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grey-ness

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We’ve been flirting with rain.  The wintertime landscape is clouds and pale light, the grey skeletons of trees, the dull gold of winter fields.  Today the temperatures dropped, and it finally feels a little bit like winter.

It must be the light on days like these, but I love riding home in the late afternoon in the fading grey-ness.  It is windless and silent.  And  I feel like I have fallen into some vintage photo, the colors are so subdued – grey, buff, steel blue and hints of ivory and amber.  Almost monochrome.  (With the exception of my very red, red bicycle, of course.)

My “good” cameras have been left at home on these rain-risk days … for now, just some of the iPhone snaps.

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riding toward year-end

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Hard to believe it is December.  Even harder to believe when the temperatures are in the 70’s (F).

Christmas decorations are on mailboxes, trees and houses as we pass by … in shorts and short sleeves.

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The Sandhill Cranes have started to arrive on their annual migration.  Many of them won’t even continue on to places further south; huge numbers are now wintering here at our nearby Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.

It all feels strange.  But I will enjoy the warm days on my bike, and on my back porch.  Snow and cold feel like some kind of fantasy.

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moving forward

Everyone has been there at some point in life.  You’re dealt a bad hand – a very bad hand.  Maybe you lose everything you own in a natural disaster.  Maybe it’s a personal loss, a health crisis, a job loss or financial catastrophe.  A death.  Or some unfathomable combination of the above – but always something unexpected and completely un-welcomed.  We’ve pretty much all been there, and I think we can all relate to the sense of despair and even the darkness it brings.

I say this in the same breath in which I give thanks that my own life, at the moment anyway, is safe and secure and at peace.   Where all is well.   Where I am healthy, well-loved, and surrounded by those I love in the same circumstances – and completely conscious of how truly fortunate I am.

I made the decision to opt out of deploying with Red Cross for the disaster relief efforts in the wake of Sandy.  Personal schedule commitments made it impossible for me, but I have been glad to support several friends who are out there working hard to help.  I can’t do much, but sometimes a brief conversation by text or email provides a much-needed release from the stress in the field, and I am glad to listen and offer up some encouragement – maybe even a dumb joke.

Within days of my decision, I learned of a disaster that had struck a little closer to home – one that involves a beloved relative, aging and the cruel agonizing illness of a partner, and accompanied by its own form of hopelessness and breaking points reached.  I am not yet sure how, or if,  I will be able to help.  What I have to offer may not provide the relief that is ultimately needed.

Somehow, what always circles back into my mind as I think of all of my friends and family in circumstances where life feels impossible is this:  I want to take you for a ride on a bicycle.  It may be ridiculous I know.  But when dispair and frustration envelop you, when you become trapped in the tunnel-vision of despondency and desparation … I want to get you out of scenes of devastation and hospital rooms, away from beds and doctors and ruin, and I want to take you out in wide-open space with blue sky and clouds above.

I want you to feel the rest of the world and all of the beauty it still holds.  I want you to see that it is possible to move forward – even if it is only to the top of the hill – and to experience the effortless sensation of flying down the other side.  I want you to feel your breath and your heart still at work, and understand how miraculous it really is.  And even if it is only a brief intermission from the bad drama that will still be played out, maybe it will be just enough time to sort some things out, to unravel the tangle of knots that bind you – and to see that there is a way out of even the darkest tunnels.

For my friends, for my dearest M … I would take you for a ride if I possibly could.  Life is still beautiful.  Please believe.

crossing borders

I didn’t want to leave Slovenia, but there were other roads to explore and things to see.  And upon leaving Slovenia, we had the opportunity to do something I may never do again – we rode through three countries on the same day.  Granted, very small portions of each, but still…  It felt pretty novel.

Leaving Slovenia we crossed first into Italy.  With the current open border policy within EU (Schengen Agreement), moving from one country into its neighbor is not unlike moving from state to state within the US.  Old border stations are vacant, and on some of the small roads and bikeways we travelled on, it was only when you saw signage in a different language that you knew you had crossed into new land.

From the Italian border town of Tarvisio – once an important village along the ancient trade routes across the Alps to Venice –  we returned to Austria.

We would spend the next several days cycling in the Austrian state of Carinthia, and the beautiful valley of the River Drau, before heading to Lake Wörthersee.  The cycling was easy and quite enjoyable, with expansive views of the valley and the river.  Our daily routes included both paved and gravel roads, along with large stretches of the R1 – the Drau Cycleway – an easy 366km bike route that passes through the numerous towns and villages, and is very popular among both day and multi-day cycling enthusiasts.

From the city of Villach and the Drau River valley, we cycled along the Drava River and on to Lake Wörthersee and the resort town of Velden.   While it was nice to be pampered at the Schloss Velden (a Condé Nast “Hot Hotel” and spa), I found the cycling here to be rather anti-climactic, especially after our days in the Alps of Slovenia and the mountain-flanked valleys outside of Spittal en der Drau and Villach.

My favorite sight on this leg of our trip was the village and church of Maria Wörth (dating back to 875AD), situated on its own peninsula on the southern shore of Lake Wörthersee.

Our cycling sadly came to an end in Velden, but we would still have one final adventure – albeit not on our bikes.  From Austria, we would end our adventure in La Serenissima, the incredible city of Venice, a city that made her mark on me.  And this will be the last story, coming very soon…

not plain or black and white

We just returned from spending several days in Pennsylvania, visiting family.  I love riding there – quiet empty roads, rolling hills, Amish farms, horse-drawn buggies sharing the road, and cooler temperatures.  And at the end of the ride, a slice of my mother in-law’s wonderful pie – usually apple or “Shoo-Fly”.

While I promised certain persons I would not go on some blog-based rant, I can’t help but feeling concerned about the explosion of natural gas wells that are mushrooming up across the landscape – including one that  sits in a corner of my in-laws’ property, a beautiful 20-acre wooded and pastured piece of land in NW Pennsylvania where they have lived most of their lives in their circa 1800’s farmhouse.

It feels like a new century Great Gold Rush is taking place.  If you own any property, an enticing lease will come in the mail with the offer of thousands of dollars per acre to lease the land and then provide an additional flow of royalty checks for coming years.

In an area that has seen the loss of industry and jobs over the past several decades, where unemployment is high and new industry is scarce, where the tax base has eroded, where municipal services struggle and schools have been closed and consolidated – players in the gas and oil companies are positioned to move in and bring jobs and an alluring cash infusion to struggling townships and boroughs.

Lucrative gas leases are the talk of the town and everyone seems to want to jump on board and cash in.  Landowner groups have formed to negotiate for the best possible price.  Shell and Chevron, among others, are ready to invest billions in petrochemical facilities.  The local papers are full of stories of not only the Marcellus Shale, but the Utica Shale, the Medina Sands … we’re sitting on a gold mine!

If you’ve spent the last twenty years struggling to make ends meet on your old family homestead, finding a check for tens of thousands of dollars in your mailbox can certainly feel like you just won the lottery.

I understand the needs, the draw.  And I support the prospect of clean domestically-sourced energy – if we can come by it safely and sustainably.  But the issues, as always, are not so black and white.  I know that everything comes with a cost … And looking at the construction of the well on my in-law’s land, and wells on nearly every property along their road and beyond,  I ask myself:  at what cost, this?

The immediate and contentious issue  is “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing – the process of drilling and injecting massive quantities of water combined with a toxic chemical “cocktail” (a proprietary recipe) deep into the ground to fracture the substrate along in order to release the trapped gas.  I won’t bother to  go into detail here, as the controversial issues – especially in regards to the eastern Marcellus Shale fracking – are all over the news and internet.  NPR recently did an excellent multi-part series about the issues at hand, called The Fracking Boom: Missing Anwers.  And of course there is the incredible award-winning documentary by Josh Fox called Gasland.

While I didn’t experiment and see if my inlaws’ water could be ignited and burst into flame coming out of their tap, I do know that their experience has not been without issues.  Recently, for instance, while they were out of town for several days, it was discovered that one of the pipes or fittings at the well had corroded to the point of failure, and that gas (and methane and probably heavy metals and proprietary chemicals) had been spewing into the air for an unknown amount of time.  My father-inlaw complained that “they must have used some really cheap pipe”.  I was thinking: you have no idea how corrosive the stuff coming out of that pipe really is –  (and you are probably breathing it, and possibly drinking it).

It bothers me – the possible (probable?) risks, borne from contaminated water and or air.  Multiply this by thousands – tens of thousands –  of virtually unmonitored well sites across huge swaths of land and cracked open beneath public water sources for millions, the unknown cumulative effect of widespread fracturing of the grounds below…  what will the cost be to public health and to the environment?

Extensive research on the effects has yet to be completed, the fracking cocktail recipes remain undisclosed to the public, and the big oil and gas players are moving as fast as they can with fists full of cash before time runs out and they face more stringent regulation.  Play now, pay later.  Only you know who will ultimately have to pay…

On the farms belonging to the Plain People, the Amish, I didn’t see a single gas well.  I saw their vegetable gardens, their windmills, their cabinet-making workshops.  We rode our bikes, they passed by us in their buggies.  I contemplate our progress.  And I don’t drink the water from my in-laws’ faucet.

her old bones

Day after day, year after year, I ride past an old grandmother.  She is greying and stooped, her old bones are weathered and tired – yet she is sill beautiful, even sacred.  At least to me.

For many years she stood … tall and proud, solid and steadfast, quiet and imposing, yet welcoming and kind.  She was a dependable storehouse, a nursery, a warm and fragrant embrace for man and animal.  She is a landmark, a sentinel, a piece of the landscape as much as any creek or any mountain.  She has seen many years, and she is filled with her own stories.

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I have known her for only a small portion of her life.   I have tried to listen for her stories.  I have touched her bones.  I have felt her embrace.

When the tornadoes of April 2011 set upon her quiet valley, it was more than she could bear in her old age; she submitted and bowed down.  I confess that I cried when I first saw her afterwards.

Yet still, even in collapse, she sits; her skeletal remains are always a comfort to me when I ride near.  I stop.  I see her, decaying in her bones and stories, settling gently down in the quilt of her soft field.  Slowly, slowly, she sinks into the land, taking her stories with her.

She is an old grandmother.  She is most beloved.

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caught

Riding by the old cemetery, I stop to look.  I love the quiet.  Stillness is broken by a rumble of thunder, wind stirs the branches.  A drop of rain.

Then, deluge.

Sometimes you just get caught in it.  And despite the soaking, it is all ok.