An Earth Day Tribute to Wallace Stegner

Photo by Mary Stegner

While laid up after my surgery, I read several books. One is a biography of writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. This book was sent to me by my WordPress friend Cincinnati Babyhead. (One day I’ll have to ask about his pen name, considering Cincinnati is a long way from his domicile in Vancouver, British Columbia.) Babyhead had read my magnum opus Evergreen Dreaming, and saw that I had included an epigraph by Stegner.

(This is one of the great things about blogging: establishing a “cyberspace” relationship with a stranger based on a mutual interest. Not to mention sharing, and learning. Not to mention that, occasionally, some strangers will urge me to place my head in closer proximity to where my surgery was.)

Anyway, when I inserted that epigraph in my book, I knew very little about Stegner. My only prior knowledge came from the pages of Sierra Magazine. I’m a member of the environmental organization Sierra Club, as was Stegner for many years, and the club’s member periodical often features perceptive essays and quotes by him.benson book

I find it a minor crime that the name “Wallace Stegner,” and his achievements, are not known to more people…including me, for a long while. So here’s a short tribute to him, with gratitude toward Vancouver’s Babyhead.

***

Most people have heard of Ken Kesey. He wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then gained infamy as a Merry Prankster riding a psychedelic bus through the pages of Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But many don’t know that Kesey studied creative writing at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner (as did writers Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Evan S. Connell, and many others).

Other than producing some of America’s finest literature, Kesey and Stegner couldn’t be more unlike.

Wallace Stegner was born in rural Iowa in 1909. He had a brutish, bullying father who yanked the family from one place to the next in search of quick, easy wealth. (Stegner’s 1943 novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain examines this restless quest.) Stegner’s most vivid childhood memories were formed in an isolated town called Eastend, in flat and rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned hard work and how to hunt and fish. He learned how a cold prairie wind could slice through a person like a sickle through a snowdrift. He learned loneliness and deprivation, but also resourcefulness. A small boy on an immense prairie under limitless sky, Stegner early on gained a respect for the awesome majesty of the outdoors.

George Stegner zigzagged his family across the American West until settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Young Wallace was able to find some permanence here. He excelled in school and on the tennis court, and loved to hike and camp in the sagebrush canyons and gingerbread flanks of the Wasatch Range of the Rockies. Although taking a dim view of the Mormon faith (and “denominational narrowness” in general), he made many Mormon friends and gained a lifelong respect for their solidity of character, love of family, and emphasis on roots, eventually writing two acclaimed books on Mormon history. This idea of the importance of history and roots would crop up again and again in Stegner’s work.

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

The young writer (photo: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation)

He attended University of Utah, then earned a master’s and doctorate at University of Iowa, where he met Mary Page, who would be his wife for 60 years. While in school, he learned his father had left his mother while she had cancer. (George Stegner later killed himself, after murdering his mistress.) For the rest of his life, Wallace battled the ghost of his father, while simultaneously drawing on memories of his mother’s affection and strength.

Wallace and Mary eventually moved to Vermont, where he honed his writing at the famous Bread Loaf writers retreat, which also counted Robert Frost, Willa Cather, and Bernard DeVoto among its faculty. He fell in love with the untrammeled green beauty of Vermont and simplicity and self-sufficiency of its residents. He became close friends with the prickly but brilliant DeVoto, and later wrote an acclaimed biography of him, The Uneasy Chair (1974).

While many writers concentrate on one form—fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, history, biography—Stegner refused to be limited. He won three O. Henry Awards for short fiction, a National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976 novel), and a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971 novel). His biography of Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1953), has been called “one of the most influential books ever written about the West.”

In 1946 he founded the creative writing program at Stanford University, and mentored hundreds of student-writers for the next 25 years. He retired in 1971, wearied by students (like Kesey) who he felt undervalued the virtues of diligence, and who were obsessed with the “Now” and had scant appreciation of history, tradition, permanence, and place, in either their lifestyles or writing.

Alaska 1965_Wisconsin Historical Society

With wife Mary in Alaska, 1965 (photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Some have ranked Stegner with John Steinbeck. He’s been called the “dean of Western writers.” His admirers argue he’s not better known due to an elitist Eastern literary press. For years, The New York Times snubbed him. In fact, after he won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose, the newspaper clumsily hinted he was undeserving.  (On the 100th anniversary of Stegner’s birth, the Times did offer a small mea culpa.)

And while Wikipedia lists Stegner’s many awards and publications, its biography of him seems woefully brief. For proof, compare Stegner’s Wikipedia bio to 25-year-old pop star Justin Bieber’s. (On second thought, don’t ruin your day.)

While this woeful scribbler has shamefully yet to become acquainted with Stegner’s fiction, biographies, or histories, I am familiar with his articles, having read his collection, The Sound of Mountain Water (1969). One of the essays here is Stegner’s famous public letter urging passage of the Wilderness Act, eventually made law in 1964. In this letter, Stegner—who in the 1950s assisted David Brower of the Sierra Club in blocking construction of Echo Park Dam and saving Dinosaur National Monument—writes eloquently:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Wallace Stegner’s accomplishments during his 84 years are beyond impressive. He was the first person to destroy the myth that the West is a land of rugged individualists, instead arguing it is a cooperative idea, and should be cherished and preserved rather than exploited by private interests. mountain waterHe was a novelist, biographer, Western historian, seminal environmentalist, and beloved teacher. He was special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He had a work ethic that makes most of us look like panhandlers.

He was also a man of principles. A liberal of the old-fashioned variety, when Stegner received a National Endowment for the Arts award not long before his death in 1993, he refused it on the grounds that the NEA was being manipulated by political conservatives. “People like Patrick Buchanan and Jesse Helms have been attacking it for a long time,” he said, “and the (G.H.W. Bush) administration played into the pressure…You can’t conduct arts with censors…”

Those who block dams, shatter myths, and spurn awards while standing on principle are rare birds, indeed, and deserve to be celebrated.

Happy Earth Day, Professor Stegner

STEGNER

(Photo: Associated Press)

 

Breaking News: EVERGREEN DREAMING Gets Notice in “Publishers Weekly”

Book Cover

I’m pleased to announce that my recent book, Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker (aka “Ed”), was selected for a review by the venerable trade magazine Publishers Weekly. Only a small number of self-published books are selected for such a review.

Publishers Weekly (PW) has been around since 1872 and primarily serves booksellers, libraries, publishers, and agents. The reviews are generally short plot summaries, and can be favorable or unfavorable. Fortunately, Ed’s review was favorable.

While I’m grateful to whomever read and reviewed Ed, I wish he or she had read the entire book instead of just the first section (my hike through Georgia and North Carolina). I also wish the reviewer had been more careful with relating the narrative, since there are a few mistakes.

Despite the mild quibbles, I’m still grateful for a positive review, and here is a replicate of it.  Thanks to all of you who bought Ed, for those who plan to, and for those not interested but who still visit longitudes!

Kurtz, a 55-year-old technical writer (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”), hikes from Georgia to North Carolina along the Appalachian Trail in this entertaining travelogue. His love for nature started as a teen camping with his family in the Blue Ridge Mountain; now, his wife, Lynn, supports him in his hiking endeavors, but worries about his quest at his age. Kurtz makes several friends along the way (among them, Dylan, a 24-year-old realizing his dream to hike the entire trail, who joins Kurtz for a couple days), and describes the scenery (“a long, flat stretch with lots of overhanging rhododrendon that offers a nice shady canopy”). Along the way, he argues for wilderness conservation, noting that only 3% of the 2,200-mile trail is designated wilderness and warning that open spaces are threatened. Kurtz also discusses his affinity for reading (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), his love for the Beatles, his desire for hot water, and his reliance on sturdy walking sticks (one of which he names “Kip”)—and he always makes sure to call Lynn to share his experiences. Kurtz’s charming memoir encourages wilderness purists to chase their dreams, regardless of age.

PW

On Top of Mount Whitney

View from Mt. Whitney

Just a few pics from my recent hike up Mount Whitney.  I think this may represent my last strenuous hike.  It was a great experience, but it was also an ass-kicker.  Going straight from the Ohio Valley to 14,500 feet can wreak havoc with your brain and lungs.  But, I summited…and survived to tell.

(Next year, I’m limiting it to a couple days in the Scottish highlands.)

Mt. Whitney Portal road

The Whitney Portal Road from Lone Pine, California looked innocent enough.

Sunset at Mt. Whitney Trail Camp2

Base camp (“Trail Camp”) was at 12,000 feet.  Rock everywhere, a narrow crevasse between cliffs that created a howling wind chute.  No rest for the wicked when 50 mph winds whip your tent all night, and your skull feels like it’s being squeezed in a vise.

 

Trail partner A.J.

On the summit hike, I hooked up with a 39-year-old guy from Daytona Beach named A.J.  Equally fatigued, we doubled over every 300 feet or so to catch our breath, allowing the stronger hikers to pass by.

Climbing toward Whitney

In addition to altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness, or AMS), I suffer from vertigo.  There were several massive drop-offs where I forced myself not to look down, leaning into the mountain, grasping the rock, and praying that my footing was solid.  Many hikers, unbelievably,  follow this trail at night (using headlamps).  Guess there’s a reason why people have died trying to summit.

Mt. Whitney shelter

Mt. Whitney plaque

Mount Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States.  The only signs you’ve arrived at the top are a plaque, an old stone shelter littered with graffiti, and your fellow hikers, celebrating in their own ways.

I stayed a second night at Trail Camp on the way down.  The wind was just as vicious, and my headache was only slightly better.  Blood was now clogging my sinuses.

On the way back to Whitney Portal, and Lone Pine, I hiked with a retired 67-year-old man named Dennis.  He and his wife had driven up from Phoenix (his wife stayed in a B&B at Lone Pine).  Dennis was a veteran backpacker, but was unable to summit due to allergies and lack of sleep due to the wind at Trail Camp.  He, too, admitted he was retiring from strenuous hikes.

After returning to Lone Pine, I rested up in the Dow Villa Motel, which dates to the 1920s, then visited a nearby film museum.  I did not know that this area, with its scenic Alabama Hills, is legendary for providing the setting for hundreds of Hollywood Westerns, both silent films and talkies.  In fact, many of the greats at one time stayed at the Dow Villa: Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, John Wayne, among others.

Lone Pine Film Museum

Not sure if Humphrey Bogart stayed in Lone Pine when he made the movie High Sierra.  When I bumped into him at the museum, he wasn’t talking.

After a modest recovery in the relaxing and historic Dow Villa, I hiked for a few days in Yosemite.  Then hitched/shuttled to Reno, Nevada to catch a plane home.

***

In summation, I’ve always thought I was immune to altitude sickness.  But I learned otherwise.  If any prospective daredevil mountain climbers are reading this, make sure you become acclimated to higher altitudes before attempting any major climb.  Severe AMS can cause hospitalization, and even death.

Suffice to say, I’m looking forward to the gentler peaks of Scotland’s West Highland Way.

Top 'o the World, Ma

“Top ‘o the world, Ma!”

***** Birth Announcement *****

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Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker, a book that describes my mountain backpacking experiences of the last five years, has just been delivered via natural childbirth! (Twins, since there are both paperback and ebook versions.)

If you click here, or the link in “My Writing” above, you’ll be transported (beamed up?) to the book’s internet home. Once there, you can also visit my internet Author Page, which has some stuff about me, my other book, Bluejackets in the Blubber Room, and my next project.

I’ve listed various aunts and uncles in this book’s acknowledgement section. I wanted to recognize you who have supported my brain droppings for so long. (I couldn’t list everyone, and limited it to commenters, but I’m grateful to all who have visited longitudes in the past.)  And for you new folks…glad you dropped in for coffee, and I hope you stick around!

Suffice to say, this book is very “longitudinal.” I wanted Evergreen Dreaming to be enjoyable and easy to read, and I think you’ll recognize my voice and spirit. I’m not sure that’s good or bad. If it’s bad, please remember it wasn’t me, it was the muse that passed through me. (!)

Now, if you’d like to order and are conflicted on light-fantastic digital versus down-home paperback, here’s my view of the two formats, pros and cons:

Ebook: less expensive for you, convenient for transport and storage, and saves trees. God knows, we need trees. But cold and impersonal.

Paperback: puts more $$ in my pocket, and has the fonts and graphics I intended, plus a soft and velvety matte cover. You can also add an additional digital copy for only $1.99. Uses paper (trees) but it’s minimal due to print-on-demand. Adds to your “stuff” quotient, but more warm and personal.

Folks, I’m just appreciative of anyone who buys this book, new-style or old-style. I really hate this marketing stuff, since it’s not me, but my goal is to break even on this thing. (Unlike what happened with my more eggheady blubber book.)

Lastly, if anyone knows any qualified magazine or newspaper book critics, please let them know about Evergreen Dreaming. I think there may be a few magazines and newspapers that haven’t yet folded.

Now, I’ll try to get back to my regular rambles, reviews, and rants, with only sporadic info-mercials. Thanks again, everyone!

Pete (greenpete58)
Longitudes Press

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My New Book: Final Artwork

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Hello fellow bloggers and readers.  Some of you know that I’ve been writing a book.  Well, the artwork is finally completed!  I think the artist did a great job, and I’m looking forward to publication, which is right around the corner.

You folks are my biggest writing supporters, so I wanted you to know first (after my long-suffering wife, Lynn).  I’ll be providing updates as Evergreen Dreaming gets closer to publication.

Thanks, everybody, for hangin’ out here in longitudes with me!

A Summer Sojourn in Bar Harbor, Maine

 

Agamont Park view

Lately, I’ve been on a rampage, chronicling our crippled democracy by profiling a book I read. I figure maybe we could all use a break.

During the week of July 4, my wife and I visited Bar Harbor, Maine, and we had a wonderful time. So, for this post I’m shifting to a sunnier clime (no politics, no presidential lies) and documenting our trip.

lobster

Bar Harbor is a town on Mount Desert Island off the rocky coast of Maine, U.S.A. (Some New Englanders do strange things pronouncing the letter ‘R’, so locals pronounce this town’s name “Bah Hah-bah.”) There are many attractions in Bar Harbor, but the most popular are lobster (“lob-stah”); blueberries; ice cream; cooler temperatures; friendly people; whale watching; sea kayaking, hiking in Acadia National Park, and seeing the sun rise from Cadillac Mountain.

Champlain Mountain

View from atop Champlain Mountain, Acadia National Park

Lynn and I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast called The Yellow House, owned by a retired couple, Pat and Chris. The house has been around since the 19th century. Pat and Chris were warm hosts, as was Cecilia, a retired expat Brit who popped in occasionally to check in guests, and who was a wealth of information, especially concerning hiking.

The Yellow House

The Yellow House B&B

Bar Harbor is touristy, but I would not call it a tourist “trap.” It is a year-round home for a lot of folks, so it’s a clean, tasteful burg, with no fast food chains (I saw one modest Subway sign), no go-cart tracks, no dinosaur parks, etc. However, it does have lots of knick-knack stores and ice cream parlors, and the lines to get in the latter can get long.

Downtown Bar Harbor 2

Downtown Bar Harbor

I brought my Vasque boots and managed to squeeze in one full-day and one half-day of hiking in nearby Acadia National Park, America’s easternmost park. The Precipice Trail and Beehive Trail are the steepest and most treacherous trails here (people have died falling from the heights), and I briefly mulled over hiking one or the other. But Precipice was closed due to peregrine falcon nesting, and my acrophobia convinced me to steer clear of Beehive.

Parkman Mountain 2

The author on Parkman Mountain. Do I look 60? Does a lobster have claws?

I eventually bagged six of Acadia’s 26 peaks, my favorite of which was Champlain Mountain, which offered gorgeous views of the Atlantic Ocean and numerous coastal islands. I debated hiking Cadillac, the tallest peak in Acadia, but was told there would be lots of people, pavement, and exhaust smoke. So I said “Forget it.”

The Fourth of July—America’s “Independence Day”—is also my birthday, and I turned a whopping 60 years! While the vacation was my birthday present, Lynn surprised me with a few smaller gifts: an Aussie-style hiking hat, some Sketcher shoes, and a cool pastel-green shirt. We spent the day enjoying the holiday parade downtown, where we shared a bench and watched the floats with a friendly local couple; then visited the Seafood Festival and observed a lobster race.

Fourth of July Parade

Holiday parade float. This year’s theme was “Peace, Love, and the Fourth of July”

Fourth of July evening we took in the fireworks display at the harbor. It’s supposedly one of the best in the country, and it didn’t disappoint. There were also two very good bands that warmed things up, one a sort of bluegrassy Americana band called the Blake Rosso Band, the other a rockabilly act.

Blake something concert

Blake Rosso Band before the fireworks

Along with music, eating is one of my favorite things, and although I’m no gourmand, Bar Harbor has to have one of the best concentrations of quality restaurants in the country. Side Street Café is lauded for its lobster rolls, so we ate there one night. Whoah. Gi-normous chunks of fresh lobster meat! (Did I just say “gi-normous”? I apologize.) The craft beer here was good, too.

Lobster race

Seafood Festival lobster race. Lobster #3 took top honors

I also ate a whole lobster at West Street Café (great food and service, but sterile atmosphere); another lobster roll at Terrace Grille, on the water (less hefty and more highbrow than Side Street, but very tasty); and Lynn and I both had some scrumptious sustainable local fare at Peekytoe Provisions, where I sampled an IPA from local Atlantic Brewing Company (it was ok, but I should’ve ordered Samuel Adams, especially considering it was July 4). On our last night we ate at Galyn’s and it might have been our best meal, accompanied by a view of Agamont Park and the harbor beyond from our second-floor window seat. I had seafood linguini, and Lynn had… well, I forget. Probably crabcakes.

Seafood Festival

Lobster #3’s prize was to get boiled alive

We only had one overcast day, a good opportunity to “go mobile.” So we drove down to the fishing hamlet of Northeast Harbor and visited Great Harbor Maritime Museum. Not much here, mainly a lot of sketches done by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s nephew, who lived here at one time. But the proprietor was very nice and promised to check out my book Bluejackets in the Blubber Room. (Sorry, shameless plug.)

Town brass band

The Bar Harbor Town Band entertained at the gazebo one night

Before heading home, we visited Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. Since it was sprinkling, Lynn was a poopy-pants and stayed in the car. But I got out to visit, and learned that lighthouses have distinct colors and manners of blinking, so that mariners know exactly where they are at night (Bass Harbor uses an “occulting” red light). Also, Coast Guard families live year-round in these lighthouses. I would think this would be a bit stifling, and weird, especially with tourists milling around outside. I guess these families do a lot of book reading and Scrabble playing.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. Somewhere inside a family is playing Scrabble

Anyway, it was a memorable vacation and 60th birthday. If you visit Bar Harbor (and you’ll assuredly visit in spring, summer, or fall), here are some tips:

  • Be prepared for varying weather. We had two evenings that were chilly enough for jackets, but daytime was extremely hot
  • Bring good walking shoes, because you’ll be tramping everywhere, on both pavement and trail
  • Bring lots of greenbacks, since prices here are, not surprisingly, very high
  • Bring your smile. Tourists arrive from all over, including other countries (many French-Canadians). Everyone here is friendly, even the harried shuttle and bus drivers.
  • Lastly, abstain from eating seafood for at least a month prior. You’ll want to stuff yourself in Bar Harbor.

I’ll close with the observation that Bah Hah-bah is “wicked” cool, and if you can avoid TV, radio, newspapers, and internet during your stay (like we did) it’s even cooler!

Sand Beach from Champlain Mtn

Distant Sand Beach and Atlantic Ocean from Champlain South Ridge Trail, Acadia National Park

A Boy and a Raccoon

Rascal book

“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

Among other neuroses, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may have started in 1968 when I was 10 and became obsessed with having a wild animal as a pet. A therapist might deduce that I craved attention. Having a wild animal as a pet, instead of a dog or cat, draws attention and makes a young person special.

My favorite wild animal was the raccoon (Procyon lotor). I became a child expert on raccoons, and I’ve always remembered the Latin name that I just tried to impress you with.

It started in fifth grade when I read a children’s book called Little Rascal, about a boy and his pet raccoon. A few months later, I graduated to the full novel, Rascal. The novel was a 1963 bestseller, Newbery Honor book, and the first Dutton Animal Book Award winner. It was popular enough that it became a 1969 Disney movie starring Bill Mumy and Steve Forrest (critic Leonard Maltin gives the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, which I might agree with… movies are seldom as good as the books they’re based on).

I read Rascal several times and saw the movie in the theatre the first week of its release. Eventually, my obsession with raccoons became so strong that in 1970 I captured my own baby raccoon in a box trap and made him a pet, with my dad building a 10-foot-tall cage at the side of our house. Rascal II and I became the talk of the neighborhood. My chatterbox friend used to perch on my scrawny shoulders, his black mask like a pair of racing goggles, while we tooled around the streets on my red Schwinn Sting-Ray. For a short time in 1970, before Rascal felt the call and disappeared to locate a mate, I was a minor celebrity.

But enough about my OCD. May 2018 is 100 years since author Sterling North became acquainted with an animal that changed his life, so I’d like to talk about him, his pet raccoon, and his special book.

Sterling North House

Sterling North House (photo public domain)

Sterling North was raised in the small town of Edgerton in southern Wisconsin, on the banks of Rock River near shallow Lake Koshkonong. In 1918, Lake Koshkonong was a wild and scenic lake rimmed by dark forest. But a dam was built in 1932, creating an enlarged reservoir that is now studded with public beaches and boat landings, and an interstate now cuts along the western shore, so much of the lake’s wildness is gone (in the 1970s, the lake came perilously close to hosting a nuclear power plant). In 1918, North was age 11 and spent many hours both on the lake and in the woods surrounding it. He lived alone with his often-absent father, his mother having died when he was only 7, his two older sisters having moved away, and his older brother, Herschel, was far away in France, fighting to end the war to end all wars.

One evening in May, he and his friend Oscar venture into Wentworth’s Woods, where Sterling’s devoted St. Bernard, Wowser, digs up a den of raccoons. The mother and babies hightail it into the brush, but Oscar scoops one of the babes into his cap. He knows his tyrannical father won’t let him keep it, so he gives it to Sterling. Over the next year, Sterling and Rascal have numerous adventures together.

On the surface, Rascal appears to be a just children’s story about a boy frolicking with a wild animal. But it’s a book equally appealing to grownups. I read it again 9 years ago and discovered layers I didn’t know existed. North’s relationship with the lovable, intelligent Rascal is a friendship as tangible as that between people. In the book, he instills human characteristics in his furry hero, but without stretching credulity or sounding trite. He also captures a bygone time of innocent rural Americana, when hickory and walnut hunting, whippoorwill sighting, pie-eating contests, and trotter races are small treasures, and not corny anachronisms.

Sterling North Society

Sterling North and friends (photo Sterling North Society)

In Rascal, North makes plain that his childhood is unorthodox. His father allows him to keep numerous wild and domestic pets, wander deep into the woods, sleep alone outdoors, skip school, etc. The entire living room is cloaked in sawdust from a canoe that Sterling is building by himself. While Sterling’s martinet eldest sister, Theo, scolds their father for creating an unhealthy household environment, his other sister, Jessica—a surrogate mother for Sterling—is more tender and understanding. She realizes that Sterling’s world of flora and fauna is a way of coping with their mother’s death.

And Sterling’s father indulges their self-sufficiency, knowing that being “different” and not trotting after the pack are a healthy thing.

Sterling’s pet raccoon introduces humor and sunlight into the boy’s life. Rascal also brings about a jarring awakening. After seeing a picture of a trapped raccoon on the cover of his fur catalogue, the sensitive boy pictures Rascal’s soft, inquisitive hand clamped in a jaw trap, and he decides to give up trapping. He declares a “peace” with nature on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. North concludes this chapter with the memorable sentence: “It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.”

John R. Sill

Lake Koshkonong (photo John R. Sill)

***

North grew up to be a successful reporter and editor and wrote a children’s book that became a 1949 feature film, So Dear to My Heart, featuring Burl Ives. But Rascal is the book he’s most known for. In Japan, the book became a cartoon series in 1977, and the raccoon character is still very popular there, supposedly bigger than Mickey Mouse.

When he retired, North and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey, choosing the location specifically because there were lots of woods and wild animals, including raccoons.

During this time, my aunt and cousin lived in nearby Millington, New Jersey. When my family visited in the early ‘70s, my aunt found out about my interest, and telephoned the North home to see if I could stop by to meet my favorite author (I was too shy to call myself). But Mrs. North said her husband was suffering from a long illness and was unable to have visitors. She said he’d be pleased to hear that I’d called, though.

In January 1975, while a sophomore at boarding school, I read in the back pages of Newsweek that Sterling North had passed away at age 68. It was like another piece of my childhood had passed away.

Rascal_3

(Author photo)

An Incident on Mount Adams

Note: Some of you know that I like to do short backpack trips. I always stuff a journal in my pack, to record anything interesting that might occur. Maybe it’s a naïve hope, but I’d like to one day turn my experiences into a book. Anyway, last year I did a short hike on the Appalachian Trail in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. What follows is an incident that happened on one of the peaks, Mount Adams. If you feel inclined, let me know your thoughts. Your feedback improves my writing and motivates me to get closer to that elusive book.

The hikers become thicker as I near the base of Mount Adams. Most of them hike in groups. Occasionally, I move to the side of the trail to let them pass. Sometimes they glance up and acknowledge me. Other times they continue to converse with their companions, keeping their eyes on the ground.

Everyone’s different. Even at work, or at the gym, or in the park, some individuals never make eye contact. But at least out here on the trail, they’re not clutching their smartphones as a baby clutches a bottle.

Soon, I arrive at a large, open field. Off to the right are several worn footpaths leading to a rocky summit: Mount Adams. President John Adams always seems overshadowed by larger-than-life Washington and Jefferson, so I commit myself to climbing the summit in honor of our second president. Like Adams the man, the peak is small, but it’s majestic. A number of other hikers also scramble to the top. There’s no worn path, just a jumble of grey boulders to negotiate however one chooses. Unlike at Mount Jefferson, where I left my pack at the summit base, I haul my pack up Adams, which makes for a slow climb. But pretty soon, I’m at the top, surrounded by a mass of day hikers.

For the first time in a while, there are no clouds, and I’m treated to a panoramic view. The view isn’t as stunning as at South Twin Mountain a few days ago, but I also don’t have to deal with that day’s heat or exhaustion. Since it’s still early in the day, I linger here longer than normal. The Labor Day crowd makes for a buzzing social scene.

Back on the Appalachian Trail, at a large cairn signaling the mountain’s location, there was a bustling crowd of kids and adults. I figured it was maybe a church or civic group. Not long after summiting Adams, several of them make their way to the top. Immediately, I notice something a little different about them. The kids all have dark tans and very long hair. They wander by themselves, without adult supervision, and chatter excitedly. One of them, long-haired and lithe, looks neither boy nor girl.

Then a man bounces over the edge of a boulder, standing with his hands on his hips, scanning the crowd on the top. He’s wiry and healthy-looking, with a sandy brown ponytail that’s streaked with grey, and he has a beaming smile. I can’t tell his age. He could be in his late thirties, but with his greyish ponytail, he could instead be twenty years older.

“What an amazing view!” he exclaims with extroverted zest. “And all these amazing hikers!” I see him shoot me a quick, white-toothed glance.

He scurries around the rocks, taking in all the views. I sit on a rock in silence, observing two large dogs panting nearby. But my ears are open. Before long, the ponytail guy is carrying on a conversation with two young men. I overhear him say “Plymouth” and “Blue Bell Bakery,” or something. They chat for about five minutes, interrupted by the man’s gasps of amazement at the views. At the end of the conversation, I hear him extend an invitation to the two men to visit the bakery.

This is one of those times when I feel isolated. Like I don’t belong. I get this way occasionally. I’m not a shy person, in most situations. But in other situations, I have a difficult time opening up. It’s probably a combination of the loner in me, some bullying as a kid that made me wary of people, plus the social anxiety I’ve dealt with most of my life. These three people, after only five minutes, act like they’re old friends. Yet I can know someone for five years and still feel like a stranger.

I observe this ponytail guy like he’s a celebrity or something. He looks good, and there’s a magnetism about him. His wispy ponytail and extroverted manner remind me of certain freespirited hippies I knew back in school. They always seemed comfortable with themselves, and never took things too seriously. While I’ve always been drawn to these types, envious of them, I’m also always a little intimidated. For lack of a better word, they exhibit a “karma” that I don’t have, and probably never will.

Eventually, I zigzag my way down Mount Adams. The descent seems longer than the ascent. Which boulder should I choose to step on? This one. No… this crested rock is a good fit for my boot.

The two dogs and their owners quickly pass me by. So do the two young men. Ponytail guy is already at the cairn with his large group. I don’t see the kids anywhere.

I reach flat ground and angle toward the AT. But I deliberately taper my angle so I can pass by the cairn. I’m still curious about ponytail and his group. Maybe I can pick up some clues from their conversation.

As I get closer, I shoot a few glances out of the corner of my eye, hoping that I won’t appear nosey. But ponytail guy catches me looking.

“You’ve got a big pack there!” he shouts at me. “Where are you headed?”

I veer toward him. “Headed for Osgood Tentsite tonight,” I answer shyly. “Then my car tomorrow, and back home to Ohio.”

He asks me a few more questions, and before long, we’re into a free-flowing conversation. We talk about the White Mountains, Mount Washington, the scenery, the details of our respective hikes, and the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He and his group are doing a several-day hike. Then I see the long-haired kids. They drift in and out of the group. If their parents are here, I’m unable to determine who they are. The kids seem to belong to no one, and everyone.

Then I ask him his name.

“Shemet,” he says with a smile.

“Sh…Shemet?” I ask.

“Yes, Shemet.” Then he tells me it’s an old Hebrew name that he adopted a while ago. Suddenly, a young teenage girl approaches us.

“This is my daughter, Mehenomet.” Mehenomet tilts her head and smiles.

Hmm.

Shemet tells me that all the members of his group have adopted Hebrew names (despite the fact that they’re probably all Gentiles). He then tells me he used to work as a park ranger. He hints about certain unsavory activities he engaged in when he was younger. (“Didn’t we all!” I assure him). He and his wife divorced, and he eventually joined the group he’s with today. But he doesn’t give me the group’s name, or its purpose or affiliation.

I ask Shemet why he’s no longer a park ranger. It’s a career which I thought about pursuing when I was younger, and which I’ve always considered meaningful and fulfilling.

“I had no meaning or fulfillment,” he says. “I got tired of rattling on about birds and animals and lakes. There’s a bird, here’s a lake,” he says mockingly. “I didn’t want to serve nature anymore. I wanted to serve people!” he says enthusiastically, as if people and nature weren’t inseparable, and park rangers didn’t serve both wildlife and people.

His rock-headed revelation hits me like a right hook to the jaw. So much for that blissful “karma” I thought about on top of Mount Adams. His coolness quotient drops as precipitously as the mountain. But I guess I’d set myself up for this shock. I had it coming.

We continue to chat, but I slowly inch my way toward the trail. Then, a swarthy, dark-haired man approaches and introduces himself. It’s another Old Testament-type name. He hands me a pamphlet and tells me to read it at my leisure. I thank him, wave goodbye to Shemet and Mehenomet, turn northward on the trail… and feel like a leash has been removed.

I slip the pamphlet into a pocket on my pack, promising myself to at least glance at it later. After I return home, I do. The title is “The Twelve Tribes.” Just below the title is a watercolored illustration of long-haired stick people, children and adults. They’re holding hands and dancing in a circle. I read the bubbly, upbeat words inside the pamphlet. Later, I visit the internet and read more about The Twelve Tribes.

I try to be open-minded about things. And you can’t make snap judgements from a pamphlet, and certainly not the internet. But like so many other “clubs” that rely on dogma and a fixed set of beliefs and practices, what I learn about The Twelve Tribes convinces me it’s not for me, and it’s further proof of Shemet’s scrambled thinking.

Shakespeare undoubtedly had a pithy observation about all of this. In lieu of his words, I’ll go with someone more contemporary, like singer John Prine:

“It’s a big old goofy world.”

(If you want to get the lowdown on all my Appalachian Trail hikes, please check out my book Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker.)

 

 

Skiing with the Aliens

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“You need to enter the 21st century and get some new equipment,” he tells me, gazing down at my obsolete straight-shaped skis. I’m enjoying a half day of skiing during a visit to my mom, and I receive this bit of unsolicited counsel from the stranger on the chairlift.

“Yeah, eventually I plan to,” I reply. “I’m sort of a working-class skier. But so far, these have worked well for me.”

“The difference between those and parabolics is like night and day. Too many black diamonds and death cookies with those, and you’re bombin’.”

“No kidding.”

“What are those, about 177? 180?”

Uh-oh, here we go again. Does he really care what centimeter length they are?? I doubt it. Instead, I think he’s pulling one of those alpha-male-skier things, advertising that he’s a veteran “powderhound” by dazzling me with ski jargon.

So I try to divert the path that “Ski Wolf” is blazing by using a little humor.

“Actually, they’re only 12s. As in 12 dollars. Thanks to Goodwill.”

“Oh.”

Ski Wolf is conspicuously silent for the rest of the lift ride.

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I’ve had similar unsolicited comments while hiking: “Man, you still shoulder an outer-frame backpack? I haven’t seen one of those in years! Do you rub sticks together for your fires?”

Also on the running trail (although there’s only so much you can say about running shoes): “Air Pegasus, huh? I don’t like the Cushlon midsole on them. I prefer Saucony’s ICS moulded pillar construction. Do you overpronate or heel strike?”

Although I’m not a bicyclist, I can imagine the esoterica involved with having two wheels and a derailleur under your body. And from my experiences with speeding bikes on the local trail, correct bicycle apparel is de rigueur. Evidently, the tighter and more colorful, the better.

You’ll probably guess where I’m going with this. These days, our disposable culture has an obsession with fashion and technology. And not just digital fashion and technology. Outdoor sports are overflowing with “techies” eager to rave about flashy new products and denigrate the old (old meaning a year ago).

I’m not a total Luddite (a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology). I’m amazed and grateful for the medical advancements that technology has brought. I just think leisure technology – which includes sporting equipment and clothes – has gotten a little out of hand, and we may be at a point of diminishing returns. I think advertisers do a great job of convincing people they need a certain product only because it’s new, different, and features, for example, “double-suspension Kryptonium© wicking technology,” or something equally impressive-sounding.

And some people, although they may mean well, feel the urge to flaunt their knowledge and preference for the latest and greatest (and usually expensive).

Then there’s the fashion aspect. While some of the techno-talk might be ego-related, part of it, too, is the code language we’re trained to share as members in our little “clubs.” Simply put, we like to be around like-minded individuals. It gives us a feeling of security and belonging. It’s why we have churches, street gangs, genealogical societies, sports fanbases, civic, political, and military groups, fraternities and sororities. If you’re a member of one of these clubs, you quickly learn to conform by dressing/talking/behaving a certain way.robots

I’ve concluded that, although not as obvious, a similar thing holds true for the sub-cultures surrounding outdoor recreational activities.

Here’s a challenge: the next time you attend church (if you attend church), try dressing out of character. Wear faded jeans and a Black Sabbath t-shirt, for example. See how the herd reacts.

Or try this: the next time you attend a Republican function, mention how much you admire the political savvy of the Clintons. Or if a Democratic function, try dropping conservative catchphrases like “pork-barrel” and “nanny state.” Count how many sidelong glances you get.

Or if you’re on the hiking trail and see a 20-something guy with one of those fashionable bushy beards, stare at his beard awhile then ask if he’s Amish.

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Now that I think of it, maybe I should’ve tried a different tack with Ski Wolf. What I should have done was massage his ego a little:

“Say, you seem quite knowledgeable about skiing. What type of parabolic skis might you recommend? I mean, you know, for those black diamond slopes?”

Then – after he rhapsodized about cambers, rockers, and Atomic Bent Chetlers – maybe we could relax by the fire while ravishing a few St. Pauli Girls and discussing the Book of Mormon.

Oh well, hindsight’s 20-20. Since it’s too late, I guess I’ll hang on to my old-fashioned skis a while longer, and just hope I don’t “bomb” on any “death cookies.”

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100th Blog Post

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I started longitudes to try to sell copies of my book (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”). Well, the blubber book sales tanked, but the blabbering blog has taken a life of its own.

Someone said that blogs… (the word “blog” is short for “web-log”)… have an average lifespan of 2 1/2 years. Longitudes is now over 4 years young. So I’m actually beating the odds, which is rare for me.

To recognize the insignificant occasion of my 100th post, I’m attaching links to six of my older essays. These essays either got a lot of response, or are special to me… or both.

Since I’m honoring myself, I’d like to thank everyone who’s “liked” my stuff or offered comments: Tad, Mary K, Brian, Neil, Frank, Phil, Rich, Leah, Thom, Dennis, Cindy, Dean, and everyone else who drops in for coffee.

Nobody likes writing in a vacuum, so it’s a huge thrill to know someone has read and been affected by something I’ve written. Some of my thoughts may have struck a nerve on occasion. While I think it’s important to express opinion, and while I may not respect certain views, I nevertheless try to respect the reader (it’s an alien concept in these days of instant communication, but it is possible). Anyway, I hope I’ve never offended anyone. If I have, I apologize.

So here are six blasts from the past… just click the titles. Thanks again, everyone!

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It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Leaving (Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown)

I wrote this travelogue after visiting Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. I used the present tense because I wanted the reader to feel like he or she was on the journey.

The underlying theme is how one person’s hero can have little or no impact on someone else. Also, that it’s difficult or impossible to identify genius or from where it arises.

A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

I sent this essay to a National Public Radio (NPR) show hoping they’d publish it. Too much competition, I guess. So I submitted it to longitudes, and it was accepted! It’s about our family dog, Brownie, a rambunctious Australian Shepherd who didn’t exactly endear himself to outsiders, but was totally devoted to the family. His sudden death brought a lot of tears, but he gave us many good memories. The top photo was taken just before he died.

America and Guns

The Sandy Hook tragedy hit me hard, as it did most everyone else. How can something so horrifying happen? The answers are very complex. But to deny that one of the factors is firearms, and America’s refusal to address why it leads the world in per capita gun violence is, to me, ridiculous.

Remembering Biff

After I write something I usually forget about it. But I keep returning to this essay. It’s a tribute to a friend from childhood that I’d lost track of for many years. Then I suddenly learned about him. He’d taken Horace Greeley’s advice and gone West, doing things I’d always wanted to do (“living the dream,” as the cliché goes), but for which I never had the courage or ability. Then his life was tragically cut short.

Visiting the past has opened a few doors for me. Such is the case with learning about Biff. He reminds me that life is momentary, and we need to (try to) live it to the max while we have it… as Biff evidently did.

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking Glass

This is about an Appalachian Trail hike I took, and it got more feedback than probably any other post (which isn’t saying much!). I guess it’s because people enjoy reading about adventure and unusual experiences. This hike wasn’t all that adventurous or unusual, but maybe folks found a certain vicarious thrill. A lot of the “likes” and “follows” came from people who have their own travel-related blogs. After writing this, I realized that there are many vibrant people around the globe who are in constant motion, immersing themselves in the outdoors and different cultures, places, and experiences.

The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things

I created a sub-category called “50 Years” to highlight people or events on their 50th anniversary (and also because the decade of the 1960s fascinates me). I’m also real big on conservation issues, and these things came together with this Earth Day essay recognizing 50 years since the signing of America’s Wilderness Act. The title is a pun on an old Cowsills song, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things.”

At one time, there was a lot of wilderness but only a few people. Now, it’s just the opposite, and this paradigm is too often taken for granted. I believe it’s crucial to protect as many wild places as possible, for our spiritual well-being in addition to the well-being of other species.

This essay didn’t get a lot of views (I have an annoying tendency to sound like I’m preaching – see above). But that’s okay. Maybe Henry Thoreau and John Muir gave it a nod of approval, which is reward enough.

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