe Racer myself, on some days - and it is one of my finest addictions.
I am not without scars on my brain and my body, but I can live with them. I still feel a shudder in my spine every time I see a picture of a Vincent Black Shadow, or when I walk into a public restroom and hear crippled men whispering about the terrifying Kawasaki Triple... I have visions of compound femur-fractures and large black men in white hospital suits holding me down on a gurney while a nurse called "Bess" sews the flaps of my scalp together with a stitching drill.
Ho, ho. Thank God for these flashbacks. The brain is such a wonderful instrument (until God sinks his teeth into it). Some people hear Tiny Tim singing when they go under, and some others hear the song of the Sausage Creature.
When the Ducati turned up in my driveway, nobody knew what to do with it. I was in New York, covering a polo tournament, and people had threatened my life. My lawyer said I should give myself up and enroll in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Other people said it had something to do with the polo crowd.
The motorcycle business was the last straw. It had to be the work of my enemies, or people who wanted to hurt me. It was the vilest kind of bait, and they knew I would go for it.
Of course. You want to cripple the bastard? Send him a 130-mph cafe-racer. And include some license plates, he'll think it's a streetbike. He's queer for anything fast.
Which is true. I have been a connoisseur of fast motorcycles all my life. I bought a brand-new 650 BSA Lightning when it was billed as "the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine." I have ridden a 500-pound Vincent through traffic on the Ventura Freeway with burning oil on my legs and run the Kawa 750 Triple through Beverly Hills at night with a head full of acid... I have ridden with Sonny Barger and smoked weed in biker bars with Jack Nicholson, Grace Slick, Ron Zigler and my infamous old friend, Ken Kesey, a legendary Cafe Racer.
Some people will tell you that slow is good - and it may be, on some days - but I am here to tell you that fast is better. I've always believed this, in spite of the trouble it's caused me. Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube. That is why God made fast motorcycles, Bubba....
So when I got back from New York and found a fiery red rocket-style bike in my garage, I realized I was back in the road-testing business.
The brand-new Ducati 900 Campione del Mundo Desmodue Supersport double-barreled magnum Cafe Racer filled me with feelings of lust every time I looked at it. Others felt the same way. My garage quickly became a magnet for drooling superbike groupies. They quarreled and bitched at each other about who would be the first to help me evaluate my new toy... And I did, of course, need a certain spectrum of opinions, besides my own, to properly judge this motorcycle. The Woody Creek Perverse Environmental Testing Facility is a long way from Daytona or even top-fuel challenge-sprints on the Pacific Coast Highway, where teams of big-bore Kawasakis and Yamahas are said to race head-on against each other in death-defying games of "chicken" at 100 miles an hour....
No. Not everybody who buys a high-dollar torque-brute yearns to go out in a ball of fire on a public street in L.A. Some of us are decent people who want to stay out of the emergency room, but still blast through neo-gridlock traffic in residential districts whenever we feel like it... For that we need Fine Machinery.
Which we had - no doubt about that. The Ducati people in New Jersey had opted, for some reasons of their own, to send me the 900ss-sp for testing - rather than their 916 crazy-fast, state-of-the-art superbike track-racer. It was far too fast, they said - and prohibitively expensive - to farm out for testing to a gang of half-mad Colorado cowboys who think they're world-class Cafe Racers.
The Ducati 900 is a finely engineered machine. My neighbors called it beautiful and admired its racing lines. The nasty little bugger looked like it was going 90 miles an hour when it was standing still in my garage.
Taking it on the road, though, was a genuinely terrifying experience. I had no sense of speed until I was going 90 and coming up fast on a bunch of pickup trucks going into a wet curve along the river. I went for both brakes, but only the front one worked, and I almost went end over end. I was out of control staring at the tailpipe of a U.S. Mail truck, still stabbing frantically at my rear brake pedal, which I just couldn't find... I am too tall for these new-age roadracers; they are not built for any rider taller than five-nine, and the rearset brake pedal was not where I thought it would be. Mid-size Italian pimps who like to race from one cafe to another on the boulevards of Rome in a flat-line prone position might like this, but I do not.
I was hunched over the tank like a person diving into a pool that got emptied yesterday. Whacko! Bashed on the concrete bottom, flesh ripped off, a Sausage Creature with no teeth, fucked-up for the rest of its life.
We all love Torque, and some of us have taken it straight over the high side from time to time - and there is always Pain in that... But there is also Fun, the deadly element, and Fun is what you get when you screw this monster on. BOOM! Instant take-off, no screeching or squawking around like a fool with your teeth clamping down on our tongue and your mind completely empty of everything but fear.
No. This bugger digs right in and shoots you straight down the pipe, for good or ill.
On my first take-off, I hit second gear and went through the speed limit on a two-lane blacktop highway full of ranch traffic. By the time I went up to third, I was going 75 and the tach was barely above 4000 rpm....
And that's when it got its second wind. From 4000 to 6000 in third will take you from 75 mph to 95 in two seconds - and after that, Bubba, you still have fourth, fifth, and sixth. Ho, ho.
I never got to sixth gear, and I didn't get deep into fifth. This is a shameful admission for a full-bore Cafe Racer, but let me tell you something, old sport: This motorcycle is simply too goddamn fast to ride at speed in any kind of normal road traffic unless you're ready to go straight down the centerline with your nuts on fire and a silent scream in your throat.
When aimed in the right direction at high speed, though, it has unnatural capabilities. This I unwittingly discovered as I made my approach to a sharp turn across some railroad tracks, saw that I was going way too fast and that my only chance was to veer right and screw it on totally, in a desperate attempt to leapfrog the curve by going airborne.
It was a bold and reckless move, but it was necessary. And it worked: I felt like Evel Knievel as I soared across the tracks with the rain in my eyes and my jaws clamped together in fear. I tried to spit down on the tracks as I passed them, but my mouth was too dry... I landed hard on the edge of the road and lost my grip for a moment as the Ducati began fishtailing crazily into oncoming traffic. For two or three seconds I came face to face with the Sausage Creature....
But somehow the brute straightened out. I passed a schoolbus on the right and got the bike under control long enough to gear down and pull off into an abandoned gravel driveway where I stopped and turned off the engine. My hands had seized up like claws and the rest of my body was numb. I felt nauseous and I cried for my mama, but nobody heard, then I went into a trance for 30 or 40 seconds until I was finally able to light a cigarette and calm down enough to ride home. I was too hysterical to shift gears, so I went the whole way in first at 40 miles an hour.
Whoops! What am I saying? Tall stories, ho, ho... We are motorcycle people; we walk tall and we laugh at whatever's funny. We shit on the chests of the Weird....
But when we ride very fast motorcycles, we ride with immaculate sanity. We might abuse a substance here and there, but only when it's right. The final measure of any rider's skill is the inverse ratio of his preferred Traveling Speed to the number of bad scars on his body. It is that simple: If you ride fast and crash, you are a bad rider. And if you are a bad rider, you should not ride motorcycles.
The emergence of the superbike has heightened this equation drastically. Motorcycle technology has made such a great leap forward. Take the Ducati. You want optimum cruising speed on this bugger? Try 90mph in fifth at 5500 rpm - and just then, you see a bull moose in the middle of the road. WHACKO. Meet the Sausage Creature.
Or maybe not: The Ducati 900 is so finely engineered and balanced and torqued that you *can* do 90 mph in fifth through a 35-mph zone and get away with it. The bike is not just fast - it is *extremely* quick and responsive, and it *will* do amazing things... It is like riding a Vincent Black Shadow, which would outrun an F-86 jet fighter on the take-off runway, but at the end, the F-86 would go airborne and the Vincent would not, and there was no point in trying to turn it. WHAMO! The Sausage Creature strikes again.
There is a fundamental difference, however, between the old Vincents and the new breed of superbikes. If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the Vincent Black Shadow Society. The Vincent was like a bullet that went straight; the Ducati is like the magic bullet in Dallas that went sideways and hit JFK and the Governor of Texas at the same time.
It was impossible. But so was my terrifying sideways leap across the railroad tracks on the 900sp. The bike did it easily with the grace of a fleeing tomcat. The landing was so easy I remember thinking, goddamnit, if I had screwed it on a little more I could have gone a lot farther.
Maybe this is the new Cafe Racer macho. My bike is so much faster than yours that I dare you to ride it, you lame little turd. Do you have the balls to ride this BOTTOMLESS PIT OF TORQUE?
That is the attitude of the new-age superbike freak, and I am one of them. On some days they are about the most fun you can have with your clothes on. The Vincent just killed you a lot faster than a superbike will. A fool couldn't ride the Vincent Black Shadow more than once, but a fool can ride a Ducati 900 many times, and it will always be a bloodcurdling kind of fun. That is the Curse of Speed which has plagued me all my life. I am a slave to it. On my tombstone they will carve, "IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME."
...Sweet jeebus. That's how you write a product review.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"...He has given us a secular version of a sacred text."

Nice write-up on some of the back story and present-day significance of Robert Pirsig and ZATAOMM .

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Tuesday evening, the 9th of July:

The air outside is like gravy. Thick, gray, flavorless gravy.


So I was cruising on my way home, just crossed the county line (my penultimate landmark) essentially doing the motorcycle version of SOCMOB (I guess that would RDRMOB) when THWACK!! this ginormous BUG hits me straight in the hollow of my throat at about 70 miles an hour (my doing the posted speed limit of 55 + this crazy-ass bug going twenty miles an hour THE WRONG WAY IN MY LANE).

I actually flinched and meandered in my lane for a second it hurt so @#$%^& much. But I regained my composure, continued down the road to my turn, and proceeded to the end of our lane where I stopped to pick up the mail. Whilst doing that, I reached down to check the slight tickling sensation I felt on my shirt. So, fumblefumblefumble OW OW OW OW OW! #@$%^&*!!!

Yep, it was a #@$%^&*!! wasp I hit on the highway at the posted legal speed limit while SOCMOB, so to speak, and that #%$@^&!! wasp wasn't content to just crash the @#$% into me. Nooooooooooo, he had to come along for the ride, and add injury to insult by giving me a big old sting right smack dab in the center of my sternum for my troubles. And after all that fussing and commotion, he had the audacity to fly off.

#@$%^&!!. ATGATT, my butt.

Footnote: For those of you keeping score at home, that's two snakebites and a wasp sting since Sunday.

Not sure what made me think of this—

The sky was lost and day-dreamy on the way in to work this morning. Vaguely defined clouds, vaguely defined horizons made for a soothing and relaxing trip. Stripped-down Beast, aka the 'R1100-less' seems like a different bike without all the plastic that usually encases it.

Today I added the hardcases back on, because I get nervous riding without all the crap and clutter the cases store—probably about forty pounds of extraneous junk that I rarely touch or use (tools, first aid kit, bungee net...) plus of course the extra drag the cases create. But I feel better having it all along for the ride.

So I guess it was the modest profile and the presence of the cases that reminded me of the 1979 R65 standard with Krauser cases we owned for a brief period back in the day. Brown bodywork and tank, snowflake mag wheels.

The R65 was the older cousin of Campaigner. The later R80st was built using many of the components of the R65; much of the front end, the instrument cluster and control assemblies, the headlamp shell, brackets and turn signals, and some other odds and ends. The R65 engine was a 248 series, smaller and using different carburetors, while the R80st used a standard 800cc type 247 engine.

For a brief run, the monolever suspension of the G/S and ST even made its way back to the R65 (about 1,700 units were built with that configuration) but they all came at the end of the sixty-year run of the air-cooled boxers, and were pushed aside to make room for the K-bikes in the mid 1980s.

The R65 had some issues, for sure. Standard criticism was that it was underpowered and underbraked, and that it was an answer to a question that few people were asking. But a lot of folks thought the R65 was an ideal urban bike, and I'd have to agree with that analysis. It shared many of the strengths of the R80st—short wheelbase, tight turning radius, light weight, supple and responsive handling.

It also had a classic two-into-two boxer exhaust system, and sounded pretty much like any airhead /2 or /5 from anytime. The modest power output of the 248 series was kind of fun in a way. You really had to think about where you wanted to go and how you wanted to get there (I'm not talking about road trips; I'm talking about lane changes).

The R65 demanded that you be working the gearbox pretty regularly, and a lot of riding it consisted of cranking the throttle open and listening to the throaty twin exhausts as those cute little cylinders spooled up and the bike slowly accelerated. It required a great deal of patience sometimes, and was no match for its contemporaries in terms of either speed or quickness. But the R65 was reliable, it was comfortable, and it was more than competent. The R65 is also one of the classic airheads that still looks good today, thirty years since the last one rolled off the line. On the rare occasion I spot one, it never fails to turn my head...and if I happen to spot an R65LS, that warrants a full stop-and-admire. I believe our R65 was the last motorcycle Mary rode while pregnant with Philip, on a very chilly group ride through a May snow squall in Virginia.

There's a lot to be said for the technology of the oilheads (ABS, anyone?) and I have no illusions about the pluses-and-minuses of new technologies versus old technologies. I wouldn't mind having a 247 or a 248 to putt around on, probably wearing a Belstaff jacket with tweed patches on the elbows. Beast is still my go-to bike, and for now I'll just lose myself in imagining it's an R65 from time to time...that's the best of both worlds.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Black Snake Days

I. Saturday morning, bright and early. Taking care of chores early so we can head into town ahead of the heat. In house#1, there is a turkey hen and four keets—half the number there were the night before. In lieu of the keets, there is a large black snake curled up in the corner, partially hidden beneath the wood chip bedding. It bulges conspicuously.

Without thought or hesitation, I locate the snake's head end and grab it; it erupts from the wood chips in a writhing fury and attempts to wrap itself around my arm. Bloated from gorging on our keets, it is slow and lacks the supple grace it would normally exhibit. I am stunned and furious at what it has done, and at how I have somehow failed our charges.

I stand with my writhing captive for what seems like an eternity, deciding what to do. I quickly realize there is only one course of action, and that is for the snake to die. Not to assuage my anger or rage or guilt or sorrow, not for vengeance or retribution or reparation or anything else like that. It must die because if i do not kill it, it will undoubtedly return and finish what it has started, and perhaps inflict harm on the hen herself, though she is too big to become a meal.

So without further thought or hesitation, I kill the snake instantly. Its tail continues to act without plan or guidance for some time, then finally quiets. I throw its body into the meadow for the scavengers to feed upon, and by the next day large sections of it have been picked to the bone, leaving the fish-like skeleton to bleach in the hot July sun.

II. Sunday morning. A black snake slithers along the fence line between the garden and the summer chicken yard, safely disappearing into the deep weeds and cover separating the two. The chickens are concerned but not alarmed.

III. Early Sunday afternoon. Another sighting, this time in the garden proper. I do not see this one, but shortly  afterwards, I see another black snake—significantly larger and longer than Saturday morning's snake—gliding silently among the summer flowers and forbs just inside the garden from the driveway. I walk along beside it for a time, trying to keep track of its head to gauge its intentions. It pauses briefly, as the fencing limits its options, then proceeds to disappear into a burrow. It advances six, maybe eight inches, paused, backs up an inch or two, then resumes its progress until its entire length has disappeared underground. I would not have thought it possible for such a large creature to disappear with such ease. What was it seeking? Food? Shelter? Respite from the baking sun? I have no idea.

IV. Later Sunday afternoon. We are relaxing beneath the creaky ceiling fan when the roaming guineas raise a ruckus outside our room. They are persistent and unusually focused, so on my way out to begin another project I pause to see what has them riled up so. The three clownish heads are staring and screaming at another black snake, which this time has sought refuge in the clutter next to the foundation. I realize there are many ground nests nearby, and we have noticed the occasional egg disappearing. So I step to the snake, and my complacency and overconfidence gets the best of me. As I reach for its neck, I grab too far back and the   glaring, angry head snaps back and bites me, once, twice. The second time, it does not let go, but hangs on to my finger with a fury.

My first thought was "aww...those are like little kitten teeth. Angry little kitten teeth. How adorable this little snake is." And the rest of the angry little snake body, all three-and-a-half feet of it, began knotting itself around my hand and arm. Realizing I was kind of stuck in an awkward predicament, I called for Mary to toss me a glove, with which I could proceed with a little more security and dignity.

Gloving up my unsnaked hand, I tossed the snake away from the house. Unfortunately the snake did not disengage my hand, but instead cut several little gashes in my finger as its flying body dragged its teeth away. Nevertheless, as soon as it was on the ground, it reoriented itself and began for the shadows near the house with great haste. I put my foot on its neck, and again, it struck several times at my shoe. But with safely gloved hand, I reached down, caught it directly behind the head, and picked it up to examine it before deciding a course of action.

I looked at the little bulge in its belly. It was not an 'egg' bulge. It looked more like a 'mouse' bulge. So at the exact same moment, Mary and I realized what the snake's fate would would be dragooned into our service. I took it to the fenced garden, and released it among the many mole-rich rows. Pissy to the last, it writhed angrily as I let it go, and it raced off for shelter and cover among the rich green cornstalks. I hope it has found a nice mole tunnel to call its own.

So many black snake stories, such a brief period.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Seems kinda strange to me.

So today it's Friday, the fifth of July, and I seem to be one of the few folks riding in to work today. But it's nice, because I realize there's a steady stream of sport bikes—onesie-twosie—heading the other way, towards the piedmont and mountains. On a typical commuting morning, I rarely see many bikes heading west.

Some of them are solo, some have pillions; some are ATGATT and some appear nearly naked. Regardless, it makes me happy to think of all these folks having a long weekend and taking advantage of it by getting some road miles in before the heat comes on with the full ferocity the day promises.

But it gets me to thinking...pretty much all the folks I've ridden with in my couple decade-long riding career have given up their bikes. I go back through the years, and can't think of anyone who's still with it. At this point, I only know one other person who even has a bike, and we're not riding buddies at this point.

I look back at pictures from the last three decades of rides, and can still remember most of the names and faces and the places and roads we traveled. But the only long group ride (Tail of the Dragon) is almost seven years past; the most recent long solo ride (Vermont) is almost three years past, and the last ride that wasn't solo was a year ago. That leaves a weird hole in my psyche. I miss all those people, I miss those places, and I miss that activity.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Herons, plural

On my way to work today I saw something I had never seen before—a flock, albeit a small one, of great blue herons. Three of them, to be exact, flying in formation across the low grey sky.

Recently I have seen a pair of the smaller green heron, noteworthy for their brightly colored legs and feet, in the vicinity of the pond at GMU. They patrol the shore and shallows and nearby woods, and fly spectacularly. But they are no match for the great blues, unmistakable with their deep keels, long curved necks, deadly bills, gracefully extended legs and almost comically graceful flight made possible with the slightest exertion of their wingtips.

Earlier this week, a great blue took off from a pond next to where I work, then slowly, gracefully, ponderously gained both speed and altitude until it soared into the treetops nearby and disappeared. With each flap of its long wings, its scale appeared to change; it seemed to grow larger, more massive, with each stroke. By the time it reached the woods, it had transformed from a shore bird into a massive, commanding master of the sky.

I cannot envision anything but ancient pterodactyls when I see them in flight; slow, steady, unfaltering, their gaze fixed to a point on the far horizon. For the longest time, it always appeared to me that they only flew on paths diagonal to roadways; I never saw a heron cross a road perpendicular nor fly along one that I could recall. But recently I think I did see one cross a road at a right angle, and it seemed unnatural.

But I am sure that before today, I have only seen the great blue heron as a solitary traveler.

And Just Like That, It Came and It Went

At twilight last night—the first day of July—we went outside to gather the day's eggs and begin the process of closing up the flocks.

We were both going about our business in the summer chicken yard, Mary looking for eggs in the outside nestbox, me collecting the eggs from the main house, when I noted a strange sound coming from the south. It was not the sound of a car on the gravel road, nor was it the far-away sound of a truck on the highway. It was not an airplane, and it was not the rising of the wind.

We looked at each other.


It never occurred to me that the sound of rain approaching is different from the sound of the wind. It is a  white noise, almost devoid of characteristics, made up of countless tiny little granular noises subsumed within one another. In contrast, wind is complex and dense, rich with layers of turbulence and harmonics; bigger chunks of sounds made by lots of large, chaotic things interacting.

We quickened our pace, hurriedly closing the gates behind us. "Can you see it yet?" We looked to the distant treeline, far to the south. As we looked, the treeline disappeared behind a grey wall. The sound became louder, more insistent. The nearer treeline disappeared, then the trees in the backyard. We ran and ducked beneath the overhang of the shed just as the rain reached us, laughing as the roaring deluge obscured the world around us and pounded the earth.

Then, no more than thirty seconds later, it diminished to almost nothing, moving on as quickly as it had arrived. The ground, so recently assaulted, was barely wet; beneath the trees, it had stayed dry. And the sound of rain leaving is nothing to compare with the sound of rain coming.

It's too bad, because we really needed the rain.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Agnus Dei," Samuel Barber, 1967

Memorial Day, a year ago.

I sat in the sweltering cab of the threadbare truck, seeking a brief reprieve from the sun that baked the deep dry slash along the power line right-of-way. Sweat soaked my shirt and shorts; the glare made my eyes hurt. Small dark things crawled among the hairs of my calves. The last year and a half had been an unremitting struggle. Waking every morning for a job I hated more with each passing moment; barely bringing home enough to retard our long slow slide to the precipice; fighting with a bank the very epitome of mindless, heartless, soulless bureaucracy; waking in the middle of each night to wonder what worse thing the next dawn could possibly bring.

Hanging my head and panting from the heat and exertion, I flicked on the radio. The first notes from the radio seized me, held me, and like a single shard of glass, sliced me open from head to toe. I began to sob uncontrollably, tears mingling with the sweat streaming down my face.

“Agnus Dei,” Samuel Barber's choral arrangement of that part of the Latin liturgy to his own “Adagio for Strings.” Three lines—a total of just eleven separate latin words—sung so the words nearly disappear:
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
I am old enough to have sat through many a latin mass in my formative years. Yet I doubt my conscious mind made a connection between the ethereal music I heard that blazing noon and those ancient words buried so deep. But there is no missing or mistaking the soul-wrenching depth of emotion conveyed in that simple, spare, elegant piece. I have written before about the power of 'Adagio,' yet this version manages to surpass the original in conveying such immense sorrow and release in such a restrained and concise package. 

This is the version that cut through my callus that day: Sung a cappella by the Choir of Trinity College, Oxford, conducted by Richard Marlow. This might straight-up be the most beautiful and moving nine-and-a-half minutes of music I can imagine.

[Addendum, September 9, 2016: I have long wondered when listening to this version why I cannot simply 'follow along with the lyrics.' It is the nature of choral music; the four parts (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass) sing the lyrics at different paces, passing the melody from one to another at different measures. At the emotional climax of the piece, around the seven-minute mark, the four voices come together on the word 'pacem' ('peace'), followed by a long silence, then reprising the phrase 'dona nobis pacem' ('grant us peace'). For details, see ]

Quoting the greats:

"The thunder draws its breath from lungs of pine and oak, and prepares to pound the mountains and hills in short order. In my memory, there are always thunderstorms over the mountains."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The "R1100-Less"

So Beast chewed-up and spit out an alternator belt a couple of weeks ago (seriously--there was a little black rubber bird's-nest under the front cover when I took it apart). I rode fifteen or so miles on battery power, and knew it likely wouldn't make it to any shop under its own power. So I figured I would try my hand at fixing it myself—how hard could it be, right?

Once I had a replacement belt in hand, it was time to make my first incursion into the mysteries beneath the swoopy skin in nearly ten years of ownership. In order to do things right, the body panels had to come off; and after gently removing countless little fasteners, the inner Beast was revealed.

Pretty neat. The bulbous asymmetrical aluminum tank, studded with various mounting bosses, sits on the backbone like a lustrous face-hugger. The black snorkel swoops out around the left side of the tank from the airbox, and various and sundry components and assemblies hang out in the breeze.

With the exception of the ludicrously purposeful hardcases still hanging off Beast's hips, and the tiny little red mask around the headlamps, it's kind of 'streetfighter' looking. Not beautiful, not exactly ugly, but different. And what I discovered on my ride home yesterday afternoon was that the same fairing that protects you from the icy blast in the winter also keeps the cooling airflow off you when it's 86 degrees and 65% humidity.

Not a gigantic difference, for sure. But I definitely felt more breeze on my upper body without the windshield, and generally more airflow all over. That's really a bonus in commuting traffic; it's pretty much like having a standard motorcycle again, and not much of a burden for the brief stints I spend at highway speeds. The biggest difference is how the wind feels: unfaired, 65 mph feels pretty much like 85 mph with a fairing; anything above about 70 mph feels like re-entry.

The question now is how long will I live with the 'streetfighter' look, or how soon will I chicken out and put Beast's clothes back on. Barring any unforeseen ill effects of riding naked, I could see this lasting until the first frost, for sure. And when Beast does get dressed again, I think it's time for the carbon-fiber livery. The 'little black dress,' so to speak.

Dominus papa squalus laetabundus

I don't even know where to begin with this. So I'm just going to leave it here.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Whippoorwill

This evening, we sat out in the garden in the twilight and listened to the coming night sounds. The local whippoorwill began his singing, and after a few introductory passes of sixty or seventy repetitions, repeated his call two-hundred and eighty nine times before pausing. After a pause of about six beats, he began again; but I stopped counting.

Regional Studies

I have been reading "Night Comes To The Cumberlands," a thoroughly engrossing and disturbing study of the history of Eastern Kentucky.

The book was written by Harry Caudill and originally published in 1963. The story it told of poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and deprivation motivated John Kennedy to create the Appalachian Regional Commission to improve living conditions for the residents of the Appalachian poverty belt.

Caudill established his bona fides in the introduction, which helps deflect a certain amount of the heavy-handed approach he takes to his subject. (Caudill's tone strays to the patronizing and somewhat condescending at times, and his take on both slaves and Native Americans betrays the era from which he is writing).

But if I were to create a "Regional Studies Reading List," I would certainly begin with "Night Comes to The Cumberlands," and add:
  • "Born Fighting" by James Webb,
  • "Far Appalachia" by Noah Adams,
  • "The Foxfire Book" by Eliot Wigginton et al, (at least the first three volumes)
The subject needs to be understood, if for no other reason than that the issues and attitudes described in this book are still very much with us today in our current political discourse. The attitudes of the earliest white settlers of Kentucky are still with us. They are manifest in a concept of 'freedom' that is defined not by "What  do I have the ability to do?" but rather "No one can tell me what I can't do."

The two approaches are clearly not equivalent; and they lead to radically different ends.


Edit: another book I'd add to the list: "Skyland" by George Freeman Pollock, for his odd (and somewhat condescending) take on the mountaineers he encountered when building his Skyland Lodge. Skyland became the nucleus of Shenandoah National Park, which displaced those mountain families into the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley during the Great Depression. This diaspora into 'modernity' changed the lives of the mountain people irreversibly, and not necessarily for the best. What Cryphonectria parasitica did to the American Chestnut, the coming of SNP likewise did to the mountain families of the Blue Ridge. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Birds we have here...

American Crow, American Goldfinch, American Robin, American Tree Sparrow, Bald Eagle, Barn Owl, Barn Swallow, Black Vulture, Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay, Brown-headed Cowbird, Canada Goose, Carolina Chickadee, Cattle Egret, Cedar Waxwing, Chimney Swift, Common Raven, Cooper's Hawk, Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebird, European Starling, Gray Catbird, Great Blue Heron, Great Horned Owl, Green Heron, House Finch, House Sparrow, House Wren, Indigo Bunting, Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, Pileated Woodpecker, Purple Finch, Purple Martin, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-winged Blackbird, Rock Dove, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Ruffed Grouse, Scarlet Tanager, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Turkey-Vulture, Whip-poor-will & Wild Turkey. Plus a kettle of migrating hawks, which counts for something.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

I'm So Confused...

We woke up this morning to a beautiful fall day: Forty degrees, clear blue skies, brilliant sunshine, brisk breeze from the northwest. But hold on, it's Madeline's birthday today, and if I recall correctly, she was born on May 25th...wait a minute...??

On the other hand, it's a classic opening day for the pool.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Recursive Nature

Right now the spring wildflowers are blooming in a generous gifting of color and scent; both the variety of species blooming and the quantity is just stunning. The Indian Bloodroot and triliums have passed, but there are jack-in-the-pulpit aplenty and more things on the way.

At some time, the classic English garden became the pinnacle and epitome of what gardening was meant to be. An "English Garden" defined 'garden.' And countless amateur gardeners have strived over countless decades to emulate and express that particular style, with varying degrees of skill and success. Constrained by space, time and budget—constraints not necessarily shared by the estate gardeners of ages past (who labored within a wholly different world of constraints) contemporary gardeners aspire and more often than not, fall short of that aspiration.

But history shows a different relationship between model and result, between pattern and product. The classic English gardens of the era we strive so badly to emulate were ebullient (and somewhat pallid) efforts to recreate...the wildflowers of Virginia. The early explorers of the mid-Atlantic were avid amateur naturalists, and worked tirelessly to collect new specimens of plants to return to England.

So I stand and look at the wildflowers with a newfound appreciation of what we have right here in our back yard. To manipulate Virginia's natural landscapes in an effort to recreate the English styles we are so fond of is "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, To throw a perfume on the violet...add another hue Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish..."

Friday, May 17, 2013

Compare & Contrast

Interesting backstory here.

Edit: Listening to Zep's version this morning in the car on  the way to work, I remembered one of the most amazing musical moments I've experienced.
A decade and a half ago, we were all camping somewhere out west (Great Sand Dunes, probably) and in the evening Phil brought out his acoustic guitar and started noodling around. Then he started playing this beneath the stars, and with each note, the campground got quieter and quieter until all you could hear was his playing --and the crickets. It was an amazing shared moment.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Prejudice and Discrimination II

The houses you travel past—at least those you travel past on foot or on two wheels—form a perpetual cyclorama, with which you can do one of two things:

  1. You can strive to discriminate the finer details and parse the fabric of a thousand lives frozen in a moment, or 
  2. You can ignore the discriminate details and simply use that cyclorama as a canvas upon which to project what is already formed in your mind.
I find that I switch between the two, based on my frame of mind. When I am feeling good, I do the former; when I am feeling bad, I do the latter. I think that's significant.


Massanutten was burning.

I first saw it one afternoon as I came home down the long valley, a small wisp of white smoke rising from its east flank near Veitch gap as though Massanutten were a volcano and the smoke from a fumarole. By the next morning, the smoke had several sources and the cool air in Front Royal was sweetly perfumed with the most amazing incense. That afternoon, and for many successive days, the smoke grew and thickened across valley, deepening as the June air warmed and grew humid.

The fire took hold in a period of bright, clear dry days with parchingly low humidity and challenging winds. It spread from a small patch of an acre or two to tens, then hundreds of acres. It burned in an area far from roads on the rocky east slope of the eastern ridge of the dual mountain, and could only be fought on foot by firefighters carrying hand tools and water. It was tough going and slow. And because there were so few man-made things nearby, and little value to the coarse timber, there was no great sense of urgency to battling the fire and it seemed to linger. The perfume became rank and cloying, burning the nose and throat.

Then one day, the breeze carried the scent of burning pine across the mountains into our county. The smell  was pushed southeastward, riding the bow wave of a raging mass of angry, roiling air.

That night, the storm came.

The silence of twilight, the low-hanging half moon, a handful of dim stars in the still thick haze. Then, with the night, sweeps in a dark curtain—a wall across the western sky, malign and laced through with lightning. With little warning other than the sound of the wind racing across the nearby hills, it breaks upon us like a wave breaks upon the empty beach. The trees have nowhere to go and the storm shows no mercy, offers no quarter. In a brief time the storm tramples us and moves eastward.

We awake Saturday to a disheveled, wrecked world. We consume a tank of fuel in the chainsaw before our second cup of coffee; all around us we see unexpected and utterly random damage. Trees toppling other trees, crashing down onto fence lines; trees snapped in half, others losing branches that themselves are the size of trees. The destruction is without rhyme or reason or pattern, an unspeakable elemental rage brought down upon us. 

We join our neighbor to walk the road and assess its state. This is one of the small pleasant rituals we have discovered since moving to our house in the woods, after snow or heavy weather, reminding me of Frost's 'Mending Wall.' We set the road right, clear debris from ditches and culverts, remove the downed branches  and return up the lane to our respective places, having restored a small measure of normal.

Yet the bulk of the damage largely remains, and it is prodigious. It adds another layer of work to be done onto an already lengthy list, and the damaged fences cannot be ignored for long. The paths will be cleared, the debris removed, but the storm has left a mark that will be long in erasing. And we are fortunate we suffered no damage to our home or our buildings, and neither we nor any of our animals were hurt. But we will be fixing this for a long time to come...

The Derecho of June 29-30, 2012, ended the forest fire threat on Massanutten, as well as causing a hellish amount of suffering and damage from Ohio to Delaware that persisted for a very long time. But far worse for us was a microburst thunderstorm some weeks later, which broke or felled at least ten large trees in our yard alone while doing very little else around us. We hadn't finished cleaning up that when Hurricane Sandy dropped a huge double-stemmed pine tree among other things. That one managed to just graze a fence line with some branches amazingly enough, as it had the potential to take out several powerlines. 

So we continue, keeping fingers crossed, and an eye on the sky. It's been a tough year for the trees, without a doubt.

Monday, May 06, 2013

I heard the news today, oh boy

I was reading an article today about fracking, in particular about the experiences of landowners adjacent to properties where fracking has taken place. Often these landowners receive no financial benefit from the sale of the gas produced there, either because of some sneaky dealing with the previous owners, strong-arm tactics by the gas companies, or simply their reluctance to sell the drilling rights. As an acquaintance used to say, "All of the onus, none of the bonus..."

One story mentioned a man who had working in one of the incidental positions related to fracking--he washed the mats that surrounded the drill sites once they were done drilling and were taken up, in preparation for trucking them to the next site.

The man developed a debilitating skin condition from having his feet in the chemical-laden wastewater, and after seeing forty doctors, was no closer to a cure or palliation. He is unable to work.

This is not even a remotely remarkable story in this day and age. But what literally made me gasp out loud was the byline of the story--Clearville, Pennsylvania.

For a brief time, a million years ago, Clearville was my mailing address. It is a beautiful area in south-central Pennsylvania, maybe fifteen miles above the Mason-Dixon line as the crow flies, not near anything in particular. It lies among the many long north-south ridges of the Appalachians as they begin the sinuous turn eastward that defines the topology of central Pennsylvania. Much of the land hosts state forests that came into being during the depression, when farm after farm failed and reverted to neowilderness. It makes for good hunting and fishing land, and as I recall, is flush with wild blueberries in the summer. It also lies atop the infamous Marcellus shale, the home of our benighted culture's mad 21st century gold rush.

Gobsmacked, I looked a little deeper into what's going on with fracking and that little slice of Pennsylvania with which I have a passing familiarity.

Turns out that fracking is all over the map there, and people getting sick from it is just the beginning. While Clearville was my postal address, the actual location was a tiny little crossroads even closer to the Mason-Dixon and farther from anything of consequence. And it turns out that little hamlet was the scene of a natural gas compression station fire in 2010 that required the evacuation of over 40 homes in the middle of the night.

My first thought was "There are actually over 40 homes in Artemas? Really?" My second thought was how heartbreaking is was that Artemas now hosted a natural gas compression station.

Even back in the day, natural gas was a thing there. There was an old capped well atop the property; locals talked about how in exchange for allowing (old-school) drilling on their property, they received free gas stoves, heat and refrigerators (yes, you can make cold by burning gas) and from time to time you could hear the sound of a drill rig off in the distance on a cool summer night.

But a compression station running 24/7, right there...that's another matter.

It was a really, really quiet place; the kind of place where airplanes were generally absent from the sky, where you heard the wind and the rain coming for minutes before they arrived, where birdsong was common and plain to hear, where a car coming along the long gravel road was never a surprise.

The two streams and spring nearby ran cold and clear. I guess that's all changed now, and that change can't ever be undone by us or our children or our children's children. I'll just try and keep it in my memory, how it was. And as much as I abhor folks who randomly quote scripture, it seems very Genesis 25:25-34 to me.

Edit: Apparently I conflated two parts of the story. The man who got sick was elsewhere in Pennsylvania; the Clearville incident involved a number of horses and other livestock who sickened and had to be put down. But the basic gist remains the same. A beautiful state is being destroyed to obtain a commodity whose price just keeps falling, just so we can ship it elsewhere in the world.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Moment, 2012

The sun rises on Main Street on the longest day of the year. What do you see? What do you smell?

Friday, February 01, 2013

Serious groove...

Heard this for the first time on a college radio station while driving a U-Haul down from Boston to DC. All the more awesome because, well, it was a really foggy drive, and the sky started appearing for the first time in several days when this was playing. Had no idea who it was, but when we got home googled 'calamine lotion' + lyrics, and wa-la. Who knew the VU were so awesome? Apparently everyone besides me, that's who.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Snowpocalypse Porter post-mortem

Well, the time spent in the bottle did the Snowpocalypse porter no favors.

Hard to describe, but it had a thin flavor profile which did little to bolster and round out the smoke notes. 'Phenolic' is a polite way to describe it, and like the description of the apocryphal book, "...once I set it down, I couldn't pick it back up again!"

So bottle #1 was poured and languished in half-drunk mugs in various places around the room until the following day. However, phoenix-like, it (along with bottle #2) was resurrected that evening in a simple but hearty stew of ox-tail (okay, really cow-tail, but a convention is a convention) which was absolutely awesome.

I'm pleased. It was fun to brew at the time, pleasant enough to drink along the way, a fun reminder of a unique time, and it met a good end. What else could you ask for?

Now on to other brews. Two all-grain batches teed up for February...