Let’s Go To Garner State Park

 

November 21, 2017

Maybe you remember the old B.J. Thomas song, and maybe you’ve been to Garner. For Dahna and I, unknown to each other in those days, Garner was THE early 1960’s summer hot spot. The park was built in the late 30’s by Roosevelt’s CCC and 25 years later became Mecca for Texas kids who loved dancing the old cowboy Whip, the clear Frio River, and the cheap thrills of Mexico 90 miles away. Notorious Ciudad Acuna lies across the Rio Grande from Del Rio and was, and maybe still is, the target for gringo teenagers with wheels and shit for brains. We could buy liquor for pennies but still overpaid somehow, and we’d circle the pretty Mexican “girls” in the Sur Club or the Brown Derby. It became clear pretty soon who was circling whom, but penicillin was cheap and effective in those days, so nobody really cared. Back home there was always somebody who knew somebody and…well, it always worked out.

Once, coming back across the border in my newly-inherited ’57 Ford, about 2:00 a.m. with three of my buddies, the officer asked if we were bringing back any alcoholic beverages. I was about to naively say, “No sir,” when Jimmy piped up, “Yeah, but you’ll never find it.” You’d be surprised how fast two cops can dismantle the interior of a car. As good as they were, they were too dumb to frisk Jimmy who had a half pint of Bacardi down the front of his Levis. He was too loaded to be of much help putting my car back together, and it probably took us at least an hour but I don’t remember for sure. Jimmy lived into his late 60’s which is far longer than he had a right to.

Okay, so we’re all loaded up. The pickup’s gassed up with the kayak lashed on top, the RV’s packed and battened up in travel mode, and Sacha’s a little nervous in her comfy backseat. Neighbor Ray has been instructed to shoot anything that needs shooting. Allan has the house keys and is the master of the cats’ domain—not that there is anything wrong with that. The truck is pointed at the cattle guard, and we’re about to start our 14 day birding safari headed for points south. I looked over at Dahna and said, “This would be a great time for you to remember whatever it is you forgot.” She looked out the windshield and replied, “I guess you’re going on this trip without sunglasses.” A few minutes later, we were underway.

We got to Garner a little before 4:00, and there was a long, slow moving check-in line in the big, sleek headquarters building that looked inside like the lobby of Trump Tower, but more tasteful. This was a huge change from the old days when there was no headquarters, first of all, so you didn’t have to check in, second of all. We’d drive in and just park somewhere on the grass and eventually a ranger would come by and hit us up for two bucks and stick a receipt in the wipers. It was always good form to wash off the Ciudad Acuna evidence from the tail fins before he got there. There, in the summer of ’64, we were hot to trot and the skies were not cloudy all day like they were this time.

Northern Cardinal
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The weather wasn’t great when we left, but the forecast was good. Not so the forecasting. First it was fog, then fog with mist, then mist with drizzle, then cold with drizzle, mist and fog. I wasn’t worried though because Garner is Shangri-La as everybody knows and everything’s perfect there. I was worried about the gas, however. This new camper is bigger and heavier than the old retro, and the kayak on top combines to turn our normal gas guzzling truck into an aerodynamic brickbat of Godzilla proportions. Divide 210 miles by 30 gallons to get some idea. To be fair, there were lots of hills.

Unlike Dahna, I was too slow-witted to walk Sacha when we got there so had the pleasure of standing in line for over 30 minutes waiting to check in. I wondered, ‘Who the hell are all these old farts? Don’t they have jobs? Jeez!’ Finally, I stood before the lady ranger and listened to her sad story while she assigned us the worst spot in the park. She was worried about her son, a naval aviator trainee now assigned to the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi. She probably imagined the kid splashing his trainer jet in the bay like John McCain did 50+ years ago.

Cypress Trees on The Frio River
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Our spot at Garner wasn’t really the worst. I’m sure plenty of people would have loved it. Hermits, for example. I’d like to know more about the hermit community but not by being one. I guess some people drag around a three ton RV in order to get away from the madding crowd, but that’s really not it. The purpose of RVing is to get out of your nice house so you can stay in a pinched rattletrap among lots of PEOPLE YOU DON’T KNOW. It ain’t camping! You pay a pretty high price in effort and money to meet friendly and intelligent folks who don’t give a rat’s patooie if you live or die. It’s liberating, truly. You’re not supposed to be lonely. You’re not getting away from it all if you do it right.

We were lonely for three days in our huge and forlorn “Frio River” loop. The park was half full but not where we were. Looking left or right through the drizzly fog, you saw only empty spaces. We drove down to the heart of our old memories, the beautiful, deserted stone pavilion where we danced all those years ago and took a quiet turn or two through the Whip. We reminisced about the corny songs we loved to dance to on the old jukebox, like “Black Land Farmer” and “Fraulein” and “Last Kiss.” Well, you had to be there. In the early ‘60s I mean.

Dance Pavillion
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CCC “Combination Building – Gift Shop, Restaurant & Mess Hall
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Dahna did see and photograph some cool birds such as a golden fronted woodpecker, some pine siskins, a yellow-rumped warbler and a pair of Egyptian geese. The place was full of huge jack rabbits that looked like long-eared dogs through the fog and a flock of wild turkeys trotted by through the mist. The best thing, critter wise, was our dawning discovery that our rescue girl, Sacha the problem dog, returned once, if not twice, to the shelter is, in fact, a sparkling gem.

Me with Sacha inside a Cypress
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Yesterday, as we marveled at how she combines the best traits of both Daisy and Libby, two of the world’s greatest dogs of all time, Dahna wondered aloud in hushed tones, “Is this the perfect dog? Did Daisy send her to us?” We are smitten.

Texas Jackrabbit
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The crappy weather never let up and for the first time in our lives, we were glad to get out of Garner State Park. We got a good early start and the hookup went smooth as silk. Our spirits were improving at the prospect of sunny skies down on the border 260 miles south at Falcon reservoir. It looked like clear sailing but, as you know, we’re the Branyans and the Simpsons have nothing on us. I won’t say it was the worst day of my life but…

Turkey Heaven
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Down Mexico Way

November 25, 2017

The trip from Garner to Falcon State Park took us through the streets of Laredo. We’d never been to this little burg, and were surprised to find it’s a lot like Los Angeles, only bigger. Seriously, if you think the border is sparsely sprinkled with dusty little towns inhabited by white-linened oxcart drivers, think again. There are millions of people of all descriptions living down here, with about half of them zooming around in patrol cars chasing the other half. Apparently border paranoia is a terrific job creator for the bullethead set, but I have yet to see one single donut shop. That confirms we’re not in Kansas anymore. Anyway, it takes gas to get from Garner to Falcon, and I had just enough sense to get it before Laredo.

Truck stops are the best places to get gas when you’re pulling a pretty long trailer because, usually, you have more swing room. The road sign said, ‘FLYING J,’ so I said, “Cool,” and exited. Not cool. We hit the biggest tractor trailer logjam in Texas history, which really pissed off the drivers because once it finally cleared, they were out for blood and in no mood to accommodate us tourists. Imagine driving a Smart car in the Daytona 500. I got air horned twice, and not in a good way, before ducking into the station. Ah NAFTA—Cheap flimsy crap by the truckload.

I spotted a driver side pump but got cut off by a sneaky SUV. The only other one was way over on the other side, but it was hemmed in by a bunch of semis parked at an angle, Le Mans style, leaving only a narrow access lane to the pump. I took a chance on it anyway and threaded my way through, miraculously without hitting anybody or anything. I pulled up to the pump…good old #3. You know, the only pump anywhere whose nozzle is too big to go into the filler hole. I won’t strain your credulity with how the rest of the day went from that point straight into the toilet, but I’d say it wasn’t the worst day of my life. Maybe not the worst day ever.

Falcon State Park sits on the huge Falcon reservoir which serves the U.S. and Mexico with its dammed up Rio Grande water. It’s a fisherman’s and birder’s paradise, two pastimes that share their demand for stealth and patience. Dahna has both of these plus a fine eye for detail, a knack for taxonomy, and the technical skill to handle a sophisticated camera like a pro. She uses all this talent to get some really stunning shots of what’s becoming a very long list of avian species and varieties. My job is to carry stuff, control Sacha, and resist the urge to photobomb the shot. I try not to say much when she’s talking shop with the other birders because I know doodley about birds. Taxonomy is a must, but that stuff rolls off me like water off a duck’s back. I know red bird, blue bird, squirrel! So, trying not to embarrass her, I generally affect an arrogant faraway gaze to repel anybody from talking to me. It usually works, but sometimes I get busted.

Curved Bill Thrasher- Falcon Reservoir
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Salineño Wildlife Refuge isn’t too far from the park, is famous as a “Don’t Miss!” among birders, and is funded by a conservation consortium including Texas Parks and Wildlife. The place is hosted by RV live-in couples who volunteer for months at a time and rotate duty among themselves. It was manned this time by a nifty Iowa couple about our age who were expert birders and really knew the area from their many years of service there. An international set of birders were there when we arrived, about 20 or so, training their long-lensed, tripod-mounted cameras on the birds and butterflies. We quietly moved in and stood in back and Dahna started shooting. A moment later, a large female hound started sniffing me up. Her owner, the hostess, whispered, “You must have a dog. If it’s in the car, it’s okay to bring it here. She likes other dogs.”

Pyrrhuloxia – Falcon Reservoir
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I retrieved Sacha, and as soon as I got close to the site, the hound came tearing out, with the hostess right behind, and the two dogs had a quick meeting of the nose. All was well until a minute later when Sacha took a giant poop right in front of the lady’s RV and then scratched up a dust storm worthy of the Dust Bowl itself trying to cover it up. The whole incredible performance only took only a few seconds, but it kicked off a deafening cacophony in the trees nearby. I turned to look and blurted out, “What the hell is that??” She said, “They’re chacalacas.” “What’s a chacalaca?” I asked. Her look of astonishment caused me to realize I had blown my cover. “Why, it’s a bird,” she said, “A big brown bird.” I figured I might as well confess, “My wife’s the birder. I’m the gofer, but hey, I do have a poop bag.” She said, “Forget it,” and giving my arm a little squeeze said, “Let’s go back in.” Back inside, she petted Sacha so I could watch the birds through the binoculars. Nice, nice people. Later, I asked Dahna if she ever heard of a chacalaca and she said, “Sure. I’ve got some shots of them. Big brown bird.”

Plain Chacalaca
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Green jays were the most common birds there, and there were tons of them at the park. These are beautiful (“gaudy” as Dahna says) tropical birds. They have blue heads with black chins, green wings and yellow underbellies. I’m still partial to my fave, the bluejay because they love to scream just to be obnoxious. They always remind me of those bucolic summers when school let out and our parents wanted us to get lost until dinnertime. We’d eat and then they’d kick us out again. Heaven on earth. Someone said you can’t grow old in the same America you were born into. [sigh]

Green Jay- Salineño
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Falcon’s wildlife wasn’t limited just to birds. We had a friendly pack of javelinas that roamed through our sites and Dahna saw a coyote stroll by right down the middle of the road. We saw an entire flock of roadrunners there, about 7 or 8 or so. Back home we hardly ever see them and then they’re always solitary. About a year ago, I saw our cat chasing one through the back yard. The bird took a mighty wing-assisted leap up and over the roof of the cabin, and the cat kind of spun around wondering where the hell it went. Beep Beep is where it went.

The most exotic wildlife we saw, rarely seen in Texas, was an old mating pair of New Mexico liberals. Liz and Charlie were our neighbors, and we nearly extended our stay another day just to hang out with them. Charlie was a retired something or other who retired from Los Alamos where he worked on something or other that had to do with lasers. He was, as you might expect, a technical whiz who had his camper tricked out with solar arrays, wildlife cameras, and other gadgets. They were experienced boondockers who often camped off grid for a week at a time, usually at national parks or on BLM ground. The threat of Trump and the Republicans to the public ownership of these lands led to a gentle dance of political opinionating that evolved into a full-blown polka stomp of liberal outrage. We had a high old time and discovered they were considering going to Choke Canyon State Park. We’re going there too on the way home, and there’s a slim chance we might meet up with them again. Meeting people like these guys is a lot of the reason we do this.

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly
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The short trip from Falcon to the Paradise RV Park in Harlingen took a long time because the 100 mile distance is mostly town, and you make lousy time. The park is privately run and functions as a winter home for a lot of snowbirds who own their own lots. Some have small trailer houses all decked out while others live in their motorhomes or campers. It’s a not-so-little village with lots of folks with various temperaments. One woman pounded on her window and barked at Dahna when Sacha peed on her lawn. Then again, when I almost ran over a couple of ladies last night, they were pretty good about it.

Our particular site was not good, and I’m afraid my language wasn’t very nice around Jeff who skipped over to help us get situated when we drove up. He’s a retired Army chaplain who goes around in his motorhome helping veterans with their PTSD. I told him my PTSD was working just fine at the moment, thank you very much. Dahna hates it when do-gooders rush over to help us set up, and she finally had enough and basically ran him off. He’s a nice sky pilot on a mission though, and he runs his own little nonprofit with his wife, Chrissy. Sometimes he runs halfway across the country to assist families of veterans left behind by suicide. I’ll probably donate a little.

Great Kiskadee
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The next day we drove out to South Padre Island Birding Center which is just this incredible thing. It was Thanksgiving Day and the center itself, with its multi-storey observation decks, was closed but the best part was accessible. This was, I swear to God, about a mile of first class walkway elevated about 4’ over the brackish tidal marsh on the lagoon side of the island. It must have cost millions and came complete with fancy rest area/bird blinds. We had Sacha in her harness at the entrance, and Dahna was already shooting while I read the big sign that said, “NO PETS ALLOWED ON THE BOARDWALK.”

As I was telling Dahna about the sign, a woman wearing an official shirt marched up and stated flat out, “That’s a fine looking service dog you have there.” I started to correct her but she repeated, “Yes indeed, a beautiful service dog you have right there. Sitting there.” Dahna confided to her, “They’re very close.” They both turned to stare at my dumb blank face until, finally, the lady said, “If anybody says anything, you say, ‘service dog,’ okay?” I said, “Yes Ma’am.” She actually thanked me for my service as she walked off, but I had recovered enough to yell back, “Thank you for YOUR service.” Dahna said, “Shh, you’ll scare the birds,” and the three of us headed down the long path.

White Ibis- South Padre
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White-faced Ibis – Resaca de la Palma State Park
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This place turned out to be the Valhalla of birding in south Texas. There were zillions of birds we never see like tricolor herons, little blue herons, black necked stilts, various kingfishers tons of ospreys on the wing and a bunch of different ducks. I particularly like her close shots of a roseate spoonbill and those of a couple of big alligators lurking cinemagraphically in the marsh grass. We’re talking about coming back for a longer stay sometime in the foreseeable future since we barely scratched the birding surface. The Tex Mex is cheap and tasty as is the seafood. Always go to the old family restaurants.

Little Blue Heron – South Padre
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We’re leaving for Choke Canyon tomorrow and hope to do a little kayaking there. See you back at the ranch.

Vermillion Flycatcher – Falcon Reservoir
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MAPLE LEAF RAG: Prologue, Epilogue, and Home From the Hill

One year ago we let the real estate contract expire on our Comanche place. We had it listed for six months and priced it sky high. We had some interest but not enough to pay my price, one I hoped would discourage any but the nuttiest buyer. It worked! Nobody bought it and I was happy because I love the place and my crazy neighbor, Ray. He’s well-known locally as Black Bart and, believe me, you don’t want to cross Ray.

[BTW, John Wesley Hardin killed a deputy about two miles from our house on the square in Comanche back in the days long before James Arness. We did, however, have a famous sheriff that never carried a gun. Nobody ever outdrew him. His name was Gaston Boykins and he’s mentioned in “No Country For Old Men”]

Meanwhile, back at the pecan ranch…

Dahna was not pleased at the outcome because she had set her sights on living full time on the road in a Class A motorhome financed by the sale of the property. Her stated rationale made sense whenever I hit the Old Crow a little too hard but I always came to my senses, such that they are.

“Look,” she’d say, “this country’s gone completely off the deep end, and God knows what’s going to happen. If we’re self-contained on the road we can escape to Canada or Mexico if worse comes to worst.”

I’d say, “Sure, let’s go to Canada now that they hate us and freeze our butts off as a bonus. Oh oh! I’m sure we can get by with pidgin sign language in Mexico,” I waved my hand in the air, “Besides it’s too hot there.”

She’d say, “Are you crazy? It’s 108 degrees out there.” pointing at the door. “There are mountains in Mexico and towns like San Juan de Allende where David goes all the time that are nice and cool.” I’d pretend to shiver, “Brrr.”

She’d look at me through slits like I was a pile of Sacha’s poop, “We shoulda’ sailed Alchemy to Europe when we had the chance.” The pitch and amplitude of her voice was rising like a bad following sea, “You know, like we planned! We’d be there now if you hadn’t decided to sell the boat.” And I’d say, “Now whoa there big fella…”

It would go back and forth like this, over and over. The truth is Dahna is really a gypsy and is not comfortable anywhere for long no matter the political climate, or any climate for that matter. We have spent a fairly long string of years in a couple of places, but you really have to look at the averages to get a true picture of the lady. In 46 years we’ve lived in 13 places because she gets bored. If you do the math, you’ll see that holding her back is like restraining a team of huskies in flip flops.

But I won this time. “For now,” she reminds me.

All I had to do was less physical labor, support her deer herd and birds, and travel more–a lot more. Hence the new winter-livable Arctic Fox. I mentioned that we had never traveled east to speak of when she admitted that she’d never been to Ohio.

Covered Bridge – Geneva, OH
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“The hell you say,” I was shocked, “Why, that’s unAmerican!” I was in an expansive mood though so I said, “We can go through Ohio on our way to…Nova Scotia!! She lit up like a Christmas turkey, “Yeah!,” she actually jumped, “Now you’re talking.” “We can visit the Curtoys,” I said. She said, “Yeah, and go up to the Great Lakes… Nova Scotia…” You could almost hear the gears whirring in her head, “Maybe in the Fall. See the colors.” “Yeah, and all the birds you don’t see here,” I added with a greasy Ted Cruz smile.

My nefarious plot worked. She was hooked on the idea. The only problem…excuse me…One of the problems was that I was going to have to haul my fanny up north where it’s cold and shivery. Another was getting my head around the logistics of a three months long excursion which is one of the many things I’m terrible at. Then I remembered…Dahna’s great at logistics along with practically everything else. I was starting to relax when she left the room saying, “You’d better get busy planning this trip.”

I cracked my knuckles and was about to start when I saw a cat video on the internet. Later, I got down to work with Google Maps and a big spreadsheet. Actually, we both worked pretty hard scheduling the big trip.

Starting from Comanche, I’d locate state parks or private parks, if necessary, along the route within a comfortable driving range no longer than 325 miles. Then we’d research each one for the kind of things we like such as dog runs, ease of entry, cost, facilities, etc. Sometimes Dahna would scratch the place I picked out and she’d look for another, even changing the preferred route.

Double Crested Cormorant – Salisbury, MA
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Finally, we had scheduled about 3/4 of the trip, making reservations at 18 different parks along the way up to Cape Breton, NS and back down to Washington DC. We knew it would get cold and rainy up north leaving in September from way down Comanche, Texas. Driving and camping through rain and cold? Why sure…but snow? The prospect of pulling a big trailer through snow and ice scares me almost as much as a combat zone scares Trump. We had to get to Nova Scotia fast, look around, plant the flag, and get the hell out of there pronto.

That meant a whirlwind trek, which it was. You would think you could go just about anywhere at a leisurely pace over a period of three months. That’s true if you don’t go very far. But, we traveled over 6,000 miles stopping at 26 campgrounds through a beautiful, feature-rich North America. In mid-October, when we turned around and headed back, moving south from Cape Breton, we could feel Winter breathing down our necks. Campgrounds were closing for the season right behind us and we felt like Indiana Jones being chased by that huge round boulder.

Our first stop on the return trip was at friendly Ponderosa Pines Campground on Hopewell Cape, New Brunswick. We practically had the nice place by ourselves and the owner gave us a big space for a small price. He also let us wash our rig which was filthy with road grime. When we finished I’m sure it pleased him because the whole park looked better.

The big draw here is the Hopewell Rocks. These are big rocks in the Bay of Fundy that are a little startling at low tide because you hardly ever see big rocks jutting up from a tidal flat with trees growing on top of them. If you’ve never seen these things, you’re not alone because we haven’t either. It was cold, rainy and they charged for the high privilege of seeing them. Plus, there were 101 steps going down, and that added up to 202 steps of “Screw it.” It was also, happily, close enough to our fave little town, Alma, to drive back to for a terrific scallop dinner overlooking the bay.

Hopewell Rocks – (We Settled for the Photo Over the Real Thing)
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Our next stop was at the border where, after a 20 minute wait, we met our friendly American Customs agent. She was very cheerful, even witty, as she searched our RV’s refrigerator and confiscated our precious limes. This played havoc with our house drink later that night making me pine for our pretty and nonintrusive, if grim, Canadian agent with the gun fetish. Try not to think of a sexy East German border guard in braids with a snappy little whip. Maybe that dates me a little.

From there, we stayed at Cold River Campground near Bangor, ME where Stephen King lives. I like Stephen King and I was an English major for two years, so there! Besides claiming the Horror meister, Bangor is a cool New England town with that witchy Wyeth architecture that kind of looms up in your imagination, especially if you grew up around a bunch of flat ranch houses. I’m sure the food there is great too, but I can’t really say because we never ate there. We ate and ate at the Eagle’s Nest, about a mile from our park.

Cold River Campground
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We ate a lobster roll there that was out of sight…literally. You could not see the roll itself for all the lobster piled on top. We were trying to figure out how to eat the thing when a burly waiter delivered a loaded seafood platter as freight to a couple at an adjacent table. The husband gave us a little wink as he dug into the heaps off haddock, oysters, shrimp, and scallops sitting on top of a one foot diameter bed of French fries. Later, after scooping the remainder of the food into several big to-go boxes, he gave me another, slightly different, wink on the way out. I’d like to think their plans for the leftovers ran along the lines of that old “Tom Jones” movie (wink wink).

Whatever, we went back the next night and had the platter. We ate seafood for two more meals from that platter and, at 34 bucks, we probably had a bigger investment in Alka Seltzer than the food. It was great, worth every painful burp.

Seafood Platter at the Eagle’s Nest Restaurant In Brewer,ME
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The morning we left Cold River RV Park, Wayne, the young owner, was out on a backhoe in the cold rain working on the foundation for a music venue for his campers. Big dreams and hard work—I can still remember his cheerful, “Good Morning!” as I walked by with Sacha in her raincoat. He and his wife, Pam, carved several long trails through the woods that Sacha loved to run through at full blast. There were a lot of ticks though, not just there but throughout New England. I easily got one off of Dahna’s back thanks to a tip she picked up somewhere before she picked up the tick: With your finger, lift the tick and spin the little bastard around until he backs out. It works.

Old Man’s Beard (Clematis drummondii) at Schondack Island State Park
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Next, we pushed on to the Hudson River at Schondack Island S.P. near Albany. We planned to visit FDR’s Hyde Park, but the day we had for it was killer windy, cold and rainy. Perfect pneumonia weather, so…no thanks. We mostly huddled in our cozy camper reading and arguing over whose turn it was to walk Sacha. It was a nice park with plenty to do, but our timing was lousy and we were glad to get out of there. We were anxious to visit our old friends, the Zelmans, in D.C. but first we had to make it through Pennsylvania, Dahna’s least favorite place.

Father & Son Fishing on the Hudson River at Schondack Island State Park
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When you drive through a state, stopping in a park or two for a few days, you really don’t get a very good idea of its charms. You only have a fleeting impression of the place gained by the tiny sliver you saw as you zipped through. It’s unfair and inaccurate, but there it is. We make judgments about things by what we know of them even if what we know of them is squat. Dahna knew squat about Pennsylvania except that she hated it.

Coming out of Upstate New York into rural Pennsylvania, slanting down through Scranton toward Lebanon, was a stark contrast. Where New York seemed neat and trim and lushly forested, Pennsylvania seemed neglected, a little bare and thatchy, kind of like my poor little pecan orchard during the lazy season. Dahna said, “This place looks like hell.” I said, “Yeah, but working people live here like Pasadena and it’s tough.” Dahna grew up in tough Pasadena, Texas and she knows all about rough and tough and can be that way herself if need be but still…she just didn’t like it there.

Things didn’t get any better when we pulled into our spot at Twin Grove RV Park near Lebanon. I couldn’t believe it, but the pad was almost 6” out of level side-to-side. That meant I had to jack one side of the camper up almost twice the height of the leveling boards I had with me. I was starting to hate Pennsylvania too.

Dahna was already in a bad mood, and you could almost hear her grinding her teeth as she stomped off toward the office way over in yonder glen. I was pretty pissed off too as I walked around with the level looking for another site that wouldn’t send our camper sliding down the hill. I finally found one that was only 3” out by the time Dahna got back with the good news that it was still unreserved. So I backed around and took it. After getting set up, we discovered that the park’s WiFi was out. That meant we only had our iPhone hotspot that AT@T had just throttled back to Slug Speed. Great. Just great.

Dahna started to hyperventilate like Yosemite Sam, steam and all, and was about to lift off when we noticed a guy in slacks(!) walking around with some kind of gadget. BAM, suddenly we had high speed Internet. Dahna’s mood improved to the point that she conceded that the park was at least a nice place for kids while noting that she was glad they were in school far, far away. The owners did manage to link into that chain of competent officials and private citizens who continuously forwarded our ballots to us giving us a chance to shiv You Know Who. Overall, it wasn’t that bad.

The highlight of our Pennsylvania experience was hiking the Appalachian Trail near Lebanon. From the highway, Dahna decided to strike out south, so down the narrow trail the three of us went, that-a-way. About 100 yards in, we came to a little clearing in the trees with a posted sign warning: WORKERS SPRAYING INVASIVE PLANTS. We put on the world weary look that’s so attractive on older faces and I said, “Not today,” and we turned around, “Let’s go north.”

Back at the highway, we met a young athletic woman wearing a big backpack struggling to catch her breath. We told her about the spraying and she waved, ‘Thank you’ and forged on anyway. Crossing the highway, we took about 20 steps down the trail where suddenly it dropped precipitously into a deep ravine, the same one that took the woman’s breath away. Looking down, I said, “No steps.” Dahna looked too and said, “No problem,” and headed back to the highway with me in tow and Sacha left behind with a ‘What the…’ look on her face.

Dahna took a picture of me and Sacha at a sign marking the trail and I’m very proud of it.

A Very Short Hike on the Appalachian Trail
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Looking back, our return trip from Nova Scotia to Comanche was really not much more than a hasty retreat from Winter with only three significant stops; Washington D.C. with the Zelmans, Chattanooga, TN and finally Tupelo and my father’s nearby hometown in Mississippi where he, my grandparents, and an old childhood friend are buried. Leaving Pennsylvania, we were road tired to the bone and weather blown but, luckily, we had the prior good sense to schedule a full week near D.C. to rest, see the city, and, mostly, visit our friends.

We stayed at Ft. Meade Army Base in their terrific, full service RV park. Those services include access to the base exchange and commissary plus restaurants, golf course and other facilities you would associate with an actual town. It was really upscale compared to my old Marine hangout, Camp Pendleton back in ’67. Back then we were tough as nails and could live on John Wayne crackers that were as old as we were and wash ‘em down with paddy water. We hated the Army and all its works, but now that I’m a lot older and fatter it’s, “Lead me to the food court, Sergeant!”

We spent the first couple of days hanging around the base doing chores like laundry, grocery shopping, and letting Sacha run wild in one of the spacious greenbelts that fronted Burba Lake which was full of Canada geese and mallards. The birds were gorgeous, but nothing’s better than watching a happy red Siberian run hell-for leather with her ears flattened back in the pure pleasure of being young and on the loose. Of course, she’d usually take a crap afterward but almost always next to a trash can. Perfect Dog you are pretty girl. Yes you are.

Domestic Blue Swedish at Burba Pond
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Unfortunately, the RV park, though very nice, wasn’t perfect like Sacha. There was no WiFi for Chrissakes! Back to our slow iPhone hotspot and Dahna’s increasingly bitchiness about her glitchy $150.00 refurbed Apple MacBook Pro. You can buy an Apple laptop for $150.00 and you can also buy a BMW for $2000.00, but you probably shouldn’t. If you’re used to BMWs and Chevys leave you cold, that $2000.00 Beemer might sound attractive. It’s the same with Apples. That cheap refurb sounds good until it goes south which it’s bound to do before you know it.

Anyway, it was “Time For a New Computer“. That phrase is relatively new in the lexicon. Not so long ago it was just, “Time for a new water heater,” or, “Time for a new Timex.” Well, times change. Finally though, along with the process of buying a new computer (which is becoming more like buying a new car), doing our chores and taking a couple of long naps, our batteries were finally recharged enough for the main attraction—getting together with the Zs.

You might not know Pat and Don Zelman, but I’ll bet you a cookie you know somebody who does. These two came to Texas as young zealots nearly 50 years ago on a mission to raise the IQ of the state a few points by turning goat roper Tarleton State University into a hotbed of rationality. If you think Texas is a dumb place now, you should’ve seen it before they got here. It’s true they had other plotters in on the conspiracy like the aforementioned Curtoys and a few other brilliant professors like Allan Nelson. But, if you see a really stupid yard sign or reactionary billboard defaced with a slashing Z, it’s probably not Zorro that did it.

They retired near D.C. to be with their two granddaughters and their own singular daughter, Julie. I use the word singular not only because she’s an only child, but because she’s brilliant and beautiful in an eerie Elizabeth Taylor type way. We first met Julie when, as a little girl, she came to our house in tow with her friend and the girl’s mom for a short visit. Julie sat at Dahna’s piano like Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann and banged out an awful racket.

Over the years watching her grow up, it occurred to me that she might have been banging out a little Bartok. Who knows? I wouldn’t know Bartok if he bit me on the butt, but I bet Julie does. Well, now she’s a senior official at the SEC. If you still have faith in our political institutions, you might want to raise your glass to people like Julie. Pat and Don are enormously proud of their girl as are all of us who know her. And that’s a lot of people.

The Zs live in Collington, a full service planned community of mostly retired government officials and other professionals. They fit in perfectly since both Pat and Don are historians and political scientists. These days Pat is presiding over a foreign policy discussion group of State Department types and other smarty pantses.

Pat and Don Zelman – MLK Memorial
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One time long ago, Pat had a little fun with me when I said something stupid. I can’t remember what I said, but suddenly she had me in a Socratic logic trap that Houdini couldn’t have escaped. I learned an important lesson: When you’re lucky enough to hang out with people like that, it’s a good idea to know what you’re talking about. Otherwise, keep quiet and just listen or you might find yourself at the Little Big Horn hiding behind your dead horse of an argument.

I used to love it back then when Pat would tilt her head and say, “Let’s go smoke.” We’d go out to the little table in their backyard and light up, enjoying one of life’s greatest guilty pleasures. Actually neither of them were “real” smokers. But, when people like me and Dahna were around, they’d bum a cigarette in self defense. Finally though, when almost everybody wised up and quit for good, Pat rang the bell for all former smokers when she said, “The worst part about quitting is being a nonsmoker.” If you have to think about that…

When we approached the part of of the complex where they lived, Pat was out on the sidewalk to meet us. Don, in his inimitable way, went the wrong direction. I posited awhile back that there are few absolutes in this world, but one of them is that no one is more fun to be around than Don Zelman except, possibly, Pat. Okay it’s a tossup. Anyway, there are a million funny stories that revolve around Don, and a big part of the fun is the pleasure he takes in his own absent-minded predicaments. There’s a famous photo of Don’s feet propped up on his desk at work wearing one brown and one black shoe. Don’t get the wrong idea though. He retired as the Dean of Arts and Sciences.

After visiting for awhile, we walked over to their swanky dining hall and were immediately surrounded by a thick knot of their friends. After wading through successive knots, we finally had a great lunch. Along with a couple of Pat’s foreign policy nerds, we also met one of Don’s bandmates. They play in Collington’s jazz band. When Pat gave us a tour of their stylish “cottage,” I noticed a clarinet next to some sheet music in Don’s office. I had no idea he was a musician, but there you go. We recently sneaked a peek at their newsletter and there was Don’s picture featuring him as a soloist, the big ham.

We continued to get caught up since our last time together a couple of years ago at their going-away party in Stephenville, and planned the next day’s trip by Metro to the Washington Mall. We wanted to see the memorials and especially, in my case, The Wall where the names of Pat’s younger brother Bill and some of my buddies are engraved in black granite.

Going to that place with me was a burden for her, and I’ll always appreciate having her there beside me. The date April 4, 1968 is a hard one for all good-hearted people, but it is more than doubly hard for Pat.

Don said something that Dahna and I both felt as we stood near the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his great speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, “You know, I love everything all this is supposed to stand for,” his hand swept the expanse, “but now it seems so degraded, so small somehow.” He shook his head, “I can’t believe what’s happened in this country.”

Don is an incurable optimist and I never heard him say anything even remotely that somber. We all stood silent for a moment, frozen right there in the sunshine.

With The Zelmans at the MLK Memorial
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We walked a long way that day because The Mall is a big place with a lot to see and our feet were getting bigger than our shoes. We were getting hungry too when Dahna spotted a cab parked on the other side of a wide playing field. He seemed to be waiting for us to cross over and it turned out he really was. He could tell just by looking that we would gladly crawl on our hands and knees to get to him, so he waited for us with a little grin. Fly, meet spider.

He was from some exotic country that I can’t remember, and we had a really neat ride with him. Don sat up front and had the cabbie going pretty good, making the guy’s day. I forked over the 12 bucks for our ride to the Agriculture Department which was the bargain of the day considering my sore feet. Pat wanted to eat lunch there because the food’s really good.

Before heading to its cavernous dining room, we had to pass through a metal detector and my big belt buckle set it off. The guard wanted me to take my belt off but I told him my pants might fall down. You could almost hear him thinking, ‘Old fart…fat gut …tighty whities…don’t wanna see that.’ He changed his mind pretty quick, reached under the counter and said, “Sir, if you’ll just step over here I’ll wand you down,” which he did. I passed and soon we were all headed down the big hall for lunch like we owned the place which, actually, we did until we let it go back to the bank.

Later, back in their home, we had a last cup of coffee and said our goodbyes. They were leaving in a few days for Vietnam and a trip up the Mekong to Cambodia in yet another one of their globetrotting adventures. In an earlier email I warned them to stay off of the trails, and I guess they did because they got home safely from that little jaunt.

Don wrote to say the heat and humidity were ferocious and hard to take and it gave him a new appreciation for what we went through during the war, climate-wise. That’s for sure. I’ll never forget stepping off that air-conditioned Braniff plane in Da Nang in July and feeling like I walked into an blast furnace. I wasn’t sure I’d survive it, forget the gunfire, and I grew up in Houston in the 50s without air conditioning!

On the last day before we left Ft. Meade, we did some last minute provisioning which consisted mostly of buying another bottle of Old Crow. When we stepped out into the food court, Dahna announced she didn’t want to fix lunch, so we looked around at our fast food choices. About all we wanted that day was pizza, but unfortunately it had to be Dominos. You might remember when they almost went out of business because their pizzas tasted worse than the box they came in.

Well, we remembered but went for it anyway. We ordered their super duper pepperoni or whatever the hell they called it and sat down at our table in a blue funk. When the pimply-faced kid rudely plunked the box down on the table, I almost flung the thing as far as my partially torn rotator cuff would let me. However, I managed to control myself just long enough to take a bite and damn if it wasn’t one of the best pizzas I ever bit into. HEY AT@T!! If Dominos can fix their lousy product, maybe you can too. Give it a try, MFers.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near Roanoke, VA
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We left Ft. Meade early on November 1st headed south through rural Virginia toward Knoxville. I was looking forward to a pretty country drive and getting a look at the region my mother’s family came from. Patty loves Virginia and Dahna was starting to like it too…just about the time I started hating it. The Fall colors were still radiant, but there was something about the hills. They were too close together or sloped the wrong way or some damn thing, I don’t know. Shiver me timbers, they were like a steep chop that was pounding my little boat to pieces, they were.

It’s not you Virginia, it’s me.

White-breasted Nuthatch, Roanoke, VA
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I had to get to Tennessee to recover and by the time we got to Chattanooga I was feeling pretty good, especially when I saw the Russell Stovers billboard with an arrow pointing up ahead. The only thing better than a kid in a candy store is a kid in a candy store with a credit card. Dahna doesn’t have many weaknesses but when it comes to chocolate, let’s just say she’s an easy date. Even so, she tried to hold me back as I raced around the store dropping fifty bucks worth of boxes into the basket. She was okay with it later.

Black-crowned Night Herons near Knoxville, Tn
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I like Tennessee, especially Chattanooga and Russell Stovers has nothing to do with it. Well, maybe a little. I really like the smart cookies they elected to run the place who decided to actually serve the citizens. They pushed aside the big telecom monopolies and installed their own super fast, fiber-optic broadband municipal system as a utility. You know, of, by, and for the people—the people who live there and now own it. Last I heard, the telecoms took the city to court so they can destroy the whole wondrous thing and muscle back in with their sorry junk, the bastards.

Pie-Billed Grebe – Harrison Bay State Park
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While we were there, we had by far the fastest internet we’ve ever experienced in this dumb country—or even in Canada where it’s also great. Dahna’s new Mac nearly jumped out of its case with the speed. They don’t call it “Gig City” for nothing.

I could write about this place all night but I’ll spare you the heavy sighs. I will say that if we ever move to another town, Chattanooga is high on a very short list. Go to Wiki and read about the museums and the music, the nifty and historic downtown tucked into a fold of the mighty Tennessee River. Pay your respects to the bloody Civil War battles fought there and how they helped blaze the improbable path of U.S. Grant to final victory and the White House. He didn’t brag and he didn’t whine. You might have heard of Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Lookout Mountain. There’s a lot to see and do and learn about in Chattanooga, a special place.

Chattanooga from Atop Lookout Mountain
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If you really want to experience the history surrounding the great general, you should read Ron Chernow’s biography, Grant. It’s very good, but keep in mind the fact that you can zip through War and Peace a lot quicker and I’m speaking from experience. He also wrote acclaimed biographies of Washington and, famously, Hamilton—the book Lin-Manuel Miranda adapted for his smash Broadway musical. “Smash” is the operative word here because that’s what’ll happen if you drop the thing on your foot.

I got my own copy of Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton from Linda Curtoys when we visited her and Jeremy near Dayton. Jeremy liked it, so she gave it a try but she couldn’t get through it any more than a .357 Magnum bullet could punch through it. She said something about having a life to lead. Jeremy gave me a little cat-that-ate-the-canary smile when she handed it to me. I get it now because that book stares me down every time I look at it. I’m a slow reader and not getting any younger.

If you go to Chattanooga, don’t miss Lookout Mountain unless you suffer from vertigo. Parked right next to the city, it juts almost straight up and it’s really high. Looking down from the top the people don’t look like ants, the buildings do. I’m not afraid of heights, but I’ll admit I got a little lightheaded when I looked over the edge and I even had that sinking feeling you get when your elevator drops too fast. Still, one helluva view.

When we saddled up and headed to Tupelo, we were a little wistful in the leaving. Chattanooga was an unexpected pleasure for us road weary old salts, and we filed a mental note to go back someday and stay longer.

Tupelo has a presence in the American mind because Elvis was born and mostly raised there. Tupelo honey went international with the Van Morrison song and you might think the stuff comes from there but it doesn’t. It only comes from Florida. They made a serviceable movie about it called “Ulee’s Gold” with Peter Fonda in the title role. If you go to Tupelo, they’ll sell you some “Tupelo” honey, but it ain’t the real deal.

Like any sane Boomer, I like Elvis just fine. The boy could sing, but my real interest in the place concerned a couple of personal matters. First, My biological father and grandparents are buried down the road in the small town of New Albany. Second, I wanted to see if I could find the big house in Tupelo where I once spent an enchanted night as a little boy with Minrose, the little girl whose family owned it.

I couldn’t have been much older than five when my recently widowed mother took me with her to the big house to visit her friends, Erin Taylor, Minrose’s mother and Dan, her stepfather. Mother’s connection was through Dan, a Navy carrier pilot in WWII and my father’s best friend growing up in New Albany in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Minrose was a little older than me and that night she took me out in the front yard where she taught me how to catch fireflies in a jar and keep them alive by poking holes in the lid with a sharp icepick. Back in those days we were allowed to play with matches and run with knives, maybe even encouraged. Somehow, we survived and Minrose grew up to become a writer as well as a professor at The University of North Carolina and is now retired. That night and that house have remained vivid almost all my life.

The last time I saw Minrose, I was a teenager when she and her family visited us in Houston. That’s when I lost touch until a couple of years ago when my cousin Ginny called to say that Minrose wrote a book about her life growing up, and that she read it and would mail it to me. Ginny is the daughter of my father’s brother and they knew Minrose and her family too.

The memoir, Wishing for Snow by Minrose Gwin, is a fine study in Southern Gothic ala Flannery O’Connor with a healthy dose of The Liar’s Club by Mary Carr. If you haven’t read any of the latter two authors, you can catch up quick with Minrose’s book. Unknown to me, she was living in a bizarre world of dysfunction created by the disaster of Dan and Erin Taylor’s marriage—one that led to real madness.

Minrose’s mom was a Southern Belle with a confident aristocratic bearing. She was also a fine and published poetess. She would seem familiar to those who knew my own mother, Dorothy. Dan, the villain in the book, was referred to only as “the salesman.” He was, in fact, a freelance salesman of heavy industrial valves and such.

He visited our home often on his rounds in the ‘50s and ‘60s and, as a kid, I liked hanging around with him and my folks in the little dining room after dinner. He would talk with my parents of a more interesting and larger world in his quiet voice. He was slim and handsome, very taciturn and, as Minrose says, a ringer for Alan Ladd. I liked him, but through all that blue smoke I never saw him smile. Not once I can remember.

I suppose we all suffer through significant dangers and soul-crushing indignities growing up, but I think reading a book like that makes most of us grateful for the childhoods we had, full of fond memories like my long ago night in Tupelo and parents that protected us. For those like Minrose who, in spite of the odds, not only make it in the world but flourish, we should celebrate. If you buy her book, you’ll like the part about the fireflies in Tupelo even though, sadly, I’m not mentioned. She still obviously loves those little “devils.” [see luciferin]

I didn’t look for Minrose, but I did find the house of my 65 year old remembrance. She mentioned its location in the book and on the first day in town, Dahna punched “Church Street” into AppleMaps on the iPhone that was plugged into the truck’s touch screen. About 30 minutes after we left our site in beautiful Tombigbee State Park, there it was in all its evocative glory; two large brick storeys, the full length paved front porch we played on, and the elevated corner lot with concrete steps leading down to the street.

The trees were there too and, like the great philosopher once said, it was déjà vu all over again. I was pretty pleased the rest of the day, but that night I thought about visiting the graves in New Albany the next morning. I’m not often spotted in graveyards because I don’t think the dead are there. Just the markers really. I agree with Lincoln that it’s for the living we honor the dead, and it’s only for myself that I go there at all. I hadn’t been to this cemetery in 35 years when last my grandmother died and I felt it was about time to go back.

The day was appropriately gloomy; overcast, misty and biting cold with a hard north wind. The small cemetery was cut in half by the highway and I thought the part up on the hill was where my folks were buried. I pulled into the narrow gravel lane and quickly came face to face with the driver of another pickup truck. We rolled our windows down and started a conversation, country style like Ray and I do out on our road when we meet.

He was a retired stock broker, native to New Albany, and he knew my family name but not the people. Since he was about my age, I asked him if he knew Doug Pannell, my childhood buddy who lived next door to my grandparents. I spent a number of Huck Finn summers there, and in the mornings I’d grab my illicit BB gun (secretly stored by my Daddy Doyle and unknown to my parents) and head out to meet Doug. We’d wander barefoot through the apple trees and fields and plink around. Then we’d walk along the tracks and shoot the breeze. The smell of creosote always reminds me of the rail sleepers from those days.

The guy in the truck was named Jerry, I think, and he answered my question with a big smile, “Yeah, Doug was my best friend.” We talked for around ten minutes about the Pannells and Doug’s short unhappy life until I said, “Well, he was a good kid.” Jerry brightened a little and he agreed, “Yeah, you know? He really was a good kid.” He nodded to me, “Well, good luck finding your people,” and with that he drove out.

I was wrong about the cemetery. We buttoned up our heavy hooded coats, left Sacha in the truck, and started searching. We split up but came back to the truck about 45 minutes later empty handed and frozen stiff. That meant they were across the highway somewhere in the five or six acres of the low side. Jesus!

We drove the short distance to the nearby Subway to warm up and eat lunch when another customer saw our Texas plates and came over to our table to visit. Southerners! What’re ya’ gonna do? It so happened that one of his teachers had been Doug’s wife. And like Jerry, he’d heard of my name but didn’t know my folks. He filled us in a little more on Doug’s story while we ate and he talked kindly about his small town.

We were full and defrosted when we got back to the cemetery’s low side. I parked halfway up the lane, bisecting the long thin strip of grassy plots, some curbed but others in the open. We walked Sacha first along the little road and back and then started hunting again.

James Holloway Branyan, RIP
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After we covered almost every square foot, damp and chilled to the bone, I yelled at Dahna, “That’s Enough! Let’s go home!” I was very close to the truck when I walked up on Doug’s grave. There were the others too of his parents and grandparents. The last time I saw him was when we were about 30 at my grandfather’s funeral. He was vice president of the local bank and a lot fatter than the skinny kid I remembered. If he was happy, it didn’t show and it didn’t last.

Some time after that, Doug embezzled money from the bank to cover his losses to some shady characters he got mixed up with in a bad buy of an auto dealership. He had oversold shares to too many investors in something like Mel Brooks, “The Producers.” He got caught but it wasn’t funny like the movie. With the law closing in and his reputation shot, he took his own life. He was 42. At least that’s the pieced-together story I got that day and back over the years from my family.

As Dahna walked up, she spotted my family’s marker beside that of the Pannells. We looked at every practically grave in that whole cemetery and finally found it in the last place left—right next to the truck! It’s fitting that the two families are buried together because they were all close friends.

My father was a young reporter for one of our town’s big dailies, The Houston Post. He was their fair haired boy, hired on due to the quality of his earlier reporting of the Texas City disaster for the Beaumont paper. He was given the plum assignment of traveling to Indonesia with a group of other journalists from around the country to interview a number of Dutch vs. Indonesian officials, including President Sukarno. The issue was Sukarno’s push for independence, the Dutch pushing back and their their effort to seek American support for their side through favorable reporting.

The Dutch lost their colony and my father and his colleagues lost their lives returning home when the charter KLM Constellation crashed on approach to Bombay’s (Mumbai) airport in bad weather. “Lousy Irish Luck…” the big Post headline said. It was July 12, 1949, and my father was 31.

His short life was certainly more interesting than most, including mine, and I’ve often thought of doing the research necessary to write about it with some justice. But it’s a big subject and, like Dylan said, the hour’s getting late. His Indonesian story is one of the long links in our chain of postwar successes and failures that encompassed Soviet and Sino containment policy including, in this particular case, its notorious Domino Theory and my own subsequent experience in Vietnam.

Another noted writer from New Albany, MS
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We were still a long way from Comanche and had to stop two more times to keep from killing ourselves. Those stops were brief and unremarkable. On the morning of our last day, we got the trailer hooked up after breakfast and had a good light check. Dahna walked back up and got in the cab.

“Home James,” she said with a little brush of her hand.

Brown Creeper, near Longview, Tx on the Road Home
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MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 5: Planting the Flag and Hauling the Mail

I can’t remember a thing about the ride up to Grand Island where we camped just south of Niagara Falls. Even though I’ve surprised myself by becoming an old coot and memory is becoming a sometimes thing, I don’t worry about it. A whirlwind trip like this would muddy the memory of almost anyone. In any case I can rely on Dahna to remind me where we stayed yesterday because she sees distinguishing details where I see blobs that run together into clumps.

I do remember the Branches of Niagara campground and our happy neighbor Brian, computer analyst and Buffalo native. The campground is privately owned and one of the few that capably caters to adults and children. The kids have plenty of playgrounds and games plus their own zip line. The adults have one too along with a pretty lake and lots of room to walk or jog. We were even able to let Sacha off her leash so she could run off some of the treats we’re helpless to stop giving her.

Mallard at Branches of Niagara
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As a general rule, private campgrounds are more expensive than state parks and tend to put the sites closer together so as to maximize profits. They offset these drawbacks by offering more amenities like cable TV and WiFi internet and complete hookups including water taps, power and sewer. We prefer state parks because they’re always beautiful, much larger, the sites are more spread out, and they’re cheap.

It might be my imagination, but I think the campers at the state parks are happier and friendlier. Cost might be a factor, but it is undeniable that the campers in the state parks run the gamut of economic class and I think that eases everything out a bit for everybody. Too, the natural beauty surely helps to put everybody in a good, hobnobbing mood. Letting Sacha go and watching her run through the woods chasing out her almost boundless energy is pure pleasure for us and helps us forget the news for awhile.

On the road we get our news on the internet, usually provided by our new iPhone. We bought an “unlimited” data plan to go with it which works fairly well as an internet hotspot for three out of the four weeks per month we use it. AT@T then tells us we’ve been greedy and slows the speed down to a dial up crawl. I get a kick out of AT@T telling me how greedy I am. Anyway, I asked my neighbor Brian why this was happening. He said that automatic upgrades of the phone’s apps eat up a lot of data, and that you could turn the updates off. When I told Dahna about this, she was her usual step ahead of me and said that she already had turned them off. AT@T…what’s not to like?

Brian also told us about the Erie Canal town of Lockport and a boat ride you can take through a manmade cave. The cave was designed to complement the Erie lock gates in moving water faster down the canal to speed passage of the barges through the system. It was painstakingly excavated by placing small gunpowder charges in drilled holes by young, nimble and, presumably, replaceable boys and blasting out small chunks at a time. The cave produced a “hydraulic raceway” of rushing water that also mechanically powered a series of factories up above that mostly burned down to the ground either accidentally or by design.

We learned about all this and more from our perky tour guide who was a sweet young woman of about twenty. She was surprised by her sister who had just driven in on the sly from California to see her and we were all delighted by the affection they had for each other. Our little group would tag along from point to point as they led, holding hands, and excitedly whispered to each other. They both loved their historic little town in an endearing, wry kind of way. The whole thing put everybody in a jolly good mood.

We watched a large tour boat full of passengers move through one of the many locks that stair-step the nearly 600 foot elevation difference from the Hudson river in Albany to Lake Erie near Buffalo. The original canal itself was dug by shovel, wheelbarrow and oxen-pulled scrapers in one of the greatest engineering feats of the early 19th Century. It linked the Great Lakes and much of the continent’s system of rivers to New York City’s harbor and was essential to the development of the midwest and the western expansion. New York City did okay too, and you can, and should, read all about it. We used to do big things back in the day of American Exceptionalism.

Tour Boat Waiting for the Lock to Fill
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Oh! I almost forgot Niagara Falls. But what really impressed me was the Niagara River itself. In fact, most of the rivers we crossed on this trip have been impressive. These monsters are huge compared to the dinky streams we call rivers in Texas. In spite of the Austin Lounge Lizards singing about Texas rattlesnakes being the coil-i-est and our beaches being the oil-i-est, our rivers aren’t the anything-i-est…maybe the mud-i-est. You want water? Go East young man! Seriously.

Niagara Falls
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Niagara Falls is impressive as you no doubt know since you’ve probably seen it if you’re like most of the people on the planet. If you haven’t been there, a word of warning. Never get in the way of a Japanese man and his camera, especially at elevated landmarks where you can fall to your death. I know that sounds racist and you could credibly accuse me of this particular sin if I hadn’t restrained my natural impulse to slug the guy when he shoved me out of his way to get a shot of his family at the rail.

The same thing happened to Dahna twice: once a little later on at Acadia National Park and once a long time ago at the Grand Canyon. I’m working on the idea that photographic shoving is not considered rude in some cultures, and I hope to internalize the notion more in order to remain out of jail in my golden years. Let me add in my defense that 50 years ago I had a great time on R & R in Tokyo. Loved the place and the people.

From Niagara our next stop was at a nice private park on the Mohawk River near Schenectady. Our three days at that park confirmed what we suspected about the big trip as we headed north and east and deeper into Fall. It was going to get colder and wetter. I wondered if they made raincoats for dogs which is a pretty dumb question if you’ve ever been in a big Pet Smart. Before you knew it, we were standing on the Mohawk’s bank with Sacha in her new Day-Glo lime green raincoat looking at the sailboats transiting our part of the modern Erie Canal system.

Pat and Sacha Just Walking In The Rain on the Mohawk River
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A steady parade of sailboats motored by, masts lowered and carried in deck cradles. They were traveling from the Great Lakes to points east, up to and including New York’s harbor. From there it’s the world if you choose and have the boat for it and we had the boat, almost—her deep keel drew 6’, a little too much for some rivers, but great for oceans. Back when we were sailing Alchemy out in the Gulf, we sometimes entertained the idea of tackling the “Great Loop.” This is a roughly 6,000 mile circumnavigation of the eastern U.S. and part of Canada using interconnecting rivers, lakes, canals and various waterways like the Intercoastal. Oh well. Mice and men.

The cold rain followed us up to Old Orchard Beach, ME on Saco Bay just south of Portland and has stayed with us ever since. We have been very lucky to have enough beautiful days to keep our spirits up and see most of the sights we had in mind. Best of all we were lucky in our timing vis-a-vis the fall colors. Almost from the beginning it’s as if the trees decided to explode in their fieriest colors just as we arrived to see them. I understand now why the peak fall colors in New England and Canada are so famous. It’s unreal. Some of the trees actually looked as if they were on fire. For hundreds of miles, Dahna took shot after shot of the trees in a jerky series of dangerous roadside swerves and stops.

Marsh Grass Saco Bay, Maine
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The biggest downside of driving way up north in the Fall is the decrease in camaraderie with the people you’re camping amongst. Hell, everybody’s tucked inside their heated RV. This isn’t entirely true because some of the people who live up north think drizzly 40 degree weather is perfect for sitting around a smokey, wet-wood campfire. We think it’s perfect for giving these people a wide berth. But, sadly, you meet a lot less people when it’s wet and cold, loony or not.

We didn’t get to know anyone at Old Orchard Beach, but we did have our first, and best, lobster roll near there in Saco at the Sea ’N Salt Restaurant. Getting to eat a lot of lobster was one of the prime attractions for me and I wasn’t disappointed—neither was Dahna. We ate our weight in lobster (mostly rolls) up and down again from New Hampshire to Nova Scotia. In our minds, the quality of a lobster roll depends on the ratio of tail meat to claw meat, and you always want to go with the higher number. Another thing is making the right choice of other stuff to put on it.

If you forget to specify you’re liable to get your not-cheap lobster roll slathered in mayonnaise or some other cheap crap. You want to order them “naked.” The lobster roll, I mean. That’s when they grudgingly break out the good stuff—drawn butter, the only thing that justifies taking the lobster’s life. Now, I know there’s no small controversy about the pain a lobster feels when it’s being boiled to death, but I also know that its “brain” is just a small ganglia mass.

So, do they feel pain when cooked? Probably. Did Marie Antoinette wince when her head face-planted in the basket? Again probably, but I’m sure she forgot all about it soon enough. The thing is, you don’t know if it hurts or not for sure. You’d have to ask them and they ain’t talkin’ are they? That gives us the moral wiggle room we need to happily eat lobster and humanely whack off heads from time to time. The mind is a marvelous thing. Voting Republican can even make sense to a Christian.

We generally have good natures even though they do slide up and down the scale a little. I consider myself to be a “very fine fellow” every time I don’t tip a Japanese photographer over the railing. On the other hand, to be honest, I worry that I’m only “basically a good person” when the butter sauce is flying. But, that’s good enough when it comes to lobster, so dig in!

Our next stop was at famed Acadia National Park up along Maine’s rocky coast. This park is one of America’s headline attractions on the order of Yellowstone or Yosemite. Mostly we remember the rugged shoreline with its big jutting rocks, the prevalent cold rain and the huge wet trees that seemed to whisper, “Kill yourself.” That’s a little unfair because you shouldn’t judge a place solely by its weather at the moment. Actually, the sun would come out periodically and the peak leaf color would smash into your retina like a freight train making everything groovy all over again. It also smelled great there, like Christmas trees and all the Rawlings ball gloves and WHAM-O slingshots that go along with it. I bought a hat.

Rocky Coast at Acadia National Park
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Four-Masted Schooner Off of Bar Harbor, Maine from Atop Cadillac Mountain, ACADIA NP
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The Rockefellers and Dahna’s dad have an interesting history with the place involving Naval Intelligence during WWII. Because of the site’s lack of background clutter, Schoodic Point at Acadia, donated by John D. Jr, was used a a radio direction finder station serving to locate enemy ships, especially U-Boats, in the North Atlantic. Then, U.S. hunter aircraft could launch from carriers, find and sink them with bombs or torpedoes.

Schoodic Institute Campus includes the former Naval Observation Station
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Dahna’s decorated dad was a turret gunner on one of the planes. His job on the bombing run was to keep German gunners away from their deck guns with his electrically-operated twin .50 caliber machine guns as they flew away. Occasionally the hunter became the prey, and he was shot down into the drink twice. His main bitch was that certain assholes, I mean Assholes, would steal the chocolate bars from the life raft rations. Dahna had no idea about her dad’s combat experience and was shocked when she overheard Sid and I telling war stories. Like most WWII vets, he didn’t talk much about the war.

Sid liked to fish for perch from the bank. He wasn’t much of a boater.

Greater Yellowlegs – Schoodic Point Acadia National Park
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We only stayed three days at Acadia which doesn’t begin to do it justice even in perfect weather. When we planned this northy trip we knew time wasn’t on our side considering the distance involved. In order to get to Nova Scotia and back without jackknifing into a snowbank, we had to really scoot along and we did. Before we knew it we were at the Canadian border.

The Canadian Trees Greet Us at the Border Wearing Their Best Fall Colors
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The traffic was oddly heavy coming back into the U.S. but we were the only vehicle going into Canada. I thought, ‘Huh, what the…?’ That made no sense to me considering…well, you know…but that’s the way it was. When I pulled up to the booth the young, unsmiling woman asked for our passports and drivers licenses. I gave them to her and then she asked me to recite our address and destination which I did. I can’t say that being from a place called Comanche, Texas had anything to do with it but the rest of the conversation was very close to that below, in its entirety:

She: “Did you bring your guns?”
Me: “No, I didn’t bring any guns.”
She: “So, there are no guns in the RV or in the truck, is that correct?”
Me: “There are no guns aboard, that’s correct.”
She: “You left your guns at home?”
Me: “Yes Ma’am, I left my guns at home.”

That was it. She let us through after about one minute of our little gun minuet. We were on our way to Canada’s Fundy National Park and teeny tiny Alma, the New Brunswick town now of fond memory.

I’ve wanted to see the Bay of Fundy since learning about its enormous tides which can measure up to 40 feet. The low tides produce vast sloping tidal flats which should be great to explore, but the one at Alma resembled more of a desert than a chock-full-o’-life seabed suddenly exposed. We wondered about that as we unhooked Sacha from her leash in the gentle drizzle. Since we’re not Bay of Fundy experts, we could only speculate as to why.

Lobster Boats High & Dry During Low Tide at Bay of Fundy in Alma, New Brunswick
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Our best guess is that the critters that live in the water have adapted over the many ages to not be caught high and dry like they would be immediately before the arrival of a tsunami. All that was left was a bare sweep of compact sand that was nice to walk out on and it gave Sacha plenty of traction for her high speed jukes and jives. We were scanning the retreating bay when we noticed a solitary, red-haired woman walking toward us under a bright yellow umbrella, about 1,000 feet away.

Sacha Makes a New Friend, Irish Kate!
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My first paranoid thought was that she must be some pompous ass coming to insist we get Sacha back on her leash. Some say that people like that exist in great numbers, like fraudulent voters, and I’m sure that’s true since they say so even though I’ve personally never met such a jerk type person. It turned out that my fears were, as usual, misplaced. It was Kate, a citizen of Northern Ireland, domiciled since 1971 in the U.S. in various places like California but now living in Alma, N.B. where she owns a home. Like any sensible person, she beats a retreat in winter and goes down to Florida near Daytona to kick back until it’s over.

I said, “Hey, I’m Irish,” and told her my name. She thought for a moment and slowly shook her head, “I don’t know any family name of Branyan. There are similar names though…maybe your name is derived from one of them.” So much for my fantasy of being being warmly welcomed home by my long lost kin of the Emerald Isle. Maybe the good island folk forced my family to flee to America for hoarding the only good potatoes left from the blight or something. If our name is derivative, it’s probably for our own protection.

This is a delightful lady and we got to know her over a dinner later that evening of lobster and chowder at one of the little restaurants on the main, and only, drag. Irish Kate, as she’s known about town, is an artist. As soon as we found that out, Dahna got out the iPhone and, using Canada’s excellent wifi internet, hosted by the cafe, brought up the some of the paintings by our friends, Paul and Enid of South Carolina. They spent a good while looking at them and conversed in some arcane art lingo leaving me, mercifully, out of it.

Then Kate dug her own phone out of her purse and fiddled with it while telling us the story of her “Fish Head” painting. There is apparently a healthy international trade in fish heads from Iceland that the Canadian lobstermen use for bait in their traps. Kate is close to the owners of one of the restaurants in Alma, the Lobster Store, and they showed her the heads once on one of their boats.

When she got the picture of her painting on the screen and showed it to us, we both let out a little squeak of pleasure. You might not think a painting of a bunch of fish heads can have much impact but it did. The triangular heads were arranged in a beautiful mosaic of color, tightly fitted together and the whole idea of it really jumped out at you. She laughed when she rotated the picture electronically and said, “See? You can look at it from any position…up or down or sideways.” That was true, and it was also true the heads could look at you from any position as well.

I could still kick myself for not asking if any prints were available but, at least, I have the image seared permanently, and happily, in the forefront part of my brain. In addition to that gift, she gave us a CD of the Chieftans. Her cousin was a member of the band and played the harp. She told us that he was the only Protestant in the group. That brief touch on religion led us to a shared view on politics to the discreet relief of everyone.

We had a nice leisurely visit with her and when we parted company, she gave us a hug and that same smile you see in the photo. Sacha loved her and, as Kate said, (They had) “the same hair color.” So Dahna took the shot capturing her smile and a panoramic view of mutt butt in the foreground. Dahna cropped that last part out in a nod to decency and to spare Sacha embarrassment.

Common Loon – Bay of Fundy
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Kate was headed up somewhere in Nova Scotia the next day and so were we. She was going to see friends for Canadian Thanksgiving, and we were going to Cape Breton, specifically a park near Baddeck. It was a long drive through several towns, including St. John, complicated by being unschooled in the national signage system. So, there were a few missteps and anxious moments and neither of us would deny there was an accusation or two, but we made it. The roads, like the internet, are great in Canada and we miss them both now, now that we’re back, back in the U.S.A.

Iconic Owl’s Head – Fundy National Park, New Brunswick
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Caribou Plain Bog – Fundy National Park
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We only spent four days in Nova Scotia. If we had it to do over again, we would have left Comanche earlier and spent the extra time there because we loved it even though the crappy weather still dogged us. Four days doesn’t even scratch the surface of a place like that, so we’ve resolved to go back sometime for a much longer stay. There are plenty of logistical problems considering the distance and shiver factor, but we liked everything about it. Maybe the best plan would be to buy or rent a little place for the summer like Kate, and bail out around mid October for points south. Well, grist for the mill.

I mentioned in an earlier piece that the little town of Baddeck is the birthplace of Canadian aviation which occurred only a few years after the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight. The first flight by the Silver Dart took off and landed on the frozen waters of Baddeck Bay in the winter of 1909. The plane’s construction was a joint American/Canadian effort partly financed and designed by Alexander Graham Bell. Bell loved the place so much he spent much of his life there on his large summer estate, complete with genius inventor laboratory. He messed around with fast boats too, apparently enjoying himself like a kid in his later years. You can get the whole story at his museum in Baddeck which, unfortunately, we missed.

We did get a very good look at Cape Breton’s world famous Cabot Trail. We allocated a whole day for the big Cabot Trail loop that begins and ends near Dahna’s perfectly-chosen camp near Baddeck and runs for nearly 200 miles. We were again lucky with the weather for that day because it stopped raining and cleared off. The sun came out and once again fired up the bright Day-Glo red, yellow and orange leaves to set against the deep blue Atlantic ringing most of the course. What a Maxwell Parrish day!

The Land Views of the Cabot Trail
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And the Atlantic View of the Cabot Trail
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I probably couldn’t describe it better for you even if I tried. Much better for you to see it for yourself. Sure, it’s a bit of trouble to get there, but that’s part of my point. Go to Nova Scotia because it’s there and if you’re there, you’ll see what I mean. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful and friendly place.

From Baddeck you can take the trail either clockwise or counterclockwise. I have to give myself a great deal of credit for taking the counterclockwise direction instead of the stupidly “preferred” clockwise one. Any moron could see that the counterclockwise motion offered easy access to the many ocean-side pull outs along the way instead of having to cross the heavy traffic going the other way. Any moron could see that…Well, I’m sure we all can think of one moron who couldn’t.

Cabot Trail – North Side of the Island
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Each year for nine days in the fall, the natives get all up for the Celtic Colours music festival on the Ceilidh (“kildee”-means party) Trail where Celtic bands perform all over the island. After eating yet another killer lobster roll at the Yellow Cello, we walked across the street and down to the bay to the Baddeck Yacht Club for a free performance. A girl set the up tempo beat with a couple of spoons tapping against her leg while the other musicians came in with a little hand drum called a bodhran, a guitar and two fiddles. We listened to them play a nice set of Irish favorites until a lady walked in with a tambourine as we, regretfully, walked back out into the rain.

Ceilidh at Baddeck Yacht Club
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We had to leave early before the Post Office closed in the vain hope our vote-by-mail ballots had arrived. Even though Patty had forwarded them to us a couple of weeks earlier, they got hung up at U.S. Customs for some reason, no doubt BENGHAZI! Those damn things chased us for about three more weeks until we finally got to Ft. Meade near Washington D.C. We did manage to get our vote in barely on time to help improve our dire political situation a little. Maybe. Who knows? Texas is pretty bad but at least it’s not Georgia, so maybe they got counted.

The rain let up overnight giving us a chance to get hooked up comfortably the next morning for the long trip home. When everything was all done and Sacha, the perfect dog, was settled in I started the truck. Dahna said, “Why can’t we just stay here?” I said, “We can come back. We know how to get here.” She said, “All right then,” a tad emphatically. A few minutes later it started to rain and didn’t let up for a long way. Finally, the sun came out again and so did the magnificent color of the maple leaves as they shook themselves dry in the wind. They look good on the flags too.

Rain Can’t Quench The Flames as We Depart Cape Breton
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MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 4: Really Erie Lakes and Canals

When you’re traveling between one location and another while transporting nearly eight tons of steel, plastic, explosive liquids and gasses, mileage concerns displace your normal thoughts of wealth, fame and glory. The distance from Dayton to Geneva State Park up on Lake Erie just past Cleveland is about 25 miles less than the range of the rig per tank. In situations like that I always think, ‘Yea, I don’t have to stop for gas.’

It’s always lovely to think we can just hook up our long, extra wide, heavy trailer and drag it several hundred miles without having to creep into a gas station with it looming up back there. Sidling up to a pump in an unfamiliar and always busy station with the huge thing in tow requires an in and out strategy rivaling a complex military maneuver.

Since I didn’t go to West Point, I always try to comfort myself by thinking of it as a challenge, ‘You know kid, enjoy it.’ Yeah, right. It’s always a white knuckle thing and I’ll never get used to it. I almost always have to stop even when the new park up ahead is within range. Why on earth? Why, fear of course…unbridled, stampeding fear.

I start to worry about running out of gas anyway on some shoulderless two lane in the middle of Bum(f word) Egypt with no cell phone service. That’s worse than the torture of stopping for gas isn’t it? Or is it? All I know at this point is that Dahna better find me a gas station on the GPS pretty damn quick which she always does. So far I’ve managed to gas up without knocking over any pumps and making the national news. I always feel great when I pull out with a full tank and get back on the road close to my destination. Top of the world, Ma! In this case it was Geneva S.P.

You would expect a park on Lake Erie to have a marina and it does, a very nice one with sailboats after our hearts. We went there first because I took my usual wrong turn and ended up in its parking lot, camper and all. Like Buck Creek the park had no individual water taps or sewer hookups so we had to be nearly self-contained except for electrical power which it did provide. It meant relying entirely on our water and storage tanks for the four days we were there. No problem if you don’t mind navy showers, hardly the worst thing that ever happened to you.

We had an easy time setting up and I was starting to think we were getting good at it. After three years of doing this we are getting better. Good? That’s relative. Anyway, we finished up, tossed Sacha into the truck by her “lifting harness,” and headed for little Great Lake Erie. That’s relative too, heh heh.

I like the word, “relative.” Dahna and I are relativists, political correctness be damned. Science will do that to you. That said,there are some things in the universe that approach absolutism, simple things. Gas laws for instance. Another might be Newton’s Laws of Motion which inform the inherent stability of speeding bicycles.

I even think evolutionary biology can be understood as couplet that approaches absolutism in its contrast with mankind’s vanity:

Mankind: The form of his works will follow function (lasts several thousand years)
Nature: The function of her works will follow form (lasts eons, literally)

Yea Nature! Like Sara Lee, nobody doesn’t like Nature. Really though, do we all don’t not like it? Vote.

Along with little dogs, Sacha does not like water and the lake was not her thing at all. She regarded it like she does her water bowl. She drinks water but only because she’s vastly out of place living down south with us and, as a husky, would certainly prefer melting snow in her mouth for that particular nutrient.

She did like some of the nasty stuff washed up on the beach and Dahna kept a firm hand on the leash to keep her from rolling. Get distracted for just a second and you’ll turn to see Sacha flat on her back, legs in the air, doing the doggy twist on some horrible putrescence straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. Sacha aside (but only for a moment), Dahna and I loved the lake since we love all bodies of water and the bigger the better.

There are plenty of lakes you can’t see across, but one the size of Lake Erie registers as oceanic in your mind even on a calm day like that one. On that day it didn’t have the deep power rumble of the ocean and so it felt like a lake, an oceanic lake. Apparently, I can’t describe it, but I will say that it shared with the ocean a sense of the earth’s curvature in the mind’s eye.

Dredge and Sailboat Share Lake ErieDSCN6892 (1)

I can’t remember the ocean ever being quiet at the shore, even after living there for several years. I was once becalmed on our sailboat on a Gulf crossing and it was very quiet, like the big lake that day. On the shore of Lake Ontario during a windy day near Niagara Falls, we “heard” the ocean once again as big waves raised by the long fetch crashed against the shore. Power and beauty like Beethoven or Serena Williams.

Without doubt, one of Nature’s most beautiful productions are the little dinosaurs we live with today—birds. Instead of just piddling around solely with Chemistry and Mathematics, Dahna should have picked up a degree in Ornithology. It doesn’t really matter though because she’s well on the way to mastering the subject as an avocation. She usually leaves me and Sacha asleep in the camper while she braves the elements at first light in pursuit of the flitty folk. She often meets earthbound folk with cameras who are also afflicted with the same obsessive compulsive disorder.

She ran into a retired Brooklynite at nearby Arcola Creek Park who was on a special mission. He was scarecrowing the crows away from a select group of blackbirds he was feeding. These birds had lost their tail feathers and couldn’t fly south. He was feeding them until they grew back and could then make the trip. Like Dahna at home, he was able to call his birds to him. They roosted near the creek that formed a small estuary near the lake where she later met a young couple fishing for bait.

Tailfeatherless Red-Winged Blackbird at Arcola Creek ParkVersion 2

They were kind and friendly, anxious to share with Dahna some points of interest in their community of Madison and its environs. She was struck by their love of their home and a healthy outdoor life. Dahna took a picture of the pretty little golden shiner they caught and several more of a hungry juvenile bald eagle nearby. She came back to the camper all happy and smiley and made me almost wish I’d gotten up and gone with her.

Golden Shiner at Arcola Creek ParkDSCN7001

Juvenile Bald Eagle at Arcola Creek ParkDSCN7031 (1)

In another wetland area in our park, Dahna got a good picture of a Reddish Egret, a new “lifer.” A lifer bird is birding talk for any bird successfully identified to the Life List of a birder. I asked her how many birds she has so far but she didn’t know. She thought maybe she’d count them when we got home, but I don’t think she’s keeping score. She’s pretty solid about the value of things.

Reddish Egret Geneva State ParkDSCN7075

One of the things we both value is a good cafe. In a strange place it’s sometimes hard to find one, but the town of Geneva has a great one, Honeybees. It reminded us of another great find way over in Grants Pass, Oregon—the Powderhorn. Anyhow, we walked into Honeybees about 10:30 AM and started to pass a little sign by the door. Dahna glanced at it and almost broke her neck doing a double take. It said, “Eggs Benedict—$5.95.” Dahna jabbed her finger at the sign and said a bit loudly, “That’s what I’m having.”

When we got to the table, I looked around and told her that $6.00 Eggs Benedict might not be a good idea, know what I mean, Vern? She said, “I’m having $6.00 Eggs Benedict and you can have whatever you like, little man.” When our dynamite Filipino waitress came to take our order, they both made me feel like a fool for sticking with my usual plain jane breakfast which I’m here to say was damn good. Of course, Dahna smiled across the table at me with every bite of her $6.00 Eggs Benedict and when she finished, patted her lips with her napkin and said, “Best breakfast ever!” I should have had what she had, and I was relieved when she held off doing her “Meg Ryan in the Restaurant” imitation.

Afterward, we did a little sightseeing in the town and some more birding not far away back at Arcola Creek Park. We only saw a few cormorants and crows but Sacha had a good time charging around and doing her sniffery. When we got back to our camper, the  huge 5th wheel trailer was gone and in its place was a tiny pup tent with a motorcycle parked beside it. The contrast was good enough for me to snipe, “Riches to rags.”

I’ve noticed in my life that every time I make a snotty comment like that, it always comes back to bite me in the butt. You’d think I’d learn but…not so much. It turns out that the guy in that tent was not poor in any respect. We started our conversation across the way about Sacha or his bike or something—I can’t remember. As we talked and moved closer together, I wondered about his accent and since we were close enough to Quebec I asked if he was Canadian. I wasn’t far off. He was Iranian.

[With autocratic governments murdering their own citizens all over the world and our own government, if not supportive, at least looking the other way, I’m not going to use his real name.]

I had enough sense not to offer him a drink but, rather, coffee. He declined as he sat down at our picnic table, “I just finished my tea,” he said. BZ was almost 60 years old and was on his way to Montreal via Niagara Falls. We also were headed to the Falls a couple of days after he planned to leave on the morrow. Dahna said that maybe we’d meet up again there, but he doubted it. “It probably depends. Sometimes you go to a place like that and you look at it for a little while and you go, ‘eh’, and,” he shrugged,  “then you go someplace else.”

Dahna laughed, “I know what you mean. Like when we went to the Grand Canyon, you see it and then it’s back in the car and you’re off. Next place, please. Peggy Lee had a song about it.” That confused BZ a little and it didn’t help when I mentioned Leonard Cohen. He didn’t know the name but he knew Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I mentioned that he was from Montreal and created a large and exceptional body of work, and Dahna added that he was officially a Canadian National Treasure.

I was ready to change the subject so I said, “Well, he’s dead now. He had the infinite good sense to die the day before Trump got elected.” That opened the door to a lengthy and intimate discussion that lasted several hours. BZ shook his head and said, “You can’t go backwards, you can’t do it. That’s what my country did and now look. You go back and it’s war, and all war is bad. ALL WAR! “ He was almost shouting.

BZ teaches certain pediatric surgical procedures at a state university since recently closing his practice. His wife and children live several hundred miles away, and he commutes home on weekends to see them. They attend a good public school and he refuses to move them until the last one graduates next year. His trip to Montreal was his last big road trip by motorcycle and because of that it had a special resonance, a last salute to his youth.

I said, “Yeah, it is. I lost my arm in Vietnam.”

He nodded and touched the table several times with his finger, “Then you know what I mean. You were a soldier too.”

“Marine,” I couldn’t let that ride, “You’re right, it’s all bad but it never stops does it?”

“No”, he said, “I’ll tell you how I got to this country.”

“It wasn’t too long after high school when the revolution came, and I was getting ready to go to college. In the first year they arrested and executed my older brother. He was a lawyer and he was carrying a banned newspaper. So, they killed him.”

Dahna couldn’t believe it, “They killed your brother because he had a newspaper?”

“Yes. They killed many people for trivial reasons. No reason. I knew people, students, who were in the United States studying and that’s where I wanted to go too. But, the Iraqis had invaded our country. They knew we were weak because the shah was gone and, by then, I could not get a passport. I could only get one by joining the army for two years first.”

I looked at him, “You fought in that war for two years to get a passport?”

“Yes,” he answered, “and I knew the first day I was sent to the front I would be killed. I got there with a group of guys, but I was the only one with a drivers license. They assigned me to transport and gave me a truck but an officer was interested in me and started talking. So, he made another guy take the truck. It hit a mine and blew up and killed the driver who should have been me. The first day.”

I kind of smiled a little, “I was too dumb to think I’d be killed even though there were a lot of close calls, a lot of firefights. One time my canteen got hit and a corporal came over and told me how lucky I was. About a half hour later, he was dead. There were a lot of twists of fate.”

He shook his head, “Yeah, you know about it. There were times when I had to walk on bodies. It was unbelievable that I survived. But I’ve had a good life in this country. Many times I think about what happened to my country and how glad I am to be here. Here with you!

Dahna and I both laughed and she said, “We’re glad you’re here with us too.”

We talked about the Islamic Revolution and the war and his country under the shah until the mosquitos won out. The next morning Dahna had a big cup of coffee for him and we spent almost an hour talking about our present lives and plans. Then he returned to the subject of Iran. He talked about how his country was modern then with a growing professional class. When I expressed some doubts and mentioned SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, he brushed it aside. It was much better then he said.

He was surprised when Dahna mentioned our overthrow of Mossadegh in the coup that installed the shah.

“You know about that? Yes, that was bad, but everything was better under the shah,” he said, “You knew about that.”  He was a little mystified, but pleased and his eyes lit up, “Everyone loved Mossadegh!”

I remembered back, after we sold our farm in the 70s, walking to class one summer at the University of Houston. I often had to make a detour around a large group of Iranian students demonstrating in the parking lot against the shah. One day there was an incredible mackerel sky above us, a sure sign of rain, but I had no idea what either the sky meant or the demonstration. It was just an inconvenience to me.

It’s hard to imagine but about that time, our close friend Lorey lived in Tehran as a young English teacher at a Department of Defense school. Her husband was an U.S. Army officer stationed there and one day they decided to drive to Kabul to buy some carpets, and that’s what they did. It’s almost impossible to imagine that now, isn’t it?

After our coffee, Dahna took Sacha for a birding walk through the park while BZ struck his tent and packed his bike for the trip up to Niagara Falls. I went back in the camper to write a bit at the dinette. I opened the shade when I heard him throttle up the bike and as he passed by he saw me through the window and we waved goodbye.

Several days later when we got to the Falls, we looked for him but he was gone…off to Montreal, I guess. I hope he goes down to the water and sees the chapel where

“…the sun pours down like honey
on our Lady of the Harbor”

Maybe he’ll hear some really fine music before he goes home to his happy family. We both hope so.

My own musical history began with what is now a dim echo of memory of my mother singing me to sleep with a lullaby. Next, and firmly implanted in my consciousness, is Patti Page’s “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” That thing has much to do with our outlays over the years of thousands of dollars in dog food, vet bills, squeaky toys and the like.

After that, no doubt in Kindergarten, I learned the Erie Canal song, singing:

“I had a mule, her name was Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal”

I’d always thought of that song and the canal itself as somehow exotic, stuck in that Peter Pan part of my brain that never grows up. For almost the entirety of my life, I wanted to see that thing and now my chance was coming up. Our next stop was near Buffalo, NY at one end of the canal. We were camping at Grand Island from which you can almost hear the roar of Niagara Falls.

Last Look at the Lake Erie ShoreDSCN6880

 


Continue reading MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 4: Really Erie Lakes and Canals

MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 3: Ohio Is All That

Right now we are in the singular Acadia National Park in Maine where today’s cold drizzle and grey sky has done nothing to extinguish the flaming Fall foliage or our high spirits. We’re digesting a fabulous scallop, shrimp and haddock sea food platter from Chase Restaurant in Winter Harbor. When our nap is over, we’ll start prepping for the border crossing into New Brunswick tomorrow. But first, back to Ohio.

Kentucky gave way noticeably as we crossed the state line into Ohio. Everything seemed to ease out a bit as we headed north toward Buck Creek State Park near Dayton. It was a little like moving into a larger house. The vistas spread out farther giving us Texans a chance to exhale. “That’s better,” said Dahna. “Kentucky’s nice, but I think I’ll be more comfortable here.” The forested areas were free of the underbrush of Kentucky, and seemed to invite you to cut a stout walking stick and hike among the trees like you might do through an English wood. The cultivated fields were larger and they spread out and away opening up a bigger sky. It just got better and better as we approached the park.

I think state parks are like dogs. Some, like Sacha, are prettier than others but they’re all great and Buck Creek was no exception. Our campsite was fine too, only that it was a blind side back in–the bête noire of middling trailer backer-uppers like me. Still, it was the easiest site to get into park-wide thanks to Dahna’s foresight when she picked it out months earlier. Even so, it took a few tries to get the camper in square and lined up with the electrical box and the…the…”Where the hell’s the frickin’ water faucet?” I asked politely, considering my mounting horror. Dahna’s eyes were like splintered glass (J. Agee), “There isn’t one. I think we have to go back out and find a tap and fill our own freshwater tank.”

Well…shoot.

Buck Creek State Park Marina

Buck Creek Marina

I did a better job backing in the second time and an hour or so after that Bud and Deb brought their drinks over to join ours. They were winding up a months long trip to the Northwest and were headed home the next day to their place in northern Ohio, dead tired. They were recently retired from a lifetime of the kind of honest productive work you probably associate with Ohio and the American ideal. Making things. They helped bring into view the heart of our country where we happened to be sitting.

Bud’s blunt manner of speech reminded me of my neighbor Ray so I looked at his hand curled around a rum and Coke. Sure enough, his hands showed the effects of a lifetime of hard work. It was a little incongruent that he and Deb were driving a large expensive motorhome stereotypically associated with soft-handed, hard-hearted rich people.

There’s a bit of crosstalk among RVers about class differences between fancy motorhome drivers and trailer draggers like us but most of it is bullshit. True, there’s been some examples of Class A snobbery and trailer dragger crassness but, like most stereotyped things, they dissolve into the gooey soup of statistical norm.

At bottom, it’s simple biology. People are pretty much the same if you get the chance to  sit down with them. It’s true that some people tip over into sociopathy, and it’s also true that sometimes they get together in great numbers for the purpose of destroying, say, a nation now known as a “homeland.” But, all of us want pretty much the same things as it turns out, and traveling brings that into high relief. It eases our fears and anxieties, and soothes the savage breast. Except during a blind side back in.

Our brief time with Bud and Deb was a nice Ohio prelude to our visit with Linda and Jeremy, our friends from Texas, now happily living in Bethany Village near Dayton. Jeremy is one of Dahna’s favorite professors, now retired, whom she met as his student in the summer of ’86. Dahna previously determined that since we were in our mid and late 30s, we were finally mature enough to finish school. So, back we went.

Jeremy had pulled the short straw and was teaching a core Texas Government class that summer. I doubt if he was thrilled about it but Dahna sure was. Several years later when she graduated at the top of her class as an organic chemist, Jeremy remained in the small circle of her favorites. A few years after that I taught their son John at our little high school in Hico, Tx.

Bethany Village is an immaculate planned community of retirees that was founded about 70 years ago near Dayton, Linda’s home town. It is a full service campus of everything from independent living in houses or apartments to full nursing care. Absolutely everything inside or outside the home is taken care of by management, and if anything at all goes wrong, all you need is their phone number on speed dial. In Comanche we have thousands of dollars in a tractor, lawn mowers and a shop full of tools and it’s still not enough but hey, we’s “management.”

We intended to board Sacha for the day so we could all tour Dayton dogless. But, friends being friends, they said she could stay in their house. Sacha promptly reciprocated by marking their territory as her own and we all had a big laugh. No we didn’t. But we did have a big day—a real highlight of our trip. In fact, the entire day was a series of highlights thanks to our friends.

Linda had earlier promised to cook for us and she delivered big time with a wonderful lunch followed that evening by fresh sweet corn and a chicken pot pie to kill for. Fortunately, Linda handed over the recipe voluntarily.

After lunch they took us on a perfect tour of Dayton which ended, perfectly, with the ringing out of “As Time Goes By” by the famous Deeds Carillon. Linda asked a guy with a badge if we could pick out a song and he said, “Sure,” and handed us a list to choose from. Dahna and I both said, “That one,” simultaneously and the big bells followed us in our slow walk out to the car. Dooley Wilson would have approved, I think.

Rick and Ilsa might always have had Paris, but Dahna and I will always have Dayton. Linda chauffeured us and Jeremy through much of the city including the parts that were off limits to her strict Catholic upbringing when she was a girl. The streets there were a little twisty and tight with numerous small establishments that once exerted a slightly profane gravitational pull on Dayton’s teenagers in the 1960s. Maybe even for a young girl like Linda destined to become a nun for a time. But as she drove us out into the larger city we saw muscular brick smokestacks adjacent to the huge buildings that once manufactured the products for a confident and increasingly affluent people. Today, these big campuses are largely “re-purposed” to worthy ends but they’re also useful in nefarious ways.

Our political opportunists point to them as artifacts of a vanished Golden Age and promise to return us to those halcyon days. In thrall to the very forces that depopulated those buildings, they intend nothing of the kind nor do they have anything in common with the men and women who built them. In fact, they would have loathed a man like John Patterson, the founder of Dayton’s National Cash Register.

Patterson was a visionary of the late 1800s and early 1900s whose workplace ideas helped seed the labor friendly policies of the New Deal. He opened his buildings to daylight with numerous large windows, established innovative safety and security protocols for his workers plus health care, child care, schools and he paid them well. His long range business strategy built a powerhouse company that produced enormous numbers of high quality business machines, satisfied customers and employees. NCR made a huge positive impact on Dayton’s and Ohio’s and America’s wealth.

This guy not only knew how to run a business to perfection, he also knew how to save a town, literally. Do yourself a big favor and Google this man. Check out how he anticipated the terrible flood of 1913 and instantly converted his factories to boat building and bread baking. His actions saved a lot of people that day and that’s why you see his name everywhere in Dayton. We still have people like that. If you remember Hurricane Katrina, you should also remember the Cajun Navy, the flotilla that saved countless lives in New Orleans in 2005. We met one of those guys a few days ago in Alma, New Brunswick. (We met a lovely Irish lass there too, but that’s another story for later.)

It’s impossible to overstate the impact Dayton’s Wright brothers had. It’s only coincidence, but the town of Baddeck on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia where we camped is actually the birthplace of Canadian aviation. I’ll say more about that later, but you might be interested to know that Alexander Graham Bell was a big part of it. The idea here is that Dayton isn’t the birthplace of American aviation but of aviation itself. Big difference, or as Bernie might say, “YUUGE!”  That other guy might say it too if he knew anything about history.

Wright Brothers Museum

WrightBros

Before the bells of Deeds Carillon personally ushered us out of the Carillon Historical Park, we toured most of the exhibits there including a full-size recreation of the Wright brothers’ shop. It included a mock up of their manufacturing equipment which looked decidedly Dickensian with a touch of Steam Punk. You wouldn’t want to build their bicycles or airplanes wearing a tie or even a ring.

Their first production bicycle was called the Van Cleve after the Wright family’s ancestors. As Jeremy and I took in the lines of an actual Van Cleve, I ventured that they looked a lot like modern bikes. Actually the Wright bike looked a lot more like my 1957 Schwinn Corvette than a modern bike and when I realized that a few weeks later, I winced a little. Jeremy was decently mum on the subject.

The Wright bicycles were early “safety bicycles” with two equal sized wheels that quickly replaced the more dangerous high wheeled types. You’ve seen these pictured with a derby-wearing daredevil sporting a handlebar mustache sitting atop one of the ridiculous things. It occurs to me now that his ‘stache was named after the deathtrap’s handlebars the damn fool was gripping for dear life. Mystery solved. Ah…bicycles.

About 1970, I was riding my Japanese 10 speed bike home in Houston’s Montrose around midnight. I had a strong Gulf breeze at my back and I was young and strong, so I decided to “stand on it” to see just how fast that heavy monster would go. I shifted into 10th gear just about the time a big “cowboy” staggered out from the pool hall up ahead. He saw me coming in the street lights, my long hair flowing. It pissed him off.

He made an unfortunate snap decision that factored out velocity from momentum’s equation: p = mv where p stands for momentum, m for mass and v for velocity. I figure his mass was roughly equal to mine plus the bicycle, but his velocity was negligible compared to my own. When we met he put his shoulder into it and so did I. The impact caused the bike to wobble as if he were a puff of wind, and when I looked back he was on his keister spinning like a top.

It was a perfect example of the conserving and  converting of linear momentum into angular momentum, poor boy. I’m sure whoever held his beer had a good laugh before calling the ambulance. My Physics students got a laugh out of it too. Well, the cowboy lost that night but I guess he won in the long run, or thinks he did. Be sure to vote.

Linda and Jeremy visited us at Buck Creek the next day for dinner. Dahna grilled sweet chili chicken and I fixed them our Old Crow house drink which they politely sipped. We talked past dark, my favorite thing to do with smart, lovely people. They’re well-traveled citizens of the world and we’re lucky to be their friends. Luckier still, they’ve contributed several fine pieces for this new blog to be published soon.

Mute Swan

Version 2

When we left for Geneva State Park the next day it was with a twinge of regret. I said, “This deserved way more than three days.” Dahna said, “Yup, I could live here.” I said, “What? And leave Comanche and the Chicken Express behind?” She said, “Pppth.”

Canada Geese

BCGeese

MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 2: Goodbye To All That, Texas

It is possible to drive out of Texas if you try. We didn’t try hard enough but we did manage to reach Cooper Lake State Park out east of Dallas near Sulphur Springs.  We traveled about 250 miles to get there and that equals the fuel range of a 3/4 ton pickup pulling nearly four tons of tall trailer. It also equals 7 mpg in case you might be thinking of doing something like this the way we do it.

Cooper Lake S.P. is a nice park but we didn’t stay long enough to enjoy its many charms. We were anxious to get out of Texas and its summer heat wave and kick back in more temperate northern climes. Well, ha ha. Sometimes where you’re going is precisely where you are not going. If that sounds a little too Rumsfeldian, take a few minutes and read, or re-read, Maugham’s very short,  Appointment In Samarra. Sure, it was hotter than Hell in Texas, but at least it was dry heat as they say. Up north it was hot and humid, so much so that in Kentucky, even Ohio, I could have sworn I was in Houston. Reality bites again.

In our attempt to escape the frying pan, we only camped two nights at Cooper Lake. Our normal minimum stay anywhere is three nights which gives us a little time to both rest and see the sights. Two nights in a place barely registers unless there’s a murder or something. Frankly, I can’t remember much about the park except that the lake was way down due to the general drought conditions Texas has suffered for a number of years now. Climate change, aka global warming it is.

The people who run this country at the moment seem to take issue with the reality of this issue which is the Mother of All Issues and that is not an opinion. There might be plenty of reasons to replace a lot of them in November, but this particular one will do all by itself. Speaking as a guy who has dabbled in science, I can assure whoever might want to listen that the chemistry involved in this phenomenon is simple and quite approachable. If you’re willing to objectively search that half of the internet not devoted to porn and cat videos, you’ll be able to figure it out on your own. Or… you can swim in denial but watch out for crocodiles. Better to soak in the clear restorative waters of reason.

Speaking of restorative waters, our next stop was at Lake Ouachita State Park near Hot Springs, Arkansas. You might want to write that down. Without doubt, this park is beautiful beyond words and the maintenance is superb. Looking out at the shimmering lake we both had the same simultaneous regret. I said, “Damn! We shoulda’ brought the kayak.” Dahna said, “Yeah Pat, why didn’t you bring the kayak?”

A couple of years ago we splurged on a couple of Hobie pedaling kayaks. These things are great for fishing, birding, hunting or whatever you want to do with your hands totally free while using your much stronger legs to zip across the water. Geezers like me love them because once you get them into the water they glide along almost effortlessly, fast enough to leave a satisfying wake. You can even sail them, an option that sold me on the spot.The only problem is getting them to the water because they’re heavy. Oh yeah, they’re kind of expensive too.

We (and I say “we” with authority) decided not to bring the 100 lb. tandem “Oasis” in order to save gas. It occurs to me now that at 7 mpg, you’re already screwed and that a kayak sitting atop your truck isn’t going to make that much difference. Only three weeks out and we’ve already seen several Hobie kayaks like ours strapped to vehicles, not to mention hundreds of other types. New Rule: When you plan to spend three months constantly camped beside a stunning lake, river, or ocean, take the frickin‘ kayak, Homer.

Us at Lake Ouachita State Park

AF235W Ouachita

The only thing missing at this extraordinary park was birds. It was weird because if some other place seemed more hospitable to birds, I didn’t know it. Actually, most places experience bird dropouts at certain times each year as they move on. Dahna was a bit miffed, but unruffled, knowing about this. She figured some would show up before we left in a few days. That didn’t happen because we had to skip out of there early.

Our neighbor Steve came by to visit the on the morning of day two of a three day stay. He was wearing a Natchez Trace State Park t-shirt, and when I told him that was our next stop he gave me a little tip about the place. He said, “If that big ass vapor light down by the fish-cleaning station bothers you, just cut the white neutral wire.” Steve had a career as a street light installer but, even so, I won’t take his advice because of Lou Coin.

When I was about 12, my dad came in my room and asked me if I remembered Lou, the diminutive Lebanese electrical engineer that was on his bowling team.

I said, “Sure.”

He said, “Well, Lou’s dead. He electrocuted himself in his attic working with the wiring hot and he grabbed a water pipe and that was it,” he snapped his fingers . “Don’t ever work with electricity when it’s hot, understand?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He looked in a little deeper and said, “Did you hear me, boy?”

I said, “Yes sir,” and I sure did.

Steve also said, “By the way, you might want to check the weather.” When he left, I did just that. Sacha jumped straight up when I shrieked, “HOLY SMOKES!” or something to that effect. Tropical Storm Gordon had come ashore in Mississippi and was taking a slanty northwest course designed to bring it directly over our campsite the very next evening. Local Hot Springs forecasts predicted dire flash flooding and so, discretion being the better part of valor, we got hell out.

The ranger at headquarters knew the forecast, and as he took in my tale of woe I was careful to add my mostly heartfelt praise of his beautiful park. He refunded our last day’s fee and I promised we would come back soon, a promise I intend to keep probably.

The plan was to hotfoot it to Natchez 325 miles to the west, beat Gordon, then rest and relax for four days in the Volunteer State. But, instead of the originally planned three days, or the tropical storm-modified four days, we ended up staying at Natchez Trace S.P. for five days because of hurricane Florence.

Dahna and I grew up in Houston on the Gulf Coast and that’s where we expect these storms to stay at all times. It’s just part of our culture and we’re proud of it in a dumb kind of way. We remember the big ones like Allison and Alicia, Betsy and Carla, Katrina and Rita, and Ike and Harvey. We could fill out the rest of the alphabet with the names of other monsters that hit our hometown or nearby. The beach house we lived in a dozen years ago on Bolivar Peninsula lies in pieces at the bottom of East Bay right now thanks to Ike. It’s just that we don’t associate these storms with camping deep inland much less getting pushed around by them up here. Well, we had an appointment in Samarra.

Fortunately, Natchez Trace is a nice state park even if it is a little bit small. [Aside: Is it odd that the last three words of the previous sentence make sense in context, yet each one has the same meaning individually? You never see this in science.] We had our doubts at first because its approach is blanketed in kudzu rendering the underlying native foliage a mystery of green lumps. You citizenry of the North Country might not know about this stuff or fire ants or nutria or killer bees, but don’t worry about it. Just stay away from the climate data.

The kudzu was beautiful in a disturbing alien way but it wasn’t to be seen in the park’s camping areas. I suppose the rangers had some method of hacking it back and a good thing too. It’s no stretch for southern campers to have nightmares of becoming entombed by the stuff in their RVs.

Kudzu

Natchez Trace SP Kudzu

Natchez Trace S.P. had the beautiful lake you would expect in Tennessee, further rubbing it in about the kayak thing. We weren’t able to directly enjoy the lake by boating on it, but we certainly got the benefit of the crappie that live in it. Thanks to the generous family of fishermen next to us and the well-lit fish cleaning station (with its white wire intact), Dahna and I plus half the people in the camp ate like royalty.

I was reading at the picnic table when Brittany came over and introduced herself and asked if we would like a plate from their big fish fry. I was noncommittal since Dahna was off birding but that didn’t matter. Fifteen minutes later Brittany’s mom brought over a huge styrofoam clamshell full of perfectly cooked crappie, fries, and a bunch of her justifiably famous hush puppies.  When Dahna got back we tore into it like Sacha into a wiener dog. Bogart once said that a hot dog at the ball park tastes better than a steak at the Ritz. That goes for fresh crappie at a state park too. Man, you meet the nicest people out here.

Natchez Trace State Park

Natches Trace State Park

Brittany is a country girl with kids in high school who looks like a high schooler herself. It could be that her youthfulness derives from a career of good works. She is a helicopter-borne EMT and has cared for thousands of critically ill or injured patients over the years. It was a delight to meet her, and she joins a number of smart tough women we’ve met on the road. A lot of them like our new friend Laura travel far and wide and do it alone. It seems to me that more women than men do this.

I once got a laugh out of Dahna when I remarked on all the “ramblin’ man” songs out there: Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice”, Lightfoot’s “That’s What You Get For Lovin’ Me,” the Allman Brothers, etc. I said, “Shoot, it’s hard getting around with all these ramblin’ men all over the place getting in the way.” Truthfully though, there really are a lot of ramblin’ women out there.

I first “noticed” Laura when I looked out the window and saw her talking to Dahna at the picnic table. They were talking about the merits and failings of various travel trailers, but I had no idea what the subject was. They could have been discussing String Theory for all I knew since they both were intently into whatever it was. So I kept my distance. She was wearing a well-worn cowboy hat which makes a lot of sense when you meet her, and I did later that day.

Laura is attractive, middle aged and recently retired as a physical therapy assistant. She is in a long term love-hate relationship with her home town of Nashville and travels not only for pleasure but also steam release. At the moment she pulls a new 20 ft. Coleman trailer with her trusty Silverado but misses her high quality T @ G teardrop. I think her real love is motorcycling and she’s lost count of all the bikes she’s owned. Neil Young wrote a pretty good song about a woman and a motorcycle on “Harvest Moon” and it reminds me of Laura a little. She describes herself as a gear head, and she is that and more.

We took her to lunch on our last rainy day at the park’s surprisingly tony restaurant. It was a good meal in good company and when I paid the check Laura said, “Next time it’s on me.” I told her I would hold her to that and I will. She briefly entertained the idea of caravanning up to Kentucky with us on a lark but, unfortunately, had business back in Nashville. We parted the next day but are staying in touch. You might be hearing from her in these pages as we go along.

The next day we headed to Taylorsville Lake State Park. Kentucky is a beautiful state as towns with names like Bowling Green attest. Almost 50 years ago a friend and I hitchhiked from Houston to his hometown of Pineville in the southern part of the state. It wasn’t beauty that caught my eye then, rather the poverty. While there I drove out of town with his brother to a spot where we parked. Then we walked across a set of railroad tracks and out to a miserable shack in the distance. An old woman in rags was scrubbing laundry on the open porch and inside her son and grandson stood in near darkness.

They quietly small talked with my friend’s brother for a long time. With long pauses between topics they eventually got down to the delicate business of bargaining for a car part. The courtesy shown back and forth between the men was remarkable and humbling to me. I never said a word, just nodded hello and goodbye. I think I understand what changed Robert Kennedy’s heart when he went to Mississippi and Appalachia after Jack was killed. It is sad beyond words to me that those two brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. will always stand for the high road, the one not taken.

The hurricane lopped off a day of our stay in Kentucky and my memory of it is a gray and drizzly blur. We managed one day of driving around the serpentine lake that wraps around part of the park to look for birds. Fat chance on a day like that though. The thing I remember vividly is the narrowness of the rural roads. At one point we met an oncoming pickup that we only missed by inches. I pulled off the road into a driveway and pushed my side mirrors in to the retracted position. The other thing was the beautiful homes that dotted the lush countryside.

Kentucky is rightfully known for faster horses and older whiskey. One thing in abundant supply there is charred oaken barrels. You can’t call your rotgut “bourbon” without aging it in these specific barrels and bourbon is the whiskey of choice in Kentucky. They even have a famous Bourbon Trail for tasting the various brands. It’s like the Appalachian Trail only less straight.

Eastern Bluebird

DSCN6595

Dahna and I are bourbon drinkers and are faithful to one brand and one brand only and that’s Old Crow. None of our friends like the stuff but oddly enough seem to enjoy our house drink which is loaded with it. When we offered Laura one, she was hesitant at first but, feeling adventurous, said, “Oh hell, I’ll try anything once.” After a few sips she said, “Hey, I like this.” Later on she suggested I put the recipe in Trail Writers. Okay, here it is:

1-1/2 oz. Old Crow

Juice of 1/2 lime (1 Tbsp)

1/2  cold can of club soda (we use La Croix lime soda)

1 heaping tsp Splenda or sugar

Lots of ice

Now, you can use “better” bourbon but why bother? Here’s what I know about Old Crow:

  1. It’s cheap.
  2. it won’t give you a hangover.
  3. It’s America’s oldest continuously distilled bourbon.
  4. It’s easier to develop a taste for O.C. than scotch.
  5. U.S. Grant and Mark Twain reportedly preferred it.

We enjoyed our short stay in Kentucky but were glad to leave and head to Ohio and meet our friends Linda and Jeremy. Linda was going to cook for us and we were ready Freddy!