Monday, October 28, 2013

Glory in the Blue Ridge

I seem to take this same run of pictures every year. Can't help it.  The old house at the bottom, shaded by a magnificent old maple that has begun shedding its larger limbs every winter, sheltered Connors, Woods and other families through much of the 20th century. They were sturdy people in a sturdy old house that now gives up a few more planks and a bit more roofing tin to the prying winds and stinging rains that rage up the draw every so often.
Looking east along Belcher Mountain Road
Looking south toward Vesta
Looking southwest

Back view of the old house
  The old spring still puts out sweet water; some of the old farm buildings still stand while others slope and slump into the Patrick County clay, and the ancient apple trees still put out apples.  The deer do a good job of gnawing off the low-hanging fruit and cleaning up the deadfalls underneath as the old farm slowly puts itself to bed for the coming winter.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Old shipmates, asail on new seas

A long time ago, when we were green-as-grass sailors still attempting to fathom the differences between gudgeons and pintles and where to find the garboard strakes or why the running backstay on the starboard side wouldn't hold its tension, we fell in with a group of folks who over the years would become close friends, always ready to lend a hand, offer a bit of advice, or grab a bow line when trying to land in vicious crosswinds on an ugly day.

I don't suppose sailors are different in these respects from any other close-knit group of old friends. The good ones are always there in need, standing by with a helping hand but yet wary of intruding where their help was not really needed. After a while you might tend to take that for granted, but I have learned the only way to take it is in the deepest respect and admiration for what their friendship really means. It means the world.

This struck home the other day when we were sitting on a back row at St. Peter The Fisherman's Catholic Church in Oriental, down on the lower Neuse whether the waters are wider than at any point on the Mississippi, or so I have read.  It was a a Sunday Mass for our old friend Don Sinkiewicz, who died in March.  Don and his wife Sharon had been our next-door slipmates a long time ago at Kerr Lake, up near the N.C.-Virginia border, at Steele Creek Marina.  They had a 26-foot Erickson and we had just acquired an old 25-foot Coronado, and we needed to know a lot more about our vessel than we knew when we got it.  In his easy-going way, Don (and Sharon, too) helped us understand the things we were doing wrong and gently pointed us in the right directions -- when to let the genoa sheet fly during a tack, how to trim the mainsail on a beam reach, that sort of thing.  And he clued us in to the traditions of the local yacht club pig-pickins, when the ribs and chicken wings seemed to mysteriously disappear shortly before dinner.  They really weren't ribless pigs or boneless chickens we were cooking, he explained with a smile; you just have to get there early enough to see 'em and grab one or two before they migrate elsewhere.

And then there was Ed Bilicki, a quiet man who could do anything in the world and who rarely spoke until everyone else had had their say -- and who then would come up with the most intelligent thing said or the best advice or the pithiest comment in that whole discussion.  He and his wife Rainy (their boat named, of course, "Rainy Day") brought a boatload of common sense and simple solutions to a pursuit that many find way too confusing and far too costly to pursue.  But Ed and Rainy had gotten through lean days when Ed was an enlisted man in the Air Force -- before the military sent him to college to become a meteorologist and an officer -- and they showed how working people could afford to maintain and sail a vessel and bring it back without tearing it up.

Ed was in many ways the most competent man I knew.  His scientific background seemed to be built around an innate understanding of machines, materials, processes and outcomes.  Rainy would ask him to build something she had seen somewhere and in due time, it would appear -- intricate marquetry, complicated joinery, ingenious gizmos with compound angles that would fold away neatly into some corner of the main saloon or a crowded cockpit.  He sometimes made what you needed and installed it while you were away, and waved off whatever he had done with a boyish smile and a change of conversation. Men and women loved him for his easy ways and constant and thoughtful friendship and valuable personal counsel. 

One day last year Ed and Rainy lost their adult son to a sudden heart attack.  I have often wondered how parents are able to deal with the loss of a child, and I cannot imagine the unending heartbreak.  And just 17 months later, Ed had his own heart attack, one that led to his death Monday after the best efforts of modern medicine and constant vigil by Rainy, their daughter Heather and a long line of  family members and friends who visited at Rex Hospital.  

We sat up late with a bottle or three the other night, on the screen porch of old shipmates in the quiet coastal village where Ed and Rainy and others of our sailing crowd now live, and where Don and Sharon kept their handsome trawler "Time Out." We relived old days with fine friends, telling stories funny and sad, remembering kindnesses from long ago, ancient jokes, dockside rituals, certain libations consumed, rarely but sometimes to excess, talking about some of the finest people we have ever known.  We are the richer and wiser for having known Don and Ed and another dozen or so boating friends who made our lives fuller -- and who showed us grace under pressure as well as elegance under sail.  We will miss them, mightily. Godspeed.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The shutdown vacation -- pretty dadgum good despite the feckless fools in D.C.

  The woman in the lobby of the boat rental office at Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell was looking frantic.  She and her husband had just driven a couple of days to pick up their houseboat rental for the week, with family and friends joining them the next day before they took off up the lake.

  And the lady behind the counter was repeating the unfathomable:  You should get off the dock as quickly as you can, she was saying -- preferably by midnight. Congress had just failed to reach agreement on ways to avoid a shutdown, and the rental agency was being told by federal officials to allow no one to leave the dock the next morning.  If you're still tied up, we can't let you go out.

  The woman couldn't process what she was hearing, and thought my advice was crazy. But what I told her was this: Get what you have and who you have on the boat, untie, and move up the lake. You can figure out later where and how to pick up the rest of your party when they arrive, but don't stay at the dock any longer than you have to.

 I'm not sure she understood, but she was coming to realize what the feckless fools in Washington hell-bent on trying to stop Obamacare were doing to her and many thousands, maybe millions of Americans: fouling up their short-term plans, all because of a stupid game of political one-upsmanship that would not only keep travelers out of National Parks but stop mortgage deals from going through, keep new airplanes on the ground for lack of final paperwork signatures, put many federal employees out of work (and require some to keep working, but without pay at least temporarily) and in short, make a spectacle of an America badly led, if that is the right word, by a dysfunctional government.

  The shutdown affected my crowd as well, though not as adversely as some.  We had planned for more than a year to visit western national parks, winding up at a place I have longed to see for many years -- Zion National Park.  We drove out from Meadows of Dan, taking our time and seeing places and things we had never taken the time to see:  Robert Western World honky tonk in Nashville, the Arch in St. Louis, the final home game for the Royals in K.C., dinner with our granddaughter in Boulder and the spectacular drive through the Rockies.

  In Salt Lake City we rented a 32-foot RV -- much like a boat on wheels, with its 120-volt and 12-volt systems, the on-board generator, the balky propane oven -- and picked up our daughter, who lives in Layton, and son, who flew down from Boise.  Over the next week we stopped in Moab to see Arches National Park, a bit of Canyonlands, Dead Horse State Park and on to Lake Powell, where we parked the bus, rented a 19-foot powerboat and went roaring way up the lake to look for ancient ruins and petroglyphs left by early artists thousands of years ago.  It was when we got back that we found out the government was shutting down -- and altering our plans.

  So Zion was out, but there's a world of things to see in Utah -- particularly because our daughter's boyfriend, who had been tramping around the hills of the west since his boyhood -- knew where to go and how to get there.  So we saw most of Capitol Reef National Park (there's a major highway through it that the government couldn't shut down) as well as parts of Bryce Canyon (there's a way to brink of the canyon, just behind Ruby's Inn less than a mile) and some fabulous state parks -- Kodachrome State Park in particular -- and a hair-raising ride along the razorback ridges of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  You haven't thoroughly sweated through until you've driven a big bus with what seems like 6 feet of play in the steering wheel on a windy day along a seemingly narrow track without even a hint of guard rails along the way!  And the ride through Dixie National Forest -- so named in 1905 or so because it seemed as warm there as a day in the Old South -- was gorgeous, aspens ablaze up above 8,000 feet and every mile another landscape portrait you'd be happy to have hanging in your den.
  The shutdown was hurting a lot of folks, including those who run small businesses and depend upon tourism this time of year to help them through the lean months when roads are frozen and no one is traveling much.  But we also found what we have seen so often in this country: Friendly, determined people making the best of a trying situation, helping one another out, passing along advice on where to go and what to do while those who run the federal government continued to bicker and prolong a needless and ultimately useless shutdown.  We had a wonderful time, saw things we never quite imagined, brought home priceless memories, and made plans to go back west in a couple of years for more. But we know better than to trust the federal government to keep things on track.  Thank goodness for state parks!

Some pictures:
Martha B. and Mary at Arches

Jason and Mary at Kodachrom State Park

Jutas and John at Arches

The bus driver and Martha B. at Arches

Mary and Juta at the North and South Windows