Monday, July 24, 2017

Up On the Blue Ridge of Virginia

For weeks the idea of losing myself in the wilderness had become more and more appealing. I'd disappear for a weekend of solitude away on the Blue Ridge. I'd set up camp and wake to the sweeping vistas, birdsong and meadows of wild flowers.

Of course, when you tell people you are going camping alone, you get strange looks. Folks inform you, you will almost certainly fall off the trail and your body will never be found. If you survive the fall you will get eaten by bears. Or you will sustain a deadly snake bite in a place where nobody can hear you scream.

Even if these fanciful notions don't come to pass, people will tell you lone camping is plain weird. Kids will see you emerging from your tent and tug at their parents' shirts to warn them of the weirdo who has just emerged to steal their Lego.

Anyhow, I defined the naysayers and headed off alone to the Shenandoah National Park, home of numerous bird species and the elusive black bear.

The plan was to get to Big Meadows camp ground by 12 to bag a camping spot. In the event, I became embroiled in a circular argument with Siri in Charlottesville and arrived an hour late. In the age of modern communications, you clearly don't need a partner to have a navigational argument.

By the time I drove to the camp ground there was a sign up saying it was full and a trail of scruffy Australian tourists waiting for the next spot to become available at midnight.

I thought 'screw it' and hit the trail. At the Pinnacles Picnic Ground, I loaded up with Cliff bars and water and hit the alluring Appalachian Trail. There are few things more fulfilling than starting off on an open trail with sweeping views east and west on a clear blue day when most of the summer heat has been left behind in Tidewater.

The first person I met was a girl in her 20s who had been walking the trail for months alone from Georgia. This put all those warnings about the dangers of one night in the wilderness into perspective.

However, for much of the day, I was alone with my thoughts. The blue ridge was as blue as ever and the views from Mary's Rock were dazzling in all directions. Even the slog back to the parking lot which was a much more consistent climb than I remembered put me in a pleasant late afternoon haze.

I found a motel in the Shenandoah Valley, an unthreatening place of floral bed spread and bear prints that might have been designed by one's Scottish aunt.

I drove through some of those places we had visited on family holidays years ago. When I saw the signs for the caves, I had fleeting thoughts that the kids might like it here. But all in all, I felt placid and wonderfully lost in the sweep of the mountains.

I went back for more the next day.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Disintegration of an Ordinary Ranch House

I hadn't realized how visceral and final it would feel,
The everyday items on the floor, the draws hanging loose,
The bicycle ornaments on their side, wrapped in wire.
In the last few days, I had stopped to breathe the morning
To feel the rain heavy and verdant on the luxuriant grass.
But the house felt solid - a reassuring barrier against the elements.
We had felt that way too, as if an embrace could stop the world moving around us
As if our skin on skin could halt the storm and protect us from the sky.

There were no storm clouds when I came apart
No horizontal rain or driving squalls
The sun beat down on a lazy Sunday
The chickens moved sluggishly across the coup
The cats twitched and stretched on the hot concrete.
And something dark and sickening slid below
A realization that this time it would never be the same.

This sudden disorder was a shock
But I asked myself why;
Picturing the many moves, the slow closing of doors, the day-to-day drift
Perhaps it was a mirage too - the train across the road a mere specter in the night
The low voices in the early hours already drifting out of memory
The sense of belonging, as flimsy as the dandelion clock that counts the degrading hours.

This house was nothing more than ordinary
Another ranch house on a suburban street
Where families come and go and nobody recalls,
And yet as I watched it being torn apart
Its entrails scattered to the west wind
A nagging thought wormed its way into my fevered brain
This ordinary ranch house was the closest thing to home.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

At Fairy Stone Park - Alone By the Lake

It has been a long time since I last wrote a blog post. As the time between posts stretches out, it gets harder and harder to get back on track. You get to the point when you almost forget you have a blog.

Of course, there's no better day than April 1 to write a new post. You can fool yourself you've never been away. It's also the first day of the A-Z challenge. It's odd to think that just a year ago I could blog every day for 26 days. A year, later I feel I'd be lucky to write one post a month. Suddenly, I know how it must feel to be old and decrepit and to look through the thick glass and see kids riding their bicycles and to think 'one day many moons ago I could do that."

The comparison isn;t accurate. I could do it if I want to. It just seems a year later that I have too many things going on. There's too much stimulation and the brain flits around.

Sometimes when I'm out in nature with the kids and we're on our mobile devices I wonder how it came to this. The beauty around us is lost. A bull elephant could break out of the bushes and charge toward us and we would not notice.

Perhaps we don't realize who we've become until it's taken away. Last weekend I went to Fairy Stone State Park with my beloved. We stayed in one of the original cabins build during the New Deal which is becoming rather an old deal now. Our cabin was the only one with brightly striped vertical beams. The others had horizontal beams which led me to conclude they built ours first, an angry foreman showed up and yelled at the workers for putting the beams the wrong way, and they built the others properly.

The state park cabins are somewhat utilitarian. The furniture is not really made for sitting on, the kitchens are small and there's no TV or Internet connection. I'm not sure at what point the enormity of this set in; probably when I tried to go on Facebook two seconds after arriving.

Slowly it dawned on us that we were cut off from the outside world. We were alone by the lake with the high wooded hills. The White House could burn down and Russia could invade and we wouldn't know about it, although that seems to have happened anyway.

On the first day, we walked down the lakeside path to the dam. There was a verdant tranquility down by the edge of the lake punctuated only by the voices of thousands of frogs.

Later that night I watched the waters of the lake turn silver as the darkness crept over the hills. We took a walk later and gasped at the size of the stars and the brightness of the shimmering canopy over the trees.

The next day we hit the trail up the hills to a view over the Appalachians and a small waterfall in a glade. Back in the cabin, we leafed through the comments book. I'm used to such books in Britain that describe a lovely stay and make passing reference to the weather. At Fairy Stone, I was amazed at how many people spilled out their innards in the volumes, detailing dead relatives, fights against cancer, the loss of pets and how the mountains restored their faith in God. One entry described how a couple had been to our cabin on their honeymoon and returned on their anniversary 20 years later.. The account made me uneasy and I had to double check the bed sheets.

That afternoon the rain set in and we read for most of the afternoon, drank beer and prepared food. I didn't miss the relentless buzz of news feeds and emails, the likes on pictures, the texts and constant affronts to my sensibilities of Trumpism. A few hours later the lake was bathed in an evening mist. I walked the shore, breathed the air heavy with the fungus tipped aroma of mud and rain. It was a Sunday and all the other cottages were empty. The vastness settled on me.

We were alone by the lake. We were adrift in the shallows. I found myself liking the feeling.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Teenage Growing Pains and Llangorse Lake

Lately, I've been thinking rather a lot about my teen years. I have an (almost) teen so I should be in a good position to give her lots of advice. After all, I used to be one. The trouble is, it seems rather a long time ago.

It's not that I'm old and set in my ways, but often I think I'm set in something. My kid used to be the center of my world. We were constant companions, always going places and doing things and always in good spirits. Or maybe that's another example of memory lapse.

Llangorse Lake

Still, today out relations revolve around the custody arrangement. When we see each other, it's after large chunks of bewildering time have passed. We catch up but what happened in the interim is a mysterious land at a place I used to live but not really.

Then there's the many electronic devices and the long periods when she remains in her room. In some ways, her brother has now taken over, so it's good to have a second chance at being a dad now and again.

I'm not sure if I have much to impart. Being a teen entailed a lot of angst. But looking back there were some oddly fun times.

I think fondly now of the school trip to Llangorse Lake in Wales, even though it was an unmitigated disaster by most accounts. In retrospect, I realize, my school was somewhat daring with field trips. We went away and camped and sent kids up mountains. I'm sure trips like this would be banned by the risk management people today

By the time we went to Llangorse Lake at the foot of the Brecon Beacons, most of us were on the cusp of puberty. Some of us had slid down the other side. It didn't take long after setting up the tents to realize the cozy world we were familiar with was at an end.

I brought maggots for fishing. Many others had brought beer. RV, who we always assumed was not as bad as he really was, brought a crate of Newcastle Brown. We were 14. Trevor brought a four-pack of watery beer.

RV was later expelled from school and died when he jumped off a bridge drunk in Gloucester at the age of 18. Trevor died a couple of years ago when he had a fit. I still remember his long Mod parker and how we'd listen to The Specials' Ghost Town in his basement.

Pen Y Fan

His watery beer didn't do much for us. Elsewhere someone was drinking something stronger. Bev arrived in out tent and performed a partial strip tease. Her friend Deborah collapsed on the ground sheet in a coma. Even a tent full of horny teen boys saw the danger in this situation. Deb, who clearly was not going to strip, was ejected. She staggered into Mrs V's tent and promptly threw up all over her.

The episode had blown our cover and the witch hunt started Mrs. V, the elderly German teacher was unsuited for the Spanish inquisition role but was marginally more prepared than Mr. H, the music teachers, whose solution would be to drink ale with the teens until we fell over and he could hit on 15-year-old girls.

Mr H was later fired, only to be reincarnated as the President of the United States. I digress.

The next day Bev and Deb were captured and driven back home strapped to the child locks of Mrs. V's car. Before hitting the road, she stuck her head in my tent and attempted to sniff out the watery lager. I pled ignorance, having buried the last two cans by the lake. When she was away, I offloaded my maggots in her tent.

It was that sort of trip.

We also scaled Pen Y Fan in the mist. It was the closest I ever got to a teen high.

I have thought about how my experiences could be a 'teen learning' experience for my daughter. However; mostly I have decided not to go there.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

It's Looking at Lot Like Christmas Again

So another Christmas has arrived and another year is on the way out. This morning I got a knock on my door, slightly too early. It was the kids and they were showing some modicum of excitement about the stockings that had arrived on their bedroom doors

I cast off my habitual state or morning grumpiness and headed to the tree swallowing raw coffee grounds for sustenance.

Christmas is a strange time because it can make you feel very old but nostalgic at the same time. We all remember that one Christmas which was a perfect distillation of the joys of existence. For me, it was the time we woke up at 5 a.m. and opened presents in the dark. I received a book about Scottish ghosts and read it to my sister in the early hours.

Then there's that time when you realize the magic had gone. I recall a time a year or so after receiving the book of ghost stories when I was in the middle of opening my presents and suddenly the crass hollowness of it all gripped me. I was too old for Christmas.

The great thing about having kids is that you can relive it all through them. Giving feels a lot better than receiving and it's often the cheap, quirky toys that fascinate them more than the big, expensive gifts.

Christmas, when you think about it, is ridiculous on so many levels. You drag a tree into your house, shove glass balls on it and open presents under it. You eat certain foods for obscure reasons. Which is why this year, I will mostly be making Marmite smeared tofu. The kids just don't realize it yet.

Christmas makes me feel old but I'm also grateful to be able to do this with my kids. I never take it for granted. I'm also grateful to the special person who lent me her stockings last night, as well as supplying additional presents, or I would have been shoving everything in Aldi bags.

Best Christmas song ever - sadly both gone...

These small and insignificant rituals are meaningful because they shield us from the world outside. As we opened presents, bodies were being picked up from a plane crash in the Black Sea. Just days earlier, a truck was driven into a Christmas market in Berlin.

The world is being run by mad men and our generation is disappearing at an alarming rate. The world without David Bowie and Prince is a flatter place. Carrie Fisher still hangs on.

My stats tell me that few people read this blog anymore. At times I consider taking it off life support. But it's a very insignificant thing compared to everything else. In a world of memes, tweets and short concentrate spans, it can be good to take a little more time to write. Shut off your smartphone, encourage your kids to do the same and take the time to find out who they are. I might even take this advice one day.

Saturday, December 10, 2016


I hate it that I can be this way. Peevish, petty and point scoring. I get irritated and I say something I don't mean. Or I mean it but it's a small sunflower seed of resentment that I whip into a giant flower and beat the undeserving victim with it.

I give up and I walk away. Then suddenly I'm here the next day. It's cold and I feel the void. I took it for granted but when the love is gone it scours and leaves acid holes within me. That text I get every morning when I wake. The minutiae of her day. It seems remarkable and I'm undeserving in my complacency.

Then when it's gone I know the ordinary was extraordinary. The small, blank screen is an immense crypt of misery where gargoyles weep from the high walls. I'm watching the kids sing Christmas songs. Their mouths move, but I don't hear the words. Instead, the No Doubt song is playing in my head. I'm losing my best friend. I keep losing over and over.

I know it's a pattern. That beautifully crafted sand castle with the impregnable walls is eaten by the tide every time. You vow to build it bigger next time, but it's washed away again.

In truth, I don't want it washed away again on another bleak morning tide. I have never known such certainty in love, never felt such perfection in anyone's imperfections and scars, never basked in such warmth of the soul.

The long hours we have spent next to each other and in each other's arms can surely not mean so little. I hate it that my ill-thought words could cleave us apart in this way.  I'm old enough now to know she is my everything. My north, my south, my east, my west, to ape Auden.

If I have to travel alone on this road I surely will. But your absence will cut me deeper than any wind.

New York City - Many Years Later

The first time I saw the skyline of New York I felt a chill. We had arrived at a chaotic JFK airport and trundled in a taxi van through the ragged back streets of Queens. Nothing prepared me for the first sight of the soaring Empire State Building sticking up like a giant syringe in the sky, and the high towers that crowded her shoulders.

On the first night, we became lost in a labyrinth or bars and couldn't tell the taxi driver where we were staying on Park Avenue. It was an alcohol and angst-filled time. We could be happy in the haze of a drunken hour but far too sober suddenly at 5 a.m. My marriage was cold turkey by then. I was going through the motions,  knowing but not fully coming to terms with her affair with somone just a few seats across every bar.

Being a journalist one never wants to be the story but looking back, I realize I probably was. So I buried myself in Bonfire of the Vanities, felt keenly the decline of Sherman McCoy and ticked off the group tourism activities washed down by copious amounts of overpriced beers.

I looked up too; at the eggshell blue sky above the Statue of Liberty and the snow that tumbled from a dark sky the next day and skipped down Fifth Avenue. We went up the North Tower and shuddered at the sheer distance above the flat roofs, little realizing that two years later people would be throwing themselves through the glass and to the ground below.

New York gives you space and perspective. It quickly cuts your problems down to size. On the last day in New York, I broke away alone and went to the Lower Eastside to tour the tenement museum where scores of families lived in teeming squalor early in the 20th century.

When you are suddenly alone after so many years it's frightening but liberating. I thought of all those people who had come here so many years before with just their shirt on their backs and thrived, or at least survived. I resisted the cliche of an old song - if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.

The second time I arrived in New York it was more than 16 years later. I was driving a sleek silver car with the kids in the back. It would a neat ending to say I had achieved the American dream and made it but that wasn't exactly the reality. I still don't live in a house with too many rooms with a wife who has a pedicure every week. I'm probably old enough to avoid such a grisly fate now. The car was a rental. The hotel may have cost an arm and a leg but it was a ragged place behind the car repair yards of Jersey City. It looked sketchy, but we walked.

The skyscrapers were as high as ever, although the Twin Towers had been replaced by the sleek Freedom Tower due to that aforementioned act of premeditated horror. . They seemed smaller than 16 years earlier. Maybe living in America had changed my perceptions. Those giant feats of man and machine and those images of workers on gantries high above the drop had become cliched.

I didn't get the buzz at first. There was the stress of finding the right bus and the numerous texts from the ex with instructions to prevent the kids falling down manholes. I wanted that carefree sense of adventure to kick in again. What if I had lost it a long time ago? What if America had long since swallowed me up in its anality?  Or perhaps there comes a time when we all turn into our parents.

Half an hour later in Times Square, I looked up at the iconic facade of the New York Times, The square was as overrated and commercial as I remembered but there was energy, yellow taxes honking angrily and people diverging from all directions. I picked up a map and herded the kids east. Finally, I felt that old joy of adventure washing over me again.