Monday, November 30, 2015

S/V Magnolia; Rudy's Birthday; A New Quiz; Mountain Biking; Almost Run Down; A Seat with a View; "What Did You Say?"

Last week we had the pleasure of visiting some sailing friends in Vero Beach aboard their beautiful Morgan 45 Magnolia.  Anthony and Annette have been full time cruisers for over two years now, plying the waters of the North Atlantic from Maine to the Bahamas. Here we see the intrepid mariners' version of grocery shopping, a dock cart filled with provisions for weeks in the Out Islands, where carrot, peas, potatoes and onions make up the total inventory of produce sections of local groceries, often in private homes.

Frequent readers of this blog will recall our two miniature long-haired Dachshunds, Rudy and Gretchen. Well, Rudy turned 11 this week, and he's doing quite well as a Senior Dog. He (and his sister Gretchen, of course) got some chopped-up chicken to spice up their dry food dinner (instead of the usual teaspoon of cheese). I sang Happy Birthday to him, but presents had to wait until the return of his Dog-Mom. Rudy is known to disembowel his new toys immediately, and this day was no exception. He also performs a less than delicate operation called a squeakerectomy, in this case upon his new stuffed quail...

Okay, it's time for a new "punny" quiz. This one is really easy, so I should receive no less than 100 or so correct answers. The prize is breakfast with Der Blogmeister and His Lovely Bride, or if you're living in some remote place like Kazakhstan or Brooklyn, maybe a ball cap, tee shirt or box of Rice Krispies... Here's the question to answer: What do Vespa and Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral have in common?

As many of you know, for the past 8 days Suzanne was in England at the Arthur Findlay College of Psychic Sciences to refine her mediumship. The school is housed in a beautiful old English estate, but to accommodate more students, they turned some of the larger rooms into individual bedrooms.  Rather than share with two roommates as she did the first time she attended classes there in 2009, she paid extra for a single.  She was a bit shocked when she first arrived and sent me this photo of her cell.... er, her accommodations...

Suzanne truly missed her furry kids, Rudy and Gretchen (and me, I think), and was unable to gain much solace from Bilbo the College Cat, who retained an amazing (typically British?) aloofness during her visit. The opening welcome brief even mentioned that Bilbo was aging, and had started to leave little "surprises" around the hallowed halls of Arthur Findlay College, so "be careful where you step"... 

You will probably be hearing a lot from Suzanne in her blog posts about her experiences last week at Arthur Findlay College, but here is a photo of her with her tutor, Mavis Pittilla, one of the world's most respected and gifted mediums.

I loaded up the coach and went for a trip to the Cross Florida Greenway's Santos Campground, which is adjacent to some of the state's best mountain biking and hiking trails. The next three days provided almost perfect weather for two of my favorite outdoor activities. The terrain varies from open pine areas to darker oak and palmetto groves.

My vacation to Santos was a splendid getaway, and I was also fortunate in not having any mishaps; in fact, the woods are much safer than the Interstate, or even neighborhood streets... when I returned home, I started out on a 4 mile run, wearing an orange jersey, and was on the left side of the street when a neighbor backed his truck rapidly out into the street, missing me by no more than a foot. He was still backing up when his door passed me and our eyes met. I was just a tad bit upset, and waited until my blood pressure came down to talk to him later in the day. I knocked on his door, asked him to step outside and said, "Neighbor, you almost ended my string of birthdays today." He replied, "I didn't see you until I backed up. I'm sorry." Then he turned and walked quickly back into his house without another word. I just shook my head...

Another neighbor, who shall also remain unidentified, must like the outdoors even more than I. He has placed his favorite chair in his driveway, perhaps to enjoy the beautiful Fall weather and to watch the Sandhill cranes that often frequent the area. 

Suzanne's trip was not without its moments. On the night before her return flight she called me from her hotel at London Gatwick airport, saying, "Ty, our credit card was declined when I went to check in. You paid for the room, but I'm out of cash.  How am I supposed to eat?" I replied, "Love of My Life, when I talked to NFCU about the possible fraud on our account, they said they were not going to cancel your card until you returned home. I'll fix this, so go ahead and have a nice dinner at the hotel.  If it's declined at the end of your meal, you can always wash dishes to pay off the bill." Either there was a loss of signal on the trans-Atlantic phone cable or My Lovely Bride's hearing went out for a minute, because there was a stony silence followed by a voice that I did not recognize saying, "What did you say?"

Sunday, November 15, 2015

2016 Tour Planning; Culinary Treats; Sanaya; Unity of Naples Events; On Yer Bike, Mate! Blues and Wine; Seminole State Forest; Modern Art Shopping List

It's hard to believe I've been back from my hiking trip to northern Georgia for more than two weeks. Days pass quickly when you're retired and have nothing to do. Well, that's not entirely accurate. Since the last blog post, it's actually been quite hectic. We are in the midst of planning for next summer's Messages of Hope tour. We will be departing The Villages on the 22nd of March, then heading out west, returning in late September. Stops along the way will include Tuscumbia, AL; Branson, MO; Tulsa, OK; Santa Fe and Albuquerque, NM; Tucson, Phoenix and Sedona, AZ; Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks; Provo and Ogden, UT; Pinedale and Jackson, WY; the Wind River Range; Vail, Steamboat Springs, Golden and Aurora, CO; Lees Summit/Kansas City, MO; Black Hills, SD; Billings, Bozeman, and Kalispell, MT; Glacier National Park; Coeur d'Alene and Boise, ID; Yellowstone National Park; Estes Park, CO and Rocky Mountain National Park; Wichita, KS; Oklahoma City, OK; Little Rock, AR; Vicksburg, MS, and New Orleans, LA. Some of those stops will be for Suzanne's events, and others will be for R&R. I will update the map at right for 2016 in a couple of weeks, but it's looking like another 10,000 mile plus summer, and we're already getting itchy feet...

On the home front, I have been experimenting with some creative cuisine using one of my favorite references, The Wine Lover's Cookbook. This meal, Grilled Flank Steak with Roasted Corn-Panchetta Salsa, got a rave review from My Lovely Bride. It's nice to be able to treat her to a gourmet dinner at home. I may surprise her next week with some of my dehydrated backpacker food that I didn't use up on my trip to the Appalachian Trail. Won't she be thrilled??? 

We have also enjoyed the company of several friends at dinner, such as the delightful Donna and Ron Virgilio. They are seen here at one of Suzanne's events, Der Blogmeister having forgotten to alert his camera crew the night before when visiting Casa Virgilio with its spectacular view of farm fields with rolls of golden hay. Donna is an amazing cook; dinner was fabulous, but when I asked for a recipe, Donna replied, "While I occasionally use recipes, I never keep them. So I never make the same meal twice..." Well, Darn! 

Suzanne recently held a Sanaya session at Unity of The Villages, and again, it was virtually an SRO event. We were surprised how many first-timers were attending; evidently the word is getting out, and it was very gratifying to see all those new faces in addition to many long-time friends. 

One of the top highlights this month was a trip to Naples, FL, where Suzanne was invited to give the Sunday message and her Awakened Living 301 workshop. We were greeted warmly by Rev. Diane Clevenger, Unity of Naples' dynamic and inspirational minister. Their campus is gorgeous, with beautiful tropical landscaping (reminding us of Panama) and a serene lake.

Diane's Sunday service must have had 450 attendees inside the church, and another couple of hundred outside, an amazing number considering most of the area's snowbirds have not yet flown south for the winter. It was also Veterans Day weekend, and Suzanne's message on Steadfastness (one of the cardinal virtues designated for that particular week) was timely and very well received by the Unity community. Her afternoon workshop was given to a full house, one of the most enthusiastic groups yet. We are already looking forward to returning to Unity of Naples and its vibrant, welcoming community.

We have also been bike riding a lot, both on our own and with the Sumter Landing Bicycle Club. The only hard part about riding with the club is getting up early enough to be at the start by 0845. This photo was taken at the start of our longest ride to date, a 64 mile fundraiser for a local hospital. It was a chilly morning (55F) and we needed jackets. The ride meandered through The Villages, south through farmland and horse ranch country, around Lake Panasoffkee and back through Wildwood to Spanish Springs.

We had two short rest stops along the way with Gatorade, PB&Js, bananas and Oreos highlighting the menu. On the way, we were almost involved in a crash when a rider three forward of me fell. We bailed right into the grass and avoided the fallen rider and two others who almost wiped out. Luckily, he wasn't seriously hurt, and after an EMT check, got back on his bike and completed the 64 mile ride. Exactly four hours later, we finished the ride with an average speed of 16 mph. I had decided not to fill Suzanne's bike frame with lead - for this ride, anyway... and My Lovely Bride looks a lot more chipper than I felt at this moment. We may be ready for a full century ride (100 miles) in a month or so, but this was a good training ride.Attentive observers may recognize our darling Dachshund Gretchen on the front of my jersey; Rudy also rode with us (he's on the back of that jersey).

 We enjoyed a blues/pop music interlude with Gayle and Bill Hancock at Garvino's Wine Bar in The Villages to listen to Stephonie Seekell, the talented singer in the middle of the photo. Stephonie is a terrific performer, and when I made a request, her throaty voice was perfect for a magical rendition of Me and Bobby Magee. It was the best I had ever heard... if you closed your eyes, you could be back in a live Janis Joplin concert in 1969. 

I was able to find a day to get out in the woods this week, but not for a normal hike. This was a Trail Maintenance Day with the Florida Trail Association, Highlanders Chapter. A dozen of us volunteers met at a trailhead in Seminole State Forest near Eustis, FL, to clear a section of the Florida Trail about two miles in length. (You can see the orange blaze at right, the standard blaze of the F.T.; the Appalachian Trail is marked with white blazes.) It had been a year since the last crew work here; the saw palmettos had grown like crazy, obscuring the trail in many places, and wind storms had knocked down 15 decent-sized trees that required chain saws and "heave-ho" manual labor to move from the treadway (footpath). We also lopped off dozens of overhanging branches.Two younger guys (like in their late 50s) also guided mowers back and forth to reduce trip hazards.


After four-plus hours of hot, sweaty labor, our crew (average age about 65) was ready for lunch. One of the team leaders had thoughtfully baked dozens of brownies and rice krispie treats, and a cooler of soft drinks and tea magically appeared from someone's trunk. 

Our picnic was held next to the placid waters of Black Water Creek. It was a great place to rest and unwind at the end of the day. This area is less than 45 minutes drive from downtown Orlando, yet we had only seen two other people that day, two mountain bikers, a father and son.  

Finally, in a moment of whimsy, My Lovely Bride decided to create a three-dimensional shopping list for me  (T.P., Plackers and cotton makeup wipes) that I thought was a piece of modern art.  I thought we could list it on eBay or Craigslist. Bids will start with a reserve of $50,000.... 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Appalachian Trail, Part 2; Squirrel Poop? Mackenzie and Susan; Suches, GA; Blood Mountain; The Shoe Tree; Walasi-Yi

In the previous post, I introduced my new hiking partner from Germany. Manuel had recently completed a 3 1/2 year apprenticeship as a piano maker, and was taking advantage of his new free time to travel the world. He has already been to the Caribbean and Mexico, and after a visit to New Orleans to sample its cuisine, music and culture, he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, probably as far as Virginia. We met up near the Stover Creek shelter in Georgia, where he had spent the night. As we hiked, I found out that Manuel was carrying a beautiful Swedish hand-made axe that his father had given him as a Christmas present. He is the only backpacker I have seen in years with an axe, because of the weight, although they are popular among car campers. But because it was such a personal gift, I could understand why he had to bring it with him. And who knows, it might come in handy against an aggressive squirrel one day...


As we hiked along that day, we found evidence that the southern Appalachian Mountains had been more populated in the past; this sign marking the former location of a school, and a nearby cemetery, exist now out in the woods, far from any population center. 

At one fire road crossing, we met shuttle driver Ron Brown (in blue jeans), and the three hikers on the left, whom he was driving south to the start of the A.T. at Springer Mountain. That's Manuel on the right. Ron provided some Trail Magic in the form of fresh water (the springs in this section of the A.T. were mostly dry) and also relieved us of our small bits of trash (mostly food wrappers), saving us a few ounces. Ron has been doing trail shuttles for 7 or 8 years, and has 450,000 miles on a Toyota RAV-4; this is his new car, a Toyota 4-Runner with only 150,000 miles on it in under 2 years. During hiking season, Ron is often on the road from 0430 until 1900, and covers the area from Atlanta to Fontana Dam at the south end of the Smokies.

We set up camp near Horse Gap, GA, and that night while preparing dinner, I noticed that Manuel was carefully sorting his pasta, which had been stored in a blue Wal-Mart bag while he slept in the shelter the previous night. He mentioned that a chipmunk or squirrel must have gotten into the bag and eaten a pack of crackers. We looked carefully at the tiny black bits mixed in with the pasta, and he said, "I think they may have left this stuff behind..." YUCK!!! Squirrels and chipmunks are sources of Hantavirus, so Manuel prudently tossed the pasta. Fortunately, I had enough food for an entire platoon of hungry Marines, so I was glad to get rid of some weight and help the cause... After dinner, we hung our food up in a tree on parachute cord and turned in, Manuel to his hammock and me to my tent. Here is our campsite in dawn's early light the next morning. Fortunately, no animals had breached our defenses, and our food bags were intact. However, Manuel had to get out of his hammock at 0530 and rig his tarp over it when an unexpected rain started falling. In all fairness, he had asked whether I thought it might rain, but I assured him that none was forecast. MY BAD... MISTAKE #3!!!

The third day's hike was much like the first two, up and downs with an occasional flattish spot. The trail was pretty well marked with white blazes (seen on the big tree closest to the camera). Many hikers don't even carry map and compass, particularly during the busy season, March-September.

Here we see Manuel filtering water from a creek. I also filtered water, but some times used iodine tablets. Either system works about 99% of the time, but filters take longer. Neither system is foolproof, and occasional stomach ailments due to bad water are not uncommon. 


The canopy of trees was pretty thick all along the A.T., and my sunglasses and ball cap were dead weight, so to speak. (I won't be carrying them if I come back here.) Fortunately, because of the cool weather, bugs were not a problem, and I had not bothered with insect repellent on this trip (normally I would carry a small container of DEET). 

The first photo below is a young girl named Mackenzie, from Atlanta whom we met with her mom Kristin at the lookout on Ramrock Mountain (3,260 ft.). It then dawned on me that Mackenzie looked very much like my daughter Susan who was struck and killed by lightning in 2006. Without knowing any of our history with Susan's passing and butterflies, they mentioned that just 5 minutes before, a beautiful yellow butterfly had flown by. As we chatted, I noted that many of her mannerisms were similar to Susan's, and I asked to take her picture. It was only later that Suzanne noted the similarities between this picture and one I had taken of Susan back in 1999 (on right). The third image is of a drawing that Suzanne did of Susan years ago, with yellow butterflies (symbolic of those that visited us after her death) superimposed. Minutes after we left Mackenzie and Kristin at that viewpoint, a single yellow butterfly flew past me on the A.T., the only one I would see in four days and 40 miles of hiking. 


Oh, yes, I almost forgot that there was a nice view from Ramrock Mtn... 

Manuel needed to resupply his food bag, so we called into the booming metropolis of Suches (also known as the Valley Above the Clouds) 8 miles from the trail. There was a campground co-located with the only store and restaurant in town so we decided to spend the night in the campground and get showers. (The architects of the A.T. shelters somehow forgot to include showers in their designs... also omitted were electrical outlets, bunks, doors, toilets and air conditioning, although many do have outhouse-style privies.) We got a lift into town with a friend of the owner. This was the store; unfortunately, the selection of food items was rather limited, but we were able to enjoy some pulled pork sandwiches and hand-cut fries.


Joanie, our shuttle driver to and from Suches, was a friendly woman who gave us the history of the area during our drives from and back to the A.T. She mentioned that the town had been so poor during the early 20th Century and the Depression that all the farmers shared one big fence that encircled the town, and that many people could not afford to have outhouses dug into the rocky ground. Fortunately, conditions have improved, and Suches is becoming a popular place for Atlantans to retire. 


Our fourth day on the trail found us humping up the steep slopes of Blood Mountain (4,461 ft.) to the highest elevation shelter on the A.T. in Georgia.


It was windy and cool up on top of Blood Mountain, and clouds were rolling in from the southwest, predecessors of the remnants of Hurricane Patricia which would soon be pouring cold rain and high winds onto the area. We would not be spending the night here; I was meeting Ron, my shuttle driver, at Neels Gap and Manuel needed to resupply his food bag, so we continued hiking for another 3 miles.

There were a few spots where the colors had changed dramatically, probably due to the more frequent frosts at higher elevations.

The forest thickened as we dropped in elevation, and the trail flattened out a bit. This was a pretty part of the woods, but we couldn't linger because it had been an 11 mile day, and my ride would be arriving shortly. We went into high gear from this point on...

As we dropped into Neels Gap, we left the Blood Mountain Wilderness. Manuel had told me over coffee one day that in Germany, camping is only allowed in developed (commercial) campgrounds, rather than what we were doing on the Appalachian Trail, where you could pitch a tent or hammock almost anywhere or stay in a rustic three-sided shelter for free. 

Just before my shuttle arrived, Manuel stood under the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center's shoe tree, where A.T. hikers who have finished the trail, and those who arrived here needing new boots, toss their old boots and shoes. There are hundreds of pairs of boots and hiking shoes hanging on the branches here.


This building is notable because it is the only place on the 2,185 mile long Appalachian Trail where the trail actually passes through a man-made building. Walasi-Yi also offers a mail drop where thru-hikers can have food and supplies sent, and also offers food and a hostel. 

Unfortunately, I had to depart for home now, but Manuel would be continuing on to Virginia. I had had a great time on my four day hike, and wished that the weather would have cooperated for another three or four days, but that's life on the trail. The two highlights of the trip were meeting and making friends with Manuel, and having another visit by Susan, who I am sure managed to get Mackenzie to be at the summit of Ramrock Mountain when I passed, and then sent a yellow butterfly to be the icing on the cake...

Monday, November 2, 2015

Appalachian Trail Adventure Part 1; A Really Long Distance Runner; Amicalola Falls; A Ural??? Springer Mountain; A New Friend

Following is a short summary of the first part of my trip to northern Georgia to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail (hereafter referred to as the A.T.). After a nine hour drive north through Florida and Georgia, including the Atlanta metro area, I arrived in Dahlonega in time for a quick dinner at an oyster bar run by a guy from Norfolk, VA. The food was terrific; who woulda thunk that I could find delicious Chesapeake Bay-style seafood in a small college town in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains? I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express (very comfy bed) and sorted out my pack for a seven day hike. This was the view from my window. Dahlonega is a college town; the University of North Georgia, which is also the Military College of Georgia, with 750 students enrolled in ROTC. It was refreshing to meet several students working in the restaurant, all clean-cut with "Yes, suh!" Georgia drawls.

The next morning, I drove to Amicalola Falls State Park, where I met Jack Fussell, a young man (2 years younger than Your Humble Correspondent) who has run 14,380 miles across the US raising awareness of Alzheimers. Jack's father died of that disease, and he was surprised to learn that Suzanne had written a book on the subject, The Real Alzheimers. Jack was headed out to run 65 miles that day. Yikes!!! I then checked in with the rangers and weighed my pack: 40.6 lbs. (MISTAKE #1)  I had vowed to keep my pack weight down to 35 lbs., the same weight I had hiked with in Yosemite a few weeks ago, but having to carry five days worth of food and prepare for possible sub-freezing nights and rain caused my pack weight to creep up. Alas, this would slow me down and make me more tired than I had hoped, but the extra food would come in handy in an unexpected way.

After registering as an A.T. hiker and paying for a week's worth of parking, I left the car near the state park's elegant Lodge ($160-$350/night) and started hiking on the 8 mile Approach Trail to the actual start of the A.T. at Springer Mountain, elev. 3,782 ft. I will admit to "wussing out" of the experience of climbing 604 steps up the side of Amicalola Falls (the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River) itself with my 40 lb. pack. I called this "Common Sense" acquired by decades of hiking and wisdom attached to my advanced age. Laziness had nothing to do with my decision. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. 

On the hike up to Springer Mtn., I crossed a fire road where this gentleman was waiting sadly for a tow truck. Seems he had ridden his Russian Ural motorcycle with sidecar up the fire road and hit his engine on some rocks, causing it to overheat. (I thought, but didn't say out loud, "Dude, what did you expect with a stinking PoS Russian motorcycle???")  

The leaves were just starting to turn; they would be at their peak in 2 weeks, but I was "in the now", so to speak, enjoying each moment for itself. I tried to remember that on the hike uphill to Springer Mountain, 1,800 feet higher than the start at Amicalola Falls. The forest is pretty thick in Georgia (and elsewhere on the A.T.), and your focus is not on the scenery, but on the next few steps, especially on the uphills and downhills. (That's partly because the flat spots are few and far between, at least until you get to Pennsylvania and New Jersey.)

Passing the empty Black Gap shelter, I toyed with the idea of stopping for a nap, but decided to trudge on to the next shelter after the summit. The white PVC tube on the back wall is the shelter register, where thru-hikers will often write entries describing their experiences that day, or just brief notes to friends following behind them. 

There weren't many hikers on the trail that day, but one trail runner passed me on his way down the mountain. It must be nice to be young enough to not worry about a twisted ankle or blown knee. I enjoy trail running, especially on relatively flat forest paths with pine needles instead of rocks - they tend to cushion you better than granite, especially when you take a header.

Finally, after almost six hours, I arrived at the summit of Springer Mountain. This bronze plaque, and a smaller one nearby, mark the official starting point of the 2,185 mile long Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Unlike the thru-hikers who start in March or April, I didn't have the five or six months to dedicate to hiking the trail all the way to Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine. I only had a week, and although the forecast for the first four days was perfect (nights in the high 30s/low 40s and daytime highs around 65, and no rain), the prognosis for the back end of the week was already looking iffy. 


This smaller, older plaque was placed by the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club in 1934, and the small print reads, "A footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness." The hiker is shown carrying an axe, which back then would have been necessary to clear the path as well as to cut wood for cook fires; today, since small gas stoves have almost universally replaced cook fires, no one carries an axe... or so I thought.

I relished the moment at this historic spot, and also enjoyed the narrow view from the summit. It wasn't as spectacular as those I had seen in the Rockies, or most recently in Yosemite, but it was very nice, with fall colors starting to show in about 10% of the trees far below.

A short way down the trail and I arrived at the Springer Mountain shelter where I met a nice family from Cartersville, GA. Matthew, his mom Mona and his girlfriend Stephanie arrived a half hour later and set up in the loft, a ladder climb up in the shelter. Matthew has been here before, and I had already set up on the ground floor. MISTAKE #2! I shoulda grabbed the loft!!! During the night, I was awakened occasionally by the pitter-patter of little footsteps. Mice or chipmunks, I couldn't be sure, but I had hung my food up in the trees on bear-proof cables, so they weren't a threat, other than to my beauty rest. The next morning we laughed about their decision to take the loft; mice don't climb tall ladders! 

After a breakfast of granola (I had brought three lbs. of it in 8 ounce zip-locks), I was on my way. This low-tech bridge (a log with a flat top) was the first stream crossing I would come to. Some were more sophisticated, some were merely flat rocks thrown into creeks, but all required careful crossings so as not to get my boots wet. Trekking poles were essential, both for stream crossings and to relieve the pressure of a 40 lb. backpack. 

In places, the trail widened to 3 feet or so, and the occasional patch of pine needle base was like walking on air compared to the more normal rocky parts. But it didn't last long, as the trail kept rising and falling with crest to gap sections of a mile or so. 

Less than an hour into the second day's hike, I met a delightful young German hiker, Manuel, who was heading to Virginia, about 700 miles north. He asked if I would like to hike and camp with him, and I agreed. I normally hike alone, but this would prove to be a very interesting experience, which you will learn about in the second half of my A.T. blog in a few days. "Ya'll come back now, ya heah?"