Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Highways 2

After spending a few days visiting friends in Wallingford PA, the town where I grew up, I planned to drive up to Cape Cod and spend the night on my way to Acadia NP in Maine. As I drove down the New Jersey Turnpike my wallet got lighter and lighter with each mile that I crawled along between traffic jams and I started to want to get away from the coast.
When I stopped for lunch in Connecticut I was sitting in my car eating a sandwich and a little girl let go of her grandfather’s hand and ran toward the street. He chased her and scooped her up just as she stepped off the sidewalk towards a passing truck. When her grandmother stopped screaming and saw that she was OK they all let out a laugh; but I was still horrified, I needed to get away from the traffic and the people and the noise. I changed my course and started away from the coast towards the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Sun and the Cave

I wake up and get ready for a hike and spelunking in the wind caves. I find M outside watering and weeding her garden. I walk out and eat some tomatoes and berries off the plants in her garden and help pull some weeds. Across the cornfield behind her house some Amish farmers are raising a barn on a hilltop. I can see all the way through because the doors haven’t been attached on either side and I can see their distinctive hats in silhouette as they work.

Breakfast is made of eggs from the chickens and an onion from the garden. On the way to the wind caves we pull off the road where two large wagons full of corn and peppers fresh from the field behind have been parked and we pick up a green pepper to eat on the hike and some corn for dinner. The road to the trailhead follows Pequea Creek to the Susquehanna River and the village of Pequea then winds up a narrow road into the hills. 

The Wind Caves are a labyrinth of tectonic caves buried under the forested hills above the Susquehanna River in Pequea. The chambers, tunnels and pits are the cracks between broken sheets of bedrock. M and I sit at the entrance of the cave and take our last sips of water and bites of food before stashing the pack in a hollowed log up the hill; the passages will be too tight to allow us to bring anything in with us. We switch on our headlamps and pass through the sheared stone into the dark. The air is dense and cold; the light of my headlamp is reflected by swirling droplets of water permanently suspended in the saturated air of the narrow corridors.

The first branching of the cave seems to be blocked by a collapse but after searching the gaps in the stone we find a thin slot to slide through into a blind pocket leading to the next chamber. Moisture seeps through the walls and shimmers as I look around with my headlamp. As we climb over boulders I look up and in the darkness I see a single candle flame bending lazily in the slow air current of the cave. As we get closer the walls around us begin to glow with a warm light and we rise into a chamber illuminated by red candles flickering in the crevices of the wall. The chamber is filled with the smoke of these candles lit by an earlier visitor now gone. We extinguish a number of them and as the room clears our headlamps fall on painted messages covering the walls. The largest of which states in large, bold letters “HELL” with an arrow pointing down into a deep pit opened up between the ground and the wall. The pit drops down 12 feet through narrow gaps between rocks. Finding my footing on a shelf of stone I lower myself slowly into the pit called Hell, careful to study my footing on the wet stones before letting myself drop to the bottom.

The connected passage goes deeper into the ground, dropping into a narrow high ceilinged chamber. The light of the remaining candles no longer warms the walls and in the cool darkness there is a momentary relief from the claustrophobia. To descend once again we slide down through a gap that is so tight that my hips barely fit and I have to contort my back and shoulders to avoid getting stuck and I doubt that I would be able to return through the passage easily. Moving through this lowest area we have to lie against the inclined floor and slide on our backs. With the wall of stone pressing against my chest as I slide under, I feel that the weight of all the earth above is pressing on me.

The passage reveals a precarious climb with few handholds. M climbs up and discovers that this leads back to the high ceilinged chamber. I try to make the climb and as I find my handholds, my leg becomes stuck as I try to lift it onto a ledge. The length from my knee to my foot is too long to fit between the walls. As I struggle to raise my body onto this ledge my hands begin to tire in their grip of the jagged shards of rock jutting out from the ledge above and my foot slips from its hold and I fall a couple of feet before catching myself. M tries to help me up but I feel my grip tiring and decide to try to return through the narrow gap and tell her I’ll meet her on the other side.

As I pass through the gap with the rocks over my chest I begin to feel crushed and constricted. I inch myself slowly through the hole leading back to the large chamber but have to turn back because my jacket is getting caught on the rocks. I remove my jacket and toss it up through the hole and start again. There isn’t enough room for me to get my arms over my head so I push up with my legs and slide on my back over the rocks. Contorting my body around the stepped shape of the hole, I inch myself upward until my belt snags on the edge of a stone. Stuck in an uncomfortable position but not able to go back and start over I begin to panic and feel that my body is expanding to fill the cracks in the rock and lodge me here forever. I close my eyes and lay my face down on the cool wet stone and press my back hard into the ledge until my belt clears the stone and I am able to move a foot upward. With this movement my head emerges into the large chamber and I can see M’s headlamp as she climbs down the wall in front of me. I push the rest of the way out and sit on the floor of the chamber; water drips from the ceiling onto my arm and my heart stops racing.

We climb out under the sign announcing Hell and eventually come back to the entrance of the cave. A jogger cooling off just inside the cave is silhouetted against the blinding green light of trees and open air. Muddy and bruised M and I collect our pack and continue up the trail to a rocky outcrop overlooking the river. This open space is exhilarating after hours underground between the cracks in the bedrock. We sit and talk and eat our pepper from the corn wagon and some raspberries that we picked along the way. The wind and sun dry the mud on our clothes as we watch the boats launch from the pier across the river. As the sun disappears behind greying clouds we return along the trail to the car. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Blues Harp

E and I spent the evening at a bar off Dupont Circle with some bratwurst and a few liter steins of beer. On the way to the Metro station we find a chestnut tree growing on the corner of 14th and S and cut down a few chestnuts. Before going to bed he gives me his harmonica so that I may have a portable instrument to play on my journey. I’ve always enjoyed his harmonica playing and this gift means so much to me; I’ll carry it with me wherever I go now, even though I don’t yet know how to play it!

The next morning I pack up my car and start driving into rural Pennsylvania to visit my friend M. She has a 19th century house nestled between cornfields where she raises chickens and rabbits and grows vegetables on an acre. The house is filled with her paintings and exquisitely detailed quilts. A wooden table at the center of the kitchen holds vegetables freshly cut from the garden outside; three zucchini-squash and an onion. Against the wall next to the door in the kitchen are a pedestal sink and a medicine cabinet, used for the bathroom adjoining the kitchen over the stairs to the basement that was too small to hold them. Just outside the door leading to the dining room an upright piano is tucked into the corner. After dinner M plays the piano while her roommate studies at the table and I try to harmonize on my new harmonica. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Modern Art

Last night I was asking about places to go in DC the next day and someone suggested the Hirshhorn Museum. “Ughh!!” another of the group said “only if you like modern art…”. I do; in fact I wouldn’t have been interested in any other kind that day.
As I explored the museum the next day I thought more about this and about one of my goals on this trip; to develop my style of painting further. I’ve noticed that my paintings are becoming more minimalist and this is no doubt because my taste in art has shifted over the last couple of years. It has taken me a while to learn to truly enjoy modern art rather than enjoying it just because I know it is important. I think that the majority of art education that we get in grade school ensures that we will never enjoy art as grownups. Technical skill alone is praised while the meaning and emotion evoked are not. Because of this, modern art looks like a degradation of technical skill to many people; A less accurate recreation of a scene.
However, art was always a representation rather than a recreation. If a bird can be represented by two penstrokes, could that be superior to a bird rendered with two thousand penstrokes? Possibly, because the simpler bird will become whichever bird the viewer remembers if the scene is evocative of a memory for them. This means that specific pieces of art will resonate with a limited audience and that audience’s enjoyment will be more potent when the details are restrained to leave room for their own experiences to fill in.
A room, walls plastered with yellowing handwritten notes, stirred by a single panning fan; vacant except for a glass case containing two porcelain heads of lettuce. This isn’t a recreation of anything I’ve ever seen, but the warm light, the fluttering of the notes and the dark contrast of the black framed case and lettuce are evocative of the elements of memories that were buried in my mind until I walked into that room. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Overnight the wind blows hard and I watch the trees crash against one another over my car as thunder threatens a storm in the distance. By morning the storm has cleared and I make my way down to an open meadow to do some writing before leaving to visit my friend E in Arlington.
The empty mountain roads give way to the wide choked highways of DC and though I’ve only been away from town for a couple of days I feel a little overwhelmed by the tangle of highways stacked four high that I’m navigating.

E returns from work and we go buy some food to cook for some of his friends that will be stopping by that evening. Later we all sit out on the porch with beers and people watch as the workers in suits walk home from the metro and E plays his harmonica in harmony with a John Prine album.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bacon, Finally.

The road is across Virginia and into the Shenandoah Valley. I’m pleased that the car doesn’t struggle to climb up into the mountains with all the added furniture and gear. As I pass into Shenandoah National Park the ranger asks if I’ll be visiting other parks in the coming year and might want an annual pass. I give an emphatic “Yes!” and tell him about my planned trip while he punches my new pass and gets my signature.  
I hike a trail down to dark hollow falls; a series of 5 or 6 cascading waterfalls where the Hogcamp Branch of the Rose River trips down 70 feet of basalt. I follow the trail to the base of the falls and then cross over the water and climb the slick rocks back up to the top. The sun is behind the trees just over the top of the highest fall and it illuminates a cloud of vapor emanating from the river and drifting into the woods. As I’m hiking back up the trail I stop to watch a butterfly and a bee fight over a thistle on the side of the trail. The bee delivers a few quick blows and the delicate butterfly retreats to another thistle only to be chased and bullied by the bee again.
I camp up on top of loft mountain in a campsite with a firepit where I can try out my stove. My stove is a simple alcohol burner set under a metal grate. I fill the burner up with antifreeze and ignite it. The flame is nearly clear and difficult to see even in the fading light but I can feel the heat. I cook some bacon and toast in a pan over the flame and have a good dinner with some sliced tomatoes. I notice that as I crouch over the stove I begin to feel light headed from the fumes of the burning alcohol and make sure to stand upwind of the burner as I finish cooking the rest of the bacon to save for breakfast the next day.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Road Ahead

Valuing the journey equally to the destination is challenging because most journeys are borne of the desire to reach a final destination. After that destination has been determined the course of the journey plays out as anticipation of the destination. I’ve tried to keep the destination of my journey vague so that I may more fully enjoy the journey. I know where I’ll be in 2 months and I know where I’ll be in 5 months but I didn’t know where I’d be tonight until this morning.
Where I ended up is at the edge of the continent on the outer banks of North Carolina. I sit here and watch a storm roll in from the west. Below the roiling of the flashing clouds the Bodie Island lighthouse ticks off a steady beacon to me and ships watching the storm from the sea. To the east a nearly full moon rises between more gently drifting clouds. The dunes that the moon reveals in silhouette buzz with insects relegated to the safety of their sandy burrows to avoid the winds of the coming storm.
I awaken before 5 to strangely artificial sounds that have emerged as the insect noise has died down; a mirror hung placard tapping my windshield, a towing chain swinging, a flap wrapping on the window of my neighbor’s camper. As the horizon in front of me begins to thaw to a pale blue I see Mars and Jupiter rising side by side just over the clouds out at sea. Jupiter, the larger and brighter, is farther away. Mars, small and dirt red, is almost lined up between me and Jupiter. Stretched out before me is a road half a billion miles long with planetary signposts along the way. To get to the end, I’d have to jump over the rising Sun. Mars and Jupiter drown in the red that floods the horizon; the celestial road vanishes and the terrestrial road comes to life and I am on it again.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

My Cabin

I plan to be on the road until the end of the year. To improve my flexibility and comfort in travel I wanted to construct a compact camper in the back of an SUV that would allow me to sleep, cook, paint and write on the road. After trying a number of vehicles I settled on a Honda Element. It has a large space inside with a high ceiling, some limited off-road capability, good gas mileage and a skylight in the back that would allow me to look up at the stars as I went to sleep each night.
It’s typical of me to simplify everything that I attempt at the outset so that the experience of preparing may be as stressful as possible. I had drastically over-simplified my plan for building the camper into my car. Fortunately my friend (Guiness World Record holder, National Beard registrant, and father to an adorable baby girl: Dr. Colin Tschida. Without whom I would never have been able to make this journey) was willing to leave his table at the coffee shop vacant for a couple of weeks and help me design and build this thing, while teaching me a great deal about carpentry along the way.
Left to Right, Top to Bottom: Cutting the dadoes for each side of the trunk. Fitting the trunk together before gluing. Clamping overnight while glue dries. Assembling lid for trunk, rim was attached using biscuit joints. Fitting lid and drawer to trunk. Checking trunk in car. Fitting trunk and bed into car. Cutting out space for trap door access to bed storage. Fitting trap door to bed. Adding hinge to trunk lid so that it can open without hitting the rim of the door. Cup holder! Full spare tire cover and "conference table".
With all of that finished I prepared my house to be vacant for 6 months and packed my camper full of paints, canvases, books, clothes, tools and kitchen supplies; all carefully chosen to save space. Now I face a more difficult decision; where do I go after I drive away from my home?