Friday, October 30, 2009

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary - October 29, 2009

Plans Change
The target date for this day trip was Wednesday 10/28, but a rainy weather forecast had us push to Thursday. Leo would need to be done by about 1:30, but if we got an early enough start, or if Dave and I took a separate car, we would be fine. As it turned out, one of Dave's girls came down with the flu on Wednesday, so we found out Wednesday night that Dave couldn't make it. Leo and I decided to soldier on alone.

The final plan was to meet at a convenience store parking lot just east of Reading at 8:15 or 8:30, then ride together to Hawk Mountain, arriving at around 9:30. This would give us 4 hours for hiking and bird watching.

The Trip
The meet and the drive up went off without a hitch, and we were in the parking lot by shortly after 9:30. Very few cars were in the lot, presumably due to the gray overcast day. Temperatures were in the low 50's with a nice stiff breeze, so the wind chill on the ridges must have been in the 40's. Dressed properly, it felt fine, although a lightweight pair of gloves wouldn't have been bad for the first part of the day.

First stop was the visitor center where I purchased a $40 family membership that will be good until spring of 2011. I could have done a one-day for $5, but it seemed like a good idea to support the Sanctuary by buying more than I will probably need... Sometimes it is about more than the money, and I am fortunate in many ways, so I want to try to support some of these organizations, like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Keystone Trails Association.

[Me on South Lookout (showing my best side - the back of my head!)]

Leaving the visitor center and heading up the short trail to the South Lookout, there are a few people around, but not many. At the South Lookout, we are the only ones there other than a HMS intern from Palestine, who is friendly and chats with us for a little while. Not many birds thus far, and no other people for the moment. The weather is interesting in that there is a completely unbroken gray cloud ceiling as far as the eye can see in every direction with no sun whatsoever. Under the cloud ceiling, there is tremendous visibility, and we can see for many many miles (more than the apparent haze in the photos would indicate).

[View from South Lookout. South slope of Kittatinny Ridge on the left, northern slope of Pinnacle on the right. "Donat" (?) in the center distance. The River of Rocks are the gray spots in the middle of the valley. The bottom of the picture gives some idea of how far the valley drops away from the ridge.]

After maybe 10 minutes at the South Lookout, we set out for the North Lookout, where we arrived after a slight detour to the overlook called "the Slide". It is decidedly breezy here at 1521 feet exposed elevation. There is only one other pair of people here, along with an intern from Argentina and the official spotter, an HMS research biologist. We sit and chat with the intern for a bit. The only bird activity is a few scattered sightings way off in the distance. The biologist, with the aid of many years of experience and a high powered scope, calls out "Golden Eagle on the south slope of 1". In Hawk Mountain terms, the view along Kittatinny Ridge to the east shows 5 distinct bumps, numbered for ease of reference 1 (south) through 5 (north). The Pinnacle is on the far south side of the view east, and "Donut" is a small mountain on the far side of the middle of the valley in between "1" and Pinnacle. In layman's terms, the golden eagle siting could best be describe to the naked eye as "tiny black speck on the horizon moving from left to right." But hey, technically I saw a Golden Eagle, right?

[Official spotting post on North Lookout. Pinnacle visible on the right in the distance.]

I am a little worried about my knee flaring up at this point, but wandering over to the east face of the North Lookout and seeing the climb down the rock face to get to the Skyline Trail, I can't resist, and we set off climbing down onto the trail labelled as "most difficult" on the trail map. After reaching the bottom of the climb, we set off east on the Skyline Trail, which I find to be a lot of fun because of the broken ground and all the rock hopping. The photos below show the view back up the climb down from North Lookout, as well as a typical stretch of trail on the ridge top, with the ever-present rocks and boulders.

After a short time on the Skyline Trail, we take a right on the Golden Eagle connector trail heading south and drop steeply down into the valley. At one point during our descent, we stop in a boulder filled gully and can hear the unmistakeable sound of running water. A mountain stream is under our feet, buried in the ground under the rocks. We cannot see it, but due to the amount of rain over the last couple of days, we can clearly hear it. At the bottom of the connector trail, we turn left on the River of Rocks trail and head east. Our goal is to do the shorter of the two RoR loops, cutting across between the two large boulder fields and then heading back up the ridge (west then north) to South Lookout.

[The River of Rocks. Geology cool beyond words for a Flatlander like me.]

The River of Rocks trail was a delight, with more of the never ending rocks, chipmunks, a grove of small white pines (only 6-8 feet tall), and of course the River of Rocks itself. Standing out amongst the boulders, we could hear the underground stream again. By now we didn't have a whole lot of extra time, so we headed back uphill to the South Lookout. On the way, there were many beautiful things to see, including a mature thicket of 12-15' tall Rhododendrons.

[Rhododendron thicket.]

The final ascent of the ridge was the hardest part of the day, although not bad in the overall scheme of things. It was really the only time I felt winded and felt a burn in my thighs. A highlight of the climb was a nicely crafted stone stairway built into the hillside, which was a lot of effort for somebody at some time in the past.

When we got back to South Lookout, we sat and watched for birds for another 10-15 minutes, but then had to go.

Riding home in the car afterwards, I am more excited than ever. It was a very bad bird watching day, but being outdoors in general was terrific, and the hiking was great. The knee that bothered me at Ridley Creek last weekend gave me absolutely no trouble at all, and I pushed it much harder today than I did then, with all the climbing and rock-hopping. From a physical standpoint, nothing bothered me at all. Feet, ankles, legs, knees, hips; all were perfectly fine. My gear seems fine, and the additional clothing I have bought for moisture wicking, layering, etc have all proven their worth already. Most importantly, I am perhaps not in as bad physicial shape as I might have guessed. I certainly do not have the cardio conditioning or the leg stamina for steep climbs that I would like to have, but frequent rests can help with that, and if I keep this up it will get better over time. I am fairly confident that I can hold my own on day trips of this nature.
This fulfills Goal #2 for 2009 - go to Hawk Mountain. I am actually getting some things done! Now I need a few more goals for the rest of this year...

Currently Reading - October 30, 2009

I finished Molly Gloss' 1989 novel The Jump-Off Creek last night. I really enjoyed this one very much. It is the story of a widow from Pennsylvania who sells off all of her possessions and goes west to homestead by herself in the Oregon territory in the 1890's. It is very well written, and has a good plot to go along with being very evocative of time and place. The ending is somewhat predictable, but you could call it inevitable just as easily. There were a number of very well crafted characters, some major and some minor, and my interest was kept at a high level throughout. I will be looking into what else Molly Gloss has written. 4.5 stars out of 5.

This is also my fourth "new" author, completing 2009 goal #1.

I need to decide what to read next. I may dive into John Irving's new 554 page novel, Last Night in Twisted River. Or I might bail out and read something shorter.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Currently Reading - October 27, 2009

I finished Maile Meloy's story collection Half in Love a couple nights ago, and really enjoyed it. Her stories were simply written, easy to read, and very enjoyable. And I certainly don't mean simple in a bad way. There are definitely some writers who seem to be trying overly hard with extensive vocabularies, complicated structuring, etc, and while this can be good, at other times it makes for a read that seems more like work than entertainment. In this case, simple was effective. I have a brand new book of her stories titled Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, and it will be interesting to see how she has developed over the intervening years.

This counts as "new writer" book #3 out of the 4 I wanted to read by year end, so I am on target to blow that modest goal out the water.

Last night I started what would be book #4 to complete the goal: The Jump-Off Creek by Molly Gloss. This novel was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award a bunch of years ago, and the story sounded interesting. It is about a woman who goes out into the semi-wilderness of Oregon (back in the old days) to homestead by herself. I am about 50 pages in, but the writing is crisp, plot is moving along, and there are a bunch of good characters being developed. I am liking this one very much so far, and I would guess that the remaining 150 or so pages will go by very quickly.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ridley Creek State Park, Oct 25, 2009

...or, I Hiked and It Didn't Kill Me.

[Apologies in advance about the smudged pictures - I didn't realize until after we were done that the lens of my otherwise reliable digital camera was badly smudged on one side]

With the weather forecast for this coming Wednesday looking iffy, and being anxious to get out and hike somewhere, I called Dave this morning and told him that I was thinking of heading over to Ridley Creek State Park for a while. The day was looking nice from a weather perspective, with highs expected in the low sixties, and the leaves were very colorful in the woods behind my house. Dave said he had been thinking the same thing, and we agreed to meet at parking area #9 at 12:30 and kill a few hours.

I arrived at about 12:20 and got my shoes on, threw a few snacks and drinks into my day pack, and waited for Dave to arrive. I was wearing shorts, a poly short sleeve shirt as a breathable base layer and a t-shirt. I had a fleece vest in my pack, more for bulk than out of any need, and figured I would be ditching the t-shirt soon. I would be carrying a single trekking pole, more for fun than necessity. As a kid in the woods around home, I always liked picking up a walking stick, so why not...

While waiting for Dave, I admit to being a little apprehensive. I've spent way too much of my adult life sitting behind a desk or on a couch, and wasn't sure how my legs would react to even a modest bit of fairly easy hiking. Not worried; just a little apprehensive.

Dave arrived promptly at 12:30 and after a few minutes of small talk, off we went. He knows the park pretty well and has hiked most of it, so I said go wherever you want at whatever pace you want and I'll try to stay behind you. The goal was to fill about 3 hours.

The First Third - Lot #9 to Sycamore Mills
We went down the blue trail from parking area #9 to the creek itself, and then turned right and followed the white trail along the creek for a little bit before the trail turned and headed back uphill away from the creek. [The first bit of this, down the blue trail to the creek is what I walked with Julia and Grace a few weeks ago.] We talked a bit at times, but the weather was perfect, the woods were quiet, and Dave and I both seemed content to walk in silence as often as not, soaking in the sounds of the stream, the birds and the breeze in the leaves. There were a few others on the trails (mainly with dogs), but not too many. At this point I'm feeling great, having a blast, and very happy to be out in the woods. The new shoes are incredibly comfortable and seem to require no breaking in at all, which is a relief.

At the top of the hill, we turned left onto the yellow trail and followed it to a spur trail through the corner of Tyler Arboretum and downhill to the Sycamore Mills Historic Area on the creek. We rested for a minute and turned around to head back.

The Middle Third - Sycamore Mills to Lot #16

Climbing back out of the stream valley, we doubled back the way we had come on the spur trail and rejoined the yellow trail heading left along the edge of the arboretum. After a while we made a left on the white trail to loop around south of lot #17. I'm still feeling wonderful, the day is perfect, and I am being careful to take the time to look around and enjoy the sights, of which there are many.

There were a number of things I noticed throughout the day. Moving from area to area, the types and colors of leaves on the ground changed noticeably. We went through patches of a specific kind of yellow leaf, then different shaped yellow leaves, then red maple leaves, then one stand of very tall scraggly looking evergreens of some sort, and so on. Dave and I both agreed that it would be nice to learn a little bit more about the different kinds of common trees in the area so that we would know what we were looking at. All we could do today was say "hey, these yellow leaves are different than those other yellow leaves we went through a while back". Also, there were some birds out and about, but I was surprised at how relatively few we heard. At one point we heard and saw a screechy blue jay right above our heads, and I think he was trying to drop berries on our heads, but it was certainly not a forest full of birdsong today.

The Final Third - Lot #16 back to Lot #9
We arrived at lot #16 at around 2:20, or 1 hour and 50 minutes into our day. From the area of lot #16, we used a combination of red and white trails to get back to the blue trail, which we would follow down a feeder stream valley back down to Ridley Creek, meeting up with the trail we had started on. From there, we would double back on the white trail to where we had originally joined it not far from lot #9, and would loop around the hill that lot #9 sits on, climbing up to it from the far side and completing our hike.

At lot #16, beginning the final third of our hike, I am feeling like a million bucks, and think I could do this all day.

Maybe 10 minutes later, we have reached the blue trail for the descent down the feeder stream valley. It is a nice section of trail, with large groves of beautiful beech trees (one of the few types Dave knows). We stop for a minute to watch a chipmunk running along with a nut in its mouth, and when we start moving again, I realize that my right knee is a little sore. Nothing serious, but I know it's there, and feel a little twinge with every step along this section of downward-sloping and side-sloping trail. When we rejoin the white trail at the base of the hill and are on mostly level ground, it bothers me less, but I am still aware of it. The final few hundred yards up the white trail to the back side of lot #9 is really the only strenuous climb of the day, and even at that was very short, but was really the only point in the day where I felt even slightly winded.

In summary, it was a great day, my new equipment seems to be good, and I think I held up ok for not being in the greatest of shape. My feet feel perfect, ankles are good, hips are good, leg muscles are good. The only issue is a sore right knee, which while not bad, is certainly noticeable. Left knee is fine. While typing up this recap on my laptop, I am sitting in bed with an icepack on my knee, and will be interested in how it feels tomorrow.

Most importantly, I really enjoyed myself.

UPDATE (Monday 10/26) - I woke up and my knee felt ok. As I began moving around, though, it is definitely still sore. Nothing horrible, but noticeable. Now I am wondering how long it will be like this, and how easily it might get back to feeling like this when getting active again. We shall see.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hawk Mountain plans

Well, it looks like Leo and I will be heading up to Hawk Mountain next Wednesday, weather permitting, for a day of hiking and watching the raptor migration. Apparently Dave has a slight chance of making it as well. Extended forecast at this point has it as mostly sunny with a slight chance of showers, with temperatures around 60. Leaves in Pennsylvania are getting pretty close to peak color, so it should be beautiful.

I am especially interested in what my impressions are of the various sections of trail that we might be on, and how my impressions correlate to what the Hawk Mountain website says in terms of easier, moderate and more strenuous. I can't wait to see what they think of as "moderate" vs what I think.

Dave and Leo must be very amused by my non-stop questions on equipment and all sorts of other things, and probably think I am preparing for an assault on Everest rather than a walk in the woods. That being said, I am extremely excited about trying out my new stuff, and feel very much like a kid in a candy store when poking around EMS or a Dick's Sporting Goods.

More to come.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Nothing Spells Commitment... cold hard cash. Never having met a new hobby or other discretionary spend I couldn't get 100% behind, I am now Eastern Mountain Sports' best friend. Pictured at right are my new Merrell Moab GTX trail shoes and my even newer North Face Borealis II day pack. In for a penny, in for $185. In deference to 19 years of married life, I am pleased to note that my pack even color-coordinates with my shoes. And with my socks.

On Dave's advice (and that of the nice folks at EMS), the pack has sternum and waist belts, hydration bladder pocket/access port, and compression straps on sides and bottom to make the pack as compact as possible to minimize load shifting. It has double side pockets for water bottles, and front side tie down area for jacket or whatever. I almost sound like I know what I am doing. The pack has 1850 cubic inches of space, which makes it large enough to be flexible, but not so large as to be unwieldy. Hopefully I have made a good choice.

Today my bedroom, tomorrow the world!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Currently Reading - October 18, 2009

I finished reading Ron Hansen's Isn't It Romantic? last night. The subtitle of the book is "an entertainment", and so from that perspective I guess it achieves its stated goal. The 190+ pages went very quickly, and it read in a lot of ways like the screenplay to a romantic comedy movie. Not great literature to be sure, but a nice enjoyable read. I have liked Ron Hansen's writing very much and look forward to reading some of his other books.

Not sure what to read next. Dave was over to watch the Eagles game today (a brutal loss to the awful Raiders) and left a couple of hiking books for me to look at, so I may well do that in and around the Phillies-Dodgers playoff game.

I bought a pair of Merrell trail shoes for day hiking yesterday and I am anxious to try them out. Reading Dave's blog on his Grand Canyon trip has made me very anxious to get out somewhere.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Currently Reading - October 15, 2009

I finished Dagoberto Gilb's The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna last night. Having checked out a few other reviews of it (and it was generally very well received), I would agree with some of the comments I read, and am somewhat unsure as to exactly what I thought of the book. It was a quick read, and a comment that did resonate with me was that it was book about nothing in the same way that Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing. I think I would agree with this. There were a number of entertaining oddball characters, and the writing was good, but nothing much happened. So while I certainly didn't dislike the book, I don't know that I could say that I liked it a whole lot either, or at least enough to say that it was measurably above average. In a strange way, I think the impression I was left with was that I liked the author without particularly liking the book. I would be interested to read his short story collection, which was a PEN/Faulkner finalist, The Magic of Blood.

This would count as book #2 out of 4 for my "new authors" goal.

I'm not sure what to start next. Candidates include Roth's The Humbling and Ron Hansen's Isn't It Romantic? Both are short and are probably only a couple of days reading. Wait, I take that back. Phillies-Dodgers NLCS starts tonight so not much reading will get done. Go Phils!

Goal for 2009 #2 (Hiking)

Hawk Mountain. I will go to Hawk Mountain this fall before the leaves go away, and will check out the raptor migration from the North lookout. A short hike should also be in order. Judging from a quick look at the trail map on the Hawk Mountain web site, it seems that a short loop comprising bits of the Skyline Trail, the Golden Eagle connector trail, and the end of the River of Rocks trail could make a baby hike, at a minimum.

Dave needs to be dragged to this (since I have no idea what I am doing, and someone needs to know where to search for the body!).

Update (10/16/09) - I have been corrected by brother Dave. My characterization of a "baby" hike, by looking at the relatively short map distance, does not take into account the effort involved. Rookie mistake. Let's call it a short distance hike then...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

People Should Read More...#4

From Norman Maclean's wonderful book A River Runs Through It (also a great movie, by the way). The book is the story of Norman's family, growing up in rural Montana in the early 1900's. The interactions of Norman, his brother and his father (a Scottish preacher) are set against the backdrop of fly fishing in Montana's rivers and streams.

I was reminded of the beauty of this novella when I went out at lunchtime to quickly browse a used book store near work. I was lucky to find a nice hardback copy of the 1989 woodcut edition of the book, which can now replace the paperback on my shelf (I am a sucker for hardbacks, especially of books I really like, and have no problem with buying another copy of a book I already have, as was the case here - and the fact that it was $3 didn't hurt...).

The opening:

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

The final passages:

Now nearly all those that I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn't. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

It still gives me a chill every time I read this.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Yeah, That's What I Meant...

I was checking out reviews of The Song is You on Amazon last night, as I sometimes do after reading a book to see what others thought of it, and there was a comment in a review that struck a chord with me as "yes, that's it...". I think it concisely summarizes the effect music can have, and ties into some of what I was trying to get across in my earlier Moody Blues post.

The reviewer was paraphrasing an interview with the author, Arthur Phillips, and his thoughts on music, saying...

how each song revives a memory, a moment, a relationship; how a record can make you feel as insecure as the rainy day after 9th grade when you heard it, or a song can make you shake in longing for the person who shares the memory of that song with you.

Yeah, that's what I meant.

Monday, October 12, 2009

People Should Read More...#3

From The Song is You (page 246, hardback edition).

"One November dawn, Julian came upon a basset hound sitting on a bench on the Promenade, staring out at Manhattan. A few joggers in winter caps and Lycra pants bounded by, but no one seemed to be with the long dog and his heavy ears. It sat on the bench and watched the sky lighten across the East River, watched the city awaken to the day. At some signal that escaped Julian, the hound began to bay at the towers, calling New York to order. This struck Julian as quite exactly how he behaved as well: thinking his voice mattered, content to imagine himself ruling the world around him, never noticing that the world would tick along with or without his howling. He had become, at some point, a ridiculous person, though he couldn't say just when it happened."

I feel like that sometimes.

Currently Reading - October 12, 2009

In and around the Phillies/Rockies playoff game last night, which ended in a 6-5 Phillies win at 2:15am out in Denver, I finished Arthur Phillips' The Song is You. What a fantastic book! It is a compelling story of love, loss, hopes, dreams and human frailty crafted against a backdrop of music and the iPod age. I liked the central theme of an improbable if not impossible love as a man seeks to reconstruct his life after a tragedy, and how it is eventually resolved. Not an original idea necessarily, but well executed. The book started well, but really picked up speed as it went along, and by the end I couldn't put it down because I need to know how it ended, and I cared about the characters. Which is really the best thing you can say about a book. Very highly recommended.

Not having read anything by Phillips before, I will count this as book #1 against my reading goal of 4 new authors over the remainder of the year.

Next up - I am starting The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna (1994) by Dagoberto Gilb. I also still need to keep plugging away on the Maile Meloy story collection.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Goal for 2009 #1 (Reading)

The local Barnes and Noble had a fundraising event tonight where a small portion of the proceeds from purchases would go to Grace's elementary school, so the family went and bought books, despite the fact that I am convinced that someday this house will collapse under the weight of all the books we already own. I picked up Philip Roth's brand new novel The Humbling. After getting home, and thinking about having read about a half dozen of Roth's books in the past two years, I have come up with official blog-published goal #1 of 2009. It's a modest goal:

By the end of the year, I will read at least 4 books by authors whom I have not read before. Also, should I go on a binge, at least half of the books I read must be by "new" authors.

This whole goal-setting idea might be an interesting exercise. It will be fun to go back at the end of the year and see how many of these goals I have actually been able to accomplish. I'm a little worried, because I tend to have the attention span of a flea, and I think at some point I will probably need a goal that says "no more new goals until I finish some of the goals I already have." That's quite likely, actually...

Fall In 2009 - Chevauchee 1355

Forgive me for I have sinned; it has been 16 days since my last hobby-related post.... While taking the afternoon off to watch the Phillies first playoff game against the Rockies, I decided to take a few quick pictures and post something hobby related for the first time in almost two weeks. We are only one month away from Fall In, and I have work left to do.

This is the English/Gascon army of Edward, Prince of Wales (The Black Prince). I have laid it out roughly in its intended deployment; Left, Center, Right and a cavalry contingent on the far right. As can be seen, it is sitting on an incomplete blue board battlefield. More on that later. All figures are complete but the bases need to be flocked. Details of the deployment would be different, but the contents of the army are set.

Each of the three main infantry "battles" consists of five or six units of three stands each. The front line in the picture consists of longbowmen and crossbowmen, the second line is hobilar foot and Gascon spearmen, and the third line is dismounted knights. Singly based leaders and banners are in the rear. I have been a slacker and not ordered flags from the Flag Dude. It may be too late and I may need to make some flags myself. This wouldn't be a big deal, as many of my flags were made by me from the beautiful flags that can be found on the Danish wargaming site that is in my Links section.

A typical English infantry "battle" is shown here. This battle has five units, and will be the English Left - 2 longbows, 2 hobilars, and 1 dismounted knight along with their leader and banner. A battle this size will probably be led by a leader with 4 command cards. This will make command somewhat flexible, but still make it difficult to do everything you would want to do once the troops get fully engaged.

The English order of battle will probably be very similar for the two different games that I have signed up for at the show, but the scenarios will be pretty different. In one of the games, it will be a fairly standard "English on the defense" scenario, but the other will put the English army in a position where they must attack. That one should be interesting. The scenario with the French attacking will probably be similar to Poitiers (my originally intended game) in many ways; the game with the French on the defensive will be significantly different.

This picture shows some of the French mounted knights that will form the hard-hitting core of the French army, along with some of the leaders and banners. The red flag in the center rear is the Oriflamme, the most sacred secular token of medieval France, which is only brought out from its resting place in the church of Saint Denis on the most important occasions. Whether or not the Oriflamme makes an appearance at Fall In remains to be seen.

One of the main things I need to decide is what kind of battlefield I want to go with. Simple terrain cloth with stuff on it is the easiest, but I much prefer to run games on a stiff terrain board, like the in-process ones in the first picture. I am in the midst of making a set of 2.5 foot square modular boards, but finishing six or eight of them in the next few weeks would be a project I don't know if I want to commit to. Maybe I play it by ear. Terrain boards look much better, and the chances of the game getting disturbed by an inadvertent slip are much less.

We shall see soon enough...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Best Fiction Books Read in 2009 (so far)

As long as I am on this literature kick, let's ride it out...

The best books I have read so far in 2009, in no particular order, are:

  • Frederick Busch - Girls (a novel, 1997) and Rescue Missions (short stories, 2006). Can't wait to read North, the followup to Girls. Rescue Missions was Busch's last published work before his death.
  • J.M.Coetzee - Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). An outstanding book from the South African Nobel laureate.
  • Rodes Fishburne - Going to See the Elephant (2009). Quirky but fun.
  • Philipp Meyer - American Rust (2009). Debut novel. LOVED it.
  • Richard Russo - That Old Cape Magic (2009). Very good shorter novel from Russo. I have loved this writer since way before he was popular, with Vintage paperback releases of Mohawk and The Risk Pool in the 1980's. His novels have become John Irving-esque in length over the last few (Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs), but this was a mere after-dinner mint compared to those... Maybe he got tired. Or ran out of words.
  • Colson Whitehead - Sag Harbor (2009). Very evocative of time and place (summers on Long Island).
  • Ron Rash - all three of his earlier novels (earlier than Serena, my 2008 reading favorite) - One Foot in Eden (2002), Saints at the River (2004) and The World Made Straight (2006). You should read them. Read them all. The funny thing here is that the only reason I began reading Rash's novels is because I saw that his short story collection Chemistry and other Stories was a PEN/Faulkner finalist last year, and that he had a new novel out (Serena). So I picked up the new novel and read it. And loved it. And bought these three and read them in very quick succession. As it turns out, I have read all four of his novels but still haven't read Chemistry...

Pictures are Longwood Gardens, September 2009. [good high-resolution pics, click to enlarge]

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Currently Reading - October 4, 2009

I am about halfway through Maile Meloy's Half in Love, a collection of short stories, which I am enjoying.

As is typically the case when reading a book of short stories, I allow my focus to wander and start a novel at the same time (but rarely another collection of short stories for some reason...).

I have begun Arthur Phillips' 2009 novel The Song is You. Only about 35 pages in, so too early to tell, but so far so good. I have not read anything by Phillips before, although I know his earlier novel Prague was well received.

Horses and Woods

OK, I do have the entire scenario for Fall In laid out on my gaming table in the basement, but life got in the way of picture taking and my kids are so darn cute I just have to post this instead.

While Amparo was away in Lancaster today playing in a regional WTT tennis tournament, I decided to take the kids to Linvilla orchards since it was such a beautiful day and I have been getting nagged to ride ponies and pick pumpkins. With all the best intentions, we went out for lunch and then set out for Linvilla. Upon arriving in the area, it became obvious that every other family in a 50 mile radius seems to have had the same idea as us. I guess the combination of early October, beautiful weather and a Sunday on which the Eagles weren't playing created the perfect storm, crowd-wise. We couldn't even readily find a parking space in the overflow lot. Much to the chagrin of the little ones in the back seat, I decided to opt for plan B, which was to investigate nearby Ridley Creek State Park. Brother Dave has hiked this park regularly, and I knew from a number of years ago that there was horseback riding and pony rides. Now if I could just find it...

It turns out we got lucky and everything was well marked. I knew how to get to the main park entrance, and once there, roads, turns and park features were all very clearly marked. After stopping near the park office to pick up a map, we pulled into the area marked "stables" at precisely 1:55pm, and I was overjoyed to see that there were pony rides from 2-4 on Saturdays and Sundays. We spent a few minutes watching the horses in the various corrals while the ponies were being brought out, and were about the third or fourth family in line for rides. The wait was only about ten minutes, and then Grace was on a pony and being led around the paddock. Julia wasn't interested in riding yet and just wanted to watch, which was fine.

After the rides, I decided to press my luck and see if I could find a place in the park where there was a short section of trail somewhere where I could get the girls out for a short walk in the woods. We ended up parking at area #9 and hiking the short distance down the Blue trail to Ridley Creek itself. It was perhaps an eighth of a mile, and a bit steeper in places than I would have guessed, but we went slowly, stopping to listen to the nature sounds, and got down to the creek with no problem. We took a bunch of nice photos, some of which are included here, and then slowly made our way back to the parking lot. There was a bit of grumbling along the way about the climb back out of the stream valley, but the girls persevered like troopers. Giving an honest opinion isn't an issue for these two, and they said they had a good time. Uncle Dave would be proud!

It's funny now that I think about it - Uncle Dave is hiking down to the Colorado River at the floor of the Grand Canyon and back up at the same time I am hiking from the parking lot down to Ridley Creek and back. Talk about modest beginnings! OK, maybe not so proud after all, but I can always claim that my hiking prowess was merely curtailed by the presence of a 5 year old. Yes, that's it...

Grace wanted to ride again, so we went back to the ponies for round 2. Julia rode this time, which was great. At this point, we knew that Mommy would be home, so we packed it in and headed home for a Starbucks drink/snack and then a nice dinner with the neighbors.

All in all, a very successful day! And the one lasting impression as I write this - I have to get out into nature more. I love it, and I miss it from my younger (ok, much younger) days.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

People Should Read More...#2

"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right; snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

James Joyce, The Dead (final paragraph), 1916. One of the most hauntingly beautiful passages I have ever read.

Tomorrow, back to hobby stuff. I spent some time today laying out the armies for Fall In. At a minimum, I'll take and post some pictures.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Favorite Books Read in 2008 (Fiction)

Of the fiction books I read in 2008, I would say the following were my 10 favorites, in no particular order.

  • The Great Man by Kate Christensen (2007). Won the PEN/Faulkner award in 2008 for good reason.
  • Atticus by Ron Hansen (1996).
  • Serena by Ron Rash (2008). LOVED this book. Made me go out, buy, and read his other 3 novels, all of which were excellent. One of my favorite writers.
  • Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead (2004), two novels by Marilynne Robinson. Both excellent. I need to read her new novel, a sequel to Gilead called Home. Gilead actually made me think about the meaning of faith, which is saying something considering that I would consider myself an agnostic. Really good stuff.
  • Amy and Isabelle (1998) and Olive Kitteridge (2008), two novels by Elizabeth Strout. Another quality pair.
  • Bone by Fae Myenne Ng (1993). Very evocative work set in San Francisco's Chinatown.
  • Cheating at Canasta (Stories) by William Trevor (2007). A fabulous collection by one of the truly great (and prolific) short story writers. Trevor is in his 80's by now and is still brilliant.
  • The End of California by Steve Yarbrough (2006). This is another guy who became one of my favorite writers after reading this book. I have since read most of his works.
  • Old School by Tobias Wolff (2003). Fantastic. Went back and read a bunch of his earlier stuff also.
  • Philip Roth. A bunch. The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), Everyman (2006) and Indignation (2008). Considered one of the greatest American writers of the modern era for good reason. Read 5 of his books and barely scratched the surface.

OK, so my top 10 list was actually 15 books, but hey, it's my blog, right? 2008 was really the first year that I got back into reading fiction after many years of reading primarily history. As can be seen from the pattern of my remarks, very often reading one book by a new author (or new for me) would result in finding someone I really liked and then reading more of their books. My 54 books were by only 31 different authors. Since it had been a good solid decade or so without reading more than the occasional fiction book, I ended up reading a lot of books that had won or been nominated for some of the major literary awards. It turns out that was a pretty good strategy...

I guess this list begs the question "so which was your favorite", and I've thought about that for a little while as I sit here uploading CDs into iTunes... I can't really pick one favorite, although I guess I can narrow it down to 3: Olive Kitteridge, Serena, and The Great Man. Read any or all, you can't go wrong. OK, read Serena first. Olive Kitteridge second. The Great Man third. Hey, I guess that makes it Serena!

Currently Reading - October 1, 2009

Half in Love (Stories) by Maile Meloy (Fiction, 2002). I have not read her before, but she has a new collection of stories out, and on reading a review of it, was impressed by the good press her earlier works have received. So I picked up an earlier novel and a story collection trolling on eBay. I read the first story last night and liked it.

As you will see, I read. A lot. And I'm enough of a dweeb about it to keep track of what I read; I'm not quite sure why. I think it has something to do with lists. I like the sense of order a good list represents. The ability to quantify and control that which may be otherwise uncontrollable. Preventing chaos through the proper application of pen and paper. Or something. Maybe some day when I'm bored I will list the fiction books I read last year (there were 54 of them). I'm way behind that pace this year - 24 with three months to go (but I do feel a reading binge coming on). I read a lot of history this year, and very little last year, which is part of it.