45: Number of the Day

Forty-five years ago we witnessed the first moon landing, moon walk(s) and moon launch back to Earth. I don’t recall hearing much about it when I grew up. I was aware of it but science discussions to this degree were not part of our dinner table lexicon. Which was ok. We talked at length about each others’ day and all sorts of small-town Americana themes.

As we catch the daily headlines now and hear about economic difficulties, international consternation and the prevailing cluster in DC I find it amazing to believe  we were able to focus resources of all manner to accomplish such a stretch goal. It’s worth taking a few minutes for some of us who were too young to remember the time period as it happened.

A second 45 hits a little closer to home. Today marked the 45th day in 2014 of triple digits in The Old Pueblo. That’s about 22% of the entire year at 100+. Crazy. And ouch.  After a few years scorching in the desert I think I’ve earned the right to say it’s not just a dry heat. It’s frigging hot. Up to the mid-upper 90’s I’d offer it’s tolerable–even pleasant with a bit of a breeze. Slip into a little shade yet still allow the breeze to flow and it’s nice. Once it bumps up past 98-100 I see my heat rate spike, all my exposed skin redden and my ability to intake enough fluid to forgo feelings of dizziness and complete exhaustion are compromised.

I like the heat–I detest being cold. Actually it’s not how I feel about cold as much as how it makes me feel—purple extremities contrasted against my sweat soaked core make for a miserable contrast 3-4-5 months of the year.  I’m ok with being part of a potential run on the local Triple Digit Temps record. If that’s the worst of my feelings about town as I get ready to pack up and move I’ll take it.

Ok, Thank You

My Spanish language is bad, really bad. Several hours of podcasts while biking to dog-clients doesn’t exactly make the best formula for effective adult learning. It comes out in days such as this when four of the seven folks working on various things around the house speak English as a second language; a couple of them virtually no English at all.

Moving and job change routinely make their way toward the top of many major life events lists. In fact, marriage does as well. I’m sure a marriage, 2.5 moves and two job changes in a little more than 18 months would be enough to send some people slipping off the edge if not completely jumping off it. Yet I sit on the patio staring out at the sun-drenched mountains and valley, more worried about one arm being more in the sun than the other (as a result of a furniture crammed patio due to the floor-polish guys doing their thing) and feeling slightly sorry for myself for failing to pick up Spanish the way I’d hoped.

Entering the fifth week (or so) of this current relocation process it feels we’ve hit the pinnacle of the bad and may have started the gradual decent toward a smooth landing. By my count this is my sixth employment related move—paltry by standards of military folks, coaches and senior executives; yet a number with impact. Each different in as many ways as similar. This one’s been particularly difficult; some things related to our love of our current location and some related to somewhat unique (and not cheap!) fixes needed to our property to satisfy a relocation company.

Everyone gets hot in the desert, native or not, especially in the middle of a dozen consecutive triple digit days. As I was shuffling around the house between different groups of service folks I repeated my bad Spanglish, particularly the part about plenty of Coke and water in both inside and patio refrigerators. I know I was getting things across when a couple of the guys repeated, ‘Ok, Thank You’

Still Pushing The Comfort Zone

I like that I spent several months as the house guest of The Comforts. I learned as much about me as I did about them over the course of a few seasons in their first home.


It marked the last time I jumped in leaf piles, the first time (since my divorce) that I kept to a structured dining schedule, and the perfect time to move to a different part of town. They’ll always have a unique place in my memory.

Fall, 2009


Speaking of comforts……the last couple of years has required a continual extension of my own comfort zone. Some weeks my sanity

depends on it. It also likely serves as a source of near insanity.  This would be one.

For a number of reasons I decided to enter the big leagues of self publishing/blogging. It started several months ago with my photo site and continues with my personal blog. I’m officially on www.wordpress.org and self hosted. Working my way solo through the transfer of google’s free site to a self-hosted (i.e. paid) site hasn’t been simple. I’m not technically inclined–in fact for my entire professional working life I was inclined to toss something like this over the wall as a ‘growth opportunity’ for someone else. What comes around goes around, right?

While it appears I’ve successfully imported all my content from my google – bloodspot site this is my first test at drafting something new on wordpress.org. We’ll work on making it pretty over the next couple of weeks. For now (baby step #1) we’re chasing simple functionality.  Let’s see how it goes…..





***Caution*** Holiday Narrative Essay*

Abingdon Plantatation-Nat’l Airport Day of Departure. Note The Green! 

It’d be easy to argue our time off/away during the Christmas and New Years season wasn’t a true vacation. I was there, loved the time away and still could make that argument! Blinding snowstorms, double-digit below zero wind-chills, deserted waterfronts, bloody feet, family squabbles and perhaps most of all….no tan-lines! And by no-tan lines I don’t mean what I might have looked like after a couple weeks (yesss!!) in Hobe Sound, FL. I mean the pastiest I can remember being in three or four years. Yet returning home I felt as refreshed and full of experiences as many vacations could provide. 
Departure Day A.M. Run

Up well before dawn on our departure day I was convinced by Samantha to sneak in a final run before heading for the Midwest. Several weeks ago our Tucson tenant sent a box of winter running gear (she’s the best!) and I’d already packed most of it for the trip–which was fine as I was almost overdressed in shorts, a long-sleeve T and ear-warmers. Perfect.
 We headed to National Airport to pick up our rental and hit the road with a limited agenda the first two days. We also had a limited agenda for the second week which, in hindsight, probably had the most influence on a rather dramatic course correction for the return trip.

Indy Riverwalk

After fighting traffic up through most of Maryland–local reports stated nearly 2.8 million (that’s million) people would depart the DMV area for the holidays—the snow-kissed high hills of far western Maryland/eastern Pennsylvania were a welcome sight. It’d been a couple years since we’d seen snow of that depth and it served as a launchpad for one of several discussions about our future; particularly related to geographical preferences. We knew ahead of time we were heading into a massive weather system covering the eastern half of the country so settled in for the long haul of sketchy driving. What we didn’t know was the return trip would further put a seal against any desires for cold climate living.  

Indianapolis River-walk Art

Generally the cautious driver, I was all-in for stopping in Indianapolis for our first night. It’d taken probably 50% longer to get from Columbus to Indy than under favorable drive conditions. Thunderstorms engulfed the landscape as far as could be seen–we’d later learn severe storm and flood warnings had been issued for that stretch. No surprise: no fewer than a dozen cars were in ditches or pulled off the road on that normally sleepy stretch. During a white-knuckle stop along the way we saw several rescue vehicles heading back east—likely to the freshly ditched cars and trucks we’d passed a few miles earlier.

With travel points and other special discounts we almost made a game the entire trip out of finding Samantha-friendly hotels within our hotel networks. Most of the time we made out quite well–terrific properties in sometimes unique and always favorable locations.  Indy turned out to be a great choice for a number of reasons–some knowingly selfish. My –Have Run-or-Biked In– U.S. map (currently on our garage wall) had grown a layer of dust after a couple years following my cyclical routine in and around Southern Arizona. Months in the DMV has helped a bunch and I fully intended to add a few more pins during our holiday trip. A short morning jog along the downtown canal system made for the another pin to stick. Neither of us had ever previously stayed in Indianapolis so landing a room downtown at canal level was well worth passing a dozen hotels from the edge of town winding into  the heart of the city. In fact, for all the trips I made west during the time I lived in Columbus I never so much as stopped in the city–always hitting travel stops on the edges of town. What a miss.

Common Sight: Bad Weather Out–Naps In

We exhausted a few hours of our discretionary time from the previous night fighting through the storm and the forecast for the remainder of the trip looked about the same–only colder–so we had only a bit of time to spend along the canal; a relatively newly renovated feature. That was unfortunate as it’s unlikely we’ll be back and it’s really an attractive downtown. Each person we passed was ‘midwestern’ nice–most actually giving a good morning or a smile and nod at minimum. That’s mostly unheard of, perhaps even forbidden, in DC. After we’d pushed our limit on timing we finished packing up and hit the road.

Less than an hour had passed and we dipped below freezing–the last time we’d see anything near the freezing point for the next week. In hindsight the pit-stop made in Champaign-Urbana, without so much as stating it, may have been the very moment we decided we never wanted to live in a cold-weather climate again.  I hadn’t driven in snowy/icy conditions in nearly three years, Amy more than five.  She wasn’t about to start now. Annual snowfalls in southern Arizona rarely drop below 4000 feet. Our house sits at 2500 and we always wait until the weather guys say roads are completely clear—-and Mt. Lemmon closes it’s only access road to everyone but local/resident traffic after big snows.

Sam’s First Real Snow–Shaking It Off

In the dozens of times I’d crossed the Mississippi at the Quad Cities I’d never stopped to read the historical markers on the Iowa side. Over the last nine months I’ve turned marker and sign reading into a hobby so naturally we stopped to take a look. Actually it was a split credit decision. Amy’s pit-stop preferences are aligned with state sponsored rest stops vs. service stations. Tough to argue. Cleaner, more space/grass for dog-walking and generally less crowded. Fortunately with our sparkly new rental we were experiencing fine fuel economy so fewer service stations needed.  I was slightly chilled reading that both Robert E. Lee and Jeff Davis made their way to this very location. Or maybe it was  the fact that Samantha dragged me deep into the snow–her first ever experience with the cold stuff deeper than a trace. Either way I briefly flashed to several of the sights and streets around DC bearing their names. I still have a couple on my list to check off.

Who Lives in This Stuff?

A number of years have passed since I first stepped into Ben’s house. Every trip I’ve made back he rolls out the red carpet–or whatever semi-fashionable throw rug he’s picked up. A more hospitable environment would be difficult to find—while everyone extends open arms when you travel with a baby, the arms tend to fold in and cross over when your travel partner is a canine. And a big bouncy one at that. I’m indebted to him beyond belief. In fact I even have a couple stay-overs around his house. Bath towel, oldish pair of running shoes, maybe a couple pair of socks and a mini-Stick massager. With those it simply feels like home. Plus without cable I’m less inclined to hibernate and more inclined to get out and see folks when I’m back.  Although when he picked up Netflix I’ve started to struggle…..

Who Runs In This Stuff?

Relocating with some regularity has its pluses. Genuine sentimental feelings surface when I lace up (or click in) shoes and head out my hosts’ door for a memory run or ride, wherever  I’m visiting. I probably would have felt a few of those feelings on my first run back in Des Moines had nearly every inch of my body not been layered up just to tolerate the single digits and partially unplowed trails and sidewalks.  Slower and shorter than planned, I was happier to actually be finished than having done it. Not moving back.

Whenever returning for a visit people want to shovel food, drinks and places to stay at you. It’s even better when a number of years has been spent in the same place; it seems to serve as a multiplier. Fortunately our travel timing worked perfectly with our one social event timing. I do love big group gatherings. Plenty of options on the tables, lots of discussions, full of energy. I don’t love being the object/subject of the gathering. Admittedly self-imposed added pressure consistently leaves me with headaches and feelings of having left out or disappointed someone. I wish we would have had one more night with essentially the same group (plus a few more) but out and about town somewhere. More distractions. Next time. We miss our concentric circles of friends in the Des Moines area.

We Reeely Miss Hy-Vee
Only in Rural America–Analog Pumps&No Prepay

A particular thought crossed my mind a couple times that night. That it would be impossible to get a group together in the last two cities in which we’ve lived and end up with as homogenous of a group. As challenging and sometimes frustrating as it can be living in a bigger city I truly enjoy that odds are slim the person who gets on the elevator with me will look or sound like me. While I miss ‘home’ terribly I think it’d be difficult to live in a similar setting again.

With mixed emotions we shook off the night before and headed to Clay County for multiple stops. For me this would be the most difficult part of the trip. A week or so earlier we made the somewhat  stressful decision to not come home early to attend funeral services for Amy’s step-mom. We instead would be addressing whatever her dad needed for the next several days. Generally this amounted to simply being there, fixing a few meals (with lots of leftovers) and hooking up a Blu-Ray player. Just being company for a few days seemed to do the most good. He’s a good guy and I think we may have finally convinced him to come visit us for a couple weeks.

Peanut & Sam At Lost Island Cafe

Both of Amy’s brothers made appearances at Dad’s, which was nice. They both relate well to him and with one working a mile down the road we’re confident Jim’ll have a check-in on a routine basis. One of the brothers lives in both the best and worst place I could ever imagine living. Steps away–30 meters tops– from a beautiful lake and gorgeous park; peaceful, full of wildlife and somewhat friendly neighbors. Our first morning waking up at Chad’s I took Samantha and Peanut (Chad’s schnauzer with a gimpy hind leg) over to the lake and to my absolute disbelief saw close to a dozen shacks and one 1/2 ton pickup on the lake. On the lake. Sometimes I cannot believe I grew up in the state. I couldn’t find any evidence the local trail had been plowed—chances hover around the local temperature the town or county ever clears it. As such I waited until we headed back to Dad’s to hook up with the Little Sioux and Oneota park trail system. I’m again torn on the benefits of small-town living. In the couple of days I hit the trails around Amy’s dad’s I ran across three total people on the trails. On the upside–it meant Samantha was off-leash as soon as we cleared the streets—she was out of her mind bounding along the harvested cornfields and along the pond and riverbanks covered by several inches of snow.

Peanut Giving Sam a Chance

Out of her mind. The three people we came across were universally friendly–one even shouting out a genuine, ‘Good morning–Merry Christmas!’. So caught off guard I was several feet the other direction before I managed a somewhat meek reply.  At the same time the near complete solitude was almost deafening. Other than the rhythmic crunch of a thin layer of snow left by plows, the occasional heavy panting by Sam as she continued her touch-n-go routine, and the (bizarrely enough) city/county worker mowing(??) I heard nothing but silence. In addition, by now the only-in-Iowa deep fissures that form on the bottom of my left foot had opened to the point of bleeding. I’d completely forgotten about that over the last 18 months or so. Painful beyond description they became progressively worse as I entered my 40’s to the point I had them treated before moving to Tucson where they cleared.  You know you’re getting old when……

As Seen On Lost Island, IA Lake-front. 

Afternoons at Amy’s dad’s went surprisingly quickly–he’s a chatty fella and he was happy to have us around. As each day melted into the evening and we gathered up things to head out to the brother’s on the lake I think that little tug of what it’d be like to return to the Midwest hit us both. A few days of that routine felt comfortable–yet it was time to move on before we wore out our welcome at both houses.  The other brother and family lives several miles down the road so we only had the chance to see him once at Dad’s. As clear as it was that our time had come to leave it was still somewhat difficult pulling out of the drive a final time knowing it may be several months, or longer, before we make it back.

Yes, He’s Mowing In 10 Degrees

Once we finished with Christmas at my parents we had no plans for the second week of our trip. At least nothing beyond….camp at Ben’s and run into friends when and wherever we can around town. That’s about as loose of planning as can be done. Multiple times we unnecessarily whined about the weather. At some point somewhere in Clay County the lament evolved into an actual discussion about that second week in Des Moines. Somehow the conversation went the direction of other options. Neither staged nor planned yet by the time we headed back to Des Moines we’d made a complete schedule change; deciding to grab our things from Ben’s on the pass-through to Jones County and not return.

Siblings Taking Over The Pool

It wasn’t easy letting Ben know~~~~I felt a deep sense of guilt knowing we wouldn’t be back after our quick trip to see my family. We didn’t have time to let many others know as we had a hotel waiting a couple miles from my folks’  and it’d be well into darkness by the time we’d check in.

Vacations are incomplete without dramatic stories. Fortunately most such stories are positive, even outstanding! The mountain climbed, the tiger photographed, the school of fish skimming along your knees as you snorkel a few inches above them.  Lodging over the years has created a book-worthy set of stories for me. Mostly not positive. There’s the time in St. Pete Beach we were locked out of my buddies’ friend’s apartment and we had to sleep in the car in the parking lot–with a race to run the next morning. The long weekends in Key West camping on rock-hard campsites. The times parking a block away with a car full of dogs to tell a tall-tale to the hotel staff about the single dog we’d have in the room. The countless times making it back to RAGBRAI camp late only to find no cots or tents remaining. The time we mis-timed the drive through the Keys, pulled into the KOA and slept in the car under a tree…getting up just in time to beat sunrise and sneak back out of the campsite. It goes on.

I tend to gravitate toward cheap lodging; often at the expense of convenience–pretty much the opposite of normal folks’ view of how to vacation. I thought I’d made a decent buy and even more importantly secured a pet-friendly room in a nice property for the days we’d be at my parents. Such rooms are scarce around their place so I was pleased. Unfortunately because I made the reservation through a third party, miscommunication with the actual property can occur. Of course it happened in this case. Fortunately the desk manager knew me from oh….15, 20, 30 years ago so after exchanging complete bios on all our siblings he told me specifically what to do when I, not he, calls the third party—given my habit of heated phone discussions with understaffed (as most tend to be) service lines I opted to take the call back out in the car. Meanwhile Amy went inside and filled out the newly required paperwork. Another round of unloading the car in blistering cold weather further reaffirmed our new plans to head south after a couple days with my family. Fortunately our hotel had a nice view, a great room, a pool and giant hot tub. Score.

Gift From Mom

Every six years, on my mom’s side, our large family Christmas is hosted at my parents. It rotates between my mom and her four siblings and my grandparents. It’s been this way for some 35-40 years. Locations are scattered between Arkansas, Eastern Iowa, east suburban Rockford, and Quincy. A nice mix if a family hits the cycle with the least attractive being the two in Eastern Iowa. Over the last two cycles I’ve hit seven. I give that a solid B given my year-end circumstances (couple of moves, a wedding, a separation) over the past dozen years. My only regret being missing my grandparents in Arkansas a couple of years ago.

Amy With Nieces

My parents house is smallish and even with only 1/2 the cousins (but all the aunts and uncles!) in attendance means it’s stuffy and loud. It turns into concert level when my loving family begins debating things such as future Christmas’, politics, board games or when my 93 year old grandfather (who again drove solo all the way up from north central Arkansas) talks about his losses in silver over the last year. By far the highlight for me was stealing three of my siblings (the fourth didn’t make it back from Colorado) and their kids and taking over our hotel pool for an afternoon. We don’t get to spend as much time as we’d like with any of our nieces/nephews and I felt somewhat selfish getting all five of mine for an afternoon. Amy had a nice time with a couple of the girls–especially the very youngest–so it was a good sneak away from the house still full of relatives.

By now we’d somewhat put a framework around our trip home–we still had just under a week after all!

We Are So Outta Here!

We’d head south to get clear of the snow-belt then stop for a night as soon as I was tired of driving. I should mention Amy’s trip highlights included:

  • seeing her dad
  • watching blocks of House Hunters-Vacation editions
  • Shark Tank
  • spending unlimited time with Samantha
  • unlimited reading and 
  • catching up on nine months of missed sleep
Snowmobile Trail Signs? Who Knew?
Of Course We Stopped!

 The last couple of things specifically completed during the drive…since 99% of the driving was up to me. Making a deliberate lifestyle choice such as ours requires shared sacrifice, open communication and  honesty to be successful. On a broad scale one topic is ‘work-hours’. I’m generally up first, sometimes quite early working several chores that hopefully cumulate in Amy marching smoothly out the door,  a days worth of food and other bags in hand. To compensate for the early rise, two-three days a week I slip in a nap. Nice, I know. Also necessary as she’s wired to be up very late at night and I do my best to stay awake as long as I’m able. Take a vacation and that’s when ‘work’ kicks into overdrive for me. As such the drive was part of my job and all the other things her reward.

Within a couple of hours we’d put the miles of snowmobile trails in our review mirror and soon after that the car thermometer finally rose above freezing. Finally; free of the stronghold we’d been in for exactly eight days.

Along The Waterfront

Unfortunately we were again in the midst of a massive cold spell/system and by sundown we lost our above-freezing marker. Able to drive no longer we found a terrific property in downtown Louisville, right along the riverfront. Unbelievably another positive lodging story. The walkable, beautiful riverfront was nearly empty during our short, chilly jog the next morning. We were happy to watch the barges coast by while flocks of birds, many probably from where we’d recently left and likely confused by the unusually cool air. Louisville’s waterfront is a larger version of what I’d suspect Des Moines has become. We had only a small bit of time to explore before heading out for the day and were not disappointed. It’ll remain on my list of someplace we’d like to visit during the active season–given the size of the city I thought it’d be more active but the combination of the holiday as well as unusually cool weather put a damper on the activities.

We’ll Have 1 Of Everything…
…and Everything Was Good!
My Souvenier
(Partly) Green of Cherokee Park

A consistent side benefit of our points and special-rate lodging turned out to be location. In fact, we felt the Louisville location was so desirable we decided to stay another full day/night and make it our New Years’ Eve spot. If I were given fifty guesses one week earlier where we’d spend New Year’s Eve, Louisville wouldn’t crack the list. The combination of proximity to parks, dining, a movie theatre and weather cued it up and we couldn’t have been happier. We found Cherokee Park, a gem of an urban park,  a quick drive away and spent an afternoon with a picnic and keeping Samantha away from a slightly aggressive, pesky pup at the off-leash park. Completing the urban adventure was a trip to the local Baxter Avenue theatre to check out the overhyped, overrated (yet quite entertaining) Anchorman: Legend. New Year’s Eve. Oh boy; I’ve had some of the best, worst and everything in between New Year’s Eves. Strange city, strange people, strange lodging and dining put this one in the –better– category.
We found a great brew-pub a block away–by great I mean close, unbelievably reasonable, and possessing a wall of TVs for the evening’s football games. Hiking out the door with my freshly filled growler of local brew we headed back to ring in the new year. Having earlier checked out the dive bar right down the street I wasn’t ready to call it a night with the change of the calendar. Both my gals settled in for the evening so I hiked down the street to finish the bowl game and take in the marginally entertaining (and free!) band till I could take no more.

Charleston, WV Sunset From Our Hotel

Heading east was on our minds as we slowly rolled to life the first day of the new year. We again had limited plans–find someplace urban enough to take both some hotel points and Sam. Driving through Kentucky was easy. Trees had dropped leaves but several patches of green dotted the landscape along with a few commercial sized horse farms/ranches and tree lined hollers.   We came within a few miles of two of the most widely recognized hollers—Butcher Holler, the childhood home of Loretta Lynn made (sorta) famous in her song Coal Miner’s Daughter…..’in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler’.

Yess!! This Is How to Winter!!

Also the Hollywood created Hollers around the real-life town of Harlen, Kentucky made (again, semi) famous in the FX show Justified.  It’d be nice to drive the same roads during the green season, probably even worth a stop at some of the parks or other wildlife areas.

First Deer Sighting For Samantha

We had debated finding a ski-cabin somewhere in the national parks on the way back. We went as far as to make a few calls on availability but it just didn’t gain legs. Price certainly had a part. After all we were on a roll with great rates and cherry locations for hotels. A small part was also personal to Amy. A lifetime excellent snow-skier it’s been several years (she knows exactly how many) since she’s had a ski trip. It’s not that I’m against it–while I’d spend most of my time peeling my uncoordinated and bungled knees off the ground I’m all in favor of spending time in the mountains as long as both a hot tub and pub are within a very short walk (or shuttle) away.  We didn’t have any ski clothes (or gear) with us and spending a couple days in a lodge or cabin and not skiing would be a painful snub.

View Downtown From Charleston Hotel

After scouring maps and travel times it sort of became a victim of dying a natural death. We had multiple urban options for another round of eligible hotels and again, our intentional lifestyle choice means sometimes the less expensive option becomes the smart one. We landed in the capital of West Virginia–Charleston, continuing to rack up the firsts for both of us. This time it was an hour or so before dusk which meant we were awarded a view of the downtown–a beautiful statehouse apparently modeled, in part, after the U.S. Capitol and a seemingly never ending series of hills and valleys on both sides of a nice size river town. Our destination sat on top of one of the highest hills in town affording sweeping views of downtown, several lesser hills and a breathtaking sunset. It also gave us a front row to a small herd of deer making their way across the fields and clearly not very urbanized.

Out On Our Charleston Jog

I grew up with a dad who certainly set some sort of standard for stubbornness in driving. We drove through everything, everywhere. Hot, cold, blinding lighting storm, pre-dawn wake-ups to make time through the desert and last, but certainly not least, harrowing snow storms. I nervously encouraged our Charleston sight-seeing well into the afternoon, against my common sense and better judgement. Perhaps a bit selfishly as well—yes, we’d had a couple conversations about cutting off the expense spigot and heading back home a day or so early. I generally supported that and the multiple-day drizzly, rainy local forecast certainly helped nudge me in the direction of packing up. Yet all morning I shifted back and forth between smart phone, television and laptop drilling into several weather forecasts. I knew we would head into snow, some of it rather significant, if we left and I had a pretty good idea of the smartest cut off time for leaving. Yet we had a new city to explore with odds on never returning. What cost is another night of hoteling vs. the risk of heading into known weather issues?

Charleston, WVA Riverfront

We pushed past my self-imposed departure time limit. Charleston’s an historic mid-sized southern city with plenty to offer and we were thoroughly enjoying kicking around town. I wanted to go down to the riverfront and on the way ran into our first bits of local history. Delighted to learn we were directly across the river from a former home of Daniel Boone while he served as a then-Virginia county delegate. With the drizzle turning into rain we headed to the downtown market to find lunch. To our surprise this was more than a typical downtown market. This was a full-fledged indoor/outdoor multi-store shopping and dining center housed in a long-retired railroad building. All locally owned and supported we wandered from end to end before picking up some cheese then settling on a fish place with a coffee stand a few feet away. Perfect lunch. I held in my full concern; only mentioning that it’d be good to get moving to lessen the amount of time we’d need to spend driving in snow.

Fish Stand in Capitol Market–Yu

With only a couple highways to navigate I didn’t worry about becoming stranded or losing direction; rather carried a sick feeling of the images I’d seen related to the dozen+ recent traffic storm deaths as we toured our latest stop. Our final stop was Mountain View Memorial Park–it was smack in the middle of the hilliest and second largest cemetery I’ve ever visited. And I have a thing for cemeteries. From the vantage point of this hill-top park the entire city valley could be seen–it served as a meeting place to view Civil War battles that took place in the area. The dense fog and increasing rain served to make it more eerie.

Mountain View Park(Cemetery)

We managed to get in one pit-stop before the snow began. It was a great one–shortly after the entrance to the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. It ranks up among the best and oddest roadside stops I can recall. A few picnic tables and a sign clearly pointing up a hill for the dog-walk. Only this walk didn’t seem to end. Sam and I went up and up–maybe 75 meters and the trail continued, albeit a little less prominent. Odd. Inside the visitors center it was far more visitor/tourist center than pitstop. Free roasted nuts and Hershey’s kisses, shelves and walls full of travel brochures, bright lighting and two–yup, two staffers behind a counter ready to help with anything. States could take a lesson from this place.

Downtown From Mtn’ View Memorial Park–Fogged In

With around 150 miles to go the steady rain turned into heavy flakes. It never ended. We were long past dusk and nerves normally reserved for pre-race preparations flooded my body. Less than two hours after the prior stop I needed another. We pulled into Harrisonburg and I was somewhat reassured when tapping the brakes several times and not slipping. Yet with a rental vehicle I still wasn’t comfortable with the rest of the trip. I told myself we’d stop the first chance after I saw the first wreck. It came and was soon in my rearview mirror; don’t believe either of us said anything. By now we saw another and at some point shortly after my mouth said words almost without my control: I don’t think I can do this any more. We were down to around 50 miles remaining. I kept telling myself it’s not really 50, it’s only 25-30 as the suburbs and exurbs extend so far surely they’d be cleared well outside the core. Our speed continued to decline, I was talking to cars and trucks around me. Mostly swearing at trucks and talking strategy with cars. If I could get myself positioned perfectly behind a couple then I could see tracks through the near-blinding snow—and remain far enough in front of others they wouldn’t slam into me. Down to 40 miles and it’d be ridiculous to stop for the evening–and it’d be the evening as the storm was predicted to continue well past midnight. Finally an unbroken string of tail lights–we’d safely reached the exurbs–down to around 25 miles and for 8-10 of those we moved along around 30MPH behind a string of traffic that was behind a wall of snow plows. Barring a true travesty we’d made it. And we did.

We joined the group of between 2.5-3.0 million who traveled more than 50 miles out of the Beltway for the holidays. Our trip was bookended by driving through Winter Storms Gemini and Hercules which resulted in more than a couple dozen total deaths, most preventable by simply not traveling.  A finger shake to a higher being was in order for dumping such a dangerous mess on the mass of families traveling during the holiday season.

A couple weeks now into the new year has provided plenty of time for reflection. Losses for the trip came in well under expectations: one nice ladies glove, one mostly worn out pair of mens running shoes and a couple dog toys. All easy to replace. I wouldn’t do it again—the trip, yes, but forging ahead through similar conditions that could have been prevented by a couple extra nights in hotels was one of my poorer decisions. Fortunately the worst we experienced was some frayed nerves and piles of wet and cold clothing. We gained countless hours of relaxation and memories that are still unfolding.

Sunrise From National Airport After Returning Rental
Abingdon Plantation Upon Return–Not So Much Green! 

*Narrative Essay: Focuses on a specific event or a short sequence of events.   Yeah–this was certainly an event! 

Sandy Hook Elementary, One Year Later

Cleveland Heights jumped up my list of favorite neighborhoods.  As I hustled up toward the cathedral I stopped at a light. The on-duty school/traffic/neighborhood officer called out to me, ‘you can go now, ain’t nobody comin’. I smiled, nodded and shuffled through the red light only to need to change directions and cross the intersection with its now-red light. I leaned into the pole, it’d been a mostly uphill quick shuffle the last half-mile and after all I of course, was running late. Cars began to stop–at first I could’t figure out why since they had a green light. Again I heard the friendly officer, ‘you can go, go on now’ as he held up traffic and waved me through the walk. Stunned again–this time I managed to  wish him a Merry Christmas. Three blocks later, nearly at my destination I again ran across another overly friendly officer–this time I had a green so no need for a traffic block. Yet he still gave me a nod and smile. For those brief moments I completely forgot about the somber purpose of my trip. 
By some reporting another 30,000 people have died (murders plus suicides) at the hand of guns in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings one year ago. 193 of them children under the age of 12. Stories are at once endless, mindless and senseless.
Walking into the cathedral a coldness overtakes you. In part because of the chill outside, in part because the cavernous main nave must be impossible to heat and in no small part because bells were echoing as they tolled in the memory of the Sandy Hook elementary victims of one year earlier. Sitting down only exaggerated the chill—the chilly chairs pointed directly at a children’s choir serving as yet another reminder of the event. And if all of that wasn’t enough a rope-line ran along the entire distance of the north wall displaying t-shirts in memory of recent gun violence; the most recent I noticed dated November, 24, 2013. A vivid reminder this continues every day. 
A priest, a rabbi and an imam approached the lectern, each providing thanks and a wish for peace and compassion. After the 10,647 pipes of the great organ began to fill the room images of the youth choir  filled each of the large monitors scattered along the rows of chairs. My emotions had almost peaked with the respective clergy’s messages and the relative shrill voices of the youth contrasted with the deep echoes of the organ tipped my scale. I welled up, along with most everyone around, for the duration of the performance and much of the service.
One after another family members of slain victims took the lectern–a father from the Sandy Hook school, a brother from Chicago, a brother from New York City, a mother from D.C, a mother from Thousand Oaks a father from San Diego and a father from Aurora, Colorado. Each of them showing a life-size smiling photo as they provided details around the death and their own plea for peace and action. Drive-by, wrong place-wrong time, ran with rough crowd, completely random. Every different type of scenario. Even a former gang member who had lost someone (cousin) and has been on both sides of the coin. Each linked by a common theme: surviving family member of a gunshot victim. It was not yet the time to put away the tissue. 
With a spouse in law enforcement it’d be hypocritical to call for the end of firearms—they have their place. However, with nearly 90 guns per 100 citizens and a death-by-firearm rate of nearly three times that of the closest runner-up among developed nations its clear the U.S. is doing something wrong. And doing more of the same thing will not help the epidemic–that is, responding to every incident with a loud cry to arm even more people. I do wonder if those who make that cry believe any part of it or if it’s been the drumbeat among their deep-pocket supporters for so long they’re completely numb to their own words. Perhaps most moving was Eleanor Holmes-Norton. After traveling cross-planet to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela—Congresswoman Holmes-Norton was back in The District delivering both an impassioned plea to be persistent and several examples of why the persistence of this movement will ultimately win.  
I live in an area with 6.8 million people; probably 500 in my own building and several thousand within a few square blocks. And the answer is to have all of us load up for protection? From what? From whom? Our society really believes–really believes–that the solution to the <1% of really bad-guys in my urban area is to load us up with (based on current possession rates) 5.98 million firearms?  In this urban area? That's the best we can do? One, of many, trade-offs would be the accidental death of thousands of my 6.8 million neighbors. That’s what we want. That’s our solution. According to those who scream the loudest, it is. 

As the cathedral lights were raised, signaling the end of the service and the extinction of our candles we slowly filed out into the chilly December darkness. This darkness paled in comparison, however, to that felt by the six families who had someone taken from them by gunfire in the two hours we were in the cathedral. 
We can do better than this. 

Public Policy Debates: Drones and Spying, Where Do You Stand?

If ever I was going to end up on someone’s watch list…..it’d be after last week. Several weeks ago I attended a public radio sponsored event–a debate about the merits of NSA spying on us. In fact, the title was Spy On Me, I’d Rather Be Safe. A theater full of policy wonks, attorneys and ivory tower academics–how could I resist! 
Fueling a contentious discussion/debate with popcorn and alcohol hardly seemed necessary but it’s the way things are done here. An open bar helped grease the wheels of discussion both pre-event as well as during the audience participation phase. Not really understanding the format I wandered into the theater a little early to take a peek and was quickly whisked into a seat–lucky me, a prime seat smack in the middle, only a few rows back and right next to the videographer. 
Audience Vote Pre-Debatee

 At the beginning (pre-debate) we were asked to vote out position which would then be compared with our position post-debate. Final winner to follow.  
Panelists can fall into a couple of categories: true specialists trying to promote a message or ideal or people simply trying to promote a book. Correction–panelists fall in one category: promoters. This group seemed to lean more toward the first version of promoters–all gainfully employed outside of the book-writing profession and truly convinced of their respective position. Advanced degrees, high ranking governmental pedigrees, and idealists. An able group to face off. Once they laid out their positions for or against governmental spying on us (U.S. citizens) the moderator poked and prodded which was followed by audience questions. 
Big Shift! 
The concept of spy-related activities isn’t new, not even new to this country. General Washington is often credited with being our nations first spy–and on the British even! During the Revolutionary war he enlisted a number of his men to gather intelligence on British activities. In fact, one of the very earliest examples was Nathan Hale who was subsequently hanged by the British when caught. Even spying on our own citizens has been going on for nearly a century—early examples funded by the government with one particularly infamous program–the Black Chamber
Once we’d heard both sides and several human rights folks from the audience had a chance to give questions it was time for our final vote to determine the debate winner. Not even close. 
Drum roll……the winner is!!!
Fast forward a few short weeks I found myself at another cocktail reception preparing for attending a debate about the use of drones in the military. What is it about cocktail receptions in Washington? Another hyper-credentialed set of panelists along with a gold-star moderator: Juan Williams! Interestingly enough, I’ll always remember exactly where I was when the news about Nelson Mandela’s death hit the wires: sitting in the fourth row middle seat embarrasingly staring at Williams and my unbelievable good fortune to be in the audience. 
Our Military Drone Panel 
After a brief introduction and welcome by Cindy McCain, positions were laid out and Williams began on the process of questioning, challenging and confirming. Unfortunately this format did not have audience voter buttons–so we don’t know how we felt before or after the 90 minute wonk-fest. This group was considerably less contentious toward one another than the spying group. Even the human rights representative, Daphne Eviatar, seemed to acknowledge a place for drones in the military—just not as they’re currently being utilized. One of the panelists, John Bellinger, did a fantastic job of wavering–he happened to be on the group that created our drone policy in the Bush (2) administration then in the position of drubbing the Obama’s expanding use of them.  
Admittedly a little star-struck and fully engaged it was someone difficult for me to disengage long enough to process and reprocess my own opinions. 
Cindy McCain’s Welcome

Moderator Juan Williams

 Although I had a couple chuckles at the expense of the fella sitting a couple chairs away in the drone debate. He came fully loaded—DSLR camera, digital microphone, legal pads and pens scribbling furiously. 

Character Three Seats Away
 I’d offer him up as a proponent on the human rights side–quite the character to watch. 
My needed didn’t move much on the U.S. spy debate—I started and remain firmly on the position that the methods currently utilized generate exponentially too much information to provide meaningful information–on balance. I read somewhere that the funding put toward domestic spying over the last few years could have full funded a national health insurance plan with money leftover to shore up Medicare and Medicaid. Helluva trade-off. UAVs in the military? Again as currently deployed—cheaper than war but be wary the day one of our enemies utilizes them in the same manner and provides our very rationale to justify their use–perhaps against the U.S.
About the watch list…….there was that incident at one of the Smithsonian’s. But I won’t go into that just yet.