Antithesis of Consumerism and Cynicism

This life has been given to you for repentance.  Do not waste it on vain pursuits.

St. Isaac the Syrian

The Christmas shopping season is upon us.  It used to be that merchants would, at least, wait until our Thanksgiving meals have been well digested and football fans had plenty of time to cheer or curse the results of the big game.  Alas, the infamous “black Friday” begins Thursday night.  It was one thing when a local restaurant or tavern would offer a holiday meal to weary travelers who were delayed from reaching their intended destination.  I suppose mall food courts will offer turkey steak and cheese hoagies to shoppers awaiting “door buster specials.”

Yet, it is not enough to bemoan how Christmas has become an overly commercial farce.  Cynicism is also a toxic mentality which destroys the joy and hope that we should have during this (and any other) time of the year.  Unmet expectations of special gifts under the tree, losing beloved relatives and friends, employment and finances taking turns for the worse; such things can easily lead people into a slippery slope of depression as real life does not always mirror the seasonal Hallmark Channel specials.

View from Humpback Rock (© John Gresham)

The words of St. Isaac the Syrian have become my mantra for these days leading into Christmas.  While I have done nothing to justify arrest and imprisonment, I am mindful of my imperfect actions, words, and (the source of these things) thoughts.  The fact that the Lord has not destroyed me in my wickedness is proof of his love and desire that I should change my ways.  Thus, repentance should be a part of everything I do from eating breakfast, performing task at home and work, even enjoying a quick game of mahjong.  One need not live in sackcloth and ashes.  But, to be careful of the thoughts harbored has a positive effect on words spoken and things done.

It is more difficult to shop until you drop knowing that one’s highest aim is a change of self.  Nor can one wallow in self-pity if they focus on developing a greater spiritual self.  We seek out greater principles of life instead.  This is where things are created and discoveries are made.  New bonds of interaction are forged and hope continues in spite of disappointments and disasters.  It is this higher awareness that cannot be found in fat men sliding down chimneys or washing away one’s misery in spirits.  It is found only when one pursues a life of spirit.

Give thoughtful gifts to the people you love.  Refuse to be swept up in the excesses of commercial marketing.  Seeking the higher point of our existence keeps us safe from this seasons toxicity and allows us a fullness of life that goes beyond January first.

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Benefits of Plan B

You would think that with “Gresham’s Law*” being a part of our lives that everyone would have some sort of back up plan for their outdoor adventures.  I used to be one of those poor souls.  I would come home in a foul mood if the fish weren’t biting, the weather turned bad, or if some other complication would arise just to ruin my day or weekend off.  Now, getting skunked or soaked no longer is something that I dread.  I look to my alternatives.

Water Meets Stone and Moss (© John Gresham)

My camera goes wherever I go.  I may not take it in the kayak while fishing.  But, if the day is especially bad, I can get some landscape and wildlife images in.  I have access to a couple of good point-and-shoot cameras when I backpack.  If I change my mind, “The Brick” (my Pentax K200D) is in the trunk for a shorter walk and better photos.  No matter what level photographer you are, a camera is a great thing to have.  Capturing a few good scenes can make a bad day better.

My appetite and taste buds are a part of me.  Having a few bucks while traveling can open one up to a culinary adventure when the waters and trails prove uncooperative.  Bypass the typical chain restaurants and fast food.  Local diners and dives have offerings that you just may not find at home.  You may even be inspired to buy the ingredients and try making the meal at home.

In this age of social media, we have forgotten what it is to have a good book on hand.  Yeah, Kindle and Nook may have their advantages.  But, there is something about the feel of hardbound or paperback that makes reading a holistic experience.  Some communities have neat local papers and magazines that beckon even the most discouraged adventurer to come back and try again next time.

A Friendly Local (© John Gresham)

This past Monday was to be my epic mountain adventure of the year.  I was going on a solo backpack of Crabtree Falls and The Priest.  I told everyone that I was going to make the climb on Monday, crash at the shelter, make my way down Tuesday, and use Wednesday to recuperate.  When I got to Massies Mill, I couldn’t even see the mountains due to the thick fog.  To make matters worse, the weatherman called for rain and thunderstorms all day and evening.  A 18 mile round trip solo hike in bad weather on some trail I wasn’t familiar with didn’t seem like a great idea to me.

So, I went to plan B.  I grabbed the “brick” and captured some waterfall images along Crabtree and the Tye River.  Unfortunately, the Country Store in Montebello didn’t take my ATM card.  The UVA Credit Union in Nellysford was available.  I found a great little Italian joint that had a used book exchange.  They didn’t have anything I was interested in.   But, I did pick up the “Appalachian Voice.”  Being discouraged about not being able to execute my original plan would have been self-defeating.  Enjoying the alternatives has given me an appreciation for Nelson County and a marinated beef and turkey sandwich with cheese.

*“Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.”  I wrote that on a post it note with no adhesive.  Some guy named Murphy picked it up, got the copyrights, and made millions.

We Need To Return

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and other escaped slaves and underground railroad leaders knew something about the outdoors that we modern African-Americans are failing to realize.  Whatever hazards may be in the marshes and woods, there is a greater peril to our souls to stay where we are and a greater freedom if we are willing to go through them.  Too often I get fearful responses from my kind when I try to promote doing something as simple as going to a well furnished state park, not to mention roughing it somewhere like the Appalachian Trail.  “I don’t like bugs.  There are too many snakes.  I might fall in the water.  What about tigers (alas, I am not making that up)?”  Our ancestors who ran away from slavery may have had such fears.  But, they sought something better.

Please look at where we are in society.  Our rate of illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and others are among (if not) the highest of any ethnic group.  We frequently suffer from poor diets and lack of physical activity.  Multi-channel television, video games, and cell phones are too often our main sources of entertainment.  Perhaps our modern technology, trying to make ends meet, and racist society can be blamed for some things.  But, it is our responsibility to make up our minds to leave sedentary lifestyle plantations behind as there is something to be gained by making outdoor activity a part of our lives.

There is freedom on this trail

Obviously, we will gain better health. Working up a sweat in the gym is good.  But, a hike on a mountain or along a beach is far better since the mind can relax from competition and the body takes in fresh air.  Perhaps some university has done or will do a study to prove that exercise outdoors is superior to indoors.  But, I think it makes sense that as natural beings, we are better off in natural surroundings.

Outdoor activity gives us the knowledge to overcome fear.  Sure snakes exist.  But, most are non venomous and even those with venom avoid contact with people.  Paddling a canoe or kayak allows us to explore places where motorboats can’t.  Knowing proper techniques and being aware of water conditions make this an enjoyable pursuit.  As far as tigers are concerned, avoid hiking in their cages at the circus or the zoo.  The natural world has a lot to teach us.

With the right education, interest, and skills; outdoor activity may also lead to a career.  I came to York River State Park looking for a summer job to make a little money until substitute teaching picked up again.  But, I came armed with a degree in Agricultural Education, years of public speaking, a couple of photography awards, a love for flat water kayaking, and my own blog.  I still had to work my way up.  But, I did it.  Parks, wilderness areas, and other employers are looking for people with something to enhance their operation.  Adding knowledge about mountain bikes or even a few scouting badges may lead to an open door passed over by people who are “scared of drowning in all that water.”

Co-workers and Friends Maurice, Shirley, and Mary

The one instance of racism I have encountered came from people who watched me instead of participated with me (I got “N-bombed” by a couple of knuckleheads on a distant shore as I was kayaking in my own home town).  Other than that, It seems to me that shared interest means more than race among people who love the outdoors.  Organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Sierra Club or the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club open their membership and friendship to anyone willing to lace up boots and hike.  Even when I am alone and not in my ranger uniform, it has not been difficult for me to make a pleasurable acquaintance on a trail or in the water.  Be yourself and respect others.  The respect will be returned.  And if it isn’t, it’s their loss, not yours.

This month, (no this year) pay some respect to those who had to traverse woods and rivers to find freedom.  Excercise your freedom to enjoy those same woods and rivers.  Overcome your fears and learn what nature has to offer.  By doing so, you will make yourself a part of an interesting and fun-filled family of humans that enjoy the outdoors.  I am so happy to be here and you will be too.

Thanks to a warmer than normal winter, why not participate in bird watching this weekend?  http://www.virginiaoutdoors.com/article/more/3521

Know the rules of the road on the trails.  http://www.virginiaoutdoors.com/article/more/3508

Safety First!

For Your Protection

On my two trips to Crabtree Falls (one I didn’t complete), I was warned by a country store owner and my mother-in-law not to leave the trail and climb on the rocks by the waterfall.  Of course, they were preaching to the choir.  One of my pet peeves is when people don’t follow trail warnings and ranger instructions when visiting York River.  The Golden Rule of doing to others as you would have them do unto you applies to me as an outdoors professional as well (which is why I didn’t hike Crabtree the first time, I didn’t have exact change for the honor parking).  Thus, I had no intentions of straying from the trail.

More than an annoyance, not following trails damages the natural landscape and causes more work for those who have to maintain them.  Mountain trails sometimes have switchbacks to protect the natural slope and prevent erosion.  Cutting across them loosens rock and allows water to wash portions of the trail away.  Plant life is also negatively affected by these “short cuts.”  Trails on hillsides east of the Blue Ridge suffer the same fate.  To restore them, employees and volunteers have to put in hours of  labor that could have been used to make other trails for more people to enjoy.   So, instead of saving time, these self-appointed trailblazers cheat themselves and others of adventure opportunities.

Falls to Mountain View

The possibility of bodily harm and/or death is another good reason to say on the designated trails and overlooks.  Loose rock on a mountain side or clear algae along a waterfall is (at best) an invitation to a fall that will result in a sprain or fracture.  Indeed, people have died at Crabtree Falls because they wanted to feel the water rushing on them or had to get closer for the perfect photograph.  I find showers and telephoto lenses a better antidote than risking my life to fulfill such desires.  Tidewater hikers take risk as well when they fail to stay on the trail.  Unstable ground and venomous snakes (False Cape State Park’s cottonmouths are the worst!) are more likely found in the possible “short cuts” than the tried and true paths.  In any case, rangers and rescue workers are most likely to search for the lost and injured in places where visitors should be before they go to places where they have no business being.  When suffering perhaps to the point of dying, this is not a comforting thought.

Safe Viewing

For those who are bored with following marked trails, Google “bushwhacking clubs” and learn how and where to do it right.  Other than that, visit different trails at other parks.  Visit trails at different times of the year.  Chronicle your journeys with pen & paper or modern technology.  My trip to Crabtree was highlighted by creating lovely images of the waterfalls and meeting a variety of people along the way.  There were a few other photographers, a family from Westmoreland, and dog owners enjoying the day.  I treated myself to a barbecue sandwich and conversation at the little cafe in Montebello.  Letting cool mountain water rush over my feet may have felt good.  But, not needing crutches feels much better.

Cold Mountain: My First Backpacking Adventure

Leaving on the Old Hotel Trail

I had always done day trips.  I had imagined an overnight excursion somewhere like False Cape or kayaking to camp one of the barrier islands on the Eastern Shore.  But, a mountain hike and camping trip?  What the heck.  It would earn me a little “street cred” among my co-workers around the state.  The Chesapeake Bay Sierra Club had a trip to go along with a class I attended a month or two ago.  The group seemed friendly and the leaders knowledgeable.  So, everything would go like clockwork.  Right?

Anyone who knows me or read my last entry knows that nothing goes like clockwork for me.  I was lollygagging in Charlottesville waiting to buy a map from Blue Ridge Mountain Sports.  Then, I wasted more time looking for a Route 51 off of Route 60 (directions given to me by an online map and seemed to be the best way according to the map I had).  I had brain enough to print off another set of directions before I left West Point and followed them until I got to the parking lot at Hog Camp Gap where the Appalachian Trail intersected Route 48.  I called myself waiting on the group when, little did I know, they had waited and then left me.  Figuring I had already come so far, I refused to call it quits.  I packed up my gear and took the AT up Cold Mountain.

Summit View

Up is an understatement!  In another previous post, I described how I got my butt kicked underestimating the difference between flat and mountain hiking when I went up Humpback Rock.  I should have died on the AT trying to reach the summit with that heavy backpack!  Some of the pain went away as I gazed all around at a fantastic panoramic view and enjoyed meeting a nice family out for a quick day hike.  If I were allowed, I would have stayed right there and captured amazing sunset and sunrise images.  But, I really wanted to get to the Cow Camp Shelter before sundown.  It was a steep decent down the mountain.  the trail seemed a lot more narrow and had these hair pin switch backs.  There is no way in the world I would have made that trip in the dark.

Chesapeake Bay Sierra Club Hikers

I got to the shelter and sadly didn’t find the group.  But, I did run across some dudes who offered me advice and conversation.  I did see a piece of racist graffiti on the other side of the Blue Ridge.   Among hikers, I have yet to meet anyone who has been unfriendly.  There are all sorts of jerks in everywhere you go in life.   But, I follow the example of my father who became a communications technician with AT&T long before there were racial hiring quotas:  Be respectful of yourself and others.  Be sincere about what you want to do and people will work with you no matter what they might think of you.  I thank God for everyone I met and greeted along the way.

A Stream Of Living Water

I set up camp near the shelter and spent the night under the stars with my Bible.  The ghost of my grandfather-in-law, Rev. Carter Wicks, was already on my mind as I was in Charlottesville to say goodbye to my grandmother-in-law.  With the waters of Little Cove Creek, I couldn’t ignore the spiritual presence of the place.  Romans 8:12-17 reminded me to live according to the spirit and not the flesh.  If I could strive this hard on a hike in the natural world, how much more must I strive for the Kingdom.  While I would have enjoyed the company of the Sierra Club hikers, I believe God intended for me to be alone on this trip.

Wild Strawberry

I had the brilliant idea that if I took the Old Hotel Trail back to the parking lot, I wouldn’t have to go uphill again.  That was not my best thought!  Another hard climb awaited me.  Little did I know I would run into some friendly and familiar faces.  “Hey John.  We didn’t think you were coming.”  We chatted a bit about my failed sense of timing.  But, I was congratulated for going through with the hike alone.  I didn’t learn to hike by a compass yet.  But, I do know how to follow a well-marked trail and map.
Aside from packing way too heavy (Chris warned me not to bring my Pentax K200D.  Did I listen?  Of course not!), I thought this whole experience was absolutely wonderful.  almost everywhere I looked there was something worth seeing and enjoying!  Clouds were drifting effortlessly past the mountains.  Wild strawberries and other flowers were in bloom.  Along the Old Hotel Trail, there seemed to be running water around every other bend.  I am glad I had sense enough to take the little Kodak Easyshare C143 so I could get a few good shots in without taking out my “Brick” (I love my camera, but it is as solid and heavy as a brick).  The trip is everything that it was advertised to be.  But, I don’t recommend that rookies go solo.  Yeah, I did it.  But, the Lord protects babies and fools.  Since I haven’t worn a diaper since Lyndon Johnson was President, I know where I stand.

Cloud on the Mountain