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all but the cats write here ... to remember, to share, to mumble, to shout ... follow along by RSS or email if you like.

Filtering by Category: storytime

Trying to Keep a Lid On It / Part 2

michael

Part One is pretty much required reading before you start this one. 

 

We arrived 20 minutes ahead of Kenny and Cynthia the next day. We had the plats by email. The power-line was part of the 15 acres. The ravine was part of the 31. The plot appeared to go to the peak. I ran to see if there was water in the ravine. None, but my guess was the stream went underground further back. I ran halfway to the peak. An old road bed cut the length of the land with trees about 9 inches in diameter springing out of it. Kenny and Cynthia were arriving. I ran back down the hill. The boys had been instructed 'No sword battles while we talk with the realtors' – which is how most of their time had been spent the last two days.

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Kenny and Cynthia were warm and friendly as we had expected and full of stories about the county, the people, the laws, and the way of life. We had enthralling conversation meandering the land for two hours. Age limitations kept us from going to the peak or down the ravine. Finally Kenny asked if we wanted to look at the 15 acre plot. We shook our heads, “No.” Both thinking 'not unless we can go the full perimeter.'
“Well, I have another plot I think you guys would like. It's about ten minutes away. D'ya wanna see it?”
“Sure! Let's go!” We got in Matilda and shut the doors.

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“I assume you said yes to be nice,” Bethany said, “and that we're coming back here to go to that peak.”
“Exactly!” I smiled.
“I like it three times as much as yesterday!” she glowed.
“Yesssss!” I said through my smile.
“But there's no stream!” Fynn piped from the back.
“I think there might be if we follow that ravine.”

Kenny's “ten minutes” was a 45 minute tour of the back roads to Rogersville. We didn't mind. It was a gorgeous drive. After one pit-stop at a waterfall Cynthia thought the kids might like, we arrived at a wide open field sloping down to a rushing stream. Kenny's little car turned off into the field and putted up a small rise. I followed suit thinking 'We had a pretty heavy thundershower last night.' Sure enough, Matilda's 6500 lbs sunk right in, slithering to a standstill halfway up the rise. After Kenny called a friend to come tow us out, he showed us the land. It had a very nice stream. There was not much else to say about it.

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Then he took us up the road and showed us an old country store from the early 1900's that he and Cynthia bought and restored. The back seed room had been made into an apartment with floor to ceiling poplar. The main store area looked original, straight out of the soots, with an operational pot bellied stove between two long wide sales counters and antiques lining the shelves. The floor was rugged, untouched, mottled with tar from years of sprinkling kerosene to keep down the dust. It was stunning.

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By the time we got towed out it was too late to return to Clinch mountain. That evening, Fynn took apart an old remote control airplane, attached the propellers and receiver to a raft made of plastic bottles and steered it on the river from the dock. It worked better than the plane ever had. As we sat by the river, Bethany waxed on the property “It'd be a perfect place to make a pullout with coffee for people traveling Rt. 66.”

I laughed. “Yeah! I can just see us entertaining the Hell's Angels!”

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We were back on Clinch Mountain the next day after lunch. We parked under the power-line and hiked up the mountain clutching our treasure map plats. Halfway up we found traces of two more cabins where the old road was. We were on the 15 acre plot, and it was lovely with great rocks jutting out of the hillside. We crested the ridge and took in a fantastic view. I reasoned that the back line of the property connected three peaks. The smallest in the 15 acres. We followed the ridge up into the 31 acres. At the middle peak we were greeted by some monster trees 24 inches in diameter. Everyone had a different idea of what could be built on this level area with a view in all directions. A studio. A meditation chamber. A forge. A tree-house. With every step we were falling more in love.

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Between this peak and the next was the ravine, a long, steep way down. I picked my way down as straight a line as possible, while the boys sword fought all over the hillside and Bethany chose a gentler path to meet me at the bottom. And there it was. WATER! There was a hundred yards of stream gurgling before vanishing underground. We stared, enraptured. “This could just be run off from the rain.” Douglas pragmatized.

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“It might not even be on the property.” Bethany allowed.

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“Well,” I reasoned, “if I came down from There, and That peak is There...” I walked 10 paces to where the stream emerged, “The property line should be about... What's that?” I was pointing at a hole in the ground ringed with stone, a few dead logs fallen across. We gathered around. It was a well of sorts, built down three feet into the ground out of mountain rocks covered in moss, the stream bubbling away at the bottom. It looked ancient. Mystic. What must have been a tin cover lay rusted nearly to nothing at the side. “I don't think it's run off.” I said quietly, feeling like we'd just found gold.

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The property went up to the next peak then cut parallel with the ravine to 66. It was the steepest bit of land and covered with the only underbrush we'd seen so far. We chose to follow the stream-bed till we found the old road, taking it back toward the 15 acre plot.

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I walked close to Bethany, no longer focused on the forest but on the feeling of certainty the enchanting stone well had produced. I looked sidelong at her. “This is it, isn't it?”

“Yeah!” she whispered, just as sure. Our lids welled with tears. Tears of certainty. Tears of admitting it. Tears of hope breaking the seal. We walked, fingers entwined, another 30 steps. “Let's tell the boys.” I said.

The boys were of course on board. We formed a circle of four on some stones and in formal tones asked God for this land we couldn't afford for our own. The boys once more warred with their swords on the road. We followed it back, crossing the power-line into the 15 acre plot to a junk heap at the foot of the smallest peak. It began to rain softly. Happy, we made our way down to 66 and Matilda.

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We shut the doors and sat awhile. Having settled on this land in our minds, the pressure to start creating had already doubled. Over 10 years ago in Brooklyn, swamped in debt, we cut up all our credit cards with scissors, resolving never to go into debt again, never to purchase anything we didn't have the money for. We've stuck with that and been much lighter for it. But now this immense desire was threatening to shred our resolve. “But even if we tried to take out a loan,” Bethany was saying, “Our lack of ANY credit history and having no steady income would make it impossible.” I turned on the wipers and put it in gear.

“There has GOT to be a way.” I said, pulling out.

We stopped in Sneedville for groceries. Bethany went in the store and I called Kenny. “We want it.” I said, “but we want to pay cash. I don't want to take out a loan. I have an avenue I want to pursue.” Thinking of something like Kickstarter.
“Well, Ah haven't asked, but I bet these guys would be willing to do Owner Financing if you could put 25% down,” he said helpfully, making my no-loan-walls bulge like soup in a paper-bag.
“Thanks,” I said “I'll consider that.”

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At the campsite that night it hit me. One of the biggest lessons we've learned at the end of our rope on this journey has been – DO WHAT IS IN FRONT OF YOU. Before having my heart pounced on by this land, I was on my way to Knoxville to make art to raise money. Nothing had changed. Nothing other than the incentive becoming a tangible piece of perfect land that might be snatched up at any moment. So I'm putting down this pencil and picking up a paintbrush. My theme will be taken from the 60,000 photos of our journey. It is time to paint wind! You may expect a billowing sale shortly. And if this land slips through our fingers... so be it. We will still be free, still taking the next step onward, but we'll likely need new latches on our lid, and a deck-swab to mop our tears.

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A final note before I paint – After getting back to Knoxville we looked up Kenny's online listing and found the plot we had explored was only HALF the 31 acres. That would be equal parts Icing and Cake.

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Trying to Keep a Lid On It / Part 1

michael

This is a two-part series, and both parts include an audio version of Michael reading it ... in case you'd rather just listen! 

 

Yeah. We've been hunting for land. Scouring websites, deciphering contour maps, printing out plats, and zooming in on satellite imagery. This began in earnest around the New Year. A month ago we left Keren + Bobby's driveway in Knoxville, where we'd roosted since December 9th, and parked at a small campground in the foothills of the Smokies, near Greenville, TN. This would be our base camp.

After two excursions to see plots we'd found online, we came to some conclusions. Firstly, property in our current budget was: A. landlocked and only accessible by helicopter or walking through Posted No Trespassing signs; B. so steep you expected a princess on top to throw golden apples to anyone who could climb that high; or C. ugly and flat as opossum roadkill, skinny as the blighted mange.

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We secondly concluded our favorite part and best avenue by far was talking to the denizens. The people we'd met were open, honest and friendly. Happy to elaborate on who owned what and how many tractors were traded to make the purchase. All without squinted suspicion (my mustache makes a good barometer of judgmental character.) Our third conclusion was we might as well relax and just look for neighborhoods and hollers that appealed to us. It was no good vexing our souls, drooling over property beyond our means. If God was going to lead us to some land like we'd asked, He was going to do it in His own sweet time. And anyway, He'd probably be interested in seeing what we liked.

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So we began exploring every mountain road in the Greenville area, with a much easier agenda of finding enjoyment unhampered by expectation. It was beautiful. The shapes of the Smokies sang to us. The mossy streams danced and burbled beside us down winding roads. Ancient, sagging barns waved their cockeyed doors and blooming pear trees traced the hills like lollipops.

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On days it rained we distracted ourselves by organizing and pruning the 60,000 photos taken over the last three years, talking about the changes our life has taken and will take, and getting the taxes done. (I think that's the first time we haven't filed late since we were married.)

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Being patient isn't easy. For over a year an immense pressure has been building to settle down and start creating something we won't have to walk away from. A physical place to plant the dream and see what grows.

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After three weeks and four days there were no more roads to explore within striking distance. It was time to move on. The plan was to explore at least one more area on our way back to Knoxville, where I would immerse myself in creating a body of artwork to sell to raise money for something more than the back nine of a junkyard by a power plant. Sounds crazy, by hey, it's how we paid for the camper. We battened down, hitched up, and piled in the truck. Matilda purred. This has been the heart of the trip to me. This point. All in the truck. Asking the question. “Well … where to now?” Bethany has the map in her lap and there's a sense we might just go ANYWHERE.

“What about these mountains?” She's pointing to some smaller ranges we had previously discarded, but now we had sense that beauty was not contingent on size.
“It'd be a shame not to at least drive through them” I mused. Her finger went to a dot.
“Wasn't there an abandoned school listed near Sneedville?”
“SNEEDville!” I bellowed, loving it's Seussian sound. “Let's Go!” and off we went with the boys and I chanting “Sneedville, Sneedville, Sneeeedville!” to the rolling of Bethany's eyes.

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We took the scenic route. The closer we got to Sneedville the prettier it became. Pioneer-looking log cabins were frequent. Rock-jagged green hills strewn with cattle. A proliferation of ancient barns staggered the hills, in every stage of collapse, as if this was where old barns came to die. We got on Route 66 and were delighted to discover we were heading over Clinch mountain. Near the start of our journey three years ago, our bedtime-story had been a Louis L'Amour book about the pioneering Sacketts who had settled Clinch Mountain. Now we would see it! Nearing the crest we saw a For Sale sign and slowed down.

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“That looks level enough to build on!” Bethany said, amazed.
“And it's South-facing!” I added, wishing Tennessee roads had more than one inch of berm so I could stop.
“Oh, here's a power line,” we both said as we approached a great swath cut up the mountain.
“Yeah, but look at the view!” I breathed, looking down to the valley.
“Here's another For Sale sign,” Bethany pointed. “It's a different realtor.” The land behind that sign was equally promising.
“We have to come back here without the camper” I said, not running off the road.
“Let's find a campsite” she said as we crossed from Hawkins into Hancock County. Cell service was spotty descending Clinch, but we were only 12 miles from Sneedville.

In those 12 miles of gorgeous winding road we noticed something: every car we passed, every person in their yard, on their porch, in their doorway – EVERYone waved. Now I grew up on a dirt road in PA where five out of 10 people waved, and two of them might wave to total strangers but I had never seen this. Big waves. Smiling waves. “Hi! How y'all doin! Ah still got mah hand in the air” kind of waves. I was driving along stunned happy.
“You missed it!” Bethany chortled as a pickup passed, “That guy just waved.”

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Once we hit Sneedville the waving stopped. We found a pullout at a crossroads and began Googling campgrounds. Nothing. There were no campgrounds in Hancock county. The closest one was 30 miles north in Pennington, Virginia. Bethany called and got a precise-sounding man who said he had room, but neither of us wanted to go that far away from Clinch Mountain. A sign in front of us read 'Kyle's Ford Trading Post – 10 miles.' “I bet they'd know a place to camp” I said.

We passed about six people in those 10 miles. One of them didn't wave but he was facing away from us putting what looked like an air conditioner in his trunk. The folks at the Trading Post didn't know of any camping. “Summertime you could go down on the Clinch River but that's been a soggy mess since the flood a few weeks back. Hang on, here comes Betty. She'd know, she's the Vet.” Betty came in and put a bag of something heavy on the back counter.
“No.” She shook her head when asked. “Not in Hancock County.” We drove on.

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It was about 4 pm. We were just deciding to catch Route 70 a mile ahead and take it to Pennington when we passed an abandoned school. “Whoaaah! Look at that!” we all gasped. It was vandalized, but pretty alluring. More so than the one we'd seen online.

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“We could stay in the school yard,” I suggested as we came to a T in the road. I pulled off into the gravel at the stop sign trying to judge if I had room to turn around. “Worst they could do is kick us out!” Bethany was half-convinced, still looking at Route 70 on her map. A pickup truck pulled up beside, its passenger window going down. I rolled down mine.

“You folks need help? Whatcha lookin for?” A face about my age was beaming hopefully.
“We're lookin' for a place to camp!” I shouted back. That was all he needed. He was out his door like a shot and around to my window.
“Camping you say? Hmmmmm … Ah can't think of a place – ”
“What about that abandoned school back there?” I interjected. “Is that owned by somebody?”
“That's owned by the County. Yeah! You could stay there! But wait a minute ...” My willingness to stay anywhere had got his mind rolling. “There's the boat launch! That's public access land. Right down over here, by the river. Ahm sure your camper'd fit there!”
“Sounds great!"
“C'mon. Ah'll show you the way!”

He hopped in his truck pleased as punch to be helping someone, and was a quarter mile up the road waiting for me by the time I got pulled around the corner. It was a perfect, well-graveled spot by the river. I got his name. Tommy Belcher. We shook hands and he popped back in his truck and zipped over the hill.

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The boys unhitched and stabilized the camper. The cats were let out to roam the fields of dried sunflowers. Bethany and I got out the chairs and watched the Clinch River calmly saunter through the velvet sunset at Kyle's Ford. “Soo...” I said, trying not to sound too excited. “I guess we'll go look at that land in the mornin'?” Bethany remained deadpan, staring at the river.
“Yuup” she drawled. We looked at each other, eyebrows raised a few moments, then burst out laughing.
“Thank God for Tommy!” I shouted. Bethany was wiping tears from her eyes.
“I did NOT want to go to Pennington,” she giggled.

 

Next morning we charted a course that would take 70 over Clinch mountain to Poor Valley Rd heading West along the South face for 10 miles to 66 where we'd again cross Clinch and find that property. We packed chicken salad, snacks, water, and hiking boots and off we went. As 70 crossed Clinch we saw a For Sale sign and stopped to take a look. The area was very pretty. Not as nice as our destination, but worth a gander. There was a gate with a grassy road going up the mountain, but the sign didn't say how many acres. Seeing no neighbors I could ask, I gave the number a call. Cynthia answered. It was 287 acres. I told her that was way too many. I was looking in the realm of 15- 20. She said her husband Kenny ran a different real-estate business that sold land, she mainly sold houses, but she'd let him know. He was out listing some property right now an– The phone cut out. I was relieved. I hadn't wanted to tangle with agents yet, and was kicking myself for going that far. We drove on.

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Poor Valley Road was a disappointment. The houses were too close together and no roads left the valley to climb the South face of Clinch. None that is, till we got to the end and saw a gated road with 109 acres for sale. We went and asked the lady who'd waved from a trailer we'd passed if it'd be all right to walk up that road. “People do it all the tahm,” she said. Then she told us her family history. Bethany and I left the kids reading books in the truck and climbed the wide, steep road till the view and the hike became so breathtaking there was no need to go to the top. The road alone was probably triple what we could afford. Back at the truck, I found Cynthia had left a message about the land her husband just listed, and it was off New Life road, 10 miles from us. We looked at the map. New Life road was less than a mile away across Rt 66.

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I had just put Matilda in gear, when my sister Keren called. She had been expecting us to land back in Knoxville on the morrow and wondered if we could delay our return by 2 or 3 days – she and Bobby had some things they wanted to finish up. “Sure!” we said looking at each other, thinking of our riverside paradise. Off we went to New Life.

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We found some signs for a 25 acre farm in the valley that held little to no appeal. Relieved, we started up the mountain on 66 to our destination. It was right there where we left it. A small road we hadn't noticed on our first pass through cut up the hill about 30 feet. It had a chain across that left just enough room to back Matilda off the road. We donned our gear and tumbled out. My phone rang. “Oh.” I said, “It's Cynthia. I'll answer it and tell her we saw that farm and aren't interested.”

“No,” Cynthia said when I told her, “it's not a farm. The property's all forested, and it's not on New Life Road. Here, talk to Kenny.” She handed him the phone. Kenny talked a blue streak describing where it was until finally I said, “Well, that's exactly where I'm standing! That's the property I'm looking at right now!” We talked a good 25 minutes.

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Turns out the driveway had been put in the day before by the owner who runs a construction business. The plot was 31 acres for $55,000. The neighboring plot for sale by a different realtor was 15 acres for $30,000. The remains of a cabin could be found 150' in. When Kenny was Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry for Tennessee he had the boat launch installed where our camper was parked. Yes, he knew Tommy Belcher. Junior and Senior. Tommy Sr. was 70 just like Kenny. No, they couldn't email the plats till they got back home in two to three hours. Yes, they'd be willing to meet up the next day to show it to us.

I got off the phone a little dazed. We couldn't afford this! Not even the 15 acre plot. Why was I setting up a meeting with a realtor?!

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As we tramped the gentle slopes of perfectly sized building stones and tall straight timbers, I tried to explain to Bethany what went through my mind talking to Kenny. “If Keren hadn't called in the one spot we had cell service in the valley and asked us to stay longer, and if Tommy hadn't stopped and showed us that perfect camping spot by the river, and if Kenny hadn't known Tommy or been so congenial, plus he knows forestry and building codes for the county, and if everyone in the county hadn't waved at us... we did say it's about the people, right?”

“I know.” Bethany whispered; a spark of hope dancing in her eye like a moth on fire.

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We found the flattened cabin. A Coke can in the rubble looked from about 1970. The trees seemed not to have been lumbered for as long. The slope got steeper approaching the peak but not so steep it couldn't be built on. We didn't walk to the peak. We didn't walk to the ravine that might have a stream. We didn't know the boundaries and we didn't want to get our hopes squashed. The boys were breaking down with hunger so we drove back to the river to have supper with songbirds and peepers. We agreed the land was twice as good as we expected.

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... the story continues in Part 2

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You're Invited

bethany

It's 5 o'clock*, and the door of the bath house slams behind Fynn as he emerges with wet hair and a towel slung over his shoulder. He was out working on his treehouse all afternoon, and had sap and dirt and sawdust in his hair to contend with. It's nearly time for dinner, and there are still chores to do. Eggs to gather, salad fixings to pick, and a bit of cello harmony to work out if he has a few minutes left before dinner is called.

It's the last Friday of the month, which means we're expecting a bigger crowd than usual. It's music night, and we never know how many locals will show up on foot or by car, or who will hike up the lane from the trail when they hear some picking and plucking and singing starting to waft over the mountain. I'm in the outdoor kitchen with Martha, Cedar, and a couple other folks (including a few mostly-willing teens), chopping veggies, making dressing, hard-boiling eggs, and frying up the leftover ham from yesterday. It's a salad-bar tonight, and I can pretty much count on a few regulars bringing some fresh herbs, homemade cheese, a can of beans, leftover chicken, or anything else they like to dump on a bed of greens. I'm craving lemons for my salad, but haven't had time to drive into town to get them, so it's bottled lemon juice tonight.

We've had a decent crowd this week, but it's still been quiet. Maggie's here for the week, with her young daughter, and they're staying up in the original cob cabin with Jane, who's been here since her husband died 6 months ago. She's been feeling ready to socialize again lately, and is happy to share the space now. It's only two rooms with a wee porch, but not far from the bath house and outdoor kitchen. It was our first cob structure, and has a few cracks around the window and some shrinkage along the eaves, but it's still cozy and cool in the summer.

It's June, and we're well into our latest building project, Michael's studio. He's been working out of the old barn for the last three years … when he has moment to paint or carve something other than a building detail … but we've finally knocked out the bath house/kitchen combo, the main part of our own stone/cob home (we moved out of the trailer last summer!), and three basically habitable treehouses. There are several more in various stages of construction, but the main push this summer is the studio.

There have been drawings scattered on shelves and tables and napkins for over a year now, and the pile of field stones got big enough to start laying the studio's foundation last month. The pile is large enough mostly because John stopped by on his Kubota It! tour of the U.S. a few weeks ago, and moved a bunch of the larger ones down the hill for us. It's to be a combo of stone, wood, and cob, and is set back a ways back from the main house, about a half mile up into the woods. We hope to get electric run up there soon, and plan to get a pump going from the stream to a slop sink as soon as that happens.

It's really more of a getaway than a full studio, but it will be a place to paint, sing at the top of his lungs, and do the alone-in-the-woods thing. The wood shop and slowly-evolving metal shop are going to stay in the barn. Todd introduced us to a lot of metal working tools when they came for a month last summer to check things out, and Bobby scavenged quite a bit of stuff from estate sales when he was still living in Knoxville, so the place is reasonably functional by now. We lost a fair number of tools in the first couple of years thanks to rust and forgetfulness and the occasional over-eager neophyte skil-saw user, but have slowly gotten them organized, and now that Nathan sleeps in the barn-loft and keeps track of things at days end, they're kept oiled and sharp and tuned up.

It's Douglas' turn to do the dinner call, and he's chosen yodeling as Ash is visiting and willing to help, so the two of them make enough noise to alert anyone within 200 yards that food's ready. It's 6:00 and the shadows aren't too long yet though it's beginning to cool down. Edmund and Sparrow take up their positions under the table, and Benny and Sam (the current dogs in residence) chase each other around the benches, tripping up a couple of the folks who are finding a perch, but Calvin gets them settled down in short order. It looks like about 20 are going to sit up to table, and Dave says a quick prayer before everyone digs in.

Newbies get a guest bowl and mug from the end of the serving counter, while the regulars bring their own, or pull the ones they keep here off of the shelves under the counter. Jars of forks and chopsticks sit in the middle of the 20' long table under the kitchen's big shelter/roof, as do jugs of water and a few bottles of wine. My favorite chopsticks are the ones with Kanji love notes on them that Sue makes, and brings us from Japan every fall. Some daring ones park themselves along the eating counter that takes up one long side of the space … Evan and Byron are already perched on it, and others are on a motley collection of stools that mostly came from one of Keren's game competitions earlier this summer, I don't remember the rules but most of the results are actually sitable. Douglas's entry was a folding ladder stool that's way too tall for the table, but gets used to access his tree-gym down the hill.

I'm beat, and really wanting to just find a corner and curl up with a book and my salad, but I get myself a bowl full and find a seat by Dan at the far end of the Kibitchen, as it's becoming known. It's the place where it pretty much all happens for a good eight months of the year. The cooking, the talking, the planning, the listening, the discussing, the singing, the fire-pit-chilling, the coffee swilling, the scheduling, the bible-chewing, the hey-guess-what-i-learned!-ing, the asking, the giving, the venting, the crying, the recovering, the supporting; the stuff that all takes more than one person. That takes a group, a diversity, a desire to connect, to see, to build, to learn … and to love. A community. One where you can dip a toe or a leg or your whole self, and see how much of it works for you.

Tonight, it's a whirlwind of eating and cleanup and dish-swilling in the wash and rinse buckets at the end of the counter, and then the fire pit lighting. As the last of the leftovers are put away, someone starts plucking a guitar and there's a bit of haphazard tuning. There's usually a mashup of hymns and folk and a bit of almost everything, most of it from memory though there are a few guitar chord books floating around. If someone comes who really knows their stuff (like Mike and George both did last winter), it helps keep things together. Fynn's learned to do some harmony to a few of the common songs, so Michael makes sure a couple of those get worked in somewhere.

Folks wander in and out of the firelight and the music, horseshoes clank, frisbees fly, and some disappear for walks in the woods. Hammocks, tents, and treehouses are retired to when space is needed or hearts are full. Keren and Bobby's B&B is due to open just down the road next spring, and that will give even fancier accommodations for those who want indoor plumbing and a little more TLC! There's plenty of room here though to be broken, to heal, to be alone, to be not-alone, and heart-food to nibble.

It's Friday night, it's home, and it's rich with all the things that matter.

You're invited.

------------------------------

* 5 o'clock somewhere, on a Friday night about three years from now

want the long personal backstory that led to this? I just posted it (in three parts) over on my old blog InMyMiddle

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Hello, America

bethany

I woke up yesterday with a bunch of thoughts gelled in my brain, and while I went about my morning routine I was writing furiously in my head. Words, at last! Then, the road called … the six-mile dirt road that follows the turns of the San Francisco River flowing past our campsite, and off we went.

We wandered past a few homes down next to the river bed, marveled at canyons and cliffs to our right, explored a couple long-abandoned stone huts and walls, tried to figure out the pattern of smashed parts and glass from a nearly-pancaked blue Beretta at the base of a stony track, and hunted for big-horn sheep. Got a glimpse of the top of the mine beyond the far side of the river too. Delightful, hot, bizarre in places, and very remote feeling.

The river flooded badly in '83, demolishing much of the town of Clifton below us, and actually is the reason there's a cheap town-run RV park at the north end of the valley (our current resting spot). The USAC of Engineers won't allow homes at the north end anymore, due to flood fears. The rest of the town is protected with giant floodgates.

Our next stop was to go see the mine a bit better … the Morenci Copper/Molybdenum Mine that's run by Freeport McMoRan and is the largest copper mine in the U.S., and one of the largest in the world. When we headed to this RV park, by the way, we knew NOTHING about Clifton/Morenci. A look at the map showing a nearby Plant City made us assume there might be industry in the vicinity.

The terraced cliffs of the mine were apparent when we pulled in last week, and we'd gotten some amazing stories the day before from an old mine-employed chemist about the history of the place, but hadn't really seen it for ourselves. We headed up Hwy 191, aiming for the spot on the little cartoonized local map that said Mine Overlook.

The map didn't indicate how far the overlook was, or that we'd have to drive underneath the giant conveyor belt system that takes the mined chunks and gradually crushes them down into pieces that can be suspended in a concentrate solution. From there they use electrowinning to make big sheets of 99.9% pure copper. This particular mine produced 902 million pounds of copper in 2015. It's big. Mind-bogglingly huge.

Hard to comprehend, even while driving past enormous sheds, pits that make huge mine trucks look like tiny Tonka toys, and terraced literal mountains of crushed stone that we realized have been built one truck-load at a time. We watched the trucks inch their way up the zig-zagged grade, back up and dump over the side to the terrace below, and then zip their way back down the road for another load. It was like watching something out of Star Wars … a planet being terraformed.

 That little black blip on the top of the white ridge is a mine cart with 12' tires, about to dump its load over the edge.

That little black blip on the top of the white ridge is a mine cart with 12' tires, about to dump its load over the edge.

It's come a very long way from the first wagon-loads of copper being pulled to Kansas City for shipping east, back in 1865 when the mine started. Hillsides of black slag speak to the old ways of smelting and refining, and the barely visible corner of the old concrete-block high school that's peeking out of the side of a growing terraced mountain helps give some idea of how much change they've done to the landscape since 1985, when the school was abandoned and they moved into a new building in town.

We've seen the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and the Morenci Mine all in the last 3 months. Three things that make you feel tiny, take your breath away, and are hard to wrap your mind around.

They have a way of putting things in perspective. Long-term perspective. Life and cycles and death and time and the smidgen bit of it we get to spend on earth, and what really matters to me.

-----------------

Almost all the traveling I did as a child was either driving in a car to visit people we knew, tenting for a week near a lake somewhere, or flying to South or Central America and visiting people dad knew or had corresponded with. Poor people for the most part, living in small towns or remote villages only reachable by perching in the back of an open truck. Some were in cities, like San Salvador or Lima Peru, but we still usually stayed with friends in apartments or in a cheap local hotel.

 Lima Peru in about 1976. I'm in Mom's arms.

Lima Peru in about 1976. I'm in Mom's arms.

I grew up thinking that Disney and Resorts and fancy hotels and big museums were for the folks who weren't lucky enough to go to a “real” destination where everything was upside down and backwards and dirty and sometimes scary … except the people. Ahh, the people. The warm, lovely, generous, curious, kind, simply-living folks who opened their homes and hearts and scarce pantries to us. I knew my friends didn't take vacations like that, but I didn't know anything else. I was a little spoiled.

This trip is no different, other than the fact that it's within the boundaries of my home country, the USA. It's a bit of all of it actually … camping by remote streams, visiting people we know, and some we don't. Seeking out the human interaction, the stories, the history, the wants and needs and desires and perspectives of a huge variety of people. Finding the similarities, musing on the differences. Looking for reasons for the differences, when they're hard to understand. Reveling in the connections, the humanity, the deliciousness and terror of what it means to get another day and choose how to use it.

The number of ways of living that we've seen in the last two years is astounding. Chemists who spent their life analyzing every 10th foot of a 1000' core sample and dodging the union strikers, pragmatic Navajo boiler-makers who still teach their daughters to kill and skin wild animals for food, Old Orabai Hopi mesa-dwellers whose homes perch on the remains of the previous thousand years of homes on that tiny little mesa, and trailer park dwellers who cling to that El Dorado that “rides like a living room” as their last ticket to freedom because if they get their night-seizures checked out they might lose their license.

 Blake hitchhiked with us from Tuba City, Navajo Nation to Flagstaff.

Blake hitchhiked with us from Tuba City, Navajo Nation to Flagstaff.

House painters with unimaginable personal losses, kayak-tour snook fishermen with lime green trucks and big hats and dreams to match, struggling marriages with new babies in arms, broken families that still smile and march forward, crazy-in-love spry senior citizens, private pilots, commercial pilots, broken down bus-dwellers, friendly Harley sightseers, retired museum docents that still have the joie-de-vivre of a 6-year-old perfectly intact, and countless people who just want to help.

They'll give you food, give you a new lift jack for your trailer, give you a diamond knife sharpener for your knife-obsessed child, give you bags of groceries, give you work, give you meals, give you love, give you opportunities to love, give you their deepest heartache, give you stories, give you trust, give you keys, give you respect, give you a chance, give you a fat envelope, give you an ear, give you a set of tires, give you their heart.

These humans have been rich, poor, left-leaning, right-leaning, lying down, marching, black, brown, white, hispanic, church-goers, sun-worshippers, Christ-followers, full-hearted, bodies failing, full of optimism, full of fear, satisfied and steady, seeking and restless, building their walls, sharpening their swords. These people have been my fellow Americans, my brethren, my tribe, my loves. My chances to grow. My opportunities to understand. My shoulders to lean on. My voices to learn. My lives to touch. My people.

Hello, America

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Standing in the Clearing

michael

When I was 15 my father and I took night-walks into the woods, pausing every 20 paces, listening, seeing how close to the pond we could get without alarming the peepers into silence. Often we heard deer-munchings. Once we saw a moonlit porcupine up a tree. Always we had an ear out for the Whippoorwill on the berm of RT 538 nested in the gravel. If we did hear it, my Dad would whistle back a fair but quiet imitation. (The song of the whippoorwill occupies the lower courts of whisability.) On one such occasion, having come to a star-drenched field, the milky sky-way blazing above, my father broached the subject of my romantical sighings. “I've watched you looking at a girl...” he paused, “your whole demeanor has changed. Your eyes are soft; you look sotted with love.” He was smiling. “Are you ready to get married?” I admitted that the desire was strong. All that stood between me and marriage was the scarcity of years to my name, the lack of a willing partner, and my inability to speak in the presence of beautiful girls. Other than that, I was ready.  “And how,” his voice was still smiling, “do you propose to support a wife?”

Now this was a question dripping with subtle accusation, which I readily ascertained as a trap. My father himself was the youngest of four and was no stranger to my pressing the advantage of last-born to the avoidance of Work. Yet I considered myself a skirter, not a shirker. I met my obligations with gusto and performed my chores and duties with whole-hearted energy, but the prospect of added responsibility I met with the elusive charm that only the baby of a family can wield.

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This cursory self-evaluation left me knowing I COULD work to support a wife, but something was wrong with that answer. It wasn't just that I knew my father was waiting for that response; there was something my heart was not articulating. So I remained silent under the stars, delving deeper into myself. An owl hooted from the end of the meadow. I eventually touched a finger to the feeling and opened my mouth. What came out was woefully garbled and inadequate. The rudderless hormonal ramblings of a 15-year-old. I'm sure it did very little to allay my father's misgivings. But now, after 16 years of marriage, I think I can finally put it to words, though I warn you, it may still be the wide-eyed lowing of a calf on the moor.

Bethany and I and the kids were on the Kaiser's garage roof, about 6 months into our trip, hammering shingles down on a cupola. It was around 95 degrees. It might have been a recipe for foul tempers had we not each held a hammer and nails.

The fundamental joy of pounding a nail with a hammer seizes our imagination as a toddler, becoming an icon; the quintessence of 'making something'. Bam bam BAM! And when we've grown to actually heft and strike the hammer we discover our childhood expectations of pure fun are delivered in full. Pounding a nail really IS the sweet spot of construction!

So we were all in fine spirits, sweating, building this little house on the roof peak, which 3 weeks before we'd had no idea was called a cupola. Now we knew how one was built.

I watched Bethany pound a nail. When she looked up we both grinned, and it dawned on me, this was it. This was the very thing I'd longed for at 15. To have a real live girl pouring her heart with my heart into the same project. Pouring our hearts together into whatever work there was. Into whatever people there were. A real live girl unafraid to hoist sails, sing songs, cross swords, and pound nails. RIGHT BY MY SIDE!

IMG_5647.JPG

I stood under a sunset sky on the Kaiser's roof, spellbound by this girl with the hammer. Tears flooding my eyes. God got me good with this one. How long had I tried working to support a wife, when all along it was wiving to support a work. Not the 'behind every great man is an even greater woman' kind of work. Not MY work. Our work. A 'weaving our separate thousand dreams into one fabric of Doing and let God blow the sail' kind of work. This was the sweet spot of marriage.

As I reveled, dusk descended on the Kaiser's garden releasing a great cloud of mosquitoes. We were determined to nail the last eight shingles before it was truly dark. Our sweat hung like stratas of soup steam, perfuming the air. The mosquito cloud (like 10,000 Bugs Bunnies, floating on their fingertips, noses in the sweet-stream) ascended to the cupola and engulfed us. Have you ever swatted a mosquito biting your person with a hammer? We were dancing the Macarena at triple-speed, but the onslaught was so relentless and overwhelming our sanity was starting to suffer. We abandoned ship leaving the last few shingles for morning.

It is a fine morning waking up with hammer girl.

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Westward Ho! / Day 9 ... Drama King Drama Queen

bethany

Tuesday, August 23

 Escalante sunrise

Escalante sunrise

Recovering from yesterday took a couple of hours – groceries to track down, photos to download, emails to send – and we took off again around noon. Our first real stop was a pullout that offered a short hike to a mossy cave and a waterfall.

Red cliffs, a stream, and a few small stone arches added to the appeal. The stream was fed by a 2-mile long canal that had been hand dug in the rock in the 1860s by some settlers trying to get water into their otherwise perfect valley. We enjoyed the view, the boys got to run around, and we kept an eye on some gathering dark clouds.

Michael Instagrammed a pic of the boys and I with the red cliffs and lowering sky, tagging it “ominous clouds”, and then we went on down the road to the Bryce Canyon Visitor's Center.

Just as we pulled up to the fee booth, the clouds broke and it started hailing with a vengeance. Michael flashed our National Parks pass under the agent's nose, wincing and getting pelted, and then grabbed the park map and RV Restrictions notice that was shoved at him with a mirroring wince. Windows were rolled up, bounced 1/4” hail collected, and we sloshed to a corner of the parking lot to wait it out with everyone else.

Ten minutes later it subsided into rain, and Fynn and I dashed into the Visitor's Center to retrieve a better map and some more info on turnaround spots, pushing past steaming wet crowds of fellow tourists who were trying to take selfies with the shoveled pile of hail right outside the front doors.

Bryce has one 18-mile road that's an out-and-back deal, with a side loop that's off limits to rigs our size. We did most of the pullouts, shivering and damp, but loving the deep oranges and hoodoos and rainbow rocks.

At the end-of-the-road stop there were two viewing spots, one being a short hike down the promontory from the parking lot, and we remarked on the path to it on the way to the nearer one. We took in the view, increasingly cold, and Michael agreed to start his sciatica-hobble towards the second viewpoint, while I went with the boys to the bathroom and then caught up with him.

The crowds were getting to me, as was the cold/wet thing, and we were all getting tired. A fearless raven distracted me while waiting for the boys, and then we set off down the ¼ mile path, expecting to see Michael at every turn.

Got to the end, lovely view, no Michael.

We tossed a few pebbles over the edge to see how long a drop it was, took a few pics, and headed back … maybe he'd decided to go to the restroom too? Turned back due to pain?

Checked the restrooms. Checked the first lookout again. Checked the shelter.

Muttered, grumbled, shivered.

Looked into the truck and camper, but both were still locked, and Michael had the keys.

Muttered some more, and got a wee bit uneasy. Where could he possibly have gone?

A man with two kids saw us wandering, and must have seen us together with Michael earlier, as he pointed along the edge of the tree-lined cliff, and said “He's down there!”

“How far?” I asked.

“50 yards or so …” was his answer.

Off we went, tramping noisily down the sorta-path along the edge … no Michael. Then Douglas spies his hat … the ever-present-felt-fedora-ish thing he wears … perched neatly just a couple feet from the dropoff. He picked it up.

“Well, here's Dad's hat …” he offers, his tone bemused, with a dash of hesitation.

I look at it, and the spot where he'd found it, run an instantaneous Michael-over-the-cliff scenario in my head, which about 2% of me thinks is possible … and I've just gotten to the part where my brain says “but if he'd gone over in the 90 seconds since that man told you he'd seen him we'd definitely have heard it” … when he pops up from behind a bush 15 feet down the path, and cheerfully says “Here I am!”

I stare at him … ready to punch him and then maybe toss him over the cliff. Really?!

He'd spent 25+ minutes waiting for us, on the wrong path (at least not the paved path that said it went to the viewing point, which I'd commented on earlier) … assuming that we'd been delayed at the bathroom, and concocting what he thought was a funny prank to play on us. The fact that we'd already been hunting rather urgently for him for 15 minutes already rather took the last shred of potential humor out of it for me. Ha ha.

It was a rather chilly ride on the 18 miles back to the entrance, despite the truck's heater.

Predictably, Fynn needed to pee as soon as we left the park. We stopped at the tackiest souvenir shop yet seen, begged the bathroom key from the dour and very shop-worn proprietress, and after failing at small talk with the woman I tried to be interested in dusty shot glasses, bad wood carvings, and made-in-China-we-don't-even-pretend-to-be-authentic treasures while Michael and Fynn disappeared around the back. When Fynn returned, he bought himself a bandana before we all scooted out the door just as another carload came in asking for the key. I heard her voice drop another level as she eked out her answer.

Relieved to be back outside in the bit of remaining sun, we headed to the truck … only to discover that Michael had left the keys in it, and someone's elbow must have bumped the lock button on the way out.

It wasn't a happy moment. I let Michael tackle it, still smarting a bit from the hat incident, and yes, sulking. I joined the fray when it was suggested we try to break into the trailer to get a coat hanger, and helped force a window open to boost Fynn in through the slit. After the hanger was bent and I watched him try to press the unlock button with it, I realized that maybe the back window of the truck would be easier to get into as it had no electric lock. A screwdriver twist later, we were in!

Light fading, we made for another patch of Dixie National Forest on Rt 12, assuming we could find a boondock spot. We did come across one pretty quickly, though the access to the site was a bit rutted and dicey … and we'll just gloss over the fact that there was the decision to unlock the bikes and go rambling off on the back roads to see if there was a better site back in there somewhere … before bumping our way to a nice level spot with a turnaround, and plenty of dead wood for a campfire. Whew. Very glad to finally be at rest!

 Things seemed a bit brighter by the next morning :)

Things seemed a bit brighter by the next morning :)

lots more pics here and here

previous posts : DAY 1  / DAY 2 / DAY 3 / DAY 4 / DAY 5 / DAY 6 / DAY 7 / DAY 8

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The Lego War Newsletter

douglas

The Lego war has been going on for about 312 years now and shows no sign of stopping; each of the four main factions constantly losing and taking territories from each other in a battle for supremacy. The NTDF (New Terran Defense Force) is fighting for the progression of the human race, and the Scavengers are striving to gain more powerful technologies for their race to study. The other two main factions are the Space Pirates and the R.I.M. Federation. No one really knows where the Space Pirates came from, or what they're going to do with the giant stores of gold they've built up over the years. The R.I.M. (Reclaimed Industrial Military) on the other hand, has one very clear objective; territory.

Each faction has its own strengths and weaknesses, like the Space Pirates not having advanced enough technology to terraform planets; and as such have to make do with asteroid fields for their colonies, factories and shipyards. This means they don't have access to key resources such as promethium, gold, and oxygen, so their ships are usually poorly equipped in the weapons department. They make up for it by carrying TONS of troops that will sometimes board enemy ships, after crippling them by using cannons that instead of firing energy from power crystals, will actually fire the crystals themselves thus causing INCREDIBLE amounts of damage to both the enemy's hull, and electrical systems alike! The Space Pirate ships are also renowned for their massive size and thick armor, allowing them to outlast enemy ships, instead of quick and agile ships meant for outmaneuvering the enemy, like the Scavengers use.

 A Space Pirates power cannon.&nbsp;

A Space Pirates power cannon. 

 The capital ship of the Space Pirates.

The capital ship of the Space Pirates.

The Scavengers make up for their lack of territory by utilizing technology that is FAR ahead of the rest of the known galaxy, and varies from modern-day ballistic weaponry and swarm missiles, to 12,000-year-old lightning cannons and power swords. These weapons are often used by drones and droids to help save on troops, as their lack of enlisted fighters forces them to train for years on end to get the most out of their limited resources. These fighters can sometimes take on entire squads of troops by themselves instead of using vehicles, or large amounts of soldiers, like the R.I.M. Federation does.

 A Scavengers high level bionically enhanced warrior, outfitted with an creoabincurvosium-&nbsp; powered sword and beam cannon.

A Scavengers high level bionically enhanced warrior, outfitted with an creoabincurvosium-  powered sword and beam cannon.

 A ramshackle destructor tank thrown together from various ships and technologies by the Scavengers.

A ramshackle destructor tank thrown together from various ships and technologies by the Scavengers.

The R.I.M. Federation, to save resources for bigger and better guns, makes most of their ships out of the hulking wreckage of long forgotten wars, found floating in the void. Because of the structural integrity of such ruins not being the strongest, there is quite often some form of a weak point on the ship that will bring it down quite easily. When looking for a counter for this they decided the best way to fix it was to bolt enough guns, armor and shields on that the enemy would be blown to smithereens before they could find their Achilles heel. Because of this their ships take on more of a “brawler” style instead of the sleek utilitarian designs of the NTDF.

 (above) A R.I.M. Federation battle-brawler, using every weapon they could attach to the hull.  (below) A lineup of R.I.M. shock troopers.

(above) A R.I.M. Federation battle-brawler, using every weapon they could attach to the hull.

(below) A lineup of R.I.M. shock troopers.

Since the NTDF is the only faction with a stable government, they have near unlimited access to power crystals, uranium, and oil; this means that their ships have only the latest in weapons, and technological advancements. This ensures that the reach of the NTDF is far greater than any of the other factions. Since their ships are designed to be light enough to travel through the warp using as little energy as possible, they are usually rather light on armor, and so use more long range weapons, such as ultra long-range nuclear missiles, rail-guns, and laser pulse cannons. This means that once they get into firing range of most other ships, the effectiveness of the main cruiser in the fleets that they travel in will shrink considerably, and they will have to resort to using fighters and other small ships.

 An NTDF heavy frigate, equipped with long range warp-capable missiles.

An NTDF heavy frigate, equipped with long range warp-capable missiles.

 An NTDF atmospheric heavy assault fighter, armed with high-explosive ballistic cannons.

An NTDF atmospheric heavy assault fighter, armed with high-explosive ballistic cannons.

 

More news on other factions in the next newsletter, so stay tuned, for more on the Lego wars!

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