Travels with MaryE

Most things I love best are about good light and good timing. That's where the adventures start. Don't be in no hurry here. Here you'll find a little bit about bluegrass music, fox hunting, life on the road, time on the mountain, and a whole lot about other things, too.

Friday, May 19, 2006

On the Bluegrass Trail

It's time again. My mind is turning away from blogs and city streets and back to the road. Sometimes I think of the road as home. Those of you who love the you ever wonder why? It's funny I love the road and I also love "nesting." These days I don't have my own nest, so when I travel some places I love to visit are those where I can tidy up someone else's nest.

While the best way to travel is by those little old roads that criss-cross America -- Route 11 is one that goes a long, long way, even away down into enemy territory (I am a Yankee, don't forget) -- sometimes even I take the "easy" (not so sure about that) way and hop on the interstate - 81 South to be exact. It's a pretty dull old road, really, but traveling alone and with very limited funds these days it just makes sense to GET to my destination as quickly as possible.

I'm headed to Ralph's. Now those of you who have never been to Ralph's need to get yourselves down there. Ralph's happens every Memorial Day weekend (easy to remember, no?) down near Coeburn, Virginia (that's way up in the mountains in the southwest corner in Dickenson County). Now I love that county. It's still wild and beautiful there and they have old country kinds of things still going on in Dickenson County - they still have a High Sheriff! Matter of fact before the old regime were voted out, I used to be pretty friendly with the High Sheriff and his deputies, too. They used to make silly faces and let me take loads of pictures of them you know looking really tough in a silly way with their hands on their holsters and their badges shining in the late afternoon sun.

Now they're Republicans, I think, so they're real uptight and stuff. I wouldn't dream of taking their picture now. Down in that country (it is like a different country down there) politics are Serious. Even Ralph is dead serious about politics. Matter of fact, I have a very old bumper sticker where Ralph was running for office, treasurer or something. He lost. I bet he'd win now.

But I wonder...if he did win...what would it be like? Like if you go up to Ralph at his record table there he's sitting in all his glory grinnin' like and old possum (y'all know that Ralph is my F-A-V-O-R-I-T-E so I'm saying this outta love, not ridicule) and there's all his CDs and pictures and what have you sitting in front of him and he's got this plain ole rock sitting there at his right hand and under it is....well, his money! Yep, you buy a CD and he places the money under that rock! So I don't know if I'd vote for him for treasurer! But anyway.

I started writing this while still trapped in that place where honking seems to be the city's favorite sport but after a brief sojourn in the Catskills I hopped in my truck very early yesterday morning and drove...over 700 miles. Now it's relatively easy to do when you're on 81 south, but you still have to keep your eyes open, at least most of the time. That was the hard part since I'd had precious little sleep (you ever get so keyed up about getting a good night's sleep the night before a huge drive like that? then you can't sleep a-tall). Just when the alarm was going off at 5 am I started getting down to sleep. Too bad. I was off by 6:30 and got down here to Bristol, Virginia, 700 miles south, in just under 12 hours. There was some heavy rain and I just had to keep stopping because I was getting drowsy so all things considered 12 hours was pretty darned good. Most of the way it was blessedly cloudy, my ideal driving weather.

Ever see a T-ball game? I know you think I'm out of it, but today was my first T-ball experience. I think if things get slow up at Ralph's we should try to get together a game up there. Even I might be able to hit a ball off a pipe. Only thing is we'll probably have to play on all that boulder-sized gravel Ralph has had trucked in from somewhere. What's he got against grass? And how do cattle graze gravel? Must be tryin' to raise them lean, mean kind. Ralph, what gives?

Anyway, it's way too late and after watching Ralph videos for hours tonight, I'm ready for the big all are crazy if you don't get up there and check it out. Carter Stanley's grave at 3 a.m. It doesn't get any better than that. Now, I must go. Pictures to follow, okay??

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Spreading Joy in New York

I have to take back what I've said about NYC, at least some of it. Today I met 2 more beagles (life is good) - young Emma and old Sadie. While giving them both a good petting, I suddenly remembered that our family had a beagle called "Lady" for a short time when I was about 10; her barking drove the city neighbors mad so we couldn't keep her. No wonder I love hounds!

In places like NYC people pay a lot of money to have someone walk their dogs every day. Some of these dog walkers manage six or more dogs on leads at a time and it's a sight.

I walked on down the river and quietly observed two pair of geese and their goslings spending quality time over by the rocks. It was a beautiful day and I was feeling happy; it seemed like that alone was enough to call it a day and get back to writing and packing for my big trip. I turned and headed back uptown through the park.

But so much more was in store. At the 79th Street Boat Basin I came across a strange sight...ahead were two big biker-clad guys...walking their bicycles. That got my attention right smart. These were no ordinary guys -- or bicycles. They looked like some silver-chromed cadillacs and there was plenty of music streaming out from them.

Imagine the most fully-dressed Harley Davidson bike sort of over-the-top chrome and leather and add in a whole bunch of chrome skulls and gigundo boomboxes and island flags, and a full array of airhorns...and picture a couple of hispanic guys, one in a big cowboy hat and a few teeth but one of the most delightful grins I'm sure I'll ever see in Manhattan, and there you have it.

It was getting way better than anything I could have dreamt of. I got right down to business trying to talk to them about what they were about. I talked to the guy in the hat (above) who I was told was called Pedro but it turned out that these guys didn't really know each other - not even by name! I tried to talk to Pedro and he kept smiling really big and nodding his head up and down vigorously - so much so that I realized he hadn't a clue what I was asking him. So I turned to Mike who told me he's Puerto Rican and Irish and he told me about the vintage bike club "Bronx Classic" they're both in and how they're going to all be riding in some annual Puerto Rican Parade in the Bronx this Sunday (so check it out if you're in the area - should be a spectacle). There are about 50 members, mostly guys, and they love to get together on weekends in parks and ride their classic bikes around. Now these two obviously took great pride in their bikes - all the chrome was polished till it shone like diamonds.

We got to the north end of the boat basin (we were walking along all this time) and paused at one of the last benches. A couple of pretty young ladies, one pregnant and the other wheeling a baby carriage, stopped and started talking to "Pedro" in some island tongue...and things got more interesting. "Pedro," who later shared that he's single, 56 and lives with his 83 year old mother, moved right on in. He already had his boom box going pretty good with sizeable speakers mounted on the place where his handlebars should have been (but instead he'd installed, I kid you not, a faux fur-covered STEERING WHEEL). So the speakers were pumping out this good Cuban music and one thing led to another.
"Pedro" dances for me
Back in the early 80's I spent a year working on a yacht in the Bahamas so I know a bit about island culture - and I dearly love the happy, laid-back attitude of island folk. I knew what was coming. A few coy smiles, some outright flirting on Pedro's part, feet starting to move and hips swaying and it wasn't very far into the first song that Pedro and the pretty young miss were dancing right there on the promenade. Now this was a Nikon moment and I was living 100% in the moment, enjoying the incredible light (did I tell you how amazing the light was just then?) peeking between the darkening clouds, lending an intense glow to the joyful proceedings - and I was loving it totally but a little teeny part of me was desperately trying to figure out how I could get my hands on a camera NOW! This was PRICELESS. The looks that passed between these two strangers...(but it was a joyful thing).

It wasn't as if me and the two young ladies with their big smiles and pretty plaited hair and the two biker guys were the only ones there in that glittering moment by the Hudson. If you've never been to NY imagine a lot of really stressed, uptight, probably self-centered, fast-paced, cell-phone-wielding people passing by every second or two taking in this unusual scene. In NY it seems like pretty near anything at all can happen and it fails to elicit a response from most passersby (perhaps I'm overstating my point just a little) - in other words, you can walk for a long ways and never make eye contact with anyone, let alone speak or interact. People sort of travel about in their personal bubbles.

So here is this outrageous scene unfolding and all these uptight folks passing by running, cycling, skateboarding, rollerskating, walking or what have you are like....cracking up! Or at LEAST looking with a bit of interest and maybe even cracking a smile, a REAL smile. A few actually stop to check out the bikes. Now this is BIG to me - people getting other people's attention in a place like NY. So I am mesmerized by these guys and their effect on folks.

The song ends and "Pedro" decides to crank it up a little and puts on a really fast little number. Oh, I know Island People. I understand. Pedro later tells me with smiles and sign language that he just likes to be happy all the time and make other people happy, too -- and he is VERY good at what he does. Pedro is spreading joy throughout NY as a big thunderstorm approaches and the light on these happy dancers intensifies. Now Pedro throws in a belly-rubbin' CD and they do a sensual, unhurried swaying dance from side to side with schooners and ketches bobbing behind like jealous wallflowers at some junior high dance. It's just an amazing picture.

How could I _not_ talk to them? And could I help but grin? Nope! I was hooked bigtime. My immediate thought was, "Why the heck did I leave my camera at the apartment?" Now I can walk around NYC and never want to snap a picture, but these guys had it all! To call them a conversation piece would be an understatement.

I was so impressed with these guys and their cool vibe coupled with their flashy bicycles that I begged them to wait till I came back with my camera. Since I was on foot about 2 miles round trip from my camera it was awhile before I could get back. I was holding my breath, all excited as I returned with my Nikon. Just before I arrived I saw the two pretty young ladies coming toward me; they smiled and assured me the guys were still waiting, and my feet fairly flew to meet my new pals.

There isn't much more to tell. But today I saw more New Yorkers smile and even stop to talk to strangers than I've ever seen before. Maybe folks just need a conversation piece to start things off. Pedro and Mike provided that. I wish there were more people around like these guys. I reckon they should be give keys to the City. Wherever you are, guys, thanks for spreading your particular brand of joy.

An Irish Lass, A Blue Tick Beagle, and Other Stuff

(Hobbit and Helix, what's not to love?)
So late this afternoon I headed down to Riverside Park once again. The sun was brilliant and I began wondering why I hadn't come out much earlier in the day (do you ever do things like that?) The first part of the walk was ever so pleasant and the flower beds at 90ish street yielded more surprises - I love the ornamental allium and the bearded iris, there were some roses blooming, some chives and some mint - maybe catmint? also blooming. Several great purple lupins towered over the herbs and columbines were blooming everywhere. Soon the papavers and peonies will splash some brilliant color into the mix.

Things were fairly routine over at the dog run so I carried on to that nice pier at was pretty breezy today and I kept walking all the way down to 56th watching wooden boats coming about in the wind. It's a great walk - try it next time you're in NYC.

On the way back I spied a pair of Canadian geese with their 3 goslings sort of strolling together up the promenade with the proud parents herding them this way and that, pappa standing real tall-like. I was waiting for him to hand me a cigar. The sun was skipping across the Hudson and created a lovely backlit effect on the downy coats of the sweet little birds. Never taking my eyes off them, I moved out of their path and stood very still. A woman came along and joined me in a sort of silent joy. We stood the longest time, watching, until some cavemen in a hurry barged past with their bully dogs and sent the parent geese into a spitting hissy fit.

Anyway the woman and I sort of rolled our eyes and tisk-tisked at the same time and then sat down and talked for awhile. That was pretty cool since I hardly ever meet strangers in NYC. I never asked her name nor she mine but it was nice to share a few minutes there chatting about our respective lives and our common appreciation of this lovely park in the midst of turmoil! Turns out she was born in Dublin, emigrated to London 20 years ago and is working in NYC for a year.

On the way back uptown, I heard...yes! unmistakeable! a hound speaking! Quickening my pace so as not to miss seeing this hound I arrived at the dog run and found a young woman playing with her blue tick beagle. My good fortune coming true. In case you don't know, beagles are hounds. And I'd never seen a blue tick beagle before. It was a sweet little guy, very fit and happy. It did my heart a whole lot of good to see a hound in NYC! Not long after a couple more beagles arrived but they were old and fat and looked like they'd been living in some NY apartment for way too many years. Still, three beagles in one short period in NYC...pretty impressive. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

It's getting so I'm afraid to call my friends anymore. Someone has always died or been in a bad car wreck. Y'all who know him - or love his voice - please keep Ernie Thacker in your prayers. He's got a lot of coming back to do from a terrible wreck. If you're not the praying kind then please keep him in your thoughts. He's got family by his side but it's still going to be a very long road to recovery. God bless Ernie.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Girlz and the Boyz

Most of us have things we might do differently if we could go back in time and make amends. I certainly have a few. My major regret is that I never had any kids (bet some of you wouldn't mind having an Aunt MaryE to lend yours to, right?)

Anyway, in Wales I've found a partial (and very satisfying) solution to this dilemma. I have "the girlz." They live on the other side of the farm where I stay and so that they may remain somewhat anonymous I'll call them K&L, or "the girlz" for short. You'll probably hear a lot more about the girlz.

Now, you're wondering, who are "the boyz?" Well, they're my hounds. Right now I don't have any boyz because I gave them back so they can go and be what they were born to be. But let me tell you that the girlz and I really enjoyed our Sunday mornings (and other times as well) with the boyz. See, they'd come over around 9:30 on Sunday and we'd bundle up and go over to the stable and let the boyz out of their pen and I'd bring along a couple of leads and we'd be off across the gates and fields in hot pursuit of the hounds who were out enjoying every single lick of their freedom.
(Hobbit and Helix)
We walked down one field (all the fields are named but I never quite learned them) next to the barn called "the sheep shed" and crossed a rickety iron gate (the boyz squeezed through at the bottom) and then into a field of corn (something cattle eat eventually, not the human kind of stuff) and over another little gate by a big stump and into the upper wood. Now K made a sign for the special fort we have in that wood and the sign says "Hound Haven" and the hounds (Hobbit and Helix) sure loved that place. Used to be pheasants flew out every which way whenever we entered the wood there, but it seems like they've all moved off or been shot or something. Too bad.

After spending some time tidying up Hound Haven (there's always work to be done in a fort, you know) we had to cross a stile and another little field and then another gate. The boyz had to use their hound wiles to find an opening to wiggle through (that's part of their hound training, you see - they have to be major escape artists to make it through every kind of fence, gate, hedge, quarry, river and whatever). And then we were in the lower wood. Now there's a certain tree we have to walk through the middle of to pass safely into the wood otherwise we hit this invisible wall and bounce off (just ask the girlz). Somehow the boyz, escape artists that they are, have managed to get through that invisible wall a few times. Maybe it only applies to bipeds. I dunno.

Now in this lower wood is a big sort of chicken-wired pen that was once used for pheasants back when Pip was fit enough to get down there and raise his pheasants (not Pip the cat who's known as Mister, but the "original" Pip, as it were) and this place has become our other fort. We're going to have a campfire one night there and sit around and sing silly songs like the one we learned on the Sims that's in some nonsensical language (they sing it around their campfire.) This is L's fort and she has named it Leaping Hound Lodge. Good, no? Anyway, these forts offer few comforts but we have loads of fun on the way there and back and as I've said before it's all in the journey.

Before my recent return to the USA one of the girlz turned to me and said that ____ (the name of the place I stay) wouldn't be the same without me. Now that's about as sweet a thing as I've been told in years. Thanks, K.
(Down from the Radnor Forest)
I've had a lot of great times in Wales and some of the best of those have been in the company of some of my most precious friends - the girlz and the boyz. You know who you are!

Don't Get too Close to A Gorse Bush

That's right. Don't get too close to a gorse bush. You don't know what one is, you say? I remember the first time I saw one. It looks real pretty, see with its bright yellow flowers and dark green needles. But don't. Someone told me his terrier liked to go run around in a gorse patch to comb his hair. Don't believe it. One time I was out following the hunt and was desperate and got too close to a gorse bush in an effort to be discreet....ow! Well, think about getting too close to a cactus and you'll get the idea. See what I'm sayin'?

Now this website isn't all about peeing, but it seems to be on my mind today. Let's see if I can give you something pretty to look at...

There you have it...a bunch of free-range horses up near Craswall in Wales (or is it England - on the Welsh border, anyway). Hop on one of them, cowboy!

Don't Go Expecting it to be the Same...

Back in September 2001 I made my first visit to the U.K. as a sort of graduation present to myself (I finally earned my B.A. at 45) and I'm not sure what I was expecting but just because folks in England in theory speak the same language, it ain't the same. I guess it's along the lines of "southern" English vs. "Yankee" English (in America, that is). Things might sound the same but they don't have the same meaning.

For example, what we call a "fanny pack." Now don't go using that expression in the UK. Oh no. You'd better call it a "bum bag" or be prepared for a wave of embarrassed laughter from the Brits. Trust me on this.

That's not the only example of language differences, but it's the only one I can call to mind at the moment. Well, if you're talking to a crusty Radnorshire farmer and you want to really get in with him like you've lived there all your life, and maybe you're up on some steep hill with a bunch of gravel underfoot and it's raining like you-know-what you might say something about how "slike" it is. That'll impress him for sure. He's apt to pull off his tweed flat cap and scratch his head a time or two and twist up his mouth and look up at the sky and then maybe even look you in the eye and with a twinkle say, "Yup." You can hope, anyway.

There are two major things that strike fear in me whenever I'm in the U.K. First, the roundabouts (traffic circles for you Americans). Especially in rural Wales you don't have to deal with many roundabouts and you can go months without seeing a traffic light. Don't look for them over intersections because they're usually inconspicuously placed off to the side of the road where you have to really look for them. This while you're navigating roads about as wide as goat paths. You'll get used to all this after a few years (probably). But back to roundabouts. The thing is that when you go to the U.K. just because English is spoken (well, in most places) things are NOT the same. Give it up. Don't expect it.

So here you are going around this roundabout in the OTHER direction (remember, they drive on the left side of the road so you go left on roundabouts if you want to live long). And there are a few places you can jump off if you remember to be toward the outside and it's not too busy. BUT....and this is a big probably won't have the faintest idea which exit to take because the signage in the UK (at least for an American) leaves much to be desired. You know how here you might follow Route 30 east or Route 30 west and follow the signs accordingly? Well, over there you're going to have to figure out which little village on your 200 mile trip comes next and know all the names because it'll be signposted for that place. Trust me. You can spend hours being lost, not that it's unpleasant, but if you're trying to get somewhere by a certain time....

Anyway, I've learned to write long lists of village names along the route so I can make my "best guess" as to where to head for next. The good thing about a roundabout is that at least in theory you can go round and round and round until you make a decision. It's quite easy, really. Just be prepared for having 5 or 6 choices instead of merely looking for a number and heading east or west or north or south on that. The nice thing about roundabout is that you don't have to deal with 29 traffic lights to get through some small town. They do have their advantages! But I get dizzy after awhile on these roundabouts. Of course I could just stay at the house.

The other thing that fills me with terror is going to a small city and trying to find a bathroom (or "loo" as they're often called in the U.K.) The older ladies, ever polite, ask someone where they can "spend a penny" and that means the loo, too. (You all remember the old days when you had to put a nickel or a dime into this thing kind of like at laundromats to get into the stall in a bathroom at a department store?) Well anyway you have just added a new euphemism to your long list, "spend a penny." In a given day I usually spend several pennies but it ain't easy in the UK. Forget about it when you're traveling, especially outside the hours of 8 to 5 and on the "A" (small two lane) or "B" (goat path with occasional passing places) roads. Best thing is find a wood that isn't fenced and sashay in there. But really this is a major concern and discomfort! Why is peeing so difficult in the UK? I love the UK, but it is a very serious drawback. Someone explain this to me. I once threatened to write a book "Where to Pee in the U.K." but probably someone already thought of that. Where can I buy a copy?

Now that I've gotten all that out of the way let me say that given a choice I'd spend most of my time in Wales. The land and its people are fantastic and it's refreshing to be away from the noise and bustle of a place like New York City. More on that later.

Getting Ready, Letting Go, A Fortune and My Motto

You ever notice how getting ready to do something often takes more time than actually doing it? Sometimes, especially when it comes to writing something (as in for money) I have to like get ready to get ready to write. What's that all about? The annoying thing is that it seems like I can never quite get around to finishing something I've written - unless it's something I don't "have" to write. Then I let 'er rip (witness this bog)(and that's not a typo.)

Funny thing is sometimes I write about 10 drafts of an article and by the time I finally let it go it's nearly back to my original! 'Course that's about 80 or 100 hours later. You'd think I'd learn and just write a first draft and be done with it. So yeah, I'm a fan of the bog. No worries here.

Next obstacle: there's always just one more thing I need to fix, be it something I "have" to write or my photographs I'm sending to someone. It's worse than having teeth pulled this letting go thing. What's that about? I like to share the things I've done but something holds me back...some uncertainty. I need to learn to let go. Any of you have that problem?
(This is "Mister" gazing at his cowboy hero, Gene Autry. He's addicted to old westerns).
Anyway right now I'm getting ready to head south and west for a few weeks. There isn't time enough to do all the things I think I "should" do for heading out so I'm just going to do the things that I'd "better" do - you know, change the oil in my truck and stuff. Then it's off for some lifetime adventures. Pip's gonna have to find someone else to chase him around. I've tried to train my sister, but maybe she's forgotten how to play. Still, where there's life there's hope. I'll just tell Pip to pounce on her bladder from now on.

Speaking of hope, last night when I got those Ollie's cold sesame noodles for dinner I got a fortune! I wasn't expecting that since the noodles only cost $4.28, but here goes: "You will be fortunate in the opportunities presented to you." Sounds too much like business-speak to me and I left that behind long ago. Say what you mean in words that an eight year old can understand. That's my motto.


My sister's 25 pound HolsteinFriesian cat is called "Mister" (not really, but I'm trying to protect his identity). Ever have a 25 pound cat land on your bladder in the middle of the night? You can imagine. Anyway, Mister has been having some urinary problems of his own recently so I've got to be nice to him. This pic doesn't really reflect his magnitude. Trust me. It's a BIG floor there.

He thinks I'm a toy. See, we usually have playtime about 6:30 each morning and I chase him all around the apartment and if you haven't seen a 25-pound cat racing around at that hour his belly slinging about a foot to port then to starboard you are really missing out! When he's not at his food bowl and I'm not chasing him, he is on his back. What a sleaze.

So here I am trying to write this blob (or, Betty suggested, "bog" - I like that - something so thick and oozy you have to get rescued from it) and this cat thinks I should be playing. I'll get him!

Okay, his real name is Pip but don't expect him to acknowledge you when you call him by his name -- unless he wants food (which is about 24/7, not unlike me). I still call him "Mister" most of the time, since Pip usually means someone small. End of story for now - except for a photo. Yep, he gets any royalties.

Rambling and Ranting in New York

Right near my sister's apartment in Manhattan is what I think of as one of New York's saving graces: Riverside Park. The park stretches for some three miles along the Hudson River and offers up some green space for exercise, dog walking, boat watching, and loads of other activities. There's a place somewhere around 86th street where local folks have little patches in a series of lovely flower gardens and every day there are new surprises there. Today as the tulips faded the violet iris were claiming attention. The pastel shades of early flowers were everywhere and it was pretty hard to pull away from these splashes of lilac, pink and purple in their sea of vibrant green to continue my walk.

One of my favorite stops along these Riverside Park walks are the dog runs. I often visit the ones at 87th and 72nd Streets and enjoy watching the dogs at their play. It's pretty amazing how well-socialized these canines are, sharing their toys, enjoying games of tag, and doing the other things dogs do when they're together. I think we humans could learn a lot from the dogs! It's fun to watch the dogs' owners playing their own little games. I'm thoroughly convinced that a single person wanting to meet others in this city would do well to have a of the easiest ways to start up a conversation with a stranger. Not to mention that beautiful unconditional love one gets as a major benefit of dog ownership. Seems like cats just fuss you when they want something. Dogs adore you regardless. So what's a few messes here and there to scoop up with a baggie, huh?

See I used to be pretty anti-dog. Never could get past the smell of a dog and all that hair to clean up after. But after walking two sets of foxhound pups I am thoroughly over it! Matter of fact, last year when I landed in New York after returning my hounds to the hunt kennels so they could go on and do what they're bred to do (instead of being my cute little pets) it took about a week for me to stop sobbing every time I thought of Gid and Giz. This sounds pretty melodramatic, I know, and let me tell you it took me by surprise. One way I got myself out of the dumps over giving back my heart's delights was to get myself down to the dog runs and just sit in there and enjoy the dogs playing. Sometimes people even talked to me and that was really nice. For all the people who crowd the streets of New York at all hours it can be bloody difficult to initiate a conversation! Everything is whirring by much too quickly. I'm not cut out for this pace. But back to hounds....two songs I can't hardly listen to without getting all choked up..."Old Shep" (it slays me every time) and "Echo Mountain," both about great old hounds. It doesn't get any better.

So today I walked past all those lovely flower beds and paused briefly at the dog walk and then went on down to the marina there somewhere around 79th Street, I reckon. There are always boats to dream about there and I commenced dreaming.

A pair of Canadian geese land, honking, in the Hudson. $350 fine, if caught, mind. They're oblivious. Snatches of conversation float by at the heels of joggers, kids squeal on the playground, the scuff of sneakers on asphalt and grit, above hangs the steady drone of rush hour traffic on the West Side Parkway. Four girls engage in a friendly sort of shouting match all around me, as if I weren't there. The sun reaches across the quiet river from New Jersey. Planes roar above and sirens scream all around; isn't this tranquil? A man with an overbite speeds past on a bike - leading a large shopping cart with his right hand, clattering across the pavement. A girl leans over and spits into the river. The geese float past. A runner thuds by, grunting; a bicycle whirs along. A flat-footed woman slaps away.

Just a few people choose the slow way, ambling alone in ones and twos. Some actually look like they're thinking. Most, though, are engaged in raucous cell phone shouting. Why come to a park to make such a lot of VERBAL LITTER? I HATE IT. (you thought this was gonna be another Pollyanna slice of apple pie, huh?) What did people do to amuse themselves before they had cell phones to shout into? It's pretty difficult to find one in four New Yorkers who don't have a cell phone pressed to one ear whenever they walk up the street - and many of those probably are using earpieces.

I remember 30 years ago when I first came to The City you'd see some nutter on a corner madly ranting about nothing to nobody. People gave them a wide berth and walked on past. Now those crazy-eyed chanters seem a lot more normal than these cell phone obsessed idiots. It's like a plague on the city. Stop it! I mean how many of us really need to be on a cell phone 24/7 to the total exclusion of direct conversation with others and maybe even a few manners (ever get walked over by a cell phone addict?)

As you can probably tell I don't have a cell phone. I hate the things (I do admit they are convenient at times and maybe some people even need them now and then). I'm for freedom, though. I want to be as in control of my time on earth as possible and that means staying away from cell phones. I'll call you when I'm good and ready, okay? If I can find a phone. Has instant gratification communication become that vital to living? Not for this girl.

A girl runs past at a fast clip with her tan dog - and an Ipod. White the sound of traffic is admittedly annoying have we gotten so far removed from Thoreau and Kilvert that we fail to pause and listen to the geese, the gulls, songbirds and kids at play? Do we have to blot it all out with manmade sounds? What's with all the folks crowding Broadway, dozens on every block any time of day, walking along with someone yet ignoring them and ranting into their cell phones at someone else? What gives? Have we lost the art of face-to-face communication? Of connection?

Sitting here on a wooden bench beneath a tree looking out over the mighty Hudson tuning the din of traffic behind me to the white noise channel, I find the gloaming full of revitalizing sounds - the chatter of birds, running feet, the panting of someone's lungs expanding, a sniffle, tires on gravel, a scuff. I walk out onto a huge pier at 72nd Street. I like to visit this place and sit and write. I haven't been here since October, so I'm surprised to see the end section that juts out into the Hudson blocked by "No Trespassing" barriers. I ask a tall man with matching hearing aids and a basketball, "Why?" and he says some man drove off the end of the pier into the Hudson and died six months ago. The suicide was definitely pre-meditated; this isn't the kind of place you could accidentally drive onto.

A chunky blonde skates by in frills and loud orange pants. A bird trills in the distance. The roar goes on, partly masked by a helicopter on a mission. A tugboat doggedly pushes a freighter upstream. This city is always teeming. Barbie in tennis shoes flounces by in red and black. A blonde in white stands at the end of a smaller pier gazing off at the Hudson as if waiting for her sailor to return. At her back white tea roses bloom abundantly spilling their sweetness into the soft night. Gulls swoop and dive above the masts of a gaff-rigged schooner at dock, wheeling in the pinkening sky.

This is actually a 26-acre wood at Nash Court in Wales, but I was thinking after all these words you might like something pretty to look at. These are bluebells and I know the woods of Wales are bursting with them even as I write. How I'd love to see them just now!

Later, walking up Broadway, a bald-headed man in a suit has his umbrella tucked under his arm, pointed forward like some sword. Watch out! A girl clunks behind me in what sounds like her mama's shoes. I duck into Ollie's noodles for some of those lovely cold sesame noodles I've been thinking about for the last six months. One thing about New York: you can sure find great food here. Mmmm, good.

One of the last things I remember my dad telling me is, "One of the greatest joys in life is food." At the time I didn't think much about it, but as I grow my mind turns back to that expression. I must agree.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Through the Lens (a view of hunting)

Now here's the thing: a very perceptive person recently made me aware that I rarely see anything directly. I look at most people and events through the lens. Good thing or bad thing? I dunno. But there usually are those layers of glass between me and stark reality. Hmmm..the good thing might be that y'all don't have to fly all the way to Wales to see how beautiful it looks when you're up on the common ground (or "common") above, for instance, Glascwm (above). Most of the churches in Wales are several hundred years old. In April the graveyards are bursting with millions of daffodils. The ancient yew trees stand vigil over the dead. The tombstones are often vibrant palettes of lichen. Visit Wales!

Here's another view (just another day enjoying the Welsh countryside) up above Glascwm. Sometimes I really do pinch myself to be sure that this is all real and not just some incredible dream. I'm so grateful that the people of Wales have opened their world and countryside pursuits to a stranger like me. I hope I can give back a little of what they've so freely shared.

Some days on the hills start off drizzly, rainy, snowy, brutally windy - or occasionally, sunny. In five seasons, I've enjoyed all kinds of weather while out following the horses and hounds. A cool thing about the UK is that the weather can be so variable and one average six hour hunting day may take you through a whole lot of changes. This day started off so foggy that we weren't sure we'd go at all. The middle of the day turned brilliantly sunny, and we had a nice, thick, sunny fog to close out the day. Photography is all about light - and some of my favorite photographic moments have happened in beautiful Wales.

A Bit of Hunting and Hedging

(Note: This was written in December 2004 but it gives some insight into why I love following the hunt).

Bright white Radnor hounds with rusty fern-colored patches scour the dingle's sides for the elusive fox. They find, speak, and give chase, yet I never catch even a glimpse of that beautiful creature. Like most of the people I know involved with hunting, I love to see the fox streak across the countryside, love to hear the hounds in full cry, yet though I enjoy the thrill of the chase, I am always rooting for the fox to make his way safely home. For me, hunting is about being part of the landscape and the natural environment, about community, and about putting it all together in a tightly knit framework of human, horse, hound, fern, gorse, hill and dingle, cloud and sun...hunting in Wales encapsulates the essence of the many good things I feel whenever the word "Wales" is spoken in my presence. Being out on the open hills following the hunt combines several of my passions - people, photography, nature, and plenty of fresh air. One of my other passions is bluegrass and old time music and in some strange way (the way of community) being part of the hunting community in Wales feels very close to what I experience at music festivals in America.

This is my first hunt of the season and I'm following the Radnors in a Land Rover Defender up on some common ground above Llanfihangel nant Melan. The hounds pour down a sheep track into the dingle's depths. We crane our necks in anticipation, hoping to see a fox, a good chase, to hear the music of thirteen and a half couple hounds speaking as one. The riders wait in small clusters on the rim of the dingle, horses' breath forming small white clouds around their muzzles in the early dampness of December, some riders taking a draw on a cigarette, laughing about a joke. The huntsman yells, it seems continually, something like Heeeeeehhhhhh.

While I'm looking down, writing, the fox, predictably, runs right past me. Everyone yells MaryE, did you get that? I laugh. "Of course not. You know I hardly ever see the fox."

Mike and Peter, nearby, snatch off their woolen flat caps and commence waving them feverishly, alerting the huntsman. This is the time-tested country way of letting the huntsman know where the fox has passed. I think, "Ah, so that's what those caps are for!" I always wondered, since, clearly, they don't keep one's ears warm, though they're standard attire for sort of over-60ish Radnorshire farmers. A long cry issues from the huntsman's horn; the hounds, a raging river, pop up and streak through treacherous gorse and matted fern.

Two weeks later, writing in my room from notes, I look up at a nearby mountain; the rain that fell here in the valley is snow up there. It beckons me, bare trees pleading on the distant horizon; etched veins against tidy, snow-covered fields. A farmer laid the hedge nearby this week; it lies neatly where chaotic thorns once ruled. The snow on the hill grows deeper.

Countryside Ways in Wales and Foxhunting

Wales is a place in my heart. It's the place I always fantasized about...kind of like time traveling back far enough that I can still relate to what's going on, but also far enough that people still do business by their word and you don't really have to worry about getting hit over the head by some thug. Like everywhere, Wales is changing - the outside world is drifting in, but there are still very refreshing provincial pockets in Radnorshire. Here's the Welsh countryside where you're apt to find me walking - or riding - on the worst of days.

One of the things I most enjoy besides the lush countryside and colorful country characters is following the local foxhunts. I know, I know, but until you try it don't rule it out. I never was into hunting myself and I must confess I still don't give a hoot personally whether or not they actually ever catch a fox. But now I've raised two pairs of foxhounds (Gideon and Gizmo for the Radnors and Hobbit and Helix for the Brecon) I am addicted to following the hunt.

You're going to hear more about this in the coming months, so I'll go easy on you today, but stay tuned for tales and photos. Mind, I've always been a city girl so I've had everything to learn on a Welsh farm, but I'm getting pretty clever with a quad bike and a tractor and I even helped with wrapping fleeces a couple years back when I was on the farm during shearing time. For now, perhaps another photo of one of my favorite things: HOUNDS! I love 'em. True love = a hound and his mistress. Here's to you, Gideon, Gizmo, Hobbit and Helix.

Hey, I loved following the hunt so much that I actually learned to ride and actually spent a day as part of the mounted field with the Radnors last year. But that's another story...

A New Journey

Life is about journeys and this is a new venture for me...just back from six months on a Welsh cattle farm, flying into NYC. Talk about a life of contrasts. How do people live here in all this noise and bustle?

Last night I had a hoot down on Christopher Street. My sister and I went to an off-off-off-Broadway musical called "Cowboys!" Now if you want to scream you need to get down to this totally "camp" gay production. Be prepared to see some flesh (specifically guys in only loincloths.) Now I love "camp" stuff, so it was right up my alley. A woman sitting two over from me howled throughout the show; she might have been even funnier than the Cowboys. See it and laugh. Read the review in the NY Times.

As usual I'm avoiding going outside (I nearly LIVE outside when I'm in Wales or the Catskills) and for once I have an excuse: it is raining in NY. I had to laugh the other day when I was walking down Broadway at 96th...there was actually a sign there that said "No Honking $350 fine." I could barely read it for all the honking horns; proof that reading isn't taught in schools these days. Who's gonna enforce that around here?

Funny thing is that I actually went for 6 months in Wales without hearing one single horn! Now I saw a lot of horns (on cattle). The noisiest thing I encountered over there in Radnorshire is what we fondly refer to as "rush hour." That's when the single lane roads all around the farm (and when I say single lane I'm talking two cars just cannot pass because there are banks and/or eight-foot-tall hedges that close right in on the road) are jammed up with hundreds of ewes and lambs, all bleating, each with a different voice (sort of like folks trying to sing the national anthem at the republican convention). Lambing season, for most, begins in April and goes through into May, then it's shearing time. I love the life cycles of a know what you need to do according to what day it is; it's sort of all planned out for you. If it rains like hell, go to plan B (fix broken things in the barn). Me? Oh, I'm usually out following the local foxhunts from November 1 through mid-March. But that's another story.

This week I'm preparing for yet another road trip. This one will take me from the Catskills down Route 81 to Dickenson County, Virginia -- to a great little bluegrass festival up on Smith Ridge - if you haven't been, check it out! Ralph Stanley's amazing festival runs from May 24-27, 2006 and you're sure to have a memorable time there.

Did I tell you that Ralph Stanley is indirectly responsible for this nomadic life I lead? Well, he is. I first heard him in 1982, quit my day job and took to the road so I could hear Dr. Ralph on a regular basis. 'Course I've had to work most of the time since then, but I still get out to see him regularly. I can only explain it through ancestral memories. Ralph has that "ancient" sound, even though he's only around 80 and still going strong. You can read all about him on the above site.

After Ralph's I hope to get around to visit several pals in southwestern Virginia, east Tennessee and western North Carolina, then head over to Mt. Airy, NC for their annual Fiddlers Convention. Talk about! If you like to play or listen to bluegrass and old time music, this is the place to be. Plus you can check out all the cool Andy Griffith stuff that oozes around the streets of Mt. Airy. They say "Aint Bea" used to get confused and really believe she was the character she played. I know the feeling.

I've been there a bunch of times and it is a great place to be. You can camp there, eat, sing, pick, and dance there, too. They even have workshops...well, just check it out.

After Mt. Airy it seems a trip to Nashville is unavoidable (and I might even get to see my friend SistaSmiff).

And then it's on up to the place so many memories continue to be made...Bill Monroe's Bean Blossom (Indiana) Music Park.

This year's gonna be a big one - the 40th anniversary - June 10 through June 17, 2006. Check out the lineup that includes the Who's Who of bluegrass music today - and then do whatever it takes to get there. It's a lovely setting for a festival and you just can't beat that bunch of bands if you love traditional bluegrass. Be sure to check out Jim Peva's new book about Bean Blossom, visit my dear friends Judy and Leon at the University of Illinois Press book table (and get some of those fantastic books!) and open your hearts to a lot of great music. I'll write more about Bean Blossom later. Right now I'm thinking this just might be too long for one blog so I'll quit for now and start getting my things together for what's going to be a great swing through the southland. Later!