September 27, 2021

My cousin handed me a faint xerox copy of a forty-year-old handwritten letter. It was a copy of a copy, and that possibly also a copy. It was written by a long-deceased uncle to a long-deceased aunt. He wrote of his health and of a stay at a Veteran’s Hospital. He asked about the aunt’s daughters, one of whom is the cousin. He wrote the letter shortly before he passed away.

We were at our long-anticipated family reunion, when people pass around such things. Others brought similar items, letters, photos, greeting cards, diary entries, from departed parents, aunts, uncles, siblings. About 30 people showed up, cousins, their spouses, their kids, and a few grandkids, to a scenic woodland spot in the North Carolina mountains.

I guess most people have been to a family reunion. I can recall two others. I enjoyed myself at both, even when I had to introduce myself to people who didn’t recognize me, whom I didn’t recognize. But the theme—“in the end we’re all family”—tends to overcome the awkward moments, at least in America. In other places—parts of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, family and family connections convey religious or near-religious standing and obligations.  Even in our secular world, strangers acknowledge relationships and warm to each other, maybe while holding a drink or at dinner, even knowing they may never see each other again. Sons and daughters and cousins and uncles and aunts may drift away, but families endure.

This reunion wasn’t my idea, and I didn’t step up to help with the planning. Others, mainly a cousin in Florida, did all the work, the rest of us fell in line with her decisions. I guessed she picked the site because it’s roughly the same driving distance for those living in New York and southern Florida. For us, in the northwest corner of South Carolina, it was an easy trip.

We arrived the day before the festivities and checked into a place a few miles from the reunion site. We headed over late the next day, Friday, after a hair-raising drive up and down a tangle of narrow mountain roads. Mountains are pretty much all there is in western North Carolina (last week’s post). The site was a kind of country log cabin resort, nestled in a valley between steep, forested hills. A fast-moving rock-strewn creek flowed through the valley. It was a pretty spot. The creek babbled, birds chirped.       

Nearly everyone invited showed up, for the same reason Sandy and I did, it’s been a while since we saw each other. Several I expected to see were not there. The eight first cousins who came, including me, are nearly all the remaining children of our parents within a complicated extended family. Our mothers were three sisters who spent the last years of their lives far from each other, in New Jersey, Virginia, and Florida. Yet they always were close.

More than twenty years ago my mom put on a family reunion. She rented a big house on Long Island and a Knights of Columbus hall for the gathering. The place was full of little kids, preteens, and teens, because that’s where we—Sandy and me, and the cousins—were in our lives. The aunts and uncles came, smiling and hugging. They finished the evening singing old Irish tunes. Then we went our separate ways, some of us for years. For most of the older folks it was the last reunion.

The North Carolina affair was a happy one. We kept our covid social distances. Everyone cooked something. It rained off and on, we sat under an awning of a meeting hall in that mountain forest looking at the mementoes, rehashing our lives and the lives of those no longer with us. We tried to recall the last time any of us got together. For some it was a wedding for a cousin’s daughter in Virginia Beach two years ago. But without saying much about it, we all know we’re past the family wedding phase.

Many of those present showed up for my mother’s funeral in Jersey. I drove to Virginia Beach for one aunt’s funeral, Long Island, N.Y., for the other.

I recall these things—who doesn’t? Two of the funerals were on warm sunny days, one in spring, the other in fall. My Aunt Peggy’s funeral a few years ago was on a bitter cold day following a massive snowstorm on Long Island. After the Mass we drove slowly past the house she had lived in years ago, and where her nine children, my cousins, grew up. At the cemetery, all of us, in our overcoats, plodded through the snow to the gravesite, bowing into an icy wind.

Funerals have been the trend. None of the others who passed were youthful, but some were within hailing distance of 45 or 50. The rest of us keep piling on the years and doctor’s visits. Life’s inevitable pattern had started: three years ago a death in North Carolina, a year later a memorial service for another cousin in Florida, two more on Long Island. We’ve all got our dark suits and dresses cleaned and pressed.

We were all on our best behavior, but we knew that tensions simmer here and there. People may be related, they recognize family ties, yet may become strangers to each other. Most of us incline, at least for a while, to our parents’ values and priorities. Experiences and relationships may lead in different paths. Some folks go through rough patches that affect them deeply. Disagreement—conflict—about big things and small things, maybe over years, can metastasize. The family reunion can put a point on hard feelings. People may show up, or not show up. Maybe some are not invited. We hope the visceral sense of family ties—love—will overcome.

The final evening wore on, the rain slacked off, the kids played in the creek, some of the adults had their tug-of-war on the wet grass, slipping and sliding. As expected, the team with the weightier members won every match. Somebody set off fireworks, the Roman candle type you hear on the Fourth of July. Then a group, mostly the women, gathered around the karaoke machine, locked arms, and sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” “Danny Boy,” and the whole Irish end-of-the-party routine. The rest of us sprawled in deck chairs and smiled. Then slowly we all drifted off. Until next time. Maybe.         

The Dome in the Forest

September 20, 2021

Getting back to Great Smoky Mountain National Park always has mattered. A friend had taken me through the park many years ago; once you see it, the haunted beauty of the place never leaves. A cousin planned one of those long talked about, always postponed family reunions near Bryson City, N.C. We showed up. The Smokies, 522,000 acres, are next door. So for a half-day we made it back to the park, Sandy, the grandsons, and me. Once there, we got to Clingman’s Dome.

Bryson City is one of those places that, like many others called “city,” is a small town. It’s tucked into the rugged deep-green northwest corner of the state next to GSMNP. Sixty miles or more away from Bryson City, in any direction, the mountains rise into clouds. You can’t say “maybe next time.” You have to go.

The Smokies aren’t the Rockies, they don’t show the sharp, soaring, snow-capped peaks that make great postcards and calendar photos. But these ancient eastern mountains bring the crowd.  The National Park Service reports that in 2020 12.1 million people visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The second-most popular park, Yellowstone, had 3.8 million visitors. It’s true that GSMNP is an easier drive for more Americans than Yellowstone or Zion (3.6 million) or the Grand Canyon (2.9 million).

The Smokies cast a magic, elusive spell. It could be a sense of the connection of these mountains and forests with the country’s history, as the pathway over 200 years for settlers across the Appalachians and dangerous, bloody Cherokee country, to Tennessee and beyond. There’s that, but also something about the hold of the deep wilderness, in its rough delicate beauty, on our humanity.  In its way it is a fearsome place. The wide Smokies forest, dense enough in stretches to darken the earth below the canopy, is crisscrossed by rough pathways blocked by sharp rock formations and near-impassable blowdowns.

We drove the 20 miles from Cherokee, the honky-tonk place just outside the park, to the Newfound Gap turnoff to the seven-mile-long Clingman Road. The two-lane road winds sharply higher into mist. The shrouded green intensity unfolds at every turn and every break in the forest, the mist envelopes the car. I poked along, gripping the wheel, Sandy stared directly ahead. The boys enjoyed it.

The road ends at a small parking space. You can get a share of the view without actually making the steep half-mile climb to the summit, at 6,643 feet third-highest in the East; Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig, near Asheville, are a few feet higher. I read that Thomas Lanier Clingman was a Confederate general who explored these parts in the 1850s. The Cherokees called the place Kuwahi, “mulberry place.” The information stands provide some history in English andTsalagi, the inscrutable Cherokee language.

We looked at the path into the clouds and started hiking, a few fast steps, then slower, then slower still. Around the first turn was another, then another. We paused, gasping, but the boys marched forward. Successful climbers, smiling but exhausted, strode rapidly down past us. “Almost there,” somebody yelled. “You’re close to halfway,” another called. I looked left at the edge, thick with firs that concealed a nearly sheer precipice into the abyss. No railing, no warning signs. Stay right, where a few narrow paths opened into impenetrable forest. We pushed on.

The path turned gradually to the right and seemed to level off, then rose further and turned again into forest on both sides. To the left we saw the gash in the wooded wall, an opening to the Appalachian Trail, which nearly bisects the mountain.

I detoured into a narrow rock-carpeted cavern in the forest and saw the white rectangular blazes on trees that show the way on the AT’s 2,140-mile length from Maine’s Baxter State Park to Georgia’s Springer Mountain 200 miles south. I could make out the descending route to the north, which seemed to drop almost vertically. The blazed path dropped just as steeply to the south, the hiker’s reward for making it this far.

The mature firs around me blocked nearly all daylight, I peered into the wafting mist. The trail and the huge rocks told stories. For a moment I took them in. Then I stepped back up to the established path. Sandy and the boys waited, wondering what happened.

We pressed on to the summit then up the catwalk that rises to the observation deck 45 feet above the treetops. We paused for a moment or two to take a photo. The summit was fully enshrouded, we saw nothing but the heights of the fir forest, fading into whiteness. Not a day for Clingman’s 100-mile vistas. Then the flight to earth.

Crossing the parking lot I overheard a couple of middle-aged-looking gents groaning. “I made it halfway,” one said. “I got three-quarters up,” said the other. I didn’t smile, it was a hard way. Still, I’m guessing that many, maybe most who attempt it make it to the top.

The climb gave us a bracing start to our weekend in Bryson City, a place that without the mountains would not be on our list of places to see. The Smokies visitors are everywhere, filling the tent, cabin, and RV campsites that once were rocky pastures. You can climb aboard the Smoky Mountain Express and sit for a scenic ride, no risk of breaking a sweat. Tube rental places along Deep Creek Road spoil the environs with flashy marquees advertising tame, tourist-type tube rides on the Tuckasegee River. You can get into the national park at the Deep Creek entrance at the far end of town, where the lot is filled with cars of visitors from many states getting their tubing adventure.

A few miles from the commercial shlock is the real Bryson City, the place where local year-rounders farm, run small businesses and souvenir shops, or drive to other towns to earn a living. They occupy the cramped hollows and short stretches of flatland where single-level clapboard houses and mobile homes are perched, the front porches piled high with toolboxes, auto parts, and other dreck. That’s the non-tourist city. Yet those folks each day get to raise their eyes to those majestic green peaks that hide behind that dancing Smokies mist. A complicated place, with a touch of heaven.             


September 11, 2021

We all have our “where were you” stories. We repeat them at this time every year. I planned to go to the Pentagon for an afternoon meeting on 9/11. When I saw the news about 9:30 AM I settled in front of the TV. Sandy called, the kids called, a niece called. Like millions, I watched the news nonstop for the next three days.

A week later, people with Pentagon building passes were permitted access. I went inside. The South Parking wing was sealed off with plastic sheeting, but the acrid smell of burnt sheet rock and metal singed the skin.

That same week the financial markets reopened in New York. I took an Amtrak to visit a friend at his Wall Street office. From northern New Jersey, miles from Manhattan, I could see from the train windows the thin dark column of smoke rising from the Twin Towers site. Downtown streets still were closed to traffic, but pedestrians could get through. Police officers were everywhere.

It had rained the night of 9/11, the millions of tons of concrete dust and pulverized glass and metal had congealed and coated the streets, sidewalks, buildings, and windows. From a distance of a few blocks I saw the ghastly tangle of girders pointing crookedly at the sky, construction equipment pushing and lifting chunks of concrete, the hard-hatted rescue personnel at work. As at the Pentagon, the smell of burnt building material was overwhelming.

Because the subway wasn’t operating I had to walk a couple of dozen blocks back to Penn Station. I passed Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village (where I was born many years earlier), which was initially used as a triage center for victims. Hundreds of photos of missing persons had been taped to the sides of the building by people seeking news about missing relatives. They crowded forward to study the photos, some still were posting them. Some were in tears. I caught a late train back to Washington.

On September 14, President Bush had visited the Twin Towers site. Surrounded by cheering rescue workers, he yelled into a bullhorn, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon.”

That was America’s September 2001, and the first day of a twenty-years-long search for vengeance. Within weeks CIA and Special Forces operatives deployed to Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Two weeks ago America departed. 

One evening last week the sunset in this corner of South Carolina cast a wide arc of pale orange, rimmed by black clouds.  Darkness is rushing in, soon bringing autumn chill. We walked around the block. We didn’t say much. I looked up, the dark sky summoned for me once again the 9/11 memories, now two decades past.

Tomorrow we start Year 21. Time after all is relentless. What will it mean? To the families of the victims very little, because for them time stands still. Their loved ones are lost now as they were lost on 9/12/01. Bodies were found in the debris of the Towers and the Pentagon in following days, but the reality of massive loss of life was recognized by the evening of 9/11. Two hundred sixty-five victims were aboard the four planes.

All of us, from those who were young, teenagers, even pre-teens at the time and everyone older, know what happened that day. Many don’t understand why. The 9-11 Commission Report, released in 2004, offered extensive analysis of the chronic social dislocations of the Middle East: poverty, violence, and religious extremism, which, it ventures to say, gave birth to hatred of the West, principally the United States, and the incubation of Muslim terror movements.

We understand now that in twenty years in Afghanistan the United States changed nothing. In the final week, in the chaos of Kabul, 13 servicemen and women and nearly 200 Afghanis were murdered by a suicide bomber. This is the world we live in today. 

But once again, time is relentless. Garrett Graff, who wrote The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, points out that a generation of Americans now is growing up who don’t remember what America was like before 9/11. But then we saw the same distancing from history after the Cold War, after Vietnam, after the Sixties, after Korea. And so on. The generations that lived through those lacerating traumas carry them forward for the balance of their lives. Their children and grandchildren may listen respectfully. But whether they do or not, they move forward.

The children are looking at the world they will live in, the world that will be theirs to create, after the oldtimers are gone. And we oldsters know that’s how all of history unfolds. We recoil at the horror, the tragedy. Then we confront it. We build the proper memorials and honor the victims—we honor them always, privately in our prayers, and publicly in their time. For the victims of the Towers, the Pentagon, the four aircraft, that is September 11.

The three major memorial sites have been completed. The memorial in the field in Stonycreek Township in western Pennsylvania honors the victims, some call them the warriors, of United Flight 93, which had been turned from its course to San Francisco to hit either the White House or the Capitol. The aircraft was crashed there by the hijacker-pilot as a group of passengers fought back and, according to the Commission, may have killed at least one of the four hijackers. After the crash Vice President Cheney is reported to have said one memorable thing: “I think an act of heroism took place on that plane.”

We can be sure of that. That heroism is to be honored once again on September 11, 2022. We can be sure also that 9/11/01 will lose its raw edge, which is as it should be. The children of the last two decades will move forward and, we hope, learn the right lessons: meet tragedy with dignity, not vengeance, prudence, not warmongering. The nightmare of 9/11, which became the nightmare of Afghanistan, still haunts us. Time to learn.

The Ring

September 6, 2021

We are shaped by our memories, we all know it. And the 50-mile-long Massanutten range, two north-south fingers of high rock about 75 miles due west of Washington, D.C., has been for years a haunting presence for us. It was Labor Day weekend so it was time for the Ring, the annual muscle-wrenching slog on the 71-mile Massanutten Trail over the rocks through a lush wonderland called Fort Valley. I still shiver when I think of those freezing February nights on the trail along the eastern Massanutten ridge. I thought of all the reasons for not driving the 470 miles to show up. Then we climbed in the van and headed north.

Typically the trip means a mountain route, I-85 to Charlotte then I-77 to I-81 up the spine of Virginia.  But I-26 through Asheville and Tennessee now is a better choice. Just north of Asheville the interstate passes Mount Mitchell, highest point in the East at 6,600 feet. The Blue Ridge begins to bend into the majestic eastern ridge of the Great Smokies before Erwin, Tenn. Breathtaking country. Some eight hours of interstate through rolling Virginia pastureland and the blue-green Shenandoahs brings you to Signal Knob.

The Massanutten ends abruptly midway between Strasburg and Front Royal. The northernmost point is Signal Knob, a sheer outcropping that towers above the junction of Warren and Shenandoah Counties. The Massanutten Trail winds from a campground called Elizabeth Furnace in long switchbacks four miles to the summit across ancient shale and granite. From there, the climber can look out 60 or so miles west and north over the rich textured green of rural Northern Virginia and West Virginia.

We arrived Thursday to visit Virginia friends Mike and Pat, who settled some years ago at their farmhouse along the Shenandoah River, just below Signal Knob. On Friday Sandy and Pat drove to Mount Jackson to visit an ailing friend. Mike and I got out early and headed for the mountains to hike the Buzzard Rocks trail, which winds up to a perch lined with jagged shards of granite above Fort Valley Road. The trail is marked by white blazes, which lead to places that summon recollections of days and nights in those woods, when the trees were bare and the wind howled. We pressed upward over the granite until we could see across Fort Valley to Signal Knob, in its silent solemnity.

In the morning Sandy and I were there for the start of the Ring. Before dawn the sky showed pale blue, the coming day promised to be mild and bright. The veteran race managers called to the 44 runners, waved “Go,” and pointed into the dark forest at the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. The volunteers cheered, the runners were gone. Three hours and 25 miles farther down the course we were at the first aid station, called Camp Roosevelt, a once-busy place built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide work for unemployed Valley men, now a quiet campground.

The first competitors flowed slowly in. They ate, drank, collected themselves, and headed toward aid station 2, nine miles further on. A half-dozen said no. They thought about those hours on the ridge and the hard miles ahead and stepped down from the trail.

Those who persevered moved toward places with obscure names: Crisman Hollow, Moreland Gap, Edinburg, Woodstock Tower, Powell’s Fort. The finish, back to Signal Knob, still is a long way off. The trail, pocked with knife-sharp rocks, pulled them in afternoon heat through a swampy stretch called Duncan Hollow toward another stiff climb and the course halfway point.

I peered into the green darkness. Nothing had changed in the five years since I finished the course, the first of three finishes. I looked at the ground, the hard granite surface seemed to look back at me as it seemed to those five years ago, then four, then three, when I finished twice more, both times covering the course when it’s run in reverse as the “Reverse Ring” held in February. The 2018 finish was a thirty-minute time improvement followed by three days in the hospital with a strange, scary condition called rhabdomyolysis that stresses the kidneys. Afterward we thought: not a happy tradeoff.

The sun gleamed through the trees as the runners at the back of the field trotted off from Camp Roo. We volunteers puttered a bit, studied the runners’ recorded times, and talked about last year’s race and next year’s, the events ahead for this eccentric subculture of athletes. For some of them, a race called Grindstone, set in central Virginia mountains, is penciled in for mid-September. Grindstone is a different beast, it starts at 6:00 PM.

We won’t be around for that. The Ring gives us our dose of mountain mystery along with the bracing air and pure, crystal-clear spring water. Old friends showed up, still in Virginia, still climbing those wild peaks, working on their trail-running boasting rights, their fitness; some working through a mission central to their lives.

These hard mountains, for those who return here, may provide a sort of spiritual anchor, they have a way of stirring the mind, heart, and soul. Maybe the silence has something to do with it—that and the immense, intimidating distances, the loneliness of deep forest tempered by awareness of the serene presence of the Lord. It’s the Ring. It’s 71 miles. It’s the Massanutten Mountains:  forest, rocks, thickets, streams, zigzaging, disappearing trails, and those empowering, panoramic vistas. Then memories come, and remain.