Tuesday, July 7, 2015

America the Beautiful

The fireworks are over, the flags are packed away, but the patriotic melodies remain. One in particular. Every other band seemed to play it as they marched past us, and I heard it Sunday in church as well. So today I did a little research.

English Professor Katherine Bates wrote the words to "America the Beautiful" during a trip to Colorado the summer of 1893. She was inspired by the "spacious skies" of the west and the "amber waves" of grain she saw out her train window. But the words came to her in a flash of inspiration atop Pikes Peak, where there's a plaque to commemorate the poem. Bates rushed back to the Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs to write the words down.

Church organist Samuel Ward was moved to write the hymn that would later be paired with Bates' poem when he was riding the ferry from Coney Island to New York City. He asked a fellow passenger if he could jot down the notes on the man's shirt cuff, so full of the music was he, so eager to capture the melody before it left his head.

Two artists, two inspired moments — and two frantic and ultimately successful efforts to capture the muse before it flew away. The words and music were published together in 1910 as "America the Beautiful." Since then there have been many attempts to gain national hymn or even national anthem status for this song, none successful. All I can say is, it has my vote.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Fruitful Walk

Over the weekend — dodging raindrops — I strolled over to Franklin Farm, through the meadow, past the pond and along West Ox Road, where I re-entered my neighborhood for the final run home.

There's a shortcut I take sometimes and as I was angling off the main road I noticed blackberries growing wild beside the path. The community meadow used to be full of berries, and I would brave the prickles and poison ivy every year to glean enough fruit to bake a pie.

This year I had no bag or bucket, only my hand, but I gathered enough berries to dress up the fruit bowl and add a tart flavor to the mix. 

I walk for exercise and reflection; I do not walk to eat. But picking these berries reminded me that there was once a greater purpose to movement, that to stay alive meant being able to pack up and walk to the nearest watering hole or hunting ground.

It was a fruitful walk.

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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Fourth of July Parade

Yesterday I went to the National Independence Day Parade with my dear friend Kay, who is visiting from France. It was mostly a chance to hang out with her, but it was also an opportunity to soak up the holiday spirit and marvel at the expansiveness of the American dream.

There were high school marching bands from Ohio, Nebraska and Alabama. There were cloggers and Irish steppers and Chinese-American dancers. There were the Sikhs of America holding down a Smokey the Bear balloon.

There was, in short, all manner of celebration and diversity.  Not exactly a small hometown ensemble — but not sophisticated and glitzy, either. More of a medley than I thought possible in these days of politicized newscasts and gerrymandered districts. And that in itself, I think, is worth a parade.

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Friday, July 3, 2015

Walking to the Airport

Yesterday I walked from my office to National Airport. This is not something I thought I would do when I woke up and dressed for work. I wore jeans and sandals for "casual Thursday." I left my running shoes at home. But I have an old pair of shoes (only one small hole, in the right toe) at the office, so about 3 p.m. I slipped into those, turned off my computer and headed out for the five-mile stroll.

The route to DCA took me down the National Mall, across the 14th Street Bridge and along the Mount Vernon Trail. I was on paths or sidewalks the whole time. I saw tourists, patriots, vendors and cyclists. I heard sirens, jackhammers, street musicians and bike bells.

When I got to Gravelly Point, planes were taking off and landing right overhead, and I could hear a Metro car rattle and a freight train whistle. My walk was part of all the activity around me, was heightened and made whole by it.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Casual Thursday

Like most of the rest of the working world (those of us who are working today) I'm wearing jeans and sandals. Also seen in the office today: flip-flops, shorts and a little gray terrier. The pace is slow, the day is short and the mindset is ... what is the mindset? I've already forgotten.

I'm tempted to hang up a "Gone Fishin'" sign, but I don't want to check out completely.

Instead, I'm sitting here in office chair, hands on the keyboard, work piled on the desk, summoning up the energy to dive into it.

And I will dive in ... any minute now.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Dreaming Up July

A new month, a new leaf. I'll take any excuse to clear the slate, to see the world with fresh eyes.

As if to prepare for this adventure I had one of those classic insecurity dreams last night. As usual it involved a piano recital I'm expected to play. No rehearsal, of course. Just a last-minute request that I play a difficult piece on stage with no preparation. There's no way to escape the performance. Humiliation is inevitable.

Last night's saga had a funny twist. There was sheet music; I wasn't expected to play from memory. But the score was inflated, like one of those puffy books children can take in the bathtub. That's strange, I thought, but at least the plump pages will be easier for the page-turner to turn. And by the way, where is that page turner? I woke up before I could find him, but I woke up to realize that — yes, bliss! — I am not playing a recital tonight.

I may have several publications to write and edit, meals to cook and a house to clean for company — but I do not, absolutely do not — have to play the piano before an audience of strangers.

July is looking good.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015


I heard them yesterday for the first time this summer and realized what had been missing.

There was warmth, stickiness, day lilies, cobwebs in the woods, ground fog in the morning and red-winged blackbirds in the cattails.

There were industrial strength lawnmowers next door; they made a fine whirring sound. And traffic noise, always more prevalent this season because I'm outside to hear it.

But these weren't what I was looking for. It was the high-pitched keening, the happy crescendo, the sultry lullaby. I was waiting for cicadas. Now that they're here, summer can begin.

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Monday, June 29, 2015


I had to stifle a laugh last week when on a hike through the Rocky Mountains I came across a fellow hiker in awe over a deer. In northern Virginia deer are pests — I have to spray my day lilies with deer repellant every night to be sure the buds aren't eaten — and there are fox, racoons, owls and much more wildlife. A neighbor swears she saw a coyote in her backyard.

Over the weekend I got the most unwelcome of wildlife visits. Saturday night a skunk sprayed Copper, and before I realized what had happened, the dog had come inside and rubbed his back all over the living room carpet.

This was followed by me chasing Copper around the house, finally corralling him in the garage and bathing him in a hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish detergent solution. At which point I set off to deskunk the house.

I dowsed the carpet with baking soda and there are now bowls of vinegar in every room. The good news is the house smells less like skunk. The bad news is it smells more like vinegar.

I guess this is the price I pay to live in a suburban wilderness.

(Photo: Wikipedia; nope, I didn't take this picture!)

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Walker in the West

Back home now with newspaper headlines and Metro commutes, deadlines and responsibilities. Gone are the open road and limitless horizon, the buffalo and prairie dogs, the thin air and snow-covered peaks.

I took almost 800 pictures, my notebook is full of little things I want to remember: Potato Museum and Miss National Teenage Rodeo Queen. Gentian, Indian Paintbrush and other wildflowers spied on a hike. The rocks labeled on the drive through Powder River Pass: Granite Gneiss, Pre Cambrian, three billion years old, Bighorn Dolomite, 450 to 500 million years old.

But what I most remember isn't in the notebook. It's the view of Lone Peak from 8,500 feet. It's the TR Park ridge trail on a perfect summer morning. It's looking out over a huge emptiness, buttes in the distance, no roads, no cars, nothing but sagebrush and scrub land.

How different it would be to walk in the west. How various the views and insights. Travel, like walking, is a great restorative. Travel and walking — well, that is hard to beat.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Prairie Dog Companion

First of all, I'm a sucker for animals that sit on their hind legs in cute poses. This is why Copper scores so many doggie treats from me. He learned early on that if he assumes this position his begging yield goes way up.

I would never think of feeding a prairie dog, of course, even without a sign to remind me. But that doesn't stop me from admiring the little critters, their high-pitched territorial squeals, their fat little bottoms disappearing down almost-too-small burrows, their industriousness and sociability.

True, if you remove the bushy tail you have little more than a rat, but prairie dogs do have tails, which they shake like crazy when a stranger appears.

When I was young I wanted a prairie dog for a pet. This was before I learned that prairie dogs live together in colonies and to take a singleton away from this happy habitat would be to doom it for sure. So I settled for a white mouse. But every time I spot a prairie dog I have a secret desire to bring it home with me. It could be my prairie dog companion.

(No animals were harmed — or fed — in the taking of these photographs.)


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Little Walk on the Prairie

It wasn't hard to find the Buffalo Gap trail. Just step out of the Buffalo Gap Guest Ranch, walk around the semi parked by the fence and start strolling. You can turn either left or right, the ranch owner, Olie, said. You'll find 75 miles of trail in either direction.

I didn't make 75 miles, barely two. But I walked long enough to pick up some ticks and a little sunburn on my shoulders. Long enough to grab some wild sage and rub it between my fingers. Long enough to look around and see grass, grass, grass, and feel a part of that buzzing, blowing world of vegetation.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Of Buttes and Badlands

Theodore Roosevelt Park, North Unit

Theodore Roosevelt Park, South Unit (panorama shot)
View from TR's cabin
Yesterday's adventure was Theodore Roosevelt Park, visiting the cabin where the 26th president lived and wrote and seeing the places that inspired him to become an ardent conservationist. 

The buttes and buffalo, the badlands and the grasslands. It was a perfect, blue-sky day with fluffs of cottonwood floating through the air. The parks (both sections, north and south) were relatively empty.

I'm writing this from the deck of a working ranch as chickens peck beneath the boards and vast hills of green stretch to the horizon. I'm thinking about how profoundly the environment shaped TR. How profoundly it affects us all.


Monday, June 22, 2015


It was after 7 yesterday and shadows were already softening the North Dakota badlands when I finally entered this state. I've wanted to come here for years, had missed it on other cross-country vacations. And no wonder. It's up here. And out there. It feels both otherworldly and strangely familiar.

The familiar part comes from the 10-gallon hats and the moose heads on the wall. The cowboy culture I'd just seen in Montana. And after driving much of the width of that state yesterday, I would be hard pressed to pick pictures of North Dakota out of a lineup if a bunch of Montana shots were thrown in.

Still, there is a difference here, a roof-of-the-country feeling. And a quaintness, too.

And then there is this: North Dakota is my 49th state. I've visited every other but Hawaii. All I can say is, it was worth the wait.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

A River Runs Through It

A family wedding brought us to Montana, so yesterday we gathered on the banks of the Gallatin River (of A River Runs Through It fame) to celebrate the bride and groom as they begin their life together. The vows were handwritten and heartfelt. I've known the bride since she was born, and her parents since before they were married.

Later, in a tent under the vast northern sky, we ate and drank and danced until the band stopped playing. The bride had hauled her couch down to the meadow for photographs, and the sight of that familiar piece (I've seen it in Indianapolis and Missoula and now here, in Big Sky) and the bride's father's toast likening marriage to a river brought all the circle-of-life feelings to an intense and memorable pitch.

The professional photographer didn't want us snapping many shots of our own, but I couldn't not take this picture. To me, it says it all.


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