Thursday, November 24, 2011

On Thanksgiving Day, touch hands

William Henry Harrison "Adirondack" Murray was a 19th century clergyman and outdoorsman who, I have read, virtually invented the American outdoors guidebook.  I don't know if that's so, but I do know the man could write.  He wrote a piece about Christmas Day once that my family, many years ago, adopted for Thanksgiving use, too.  And in an era where stores are opening on Thanksgiving Day and many have to go to work, it's an appropriate time to think about what Murray had to say.  Here's what he wrote, with the word Thanksgiving substituted twice where Christmas appears every other day of the year:

Ah friends, dear friends,
years go on and heads get gray,
How fast the guests do go!
Touch hands, touch hands,
With those that stay.
Strong hands to weak,
Old hands to young, around the
Thanksgiving board
touch hands.
The false forget, the foe forgive,
For every guest will go
And every fire burn low
And cabin empty stand.
Forget, forgive,
For who may say that Thanksgiving Day
May ever come to host or guest again.
Touch hands!

~ William Henry Harrison Murray

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gizmos are great, except when they aren't

Every now and then the phone rings and the call sounds familiar. It'll be an installer from Lowes, or a truck driver from Grand Furniture, or the deliveryman from Costco, or maybe the FedEx motor freight driver.

And they have pretty much the same question: Where are you?
 Does this look like a road a delivery van would travel on?

It's especially important to people who make their livings finding you and giving you what you've paid for. One fellow pulled up in front of our house after coming up the wrong end of Belcher Mountain Road and having to work his way around some turns as tight as a paper clip.  He shut off the engine, rolled down the window and asked, "Mister, is there another way off this mountain?"  When I told him the Blue Ridge Parkway was just about three miles east and Black Ridge Road just a bit farther, he sighed. "You got to be kidding. I was on Black Ridge two hours ago, before the GPS lost its mind and told me to go down to Woolwine and up the east end of Belcher Mountain Road.

This farm is at the same place it's been for, oh, a century or so. But the problem is that people have lost their ability to read topographic maps or follow directions. They just want to trust the GPS and the computer.  Bad idea.

We learned about this years ago way down on the Neuse River, where we kept a 37-foot cutter with the latest Garmin chartplotter and a computer chip containing the latest maps.  When we ran aground in the river below New Bern, we realized that trusting the GPS also depended on our trusting that the chartmaker years ago put the channel on the correct side of the daymarkers.  But someone had fouled up, putting the channel about 30 feet southeast of where it ought to have been. It took us a while to work our way off the shoal and find the channel.

In the same fashion, the computer-based map services such as Mapquest and Google Maps depend on some mapmaker from long ago to have put the right things down on the topo maps. But neither of those computer services has a brain to ask such questions as: Can a tractor trailer maneuver around those hairpin turns?  Is that dotted line through the woods really a passable road? Is it wide enough for a delivery truck?  Is that dotted line even in the right place?

The answer we've found is sometimes no. Somebody fouled up the maps a long time ago, and the computer -- trusting the old input and without the ability to reason its way through reasonable questions -- assumes the old maps are right and that everything's okay.

A month or so ago an installer was coming out to measure for a new storm door. Well after the appointed hour he called from down in Woolwine.  "Lookahere," he said, "I'm trying to get up to your house and the computer says I'm just a couple of miles away, but I can't find Brammer Spur Road."

 No wonder. Brammer Spur Road isn't a passable road, not for traffic, anyway.  Sure, there's a paved Brammer Spur Road out of Woolwine that turns into a dirt farm road at the base of the mountain and then seems to peter out in the woods. But it's a rocky, rutted track for most of its length, in places well sunken andf badly eroded and narrow, a jeep trail that's passable by foot, horseback or ATV.  And it's blocked off at the Belcher Mountain end by the property owners who don't want folks gallivanting all over the mountainside on a road that is little more than an old trail.

The second problem is that some of the map services I've seen have confused Brammer Spur with another trail that runs along the Blue Ridge Escarpment a ways. It's the Connor Spur Road, but it hasn't been a passable road to motor traffic since Moses was in third grade.  We walked down it 20 years ago, occasionally losing sight of where the trail went, backtracking to find and follow the trail down the hill.  It too sometimes shows up on the computer maps as a passable road.  It isn't.

And the third problem is that even with all the sophisticated gizmos that can figure out latitude and longitude, the computer services can't seem to figure out exactly where we are.  They seem to think we're over near Barnie Day's property, when in fact we're about a mile east of there.

This ought to be easy to fix. But I've spent several hours trying to send email to Google and trying to use its online fix-a-mistake page.  No doubt I've made a mistake trying to use it properly.  Somehow we haven't connected.

But I have to give credit where it's due: the U.S. Postal Service doesn't have any trouble finding us. Whenever there's a bill to be paid, that notice will be on time and in the right box.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reflections on a beat-up bass

Tell the truth, it looked just awful in full daylight.  It was nicked and dinged and dented and scratched from its wobbly foot to its tarnished brass tuning keys.  The neck had cracked badly at some point and an inexpert repairer had tried to fill it with wood putty and touch it up, a badly botched job. Someone had dabbed shiny little dots along the neck to help them remember, I guess, where certain notes were. The strings were frayed. The bridge was missing part of a corner. The built-in pickup hadn't been picked up in ages.  And someone long ago had painted a marking that looked like some kind of Oriental calligraphy, or so I thought.

It was an old school bass, manufactured in 1946 by the Kay Musical Instrument Co., so named for Henry Kay "Hank" Kuhrmeyer, who bought the company and renamed it in the 1920s and turned out about a jillion inexpensive basses, and some expensive ones, over the years. And it was made the same year I was, so we had a lot in common. We would spend the rest of our days together, I thought.

  I had always like the bass -- had played an old brass Sousaphone and a shiny Conn upright bass in the band at Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro in the late 1950s and early '60s.

And a couple years later when Woody Allen and Fred Birdsong and I formed a little band that would be the next Kingston Trio (it wasn't), I borrowed a friend's dad's old aluminum bass fiddle, painted brown to badly resemble real wood.  Jimmy "Squirrel" Garrison joined us before long and we played all over Greensboro and a few out-of-town dates, including, of all things, a drug store opening in Danville VA and followed up with a live performance on a local radio station there.

We thought we were on our way.  We were -- one to Auburn, one to the Army, one to Lehigh, one to Chapel Hill. But still we got together on holidays and military leaves and summer breaks, and I always promised I'd get a good bass to go with the Martin guitars and Gibson 5-strings and this lovely Santa Cruz that Squirrel made sing.

It was years before I found what I wanted and could pay cash money. As knocked up as it was, it put out this amazing sound, full, ripe, authoritative and easy on these stubby fingers I inherited from South Carolina forebears.  I put a new Fishman pickup on it to put a direct injection into this dandy Bose sound system we scraped up the money to help fill Yankee Stadium in case we got invited to bring our music to Gotham. Never did, but we played some fun places over the years in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and, just briefly, Tennessee. Here's a photo of that old bass posing with me, Woody, and Squirrel one night up in the Cane Creek Valley outside Asheville in 2005.  In the dim light of that evening the bass looked a lot better than it did during the day.

That old Kay just would fit in the bed of my pickup truck, and we logged quite a few miles in it before a lightning bolt struck our new house in 2010 one June night when no one was within five miles, and everything burned to cinders.  Never found a trace of the Kay.

Three months later we were in California for our niece's wedding in a lovely, ancient redwood forest. The band was a wonderful group called the California Honey Drops, and the bass player was making this old bass with some dings and dents do things I could only dream about. When the band took a break I wandered over to take a look. It was a 1947 Kay, he told me.  "Funny thing," he went on. "I have this expensive as hell bass at home, and when I play it at performance, people come up to me and ask, 'Why aren't you playing that old bass? It sounds a whole lot better than that fancy one.'"

I knew what he meant. Some of those old Kays could make a joyful noise.

And I thought about that old Kay when this week's New Yorker magazine arrived in the mail.  The cover shows a little kid with a little violin case looking in the door of a studio, where a composer was working on a score on a baby grand, surround by seven or eight big old bass fiddles and a timpani of some sort.  Sure, maybe they were full-sized cellos or something, but to my mind they looked like acoustic basses -- doghouse basses, some folks call 'em, or uprights.  I know how that kid felt. I never really learned to play the Kay that well, but it was forgiving enough that if you could pick out the right notes often enough and throw in a little run every now and then on the back beat, you could play bluegrass, folk, blues and even a bit of what Squirrel liked to call, with a grin and a glint in his eye, acoustic listening music.

A while back I found a fellow over in Elk Creek, VA, who had  lovely looking bass for sale -- a 2004  Engelhardt, the successor company to the maker once known as Kay.  It's a beautiful thing -- rosewood neck, shiny brass tuners, flawless varnish, not a nick on it.

Shoot, I'm almost afraid to pick it up. I'm hard on instruments, and that old beat-up Kay was kind of like me -- scarred around the garboard strakes, worn about the scrollwork and not quite as upright as it once was.  But the tone's nice and the action is a bit more suited to my fingers, and when I draw a bow across those G, D, A and E strings, it makes a most satisfying bass line.  I believe I'll go see right now if I can still find the progression for "Abilene" and "Make Me a Pallet."    It was around here somewhere, last time I looked.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

You don't miss your water 'til the spring runs dry

Tucked into the folds of the Patrick County countryside is a springhouse that has served generations of Connors and Woods and other families that lived in the little frame two-story farmhouse a few feet away. The springhouse, now nearly hidden from view by greenbrier, blueberry bushes and a lush growth of stubborn vines and weeds, was not just a water supply but also the refrigeration for families who farmed the high pastures and rocky bottoms, raised a few dairy cows and cultivated apples for the better part of a century.  And the spring would have been a good place for native Indians to hunt game as deer and other creatures of the woods came to water in the long times before the springhouse went up.  My father-in-law once told me he had found several arrowheads along the little creek that flowed down from the spring and the nearby seeps that helped feed what is know as the North Prong of the North Fork of the Mayo River. 

You can't see the springhouse, hidden in foliage in the picture, above, that  Dave Bennett took in August. But at some point in the 20th century the spring was enclosed in concrete half-walls, and a gabled roof was built atop -- just about the size of a modern dormer -- to keep vegetation and leaves out and to provide shelter and shade to the cool waters that burbled up from the ground. Eight years ago my father-in-law asked me to pick up some roofing material because the old shingles were falling to pieces. I got some green corrugated fiberglass roofing from Lowes and commenced to have an awful time fastening it down to the ancient oak purlins.  They had dried and weathered to approximately the hardness of cast iron, or so it felt, and nailing those roofing sheets down was a miserable job.  But the roof went on and the springhouse looked good.

Buford Wood, who died a few years ago but who lived with his family in the nearby house many years ago, once told me that the spring ran low a few years but never dried up.  My father-in-law, who died last year, had poured a small concrete basin in the floor of the springhouse to collect enough water so that he could run it through a half-inch flexible pipe down to the garden, a couple of  hundred feet downhill.  He had a wire mesh intake for the water, and connected the other end of the pipe to a wooden sink with an old bronze faucet at the garden end. There they could wash the garden produce in the sink or get a drink of cool water on a hot day without worrying about creek mud, bugs or things that ought not be in the water.  In a dry summer they ran hoses from the sink to irrigate the tomatoes, corn, broccoli,eggplants, lima beans and half-runners.

A few weeks ago as we were putting the garden to bed or the year I turned the faucet on for a quick splash -- and got nothing but air.  While the nearby creek was still running with a steady trickle of water, nothing was coming down the pipe. A quick walk up the hill showed why: the intake pipe was out of the water because the water level itself had dropped to barely half an inch in the bottom of the basin.  This was no huge cause for alarm. After all, the growing season was over, and we had had a mighty dry period his summer that ended only when the remnants of a tropical storm blew through and dropped five inches or so of rain.

The other day I checked the spring again and the basin was dry this time, although I could hear the creek the spring fed as water hurried downhill. It's hard to see where that water originates, but it has to be close by under the thicket of weeds.

This is our first fall living full-time on the mountain, and I don't know if this represents a permanent change or merely a seasonal shortage.  But as I put away the hoses for the year and brought the last of the buckets and watering cans inside the old house for storage, I sent up a hopeful prayer that in the spring we'd see springhouse water running again  -- on its way down the mountain in time to help feed the Dan River and the Roanoke River and, a couple hundred miles east, Albemarle Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.