Quiet Places

October 3, 2022

It was nearly freezing at Wintergreen, Va., mid-30s, when we arrived mid-week. As we chugged up the three-mile-long mountain road to our rented place at nearly 3,600 feet of elevation, an adult black bear, probably 300 pounds, raced across the road in front of the van and disappeared into the woods. I jammed on the brake and drew a deep breath. We pushed on.

We settled in, got dinner at the nearly empty restaurant, the only one open of the three on the premises. We then shivered in our sweaters.

The next morning the sun rose gloriously above the mountains, the air was autumn-crisp and clear, we could see through the legendary, delicate blue mist for 100 miles.  Then we watched the hurricane reports as Floridians waited for Ian, far from home or sheltering in darkness.

The mountain resort colony of Wintergreen was nearly deserted, the serious foliage rush had not yet started. The silent majesty of the place and its wild surroundings offers a brief touch of serenity, but the hurricane news 850 miles south assaulted the abiding peace of the Shenandoah. Last Wednesday the National Weather Service radar map showed the storm whirling across central Florida then aiming north.

The sun shone on this eccentric spot on a mountain, a mid-grade ski resort—Vail or Killington it’s not. Wintergreen is a refuge for the affluent and semi-affluent who like some distance from their neighbors and love mountains, forests, and cold. Some of the homes are palatial three-level monsters perched on hillsides and concealed in dense treelines; others are modest, A-frames, Capes, ranches, just off the narrow roads.

We’ve been to the place a few times, the most recent more than two years ago (this blog, Feb. 3, 2020) to find a family vacation rental. We drove the 130 miles down from our Woodbridge place in the morning, then through the maze of Wintergreen roads most of the day. We thought we found a nice place, then trekked home and made the reservation. The pandemic showed up. Covid raged through the spring, we canceled, rescheduled, then canceled again.

The two years since then reacquainted us with sickness, tests, and surgeries. So now, back again to Wintergreen, this time from 400 miles to the south. We came in from the west, 30 exhilarating miles through pretty Fairfield and Vesuvius, then 25 more on the quietly gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway.

We stepped outside the apartment that morning and gawked at the distant peaks and the wide valley, still splendid in summer green, then got coffee at the main lodge. We sat, just the two of us, in the cavernous, silent lobby. We looked at the rich paneling and stonework. A single clerk manned the front desk, no guests in sight. None of the fashionable shops were open.

We recalled the last visit: the crispness of winter air, the snow-crested mountains, the exotic, colorful outfits of the ski crowd, the happy cacophony of a dozen languages. We leaned over the railing at the lift and watched the skiers race down the slopes, then drove across the mountainside looking for that special spot.

It all seemed frozen in time. The rental unit, the stunning mountain views, the layout and décor of the visitor’s center, and the restaurant menu remained as we remembered them. We looked for a little while for the vacation house we rented twice. We didn’t save the address, but the image of the site lingered in our memories. Memory wasn’t enough.

We drove down into the valley to get lunch, managing the hairpin turns of Wintergreen mountain, taking in the vernal richness of rolling farmland, acres upon acres of corn that backed up to the surrounding Shenandoah. U.S. 151 winds north through the hamlets of Nellysford, Greenfield, and Avon, past vineyards, breweries, and churches to I-64 and Skyline Drive. Closer to sea level, the sun grew warm.

Shrine Mount, Orkney Springs

I hiked the Appalachian Trail near our rental. The Wintergreen stretch is narrow and heavily rocky and wound gracefully northwest away from the settlement. I spotted bear scat and paused, listened, and looked around, then leaned against a tree, taking in the magic and mystery of the woods. A through-hiker passed and smiled, we chatted. She moved on, I headed back. The storm was coming.  

We drove the 90 miles up the interstate to Bayse under gathering clouds. The Virginia governor had declared a state of emergency as the dregs of the storm approached, but the sun returned, the sky cleared. We tacked northwest to Mount Jackson then straightaway west on U.S. 263 toward West Virginia. The cornfields fell away, mountain forest closed in again.

We passed through tiny Mount Clifton and cruised through Bayse, an unincorporated place of a few businesses, truck-garden spreads, and hidden residential streets. We paused at Orkney Springs, site of Shrine Mount, a pretty complex of colonial homes converted to a retreat center by the Episcopal Church. The noon sun gleamed off the whitewashed houses, a few Episcopalians strolled about.

Back at Bayse, we walked a rugged mile, panting up steep slopes in that hidden spot just short miles from the West Virginia line and hundreds of miles from our South Carolina neighborhood. The quiet path prompted the questions that oldsters keep asking themselves about the past and the future, how we got here, what’s next, that kind of thing.

Dark clouds appeared, bringing a cold rain. We slogged back, fortified in a small way by closing on the boundaries of wild places. The forest will turn brown and gray and frigid winds will rush in. Winter is coming. We pressed on.

Big Road

September 26, 2022

Bayse, Va., is west of the Massanutten Range just south of Front Royal and Strasburg. For us, that means I-81 from Johnson City, Tenn., for roughly 350 miles of mountains, farmland, and small country churches.

Five interstate highways, 10, 40, 70, 80, and 90 cross the country. I-81 really is just a spur, at 850 miles, from just east of Knoxville to the Canadian border. It’s long enough.

In 2011 we drove south on I-81 late at night. Near Wytheville, Va., the wind howled, the rain pounded the windshield. Eighteen wheelers were pulling to the shoulder, the highway was dark, no headlights in front of or behind us. We saw the marquee of a La Quinta Inn and got off. The desk clerk’s face was pale. We got lucky, they had a room. Thunder crashed, rivers and lakes formed in the parking lot. Then it was quiet.

Back on the interstate the next morning, we saw shattered and twisted trees, barns, sheds, homes. The news reported a tornado, then several, up and down the I-81 corridor. It was the same on the way back a few days later along that stretch. Destruction for miles.

2011 is a lifetime ago, the images remain. Earlier, every year starting in 2006 and through 2017 we drove from northern Virginia to Nashville in April to visit family and friends. We passed and or stopped at familiar places, around the Shenandoahs, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Natural Bridge north of Roanoke, and Blacksburg, Marion, Abingdon, Bristol. Then Knoxville, Oak Ridge, Crossville, Cookeville, Lebanon. We both were working and healthy.

In those years we didn’t look forward more than a few days. Everything is different now. Our Nashville friends moved away. Others, Sandy’s family, face health problems, work transitions and challenges. The city is not the same city we moved from years ago, not the same city we visited for years afterward.

Now forward is all that matters. Grandkids have something to do with that. In ten years the older boy will graduate from high school. I’d like to attend the ceremony. The U.S. Navy is building a new class of submarines that will stay in service until 2080. We know where we’ll be then.

For now, I-81 still draws us. Heading north from Greenville, S.C., it’s U.S. 25 to I-26 to Asheville, then through the empty country and dark peaks of western North Carolina and East Tennessee, through Erwin and Unicoi to 81 just past Johnson City. The Virginia state line is another 20 miles, opposite the fabulous Tennessee Welcome Center, which offers eloquent lessons in the state’s tumultuous history and rough-hewn culture. On the southbound side is an enormous neon-lit cross fronting a modest Baptist church. You would know you’re in Tennessee.

Northbound is a slog for a while. Beyond Bristol the road descends into the remoteness of the rugged, depressed stretch to Abingdon. The coal mines have closed, factories shut down, young people have left. Grayson Highlands State Park outside Wilson is spectacular. Years ago when the kids were small we spent a week at Hungry Mother State Park near Marion, a quiet spot next to a pretty lake.

Interstate 81 at times resurrects memories, long dormant, of both happy and grieving trips in both directions. The broken white lines and mile markers blur and disappear over miles and more miles. One exit stays in my mind, “Rural Retreat,” which we’ve never explored. A sense of our Virginia world turns up around Radford and Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech. The highway drags towards Salem and Roanoke.

Along Skyline Drive

Along this lonely stretch are connections to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which soars through the Shenandoahs for maybe 100 miles to a place called Rockfish Gap, west of Charlottesville, where it becomes Skyline Drive, showing off some of Virginia’s breathtaking vistas, rolling, deep valleys and soaring Appalachian peaks.

North and west of Roanoke is hot-springs country, where pricey spas nestle near isolated coal towns. Years ago I took U.S. 220 from I-81 through tiny, cut-off hollows to Hot Springs. Suddenly the forest opened up at The Homestead, a spa and golf resort planted in the middle of almost nowhere—except that The Greenbrier, another mecca for affluent steambathers and massage-seekers, is only 40 miles away in Warm Sulphur Springs, West Va.

I can’t remember when, exactly, but I went to business meetings at both. The contrast, ramshackle shacks and soaring white columns, boarded-up stores and sweeping green fairways rattles the nerves.

We take turns at the wheel, plodding through the mountains to the piedmont’s rolling green hills, deeper into the Old Dominion. The change is from hardscrabble southwest, really still the Deep South, to the tragedy-racked heart of the state, where Yankees and rebels fought at New Market and Winchester then, further east, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Petersburg, Richmond, where the war’s end was decided and the course of American history recharted.

Coming north to our old Virginia place over three decades, we’d leave 81 where it meets I-64-East at Staunton, then turn north at Charlottesville. Another two hours on state roads would land us in Prince William County. We still have the route memorized. Now, though, it’s 81 only. The pitch of the landscape smooths a bit before the Massanuttens rise gradually to the east. The 100-mile-long ridge looms past New Market and three pretty towns, Edinburg, Woodstock, and Toms Brook.

The suburbs begin to show up with the fast-food joints and the ubiquitous Sheetz multi-pump gas and grocery outlets. Suddenly majestic Signal Knob mountain appears, a beacon to Strasburg, then Front Royal, then I-66 to Washington. The American South ends at Front Royal. But I-66 crosses the Appalachian Trail at Markham. Still deep-forest, rocky country.

Just past Strasburg the D.C. rush hour reaches out 50 miles, the left-lane traffic blasts past us. The mountains, becoming hills, are in the rear-view mirror. Woodbridge, where we ended our long Virginia tour when dreams expired, is an easy run. It rates a drive-by, a short one. We look south now. I-81 is our escape route, all those miles to a complicated future in a still-complicated place, to respite, the final act, salvation.   

The Project

September 19, 2022

The floor sander weighed more than 100 pounds, easily. The Home Depot Rental Center staff, a young woman and an older guy, lifting together, loaded it in the van. I bought four strips of coarse sandpaper. At home I took a deep breath and eased the machine down to the driveway and pushed it through the backyard. As I heaved it up the two steps onto the deck I felt an ugly twinge in my back. I knew then this is a two-man job. I was short one man.

The deck is about 10 feet by 10 feet, accessible from the house through a sliding glass door to the kitchen. Sunlight streams through the door into the kitchen. The deck is old and rickety, the paint chipping, the nails popping. It cried out for top-to-bottom refinishing, or the junkyard. A short few months ago we thought it could become a sunroom, providing more living space, brightness, and warmth.

Sunrooms are popular. Who doesn’t love sprawling in an easy chair or on a soft sofa, feeling the bright rays bathe the body in nature’s gentle warmth, even through the summer’s choking humidity or winter’s icy winds? Everyone loves sunrooms, the cheery, wide-windowed spaces on the bright side of the house. That is, on some houses. Ours doesn’t have one.

No, it’s true, we don’t have one. In the plodding melodrama of our lives, really, it’s a small thing. Meanwhile, we’re stunned every day, like everyone else, by the relentless history beyond our modest foothold in this place. Floods and fires ravage the nation, stock prices plummet, interest rates spiral upward. Covid is returning, the country is torn by political anger. The world is wracked by war, millions suffer.

Yet still—we all push on, trying our best to move our own worlds forward and make our dreams come true; to do something concrete and creative, to leave a mark, great or humble, that will remain beyond our time, something others can point to and even enjoy.

Some try to write a book, paint a landscape, plant a garden, something maybe only our families will remember. In the suburbs we have a natural avenue, both ambitious and mundane: fix up our little nests. Moving into a new home juices the feeling. You like it but it still could use something, a fresh coat of paint, new kitchen or bathroom fixtures, drapes, curtains. Or a sunroom. Our kids’ homes have sunrooms. So do our most of our friends’ homes. When we visit we sit in their lovely, sunny spaces and wonder, could this be ours?

It took us months to make up our minds to sell our Virginia house and move. Inertia paralyzed us, reinforced by years of doing the same things in the same place. It set in again here. We looked on as neighbors and family took on ambitious projects, and wondered.

Months sped by, eventually we stepped up. Three contractors gave us sunroom proposals ranging from $41,000 to $21,000. The high one was from a big homebuilding outfit that wouldn’t notice our business and probably didn’t want it. We didn’t respond, the firm didn’t bother calling back. The low-bid guy pitched a semi-back porch framed with uninsulated plastic windows that he called a “three-season” space. We guessed he knew he would be the low bidder.

We liked the third guy, his bid seemed reasonable. We would have tweaked it. The HOA would rule on the design. That could take a while. But he said that supply-chain problems meant long delays for materials, and anyway he was backed up with work for months. We didn’t commit. His bid simmered for a while, then went cold.

So did our excitement about our bold stroke. A sunroom would add square footage, but we would lose the outdoor space and the spray of sunlight into the kitchen. We wondered what else we could do with the thousands of dollars the sunroom would cost. Our daughter said we could travel the world. It wasn’t in the budget when we moved. Meanwhile health-care costs are rising 8 percent per year.

Ten years ago, in Virginia, I built a 30-foot-long patio with concrete bricks. It took four months, but was indestructible. I sat out there on many evenings, taking in nature. Over time the backyard hill eroded a bit and dirt leached onto the bricks, some of which buckled. But it was mine.

We looked again at the deck with kinder eyes. We could refinish and rebuild it, make it immortal. We could enjoy fresh air and sunlight outside.

Back to the sander: I fastened a sandpaper strip in place and pressed “Start.” The engine roared and tore into the deck surface. I shut it off and caught my breath, the sander vibrated to a stop and keeled over. I peered at the underside, the paper was torn by protruding nails I didn’t notice.

I righted the machine, grasped the handle and pushed “Start” again.  It bucked forward and chewed at the rough floor, pulverizing the surface and the faded decades-old blue paint, dust shooting in all directions. I kept pushing, weaving slowly across the deck to the railing. I backed up and ploughed over the same boards a second time, leaving a whitened, smoothed path through the rough wood.

After navigating the sander in rows across the entire deck I hauled my leaf blower from the garage and blasted away the thick lines of dust, which blew back in my eyes and nose and coated me head to toe. I replaced the worn sanding strip and steered across the deck again. The sander whined, the paint turned to dust. Back and forth, back and forth, through the ear-splitting din. I hit another nail that tore the paper. I replaced it and kept going. In 90 minutes the worn deck floor looked whitened, beaten, smoothed.

I turned the machine off and leaned on the railing, sweating and covered with dust. The deck edges the sander couldn’t reach were untouched, awaiting long hours of hand finishing.

The sander was due back at the Depot in an hour. I stumbled inside. Sandy helped me lift it into the van. We headed back down the interstate. Outside the Rental Center a staff guy waved. “It’s in the van,” I said. Together we lifted the machine onto the parking lot. I thanked him, we drove away.

Later that afternoon I used the leaf blower to blow away the remaining dust, revealing most of the surface, now ground cleanly to bare wood. Months of work remains, but this much is done. The sunroom? Maybe next year. Maybe not.

Faraway Places

September 12, 2022

Italy’s Amalfi coast is supposed to be lovely. So is Merida, Mexico, on the Yucatan peninsula. Just two weeks ago two of our children were visiting both. We have friends now visiting Palermo, Italy. So where are we going?

Many of us yearn to jet off to faraway places, to see Europe’s great museums, cathedrals, and castles, to cruise the Rhine to Strasbourg and the Danube to Vienna. We hope to stroll past the Coliseum in Rome and climb the Eiffel Tower and China’s Great Wall. The plaintive, beautiful tune, “You Belong to Me,” sung by multiple artists back to Jo Stafford’s sweet tones in 1952, says it all:

“See the pyramids along the Nile … watch the sun rise on a tropic isle … fly the ocean in a silver plane … see the jungle when it’s wet with rain …”  You close your eyes and listen, and think, I have to do that, I have to go. 

Click here for link.

The rolling hills and rich green fields of Prince Edward Island run down to rocky beaches along the island’s northern coast, which faces the rich blue Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The rural roads are nearly empty even when they pass through tidy, peaceful villages. Tall steeples of old churches break the horizon. In fall 2010 we drove around the island, stunning in its beauty. We stayed near the fictional Ann of Green Gables home. Most restaurants and hotels had shut down for winter, but we managed.

The urge to travel is almost a law of nature for retired people. Travel is one of the things our nest eggs are for. In June we drove to Wyoming, then last month to New Jersey. New Jersey?  Why not a long plane ride to some exotic place? Our last plane trip was in June to New Hampshire for my college reunion. Last fall we flew to Colorado to visit our daughter. Before that, in July, we flew to Boston, rented a car and drove, again, to New Hampshire.

Shrine, Taichung, Taipei

In the depths of covid, no one was flying. Before last summer I recall taking a plane to Seattle to see my sister and brother-in-law in 2019. It was winter. They no longer live there.

We got to London for the Farnborough Air Show in 1988 and to Paris for the Paris Air Show a year later, both were work trips. We saw some of the sights, London Bridge, St. Paul’s, the Eiffel Tower. For our 25th anniversary we went to Rome. At the Vatican we got close to the Pope (John Paul II, two popes back). I thought he looked me in the eye.  Sandy went back to Italy with her church choir. Our kids all have been to Europe, our son and daughter-in-law to Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia, our daughters to Japan, Russia, and Peru.

I have been to some unique places. In the Marine Corps I spent a year on Okinawa because the Corps sent me, no fun and games. In Naha, the capital, I visited the sad memorial at the cliffs where Okinawans leaped to their deaths during the ferocious April-June 1945 battle. I rode a bike around the rugged northern end of the island where some of the heaviest fighting occurred. On leave I went to Taiwan and rode a train from Taipei to spectacular Sun Moon Lake and to mysterious Taichung City.

Sun Moon Lake

In 1980 I visited Nicaragua on the first anniversary of the Marxist-Sandinista revolution, while sporadic fighting continued. In the hotel bar I ate dinner with Sandinista soldiers who laid their automatic weapons on the tables while small-arms fire echoed outside. The capital, Managua, still was in ruins after the 1972 earthquake.

On my way to Managua I visited Guatemala in the middle of the country’s tragic 30-year civil war, when the military and vigilante armies fought Marxist guerrillas in the mountains. The then-president, General Lucas Garcia, was overthrown by yet another repressive general in 1982. A year later, I spent a week in Mexico City, inhaling its red-brown smog. I walked across the Plaza de la Constitucion, the Zocalo, and rode out to the Aztec pyramids. In the hotel a maid asked me for money, I gave her pocket cash. Poverty torments, even at the Marriott.

Great Slave Lake

On the plus side, in June 2010 my son Michael and I went fishing on the Great Slave Lake, the deepest in North America, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. We flew to Yellowknife by way of an overnight in Edmonton, Alberta, then in a pontoon plane to a wilderness camp. For four days we hauled in giant lake trout and northern pike from the near-freezing lake.

My siblings and our kids all have been to Ireland. Our daughter spent a year in college in Dublin, we never got there. It’s on the list. I’d like to see Oxford, England. On the domestic side, Sandy wants to go to Alaska. We haven’t set foot there or in Arkansas, Hawaii, Nebraska, or Oregon.

Cruises are big with some folks. We met a lady just back from a Viking cruise to the Adriatic coast plus Turkey, which she said she loved. The ship stopped at Dubrovnik in Croatia. Dubrovnik? Wikipedia calls it “one of the prominent tourist destinations in the Mediterranean.” We get the Viking brochures. I looked up the cruise: $4,600/person for the low-rent cabin, not counting airfare or tours ashore. We may not get there right away.

Some folks look at the world, or maybe just look at brochures or their National Geographics and sign up for their trips. They go with tour groups or in twos and threes or fours, or by themselves. They punch their tickets at interesting places but never go back. 

We have only so much time. We hope, like the wandering lover in “You Belong to Me,” to see the world and the infinite variety of God’s creation. But we listen one more time and realize the song isn’t about travel at all. Instead it expresses a woman’s generous love, an immensely greater gift than visits to the pyramids on the Nile and all monuments, museums, and cathedrals.

We go on talking about trips while living our lives, which now include an MRI to locate cancer. That and all our experiences fit together in some complicated, mystical way, as in the song’s apt title. The details fade into the swamp of daily life. We can fly off in the silver plane, or not. We all work hard to belong to each other. The trips are just sights along the way.  

Boroughs

September 5, 2022

Some places are a highway, a bridge, a traffic jam, or a generation too far. The upper reaches of the Bronx, New York’s northernmost borough, are a long trip even from New Jersey. The toll across the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge (“the George”) from Fort Lee, N.J., into the northern end of Manhattan now is $16 round-trip.

We made it to Jersey last month to see my sister-in-law, niece, and nephew, and got to the almost-famous Gotham City Diner along scruffy, all-Jersey U.S. 4, the direct route from Paterson to the George. But we scrubbed the Bronx tour which, really, would have been about resurrecting memories. Southern suburban quaintness plays games with how you think about New York.

In 1986 we moved from Nashville to Red Bank, N.J., 40 miles from the city, for one year. At first I warmed to that familiar, complicated place. Eventually it seemed like another country.       

I was born in New York City, but when I was a kid we moved to Jersey, about 15 miles west of the George. We took Route 4 to the bridge to visit my grandparents, my dad’s folks, in the Bronx. The bridge traffic flows under a crisscross of Manhattan streets across the East River (at that point called the Harlem River). The highway becomes the Cross Bronx Expressway, the continuation of I-95 to New England. We turned north onto University Avenue and crawled through traffic for four or five miles to Fordham Road.

U.S 4, Fairlawn, N.J.

In the years I grew up they lived on the fourth floor of a five-story walkup on a winding street named Father Zeiser Place. The street borders a large city park with a playground. The church where my parents were married is a block away at the busy Fordham and University intersection.

The Fordham neighborhood streets were lined with butcher and grocery shops with signs in Hebrew, small Italian eateries, inexpensive clothing stores. The sidewalks always were crowded with shoppers, commuters with briefcases and, on school days, Jewish boys wearing yarmulkes and Catholic kids in maroon school uniforms. Fordham University is a few blocks farther east. An Alexander’s department store anchored the neighborhood, next to the IRT subway station where the “A” train picks up and lets off en route to and from Manhattan with a stop at Yankee Stadium. The world-famous Bronx Zoo is nearby.  

In those years the George Washington Bridge toll was 50 cents. It went to $1.75 in 1975. By then my Bronx grandparents were gone. Even twenty years ago graffiti covered almost every wall.    

Every so often we’d drive to Queens to visit my maternal grandmother. That meant the George again, but we turned off the bridge onto the West Side Highway, now the Henry Hudson Parkway, which runs north-south along the Hudson then curls into a tunnel to Brooklyn. We’d slog through Brooklyn and into Queens—seemed like hours—then pass the Navy air station at Floyd Bennett Field and cross the giant Marine Bridge over Jamaica Bay. The south side of the bay is Rockaway Beach, part of a long narrow peninsula that fronts the Atlantic, a crowded beach community in summer, but somehow still a small town.

My mother and her two sisters and three brothers grew up there. In time they scattered. Now the Bronx and Queens, for our family, may as well be on the far side of the Atlantic. No one we’re related to is left in either.

A few years ago we drove from Virginia to a wedding out on Long Island. We spent a night in Jersey and took the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn, but then detoured south and crossed, once again, the Marine Bridge into Rockaway. The Navy abandoned Floyd Bennett years ago, it’s now part of Gateway National Recreation Area, which extends from Rockaway marshland across New York harbor to New Jersey marshland, hence “Gateway.”  

Rockaway Beach is a tight grid of numbered streets, each prefaced with “Beach,” running north- south from the bay up to a boardwalk astride the beach and west-east from Beach 149th to Beach 6th. There the neighborhood ends at a giant freeway. It’s the far southern end of Queens, the Manhattan skyline is faintly visible in the distance. But Rockaway is still New York.

The beach streets still are lined with elaborate, sprawling homes, some a century old, many with roomy decks and porches. Here and there the homes now are squeezed between cramped-looking apartment buildings. We walked across the boardwalk and down to the beach. It was November and chilly, the ocean was gray and choppy, brushed by the wind, which pushed the surf against the hard sand. The beach was deserted, I spied a few folks hurrying along the boardwalk, which extends for a couple of miles east and west.  

Red Bank house

The place had a familiar look. We browsed in a few shops, a young saleswoman enthusiastically pushed “Rockaway Beach” T-shirts. We picked out a couple, sure to stand out in Virginia. We stopped at a white-tablecloth restaurant with a look of faded elegance. A few oldsters were getting lunch, the corned beef. We took a booth and stepped back in time.

New York, to many Americans who don’t live there, means Manhattan: Broadway, Wall Street, Central Park, Trump Tower, unique icons of America. They remember 9/11, but the Bronx and Queens don’t register. Those are the Americans whose idea of New Yorkers is rich investment bankers, artsy, radical Greenwich Village types, and snobby Democrats who know little and care less about the rest of the country.

Then again, New Yorkers don’t pay much attention to what’s below the Mason-Dixon line, except maybe southern Florida, where many hope to end up in their sunset years. But those who emigrate still think of their hometown as the center of the universe. They say the right things, but for most New Yorkers everywhere beyond Jersey is an alien planet.

These days, as always, some young people pine to make the Big Apple scene, to feel the glitz, the vibe of the city that never sleeps. They concoct ways to get there, to snap their fingers to the beat of the Sinatra ballad. I left, everyone I knew and loved finally left, or died.

Some people and places vanish like dreams. Others remain with us forever. You go where you decide your life makes sense. That’s where you stay.

Anniversary with PET

August 29, 2022

Some elements of reality, of everyday life, flow together with grace. True love and picnics, for example. Others, like anniversaries and PET scans, confront each other in strange, unnerving ways. Friday was our anniversary, 44 years, Thursday was my PET scan.

PET stands for positron emission tomography. A simple explanation is that it detects energy use in tissue, which can reveal cancer and other problems. A PET scan usually follows a CT, or computed tomography scan.

The hospital waiting room was deserted when I arrived around 4 PM. I looked out the big plate-glass front window at the flowing traffic. A guy in scrubs, the PET technician, approached from the end of a long corridor.

“Mr. Walsh? I’m Kelly,” he said. He pointed down the hall. “We go this way. How long since you’ve had anything to eat?” he asked. “You’re not diabetic, are you?” I shook my head.

We exited a back door and climbed into a trailer. I took a seat in a closet-sized space. Kelly checked my blood sugar, then inserted the IV. I sat still for 45 minutes, then walked to the next room and slid onto the platform. In twenty minutes I was on my way to the parking lot.

We looked at doing something special for the anniversary and checked out the resort town of Helen, Ga., the so-called “Bavarian village” of Georgia.  Instead we got a hotel room downtown.

Last year we were determined to go somewhere for the big day. Sandy found a “camper cabin” at Lake Hartwell, about 50 miles from home, the only state park rental that didn’t require a three-night stay. It was a pretty lakeside spot, but on the austere side: a bed, an overhead light, an air conditioner. You used the community bathhouse a couple of hundred yards away. No fun in the middle of the night.

Six months later I was cruising after three good CT scans each three months apart and three cheerful followups with the oncologist. The doc, a deep-Deep Southerner, consistently pulls off a sharp plaid shirt/solid tie ensemble, while our other medics turn out in sport shirts and running shoes. His quick, lighthearted wit made the appointments almost enjoyable. After the third good scan, in February, he let me skate for six months.

On Monday, at the Cancer Institute, he was all business. We met in a tiny treatment room, the usual place. He turned the computer monitor toward me and opened my last week’s CT scan. He pointed at a couple of gray shadows, “We have to look at these,” he said. “They might be nothing. I’m ordering a PET. That will tell us whether we need to biopsy.”

I had never thought of “biopsy” as a verb. He brought up my scan of last February, so long ago, and waved at the image. “Look here.” I looked. No shadow.

Friday, the anniversary, we headed downtown. Greenville has built a nice tourist business, with chic eateries and nightspots, a concert hall, a zoo, a gorgeous children’s museum, a beautiful ballpark, Fluor Field, which hosts a Red Sox farm club.

There’s Falls Park, which intersects Main Street along the less-than-mighty Reedy River, a pretty picnic and picture-taking spot. The locally famous 20-mile-long Swamp Rabbit Trail attracts runners, cyclists, strollers, dog-walkers. The trail passes through brand-new Unity Park, a lovely stretch of greenery that celebrates the long overdue reconciliation of whites and African Americans in a city and state once known for ironclad segregation, Jim Crow, and the Klan.

Our daughter Marie took charge of the anniversary, selecting the restaurant and making the reservation. We checked in and walked Main Street, gawking at the spectacle of the city. I leaned over the Main Street bridge to look at the river churning through the park. The evening crowd was out, heading for happy hour in cheerful Southern getups, sundresses, cutoff jean shorts, and bare shoulders for the girls, Clemson and USC tees and Bermudas for the guys. They weren’t all twenty- and thirty-somethings, I spotted some of our fellow geriatrics trying to have fun.

Greenville sunset

We worked our way into the weekend, taking stock. We’re holed up in this mid-size Deep South town, near the southern fringe of the Blue Ridge, a ten-minute drive from our grandkids and a lifetime away from northern Virginia’s snarling, traffic-choked subdivision sprawl. Also ten minutes from the nearest hospital, with its arsenal of state-of-the-art CT, MRI, and PET scanning equipment. I know the doctors, the admin people, the staff nurses, the scan techs.

We went for a walk after dinner, enjoying a mild evening with just a touch of summer mugginess, pleasant after the chilly restaurant. Billowing clouds had gathered, promising a storm, but it was comfortable. We explored some corners of the neighborhood we hadn’t seen before, which is most of it. The restaurants and bars all were packed, it was Greenville’s “Restaurant Week,” when you can get a great three-course meal for less money than usual, which these days still seems like a lot to me. We don’t get out much.

The PET report came in late that night with more detail than the CT, but really the same story. The dense medical language says something is going on in there. Most likely, if the doc wants a PET scan, something is going on. The report recommended an MRI “for further evaluation.”

The hotel had given us a 7th floor corner room, large and airy, with floor-to-ceiling windows, a bit disorienting if you stood close and looked down. We could gaze across the city, past the apartments, hotels, and office and industrial buildings that passes for a skyline.

Beyond all that were the hazy pale-blue mountains that trail down from North Carolina and run west to the big lakes, Keowee and Jocassee, and then to rugged, forested north Georgia.

We slept well, enjoyed breakfast, and walked through the popular downtown farmer’s market, where vendors sell gourmet coffee and chocolate, pasta, granola, something called kuka juice; also some farm products. We talked about the future. Another anniversary, another year.

Arts & Crafts

August 22, 2022

When I wanted art supplies in Virginia I went to Michael’s, the big arts and crafts chain that competes head-on with Hobby Lobby. I liked the local Michael’s, it stocked the things I needed and did good work on some framing for us. The checkouts were fast and efficient.

Moving to a new community is an adventure, but it also means leaving things behind. When we arrived in South Carolina we needed a kitchen table and chairs, a microwave, a bedframe, a living-room chair. That took months. Finally, I needed some humble things, oil and acrylic paints and brush cleaner. I didn’t want to go far to get them. The nearest Michael’s is six miles away from our new place, through traffic. Hobby Lobby is two miles, an easy drive.

Hobby Lobby, based in Oklahoma City, with nearly 1,000 stores, postures as a “Christian” business. The stores are closed on Sundays. In early 2016 Hobby Lobby CEO David Green said, “under no circumstances could I vote for Donald Trump because he could do much, much damage to this country … to the extent of talking about someone’s anatomy,” referring to Trump’s comments about women that revealed him as a dirt-mouthed lecher. He said he probably would not vote.

In September he endorsed Trump, saying “Donald Trump has been steadfast in expressing his commitment to uphold the Constitution.” The anatomy comments were forgotten.

Green and his family funded construction of a so-called Museum of the Bible in Washington that opened in 2017. The museum purchased thousands of “biblical” artifacts from fly-by-night antiquities dealers. Many were found to have been smuggled out of Iraq. In 2017 a federal court forced the museum to return 5,500 items to Iraq and fined it $3 million.  In March 2020 experts revealed that all of the 16 items that the museum claimed were fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls were fake. The New York Times reported that in August 2021 Iraq reclaimed some 17,000 items held by the Greens’ museum.

Also in March 2020, when the pandemic set in and most businesses shut down, Hobby Lobby argued that it was an “essential” retailer. According to published sources, CEO Green said his wife received a message from God directing the chain to stay open. The stores closed a month later after a blast of criticism. The company furloughed employees without pay and encouraged them to apply for unemployment benefits.

As bizarre as this seems, it’s also exhausting. Some people refuse to shop at Hobby Lobby, just as others refuse to watch MSNBC or CNN. At this time of endless political nastiness, I didn’t want to find politics at the crafts store.

The Hobby Lobby near us looks like the one in our former Virginia community, advertised by giant boldface capital letters across the front of the building. I drove over through thick afternoon heat, hurried inside and met a blast of cold air.

I was in no hurry and wandered a bit. The long aisles are piled high with arts and crafts materials, artificial flowers, wicker furniture, prints of religious paintings, picture frames, plastic knockoffs of famous statues. You can get sewing gear, fabric, zippers, artificial Christmas trees. The book rack offers “best seller” inspirational works by well-known evangelists. Hobby Lobby also is the place for posters and plaques of the “God Bless Our Home” variety.

The store was running a sale, 40 percent off almost everything. I found my items quickly for slightly better prices than I paid at Michael’s, although the South Carolina sales tax (6 percent) is a tad higher than Virginia’s (5.3 percent). 

It was a mid-afternoon weekday, I thought I’d miss the store’s busier hours. I was the only male in four open checkout lines. No one was in a hurry. The cashiers smiled at each customer ahead of me, commenting on the attractiveness of each purchase, wrapping glass and other fragile items. In my line the customers, young, middle-aged, and older women, chatted with each other while the cashier finished wrapping and bagging.   

Some moms towed pre-school-age children who fidgeted and wandered, some of them grabbing packs of Skittles and candy and sneaking them into their mothers’ carts. Nearly all the moms retrieved and returned the stuff to the candy rack, some with a gentle lecture. One or two gave in and the kids tore off the wrappers and chomped on their treats.

The line inched forward. The drone of chitchat was in normal, occasionally animated voices, no whispering or hushed tones. The customers discussed prices and quality, whether Hobby Lobby had the best deals for this or that. The line stood still while an older lady politely disputed a price of an artificial floral arrangement. I held my items under my arm. I was alone on this errand, some of the women clearly had come in pairs or threes. No one spoke to me.

At checkout I handed the cashier my card. She gave me a businesslike nod and handled my purchase quickly with a “have a nice day.” Then I was out of there.

I wondered. Why did this errand seem strange? I’ve waited in lots of checkout lines. After decades living in the South I know something about Southerners, the reflexive, sunny openness and friendliness, but also, sometimes, an unsettling, dark remoteness. My native Yankee prejudices may have led me to read in the customers, in their manner, some hard-to-define social or political content. Maybe that’s unfair.

While waiting, my mind drifted to Hobby Lobby and politics. South Carolina, like David Green, went for Trump in a big way. The state, like the company, has its pervasive “evangelical” Christian tilt. Yet like everywhere in Trumpdom, the comments about women were excused, ignored, or forgotten. Same with the election denialism, the admiration for dictators, the moneygrubbing, the covid indifference, the racial and ethnic slurs.

At any rate, the ladies feel comfortable at Hobby Lobby, probably as comfortable as they feel at church. The shopping is a chore, but also an outing, a social thing, like coffee after Sunday services. Then too, maybe my Hobby Lobby checkout friends all voted for Biden. I think I’ll go back to Michael’s.  

Touristville

August 15, 2022

The menu for the Broadway Pub and Grill in Jim Thorpe, Penn., was posted on the door. I looked it over and saw the hamburger priced at $20. Sandy and I kept walking. We found a shop a block further on and each got a sandwich for $15. Then we climbed in the van and drove away.

Jim Thorpe is tucked in a valley in east-central Pennsylvania, once anthracite coal-mining country. There’s one way in and out, U.S. 209, which intersects with I-476 about ten miles north. The downtown business district is built around an old railroad station. The narrow streets are dotted with cute shops and eateries. On a sunny summer day the streets were crowded with people, few of whom, I guessed, live in the town. In that way it’s like lots of other small American towns.

Trying not to be grumpy, I wonder about these places. The formula seems to be: a central business district with a couple of streets of well-preserved or restored buildings, maybe banks or hotel buildings with antique-looking 19th or early 20th century facades, and an old church or two with tall spires or bell towers. Then a depressed or stagnant local economy and a sense of hard times. Next, an energetic mayor or board of county supervisors or other local officials. They try to figure out how to revitalize things. The answer: tourists.

I’m reaching here, but just a little. It appears that decisionmakers in many places have made this calculation. They commission a study that finds that tourists are attracted to shopping, eating, and drinking in places that convey some historical ambiance.

Old Town Alexandria, Va., may be a baseline. It’s filled with rowhouses, churches, and other buildings dating to the 18th century. Many sidewalks are cobblestone or old brick, lined with beautiful gardens. Then there’s the restaurants. In the 33 years we lived in Virginia we ate dozens of meals in Old Town cafes and bistros. Our daughter had her wedding rehearsal dinner there. So do lots of other couples. People actually live in Old Town, although visitors probably wonder who can afford to buy there.

The economic engine is tourism. Old Town usually is crowded with people shopping, eating, and drinking, some local for sure, but mostly from other cities and states, and other countries. It’s a model for downtown prosperity.

You can find a mix of places, large and small, that use the Old Town model: Portsmouth, N.H., West Chester, Penn., East Hampton, N.Y., Cape May, N.J., Bozeman, Mont. Next to our old hometown is Occoquan, Va. Within our driving range is Hendersonville, N.C., where Main Street is a highway of cuteness, with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, art galleries, boutiques. So is Brevard, a bit farther north, although there’s also a college. Christmas shopping is very big. Leavenworth, Wash., remade itself as a Bavarian village on the advice of economists at the state university.

The formula isn’t exact, for example, neither West Chester nor East Hampton are depressed. Some have natural tourism draws; East Hampton and Cape May have beaches. The history angle is more prominent in some places, but every place can claim historical nuggets. Portsmouth played an active role in the American Revolution. West Chester was incorporated in 1799. Bozeman became a base for settling the West. Occoquan was a key Civil War Potomac River port. And so on.

Plenty of places are named after people. Very few other towns are named with a personal name and surname, among them Albert Lea, Minn., Carol Stream, Ill., George West, Texas.

Back to Jim Thorpe. There’s history there, too. Jim Thorpe, born in 1887, was Native American, raised on the Sac and Fox reservation in Oklahoma. He won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympic Games. A year later the International Olympic Committee revoked his medals when he admitted he had played professional baseball so had lost his amateur status. The medals were restored in 1983, 30 years after his death.

Thorpe starred in pro football and baseball. In 1950 a poll of sportswriters voted him the “greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century.” In 1999 an Associated Press poll named him third on a list of greatest athletes of the century.

Yet Thorpe led a troubled life, became a serious alcoholic, and ended up broke. When he died in 1953 his body lay in state in his hometown of Shawnee, Okla. His third wife, Patricia, without telling the rest of his family, shipped his body to the Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, which promised to erect a memorial, and allegedly paid her for the remains.

The two towns placed Thorpe in a marble tomb and erected two statues of him. The towns merged and took the name Jim Thorpe. Later his family sued to have him returned to Oklahoma. After years of legal back-and-forth, in 2014 an appeals court ruled that the plaintiffs—the family—could not use a federal statute to win return of the body. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case. So Thorpe remains in Jim Thorpe, a place he never visited.  

Downtown, along Lehigh Avenue, visitors can ride on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railroad. They can dine and drink at Molly Maguire’s Irish Pub. A block away, on Race Street, you find the Jim Thorpe Massage and Wellness Studio and Muggie’s Mug, a coffee bar. There’s a hibachi-sushi gastropub, a bed & breakfast, and The Inn at Jim Thorpe. There’s a Fall Foliage Festival and Jim Thorpe’s Olde Time Christmas, an Anthracite Triathlon, and an art foundation. 

Uptown, along North Street across the Lehigh River, we passed blocks of frame houses, many needing a coat of paint, some with broken porch railings, others with scruffy lawns and cracked walkways. The streets were largely deserted. Next to the tourist scene, North Street might have been in another state. I got a sense that hard times still linger. I guessed people from the neighborhood work in the downtown shops and restaurants. The town needs the jobs.

The Carbon County Chamber of Commerce is in Lehighton, a few miles away. They’ve done well reinventing the old coal town. Jim’s tomb, on the outskirts, is impressive. No one else was around when we stopped by, but I guess it brings the visitors. Or the pubs and shops do. Hard to tell.   

North to PA

August 8, 2022

The Civil War followed us as we headed up I-81 to Pennsylvania. In Winchester, Va., we stumbled on commemorations of the Third Battle of Winchester. There, in September 1864 Union General Philip Sheridan broke the rebels’ hold on the Shenandoah Valley and helped Lincoln’s reelection, which then helped end the war seven months later.

Locals felt differently about the outcome. At the battle site a monument erected in 2017 honors a North Carolina Confederate unit that fought there. Downtown, in the center of the tourist boulevard, a tall statue of a rebel infantryman stands, the base emblazoned “In Lasting Honor of Every Confederate Soldier.”

Battle of Winchester monument

We were heading for our son’s and daughter-in-law’s place near Philadelphia. We stayed on the interstate across the industrial northeastern corner of West Virginia and into Maryland, aiming for Harrisburg. Instead we took U.S. 30 out of Chambersburg towards Gettysburg. Mid-state Pennsylvania still is Trump groupie country, decorated with campaign signs for Trump acolyte and election denier Doug Mastriano, who’s running for governor. Tattered “Trump-Pence 2020” signs hang here and there.  

The battlefield at Gettysburg surrounds the city. It was 90F, but we got a bus from the visitor’s center out to the Eisenhower farm, where the president and Mamie retreated, when they could, from the White House. Eisenhower conducted government business, hosted foreign leaders, and raised Angus cattle at the farm. We walked through the lovely brick-and-stone home, presented exactly as Mamie left it when she passed in 1979. Ike died in 1969.

We saw those immortal places, Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, and finally Cemetery Ridge, where 6,500 Yanks rained fire down on Pickett’s 12,000-man rebel line as they advanced into that death trap on the third day of the battle. Years later veterans of Union and Confederate units who fought at Gettysburg erected dignified markers and monuments to their fallen members across the vast breadth of the battlefield.

Sunroom, Eisenhower home

Looking west, the battlefield and surrounding farmland are gorgeous in rich summer green. The terrain shows a slight slope out to the horizon, which I guess worked to the advantage of the Union troops and against the exhausted rebels. The Allegheny range rises far westward, Pittsburgh and the industrial western counties are maybe 150 miles farther on. East of the city, cornfields, wide and thick, stretch from the highway as it passes through New Oxford, Abbottstown, Thomasville, still west of the highway maze at York.

We slogged through the York rush hour and passed the I-83 interchange, the route to Baltimore or Harrisburg. We pushed east with the idea of seeing the tranquil Amish farm country around Lancaster. Instead the highway took us north of the city. It continues all the way to Philadelphia.

We have some history in PA. Years ago we came up often when three of our kids lived there, Laura in Pittsburgh, Michael and Caroline near Philadelphia, Marie and Mike in Lewisburg. Like other Yankee states, it shows a mix of farming, corn, wheat, soybeans, and heavy industry, that is, the heaviest: coal mines, steel and coke mills, plastics, chemicals, that once generated choking, killing fumes.

Blood was shed in labor wars around the mines and mills as unions organized. The unions, when they were born, won men better pay and working conditions. In past decades the heavy industries declined, some disappeared, the smog and chemical pollutants with them. Pittsburgh now is a technology and medical research center, with University of Pittsburgh, the U-Pitt Medical Research Laboratory, and Carnegie Mellon, but also niche operations like Gecko Robotics, Seegrid, Petuum, others.

All that disappears farther east on the PA turnpike into the “Alabama” mid-section of the state, from the embarrassing joke about the three Pennsylvanias, with Pittsburgh and Philly the other two. The Flight 93 memorial is set in wide space near Shanksville in Somerset County, where on 9-11-01 the hijackers crashed the aircraft when the passengers tried to overcome them. It’s a solemn place.

Further along the turnpike is the retail shlock of Breezewood, at the intersection with I-70, which will take you to Frederick, Md., the gateway to the south to D.C., or east to Baltimore. Years ago we visited McConnellsburg, a tiny spot of 1,100 souls just south of Breezewood. We wondered about the empty streets and storefronts, but that’s the way it is in many of these places. Businesses shut down, farms were sold, people left.

Lewisburg, home of Bucknell University, is very cold in winter, like the rest of the state. It’s lively if you grew up there, faintly picturesque if you didn’t.  The Susquehanna River flows by, muddy and wide, bordered by small one-street factory towns, then Harrisburg, York, and Lancaster on its way to Chesapeake Bay.

We pushed on into the traffic-choked maw of Philadelphia, which extends well beyond the affluent Main Line, probably 60 miles west, and south to Wilmington. It’s more intense inside I-476, the commuter beltway, which becomes a straight shot north to the pretty farm country around Coopersburg, where Michael and Caroline got married. The 476 northern extension then flows into Allentown, one of America’s first big Iron Towns, famous for pig iron, shoemaking, and flour mills. Next door is Bethlehem, famous for what? Bethlehem Steel.

Twice in recent years we went to Titusville, at the state’s far northwestern end, where oil first was found in the U.S. in 1859. The little town, just south of Erie, exploded with growth and wealth. The oil then ran out, the drilling companies moved to Texas and Oklahoma. Titusville and the nearby counties, far from almost anything, suffered. The usual story: small businesses disappeared, people moved away. Lately things have improved. I met people who relocated to Titusville and love it. The place, like the rest of the state, shows spark.

You drive around these places, you never see them all. How much time do you need to get through Pennsylvania, how much do you have? We look at maps, but need to keep doctor’s appointments. What about a trip to Ireland, which they say is beautiful? Everyone we know has been there. Maybe someday. A big maybe.                   

The Camp

August 1, 2022

Sleeping in the woods isn’t for everyone. Most folks don’t care for lugging camping gear, setting up a tent, lighting a campfire, sleeping on hard ground, freeze-dried food, insects, forest noises, late-night and early morning chill. Not to mention using campground restrooms, or the forest as restroom.

Still, any of us may at some time be moved to walk in the woods, breathe the sweet air among tall trees, and bed down listening to the wildlife. The forest makes no promises. It may, or may not, transport us from our present moment, convey mystery, purity, the impulse to good. It may lighten our burdens and carry us to grace.

Table Rock State Park is near us, astride the craggy south profile of Pinnacle Peak, the state’s second-highest, at 3,428 feet. I thought our grandsons, ages eight and five, would enjoy camping out. For memory’s sake, if nothing else. They liked the idea. Mom came along to ride herd.

If you were a Boy Scout or Girl Scout you’ve done it. Camping with friends may leave fond memories or nightmares. The adult Scout troop leaders soldier on, some enjoying, others dreading those nights in the woods, recalling their own experiences. Once the tent is up, the sleeping bags rolled out, the evening meal finished, the camper sits, maybe with others next to a warming fire, maybe shivering alone or with a buddy in his or her tent in the dim glow of a flashlight. The forest night closes in.

The local residents, the tree frogs, Junebugs, katydids, hoot owls, other things, start their evening concert. It can be raucous, deafening. The wind moans in the treetops. Looking up, the camper sees the dark silhouettes of tree limbs swaying against the dying light. Then, unless there’s moonlight, only blackness. Others may be lying asleep in their tents nearby, but the darkness of midforest can be a lonely darkness. Then too, it may rain.

As a high-school kid I went to the big Philmont Scout Ranch near Raton, in northern New Mexico. Ten of us hiked steep mountainsides and bright aspen forest for twelve days, collapsing each afternoon at a scheduled campground, scooping water from mountain streams and adding, when we remembered, the water-purification tabs we carried to counter the water’s high metallic content. Most of us got sick anyway. We were glad when it ended.

I camped out for a week along the Finger Lakes in northern New York, years later in Tennessee and around Virginia, with my son’s Scout troop in Goshen near the state’s western boundary, solo near Edinburg in the Massanuttens. Sandy and I camped in springtime at a pretty spot called Caroline Furnace in Fort Valley, between Luray and Front Royal. I slept in a tent two or three times in deep West Virginia woods. On our long road trips we camped in West Virginia, Illinois, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, Missouri, and South Dakota. I’ve slept in tents in bone-chilling cold and pouring rain.

We set up camp, the four of us, on the best site we could find at Table Rock. We were at a high point well away from others. We had two tents, one for the guys and Marie, a smaller one for me. We walked downhill to a spur of the Palmetto Trail, which crisscrosses the state. The boys led us on a hike until they got tired and hot and turned around. I lit the camper stove to scorch my freeze-dried dinner, the kids wanted sandwiches. Afterward we stopped at the lake, a few visitors still swam and waded. Beyond the swim area the lake shimmered in the fading sunlight.

Back at camp we stuck marshmallows on sticks and cooked them for s’mores, the traditional fun camping treat. I lit the lantern, we talked for a while. The boys know school starts in three weeks. We turned in with the darkness.

The night air hung densely, the woods was still. At dawn I heated water for coffee. Campers stirred at nearby sites. We ate breakfast, packed, then stopped again at the lake and walked a bit. I hiked alone up a trail among the tall oaks and sycamores along Carrick Creek, which rushes down Table Rock mountain to the lake. No one else appeared. The forest remained, true to its nature, a chapel, a place of peace.

At home as I unpacked I thought of a night seven or eight years ago, high in Virginia forest, far from the nearest town. It was May but the night air felt like December. It can be like that in mountains. We huddled together in our sleeping bags, but I couldn’t sleep. I stepped out of the tent, shivering, stamping my feet, my breath forming vapor in the cold. Brilliant starlight reflected on treetops. I lit a fire and rubbed my hands together. Soon dawn broke, the sun rose high and golden.

We headed back to our lives in the suburbs, to the congestion, the commuting, the strip malls, the world we had lived in for 28 years. But I remembered that wilderness place and the sublime purity of the cold that mellowed and faded as the new day emerged. It brought to mind a day months earlier when I met a pair of hikers burrowed in their sleeping bags in a foot of snow along the Appalachian Trail. They crawled out of their tent and shook my hand, smiling.

Nature, God’s first creation, untouched by the rough handling of humanity, never abandons us. It may reveal both elegant and fearsome truths of our world. Forbearance, bearing up through bitter, bracing gusts of mountain winters and pungent warmth of hothouse Southern summers may yet teach the meaning of hope and faith. We may depart sustained and strengthened for a while, sometimes a long while. Then we return.