Conceptual art, or idea art, is an art form in which the concept (or idea) that generates a piece of art is more important than the art itself. For example, poet Kenneth Goldsmith (of @ubuweb) recently announced his plan to “print out the internet.” Clearly, Mr. Goldsmith’s idea is loaded with intention. The idea, and the public’s response to the idea, is the art. I hope we never actually see the internet on paper, but the idea has given us much to contemplate.
Another common aspect of conceptual art is the rejection of self-expression. Once the idea and rules are set by the artist, expression is abandoned and the piece becomes what the rules and form allow, nothing more. Many would compare this to the process of computer programming, although I would argue that this comparison ignores an enormous amount of human variation, innovation and expression that exists in the programming and software development world (another blog post altogether).
I, however, am a believer that self-expression cannot be taken out of art. The moment an artist makes a decision (at the highest or lowest level) that influences the piece, self-expression has occurred. But I often wonder if there is an opportunity to embrace the self in conceptual art. (more…)
Happy June, everyone! We hope those of you in New England are enjoying this early taste of summer. We’re staying cool indoors today, putting the finishing touches on our upcoming travel plans. For the past month or so, we’ve been busy mapping out three separate adventures in 2013: an old-fashioned road trip through the western U.S. and Canada, a European slow-cation, and a Pacific Northwest park-bagging loop.
All that trip planning has been in addition to the task of figuring out things like where we want to live for the next year and how we want to balance work and travel as we continue down this path of self-employment. For the most part, we’ve answered the big questions, and we can freely go forth into the universe for another round of aimful wandering.
So what’s ahead during WPG’s main travel season this year? (more…)
As you might know, April is National Poetry Month, 30 days during which we remind each other (and ourselves) that art and beauty and rhythm and rhyme and lyrical acrobatics and words that move us to tears are generally good things, good things that should be read and heard and experienced and celebrated. Unlike run-on sentences. And fragments.
As you also might know, M is one of 85 poets participating in the Pulitzer Remix project sponsored by the Found Poetry Review. He’s crafting one found poem per day based on the source text of a Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction—in his case, Conrad Richter’s The Town (from 1951)—and posting them on the Pulitzer Remix website. You can access all of M’s poems here; new ones will be added daily through April 30th. By the end of the month, the 85 poets will have created 2,550 new poems from old text…art begetting art in a funky-fresh way. (more…)
M and I emerged from winter hibernation to attend a writing conference in Boston last month. One of the seminars we attended was on the topic of teaching writing at community colleges, and one of the panelists, in sharing his personal experience, said that many students arrive in the classroom having had negative experiences with writing. Specifically, in students’ pasts, writing frequently had been used as punishment. So beyond having no current “relationship” with writing, many of them had a well of negative emotions associated with the topic.
Unexpectedly, my own latent writing memories rushed forth, strange elementary school flashbacks of writing the same phrase over and over again until I filled a piece of lined paper or writing an essay explaining why our class misbehaved for a substitute teacher. For many students who have similar experiences, writing becomes permanently associated with negative events or emotions. They never return to writing freely or for their own interest or benefit.
Fortunately, I had a pre-existing positive relationship with writing, even as a kid. (more…)
At the start of 2012, we decided to pursue the goal of running at least one road race per month for the entire year. On top of this goal, given our wanderlust, we set out to run races in as many different states as possible. Although we visited 28 states in 2012 (travel summary to follow in our year-end post), it proved much more difficult to find races that aligned with our schedule. First, some areas of the country have more races than others. And second, most races occur on the weekend, further limiting our race options as we traveled around the country.
In January, we established a racing budget and got down to the business of scheduling races. Although there are some races that you can register for on race day, there are others that sell out quickly. We had our eyes set on a few specific ones and were open to being flexible on others. Races can cost anywhere from $15 to $100 or more per person to run depending on the distance and level of coordination required to manage the race course. The cost is worth it, though, since most races come with race swag (t-shirts, water bottles, pens, first aid kits, coupons, you name it…) and often benefit a local charity. In 2012, we ran races benefiting community literacy programs, local scholarship funds, volunteer fire departments, state parks, the NH Children’s Hospital, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund, and the Alzheimer’s Foundation, among others. It’s also fun to run on a closed course with spectators (and police escorts, traffic detours, string bands, DJ’s, belly dancers, beauty queens…the list goes on). (more…)
I was lying in bed last night contemplating the start of October and thinking about an article I had just read. The article asked, “Why do you run? Every runner should know the answer to this question.” I thought about it for a minute, and my first answer was that running helped me lose 160 pounds and now it helps me keep from putting it back on. It also helps me to stay balanced (read: sane). Then I thought on it a little further. Running helps me test my limits, both physically and mentally. It helps me push myself further or faster than I thought I was capable, and this gives me courage. If I can push past things that I thought were limits on the road or trail, then I can do it anywhere.
There’s a lot of truth in this metaphor. I haven’t learned everything in life, but I’ve learned that many things that present themselves as barriers are false. (more…)
“Should I give up / or should I just keep chasing pavements / even if it leads nowhere?” -Adele
We went chasing pavement this past weekend, but in our case, it didn’t lead “nowhere”…it led to the beach! Hampton Beach, to be specific, the finish line for the Reach The Beach Relay (RTB), a 203-mile team relay race. We started our adventure at 7 AM Friday when half of our team picked us up in a stylin’ mini-van at our meeting point in southern New Hampshire. We cruised two hours north to Cannon Mountain where, after a brief orientation and safety meeting, our first runner set out on his 8+ mile leg a little after our scheduled 11 AM start. (They stagger the start times based on expected pace so all the teams have enough time to complete the race before the closing of the course Saturday evening.)
After our first runner disappeared down the mountain trail, the rest of us piled into two vans and hit the road. We were underway! (more…)
For the past several months we’ve been debating our next move. Not where we will go tomorrow, rather where we will go in 2013 and beyond. Once we finish our self-prescribed creative sabbatical, where will we go? Who will we be? How will we focus our time and energy (because we have a lot of energy…)? Over the past month or so, we’ve effectively narrowed our search: in addition to being happy and centered together, we’re either going back to school in search of creativity, community, higher-learning and adventure, or we’re starting our own business in an effort to help others find wellness and fitness while we make a living doing something we love. There are many pros and cons to each of these, many risks and possible rewards. (more…)
Greetings from Michigan! Michigan is the 21st state we’ve traveled through this year, and we picked up our first Canadian province (Ontario) on the way. By the time this particular trip ends in early September, we’ll have touched ground in 26 states since March. (As for the license plate game, we’re still on the lookout for North Dakota and Wyoming, but we’re headed in the right direction…) I was hoping this would be the year I’d notch the last three states I need, but a lot has changed since we first envisioned this trip in the spring. (more…)
We’re down to the last month of training before our challenging series of fall races begins. Between mid-September and late October, we’ll each run four races ranging in length from 10K to half (me) or full (M) marathon. Our first fall event, Reach the Beach NH, kicks off in four weeks, and each of our big events takes place less than a month later. All of that means we’re in the thick of things when it comes to our training plans…and before yesterday we were in a rut, too. (more…)
So we’ve been in our new apartment for exactly two weeks, and we’ve been going a bit nuts. In fact, we may have each lost our minds completely at one point or another. But we’re slowly reclaiming them, and along the way, claiming this space—and this life—as our own. We’ve unpacked, organized, purchased, assembled, recycled, and figured out exactly where everything will live here. Our new apartment is less than half of the size of the house we sold in May, and it’s the perfect size…perhaps even a little too big, if I dare say that. But it’s home. It’s also a bit loud (an adjustment to communal living in an old building) and quite scenic (the river and myriad sea birds are right outside our windows). We walk out our front door and cross the street to our favorite coffee shop and breakfast café. We’ve returned to our favorite New Hampshire farmstands at peak season for zucchini and cabbage and peppers. And although we last lived in this town just a few months ago (and for years before that), our time on the road has given us new perspective on things. Our standard running routes, which we tirelessly and willingly logged hundreds of miles on from the old house, now seem like new roads we’ve never run before since we’re approaching them from a different direction. We are having trouble finding a groove. Last weekend, we ran in a 5K race here in town and both posted PR times (personal records, or the best time we’ve each run in a race of that distance). And then today, I went out for a routine 4-miler, while M set out on his longest run to date, a (crazy hilly lousy) 17-miler. But there were no PR’s today; we both came up a bit short on both speed and distance. I think part of it was the weather—hot and humid and stormy–but part of it was also our mental state. Neither of us is centered. We’re off. We are unpacked, but we are not settled. We’re antsy. We miss the road. We’re not cut out for settling down. Or so I think. And then things happen to make me wonder if I should take a deep breath and (ugh!) settle down for a while. After we returned home from our runs and rehydrated and showered, it started to downpour, and my first mill rainbow appeared across the river. And then we walked upstairs and across the bridge to a fantastic new restaurant in our complex where we ate local brie cheese and beet salad and a smoked cheddar and butternut squash panini that were perfectly paired with a few local beers on tap. When we arrived back at our apartment, there was a package waiting by the front door: a new reflective running vest (so we each have one for the Reach The Beach NH relay event we just signed up for…) and a textbook we ordered online yesterday: Essentials of Personal Training, 2nd Edition. We both recently started studying to become personal trainers, part of a career switch and grander plan still in the early stages of formation. But even with that direction, we’re not settled. We leave next week for another stint on the road, two weeks across Michigan and the Midwest, visiting friends and checking out graduate schools. At this point, we are exploring our options. We have no idea what we’ll be doing in a year, and we’re not in a rush to figure it out. But we are on a mission, because if we don’t keep moving, we just might go insane. –J
Greetings from…New Hampshire! We last posted from Prague more than three weeks ago. So what have we been up to since then? Everything except blogging, it seems. We’ve continued to wander and travel, both internationally and domestically. We’ve attended weddings and birthday parties, dance recitals and backyard barbecues. We’ve hosted out-of-town relatives (a challenge when homeless…) and danced the night away at concerts in the city and to sounds by the sea.
All of that brings us to tonight, the last night of this month. It’s also our last night of voluntary homelessness and our last night on the road for a while. Tomorrow morning we will pick up the keys to our new apartment. Construction is complete, and the crew is putting the finishing touches on the newly renovated textile mill along the river that runs through our town. We will be the first ones to live in the space, and we’re looking forward to making it our own.
Several people have asked me, “Now that you’re not working, what do you do all day?” I used to try to explain how I spent my time, as if what I was doing outside of a corporate workplace had to be justified. I have realized over the past several months that there are so many things wrong with the question, and I rarely attempt to answer it anymore. But tonight, in reflecting on why we haven’t posted in weeks, I took stock of what I’ve been doing with my time this month, and by extension, my life. The answer is quite simple: I live…as fully and authentically as I can each day. I run, I hike, and I travel. I spend time with family and friends and strangers. I cook them dinner, babysit their kids, and help them move. I attempt to speak foreign languages and eat spicy foods and finish ice cream cones before they melt. I read books that make me laugh and watch movies that make me cry. I manage my finances, plan our meals, and research topics that interest me. I plot and scheme and daydream about my next gig. I take pictures, paint, write, and create. I eat and I drink and I breathe. I live deeply, sucking the marrow out of life. And since I’m wired to be analytical, I count things…
In the month of July alone, we logged nearly 5,000 miles by air, 1,000 miles by train, 2,300 miles on the road, and 200 miles on foot. We spent at least one night in 14 different cities across 3 countries and 4 different U.S. states. That brings our tally for the past three months of wandering to 26 cities in 3 countries and 10 states. We’ve spent nights in the homes of family and friends, in hotels and hostels, and at B&Bs and campgrounds. We’ve milked the hotel points we earned during years of business travel, and we’ve mastered the perks of our rewards credit cards and travel-related loyalty programs. The longest stretch in any one place was 13 nights at a friend’s house in Virginia. The shortest—a simple one-night stay—happened in many places…11 to be exact. Everywhere else fell somewhere in between.
After all that travel, beginning tomorrow night, we will again have a place to call our own. And we plan to spend at least a few nights there before we hit the road for our next adventure… -J
On the off chance you or someone you know is in Prague tonight, send them to The Globe bookstore! M and C will be doing a reading of their work starting at 19:30 (7:30 PM). You can read more about the event on The Globe’s website: http://www.globebookstore.cz/
We arrived in Prague Thursday afternoon on a regional train from Leipzig via Dresden. C and S are traveling with us on this leg of the trip, and we are happy to have the company. (As an added bonus, we’ve been able to join them as guests in the Deutsche Bahn lounges at every train station…) After a steamy 45-minute walk to the hotel, we happily dropped off our packs and roamed the neighborhood. We stumbled upon a fantastic restaurant (Stará Doba) where we sat in a sunken beer garden and feasted on Czech beer, fried cheese, fresh bread, and roasted vegetables…all for around $12 per person. After dinner, we picked up ‘to go’ beers at a corner store and continued to wander around, getting a feel for the city and stopping only for cover under a bus stop shelter while a thunderstorm rolled through. (While we waited, M and C chatted up a Canadian couple on a bicycling trip who have already logged more than 600 miles across Europe…) We made our way back to the hotel just as it was getting dark (after 10:00 PM local time) and quickly fell asleep, exhausted from our travels and excited about the next day of adventure ahead of us.
We’ve been in Europe for over a week now and have yet to post an update. Not for lack of things to talk about, but more for lack of time to write and infrequent internet access. Tonight, in Prague of all places, we have free Wi-Fi at the hotel and are back in our room at a reasonable hour. So a quick update! We’ve had a series of amazing adventures since arriving in Germany last week, beginning with three days of family festivities surrounding M’s cousin’s wedding. We attended the civil ceremony at the town hall, or Rathaus, and the church ceremony in Aschaffenburg, where M read a passage in German during the service. There was also a garden party in the rain, complete with an outdoor viewing of the Germany-Italy semi-final game of the Euro Cup and plenty of strong beer. We next explored Berlin for two days before meeting up with M’s cousin, C, and his wife, S, at their apartment in Leipzig. After we logged an early training run through the park yesterday, C and S showed us around town, including a huge monument to the 1813 War of Nations battle at Leipzig (Google it…). We wandered around the university area and stopped at some of their favorite pubs and bookstores. At the monument, we climbed to the top for a view of the city, but the picture here doesn’t do the experience justice. We made our way back to their apartment and capped off our non-traditional 4th of July with a balcony barbecue of tofu curry wurst and grilled gouda and hours of conversation in at least two languages. It was a fantastic evening to close a perfect day. We didn’t even miss the fireworks.
After six months of anticipation–having booked our flight back in January–we are waiting patiently in Terminal E at Logan for our outbound flight to Frankfurt via a short layover in Dublin. The clouds are rolling in, but we are hoping for an uneventful departure. We will arrive at our first destination (M’s uncle’s house in the small town of Grosswallstadt) sometime tomorrow afternoon. Our initial few days in Europe will be filled with celebration…first of M’s cousin’s wedding and then of the finals of the Euro Cup, which we hope to witness from Berlin’s famous Fan Mile. After a few days exploring Berlin and Leipzig next week, we plan to roll east through Dresden on our way to Prague, where we will explore a city new to us both. We are excited and honored to be sharing in T’s and S’s wedding festivities, and we are equally excited to be embarking on another leg of our journey together. We hope you will join us on the other side…of the Atlantic!
Since we’ve started our travel blog, a pattern has emerged with the timing of our posts: First, we hit the road, blogging three to five times per week about our trips. Then, after a few weeks on the road, we return to New England and go quiet for a while. Our silence is usually because our time in New England is filled with chores, errands, and visits with family and friends. It’s not all fun and games, though…someone has to wash my stinky running gear!
We followed this same pattern after returning from our last trip to Virginia and Tennessee. Now that we’ve been back in New England for a couple of weeks, it seemed about time to get back on the wagon and get some new posts published. Of course, we leave for Europe next week, which should make for much more interesting posts than picking up dry cleaning, going to the bank and organizing our gear in storage. Stay tuned!
For now, I wanted to put a little context around an activity that will color all of our upcoming travel for the next few months. Running! I know…I know…how is this different than any other trip? Well, it’s time for marathon training! It’s almost the end of Week 2 of my 18 week training plan for the Mount Desert Island (MDI) Marathon in Maine. The marathon is Sunday, October 14th, just a couple of days after my birthday, and we’ll be spending the weekend in Bar Harbor for the event.
The race is an important milestone for me, since it will be my first marathon since I started running in late 2009. In addition, it takes place in a location that is very important for J and me. We got married on Mount Desert Island in Northeast Harbor in 2011, and (as you may know from some of our prior posts) we returned to the area this year to celebrate our first anniversary. Not only is MDI beautiful, but it carries a huge amount of sentimental value.
Anyone who has run a long race or marathon before knows that you don’t just show up to compete. You have to train. And anyone who knows me knows that I like to train hard. It’s rare for a race to go by where I haven’t set and trained for an aggressive time goal (aggressive for me anyway), and the MDI marathon is no different. I’m pushing to finish the race in under 4 hours, with a target pace of 8:30 to 8:45 per mile. I’ve run faster than this in prior races, but never anything longer than a half marathon. Also, in addition to being voted the most scenic marathon in America and runner-up for best overall marathon, the MDI marathon is hilly. One blogger who ran the race reported his GPS watch showing 1,700 feet in elevation gain over the 26.2 miles and just as much in elevation loss.
I’m loosely following a Hal Higdon training plan. Higdon is a widely respected runner and author who has been helping runners succeed longer than I’ve been alive. I chose his Novice 2 plan, since it is a little more aggressive than Novice 1. I’ve not run a marathon before, so I stayed away from the intermediate training plans. In a nutshell, the plan increases your training mileage and the length of your longest weekly run week-over-week for 18 weeks leading into the race. There are some lower mileage weeks built into the plan for recovery after the longest of the training runs, and a taper period (period of rest and recovery) for the two to three weeks leading into the race. The plan also designates the pace of each run, with several runs being completed at the desired marathon race pace (“at pace”). The longest training run on the plan is 20 miles, and for me it will take place in late September about three weeks before race day.
So far, my adherence to the structure of the training plan has been less than perfect. I have gotten in all of my training, but it has required some substitutions and schedule changes due to travel and other activities. Here’s how Weeks 1 and 2 have gone so far, with the yellow representing what’s left this week:
I moved my long run up this week because we’re running a 5K race on Saturday (part of our goal of running a race per month in 2012). I also substituted some hikes for runs in Week 1 because we were in the White Mountains and the weather was fantastic. I was comfortable with these adjustments in the early weeks of the plan, since the mileage is in my comfort zone of 15 to 25 miles per week. As the plan continues, I need to buckle down. Given the demands of the plan, I don’t want to risk injury due to over-training . Also, since the plan is designed to provide enough rest leading into the longest run of the week and enough recovery after, it’s important that I stick to the prescribed schedule to avoid getting hurt or falling short on the important long training runs.
This will make for some scenic, interesting and challenging runs in upcoming Weeks 3 and 4, since I’ll be traveling in Germany and the Czech Republic! We will be visiting with family and friends for my cousin’s wedding before taking the train to Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden and Prague. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Europe, practicing my less-than-stellar German and, of course, logging some international marathon training miles! – M
After two weeks in the Virginia mountains, we hit the road yesterday with the goal of picking up a few more “new” states and national parks before we head back to New England for a while. We spent Saturday night in Kingsport, a small manufacturing city in northeast Tennessee we first discovered on our March road trip. Upon arrival, we made full use of the hotel’s fantastic gym, indoor pool, hot tub, and restaurant. This morning, we drove to the Kingsport Greenbelt, a recently-completed mixed-surface fitness trail that traverses nearly ten miles of the town. We were a bit surprised by the hilly terrain, which was a change of pace (literally) from the flat rail trail we’d run a few times in Virginia, but the pleasant scenery helped the time and miles pass. We completed an enjoyable 4-mile run before heading back to clean up and repack the car. We took a driving tour of downtown and then hit the highway to conquer the remaining stretch of I-81. We picked up I-40 into Knoxville, home to the University of Tennessee, where we made a spontaneous decision to take a break and check out the downtown area. We parked in a city garage (free on Sundays!) and wandered around a bit before deciding on a place to eat. We enjoyed the weather and the people-watching as we ate a late outdoor brunch in Market Square. We picked up coffee for the road before driving the last leg of the day down to Chattanooga, on Tennessee’s southern border with Georgia. Chattanooga was featured in a magazine article we read last year as the best place to live for outdoor enthusiasts, and it’s been on our list of places to check out ever since. The weather is looking stormy tomorrow, so we’re off to study the hourly radar with the hopes of picking the right hour for a running tour of downtown… -J
We started our day today just outside of Charlottesville, VA (C’Ville) at Thomas Jefferson’s famous home, Monticello. The rain held off as we walked through the gardens and took in the view. As we toured the home itself, the place that Jefferson loved more than any other, a quote from Jefferson about his home struck me. “I am as happy nowhere else and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.” This is how I want to feel about the place that I live, at least most of the time. It should be enriching and inspiring, while providing a venue for both the social and recreational activities I enjoy. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
In addition to exploring ourselves, the United States and the National Parks, one goal of our road trips has been to seek out places that we someday may want to live. Each new city or town we enter goes through a review process either openly or in our minds. All locations are ultimately compared to the New Hampshire Seacoast. Why the Seacoast? Aside from it being our current home and a familiar place, it has several characteristics that we look for in a home base: Not too crowded and not too rural (our ideal is somewhere between 8,000 and 100,000 people), great places too run (long roads with low traffic, low risk of crime, beaches and/or bike trails), an arts/music/literary scene, and a downtown with quality independent restaurants and coffee shops. Our current hometown has most of these characteristics, but given our recent freedom, we enjoy entertaining the idea of moving to new places.
One mistake we’ve made during our travels is to build up new places in our minds before actually visiting them. No town is perfect, and unrealistic expectations can ruin a place before even getting there. The first example of this for us was Portland, Oregon. We had built Portland up to be the ideal place to live: progressive, artsy, West Coast (sort of)…it sounded perfect. When we arrived in Portland, it was raining, gray, cold, filled with homeless people and nothing like the place we wanted it to be. Although we eventually grew to like Portland, we were disappointed by its inability to live up to our escapist/utopian expectations. It’s easy to overlook the flaws in one’s hometown. They are familiar, which by nature makes them less threatening. The flaws in a new place stand out, especially when you haven’t imagined there would be any.
Before we came to Virginia, a friend recommended that we check out Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia. “You’ll like it,” she assured us. We asked our host, B, about it, and he concurred, mentioning the pedestrian mall, Friday night live music, yummy pizza, etc. as highlights. Despite the threat of severe storms, we left Monticello and continued to downtown C’ville, anxious to give it a look before we headed out of Virginia for a few more stops on this leg of our journey.
We started our visit with a walk hand-in-hand down the pedestrian mall, taking in the mix of independent and chain stores, shops and restaurants. So far, so good. We stopped at the most highly recommended pizza joint in town, Christian’s, for a slice and a local beer. Lots of veggie options and definitely delicious! We sat by the window and enjoyed our late lunch while watching the eclectic mix of passers-by: business people, students, children, grandparents and homeless folks, and they all seemed right at home in this downtown center. It’s a welcoming place.
After lunch, we waited out a downpour in a used bookstore called Blue Whale Books. We chatted with the cashier, a UVA poet, and picked up two used books for $2 (a biography of Rilke for J and an analysis comparing Jungian philosophy to Tibetan Buddhism for me). We left the pedestrian mall and headed for a drive around the UVA campus where the academic buildings were right across the street from the coffee shops and pubs…my kind of town.
The final test for C’Ville, and any town, was the grocery store. As vegetarians who do our best to cook and eat healthy, local, organic food whenever possible, the quality of the grocery store is a key factor in determining the livability of a city or town. When it comes to grocery stores, a town with a Whole Foods is pretty much a sure thing. With the exception of higher prices, Whole Foods is like a candy store for vegetarians. It’s a place to buy the specialty items that most grocery stores don’t carry. Tack on a weekly supplemental trip to a regular grocery store for staples and a farmer’s market for seasonal items, and you’ve got everything you need. The C’Ville Whole Foods was clean, bustling and close to downtown, rounding out the Words Per Gallon livability checklist.
So how did C’Ville stack up? We could definitely see ourselves living there. For now though, there are so many other towns to explore, more roads to run on and more National Parks to visit. Plus, our new place on the Seacoast beckons; it will be ready later this summer. Maybe we’ll move next year… -M
During these early days of our journey, I’ve spent more time being active and less time relaxing than I thought I would. Although I love reading, it’s hard to curl up with a good book when there is a mountain to climb or a town to explore or a recipe to invent. This week I finally managed to spend a few evenings reconnecting with the likes of Thoreau and Emerson. I laughed out loud rereading the introduction of Walden two nights ago, pleasantly surprised (again) by the relevance of some of his statements 150+ years after he wrote them.
Thoreau’s contemporary, Emerson, had a few relevant passages of his own in the 1841 sleeper Self-Reliance, which I’ve also flipped through recently. To Emerson, self-reliance meant things like individualism and non-conformity and authentic inconsistency. To me, this week anyway, self-reliance means problem-solving even when we don’t have complete information. It means knowing how to read a map (and further, actually possessing one) when we’re off the grid and GPS can’t help us. It means getting creative with where and how we workout when our usual running routes are hundreds of miles away. And last night, it meant summoning all of my introverted courage to make a cold call to a person I’d never met asking them to help me.
Why did I need a stranger’s help? First, let’s back up to last week, before our friend left town. Just before heading to the airport, B filled us in on some need-to-know info about the house, practical stuff like where to find dry firewood and where to drop off the recycling. He also mentioned the closest neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. H, saying he wished he had time to introduce us to them before he left, but alas, that hadn’t worked out. So instead, we just got a passing reference to their existence, at which point for whatever reason, I catalogued their names in my brain.
There are only five houses on this gravel road, all set back into the woods and separated from each other by 1/3-mile sections of forest. We pass three driveways on the way to B’s house, but we can barely see the houses, and we’ve never seen another car on the one-lane road. Mr. and Mrs. H live just past B’s house, but we can’t see their house either. Occasionally we hear car wheels crunching over the gravel. Most folks in the area keep to themselves, and it was unlikely we’d run into any of the neighbors during our stay.
Then last night, after two days of self-imposed exile on the mountain, M and I headed into town for dinner. We knew a line of thunderstorms was pushing through the area, but we weren’t too worried. Rain’s rain. We made it to dinner and almost back to the house before the first drops hit the car. We assumed the storm was just arriving. Then we noticed several branches and clusters of leaves on the road ahead of us. “Looks like the storm already blew through here,” M commented.
We continued toward the house, through the series of dips and turns, before stopping to remove a large branch from the road in front of us. Only after getting out of the car did we notice a giant tree down, blocking the entire road, about fifty feet ahead of where we stopped. We walked closer to inspect things. There was no way around the tree, no lights visible at the nearest neighbor’s house, and the rain was picking up. The storm was just getting started.
We decided to back track to the main road where the tree cover was less dense, thinking that if one giant tree could fall, so could another. We drove the five miles or so back into town and waited out the storm in a pharmacy parking lot (where there was cell service). As rain pelted the car, we contemplated our options. We could drive back to the tree, park the car, and walk (in flip-flops, of course) the remaining half-mile to the house to pick up B’s chainsaw, which (a) he warned us wasn’t top notch and (b) neither of us had used before. We could find a map and see if we could locate an alternate route to the house, perhaps on a connecting back road. Or we could try to flag down one of the neighbors for help.
For context, at my core, I am slightly awkward introvert who can go weeks happily without interacting with another human. So the idea of blindly ringing someone’s doorbell is a paralyzing thought. Making a cold telephone call is a close second, but it beats the in-person interaction. So from the depths of my brain, I recalled Mr. and Mrs. H’s name and used the internet connection on my phone to look up their telephone number. There were eight H’s in town, but only one on the right road. With that find, I summoned all of my introverted courage and dialed the number.
After a mildly strange introduction to the tune of “we’ve never met, but I’m staying at the house next door and is there any chance you know of another way into the neighborhood because there is a giant tree blocking the road and we can’t get home.” Mrs. H, who answered the phone, wasted no time in understanding my rapid Yankee speech and said, why, yes, there was a back road, but she wasn’t sure what condition it was in and the car might get all scratched up if we attempted to use it. After a minute more of conversation and a brief chat with her husband, Mrs. H said that Mr. H would grab his chainsaw and meet us by the tree in a few minutes. Sweet relief!
By the time we arrived back at the tree, Mr. H was busy at work. We left the headlights of our car on to shed some light on the situation. Mr. H quieted the chainsaw when we got out of our car and approached him. “You said it was a tree, but I had no idea it was going to be this big of a tree!” he said with a laugh. We exchanged handshakes and greetings and then looked up and up, to about 30 feet off the ground where it looked like lightning struck. Half the tree was still standing, splintered at its wounded top, and the other half—an additional thirty feet or so of it—was on the ground, blocking the road from side to side.
After another minute of talk about the weather and how we knew B, Mr. H got back to work, cutting off branches and limbs before tackling the thin upper part of the tree. While he figured out the best way to fillet the thick main trunk of the tree, M and I got down to work, moving the parts and pieces and stumps and logs to either side of the gravel road.
The whole task took about 15 minutes, a feat only possible because of Mr. H’s chainsaw. As it turned out, Mr. H was grateful he found out about the tree on a Tuesday evening and not on Wednesday morning as he was leaving for work or his kids were trying to get to school. He would have had to do the work either way, and better to know about it in advance and have a little help. We were grateful for his help and his power tools. Sometimes self-reliance means wielding the chainsaw yourself, and other times it means calling someone with a bigger chainsaw to help you. -J
Our Virginia adventures continued yesterday with a day trip into Lynchburg. A few weeks ago, while still back in New Hampshire, we had sought out and registered for a 10K race downtown. We have a goal of running a race every month this year, and due to our travels, a Virginia race best fit our schedule for May. Neither of us had been to Lynchburg before, and running the race was a great way to see part of the city. (You can read my full recap here if you’re interested…)
After the race, which had an early 8 AM start, we did a quick change of clothes at the car (tucked into a shady spot in a free parking garage) and walked several blocks down Main Street to the Lynchburg Community Market. We planned to fill a bag with fresh local produce, but first things first…specifically, breakfast. We assumed the long line at Barb’s Dream Hut inside the marketplace was a good sign, so we ordered veggie omelets and shared a side of hash browns. We also ended up sharing our table with a local couple in their late 70s. They were newlyweds, having just tied the knot last December, although their first date was actually 63 years earlier, before he introduced her to his best friend…whom she subsequently married. It was a sweet story and part of a lovely conversation.
After breakfast, we wandered around the indoor market, picking up some Vidalia relish and locally roasted coffee before hitting up the farm stalls outside. We loaded two shopping bags with onions, peppers, squash, cabbage, beets, sweet potatoes, and kale, plus a loaf of fresh bread and a tub of sun-dried tomato goat cheese. As is typical for farmers markets, we paid a lower-than-usual price for produce fresh from the producers’ trucks and a higher-than-usual price for artisan breads and cheeses. For us, this is a fair trade-off, allowing us to support the local economy (wherever we are) and satisfy our own desires to know what we are eating and how it was made.
We left the market and walked back to the car, stashing our goods before driving over to the Old City Cemetery. The cemetery is more than a burial ground, as it contains five small museums paying homage to Lynchburg’s role in the Civil War and the railroad’s role in Lynchburg’s history. Lynchburg’s location on the James River and at the convergence of three major railways led to its establishment as a major hospital site during the Civil War. The cemetery is filled with history, including the graves of more than 2,200 Confederate soldiers and numerous early cultural and political leaders from the region.
Our next and final stop in town was the Anne Spencer House for a visit to her garden. Spencer was a poet and part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Her house is part of the Pierce Street historic district (one of seven historic districts in Lynchburg), and the garden has been lovingly restored by a local non-profit group. It is open to the public from dawn to dusk, and we found ourselves alone there on a sunny Saturday afternoon. We wandered the garden paths and sat in chairs outside Edankraal, the writing cottage her husband built for her so she would have a quiet place to write and be inspired by the beauty of the garden. The garden is filled with history, both in the stories of significant visitors that stayed there and in the plants and flowers in the garden, many of which have persisted since the Spencers first planted them in the 1930s and 1940s.
On the way home, we talked about how we would love to have a cottage like Edankraal someday, a quiet place for writing and possibly for living. For now, we are getting used to writing and living wherever we find ourselves, which this week is at our friend’s mountain retreat. After the short drive back there, we unloaded our bounty and got down to the business of making the most amazing grilled sandwiches using the fresh bread, onion relish and goat cheese. We capped the day by heading up to the second-story deck to watch the sun set over the mountains, thankful for a perfect day and the opportunity to explore places like Lynchburg. –J
After our week-long stay in Maine and a weekend stop in Portsmouth for our friends’ wedding, we’ve made our way to a friend’s house in the mountains of central Virginia. In a happy scheduling coincidence, our friend (who travels frequently) happens to be at the house for the first week of our planned three-week stay. It’s been nice catching up with him over shared meals and late night card games, and it will be nice to find a rhythm of our own once he’s on the road again. We arrived late Sunday night and have spent the week becoming familiar with the area and our new temporary home. The house is set back about a mile down a gravel road, with few neighbors to encounter and many acres of woods to explore. Each morning, I’ve taken my coffee outside and listened to the land come alive from my perch on the wooden swing. We’ve napped in hammocks and walked along winding paths. We’ve witnessed deer grazing in the front yard, turkey vultures and coyotes scavenging along the main road, and countless birds and butterflies and bats and other things with wings. We’ve also managed to keep our fitness routine somewhat intact, with some creative adjustments. When the weather’s been nice, we’ve brought our workouts to the back yard, and when it was raining, I set up my yoga mat on the covered front porch. We’ve explored sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway and hiked to a remote waterfall swimming hole. Today, we ventured to the next county in search of a safe running route and ended up finding a converted rail trail that was perfect for today’s training run. (We’re running a 10K here in Virginia on Saturday, and it’s been a little tough keeping up our mileage on the road.) We’re now back at the house, enjoying a quiet afternoon and watching storm clouds roll in from the west. I think it’s going to be a good night to hunker down on the mountain. -J