Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Congratulations, Daryl May!

Those of you following his walk will know Daryl finished his JOGLE yesterday with an 11-mile stroll from Penzance to Land’s End. He got off to a very rough start, with a horrible blister and great trouble finding appropriate boots, but then pressed on with great determination...and great spirit and wit, as displayed in his diary entries. Between this walk, and his LEJOG last year, Daryl has become my inspiration. When those bad moments come on the Challenge, it’s his travails and successes I’ll think of to keep going through my puny two weeks.

Well done, Daryl, well done.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


On Friday, I joined B, M, and P on about a 10-mile loop in Connecticut’s Northwest corner, mostly on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, but also on one of Connecticut’s blue trails, this one wonderfully named Paradise Lane. We had our lunch atop this huge dry-stone monument on Bear Mountain, highest peak in the state at somewhere between 2,316 and 2,354 ft., depending on your source. (Here’s an embarrasingly unsavory and parasitic Nutmeg State oddity: our highest peak isn’t our highest point. That is 2,379 ft., on the shoulder of Mount Frissell, the peak of which is in Massachusetts [Well, at least it’s not in New York.].)

P and M have done the C2C and other great walks in the UK, Europe, and here. B and I realized on the drive up to the trailhead that the last time he and I walked together in this area was over 30 years ago, a fact that’s pathetic in at least two ways, maybe more. I’m hoping we can all to a lot more of this sort of thing as a group.

The trees haven’t leafed out yet, but most of the route was classic New England woodland walking...

with a bit of ridgeline thrown in. Spectacular—and oddly unphotographed—views of a bucolic and especially beautiful part of our state, with easy views off to New York in the west and, yes, Massachusetts in the north. Coming off Bear Mountain, we descended a steep half-mile or so that gives a pretty good example of a characteristic New England trail, and of New England trail-building.

We covered 10 miles or so, with about 1,500 feet of ascent, then headed home for showers, more company, and pasta, where the wine flowed freely and the conversation was even better.

A great day.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Take a pass

Derek Emslie’s response to Doug Bruce’s recent post on the Challenge message board, in which he described current conditions in the Lairig Ghru, reminded me of a chapter in Alastair Borthwick’s classic from the ’30s, Always a Little Further. This is some of the stuff that first got me interested in Scottish walking.

“Scotland has two great passes which, relatively small though they are, exercise as vivid a local appeal as the giants of Europe and northern India. They are the Corrieyairack, where Wade's old military road climbs over the Monadhliadths from the Great Glen to Speyside; and the Lairig Ghru, chief pass of the Cairngorms. Both are long, and both fulfill the prime function of a pass, which is that it should link, across some desolate region, two centres of civilization. They have become the pilgrim routes of those who like to take their pleasures strenuously. By far the finer of the two is the Lairig Ghru.”

My Challenge route takes me over both the Corrieyairick and the Lairig Ghru, and I’m sure Borthwick rattling around in the back of my mind had something to do with it. Here’s his description of the Lairig Ghru and part of his walk through it.

“My way climbed gradually upwards through the trees, which opened out every now and then into a clearing with sometimes a deer or two standing there watching me; and the further I climbed the more did the path twist and squirm as it avoided hummocks where heather had grown over ancient roots and fallen trunks....

“And then the trees thinned out, and I emerged on to a species of natural midden right in the mouth of the Lairig. The old glaciers had picked up all sorts of odds and ends on their way down to the plains—boulders, and mud, and rocks of all sizes and in vast quantities—because glaciers flow like rivers and when they reach low levels they melt, dumping all the solids they have collected on their way. These rubbish dumps, or morains, are common all over the Highlands, and there is a particularly fine example where the Lairig Ghru begins and the Rothiemurchus stops. The mouth of the pass is silted up with a great conglomeration of mud and rock overgrown with heather. Into this soft stuff a burn has cut its way, so that when I came out on to the open hillside I found myself on the lip of a cutting step and deep out of all proportion to the tiny burn which flowed at the bottom on the bare rock of the mountains. So enormous was this accumulation of silt that I had to walk nearly two miles uphill before the bed of the burn rose to meet me and I too was travelling on rock.”

I’m really looking forward to this, and seeing if I experience the walk the same way or somehow differently.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Pile

I’ve had a complaint. My recent posts have not been interesting. I should get back to hikin’ and stuff. So here’s an annotated, illustrated list of what I’ll be humping across Scotland beginning two weeks from Friday.

Random stuff rides in the two pockets you might be able to make out attached to my pack’s hipbelt: Small ziplock of GORP, reading glasses, Canon A700 digital camera, small notebook and pen/pencil, bandana, a few tissues in a ziplock, lip balm, Purel, and depending on the day, compass and/or Geko 201 GPS.

The green stuffsack at the upper left holds clothes: Extra pair of socks; extra pair of liner socks; extra walking shorts (longish running shorts with built-in briefs), also worn in the sleeping bag at night; a Capilene 1 tee; light RailRiders trousers for travel and evenings out.

That orange thing next right is a Thermarest sit pad. I'm actually not sure where I’ll carry that. Probably in the lid. Next is a Feathered Friends Swallow sleeping bag, which shares its stuffsack with a small, soft pillowcase and a pair of Sierra Designs down booties (which may not make the final cut). The small black object next to the sleeping bag is an Insul-Mat Max-Thermo Short sleep mat, which I bought as the result of online ravings by multiple Brits, so IT BETTER BE GOOD. Hiding shyly behind the sleeping stuff is a Stephenson Warmlite 2 tent, very loosely stuffed in that reddish oversized sack, with poles and stakes in the upright light blue sack. The tent goes high in the pack. The poles get stuffed down one side.

Below the pole bag is my food bag, which carries breakfasts, suppers, some teabags, sugar, and a yellow squeezy lemon. It is supplemented by the GORP ziplock, and one for lunch, which I carry in the pack’s lid. Below the food bag is an almost obscured blue Orikaso folding plate, which I use as a cutting board, occasional personal washbowl, and holder for the reflective cozy on top of it, which I use to help rehydrate my food. Mug and JetBoil are obvious, with a long titanium spoon and a Swiss Army picnic knife (with long blade and the vital corkscrew) off to the right.

Left of the mug is a small First Aid kit. I’m used to carrying a larger and heavier one, because I’ve often been, or have at least felt, responsible for others. But I’m declaring myself responsible primarily for myself on this trip, so I’m packing just the basics. Special needs will have to be attended to in imaginative ways.

Above the First Aid kit is the Geko 201, which somehow crawled out of the belt pocket and muscled my mobile phone right out of the picture. The mobile, in a ziplock, will be tucked, switched off, deep in the pack somewhere.

Next left is my green “miscellany” bag. It’s actually a pocket from a mid-’70s vintage Synergy pack. I use it for things like bug juice, sunblock, and a headnet. It will also carry compass and GPS when they are not needed in the hipbelt pockets. It’s home to other totems, too, which will be weeded out a bit before I leave home. Above that, the small red stuffsack holds a savagely sawed-off trowel, some toilet paper in a ziplock, and a lighter. The reflective material above is a homemade protective pocket for my iPod. I’ve never walked with a music player before, and I’m not yet sure where I’ll carry it. The tan stuffsack to the left is my wash kit: tooth care, razor, comb, small synthetic towel, an ounce of Dr. Bronner’s and a half-ounce of shaving oil.

Below the green clothes sack is an ancient Patagonia down jacket (in the blue sack). Cold weather items are in the smaller green sack: Gloves, overmitts, warm hat, buff. The Crocs, for wading across raging torrents and lazing around camp, are brand new.

Raingear is still hanging in the mudroom, but will ride in a small trashbag at the top of the pack, assuming I ever get to take it off.

The flap of the McHale SARC pack (50 l. or so) has a pocket for a 1 or 2 l. Platy.

I’ve created one of Bob Cartwright’s strapamaptomes for my left shoulder strap. Map of the day and the appropriate route sheet will live there.

Past performance tells me that this modest collection of things, which looks so harmless sitting on my office floor, will be wrestled, crammed, and contorted into the pack to create an ungainly, uncomfortable, and inefficient load. Not to worry, though. I’ll have it sorted by North Water Bridge, if not by Edzell.

Monday, April 21, 2008


We took H to the airport in late afternoon today to see her off back to Minnesota after a wonderful long weekend together in which we chauffeured her north for what turned out to be long, taxing, but satisfying interviews for a residency and fellowship. After almost a decade, we haven’t really gotten over empty nest syndrome, and we are always pathetically sad to wave her goodbye. I feel essentially homesick when she leaves, even though I know she’s going home to A—who is, basically, the world’s best husband—and Jasper the Wonderdog. Happily, her mom will see her again in a month, during a surgery rotation in Arizona, and I will put in an appearance in the Southwest sometime after that, having first enjoyed a luxurious and restful two-week holiday in Scotland. The two of them are planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, which I’ve never seen. I’ll probably just lie around in the desert heat trying to thaw out.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Back home on the Appalachian Trail

We were in Hanover, New Hampshire, over part of the weekend, and we stepped over to the corner by the Inn, where this plaque is fixed in the sidewalk.

Stepping a few feet to the east (the plaque in the sidewalk is straight ahead), and looking back west, West Wheelock Street is coming up the hill toward us to the traffic signals. From the Ledyard Bridge at the bottom of that hill, crossing the Connecticut River from Vermont, the AT follows the white blazes on the telephone poles up to Main Street. (I lived in that brick house across the street when I was 20 and 21—surely the best year of my youth. Whenever I crest West Wheelock onto the Hanover Plain, I feel like I’m back home.)

From there, the AT turns south down yuppified but still pleasant Main Street...

...before taking the first left, out Lebanon Street, edging a college playing field, heading into the woods, turning back generally north, and beginning an increasingly challenging introduction to the hills and mountains that make the New Hampshire section of the trail the best.

The trees hadn’t yet leafed out, but this warm and sunny spring day brought students out onto the Green in force to sunbathe, toss a frisbie, or just loll about.

It was good to be home.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Moonlight in Vermont

We picked H up at Bradley Airport last night, and drove her north for some residency and fellowship interviews. She’s almost six months into her pregnancy, and warned us accurately that “I’m a little bigger than I was the last time you saw me.” Bigger maybe, but she looks especially and wonderfully beautiful to us.

Being up here, it’s an appropriate time to trot out my first YouTube post. There are lots of great versions of this song. My favorite is probably the one done by Ella and Louis. Great Sarah Vaughn and Margaret Whiting versions are actually available on YouTube. So is a Frank Sinatra version that seems to be a lot of people’s favorite, but which I think is a little too gooey. I really like this Willie Nelson version. (I didn’t create the video.) Hope you enjoy it.

(As Robert Frost might say at this point, we’ll actually be spending most of our time in New Hampshire.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pack faffing

We can caption this shot, “Okay, how much of this junk can I pull out of here and leave home...?” My loads are always lumpy, poorly organized, and just barely fit the space available. When H was little and I was carrying the typical “Father’s load,” I used a gigantic Gregory Cassin. Most people could put a daily change of winter clothes, an Optimus 111, a group cookset, and a month’s worth of food in a Cassin, with room left over for a basketball and a hair dryer. Me, carrying those tiny little clothes and the Boynton books? Lumpy, poorly organized, and just barely fit the space available. So it’s probably inevitable. Still, do I really need those meals? Ah, then I wouldn’t need the stove and pot either. And don’t the warm clothes make the sleeping bag redundant? Great idea! Maybe I can work this down to a lumpy, overstuffed fanny pack.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Walking the pack

Just about everything is set, but I haven’t done this kind of walking in a long time, and I’m working out my organization. I was out with the pack this morning, and it felt fine. Weight will vary, of course, based on the amount of water and food I’m carrying at any given time, but base weight is going to be 18-20 lb., so I’ll be walking mostly with a 20-25 lb. load. Frankly, I’d rather have an amanuensis, or perhaps a hillwalking valet. Polite, not inappropriately familiar, utterly competent, and devoted to my well-being. Or a caddy. This would let me swing along without sticks until I really needed them, and I’d get help in selecting the appropriate models, as well.

Pix tomorrow ... of the pack, not the caddy.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Jazz writer

I’m often dipping into a wonderful book called Visions of Jazz, by Gary Giddins. He is my favorite writer on jazz, and was one of the primary “faces” in Ken Burns’s documentary of that name. This book is essentially a collection of essays on musicians and their music, arranged chronologically. It makes up a kind of history of jazz, told through the styles and “visions” of these men and women. It’s altogether terrific.

In his chapter on Louis Armstrong, he gives this wonderful summing up of Satchmo’s effect on the scene when he came east from Chicago in the mid-’20s: “He found New York a backwater of ornamental virtuosity; he left it a swinging cosmopolis.” Is there a word for “magisterial” that leaves out the implications of pomposity? As a writer, I’d like to be Gary Giddins when I grow up.

Among his many virtues, he also has a talent for ferreting out illuminating quotes by others. At the beginning of his Armstrong chapter, he inserts this:

I’d rather hear Louis Armstrong play “Tiger Rag” than wander into Westminster Abbey and find the lost chord.
—Edward, Duke of Windsor

I agree with that. —Louis Armstrong

This doesn’t tell you anything about the music, of course. The Duke of Windsor wouldn’t be my guide anything but determined asininity. But aside from being mildly amusing, it tells you a little about the zeitgeist that allowed or even forced the duke (not the real Duke, of course) to say what he did. And it tells you a bit about Armstrong. Giddins wrote a fascinating book about the early Bing Crosby, and essentially frames it with this, from Artie Shaw:

The thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States.

For recent generations, at least, the idea of Bing Crosby as hipster is odd, to say the least. That’s the point, of course.

I can’t really do Giddins justice, so I’ll give you a taste instead. He’s talking about Armstrong’s skills as an accompanist to singers (who else would write about this?). He goes through Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and other blues and jazz icons. Then he writes this: “Yet Armstrong was never more ingenious than in backing the worst, like the incomparably hapless Lillie Delk Christian, whose ‘Too Busy’ is an epiphany of cross-purposes. She chirpily slogs through the first chorus without the remotest hint of swing, but after an instrumental passage in which Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jimmie Noone pinch themselves awake, Armstrong sneaks up on her with an impromptu scat vocal that rattles her into action.”


Friday, April 11, 2008

Round and Round on boots

There’s a moment in his Clambake Seven’s recording of “The Music Goes ’Round and ’Round” when Tommy Dorsey urges clarinetist Sid Stoneburn to “Kick it, Sid, Kick it.” Sid kicks it, and takes the song out of its hackneyed Dixieland opening to something a little more interesting. Well, I’ve been kicking it, too, and like the music, I went round and round and came out here.

You may remember that after casting off a pair of Montrail Cirrus boots, I was trying out two subsequent pairs, Merrills and Keens, by walking around the house in them. I’d never actually used boots like these before, and I’m really not used to the feel of them. I walked in heavy leather for a long time, then lighter but still stiffish leather before switching directly to trail runners. For the TGO Challenge I was searching for something light that would also keep my feet from being soaked for a fortnight. I chose the Merrills. Soft, comfortable, pleasant in the kitchen and up the stairs. But when I got them outside and started putting the miles on, I began to question my choice. They are a half-pound per shoe heavier than the Keens, for one thing, and I began to feel the difference. And their slipper-like comfort gradually began to seem like a flaw out in the world. They were a little squishy, and I began to worry about movement at the toes and around the ankles, especially on hills. All of this was subtle, mind you, but I couldn't shake the concern.

So I took a deep breath and gave the Keens an outdoor trial, thereby ensuring that I’d be paying for two new pairs of boots for one two-week stroll. I think I got it right, finally (and expensively). The Keens are lighter and firmer, probably less comfy loafing around camp, but they feel better on a real walk.

I’m trying to think about how ruinously horrible bad boots under a weighty pack can be, but I have to admit I kick—myself—over the money. Near the end of the number, Dorsey calls for “a customer chorus,” which makes this song really fit me like a glove, if not a boot; and as the music stops, singer Edyth Wright exhaustedly murmers, “My, my.” I’m with you, Edyth.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Whisper: has Spring sprung?

Always dangerous to make the assumption, but it’s pushing 70° here in Connecticut today (21°C). I use this web cam view of the Dartmouth College Green in Hanover, New Hampshire to judge how things are going up north. Still brown rather than green on the Green, but students are beginning to loll about, always a good sign.

Yes, I know it’s going to rain over the weekend, but highs for the next 10 days are all at least looking to be 50° (10°C), and generally closer to 60°. What do you think? Spring?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


I hesitate to say it, but it was kind of Springy out today.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Cricket comeback

Because of what I used to do for a living and the kindness of the appropriate officials, I once had a wonderful private tour of Lord’s and the MCC. If I’m not the only person in Woodbury who knows who W.G. Grace was, the other guy cheated and was born over there. But I still can’t tell a googly (“It’s sort of like a screwball, but different”) from a silly mid-on (“Oh, never mind.”)

Anyway, there was an interesting, if stupidly titled, article in The New York Times the other day about the city’s Department of Education inaugurating cricket as its newest interscholastic sport. You can read the details if you’re interested.

It wasn’t actually until our Civil War that baseball outstripped cricket as the favorite bat and ball game over here. Before that, many teams playing baseball actually represented cricket clubs. The first fully and avowedly professional baseball team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, was managed by Harry Wright, whose father Sam had emigrated from Sheffield in the 1830s to be cricket pro at New York’s St. George Cricket Club. After the war, Harry was enticed to Cincinnati to be the pro at the Union Cricket Club. Harry and his younger brother George were certainly among the best cricketers in the US in the 1860s.

Baseball had the mojo, though, and the Wrights and almost everyone else converted to baseball during the late 1860s. But early baseball followed the cricket club pattern, and to this day baseball teams here are called clubs.

(I just looked at Wikipedia to check a few facts, and found one of my own articles listed as a reference. So I can certify this post as absolutely what I think is true.)

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Stanford 82-UConn 73.

Just wait till next year.

And good luck in the finals, Stanford!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

National Tartan Day

Tomorrow is apparently “National Tartan Day” here. A local shop advertises, “Celebrate What’s Great About Scotland,” and adds, “We Have Scottish Honey, Haggis, Cheese, Shortbread.”

This list appeals to me less than it might. I’ve got a friend whose bees produce lovely honey. For my money, the best cheddar in the world is produced in Vermont. Shortbread, in my experience, is shortbread. So National Tartan Day doesn’t resonate for me in these areas.

Haggis is different...everyone would agree that nothing here, and nothing emanating from the kitchens of Provence or Tuscany can remotely approach it. Not on purpose, anyway.

So, I’m giving this offer a pass. In a month, I’ll celebrate what’s great about Scotland my own way—soaking wet, battered stupid by the wind, and looking terrifically handsome and intrepid on the summit of a Munro.

Friday, April 4, 2008

All planned out

The last few little unnecessities arriving at the post office, dehydrated food ordered from Enertia, accommodation in Mallaig secured. Little loop and clip finally installed inside top pocket of pack.

I’m not actually organized (won’t be until, oh, Tarfside or so), but I’m all planned out. Which, oddly, is making me more anxious, not less. Let’s get this show on the road.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Bee, the Huskies, and Everest metaphors

The spelling bee was great. It took a little less than an hour to bring the competition from 25 or so 5th and 6th graders down to two, and then only a few minutes for the champ to emerge. My duties consisted of stating the word, reading a sentence using the word, then saying either, “That is correct,” or “I’m sorry, that is not correct,” and reading off the correct spelling. Masterfully, of course. The winning word was “honorable,” which would have been misspelled if this had been a British Bee. Most of the kids did very well, missing not so much on long and difficult words but more on simply tricky ones, like “buoy” and “mortgage”—the kinds of words that always make me thank the digital gods for spell-check. (A girl also went out on “bureau,” a word I spell correctly approximately one time out of 10.) The two finalists both got $75 Savings Bonds and a chance to compete in the State Bee. Lots of fun.

Post-bee, the UConn women gave the whole state of Connecticut heart failure, getting dominated by Rutgers in the first half, and falling behind by 14 points before pulling to within five by the break. They eventually won a very ugly game by 10, and are off to the Final Four in New Orleans next weekend, where they will play Stanford, then (we hope) the winner of the game between Tennessee and LSU (Louisiana State University).

I implied in yesterday’s post that the coach of this team is pretty cool. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s spectacularly demanding. And he must read promiscuously. He knows a lot about a surprising number of things, and seems to know a little about almost everything. The other day, he told the press that the regional final (the game they won last night) is always the toughest of the tournament—tougher than the semi-final or final, and he described it in terms outdoors people would appreciate: “That’s the Hillary Step on Mount Everest...more people die at that spot than they do anywhere else.” So, to extend the metaphor, our girls have gotten to the top of the mountain. Next weekend, all they have to do is get down safely and deliver Sir Ed’s great line: “We knocked the bastard off.”

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Running and basketball

More bare-legged shuffling this morning. It was one of those near-perfect running mornings: temp around 50F (10C), with a light rain/soft mist. A slightly too-strong breeze from the south and east (somewhat unusual here) was a tiny fly in the ointment, but it was pretty nice. Spring hasn’t really sprung yet (it wasn’t so great yesterday, and the rest of the week will be colder, windier and/or wetter) but we’re beginning to be able to imagine what it might be like when it arrives.

I mentioned at the end of an earlier post that we are big fans of the University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball team. This is the time of year when the national championship tournament is being played, and our Huskies, at 35-1, are favored to win it. They play a wonderful fast, smart, precise, and fluid game that I think soccer (okay, okay: football) fans would really appreciate. Tonight they’re playing Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, for the opportunity to move on to the Final Four. Rutgers is a despised arch rival, and is responsible for that “1” in our record, though we returned the favor in a subsequent game.

Men’s college sports in the US are a swamp of corrupt, mendacious, hypocrisy, and even some women’s programs are neck deep in this smelly muck. But ours is not, though it’s all too possible that someday, under a different coach and under different pressures, it will be. For now, though, we in Connecticut love “our girls.” Although I still carry the genetic New England allegiance to the Boston Red Sox, I’ve gotten tired of Major League Baseball’s act. The UConn women are the only team in any sport that I still really follow. A men’s game? Wouldn’t walk across the street for it.

Go Huskies!