08 December 2014

Is longform blogging dead?

A friend recently asked this question on Facebook.  I noted that at the very least my own longform blogging seemed to be dead.  But the question did get me thinking. 
Meanwhile another thought occurred: when I’m writing, I generally feel better.  I’ve noticed this before but I’ve never meditated on the problem.  Do I feel better because I’m writing?  Do I write because I’m feeling better?  What the hell do I mean by better, anyway?  Isn’t this more clear in my own head than it is when I put it down on “paper” anyway?
The answer to the last question is “Yes.”  Not a surprise.  I always write for an audience, not for myself, even if, on balance, the audience I have in mind is a whole bunch of identical copies of me. 
Lately I’ve become obsessed with chicken and egg questions—what is the cause of this or that tendency or behavior pattern that I want to correct.  It’s a very handy obsession, because it’s so easy to convince myself that I can’t take any action toward changing said pattern I want to correct until I understand precisely where it comes from. 
This is a load of bull.  I’ve been seeing a therapist, just for a couple of visits to sort through some questions for myself.  My anxiety is getting worse as I get older and it’s holding me back more than it’s protecting me; I’d like to know what I can do about it.  But I feel compelled to start by asking where it comes from.  On this question my therapist’s views are clear: what’s the fucking difference?
It’s one thing if you have some hidden desperate family secret you’ve been repressing for ages, but for me, I had a typical, unexceptional childhood, marked out by certain patterns that probably affect my behavior but which don’t rise to the level of tragedy, or even to the level of mattering to anyone other than me.  So why does it matter to me? 
The bottom line is, it shouldn’t.  I don’t need to know exactly whether the egg preceded the chicken or vice versa, all I need to know is that I can fry the eggs up for breakfast and roast the chicken for dinner.  What matters is not where a behavior comes from but whether it’s worthwhile now, and if not, how to change it.  Change can come without an explicit understanding of history. 
So, do I write when I’m happy and feel like my life is going well?  Or does writing make me happy and help my life go well?  Well, who cares?  Can  I write?  Yes.  Do I want to write?  Yes.  Why don’t I?  Um…. . .  .  .   .   .    .    .     .      .       .       .

So, yeah, anyway, here’s a low-threat way to face down an anxiety and set the pattern to face down more in the future: write!  Something, at least, every day if possible.  Why shouldn’t I?  I don’t need to come up with a theme, I never had one in the past.  I just need to write.  And so write I shall.  

30 October 2014

An Old Story

I'm applying to study in Costa Rica during Spring Break next year.  The application asks a number of questions, among them the following:

The nature of study abroad programs often entails unexpected changes in schedules and activities as well as changes due to unfamiliar cultural norms. As such, an individual studying abroad should possess patience, the ability to be flexible, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Thinking about patience, flexibility, and adaptability, describe an example in your life where you demonstrated these qualities and discuss how it might relate to your experience abroad.

I'm sure they were looking for something short and sweet.  I wrote this.  Then, of course, I forgot to finish the application and the deadline closed and I was all upset, and then, glory of glories, yesterday I got an email that they'd extended the application.  Yaay!  So now I can apply and maybe have an awesome time in Costa Rica next March.  Anyway.  I reread this little ditty and it reminded me of a very wonderful trip I took long ago.  I thought it was a charming enough story, so here it is:

I was visiting Carnac, France, and had spent an afternoon walking amongst the stones, and was due to catch a bus back to the train station in Auray, about 20 km up the road.  I stood at the stop where I had gotten off the bus that morning...but of course the bus was northbound, now, and thus on the other side of the road, and though there was no bus stop sign over there the bus did not stop for me.  It didn't stop at all, in fact, just drove on by, since no one was waiting by the road.  This could be a serious problem; I had very limited French language skills, no personal contacts at all, and no idea how I was supposed to get where I was going--I was expecting to spend the night in the Quimper, a two-hour train ride away.  What to do?

I hadn't been by the center of town, but I assumed there might be a tourist information center, so I started walking.  I walked back through the standing stones and around the north side of town, because I had no idea which direction to go.  Finally I saw a street sign indicating the center of town, and I headed that way.  On my way I passed by a sign in someone's front yard: taxi.  I didn't stop.  I went into town and saw the museum dedicated to the stones (closed, as it was an off-season weekday), and the tourist bureau, which was also closed.  The sign said it would re-open in a couple of hours, but by that time my train was going to have left.  I was starting to think I needed to find a place to stay the night, and then I remembered the taxi sign.

I walked back up the road.  I didn't speak French and didn't know this person and couldn't have been farther outside my comfort zone, but I knocked on the front door.  In halting French I explained that I missed my bus and needed a ride to the train in Auray.  I'm sure it came out like "no bus I was missing Auray train station.  Please."  The gentleman looked at me, then put up a finger, telling me to wait.  He reappeared after a moment with a young girl, maybe 12 years old.  "English?" she said.  I explained what had happened. Then I stopped myself and explained it again more slowly.  She smiled and translated for us.  Her father would take me, it would be 40 francs (this was in the pre-Euro days, when a franc was worth about 1/7 of a dollar), but he would need two minutes.  Then he disappeared.  His daughter stood in the doorway and looked at me.  "Did you lose your way?" she asked.  I smiled nervously. "I just didn't make it to the bus on time."  "I won't be able to ride to Auray with you," she said, and then disappeared, leaving me standing at an open front door.  Was I supposed to go in?  Stay out?  Close the door either way?

Soon enough her father reappeared and with a great deal of gesturing and smiling pointed me toward the car, which said TAXI on it in foot-high letters; evidently, assuming that anyone who doesn't speak your language is a bit slow is a trait that crosses cultural barriers.  We got in; he said grandly "Le gare d'Auray!" with a fluttering hand motion like a plane taking off, and we departed.  He talked much of the way, and eventually I started trying to respond, with gestures and flourishes mostly.  He would repeat things if I didn't seem to understand, and I would respond in English, and he would look at me instead of the road and really examine me like he would find the meaning of the words written on my face.  Then he'd look back at the road, swerve suddenly to avoid whatever was in the way (something always was), and laugh uproariously.  It was without question the best cab ride I've ever had.  I still don't know what we talked about, but we made great sport of the traffic and agreed that McDonald's (McDo) is not so good.  We made it to Auray with about 10 minutes to spare; I gave the man 100 francs and we were each on our separate ways.

So, what is the point of this whole story?  Only this: keep an open mind and be willing to do uncomfortable things.  Travel requires as much.

31 May 2014

Just a morning rant

This working poor stuff has long since worn thin; earning enough to cover bills and naught else is really not enjoyable, and this morning I just need to vent.

Earlier this year after I'd bought the house and settled in things were looking good: my job paid well enough for me to actually eat out from time to time, go have beers with friends like once a week, that sort of thing, and I had put together a savings plan and some financial goals for the year, and it really looked like it was going to work.  I wanted three months' expenses set aside in one account, and in two other savings accounts I was putting money so I could travel (two exotic trips, to Virginia and Ohio), buy a sound bar (I'm tired of listening to music through my television speakers, so I don't listen to music any more; my ex-wife sold my old speaker set at a garage sale and I can't for the life of me imagine why I let her), pay for a personal trainer certification course, and other small things.

And the thing is I just about got all three accounts filled up.  The two-months-expenses one is good.  The savings for travel and other things are basically where I want them; I overestimated travel expenses and other costs so that, even though I'm about 10% shy in both accounts, I think I'll be good.  And I've got some cash stashed away for the travel expenses that probably more than makes up the shortfall.

Of course, I could just turn all the money out of all three accounts and finally pay off the goddamn credit card (I finally made the last payment on the second one earlier this year, hooray), but what is the point of this life if I can't get out of town once in a while?  Well, that's the nature of low income.  You don't get to do the stuff you want.  Piss.

And of course, I went and bought a new mattress a couple months ago.  Wasn't planning to do that, either, but it became obvious that my old mattress was the cause (or at least a cause) of my back and neck pain.  And it was expensive, and I'm still paying for it, and it was sooooo worth it.  The new mattress is fantastic.  I love it.  It hasn't helped with the anxiety and stress that keep me from sleeping well most nights, but I don't wake up in pain any more, and it's hard to put a price on that.  But there was a price on it, and I'm still paying it.

Nonetheless, with a new roommate helping me pay for the mortgage and bills, my savings accounts look good enough that I've been seriously shopping for a new bike.  My current bike is a ten-year-old mountain bike, but I don't trail ride any more and don't care to.  I'm going to use the bike as a daily commuter to campus, and have been thinking it would be nice to have a more efficient one, something designed for roads where the high gears are actually, you know, high gears, and where the top speed is better than 20 mph at full tilt.

Road bikes are expensive.  You can find some really cheap ones on line for as little as $300 from Bikes Direct.  And they are worth $300.  According to most of the reviews they'll get you about 1000 miles.  They are intended as "intro" bikes for new riders who will either ride for a while and decide they don't like it, or will quickly want to upgrade to a better machine.  I'm not the target consumer there; 1000 miles is somewhat less than one year's commuting (assuming I bike in 4 days a week), which means sometime next spring I must either buy another $300 bike or replace all the components on the old one.  That just doesn't make sense.

And I thought to myself, you know, I just spent $350 I didn't have on a brake job on my car.  My whole goal here is to put more miles on the bike around town in the next year than on the car.  Shouldn't I at least consider spending more than $300 on my daily commuter?  That doesn't seem unreasonable, right?  I plan to ride this thing almost every day and use it as my primary transportation.  My car cost me 16 times as much and I have to put $40 worth of dead dinosaurs in it every week (which is over $2,000 a year) and pay hundreds more in additional maintenance a few times a year, just to keep it running.  Cars are terrible investments.  By comparison it would be crazy not to buy a good bike.

I can get a very good road bike that will last me for many years and be an efficient and useful daily commuter from the bike shop on my delivery route, for about a grand (or half the cost of gas for a year). If I hadn't had to replace the car's brakes I'd have a third of that price in savings right now.  But I don't.  And if I hadn't replaced the mattress I'd have the rest of that money in savings right now, too.  But I don't.  And again, while I don't regret either of those purchases (it's hard to regret replacing your car's brakes, you know?) it does make it tough to justify spending any money at all on a new bicycle when I have an old bicycle.  It doesn't really meet my needs, but it exists.  If I'd paid off my divorce debt entirely already and not gone to Mexico in the spring on last fall's savings, I wouldn't be worrying about this, I suppose.  It's not that I've spent money on things I wish I hadn't; it's that I wish I hadn't NEEDED to spend money on some of those things.

It's been seven years now since I earned enough money that I wasn't constantly doing this simple calculus.  This is why I'm going back to school.  My job prospects seem limited to the exact sort of dead-endery I've been doing the last several years.  Oh sure, I could have stayed at the factory and after five years been earning more than enough, but the intervening time would still be fraught with this constant cost-benefit analysis and the necessary choices to give up things I want to do for things I have to do.  And I don't want to work in a factory on the night shift for the rest of my life.  Or drive a FedEx truck.

And I'm rich by the standards of my neighborhood!  Hell, many of my neighbors make 2/3 of what I make, or less.  I know how they manage it; I know I could manage it.  I've done it.  I don't want to anymore.


But what really got me pissed this morning... I mean, these things are all true, and that's what life is, and I live with that every day because honestly it's way better than the alternative, so it's really not something I normally feel the need to rant about.  It's frustrating, finances are frustrating when you don't make much, but it's hardly impossible.  There's lots of stuff I'd like to do and lots of it simply will not get done, probably ever.  Living with that reality is shite, but it's shite I'm used to and it's what most people deal with on one level or another.  What's interesting after a few years of this is how different the things I want to do but can't are than they used to be; when I was comfortable (back in my USAF days) I wanted to rip out my kitchen and take a rally-driving school in New Hampshire, things with five and two thousand dollar price tags, respectively.  Now I want to finish putting ornamental grasses in the front yard and take a trip to Cedar Point, things with $100 and $450 price tags.

No, what pissed me off this morning is piss.  Specifically cat piss.  On my nice couch.

It's not enough that he pissed on the guest mattress some months ago.  He got himself locked in the guest room while I was on an overnight trip, and obviously at some point he had to pee.  Okay.  He peed directly on the large pile of clothes (including a suit and several old flight suits) and also peed in nine other discreet locations around the bed.  The entire mattress is trashed.  I haven't replaced it yet because I can't justify spending hundreds of dollars on a mattress that's going to get slept on at most ten nights out of the year.  I need to find a $100 mattress somewhere, maybe Sears Outlet or Big Lots, but with those places I also have to get the damn thing home.

But the couch?  Why my fucking couch?  What is the bastard's problem?  He's done this once before, after we moved into the apartment in Greenville.  I chalked it up to his being scared in a new home and went out and bought this current couch, which is frankly better in every way anyway (but wasn't too expensive).

It's not a medical issue.  He goes outside most of the time, and is perfectly capable of using his litter box; he also doesn't habitually pee on furniture.  But all three couch cushions right now smell like cat piss.  I don't know when he did it or why, but suffice to say he had no reason to.  He gets fed more than enough and any time he wants it; has a clean litter box; gets to spend most of his day outside if he wants or stay in if he'd prefer; he even has a new human around to give him extra scritches and cuddles.  The thanks I get is a comfortable and essentially brand new couch that now smell like fucking cat piss.

I can't afford a new couch.  But I can't even sit on my nice comfy couch any more because of the smell.  Where the fuck is that money supposed to come from?  Seriously.  If I was really poor I'd just have to live with it, but thankfully I can at least fathom the idea of taking all the money out of savings to replace something that was brand new two years ago and should have been able to last twenty more.  And of course that's put the kibosh on the new bike idea, if not on Cedar Point as well.  So it goes.

Money is always spent before it's earned.  Maybe earning more isn't the answer.  Maybe I shouldn't go back to school at all, but just sell everything I own and backpack around the world on tramp steamers and stay in hostels until all the money runs out and I mooch off of relatives and friends for the rest of my life.  That sounds pretty nice, actually.

So who has a couch I can crash on?

01 January 2014

Happy International Introspection Day

I like getting the first of January off. It’s the most introspective day on the calendar, and one I think most people take part in. There’s a reason it’s a national holiday all over the world.
Often I’ve looked back over the previous year in horror or disappointment, but 2013 was different for me. For the first time in a while I took control of events this year in a way I often avoid. It’s been good. And as I look around at what may be coming in 2014, I see a lot of sprouts from seeds planted in the past year. Things are working pretty well.
I decided in 2013 that I was going to go back to school. Not only that, I decided where to go and what to study. I decided I wanted to own a home again, own land (I still say all I really need is a big field with a kitchen and bath), be able to make it my own. And here I am, in a different city in a different state in my own living room. I raked mulch and cut the grass today. I organized seeds and made arrangements to get a few yards of compost delivered. Last year I planted several trees I’ve been growing in pots for the last few years.
I’ve had a delay in my school plans, but it’s just a delay, and that, too, is my own doing. It’s not like I planned to fail a class this spring so I’d screw myself over later, but at least I know where the issue is, whose fault it is, and what to do to fix it. I can quite comfortable look at 2014 and say it’s the year I will go back to college, and that’s a good feeling.
Not that 2013 was perfect. Not that I did everything I wanted or should have done, or refrained from doing everything I should have avoided. No year is perfect. It would have been nice not to fail that class this spring but there you are. I might have hoped to move into my home earlier, to pay less for it. I would have liked to pay off my credit card debt sooner, and fully (there’s still a little chunk sitting there laughing at me). I really wanted to go home to see the family but never made the trip. And the job I’m working…well, it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.
Still, on balance, 2013 was one of the better years I’ve had of late; we’d have to go well back into the last decade to find one that went as well. And so it comes to look forward to 2014. I have some travel planned already, which is good, and I have a steady paycheck to start the year with. I have a class scheduled for the spring that should be tons of fun (and where I should get a solid A, which I need), and look forward to starting full time in the summer or fall. I have lots of plans for the yard, for the vineyard and the sorghum patch and the vegetable and herb gardens.
But some things do need to change. I’m not big on New Years Resolutions because I think too many people (myself included) tend to look at them as a New Year New You proposition, and nobody and nothing changes overnight. But there are things I need to work on. Budgeting is a problem, so I’ve come up with a list of financial goals—amounts I want to get stored up in my savings accounts to pay for stuff like travel (I have two trips planned, three more in the planning stage) and a new sound bar (I’m sick of listening to music through the TV speakers), and to have a nice three-month cushion in the main savings account. And I have a plan to get there.
I need to carve out time in my days to meditate, something I didn’t do often in 2013. But I’m not going to say I want to meditate for 20 minutes every day. If I could do that starting today, I would have started months ago. I figure if I can manage five minutes a day that would be a good start, but even that could be tough so I’m saying five minutes a day, at least four days out of the week. That’s an attainable goal, and by the end of January if I’m managing that, I can add minutes or days in small steps. That would be nice. Habits take time to build.
I need to write more. That should be easy since if I write 10,000 words all year I think I’ll double my 2013 output. This here is a nice start, and to keep things simple I’m going to start by trying to write a few stories, vignettes about the Air Force, deployments, the farm, maybe some other things. There are some open mic nights in the area for storytelling, spoken-word creative nonfiction. I really want to go to one, but I need to work on a story to tell. I have plenty. I shall spend some time writing them down. This is a much simpler task than working on Lauderdale or another novel or story, since the characters and plot are already set and I need only to work on the craft of writing.
And finally I intend to earn my Personal Trainer certificate. I’ve been talking about it for eight months, it’s time to take action. One of my savings goals is money for the CPT study materials and test; I’m leaning toward going through NSCA to get my certification, as it’s a more respected organization than NASM while being less expensive than ASCM. I have just about enough money in savings right now to start on this, and I plan to take the plunge this month. It’s time. If things work out right, I could study for a few months, test, and with any luck have a job in the field by summer.
Certainly there are plenty of other things I could stand to work on; self-improvement is not really one of those things that has an end-game. I have got to do something about this tendinitis; my right arm is on fire just from typing this (well, and assembling drawers today which required screwing in about 100 little screws). I’m terrible at maintaining friendships over any meaningful geographic distance and feel awful about that, but I don’t know what to do. For that matter I don’t relate well to people seated next to me, but I think that’s just me. If I was meant to relate well to other people I’m pretty sure I’d be better at it. Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.
Also, I want a puppy (or a nice shelter mutt). Everybody wants a puppy, right?

07 July 2013

Stuff

I really need to update this a bit more frequently. I have at least three hikes (and some wineries) to cover and another post more in line with the historical tenor of this blog. Some may ask what it is exactly I'm thinking of doing with the current incarnation of this site. For example, I've asked myself that. The rest of you I don't know about.

I blogged a lot more when I was single than after I got married. Now that I'm not married I thought maybe I'd blog more because I don't have anyone to share stuff with. That hasn't happened. Maybe I don't need to share as much anymore. I try not to think too much about that sort of thing.

But I do have a thing in mind here, see. I want to hike every trail in the Triangle before I start school next year, and I want to put at least some comment about each one of them here. I always wanted something like that when I lived in Greenville, or Tampa, or, really, every place I've ever lived. You can look for a list of Triangle Hikes, and there are many such, but I saw no site at all that mentioned every trail in the area. Indeed, some of the trails I've found aren't really mentioned on any hiking site.

That's not entirely a criticism; I mean, if you're looking to put together a list of Triangle-area hikes, you start with Umstead and Eno River and after you get about ten trails or so, you figure you're done. It's good enough to get the best or most popular trails because that's what people are really looking for. But I want all the trails. So that's what I'm working toward here.

The problem here is that every time I look for a hike, I find new places I didn't know about before. There must be 120 discrete trails in the area depending on how big "The Triangle" is (I haven't really decided myself yet). So the project is getting bigger faster than I'm actually completing it. And now that I'll be working (yaay, by the way) all week I'll only have at most two days to hike. So it's going to be interesting to see whether I actually get through this, but it's fun to try. At least you can hike in all seasons here.

How to define the Triangle, though? Obviously it has to include Wake, Durham, and Orange counties (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill). I've done at least two hikes in Chatham County already, but that is a big damned county and I'm not going to try to do the whole thing. Johnston county doesn't seem to have any hiking trails at all so I'm including it because it's easy to do. It does have four wineries, though. I figure if I can cover every trail in the three core counties, and maybe in eastern Chatham and in Johnston counties, then I can just look out at the counties farther out and do whatever trails strike my fancy. I'm still torn about this. Every trail in the three core counties is definite. But the other counties I guess it depends on how much time I have. Maybe I should sit down and actually try to find every trail... Anyway, if you have any suggestions for trails or how to define the Triangle, please say so. Also if you know how I can create and post a map of the region with a pin at every trail that links to the review post, I want to do that but I'm not sure how.

22 June 2013

Fishing

I don't fish. It's not that I don't enjoy the idea of fishing. It's just that, like golf, something that should be purely a leisure activity with no goals or purpose, people have turned into some hugely expensive racket with goals and tools to buy and thousands of dollars needing to be spent. If you go out on a golf course just to have fun wacking a ball around in the wilderness, everybody else on the course hates you. If you go fishing in a kayak with a bamboo pole and some bread... well, at least nobody will yell at you. But all the real fisherman think you're a fool. And in some sense they're right.

Then there's the sort of thing that happened to me today. I went out to Lake Wheeler Park and rented a kayak. It was a sit-on-top kayak, which I always find incredibly uncomfortable (I miss my old kayak, which was very comfy but also 16 feet long and a bit of a nightmare to take places), so I spent much of my paddling tour sitting lotus-style on the back end of the boat. This is very peaceful and calming but not conducive to getting anywhere very quickly.

I paddled down one arm of the lake to find the end. It was very quiet; there was a little drizzle, and consequently very few people on the water. I drifted along the shore, past what looked like an anhinga (couldn't have been though, right? This far north?) resting on a branch sticking out of the water, and down a small stream lined with alders. It was peaceful. I drifted by a turtle sitting on a log and the turtle didn't even feel the need to dive into the water.

The alder-lined stream got too narrow, so I went back out by the anhinga-lookalike and down the next channel. This was all rushes and cattails and willows, completely different from the almost exclusively alder community down the stream literally forty or so feet to the south. I pulled the paddle out of the water and laid back in the kayak and just drifted.

And a fish jumped in the boat.

Actually this was entirely terrifying. You don't expect a fish to jump in your boat, especially when you haven't seen any fish all day anyway. And it was so quiet and peaceful, light rain, almost no sound at all, and then *splash* there's a fish flopping around by your feet.

It wasn't a mullet, either (that would have been truly shocking in a small lake in inland North Carolina). I don't know what it was; I would guess some sort of lake bream or something, but it was pretty big, 14-18 inches. I've honestly never seen a bass in my recent life except in that Dan Aykroyd SNL commercial (and that may not have been a bass) so I wouldn't recognize one. This fish was not tall like a bluegill or crappie, though, so that's what it may have been.

I did not fall out of the boat but if I'd been sitting up lotus style on the back of it I definitely would have. As it was I struggled to get up and tried to grab the poor thing, but he kept slipping out of my hands. After probably two seconds (it seemed longer) the fish flopped out of my hands and out of the boat and back into the water. I watched him go; he stirred up the dirt on the bottom, and then jumped again a few feet away from the boat. Maybe he had a parasite he was trying to dislodge.

In any event, given the ease with which fish simply present themselves to me, it seems unsporting to actually go fishing.

Oh, hey, there aren't any trails at Lake Wheeler Park that I know of, apart from a par course. There's the lake. That's enough reason to go, right? Kayak rental is $5 an hour (they also have canoes and other sorts of floating things). You can park way closer to the rental building than I did; when you go for the first time, just keep driving toward the water and you'll see the final parking lot on the right when the only alternative is to drive into the lake.

19 June 2013

Swift Creek Nature Preserve (and Crowder Park)

Yesterday (17 June) I developed terrible cabin fever. I'd spent all day at the apartment waiting for a phone call that never came. Even two glasses of wine (Hinnant Family Vineyards' Norton 2008) couldn't help. I decided I needed to get out of the house, and was just about to leave for Eno River State Park when apartment maintenance showed up to fix the fridge (water has been dripping from the freezer into the fridge since before I moved in). I was the only one home so I had to stay; twenty minutes later it became apparent we needed an entirely "new" fridge. (You must use air quotes when describing the fridge. It is not the same fridge we had before, but it is by no means new. However, it works, which is all that matters.) Thank goodness my roommates finally came home (they were at, like, class or something. Productive people make me feel bad), but by the time I was able to go for my hike, it did not make sense to drive all the way to Eno River any more.

Instead, I discovered the Triangle Land Conservancy, and their Swift Creek Bluffs Preserve. Swift Creek Bluffs is in Cary off Holly Springs Rd, a short jaunt from Raleigh. But you'd never know it was there; it's not advertised, there's very little signage, and your GPS will not lead you to the parking lot (don't turn on Birkhead, the parking area is actually next to the pumping station just before Birkhead). But the difficulty of getting there means you'll have the place mostly to yourself, and that's often why we wander off into the woods anyway. Right?

This tree is not right.The first thing you see starting on the trail out of the parking lot is this seriously messed up pine tree. I have no idea what caused that; the scars go most of the way up the trunk. This is maybe 20 feet from your car. By this point if you haven't already found and started using a spider stick you need to do so. Seriously. Remember how I said you'd be the only one there? Yeah, possibly the only one in several days. You want a spider stick.

You should not walk under this.  I risk my life as a faithful reporter. Another 20 feet along the trail and you come to the first junction... and just down the junction you see this. The rest of this tree is scattered around the grounds. Several others are downed across the trail. The trail is actually closed here and you really should not cross the "closed" sign. This is a crappy phonecam shot but believe me this tree is freakin' huge.  This preserve was flat destroyed by Andrea.Really. Don't do it.

Okay, fine, so you're going to go where you shouldn't, huh? You just have to follow every single trail in the park? Who does that? I mean, apart from me. First, let me suggest to you that Swift Creek Bluffs won't be in such disarray for all that long; I'm sure they have a work day planned, and I've emailed Triangle Land to ask when that might be so I can go help out. Believe me, the lower part of the trail (through the "Chestnut Oak Swamp") is really in bad shape. It's possible that Tropical Storm Andrea did this much damage, but that seems unlikely; the size and number of trees that are downed throughout the preserve Hooray for poison ivy!  It's easy to see why this tree hasn't been moved yet.makes me guess that after Andrea's rain, one of the storms later in the week probably produced a microburst or mini tornado. You've got to go to really get an idea of the amount of damage. And if that's not enough to dissuade you from crossing the Do Not Cross barriers, examine this downed tree. That's a maple tree. But that maple tree had a very healthy poison ivy plant climbing up it, and all those leaves you see are ivy, not maple. You cannot climb over this tree. You cannot walk around it. You cannot avoid it in any way. So when you come across this tree you will get poison ivy oil on you. (Immunity to urushiol is my superpower, so I was okay.)

Along the closed trails I did come across this wonderful hickory. Shaggy barkHickories are even harder to differentiate than oaks are; they all look the same for like the first 100 years, and they grow so slowly and live so long. And their wood makes such wonderful cabinets. Anyway, this here is a shagbark hickory, and for the first time in my life I have seen why, in person.

The lower part of the trail, which is a nice hike (the parts of it that are not blocked by downed trees), runs alongside Swift Creek.I don't know what these trees are.  This is incredibly frustrating. There is a large population of these trees along the creek. I have no idea what these are. I swear they look like magnolias of some kind, but none of them have any sort of flower or seed that I could see. They're vaguely tropical-looking. I like them but they frustrate me.

Whatever these trees are, the most common tree in the entire park is the stately American Beech. Swift Creek not living up to its name.This is very much a beech forest with other trees; there are easily more beeches in the Swift Creek Preserve than any other single tree. But that's not the whole story. The preserve is called Swift Creek Bluffs. So far we've only walked along the creek.

Frequent readers (I know there are none of those, but I have hopes that will change) will note that Swift Creek is the creek that runs through Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve also in Cary. Indeed, if you look on a map you'll note Hemlock Bluffs and Swift Creek are practically next to one another. And the key feature of Swift Creek Bluffs is indeed a high bluff, not unlike the bluffs at Hemlock Bluffs. I wondered if perhaps there'd be a hemlock or two hanging out up there.There sure was.  This tree is the only hemlock I saw, but it's almost easier to get a picture of this one than of any of the trees at Hemlock Bluffs.

There's a long stairway up to the top of the bluff, and then the trail wends along the top for a ways. But it isn't a loop. If you want to make it into a loop you have to take a little side trip onto the Birkhaven greenway trail, which takes you down to a golf course before you can re-enter the preserve. But that's cool. I stumbled around on the bluff for a while and then came back down the stairs and went through a swamp again for a bit and went back to the car.

Swift Creek Bluffs has some nice trails and is certainly an asset to the area, but until the park's been cleaned up and the rest of the trails are open you should probably visit another park instead. If and when you do decide to hike Swift Creek Bluffs, if it's summertime, don't forget the bug spray and the spider stick.
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I wasn't quite ready to go back to the apartment after hiking Swift Creek Bluffs. So I turned the car south to Ten-Ten Rd. and stopped at Crowder District Park, a Wake County park in Apex. It's a nice little park but not exactly a big place for hiking. You can come here and take a nice walk on paved trails. The boardwalk across the pond is nice. In the evening, the turtles congregate, looking for handouts. It's a little weird, actually; there are dozens of them and they congregate like ducks expecting you to throw them crusts of bread. Like slow, partially submerged ducks.

18 June 2013

Occoneechee Mountain

I hiked Occoneechee Mountain State Preserve on a Sunday afternoon in June. The park is sandwiched in between I-85 and the Eno River and encompasses two high hills rising out of the Atlantic coastal plain, the namesake “mountain” and the smaller Brown Elfin Knob right next door. Really they're just big hills; actually, it's two peaks on one big hill. But we'll let it be a mountain if that's what it wants to be.

This is a seldom-visited park. You will need to apply bug spray before you leave the parking area. Lots of bug spray. If you’re troubled by the occasional spiderweb running across the trail, this probably isn’t your park. That said, it’s a most fascinating hike, especially if you’re interested in seeing several different forest types in a short hike. I did not complete the entire trail network but hiked about 2 ¾ miles, during the course of which I passed through four distinct lowland forests and some upland areas. Some huckleberries along the trail.The actual summit of Occoneechee is owned by Orange County, not by the state park system, but a trail will take you there. I didn’t visit it, although at the time I thought I had. I started out heading left from the parking lot. This means that for the first part of the hike I paralleled the interstate, and although the forest is pretty and reasonably peaceful the traffic noise is actually pretty loud. We forget sometimes that our blueberries are but domesticated forms of plants that still grow wild in this area; the understory in this part of the park has at least three species of blueberries and huckleberries (Vaccinium spp.), in some places entirely covering the ground. The smaller huckleberry species in particular are more common farther west, but there were many lowbush blueberries as well.A native lowbush blueberry. All were still green; some still had flowers. This would be a fun park to walk through in July when the berries are ripe, assuming the birds don’t eat all of them first. The trail is clear but relatively narrow and has plenty of roots and other trip hazards, and thanks to numerous climbs and descents this would not be a very good park for any but experienced trail runners. A different species of huckleberry I couldn't identify.  They were much more common on top of the mountain than around the base.That said, experienced trail runners would enjoy what is probably the most challenging trail in the Triangle. As the trail turns north away from the interstate the vaccinium species thin out and are replaced by other understory plants including ferns and a large population of witch-hazel. You’ll notice huge chunks of quartz sticking out of the ground every now and then. Mountain Laurels along the Eno River; they belong at the top of the hill, not down here.On the north side of the mountain you’ll parallel the Eno River for a ways, and begin to see Mountain Laurel and some native azaleas. There’s a short spur trail to a very nice swimming hole, though it is apparently on private property. (Still, there were several people swimming and I don’t get the impression the private owners are terribly upset about it.) Past this short spur, both sides of the trail host quite the healthy population of poison ivy. Watch for it if you’re susceptible. When the trail turns away from the river it ascends some stairs and a spur leads off to the “Occoneechee Quarry.” I took the spur. The quarry turns out to be a huge face of quartz that’s been just torn to bits; unmolested quartz rocks like this are found throughout the piedmont with names like “Shining Rock” or “Looking Glass Mountain” because the smooth face of the rock reflects the sun in early morning when damp with dew. At one time, Occoneechee Mountain looked like that. No more. You are specifically told not to engage in any rock climbing or rappelling activities on this degraded rock face, which is good advice because the rock is just broken all to hell and very friable, so put too much weight on any part of it and it would likely just break off and send you tumbling down the mountain into the river (this actually sounds like fun, until you consider that along the way you'd tumble across a bunch of very pointy rocks and through a whole field of poison ivy). Part of the quartz face of Occoneechee Mountain. That said, there are a number of paths directly up the side of the mountain here that don’t require any actual climbing, so I’ll say what I did was hike very steeply uphill with some help from my hands. At the top, there’s a wooden fence to hold visitors back from the edge. I took this to be the summit but later on reviewing MapMyRun’s gps map of my hike (at the bottom of this post) it looks like this was just one face of the hill, and the actual summit trail and summit was still some ways away to the east of where I climbed. So I’ll have to visit again. Along the way to the top, I found a huckleberry bush with a few ripe fruits. They were delicious. A short trail connects what I thought was the summit trail to the eastern edge of the park loop trail, along the top of Brown Elfin Knob. This trail goes through a large population of mountain laurel mixed with rhododendron and another large population of vaccinium bushes, mainly huckleberries this time. It is an easy trail and shorter than I expected. The summit is insignificant; time was when this small hill would have been topped with an observation tower but insurance costs have eliminated most such towers from American public lands. It's less a brown elfin knob than a brown elfin gentle-rise-in-the-landscape. The last portion of the loop trail runs beside two fish ponds and features more typical lowland species including canebrake and boxelder, which weren't anywhere else in the park including along the river. If you forgot the bug spray back when you got out of the car at the start of the hike, this part is really going to be unpleasant. But it's flat, so you could run. Think of the bugs as zombies. In a way, they are... This was a very enjoyable hike and particularly interesting for the large variations in forest type given the small area. I hiked 2.7 miles including my short vertical ascent, though there are at least another 2 miles of trails in the park. These trails are probably among the most strenuous in the Triangle (though very easy relative to a typical trail in the mountains). Also they have the most available forage, if for some reason you get lost and need to survive in the wilderness for a while...although you could just follow the sound of traffic and be standing next to I-85 in half an hour or less.

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I drove all the way to Hillsborough for this hike and didn't think to stop at a winery or a brewery (Mystery Brewing is there and you should totally stop in because they rock). But I have to go back to do the rest of the trails sometime, so I can make up for this tragic oversight.

13 June 2013

Cliffs of the Neuse

First off, before we start, I'll answer the question I know you want to ask: it's pronounced [noose]. Down towards the coast the pronunciation seems to change more to [nyoose]. It is not, however, pronounced [noiss], as I suspected. It's a bad English transliteration of a native American word, not the name of some German settler. So anyway, Cliffs of the Neuse. It's a state park outside of Goldsboro, which itself is about an hour from Raleigh. Not officially part of the Triangle, but a short drive and worth visiting. But be forewarned:

The Neuse is extremely variable. Evidently even as far downstream as Goldsboro, during a drought the river becomes so minimal you can just walk right across it, but after a heavy rain it routinely floods, as it mostly flows through lowland swamps and there's nothing stopping it from just wandering across the landscape; more on that in a moment. Down at New Bern (apparently pronounced [NYOO-bern], which is just offensive. The word 'new' does not have a y.) it's more tidal and not quite so variable, at least not on the low end. And up here in Raleigh, it's dammed up at Falls Lake...which was created in the 70s to stop the river from flooding so much.

So this is mostly a lowland flatwater river, right? Sure. Except right here, at the cliffs. On the south bank (where I'm standing to take this picture) the land is a big chunk of limestone 80 or so feet high uplifted during the last Ice Age. The river's trundling along through coastal sediment for hundreds of miles and then whangs into this limestone bluff--which, it should be said, has no business being in the middle of the coastal plain--and you get these nice 90-foot cliffs.

Now if you notice this is not some tidy little blackwater river here. In fact if you look closely you'll see those willows on the left bank of the river (the bright green patch in the middle)... are all the way in the river.

See we just had this thing called Tropical Storm Andrea. It was a few days ago up in the Triangle and for the most part although the lakes are all at full pool there's not water standing everywhere. But a few days' river flow means the Neuse is probably at maximum flood stage here at the Cliffs right now. I didn't really think about that.This is the fishing area near the parking lot. Well, actually, the fishing area is under there somewhere. I'm not really sure where. But check it out: in the back, the tree closest to the river? Baldcypress. Haven't seen any up in the Triangle, which surprises me. But that will change once I get mine back from SC and put it in the ground.

Anyway. I came here for the hiking. Here's a picture of the bridge going to two of the three trails:Bear with me, this is a phonecam picture and I own the cheapest phone with the crappiest camera available on the market (actually, it's not even on the market anymore). A third of the way down at the center of that pic you see a little yellowish square? And a bit to the right of it, you can make out the right edge of a brown sign with white letters (click on the picture to blow it up). Those letters indicate the names of the trails. That's the trailhead, over there underwater somewhere. I'm standing at the edge of the water on some steps. There is, in fact, a bridge down there. Really. A whole bridge, all the way under the water.

There was a lot of water in this park. For example, here's another fishing area. Actually, the fishing area is about 100 yards away through there. But the main trail was accessible, and by going off trail for a bit and getting lost in the woods (well, not lost, but let's say I had no idea where I was. I wasn't lost, though, because I didn't care where I was) I managed to get about two miles of hiking done. There are a lot of steps on the established trails in this park.

There are also a lot of American Beautyberry bushes (Callicarpa americana) in the park. I mean, a whole lot of them. The way Mapleleaf Viburnums were absurdly common in Hemlock Bluffs is how common beautyberries are here. They're nice plants. People plant the Chinese and Japanese versions all the damn time in this country but we have a perfectly good native version with just as many flowers and just as pretty little berries (well, not in June). Some of these bushes were five and six feet tall.

However, it was hard to stop and take pictures. Maybe it's because the water level was so high, but the park and trails were swarming with ants. Not fire ants thank goodness, but I quite literally could not stop for 5 seconds to take a picture of anything without my shoes, socks, and ankles being covered with ants. All parts of all trails were like this. I don't normally mind ants because I don't usually see them in swarms, much less swarms on me, but this was pretty unpleasant.

Alas, with the water level as high as it was it was not possible to see the actual cliff face at Cliffs of Neuse. I'm not actually sure it's ever possible to do so, except from a kayak in the river. So sometime I shall have to put a kayak in this river.

Anyway. Cliffs of Neuse is a nice park; it has lots of campsites, a swimming lake (with paddleboats), and some short trails. You just might want to wait a little longer after a major storm blows through before making a visit.

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On my way home, I stopped by Hinnant Family Vineyards in Pine Level. I like pretty much every winery I've ever been to (even the ones without any actual wines I liked), so henceforth just assume that if I mention a winery here, I'm encouraging you to visit. Hinnant has mostly muscadine and fruit wines, which aren't always my thing, but they make good use of the Blanc du Bois grape and the Norton is very good (there's a bottle of it in my wine fridge right now). And the blackberry wine would be out of this world with a slice of cheesecake. $5 gets you 8 tastings (your choice out of a list of about 20) and a glass.