Idyll


I promised a palm tree, and I’m throwing in the swimming pool for free.

I’m writing this from the porch of a finca (doesn’t that sound grand?) high on a ridge on the island of Vieques. When I look up from the screen, I see the Caribbean off to the south. We are four, the first of a party that we hope will reach 10 by this evening, though the weather has one of us trapped in Detroit at the moment. (Flash…just heard she will make it!)

The east and west ends of Vieques used to be bombed by the navy and landed on by the marines, but the military called off the war games in the late ’9os, and the island hasn’t been much developed since. It’s low key and easy going, still run for the locals, not for the tourists. Pretty nice. Don’t come here if you want to shop till you drop. We did find a terrific restaurant last night, though. La Campesina has just been reopened by two young guys from Ohio and a friend whose family has had property on the island for many years. One off them is the talented and inventive chef, another the charming and knowledgeable front man and waiter, and the third the urbane bartender, master of a mean mojito. They offer a small but imaginative menu and just four wines, two reds and two whites…all excellent Chilean and Argentinean offerings last night. It’s a small place set out in the country, covered overhead but otherwise in the open among trees and boulders, some of which are built into the bar. (One of the guys told me they had to “reclaim the place from the jungle” to get it ready for use.) Unique in my experience, and mighty fine. Here endeth my first, and probably last, restaurant review.

In almost every meteorilogical and attitudinal way, Vieques is about as far from Scotland as it’s possible to get, but some Viequans we’ve met, though usually very sociable, sometimes give a great impression of what I expect of Challengers at the end of those long May days.


[Edited 12/21/07 at 12:39 PM]


Flakes


We had our first real snow yesterday. This photo was taken two or three hours after it started, in a tree-sheltered courtyard near our house. By then, there were probably two, maybe three inches on the ground. Walking down to the Post Office was a matter of scuffing rather than striding. There was much more on the ground by 3:00 or so, when Paul and I had to shovel and sand to get his car up the side driveway. Things turned a little icy and heavy and we eventually got perhaps 8 inches, though a nearby town got an official 13. The road crews all had their work cut out for them. Towns all over the state canceled school, and many opened a couple of hours late this morning. (Modern children are such wusses. When I was a boy, we walked miles through massive drifts, carrying our books and dragging the weak behind us on toboggans we built ourselves out of barn doors and random farm implements. And we did all this dressed for tennis and humming Peter and Gordon songs.)

Some of us are off to warmer climes tomorrow morning, so our delight in the beauty of the white blanket is tempered by concern that our plane might not fly (though predictions are good). If we make it I’ll post a picture of a palm tree. Otherwise, slush.


Home Run

An eviscerating op-ed piece in the NY Times last Saturday, precise and disdainful. It has to do with baseball, but even if you know nothing and care less about the game (I’m looking at you, you Challenge types), it’s worth a look for its elegantly remorseless demolition work.

Until I was in my mid teens all I wanted to do was play baseball. I hated school for all the usual reasons, but especially because it wasted good ballplaying time and was run by people who at least affected to believe the game—The National Pastime!—wasn’t important. Buffoons.


It finally dawned on me that I wasn’t going to make the big leagues at about the same time I discovered previously unsuspected, if ultimately limited, abilities as a distance runner, but while I’ve believed for decades now that running far fast is the best sport, it’s still obvious to me that baseball is the best game. I was eventually able to make part of my living writing about baseball, and editing, packaging, and publishing what other people wrote about it. The result is that I have, not a lot of inside information, but a strong sense of the game’s history and development dating back into the 19th century. I’ve always been especially interested in the relations between players and owners, which have been difficult since the game first went professional a few years after the Civil War. The “reserve clause” the writer mentions is shorthand for an agreement among owners that for almost a hundred years kept players from selling their services to the highest bidder, thereby keeping salaries artificially low.

The Baseball Hall of Fame referred to in the column’s title enjoys shrine-like status as a repository of mementos of the game’s history and as the location of almost 300 plaques honoring baseball’s greatest players, executives, umpires, and others. It is an almost transcendent honor for any baseball figure to be elected to the Hall. But inclusion depends on election, and I agree with many writers, historians, and plain fans that there are many people in the Hall who don’t belong there, and some not there who do. This belief is the basis of many American barstool arguments.

At its simplest, this column is one of those arguments. But that’s certainly not all it is, and the sheer brutal honest outraged accuracy here is refreshing. I’ve always liked Fay Vincent. Pusillanimous he ain’t.


Tea


To Americans, this isn’t a meal, it’s a drink. But Americans don’t drink it. Older ladies sometimes think they drink it, but what they raise to their lips is a cup of hottish water lightly colored with a briefly dipped teabag. Younger “tea” drinkers often sip an infusion of herbs and flavors.

I’ve been a tea drinker since high school, but my cup doesn’t hold what a Brit would consider “proper” tea, either. I drink good black tea properly brewed, but with sugar and lemon—“Russian” tea. So I’ll be the guy on the Challenge pulling the little yellow squeezy thing out of his food pack.

Within the last few years, my very fit, very slender, very coffee-drinking father has begun to drop by most afternoons at about the time I take my tea break. And he has begun to drink tea. Since he thinks that only sissies use milk, and only weak characters indulge their sweet tooth (teeth? tooths?), he takes it straight. But he has come to enjoy it quite as much as I do mine. We have a nice chat, I head back upstairs to work, and he watches out the window to see who’s walking up and down Main Street and, if possible, why.

There’s also iced tea, which is no longer necessarily a summer drink over here, and which is what a lot of folks, especially down south, mean when they say “tea.” Below the Mason-Dixon line, they drink it pre-sweetened with enough sugar to make your teeth buzz. My mom made wonderful iced tea, using a recipe she got from the mother of a girlhood friend. We still make it (but like good New Englanders, only in summer), and we sometimes use mint from a transplanted bed that traces back to the original that Mom’s friend’s mom had in her backyard in the 1930s and ’40s. This gives me great pleasure.

Our daughter (who normally is one of those herbal people) and I have over the years developed a tea-related ritual. When we come off the hills (assuming the hills are in our part of the world), we aren’t yet finished. The perfect success of the outing depends on our securing bottles of Snapple Peach Iced Tea and a bag of Cape Cod Potato Chips, and we’ll drive for miles to find a store that sells the right stuff.

I’m a fan of Alexander McCall-Smith’s Precious Ramotswe books, which are set in Botswana. In The Full Cupboard of Life, there is a chapter entitled: “Tea is Always the Solution,” an assertion closer to universal truth than most of what I hear from pulpits or podia.

Of course, everyone at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency drinks Rooibos.


Japanese blogging

There is a fascinating article in the Washington Post this morning about Japanese bloggers. Apparently, “[a]lthough English speakers outnumber Japanese speakers by more than 5-1, slightly more blog postings are written in Japanese than in English.” The reasons for this—many technological—and the different style of the Japanese make for a really interesting read. Among other things, according to the reporter, “Japan’s conformist culture has embraced a technology that Americans often use for abrasive self-promotion (What? Us?) and refashioned it as a soothingly nonconfrontational medium for getting along.” Getting along? What’s the matter with these people?


Yuck

Today’s morning walk was a moderate version of the crummiest kind of New England winter weather…temps around freezing, “winter mix” falling, cars encrusted, a little dicey under foot. Public Works (headed by a high school classmate who held our discus record, since broken but not by much) does a good job on the roads, but the drives through the cemetery don’t get the same kind of attention. At the bottom of that slope, there is a depression that tends to catch and hold water. I was on my own this morning, but my usual walking partner, Paul, and I have christened it “Lake H,” in honor of my daughter, who as a young runner got immense pleasure out of the otherwise illicit act of splashing messily through it. The caretakers have filled it in a bit with crushed stone, but it still becomes something of a pond when it rains. Not paying attention this morning, I managed to walk right into the middle of it, and immediately felt my walking shoes let in what felt like every icy drop they could hold. When you’re running, or even walking with some purpose, you don’t care much about this sort of thing. When you’re gathering wool while spending iPod time on a tropical island with Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin, you do. Killick! Killick there!


Wildcat wedding

We’ve always done most of our walking in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. There, as in the rest of the northeast, a mountain over 4,000 ft. (1,219 m.) is big. There are 48 of them in New Hampshire, known simply as the New Hampshire 4,000-footers (there are others in Maine, Vermont, and New York). As with Munros in Scotland, it is a goal of many to have climbed all of them, and you can get a badge and certificate. I had a friend, a legend, who climbed them all. In winter. From each of the cardinal points of the compass. A true hard man, and a man so proud of his Scottish heritage that he invariably wore a Tam O’Shanter in the mountains, and carried it off with aplomb. Although I summited my first 4,000 in 1966, I’m only a little past half-way through the list. Of course, it doesn’t help that I like some of them enough to climb them over and over. Lafayette, I am here!

A few years ago, though, our daughter, her fiancé (now husband) and I embarked on a project that had more to do with trying to spend some outdoor time together than with finishing off all our 4,000s, but that used the list as an organizing principle. Looking at some pix to illustrate this post about what I think of as my home mountains, I was reminded of the story of one of these walks. The photo is of the two younger members of our expedition posing across Pinkham Notch from Mt. Washington, the highest mountain in the Northeast at 6,288 ft. (1,917 m.).


They are standing near the end of our day on a platform near a peak called “Wildcat D,” which is near the south end of a rugged, wooded ridge graced also by the summits of Wildcats A-E. We had come south from A, which like D qualifies as a 4,000-footer. The platform is perhaps 200 yards away from, slightly above, and out of sight of the gondola station at (naturally) Wildcat ski area. The gondola runs all summer, and tourists can ride up the mountain for some cool breezes and a great view.

We were deeply involved in the usual rest-stop fiddling about when a kind of calliope-style organ began playing Here Comes the Bride over the ski area’s big PA system, and what has become one of my fondest, if weirdest, mountain memories began to take shape. It had everything: the gondola, the calliope, the giant commercial PA, and a schizophrenic combo of 1970 hippie and 1930 Methodist, including a poem and a kind of prescriptive essay (“In marriage, each must care more about the other than about one’s self…”), both of which must have been clipped from some ancient, yellowing ladies’ magazine. At one point somebody recited the Boy Scout Law (“A Scout is brave, clean, Republican,” and so on).* All this while hikers and tourists stood agape (or whatever the aural version of agape is). Once we got down to the lift, we averted our eyes and passed reverently by on our descent toward the notch, leaving behind our very best wishes for long and happy years together perusing Readers’ Digest while listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played on a Hammond organ set to “chimes” mode. And as we gradually moved out of range, we knew we would never forget the girl group offering its utterly white-bread rendition of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Right across the valley from Mount Washington. Wonderfully, superbly, delightfully surreal.

* I love the Scouts. I was a Scout. Scouts got me started in the out-of-doors. Some of my best friends were Scouts. Some of my best friends still are Scouts (you might just be able to see that one of the shirts in the photo above is a Scout T). It’s just that the National BSA needs to adjust its compass a little to the west.


Route


I had my route pretty well planned out before The Envelope arrived. I was looking for a good intro walk that included some celebrated Challenge highlights, a chance for plenty of social interaction, and the possibility of frequent company along the way. I’m not averse to steep climbs or rough terrain (that’s pretty much what there is in the Whites), but I’m not especially interested in Munros. I read all the diaries and journals I could (many of them collected by Phil Lambert at Doodlecat), and listened to Bob Cartwright’s top-notch TGOC podcasts and all the interviews he (and Andy Howell) did along the way. I read lots of blogs and other journals (which will be the subjects of a future post). I talked with my wonderfully enthusiastic and tremendously helpful countrymen Lou and Phyl LaBorwit, who were just about to head for Scotland, the West Highland Way, and the Challenge Reunion in Ft. William. I dove into Scottish Hill Tracks, ordered a set of OS maps, changed my mind and ordered the second set that will do the trick. (We all agree, don’t we, that you can never have too many maps, no matter how battered, arcane, or outdated?)

What I settled on is the opposite of original, but I think it’s just right for me on a first crossing: Mallaig to St. Cyrus, by way of Knoydart, the Corrieyairick Pass, the Lairig Ghru, Jock’s Road (which I learned without much surprise is NOT a road), and all the slogs and beauties in between. A little under 190 miles, not counting side trips to the pub (including the first one, “the remotest pub on mainland Britain”).

Challenge coordinator Roger Smith, who has been remarkably kind and helpful, vetted my route sheet in the blink of an eye, made a couple of recommendations that I’m certainly going to take, gently suggested that my “elevations gained” were a little off on two of the steepest days (which I’m still trying to figure out, not that I entertain the slightest doubt that he’s right), and told me I needed to work out a Foul Weather Alternative (FWA) not just for Jock’s Road but for the Lairig Ghru as well. So that’s what I’ll be amusing myself with as time allows over the next few weeks. I know my route is standard stuff, but researching it, working it out, and planning it have been great fun and deeply satisfying to a map-lover and all-purpose obsessive like me. Getting to “know” various posters, voices, and correspondents has been terrific, too, and I’m looking forward to meeting as many as possible of my benefactors in the goose-bumped flesh. (In one of his posts or podcasts, Bob tossed off the comment that “it’s always about the cold wind in Scotland,” which was a relief, because I’d been afraid I might get wet.)


“Reading” on the Challenge


I read on one of her terrific posts or journals that on a long boring TGOC slog, Shirley Worral, “Peewiglet,” listened to a recorded version of one of Patrick O’Brian’s wonderful Aubrey-Maturin books. These are my favorites, too, and Patrick Tull’s spectacular acting sells them completely to me as a listener.

I went out for a longish walk the other day, tucked my iPod in my pocket, plugged in the earbud, and sailed away with Jack and Stephen for a couple of hours. Readers of the series will know that there are moments, and sometimes long sections, that are irresistibly comic, usually based on sometimes not-so-lovable character flaws and weaknesses displayed again and again by the main characters. Headed home, I found myself walking along laughing out loud. Not smiling or chuckling, mind you. Laughing out loud. The writing is so perceptive, so sharp, yet so genuinely and generously humane, it’s irresistible. Marvelous stuff.

I think I’ll follow in Shirl’s footsteps (literally in some cases), and bring an iPod on the Challenge. I’d use it mostly in the evenings, I think, but I’ve got a few slogs to get past, too, and I’d probably plug in then, as well. I’ve got what’s now called a Classic, with O’Brian, lots of Alan Furst, some Donna Leon and, optimistically, a bunch of language courses, among other things. And music, of course…mostly, but not entirely jazz. I wonder if I dare bring this mechanical device on the Scottish hills with me. I do also have a tiny Shuffle, which I sometimes shuffle with, but as far as I know, it can’t be recharged except by plugging it into a computer, and besides, it has no way to let you see and choose. I’ve never carried music or spoken books in the mountains, so I don’t have much of a feel for this.

(The Shuffle is my second. I returned the first, having apparently sweated it to death—right in the middle of Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti—on a steamy day last summer by clipping it to the top of my running shorts with the control wheel and its little interstices directly against my glowing back. A wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom. “Should have known better” has been my motto for years.)


Weather layers

When we went out to walk at 7:30 am today it was about 19° F. (-7° C.). This is about the point at which I’ve always begun to think it’s pretty cold, rather than just pretty chilly. I add a midlayer between baselayer and jacket, I trade the Buff for a Turtle Fur neck gaiter (made in Vermont, our likely future home, to protect you from the Wicked Itch of the North), and I swap my earmuffs for a watch cap. I also change from light gloves to mitts. The usual shorts covered by SportHills (similar to Tracksters). I won’t switch to warmer trousers until it gets a bit colder or is really windy. I use really horrible weather to try out different combinations.

My baselayer is new, a GoLite DriMove Cocona long sleeve T. I haven’t been a big GoLite fan, but I bought this top because it has an Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) logo on it, and I must say I’m very pleased. Most of my outdoor clothing and gear is solid and tested, but not exactly cutting edge. This top has a very smooth finish, which makes it easy to wear under things, and it doesn’t stink after a day in the hills…or a week walking Loops.

My midlayer was a gift from my daughter some years ago, and it’s been my favorite. It’s an Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) Bergelene Zip-T with thumb loops. It’s been many miles on my back, both walking and running, and it will be many more.

My mix of layers also includes an old black Patagonia Zephur windshirt, similar to but lighter and a little less bulky and more packable than a Marmot DriClime. It has no handwarmer pockets, but it does have a bigger and more useful breast pocket, which is important to me in this sort of top. The Zephur enters the morning walk wardrobe when the wind is biting or the thermometer really takes a plunge. I also wear it in the hills when it’s raining but not pouring. It’s a really versatile piece. But ugly. Ugly.

Some of this stuff I’ll bring to Scotland, but I haven’t yet decided on the right selection. And I’m pondering the best waterproofs, which riveting topic I’ll cover soon.