Tag Archives: travel

Thoughts from the Road

I have been on the road. I visited my 95-year-old mother late last week. Found her much as in other recent visits, a little weaker each time, but not dramatically so. A few days later, I got a 4 am call from her nursing home that she had just passed away.

Until age 90, she had been unusually active and healthy. Disgustingly so, we might say in jest. No prescription medications. Living on her own. Driving. Visiting the less fortunate shut-ins of her church. Not so healthy in recent years, she had spent the last three in the nursing home. Vision problems deprived her of her beloved reading. Hearing problems made conversation difficult and TV impossible (although, aside from Jeopardy, she had never had much use for that medium). The joys of life were increasingly harder to find, and she had long been ready to meet her maker. For some time she’s been telling people she had awakened disappointed that God did not take her in the night. Yet she still continued to defy expectations.

When I would visit, I would take her a cup of coffee. The nursing home coffee was tepid and so weak that you could see the bottom of the cup. We would sit together, each sipping our McDonalds Senior Coffees. This last trip, I could not even do that. She was restricted to thickened beverages, and thickened coffee was intolerable. Her final illness was swift and merciful.

So I have made two round trips to North Carolina in a week. And while my travels were focused on my mother, this post is not really about her. I am not ready to do that yet. My travels did, however, generate some figurative side trips, and memories of some real ones, running through my head alongside the thoughts surrounding Mother’s death. The side trips, I can write about.

Side Trip #1: I listened to lots of political news on the radio as I drove. Senate hearings and other major drama. Abundant occasion for raised blood pressure. Sadness. Despair.

As I walked into the hotel early this week, the ubiquitous silent TV monitor showed a banner running along the bottom of the news channel: The president’s daughter is surprised at the vehemence of her father’s critics. Huh? Her father is vehemence-in-chief!! How can the reaction of his detractors be a surprise? It’s a basic biological reaction: fight attack with counter-attack!

Did you catch that? That I am part of the problem? My sarcastic response is vehemence and anger returned. I am truly fearful and angry at the president’s agenda and actions. If he succeeds, many will be hurt, including some in my immediate family. But what if he fails? If he fails, his many supporters will be presumably be angry and hurt (and fearful?). And that is the scariest part of all. I do not know how to relate to his supporters, and they do not know how to relate to me. No matter which side prevails, a large portion of our citizenry will be hurt and angry and left out. We—our country and our world—are in a deep bind. And I do not see any political leader with a vision for bridging that divide.

In Monday’s meditation, Richard Rohr wrote:

Don’t waste any time dividing the world into the good guys and the bad guys. Hold them both together in your own soul—where they are anyway—and you will have held together the whole world. You will have overcome the great divide in one place of spacious compassion. You, little you, will have paid the price of redemption. God takes it from there, replicating the same pattern in another conscious human life.

I wish I had that faith, and the wherewithal to “hold Trump and anti-Trump together in my own soul.” For now, it remains merely a hope. The only one I have to cling to.

Side Trip #2: On a lighter note: I am not a photographer. I’m not skilled at it, nor do I often even think of capturing an image or event until the opportunity is gone. I did not think to photograph the raccoon groping in Nancy’s frog pond in the middle of the night. I did not think to photograph the red-tailed hawk drinking from the pond early one morning. But the one I did think about—the one that would not have been able to escape before I grabbed my phone and pressed the shutter, the one that would have lifted the dark tone of this post toward a healthy chuckle—that one I saw on my travels this week. But I did not turn around, park on the shoulder, get out of my truck, cross traffic to the median, and take the shot. It was indeed an image worth many words. And since I did not take the photo, you will have to indulge my words. Imagine a tractor-trailer. The trailer is a fuel tanker. The rig is stalled, partially blocking the right-hand lane. It is surrounded by a protective row of orange cones. Emblazoned on the rear of the trailer is the company name: RELIABLE.

Side Trips Galore: Over the years, I have made that trip to North Carolina more than a hundred times. Four hours, one way, via I-40. And I have taken about every alternative route and side trip that I could find on the map. US 25/70 from Newport to Asheville via Hot Springs is an obvious diversion, and I had some especially great drives on its twists and turns when we owned the Miata. US 70 from Old Fort to Hickory is another great alternative, with good views across Lake James into the southern end of the Linville Gorge, interesting restaurants in Morganton, and the Burke County Courthouse, built just a few years after the hanging of Frankie Silver.

If you have the time and an urge for back country, descend the Blue Ridge escarpment from Ridgecrest (Exit 66) to Old Fort via Mill Creek Road, past the artificial Andrews Geyser, a 19th century railroad marketing ploy. For the more adventurous with a couple of hours to spend, make your way between the Harmon Den and Fines Creek exits (7 to 15) via the backroads.

In a hurry? There is still hope. Eastbound, past Newport, take the Wilton Springs exit (440) and follow the Hartford Road to Hartford, where you can re-enter I-40 (Exit 447). You will rarely be out of sight and sound of the interstate, but if you slow down and open the window, you can also hear the Pigeon River, which the road closely hugs. It will add less than ten minutes to your trip, maybe years to your life.

For some reason, I was recently thinking about the line from Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost,” and turning it around to say, “All who wander are not lost.” Is it not necessary to wander, to take the occasional side trip? And are these various side trips perhaps key to making sense of our path through life, and to making a positive and creative contribution as we pass through?

Ordinary Time

In addition to our travels outlined in that last post, we’ve had separate trips involving our parents. But we’re home for a while now; back in ordinary time. Ordinary time in the conventional sense, and somewhat in the liturgical sense as well.

The calendar of the Christian church is dominated by the two great feasts, Christmas and Easter. Advent (four weeks) precedes—and prepares one for—Christmastide (12 days). Later, Lent (six weeks) precedes—and prepares one for—Eastertide (50 days). [Note that Christmas and Easter are not single days in the church calendar. After spending four—or six—weeks in preparation for a feast, we make that feast last. Only in the secular world do we sweep out the Easter grass and go back to work the next day.]

That still leaves three-fifths of the year. The season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and the longer season between Pentecost and Advent, are in some traditions called Ordinary Time.

Liturgical Calendar
Liturgical Calendar

In the children’s program of instruction called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the church year is simplified as a circle of six segments; two triplets labeled Before the Feast, During the Feast, and After the Feast. Their liturgical colors are purple (before), white (during), and green (after). One triplet represents the Christmas cycle (Advent, Christmastide, and the season after Epiphany); the other, the Easter cycle (Lent, Eastertide, and the season after Pentecost). Ordinary time comes after the feast.

In the popular conception, Mondays and other post-holidays are depressing days. We dread the end of the weekend, the end of the holiday. We dread going back to work or school, and we apply a pejorative label: back to the rat race, back to the salt mine. The end of the feast is the end of all that is good. I’ve had some of those days.

And yet, a serious post-feast let-down would not be an indictment of post-feast time itself, but a symptom of a pathology in my life. Ordinary Time is not boring time, not drudgery time. Its liturgical color is green, not gray. Ordinary Time is the season in which we engage productively with the world. Ordinary Time is when we live our lives in gratitude for the feast.

How am I spending my Ordinary Time? Here is a sample:

  • A trip to the going-out-of-business sale at the local used bookstore, through which I discovered the fiction of Richard Marius (definitely worth further reading), and picked up the books on which two favorite movies were based (Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate)
  • Fall gardening tasks: digging, dividing, reshaping, mulching, and adding some hardscaping
  • Simple shop tasks for Nancy to support her painting and music
  • Almost daily long walks with the dog
  • Naps

I have been especially attentive to autumn leaves this fall, not through any virtue of mine but because Nancy has been collecting and pressing/preserving them for her art work. In past years, the fall leaf show was mostly observed from a moving car at highway speed. Peak color season lasted just a few days. How different when collecting on daily walks! I am newly aware that the season lasts months, not weeks or days. Even within a species, leaves may turn color weeks apart, depending on sun exposure and other factors. This past weekend, I was treated to views of still brilliant reds and yellows while, in the background, the Black Mountains northeast of Asheville were covered in hoarfrost. Ordinary time indeed!

Our trip to grandkids and to Berkeley Springs was a feast, grace on grace, blessing on blessing. Weeks later, I still savor the feast even while going about my day-to-day. But, frankly, too much feast is too much. I am glad to be home. Yes, some things are not so much fun. There are dishes to wash, floors to mop, toilets to clean. But there are also books to read, gardens to tend, music to make, paintings to paint, autumn leaves in their astonishing variety and glory to enjoy even while raking. And photos of grandchildren to savor.

… and a Crescent Moon for a Mouth

We recently made our second trip to Berkeley Springs, WV. A do-over for the one a month earlier, aborted by a broken pipe in the Ice House. Both rescheduled events, the exhibition’s opening reception and Nancy’s workshop, went off without a hitch this time around.

In fact, for us the water break became a happy accident. The weather and the fall leaf show were perfect all the way from Oak Ridge to Berkeley Springs. It was the weekend of the annual studio tour, and we found time to enjoy several of the open studios. And people we’d met briefly on the first trip became friends. By the time we left, we had begun to feel a part of the community. A warm and welcoming, hospitable, creative community.

This second trip also gave us the occasion to have another day of grandkid child care. They live just far enough away so that visits are not frequent. This opportunity to see them twice in a month was rare and treasured.

Grandson and I carved a jack’o’lantern. First, a trip to the grocery store for a pumpkin. “Which one do you want?” “That one.” No hesitation in the face of too many choices. He’s a decisive child. “That one.”

Triangle eyes ...
Triangle eyes …

Once we are home, more complicated decisions. What should our jack look like? “Triangle eyes, a circle nose, and a crescent moon for a mouth.”

Again, no hesitation. Lines from a story he’s heard in day care perhaps? Nancy takes out a tablet of paper and engages him in sketching. Triangles pointing up or down? Happy or sad face? Where should the nose go? How big? Where the mouth?

When they have the plan right, we proceed to construction. Pumpkin in the sink, grandson safely on the step stool at my side, a brief lesson in knife safety (keep the sharp edge pointed away). We take off the top, scrape out the seeds and pulp with the ice cream scoop. He declines the offer to get his hands into the mess. He’ll just watch.

“First eye here?” “Yes.” Three incisions and the triangle pops out. Nancy documents with photos as we work. “Second eye here?”  Then the nose. The mouth. And we’re done. Triangle eyes, a circle nose, and a crescent moon for a mouth.

We place jack on the patio and he plays with it the rest of the day. Incorporates it into his favorite play with “sticks and trees.” Open the lid, drop some leaves or dirt inside, close the lid. The weather’s great for outdoor play. Watching the leaves fall and commenting on their colors. Granddaughter, who napped during jack’s creation, is anxious to get outdoors, too. She’s almost walking, still needs to clutch Grandnan’s hands. We’ll not be here for her first birthday in a couple of weeks, so she gets her gift early. Her first baby doll.

Hugging Baby
Hugging Baby

Now, several weeks later, back in Tennessee, Nancy’s photos of her hugging her doll recall precious memories, and not just the recent ones. I got to hold her on the day she was born. Could a year have passed so quickly?

Views from Other Ridges

If you are a repeat visitor to this site, you may have noticed that the “header” at the top of the page (the wide photo) changes each time you navigate here or reload. The software randomly serves you one of the images we have designated for this space. And, if you have read our “ABOUT …” page, you know that the “view” of our title is a metaphorical one. We do live in a place of wonders, but we cannot see the ocean from East Tennessee, nor do we have horses in our neighborhood. Those headers are mementos of travels off our ridge.

So it is not cheating that the latest addition to our header images is a famous panoramic view some 400 miles northeast of us. In that view, we are standing in West Virginia. In the valley below, the Potomac River flows toward us and (out of sight below the photo) curves to the right below our overlook. Maryland is on the right side of the river. The distant mountains just visible on the right are in Pennsylvania. The view is famous; the photo is Nancy’s—one of those marvels of digital photography in which you slowly pan from left to right while the camera shoots rapid-fire stills and then stitches them together to form the panoramic image.

Potomac River from Cacapon Mountain, WV
Potomac River from Cacapon Mountain, WV

From that overlook off WV 9, west of Berkeley Springs, on the west slope of Cacapon Mountain, the diligent observer might catch glimpses of history. We are told that colonial partakers of the waters at Berkeley Springs, including George Washington, rode out to this same vista. And in the valley below, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad competed to link the Ohio Valley with the Atlantic ports. (Both began construction on Independence Day of 1828.) While we were standing at the overlook, a train of the B&O’s modern day successor (CSX) ran below us on the near side, on original right-of-way. Remnants of the C&O Canal (in commercial operation until 1924) still exist on the Maryland side of the river.

I knew nothing of this history when we set out that day. Arrested by the visual view, we stopped, read the roadside plaques, and stumbled onto another view—of history and geography and technology—of which I had been barely aware. That happens to me often. I have written earlier about the joy of filling in my terra incognita. But my incognita are not limited to terra. On a good day, and there are many, I am blessed with some new view, some new knowledge, some new insight. Travel is good for opening vistas. As are books.

It has been a good reading year. Favorite authors Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Isabel Allende, and Charles Frazier, through books new to me and others read for the third time, have taken me to Haiti, Chile, Mexico, the Amazon, Napoleonic Spain, Colonial California, Congo, New Orleans, the Cherokee Nation, and the southern Appalachians, to the world of opera and the showmanship of magicians, to transcontinental migrations of species and the tortured home fronts of the American Civil War. Ken Follett took me to medieval Europe and on a breathtaking tour of the Twentieth Century’s follies; Robert Hicks back to the Civil War and New Orleans.

As I think about the vistas that I’ve encountered, I realize that newness is only part of the thrill—in fact, the lesser part. What most excites me and draws me farther in is the interconnectedness, the sense of unity.  What I see anew or afresh is part of a whole I’d perceived, and still perceive, only dimly. Other books, news stories, magazine articles, roadside plaques, random conversations, and other sources connect and re-connect to places and times and themes that are somewhat familiar and yet made more complete by the connection. The blank places on my map get filled in. And yet, in every case, new blanks appear. It turns out that not only is what I don’t know limitless, but what I don’t know about what I don’t know is also limitless. That is strangely exciting. There is still so much more to see!

The Tricybicle Trip

Nancy was to give a workshop this weekend, and attend the opening reception for a show which includes some of her paintings. But a water leak in the Ice House nixed those plans, and the activities will be rescheduled. The rest of the trip, however, was great.

GW-Bathtub
George Washington’s Bathtub, Berkeley Springs, WV.

We delivered the paintings early in the week and then played tourist. Berkeley Springs, WV, (originally Town of Bath, VA) has a long history as a tourist destination, due to its warm mineral springs, mountain setting, and proximity to Washington and Baltimore. George Washington spent time there, and one person-sized spring-fed hole in the valley floor is called his bathtub. We did some driving, some hiking, some good eating.

Then we moved on, through Harpers Ferry and the horse country of northern Virginia, to visit the grandkids. We had the opportunity to spend a whole day with them while their parents were at work. The three-year-old has always favored his grandfathers over the grandmothers, so it was a delight for Nancy to be the favorite of the almost-one-year-old, who constantly flashed her smile and her two teeth. Grandson and I spent some time with his “tricybicle” (TRI-si-BI-kul), but he is mostly a sticks-and-stones kind of guy with a great imagination. Sticks become smokestacks, vacuum cleaner extension wands become leaf blowers, and play is accompanied by complex story monologues.

We returned to Berkeley Springs, where we learned of the cancelations and decided to go home early. Travel is fun—seeing new sights and learning new things and eating new foods. But there is no place like home.

Return to Mayberry

We just returned from a trip to visit my mother. That in itself is not unusual—she lives just a few hours away, and we have settled into a pattern of frequent but short visits. This trip, however, we decided to add an extra day and do some sightseeing in the North Carolina mountains, with Linville Falls as our major destination.

I have some history in this area. As a scout leader in my 20s, I rappelled from cliffs along the edge of the Linville Gorge Wilderness, and spent one memorable snowy night under one of those cliffs without food, shelter, sleeping bag, or heavy clothing. I have visited the Falls and nearby areas as a tourist off and on since childhood. As a teen with a brand new driver’s license, I would sometimes explore the unpaved and un-numbered back roads nearby.

Lower falls from plunge pool, Linville Falls, NC
Lower falls from plunge pool, Linville Falls, NC

So it was fun to be back in the area and to show some of it to Nancy. Our decision as to which trail to take to view the Falls was simple: Avoid the yap dog pulling its owner along the easy trail. We took the “strenuous” route, all the way down to the plunge pool. Quite a thrill for Nancy and her two bionic hip joints. A year ago, she was nearly wheelchair-bound.

We saw a glorious sunset from the grounds of our B&B, had a memorable breakfast next morning, then drove to Blowing Rock.

Rhododendron in Bloom, St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Parish, Blowing Rock, NC
Rhododendron in Bloom, St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Parish, Blowing Rock, NC

Our great good fortune was to arrive when the rhododendron blooms were at their most glorious. Gardens throughout the village were exquisite, especially those at the Episcopal church and the city park. We took in the vistas from The Blowing Rock itself, then drove on to my mother’s, passing two commercial structures I had helped build during my teen summers as a construction laborer.

John's River Valley from The Blowing Rock, Blowing Rock, NC
John’s River Valley from The Blowing Rock, Blowing Rock, NC

If our short mountain sojourn was a homecoming of sorts, the visit with Mother was also a homecoming of a different kind. It is common to see relatives or her friends on these visits. But I have lived elsewhere for half a century and my connection with my hometown is slight. On this trip, however, the small-town-ness of my hometown was everywhere. And I mean that in the most positive sense. Running into my former Sunday School teacher, seeing cards created for Mother by my former math teacher, shopping at the local hardware now under the helm of the founder’s great-granddaughter, taking a walk in the neighborhood over fields owned by people I have known since childhood— I felt connections everywhere.

The small town sense of everyone knowing everyone came home especially with a visit to a business with which my parents have dealt practically all my life. Despite their long-term relationship, I had never had occasion to know, meet, or talk with the proprietor until a year ago. That memorable phone call began, after I had introduced myself, with the exclamation, “Brent! I am so glad you are not dead!” It seems that someone else with my name had appeared in the local obituaries a few weeks earlier. She had recognized the name and also that the list of relatives did not match. On finally meeting her this trip, she pulled out her notes of our earlier conversation, including the fact that she and Nancy were both among the first adopters of Macintosh computers. And talked and talked. About people I knew and others I probably should have known. About business dealings with my parents going back four decades. It was a true Mayberry moment.

I wish I had more Mayberry moments. I, too, live in a small town. Oak Ridge is not a typical Southern rural small town, but a small town all the same, with a parochialism all its own. Were I more gregarious, I could have those Mayberry moments here. Those mountain communities I have breezed through all my life are each their own Mayberry. But I have never lingered. I suppose a Mayberry can develop anywhere we let it: a college dorm, a suburban cul-de-sac, a downtown loft. At any rate, I am glad for last week’s brief return to Mayberry.