Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Major Award - A Christmas Story House and Museum, Cleveland, Ohio, July 2013

Ever since I began my journey from a 400 pound victim to a slimmer and healthier victor I've been asked "What do you do for fun?" The assumption is that hiking and cycling and canoeing and whatever outdoor activities I indulge in are work, and not pleasurable in themselves. For instance, when I've gone on vacation camping, or on a bike tour, I'm invariably asked at some point what I DID. This means, "what tourist-type attractions did you see?"

Well, I usually disappoint my questioners. However, during my July trip to Ohio I visited one such attraction and reminded myself of something I'd forgotten about my weight loss, with the help of my friends Matty and Aaron. And some electric sex gleaming in the window.
This year is the 30th anniversary of A Christmas Story, a classic holiday movie. The film, set in the tail end of the Depression and adapted from the short stories of Jean Shepherd, is now as familiar a staple at Christmastime as It's a Wonderful Life or the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol. While the movie is set in Hammond, Indiana, it was shot in Cleveland, and the little frame house the Parker family lived in still stands on the outskirts of of the city. In 2005 it was purchased and restored to match its appearance in the movie. The owner subsequently purchased two other buildings in the same block, opening them as a museum of film artifacts and as a gift shop. If you want to visit, and you should, you can find information at

While I never saturated myself in A Christmas Story, and I missed the endless marathons of back to back showings cable channels indulged in, I'd seen it and enjoyed it. I knew most of the story line and found the restored house didn't miss a detail. There was Lifebuoy soap in the bathroom and the blocks on the shelf in the boy's bedroom spelled out "Oh Fudge." And yes, that's me holding the Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time. While holding it I could hear my mother's voice saying "You'll shoot your eye out."

But this visit might never had happened. My original suggestion for this trip, the first time Matty and Aaron met, was that we ride on the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath. It would have to be a short ride, because Matty was recovering from a near-fatal auto accident nine months before and hadn't ridden a bike for a couple of years before that. Fortunately, Aaron had a better idea. He suggested the short hike in downtown Cleveland and subsequent trip to the A Christmas Story House, and it turned out to be the perfect day for the three of us.

At times I get caught up in the idea that more is better, and I constantly have to be doing more - riding longer and harder, hiking further and faster. But losing weight and becoming active means celebrating the small as well as the large. When I was 400 pounds I couldn't hike six miles, but I couldn't walk a block either. Spending a day walking around with friends, climbing steps, is as much a reward of changing my life as my century in 2007 or any mountain I've hiked up. That is the major award, becoming active. And unlike the lamp in the movie, it's not fragile. 

By the way, if you want to turn a group of middle-aged men into snickering twelve year old boys, let them pose with the leg lamp. 

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Monmouth Battlefield State Park, Freehold, NJ, October 2013

During my recent visit to the Garden State I visited the site of the Battle of Monmouth with two fellow members of the Caleb's Crew Hiking Club. Janet is a local historian, and Allan is Allan, so I knew I would have a good time.

Our 'hike' was a walk, both at the battle site and at the nearby church. But it was good to be out in the fresh air and amid the colors of fall. And I learned about the Battle of Monmouth, General Washington's first victory as leader of the newly trained Continental Army. The statue of General Von Steuben reminds me of the like statue at Valley Forge. There at the Pennsylvania park he faces the parade grounds, the area he drilled the troops on two centuries before. At Monmouth he faces the parking lot, which seems a letdown in comparison.

One surprise at Monmouth was a Civil War reenactment. Like many people I'd wonder why a Civil War event is being held in area not known for a Civil War battle, but it turns out Monmouth had been the location of a training and assembly point for troops on the way south. Also, Civil War is the most popular period for reenactment, and not everyone, spectator and reenactor, has the means or time to travel to Vicksburg or Antietam for some commemorative event. These gentlemen chatted with us about reenacting, and the soldier standing is a very distant relation. My 'people' came to the US in 1848, like many, many other Irish, and family tradition has it that we were represented at Gettysburg. I could have been talking with my great-great-grandfather as I conversed with the soldiers at Monmouth.

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Bushnell Falls, Shandaken, NY, October 2013

This is a "hike" of 100 yards or so, but I thought I'd mention it. Bushnell Falls is on Route 42 North from the town of Shandaken. Five miles northbound there is a pulloff to the left. (Scott Brown's book on New York waterfalls has an error and puts the parking area on the other side of the road.) A walk on a short trail brings you to the falls. The day I visited it was a trickle down the side of Halcott Mountain, but after a rain or in spring it will be a more impressive cascade.

As the weather was dry and the flow minimal, I ventured onto the falls itself. Of course my fear of heights kicked in as I tried to leave and it took me ten minutes to get off of a ledge that it took ten seconds to get onto. Sometimes its really, really tough to be me. But discovering Bushnell Falls, a piece of beauty I'd have driven past when I sedentary, makes up for the occasional problems.

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Catskills Scenic Trail, October 2013

I try not to dwell on the negative in my outdoor writing. But the day I fell on the Tanbark Trail in the Catskills was one of the worst I've had outside. And it was capped by the Catskill Scenic Trail.

After I'd gotten off the Tanbark Trail, I headed back to the cabin. I was already in a bad mood, full of self-loathing. Lunch didn't change that. But I felt a good bike ride, like the one I'd had the day before on the Walkway Over The Hudson, would change my mood. So I dressed in riding gear, loaded the bike onto the rack, and set off to the only rail trail in the Catskills. 

I should have checked the mileage beforehand. I was over an hour from the trail. But having set my mind to it, I drove and drove. I finally reached the town of Bloomville.... and drove past the trailhead. It wasn't my fault, for the trailhead wasn't signed. When I parked, the only other vehicle was an abandoned car. 

I ignored the omens and started off. The trail's website mentions several crossings of the Delaware River - yes, THAT Delaware River - and I was looking forward to taking photos. But shortly past the trailhead the surface of the trail became a mass of potholes and ruts. I am not a strong rider, but I've ridden canal towpaths and gravel trails since 2007, and this was the worst surface I've come across. Then I discovered why the trail was so bad. The trail runs through farm land, and farm equipment used the trail. I turned around, and in a foul mood rode back to the car. I drove on to the next trailhead, in the town of Stamford, and after searching for it located the old trail station.

In Stamford the trail was in better condition, or so I thought. I rode a couple of miles towards Bloomsville, but even here there were problems. I felt odd bumps under my wheels. Apparently when they turned the old rail line into a trail they didn't bother to remove the ties. I was riding over the railroad ties sticking up through the gravel. I turned around and rode back to the station. Heading in the other direction was the final straw for me, as I soon came across a trail 'repair' that consisted of dumping a bunch of loose gravel. I packed up the bike and drove back to the cabin. 

Some people might say I came to the trail with a bad attitude. Perhaps. But even if I were in a good mood I'd be annoyed at a trail ruined by farm equipment and neglect. Anyway I finished the day with three miles and a bad mood even the glories of the Catskills in fall couldn't cure.

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The Unknown Dale - River Trail, Valley Forge National Historic Park, November 2013

The day after I hiked through a swamp on a geocache adventure, I did a 'recovery' hike on the flat River Trail in Valley Forge National Historic Park. The trail runs three miles from Pawling Road in Audubon to the Betzwood Trailhead on the Schuylkill River Trail. I'd not done a hike of that distance since a February walk on the paved path in Valley Forge, and I feeling enthusiastic. I knew the terrain would be friendly, but the distance would challenge me. 

The hike was a group event set up by a local club on MeetUp. I showed up at the appointed time, stood around on the edge as the regulars chatted with each other, and resigned myself to being alone in the crowd. Then an elderly man stepped forward. "Neil?"

I'd not seen Dale in a decade. Last we met I was 400 pounds and struggling to get around. Our connection was, and is, the Royal Game - we are both chessplayers, and both of us have made contributions to the written history of chess. Also, we are both from the same small town, although Dale now lives in another state. It was coincidence, fate, the hand of God, or whatever you want to call it, that brought us together again, and I was happy that it did. 

I'm not sure which of us was the more surprised to learn about the other. Chessplayers have a laser focus on the game to the exclusion of everything else. While Dale was surprised to learn about my journey from potato to potential, I was stunned to discover my friend had decades of hiking experience under his boots. The week before he'd been to The Pinnacle and Pulpit Rock in Berks County, hiking the nine mile loop to the two overlooks. He'd done my favorite hike, the climb to Pole Steeple, several times. At age 82 he's choosing his hikes a little more carefully, but he's not slowing down. 

And he didn't slow down. I've never hiked as quickly as I did on the first three miles. I look very red in the face in the photo. But that's because I was doing three miles an hour and carrying on a conversation with my friend. The rest of the group hiked a half mile further for lunch at the picnic area at Betzwood, but Dale decided to head back. I wanted to take photos, and knowing I'd hold him back took leave of my friend. I promised Dale it wouldn't be a decade before we saw each other again, since I would be 57 then and might not be capable of keeping up with him. 
I sat on a rock at the turnaround spot and drank, drinking both water and the view. Fall in Pennsylvania is a color riot, and while the leaf color was past its peak, the view was impressive. I took my time on the way back, stopping for photos and enjoying the day. Two hours later I was back to my car, stiff with the usual post-exertion swelling but feeling I could do anything. Perhaps I can? If not, I hope to be able to keep up with Dale for a long, long time. 

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A Taste For The Woods: 2013-11-24

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A Taste For The Woods