200th Blog Post

…And the timing couldn’t be better, since I cannot think of anything to write about!

So, I’ll do what I did for the 100 milestone back in 2016 and list some links to essays that I’m still fairly comfortable with.

I’ll keep the bullshit canned and go straight to the list, but not without saying “Thank you” to you readers, followers, commenters, and “likers” who have stuck with longitudes, even after my periodic silences.

The Night Watchman

Adolescence is a difficult and confusing time, and maybe more so when you attend a traditional, single-sex boarding school. My school was way out in rural western Pennsylvania. We wore coats and ties, shared formal meals, had strict study hours, and were required to play sports. A lot of boys struggled. Some were there one day, then gone the next. I made it until graduation, and I think what helped me glide over the waves was finding little chunks of floating driftwood to cling to. This brief, long-ago, personal drama was one of them.

Fascism for Beginners, Part 4: American Ambivalence

In 2017 I read William Shirer’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It really affected me, and it was no coincidence that I read it soon after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. It became clear to me that a lot of the tactics Trump used to gain and consolidate power (and still uses, with the assistance of his party) were on full display in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s: attacks on the press, demonization of critics, far-right nationalism, sloganeering, authoritarian rhetoric, racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry, the “Big Lie,” etcetera, etcetera. So to deal with my disgust, I wrote a four-part series on Nazism before the U.S. entered WWII. This link takes you to my summarization, in the last part.

No, I’m not calling Trump a Nazi. But you’d have to either be willfully ignorant or a blind and deaf pig farmer in Patagonia not to recognize the parallels.

The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Longitudes loves talking about music and movies. Here’s a link to a review of the music featured in Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s seven-part PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. [I also critiqued the documentary itself (click here), but it’s a shade more hard-hitting.] I’m still disappointed that Ken (“Mister America”) never solicited my input before choosing songs for his soundtrack. I think my two cents would have enhanced his project immeasurably. Then again, I could be overestimating my musical acumen. After all, I would never have picked Ringo to replace Pete Best.

Marching for Our Lives

Like “The Night Watchman,” this one is autobiographical. It describes my involvement in a march in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio to protest government inaction on gun control. Those of you reading from outside the U.S.A. probably shake your heads at the strange fascination America has with firearms. Well, some of us inside the country are doing the same thing. The march was precipitated by a horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 that killed 17 students and injured 17 others. The killer had known mental health issues, but at 18 years was able to legally purchase an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle from a local gun store. The massacre surpassed Littleton, Colorado as the deadliest high-school shooting in the country’s history…so far.

Both the march and a rally afterwards were significant for including a number of local children and students. When young people have to take to the streets to try and fix problems their parents helped create, your country’s in bad shape.

“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Justice Fascism:” A Comedy-Drama in Four Acts

(A different face of fascism.) Lillian Gish was a silent-film actress who extended her career into talkies and made over 100 films in her 99 years. She’s been called “The First Lady of American Cinema” and was a “pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques” (AllMovie Guide). She’s also from my home state of Ohio. In 1976 Bowling Green State University honored her and her actress-sister Dorothy by naming its theatre and film department after them. But in 2019 the college’s Black Student Union petitioned to rename the department, because in 1915 Lillian had acted in The Birth of a Nation, producer D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking yet controversial film that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. (Gish was only 22 and had appeared in the film at the behest of Griffith, her film mentor.) University trustees unanimously voted to remove the Gish name.

This is my attempt to make a black-humor statement (note the Kubrick reference in the essay title) about a phenomenon of the 21st century known by its critics as “Cancel Culture.” Should we remove or tarnish someone’s name due to a single incident in their youth, or should we weigh their indiscretions against the context of their times and the full measure of their lives? And what does wiping out a name solve, anyway?

This one didn’t get a lot of “likes.” (Not that I use “likes” to influence what I write about.) Maybe I should have provided more backstory. Maybe most readers agreed with the name-changing. Maybe my attempt at dark humor was too acidic. Or maybe it just went over people’s heads. No matter. I like it, so here it is again.

Doris Day: On the Sunny Side of the Street

The legendary singer/actress died on May 13, 2019 at age 97. I’ve never been a huge fan, but for some reason her passing hit me hard. It might have been because she was one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” She also symbolized a simpler time in America that required societal role-playing and which a lot of people now pine for…and not necessarily for the best reasons. I’m sure some of it had to do with the fact that on the day she died I visited her childhood home here in Cincinnati. There was something melancholy and palpable about being the only person there on that grey, blasé day.

So I did what I usually do in those situations. I wrote it all down.

Our Beloved Baby-Boomer Saturday Morning Television Mayhem

Snagglepuss. “Exit, stage left!”

Saturday morning our four-year-old granddaughter Aviana (aka “Angel Child”) came to stay for a weekend sleepover.  (Yay, party time!!)  Her parents are very “21st-century” and severely limit Avi and sister Rory’s television viewing.  So Lynn and I do our grand-parental duty by going the opposite direction and letting them indulge in cartoons and children’s movies.  Usually the programs are Peppa Pig and Daniel Tiger: two innocuous cartoons about gentle, anthropomorphic mammals and their close-knit families.

But yesterday morning I thought it would be fun to introduce Avi to some of the animated shows that yours truly enjoyed when he was a runt. (Maybe my last essay was still on my mind.)  So before she arrived, I pulled up, on YouTube, Huckleberry Hound, then Woody Woodpecker, then Top Cat, then Tom and Jerry.  Unfortunately, all the selections were only snippets (probably copyright restricted).  But I eventually located full animated shorts of the classic Warner Brothers character Bugs Bunny.

Peppa Pig, our granddaughter’s favorite cartoon character

Halfway through one episode, with Elmer Fudd trying to decapitate Bugs with his 12-gauge, and with Avi mesmerized while perched on my lap, I looked over at Lynn and mouthed the word “violent.”  She nodded.  We decided to switch to Peppa Pig.

***

In the 1940s, Bugs and his Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies pals entertained adult audiences at theatres.  Then, after televisions became fixtures in American households, the entertainment industry learned that kids went gaga over similar animated shows on Saturday mornings.  So starting in the 1950s, we baby-boomer kids were treated to, not only televised airings of “that silly wabbit,” but a whole host of animated shows that were not only equally witty, but also equally, um, “aggressive.”

There were the Hanna-Barbera cartoons The Flintstones, The Yogi Bear Show (which included Snagglepuss), The Quick Draw McGraw Show, Top Cat, The Magilla Gorilla Show, The Peter Potamus Show, Jonny Quest, Atom Ant, Fantastic Four, and the futuristic and brilliant The Jetsons.

Felix the Cat

Before Hanna-Barbera Productions came the Terrytoons cartoons Heckle and Jeckle, Deputy Dawg, and my favorite rodent hero, Mighty Mouse (“Here I come, to save the day!”).  Paramount Cartoon Studios produced Superman, Felix the Cat, and Popeye the Sailor, who managed to pound the hell out of Brutus once every episode.

Total Television offered Underdog and Tennessee Tuxedo, the former featuring the voice of Marlon Brando’s best friend, Wally Cox, and the latter the voice of Don Adams (Get Smart).

Jay Ward Productions enlightened kids to the Cold War with The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, with supporting characters Dudley Do-Right, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Clyde Crashcup and Leonardo

And can’t forget Ross Bagdasarian’s The Alvin Show, with ancillary character Clyde Crashcup and his bald, silent assistant, Leonardo.  (A lifetime supply of Rice Krinkles cereal to anyone who knows the number of times Clyde got blown up by one of his defective inventions.)

All the above shows featured entertaining mayhem in varying degrees, but there were rules to soften the jagged edges.  Somehow the characters miraculously came to life after getting blown to bits, or getting shot in the head, or after skidding over a cliff.  And, thankfully, there were never telltale pools of blood.  These rules are collectively known as “cartoon physics.”  Such physics not only tempered the violence, but also had a humorous component.  Wile E. Coyote always defies gravity after going over the Grand Canyon while chasing the Roadrunner…until he realizes where he is, stares at the viewer with an embarrassed or horrified look, then drops downward (always spread-eagled fashion).

Animated violence back then was nothing like what occurs in some very realistic video games today.  So as a child, I don’t think I was traumatized or negatively affected by any of it.  I’ve only spent a few nights behind bars.

But I wonder if all of the cartoon physics didn’t manage to seep into our collective, post-Vietnam War, baby-boomer subconscious.  If it’s true that, physically, we are what we eat, it’s not a stretch to say, psychologically, we are what we watch.

Remember this cereal? That’s mascot So-Hi on the box.

***

After posting my “Top 20 Desert Isle Television Shows” list, I became curious about my favorite ‘toon, the animated adventure series Jonny Quest.  I located a very good documentary about this show.  It featured interviews with present-day animators and directors who were influenced by it, a history of its development, excellent analysis of the show’s technical aspects and cultural significance, and uncut segments.

One segment that jumped out was a scene where evil Asian mastermind Dr. Zin—probably inspired by the Dr. No character of James Bond 007 fame—is careening downhill toward a steep cliff.  Boy-hero Jonny steps to the side and jokingly shouts “Here comes the Oriental express!”  Dr. Zin then plummets to his death.

The documentary pointedly noted that, on the DVD reissue of Jonny Quest, the “Oriental express” line is censored.  Correctness of a political nature, no doubt.  And probably profit-driven.  However, the docu also astutely observed that, while an ethnically-related joke by a cartoon character was an obvious no-no, it was perfectly acceptable for a man to plunge to his death.  And, unlike other cartoons of its era, when a character died in Jonny Quest, there were no cartoon physics.  The character was dead.

I’m not implying I condone the use of ethnic humor in cartoons.  But one doesn’t have to go too far in America to see just how topsy-turvy its priorities are.

Jonny Quest

Top 20 Desert Isle Television Shows

My friend Mike at Ticket 2 Ride recently wrote about an old television show we both enjoyed.  Since I’m now in “desert isle” mode, I thought I’d continue my series by listing my top 20 television shows.

I enjoyed these shows as a kid, and some hung over until my teen years in the 1970s. But unlike many that I can’t stomach as an adult (e.g. Lost in Space, The Monkees, Gilligan’s Isle, The Brady Bunch), at age 63 I still get a charge out of those listed here.  Even Batman, which was unashamedly targeted toward juveniles, has adult appeal…at least, if you appreciate outrageous, high camp like I do.

Some of these shows had radical cast changes over their duration.  For those, I specified my preferred time period.

NOTE: unfortunately, a lot of parents still use television as a pacifier or babysitter for their children. (Today, electronic “pacification” is compounded thanks to video games, the internet, and computer phones.) I’m sure Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room held some educational benefits when I was little, but I’m inclined to agree with former FCC chairman Newton Minow, who famously told the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961 that most television is a “vast wasteland.”  Fast forward sixty years and look at how that wasteland has turned toxic.

Television is one of the main reasons my parents felt compelled to send me away to boarding school.  I’m still scratching my head why they didn’t just unplug the boob box.

But this essay is intended to be a fun, baby-boomer nostalgia trip, so I think we can temporarily sideline Mr. Minow’s words.

Listed in order of air date: 

Lassie (1954-73) (Forest Service years).  Our family had a collie dog, and my mom had one as a girl, so Lassie…about a dog with human intelligence and emotions…was always special in our family.  The fifth longest-running prime-time show in history, Lassie is sticky-sweet beyond belief, but some of the sugar dissolved when in 1964 the producers ditched the kid for Ranger Corey Stuart, and boy’s best friend became man’s best friend.

Leave it to Beaver (1957-63).  Unlike similar period sitcoms that centered on a suburban American family, episodes of Leave it to Beaver were written from the kids’ point of view, using the slang of the time, and this might explain this show’s iconic status.  Another crucial ingredient is TV’s version of James Dean: the mildly delinquent Eddie Haskell, who provided a perfect foil to all-American Wally Cleaver.

The Rifleman (1958-63).  Each episode is a small morality play involving a widowed father and his adoring son in 1880s New Mexico territory.  The chemistry between actors Chuck Connors and young Johnny Crawford, a former Mouseketeer, lifts this show above other television Westerns.  And it has great theme music by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

The Andy Griffith Show (Barney years) (1960-68).  This show’s popularity never wanes, probably because of its relaxed rural simplicity, the writing quality, actor Andy Griffith’s talent, and character Barney Fife, who like Eddie Haskell is now a television icon.

My Three Sons (pre-Dodie years) (1960-72).  I didn’t latch onto this show until the family adopted Ernie, my favorite character, with his gargantuan teeth, glasses, and dry earnestness.  I also like the earlier “Mike” years, but lost interest toward the end of the show’s duration, when dad Steve Douglas remarried.  Nothing against the little girl who played Dodie, but the character grates my nerves.

The Avengers (Emma Peel years) (1961-69).  Gorgeous Diana Rigg, as Emma Peel, was the second of three actresses to play opposite Patrick McNee’s suave private eye John Steed, and the first to appear on American TV.  This English show is suspenseful, witty, and sophisticated, with dramatic theme orchestration that drips 1960s Swinging London.

Combat! (1962-67).  Not just your standard WWII actioner, this show emphasizes character development and raises moral questions practically every episode.  Vic Morrow is superb as jaded Sergeant Saunders, who leads a floating five-man army unit across the French countryside.  As one critic said: “At times, you can see the tombstones in (Saunders’) eyes.”

The Outer Limits (1963-65).  I devoted a whole blog post to this groundbreaking horror/sci-fi show (click here).  Only on for two seasons (the first season is much better), it scared the daylights out of me both then and now.  Back then it was the monsters.  Now, it’s the realization that grown-ups can be monsters, capable of immense stupidity and destruction.  Yet more great music, by conductor/composer Dominic Frontiere.

Petticoat Junction (1963-70).  I did a separate post on this show, too (click here).  The scripts are lame and redundant, and the overt bias against all things urban becomes more pronounced as the series progresses.  But its cornpone quality is kind of relaxing with the chaos that goes on today.  And the Bradley girls are fun to look at.

Jonny Quest (1964-65).  All kids, and many adults, love cartoons, but Hanna-Barbera’s Jonny Quest is significant because it’s an action drama involving humans, not animals, yet is without a superhero.  Jonny’s voice is provided by Tim Matheson, who appeared in two episodes of Leave it to Beaver and who still has a lucrative film career. (His most visible role was “Otter” in National Lampoon’s Animal House.)

The Munsters (1964-66).  Produced by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, who also produced Leave it to Beaver.  I prefer this show to the similarly macabre The Addams Family because the family is more down-to-earth, working-class.  Like The Addams Family, it’s funny because the concept of the ideal nuclear family is turned upside down: they’re all freaks who consider themselves perfectly normal.  Come to think of it, sounds like my mom’s side of the family.

The Wild Wild West (1965-69).  Another show with clever theme music and graphics that kids with budding testosterone glands can truly appreciate.  A Western with espionage and sci-fi elements?  I’m on board!  Lead character Jim West is almost as cool as Sgt. Saunders.  He certainly gets more women.

Get Smart (1965-70).  I get more laughs out of this than any other show, except maybe Barney Miller.  The non-stop gag humor is courtesy of comic legends Buck Henry and Mel Brooks.  My favorite moments are the close-ups of the Chief’s baggy-eyed poker face whenever Max says something dumb…which is most of the time.  Surprisingly, the show stayed fresh even after Max and Agent 99 got married.  The introduction of robot Hymie probably helped.  

I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970).  Not sure why I prefer this to the similarly themed Bewitched, which is also good.  Maybe because Jeannie is single and slightly hipper and sexier than housewife Samantha Stevens.  Actually, I think it’s probably Larry Hagman’s acting.  He mastered the art of appearing nervous and flustered whenever Jeannie misuses her magic.

Green Acres (1965-71).  A Paul Henning production, along with Petticoat Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies.  For me, this is the funniest of the three.  I love Oliver Douglas’s stuffed-shirt bewilderment at the zany characters that continually plague him: Eb, Mr. Haney, Mr. Kimball, Alf and Ralph, and his own beautiful but low-IQ wife.  And can’t forget Arnold Ziffle, a genius hog.

Batman (1966-68).  In second grade I had a bigger stack of Batman trading cards than anyone in school…then Alan Lamb stole it.  But I think I’ve only watched one episode since 1968.  Despite this, I have great memories of this fast-paced, over-the-top, technicolor spectacle where serious dramatic actors portray cartoon characters.  A standout is former silent-film actor Neil Hamilton’s ham acting as the Gotham City commissioner.  “Quick, Chief O’Hara, call up the caped crusader!”

The High Chaparral (1967-71).  One of television’s later Westerns, I like the southern Arizona locale, theme music, and several of the characters, especially happy-go-lucky Manolito, raggedy Buck Cannon, and ravishing Victoria Cannon…although the constant battles with Apaches, most of whom were portrayed by white actors, got a bit tiresome.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77).  Somewhat revolutionary, and reflective of the times: a situation comedy about a single, working woman succeeding in a man’s world.  I never considered this aspect during the show’s heyday, I just liked the scripts and characters.  Immature and egotistical news anchor Ted Baxter is, in my opinion, one of television’s funniest creations, along with Barney Fife.

Columbo (1971-78 on NBC, then 1989-2003 on ABC).  Most television cop shows have a standard formula.  Columbo stands tall due to the title character’s eccentricities and actor Peter Falk’s talent.  All of the scripts deal with white-collar homicide, but there is a twist: the viewer knows who is guilty from the start.  The enjoyment of this show is watching Lieutenant Columbo slowly unravel the case as the murderer, smug and self-assured at first, becomes increasingly panicky.  The earlier NBC episodes are the best.  The later ABC shows feature lesser actors and introduce more sex.

Barney Miller (1975-82).  Probably my favorite sitcom on many levels.  It has interweaving sub-plots spiced with ingenious dialogue by a rotating cast of writers; memorable regular characters (a black cop who’s the best-dressed, most cultured guy in the squad room; a slow-witted but sensitive Polish cop who’s always getting laid; a humble, thoughtful cop forever displaying his genius IQ; and others); hilarious semi-regulars (gruff, old-school, foot-in-mouth Inspector Luger; perennially frustrated Inspector Scanlon of Internal Affairs, who despises Barney’s spotless record; the overtly homosexual jailbird Marty); and despite being a comedy, many real cops have cited it as being the most realistic cop show on TV.  Unlike most TV series, Barney Miller improved with age.  And like Woody Allen films, which also use New York City almost as another character, there’s an intellectual edge to Barney Miller that probably limited the viewership.  But for me it’s the best sitcom ever made. 

Honorable Mention: I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Bewitched, Hawaii-Five-O, All in the Family, Police Story, The Waltons, The Bob Newhart Show.

Thanks for joining me in this jump back into time.  Now it’s your turn!

(And a shout-out to TheWriteLife61: How Pop Culture Influences Us, which specializes in classic television and the people involved.)

Top 20 Desert Isle Films

It’s sure refreshing to take a breather from backpacking—and talking about it—especially during these steamy dog days of August. One last trail observation, though: I discovered a nifty trick for alleviating the toil of steep mountain climbs is to create mental lists.

Here’s one of them, yet another of my periodic “desert isle” lists. This time it’s my top twenty favorite films (appropriate, since I’m partially immobile due to a leg vein that looks and feels like a red-hot fire iron, and have once again become good friends with my recliner and television remote). I think I formulated this list while struggling up Pond Mountain in Tennessee. Or maybe it was while descending into the town of Erwin.

Uncharacteristically for a born critic like me, I didn’t critique them. I just provide year, two key actors, and a short plot summation. I omitted director for brevity’s sake…but if you’re curious, directors Martin Ritt and Sergio Leone take top honors here, with two films apiece (all four are Westerns).

My favorite era is the 1960s, so it’s no surprise these films were made during that decade, or close to it. And I think you’ll see that many could be characterized as “guy flicks”…maybe because I’m a guy? 🥸 Who knows.

Lastly—while in my mind all of these movies are well-made—not all might be Leonard Maltin four-star-caliber. I admire critically acclaimed powerhouses like Citizen Kane and Schindler’s List, but they may not be the best entertainment for an isolated island in the South Pacific. However, the movies below I return to time and again and are entertaining with a strong nostalgia element, and those are the criteria I use for my desert isle collection.

Check ’em out, and let me know some of your own fave films—especially if made outside Hollywood, since this list woefully neglects foreign and independent films. I’m thinking of you, Neil, Mike, and CB!

“I hardly think a few birds are going to bring about the end of the world.”

“These weren’t a few birds.”

(Listed in order of release date):


On the Waterfront (1954). Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger. An idealistic young boxer and longshoreman defies a corrupt and powerful union boss.


Twelve Angry Men (1957). Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb. A jury of twelve very different personalities deliberates guilt or innocence in a murder trial.


Ben-Hur (1959). Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd. The life of a Jewish merchant, galley slave, and charioteer during the time of Christ.

“Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”


To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Gregory Peck, Mary Badham. A woman reminisces about her influential father and her childhood in segregated southern Alabama.


Hud (1963). Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas. A free-spirited man without principles clashes with his rancher-father while negatively influencing his younger nephew.


The Birds (1963). Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor. A woman visits a small seaside village and has a strange and horrific effect on bird behavior.


The Train (1964). Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield. A French Resistance fighter and railway inspector tries to prevent a Nazi colonel from absconding with priceless paintings.


A Hard Day’s Night (1964). John Lennon, Paul McCartney. Humorous semi-documentary of The Beatles and their recording and touring activities.


Goldfinger (1964). Sean Connery, Gert Frobe. Agent 007 tries to prevent an evil mastermind from stealing gold from Fort Knox.

“Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger?”

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”


Nevada Smith (1966). Steve McQueen, Karl Malden. A young man in the West goes on a trail of vengeance after three men brutally murder his parents.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach. Three men compete to uncover buried treasure in the West during the American Civil War.


Hombre (1967). Paul Newman, Fredric March. A white man raised by Apaches is forced into helping a group of bigoted stagecoach passengers.


The Graduate (1967). Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft. A recent college graduate confused about his future falls in love with the daughter of a woman who seduced him.


Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Henry Fonda, Jason Robards. Sprawling Western involving land rights, vengeance, and the arrival of the railroad in the changing American West.


The Party (1968). Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet. A bumbling but lovable Asian-Indian actor creates havoc after accidentally being invited to a swanky Hollywood dinner party.


Easy Rider (1969). Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper. Two hippies experience the best and worst of America while riding cross-country on motorcycles.

“Oh, they’ll talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But if they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”


Woodstock (1970). Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld. Award-winning documentary about the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair Festival.


Little Big Man (1970). Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway. An aged white man reminisces about being adopted by Indians and his relationships with Custer, Wild Bill Hickock, and his elderly Cheyenne mentor.


Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Robert Redford, Will Geer. A disillusioned Mexican-American War veteran flees to the mountains and becomes a mythic figure to Crow Indians.


Gettysburg (1993). Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen. Docu-drama of Union and Confederate armies clashing in an epic three-day battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.


And the winning actor is…envelope, please…character actor MARTIN BALSAM, who amazingly appears in four of these films (On the Waterfront, Twelve Angry Men, Hombre, and Little Big Man).

Never mind that you never snagged a lead role, Martin. Winning the Longitudes Lifetime Achievement Award is nothing to sneeze at!

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey- Chapter 6

Near Carlisle, Pennsylvania

I’d reached Wind Gap near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania for 2 1/2 days’ rest, recuperation, and rendezvous at the Hampton Inn with my wife, whom I hadn’t seen (in person) for three months. It was going to be a nice mini-vacation from the goddawful knife-edge rocks of the previous week. I’d completed 1,281 miles and was one day’s hike shy of the New Jersey state line. Mount Katahdin in Maine was in figurative view.

Did you notice the past tense “was?”

In the past three months I’ve seen many thru-hikers younger than me have to quit the trail due to injury or illness (fractures, sprains, tendon tears, kidney stones, fatigue, etcetera). Others mysteriously disappeared, or resorted to “slackpacking” (using a vehicle to haul their gear). One man I hiked with and sheltered with, a friendly, self-deprecating guy named Faceplant, died in his tent.

A.T. halfway point south of Pine Grove Furnace, PA, where a lot happened all at once. The Scotch flask is courtesy my old school chum Tad, who drove clear from Pittsburgh to meet me, and helped re-charge my batteries.

I wasn’t immune to my own less-serious problems. Here’s a short laundry list: vasculitis (“Disney Rash”) in both legs. Mysterious calf ache. Hyperextension of knee. Scalping (twice) by low-hanging tree limbs. Four rock and root stumbles that laid me horizontal. Four ticks whose heads penetrated my flesh, precipitating a visit to Urgent Care in Waynesboro, Virginia. Allergic reactions to Permethrin insecticide to ward off ticks. Stingings by five hornets. Excessive weight loss, exacerbated by intense heat and 95 percent humidity. Broken backpack hip belt. A punch-drunk ex-boxer who wouldn’t leave me alone at Niday Shelter. A disturbed OCD woman and her hunchback son at Maupin Field Shelter. The Rollercoaster. Shelter journal entries that sounded like they were written by eight-year-olds. Meralgia paraesthetica.

Second scalping, Exhibit A. Bandanas have many uses, but they are mediocre bandages. I didn’t notice there was blood until I removed this in my tent.

In the end it was blood clotting of the gorge-ous varicose veins in my right leg, inherited from Dad, that did me in. St. Luke Hospital in Stroudsburg diagnosed my condition as “thrombophlebitis.” They put me on blood thinners and recommended I consult a vascular surgeon.

So it was either get off trail, or risk a pulmonary embolism near an isolated privy, alone, in northern Pennsylvania. Or even worse, New Jersey.

So I’m writing this post while Lynn chauffeurs me home…ahh, Home, Sweet Home…on Interstate 80. I’m slouched in the back seat with my leg elevated over the passenger seat backrest. The good news is that I did manage a couple all-you-can-eat hot breakfasts at the Hampton.

Despite its many rocks, the Pennsylvania A.T. is chock full of colorful and unique mushrooms, like this white and rose-colored, cottony ‘shroom

Ironically, the clots flaired up only days after a minor crisis. While struggling heavily before and after Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, I considered quitting. (See paragraph 4 for my reasons.) I was actually planning an airplane trip from Harrisburg to Cincinnati.

But near the halfway mark a chance meeting with a Maine hiker and ex-cop, ex-fireman named Bilbo changed my mind. Bilbo is a stroke survivor. Seven years ago he was on life support for 15 days. Now, his right arm is paralyzed and his brain is at partial capacity. But he’s committed to going all the way for brain trauma awareness…hiking solo…with no slackpacking.

After hearing Bilbo’s story, and watching him struggle to open his bag of freeze-dried rice just so he could eat…and while I later mused in front of campfire sparks while sucking in some choice C. indica (medical, of course)…I chose to soldier on.

Limenitis arthemis. Beautiful butterflies are found up and down the A.T.

And through a careful program of trail-town gluttony, I’d even managed to add some weight to my bony frame.

But my 63-year-old body had other ideas. The first clotting symptoms appeared at Ironmasters Mansion Hostel in Pine Grove Furnace, amazingly within hours of telling Lynn I’d decided to continue and would not be flying home. I’m convinced Flutie and the Trail Gods are vengeful creatures. (Let me explain: Flutie is a male wood thrush I encountered at Beech Gap in North Carolina. He tagged along with me off and on, periodically singing out to reassure me. Thoreau loved his music, but to me he sounds like an impertinent child learning to play a flute, and not succeeding.) Flutie is my guardian angel. Or, at least, I thought so until Ironmasters Mansion.

O, Flutie, why hast thou forsaken me?

But as Arnold Schwarzenegger once said in a movie he starred in: “I’ll be bock.” I’ve got, as they say, unfinished business to attend to. Whether it happens this year or next, it will happen. When it does, I hope you’ll join me again for the second half. The Appalachian Trail may sound like a Trail of Tears, but there are also amazing and beautiful things that happen there.

For the immediate future though, I’ll be playing with my dog Sheba, savoring Seattle’s Best coffee once again, pulling weeds, popping Eliquis pills, and reading some material that is written by people who are able to construct coherent sentences…like here on WordPress.

Ahhhh. As Bilbo says, “Life is good.”

Bilbo and hearty breakfast in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. We ended up hiking together for a week. I hope he survived the rock face north of Lehigh River.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 5

View of Maryland Heights from Harpers Ferry

Quick update before launching into today’s topic: I just left the Quality Inn in historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, after much-needed R&R. I just broke the 1,000-mile barrier and finally left Virginia, the trail’s largest state, then West Virginia. Now in the border state of Maryland. Just a short time longer and I’ll be bagging the halfway milestone in southern Pennsylvania.

But things are not so rosy in Omoo land. Two days ago I considered going home. The last stretch was very taxing: a particularly rough section known as “The Rollercoaster”; unbelievable heat and humidity; bugs, including a prevalence of ticks (one hiker I met yesterday at breakfast had to quit after contracting Lyme Disease); rocks at practically every step; and most significantly, weight loss. I’m now down to 135 pounds. I decided if my weight starts hovering around 130, I’m throwing in the towel. Wish me luck, as I truly want to do this hike in one take.

Anyway, here’s a continuation of profiles of those in the hiker community whom I’ve met. Round two:

Rabbit: trail name of a former thru-hiker who runs the last hostel in Tennessee before the Virginia state line. Rabbit always goes barefoot, has a pet terrier that would intimidate a grizzly, and seems a little scatterbrained (he alluded to some LSD dropping during his younger days). But he’s a really nice guy. Originally from New York, Rabbit became so enamored of the trail after his southbound 2016 thru-hike that he decided to open his own hostel. While the bunkroom is clean and comfortable, Rabbit Hole’s specialties are delicious homemade milkshakes and morning eggs (“They’re farm fresh!” Rabbit explained to me, while I plucked a tick from his bare back.)

Rabbit of Rabbit Hole Hostel

Quarters: I met Quarters after Trail Mix (a thru…or at least she was a thru) and I stumbled onto Overmountain Shelter at Yellow Mountain Gap, which Revolutionary War volunteers had once marched through. An avid section hiker from Spartanburg, South Carolina (he knew several members of the Southern-rock group The Marshall Tucker Band), he was surrounded by overnighters (including a young family) and was stoking a large campfire. “I’m getting burgers and beer for later,” he said. Needless to say, Trail Mix and I beamed with delight at the prospect of fresh food and alcohol. Though a little chilly, we all had a great time that night, telling stories, eating, drinking (and some toking). The next day, Quarters surprised me eight miles later at the next road crossing and shuttled me to Mountain Harbour Hostel for snack food. I think Trail Mix may have still been sleeping.

At Yellow Mountain Gap. Quarters is wearing the baseball cap. Trail Mix is to his right.

Chicago: we hiked together sporadically through North Carolina and Virginia. I left Chicago behind in Atkins, Virginia when he did an overnight, but another hiker said he wafted through Harpers Ferry earlier today, so I anticipate seeing him again up the trail. Chicago’s a regular guy. Unlike most younger thrus, he has no affectations like tattoos or facial jewelry…in fact, he’s used his real name for most of his hike. He’s out here, like many of us, due to a dead-end job. My favorite anecdote of his relates to his mother: while marking his progress on a large wall map, she informed him over the phone that he was only a few inches above the bottom of the map and had several feet to go to reach Maine.

Chicago at one-room schoolhouse near Atkins, Virginia. Inside were hiker goodies, plus various Christian icons. Wonder what Thomas Jefferson would say about this violation of church/state separation!

Geo and Jeff and Crew: I met these folks at the trailhead above Luray, Virginia. Geo was doing a 300-mile stretch, and her husband Jeff was meeting her at road crossings and sharing “trail magic” with other hikers. Accompanying Geo were Radar, Jive Turkey, AKA, Research, and Karma. Karma is older and closer to my pace, but the others are young and very fast. Initially I questioned their judgment and maturity. (I tend to have “reservations” regarding millenials, having had some negative experiences.) But these folks proved first impressions are deceptive. Similar to the Black Mountain Gang (see earlier post), they’re not only bright and curious, they’re also friendly and unafraid to engage with curmudgeons like me. And without Jeff’s pizza, sub sandwich, Gatorade and fruit on one of the most beastly hot days yet, I’d have melted into Tye River Gap, never to emerge again.

L to R: Research, Radar, AKA, Jive Turkey, Karma, Geo, Jeff at Tye River

Catnapper: I met him down a dirt road from Standing Bear Hostel. I was tenting next to a stream, and he was nearby, reading in a collapsible chair next to his car. From Albuquerque, Catnapper is a grandfather and retired physics professor who lived, taught, and volunteered in post-Berlin Wall Russia and who has hiked the A.T. twice. He now drifts between trailheads, talking to hikers and bagging various side trails that pique his interest. The night we met, he brought some trail food to my tent, and we talked long into the night. Through Catnapper I learned just how horrifying Russia treated its own children. When ideology supersedes compassion, anything can happen. The U.S. is no exception.

Bruiser: Bruiser is the oldest thru-hiker I’ve yet met, at age 74. He’s from Honolulu, and like Catnapper, has thru-hiked the A.T. twice. Why vacate Hawaii for five months of masochism? Bruiser does it, so he says, to stay in shape! A couple hikers dislike him for being a know-it-all, but I find him generous and helpful. When the hip belt threads on my Gregory Contour 65 pack broke, Bruiser let me use his curved sewing needle and dental floss for a temporary repair. Though my amateur sewing job only lasted a half-day, Bruiser advised me on contacting Gregory, the result being I now have a brand-new Baltoro 65, the company’s top pack. Bruiser might be outwardly gruff, but I sense a soft side to him. At one of the shelters we shared, I noticed him reading a biography of Frederick Douglass. And when I asked if he had family, he said his wife died several years ago. “I miss her very, very much.”

– Omoo

Bruiser, relaxing in middle of trail while perusing his trail guide

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 4

Writing from Mountain Home B&B in Front Royal, Virginia. An easygoing, somewhat quaint, vaguely progressive town, ironically where Stonewall Jackson won a significant battle in 1862.

Just exited Shenandoah National Park and only a few days from a new state (West Virginia) and historic town of Harpers Ferry, which is the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference (THE governing body of the trail). I look forward to meeting those responsible for turning me into a Sisyphus and carrying me over a sea of jagged rocks. And look forward to revisiting where John Brown became a martyr, albeit a shortsighted one.

Sunset in Shenandoah

I’m at mile 972 of 2,190 miles…almost at the halfway point and nearly back “home,” in the North, where the Union won a war to end slavery and keep the states glued together. Gettysburg and Antietam are in my sights. I’ve visited these battlefield locations many times, but this time I’m marching by foot. Thank God I don’t have to trudge barefoot or eat maggot-riddled hardtack. How did those soldiers do it?

Can you tell I’m excited about these links with U.S. history? These kinds of milestones help keep me going. Later, I plan to revisit Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the author of “Omoo” later wrote “Moby-Dick.” Also, Williams College, where my great-grandfather graduated Magna Cum Laude, and the small village of Stamford, Vermont, settled by my g-g-g-g-g-grandfather Josiah “Rock” Raymond when he camped against a boulder (damn those rocks) in the mid-18th century.

Copperhead snake. Note his cocked head and blank-looking orange eye. I stepped on his head accidentally while trudging up Apple Orchard Mountain. We were both a bit shaken.

And it will also be interesting to train into Manhattan, subway to the Upper East Side, and walk down Lexington Avenue, full backpack and greasy beard, and ring the buzzer of my uncle’s eighth-floor apartment, where he’s lived since…wait for it…1960.

The word “surreal” is an understatement.

Thanks for traveling with me…

Omoo

The new Omoo at Mountain Home hostel: clean-shaven, locks shorn, smiling with banana split on mind. And possible turntable action. Trail towns are nice.

BLACK JACKKNIFE GETS REVIEWED

I’ve been a little out of touch with my long hike, but I recently discovered that my book BLACK JACKKNIFE: A NICK MONTAIGNE MYSTERY received two glowing reviews, one from Publishers Weekly and the other from Midwest Book Review. “Deftly crafted,” “a truly entertaining and memorable read,” “an author with an impressive flair for humor, originality” are some of the comments. Here’s a link to the PW review:

https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-7324789-2-3

And the Midwest Book Review Review (scroll down to “Mystery/Suspense Shelf”):

http://www.midwestbookreview.com/sbw/may_21.htm

It’s always nice to know your work is appreciated by others. If you haven’t read BJ yet, just click the book link to the right, which will take you to Amazon.

And hope you enjoy how my man Montaigne gets the job done!

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 3

Looking down on New River, near Pearisburg, Virginia

I’m at mile 635 and taking a “near-o” day (partial mileage day) at Angel’s Rest Hostel in southern Virginia. Only 100 more miles and I’ll be at the 1/3 mark of my hike.

Last time I promised to describe some of my fellow hikers and hiking hangers-on. Folks, it is quite a colorful circus out here. Here are a few (aliases and first names only):

TOBY: Toby was made of wood. He was my first hiking stick on this hike. Most folks out here use expensive trekking poles. Although Tobe was wooden and he came at a bargain-basement price (he’d been orphaned alongside a stream), and he benefited me at the start, I noticed that as I lost weight his hefty girth began weighing me down. So two days ago I exchanged him for thinner, lighter Doctor Long Ghost. Long Ghost has been a vast improvement. Sorry, Toby. Maybe I’ll visit you one day in your roadside ditch.

Fat Toby, resting against the one-quarter mark

CARMEN (Ramblin’ Rose): Ramblin’ was the first thru-hiker I met, just north of Springer Mtn. Georgia. She’s a 20-something barmaid from Austin, Texas. She has dyed dreadlocks, facial jewelry, and a bubbly personality. She told me she likes the Grateful Dead, but when I asked her about several songs, she didn’t seem to know them. Maybe she just wants to fit an image? I don’t know, but I like Ramblin’, and named her after a Dead song due to her rosy personality. Ramblin’, don’t know if you’re still hiking, but I’m pulling for you.

GRAVY: I met Gravy at Lemon Gap, south of Hot Springs, North Carolina. In his late 60s, Gravy is a retired roofing co. owner from Gainesville-area, Florida. He’d initially planned merely to hike to Virginia, but later decided to do all 2,190 miles. Gravy was homeless for 6 months after all his belongings were stolen after getting out of the army, and we bonded after discussing why hikers are showered with so much “trail magic” from strangers, but the homeless are usually shunned. Why is this? I have several reasons, but I won’t conjecture. Last time I saw Gravy he was nursing a torn ankle ligament in Erwin, Tennessee after pulling two 21-mile days in a row. But he still planned to reach Maine. I think his trail name should be “Superman.”

Gravy, at cave south of Hot Springs

DUNGMAN and PADDLER: two more “old” geezers I met in the Smokies. They hike slightly faster than me, but they take more time off. We had some great conversations, and they don’t sprinkle their words constantly with “like” and “literally.” Last I saw them they were taking a “pleasure” hike southward, believe it or not, with Mrs. Dung, then continuing to Maine. Hell, I can’t even think south.

CRUSH: Crush and I hike at about the same pace. Actually, he’s faster, but hangs out at hostels, trail towns, and fully indulges in the A.T. experience. He’s from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, but wisened up and moved to Colorado. I like Crush. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a fan of The Band.

Clocks, Crush, Too Early, me (Omoo) on top of Max Patch Bald (photo by Pilgrim). They’re all, like, really young, dude. Literally.

MACGYVER: met him at a shelter nursing his back just three days ago, but we hit it off. From Pikeville and Lexington, Kentucky, he claims to have had more women and more prison terms than you can count. A former Forest Service employee, he recently dropped out of med school osteopathy due to racking up $100,000 in debt, and also because his spinal stenosis was making him suicidal. Mac is extremely smart, and realizes just what an a-hole fellow Kentuckian, Senator Mitch McConnell is. He also is an engineering whiz, having rigged a front pack to evenly distribute weight, and having discovered the nutritional values of nettle soup and sundry wild mushrooms. He carries a large machete, but only uses it on obtrusive maple seedlings. I kept a healthy distance from him on trail, however.

MacGyver and me at Rocky Gap, Virginia (graveled Rt. 60)

These are just a few of the backpackers I’ve met on this odyssey in the woods. Will try to profile some others later. Right now I need to consume more fat then crawl into a damp sleeping bag. Happy Trails! (Song by Dale Evans.)

– Omoo

P.S. Of the 50 or 60 hikers whom I’d given my trail name to, several days ago, at exactly the 1/4 mark, I finally met someone who knew that “Omoo” was a novel by Herman Melville. I was flabbergasted. He’s about 30, trail name Deep Roots, a former thru-hiker doing a southbound section. At a hostel a short time later, I read one of his journal entries, and his eloquence puts my writing to shame.

Yes, exactly at the 1/4 mark. The trail gods are indeed benevolent, and the stars are aligned.

(Dedicated to the memory of Faceplant.)

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Me and non-hiker, old friend Robert Campbelle at Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol, Virginia. Robert, wife Susan, and Bridgit Bardog were so nice to host a weary, hungry hiker.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 2

After 3 1/2 weeks of hiking, I’m 343 miles into my 2,190-mile journey.

Next to raising a family, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Mentally, I’m doing much better than I anticipated. Only minor pangs of homesickness. Having social media like this, being able to talk to and even see my loved ones (via FaceTime), and meeting friendly people here helps enormously. Can’t imagine what it may have been like even 20 years ago.

But physically, oh jeez. Tonight I’m resting in a motel in Erwin, Tennessee. But tomorrow I commence an elevation increase of 3,000-plus feet. And some of it will be straight up, not switchbacking. And I confront similar climbs every day, sometimes more than once.

Needless to say, this is exhausting for a 62-year-old man. Forget my marathoning, this form of masochism is far worse. And it’s virtually impossible to replenish the calories I burn, despite what I’m doing right now (being a glutton).

So why am I doing it? Honestly, I don’t think I have the answer yet. Maybe it’s like the soldier who struggles through boot camp. Once the abuse is finally over, there’s an overwhelming self-satisfaction. And there’s a bonding with others that doesn’t occur often in “regular” society.

But I think most significantly, out here, everything is more basic and tangible than in that other society. There’s satisfaction in knowing that you don’t need the same technological and even emotional “crutches.” None of us are totally free, despite kidding ourselves. But these solo, isolated struggles and joys in the wild come closer to feeling freedom than anything I can think of, at least in the 21st century.

Maybe it’s a bit like being a cowboy or whaler in a bygone era…other than this being a temporary life choice (mixed with not a little vanity).

Well, call this my attempt at a sort of metaphysical chapter. Next time I’ll try to bring it down to earth and discuss some of the people I’ve met and sights I’ve seen.

As always, thanks for following my crazy American odyssey.

– Omoo

P.S. Of the dozens of hikers I’ve met, only four or five, when I tell them “Omoo” is Polynesian for “rover” as well as the title of the second book by my favorite author, have asked who my favorite author is. And all but one were older than me. People just don’t read anymore in this world of constant visual bombardment.

O, Herman, the indignity!

Campsite at Low Gap. One of many Low Gaps, by the way.