Well, I did go backpacking this weekend — only the second time in my life and perhaps the last.
A group of twelve — nine men and three women — hiked from the trailhead to the Cecil Cove campground, in the Buffalo River National River area, a couple of hours east of Fayetteville, Ark. The scenery was, as usual in this area, gorgeous, and the hike was short, only 2.5 miles at most. But my new pack, which is supported by neither external nor internal frame, cut into the small of my back pretty hard and I was in pain.
On the way out, the pack was lighter, for I’d drunk most of the water I lugged in and eaten most of the food. But first, we had to get there!
I knew only two or three of the twelve that comprised the group, and they were all decent sorts. A campfire was lighted Saturday night, which blazed high and kept us warm after we’d cooked our separate meals. But I felt anxious soon after the fire was lit, unable to enter into the conversation, or contribute. I found the topics trivial and tedious — maybe because I was fretting about “doing” something, or getting something done, being productive, or, in short, working — and soon enough lapsed into silence, then retired long before all the others, about 8:30 pm.
It was no easy task sleeping in my little pup tent. Though I had a pad and a sleeping bag, it was damned cold that night, getting down to 23 degrees, and the bag was not warm enough, the ground soft enough. I tossed and turned practically all the night, putting on an extra layer at one point but never able to find rest. I might have slept a couple of hours, earlier in the night.
Though weary, like most of the others, who confessed they hadn’t slept well either, I was cheerful in the morning, getting my coffee and oatmeal going, chatting with everyone. We broke camp about 10 am and returned, most of us, the same way we’d come in, to the trailhead. (Another, longer and more scenic route was taken by the more energetic.)
I want to go back to Cecil Cove to hike the whole seven-mile loop, the short route in and the longer route back. But not backpack there, or anywhere, ever again, could be. I think I’ve packed backpacking in.
So the horns of this particular dilemma on which I’m being tossed are these:
Stay at home & experience all the bliss of home comforts, including our new memory-foam king bed.
Go backpacking & camping with a troupe of pals, into the Buffalo River Valley, and experience the beauty of nature, the rugged exercise of the hike, and the sleeplessness of a night on the cold, hard ground.
Hmmmm, hmmmm, hmmm. A toss-up, you say?
I too am torn, hither and thither. Should I toss a coin? Should I sleep on it? (In my ultra-cushy memory-foam bed?) But, no, if I’m going, I have to pack my backpack, and it takes a good while to get stuff together, doesn’t it? It’s not like slamming a few odd bits in a bag and taking off.
Yes, home is comfy, and home is work too, useful if not always beautiful work. At home, but not in nature, I can read and write. I can garden and organize my garage. I can (at least try to) sew that laundry basket of old, torn, button-popped pants and shirts. (Please, dear wife, can you help me?)
In the Buffalo River Valley, I can gape with wonder at the rocks, the hills, the rills, the streams. I can lug my 35 or 40 pound pack over slipper trails. I can exhaust myself for a good cause, which is to get out of town, get out of myself, out of the purview of earthly comforts to which we habituate ourselves.
Bourgeois comforts, boys and girls? Or the glories and hardships of nature? (Tune in for further developments.)
A funny but not ha-ha funny thing happened to me today on the bike trail. I took a ride of about 20 miles, starting on North St, and moving south to the end of the Razorback Greenway, then back north. I must’ve gone just 2-3 miles when the trail came to an abrupt, if temporary, end. Suddenly the asphalt gave out and a patch of white rock began, on the road where workmen had excavated the asphalt and a few feet on either side. A sign proclaimed, “Trail Ends.” As I put on my brakes and came to a halt, I saw a young woman jogger stopping ahead of me. “End of trail!” I called out, as much to myself as to anyone.
She turned to look at me — a slim young woman, 20 or so, I’d suppose — and said, “I can read. You don’t have to read it to me!”
“Whoa!” I countered. “Aren’t we touchy?”
She turned toward me a couple of steps and spat out, “I know your kind!”
“What kind is that?” I inquired.
But she wouldn’t say. Just continued to sputter venom. So I muttered, half under my breath, “Idiot!” — and sped away.
I was hoping that was the last of her, but though I went to the end of the trail, and detoured also 2-3 miles out of the way, I came upon her again, going north, just as I hit North St. I’d just gone by a young jogger, but didn’t think this was the crazy lady. But it was! She ran by me, wearing white jogging pants and a chartreuse top, as I waited at the light to get across the street, and then, when she was 30 feet down the street from me she turned to me and hissed, “Sex offender!”
So that’s the kind I was! A sex offender in her mind!
Took a hike this last Saturday with my son Gabe, granddaughter Ruby, tutee Aneeka (like Ruby, 8 yrs old), and her lovely mother Rupali. We went to Tanyard Creek up in Bella Vista, a stream that plunges down from the spillway at Lake Windsor and winds among the woods. The hike was only 2 or 2.5 miles, but with the girls darting and playing on the rocks and in the water it took us an hour and a half or so.
What a glorious day it was. Lots of people were hiking, as families. Groups of teens appeared to be camping, at least day camping, by the stream, as they hung out hammocks — and then just hung out. Everybody was smiling.
The girls had a lot of fun — Ruby leading the way, charging on with her hiking stick raised high and Aneeka charging after. Signs along the route warned not to get off the trail, as delicate habitat could be destroyed. But this didn’t hold back the girls, especially Ruby, who is high spirited and not very mindful at times.
Gabe, my son, and I kept calling her back, but she wouldn’t listen. Finally, as we returned to the parking lot, Gabe said, “I admire Ruby’s adventurous spirit.” Which I do too. The problem is when adventure comes to equal heedlessness. Every parent wants his child to be safe and may hold him back for that reason. So there’s a constant tug between safety and security, on the one hand, and adventure and growth, on the other.
At what point does adventure equal danger, heedless danger? That could be different for each of us. There’s extreme sport, after all, and base jumpers, who fly wingsuits among mountains, through crevices, and sometimes, alas, into the mountain faces. May they rest in peace, and we hope the thrill of the flight was worth the instant annihilation of the end.
Most of us are less extreme. I remember that my one-year-younger brother Bob and I would run away from the car and clamber up rocks when our family motored from the Twin Cities to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We might have been 10 and 11, or 11 and 12. Our parents kept calling us back, but we didn’t come. Were those knucklehead boys about to spill their brains on the rocks? Well, we didn’t spill ’em, though we might have.
As we might have, when older, drinking too much and clambering up on roofs. My brother died of alcoholism, in fact, when he was 46: he’d climbed too many roofs, in effect, and fallen plump down on his head. Drunk once, in the 1990s, at a rented cabin on Lake Superior, I climbed the roof one night, which was pretty shallow, to chase off the seagulls. I had no business being up there, drunk as I was, but there was no mom or dad to bring me down. Instead, my wife and friends encouraged me not to spill my brains, which were, they pointed out, all I had, but they could not compel me to get down.
Ah, yes, let’s adventure on, boys and girls. But not too much booze, please. Nor speeding on the highway. Nice and easy does it, it could be. Let’s get down off the roof, off the high, and see what adventures the mind itself can make.
Last night my wife Jennifer and I went to a jazz concert at the Walton Arts Center. As host Robert Ginsburg pointed out, we could tell everyone afterwards that we had been onstage with the Anat Cohen Quartet: during the remodeling of the intimate Starr Theater, concerts are being held on the stage of the main auditorium. The band plays at the front of the stage, and the audience is seated behind them, stage rear, both on risers and at cabaret tables.
Jen and I had one of these tables, and were just a few feet in front of the band leader, Anat Cohen, an Israeli woman who played jazz clarinet with a verve and vivacity that drove away any blues we might’ve come with in our baggage. Pretty soon Jen and I, and most of the crowd, I think, were bopping in our seats as the group banged out — no, make that explored — one theme and then another. She was particularly impressive, swaying and hopping, calling out to her band, on a Brazilian number called “The Roses Do Not Speak,” about a lost or dead love, delving into dark notes and then essaying high and breaking wails as if, no, the clarinet could not speak, either, but Cohen would try, damn it, and then the trying burst into flame, as it were, and transcendence came, the joy and understanding beyond words.
Cohen’s pianist Jason Lindner was especially impressive, playing, often simultaneously, the hall’s Steinway grand piano and his Rhodes keyboard. This multi-tasking produced a delicious effect, the bass played on the piano and a drumming, insistent, repetitive melody, or rhythm, on the electronic keyboard. Lindner also reached into the Steinway, at times, and stopped the strings with one hand while he played a muted, or dulled, tune with the other.
Cohen played about 90 minutes, a good energetic first set, in front of this on-stage audience maybe 60% of capacity. Then she sold CDs and signed autographs, and readied herself for the second set.
After the first set Jen and I went across the street to the Cork & Keg, a wine / beer bar that also serves a few snacks. We enjoyed a few Naked Porters, by Bentonville Brewing, and watched the end of the Razorbacks’ game. When we came in, the Hogs were up 42-31, but they ended up losing, as you might know, by one lousy point, 51-50, when a last minute field goal, a chip shot really, was blocked.
The stadium was full to capacity, unlike the music hall — 80,000 fans screaming, moaning, and turning away, most of them, in depression and defeat. We had lost! We, who derive our identity from these athlete mercenaries awarded scholarships to play for us and represent us in our smallness, insignificance, anonymity. We, who have delegated the task of identity to these athletes, gifted athletes if not scholars, delegated the task of representing the body, anyway, never mind the intellect or soul.
The body, we know, in this sedentary society, this office-based economy, is alienated. It sits there, eight or ten hours a day, at a desk, at a computer, typing away — so much for exercise! Chained to the desk, shackled to necessity! And then, turned loose at the end of the day, it plops on the couch and watches TV! It parties on the weekends, drinking beer and wine, smoking dope! It twitches and feels its afferents and efferents trying to get it together!
(Some of us, it’s true, may use the weekends, even the weekdays if we’re retired as I am, to exercise, to bike, or hike, or swim, you name it, to go to the gym, to do push-ups and chin-ups, to run, to skate, to fly! And, oh sure, let’s not forget, to drink beer!)
Hey, I was rooting with the rest of the Hog fans. A damn shame they lost. There was just no stopping Mississippi State, it appears, which ran up and down the field at will behind a strong-armed and strong-running quarterback. There was, however, stopping Arkansas’s last-minute field goal attempt, as one of our offensive linemen was turned inside out by a State defender, who leaped and blocked the field goal.
Alas, we lost. They say we lost.
I say, rather, we all enjoyed a good tight game, and if footballs don’t talk any more than roses, can you blame them? You might want to try, instead, a jazz clarinet, an inspired piano, crashing drums, twanging bass. Man, Ms. Cohen’s group was humming last night, and she wasn’t playing anyone but her audience. We were all in the same lineup, and we won just as much as she did.
Walking or biking, at leisure, through areas you think are familiar may yield surprises. Any day you go out, in fact, and come back, traversing familiar areas, may heave up discoveries that you and most of your friends and neighbors have never suspected.
So, the other day, I walked from the Nissan dealership on College Avenue, where I’d brought my car, to the gym at Washington Regional Medical Center. There’s no direct way, straight as the crow flies, so I skittered through back lots along the commercial strip and came to the back side of Fiesta Square.
I was astonished, first of all, at how huge the parking lot was: it can hold hundreds and hundreds of cars. The front lot is never full and rarely crowded, as you may know, at this mall that was a premier spot in the early ’70s, when it was built, but has long since been superseded by larger, more glamorous developments.
The only vehicles parked in this huge L-shaped lot belonged, I suspect, to employees at the stores, especially those stores near where the two legs of the L join and where a passageway allows access to a few stores and joins the two lots. I peered as I walked the back lot for egress through or around the dog-eared fence at the back of the lot, behind which a dozen or so of private homes sat. On the right side of the fence, as I walked west, was a ravine too dense and brambly to penetrate, especially in the shorts and tee-shirt I was wearing. Who owned this land, if anyone? I wondered. How had it been excluded from development? Would it ever be developed? (Fayetteville, back in the day, must’ve had much more informal development policies than it does today, with the city council and a planning commission presiding over every option that comes up before it.)
As i walked, then, south, along the fence, I noted two or three gates into yards. Of course, I was wary of trespassing but curious too, and I tried these gates, tentatively, pushing in, but the gates did not yield easily. Besides, as I pushed, I raised a hullabaloo from dogs in nearby yards, a racket of primitive menace that produced in me only the determination not to enter any yards and an imprecation or two I hurled at the mutts.
As I walked by the backs of the stores, there was a more than pungent smell from one Dumpster, presided over by a lordly crow on the rooftop, which cawed and claimed the garbage as its own. Whew! What rot! I hurried by and had to go all the way south to Appleby Drive, at the southern end of the shopping center, before I could turn west again toward the gym.
As for biking, I took my Trek out the other day along the back roads south of our development of Stonebridge Meadows. I did a leisurely 15 miles, about all I had time for, and climbed up Dead Horse Mountain Rd and then twisted south and east a bit. At the end of this road I came to S Black Oak Rd, which I took east, towards the industrial park, sluicing along and ducking into byways and dead-end streets. I found a couple of things I hadn’t know to be looking for: 1) an old crumbling concrete reservoir built in 1889, a decaying sign said, for Fayetteville’s water supply, and 2) a cemetery.
The reservoir was on the West Fork of the White River, which cuts long the edge of our development and then skirts through farmland south and west. I found the reservoir just by cutting down a stub street, one block long, spying an old stone house and outbuilding, in good condition, and then the peeling painted sign with the history of the project. A couple in their early 30s were fishing at the reservoir and their little daughter clambering among the rocks. This was one of those rocky riparian flows, or floes, you sometimes see in an area of limestone topography (or karst) like Northwest Arkansas. Shelves of limestone stretched away from the river banks, an area that would be underwater during springtime rush and flooding.
The cemetery was along Pump Station Road, or one of the nearby country roads. I didn’t stop and check it out but was amazed, even in flying by, to spy this extra evidence of earlier settlement. Ah, yes, the dead were tucked away so safely and squarely. Who would disturb them, or remember them, now? Well, I would like to return, some day soon, not to haunt them but sit down and visit a spell, talk nonsense with them, perhaps take a few photos.
All of these secret places, some maybe sacred, are susceptible of being visited, meditated, recorded. So remote, and yet so close, they can be remembered if we simply slow down and drop in.
Oh Lawd don’t flat my tire, Oh Lawd don’t run down my dawg. I’m on the trail just forgetting about Living so low off the hawg.
Did another 60-mile bike ride yesterday with my friend Andrea’s Meetup group, starting at the Fossil Cove brewery in Fayetteville and taking the Razorback Greenway to the Bentonville square and back.
The ride was not without unexpected excitement — and the usual bucketful of aches.
By the time we rolled back to the brewery, some five hours after starting, we were complaining about aching backs, spasming calves, and saddle-anesthetized tender parts. The usual complaints, in other words, that could be soothed by beer.
But on the way up to Bentonville, two events occurred that we hadn’t anticipated and came rather to regret:
One of the riders, on his first ride with us, on a brand new bike, hit a dog.
Another of the riders (me) ran over a branch, in a big dip in the trail in Bentonville and got a flat tire.
Rider no. 1 — Bob — felt bad about banging into the dog. But it really wasn’t his fault, so much as the dog’s and its owner’s. The dog was on the wrong side of the trail — our side — and unrestrained by a leash. This was a winding segment of the trail, and Bob saw the knot in front of him too late — the dog owner on the left side, the dog and a girl jogger on the right. He tried braking at the last moment but hit the dog square on, and the beast yelped of course and ran away, first into the weeds and then down the trail in the direction he and his master were going originally. The man then ran after the dog.
I can’t imagine the hound is not hurt — suffering from deep bruises or contusion, or a broken bone or two. C’est la vie, apparently. I can’t imagine, either, that the owner will not restrain his dog if he takes him out on the trail again.
Rider no. 2 — me — should have slowed down up the road, in Bentonville, as the trail wound and dipped near a little park. I found myself sailing fast down a curve, with a deep dip, and there I ran over a branch and soon felt an odd drag. I stopped and looked at my front tire, and didn’t see anything amiss. But then, a few yards further down the trail, I stopped again and saw that my rear tire was flat.
I pulled off the trail, onto a sidewalk, and turned the bike over to examine the damage. No sooner had I got out my tools and spare tire than a couple of friendly bikers, heading south toward Fayetteville, stopped and came to my aid.
Gilbert, a black guy maybe 40 or 45, sturdily built, provided example and directions. I’ve changed tires before, but not for a while … and not perhaps at all on the back wheel. This repair is more complicated than on the front wheel, of course, as you have to mess with the chain and derailleur to take off the wheel.
Soon Gilbert, with his white buddy standing by and offering encouragement and advice, was giving step-by-step instructions and implementations:
He released the lever on the back wheel, which was tightened so hard that I couldn’t get it off by hand, and took off the wheel.
Deflated the rear tire and gently slid the tire off the rim on one side only and pulled the tube out, leaving the tire in place on one side.
Put two puffs of air, two puffs only, into the new spare tube and inserted it gently on the rim.
Showed me how to use my little pump with “two-hand power,” holding the wheel and valve in one hand and pumping air with the other.
Illustrated and had me repeat the maneuvers necessary to re-insert the wheel on the bike.
I was touched by Gilbert’s help. He and his buddy didn’t have to stop. But they were good Samaritans and expert teachers too. And made it clear to me, by their word and example, that I might study how my bike works before I head off blithely on the trail.
The Zen of bicycle maintenance, yes? You who take out your bike, and maybe take out a dog or woodchuck or, gods forfend, a skunk, should know something about how to take care of the bike … and yourself.
And perhaps some day, not too far down the line, take care of another biker who needs your help and will pass on the lessons to other unschooled bikers too.
As a black man, too, Gilbert was offering help to someone he might not have been inclined to help. What was his experience with whites? Generally good and friendly? But certainly he has seen racism in his day. If there aren’t too many black folks cycling on the trail, that may be a reflection of economic circumstances as well as recreational preference. Bikes can cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. It’s cheaper to walk, or find a hoop and bring your basketball. (Gilbert, I surmise, is a professional with a good job.)
Most of the minorities we see on the trail are Hispanic, and they are generally walking. If you yell “On the left!” when about to pass, another biker claims, they move to the left. But if you yell “A la izquierda!,” I say, they’ll understand the Spanish warning and keep to the right. Strange but true.
Oh Lawd, whatever the case, don’t send me too many hurt dogs, don’t give me too many flats. And let us all be thankful for aid that arrives, whatever the motive, whoever the man, and render the same unto others some day.
P.S. Gilbert chided me for turning the bike over, onto handlebars and seat, suggesting I would scratch the finish this way. (I don’t think this is true, as the bike rests on bars and seat, not tubing.) He said, “You wouldn’t turn your wife upside down, would you, and treat her that way?” I allowed as to how it depended on what I wanted from her … but Gilbert didn’t respond to this joke. He was in the heuristic mode, not jocular.
Every other week I’ve been tutoring kids up in Bentonville, a smart group of Indian-American kids whose immigrant parents want them to assimilate and succeed. They are ahead of their grade levels already and like reading if not, necessarily, writing, which comes less naturally than reading, or speaking, and which requires more learning and more patience.
One of the kids — let’s call her A — is just seven years old now, eight this fall, like my granddaughter Ruby. She’s the youngest kid I tutor and the silliest, which I appreciate.
When I came to the door the other night, A hid behind it, on the inside, and opened the door so I couldn’t see her. “Oh, my goodness!” I proclaimed. “An automatic door opener!” A’s mother and I smiled.
Sometimes A is quite attentive and focused; other times, she’s full of exhaustible and combustible energies. She curls in a ball on her chair, beside mine, and tries out various feline positions. She hums and jabbers and is intent on telling me stories of the day or jokes. Sometimes she runs around the room.
It’s at junctures like these that I think the two of us should step outside, into the backyard, and find a tree to climb. Go way up to the crown and have a look-see at the neighborhood. Scramble out on the branches and grab some nuts. Sit there together, crack the nuts in our steel jaws, and pick out the meats with our claws.
Then and only then return to the educational business at hand.
Wouldn’t such a climb be what is called “active learning”? In truth, I might try to accommodate my tutees with some such squirrely exercises. (I remember teaching college way back when, when the simple expedient of throwing a rubber ball around the room to all who wanted to ask or answer a question produced astonishingly results!)
Drove Ruby, my seven-year-old granddaughter to Happy Hollow School this morning to save her time on a long bus ride. Had to enter the school through the office, get a visitor pass, and then accompany Ruby to the gym, where the kids all gather before the school day.
Well, they don’t just gather, they expend energy. While most of the kids were knotted around the gym floor, in class groups, there were seven or eight lines of kids at the far end of the gym. A teacher or gym coach whistled and seven, eight kids thundered furiously down the length of the gym and then back again. I was dumbfounded, thunderstruck — standing there gape-mouthed, no doubt, at the spectacle of so much energy so early in the day (it was about 7:30 am). Then I started to laugh, and laugh, and laugh. I kissed Ruby goodby, she trundled over to her classmates, blonde hair swinging, backpack too, and her crazy grandfather stood there on the sideline, distinctly out of the game, and roared with laughter. The kids must’ve thought I’d lost my mind.
If these kids, who have so much energy, excess energy, obscene energy, could only siphon some off for their elders! We could pay them, couldn’t we? Outright bribe them and, vampire-like, suck some elan vital. Or have them trade their energy for a consideration — say an extra TV show, or a bowl of ice cream, or quality time with Mom and Dad at the venue of their choice.
I’m prepared to do a little gym work, say at 2 pm or so, a few times a week (I do go to a seniors’ gym), and to bike a couple of times per week — activities I enjoy — but early-morning track or fisticuffs, no way!