Winter Respite Day

I rode up to Ashland on my motorcycle in December, one of those rare days in winter when a major weather change on its way here pushes warm clear air into our area for a single day. Like Brigadoon, a beautiful summers day suddenly appears out of the gloom and we know it will not be here for more than 24 hours. Well, always there is the wind, but we’ll take it anyway.

On my way back from a visit to my nephew’s house, I detoured off to Boy Scout Road , a winding blacktop ribbon that descends into a creek valley.

Off to the left, at the bottom of the descent, there is a subdivision of fine homes now, but when I was young there was only a dirt road that crossed the creek and wound up into the hills. I rode motorcycles in those hills nearly every weekend, year round, exploring the paths that now are paved roads and backyards. Usually I was alone, but I recall one cold, wet, winter afternoon when a friend came off his bike in the mud and launched the Triumph off the side of one of those trails. We watched as it crashed through the tops of pine trees on its way to the valley floor.

In my childhood, there were few homes along Boy Scout Road and the Boy Scout Camp for which it was named sat in the middle of its length. I spent many nights camped there in a canvas tent or on the floor in the rustic cabin that served as its headquarters. Across the road is the field, formed by the creek’s overflow through centuries, where formations were held, and in some of my best memories, night games commenced. We would play Capture the Flag in the field and surrounding woods. I recall vividly running through the woods in the dark, only moonlight for illumination, but feeling no particular limitation. Young eyes take in so much more light.

Just up the road is the sweeping curve where as a teenager in an old yellow MGA, I steered hard to make the aged rattletrap go around and heard a strange “plink, plink, plink” sound, like someone playing the high ends of a vibraphone. It was the spokes of the steering wheel, the ones that attached it to the column, breaking one by one with increasing rapidity until I was skidding, wheels locked, into the gravel shoulder holding the now separated wheel in my two hands, like some sort of character in a silent film comedy.

I meandered over to Rt. 168 where I could see the gas line and power line cuts which used to offer an opening for dirt bikes to go anywhere across several counties. Back then, in the days before everyone went offl-roading, they were unfenced, open from the two-lane blacktop and usually trimmed a couple of times per year so that the utility company employees could get to them in Jeeps or on foot. One was particularly challenging, requiring a rider to descend into a wide, deep ditch and then immediately ascend a steep rough slope to make it to the first leveled off spot where some degree of controlled riding could be attempted. On more than one occasion I had crashed badly enough in the effort to require riding home crookedly, holding bent bars, with my body sitting sideways on the seat to offset the damaged front end. But sometimes I made it and the ride the trail then offered was enough to keep me, like the lab rat that pushes the lever for a food reward, coming back.

There was the apple orchard, Pattons, along the way, a fall stop every year with my parents when I was small. We would get a crate of the red fruit to take home and I would stand watching the ancient wooden screw-type cider press in its brutal work of crushing apples into the brown, unfiltered juice which ran down a worn trough to fill glass gallon jugs. Back home, a drink of the fresh cider with its intense sweet flavor and slightly pulpy texture was close to nirvana, heightened by the smell of the apple pie Mom was baking for later. Dad liked his warm pie with a wedge of cheddar cheese, while I preferred ice cream. In my early teens, I used those glass jugs to siphon gas out of Dad’s car (the inevitable mouthful of gasoline was not nearly as tasty as the cider) on occasion to refill my moped enough to get it down to the Ashland station at the bottom of Gartrell hill. There, a couple of quarters would provide the necessary fill up for a weekend’s riding. The orchard is long gone now, replaced by a group of houses.

Up the road was the place where a work friend of my brother lived. It seemed that whatever device we needed, whatever service such as welding odd things together, could always be found there.

The drag strip was on Rt. 168, a roughly quarter mile straight marked off by a couple of faded paint stripes placed there long before my time by earlier teenagers eager to try their mettle against each other. Friends and I made countless passes down that strip on motorcycles and sometimes in cars, even though the four-wheelers meant that someone was in the wrong lane for the duration. The painted lines are gone now.

Near the end, before 168 joined Rt. 60, there was the house where I made the deal to purchase my Spanish branded motorcycle dealership in the early 1970’s. As grand as that sounds in this current time when motorcycle dealers are huge edifices stuffed with dozens or more shiny machines, mine began as a van load of miscellaneous parts in boxes, some parts books and manuals and the exchange of an amount of cash that even then wouldn’t have bought much of a used car. The two guys I was buying it from were only a little older than me, though by then much wiser in the ways of going broke in one’s passion. Later, I would tell myself it was much better to have done it and failed than to wonder in my old age what would have happened if I tried. I’m in my old age now and I still think that is correct.

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I wanted to do something sort of special to mark my graduation into the ranks of septuagenarians. The last couple of years leading up to that status had been pretty rough, with four significant surgeries in less than eighteen months, a substantial loss of my ability to walk and a shoulder repair that resulted in a partially paralyzed left hand. Things had been looking pretty grim, but a lot of work and many rehab sessions with some excellent physical and occupational therapists had produced considerable improvement and I was beginning to feel somewhat functional again.

Bicycling had been an interest of mine, though not exactly a passion. But now, with walking very much restricted, I needed to do something to keep moving, for exercise and to expend enough calories to accommodate my addiction to pie. I decided a few months before the big Seven-Oh that I would return to the Virginia Creeper Trail and do the whole thirty four miles at one go. I know that’s nothing for a dedicated bicycle person, but for me, it seemed a challenge and an attainable goal for the purpose. I had done the Trail three times before, years ago, with friends and family but in two day halves, going down from Whitetop Mountain to Damascus one day and then the next, from Abingdon to Damascus to complete the journey. There are shuttle companies there that make that sort of thing easy. This time, a few days after my milestone birthday, I would get a shuttle from the Abingdon end to Whitetop and ride back to my truck.

On the day, I left my motel room and drove to the little park where the trail begins or ends, depending on your direction and waited for the shuttle driver. He took me and my bike to Damascus where I boarded another van with nine others for the long winding trip up the mountain to Whitetop. Dropping us off there at 9:45 on this cold morning, with a light misty rain starting, the driver told us that if we really wanted to do the entire length, we would need to go seven tenths of a mile in the other direction to the actual beginning and start from there. The rest of the shuttle passengers headed down the trail while I and a young couple from North Carolina took his advice, heading the opposite way along a muddy track that looked as if it had seen little traffic lately. We ducked under some fallen trees, skirted a few mud holes and finally came to a road that seemed to be the end of the trail. The only avenue across the road was someone’s gravel driveway, marked by a mailbox. We had thought there would be something more to mark it, but this was it. As we started back, we came to a stone marker, visible from this direction, indicating a half mile. The young couple went on at their quicker pace, leaving me alone as I had wanted it. This was to be, in my mind, a solitary endeavor.

This was what I had envisioned, a day by myself on the trail without anyone else’s schedules or needs to consider. It had been several years, but it came back to me quickly that I really loved being out in the woods on a bicycle. The quiet, the calm, the peace of the forest though it’s a cliche, is true.

The rain stayed with me, intermittent, all the way down to Damascus. Never really enough to get very wet, but enough to be on my glasses and make me cautious for slippery patches.

The first 17 miles of this trail are downhill, sometimes fairly steep, and on this day, muddy. There are rocks and roots and holes, enough to keep my street bike, with its lack of suspension and skinny tires, jolting the whole time. The trick is to stand on the pedals, balancing your weight and like riding a dirt motorcycle, keep nearly no pressure on the grips, holding on just as lightly as possible while maintaining contact with the bike, two fingers on the levers.

Once in a while I would hear a clatter behind. me and a young person or couple would call out “On your left” and fly past, confident in their strength and reflexes, unworried about any consequences of a fall. I remember being like that.

Sun broke through the overcast intermittently as the elevation decreased and the trail leveled out, requiring a bit more pedaling. . By late morning, I had come out of my jacket and stashed it in the little backpack brought for that purpose. Near noon, I stopped for lunch at the crossroads in Taylor Valley, the Va Creeper Cafe, where I got a “super foods salad” and, there being no pie, their “famous chocolate cake”, a bottle of water and a cup of coffee. Smokers had gathered inside, so I ate on the porch, holding down my paper plate from the light wind.

I rolled into Damascus at about 12:30 and went to Sundog to drop off payment for my morning shuttle. To straighten out my legs and back a bit, I wandered around their extensive shop, perusing the various bike-specific goodies on offer, but being a less than Really Serious Biker, I didn’t find anything I needed enough to have to carry in my pack. I backtracked to the little restaurant/bakery and ice cream shop on the east side of Damascus for a snack but since my last visit here, the place has been sold to the Damascus Brewing company and made into a restaurant with beer and sandwiches but no pie and no ice cream.

On the other side of town the trail changes character for a while, running beside the highway for a bit before ducking down again to stay by the Holsten River. There are rapids at various points, so raucous that I can hear the whitecaps before I see them. There are more riders here, probably because this portion is flat and connects the two towns of Damascus and Abingdon. A few miles from town I meet a woman, head down and riding hard, coming the other way, who frantically flags me down. She is so tired that she drops the bicycle when she stops. Breathlessly she tells me that “two couples from Kentucky” had encountered a black bear in the road, standing up on its hind legs, and that the big animal had then run over the embankment toward the water and, of course, the Trail. She gasps at me to “go the other way, fast”. I look at her and she at me, there’s a long pause and then she says quietly, “you’re going on, aren’t you ?”, and I reply “yes”. She shakes her head slowly and gives me the “lost cause” look that I am so familiar with, and resignedly picks up her bike to pedal off.

Since I am here writing this, you may assume that there were no marauding bears to challenge for the trail ahead. I did feel the need to tell the few other riders, as they came up from behind, that I had been warned. They, like me, went on. One girl said, laughing, “I need more information !” I told her others had gone ahead of her and most likely the bear had eaten them instead.

Nearing Abingdon, the trail widens and becomes a steady, very slight, uphill just enough to require pedaling, but not much effort. The beautiful wooden bridges, some curving with the old railroad path over the wide rocky stream are more frequent now. Sometimes as I approach one, the afternoon sun now bringing out the soft colors of the yellowing grass, the water glinting and a barn off in the distance, it seems too perfect, a picture postcard or a Disney cartoon. As Queen put it, “is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?” There are benches in the shade at various points now and I stop at one to rest a bit and just take in the scenery. I’m eating an energy bar when a chipmunk pops up from the grass across the trail. I flip him the remainder of my snack and get back on the bike.

A few miles from the end the trail runs behind the suburban houses, causing me to wonder what it’s like to live in a house with this marvelous place across the back fence. Would I, if I lived here, get jaded to it, not come out here anymore ?

I reached my truck at the Abingdon end at 3;41 PM, having started at 9:45 that morning. My bike speedometer/computer on the handlebar says my actual time rolling was 4 hours and 30 minutes and, including my backtracks and detours, a bit over 37 miles. As I’m loading the bike into my truck, a couple arrives to unload theirs. They aren’t going far, they say, just spending a little time there to unwind. I have to agree it’s good for that.

Back at my motel, I’m tired but not as much as I thought I would be. I decide to celebrate with a dinner at the Tavern, an historic restaurant near the downtown. I’m escorted to the balcony overlooking the courtyard and provided with a fine meal while I watch the couples dining al fresco below. A perfect end to a perfect day.

Then the bill comes and I realize that my wallet is still in the little pack I had used on the trail, safely ensconced back in my motel room. Welcome to my 70’s !

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Just like us…

For centuries, many people believed that animals, like dogs, had no feelings, no independent thought, and some even believed against all evidence that they didn’t feel pain. They were, in this system, automata, living but unfeeling machines. Some religious groups still, I am told, subscribe to that notion, despite its obvious falsity. One needs only to spend a little time around any of the animals we are accustomed to sharing our lives with to know the difference.

An anecdote on point.

Simon, the adopted poodle,  spent the last four years of our cat Diana’s life with her as a constant presence in his world. She tolerated him, played with him when it suited her and generally ignored him when it didn’t. He seemed to think that he was the dominant member of the pair, though clearly he was not. By her own choice, she lived in our heated garage, away from the house, with several heated beds, food and water and her litter box. I would put her up at night, to protect her from coyotes (or, knowing Diana’s absolute confidence, to protect them from her) and each morning Simon would lead me to the garage and bark for me to open the door and let her out. We would go in and she would pad down the stairs from the upstairs bed she preferred, jump up on my workbench to get petted and a few treats, and then she and Simon would exit together to start a new day. A few months ago Diana’s end time came, from old age, and we had her put down.

Now I am not one to overly ascribe human characteristics to animals, nor do I believe in magic or other unexplainable phenomena. I can only report that from the time I came home from the necessary but awful trip to the vet, Simon would not go in the garage. He did not bark at the door and if I opened it to go in for my own business, he would not follow unless I firmly called him in. Even then, he would not go into the separate shop portion where the workbench is.

Then a few weeks ago, four months after Diana’s death, Simon suddenly started going back out to the garage in the morning and barking to be let in. He went in the shop and stood at the base of the stairs, looking up, apparently waiting to hear Diana’s feet hitting the floor above. When nothing happened, he would look at me, look up at the empty workbench and then, seeming deflated, walk out of the garage. Now he still does it, but his time at the foot of the stairs is shorter, his glance at the workbench is brief.

I cannot explain rationally his refusal to enter the garage after the time of her death nor can I explain why, after a gap of four months, he suddenly began expecting her to have returned.

I do not claim to know what goes on in a dog’s mind, but I think I do know from the evidence in front of me that definitely they have one and that it is active in trying to understand the world they live in and the creatures they share it with. I know without a doubt they feel happiness, they feel a form of sadness, and it is beyond cavil that they feel pain, both physical and psychological. If one can define so broad a concept as “love”, they feel that as well by nearly any definition.

Simon is our pet, he is a cute little dog whose antics amuse us on a daily basis and yes, on occasion he can be a bit of a nuisance when he insists on our changing our plans to meet his desires of the moment, though we do it gladly. But he also is an independent creature in this world, making sense of it the best way he can, with the information that he has, doing what must be done so that his needs are being met in the situation he is in….in other words, doing exactly the same thing we humans, and every other animal in the world, are doing every day.

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We live in an old farmhouse surrounded on 3 sides by open land. Mice live here on this land, as they have done for probably thousands of years. The “foundation “ of our house is stacked limestone rock, leaving lots of mouse-size holes giving the furry little guys easy access. .

In my garage, away from the house, I have stored in the rafters, about seven feet off the floor, a variety of things that I hope to someday find a good use for, including several lengths of leftover plastic electrical conduit (basically plastic pipe) some of which are 2 inches in diameter and perhaps 5 or six feet long. One recent day I did think of a need for some and went to pull down a piece…getting showered by several cups of seed hulls, a double handful of shredded insulation and I am sure, a great quantity of mouse poop. I wasn’t happy, but I had to stand there for a moment, looking around the space, marveling at the ingenuity and persistence of the residents. To accomplish this, the mouse had to find the stuff, carry it from its location into my garage, go up a concrete block wall to the rafters, walk across the rafter to where the pipe was located (remember, he or she had to have located it first and identified it as a good homesite) then crawl out several feet on the rounded, slick plastic surface and go over the end of the pipe from the top to the inside, all without losing the cargo being carried. And, being mouse-sized, the extent of cargo carrying is limited to what can fit in the mouth, so all of this stuff required many, many trips back and forth. The seeds are outside at the bird feeder, about 60 feet from the garage, the insulation is, or was unfortunately, in the walls of my house a bit farther on, so each round trip was about 120 feet or more. For a creature that is about an inch and a half long (not including the tail of course) I make a generous assumption of an individual stride of about a half inch. Covering 120 feet each trip is nearly 3000 steps, which for me, with an average stride of a bit over three feet is equivalent to about one and seven tenths miles, give or take, assuming the mouse makes a bee line each time. Imagine if you had to walk nearly two miles carrying each item you bring home from the grocery (not bag, each individual item) including climbing up a wall and shinnying across the rafters and then ducking inside a pipe from the top, and then do it again until you had brought home enough stuff to make a place and a food supply for your family. Very impressive little critters.

One of my core principles is that killing another creature never should be the first option. We live-trap them when they get in the house and carry them across the creek up into the field where they can go about their business until they find a way back in. They live out there all summer and try to re-establish residency in the house when the weather turns cold

So I will continue the battle each year with an adversary that makes up for its small brain by using all of the other assets it has, not the least of which are ingenuity and persistence. And someday I will be gone from here and they will win, as ingenuity and persistence always does.

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Motocross racing came to the United States in the late 60’s, a different kind of racing from the “Scrambles”that dominated the off road competition scene where I lived. Scrambles was done on a bare dirt track, with a jump and both left & right turns. Motocross used natural terrain, over hills and across creeks and was done in “motos” of 45 minutes, not the 10 lap 15 minute Scrambles heats. I had done a little Scrambling at a tiny track in Wurtland Kentucky, years before with a 250cc Ducati, with less than stellar success. ( See the previous post “Ducati Scrambler” )

This new fad, swept scrambles and nearly everything else off the magazine pages. My new heros were names like Joel Robert (a Belgian, so pronounced “Ro-Bear”), Roger DeCoster , Gerrit Wolsink, Heiki Mikkola and others I cannot remember, spell or even pronounce now. I was singularly untalented at motocross, but that didn’t keep me from trying. There was a small track in Proctorville Ohio, just across the river from Huntington, West Va. where races were held with some frequency. With help from my brother and his welding rig, I made a trailer for my Suzuki TS 250 dual sport so that I could strip it to racing form and haul it to the track. The trailer was welded up from 2 inch angle iron, using a steel pipe as an axle and the unique American Motors Rambler hubs that could be stubbed onto such a pipe by even a welder so inexperienced as I. The deck was 3/4″ plywood, painted with marine varnish and the rails were also plywood bolted down to the deck with angle iron brackets. I’m not much of an engineer, but I can make something sturdy. The sturdiness came at the expense of weight, however, as any of you readers can easily add up from the ingredient list above. I was to pull this device, loaded with the somewhat heavy Suzuki, with my car at the time, a 1970 Volkswagon Karmann Ghia convertible….not exactly a powerhouse of a vehicle even when unburdened by trailers. I’m not sure but it is possible that the weight of the trailer and bike was approaching that of the car.

The bike’s race prep consisted mainly of acquiring an oversize set of knobby tires and a number plate with “74” chosen because that was what I could make easily with black electrical tape.

Driving to the track was an adventure in physics as the little car struggled to deal with its load and the load tried its best to overcome the car that was restricting its forward progress. We lurched on in this fashion for the 30 miles or so to the track, found our way to the pit area (just grass, marked off with tape) and unloaded. All around were other new acolytes to the faith of Motocross, some as green and unprepared as me, others with racebikes, real boots and jerseys like those on the heros in the magazines. The crackle of two stroke exhaust was a constant background with the wonderful smell of burning castor oil in the air. I set off on a practice lap before the track got crowded. I was out there, going up the hill, down through the creek, on an actual motocross track….this was great ! I shot down the short straightaway leading to a left hand curve in the loamy track, holding on the gas until the last possible second, carrying more speed than I thought possible, hit the brakes just before disaster….and then two racebikes came around me on either side, still on full throttle, like jet fighters parting formation around a hapless Cessna. They disappeared into the turn, changed direction like slot cars and were gone. Maybe I was out of my league here.

Still, youth knows little discouragement in putting itself in harms way, so I continued, with little success but great enthusiasm. I recall one race in which I, far back in the pack, was competing with another back marker similar to myself and I decided I could take him at the next jump, just before the sharp left that started up the long hill. I pinned the throttle as we came to the crest and soared farther and higher than ever before….not just past my rival, but over his head. He made the landing and the left turn. I made a landing that crashed down so hard my handlebars rotated in the clamps, my chin slammed into the bolts on top of the steering head and the world went black for just a moment. When I realized where I was, the bike was still upright and moving, so I tried to pull the bars back up to continue….and that’s when I saw the blood. It was all over the lime green tank, as if someone had chosen that particular spot to slaughter a cow. I thought “Where did that come from?” and just as quickly realized that I was the only likely source since I was the only one on the bike. I pulled over to the side of the track, removed my glove and put my hand up to my chin, finding not the smooth surface I expected but an amorphous warm wet hole. I left the bike where it sat and began walking up to the start-finish area where the officials and the ambulance were stationed. As I walked into the area, people would come up to me , look at my face and immediately cringe….not exactly what I had hoped for as a reaction. The ambulance had just left the track with another unfortunate competitor, so all that was left was the local constable who had come to offer his services as “security”. He was an older fellow, probably in his 40’s, with a uniform consisting of a blue shirt with his name on one pocket and a badge on the other. His vehicle was a 10 year old Chevy 4-door with a classic old-style “bubble gum” blue light on the top, wire snaking across the surface and in a window to the cigarette lighter plug. He took one look at me and I could see this was the chance he had been waiting for all his life.

He put me in the back seat of the Chevy and started down the dirt road to the highway. When we hit pavement, he floored the gas, flicked the blue light switch and got on his radio to the highway patrol. He told them that he was transporting a badly injured person to the hospital in Huntington and needed the bridge across the river into town cleared of traffic. I looked over his shoulder and saw that the rocking, weaving sedan was going 90 mph down the two lane road. I wondered if I had survived the motocross accident only to be killed fulfilling this man’s fantasy. I put my hand on the seat between us and said that I wasn’t hurt all that badly and we didn’t need to be going this fast. He growled over his shoulder in his best Clint Eastwood/Broderick Crawford imitation (and I’m not making this up!) “You just shut up and bleed, son, I’ll drive.”

We got to the huge bridge, normally thronged with traffic, to find Highway patrol cars at each end, lights ablaze, holding open our path. The Constable shot down the open bridge like the Blues Brothers through Chicago and on into Cabell Huntington hospital where the Emergency Department, having been alerted to the incoming tragedy, was somewhat let down by seeing a skinny young man, holding a hand to his bloody chin, walking in through the doors under his own power. Twenty or so stitches later, I walked out, with a broken tooth still to be dealt with by a sadistic dentist, but that’s another story.

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I have been fortunate enough to have shared my life with many dogs over 70 years. All of these have been either strays who just wandered in off the street in one fashion or another, or shelter adoptions.

The closest I ever had to an actual “breed” was Malcolm, adopted from a shelter as a “terrier mix”. When Brenda had his DNA done, after numerous inquires about his type, it turned out that he was a Schnoodle, with only two breeds in his lineage, schnauzer and poodle. He was an astounding dog, calm and serious and with an intelligence that made one question just how much difference there was between our species. He was my “office dog” for the last several years of my law practice. I recall having depositions or mediations in the conference room and seeing people in succession placing their hands under the table as Malc made his way around underneath to get petted by each.

When Malcolm passed on, (too soon, from cancer) we were devastated and could not face the thought of another dog for a while. Then, a few months later, we visited our local shelter, “just to look around”, and found the terrified furry mess that was to be Simon, our next dog.

Simon was about six years old, removed by the dog warden and a sheriff from an abusive home, and scared to death of people, particularly men. Though terrified, he wanted, needed, human contact. He was malnourished, about 50% underweight and missing a few teeth. We were told they may have been kicked out by his previous owners, who had described him to the dog warden, in an attempt to excuse their inexcusable abuse, as a “horrible little dog, untrainable, and unfriendly”. The warden, who has seen a lot of dogs, did not believe this little creature could be “horrible” and she was right. She could see a personality, a strength of will combined with an eagerness to please that shone through all of the overlay of abuse and neglect.

From his first day at our home Simon has been a perfect house dog, never failing to let us know when he needs to go out. I think no one had paid enough attention to him before to notice and finally, when a dog’s gotta go, he’s gotta go. His terror abated somewhat as Brenda held him in her lap most of the time for the first weeks we had him, and he finally realized that my approaches were only to pet or feed, not to hurt him.

We didn’t know what sort of dog he was, though we thought there was some poodle in the mix, from looking at his eyes and his kinky twisted fur.

After we adopted him (as if we really had any choice in the matter, seeing those frightened eyes), we had him groomed to remove the mats and tangles and, lo and behold, he appeared to be a poodle. Brenda got another DNA kit and when the results came back, we found we were in possession of (or the other way around) a pure-bred Miniature Poodle, 100% single breed lineage back many generations.

I guess that without knowing it, I had allowed some of the general cultural idea of small poodles as “foo foo” dogs, of “purse pets”, to creep into my impressions of the breed. I did not know that they could be so utterly affectionate and, above all, so funny.

Simon has turned out to be a natural born comedian, one who keeps Brenda and me laughing at him for much of every day. Admittedly, some of his humor is of the Barney Fife variety as this now 15 pound furball charges out into the yard, chest out, head up and swiveling for danger, growling under his breath and scratching up wads of grass as he lets everyone know, including the 80 pound German Shepard on the hill behind us, that this patch is his. Simon rushes to the exact right place to pee, then trots back into the house, nose held high, mission accomplished. We are safe until his next foray. He is confident in his ability to defend the yard, but always looks behind to make sure I’m still close enough to have his back. In the house, he sits on the “throne ” (a window seat in the bay window in the dining room, overlooking our driveway and the street) grumbling at the temerity of cats, birds and, especially, big trucks, who dare to make use of his territory for their business. The men who come once a week to steal our garbage, which we carelessly left out at the curb, offend him greatly and it is only his vigorous barking and growling from the window that forces them to abandon our container, get into their truck and flee. I’ve never had a dog with his range of vocalizations. He can bark, yip, gargle, howl, grumble low in his chest, and modulate his voice so that it sounds very much like an attempt at speech. I ponder what gradations in perceived threat call for each sound. He seems very specific and is quite frustrated at times that we cannot discern the differences. He’s trying to tell us exactly what that potential intruder might do to us, but for his protection, and all we do is laugh.

Poodles often are listed on “Smartest Breeds” compilations as second, just below Border Collies. I think it is a different kind of intelligence, less driven to work, and more focused on manipulation of the human into doing the poodle’s bidding. I had a dog years ago that was part Border Collie and her desire to have a job and do it as I wanted, was amazing. But she was not happy if she didn’t have something to do and instructions to follow. Simon is quite content to lay on a lap, sit on the Throne or repose in one of his many dog-beds strewn about the house, and await his staff coming to meet his needs for petting and treats. For a dog that was scared of people, he has adapted quickly to having servants. When he needs/wants to go outside, he comes to the nearest human and performs a spinning dance to let us know his intentions. Lazy that may seem, but he watches everything and knows our behavior patterns better than we do, able to tell what we’re going to do next at every turn. Whatever he wants, he knows it clearly and makes it his mission to see that we obey. And we do. We’ve “trained” him to the extent that he comes when called and stops when he’s told to, so that he doesn’t get into danger. We had to use another word than “No, because that word seemed to terrify him. We suspect that it was shouted at him indiscriminately followed by punishment for anything that would be normal behavior for a dog. (We tried giving him toys, but he reacted as if they were live grenades, backing away afraid. We assume that he probably was beaten for chewing things as a pup,) Beyond that level of training, it is he who has manipulated us and we are willing subjects. It is so rewarding to see the happy look in his eye, his joyful demeanor, that we gladly give in. We cut his treats into tiny pieces, so that he doesn’t get fat and restrict edible rewards to reasonable levels to keep his boyish physique, but make sure that most of his day is him getting what he wants from us. And that joy in his eyes is what we want from him, so it works out well.

Simon shares our bed, though it took a while for him to get used to being allowed. At first he looked terrified if I came into the bedroom while he was up there, expecting I suppose to be thrown off. However he soon became comfortable with his place at the end, or sometimes between us, while the three of us sleep as a pack.

For a while, following some surgery on a troublesome foot, I was unable to go up and down stairs. Prior to that our usual morning routine involved me getting up much earlier than Brenda, with Simon then moving up into my spot in the bed. When he wanted out, an hour or so later, he would jump off and come downstairs for me to let him out, and then I would take him back upstairs to snuggle in with her until she woke up. Our bed is too tall for him to jump up on by himself. For the time I was out of commission, the routine had to be altered.

Then the doc said I could weight bear again on a limited basis and I started walking around the house a bit. The next morning Simon came down, as usual, but this time he went back upstairs. I knew he couldn’t get on the bed by himself and sure enough, a few minutes later he came back down. He sat facing me in the kitchen, stared at me for a minute or so, then gave one low “woof” and looked toward the steps. It seems that he knew I was mobile enough now to take him back to bed, if I really wanted to make the effort. And he insisted that I do.

He’s getting older now, and slowing down a bit. His forays up into the field are shorter and the running in crazy circles doesn’t last as long. He sleeps a lot more during the day, but hey so do I. His life for these past few years has been about as idyllic as a dog’s can get and we feel that he deserves it. The human race, in our opinion, had failed him and we, as its representatives, owed it to him to make it up. Someone once wrote, “Humans give dogs the time we can spare, the food we can spare, the love we can spare, and in return, dogs give us everything they have”. (Seems like dogs needed a better agent.). We share our lives, them and us, and we humans are much the better for it. At least I know it works that way at our house.

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Quiet Please

Bicycling on a rural road near my home, I encountered the sound of the ubiquitous two stroke weed eater and saw a young farm worker clearing the grass along the fence line bordering the road. Sweat trickled down his face and his wet shirt clung to him as he swung the machine back and forth in wide arcs leaving a cloud of clippings strewn in his wake.

About a half mile further along, I happened upon an old farmer (old, being about my age) performing the same task but with a wood-handled scythe just as it had been done when he was a lad, younger than the one I’d just seen. The old man was in overalls with a long sleeved shirt and a broad brimmed hat. He moved easily, swinging the sharp blade out using its own weight to complete the arc, then pulling it back quickly with just enough angle for the blade to slice rather than beat, and the tall strands of grass fell neatly behind it. He was using muscle to do what the noisy little engine could accomplish, but he seemed to be working less hard than the boy.

I went back down the same road today. The space the boy cleared is covered in the brown clippings of dead grass spread thickly along the verge. Where the old man had worked his scythe, the long strands laid nicely in rows, still green for the moment.

Useful though they are, it is worth noting that the sound and fury of engines doing our work is another irritant laid upon the ears of each of us every day, the background noise of modern life. Experience and skill in a task done by hand lends an unhurried gracefulness to the accomplishment. And it is quiet

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Diana came to us on the day after Christmas, in 2004. Our niece was leaving to return home and we were standing in the driveway with her, doing the chat one does, and the subject somehow turned to her desire for another cat. As she was speaking, this small brown and gray tabby came strolling up our sidewalk with the proprietary air of one who had just taken ownership and knew exactly what she was going to do with the property. Whitney declined to take her home, since the cat was obviously pregnant, deciding that this was a bit more than her casual wish had entailed.

We tried bringing her into the house, where there were two other cats in current residence and it did not go well. Diana had claimed this place and all its environs and her only policy was one of destruction and ejection. She tried to run off the other two, with lethal force being clearly on her list of options, and then proceeded to pee on anything they might have touched. This was not going to work.

She became an outside cat, her preference anyway, with quarters established in the garage for weather and coyote protection (though in her younger years, I think a single coyote would have found more than he bargained for in trying to take her down), including heated beds on the upper and lower levels and a heated water dish for winter. Later, we heated the whole shop area for her all winter, though she still preferred to be outside most of the day.

Prior to Diana’s arrival, we often were covered up in cats as strays got dumped or just found their way to where the suckers lived. At one point we had a total of sixteen on the property, with four inside. Pregnant cats seemed to know where to arrive just before or just after producing a litter.

Diana however, after producing her progeny (more on that later) decided that this five acre property is only big enough for one cat and she kept it that way from then on, running off any others that dared intrude. I came home from a trip to find in the garage, where her food and water are kept, what looked like the results of someone shearing a calico cat. There was no blood or even much sign of a struggle, but a cat had left a lot of its fur on the floor. Diana just sat on the workbench, unscathed, calmly licking her paw like a gunslinger blowing the smoke off of a .44.

She produced 7 kittens in that first litter and we immediately made the appointment with our veterinarian to have her spayed when she had completed nursing and kitten care. She was an attentive mother, conscientious about raising and educating her young. Often I would open the door to the root cellar she had selected for her nursery to find a neat tidy row of recently deceased rodents and birds, all laid out with heads in the same direction, as if on display at a shop for sale. These were offered to the kittens with instructions for dismembering and consuming, skills they would need as grown up cats.

Homes were assured for the little ones and Diana was hustled to the clinic for spaying….but she was already pregnant again. As we would come to know, Diana always did things on her terms, as she wished. Another 5 offspring made their appearance, homes found, and we now have friends who blanche and run if we bring up the subject of kittens. Spaying was successful on this go-round and she returned home infertile but no less in control.

For fourteen years she ruled this place, patrolling daily, ever vigilant. Two resident dogs have tried their best to control her with no reaction from her but bemusement and mild irritation. She treated both, who were bigger than her, like pesky younger siblings. In my shop, her headquarters, she supervised every motorcycle repair from a perch on the seat, looking down at me and occasionally sticking a paw in to make sure I was doing it right. On the bench, she often would scatter small parts I had laid out then look at me as if to say, “That’s why you put them there, wasn’t it ?”

She was affectionate, but really only with me. Others could pet her for a minute or two, until she decided she’d had enough and emphasized her displeasure with a swat or a quick bite. But wherever I sat down, to read, to work on something in the shop or just on a bench to catch my breath, she was there beside me. Never a lap cat, but always right there within reach of my hand to scratch her head or to give me a quick rub or two with her face against my cheek.

When I would be upstairs in the tiny little room where I did what passed for exercise, I would hear a quiet meow and look to the window. Diana would climb a nearby tree, jump to the roof and make her way to this window and ask for entry so she could sit and watch my feeble efforts. I don’t know how she knew I was there nor whether she did it for companionship or amusement.

We didn’t know how old she was when she arrived, assuming hopefully that she was young. A couple of years ago, she began losing weight slowly and her pace and range diminished. Veterinary exams showed no illness, just the expected decline of aging. Still she kept up her appointed rounds. A year or so ago I found her limping a bit and discovered she had a bite mark on one paw. While the vet was treating her, I remarked that in all her years of protecting her territory, this was the first time she had come out second best. He arched one eyebrow, looking at me aside as he tended her wound, “You don’t know what the other cat looks like.”

Diana acknowledged no superior of any species or type. Not even time, though it eventually got her anyway. As she steadily declined this last year, she continued patrol, continued supervision as if she was the magnificent younger self she had been. Finally I found her more often, sitting in the grass looking lost and tired. We got special foods and prepared so she could lick what she wanted, but eventually she just stopped eating and I knew it was time.

Now she is gone and has left a hole in my life far larger than her cat-sized body. I will move on, but I cannot leave her behind. Mark Twain once wrote, “A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?”. He was correct, but for me, not just any cat. Diana.

RIP 7/27/18

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When last we heard from our geriatric off-roaders, they were feeding themselves at the Broken Oar, to replace calories expended on the Chicken Corners Trail.)

By this time in the trip, we had learned that fatigue is cumulative and it had finally become clear to us that we no longer were young men with the recuperative powers that we took for granted back when we were such. For our last day on the bikes in this marvelous landscape, we chose what looked like an easier set of trails, The Pole Rim up on Rt. 128 northeast of Moab. The paved road through the canyon leading to the trail was worth the trip, with red cliffs and cowboy-movie desert and sage brush leading off into the distance. We passed by a ranch house that locals had told us was used in several John Wayne pictures, though the Duke or his ghost failed to make an appearance for us. The Pole Rim trail starts at the campground by the Dewey Bridges, a pair of bridges representing two widely spaced eras in the history of the west. The original bridge, now unused on a dirt road off to the side of the new highway, is made of wood and looks like a wagon and team of horses would be about all it could handle. The new one, actually not even noticeable except from the side, continues the concrete highway seamlessly across the arroyo without any fanfare. A campground is located at the old bridge site, where lots of folks were unloading 4-wheelers and buggies for a day in the dirt. We seemed to be the only two-wheelers in the place.

This trail starts innocently enough, up a series of dirt switchbacks ascending into the hills above the valley. Then it goes all rocky on us, leading off in several directions at once, with big rocks and ledges spaced just widely enough to require a lot of knee and upper body action to make any progress. After about an hour, we were spent. From one rise we could see that the trail continued like this over the next few hills, with no end in sight. If we’ve learned anything from our long time on this planet, it’s when to let it go. In the heat of a Utah summer, two old men should let “discretion be the better part of valor” and head back to the road while we still can. There are lots of other great places to see here.

There is a turnoff from 128 that leads north to the top of the LaSal mountains, a curvy road just perfect for our dual-sport bikes. Lots of bends, but the tight curves with pavement that would discourage speed on most street bikes, present no problem for the well-sprung 250’s. Today there was a charity bicycle ride on these roads, so lots of very fit people (and some who were in various stages of trying to become more so…Spandex is not always pretty) huffing and puffing up the steep mountains. More than once we heard the offer from participants to hang onto our luggage racks for a tow up the slope.

We stopped once to go off and inspect some trees and were met with a young man coming out of the woods, asking us if we had seen his parrot. Now there’s a conversation starter you don’t hear every day. Seems that the bird had flown the coop, literally, and had last been spotted heading up into this forest. He showed us the flyer (no pun intended) he had made, so we could identify this particular critter….as if other parrots were thick in the trees here in Utah….and we took his number assuring him that we would call if we found the missing bird. We did cast an eye up in the trees, best we could, as we rode along, but keeping the bikes on the pavement in these mountain roads took first priority, and unfortunately, we didn’t spot the feathered escapee.

At the top of the mountain, we located the terminus of the Sand Flats Road that we had taken in the opposite direction earlier in the week and started our descent back into the valley. As is often the case, taking the same road the other way opens up a new perspective. Now we could see the valleys spread out below us as we descended and the sand flats that we hit on acceleration coming up now were taken on trailing throttle going down, sucking the front wheels into the deep stuff. Even that couldn’t dampen the pleasure of being up here, on top of this world, seeing it all as if for the first time. From the heat of the desert below we had come up to where a cold wind was blowing through our ventilated jackets and we enjoyed the chill….knowing it wouldn’t last long.

All too soon we were back in the campground area outside of Moab, surrounded by the various iterations of tall 4-wheeled ATV’s that seem to be from a future-set science fiction movie, piloted by young people in cut-offs who had not yet heard of the new invention, “the helmet”.

With only a turn onto a street from the campground dirt road, suddenly we were back in the city of Moab, as if teleported there. We cruised the main drag again, looking for our late afternoon pie break and found it at the Moab Grill, an old-style ice cream shop converted from its former curb service past to a sit-down-and-overeat restaurant….just our type.

All good things must come to an end, or so I’m told, which had us packing up the next morning to head back east to the real world. I like living in the real world, for the most part, but it is very difficult to leave the adventure-riders fantasyland of Moab. Our last breakfast here in dirt-rider heaven was at Eklectika, a restaurant at the northern edge of town where all the former hippies of the 60’s had gone to roost. There was an old VW camper bus parked at the curb….and it wasn’t just there for decoration. Inside the tiny place women of various ages, but dressed in the style of Summer of Love’s free thinkers, served eclectic breakfast items including the best granola and yogurt bowl I’ve ever had in a restaurant. All of this with great good humor and style. I’d say it’s worth going to Moab just for breakfast there, but you might want to do some of the other stuff the area has to offer as well.

Having explored just about every road north of town, we headed south to go home, with a stop in Telluride,Colorado as a diversion. This small city has had a mythic reputation as a special place, the highest town in the US (in more than just the geographic sense…remember the old Eagle’s song Smuggler’s Blues “we’ll hide it up in Telluride, just the way we planned” ) On other trips I had missed going there so this time we would make it happen. After a great motorcycle road, unfortunately taken in a pickup truck, one comes to the dead end at the top of a mountain where Telluride sits in a cul-de-sac, looking like the perfect picture-postcard western town. It doesn’t take long to cruise the few streets and find an open restaurant on an early Sunday morning, located in an old wooden building on the main drag. Inside are wonderful smells, emanating from the well stocked pastry case and (of course) multiple kinds of coffee being dispensed by earnest looking young people in hiking garb, as if they had just come in off the trail long enough to serve breakfast to us slackers. We sat outside on a bench where we soon were joined by a local dog, interested in crumbs. Off to our right, in the little courtyard beside the restaurant, one of the locals had tethered his or her “dog” to another bench. This huge animal looked far more like a wolf than a dog, but seemed to want to be petted rather than to devour us for breakfast…or perhaps that was just a ploy to get us close enough for the kill. At the end of town, the mountain rises impossibly high above us, with a thin dirt road snaking up its side. We ran into a Canadian couple, newly retired, staring up at the vista. They told us they had started off on a round-the-US tour to make up for time spent working and didn’t plan to return home for months.

Reluctantly, we left Telluride, having decided that the housing and other living costs there would limit our stay to about three weeks before our retirement savings ran out and starvation set in, heading east, stopping for the night in Gunnison. After securing a motel room with a Russian landlady, we wandered around the town and selected the Twisted Fork restaurant for Asian Fusion food. We parked the truck in front and went in, to be greeted by the tall young woman at the door saying “Cool bikes !”. Turns out that she had just acquired a Suzuki DR 200 and was planning some dual sport traveling, but wondered if she had gone too small in her choice. We assured her that small bikes like these could go anywhere and mentioned that she should read Lois Pryce’s accounts. She had heard of Lois, but hadn’t yet read the books. It just so happened that one of our breakfast guys had returned “Lois on the Loose” to me at our departure on this trip, so I went out to the truck and brought it in to give it to her. Later we saw her thumbing through it while waiting for the next customers to arrive. I hope it inspired her to go traveling.

The rest of the trip home was just an interstate drone, except for the Blind Tiger brewery in Topeka, the lady who knocked on our motel room door at 2 AM and the old man’s museum in his restaurant, containing memorabilia from nearly 100 years on the prairie, but those are stories for another day. I’m tired and going to bed

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Brother Taylor

Brother Taylor lay dying. No longer the “nice young preacher” he had been when he left rural Mississippi more than a half century ago, he now was but a desiccated husk of a man, wracked with disease and the ravages of having spent his life in the service of these people of this remote area in the foothills of the Himalayas. He had arrived here alone all those years ago, unbidden and unannounced and had worked tirelessly, ceaselessly from that day to this, to help those in need. Now it was nearly over.

He beckoned his assistant to his side and painfully extended a thin hand to draw the man’s ear near to his dry cracked lips. There was something he had to say before it ended.

“Once, a long, long time ago….. before I came to this village….. in another life….. I was in love with a girl. A young farm girl, from my first congregation….. She was beautiful….. she was strong……..”.

Taylor paused, lost in the image of her, still brilliant in his brain after all this time, of her in the field, her long dark hair tied back, the outline of her young body moving gently under the oversized thin t-shirt with the rhythm of chopping the cotton. His breath rattled in his throat as he struggled to draw in enough air to go on.

“But she loved another, not me…….I watched them together and my mind was warped with jealousy.”

There was a longer pause, while he gathered his last bit of strength. Soon, he knew, within moments, his time would be finished.

“On the third of June, 1966…… I pushed Billy Joe McAllister, off the Tallahatchie Bridge”.

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