At Recess

About 4:30 last night I woke to the sound of coyotes yapping and howling. It was an eerie sound, much less soothing than the sound of rain on the roof or the calls of owls, both of which I have heard while here in southeastern Arizona. Their revelry lasted only thirty seconds or so, and while it sounded like a pack of maybe twelve ravenous canines right outside our door, it was probably only two or three who could have been a thousand or more feet away in an adjacent wash that snakes down from the Santa Catalina Mountains. They are ventriloquists, throwing their voices in ways that make them seem more proximate and numerous than they really are, which is another way of saying they are deceivers. But whatever they were doing out there, my slumber was over. I lay there.

The coyotes went silent, the owls took up the song, their questions lingering, repeated for emphasis, perhaps, or sociability. I'm full of questions too. When you awake in the night and lie there questions seem to come easily, ones that lay beneath the surface of the rattle and rub of life. They percolate up to consciousness. I turn them into prayers, some sensible, some inchoate. I'm a little out of my head, semi-conscious, and yet the Spirit takes my sometimes unintelligible scribbling and translates it into a final draft, so I don't worry about it. I ramble on.

But that was last night, and this afternoon I am sitting on the veranda talking with my son about orbital dynamics, or astrophysics, or some little subject like that, punctuated by chips and guacamole, a subject we can both understand. He is like a wise owl on these subjects and I am a coyote, saying little, but dangerous. I make a lot of racket for maybe 15 seconds, yet he holds forth longer, owlish, with less bluster, more nuance. He just explained something to me that I do not understand. I need an explanation of the explanation. But my mind is lazy. I ate a chip. He went back to typing. Heat rises from the top of his head. I know it is there because from the time he was a little boy his head would get hot when he thought real hard. And he's thinking pretty hard. Me, not so much. He's telling me about a spaceship passing by Jupiter, ejecting a cube-sat (that's a baby satellite, a swaddled bundle of. . . instruments) which is thrown out to crash on the surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa, how a door opens and it being spring-mounted is cast out. Like a jack-in-the-box, I say. And he agrees. That's my contribution. And I'm sure I bungled that explanation, but await his dissertation for the real stuff.

Just before dawn, as I lay there working on world issues interspersed with meandering prayers, the birds woke. At home I never hear the birds as I do here, where there is a cacophony of tweets and chirps and flutterings that signal sunrise. Excitement, expectation, joy. Before long, light tinges the curtain pulled over the patio window, and it glows. The owls sleep. My family sleeps. I lay there looking at the ceiling.

A few days ago, I remember, I was riding a horse in the foothills of the Catalinas. I was first up, on Susio, right behind our Sixties-ish guide, Frank, who has lived here all his adult life. I am a tentative rider, lacking temerity, and the horse knows it. And unfortunately for me, Susio has a habit of wandering to the edge of the trail, threatening to brush against cholla cactus, falling into a small ravine, or God forbid falling off the edge of the trail and rolling down the mountain, crushing me or filling me with cactus needles. In theory I know Susio knows this trail better than me, and yet I don't fully trust him. I'm watching him. An owl watches me. Along about dark, I hear a mockingbird, running through his Top 40, and I suspect that I am the subject of his derision.

I tell Frank that we are fresh back from the Desert Museum, and after a pause, he says his favorite animal is the otter. He says that when you see the otter "you just gotta smile." I give assent. You somehow can't imagine a bad day for an otter. I remember the otter that we saw earlier in the week, how he surfaced and rolled over on his back and smiled a whiskered grin at us, how we smiled back. But Susio is going off-road again, and my reverie is ended.

My son is still tapping away on the keyboard. A breeze lifts my hair and I look out to the city, east to the Rincon Mountains, covered by a fuzzy haze which I know is dust, swept up by the winds. I'm on vacation, I remind myself. It's like elementary school recess: the bell rang, and I ran out, free, where I can think about anything I want, light out on a whim, and spend time with friends, which are, and always will be, family --- my wife, my son, my daughter. If this sounds disjointed, if the transitions are blurred, if the transmission crackles like a radio transmission from Europa, it's a testimony to a mind unhinged, at recess. Let me stay a little longer, please, under the moon and stars and satellite sky of this desert. I'll be in soon.

Along the Natchez Trace (Day Four)

At Sweetwater Branch, just after crossing into Tennessee, we walked down the incline to stand on the wide bank of the creek, listening to the water sing over the rocks, on its way to the Tennessee River. We went closer, the earth giving slightly under our feet. Then closer, I squatted and rested my hand on the water, then plunged it under, letting its cold etch the place in memory. “Well, OK,” she said, “if you're doing it so am I.” She moved closer, putting her hand in. To prolong the image, I picked up a leaf and threw it on the slow moving water, watched it spin and pick up purpose, the current catching it, watching it waft by the undercut rock cliffs.

“So you think we should wash our hands after putting our hands in that water?”

“No, it has to be clean,” I say, hopefully, and besides I think, that would be like wiping off a kiss.

As we moved deeper into Tennessee, the leaves took on the appearance of late Fall, the curves became necessary and not just a part of the aesthetics of parkway construction. At two points we left the paved road to travel segments of the old Trace, one lane and rugged, bumping over ruts, a fast breeze blowing through the car. We saw no one. And that's how it's often been, like entering Yosemite or Yellowstone and finding only a handful of people around, greeting you but reticent to intrude on your solitude, or similarly struck dumb in wonder.

Once we saw a coyote standing in the right-of-way, head lifted, catching a scent, oblivious to our passing. Writing this now, I was reminded of the estrangement from fellow creatures that Annie Dillard writes of, her sense that we belong here at times and at other times “seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy — or a broad lampoon — on a thrust rock stage.” We are “strangers and sojourners,” she says, echoing a biblical theme, “soft dots on the rocks.” But maybe she was having a bad day. Or more likely, she has a half-truth, as there is both tragedy (sin), comedy (grace), and fairy tale (hope) in our days, and we belong here and yet we don't.

The closer we came to milepost 444, the more I felt it slipping away. I knew that we were on the outskirts of civilization. The traffic picked up. The grass was cleaned up, citified. And then, at TN 100, it just ended. Terminus, said the map. No announcement, no farewell signage, no waving trees in my rear view mirror, no coyote looking wistfully after us.

She said, “Let's do that again.” And I would if… but there are too many ifs. I settled for a picture of the sign, a crumpled leaf, a tingle of Sweetwater cold in my fingers, the bark of a bald cypress, the cold stones atop the final resting place of a “melancholy” Meriwether Lewis, the feel of cotton on a bush in a field of white that stretched to the horizon, and…

Someone to share it with.

Along the Natchez Trace (Day Three)

A tunnel cuts into this greenness 
Under the roof of this wild place 
Down into the heart of darkness 
Along the Natchez Trace

There is no way to fill the silence 
Measure the lateness of this age 
But for the turning of the seasons 
Along the Natchez Trace

Oh, Mississippi 
Show your hand, I'll
Read your fortune and your fate
Oh, Mississippi
I'll trace your lifeline
Along the Natchez Trace

The journey is forever lonely
Each step a slow and measured pace 
Always mindful of the bandits who wait 
Along the Natchez Trace

Oh, Mississippi
I'd like to know you
But you will not show your face 
Lost in a dream state
Some still wander
Along the Natchez Trace

There is no way to fill the silence 
Measure the lateness of this age 
But for the turning of the seasons 
Along the Natchez Trace

(“Natchez Trace,” from Chase the Buffalo, by Pierce Pettis)

About twenty miles north of Jackson, there is a turnoff for Cypress Swamp. We take it. Leaving the car, we step carefully down a hill, down to a bridge that crosses shallow water filled on both sides with ancient bald cypress, the trunks of which splay out as they near the water, trunks that seem like twisted vines, wrapped together for encouragement. Above, their canopy needles the sky. Interspersed among them are the tupelo, a hardwood, their leaves softening a sharp blue sky. I read that the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto would have passed some that still live, and so we are hushed, listening, as if something important might be missed.

If I wore a hat, I would take it off to them. I don't, so I stretched out my hand and rested it on one cypress's sinewy bark, an acknowledgment of age, perhaps, or kinship, a help to self-forgetfulness. That this tree would stand here in silence all these centuries, see the turning of the seasons, while we come and go, renders me small, a child among elders.

Later, I put both hands on a pine tree, a soaring giant whose diameter at base must have been two to three feet. Unlike the cypress, it's bark was like armour, plate upon plate, mottled and crisp. Touching it brought me back to the pines of my backyard that real when the wind blows, awkward and gangly compared to this giant. Later, picking up a stick and swishing it in the air as I walked, I was following my grandmother again, through the woods to visit her friend, while she swishes a branch in front of her. I picked up a leaf, crumpled it in my hands, and remembered pressing leaves between wax paper during kindergarten.

I touch things as a way of knowing them and, perhaps, as a way of remembering. I don't think they have souls, but there is a way in which they speak. Creation is not silent. Even rocks cry out.


Mississippi is dark. We prowled around Jackson last night in what seemed a room with the lights dimmed, squinting to make out details, to find Anjou, a recommended French restaurant. It was 6:00 and seemed like midnight, like everyone had gone to bed and turned out the lights. I wondered if it was just me and my failing eyes or something else. 

So I googled it. Of course. I got an earful, well, eyeful,about LED lights, low energy and dim. Most of the complaints were about Marxist, socialist city councils, at least the ones I can repeat. 

We crept back to the hotel under the cover of darkness. Had I a flashlight, I would have held it out the window to light our way in the darkness of Mississippi, along a Trace with no moon.


We are sensual creatures, so things like ambient lighting or touch make a difference, even though we don't always know enough to articulate how they impact us. In a book I am reading called Stuff Matters, materials scientist Mark Miodownik explores the psychophysical aspects of materials, that is, why the way they feel or sound has such an effect on our experience of them. And yet, he recognizes that we can't live in such a way as to be attuned to their impact all the time. He rightly says that “Most of the time we ignore them. We have to: we would be treated as lunatics if we spent the whole time running our fingers down a concrete wall and sighing.” Or touching trees. I'll stop talking about that. I'll stop being that guy.


From Jackson to Tupelo, the Trace unfolds on a beautiful ordinariness. Gentle curves, slight rises, hayfields newly mown, here and there a farmhouse set back off the road shyly reminding us that in most places the roads has no more than 800 feet of right of way, that what we mostly see is private land kept rural by cooperative agreements, easements, and economics. Mostly it is, after all farmland, not ripe for subdivisions.

Today was a long drive, but it was musical, like a dance through wood and meadow, serenaded by the songs of Alabaman Pierce Pettis. We listened to his Chase the Buffalo at least three times, and yet my wife said she didn't tire of it. At dinner, I said, as we often say, “What was your favorite thing today?” She said, “Driving.” Just that.  Well, maybe she added "with you."

At one point, we exited the road and walked a bit of the Old Trace, perhaps a lane wide, its surface tread by thousands upon thousands of feet and hooves. I walked until it simply vanished in a tangle of trees and scrub, indiscernible. Lost. I wished it back.

Along the Natchez Trace (Day Two)

Most profound of all things I heard today were the words from a man picking up cigarette butts from a road that led down to the Mississippi River from downtown Natchez. We were ascending the road and he was bent a bit, at his task, and my wife said “Thank you for keeping things so beautiful.” He said “I need to make a difference.” I appreciated that man rooting me in place, reminding me that I was not just hovering over Mississippi, like some detached observer, but could rest there, if lightly, among flesh and blood, on streets called Pearl and Auburn and Canal, under live oaks decorated with the dreadlocks of Spanish moss, under the rich sky so blue and branches so green.

Later, we pretended to be Natchezians, walking among the people at a Chili Cook-Off to benefit the Childrens' Home. I tried 14 different chili concoctions, sharing them with my shirt, but finally settled on that served up by the local fire department, which was surprisingly lacking in smoke and fire but rich with flavor. Even the brief exchange with the fireman had the effect of keeping me from drifting in my own thoughts, the words we exchanged solid and earthy and real, tethering me to the ground.

At 4:30 AM this morning, I finished A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships, by Paul Miller, and he quoted a passage from B.B. Warfield. Warfield was talking about how Christ took no account of himself, even his divine self, but was “led by His love for others into the world, to forget himself in the needs of others.” And then Warfield lays down his pen and points his finger at himself and at me through himself and says

“Self-sacrifice means not indifference to our times and our fellows: it means absorption in them. It means forgetfulness of self in others. It means entering into every man's hopes and fears, longings and despairs: it means manysidedness of spirit, multiform activity, multiplicity of sympathies. It means richness of development. It means not that we should live one life, but a thousand lives - binding ourselves to a thousand souls by the filaments of so loving a sympathy that their lives become ours.”

Perhaps that's why I write. So I can live a thousand lives. So for a moment I can forget about myself and my incessant needs and complaints and try to imagine life by making a difference picking up cigarette butts, fighting fires, hawking lunch to passersby, sweeping streets, cleaning rooms, or selling cars. So I can walk along the ancient Sunken Trace and hear the footfalls of “kaintucks” and post men and circuit riding preachers, cold and hungry and tired, watch them play cards and write letters to their wives and talk about their days at a “stand” like the Locust Inn, where a solitary ranger jumps to welcome us like she's not seen anyone all day. I wonder what she does when no one comes, if memories of those who came here take substance and speak to her, if maybe, all alone, she begins to speak to them.

And yet I've barely scratched the surface of self-forgetfulness, let thousands of souls pass unnoticed. But writing them down, here, is a start, anyway, the beginning of the end, a pebble rippling through the sea of forgetfulness.

Along the Natchez Trace (Day One)

The last thing I placed in my suitcase was a ragged copy of my Rand McNally Road Atlas. I shook my head. 2010. I should have upgraded. I had a brief vision of our rental car on a narrowing blacktop that peters out in dirt on a deserted road in rural Louisiana, beneath the gaze of toothless inbred Cajun renegades ready to rob us and take our car, leaving us stranded there in Acafaluka. I made that name up, Acafaluka, yet it sounds believable, has a ring to it. In fact, the whole thing sounds believable. I close the suitcase, vowing to purchase a new atlas soon.

I apologize if you are from Louisiana.

Our flight brings us into Baton Rouge which, I know, sounds French, which, I know, makes me think wine and lax morals and Napoleon and guillotines and a certain book I reviewed a couple of years ago about a Frenchman who tried to make sense of the tragic tsunami in Asia but lacked the moral categories to know the questions to ask.

I apologize if you are from France.

Our route today, just a red line on Rand McNally as yet, meanders north, through St. Francisville, where Ruthie Leming (of the book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming) lived and died too soon, where her family still lives. We'll stop there, at least briefly, so I can soak up littleness, which, lived to God's glory, is huge, rippling out across space and time, like Ruthie.

And then it's back to the red line, the highway north, Mississippi in our sights, Natchez on the horizon, which makes me think of racism and civil rights and the third-grade spelling bee and a certain town called Petal, my friend Josh's hometown, which is too far from Rand McNally's course to visit but which seems like a whisp of a place in my mind, not a flower but a mere Petal, slight but beautiful, perhaps. . . A name dropped on a crossroads, perhaps, as an expression of hope?

I'm 56, and I have never been to Mississippi. But when Mavis Staples sings, I dream it.


I like walking out of an airport and onto the tarmac to board a plane. Loading bridges mask reality, assuage fear even. But out here you can touch the skin of the plane, smell the jet fuel, hear the airflow in jet engines. I see the stairs leading to the door, and I think of Presidents waving to admirers, or the Beatles arriving in New York for a concert at Shea Stadium, seeing Gerald Ford at a whistle stop in Greensboro in the early 70s. 

I consider pausing on the stairs, looking back, nodding to my one admirer, smiling.


Before hotels and motels there were motor lodges and, even earlier, motor courts which sprang up alongside the first modern highways. In my childhood in the early 60s, the motor courts were largely gone, replaced by the motels, the Howard Johnson's and Holiday Inns or, for our family's budget, the mom and pop brands like the old Vicky Villa, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, or the Skyline Motor Lodge, in Asheville, North Carolina (a truncated version of which still exists). You could drive right off the highway and sail up to your door in your Olds Jetstar 77 (our car) or Ford Fairlane. We'd open the door on air-conditioned air, jump up and down on the bed a few times, get some ice from the ice machine for our parents, and run around the premises and check out the pool while our somnolent elders, inexplicably, took a nap.

In St. Francisville, the motor court still exists, detached motel rooms, if you like, cottages, quaint, with the addition here of massages (unheard of in polite quarters in the 60's, but now a nod to the urbane). The Magnolia Motor Court is tucked back off the main road, right across from the bustling Magnolia Cafe. We sat by the door, where you can watch people come and go, mainly locals. "Look, that lady has a Chinelle pocketbook," said my wife, surprising here, we thought, in rural Louisiana. "She's wearing Tory Burch shoes." Ok, so the world has come even here, fashion piled on top of cows and deer blinds and hay.

I look over at the table in the next room and see a man I recognize. It's Rod Dreher, author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, not ten feet from me, surrounded by a gaggle of fawning women. I prefer to think they are relatives. Or maybe aspiring writers. I fight the urge to go speak to him, to do something grand, like buy a bottle of wine for the table, anonymously, just because I like his book, just because it make me laugh and cry. But I don't. I had lunch with him, I'll say, passed his home in Star Hill, saw the Orthodox church he attends. That's enough. No, enough is the bread pudding, the best we have ever had, like someone melted down four Krispy Kreme doughnuts and poured it into a pudding mold.

Crossing over into Mississippi, I realize that the land is not flat, as I imagined, but swells and falls, like the Piedmont, like Chatham County, with cows and hayfields and houses set back off the road with long drives lined by live oaks that must make you feel like royalty, arriving at your home. On the way, we had two conversations with Palo Alto and one with Wichita, and I have the surreal feel of being here, there and maybe everywhere, all at once. I'm thankful for technology but feel like I need to get out and walk, to be on solid ground, in one place.

In Natchez (pronounced like "matches"), we checked into the Monmouth Historic Inn. The cover of Travel and Leisure magazine, in the gift shop, claims it as one of the 500 best small hotels in the country. And it's fine. All I know is our room looks like Grandma's house - old and a bit musty. I prefer the motor court. I like the ice machine and outdoor pool and driving right up to your door that opens not on some hallway but on the great outdoors of the parking lot. I like eating at Shoneys and Bucks and Rays and all those family-owned restaurants. I like the feeling of ice cold motel room on a hot and humid summer day, even the smell of the room. I particularly liked that one motel where you could have the bed vibrate for five minutes if you inserted a quarter. (My Dad let us do it once, and my sister and I laughed and laughed.)

I even miss jumping up and down on the bed. Which is probably not going to happen at The Monmouth Historic Inn in Natchez, Mississippi. I might hurt something. Grandma might be upset.


When Jesus Comes

IMG_1727If you have wondered where Outwalking has been, it's absence has been due in part to the fact that I was in southwest Uganda from June 16-30, serving as part of a mission to churches in that area with Amazing Grace Adoptions and Orphan Care.  It wasn't that I didn't blog, because I did, writing here on the official mission blog.  I hope you'll visit the blog to see what we were up to there in the Kisoro District.  But just in case you don't, I'll share some excerpts here.

The Kisoro District of Uganda is far from the capital city of Kampala, about a 10-hour bus trip, and thus far from the minds of the government officials there.  As a result, government support of the community is lacking.  Poised as there are on the border with the Congo, a resource-rich if troubled country, and Rwanda, a comparatively better off and yet still troubled country, they have seen their share of refugees.  Add to that a drought that has affected them for nearly a month, and the material poverty is palpable.  And yet material poverty is the good soil of spiritual wealth

For eight days we followed Pastor George to eight of the 16 churches he has planted.  George and his wife Rubina have no salary, no bank account, and no other stable source of income.  Nevertheless, they have several children and have managed to take in orphans to raise as their own.  Like nearly all Ugandans in rural areas, they "dig," as they say, providing for themselves by planting and harvesting their own crops from small plots of land.

One day at breakfast, Pastor George says this: “When I walk to visit the churches, I sometimes don't know where I will sleep. Sometimes I sleep outdoors. Sometimes I sleep in a church with no windows or doors. When I lay down, I don't know if I am going to wake up. Then, I find myself moving, and I am up. I do not know how God will provide, but I know that He will.”  I do not even know how to think in this way.  Like most people from the West, I have multiple safety nets to fall back on should trouble come - savings, insurance, family, and government.  Most Ugandans have nothing --- nothing but God, that is.  How can God grow the kind of faith in me that I see in this man?

One day we drove to the end of a rutted dirt road, finally disembarking to walk the rest of the way to a church because the bridge was impassable.  It was like following the Apostle Paul.  The road teemed with people walking.  Women carrying baskets of fruit, beans, or rocks on their heads; men pushing bicycles laden with bamboo, mattresses, a bed frame, potatoes; and children staring and waving from doorways and dirt yards shared with goats and chickens. In the fields, women slung hoes, digging at the rich earth, babies strapped to their backs.  They flocked around us.  They all know Pastor George.  That night I recalled the words of Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat: “Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but… at supper time, or walking along a road.”

So, out walking He comes.  Walking along a road.

So what did we do?  Pastor George asked for nothing but one thing: that we come and encourage his people.  So, feeling our weakness, our inadequacy, we came.  We taught Bible study to men and women over half of whom lack a Bible but who are adept at listening, eagerly absorbing the Word.  We prayed for people.  We heard of their difficulties.  We sang. They sang.  We ate the lunch they prepared for us: beans, rice, Irish potatoes, cooked cabbage, and tough sinewy beef that proved too tough for most of us.  We loved on the children, played games, enacted parables, heard sad stories of sexual abuse and what seemed like demonic visitation.  Powerless, we called on the omnipotent One to help them, the Father to the many fatherless, to a people adopted and made co-heirs with Christ of spiritual riches unencumbered by material wealth.


Many times I thought surely there are people who can teach Bible study better than me, who know the Bible better than me.  And yet I was reminded that those people were not there, and I was.  So I just opened my mouth and prayed to God that He would fill it.  And something came out.  We began and ended our days in weakness. For a devotion after breakfast our first day, we read II Corinthians 12:1-10, and considered Christ's words to Paul, his answer to his plea to have some ailment of mind or body removed from him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  The words stood up on the page and walked with us for two weeks, taking life in the life we lived.

Standing outside a church one day, within sight of Congo, Pastor George told us how the grandmother of the pastor used to walk all the way to Kisoro to come to his church, nealy 25 miles. One day she offered to give him the land for the church. The church members then built the church, rock by rock. Each one gives. “If you can't give money, bring a rock to church,” George says.

Rock by rock. That's how it goes there. That's how they live out the gospel. That's how we have to live out the Gospel.  That's how the Kingdom gets built.


I Went On Vacation Last Week. . .

. . . and Judy, the server at the resort restaurant, remembered us.  That's not too difficult, I suppose, as we have been making this journey to Tucson, Arizona for 30 years, 19 of them with children.  We stay in the same room, do many of the same things, and complain (though rarely) as if we are members of the family, investors in the property.  But we do feel like we "own" a bit of the place.  Once, the chef took us on a two-hour tour of the kitchens, something I would not have requested but found pretty illuminating (enough to know I would not want his job).  Once, I wrote the manager. He wrote back.  We lament any and every change (at least until we adapt).  

Mostly, however, we just look and listen.

In Arizona, you can see for miles.  Here, in the Piedmont of North Carolina, I can't see past my neighbors house.  In Tucson I roll over in bed in the morning, look out the window at an inevitably sunny, blue sky day, and I can see for 50 miles.  That openness is affective.  I want to play outside, hike mountains, eat outside, try something new.  I'm energized.  My older sister, who has never until now joined my family for a vacation, wondered if I was ADD.  Nope.  I told her she was just OLD. (Not really, as I'm not witty enough for that nor is she old enough for that, but I like that comeback.)

Did you ever get invited to someone's home and then, a captive audience, get sucked into watching home movies?  I didn't think so.  You don't know what you've been missing.  I won't do that to you. But I will offer you ten slides from my vacation, ten images that will stick with me.  Pat Patterson, an AM DJ in Raleigh back in the Seventies, used to "show" slides over the radio on his morning show. I'm just following his lead.  So. . .

Slide One: It's evening and we're sitting on the outside courtyard terrace of El Charro, the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tucson, and I have been served a favorite dish, carne seca, beef which earlier that day had been drying in a metal box about 20 feet in the air on a pole above my head. I feel so welcome; it's as if I'm with my extended Mexican family.  At least three waiters appear to be serving us.  I finish and want to start all over. (Click)

Slide Two: Sabino Canyon, in the Catalina Mountains that border Tucson on the north, is like a city playground.  A tram transports you 3.8 miles up in the canyon, over a road and multiple bridges spanning Sabino Creek, all built by the Civilian Conservation Corp and Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.  When my wife's father was a student at the University of Arizona in the late 1930s, he'd drive his date up here.  Now, we take a tram up and walk out, scrambling over rocks, dipping in and out of icy cold water, and sometimes hiking the old phone line trail up on the ridge for a different perspective.  Not today.  That's me on the rock sunning.  Chief lizard. (Click)

Slide Three: In a place like this, you can really settle into a book, if you can sit still long enough and stop looking at the mountains and sky. I'm reading Paul Miller's A Praying Life, a book that asks all the questions that we Christians are ashamed to ask, like why don't we pray more, or is anyone listening, or did Jesus really mean it when he said "You have not because you do not ask." It made me want to ask more and believe more. Looking up at the jagged peak of Mt. Lemmon, sculpted by Someone who could move mountains, I could better believe that he was a Prayer-Answerer too. Sometimes I had to close my eyes and read. (Click)

Slide Four: Eating (again), we found the best pizza in the world at Magpies, a local restaurant in the very bohemian looking Fourth Avenue section.  That's barbecue pizza on my plate, a dish everyone else turns their nose up at, leaving more for me.  The well-aged checkerboard tablecloth reminds me of my childhood home.  On the way out we have nearly a pizza box of various kinds left.  We see a homeless man picking through garbage, and my brother-in-law calls him over and offers it to him.  He doesn't wait.  He starts eating right there at the window of the car. And I hear Precious Ramotswe say "God has not forgotten you." (Click)

Slide Five: I'm reclining with that Botswanan detective, Precious Ramotswe, at the pool.  That is, I'm reading The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the latest installment of Alexander McCall Smith's #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, a book full of gentle wisdom, and come across that phrase she utters to a distraught house-maid ("God has not forgotten you"), kindness incarnate, and I slow down and read it again, reminded that there are no little people. (Click)

Slide Six:  Take a peek at this.My gracious wife, instead of taking a shopping day in the artists' community of Tubac, about 25 miles from the Mexican border, is taking a hike with me, even in a skirt, fording the San Pedro River (admittedly a mere creek at this time), walking through forests and fields, climbing over cattle fences, and all this in the middle of a 90 degree day.  4.5 miles.  We never saw another soul.  The trial (oops, I mean trail) ends at a preserved Spanish mission, Tumacacori, one of our favorite places.  Try not to  think about it too much, but the river flow is actually the effluent from the Nogales Wastewater Treatment Plant.  Oh well. (Click)

Slide Seven: Here's a feel good shot.  My teenage son and daughter, walking ahead of us on the road, hand in hand, arm in arm, like best friends.  I'll savor that and remember it when the next inevitable spat arises.  Hey, did I just see her smack him?  Another day in paradise. . . (Click)

Slide Eight: Let's back up a bit, as I forgot one slide.  We're eating steak at Lil' Abners, a roadhouse, really, that I remember being in the desert outside Tucson but now sits smack in the suburb of Marana.  They have two things going for them: excellent steaks cooked on outdoor mesquite grills served with beans and salsa, and country swing provided by nearly 90-year old Dean Armstrong and his western swing band, also made up up elders (that's what they call old people out here).  And, in the background that's the same woman who was here last year, a regular, usually with a picture of her boyfriend on her t-shirt and her's on his.  But after 30 years of playing here, Dean has gone Home --- two weeks ago.  He was a gentleman and I'll miss him. (Click)

Slide Nine: A lot of people come to Madeira Canyon to birdwatch.  We don't.  Bird people sometimes look like birds.  Have you ever noticed that?  30 minutes in we're over a mile up, and those are pines, sycamores, and ash trees you see, with a little yucca mixed in.  We hiked up about two miles, and then out, seeing deer around us, considering what to do if confronted by a bear or bobcat.  Alone. Sometimes we stopped, all quiet, and just listened to the wind in the trees. Hear it? (Click)

Slide Ten: This may be the best.  We're all sitting in the second row of Catalina Foothills Presbyterian Church.  It's Easter morning.  We're practically embedded with the orchestra and choir.  Looking up through the windows all you can see are mountains and sky. Those are tears welling in my eyes, produced by music so beautiful, so poignant, so worshipful.  It's the closest I get to my home church without being home.  It's a fitting close to a week of rest, reflection, and wonder.

I still think about it.

Thanks for letting me share these slides with you.  I would have shown the 8 mm home movies, all four reels, but the kids with their Ipods and IPads and Wii and whatnot, the short attention spans, and all.  It would never work.  But maybe one image here will stick and provoke you, as it does me, to vacate once again, to take, like God did at the end of six days, a holy pause, look over what you've made and done, and say,"It's good.  It's really good." And be thankful for the beautiful mess that life can be.









At Connemara, Slashes of Light

IMG_0606 Night from a railroad car window
Is a great, dark, soft thing
Broken across with slashes of light.

("Windows," by Carl Sandburg, in Carl Sandburg: Collected Poems, Paul Berman, ed.) 

Tiger is the name of the barn cat that lives at Connemara, the home of Carl and Lillian Sandburg for the last 22 years of the poet and writer's life.  A hospitable cat, welcoming guests easily from the red barn she scouts, she makes us feel at home, as if we have come to visit the Sandburgs, see Lillian's prize goats with their soft and docile faces, peruse the 14,000 volumes of books in the Sandburg home, or sit on the front porch and think and talk and think some more, enjoying the view of the lake and the mountains beyond.  And we do feel at home.

My first experience with the American journalist, poet, folk singer, and hobo Cal Sandburg was as a child.  His six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln contained in my mother's library of mostly devotional books (many of which I read at some point) intrigued me but proved too fulsome a history for a tween to crack.  But I remember its heft, the feel of it in my hands, and the weightiness of its many words.  I wondered at a man who could write so many words about one single man.  I looked at his picture, his shock of white hair, and thought him a word-god, transcendent.

He wasn't, of course.  Walking through his house, left much as it was the day he died, I sense his ordinariness, his humility, his modesty.  I can imagine sitting in his front room visiting, the furnishings plain and simple, the man unpretentious.  He might read me a new poem or even sing me a song.  The only thing unusual about his home was his sharing of it with 14,000 books.  Everywhere you bump into words, rub up against history.  There he sits, I imagine, in a cluttered study, banging out the words to a new poem, typewriter on an upended orange crate, because "if such was good enough for General Grant it's good enough for me."  Pulitzers are relegated to a hidden cabinet, no "how great thou art" wall of commendations and awards to be found.  No car in the garage either, as he said that a car would keep him from walking, and in walking you get to meet people.  And people were his stock and trade, the very voices of his poems.

On a granite outcropping beside his home, there is a single bench chair, and I imagine him sitting there, paper and pen in hand, thinking over his life and the life of others he knew.  He said once that "[i]t is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and ask of himself, 'Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?'"  There, at the bottom of Little Glassy Mountain, I might ask myself that too and, turning back to the house, ask myself what I will leave behind.

I would like to have known the man.  I doubt our politics would align (as he was a socialist of sorts), and yet he championed the rights of the ordinary folk and seemed to live his life with some modesty and humility, a voice for the common man.  He also held to no organized religion and, though it was not a major theme of his work, did at times rail against those he thought misappropriated Jesus, as in his vituperative lambasting of the evangelist Billy Sunday in his poem of the same name, saying "I won't take my religion from a man who never works/except with his mouth and never cherishes a/ memory except the face of the woman on the/ American silver dollar."  Surely, had he read the poem to me on the porch of Connemara, I may have nodded in agreement to parts of it, because much has been said and done in God's name with which He may not be pleased.

Nature had a way of smoothing over his rare venom.  Even in many of his poems not geared toward children, a gentleness is evident, as in "The fog comes/ on little cat feet./ It sits looking/ over harbor and city/ on silent haunches/ and then moves on."  I imagine him playing with grandchildren, watching Edward R. Murrow on television (the only thing he ever watched), sitting at a modest table having breakfast with Lillian and his girls, watching birds out the window, and retiring to his office upstairs, cluttered and discomfiting to me, anyway.

Here, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I wonder if he knew the One who came for him, for every man, the one of whom he wrote

I've been out to this suburb of Jerusalem they call
          Golgotha, where they nailed him, and I know if
          the story is straight it was real blood ran from his
          hands and the nail-holes, and it was real blood
          spurted out where the spear of the Roman soldier
          rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus of

Was he a friend of this man?  Did he know the One who haunted all the lives of the people he met, the places he saw, the words he wrote?  At Connemara, I can hope that he knew more than the dark, dark night from a rail car window, with only slashes of light.  I can hope he knew the God-Man who came to save. 

What Interstates Are Good For (Besides Cracker Barrel)

In the past four days, my little family (Mom, Dad, two teenagers) spent a total of 15 hours and 52 minutes in what amounts to a seven by seven room --- a car, that is --- with only brief excursions outside for necessities.  We were traveling to and from Raleigh, North Carolina to Lookout Mountain, Georgia, the site of Covenant College, a prize well worth the trip along the interstates.  On the whizzing car trip, I had time for a few observations, none of which may strike you as particularly original but, of course, there are no new revelations but only new ways in which old revelations come to roost.  Herein are my observations:

1.  Tennessee must license about anyone given the way they drive.  Other than Maryland drivers, who are in a class by themselves and better resemble the better drivers in Uganda, they are some of the worst drivers in the country.  On the east side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is a particularly winding (for an interstate) stretch of I-40.  It sets these hillbillies free.  I now know why, when I used to frequent Nashville, most cars were dented or otherwise beat up.  It's the cost of all that reckless abandon.

2.  Thank God for Cracker Barrel.  I'm serious.  Their ubiquity is a testimony to the fact that most plain folks like me, the kind I see in Cracker Barrels all over the country, were taught by their Mommas to eat their vegetables.  How many places can you eat vegetables along an interstate highway?  Where else can you find great classic music like that of Buck Owens, Portner Wagner, and Marty Robbins alongside Chicago and Creedence Clearwater Revival?  Furthermore, eating my vegetables, listening to country music, and browsing the sugarland of candy that's the same as the kind I grew up eating (too much of), made me think of my family and, after recalling with horror (OK, not horror, but gentle remorse) that I had missed two of my sisters' birthdays, as well as my MOTHER's birthday (OK, that one I really, really feel bad about), I bought greeting cards, nice ones too, with animals on the front doing ridiculous things.  I felt better.  The only thing I regretted was that I did not have time to have a rock in their rocking chairs on the porch.  Now that's a shame. 

3.  People, even people who love each other, are not meant to be cooped up in a car the size of a small bathroom for over seven hours.  Even otherwise mature teenagers break under the pressure.  There are odd mood swings.  At one point my son and daughter are almost giddy with pleasure at their camaraderie, breezing through a collection of show tunes and other pop songs, singing, oblivious to our front seat ruminations; the next, they are clearly annoyed and ready for their space, as evidenced by the pleas of "he touched me" or tell her to. . ." or "you're rude."  After hearing this awhile, I'm ready to stop at whatever passes for the local pub, and I don't even drink.  But like I said, the confines of space are cruel and unusual, and when we arrive at home and the doors are flung open on a larger world, all will be forgiven. Like at the end of our one way trip to Heaven, we'll step out on firmer ground, in a bigger room, and all we said and did will be forgiven and the less becoming parts of our past will grow strangely dim.  I'm just a weary pilgrim, traveling through this world of bickering. . .

4.  I'm thankful when traffic stops dead on the interstate in a beautiful rural area like that between Knoxville and Asheville.  You can actually take your eyes off the bumper in front of you with obnoxious stickers and focus on what you're driving through.  It's plumb beautiful,  Not the drop dead beauty of the Tetons but, rather, an older kind of beauty, softer and more subtle.  For a moment, I consider just pulling to the side and parking, as I am nearly parked anyway, moving along at the average speed of five miles per hour, and just getting out of this contraption, breathing some mountain air, and sticking my toes in the cold water of the Pigeon River. I had that thought somewhere around Cosby or Hartford, Tennessee. About then I remembered stories of feuding hillbillies and wondered if I might get shot at or something exciting like that. I settled for rolling down the window.

5.  On long trips like this, conversational lulls can be frequent and sometimes long.  I fill the interstices like we all do, with daydreams, plans, and internal talk.  You know you do it too.  You carry on an internal dialog with yourself.  Sometimes I do it just to see how it will sound if I actually said it, like, if I said to a friend, "you know you should really think about doing this or that. . ." or maybe rehearsing the sound of something I might write.  I can actually hear it in my head.  Anyway, without these lulls in conversation, where would I be?  You wouldn't have the benefit of all this wisdom borne of reflection.  So I'm thankful.  And you better be.

6.  I'm also thankful for the relatively smooth ride most interstates provide.  My rear (can I say that here?) is especially thankful.  I mean, I have traveled the roads of Uganda and I have to tell you that local beauty is magnificent but one quickly loses the ability to appreciate it after three or four hours dodging big potholes so you can run over other big potholes.  That being said, on some stretches of the road it seems that someone on the road crew fell asleep at the switch because either icing or filling was poorly mixed in this recipe. Ka-bump, ka bump, ka-bump, and the like for several miles.  But then I think, how many times have I been asleep at the switch or worse?  So I try and forgive the men or women who did this to us.

7.  Remember road trips as a child when you used to pass the time by counting things?  I do.  One of the things we used to count was graveyards.  Have you tried that lately?  It's nearly impossible to find one from an interstate highway.  I theorize --- have we as a society pushed death out of sight and mind, because we don't won't to think about it?  Because we have no hope for life beyond death?  Someone just cut me off.  I'm thinking about it (death), someone's anyway.

8.  Some people aren't very original in naming towns.  In Tennessee, you have Nashville.  We got that one too in North Carolina and I bet it's a lot more civilized and less full of flim-flam persons (I guess there are women flim-flam persons but I never met one and the one in the book by Guy Ownes is a man).  There's Cleveland, and I bet it's prettier than the one in Ohio, the one Chrissie Hynde says is gone anyway (The Pretenders, "My City Was Gone").  There's Wildwood, an overused name if ever I heard one, and not very descriptive.  Wear Valley, as in "this valley really begins to wear on you after living here all your life and never gettin' beyond the crick and this holler."  New City (oh, sure) and Athens (toga, anyone?) and even Philadelphia (population 533).  It's all been done.  But Soddy- Daisy?  I don't think that one's been done.  Two communities joined in matrimony.  Soddy married up, I hear.

9.  The thing about Cracker Barrels is that you don't usually find them in the midst of big cities.  People there are too uppidy, eating noveau cuisine (tiny portions of raw fish served on huge white plates with obscene pricetags) or atmosphere that's meant to make you feel important.  I feel at home in Cracker Barrel, like I am among my own.  I feel plenty important.  These folks enjoy their food (they have well-developed midriffs) and like to set a spell and talk about politics (the conservative kind, mostly) or weather or maybe huntin' and guns.  Though I didn't mention it to my family, I secretly hoped for a Cracker Barrel around the Biltmore Village exit in Asheville.  I was deluded.  These folks have probably zoned out "trash" like that.  We ate at Panera Bread (fast food for the better-heeled), shook the dust from our feet, and beat a path over the mountain.

10,  Lest you think this just a promo piece for Cracker Barrel, let me finish with one final observation.  If I could write this in the form of a song, I would, but I have no talent in that regard.  The people that keep these roads as nice as they are work all night to do it.  My heart goes out to them.  The last one I flew by was manning a solitary drill about midnight at the edge of a blocked lane of the interstate between Durham and Raleigh.  Now what kind of a life is that?  Where is his family?  What sacrifices has he made to put food on the table?  Mister, I know you don't read blogs, but I sent a prayer up for you and left it in the air behind these taillights.  There are no little people.  You are out here doing what you do so I can drive my family on a decent road.  To your dog, wife, and children (and not necessarily in that order), my hats off (I mean that figuratively.)  May God bless you and them tonight.

So there you have it.  That's what you get for 15 hours on the interstate.  If you don't write down these profundities, you might forget them.  And probably you will.  But I won't.  And the next time I eat at Cracker Barrel, you can bet I'll think about this trip and maybe a few others out there on the interstates.  Thank God for them.

Lots of Things Growing

IMG_3969  “[I]t’s the little savors and little things that count more than big ones. A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it’s full of flavors, full of a lot of things growing. You’ve time to seek and find.”

(Grandfather Spaulding, in "Dandelion Wine")  

Not writing the last several weeks, as I vowed I would do, has not been easy.  As big a pain as it is to write sometimes --- the sheer discipline of it, you know, the audacity at thinking you have something to offer the world, the hyper-consciousness that makes you obsess over the mundane --- it may be as big a pain NOT to write.  Almost, anyway.  I feel like I missed things, that I have forgotten important things, that somehow I have not processed it all, that I have looked but not seen.  And maybe I have.  Maybe writing for me is essential to seeing.  Maybe not writing is like trying to hold your breath when you need to breathe.  Maybe words are the very air that I live on. 

And then, maybe I’m too dramatic.  "Words the very air I live on?"  Oh come on.  Still, I can’t help but sense I missed something in all my zeal not to miss something, to just live it without writing it, that maybe I didn’t live it well enough. I didn’t inhale deeply enough. 

[insert deep breath here] 

Looking around the airport where I am seated now, I realize that at least some of what I missed I did not really miss, that staring at the flowing water of Utah's Virgin River and a backdrop of jagged mountains is way better than what passes for commerce and society and even fashion.  How trite it all seems.

There is the infernal din of CNN, the video monitors that play on even when no one is watching, the perkiness of commentators who move from the tragic to the comic with barely a blink.  The other sound in my ears is that of people talking on cell phones, their private conversations suddenly and without consent a part of my world. Top it with the banal sameness of airport lounges. I could be anywhere, or nowhere.  I feel small and anonymous here, small and yet known by that river, under that sky, feet treading the red dirt of earth. 

[insert airline flight, a God-bless-you-honey 75 mile an hour harrowing taxi ride into downtown New Orleans, three somnolent hours in a oh-so-important seminar, and a blessed dinner with the just plain folks of a diner called "Mothers" (red beans and rice and bread pudding)] 

[insert another deep breath] 

I refuse to pay the Hilton $17 a day for internet access, so after dinner I hoofed it across the street and down the block-long casino cacophony of Harrods, and into a Starbucks for free access.  It comes with a price though --- somewhat smokey air, a din from the slot machines and music, the whir of machines sucking Louisiana dry of money, the sober and solitary expressions of those victims perched before their fleecing robots. 

But, thanks to the casino, I have a memory of Day One of our Summer vacation.  We've alighted briefly, feet barely touching the ground of Las Vegas, here for one thing and one thing only, to see Cirque de Soleil's production of The Beatles Love.  Oh was it good.  But oh what you must endure to see it. 

Some of the most poorly dressed and inadequately dressed people must visit Las Vegas.  It’s a preposterous city, excessive in every way, a glittering R-rated Disneyland rising out of desert, dependent on the poor Colorado River and the pervasiveness of sin for life, a giant excuse for naughtiness by its surreal existence in a barren land, so far from home, so far from the people and responsibilities that check baser impulses.  Anything goes here. 

To get to the theater, which is in The Mirage hotel, you have to walk across the casino floor.  What a sad and lost looking bunch of people mill about there.  I explained to my children how many were at this moment squandering money that could be used to support their own families, to invest in companies, and for other worthwhile and charitable purposes, and yet here they were playing a “sucker’s game” in the hope of winning, all odds against them. Everything is geared to getting you in the game or back in the game.  To get anywhere, you have to walk through the casino.  Valet parking? Free.  Free because if you waste time self-parking you’ll spend less time in the casino.  The show?  Unlike Broadway, these shows are amazing but truncated, limited to a mere 1 1/2 hours so you will return to the casino promptly to be separated from your money. 

The antithesis of Vegas or Harrods New Orleans is the natural air and quiet of Utah. I love Springdale, Utah. I love Zion National Park. My favorite part of it all is the contrasts --- the red cliffs of the canyon walls against a cobalt blue sky, the green of ferns growing on a wet cliff wall, the chalky Virgin River that rushes through the canyon floor, the brilliant white of cumulus clouds floating over red mountain tops, blue pool water against stone walls. I’m listening to the thunder. It’s monsoon season here, which means occasional afternoon showers.  Like that day when we took the canyon tram to the last stop, hiked in a mile on a mostly level path, and then dropped into the brisk water of the river, gingerly making our way upstream in search first of Orderville Canyon, the only break in the sheer canyon walls, and then to the aptly named Wall Street, where the canyon walls press so close, so “narrow,” the river rushing through it, wall to wall, mostly knee deep but on occasion chest high.  We never made either.  Short of Orderville it began to rain, and we heard thunder, and like most others in the water who had some sense we turned around and walked out, concerned about the danger of a flash flood.  I found it tough going anyway.  Because of the murkiness of the water, you could not see you footing, and the risk of a turned ankle or worse preoccupied me.  I moved slowly.

But that was then, and this is now.

I treasure these memories of fresh air and bare earth.  Little savors.  Much better than the hopped-up life of the city.  Full of flavors.  Full of something or Someone that is for me, Who exists out there in Creation unmediated by human hands.  Jesus said seek, and you will find.  What do you find?  You find lots of things growing. Lots of little things.  You find a Kingdom without end world without end.  Amen.

[deep sigh]

Aviation Nation

DSCN1568  It's probably no more than five miles from our hotel to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.  I've made the trip many times.  Mostly it passes by chain restaurants, a highway, curb and gutter, holding ponds catching the runoff of developments, and other indicia of suburbia spreading out from the central Florida city.  But one small stretch of the road is still two lane and passes through old Florida, the Florida of cypress swamps and Spanish moss overhanging the road and small single-story homes.  With our windows down, the evening air floods in and the sounds of the night press in and I can smell and feel it --- the Florida before Disney came, when, as I heard one woman say today, the Orlando airport was just a tiny building, when thousands of acres of orange orchards stretched through central Florida, before even the beaches were walled in with development.  And then the moment is gone and I'm back to today, back to modern Florida, the Florida of retirement communities, the Mouse, highway upon highway, vanishing farmland, and people not from around here who are now all around here.  Hey, and I'm not even from these parts!

Now hold on a minute.  This is not another depressing lament for lost communities, lost ways of life, the destruction of place, the homogenization of culture, and so on.  Just down the road from that bit of old Florida is the annual Sun "n Fun International Fly-In, a one-week gathering of the general aviation community with an incidental (and often spectacular) air show, a virtual Aviation Nation of over 100,000 people brought together because of their love of all things having to do with flying.  We've been coming here annually for nearly a decade.  And I don't even fly (my son does).  I look at a plane from the front and say things like "It looks like a dog with a pug nose and fangs;" he looks at the same plane and tells me make, model, and specs, why he likes it, what's unique about it, and so on.  And I listen, but I don't quite get it.  Some are better looking than others, I think, but they're all planes, right?

But not knowing much about planes does give me time to notice some other things.  First, people here are bound together, whatever their backgrounds, whatever their idiosyncracies, by a single, overriding passion: flying.  And when you have that one passion, the differences over lots of other things recede and don't at the end of the day seem to matter much.  Like I don't think anybody here much cares if I'm Democrat or Republican --- certainly not like they'd care if I mistreated a plane or violated some of the standards of civility and decorum by which pilots treat each other.  Second, when there is a strong, defining passion, things largely work ---- order is maintained, even enforced by the community; people are not only civil to each other but friendly; a basic kind of civil religion prevails, made up of a star spangled banner god bless america basic goodness of all kind of mentality; and people are engaged in conversation about preserving and making better what they have.  There is a string unity in the nation, a pragmatic optimism, a sense of responsibility to each other and to their country.  And seeing all this, you can't help but have hope.  You can't help but believe that people can rise above mere self-interest and act for the good of all.

Maybe there is a sense in which old Florida --- all those very local communities where people knew each other and on the whole took care of each other --- still exist.  Not necessarily in the rural crossroads, the two-lane blacktops shaded by towering trees and Spanish moss, but here, in the Aviation Nation.  If so, maybe I need to learn something about planes after all.

(If you want to read more about Sun 'N Fun, read my son's blog here.)

File Under: Vacation Memories and Profundities

No tel I'm back from our annual Southeastern Arizona vacation.  Back to reality, that is.  But I did procure some memories.  Here's a few, in no particular order:

The Grottoes:  Two hours east of Tucson, in the Chiricahua Mountains near the New Mexico border, lies Chiricahua National Monument.  Established by President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s (see, he did do something), it’s a landscape more lush than the desert scrub-land around it, a place that receives enough rainfall to support pine and birch trees, a forest island, really.  But these trees are punctuated by giant boulders stacked precariously one atop another, as if God as an afterthought threw the remainders of the raw material of Creation out, where they landed in piles.  It’s absolutely gorgeous.  In one portion, called the Grottoes, reached by a quarter mile hike, the boulders are so arranged that they form a labyrinth of cave-like openings.  My son and daughter scampered over them, like they were not teenagers but young children.  So did I.  My daughter proclaimed that she would live there and bedded down on a ledge under one ominous looking boulder.  And she probably would if she could, at least until another thought entered her mind.  I told her she’d have no internet access there.  She said she didn’t care.  And she really wouldn’t.  It’s a hopeful thought.

Lil’ Abners Steakhouse:  City slickers may turn their noses up at it and prefer the uppity steak houses, but I still like the roadhouse feel of this desert institution in Marana, on the outskirts of Tucson.  Once, 26 years ago, we traveled out in the desert on a winding two-lane road through darkness to get here, way beyond the city.  Now the suburb of Marana threatens to overtake it, a four-lane road, streetlights, and shopping centers all around.  And yet, step on the property and you step back in time.  Nothing has changed much except prices.  We sat inside at picnic tables and ate steaks cooked outdoors on an open mesquite fire, served up with all you can eat ranch beans and salsa and buttered Texas toast.  It’s one of those meals that’s so good that when you finish you wish you could eat it again.  We ate at Lil’ Abners twice.  Both times we saw the same couple there, a 40-something woman in a halter-top and tight jeans next to a man who was always sitting sideways on the bench --- intertwined in some fashion with each other, just a part of the wildlife here.  From them I got an idea for an anniversary present:  the man had a t-shirt on with a picture of the woman dressed in the very same outfit she had on that night.  Now how cool is that?  Only at Lil’ Abners. 

About 8:00, the band kicked up with guitar, fiddle, steel guitar and mandolin, singing old time country and western music and bluegrass, like the "Orange Blossom Special," "Tonight I Started Loving You Again," "Folsom Prison Blues," and so on.  Here’s the thing:  Not a one of the band members is under 80.  Dean Armstrong, the leader, who I have been seeing for 26 years, looks as if he’s over 100, dressed in a black suit and cowboy hat, looking and sounding no different than he did 26 years ago.  Oh, how I hate to leave this place.

Church:  I love going to Catalina Foothills Presbyterian Church (PCA) when in Tucson, and we were able to go on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Sunday.  The music is riveting, even chilling, and drives me to worship.  The pastor is from Mississippi, and so the voice reminds me of home.  The theology is sound, the worship excellent, and the people friendly.  After the service today, I turned to my wife and said, “Can we move here so we can go to church here?”  Were I impulsive, I would do so.  I love my home church and would not so lightly leave it, but it makes me wonder why I don’t ever leave worship feeling quite so blessed as I do in this church.  It’s not a fair comparison, of course.  This is a church over twice the size of ours, with abundant musical talent, a large staff, and a huge choir, but still it provokes me to think about how we can make our worship more excellent, not for performance or spectacle but to help create better worshipers.  Of course the view is inspiring: the windows behind the choir look out on the peaks of the Santa Catalina Mountains.  I can't bring those home.

No Clock, No Time:  I could get used to waking up with the sun, without an alarm.  For eight days, I woke up, went back to sleep, woke up, went back to sleep, laid around, and generally got up when I felt like it.  That’s usually not a lot later than I normally do, but I can tell you that this is the civilized and decent way to sleep and exist.  You can come up with a lot of profound thoughts in the early morning hours, when things once seemingly impossible seem possible.  Listening to the sounds of others sleeping is also deeply reassuring.  Of what?  Well, maybe just a deep thankfulness that we individuals have been sovereignly thrown together for life as a family, for better or worse.  That’s the kind of thing that can occur to you when you leave time outside and pretend you have all time in the universe at your disposal. 

Clocks intrude and mechanistically shape our existence.  If we aren’t careful (and many aren’t), we end up making time an idol.  And scripture warns that when we worship what we make, we end up becoming like the thing we make: cold, mechanical, and prone to alarm, our hearts tick-ticking our life away.  (Note to self: think about that some more. . . when I have time.)  I was glad to be rid of the clock for a week.  I was glad to be out of routine, acting on impulse at times, just sitting in one place sometimes and thinking a new thought, vacating one life for another once removed.

Can't Stop Dreaming:  Maybe it was the climate, the extra sleep, the out of ordinary cuisine, or the rested mind, but I have never had such imaginative and memorable dreams.  On occasion, I woke up, ready to return to sleep so the dream (like a novella) would continue.  In one humorous episode (which seemed very serious to me in the dream), I was apparently the guest pastor at a church, asked to deliver the sermon.  Before the service, a pastor or someone in church leadership asked what I would preach on.  I said "Its Only Rock 'N Roll."  I even gave him three points that I would make (wish I could recall those, don't you?).  Then, just before I go on, I realize I haven't a single note to speak from.  I woke up, thank God and, I assume, to the relief of the congregation (what kind of dream were they having, I wonder).  Late in the week, as if my brain was running out of material, I began to dream about old girlfriends.  No, that wasn't pleasant at all.

The Spa:  No, you don't have to turn in your man-card if you partake of a spa, men.  But you do have to be wary.  I think the women on steroids who work in these places do not like men.  The first time I had a massage, I came out and asked my wife if it was supposed to hurt, because it did.  The woman masseuse had a vice grip on my neck, drove her elbow into my back, and beat on me for nearly an hour, all to the soothing sounds of Indian flutes and rippling water and wind, while every now and then, in a hushed tone (as if I might be asleep), she kept telling me what next form of abuse might be administered.  This time I said "no elbows", please.  I felt like saying "be nice."  Maybe I'm exxagerating a  little.  So, it's relaxing.  That's about it.  The aromatherapy and all the talk about releasing toxins?  I'm not a believer in any of that.  When it was all said and done, I slid off the table floated back to my room, like jello, putty in their hands, man-card still in my pocket.  Try it.  My son says he will never, never, never, never, never, do any such thing.

So, that's it for another trip to Tucson, Arizona, home of the No-Tel Motel.  (No, we didn't stay there but often passed it on the way downtown.  We prefer the Westward Look Resort.  But the No-Tel has a more interesting name, don't you think?)  Now, it's time to plan another one.

Checking Out, Checking In

Being on vacation is in some ways like inhabiting another dimension.  Thoughts of work and the concerns of home impinge.  Emails remind me that life goes on, that bills await payment, work rests in my inbox, and people still have problems, of course.  

I delete emails. 

I absentmindedly can't remember to return calls.  Given that it's three hours later at home, I always seem to have the excuse that it's not a good time.  Really, though, I resent the intrusion, am guarding the space I have.  After all, I'm checking out.

I quit checking Facebook.

I give Twitter a rest.

I am here, not there, and all the problems and concerns of that world will remain for when I return.  I have to remember that.

But it's not such a different world after all.  Sitting on my patio this morning, looking past the wash that I walk in, I can see 50 miles, clear across a city of over one million people, and I read this: "How lonely sits the city that was full of people" (Lam. 1:1).  I know the writer is lamenting a Jerusalem emptied out in exile, and yet looking out across the city I cannot help but feel the writer pointing out toward the city here, feel a tinge of exile myself.  We are not where we belong.  I can vacate my own city but no matter where I am, people are by and large living in exile, emptied out of life with the One who made them.

There are those who say that the desert, mountains, and air here are spiritual. They worship place in a kind of neo-paganism.  Walk a little while in the evening air, stare long enough at the mountains, watch the wildlife around you, and you are tempted to say the same.  And yet the strangeness of the place, its vivid nature, is really a window to the God who made us, holy ground only in the sense that it bears His mark.

It's like the full moon in the sky tonight.  It has no light of its own but simply reflects the light of the sun that it's given. Everything is full of His light.  Everything, even in exile, points to Him.

Rocks really do cry out. The heavens do declare the glory of God.  They pour out speech.  Thy never stop talking, never stop proclaiming that God is great, and good, and will bring all the exiles Home.

A vacation can give you space to have thoughts like that, give you time to check in.

Letting Time Go

8:45     Went to breakfast
10:00   Went back to room

My daughter is tweeting her vacation.  Well, not really.  She's just writing things such as this down in a one by two inch memo pad she carries in her pocket.  She's not publishing it, at least not yet.  I asked her why she is doing this.  She says she doesn't know.  It's just fun, she says.  I asked her if I could see her list. She said no.


This afternoon I walked out of our ground level hotel room door, crunched across the gravel between our room and the path that circles the property, navigated the cacti on the hill and started walking.  It was like being among old friends.  I suppose it is the starkly different surroundings of the desert that make me hyper-attuned to the plant life and wildlife around me.  I see pine trees around 355 days a year.  I take them for granted. Here, it's not so.

I decide to get off the gravel path, which is a bit too cultivated, and I take to an adjacent wash that is just dirt.  Maybe in the Summer the wash may be full of water, during a monsoon rain, but now it's bone-dry. Imagine the sound of the birds which are everywhere here.  Two desert hares skitter across the wash, two of the eight to ten I see in the 40 minutes while I walk.  I've seen javelinas (wild pigs) here on occasion, rooting in earth and snorting.  None today.  I've even seen a coyote, warily watching me from a distance.  In the heat of the day they are likely farther up in the hills that are shadowed by the Santa Catalina Mountains.  I look up at them.  It's difficult to believe that 11,000 feet up, where I see green, there is a birch and fir tree forest, maybe even snow.  The browns and greens are in such sharp contrast to an azure sky, the blue so piercing it almost hurts.  I look down and ahead.  Last time I was here I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake.  Not everyone here is friendly.

Let me introduce you.  Here is the palo verde tree, and there, and there. They're all around. The word means green stick, a tree with green branches that photosynthesize in the place of leaves which are difficult to maintain in the desert.  There is the jumping cholla, a cactus so named because its needles ended up (that is jumped) into the hindquarters of many a cowboy.  They don't really jump.  There's the staghorn cholla, which is severe looking and has a tinge of red its green branches, and the barrel cactus, a fat squatting type.  Yucca.  Brittle-bush with yellow blooms.  Prickly pear cactus, with its Mickey Mouse ears.  And towering over them all the saguaro cactus, many of which were germinated in the last century. I mean the 1800s. Because the arms on each of them all have a different shape, I even recognize some.  After all, I have been coming here for 25 years.  They haven't changed much.  Maybe they grew a foot in all that time.  Maybe not.  They will outlive me and my children and grandchildren will visit them.

I said old friends.  Maybe what I really mean to say is that I am among my elders.  Walking here I have the sense of timelessness.  I see mountains that were here long before the first settlers came West.  Most of those here preceded me.  They may be inanimate, but if rocks cry out and trees clap their hands (as Scripture says), then perhaps these elders say something too.


11:00    Went to pool
12:00    Tired. Bored.  Went back to room.

What is it with this hyper-attentiveness to time? I'm not sure what possesses her.  It's not a journal. Nothing profound in what she writes down.  Maybe it's just documentation, validation that she is here.

I could have told her that.

Maybe, just maybe, she'll take to the wash and find something there to really write about, something that will make her stop counting time, stop measuring it at all.  Maybe she'll discover things that are timeless.

Like the cactus wren poking his head from his nest in the saguaro.  At 1:22.

On Vacation Eve

I woke up yesterday morning with the sensation that something was over.  Oh, my vacation.  Only thing is, I hadn’t even left town.

I booked the airline tickets last September, on the cusp of Fall, thinking and dreaming of what a warming excursion our annual trip to Arizona over Spring Break would be after a long Winter.  That hope and dream lay dormant through holiday diversions, pleasant as they can be, through a a wet and cold January and February, through the sometimes tedium of work, the lingering curse of the three flights up/ three flights down.  And so here I am --- trip planned, hotel booked, itinerary in draft with appropriate white space for spontaneous and unplanned hikes, sunset walks, undiscovered eateries, and long conversations --- and I find myself haunted by a sense of melancholy, of déjà vu.  I can see the end of my vacation, the very last day, when we shake the last desert dust from our shoes and board the prison bus back to Life, with all its responsibilities and duties, with all its unpleasantries and disagreeable people, with all its sameness. How bleak!

I am a sad little man.

(from the son): Yes, you are. . .

What would Freud say?

(from the son): Dead white men don’t say anything.

I love traveling with my family.  Little epiphanies occur all the time, punctuated by an occasional horrific arguments.  At home we argue in brief.  We’re too busy to really get wound up.  I have to go to work. They have to go to school.  There are bills to pay.  On vacation you can. . . well. . . follow the thought, see what happens, crank up the volume (it’s only rock and roll), get to the heart of the matter, find out after all what an unsanctified lout you really are, discover the wonder of forgiveness, how soon enough no matter what is said, it’ll be time for dinner and a night out and whatever you argued about falls way way back there in history, as insignificant as what you learned in 9th grade Logic class. And you think how wonderful all these people are that you travel with. And they really are.

(from the son): Dad, aren’t you supposed to pay taxes around this time of year?  How’s that going anyway?


(from the son): Where did you come from anyway?  Are we really related?

But I digress.  I was talking about vacations, their joys, their opportunities to get to know your family better, discover new things, new places, and new foods.  All so true.  I hear anew some new expression one of my children have had for some time, only I’ve been too busy to listen, or hear about some plan or dream or see how they have matured, only in Life, as it whizzes by, I cannot slow down enough to notice that new tree-ring of growth on my offspring.  Or the ever wondrous smile on my wife’s face or the pearls of wisdom that fall from her lips.

(from the son):  This is getting sappy.

OK.  Back to melancholy, a state of mind that has its enjoyments, its temporal pleasures.  I guess part of the reason I find vacation-eve bittersweet is the sense that I am leaving home, and I enjoy this place, this Life, even with its burdens, because most of what I know is here, most of who I know reside here.  Indeed, part of who I am resides here.  So, leaving here means leaving part of me, and I like me well enough not to want to leave me.  Well, that makes me sad.

(from the son):  That’s pitiful.  Do you just sit around thinking up such stuff?

I love these conversations.  He’s reading over my shoulder, chomping away on his chips and cheese, like a prisoner at his first meal after being sprung from the penitentiary.  Oh, Education, what have you done to him?

(from the son): More than it did for you.

See, it’s beginning already.  That glorious sharpening of iron upon iron.  The verbal arm-wrestling.  The privilege of insult.  I love the boy, his head filling the airplane window, him going forth into all the world and taking dominion.

Did I say my daughter was beautiful?  She is.  Like a picture, her profile outlined by the airplane window.  I love that girl.

(from the son):  What kind of picture is that?  America’s most wanted?  A mug shot?

That’s part of the joy of it, you see?  The love of brother and sister, the mutual affection, their deep depreciation of one another.  Which brings me back to. . .

Melancholy.  Ahh.  A vacation nearly over before it begins.  I see the end of it now, the returning, and when we deplane I'll see it in the faces of the people walking to their gates while we walk out into the warm Tucson son.  So sad.

(from the son): Can we change the topic?


Actually, I think it'll be fun, this vacation, even if it must end.  It makes me appreciate home.

Fall Break, Day Four: Where Normal is Weird

Hip If you walk around for long in downtown Asheville, you will see some mighty weird people and be exposed to some strange ideas.  There are people with various unnatural hair colors, sporting dreadlocks, and having numerous piercings.  Browse artisans along Haywood Street, in the Grove Arcade, or in the old Woolworth's store and you can read artist statements that  appear to be from another planet, in some spiritual sounding language that is fascinatingly out of sync with reality ---like a religion someone thought up for themselves, not because it has a basis in reality but simply because they like the sound of it.  Why not?  They're playing reggae music on the corner.  An old lady passes me that looks like an elderly Janis Joplin, right out of Woodstock.  It made me feel out of place, like I wasn't even in North Carolina, like I had stepped into some alternate reality.

That's why I'm glad I had a flat tire tonight.  Pulling back into the parking deck at our hotel, a piece of stray rebarb sticking out of a bumper on a parking space cleanly punctured a brand new front tire, only three days old.  We called the hotel security guard.  We also called AAA.  Everyone was prompt.  As a result, I was able to meet Tim and Dave, two guys three years out of high school.  Come to find out, these guys went to the same high school and had not seen each other since graduation.  Tim had a motorcycle accident that put him out of commission for a year.   He's finishing up a criminal justice degree and thinking about law school.  Dave has a wrecking service and is also working repo.  He likes being a repo man.  No, he hasn't been shot at yet, he tells Tim.  I'm glad I could reintroduce Tim and Dave and, but for my flat tire, it would not have happened.

What I enjoyed best about this encounter was that Tim and Dave seem normal, that is, they seem like they live here and belong here in Western North Carolina.  They have blue collar jobs and, at least in Dave's case, a dream of something better.  They have normal hair (such as it is), no visible body piercings, and voiced no weird ideas.  In fact they reminded me of the flawed and yet quite normal law enforcement agents I work with everyday.

One of the t-shirts I saw in a store in downtown Asheville today said it best:  "Asheville: Where Normal is Weird."  I'm not prejudiced, but I have an affinity for places peopled by those who look like they belong in that place.  The people I saw in Asheville today look like they belong somewhere else and no doubt came here from somewhere else.  Frankly, I'd rather hang with the security guard, the repo man, and the mechanic who'll fix my tire tomorrow.  They live here, and they look it.  If I want California or New York, I'll go there.

Fall Break, Day Three: Losing Yourself

huge_22_114575 After breakfast this morning, I joined my wife in a loft bedroom with wood-beamed roof and windows that look out on a snowy mountainside, the wind stirring swirls of powder, the cold filtering through the window at my back. I did something I find almost impossible to do at home.  I am reading.  I don’t mean that skimming, flitting kind of reading you do before you go to bed at night, when it is all you can do to stay awake for ten minutes, when the day’s affairs still lurk in the corner of your mind.  I mean the kind of reading where you dive deep and come up breathless, having seen wonders in words of worlds, leaving behind your day and entering into someone else’s day.

C.S. Lewis said that reading should be about receiving, and that takes time.  He says that that “here [literature], as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; am never more myself than when I do.”  In other words, you have to lose yourself when you read in order to save yourself, to change, to be moved and transformed.

I felt that way after three solid hours of reading this morning.  If you read that long, it takes time to come back to yourself, to reality.  I’ve been reading a series of short stories from the last two issues of an excellent journal, Ruminate, and the characters that inhabited those stories are still restlessly haunting my mind, even as I pack to leave.  Overweight Bowen and body-pierced Candy are still stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel, the middle-aged man given a bit of hope by the questions and encouragement of a a teenage girl.  I imagine him walking off the page and back into life just a little stronger, a little more hopeful.

Winding through the Blue Ridge mountains, through valleys not fully touched by the hues of Fall, we’re quiet, each one in their own thoughts, mine thinking about Charlie Cooper, a middle-aged man still living until recently with his mother, who, on her death, is lost until he discovers bowling.  That’s right --- bowling.  Charlie discovers something he can actually do and do well, and it gives him new hope.  Eating lunch at a cafe on the main street of Waynesville, with some uppity name like Creviche, I’m not all there, still moved by the story of the unnamed 12-year old boy who has a Dad in a wheelchair but who is the fastest runner in his neighborhood.  There’s some kind of disconnect between he and his Dad that I can’t quite fathom, and so it still rolls over and over in my brain, even as I talk with my family.

Each story is like a window into another world, a window you can never quite close once you open it, the air of that other reality forever changing the world in which I live.  I’ll eventually forget most of these stories, of course, but certain images will stick, and when I think of them it’ll be like a visit with a friend I rarely see.  I’m glad to know them.  In some way or ways that I cannot fathom, much less express, I’m changed by them.

Up ahead is the French Broad River, then Asheville, birthplace of author Thomas Wolfe.  I should probably read his story: “Look Homeward, Angel.”

“Don’t miss your exit,” I hear.  And I don’t.  In a moment I’m back, back to a wife and two kids and Charlotte Street and the mountains --- back to this world, just a little different.

Fall Break, Day Two: Reverie in Cold

I can’t take it anymore.  Just leave me here.”

The tree stump we are looking at is what is left of an Eastern Hemlock tree which, because of disease, had to be cut down in 2008.  The tree was 350 years old, standing at the time of the revolution, still shading travelers along this trail at the time of 9/11.  There’s something comforting in that kind of longevity, of perseverance in one place (as if the tree had a choice).

We’re walking along a quite muddy, often rocky trail up the mountain, snow in our faces, through beautiful stands of red, yellow, orange, and gold maples, oaks, and spruce.  The name of the trail is Devil’s Britches.  Thus far the name means nothing.  The trail is only moderately strenuous, and it is early.  However, after my wife and daughter turn back (they were cold), we kept on and the incline grew, and grew, and grew.  It was nearly four miles of up, always waiting for down.  It’s really not true that “what goes up must come down,” at least not on Devil’s Britches.  But it was fun, a reverie really, full of daydreams and talks about what we could do, maybe, ignoring for the moment some of the practical limitations life might impose.  We never get to do this at home.  Everyone should have time to dream, to let the mind roam wild, so we did our dreaming.

At the same time, it’s bitter cold and wet, and we laugh about how hard it is, all this uphill.  I realize how few and far between these times of one-on-one times there are, with no distractions, and I relish the fact that we have this time.  We have no cell phone service.  No internet.  No sounds other than that of our own voices and the soft platter of the snowfall.  We did not pass another soul for four miles.  I think we both loved it.  And we don’t know why it’s called Devil’s Britches.

Fall Break, Day One: 15 Observations

home First off, didn’t someone say “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times?” Was he referring to family vacations? I will not elaborate, but I just want to state unequivocally that I love my family.

Second, why do events always conspire to keep you from ever leaving town for vacation on time?

I love Ike as much as any other person, but his interstate highway system is a blight upon the landscape, a magnet for the clutter of fast food restaurants, outlet malls, and NASCAR wannabees. (And if you don’t know who Ike is, do not pass go, return to American History.)

Best barbecue restaurant name: “Butts by the River.” (Ours passed without stopping, though a lot were at rest there.)

Daughter: “Can you do something about this road?” Son: “What has DOT been doing with our tax dollars?” Me: “Whose tax dollars?”

We parents have something in common with our children: Our music is always too loud for them; their music is always too loud for us.

wlf We have met the Wolfman (not Jack) and his wolf Mohican here.  I will never again confuse wolves (who are intelligent, do not bite humans, and rescue human children) with coyotes, who are worthless, conniving good-for nothing scoundrels who will flat eat you up. That’s pretty much what the man said. Pulled an elderly man off a riding lawn mower in his own backyard, is what he said.  Carry off pets and small children, he said.  He burst my bubble when he said that goldilocks and the three little pigs were just fairy tales.  So I’m not believing anything he says.

My wife and daughter are signing up for an advanced horseback ride, which means “you can control your horse in all situations.” My son and I will sign up for a beginning horseback ride, which means “your horse can control you in all situations.” I am very concerned about where the horse puts his feet (hooves) and find it difficult to enjoy myself and think about anything else when I am doing this.  Maybe I’ll hike, meet up with a coyote or something. (Excuse me, but my son has edited me, and he informs me that he is an advanced rider.  Move to the head of the class!  He’ll ride any horse that’s lit well and is aerodynamically well-designed. Yes, he got an education.)

Did you know “coyote” is a two-syllable word?  Did I mention that they eat people and apparently roam all over North Carolina?

snow We have no cell phone or internet service.  There has been much complaining about this, but in my opinion, we’re missing a whole lotta nothing that feels like a whole lotta something to us.  It’ll pass.  The lady at the lodge said we had an “ann-tinny” up here, but it appears it’s broke.  That’s really OK. 

Heat’s broke too.  We have some portable heaters and it feels like Las Vegas in here. Did you know sweat freezes?

I haven’t had any dessert for eight weeks.  Until tonight.  I had a piece of all four homemade cakes that were served.

Do you eat hominy? The only attractive thing about it was that it looked like marsh mellows, but it don’t taste like ‘em. I wonder where that word “marsh mellow” comes from?

I’m afraid my son may be a Libertarian and an Arminian.  Where have I failed him? (Actually, he may simply be in the “not-Dad-whatever-Dad-is” phase of life, or perhaps he simply toys with me.)

“I lift up my eyes to the hills/ from where does my help come?/ My help comes from the Lord/ who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 121.1) I’m thankful that I can be here in the beautiful snow with a family that God shaped around my soul to remind me of my need for Him.

Steve West, reporting from Cataloochee Ranch, in Maggie Valley, saying “Good night.”

Beethoven, Stars, and Pancakes

DSCF0043_edited-1 Like any city, Los Angeles has a wealth of cultural and culinary diversions, and we were able to take in some of all of those yesterday.  Oh yes, I assume you figured out that I am in Los Angeles!  We arrived Thursday night in time for bed, staying at the Sportmen’s Lodge, a very reasonably priced, historic hotel in Studio City, one favored by musicians who wish to preserve their anonymity (which, of course, doesn’t include me, as I need no help with anonymity).  Located at the junction of Ventura Boulevard and Coldwater Canyon, it’s pretty convenient to everything except the beaches.

Friday we visited the LA Farmer’s Market, an incredible place full of not only produce but small, modestly priced restaurants with about every cuisine imaginable.  We were in search of Kokomo Cafe and its pumpkin pancakes, something I remembered favorably from an earlier visit.  It wasn’t there!  So we had breakfast at Johnny Rockets, visitted the campus of UCLA, and ate at the greatest burger joint in town, In ‘N Out (the original one in Westwood).  That night we joined some friends for the Hollywood Bowl concert with Brian Wilson and the LA Philharmonic. (See my earlier post.)

Yesterday, we found Kokomo Cafe and went there with our friends for breakfast.  The pancakes were just as good as I remembered.  They had moved into different and better quarters a few blocks from the Farmer’s Market, more a neighborhood breakfast spot.  After packing our things at the hotel, we drove to Griffith Park, a beautiful natural area within the city of LA.  We drove up to Griffith Observatory, which reopened in 2006 after being closed for four years for renovation and expansion.  It’s perched on top of the Hollywood Hills with a great view of LA and the “Hollywood” sign.  Inside, we viewed a show about the history of the museum (a gift, like the park, from mining magnate Griffith Griffith [that’s right, his first name is the same as his last name]), as well as the planetarium show.  It’s a fascinating structure, an engineering marvel, and well worth a visit. 

After the planetarium show, we raced to the car and made our way to the Geffen Playhouse, a newly renovated small theatre adjacent to UCLA.  There was a matinee performance of “Beethoven, As I Knew Him,” a one-man by Hersey Felger.  We knew that tickets were on sale for 1/2 price 1/2 hour before the performance, and we made it to the theatre with 25 minutes to spare and bought great seats in the second row of the mezzanine.  What a great show!  It was educational, entertaining, and of course, very musical.  At the end of the evening, Felger came out and took questions from the audience and, depending on the question, answering them as Beethoven or as himself.  It was far better than I imagined. 

Leaving Geffen, we made our way back to Santa Monica Boulevard, headed for a favorite Mexican restaurant in Santa Monica called El Cholo.  It’s an incredible local favorite, modestly priced and with great service.  The blue corn chicken enchiladas are the best Mexican dish I have ever had.  After dinner we had some time so we cruised Pacific Avenue, past the amusement rides on the Santa Monica pier, throngs of people on each side of the road, the windows open to the smell of the Pacific Ocean.  Reluctantly we headed south for the short drive to LAX and a red eye flight home.  It was a great long weekend away and definitely a trip I’d like to do again.

A Perfect Night: Brian Wilson at the Hollywood Bowl

DSCN0409 There are not many better concert experiences than seeing a performance at the Hollywood Bowl.  Last night my son and I went with friends to see Brian Wilson live at the Bowl, backed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and followed by a tremendous fireworks display.  A real treat was that the Philharmonic came on first (right after a stirring rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”) and played three works chosen by Brian --- Mozart, Bach, and Gershwin numbers --- before ceding the stage to Wilson and his great band.  The acoustics in the Bowl are tremendous, and even the nosebleed seats have a decent view and good sound as, for the most part, the seating moves from box seats on a gradual slope to a steeply sloped rise up the mountain.  We were about half way back, dead center, with a tremendous view.

Behind us a full moon rose over the mountain.  To the right of the stage, on an adjoining hill, a white illuminated cross was just a great reminder of a Creator who gave us such a beautiful natural environment and gifted us with music and the ingenuity to design such a beautiful place.  And the fireworks display, which was on and over the top of the acoustic shell of the stage, was the best I’ve seen.  During “Surfin’ Safari,” a classic Beach Boys tune, they even lit up a “woody” (one of those 60’s station wagons with wood paneled doors) with surf boards on top.  No humidity and cool temperatures helped make it a comfortable evening as well.

DSCN0418 Brian raced through a series of classic Beach Boys songs, mostly familiar to the general population (like “Surfer Girl,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “Do You Want to Dance”), but led off and closed with songs from his most recent album, which were well received.  Nevertheless, I had the sense that this was less concert than social event for many people.  Down below us, in the box seats, people were dining with white tablecloths, four course meals, sipping wine, and obviously dressed for the occasion.  The annoyance to me was the amount of talking during the performance.  It sometimes distracted me from hearing the music.

But all in all, it was a good evening.  I love the music, and while Brian, at 66, is challenged by performing, it is an inspiration to me that he continues to write music, perform, and record after all that he has been through.  He is awkward at times, cannot hit those high falsetto notes (now assigned to Jeffrey Foskett), and makes hand motions during songs that are a bit spastic --- and yet he still does it.  He is the voice of Southern California, a timeless sound.

DSCN0420 In the last song of the evening, a new one called “Southern California,” he waxes sentimental about “singing with my brothers/ In harmony, supporting one another.”  He’s the last brother alive, and he’s said many times how much he misses them.  And then both his mother and father are dead as well.  When he sings “All these people make me feel so alone,” I can imagine the sadness that haunts him. 

I saw him after the concert (about the fifth time I have done so).  He’s aging, but he can still flash a smile and say hello for the fans.  As long as Brian Wilson sings, the California dream is alive. What a night.

Dirt & Sky & Barbecue

Wilbers-Sign When I turned into the parking lot at Wilber’s Barbecue, I felt immediately at home.  Most of the vehicles in the lot were American-branded trucks, some new and some old, all sidled up to the side of an unassuming one-story brick building that has been there as long as I have been traveling this road.  “Local flavor,” I said to myself, getting out of my car, sandwiched between two oversize trucks that must now cost a fortune to fill up.

“Sit where I like?” I asked the hostess, even though the small brown sign said "seat yourself."  It felt polite to ask.

“Anywhere, honey.”

Wilbur’s is one of those places where women I don’t know can call me “honey” and “baby” and my wife won’t mind one bit.  In fact, she’d be appreciative that these ladies are looking after me, making sure I get fed.  Mind you, these women are not necessarily attractive, but even were they, it wouldn’t matter much.  They’re more like surrogate grandmothers or aunts looking after me, and I feel like a 50-year old kid being doted on, my grandmother standing over me asking repeatedly "what can I get you? you had enough? what else do you need?"

I’ve got one thing on my mind.  Pork.  Pork barbecue.  Eastern Carolina–style barbecue—whole hog smoked over an oakwood fire, chopped and dressed with a peppery vinegar sauce.  Wilber cooks as many as 30 pigs every day in what must be a hot-as-hell smokehouse out back.  Pray he lives to be a hundred, because when Wilbur dies the restaurant has to come into compliance with the a city ordinance and shift to gas cooking.  But I digress.  I want a large, not-good-for-you portion of savory barbecue, with a cole slaw side and a basket of hush puppies.  And don’t forget the very, very sweet tea over crushed ice with a big slice of lemon.  Right there.  Top of the menu: "Pit Cooked (Oak Wood) Barbecue Pork Plate, Includes: Cole Slaw, Potato Salad and Hush Puppies."  I look on down the menu and realize there are only three things on it I won't eat: fried liver, fried gizzards, and stewed oysters.  I don't remember having tried gizzards, but I also don't want to try and remember.

I’m by myself today, and I don’t regret it at all.  I don’t want any distractions.  I’m soaking it all up.  I don’t want to make any decisions either, so I'm thankful for the limited menu.  The biggest decision I had to make was determined by something primal, as in how hungry I would be and when.  It was either going to be Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro or Kings in Kinston.  I couldn’t make it to Kinston.

I firmly believe that if you’re going to be somewhere you need to be there.  What I mean is that if you’re traveling in Eastern North Carolina or anywhere for that matter, you need to stop, get out of the air-conditioned car or hotel room, and soak up a little of what it is to be in a particular place.  There are precious few places like Wilbur’s left, as homogenized as city business corridors have become.

I look around the room.  Kitty-cornered to me is a local businessman sitting alone.  I know this because he’s dressed in what we big-city folk might call “casual business attire,” only his has a lived in look, his face broadcasting a “I'll sell you something but I'm not in a big hurry to do it" look.  I like that.  But for my barbecue, I might even strike up a conversation.  But I don't want to talk.  I want to listen.

Behind him there is a table full of antediluvian women, seven to be exact, and one probably seven-year old girl with a round face and stringy brown hair, someone's granddaughter.  (Hold on now, no one around here uses big words like antediluvian!)  I can't hear what they're saying, but it has to be about recipes and children and men, just as the elderly men behind me at the table are talking about the price of gas and big oil companies and the state of the economy.  These are local people.  I feel like if I needed anything I could ask any of them and they'd find a way to help me.  Mind you, I know that small towns and rural areas have drug dealers, violent crime, and divorce, and maybe I have an idealized vision of small-town life, but still I think it more likely I'd be helped here were I to need it.

"You want some 'nana pudding, baby?"

"Is it homemade?"

"This morning.  It's good."

"Bring it on."

I could kiss her. . . almost.  I feel like I've been sojourning in a foreign land and stumbled on kinfolk and been invited in for a meal.  In the city, I'm not even sure where I could get homemade banana pudding, served room temperature or even slightly warm, with whole vanilla wafers and homemade meringue.  I want to stop writing about it and eat some right now.  I just ate it slowly, savoring the moment, thinking Jesus would enjoy this meal just as much as I would.  He had such a way of enjoying food and drink and yet never clutching it like a glutton but recognizing it for the good gift that it was.  Scripture so often places him at a meal, reclining at tables, eating fish on the seaside, eating with his disciples.  Sure, He'd be right at home here.  It's no sin to appreciate good food.

"Everything alright?"

"It was great," I said, paying the bill, and I said I'd be back.

Outside, I pause for a moment and look around, adjusting to my new girth.  It's 95 degrees and the heat is radiating from a dusty asphalt parking lot a little less truck-heavy now.  Wilber's is just a hole in the wall.  But it's a little piece of pork heaven right here by the side of US 70 and a comforting reminder that some things don't change. 

For today, you can have your malls and fast food chain restaurants.  I'll take a very hot eastern North Carolina and Wilber's Barbecue --- just dirt and sky and barbecue. 

As I drive away, I let the windows down, let the heat pour in and the wind drive away the last lingering smell of barbecue.  That's when I said grace.

Coming Home to Joy (Notes from Kaihura)

logo21 [I wrote these recollections of our recent mission trip to Uganda while on the long plane trip coming home. They are by no means all I have to say about the wonderful people of Kaihura, but they begin to tell about what it is like there, and what it is like to leave. Please continue to read the Embrace Uganda blog to hear more.]

When I walked down the loading bridge to the plane in Entebbe, a blast of cold air hit me. Air conditioning. Settling into my seat, I realized that I had suddenly crossed over, from a mostly pre-modern world to a very modern world. It made me sad.

I am still trying to hold in my mind specific images of Kaihura, particularly the faces of our friends. Saturday morning they met us at Faith’s home, the orphan children from Home Again and the children from the Dorcas Vocational School, as well as pastors and adults who had welcomed and assisted us, and we walked the quarter mile down dirt roads to the tiny business district of Kaihura, the children insisting on carrying our luggage.

Our bus came. We boarded. As we looked out the window of the bus, our Ugandan friends were weeping. My friend Sam, a gifted 18 year-old young man, was standing in the back, wiping tears from behind his sunglasses. Joanne, with whom I played many games at Home Again, was her usual placid self, but tears were in her eyes. Daniel did not cry but stood right in front looking at me. He wrote me a letter, and drew a picture of flowers for me, but at 15 was too concerned at becoming emotional to deliver it himself. Stephen, who has broken his arm, was looking on. I pointed to each of them and waved, wanting them to know that I was saying good bye to them as individuals, that I would miss them, that there were no little people in Kaihura. When you look out and see 400 kids looking intently at you, it’s sometimes overwhelming to realize that each one is made in God’s image, that each one is a soul in need of redemption, that each one has dreams and troubles of their own.

Behind me I hear the uncharacteristic sobbing of my 13-year old daughter Anna. In front of me, my 16-year old son Stephen was crying. And so was I. Not only because I would miss them but because unlike us they could not leave behind the relentless hardship of life, a life they lived, however, with faith, hope, and love. But then as sad as it was to say goodbye to them, just as sad were those faces of the countless other adults and many children of the community who stood outside their homes and shops and alongside dirt streets and the main road and sadly watched us leave, most of whom I had not been able to get to know, leaving them to substandard, often unaffordable health care, poor education (despite the dedication of some teachers), and with neither running water nor electricity. We were leaving.

During the course of the two weeks, Stephen and I interviewed all 25 teenagers that went on the trip, in addition to some others. These kids raised their own support and often more in order to come. Some were curious. Some felt called by God. None were prepared for the overwhelming love they experienced and the work God did in them and through them in a relatively short time --- exposing self-centeredness, teaching them how to worship freely, and meeting their need for phileo love, the deep love of authentic friendship that the children and adults here gave to them. They also grew in their love for one another --- helping, loving, and sharing with each other. Practically all of them wanted to stay. Several of them cried at the mention of leaving or when they began to talk of how being there had affected them.

We adults have said many goodbyes. We forget what it is to be a teenager, where goodbyes seem for a time to be the end of life as we know it and we cannot imagine a world without whatever it is we leave behind. We have also had mountaintop experiences only to return to the mundane plain of life. We know that life will go on, that we will return to the familiar patterns of life on the other side. We say we have perspective. And yet we too easily guard our emotions, steeling ourselves against disappointment. Maybe deep down we are tainted by a cultural cynicism. And yet what these young people give us is a sense of the intensity of experience because they are less guarded, more engaged emotionally, and more in touch with the present moment. Can you remember that time in your life? It’s worth trying to remember, worth letting go of talk of perspective and letting the intensity of the moment, whether of sadness or happiness, wash over you. Then you will go on, but you will not be the same.

I don’t want to be the same. Perspective tells me that I live in a different world than my Ugandan friends, and yet my heart tells me we are the same. I find myself already adapting my conversation and attitudes to the world I live in, and yet I feel a bit estranged. I am home, and yet ill at ease, aware that something is amiss. Something is. To use scriptural words, being an “alien and stranger” on the earth takes on new meaning. I’m feeling alienated. It feels strange. And yet it feels better. I have a better sense that this world is not my home, that my citizenship is not here.

I don’t want to be the same. I don’t want to forget. I plan on surrounding myself with pictures of my Ugandan friends, visible reminders of faith, hope, and love, and talking about what I heard, saw, and learned. If I can remember the faces of my friends standing on that roadside in Kaihura, I can change. God can do a work in me too. We may have had tears, but God promises that “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy,” shall “come home with shouts of joy” (Ps. 126:5-6). I’m not happy about leaving. I’m not completely happy about being home. But there is joy knowing that God is at work in Kaihura. . . and in me.

The Manor House

Tonight I drove to Montreat College, a small school on the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina. They have asked me to do a review of their Music Business Program, They put me up in a huge old house off their main campus called the Manor House. It's pretty creepy.

I'm alone in the house, apparently. It's one of those old houses that has several staircases leading to an untold number of unpeopled rooms, with bookcases lining the walls, huge banquet rooms, and even a swimming pool in the basement. There are even hidden panels in the walls where during Prohibition former tenants hid the alcohol. It reminds me of what old professor Digory's house must have looked like in "The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe," just waiting to be explored. But I haven't found a wardrobe yet. Come to think of it, maybe it's more like Hitchcock's Bates Inn: the only sound I hear right now, besides that of me typing, is the drip drip drip of the bathroom faucet.

Of course I don't believe in ghosts or disembodied spirits of any form, and yet in some way the former tenants of this place remain, their collective memories only vaguely discernible to me etched in the chipped paint on the walls, the creaks in the hardwood floors, the well-worn books, the slightly out of tune piano, and in the depression in that empty chair, just there, outside my door. They're all here. Long ago this was a home, and then they left, or died, leaving behind only the presence of their absence --- and one day that too will be gone.

I need to stop that drip. If I do, what will I hear then?

In Ordinary Time

CIMG0256 "Be still, and know that I am God."  (Ps. 46:10a)

One of the reasons I have visited Arizona and other Western states once or twice a year for the last 25 years is, apparently, for solitude --- to be in a place where I can listen to and see things I have difficulty experiencing in the Eastern urban area where I live. Even in a park near my home, the sounds of traffic, airplanes, and people’s voices are ever-present --- the horns and motors, the drone of planes, the bits of “he said, and I said, and can you believe” kind of conversations that I weave in and out of, a constant soundtrack that obscures a more subtle layer of things to see and hear.

Last Wednesday I stood beneath this enormous concrete cross about 25 miles east of Nogales, Arizona, just past the wispy community of Lochiel, constructed as some sort of memorial to one of Coronado's fellow conquistadors by the side of the dirt and gravel road we traveled on through the fields of the San Raphael Valley, making our way to the old mining town of Bisbee. There was no one around. Not a car. Not a house. Not even livestock. We passed two vehicles on our journey --- a Border Patrol agent and a mailman in a dusty pickup truck, both doing their lonely work along a not so well-traveled road.

CIMG0257 Given the lack of man-made sounds and structures, I was entranced by the few things I did see and hear when we stopped our car. There was the cross juxtaposed with the clear, empty blue sky --- a testimony, a claim, a reminder that we are not alone. There was a windmill flagged by the biblical name of Samson. Surveying the landscape, there was a single shade tree, perhaps an Arizona sycamore or scrub oak, golden fields of grass, called llanos, as far as I could see, and mountains and hills on three sides --- behind us, the Patagonia Mountains, north of us, the Canelo Hills, and east, the Huachuca Mountains --- their colors changing as the sun moved lower in the sky, shadows growing longer with day’s end.

Listening carefully, at first I heard nothing, just silence. But then I began to notice the soft rise and fall of the wind, the gentle rustling of the grasses, the occasional squeak of the windmill as the blades turned. I heard and saw a few cactus wrens, alighting for a time on the telephone lines stretched overhead, and I looked up and noticed how the wires form a musical staff, the wind’s whistling sound like a song stretched over them.

CIMG0263 I looked at my watch and realized that seconds and minutes and hours don’t mean much here where time might be measured by the position of the sun, where most days are the same except for the variables of weather. Let’s just call this ordinary time, where no clocks are ticking, no appointments waiting, where there is no “breaking news,” where what happened today on the stock market is of little interest, where the machinations of the politicians in Washington have little impact, where no one cares who did what to who in Hollywood or what happened on The Office last night.

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, majors in a celebration of silence, of learning to reflect on and contemplate our lives. That’s difficult if we are always in an urban environment. Buechner says: “Pay attention to what happens to you. Pay attention to who you see. Pay attention to what you say, what they say. Pay attention to what the day feels like. Observe. That wonderful phrase, ‘religious observances,’ means, among other things, just what it says. Observe religiously. Observe deeply. Don't just get through your life, as all of us are inclined to do, on automatic pilot, not much noticing anything. “

I think of Elijah, asleep under a broom tree in the desert outside Beersheba in Judah, waiting for God to do something, anything, or sleeping in a cave in Horeb, waiting for the gentle whisper of God’s voice in the wind, a voice saying to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

CIMG0269 If I lay down here and slept, awakening on a new day, it would likely be the same. The tree would still be doing its important work of photosynthesis and shade-bearing, the windmill still turning, if there is wind, or not. The cross would still boldly if silently make God’s claim to every square inch of this universe and make restless travelers like me consider a Kingdom where a king comes not to take the riches of the land and make vassals of its peoples but to give not only riches but His life away.  Christ, the King of love.

It might rain, or it might not. The wind may blow, gently or with bluster, or not, faintly humming over the telephone lines overhead.

It’s all strangely comforting. If I’d had time, I might have stayed awhile, looked around, and better listened to the sound of ordinary time. Who knows? I might have even heard a voice calling my name, saying to me, “What are you doing here?” and then, “Go back the way you came.”

The Thing About Home

There's certainly nothing new about coming home from vacations.  There is the long list of emails, the voice messages, the grocery bag of mail and unpaid bills, the shocking reality of the heat, the resumption of duty (work) and the fading remembrance of leisure.  I wish I was better at re-entry.

But there's also the joy of home, of familiar things, of seeing friends again, of the regularity of routine, and the love of a place --- this place.  I think Mary Oliver says it best in her poem, and so I'll leave it at that:

Musical Notation: 2

Everything is His.
The door, the door jamb.
The wood stacked near the door.
The leaves blown upon the path
     that leads to the door.
The trees that are dropping their leaves
     the wind that is tripping them this way and that way,
the clouds that are high above them,
the stars that are sleeping now beyond the clouds

and, simply said, all the rest.

When I open the door I am so sure so sure
     all this will be there, and it is.
I look around.
I fill my arms with firewood.
I turn and enter His house, and close the door.

Well, of course it's just home, that's all, just a place, and yet it's suffused with eternal significance.  It's His.  I'm glad to be here where my daughter flops on her bed and stares out her window, where my son walks the back yard deep in thought, where my wife picks up where she left off with laundry, meals, and more.  I'll find a favorite chair, just for a moment, and savor just being here, before life begins again.

Day 15: The Pull of Home


It's difficult to escape the pull of home on your last day of vacation.  We're looking out the window, trying to pay attention to what we see --- the orchards and rolling farmlands of the Annapolis Valley, the bay in the distance, the forested hills, the history of a place we are speeding through --- but it's too difficult.  Walking the quaint main street of Digby, I take it in, and yet I don't.  It's not home.  I'm going home.  And so I just give in to it, allowing the conversation to turn to the week ahead, the plans we have, our hopes for the rest of the Summer.  Normalcy will return.  I'll be able to remember what day of the week it is.  Mealtime will be regular (and less!). 

I'm riding the ferry now from Digby to St. John, a three-hour crossing of the Bay of Fundy, a place that has the highest tides in the world and home of fifteen different whale species.  Every now and then I go out on the deck with binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of our largest mammal.  Nova Scotia is behind us, and after a brief sojourn through southwest New Brunswick, with a stop in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea for dinner, we'll cross the border at St. Stephens (home of Ganong Chocolates) and be in Maine, on our way to Bangor and a flight home in the morning.

When I consider where we've been, I realize how much we have seen and experienced.  We've learned a great deal about Canada and Canadians, and have been treated so well and graciously by everyone.  On the whole it's a cleaner and more environmentally-conscious place than the United States.  And yet it's a place that by and large treats Christianity and its churches as a matter for historical preservation.  I have a sense that very few people attend church.  Is this what is in store for us in the United States?

I'm looking forward to being home --- home to heat, humidity, and summer haze.  It's part of what makes home be home.


There were some pleasant surprises on our way to Bangor from St. John.  St. Andrews-by-the-Sea was a delightful waterfront town, with nice shops, accommodations, and restaurants.  It was like Bar Harbor without all the people and tourist traps.  We ate at The Gables, a place with a great view of the harbor and seating on a porch over the water, and decent seafood and pub fare.  Two miles across the water lay Maine.  It was a fitting way to end our time in Canada.

We drove on to St. Stephen, not stopping at the chocolate store, and proceeded through the relatively unbusy border crossing with no difficulty.  I simply answered a few questions, showed the agent our passports, and passed on through.  A customs declaration (which I had taken the time to fill out) was not required.

Leaving Calais, Maine, we passed through the Moosehead Wildlife Refuge.  There were large expanses of marsh and grassland, bordered by a river.  Seeing a viewing platform, we stopped to take a look through the binoculars set up there.  No moose were sighted, but we did see three bald eagles on their nests and enjoyed listening to the various birds in the area.

Proceeding down Maine Highway 9 (which is a nice broad two-lane and relatively untraveled, we enjoyed the approximately 80 miles of forest and low mountains.  It's a very unpopulated area.  We occasionally stopped just to get out and savor the cool air and vistas.  We'll miss it.

Tomorrow at home?  97 degrees and humid.

Day 14: Behind the Veil


"It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, that amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to the kingdom of ideal beauty.  Between it and me hung only a thin veil.  I could never quite draw it aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond --- only a glimpse --- but those glimpses have always made life worth while"  (Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Alpine Path)

Without a doubt it is a mystical statement.  And yet Montgomery's observation, her sense of something perfect and pure that lay beyond the commonplace, is something known to most of us.  God has fixed a chasm between the old heavens and old earth and new heavens and new earth that we cannot now cross, and yet he treats us to glimpses of what it must be like, moments that we don't forget.

I'm by an open window in a bed and breakfast in the small town of Canning, Nova Scotia, on the West coast (the bay of Fundy side), listening to the sounds of the night.  There's not much to hear.  An occasional car passes by.  A muffled voice from a nearby room.  A horn, perhaps from a boat far away on the Bay, sounds.  Cattle graze and the breeze ruffles the grain growing in the dikeland fields east of here.  It's all very commonplace, and yet I can imagine that in all of what I know and see and hear now there is something of the new earth in it, the promise of more, better, soon.

Leaving Cape Breton today, we stopped for an hour at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddock.  What a great place!  I did not realize the expansiveness of this inventor's mind.  Not only did he invent the telephone, but he also worked on perfecting something called "Visible Speech" for the deaf, built and flew airplanes, developed hydrofoils, worked with X-rays and perfected the phonograph (invented by Edison), and much, much more.  He had a passion to invent and was relentless in it, never giving up after failure after failure.  I could glimpse even in that the kind of passion for learning that must persist and be perfected in a new earth.

It was a long drive today, and yet it made me appreciate the rich beauty and diversity of Nova Scotia, and it made me long for a new earth --- not by glimpses but full on.

Day 13: A Whale of a Time


Eddie, a man who undoubtedly figures himself something of a Crocodile Dundee of whale sightings, took us out on the ocean today just outside of Ingonish Habour to look for whales.  I've been on such excursions before, but never on a inflatable zodiac.  I was uncertain what to expect.  I didn't have long to find out.

The zodiac is basically a 24 foot inflatable raft with a center console and two 100 horsepower motors.  It carries up to 12 passengers, but today we had only ten.  A few seconds after we pulled away from the dock in the South Harbour, Eddie floored it.  We headed straight out to sea going approximately 40 mph, with Eddie whooping and hollering all the way, as he immediately spotted whales, minke whales like we had seen in Maine.

It turns out there was only one whale, but the view we had was amazing.  We came within a few hundred feet, watching it spray, surface and actually breach (rare for a minke whale).  The whale literally leaped out of the water!  It did this several times as we chased it north, occasionally breaching and often surfacing and exposing its fin.  What a thrill to see!  I have never been so close to a whale.  They are majestic creatures that are difficult to describe as such unless you experience them up close.

We also went in search of the elusive moose today.  Just north of here is a freshwater lake, Lake Warren.  We hiked the 2.5 mile hike around the perimeter, a mostly low-lying trail which at time climbed briefly onto the banks around the lake.  It was just the four of us.  We never passed anyone.  Though we never saw the moose, on the far side of the lake we did see an area of pressed down grass where a moose had either slept or rested, and in several places we found moose tracks in mud or soft earth.  After dinner at the lodge we went out via car in search of more moose, driving down some gravel roads into the forest, but we came up empty. 


As evening fell, it grew more windy and a slight rain began to fall, a rare sight these last two weeks!  When we planned the trip, I was certain we'd be seeing a great deal of rain and fog.  Surprisingly, we've seen very little.

As the end of our trip nears, I have to remind myself that vacations are not over until they're over, that God will present new things each day just like in life in general, if we have eyes to see.  Like most, I tend to live too much in tomorrow and not enough in the present.  If Jesus warned that each day's trouble is enough for that day (an admonition not to worry about tomorrow), then surely each day's pleasures are enough for that day too and are to be savored and not passed over.  Home is in my sights, but there's still much to see on the way home.

Days 11 and 12: From PEI to Cape Breton


It is with some sadness that I'm looking back at Prince Edward Island from the deck of the Wood Island - Caribou ferry.  Today I remember driving through the bucolic landscape toward the ferry, still relishing the contrasts --- the red roads and cliffs, green meadows and fields, and blue skies and sea.  Dscf0030I also enjoyed our stopover at the historic Orwell Farm, a restored home place and farm en route to the ferry.  Visiting the barn, my daughter discovered two timid kittens who poked their heads out from behind a weathered red door, mewing.  We toured the general store, home place, church, and one-room schoolhouse which functioned until 1969.  Our guide spent at least two years there herself.  You have to use your imagination a bit to see it as it was earlier in the twentieth century, before or not long after the advent of cars, before the drone of airplanes overhead, and before, perhaps, the tidiness bred of a more leisurely era.  (For example, the well-tended flower beds would certainly not have ranked high on the original farm family's list of priorities.)  It's easy to think of such a time with nostalgia, but while the loss can be lamented some there are gains as well (better healthcare, less grueling labor).  

After a 75 minute ferry ride, we were in for a bit of driving through the Nova Scotia countryside --- more than I had counted on!  The landscape was markedly different than that of PEI --- much more forested and less agrarian.  After a couple hours, we crossed over to Cape Breton, a peninsula in northern Nova Scotia.  We spent our first night in the very small town of Mabou (pop. 300), home of the Rankin family, one of the best known musical Cape Breton families.  (They are sort of like the Carter family in the bluegrass world, yet they are Celtic.)  The best treat of the evening was a "ceilidh", which is basically a hoedown, held in the community hall.  We heard three local fiddlers, accompanied by a pianist, play Celtic reels, jigs, and waltzes.  They even had two step-dancers take the stage with dancing reminiscent of Irish dance in Riverdance.  It was a crowd of approximately 100, most of whom appeared to be locals.  We felt right at home.  It could have been the Blue Ridge Mountains, only with different accents.


There is an oddity located right next door to our motel --- Our Lady of Sorrows Shrine, a white clapboard church with a lit cross atop it.  We walked right into it at 10:00.  Numerous candles were lit, and in the front of the church was the painting of the suffering Jesus held by Mary.  At first I thought it might be a good place for prayer.  After visiting, I think not; the focus on the continued suffering of Jesus, the candles lit for those presumably in purgatory, and the explicit Mary worship truly distract from worship in spirit and truth.  Better the woods and sky and ocean.

The next day, making our way up the western side of the peninsula, we stopped in Cheitcamp for a meal.  At the nondescript Acadian Restaurant (recommended by Frommers), I had meat pie, an Acadian favorite, which was excellent.  Dscf0065_editedProceeding on, we entered Cape Breton National Park, a beautiful drive that hugs the coastline of the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the Cabot Trail.  This is a dramatic country, much like that of our Western parks, with mountains meeting sea in a jumble of rocks and boulders, the gulf glittering for as far as you could see.  Stopping at one sand beach just north of Inverness, we discovered tons of sea glass, something which made my wife very, very happy, as she had been looking for it ever since we left home.  We all loaded our pockets full of the tumbled smooth green, white, brown, and, on occasion, blue glass.  Never have I seen so much sea glass.  Looking for sea glass is like fishing for me: great if they're to be found, but boring if not.


Making our way around the park we ended up on the east side, in Ingonish, where we have stopped for two nights at the Keltic Lodge, the former summer home of a  friend of Alexander Graham Bell.  The lodge sits on a slender peninsula that juts out into the ocean between North and South Ingonish Harbours.  The views are incredible.  I'm already thinking about home, yet a bit of the wanderlust remains, enough for another couple days, at least!

Days 8, 9, & 10: Knowing a Place


"For lands have personalities just as well as human beings; and to know that personality you must live in a place and companion it, and draw sustenance of body and spirit from it; so only can you really know a land and be known of it."  (Lucy Maud Montgomery, in The Alpine Path)

One of my enduring memories of being here on Prince Edward Island will be spending time with my almost 13-year old daughter in all the Anne of Green Gables oriented attractions --- like a restored Green Gables or the author's actual homeplace, or in viewing the most popular Canadian musical, Anne: The Musical.  There are so few things that really engage her emotionally that I loved seeing her smile, laugh, and at one point in the musical, even cry so touched she was by what was happening.  I think she identifies with the imaginative and precocious Anne.

But it's not just my daughter who is affected, it's also me.  You can't really know PEI without knowing Anne of Green Gables, and she is everywhere in the center of the island, in Queens County.  I always regarded the book as one for children, particularly young girls, and thus I have not read it, but I plan on doing so.  Montgomery was a good writer, and Anne engages the imagination.  It's part of knowing this place.

Walking through the birthplace of Montgomery, there were plaques with quotes from her short autobiography, The Alpine Life, and I was drawn in by the insightfulness of her thinking.  So I also bought her autobiography.  It's part of knowing the place.

The last three days have also been filled with other ways of knowing this place --- walking the grounds of the historic and beautiful hotel where we stayed, Dalvay-by-the-Sea, originally the summer home of Alexander McDonald, exploring the trails through the dunes and forests of Prince Edward Island National Park, riding bikes for a 26 -mile trek on the island wide Confederation Trail through wetlands, meadows, and farmlands, and  meandering in our car down backroads.  It's difficult to describe the subtle pleasure the landscape gives. Perhaps Montgomery does it best: Dscf0013

"Much of the beauty of the Island is due to the vivid colour contrasts --- the rich red of the winding roads, the brilliant emerald of the uplands and meadows, the glowing sapphire of the encircling sea.  It is the sea which makes Prince Edward Island in more senses than the geographical.  You cannot get away from the sea down there.  Save for a few places in the interior, it is ever visible somewhere, if only in a tiny blue gap between distant hills, or a turquoise gleam through the dark boughs of spruce fringing an estuary."Dscf0015

That's true.  The contrast of blue and green and red is something I never tire of.

Here are some things we noted about PEI:

  • They like gravy on their fries.
  • They serve sweet iced tea.  You have to ask for unsweetened tea.
  • They rarely serve ice with drinks.
  • They have no deer or moose or bear on the island.
  • They have more forested land now than they did in 1900.
  • They have mosquitos.  We felt at home.
  • They have very few Canadian geese.  They have emigrated to the United States.
  • They say "Eh" (pronounced with an "a")
  • They have red dirt and many red sand beaches, some of which smell!  (It's the natural litter of mussels and other sea creatures.)
  • Their motorists are extremely polite.
  • They do not usually give free refills on drinks (to the chagrin of my well hydrated son, whose favorite question is "Do you have free refills?")

Life on the island is unhurried and almost genteel.  If you're looking for excitement, you wouldn't like it.  If you want to slow down, you'd love it.  I can see why Anne loved it.  And I'm loving it too -- as best I can.

Day 7: Mid-Course Correction (Lunenburg to Charlottetown)


In vacations, as with life, I often find that mid-course corrections must be made,  Yesterday, the plan was to leave Lunenburg, Nova Scotia and make it all the way to West Point, Prince Edward Island, near the (you guessed it) the West end of PEI.  I was told that the trip would take four hours.  There was, however, a surprising amount of traffic around Halifax, that is, until I remembered that this was Friday and the start of an important holiday weekend for the Canadians (July 1st is Canada Day, the equivalent of our Fourth of July.)  In addition, we left our video camera in our inn in Lunenburg, remembered, thankfully, by my son when we were only eight miles away,  So we had a late start, --- one, however, which allowed some extra browsing in art galleries in Lunenburg.

In Lunenburg, I had the sense that we had stepped back in time a bit and outside consumer society.  That was shattered in route to PEI.  We stopped for lunch at McDonalds, which was about like home except for the maple leaf in the golden arches.  It was the worse food I'd had since leaving home.  But the scenery in route was spectacular --- rolling hills of green forests, vast expanses of largely unpopulated areas, and  dark inlets and ponds of water everywhere.  I was reminded of being out west --- a great big blue sky with billowing white clouds.  It stayed this was throughout mid-Nova Scotia, through Truro and Amherst an on to the Confederation Bridge, a long expanse over Northumberland Strait, between Novas Scotia.Dscf0011

But back to the mid-course correction:  Going to West Point PEI would be quite a trip, and I was concerned we'd all be suffering scenery fatigue with al the car time.  I canceled the reservation and secured a room in Charlottetown, the provincial capital, so after we exited the bridge, we turned east, following the scenic Blue Heron Trail, meandering through south PEI.  The road followed the coastline.  This was different than Nova Scotia.  Rather than vast expanses of forest, there were rolling hills of green fields and meadows, dropping off into the Northumberland Srait, skirted by flowering pink and lavender lupines.  Colorful farmhouses were scattered about, and here and there, in the middle of the fields, a church, some of them obviously a center piece of these agricultural communities (at least at one time.)  I wonder about their life now.Dscf0015_2

Coming into Charlottetown, there was actually traffic and some of the typical urban sprawl, though on a small scale.  Our hotel was at the historic waterfront.  Arriving there, we discovered that it was a happening place --- the Festival of Lights was going on and the place was full of people, many college age.  After checking in, we had dinner at a Greek restaurant, paid a visit (for my daughter) to the Anne of Green Gables store, and visited the waterfront.  Two young girls had a drunken friend by the arms.  He obviously could not stand up well.  There was a lot of drinking going on.  I was almost run over by another kid who obviously couldn't walk a straight line.  Charlottetown is old, and while it is restored and lively, it looks more old than restored.  It actually reminded me of an old Southern city, like Columbia South Carolina --- aged and not quite restored.

A nice end to the evening was the rising full moon over the harbor.

Days 5 and 6: Creation Speaks, But Is Anyone Listening?


"The Lord will fulfill his purposes for me; your love, O Lord, endures forever --- do not abandon the works of your hands" (Ps. 138:8)

There are many beautiful, historic, and yet empty churches here in Canada, much as there are in Europe.  Lunenburg, a historic fishing village here on the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, can boast that it has the oldest wood church in North America, St. John's Anglican Church, and yet the church is largely empty on Sunday morning.  Many churches here have a historic function but have little to no functioning congregation.  As the guide on our carriage ride through the town said today, "Well, it's a different generation."  And yet they are just as needy as were those sea-faring sailors who risked their lives for their livelihood and families left behind who endured hardship and loneliness in their absence, wondering who would lose his life this time in a northeaster at sea.

Yesterday we came from Maine to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia via the Cat Ferry, an amazing boat that carries cars and passengers in a three hour trip at a speed of up to 55 m.p.h. across the ocean.  It's an amazingly steady ride.  Yarmouth had little charm, but as we headed up the coast I took note of the vast expanses of forest, the great emptiness of the land.  We stopped in Shelburne for lunch at a bakery opened by German immigrants (there are pockets of strong German influence in the area) and then drove on to our bed and breakfast in Lunenburg, a fishing village remade into a tourist destination.  Today we enjoyed the Fisheries Museum, something I thought might be boring but was actually quite good and certainly a hit with the children.  We ate at Magnolia Grill, well-regarded for their fish cakes (which are nothing like the store-bought commodities), and walked a bit on the two or three streets that make up the historic shopping district.


Today we also took a couple of side trips, down to Hirtle's Beach, which is a sand beach suitable for sunning or swimming (if you have a rugged constitution).  Houses perched on rocky cliffs surrounded this small sandy beach.  It was a mostly sunny day, yet as we walked the beach I could look ahead and see fog rolling in on the beach, engulfing my son.


After a walk on the beach (where we found no sea glass, unfortunately), we headed for The Ovens, a natural area owned and maintained by the Chapin family.  If you recall the late Seventies singer-songwriter, Harry Chapin ("Cat In the Cradle" or "W.O.L.D.") --- this is his father and brothers who own this land.  We took a 45 minute hike along the rugged cliffs which hold various caves (or "ovens") created by the ocean, some of which you can go down into.  The caves were mined for gold during a six-year gold rush back in the 1860s.

Then we proceeded on about eight miles north of Lunenburg, to Mahone Bay, another pretty village on a cove, with better shopping but fewer restaurants.  It was nice but without the character of Lunenburg.Dscf0066_edited  After a meal in Lunenburg (excellent Italian at Trattoria Della Nonna), we drove around the cove to Blue Rocks, an area with quiet beauty --- just colorful fishing shacks, boats, and rocks that give off a blue hue in the evening light.

All this beauty and empty churches.  It tempts me to wonder where God is in this, and yet I realize how short my time frame of reference is, how much greater His plans are, and how "the Lord will fulfill his purpose," bringing in all who belong to Him in His own time.  The churches may be empty and yet God is everywhere I look here, in Nova Scotia. Creation speaks, but is anyone listening?

Days 3 & 4: A Shore Walk


It's 6:30 a.m. and the sun is well up here on Mount Desert Island.  Come and take a walk with me.  Leaving my hotel, I turn left on historic West Street, a tree-shaded mostly residential street with large homes (now mostly bed and breakfasts) with green lawns and gardens that border Frenchman's Bay.  I walk past tourist shops and the docks where the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company takes you out on the Atlantic to see puffins, seals, dolphins and, of course (and if you are lucky) whales.  We took the trip yesterday and saw two Minke whales (smaller than humpbacks) that circled our ship and even swam under the bow at one point.

Turning the corner after Main Street, I pick up the Shore Walk, a mostly hard-packed gravel walk that follows the shore for about a mile.  It's absolutely clear today and the breeze is cool but not cold.  I walk past the Bar Harbor Inn with it's green lawn that borders the walk, a classic hotel, and then on past some beautiful old homes that border the shore, bordered by blooming azaleas and fences in places.  The path ends at a fence and I turn right on what looks like a carriage path, a shady gravel road that meets up with Wayman Lane.  Turning right on Main, I pass restaurants, more bed and breakfasts, shops, and then, at the village green I turn left on Mount Desert Street, walking past the main four churches in Bar Harbor --- the Congregational church, Baptist church, Catholic church, and Episcopal church.  The latter has the village burial grounds.  I notice the tombstones, many from the mid-1800s, including Israel Todd, died 1846, age 5.

Right on Holland, I meet up again with West Street, passing a gracious old inn that used to be called the Tides, a place my wife and I stayed over 20 years ago.  And then I'm home.

We've actually been walking/hiking a lot, yesterday making our way part way up a mountain called The Beehive until I called it off as too dangerous.  We were beginning up sheer rock walls with iron bars to use as ladders.  It was a beautiful view from half way up, but too great a risk in my opinion for the kids.  Dscf0019_editedToday we walked the three -mile loop around Jordan Pond, hearing nothing but birds, the gentle lapping of water, and an occasional muted conversation from the other side of the lake (as sound carries).  Dscf0028We rewarded ourselves at the end with lunch on the lawn, under trees, at Jordan Pond Lake House, having popovers, a hot hollow, puffy roll.  Very tasty.  The historic lake house burned to the ground in 1979, but was rebuilt by 1982.  It's well worth a stop.  Returning to the hotel, we drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the coast of North America.  The view was astounding.  We could see the entire village of Bar Harbor, the Schoordic Peninsula (another less-visited part of Acadia National Park) the various islands and lighthouses in the bay,  It was a nice end to our day.

Every day here, after Scripture and prayer, I've been reading three or four poems from Mary Oliver's Thirst, a wonderful collection of poems infused with nature and faith.  They seem appropriate, as Oliver lives in cape Cod and often uses the seaside as the context for her poems.  Mary Oliver loves the world and makes me love it too, whether it's otters playing or trees or roses or a ribbon snake.  And so I love this place with its spruce  and fir trees, rocky outcroppings, jagged shoreline, basking seals, playful dolphins, or majestic whales.  I'm drinking it up, loving it all.

What I Did On My Vacation: Day One


Vacations, someone said (I think that someone was me), bring out the best and worst in us all.  I know this and still I have the tendency to idealize our annual or biannual excursions.  I love the planning, the poring over maps, books, and brochures, and the imagining of what goes on in places designated by small black dots on maps.

And then, when time comes to leave, my first inclination is to stay home.  I pause and stare out the window at my backyard, the finches on the feeder, the irascible squirrels foraging for seeds, the chipmunk dashing hither and thither, and I don't want to leave.  I walk around the house with a touch of melancholy, looking forward to when I can return to familiar surroundings, to home. . . and I haven't even left yet.

I want to stay home because I love the familiar, my own dot on the map, and yet long for the unfamiliar, the new and unexplored.  I also realize that the problem with vacations is that we have to take ourselves along on them --- I mean, of course, the self-seeking, selfish selves that we are.  Vacations can add fuel to the fire of human selfishness by telling us we owe it to ourselves to relax, to go where we want to, to have fun.  And yet there are others here with us who have the same idea.  None of us become different people on vacations.

But enough philosophizing.  It was a beautiful day to fly into New York, skirting the east side of the city, over the globe marking the site of the 1964 World's Fair, by Shea Stadium.  What a city!  It is an incredible, amazing thing that this home of millions works as well as it does, that it's amazingly livable for how concentrated it is.

We changed planes and finished our flight, landing in Bangor, Maine under cloudy skies.  Stepping off the plane, it was mountain air we took in, quite different than that of home.  Leaving the airport we made our way slowly down US 1A through small towns, past Victorian homes, by spruce and pines (of a different ilk than our North Carolina pines), through fields of wildflowers.  "The air's so fresh," says my daughter, resting her head by a partially open window.  "Can we eat," says my son.


We reached our destination, Camden, a small town on Penobscot Bay late afternoon, staying in a large room in the back of one of the numerous B&Bs, the Windward Inn.  We enjoyed our beautiful deck looking up into the Camden Hills and Mount Battie, the manicured lawns, and the flowers lining the walks.  We walked through Main Street, stopping into several of the shops along the waterfront before landing for dinner in a restaurant overlooking the harbor full of windjammers. The sun came out, making for a beautiful and picturesque setting, a classic Maine village.  And I remember standing on that corner there with my wife, younger versions of ourself, nearly 20 years ago.  "Do you remember," I say.  She does.

But I wonder how the finches are, if the squirrels are raiding the feeder.  I guess our hearts never leave home.

Tomorrow:  Castine, Blue Hill, Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park, and Bar Harbor.

The Irrepressible Self

SameWe were not really the Midwest, my father explained; that would be Iowa or Nebraska, Kansas --- hopeless places. We were the Upper Midwest, as the weaterman said, elevating us above the dreary mean. My father pointed with derision at the cars with Iowa license plates, hauling boats on trailers behind them, as we passed them on Highway 200 going north. "Will you look at that," he said, "Those Iowa people have to lug that boat all the way up here." My brother and I looked at the dummies in the Iowa car as we passed. "They're crazy to get to the water, they"ll even fish in the middle of the day," he said, as if the Iowa Bedouins were so water mad that a school of walleye could toy with them in the noon heat, while my father cooly appeared at dawn and twilight to make the easy Minnesota-savvy kill. He pointed out to us, over and over, the folly of the Iowans and their pathetic pursuit of standing water.

(Patricia Hampl, from A Romantic Education)

While we often lament the homogenization of culture, how a certain sameness permeates our country no matter where we go, I think the drive toward inviduality is irrepressible. Take Patricia Hampl's humorous memory of growing up in Minnesota, for example. Is it any doubt that Minnesotans are way, way different from Iowans, even if they look and act the same to us in the South? It's as if someone referred to "Carolina" as if South and North Carolina are one and the same place. No way. No matter how much the same things are, people and groups, states and cities and towns, even neighborhoods, find ways to differentiate themselves. I think it's creational, and I think it's something we can celebrate in a time when pop culture is so omnipresent, when the same big-box stores and chain restaurants are around every corner. And while there is an ugly side of it that we need avoid, we should rejoice in the good. (Like any good gift of God, this diversity and tendency toward differentiation can be divisive and ugly and perverted.)

Take denominationalism. You are Baptist. I am Presbyterian. Or maybe you like liturgy and historic forms in worship. I like more spontaneous worship. You come to take notes, to learn, and to take away something relevant. I come to praise God, to experience. These things are driven by our personalities, the primary impulse we have when it comes to that organic thing called the Body of Christ and the corporate experience (oops, there's that word) of worship. Really, it's a beautiful thing to see this diversity, and yet we can use it as a divisive thing when pride comes in. Like people from Minnesota thinking the Iowans dumb, we may regard folks in another denomination as misguided or, worse, as heretical. It's not that the differences aren't important or that they need to be smoothed over in niceness, just that we are called to be humble and loving in discussing our differences.

Really, there is a tension here: One impulse we have is to be like one another, to identify with each other, and yet the competing impulse is to differentiate ourselves from each other. We are alike, and yet we are not the same. It makes life interesting.

So what am I really saying? Just this: That people in Iowa may really be stupid to live where they do, but what I want to know is what that says about people who live in Minnesota. (Minnesotans, let me hear from you!)

The Last Day

Ca_road_trip_13Last days on vacation are usually a mixed bag.  I'm often already in the homeward mode, so I may not enjoy the last day as much as I could.  Today was different.

We began in LA's Chinatown, which is neither as extensive nor as colorful as San Francisco's Chinatown.  When we parked our car, my son said he wasn't getting out, that he felt too strange being there.  Yet he did.  True to his expectation, in our one hour among the shops of Chinatown, we did not encounter a single person who appeared not to be of Chinese descent.  I was surprised!

Union_1 From Chinatown, we walked through Union Station, built in 1939 and billed as "the last of America's great train stations."  It is a beautiful building, and though the architecture is different, it is reminiscent of Union Station in DC or Grand Central Station in New York -- cavernous, with a musty, old smell to it, great chandeliers, and wonderful flower-filled plazas on each side of the building.

From Union Station, we walked across the street to Olvera Street, in an area know as El Pueblo Historic Monument.  The birthplace of Los Angeles, it's home to 27 historic buildings and a Mexican marketplace.  I didn't care much for the marketplace, but the history of the place was interesting.  The restaurant we ate lunch in (the name escapes me) was located in the first brick building in Los Angeles.  It was a good way to spend the day, and we even got out of the city and back to Santa Monica without significant traffic, on Friday afternoon at that!

Immediately on returning, my son and I rented bikes and headed south down the beach bike path toward Venice Beach and Marina De Ray.  The bike path extends 18 miles, but our time was limited.  We only made it halfway around Marina Del Ray, a boat harbor for the wealthy.  Venice beach was as I imagined -- full of every sort of weirdness -- body builders, tattooed and pierced men and women, bong and waterpipe shops, and throngs of people.  Hard to believe what houses cost in this place.  I'm not sure why anyone would want to frequent these tacky shops.  It really looked like it'd be better if they bulldozed the whole place and started over.  But it was a fitting end to a multi-cultural day!

Dscf0028_1 We finished the day with dinner at "The Lobster," a good restaurant on Ocean Avenue at the beginning of the Santa Monica Pier.  I took my daughter for some rides on the midway at the pier, catching a nice sunset as we left.  We then joined my wife and son where they were shopping on Third Street Promenade.  Busy day.  Good day.  Good end to our trip.  Tomorrow, we go home.  I'm just wondering, however, if we can hit In-N-Out once more before we leave.  It's so SoCal.  I leave you  there.

Marketing the Past

Ca_road_trip_12 One of the few studios left in the Los Angeles area where you can still tour the soundstages, backlots, and production facilities is the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank.  On our golf cart tour of the facility, like everyone I was interested in seeing this piece of history, this place where many of the movies and television series I recall watching when I was young were filmed.  I've been in studios before, so I know the power of illusion, the sets empty of the fantasy that film creates.  It's nothing but plaster, and plywood, and lights, rearranged in multiple ways to create an illusion of reality.  I know all this.  That's not new.

Dscf0018 What I realized on the tour were a few a couple of other things that I found disconcerting though not surprising.  First, there is the icon status that these sets, that, in fact, films and TV have become for many.  For example, the set from Friends, an apparently very successful ten-year series that I never even watched, has been preserved.  Entering the locked room where the set was, lighted for our enjoyment, was like entering a sacred place.  People even whispered. There were oohs and aahs.  We stood there, at least some taking in each item, each prop, as if we were looking at icons, as if something might happen to us just by being there. This is a quite sick, though I guess it's not all that new either.

The other thing was how in the process of educating me the tour guides were also selling me on WB shows -- upcoming shows, reissues of old series, and more.  Have we always marketed history?  I was just wondering how much of this is really important.  These are just stupid TV shows, right?  Just as I was being self-righteous about this I realized that I wanted to see the landmark that was erected in Hawthorne, CA to mark the former site of Brian Wilson's childhood home.  Now why would I want to do that?  Why would that matter to me?

These pop icons -- whether musicians, TV shows, movie stars, or whatever -- are ubiquitous.  They seem to be a kind of religion for many.  We all have to remember they're really just flesh like us, or plywood and plaster -- nothing built to last.  And whatever importance they seem to have is illusory, yet even the makers seem to have been deluded by the illusion.  Even they think it's important.

It's like that book we saw at the checkout counter in the WB store: "Hollywood Be Thy Name."  That says it all, doesn't it?

Food Makes a Place

Ca_road_trip_11"Mma Ramotswe leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She knew that there were places where the world was always green and lush, where water meant nothing because it was always there, where the cattle were never thin and listless; she knew that. But she did not want to live in such a place because it would not be Botswana, or at least not her part of Botswana. Up north they had that, near Maun, in the Delta, where the river ran the wrong way, back into the heart of the country. She had been there several times, and the clear streams and wide sweeps of Mopani forest and high grass had filled her with wonder. She had been happy for those people, because they had water all about them, but she had not felt that it was her place, which was in the south, in the dry south." (Alexander McCall Smith, in Blue Shoes and Happiness.)

I felt right at home today, almost, visiting the Farmers Market near downtown Los Angeles.  This is a place not on most tourist’s hotlist, and yet it is a great place to see the locals of LA, a real mix of race and ethnicity.  Here there are still farmers selling fruits and vegetables, as well as other small stores, and about twenty restaurants, that is, small grills.  At noon, we found ourselves in the smallish Kokomo Café, on a tip, eating their specialty, pumpkin pancakes with cinnamon and butter and a bit of maple syrup.  Delicious.  One table over a man is eating some type of Singaporean food, probably a curry dish, and I just passed an elderly couple having corned beef and cabbage, mustard all over the corned beef.  After the pancakes I had a caramel covered marshmallow.  Two firsts in one day.  Does this just mean I’m eating well?  No, I’m saying it because it’s the particulars of this place, part of what makes LA what it is. 

Inandout And before I’m done here, before I leave, I’ll eat at In-N-Out, the original fast food hamburger joint on Gayley Avenue in Westwood, because the burgers are homecooked and not frozen or microwaved, because I can’t eat there anywhere near my home on the East Coast, because Harry and Esther Snyder founded it in 1948 as the first drive-through hamburger stand in the country, and Esther still runs it, and they have scripture verses on the French fry cartons, and by golly some things just must be done.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll make a stop on Olveras Street, a Mexican-American enclave, and eat taquitos, and then move on to Chinatown, past Koreatown, just because it’s all a part of what makes this place unique. 

And then, driving back to the beach at Santa Monica, I’ll realize, as I did today, that as much as this is enjoyable (all but the traffic, which hasn’t been too bad), it’s not my home.  Like Precious Ramotswe, I’m happy they have what they have here, and I can see why some things are attractive to them, why it may be like home to them, but it’s not my home, “not my place.”  It’s too dry.  There are too many people.  It’s too disconnected, sometimes too unreal.  And I can’t find any pork barbecue and sweet tea like we have at home. 

It always comes back to food, doesn’t it?  It can define a place, make it home.  I’m just about ready to go home.  I'm ready for some barbecue.  I'm hungry already -- for home.

Prairie Fire

Ca_road_trip_10 "I shrink from death and all its symbols.  Signs that this life is failing me, as it failed my grandmother and grandfather, as it fails everyone in the end.  Cracks and fissures.  I catch my reflection in the store window and see wrinkles lining the corners of my eyes. My hair falls out as I comb it, strewn all over the bathroom sink.  I pick up a strand and hold it to the light; the brown is draining to pure white."

"Walking out on the prairie after the burn in the early spring, I can only think of purification, loss, death.  Everywhere is charred earth.  There’s a crunching under my hiking boots, and it’s a deer mouse skeleton, scorched.  Willoway Brook is choked with cinders.  What good can possibly come from this?"

Willow When I read Cindy Crosby’s book of mediations – By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer – I am struck by the rawness of her honesty as well as the intensity of her description of life on the tallgrass prairie (which she uses as an extended metaphor for the life of faith and struggle to know God.)  It’s like fine wine, something I need to take in sips.  Sometimes it’s like hard liquor too: it burns on the way down.

I just read her chapter on pain sitting here on a patio at my hotel here in Santa Monica.  I’m not in pain, now.  The sky is a clear and smogless blue, the palm trees bright and swaying, and if I stand and stretch I can just about see the azure blue of the Pacific Ocean. Just about.

Walking in Palisades Park, the strand above the beach at Santa Monica, I see all kinds – kids playing, young couples lolling, tourists taking it in, the elderly out for a walk, and the ubiquitous homeless sorting through the garbage, our castoffs.  I wonder why there are here, what kind of days they have.

I can see why people come here.  Southern California holds the promise of eternal youth, of painless existence, of endless summers – if you have enough money, that is.  And yet talk to someone who has been here for awhile, and they often want to leave this “paradise” for various reasons – for a place with less crime, or traffic, or hype, a place more authentic.  The promise of endless summers and youth rings hollow after a while.

When I come here I cannot help but think of Brian Wilson, that often tortured genius behind the Beach Boys sound, now 64.  His life has not been an endless summer, not been a happy one at all.  When I have met him, each time only briefly, the smile is genuine and yet with his eyes he is afraid.  Maybe he’s wandering what I want from him – just an autograph, or just to say I met him, as I am now, to steal a part of his privacy?  When I see him and hear him in interviews, I don’t know if he’s come to grips with his past or still thinks he can beat it on his own, somehow cheat death and suffering of its sting.

Prairie fire is painful.  It leaves scorched earth in its wake.  That’s how the trials that come in life are.  Scorching, and not pretty.  But prairie fire renews, and the earth comes back greener and healthier as a result.  That’s not always the case with humans.  Some curse their circumstances and their lives end up smaller and more peevish.  Some, however, accept them, and grow from them.  Their lives end up wounded and yet healthier.

I don’t know which it will be for Brian Wilson.  I hope renewal.  I feel like I’ve wasted some of my fires.  I pray I won’t in the future.

I know that the folks strolling the Palisades here in Santa Monica have likely had pain.  I wonder what they have done with it. 

Crosby says “I have been depressed.  I am depressed.”  She is honest.  And yet she is growing in it.  In her book we look in on that growth in process.  It’s not easy.  Prairie fires are painful to watch.

Running On Empty

Ca_road_trip_9I've been with these people for seven days straight now, day in and day out, with hardly a break.  I've loved it.  There have been special moments, and some very, very difficult ones -- times that point out all that's right and good in family life and what can go wrong.  Well, I must admit it: at certain times in vacations, there are those moments that can be downright terrible, when some selfishness or petty argument comes to a head and, just briefly, you consider turning back, leaving the road, going home where, though you are still the same person, at least there is the small comfort of not spending a lot of money to argue and be selfish on vacation when you could do the same more cheaply at home.

I won't name names and I won't give specifics, but tonight was one of those times I considered turning back, when I was reminded of just how deep the sin nature goes in me (as if I could forget).  Vacations are good.  They remind us who we are -- good and bad.  They sharpen our sense of God's grace -- grace in what He has given us in goodness, grace in what he has given us in forgiveness for the sinful people we are.  We find out how good life can be, and how bad we can be.

Tomorrow we head to Santa Monica, where we'll be given plenty of encouragement to be selfish and self-absorbed.  Let's see who we are there. Let's see what kind of people we are in the place where you can have what you want anytime you want it, when there's so many things to distract and entice.  Let's see who we are.

We can't leave the road.  The trip's not over, we're not done, for good or bad we're in it for the long haul.  Eugene Peterson had a name for it when he titled his book "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction."  I'm just trying to keep it in the road but, really, I've made my plans, consulted Fodor, Frommer, and McNally, but God is running things.  Thank God He is.  I'm not much of a tour guide.  I'm running on empty, but God fills me up.

Unearthing "The Ten Commandments"

Ca_road_trip_8One of the best things about a road trip is discovering those off the beaten path places, someplace no one else seems to know much about.  We did that today.

Leaving Pismo Beach on Highway 1, the PCH, we could have taken the four lane, fast route to Santa Barbara, US 101, but I declined.  I had heard that there was an area called the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve, an 18 mile stretch of pristine dunes south of Pismo Beach.  Primarily founded to preserve the diverse ecological system of the dunes (dunes are not common on the Pacific Coast), habitat for 200 species of birds, black bear, sea otters, deer, coyote, and bobcats, I had another interest.  I had heard that the entire set used in the 1920s production of "The Ten Commandments" was buried here under the dunes, and that portions of it had been excavated but most remained under the dunes.  This piqued my interest.

This is the first movie production of "The Ten Commandments," the silent movie version by Cecil B. DeMille.  It was an enormous production.  Over 1500 workers built the set on site  -- an Egyptian temple, sphinxes, chariots, and more.  All the local people of Guadalupe were hired as extras.  At a place called The Dunes Center in Guadalupe, there was a short feature with excerpts from the movie.  They interviewed several older men who were in the movie as boys.  It was an amazing piece of history. 

10_commandments We then drove out to the dunes.  I don't why such things hold such interest.  Some folks may feel that it's unimportant, that excavating the site is not really worth it, but I think it's a fantastic piece of history.  Standing near the site (the actual site if not marked and is on private property), I could imagine what it might have been like then.  Apparently DeMille had the site bulldozed over because back then other unscrupulous filmmakers would have stolen the set and made cheap imitations.  So, he left it.  Little did he know that it might be valuable to other over 75 years later.

Leaving the dunes, we kept to the back roads, going through horse and wine country and into the quaint small town of Los Olivos, where we ate in the Los Olivos Cafe (which was featured in the movie "Sideways," which I did not see).  It was apparent that this was a nice Sunday afternoon destination for those looking for an escape from Los Angeles or, even, Santa Barbara.  We then passed through Solvang, a somewhat larger town, founded by Danish educators in the 1920s.  The whole town looks like a small Danish town, with windmills and all, and apparently two-thirds of the residents are still of Danish descent.

Late in the day, we proceeded on to Santa Barbara, a beautiful place on the ocean with a historic and vibrant downtown.  Unfortunately, searching for our hotel, we spent one-half hour on the other side of Santa Barbara.  Not all of the city is affluent.  But even here it is beautiful -- with flowering trees, flowers, and beautiful parks everywhere.  I could live here -- if I could afford it.

On The Road With Eastwood, Keroauc, and Winfrey

Ca_road_trip_7I confess to having a bad attitude, a negative predisposition, toward Carmel.  In my mind, Carmel was the home of snooty rich folks with poodles, specialty boutiques with high-end clothes, and the attitude that tourists are tolerated but not really welcome.  There is some of that, but that's really an injustice to Carmel.  Yes, it has an actor (Clint Eastwood) for mayor, and yet it's difficult to think of Clint as a snooty rich guy, and if you walk the streets of Carmel, there are friendly people, good and moderately priced restaurants with excellent (and non-uppity) food, and a refreshing lack of chain stores and flashy, trendy culture.  It's a mountain village by the sea, and I'll consider coming back.  My attitude changed, we moved on toward Big Sur, down the famous Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. 

Goodness.  The scenery is grand.  Dramatic, breathtaking vistas, bucolic settings, mountains meeting sea around every corner, and yet even I was getting scenery overload after about 30 miles of curve after curve with few guard rails on the highway and 500 foot drops to the (gulp) jagged cliffs and ocean below.  This is Big Sur country, home of the Esalon Institute, a center of new age thought, home of many bohemians (including Jack Kerouac, writer of that bible of the Beat generation, "On the Road"), haunt of not-so-plain folks like Oprah Winfrey and others who frequent The Post House Ranch, where the pool is clothing optional of course (to which my daughter said "Ooh, that's gross!"). 

I grossly underestimated how long it would take us to reach our next stop, Pismo Beach, just south of San Louis Obispo, as with all the curves we averaged only about 30 mph, and so, tired of driving, we pulled over for a stop at the Jagged Edge Inn just north of San Simeon, where publishing magnate William Hearst built his famous castle. Given the welcome lack of commercial establishments along the PCH in Big Sur, Jagged Edge, like the few other establishments along the road here, had a little of everything -- lodging, ice cream, a coffee shop, a gift shop, and, well, a guy who's the spitting image of Jerry Garcia.  In fact, sitting outside one of the shops there was a whole set of guys that looked like The Grateful Dead leader's brothers -- bearded, with long hair, and that make-love-not-war-I'm-stoned demeanor.  There's a lot of tye-dye here, plenty of folk art, and an abundance of do-it-yourself eastern religion/paganism type literature in the bookstore/gift shop.

After Jagged Edge, the road straightened out quite a bit.  We made a stop though to see the hundreds of elephant seals that had come up on the beach south of San Simeon.  They lounged in the sun, threw sand on themselves, bellowed at each other, and generally smelled bad.  It was an interesting sight, that and the seals and otters we could spot in the kelp beds offshore.

By the time we reached Pismo Beach, we were exhausted.  We ended up having dinner at a hopping Italian spot frequented by locals called Giuseppe's, which was excellent, about 9:00.  We would never have dinner at 9:00 at home!  It was great.

Well, it was a long day.  I'm thankful that my family continues to endure my love of movement.  I do love those car trips, curves and all.  And the people and places you see?  Well, they remind me that the world is variegated and colorful, and all the better for it.

It was a good day.  No one got car sick.

Scenery? Seen It. When Do We Eat?

Ca_road_trip_6 After many years now of vacationing with children, it's been my conclusion that they are unable to really appreciate scenery.  After a couple mountains, a couple stunning vistas, they have, as my daughter said, already seen it: "It's just another mountain."  Mostly the conversation in the car is about food, my son (who is 14) continuously asking when we will eat again, where we will eat, when we can stop for a snack, and so on.  I forgot how much a 14-year old boy's life revolves around the next meal. 

But speaking of food, we have eaten well, as well as badly.  At the Ahwahnee, there is nothing bad on the menu.  Every meal is good, from the breakfast buffet to the various dinner offerings.  But in Monterey (our next stop), the food is overpriced and bad -- areas like Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row (a la John Steinbeck's book of the same name), simply gouging poor tourists who don't know any better.  It's awful. 

But I digress.  We left Ahwahnee, not tearfully but reluctantly, and proceeded northeast and then east toward Modesto, in the central valley, and then south of San Jose, and on to the Monterey Peninsula, where we booked a hotel in the adjacent Town of Pacific Grove.  We intended to see the Hetch Hetchy area of Yosemite on our way out, but I missed the turn, and so we proceeded down the mountains, through hill after hill of cattle, and down into one of the most fertile areas of the country, California's central valley.  Lots and lots of agriculture here, all irrigated of course with water mostly brought down in aqueducts from the Sierra Nevada mountains.  It's beautiful country, and also hot (almost 97 today), quite different from the cool nights and moderate days of Yosemite (which is, at its lowest in the valley, at 4000 feet above sea level).

Well, it's lunchtime, and after much discussion over what fast food, we chose McDonalds.  The kids were pleased.  Like the elderly, they like the familiar; like the elderly, they are not usually pro-new experience.

Well, I think it was lunch, or was that a snack, and if so, which snack?  I feel like a hobbit, eating seven times a day, which we would, if my son had his way.

We move on.  This is longer than I thought, maybe a 5-6 hour drive from Yosemite to Monterey.  Soon, south of San Jose, we are in the hills again, beautiful pastureland, and then over the hills, fighting a headwind, and into Monterey and then the adjacent Pacific Grove.  This town of mostly B&Bs and a very functional yet not too hip downtown began as a religious retreat center.  It's change reflects the secularization of American society, but mostly the demand for waterfront property.  Average price of a three bedroom home in 2006: $850,000.

Well, the best thing about Pacific Grove is its quiet atmosphere, and its views.  The only good thing about Monterey is the Monterey Aquarium, which is awesome.  The food they serve there is excellent too.  That was of interest to my son, but I was pleasantly surprised by it.  It's the best one of its kind I have been in, and I have been in some very good ones.  I particularly like the views of the bluegill tuna (a huge fish), and the sea bass (almost prehistoric looking), as well as watching the sea otters.  They are a picture of joy and made us laugh.

Tomorrow?  Carmel, and then Big Sur: Eastwood, Kerouac, and Oprah come to mind.  And or course, the scenery, supposedly some of the most spectacular in the country.  My children don't seem to be excited.

Why Are There Mosquitos?

Ca_road_trip_5 One of my favorite things to do in Yosemite is bicycling.  There are twelve miles of off-road, paved bike trails, through areas with facilities and then through more natural areas like forests, meadows, and even over streams.  All flat too.  Biking uphill is a bummer.  If I can’t have it all downhill, I’ll take flat.  Somewhere on the way to Mirror Lake, my son spotted a rattlesnake crossing the trail.  That’s a bit unusual for a heavily trafficked area.  We got within six feet of him in order to get his picture.  Do you think that was dangerous?  I thought of that later. 

One thing we did not count on this year were mosquitoes.  They aren’t usually a problem, as during the Summer there isn’t often much standing water in the valley.  There is this time of the year though.  The Sierra Nevadas had an unusually heavy snow pack this year, and as it is now melting, it enters the valley in streams and creates wetlands and bogs.  That makes for spectacular waterfalls, but getting bit by these blood-suckers is no fun, so we purchased OFF, shed the mosquitoes, and all smell the same now.  I think I can bear the mosquitoes for such amazing waterfalls.  My daughter wants to know why God made these annoying insects, and I told her  had no idea.  I’d rather He hadn’t.  I suppose this mystery will be cleared up one day.  Actually, I don’t care if it’s cleared up or not; I just don’t want them in heaven because they seem better suited for hell. 

As I ride the trail here I realize that what looks so natural around me is, as I have said, deeply impacted by human activity.  For example, there used to be many inns in the valley catering to tourists.  All gone now.  You can walk across a meadow and realize that probably not one square inch of earth in that meadow has not been walked on by someone at some time.  And yet, that’s OK.  In a way it makes it more special.  The whole valley is like an historic home bequeathed to us to preserve and protect, each generation changing it a bit, and yet each generation retaining a preserving it’s special and historic character. 

The water has flooded the trail.  I just ran my bike through 18 inches of water.  I enjoyed it, but my shoes are soaked.  What was I thinking?  Whatever it was, I hope I do it again.

For Queens and 11-Year Old Girls

Ca_road_trip_4 Yosemite Valley, in Yosemite National Park, is truly one of my favorite places in the country, a jewel of a national park.  The valley floor is about 15 miles long, forested, with meadows, great trees, and streams full of snowmelt (at least this time of year).  The sides of the canyon are sheer granite walls, with thundering waterfalls – including Yosemite Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Staircase Falls (for only about two weeks each year), and Vernal Falls (a great hike along the “Mist Trail”).  If you are into wilderness, this is not that.  The area has been visited by tourists for over a century, and impacted in various ways, and yet it retains a non-commercial charm.

Dscf0086 We stayed at the Ahwahnee Lodge, a picture of which is a part of this post, a rustic and yet elegant park lodge with a huge dining room.  I love it.  One of the reasons I enjoy it so much is its rich history.  Presidents, kings, queens, and other dignataries have slept and dined here.  Tonight, the server at dinner told my daughter that she was sitting in the chair in which Queen Elizabeth always set when she visited in the mid-Eighties.  That’s a bit much for an 11-year old to appreciate.  But it reminds me that everyone at Ahwhnee has to do all the ordinary things and put up with some inconveniences, like periodic (yet brief) power outages.  Even Queens.  Even 11-year old girls.  I walk the rooms of this great lodge and I’m thankful for the folks that have preserved a great and historic place for all to enjoy.  Even those who cannot afford to stay here can still walk its rooms and appreciate its history.

But it’s not just the human structures that have history, it’s also a well-worn trail, like the “Mist Trail” that leads to Vernal Falls, the 700+ steps that you have to climb to scale the walls of the canyon and reach the top of the Falls, the granite walls constructed at some precipitous points along the trail, the breadth of the trail itself, a trail which was blazed at least 100 years ago.  So, so many folks, of all races, classes, and nationalities have been up this trail, and, as I take yet another break to catch my breath and am passed by a couple in their Eighties, yes, even folks of all ages have come this way. 

Walking that trail, passing through the great rooms of the Ahwahnee, seeing the same awesome sights seen by John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Queen Elizabeth --- why, its like singing an historic hymn:  very deep, very settling, very right.

Stuff Happens on Vacation Too

Ca_road_trip_3Yesterday was the first day of a two week vacation with my family in California.  Now, I am always reminded that when we vacation we vacate the place where we were but not the people we are with all our irritating habits and idiosyncracies, many of which are only accentuated when we speak day upon day with each other, nor the problems that beset us at times.  For example, Sunday morning I woke up with a chipped tooth, right in front, that was irritating and needed capping but, of course, could not be dealt with on Sunday.  We flew out Sunday afternoon for Fresno, and I figured I’d deal with it Monday in Fresno.  Of course, how do I know what kind of dentist I will get?  I called a referral service and got an appointment at 9:30 at an office three blocks from my hotel!  Entering the office, it was uncanny how much it looked like my own dentist’s office.  They took me right in.  The hygienist had parents in Asheville, North Carolina, so I felt at home.  The dentist looked like he knew what he was doing, as he was about 60 or so, very distinguished, with perfect teeth of course.  I was in and out in 30 minutes.  That’s actually the fastest trip I’ve ever had to a dentist.  God provided.

The Desert Southwest (IV): A Holy Addiction

Greetings2_2 All vacations must end, no doubt, but our annual sojourn to the Tucson area ended on a high note at least.  On our last full day in the area, we had intended to take a "short" hike in Catalina State Park, a blessedly preserved area of the foothills and mountains just Northwest of the city, bordering the Coronado National Forest.  I say blessedly because this enclave is being fast surrounded by housing developments or gated communities, many with homes in the $1-3 million dollar range.  It's valuable property, and I'm grateful someone had the foresight and political will to preserve it for all to enjoy.

We knew the one mile relatively easy loop trail we started on, as we had been on it before.  However, we were also, as we walked, toying with the challenge of proceeding on up into the canyons, over several ridges, to a place beyond view called Romero Pools, a series of pools of water, some quite deep (depending on the snow melt on Mount Lemmon above), formed by the runoff from the mountains.  We knew it was 2.8 miles in, and then 2.8 back out, for a total of 5.6 miles, about as much as we could do with our children, and, somewhere along the path, we decided to go for it.  We made two mistakes that cost us a bit: first, my son did not have his hiking boots, and second, we had no food.  We did have adequate water.  Neither were serious mistakes, but I won't repeat them.  We endured some complaining from both children for some time, but both overcame it and actually enjoyed the hike.

Dscf0152_edited It was challenging.  After the first mile, the trail was rocky and mostly up, sometimes with no trail but only rocks to scramble over.  We would go up and over a ridge, only to find another ridge to climb, maybe a total of 6-7 ridges to climb before we descended into a cool ravine where the stream and pools were found.  The scenery was outstanding.  The predominantly prickly-pear cactus and mesquite tree lowland gave way to abundant forests of saguaro cactus, ocotillo (flowering), and even some yucca.  What was beautiful was the density of the vegetation and the bright colors against the brown of the desert and the clear blue sky.  The colors of the desert always amaze me, the Dscf0139_edited contrasts being so sharp.  All this made it worthwhile since, sometimes, having scaled one ridge and seeing yet another, or having a senior citizen pass me on the trail, I considered turning back, but I couldn't.  I knew something good awaited me at Romero Pools, and there was the satisfaction of simply getting there, of saying that we did it.

One thing that a hike allows is time for thought, for musing over what is seen, and I practiced that some as I went.  It's an odd way to put it, I know, but I often ask myself what things I observe in nature are saying to me, or what they mean, much in the sense that is implied in Psalm 19:1-4, where Creation is is "telling" us something, where it has a "voice." And I do that through the lens of Scripture, that is, I look at God's revelation in Creation (general revelation) through the more particular special revelation of Scripture.  I'm relating the more general truth to the very specific and less ambiguous truth of Scripture.  In the right sense, though, both Scripture and Creation are God's Word to me.

Dscf0155_edited Thus seen, I can't really look at anything without relating it to God.  The hike of course, with its difficulties (rocks, exhaustion, pain, thirst, hunger), pitfalls (falling off the path, getting stuck by a cactus thorn, or simply losing heart and turning back), and unknowns (how far, what's ahead, is it worth it), becomes a well-known metaphor for our walk of obedience, for life itself. Or seeing the ocotillo cactus, I'm reminded that in times of drought (which prevail here), it musters its resources by dropping it leaves to save water, retaining water in its thick spine, and reaching far and wide with its roots for water enough to hang on.  When rain comes, leaves and even beautiful red-tip flowers come out within 48 hours.  It becomes a metaphor for spiritual dryness, for the need to keep our roots sunk in God's word, abiding, enduring lack of fruit for a season, waiting patiently for God to bring fruit, to bring a time of refreshing to us.

I could go on, you know.  Looking at Creation this way can become a holy addiction.  God hems me in.  He's forever speaking to me, even shouting at times.  And yet sometimes you'd think I was deliberately blind, moving through the day with my eyes shut and my fingers in my ears.

Theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards describes riding out into the woods around Northampton, Massachusetts in 1737, for his health, then dismounting and walking, and there among Creation having a vision of Christ's mercy and love for more than a hour, leaving him weeping but encouraged in the Lord. And that was only the first of many times he had such experiences.  God is speaking through created things.  The rocks cry out.  The heavens proclaim Him.  Everything is telling us about His truth, His beauty, and His goodness.  I just need to look and listen and stay in one place for a while.  I need to give myself over to this holy addiction.

The Desert Southwest (III): Preserving History

Greetings2_1 One of the highlights of our annual pilgrimage to the desert southwest, for my son at least, is a trip to Tucson's Pima Air Museum, a fabulous collection of mostly military vintage aircraft, perhaps as many as 300-400 planes collected here, taking advantage of the fact that they rust very little in so dry a climate.  The museum is located right next to the "airplane graveyard," miles of decommissioned planes from the Vietnam, Korean, and even WWII conflicts (and not really a graveyard but a restoration and recovery center), which is adjacent to the still active Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

These planes are like old friends to my 14-year old son.  As we walk among them he can touch them, admire them, remember them from our last visit, learn something new about them, and even make some new "friends" (this year, the still recovering B-36 bomber).  He absolutely loves the place, and I try to devote an entire day to it, even though my interest in planes is limited.

Many of the guides here are retired military, and they have many stories to tell about the planes.  I imagine that being here is also quite a joy to them; the old planes are here, and so are they, and that is quite comforting, that old things endure.

Since I don't know much about planes, I look at other things while I am here, mostly the faces of the men who flew these planes.  Today, I looked at photo after photo of the men who made up the 390th Bomber Group, a group of men that flew bombing missions in Europe during WWII, including the first bombings of Berlin.  You could tell something about their individual personalities just by the photos -- maybe one who looked like a comic, another who looked to be the sober one, another who was anxious.  I cannot really begin to understand what it was like for these men, to be away from the small towns and cities of the United States and, for the first time (and maybe last) be in a strange place over the sea, wondering if they would come home, wondering how their families were doing, awaking every day with the concerns of that day, just living one more day.

Looking at the sacrifices that were made then, both by these men and by everyone at home -- a nation completely given over to the war effort -- I wondered if, heaven forbid, we were called upon to rally as we did then, could we do it?  Do we still retain the national character to be able to meet so great a challenge?  It's not a political question, but a moral one really (I never comment on political issues here).  What kind of people are we?

As I walk around with my son, I'm strangely comforted too by the fact that enough people cared that these planes, that this part of aviation and wartime history be preserved, at great cost.  If we can do that, perhaps we can do whatever is asked of us.