Monday, June 30, 2014

Reading Review - First Half 2014

It's been a literature reading year thus far, unlike last year which was mainly history. Funny how that works. Once I get on a roll and realize how many more good books there are to read, I gain a momentum that can last months at a time, and sometimes a year or more. The first half of this year has been no exception to that pattern.

So here are the books read thus far this year (with new authors for me in italics), roughly in order of preference. Some ratings may have been slightly adjusted upon further review and to slot them more accurately with regards to other books read later in the year. By my arbitrary 5 star ratings:
  • 5 - The Painter (Peter Heller)
  • 4.5 - The Son (Philipp Meyer)
  • 4.5 - This Dark Road to Mercy (Wiley Cash)
  • 4 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
  • 4 - The Realm of Last Chances (Steve Yarbrough)
  • 4 - Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather [Stories] (Gao Xingjian)
  • 4 - St Burl's Obituary (Daniel Akst)
  • 3.5 - Netherland (Joseph O'Neill)
  • 3.5 - The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout)
  • 3.5 - Drown [Stories] (Junot Diaz)
  • 4.5 - The Vintage Caper (Peter Mayle, 2009, 223 pages) - I didn't review this book separately, as I wouldn't call it a work of literature by any means, and so even at 4.5 stars it is here at the bottom of the list. It's a very good book, but reads like a piece of candy. It is set in California and in Paris and Marseille, and is part halfhearted mystery, but mainly just a good book about food, wine, travel and likable enough characters. A very nice two-day read, but this is cotton candy among rib eye steaks. Loved it, but it is what it is. Everything else on this list is serious literature...this is a good book.
Total books - 11
Total pages - 3,260
Different authors - 10
New authors - 6

There really wasn't a bad book in this bunch, and not a single one that I wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend others to read.

I also read parts of the following story collections:
  • Fever (John Edgar Wideman) - Wasn't crazy about Wideman's style and probably won't finish this.
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (ZZ Packer) - Did like Packer's style and will finish this, in pieces, eventually.
As we move into the back half of the year, I am partway through Wiley Cash's first book (A Land More Kind Than Home, 2013) and have also started Tom Rachman's second novel (The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, 2014 - I was stuck out of town without a book and needed to buy something to read...). Both of these novels are keeping the quality level very high...

Next up in the (potential) on-deck circle are The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt), All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) and In Paradise (Peter Matthiessen).

Book Review - The Painter

Ten books into the year, the best book so far is now The Painter by Peter Heller (2014, Aldred A Knopf, 364 pages). I finished this back in mid-May but never got around to writing my usual brief post about it.

This is another book by an author I was not familiar with but picked up solely on the strength of an Amazon "best books of the month" recommendation. I realize that I am willingly falling into the trap of buying what Amazon tells me to buy, but with very few exceptions I have been very pleased with their choices and see no reason to stop.

The book is the story of Jim Stegner, a commercially successful expressionist painter with a troubled personal life and a violent streak. Stegner leaves the Santa Fe/Taos New Mexico art community for the solitude of the Colorado mountains. Things happen. More things happen, and Stegner finds himself being pulled back into the kind of behavior that he was trying to leave behind.

This is a story of love, violence, vengeance, family, and a whole lot of other stuff, woven in and around art, the outdoors and fishing. This was a beautifully written page turner of a novel, not in the sense that you weren't sure what was going to happen next, but more in the sense that you thought you knew what was probably going to happen next but needed to see it unfold. In that regard it was reminiscent of James Lee Burke, James Crumley, John D. MacDonald and those few other authors who could write that top-tier of literary suspense/thrillers.

"I had fished the Rio de los Pinos before. It's the little creek that runs through the gorge. How those little streams make such a big impression. I had driven the long washboarded dirt road down off the plateau and parked at a little bridge. I had walked up into the walled canyon. I had fished with a peregrine gliding the wall just over my head, and later with the sun slanting down and backlighting the biggest hatch of mayflies I had ever seen, the light coming through a candescent mist of wings, and I caught more fish in an hour than I ever had before. ... Some creeks you simply loved, and seeing the railroad sign with the craggy gorge reminded me that we can proceed in our lives just as easily from love to love as from loss to loss. A good thing to remember in the middle of the night when you're not sure how you will get through the next three breaths." [p. 165]

"...I walked over to the edge of the pinions and a jackrabbit shot from under a saltbush and zagged off into the false twilight. Most of us are never seen, not clearly, and when we are we likely jump and run. Because being seen can be followed by the crack of a shot or the twang of an arrow. I took a leak in the flinty dirt. I didn't know what any of us wanted." [p. 277]

5 stars out of 5. Loved it. Best book of the year so far.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Trio of antitank guns

There unfortunately isn't anything to report from a painting table perspective, since we spent the weekend in North Jersey at our in laws' new house. We had fun at the pool, just hanging out in general, and I managed to sneak away for an hour this morning to grab nine easy geocaches nearby. So it was a good weekend, if a washout from a hobby progress perspective.

On the way home this afternoon, we stopped at a local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) post on route 206 not far from their house and took a few pictures. We have driven past this place at least a dozen times and I am not sure why I never bothered to stop. Today we did.

Now...I've seen lot of VFW posts over the years, and with them a great assortment of Korean War and Vietnam era U.S. tanks, cannons and howitzers. But I've never seen anything quite like this.

Tucked in conveniently next to the Wee Nee Wagon in front of the VFW post is a trio of German WW2 era antitank guns.
Pair of PaK38 50mm antitank guns

There are a pair of PaK38 50mm antitank guns. One is in pretty good condition, with the traverse and elevation controls and most if not all of the other mechanicals still present. The other is in worse condition, but still seems relatively complete. The tires are crumbling with age but seem original.
The better preserved PaK38 50mm with intact controls

Across the driveway is a PaK40 75mm gun. Standing next to it, this seems like a big gun, and while there certainly were larger bore and higher velocity pieces in the German arsenal, it is obvious to see why this was such a feared weapon. I could stick my arm down the muzzle.
Big brother - The PaK40 75mm antitank gun

The PaK40 seemed to be in rougher condition than the others, with controls missing, and a serious case of rust, but was still an impressive weapon nonetheless. I wouldn't want to be driving my tank down a country road and stumble on one of these hidden in the hedgerow...
PaK40 in rough condition

Regardless of condition, it was still pretty cool to see and touch these pieces of history.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

West Virginia 2014 - Summary and Recap

I am writing this the weekend after the trip, and am still basking in the afterglow of a very successful weekend. Frankly, the trip ended up being better than I expected. We crammed a lot of activity into a short time, and while the amount of driving for what amounted to a 2.5 day trip was a little excessive, I would say it was well worth it. Guidebooks and pictures never do justice to an area until you see it for yourself, and these mountains of West Virginia were very pretty. The hiking was terrific, and we chose hikes that didn't require you to be a mountain goat. Total hiking miles for the trip - 23.2. Not bad.
Hikers, rocks and trees

Car Lessons - At no point in the future, unless there are only three people going, will there be a rental of anything less than a full size minivan. We need the space. Period. Unless we strip the gear lists down to the bare minimum, leaving all creature comfort items at home (such as camp chairs, sleeping pads and air mattresses as well as various other gear), we just won't fit. The point of these trips isn't roughing it. So a big rental.
Seneca Rocks from SW (late afternoon)

Seneca Shadows campground - Excellent, and highly recommended. Not being able to reserve a single tent site was a fortunate break - the group tent site was huge and still cheap. In the future we should investigate this sort of thing as a possibility, as long as there aren't "minimum occupants" requirements that we cannot meet (or we could fib...). The campground itself was clean and well maintained. The shower/privy building was clean and had a great hot water shower. A woman came around in the evenings in a golf cart to check on things and see if we needed more firewood, which was a nice touch. The views from our site were first rate, and the location of the campground in general would make it a good jump off point for adventures anywhere in the area. There are also a couple of adequately stocked back-country general stores within a 10 minute drive to restock necessities like ice, drinks and basic foodstuffs.
Roughing it (not really...)

Gear - My gear is perfectly adequate for this kind of car camping, and there isn't anything I can think of that I really need, although picking up a good quality lightweight windbreaker is on the list of nice-to-haves. My hiking boots are holding up fine, but my low-top Merrills have so many miles on them that they could probably use replacing when I can catch a good sale somewhere. Dave and I have doubled up and slept in his two man tent on all of these trips. If there is one that he doesn't go on, I am either going to need to bum a spare space off a different roommate or buy a tent of my own. I have a one man ultralight backpacking tent, but that is basically a cocoon, and wouldn't be optimal for this sort of camping although it would certainly work in a pinch. So maybe I'll keep an eye out for a two man tent, or go trolling on eBay to see what I can find.
Dolly Sods Wilderness meadows

Camp Kitchen - I enjoy this part of camping and like being the chef, or at least involved in the food aspect, and the new Primus Profile stove seems like a good purchase so far. It really does open up a lot of possibilities for eating like kings in the future. I'm already jotting down ideas for future trips.
Dolly Sods Wilderness vista

Philadelphia Phillies baseball - While we were gone, Jimmy Rollins got a few hits and passed Mike Schmidt, one of my childhood sports heroes, and became the Phillies all time hits leader. That's OK...he won't ever catch him in home runs or RBIs...
Dolly Sods Wilderness mud

Hike - Spruce Knob Huckleberry trail - This was a very nice but not great hike. It was not particularly strenuous, given that we were on the ridge top the whole time, and was a long slow downgrade on the way out and a long gradual uphill on the way back. Most of the time we were hiking in forests with little visibility, and most forests in the Midatlantic and northeast look similar enough. But there was also a decent bit of time in mountain meadows and scrub land where the views were amazing. The view from Spruce Knob was terrific. And the fact that this is National Forest and not National Park land, and therefore geocaches can be placed, is also a plus for me. [I do understand that by staying on the ridge, we limited ourselves from a scenery standpoint, and did not take full advantage of the area.]
Dolly Sods - View to SE from Rocky Ridge trail

Hike - Dolly Sods Wilderness North Circuit - Awesome. Overused word, but this was really really cool. Again, not a killer from an elevation standpoint, which is a huge plus in my opinion, and with tremendously varied and beautiful scenery. The guidebook description of this being a "vistapalooza" was dead on. This was a great hike for putting in miles of great scenery without totally killing the legs and knees and had limitless great photo opportunities. The only thing that could have made this better was being in a season where the berries would have been in bloom. And although bald eagles and black bears live here, we didn't see either. I have seen bald eagles many times, but they are majestic creatures that are a treat to see. I have never seen a bear, and would love to. From a moderate distance preferably...
Dolly Sods Wilderness rocks

Hike - Seneca Rocks - Despite the 1,000 feet of elevation gain, this trail was so well groomed and maintained that it didn't seem bad at all, and could be done by children and families. I would give this high marks given the limited time commitment required (two hours) and the tremendous view from the observation platform at the top of the trail. It fit the bill perfectly for what we needed on Monday, a nice hike to finish off the trip that could be accomplished in about 3 hours or less.
Feeder stream near the Potomac River

Final Verdict - A great trip in a very nice area. Everyone was in agreement that we have barely scratched the surface of what is available here, and would like to return again at some point in the future. Seneca Shadows campground would be a great base camp again.

Monday, June 16, 2014

West Virginia - Monday - Seneca Rocks and Home

6:50am - After a good night's sleep, Dave, Leo and I are up and about and eating breakfast. It feels a little anticlimactic, as the last day of a trip always does. Ted was up at dawn and left for home before 6am. We have a few hours to kill, hoping to be on the road no later than noon, and after sitting in camp looking at Seneca Rocks for a couple of days, this morning we are going to hike it. We will pack and leave when we return.

8:10am - We have driven the 5 minutes it takes to get to the trailhead of the Seneca Rocks trail, and are ready to set off. We are doing hike #44 on page 234 of the Falcon guide Hiking West Virginia. I have gotten good use out of that book on this trip. The hike is a 3.0 mile out-and-back across the western face of the ridge, around to the north side approach, and switchbacking 1,000 feet up to an observation platform near the top of the rock climbing cliffs.
Climber warning - People die here

As it turns out, this is a very popular and well maintained trail that makes going up 1,000 feet about as easy as possible. The trail is extensively switchbacked to minimize the uphill grade, and in the steeper sections has wooden steps in several places. It is a mostly continuous climb, but is very manageable.

8:52am - We have done the 1.5 miles out and up and arrive at the small cantilevered deck that is the observation platform. It has been a nice hike, as the woods we have gone through are very pretty, and we are on the shady side of the ridge. I am avoiding the sun wherever possible, as I burned myself pretty good yesterday, as did all of us. The view is amazing from up here, and we can see not only our campground in general, but we can actually see our campsite and Leo's tent. In the picture below, our campsite is in the open patch in the woods seen midway between the tips of the two evergreen branches in the foreground, just to the left of the cloud-shaded patch of woods.
View from the top - campground at left distance

Dave and I have collected the information necessary to log an earthcache from various signs on the way up, and find another geocache at the top of the ridge.
Leo and Dave

We sit on the benches and enjoy the view for a while, and take a bunch of pictures, before retracing our steps back down the ridge.
Me and Dave

9:55am - We get back to the bottom, where there is a bridge across the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. It is a very picturesque spot, and I take a variety of pictures before we do the last few hundred yards back to the car. By 10:00am we are done.
North Fork, South Branch of the Potomac River

Before heading back to break down our campsite, we walk to the Education Center nearby, which is a beautiful new-looking building with a lot of good information and some nice displays. There is a really nice (big) topographic map table that depicts the whole region we have been in (in 3-D), and has the trails we have hiked marked, along with the multitude of other trails in the area. Very cool.
Seneca Rocks hike - 3.0 miles out and back (and up)

10:30am - Back at camp. We packed as much as we could last night, so it only takes us an hour to shower up, finish packing, break down everything and load the SUV. With Ted having taken some of the gear and only three of us riding, we have plenty of room.

11:35am - We are on the road. We wind back out through the mountains the way we came.

1:25pm - We are back on interstate 81 at Winchester VA.

1:45pm - We stop for a Chick-Fil-A lunch (spicy chicken deluxe of course!) as we pass through Martinsburg WV, and get a cache in the parking lot. That makes a final total of 7 for the trip - 6 in West Virginia and 1 in Virginia, including 1 new state and 3 new counties. This brings my total to a modest but respectable 1,107.

5:15pm - After an uneventful drive, I drop Dave and Leo at Dave's house.

5:55pm - Home.

Next...A final trip Recap.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

West Virginia - Sunday night - Camp time

We leave the Dolly Sods area shortly after 4pm, basking in the air conditioning for the ride back to camp. We arrive back at about 5pm, having dodged a number of deer running across the road.

By the time everyone has showered and cleaned up, made an ice run to a general store just down the road, and settled into our camp chairs, it is nearing 6:30pm. The sun is dropping toward the ridge to our west, and the campsite is thankfully in the shade, or enough shade if we scoot our chairs closer to the trees. At some point during the weekend Leo comments that he thinks maybe he likes the camping part of these trips best of all. On thinking about it, I might very well agree. I do love the hikes, despite my griping about the climbing and there always being mountains in our trips, but I also really love the camaraderie of the camp time. We sit around the fire, have a few drinks over the course of the evening, and talk. Ted has heard about the same trick I had, which is that if you put an iPhone or the equivalent in a bowl or a coffee cup to play music, it serves as a makeshift speaker. This actually works pretty well, and a small bowl serves to help provide good music until "quiet time" begins at 10pm. Between 4 phones loaded with music, we have plenty of good stuff to listen to.
Camp time

I also enjoy good food, and like the challenge of eating well at camp. I ended up being the quartermaster and cook for this trip (I volunteered), and one of my goals was to try to expand our horizons a little bit. I have always been somewhat surprised that with all the car camping trips that these guys have done over the years, nobody has ever bought or brought a camp stove, and that all the food preparation they have done has always been over a charcoal grill or the fire pit. I've been wanting to try something different, so after some research I bought a Primus Profile two burner camp stove. It runs on standard 1 pound propane bottles (like the green Coleman one in the picture), and supposedly gets about one and a half to two hours use per bottle. Each burner puts out 12,000 BTU of heat, which is plenty to boil water relatively quickly, but also has the ability to simmer on a low flame when necessary. Other than testing it in the yard at home to make sure it would light, tonight's dinner would be its first real use.
New toy - Primus Profile camp stove

Knowing that we were planning a long day of hiking today and not being sure exactly when we would be back at camp (or how much energy we would have when we got there), I planned a simple dinner. I had made a batch of Cincinnati Chili at home during the week and froze it. It had been in the iced cooler slowly thawing over the last couple of days. I would make pasta in one pot on the stove while reheating the chili in the other. The stove worked fine, and we had a great dinner of Cincinnati chili over rotini pasta, sprinkled with shredded cheddar (and hot sauce), with an arugula salad on the side. One dinner isn't a comprehensive test, but I am thinking I am going to like this stove a lot. It opens up a whole new realm of possibilities concerning sauteed or steamed veggies to go with the usual protein-fest.
More Seneca Rocks

Everyone is tired. We watch the sun set on Seneca Rocks, talk and listen to music. Everyone is in bed by perhaps 10:30pm.

Tomorrow (Monday), Ted will be up very early and leaving as soon as he can. He will take some of the gear we no longer need, and drive back by himself to get to work in the afternoon. Leo, Dave and I will do a short hike in the morning, then pack up camp and head home ourselves, planning to be home around dinner time or early evening. With Ted having taken some of the gear, and with half of the back seat available, we will have plenty of space in the SUV.

Next...Seneca Rocks and Home.

West Virginia - Sunday part 2 - Dolly Sods, or Dolly Slogs

Continuing the Dolly Sods North Circuit hike...
Canaan valley

1:41pm - We arrive at the junction of the Rocky Ridge trail and the Dobbin Grade trail where we will turn left (East) onto the Dobbin. The Rocky Ridge trail has been my favorite part of the hike so far, as I like this kind of boulder-strewn landscape very much. The views off the ridge down into the Canaan valley have been spectacular, but as we move onto the Dobbin Grade trail they are left behind. (The Canaan valley is outside the Wilderness area - we are hiking the ridge line on the western edge of the wilderness area, so that's why there are houses and roads in the picture).
Rocky washed out trails and muddy streams

We are moving through scattered stands of trees of various types. We cross the Left Fork of Red Creek, which is a small but pretty mahogany colored stream stained by all the spruce.
Left Fork of Red Creek

2:17pm - Beaver View trail junction. We are descending gradually along something that almost seems like a rocky washed-out old fire road, but I don't think it is. Too irregular. There are signs of horse traffic. Footing is difficult. I wouldn't want to be a horse on this (and there are moments when I am not entirely sure I want to be me walking on this...). Those grumpy thoughts go away quickly as we pass through some wooded sections of lush fern-lined trail, which also serves to provide a nice respite from the sun.
Sun-dappled fern lined trail

2:40pm - We reach the Upper Red Creek trail junction which joins in from the South. Five minutes later is the Raven Ridge trail intersection coming in from the North. A few minutes after that we are crossing the main branch of Red Creek again. Part of this very gradual up hill section follows what is clearly an old railroad grade. It is amazing to think of how much of the eastern US used to be literally covered with a spiderweb of these tiny rail lines running everywhere.
A tiny tiny taste of slogs to come

3:10pm (ish) - We reach the spot where the Beaver Dam trail, a side spur back up to our starting road, comes in from the East. We briefly discuss the possibility of going up that trail to potentially shorten the hike just a bit, but a look at the map doesn't make it seem like it would do much in that regard, and it would make the last part of the hike be up the road back to the parking area. Nobody wants to close out this hike with the better part of a mile on a dirt and gravel road with cars. It is very hot, and I have drunk my Gatorade and most of my water. I had chosen not to bring my full water bladder for my day pack, and just had a 20 oz Gatorade and a 1 liter Nalgene water bottle. Bad choice. Fortunately, others were smarter than me and had drinks to spare. I ran out of mine with about a mile and a half to go (and it was topping 90 degrees with a blistering sun). Dummy.

Shortly after deciding not to go up the side trail, the Dobbin Grade trail turns into a swamp. We are picking our way carefully through the muck and mud and deep pools of standing water as best we can. Everyone is doing their best to keep their boots as dry as possible, since we are a good 9.5 miles into this hike, and are hot, tired, sunburned and cranky. Sloshing along in wet boots is no fun.

I have no pictures from this point on since I stowed my camera to keep it safe, and was too busy concentrating on being hot and miserable to bother. The swamp continued for maybe three tenths of a mile (it seemed like much more, and we were going very slowly). It was easy to tell when somebody misjudged the firmness of their next step and ended up ankle, boot top or mid-calf deep in watery muck, based on the outbursts of cursing, laughing and groaning. Eventually the trail firms up again and we move on at a much better pace. Everybody seems pretty beat by this point, but all are doing fine.

3:35pm - We reach the junction with the Bear Rocks trail, completing our loop, and leaving us with about 1.2 or 1.3 miles back to our car, retracing the start of our hike.
11.3 miles - Parking at right and counterclockwise hike

4:00pm - We are back at the car. I am exhausted but happy. The GPS reads 11.3 miles hiked from car door to car door. There is a geocache about three tenths of a mile east of the parking lot, across a boulder field, but as fun as that would normally be, I don't have it in me. All I care about is the cold water and Gatorade bottles in the cooler in the back of the SUV. I don't seem to be alone in that.

Next...Sunday Night at Camp.

West Virginia - Sunday part 1 - Dolly Sods Begins

Sunday dawns bright and beautiful. It is Father's Day, and we have been out of cell service since coming into the mountains. This is a planning "oops", but certainly not as bad as going to the Dakotas back in 2011 over Grace's birthday.

Nobody had much time to do significant hike research or planning leading up to this trip, but I have bought a couple of books and done some reading. The most reasonable hike for the day and the one we decide to do is hike #41, Dolly Sods North Circuit, on page 219 of the Falcon Hiking West Virginia guidebook. We will do this exactly as written.

The Dolly Sods wilderness is a 17,000+ acre protected national wilderness area of upland mountain plateau, and is a mix of spruce and hardwood forests interspersed with azalea, mountain laurel and blackberry meadows and rocky outcrops. The name comes from the Dahle family of German immigrants who lived in the area a long time ago, and a "sods" is a local term for this kind of upland meadow terrain.

7:45am - It has been cool overnight, so I have been hunkered down in my nice warm sleeping bag, dozing off and on as it has been getting lighter. I have heard Leo and Ted moving around outside, and we had agreed to get going fairly early, so Dave and I are astounded when a voice outside out tent announces that it is time to get up since it is almost 8am. Yikes. With breakfast, getting dressed, making and packing lunches, and all the other various and sundry things that go into getting ready for a hike, it is nearly 10am by the time we are on the road.

10:45am - After a missed turn on the road, some doubling back to the right spot, and a long slow drive up to the Dolly Sods plateau on a horrible dirt and gravel road, we are finally setting off on the Bear Rocks Trail, heading west. This hike is described in the guidebook as a "vistapalooza", and from the moment we arrive in the parking lot, this is obviously true. Long sweeping views across the plateau and off the plateau into the surrounding valleys and distant ridge lines are astounding.
Setting out, heading West

11:12am - We arrive at the first of many small stream crossings, over upper Red Creek. Exactly as the guide book said, we are hiking through meadows of laurel, azalea and berry, along with mixed Spruce and hardwood forest sections. My legs were sore after yesterday, and they still are, but it is nothing too bad and isn't getting worse. A short climb section in the early going has me muttering curses under my breath (as usual), but this will prove to be the worst of the climbing. For the most part will be be rolling up and down slopes and rises and not doing any significant climbing.
Crossing Red Creek

11:44am - We reach the junction with the Raven Ridge trail at about mile 3 and head further west on it. The views continue to be amazing. I feel at times like I should be hearing yodeling or something.
Upland meadows

12:23pm - We reach the far NW corner of the hike track, where the Raven Ridge trail turns south and becomes the Rocky Ridge trail. The trail is messy at times. Despite being up on the mountain plateau, there are a lot of areas with standing water and sloppy poor-draining sections of trail. At this point it is just muddy and slippery in places (but it will get ugly later...).
Sloppy at times...

12:30 - Shortly after turning south, we see a rocky area ahead to our left that looks like a perfect place for a lunch stop. As we get closer, we see that there are a bunch of people already there. It turns out to be a Boy Scout troop that is leaving just as we arrive. It is proving to be a hotter day than we thought it would be, and it is nice to stop for a rest. We are somewhere around 5 miles into what is said to be a 10.8 mile hike, and my legs are feeling a little tired, but pretty good over all. I haven't gotten any more sore than I was after yesterday, and if anything, the activity is shaking off some of that soreness.
Rock pile for a lunch stop

It's amazing how good a simple thing like a ham and cheese sandwich can taste when you are hungry and out in the great outdoors. A simple pleasure.
Sandwiches in the open air

1:05pm - Lunch is over, and we saddle up and continue south down the Rocky Ridge trail. I LOVE this kind of open rocky terrain, so this section of trail is a joy. The views to the West (our right) across the Canaan valley are gorgeous.
South down the ridge from our lunch site

It's hot, and is getting hotter.

Next...Dolly Sods part 2...and back to camp

Saturday, June 14, 2014

West Virginia - Saturday part 2 - Seneca Shadows campground

By shortly after 4pm we are back in our cars and heading back towards the Seneca Shadows campground, which we passed on the drive here. Seneca Shadows is within the boundaries of the Spruce Knob/Seneca Rocks National Recreation area, but the managing of the campground itself is contracted out to a private company. Government oversight tends to make these managing companies deliver a pretty high quality product, and this will prove to be true here.

4:45pm - We are checking in with the nice older couple running the campground office, and buying a few bundles of firewood. When Ted called for reservations not that long ago, he was told that the only tent spots still available for the dates we wanted were for groups, and the one he selected was a 5-pad tent site right down the road (but not too close) to the latrine and shower building. Camping is cheap. Even this large site cost $129 for two nights, or $33 per man.

4:55pm - We pull up to the parking spot next to the campsite and collectively burst out laughing. This site is large enough to hold a Boy Scout troop with room to spare. There are 5 large tent pads, tons of open space, a fire pit, two grill stands and 5 picnic tables. There are no other campsites in direct view, although we can hear the couple of other group sites that are perhaps 100 yards away through tree lines and out of sight. We are also on a dead end cul de sac, so nobody will be driving through. Perfect. The only mild concern is that there are trees ringing the campsite, but no shade anywhere in the middle. This will prove to be no issue, as we don't plan to be here except in the early morning and in the evening, and by evening the sun is dropping low behind the trees on the west side.
Group tent site, looking Southeast

6:30pm - We have set up camp, pitching tents on the three pads on the western (late-day shadier) side of the site. Ted has his own tent, as does Leo (a 4-person palace/monster that he wants to try out), while Dave and I will share a tent as usual. Everyone is showered, and we get a small fire going, just because you have to have a fire whenever possible. It's a rule.
Camp established

7:00pm - We have been relaxing, chatting, and listening to Dave noodle around on his Washburn (travel) guitar, something that comes with us on all driving trips now if at all possible. It's great to have the sound of an acoustic guitar in camp.

The view from our camp is astounding. When they named this place Seneca Shadows they weren't kidding. We are practically in the shadows of Seneca Rocks, a famous rock climbing destination of quartzite cliffs that dominates our northeastern view, rising 1,000 feet from the valley floor below, and towering over the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River which runs north under its western face. Over the course of the next few days I will take at least 50 pictures of the Rocks at various times of day in different light. It is universally agreed that this is a campground worth revisiting, but that is a story for later...
Seneca Rocks from Camp

8:00pm - We settle down to a dinner of grilled boneless ribeye steaks and a hobo pouch of potatoes, onions, bacon and kale (cooked by yours truly). This hobo pack is something that I have made at home, and is an easy way to do a veggie side dish on the grill. Sliced potatoes, sliced onions, chopped up pre-cooked bacon and baby kale (or other "power greens") are put in a heavy duty aluminum pouch, oiled, seasoned, and then sealed up as best you can. Twenty minutes of so of medium high indirect heat steams the veggies pretty well, then you poke some holes and cook another 10-15 minutes to finish the cooking, releasing the steam so that it doesn't get too mushy. It was terrific, and an easy-to-make, no-clean-up dish.
West face of Seneca Rocks in the setting sun

10:15pm - We have polished off a bottle of wine and a few beers between us, and everyone is about ready for bed. The stars are amazing, and we have been watching satellites move across the sky, along with a couple of shooting stars. Way out here in the West Virginia mountains the night sky is very dark and there are more stars than you will see where we live, although not as many as we saw on the Dakotas trip in 2011 (it's hard to get farther from civilization in the lower 48 states than that...).

10:30pm - Lights out, and me with them.

Next...Sunday...the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

West Virginia - Saturday part 1 - Spruce Knob

One of the early potential plans for this trip was to hit three state highpoints in one outing; Mt Davis in Pennsylvania, Backbone Mountain in Maryland, and Spruce Knob in West Virginia. On further research, it was agreed that the first two weren't very interesting or especially good hikes. This left Spruce Knob in WV as the one highpoint we wanted to get. That was the goal for Saturday.

5:20am - I have slept restlessly in the hotel, as I usually do, and this is the first time I remember looking at the alarm clock.

6:20am - I am dozing off and on, but it will be time to get up soon so we can get going. We have about 2:40 of driving to get to the day's hike at Spruce Knob.

6:45am - Time to hit the showers and get dressed.

7:15am - Dave and I are ready, but Leo is in the shower. To kill time before meeting up for breakfast in the hotel's little breakfast area, Dave and I decide to go to the gas station/convenience store (a Sheetz) across the street to gas up and fill the coolers with ice. While we are out we grab a quick geocache in the parking lot of a fast food place down the street from the hotel. I have cache finds in Virginia already, but only in the eastern part of the state, so this will be a new county (geek, I know...). This will be the first of a modest seven geocache finds on the trip.

8:40am - We have had the simple complimentary breakfast at the hotel and are on the road. Not quite as early as I had thought we might be, but still on target to be hiking by noon.

The ascent into the West Virginia mountains is a nice drive. We are on highways for a little while, but soon we are on two lane roads, working our way through gaps and down the valleys between mountain ridges. The scenery is beautiful, but the driving is slow for the miles we are covering. Sharp curves, no passing zones and some rubber-necking at the views. That's why it's a two hour and forty minute drive to our destination. At about the 2 hour mark we drive past our campground at Seneca Rocks and continue on to Spruce Knob. The final approach road up the mountain to the state highpoint is quite a ride: switchbacks, steep narrow roads and blind curves for miles.
Spruce Knob Observation Tower

11:30am - We arrive at the parking lot for Spruce Knob. The actual highpoint with its observation tower is only about 300 yards from a parking lot. We hit the high point before our hike (at 4,863 feet). There is a traditional cache along the gravel path to the tower, so Dave and I now have a cache in West Virginia. This is my 23rd state. Woo hoo. I also gather the required information for an earthcache (a geology-based educational kind of geocache). The view from the tower is amazing, with wooded ridges as far as the eye can see. It's a beautiful day, with blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and a nice cool breeze.
View from the Tower

11:54am - We set off down the Huckleberry Trail. The trails in the Spruce Knob area (and there are many of them) are laid out in such a way that a loop or circuit hike isn't really an option. We could do a shuttle hike (from one car to our other car parked at a different trailhead) but we opt for a simple out-and-back along the ridge top Huckleberry trail for as long as we choose.
Spruce and head-high azaleas

The hike is a nice easy one, through stands of red spruce and upland forest intermingled with mountain meadows of laurel and azalea. We are following the ridge line, and are descending very slowly away from the highpoint. In effect, we are doing part of hike #45 on page 238 of the Falcon Guide Hiking West Virginia (2nd edition, 2013). That hike is a shuttle from a trailhead on the Seneca Creek Trail along the creek for 5 miles or so (down in the valley between the ridges) and then up onto to ridge top to meet the Huckleberry Trail, and then 5 miles up the Huckleberry to the highpoint. We are doing the Huckleberry piece as an out and back.
Green everywhere

12:57pm - Approximately 3.1 miles north out the Huckleberry Trail we stop for lunch in a beautiful mountain meadow. [Have I mentioned how great digital photos are at time stamping everything?]. The view west across the valley to a distant ridge is amazing. Lunch itself is ham and cheese sandwiches and various trail snacks. Conversation is a train of consciousness blend of movies in general, James Cameron movies in specific, Game of Thrones and miscellaneous strolls down memory lane. The thought occurs to me as we eat that even though I don't see Leo as often as I would like, and see Ted almost exclusively on these trips, I am as comfortable around these three guys as any other people I know. Lots of shared history in 48, 47 and 35+ years...
Lunch in a mountain meadow

1:31pm - Lunch break, conversation, airing of boots and socks, and enjoying the view is done. We hit the trail and continue North.
The view West from my lunch seat

2:10pm (ish) - At around mile 4.5 of our hike (courtesy of my Garmin 450t GPS track), we begin to drop steadily off the ridge into the valley to our west (left). Dave and Ted voice the opinion that further out means further down, and that what goes down (in this case) must come back up. Given that we are planning the big hike of the trip to be tomorrow in the Dolly Sods Wilderness ("Dolly til we drop" as Leo puts it), it is suggested that we turn around and head back. Leo is amenable. I am relieved. I was enjoying the views, the forests, and the easy hiking, but once it was brought to my attention I realized that a 9 mile day today was just fine with me. More would be...more. And so we headed back.

Spruce Knob - 8.9 miles
Along the way I checked my GPS with preloaded geocaches and saw that we had passed a cache on the way out the trail, 0.8 miles from our starting point. At some point on the return trip Ted and Leo separated from Dave and I. I wasn't struggling at all, but my pace on climbs, even modest ones, does slow down. Dave stuck with me. I'm sure he didn't need to, but I appreciated the company. We found the cache we had passed on the return trip after a brief search of a boulder field.

3:43pm - We are back at the starting point, 3:49 after setting out, including a 35 minute lunch break. The GPS says we have covered 8.9 miles, or a pace of about 2.8 miles per hour (taking out lunch).

My legs are a little sore from the mileage, but I feel great. It's always terrific to be out in the woods with the guys.

Next...Saturday part 2...Seneca Shadows Campground.

Friday, June 13, 2014

West Virginia 2014 - Friday - Issues on the Launching Pad

Lack of blogging recently has been more a byproduct of the fact that too much has been going on, and not that nothing much has been happening. Lots of end of school year activities, a concert, Grace's impending birthday, and a guys' camping/hiking trip to West Virginia. More on the rest later, but for now, the camping trip.

With various peoples' commitments and schedules for this year, the likelihood of a big trip has been remote. Following the Ricketts Glen overnight trip back in April, it was agreed that to make sure we could get some camping in this year at all, we needed to get something on the calendar in the way of a 4 day trip, preferably over a weekend to minimize vacation time that people would need to burn. After some back and forth via email, it was agreed that mid June would work, and that the destination would be West Virginia. Specifically, the far eastern part of the state containing the Spruce Knob/Seneca Rocks National Recreation area, and the Dolly Sods Wilderness section of the Monongahela National Forest. The general plan for the trip was a Friday departure and a Monday return, with four of us able to go (Brother Dave, Leo, Ted and myself). The only downside from my point of view was that this was a lot of driving for a four day trip, but the benefits of venturing into what would be virgin territory for all of us outweighed the high ratio of drive time to trip length. And it would add a new state for geocaching...

The Planned Plan - Four of us in a rented SUV leave Friday and drive to West Virginia. Hike Saturday, Sunday and half a day on Monday, then drive home to Pennsylvania, getting home by Monday night.

The Planned Reality - Leo forgot he had a wedding to attend in the early evening, so we would meet at Brother Dave's Friday evening and be on the road by 9pm, driving as far as a hotel in Winchester Virginia, 3 hours away. Wake up Saturday morning bright and early and drive two hours and forty minutes directly to Spruce Knob, the high point of West Virginia, and hike Saturday. Go to the Seneca Shadows Campground after. Hike somewhere in the Dolly Sods Wilderness area Sunday. Do a short hike somewhere Monday morning then drive home.

The Real Reality:

c. 3:00pm to 5:00pm - I am at a local trampoline jumping place for Grace's birthday party, having taken the day off to finish packing, pick up the rental SUV (a Dodge Journey - a "standard SUV"), and go to Grace's birthday party. Her actual birthday isn't for a little while yet, but today was the last day of school, and in order to make sure all her friends could attend her party before scattering to the four winds for the summer, her "school friend party" is today. At one point, I check my phone and see a series of emails and text messages back and forth between the other three trip members, the gist of which is that Ted has had some work emergencies come up, and will either have to cut his Monday as short as possible or not go at all. We all agree that cutting Monday short is far better than losing a person. The more people on a trip the better. At this point we are thinking that Ted will drive his car as far as the Winchester VA hotel, we will leave his car there for the weekend, go in the rented SUV to West Virginia, we all leave early Monday to get him back to his car, he will drive home, and the remaining three of us will find a useful way to burn a few hours in Virginia or somewhere on the way home. We will still all meet at Dave's to leave together, in two vehicles.

7:20pm - I arrive at Dave's. Ted is already there. I wolf down a sandwich I picked up on the way and then we go out to the driveway to begin loading gear pending Leo's arrival. Leo dropped off his gear at Dave's the night before, so we have everything we need to pack the SUV and wait for Leo to show.

7:45pm - We quickly realize that a potential concern is a reality; there is no way in the world all of our gear is going to fit in this "standard sized SUV". We generally rent a minivan for driving trips, which has loads of room, but figured this was a shorter trip so we would need less stuff. The problem is, whether you are camping for 2 nights or 12 nights, the basic gear is the same. Tents. Camp chairs. Sleeping bags and pads. Lanterns. Cooking stuff. Hiking boots and poles. All manner of other stuff. The "variable" stuff in the way of amount of clothing and amount of food is far less of a space eater than the baseline amount of gear. Which is painfully obvious as we stand around in the driveway looking at the pile of stuff and the limited space. We are either leaving any and all absolutely non-critical gear home or we are taking two vehicles. Lesson learned.

8:00pm - So...we are taking two vehicles. Ted will drive all the way instead of just halfway, and we will put all overflow gear in his trunk. Monday he will be free to leave on his own as soon as he chooses and the rest of us can stay and do a short hike in WV before leaving.

8:15pm - Leo arrives earlier than planned. We point out the planning miscalculation, and the new plan. Not much to discuss, so off we go.

8:45pm - We are on the road. Dave is with me and Leo is with Ted. No need for anyone to drive solo. We will go out the PA Turnpike to Interstate 81 at Carlisle, and then south to Winchester. The hotel is right off the highway. It has been a mildly stressful afternoon, and it is great to be on the road.

11:50pm - We arrive at the Comfort Inn in Winchester VA. Traffic wasn't bad and we have made good time. I have been leading, and Ted has stuck to me like glue. I don't think he left my bumper in three hours.

12:10am - We have two rooms, with Leo and Ted in one and Dave and I in the other. Everyone is tired and we have a few long days ahead of us so we have gone to our rooms right away. I remember that game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals was tonight, and being a big hockey fan I turn on the TV to see if I can catch a score. The Los Angeles Kings were up 3 games to 1 over the New York Rangers going into tonight. I hate the Rangers. Flipping around, I find that the game is still on, and is partway through the second overtime.

12:20am - An LA player knocks in a rebound halfway through the second overtime and the Kings have won the Cup, at home, for the second time in three years. That makes two in LA for former Flyers Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Justin Williams. Grrrr. But better them than the Rangers. Much better.

12:30am - I watch the Cup presentation and then we turn out the lights and go to bed.

The plan for tomorrow - Get up at least reasonably early, drive straight through to Spruce Knob for a high point and a hike, then doubling back to the campground. After finding a geocache near the hotel in Winchester of course...

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tedeschi Trucks Band - Aston PA 6/11/14

Tedeschi Trucks Band, Aston PA, 6/11/14
My thoughts have been primarily around getting ready for the upcoming West Virginia camping weekend, but we squeezed in a concert last night with our neighbors. Amp and I had seen the Tedeschi Trucks Band back in 2011 at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby (blog post is here), and loved them. We were surprised to see an upcoming show announcement that they would be coming to the Sun Center in Aston PA, very close to home. I had no idea the Sun Center did concerts, and hadn't been there since our high school graduation was held there...well...a long time ago. I had trouble imagining how that big warehouse-y place would be set up for a concert. I figured they had built a new auditorium for shows like this.

I was wrong. The four of us showed up at the Sun Center at around 6:45 or so for a 7:30 show, and it became immediately obvious that there was no new concert theater. In fact, there wasn't an auditorium at all. There was a stage, a temporary tent roof over the stage, and 1,200 folding chairs on the lawn and part of the parking lot next to the building. Hmmm.

I love an outdoor show. Usually. But part of loving an outdoor show is knowing that it IS an outdoor show and preparing accordingly. On a chilly, blustery evening like today where it is threatening to rain, this would mean sweatshirt, rain jacket, hat, etc... None of which any of us had. In order to minimize the amount of things to bring/wear/carry the girls had specifically not brought extra sweaters, jackets or anything of the sort. So when the rains came (and a very light drizzle of rain did indeed start partway through the show), we would end up chilly and slightly uncomfortable, but nothing too bad.
The gang, the lawn and the stage

As for the show itself, there was a solo opening act whose name I no longer recall writing this well after the fact. He played guitar and sang, and was good if not great. The TTB took the stage at close to 8:30 and played for a solid two hours. This tour was in support of their recent album Made Up Mind, and was a good mix of new material, earlier TTB and solo act songs, and a variety of covers.

I gushed about the quality of the show, the large and excellent complement of backing musicians, Susan's guitar playing and vocals, and Derek's virtuoso playing in my prior post. All of this is still true. The band is still great, Derek is still brilliant, and the outdoor temporary setup at the Sun Center had good sound and good sight lines. Great show.

YouTube clips of our show:
Other highlights included Keep on Growing. The only real disappointment for me was that they didn't do Anyday, my favorite song that Derek did in his solo band days.

A fantastic if chilly evening, and now off to pack for West Virginia.