I love many genres of photography, but of them all my favorite is street photography. A year or so ago I bought a monograph from a new artist in that area, “Unposed,” by Craig Semetko. I very much enjoyed his unique street shooting style. Fast forward to September of this year and Eric Oberg, the general manager of the Washington DC Leica Store, mentioned that Craig would be the next artist (following Jacob Sobol) to be exhibited in the store. I was delighted. And so it was that Craig opened his exhibition with a couple of lectures during the annual FotoWeek DC. Here are a few images from that opening (along with a handful of miscellaneous street shots taken during the dinner break).
A post in tribute to my favorite town, as it goes through some difficult times. I’ve only been to NYC twice, but absolutely love the place. My best wishes to everyone up there.
This image was from my first trip back in 2010. The vantage point was classic, but I had to return three times until the light (and a bit of meterological serendipity) was something close to what I wanted.
© 2010 Jeff Hughes. New York City
Rolling slowly up the street, the recollections are vague. Peering first at one side, then the other, I search for clues, some hint of remembrance. The old Holiday Inn, the one on the east side, hard down by the river, is gone. The one I stayed at for the first couple of weeks, until I complained about the constant stench coming off the water and they moved me to the newer, nicer Holiday Inn on the west side.
I can’t find that one, either.
No matter. The long, narrow town is the same. And the houses, built close to one another along that follow-the-river’s-length, are much as I remember them. A bit more run down. I wonder if that diminishment is more from the wear of time or simply that the optimism of youth tends not to notice such things so much.
Perhaps a little of both.
My mind is blank on the girl. I can’t even remember her name, much less where her house was. I dated her for perhaps six weeks, a pleasant summer’s dalliance. Long enough that in early September, when her extended family got together for their annual draw-names-for-Christmas supper, they smiled at me and said they could add my name to the basket if we were engaged.
I remember thinking back to when I had met her, a month and a half earlier. At the union meeting. The pretty girl – seventeen years old, as I would find out shortly – a couple of rows down. The none too subtle and none too quiet introductions by a couple of the older women who had taken her under their wing and apparently thought I was okay. Me getting up and walking down to sit next to her, while a blush rose in her cheeks.
“Are you completely and totally embarrassed?” I think I asked, smiling at her. She put her head in her hands, nodding slightly.
“You know, you really do have to go out with me after all of this,” I enjoined, laughing.
Six weeks later, had I asked, I think she would have married me. Alas, unbeknownst to me, I had already left one woman pregnant back in Virginia. I didn’t need any more complications just then. I was missing my family and my friends and my motorcycle and I just wanted to go home.
Now thirty-five years on, I wonder what happened to her. What turns had her life taken? Where was she now?
I should at least have remembered her name.
Female companionship aside, it was motorcycling that absorbed most of my non-work hours. I had bought my second bike – a Yamaha 750 triple – just weeks before C&P Telephone managers had come to me and told me I had been volunteered for temporary duty, two to three months, in West Virginia. That new bike was back home, the engine hardly broken in. It like to drove me crazy.
Evenings during the week I would kick back in my hotel room with my stack of motorcycle magazines and live vicariously. On weekends I’d jump in my telephone truck and drive out along the remote rural landscape that dominated this land, imagining I was on my bike. It was a poor substitute. I spent many an hour thinking how wondrous it must be to ride these amazing roads on two wheels.
Now, thirty-five years later, I’m finally here to find out.
Light rain greets me the next morning. That’s okay. I’m deliberately lazy getting going because I want to stop by Charlie’s, Huntington’s official Harley-Davidson dealer, and they don’t open until nine. The delay is worth it, if not for the t-shirt I carry to the counter then for the bountiful cleavage presented by the pretty young lass who checks me out.
Then, having donned my Frog Toggs, the day begins in earnest.
What is there to say? The roads in western West Virginia are simply magnificent. Routes 10 and 16 and a bunch of others besides could be the Wikipedia definition of simply excellent motorcycle road. The hardest part is simply choosing. It’s like being at a heavenly banquet.
The rain quickly peters out. And a quick lunch in Man is a prelude to the only stop I really have planned for today.
For years I’ve eyed the tiny town of Welch while running my eyes across the map of West Virginia. Located just south of the broad, densely forested area that comprised the killing ground in the Hatfield-McCoy feud, it’s the place where Sid Hatfield, distant relative to the Hatfield’s in that famous disagreement, was assassinated in 1921. He and a compatriot, Ed Chambers, were gunned down as they ascended the steps of the McDowell County courthouse.
Walking today up those same hard, steep concrete steps, I’m surprised there’s no plaque or other mention of the event. Maybe, I muss, it’s because, despite being arrested and charged, none of the three assassins were ever convicted. Maybe there’s a tinge of municipal embarrassment at such a brazen lack of justice.
Approaching the courthouse itself, I walk first around one side, then the other. In the back there’s a detainee area, filled with twelve or fifteen hard-eyed men. I glance over at the lady guard and nod at her, but don’t say anything. I really don’t want to have to explain why I’m here, imagining a friendly “Sid Hatfield, eh? Harold! We have a gentleman out here interested in Sid Hatfield!”
“Come right on in young fellow. Harold over there is our local history expert and he can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Sid Hatfield and probably more besides.”
Most courthouses take a dim view of armed visitors and I have no desire to cross that particular threshold.
Continuing down rt. 16, the road is a delight. I’m thinking that Ed is exactly right – that Bill and Mona, living in Princeton, have it all wired. All these handsome roads at their very fingertips. Every few miles there’s another hard top county road that snakes off who knows where. The whole landscape is rich with possibility and I can only imagine the rides one might put together, given time to explore.
The only downside I can see is the occasional coal truck. As the afternoon wanes I encounter one on the very southernmost stretch of 16. Big as an eighteen-wheeler, the behemoth is scary to watch descending the mountain. The driver, more than a little aggressive, isn’t the least bit reluctant to make use of all of the road. For once, I’m happy to just sit back behind and watch, glad I’m not coming the other way.
All afternoon I’ve considered spending the night in Princeton. I’ve stayed there a couple times before. But my route has swung me wide west of the town and I decide to continue for a while yet.
War is, according to the sign, the southernmost “city” in West Virginia. More accurate would be to call it one of the most depressed towns I’ve ever been in. Touching and sad. And yet as I ride slowly through, fantasizing about reconstruction projects which could bring economic relief, a number of the people turn towards the sound and nod their head or raise their hand. Nodding in return, I’m reminded yet again of the resilience of spirit that so often seems to spring from mean circumstances.
Back across the border into Virginia, I’m thinking Tazwell is a possibility. But that, too, rolls swiftly past. Bristol, finally. Right square upon the Virginia-Tennessee border. I know of a hotel there that’s spitting distance from a coin Laundromat. That works.
The next morning dawns heavily overcast. Perusing my iPad while eating breakfast, it seems I’m in for rain all day. Maggie Valley, my tentative destination, is socked in with fog. Zero visibility.
No matter. You just put on your rain gear and button everything down and roll with it.
Sure enough, that karmic nonchalance works its magic. Aside from a drop or two as I pass through Johnson City, nothing much materializes. The ride down 19/I26 is simply glorious – a stretch of interstate that is the exception that proves the rule. Mountainous and remote and pretty and nearly devoid of traffic, I just love it. By the time 19 turns back into a local road at Asheville the sun is breaking through and I’m ready to bag the rain gear.
Not long after I’m in Maggie Valley at the Cardinal Inn – a tiny, fifties-era-type motel that is clean and cheap. Mike remembers me from last year, pulling a card from a box that has all my information already on it. I guess I’m not the first customer to return to his and Deborah’s little business.
Mike gives me the “biker discount” and we both smile. Notwithstanding the genuineness of his affections – how many motels have the owner’s own bike under cover right next to the office, keep a rolled-up hose at the ready, and have strategically placed a box of clean towels expressly for use by clients in washing their vehicles? – I suspect everybody gets a discount of one kind or another.
Having squared away a place to spend the night, I now have the whole afternoon in front of me. Last year, when I talked to Ginny from down near Atlanta, Hurricane Irene was approaching the east coast. That had prompted me to begin heading on home, skipping the day of riding around Deals Gap I had originally envisioned.
My plan for this year is to make up for that. This very afternoon, in fact.
I have mixed feelings about it. The Harley has acquitted itself exceptionally well – surprising me in many cases – with everything I have put in front of it these last four years. Deals Gap, on the other hand, is such a tight, narrow road, with oftentimes abrupt transitions, that I have long imagined the big v-twin to be a double handful in that kind of environment. We’ll soon see.
Turning up rt. 28, I’m reminded that despite being down in the area just about every year on one run or another – last year I was down here twice, on separate week-long trips – it’s actually been a few years since I’ve been to the Gap itself. And so the run up 28 turns into a time machine, remembering.
It also – despite my early promise to myself to remain ever mindful of the quick limitations of the Road King and how tragic it would be should anything happen to it and so a large dollop of restraint must be part and parcel of what I bring up here – has me raising the bar. By the time the sweepers begin to tighten, an arpeggio is rising in my head, seductive and sweet.
I’m saved by a handful of Harley riders, doing the customary speed limit minus five.
And then right when they pull off, just south of where the lake appears on your left, the rain begins. First just a few drops. But then quickly morphing into a serious rain. Heavy enough that I consider stopping and donning my rain gear.
Never mind. I’m almost there.
The wet road has me suddenly squeamish, uber cautious through the turns. Even as I remember railing through here so many times before. The time with John and Dave, the day I got busted for my double-yellow pass. The time with Earle, after we were late leaving Nantahala Village and had to make up time catching the others. The times alone.
A dark shape materializes in the road ahead and I intuit instantly what it is. Sure enough, a moment later the sound of my approach has the bear scampering across the road. Be careful there fella, I murmur as I roll past. I take his presence as a good sign.
I’m stunned when I get to the store. It’s packed with bikes, something I didn’t expect on a Wednesday.
They’ve also done a lot of work on the place, expanding what’s available and generally cleaning up and modernizing the place. The ‘store’ is now almost purely a t-shirt shop, with few of the staple goods that once were on display. But there’s now a proper sit-down restaurant in an adjoining room. And the motel units have all been refurbished.
A far cry from the times I stayed here years ago, when it was The Crossroads of Time.
I told myself I wouldn’t. I got tired years ago of the crass commercialization of ‘The Dragon.’ The t-shirts and bumper stickers and videos and all the talk and all the bravado, all making reference to it, have been so overdone. And I found, in something of a surprise, that riding Deals Gap is as much an I’ve-got-balls artifact within the Harley culture as it is in the sportbike world. It’s all become something of an embarrassment.
Which is why I’m surprised when I find myself pulling the t-shirt off the wall and carrying it to the register. An image of a grizzled old Harley rider with that large, evil dragon haloing him from behind.
Outside, the sun is back out and the road is rapidly drying. I drink from my bottle of water, carefully scrutinizing the dark clouds that have settled to the west, in the gap itself. Not long, I tell myself. Ten minutes. I’m already getting that old feeling in my chest.
Worried about being the rolling roadblock that I have long despised in others, I watch the crowd of bikes, trying to judge who is leaving and hoping to provide enough separation that that doesn’t happen.
So I’m glad after I decide to go and spend the ninety seconds it takes to shrug into my jacket and don my helmet and gloves that the two sportbikes I hadn’t seen – a Kawasaki Ninja and a BMW R1200S – pull out right before I do.
If I’m relieved by that, though, my heart sinks when two Corvettes pull in right behind me. My guess is that the cars might make better time than I can given the wet pavement and what I’m riding. And I have no desire to be mixing it up with a car.
Oh well, I shrug. It’s too late now. I can always pull over somewhere.
Throttling up the hill, I’m thinking about traction. I know the road will be dry soon. But right now it still holds a bright sheen of wetness. Just take it easy, I remind myself.
As I lean easily into the first right-hander I’m already setting up for the next one. That’s one of the unique things about Deals Gap – the turns come so quickly, one after another, that the exit of one usually leads immediately into the entrance of the next.
As I set up for that next turn, now fully up to speed, a glance in my mirrors shows the Corvettes have dropped back. Good. They won’t be a problem.
Back in front, though, in something of a shock, the two sportbikes are still in sight, but a single corner away.
The sight of them triggers in me the old thing. I pause, trembling for the space of a heartbeat, my chest gone tight. Don’t do it, I tell myself. But then the guttural sound of the Harley hardens, its phlegmatic notes telling the tale. There’s a story here now.
Within three corners I have caught them. Back and forth, the old rolling cadence, rushing now hard through the corners, I abide the unexpected pleasure of… company.
My satisfaction – the handful I feared the Harley might be on this road simply isn’t the case; it is running beautifully – is tempered by the work required to stay with the two riders. The pull of their bikes has me at the very upper end of what the Road King can do. Of what I can do.
Unable to carry enough corner speed, I’m having to shift constantly. Rather than establishing a rhythm and just going with the flow, I’m having to treat the road like a racetrack – accelerate, brake, downshift, back-on-throttle, corner. Rinse and repeat.
It’s enough. Several times the riders, in an obvious bid to pull away, press a bit more speed into the equation. Each time the Harley responds, holding the thread between us.
Which is not at all to suggest that good riders wouldn’t have simply walked away. They would have. And, in fact, a couple miles in another sportbike comes upon my rear, sitting there for another mile before pulling around the three of us in a series of clean passes.
Having plenty of time to observe the two riders in front of me, its clear these are decent riders, not great ones. Eleven miles on, as the road finally straightens, the euphoria slackens and I realize I’ve been sweating. I pull over by the lake to ditch my jacket and go back into cruise mode.
The two bikes don’t wave.
The rest of the trip is a slow roll of days and miles. I froze my ass up on the Cherohala Skyway, too stubborn to pull over and spend the three minutes it would have taken to put my jacket back on. I had a lovely meal at a terrific Mexican restaurant in Maggie Valley. The Woodford Reserve in the evenings was smooth and mellow. And the two-day ride up that mother of all great motorcycle roads – the Blue Ridge Parkway – what can one say? Glorious beyond words. A riding season hardly seems complete without a ride along its length.
A final night at Meadows of Dan. I stayed at the Blue Ridge Motel, the same small place that John and Dave and I stayed at back in ’96 when I was heading towards CLASS at Road Atlanta. A fine last-day country breakfast at the hometown restaurant there, served by a pretty young waitress. A final nice tip.
A t-shirt I no longer regret.
Descending the mountain at Afton, coming into Waynesboro, I fall in behind another touring Harley. He turns into the gas station where I’m going. After fueling, the man wanders over and asks where I’m from and if I know where the Blue Ridge Parkway is.
My week away suddenly pales when he reveals he is from Texas. He’s just come by way of Bangor, Maine – a destination suitable simply because he had never been there.
His kids and grandkids still thought he was at home. Until he sent them a picture of the mountains and a rainbow from the White Mountains of New Hampshire and a beaming query, “can you guess where I am?” I had to smile at that.
“Yes sir. The Blue Ridge Parkway is just up the mountain there. You can’t miss it.”
It’s the first session of the day and it’s still cool on this Autumn morning. I shiver in my leathers, not entirely because of the venting in the Dainese suit. The track still has patches of dampness from the fog which rolls in every night off the Dan River, but is drying quickly. We’re helping it along with our laps. The last track day of the year. It’s going to be a good day.
The South Course at Virginia International Raceway has a hell of a long front straight. More than half a mile. Coming out of Oak Tree, the hard right-hander leading onto it – where legend has it that years ago the car racers used to deliberately rev their motors trying to shake acorns loose onto the tarmac – I’m in third gear on the GSX-R1000. Deliberately over-gearing it, trying to keep down wheelspin. Once onto the straight, speed builds in a rapid crescendo. Even short-shifting – trying to keep the front wheel on the ground – I’m soon on the far side of 160mph. God’s country.
Some of life’s experiences defy description. Braking hard from those speeds, in what your mind tells you is an impossibly short distance, is one of those. Those HH pads and the six-pot calipers provide what seems to be perfectly fine braking – really powerful braking – everywhere else. Just not here. Past the braking marker, two fingers on the lever, squeezing like the trigger of a rifle, the pads of those fingers feeling for the load on the front tire. The rear end all light and softly shimmying, like the subtly-turning tail of one of those smallmouth holding station in the river over beyond the trees. There are damp patches here, too, and one can’t help but wonder if we haven’t overloaded that front tire as we roll through them. But, no, we’re ok.
You never think you’re going to make it. The end of the straight comes at you like the earth towards a crashing plane. It rises up like an unremitting wall, but with a rush like a cutting scimitar. Only at the very end, just when you’ve nearly given up all hope, does it seem like yes, I think maybe I can make that turn. It always seems a surprise.
By late morning the chill is gone. Now I’m sweating as each session gets underway. I’m glad when noon arrives and the track goes quiet. It gives me time to rehydrate some of the fluid I’ve lost.
My call home to Ginny is unremarkable. “The Suzuki is running well,” I tell her. “Be careful,” she reminds me as we hang up. How many times over the years have I heard that refrain, sitting in the pits, calling from some racetrack far from home?
On the first session after lunch I go out expecting to continue the morning’s routine. After a couple of laps to get some heat back into the tires I begin working the bike again. I push aside the languor which envelops me.
On the third lap, past that long front straight, I begin working my way through The Spiral, a staircase set of esses which lead onto the low-speed right-hander called The Fishhook. This is the most technical part of the track, the one with the most rapid left-right transitions.
All day long I have been ever mindful of the prodigious power of this motorcycle. Of its otherworldly power-to-weight ratio. It has already scared the hell out of me once – on this very track, a couple months earlier, when its brutal acceleration prompted an unintended wheelie at 140mph. I long ago concluded that owning a bike like this is something akin to keeping a pet rattlesnake.
So, in a way, I’m not surprised.
Entering The Fishhook, I’m hanging off the right side of the machine, my knee reaching down towards the pavement. Softly motioning the throttle, gently spooling the engine as I begin to lift the bike for the left-hander that looms just ahead, I’m apparently not gentle enough.
You can feel it when a rear tire breaks, when it first spins up. There’s a tiny little release, a momentary fissure in the space-time fabric, that feeling of elastic firmness that wraps into our bones, when riding a motorcycle at speed.
The very best motorcycle riders in the world sometimes do that on purpose, deliberately breaking loose the tire and using the now-spinning and loosely-coupled rear end to square off the turn. Leaving behind a long, black smear as the only evidence of their mastery.
I’m not that good.
The sudden softness surprises me. As the rear of the bike rotates towards the left, my subconscious response is both immediate – and absolutely wrong. I chop the throttle. Even as the first neural signals flash through my brain of what is happening and how to respond to it, it’s too late. The sudden removal of power has caused the rear tire to hook back up. And the sudden reappearance of traction has caused the now-contorted-nearly-sideways motorcycle to turn into a catapult. It launches me violently into the tarmac.
Four weeks later the pain begins. A sharp, intense, radiating, pain that begins in my neck, spreads across my shoulders, and descends down my arm. It’s impossible to ignore. But healthy all my life, I try and shrug it off. It’s just a pinched nerved, I reason. Must have tweaked something in that crash.
In a bit of twisted irony, it comes on nearly to the day that I am laid off, the company I work for becoming the latest casualty of the dot-com implosion. I have no way of knowing that fifteen long, barren months lie in front of me before I’ll see another paycheck.
After ten days the strange pain not only hasn’t not gone away, it hasn’t diminished a bit. It sits there, an angry intruder, acute in its intensity, chronic in its effect, touching everything in my life. It’s on a ten minute ride on my other motorcycle, to get its annual safety inspection, when I have to ride nearly one-handed because of the pain, that I reluctantly decide I must do something. The thought of not being able to ride is a darkness I cannot even consider.
A month later, after three doctor visits and an MRI, I have my answer. Cervical spinal stenosis. So much for something simple, something temporary.
And so begins my 10-year sojourn, living with pain as an ever present companion. A sullen, unwelcome friend. The new backdrop to everything else in my life.
A few years ago a hunting friend killed himself. Brad was young and healthy and had everything to live for. But he had been divorced and then he lost his job and his finances crumpled into disarray. When he finally put the .45 to his head and pulled the trigger, I understood how it could happen. Sometimes the pain just becomes too much. You just want to be done with it.
Almost exactly a year ago, a woman from one of the financial boards I frequent posted a topic “Is Sugar Toxic?” It’s salient point was included in this link:
Like I usually do with longish articles, I printed it off. Settling back in my chair, I began reading. And in that fifteen minutes, something happened. An epiphany arose. When I talked to Ginny a few hours later I gave her the news.
“I’m off sugar.”
To her credit, she didn’t laugh.
She probably should have. Anyone who knows me knows I have a legendary sweet tooth. I have since I was a child. Pies, cakes, donuts, candy. I consumed them with a regularity that today, in retrospect, I find astonishing.
For years, orange juice was our staple anytime-you’re-thirsty drink. Go for a run or a bicycle ride or work out in the yard? Come inside afterwards and rehydrate with a quart of fresh, ice-cold orange juice. We thought we were being healthy.
For years, a Starbucks’ grande mocha was my evening reward for having finished a long day at work. In the summer I would switch to a Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino.
Chocolate milkshakes were a special delight. Not a week would go by that I didn’t have several. As far as I was concerned, they were the only good reason for McDonald’s to even exist. My decades-long ritual meal of ‘hamburger, small fries, and chocolate milkshake’ was always a joy. And there was a particular, greater-than-it-ought-to-have-been disappointment that attached to the occasional reply from the cashier “sorry, our milkshake machine is broken.”
A proper serving of ice cream – that would be a pint or thereabouts – every night, for years, stretching into decades, had been my long habit.
We could afford to rationalize these choices because of great good fortune. Ginny was a marathon runner and was forever out burning a prodigious number of calories. I was the recipient of a genetic makeup that caused my body to seemingly be unconnected to caloric intake. Tall and skinny as a teenager. I remained tall and skinny as an adult.
Mostly. I gained a few pounds in my early thirties when I quit smoking. And I gained a few more as I entered my fifties, the gradual slowing of metabolism that the wear of time always brings to bear. My waist line had gone from 32 to 34 and then to 36. But at 6’ 2” and 180lbs I still considered myself to be in pretty decent shape.
Still, that morning after-shower routine in front of the mirror was one of increasing angst. I had seen plenty of examples of men growing older to know that even my beneficient DNA endowment would not forever be proof against a bulging belly. I saw the evidence every day. That thirty-six I wore was increasingly becoming a snug thirty-six.
Against all odds, I remained firm to my new resolution. In doing so, I learned a few things.
Sugar is added to nearly everything. It’s actually quite hard to eliminate entirely from one’s diet. Even where it’s not been added during processing, food products still often contain sugar. The mixed nuts that I began consuming as a substitute for sweets, for instance, contain a gram or two. Vegetables often have a fair amount. And fruits, almost universally accepted as good for you, are loaded with fructose.
What I found is that, with a modicum of effort, I could keep my intake to less than ten grams per day. Since that stood in such sharp contrast to the 100-200 grams I estimate I was consuming before, I figured that was good enough.
I made only a few exceptions. Over the course of the year, I had but three proper deserts: a piece of wedding cake at my son’s wedding, a piece of homemade cheese cake at a friend’s home, and a tiny piece of cake at my father’s 86th birthday a couple weeks ago.
It is astonishing how utterly exquisite a sugar-laden sweet is when you’ve gone months without.
Ginny, having been health-conscious for years, was more than happy to support my sudden turnaround. Her efforts to buy and prepare no-sugar or low-sugar meals were instrumental. About the only thing we disagreed on were fruits. She continued to eat them in abundance. I very much limited them. So much so that one of my favorite memories was the simple afternoon when I steered the Harley to the side of a remote back road and sat down in the grass beside it to enjoy my lunch. When I was done with that I extracted from my saddlebag a single, ripe peach. Cold, pungent with sweetness, with juice that spread through my fingers as I ate it, it was the perfect capstone to a perfect few hours.
For the first few weeks, it was like my body didn’t know what to make of my new diet. For the first time in my life, my blood wasn’t being subjected to vast amounts of sugar.
After about a month, I began to lose weight. Slowly. A pound or two per week. Months later, after dipping into the 150’s, it stabilized. “I’m back to my old high school, weight,” I happily joked to Ginny.
More importantly, that chronic pain in my neck and shoulders – my horned companion for a decade – slowly began to subside. Today I still have moments of occasional discomfort, but for the most part it is gone. Don’t ask me why.
Like many people, the internet for me is a portal into a variety of communities. Whatever it is you’re interested in, you’re bound to find a group of like-minded folks who share that interest, and with whom you can speak and debate and argue. It’s fun. And it’s enlightening.
What we don’t normally expect is for it to be profound.
And yet, for me, in the case of this one post a year ago, it most emphatically was.
Thank you, Wendy.
My mom died last week, on Tuesday, February 7th. Today was the service. This is a little letter I wrote to her.
“Intercostal expansion is compromised,” the doctor quietly murmured, the gauze of his mask compressing the words. He smiled kindly down at the frightened little girl, though she could hardly tell it from behind the veil of white.
Turning slightly, he straightened, his brow furrowed. He nodded back towards the ward. The nurse and the intern understood. He began jotting notes on the clipboard he held. She moved quickly through the doorway, into the hum. There were six unused respirators, all down at the end. She chose one and began preparing it, going through the step-by-step protocol they had showed her a week ago. She tried not to think of the little girl.
When she was done the head nurse came over. Glancing at the long, oblong device, the older woman quickly checked her work. She nodded approvingly. “This is perfect. Go have a cigarette, honey.”
To get to the small room that served as their makeshift lounge, she had to walk the length of the ward. In the days since she had been here she had gotten used to the constant hum of the machines. But she hadn’t gotten used to the rest of it. Walking past row after row of the iron lungs, she forced herself to smile brightly at each of the children in turn. She was glad when she got to the end and pushed through the door to where they couldn’t see her anymore. Pulling her mask off, she washed her hands at the sink, having to will herself to continue for the prescribed amount of time. When she was done, she used the back of her hand to smear the tears away.
One of the other volunteer, out-of-town nurses, was in the lounge when she walked in. Noticing the red eyes, she produced a wan smile as she held out the pack of cigarettes.
“How are you holding, Joyce?”
“Okay,” she smiled back, taking the offered smoke and lighting it.
“Well, take it easy. You have to pace yourself.”
Joyce nodded. “I know. I will”
The early afternoon passed quickly. Handling the row upon row of polio patients, all of whom were kids, was tedious, manual work. It made time fly.
They were surprised, then, when the head nurse called down the ward for a quick stand-up. Joyce and the other two nurses quickly walked down to the end where the head nurse stood. When they had all gathered, they moved together through the double doors, where the patients could not hear them.
The older woman turned to the three younger nurses. Her face was grave.
“They’re calling for thunderstorms this afternoon.” She paused, letting that sink in.
“Remember what we told you during your orientation. If we lose power, we’re going to lose some of these kids. There’s nothing you can do about that. If it happens, we revert to basic triage. You support those who have some remaining pulmonary capacity. The ones who have the best chance of making it. You have to let the others go.”
She paused. “Any questions?”
The three younger nurses said nothing.
“Okay,” she said, leading them back into ward. “Try and smile.”
Within an hour, the first crack of thunder was heard. First in the distance. Then closer. They could feel it roll over the hospital, a tangible thing.
Joyce was working on a little boy when the lights first flickered. “Please, God,” she whispered.
The little boy looked up at her, his head the only thing sticking out of the iron cylinder, his eyes serious. “Why are you afraid?”
Joyce was taken aback. The question hung there for a moment, while all the threads of this week, this summer, came together.
She smiled down at the boy. A thin smile, but true.
“I’m not,” she said. “I’m not afraid.”
I’m not really sure of all the details, Mom, of that little story you used to tell us. But that’s something how I’ve always imagined it.
The courage of a young boy. And the courage of a young nurse.
And that’s how my earliest memories of you were. I remember a young Mom who was confident and smart and assured. A little bit sassy.
I remember your Cokes. Whatever you were doing, working around the house, there was always that glass two-thirds filled with ice and Coca-Cola.
I remember the bicycle you worked so hard to buy for me, when it could hardly be afforded. A mirror of your own longing, when you were a little girl, unfulfilled. I remember the morning you took me to the window of the bedroom there at our house in Hillwood, and pointed to the bike resting there under the tree. And I still feel bad, all these many years later, for my confused comment back to you, “but it’s rusty.” I still, obviously, had yet to learn that there is nuance in the word ‘new.’
But it all turned out fine. I remember that sunny, spring morning not long after when you took me out back and taught me to ride, running alongside before mounting, swinging my leg over it like a pony express rider. It was a marvelous gift. I bet you didn’t imagine then that I would forever be wedded to things with two wheels. That they would be my sustenance across a lifetime.
I’m sorry about the man down the street who I peed on. I know you told the people who came and told you that “Jeff would never do such a thing.” It must have been a shock when you found out it was true. I know it must have been embarrassing. All I can say is that he deserved it.
I remember how you loved baseball. How the Senators were always on the radio. It was from you I learned to love that game. To forever associate long summer days with the grandest of sports. Spring training started this week. Like you, I can’t wait for April, for opening day. Lou and I will be going to a Nats game later this year, once it warms up. We’ll be taking you with us.
I remember all the suppers you cooked. All the times you baked biscuits. I didn’t appreciate that at the time. It was only later, as I grew older, that I began to have a dawning realization of how, simply, hard it must have been to cook those big meals for a family of six, every night, after working all day. I’m still not quite sure how you managed it.
I remember the cakes you used to bake, and how you’d let me lick the beaters and the bowl. That was always a special treat. So much so that, one day when you weren’t there I pulled a box of cake mix down from the cabinet. I had stood there and watched you do it many times, of course, adding the eggs and the oil and turning to it with the mixer. So I knew what to do. I mixed up that bowl of cake batter and then carried it outside, hid behind a bush where I could take my time, and proceeded to spoon it in my mouth like it was pudding. I was sick in no time, of course. It was my first lesson that you can, indeed, have too much of a good thing.
I remember the year I got that knot on my knee. The tumor that, after a few months, they went and operated and took out. I’m sure that must have been frightening for you. Especially as a nurse, knowing what you did. It was only years later, after I had children of my own, that I came to understand the awful anxiety that a parent feels when one of their children is sick. It’s hard to put on that happy face for the sake of the child, to give them the comfort that all will be well. But you managed it. So well, in fact, that afterwards, when I described to Kent all the presents I had gotten while in the hospital – it was like Christmas in July – that the two of us spent hours trying to figure out how to grow tumors. The best I could come up with was that jumping off the fence must have caused it. So that’s what we did, spending an entire afternoon jumping off the fence in the back yard.
I remember the time I had done something wrong – I don’t recollect what – and you shushed me on outside. I remember walking around, thinking about what I had done, and trying to figure a way to make it better. I remember the surprised look on your face when I knocked on the door a little while later, with the bouquet of flowers I had walked around the yard collecting. I had no idea of the impression on you that small act would have. But you never forgot it. Not a year went by ever after that you didn’t mention it. It taught me that the impact of the kindnesses that we show others is not related to how big they are or how much they cost.
One of my jobs was cleaning up the dog poop that Heather left in the back yard. Taking the shovel and digging a fresh hole along the fence line and then walking around the yard, picking up the piles of poop and walking back to drop them in the hole. I remember the cool fall day when I had been putting off that – what I considered rather unglamorous – job. You came out and grabbed the shovel and, with me in tow, began walking from pile to pile, energetically enjoining me in how to do it. Heather had eaten something strange and her poop piles were speckled with these little dots of red and green and yellow. “See how pretty they are?” you enthused. I think I was all of six or seven at the time. It was my first inkling that not even Mom’s are omniscient.
As we got older, Saturday mornings – Saturday being the day you didn’t have to go to work – became work days at home. Kind of like those suppers that you made every night, it wasn’t until I was older that I began to have any kind of appreciation for the magnitude of keeping a household, with four young kids, while both parents worked full time. At the time, I must confess, I didn’t much care for those Saturday mornings. I’m sorry I never got very good at cleaning the bathroom, despite plenty of opportunities to practice. I think, though, that Mops might have gained from my loss.
I remember the night, when I was perhaps thirteen, when you enlisted me to help go find Snu. I remember your driving from house to house – all the places we could think she might be – where at each I would sally forth and inquire if she might be there. I remember your turning to me after the third or fourth stop and pleading “Jeff, please don’t you ever do this to me.”
Hopefully, I didn’t. I don’t think they called you the time I set the school bus on fire, and had the bus driver shrieking in panic, with my 8th grade science project. So that doesn’t count. And I won’t mention the other things.
Snu was okay that night, of course. Snu was always okay. As were we all. If I could change anything at all, it would only be that. That it’s all okay. That we’re all okay. That there’s no need for you to worry.
Mostly, more than anything else, I remember certainty. The certainty that you were always there. I remember when I was six or seven and woke up deathly sick. By mid-morning I was burning up with fever. You bundled me up in a blanket and picked me up and carried me out to the car, where we headed to the doctor. I got one shot while the doctor was examining me. And another out in the waiting room, as we were leaving, after I fainted. In my whole life I cannot remember a day when I felt so sick. And yet, through it all, the thing I remember most was the sense that you had it all under control. That I was safe. That it would all be okay.
And so that’s the promise I now leave you with. That we’re all okay. And that there’s not a thing for you to worry about.
There’s a road I know – a gnarly, dangerous, technical, twisted route that rises up from Virginia’s Piedmont to cross over the Blue Ridge Mountains. My father grew up on a farm a handful of miles from there and some of my earliest memories were riding that mountain road with him and my grandparents the several times a year when we would go down to visit. That was back when families did that sort of thing – going out for a Sunday drive, just for fun. We’d end up getting an ice cream cone somewhere. Or else we’d hit the cold storage plant where even today, all these years later, I can still in my mind’s eye smell the sharp, intensely pungent scent of those apples. Or – my favorite – we’d stop by the fish hatchery, where I’d hurriedly walk along the series of concrete pools where the trout grew. Starting as couple-inch fingerlings, each pool in turn held increasingly larger fish. I’d stop at the pools at the end, the one’s that held foot-long trout, and gaze down into them with unabashed blood lust.
Years later, as a grown man, I’d periodically come back to that road that fell from the heavens. To ride it too fast on a motorcycle. Or, fly rod in hand, to numb my legs in the trout stream that tumbled along beside it. Or sometimes, just because.
In 1969, hurricane Camille – one of only three Cat 5 storms to hit the U.S. mainland during the 20th century – hit the gulf coast with sustained winds of 190 mph (and wind shears well over 200 mph). After savaging the coast, it quickly diminished as it moved inland. By the time the remnants of the storm had turned eastward and crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, it was hardly more than a tropical depression. And yet… there was a perfect storm of meteorological conditions in the witch’s brew that came together there. A roll-the-dice confluence of factors that took a thousand years to finally come up snake eyes. The long and the short was that that long, narrow defile cut through the mountains, turned epic. Nelson County received over 30 inches of rain that night. A year’s worth, in six hours. And that trout stream I had long loved turned killer.
Over a hundred people died from the rains, the flash flooding and mud slides killing many people while they slept. A few hours later, Woodstock, that iconic rock and roll epic up in the Catskills that was a lodestone to my generation, turned all wet and muddy. The remnants of the remnants.
There is a little crossroads village right there on that road. It actually marks, for me, when I’m on a motorcycle, where the road starts to get serious. It pretty much washed away during Camille.
About two miles outside that crossroad, my cousin Kent has a small farm that he inherited from his dad, my uncle. It’s a place called Level Green and it may be the closest thing to paradise I know of. The house, which my uncle spent half a lifetime – traveling four hours each way every weekend from his home in suburban Maryland – renovating from an old tobacco barn, has about the prettiest view I have ever seen. The Blue Ridge Mountains rise in the near distance, with a subtle grandeur that just compels you to keep looking at them. There’s a large pond my uncle put in. It makes for lovely fly fishing only a few hundred yards from the front door of the house.
For many years my uncle, and then Kent, hosted my father’s-side summer family reunions down there. Those were, for all that long span, one of the best days of the year for me.
Ten years ago, on one of those afternoon family get-togethers, while the kids were down at the pond swimming and most everyone else was congregated around the house talking and catching up, Kent wheeled from the barn a couple of ATV’s. His cousin, who lived not far away, rode his over. Kent broke out three cold Coronas, which we took long draughts from and then placed in the pouches hanging from the luggage racks. I could see no other good purpose for the sacks than to carry cold bottles of beer.
Of course, I’d been riding motorcycles for a couple of decades and was very familiar with those. But I’d never been on an ATV before. Kent showed me the basic controls and the three of us did a quick ten-minute lap around the farm. It was fun. Very different from a motorcycle. But very cool. I did admit to a mild feeling of discomfiture when turning the ATV at anything above a walking pace. Since it couldn’t lean – and thus gather its traction that way – the ATV felt loose and on the verge of falling over.
Back at the house, we ditched the empty Corona bottles and refilled the pouches with fresh ones. Kent looked at me. ”Ready to go over the mountain?” he asked. I had no idea what he was talking about, but what the hell. Tossing back another swallow of Corona, I grinned back at him.
“Sure, why not.”
My task wasn’t particularly hard. All I had to do was follow behind Kent and his cousin and try and emulate exactly what they did.
The only problem was, there was this incredible sense of cognitive dissonance. The things I was watching them do, a matter of feet in front of me, were clearly impossible. To say the terrain was severe would be a vast understatement. It was crazy. In my mind, it was utterly unnavigatable except perhaps very slowly, on foot. And yet, there they were, fording creeks and climbing boulders and going down this nearly vertical, rutted excuse for a trail. With me following right behind them, shocked time after time that this machine I was riding was doing what it was doing. I kept expecting to die. And I kept on being surprised that it didn’t happen.
It was no wonder, then, that I breathed a sigh of relief after the 30-minute loop brought us back down to relatively horizontal ground. When we got back to the house I downed another beer very quickly.
A bit of shock and feelings of mortality aside, I never forgot that experience. I vowed that afternoon I would one day have one of those miraculous machines.
And now I do….
It’s a 2012 Honda Foreman 4×4 with Electric Shift and Power Steering. 500cc four-stroke single. Liquid cooled.
Here it is after I dropped the plow. That’s a 2500-pound electric winch on the front. To help with wood cutting, of course. Since – far be it that fun would be my rationale for getting this machine – I decided I needed something to help get the wood I cut out of the woods and back to my log splitter. Of course. It seems that the Blaze King just keeps on giving. And giving.
And who knows? That snow plow might just do some business after all on that quarter-mile-long driveway of mine. We’ll see.
I got it in Camo because I might even hunt with it!
You get some sense here for how long my driveway is…
Within five minutes I already had my first “oh sh*t” moment. Blasting around the yard a little too fast, over a little bump and there’s a three-foot-long, 18-inch in diameter roll of chicken wire Ginny had left lying in the grass by the garden. No time time to turn. No time to brake. Oh well. Give it gas! Karoomph. Bzzzt. So much for that roll of chicken wire! I do begin to see why they recommend helmets with these things.
And, yes, they apparently do call them ‘bikes.’ Dunno why. But they do. So there you go – it can go in the bike shed with my other fun stuff. (although it’s starting to get crowded in there. I think I may need to kick some of the bicycles out)
“They sent the wrong model,” I said.
Even as I said it a tortuous disappointment washed over me. Who knew that you could get so excited by the arrival of a new woodstove? And thence to be struck with such despondent dismay when it all went awry?
“What do you want us to do?” Darwin asked, one hand still holding the heavy cardboard facing he had pulled away from the dark stove atop the pallet.
My mind raced. The forlorn shape of my old The Earth Stove stood there in the darkness on the deck, already pulled out of the house. It was done and I knew it. I wasn’t going to ask them to lift it yet again and put it back.
It was going to be cold tonight. And I’d be leaving in a day to go hunting.
I flashed back to the specs. Would a couple of inches really make that much difference?
“Go ahead and bring it in,” I said, despondency morphing into resolution. “We’ll make it work.”
Like a lot of things, this all started with only the whiff of a thought. And not a new one at that. Ginny and I had bounced around the idea of getting a new woodstove for years. As usual, I just didn’t want to spend the money.
But then there was that Saturday a few weeks ago, right on the cusp of what I now know serious wood burners call ‘the shoulder season.’ A few clicks on Google and I sat there looking at an Osburn 1800. Sixteen, seventeen hundred bucks. Not cheap. But not outrageous either. And the more I looked at that stove with its nice glass front the more I said hmm.
I could see us sitting there on a cold January day with a pretty little fire going behind that glass.
A little more research and a little more googling tweaked it a bit. I decided upon the Osburn 2300. Then it was just a matter of reading some reviews and finding out where to buy one. That search led me to hearth.com.
I spent a rainy Sunday afternoon mesmerized. After years of burning wood every winter in our old, 70’s-era ‘The Earth Stove,’ I thought I knew everything – the very little bit – anyone needed to know about burning wood in a woodstove.
Turns out there are layers of subtlety woven into what surely is one of the oldest practices of man. It’s the confluence of art and wisdom and science.
And it turns out I didn’t know jack shit.
I figured the biggest difference in new stoves today – other than having draft controls that work – was that pretty glass door.
Turns out there’s a little more to it than that.
A couple weeks and a bunch of fun hours later – I truly did find all this wood burning lore fascinating – I knew a few more things about it. And I no longer was interested in that Osburn. I have no doubt it’s a nice stove. But I learned a long time ago that when a bunch of really smart people in an arcane art profess a similar opinion, one is wise to listen to them.
And so down the rabbit hole I went.
After that it was just a matter of figuring out the details. The King wouldn’t work because my chimney flue is only 6.” But no worries. There’s the Princess – just a little smaller, and designed for that 6” flue of mine. And still wielding all the magic that Blaze King is famous for.
Now certain of what I wanted, and suddenly committed to biting the financial bullet to get it done, the next speed bump was… there are apparently no authorized Blaze King dealers in Virginia. I had a couple of nice conversations with dealers across the river over in Maryland, and tried calling one in West Virginia, but finally shook my head and said ‘this is crazy.’
I called Blaze King, out in Walla Walla. The nice lady there hooked me up with the East Coast distributor. “No problem,” the friendly fellow there told me. “How’s Fairfax?”
“That’s perfect,” I said, being as it’s on my way home from work.
And that’s exactly what I did. Tony sent the order the next day.
I ordered the ‘Parlor’ model simply because it was a couple inches shorter than the ‘Ultra’ which first caught my eye. Blaze King recommends 36 inches of vertical rise before you turn your stovepipe towards the wall. I couldn’t make that. Not even close.
And so my consternation ten days later when Darwin and Eric tore away the shipping cardboard of my new stove, an Ultra, there in the dark with their truck backed up to my deck, wondering what to do.
Bring it in. We’ll make it work.
And so it is that the old The Earth Stove is gone. It might have been dirty and it might have burned a mountain of wood in the process, but it brought many an hour of warmth and comfort, standing between us and hurt on how many cold and snowy days. May it rest in peace.
And now ‘The Princess.’ Four hours into her maiden, virgin burn. She’s already amazing. Hell, she might roll this burn all damn winter.
I love her already.
The backdrop to this story: Sonny Page was the pseudonym of a friend of mine on one of the online financial forums we both frequented. Sonny and his wife were realtors in Atlanta (she still is). Many of Sonny’s earlier posts on that forum were titled “Tales from the Thai Thai” and in them he would provide anecdotes from their business and tidbits of wisdom about how real estate was doing. Sonny died two months ago.
“Be careful,” the man said.
A small smile crinkled my mouth as I intuited his meaning. “Sure will,” I nodded. “Thanks.”
He reached down again for the pint bottle that rested on the ground. Something clear. Gin or vodka or maybe just straight-up grain alcohol. What had been in the brown paper bag when he passed me on the street a few minutes ago.
The man had no way of knowing that I had already made my decision and that his warning wasn’t necessary. But I appreciated the thought.
A month ago I decided to do this. So it was that I put in for a week of vacation during the fourth week of August and began, from my office there on L Street in Washington, D.C., to make ready to be gone.
On Saturday morning I wheeled the Harley out of the shed, aired up its tires, lashed my pack to the rear seat, and pointed it west. It was a trip I had planned to do for years. Alas, one thing or another always seemed to get in the way.
Sometimes we wait too long.
When I was a kid I read a book by Virgil Carrington Jones about the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s. I was entranced. The deadly feud that had befallen the extended kin of those two families – friends and neighbors all – seemed an astonishment to me. I vowed then to one day come and visit the killing ground along the Tug Fork dividing Kentucky and West Virginia. And finally, here at long last I was.
Ask people about Matewan and they’ll think of the movie. Based upon the true story of the 1920 massacre when Baldwin-Felts detectives hired as armed thugs by the coal operators came to town to evict striking miners from their homes. When they were confronted by Sid Hatfield, the town’s police chief and a distant relative of the Hatfields of feud fame, along with Mayor Testerman and a handful of angry miners, shooting broke out in the center of the little town. When it was over ten men lay dead.
I had seen the movie, of course.
What people mostly don’t know about Matewan is that thirty-eight years prior to the 1920 massacre it was also the scene – just across Tug Fork and perhaps twenty paces up the bank on the Kentucky side – where three McCoy boys were tied to pawpaw bushes and executed following their fatal stabbing of Ellison Hatfield a couple days earlier. Thus did the feud begin in earnest.
I had originally thought to spend a couple of nights in Matewan. But as soon as I pulled into town after a long two days of riding I was disabused of that notion. Cruising slowly down the street, I shook my head.
Parking the bike, I pulled my Leica from my pack and began a slow reconnoiter.
Nearly deserted, the couple of square blocks of the old town center held the air of despair. Broken shop windows, going-out-of-business signs, and a general state of disrepair hung like a pall over the little community. Seems the renovated train depot hadn’t been so renovated after all.
While I stood in front of the Post Office reading the plaque about the 1920 massacre, a man whom I judged to be about thirty walked past me holding a paper bag in his hand. We nodded a quiet greeting to each other.
If the historian in me was disappointed and the humanitarian was dismayed, at least the photographer was intrigued. Decay and dissolution are part of our world and can sometimes make for trenchant subjects. And so it was that aspect had me circling the depot with an eye towards light and shadow. And that’s where I came again upon the young man – this time ensconced in the back doorway of one of the non-descript businesses – with his fresh bottle on the ground and his warning for me.
No worries, my friend.
Back at the bike – relief sudden that no harm had come to it in the few minutes it was out of my sight – I mounted back up, considering my options. It would be dark in another couple of hours and I hadn’t the haziest idea of where I was going to spend the night. Adjusting the .38 S&W in my jeans pocket, I turned the Harley back up to the stop sign, paused, then turned north towards Williamson and Pikeville, themselves, too, part of the killing ground.
Thirty-four years ago I was sent from the distant reaches of my home in Northern Virginia to a place not far from here. I was a newly minted 24-year-old telephone installer for C&P Telephone Company, one of the old Bell Operating companies. West Virginia had endured epic flooding that spring and the C&P divisions there needed all the help they could get. Ostensibly, I volunteered.
The real reason is because I had the temerity to have a brief relationship with a woman in management. Apparently, she had spurned the advances of one or more of the senior executives and that didn’t sit well. That she would then take up with some kid – and a bargained for, union represented one, at that – was just too much for them to handle. She got shipped out in one direction. Me in the other.
Such were the mores of the time. It didn’t much matter that she was single, I was single, and all the old guys that she rejected were married. It was one of my first lessons in the wielding of power and influence. And that such is often devoid of rationality or fairness or integrity.
The two summer months I spent in Beckley and Huntington were fascinating in lots of ways – perhaps stories for another day. What I didn’t know at the time was that a fellow telephone installer from a different garage back home was also sent there. They sent Craig to Williamson.
Craig and I later met once we returned home, became friends, and, of course, compared stories of our duty in West Virginia. We both had seen hardship. Abject poverty. People stricken by economic circumstances that today seem hardly fathomable.
Craig had seen something else. Near the town of Man, he had seen a retarded man chained up, like you might a dog.
Craig was a truthful guy, not known for exaggeration. I never took his story to be apocryphal. And so, back to the present, and after a good night’s rest in Pikeville, I rode back east into West Virginia and began my exploration. I spent the morning visiting those areas that had long held my fascination. Logan and Main Island and Blackberry Fork. The places where hard-bitten men had once turned upon their neighbors with murderous intent.
And then I turned towards Man.
I found it a surprise. Far from the tiny, stricken hamlet I had long envisioned it to be, I found it instead to be, if not overly prosperous, nevertheless a place of energy and hope. Cruising slowly along the street, I passed a pawn shop with a row of compound bows displayed out on the sidewalk, something you don’t see every day. Turning the Harley around, I came back and parked.
Inside, I first wandered to the back to look at the guns and the bows and the fishing tackle – turns out the store was a sports shop as well. But what I found most intriguing was near the front, adjacent to the long rows of pawned goods. A high-definition, flat screen television was set up a few feet from the register and displayed on it was a pretty young woman talking about the prospects of Bank of America. On the bottom part of the screen was a stock ticker.
As I stood there for a moment putting my ear plugs in, I had to smile.
If that sounds condescending, I don’t mean it to be. If there is a greater reason for my week-long road trip, it is to reset perspectives from the white-collar D.C. world I normally live in. I have always found West Virginians to be among the friendliest and happiest people I have ever met. As I traversed the state heading towards Tug Fork, I chose to ride the tiny roads that spiral across the mountains and pass you along from one tiny community to the next. The consistent themes you see are shadowed hollows, streams, railroad tracks, coal mines, and tiny little towns built not as squares or rectangles or circles – but strung lengthwise along the road and the river, following the contours of the landscape just like everything else. That, and stark beauty. The mountains rise above you in sheer, breathtaking cascades, like cathedrals.
Entrepreneurship is everywhere. Little shops, often operating out of people’s homes, offer everything from haircuts to taxidermy to tax services to any number of different kinds of repairs. It’s not a world of business plans and ROI and continuing to grow a business bigger and bigger every year. It’s a world of trying to eke out just enough dollars over cost to simply survive.
The irony is not lost on me that, notwithstanding the long efforts of these good people, many of them will make less in a year than some of us will gain or lose in a single day in the markets.
Choices matter, of course. It does, indeed, make a difference what decisions we make. But it also helps to be lucky. To be born in the right place, at the right time, and to the right parents. The fruits of capitalism fall in a vastly disproportionate heap to those who are.
But these good, proud people don’t often dwell on the challenges they face. Places like Matewan and Williamson and Man and all the countless other burgs and hamlets across the land where things are tough… sure could use a break. But at the end of the day what matters most is the soul and the spirit they bring to the task. When I sat down in my hotel room that night in Pikeville and loaded the images from my Leica into my laptop, I noticed one shot in particular. Down at the very edge of town, at the corner of Hatfield and Mate streets, the concrete portico held, in addition to the street post sign, a rustic wooden barrel, an elegant wooden bench, and a landscaped concrete square from which a tree grew. All that, and a sprinkling of red flowers. Small though that street corner might have been, it was nevertheless well-manicured and beautiful, the equal of anything you’d find in the finest of gated communities, without a hint of despair written in it.
How can you not love people who would do such a thing?
And so that’s the message I take. To be a little bit more like them, to count my blessings.
And then, with that thought in mind and the day waning, I turn south. I have something to do.
It takes me two days. Rolling lengthwise across West Virginia, back into Virginia, then into Tennessee, down into North Carolina, and finally, at long last, dropping out of the mountains of northern Georgia.
To Atlanta and the Thai Thai.
Sonny’s old stomping ground. The place that inspired so many of his great posts. And so that’s where I sit, right now, as I type this.
What can I tell you? Just like Sonny always said it was… it’s a lovely place. The people are nice. The food is outstanding. The only thing that would make it better is if Sonny himself were here to share it with me. With us. We could laugh. I could joke and tell him that in a couple of years when we’ve got Steven Strassburg back and Bryce Harper is up my Nats will have his Braves’ number. He’d probably smile and say “yeah, maybe, but there’ll still be Philly in front of both of us.” He could tell us once again about Silver Wheaton, whether he thinks Randy Smallwood is up to the task. We could ask him if he thinks he’ll ever again be all-in on it.
There’s one last thing. If he were here I’d smile at him and tell him thanks for that four-percent-of-portfolio flyer I took on Silver Wheaton back in January, just for fun, based solely upon his recommendation, without doing so much as an hour’s worth of due diligence. I didn’t keep the position long – just a few months. But it netted a nice little thirty percent gain. And it says something about Sonny that that’s the only time I’ve ever done such a thing. I probably never will again.
I’m not nearly the silver wonk that Sonny was, but I do have a handful of silver coins – again, which I surely wouldn’t have were it not for him. Just before I left home I went to the drawer and extracted two mint 2010 one-ounce Silver Eagles. It was the first time I ever really looked at them. Sonny was right, in that last post of his. They truly are beautiful. I slid them in an envelope and put it in the pocket of my pack.
They’ve come a long way. And, yet, not nearly far enough.
This morning, before coming to the restaurant, I stopped by Sonny’s wife’s office and left the coins, for their two kids. It was the only thing I could think to do.
And now, having finished an excellent meal and my thousand-mile detour, I’ll head back outside and climb on the Harley and turn it north, towards home.
Darkness was falling and I had to hurry. Nowhere was that more evident than the time it took me to find the eye of the number 16 Parachute Adams. Fifty-eight-year-old-eyes don’t let you forget some things.
But finally it was done. Pulling the tippet snug I could feel the stretch of the monofilament, the barb of the hook biting slightly into the flesh of my thumb.
I had already made a pact with the fishing gods. Just fifteen minutes. This one last pool. Then I’d walk out in the dark. It wasn’t lost on me that there was a tinge of foolhardiness written in that deal. I was risking the rod, after all.
But the limpid last hour of a late spring day has an otherworldly quality to it. I couldn’t help myself.
Kneeling abreast of the boulder at the tail of the pool, I fought the urge to hurry. “Just watch for a minute,” I reminded myself. “You can spare that much.” The head of the pool, forty feet away, was already shrouding into darkness, the light and the water merging into one. My squinting eyes walked slowly back along the rock ledge, the downed log, and the broken riffle, back to where the knee of my waders rested in the water.
“Okay,” I thought to myself. “One cast. That’s all you get. Right there.”
Looking behind me at the channel in the trees where the line would have to go, I stripped off several handfuls of line. Then with a flip of the rod tip I pulled the line into the air, the leader and the Adams following. I knew I couldn’t see the backcast so I didn’t bother looking. But I could feel the rod load with the same spun, silky smoothness – like a woman’s wet kiss – that it had all afternoon and that told me everything I needed to know.
And then the firm stroke rolled forward and the rod had that rightness about it and the line unfurled in a tight curl. At the last minute I released the last couple feet of line from my left hand and watched, satisfied, as the tan line fell quietly to the water. I couldn’t see the leader, certainly not the fly, but I knew where it should be. I had to force myself not to look there.
By all odds, it should have been a bust. No indicator. No way to see. Done.
But the afternoon had already convinced me that the rod brought something special to the game. And so, having slowly stripped two yards of line back as I gauged the drift of the Adams, I wasn’t surprised when some fathomless, preternatural sense, spun out of that graphite blank and down the line to the leader where the fly lay, caused me to lift the rod tip.
And instantly there it was. The weight and the sudden, shocking aliveness of the rod in my hand.
I didn’t land him. I had the pleasure of his acquaintance for the space of only a few heartbeats. Then I heard, and could vaguely see, the skittering jump and the sudden slack line and the aching disappointment.
But it was okay. As I reeled in the line and felt for the soggy fly so I could snip it off, I already knew I had something special. Carefully feeling for the ferrule, I gently prised the two sections apart. As I headed down the trail, slowly making my way back to the truck, I kept marveling at the rod. I didn’t feel embarrassed by the thought that came to mind.
The one that told me I had just been given a bit of bottled magic.
Early October, four decades and change earlier, I’d have been hurrying the half-mile home from where the school bus dropped us off. Quickly changing, I’d grab my rifle and three or four rounds of Long Rifle from the yellow box of Super X that I carefully husbanded. Then I’d be out the door, anxious to get in the woods. It was squirrel season.
That year Outdoor Life published a story about the Anschutz Model 54 .22 rifle, imported by Savage at the time. I must have read that story a hundred times. I yearned for that rifle more than I can possibly describe. To me it represented, surely, the absolute pinnacle of what a squirrel rifle could be. Had the devil come knocking on the door with one in hand, I would have sold my soul.
Alas, my soul was spared. That Mossberg of mine ended up having to suffice.
And so it was. As I grew into a young man – and then yet into a middle-aged one – Rugers and Remingtons and Winchesters and Smith & Wessons and Colts defined the boundaries of the weapons I acquired.
They were fine, workmanlike weapons. They served me well. I have absolutely no complaints, no regrets. Indeed, I cannot think of that Ruger No. 1 I carried in the November woods for all those years without a smiling fondness. In the shadows of my memory, the place it mostly lives these days, it is like an extension of my arm and my eye and my heart.
But something happened. As I went wending through the years of the sixth decade of my life, I slowly came to understand a bit of wisdom: that the greatest commodity to which we might be graced is not fame or fortune, or power or riches.
It is, simply, time.
It seems a shame to not realize such a truth as a young man, when you have a nearly full bank of the stuff. But no, most of us come to that realization only towards the latter end, after well more than half our allotment has been spent.
It was shortly after acquiring that bit of wisdom, that I remembered. The dream from long ago.
And so I went ahead and bought that Anschutz.
And the first time I squeezed the trigger on a round, one in which the sear broke with an otherworldly rightness, I knew that kid in me from forty-some years earlier had been right.
Sorry it took so long.
And so it was that time was much on my mind when I called Tom Morgan. Tom’s Time. Gerri’s time. My time. Everyone’s time.
I knew, more than anything else, the vastness of what had been lost. What had been put aside by the choices I made as a young man. I knew, as well as anyone, that there was no more time to lose.
I had heard. Now I had to know.
Three-weight. Seven-feet, nine-inches.
When it came, after waiting forever, I sat staring at the long cardboard tube for over a day. That’s another thing that time-wisdom thing gives you… a proper appreciation for slowing some things down. Like lifting that glass with two fingers of good whiskey to your nose and reveling in the spirits there, before taking the first sip.
And when I finally did lift the package, heavier than it should have been, slowly pulling the tape off the end to extract its contents, I was prepared to be amazed. But even that did not prepare me.
I have never owned anything like this. It is exquisite, substantial, sublime in every possible way.
But, of course, that is what it is.
How about what it does?
The answer to that would have to wait a few more days. And then I had my answer.
It is magic.