583.74

This post is a puzzle for my readers who want a challenge or something to keep them busy if they have too much time on their hands.  I suppose that the former is what they want.  So, anyone out there who is up to the challenge?

Last week, or perhaps it was the week before…or maybe it was about a month ago, I happened to stop in at our most local pub, The Shamrock.  It’s about five miles away from our house so I wouldn’t exactly called it a “local”…but, up here in the North Country, “local” can mean someplace within a sixty mile radius.

This isn’t Manhattan.  Ok, we got that..

As I was sitting and chatting to the bartender of this, our local, (Mina is her name), we began to chat about a bit of paper that was pinned to the walled behind the bar…along with the signed dollar bills that were signed and tacked to the wall.  My guess is that there was al least $300. in inked notes..

Now, when we bought our house up here in 2001, this pub didn’t exist.  I finally stopped by the place and enjoyed a beer.

There was a small note (in a frame) behind the bar. On it was simply:

583.74

I asked the bartender, Mina, what that meant.  She suggested I guess.

As a geographer and a person who has some kind  of working knowledge of GPS, latitude and longitude and Mercator Projections polar centric maps and satellite imagery,  I told Mina not to tell me what the numbers meant.

She obliged and said it was up to me to figure out what that number meant. I thought and tried to find the significance of that number, I came up empty.

So, after years (and spending not a great deal of time thing about this number), I finally asked her what it meant.

She told me and it made perfect sense.

The name of the pub is the Shamrock.  Is that a hint?  If you think you know what that number means, offers your answers in my email or in a response here on this web blog.

If you’ve ever been in the Shamrock or know me, or know the answer already, then don’t be a spoiler.

Otherwise, it’s not much fun.

If you solve it, and you’re local, the round is on me.

In case you don’t have my email…it’s pegan7@roadrunner.com.

I hope to hear from you, and laugh silently at how wrong your guesses are.

 

Gathering Dust

IceAxe

I was dusting some items in our home the other day.  If you find that unusual, you should see the amount of dust that can accumulate in a house that was empty for almost six months.  We weren’t even here.  So, where did it come from?  And, it’s not that we keep an unclean home.  I can’t tell you how many boxes of Swiffer Sweeper we have been through. (I can’t tell you how much we recommend this state-of-the-art product!)

That’s another story.

I ran my finger along the top of one the most precious items I own.  It’s an ice axe.  I bought it in the spring of 1964, when I was getting ready to join my brother on the Juneau Icefield for the summer.

I found a bit of white…a bit of dust on my finger.  How could I have not attended to this most coveted item…in my cleaning?

You must understand something.  You can’t get these ice axes anymore.  Oh, maybe in some tiny Swiss alpine shop in Zermatt, but not here…unless you’re willing to pay an outrageous price.  This ice axe is made of ash (maybe hickory), the kind that Edmund Hillary used on Everest in 1953…on the first ascent (maybe).  What you get today, if you find yourself ordering an ice axe, it will be made of anodized aluminum or carbon fiber or some sort of alloy devised by NASA for the International Space Station.

But, my ice axe (note to reader:  it is not called an  “ice pick”.  That is so gauche a term.  It’s an ice axe…so no further discussion here, ok.) An ice axe of an old classic style that you see now in Museums of Alpine History.

Yes, I ran my finger along the top and found dust.  Not so surprising, unless you’re like me…items from earlier years rarely collected dust.  Once I put away the toys of childhood, they stayed mostly out of sight…and therefore out of mind.  There is an exception or two: my Lionel locomotive and a Lone Ranger lunch box.  But, the ice axe was somehow different.  It represented a transition from youth to adulthood and I often would stare at it, up there on the wall reflecting back on the times that were brighter, better, more youthful, full of energy and promise.  I climbed nameless peaks with it in my right hand and even saved myself from falling into a crevasse on a July day in 1964.

This was a special item I owned. I even went into my fathers forbidden workshop and wood burned my initials into the shaft:  P.J.EGAN.  My childhood girlfriend stood by be as I did that.  She kissed it for good luck (al least in my memory she did).  Later, I rubbed boiled Linseed Oil into the wood until my forearm ached.

It was an object of utility, craftsmanship, art and beauty.

Then, when my wife and I moved to the Adirondacks in 2011, I took the ice axe and mounted it on the wall.  It was several weeks until I realized what it was that I had done.  I hung up my ice axe.  This is the ultimate “well, I’m done with that stage of my life” moment.  It’s like when you hand your car keys to your child because you can’t drive anymore…safely.  But, I wasn’t that old…was I?

I walked over to my “alpine bookshelf” and looked at the titles and saw the hardware: the pitons, carabiners and chocks…tools of a rock climber.  I was fairly good in the 1970’s.  They were coated in a thin layer of dust.

I picked up Direttissima, by Peter Gillman and Dougal Haston (someone you should google someday when it’s raining and you want to read about a tragic, enigmatic person), and, again, I blew enough dust off the top pages that I began to sneeze like it was a late summer day in a field of ragweed.

AlpineBooks

So, this was my past?  This is was what I have left of my glory days on the glaciers, in the bars of Juneau…and watching Eagles soar at 10:00 pm when I was fishing out of Auk Bay?

Dusty books and a very special dusty ice axe…mounted on a thinly paneled wall in our home?

This was me once:

In the Col Looking West (2)

Are the glory days really behind us…gathering dust?

 

 

 

The Forever Road Turns East

KansasTreeRutsTripLarned

[Near Fort Lenard, Kansas]

I didn’t write the following paragraph, but I wish to the eternal sky that I did…

Look out from the mountains edge once more. A dusk is gathering on the desert’s face, and over the eastern horizon the purple shadow of the world is reaching up to the sky. The light is fading out. Plain and mesa are blurring into unknown distances, and the mountain-ranges are looming dimly into unknown heights, Warm drifts of lilac-blue are drawn like mists across the valleys; the yellow sands have shifted into a pallid gray. The glory of the wilderness has gone down with the sun. Mystery–that haunting sense of the unknown–is all that remains. It is time we should say good-night–perhaps a long good-night–to the desert.

These are the words of John C. Van Dyke in his 1901 book, The Desert.  It is part of an anthology that I am reading, The New Desert Reader, edited by Peter Wild.  An excellent collections of historical and recent reflections on the mystique aura that is the Great American Desert.  I read this while I am tucked snugly into the R-pod, after several hundred miles of driving on the endless road…the Forever Road.

VermillionCliffs

[The Vermillion Cliffs of Arizona]

As the trip odometer on the Ford clicked over another tenth of a mile at 44.4 miles from Dodge City, Kansas, I pulled the last of the iced coffee through the straw.  The morning sun had been glaring down on and warming up my icy brew for about thirty minutes.  The sun is strong here in the Great Plains–the prairie–now that spring is approaching and even my Starbucks thermal mug, decorated with a few stickers (I had removed the “Don’t Mess With Texas” label…too big!) couldn’t keep ice being ice for very long.

I stared at the road ahead of me.  We’ve been traveling since mid-October.  The road seems endless.  The road seems to go on forever.  The road is infinite for those who choose to drive it–like the surface of a basketball is infinite to an ant crawling on its surface.  One could go on until The Rapture (expected by some to occur some Thursday afternoon in a few months).

In a few days we will be crossing the Mississippi River.  “Big Muddy” separates the west from the east.  Behind us–can I still see them in the rear-view mirror?–are the waterless gulches and salt flats of Death Valley, the Full Moon of Joshua Tree National Park, the Buttes of Monument Valley, the shockingly painted Vermillion Cliffs of northern Arizona, the terrifying beauty of the canyon of the Virgin River in Zion National Park and the vast and forbidding mother of deserts, the Mojave.

MojaveHighway

[The road into the Mojave from Twenty-nine Palms, CA]

HurricaneUtahButte

[Near Hurricane, Utah]

MonumentValley

[Monument Valley, Utah]

4Corners

[Mariam and me at Four Corners]

It’s all behind us now.  And, I am sad at the thought that it may be a few years before I return, return to try to comprehend the comfort I took in those emptiest of places.  Collectively, the locations we visited in the southwest, attract me like a colossal lodestone.

As one who was born and raised in the northeast part of America, I was used to green in the summer, scarlet leaves in the fall and the white of snow during the shortest days of the year.  It shocked me to realize that there was more grass in my backyard in Owego, New York, than in 10,000 acres of the Nevada desert.

WatchmanWalk

[Hiking the Watchman Trail, Zion National Park, Utah]

At night, the sky was visible from horizon to horizon–half my field of vision–and filled with more stars than I have ever seen (with a few exceptions).

I spent this day trying to find something to fix my eye on.  Is it an exaggeration to say that the Kansas prairie stretches so far that you can discern the curvature of the earth?  Maybe.  Yes, I tried to find something to focus on except the endless road, the white or yellow lines, and the sky.

I drove through the Wolf Creek Pass and paused at the Continental Divide at approximately 10,000 feet.  Out here, the tallest structures I can see–and I can see them twenty miles before I speed past them–are grain silos.

There were times, in the last few weeks, I felt that I could have been walking on the surface of Mars–the red desert–or sitting on a lunar landscape.  Now, with each passing mile, the backyards, malls, fast-food outlets and football fields are beginning to look more and more familiar.

The prairie is quite fascinating in itself, but the deserts of California and Nevada and Arizona have the bonus of being ringed by mountains.  I’ve read that when the Plains Indians were forced to move to reservations in Arkansas and Nebraska, they nearly went mad from the monotony of a featureless landscape.  It’s been said that these once noble masters of the deserts took to climbing trees to see–just see–as far as their eye could allow.  But, no mountains were in view.

I’m going home.  One of the first things I intend to do is watch the 1936 film, The Garden of Allah, with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich.  In it, the Boyer character, suffering a crisis of faith, goes to the Sahara to search his soul for truth and meaning.  There he finds Dietrich, but that’s another story.  It’s what Count Anteoni, says to Boyer that sticks in my mind:

“A man who refuses to acknowledge his god is unwise to set foot in the desert.”

I’m going home.  It’s time to say good-bye to the barren and arid earth of the Great Empty.  But, to me, those places seem as interesting and limitless in their beauty as any Garden of Eden or Garden of Allah.

I like a place where a man can swing his arms…

TucsonTreeSunset

[Sunset in Arizona]

A Rock, A Pumpkin And The Grateful Dead

“May I top you up?”

                      –Anonymous bartender.

“You can’t top that!”

     –Patrick Egan

People like to put things on top of things.  Nature likes to just leave things where they were put originally.

I remember one afternoon, in mid-October, 1997, (if you need something more precise).  Mariam and I were visiting my brother, Dan, at his newish house on a hill just south of Ithaca, NY.  He asked:

“Did you hear about the pumpkin?”

The pumpkin?  Is there a special pumpkin?”

“Yes, the one on top of the McGraw Tower Spire, on the campus of Cornell University.  Someone managed to get a hallowed out pumpkin on the very top of the spire.  No one knows how it was done, and no one has taken credit for doing it.  Right now, the main suspects are Engineering majors.  Want to see it?”

He reached for his TV remote and clicked on a community access channel set up by someone in the technology department.  It’s called a “webcam”.  The camera is fixed on the top of the spire so people can see the pumpkin.”

There it was, a pumpkin (later estimated to weigh about sixty pounds) sitting on the tip of one of the main spires on Cornell’s beautiful campus.

Pumpkin2

[Source: Google search]

This coming October, the prank will celebrating its 19th anniversary.  It’s listed as one of the top five college pranks in history, according to a Web search.  To this day, no one has claimed to be responsible.  And, how it was done remains a mystery.

I’ll have to admit, it looked pretty cool up there, a giant orange sphere, crowning a majestic tower.  But, like I said, how it was done is still a mystery.  The slate roof is very steep, there were no sounds of helicopters.  It made the Networks and enjoyed six months of fame before it came crashing down during an attempt to remove it.

A small piece of it sits in an office of a Professor of Psychology…that is the last word I could find on it.

I remember, when I was a child playing with blocks, I tried to see how high I could stack the assorted shapes until they fell.  I think my record was about 3 1/2 feet!  Not bad for an 8-year old.

But, the pumpkin was quite a feat.  Unequalled in its originality.

A few days ago, we were driving through southern Utah.  We had spent the night in Monument Valley and we were passing through a cool little village named Mexican Hat.

“Interesting name,” said Mariam.

A few minutes later, as we made our way to western Colorado, we passed a spectacular rock formation.  It was a “balancing rock” and it resembled a sombrero.

“So much for the strange name for that town,” I said.

I took a few photos.  I stared at it and it seemed to me like it was moments away from falling.  Would I witness such a thing?  I walked gently back to the car…I didn’t want my foot steps to move the cap rock and destroy this awesome natural rock formation.

MexicanRock2

[Further away than it looks]

It didn’t look real in a way.  How could nature alone keep that rock balanced there?  I knew the general geological idea; a more erosion resistant rock sat on a column of more easily eroded sedimentary rock.

The beauty of this rock was in its color, its location among the stratified rocks, and its delicacy.  It’s very existence was precarious.  A small earthquake and its gone forever.

I thought about the pumpkin atop the spire at Cornell.  Some very bright individuals found a way to accomplish that feat.  But, here, in the barren landscape of Utah, was something that just sat in one place for tens of thousands of years while the wind and water took away its sandstone base.  Nature does that.  It has a breathless way of creating scenery that could never be painted, piled, constructed, engineered or sculpted by the hand of a human.

Nature exists without us and resists our attempts to make it more spectacular.  We are modern beings who are mere observers.  We drive through a place or walk a path and see what the earth has done…by doing nothing, simply being.

We’re strangers here, even though we came from these very elements that make up the ground we leave our tracks on.  Our natural states have left most of us.  From what I’ve seen on my travels, there are only a handful of individuals who truly make an attempt to blend into the environment…I’ve yet to actually meet these rare individuals…but I’m sure they’re out there.  People who have taken the time and made the effort to leave the car behind and walk into places off the paved byways.

I’m convinced that the Native Americans were quite well attuned to the natural world as they saw and experienced it.  For some reason, I thought about a few lines in the Grateful Dead song, Ripple.  The words are by Robert Hunter.  The music is by Jerry Garcia:

“Ripple in still water

When there is no pebble tossed

Nor wind to blow…

There is a road, no simple highway

Between the dawn and the dark of night

And if you go, no one may follow

That path is for your steps alone…”

 A pumpkin on top of a Cornell spire.  A majestic rock, balanced on a sandstone column in Utah.  A child’s stack of wooden blocks.  A Grateful Dead song about one’s journey through life and seeing ripples in a pond…ripples began by nothing.  It all comes together in a strange way.  At least I think so.

Nothing, of course, is not really the proper word.  The natural world contains more unbelievable phenomena than you could possibly see in a thousands lifetimes.

MexicanRock1

[A closer look]

A Silent Eulogy: Late But Heartfelt

B:WFlowerSteve

Is it possible that a eulogy can take forty-one years to deliver?

The dreaded answer is yes.  I know because I spoke that eulogy…silently, silently so that only I heard the words.  It was a rambling prayer over a heart-breaking death.  I knew the young man who had died.  In truth, I was with him when he passed away, away into the unknown world that we all dread…whether we admit it or not.

He is interred in the soil of his hometown in sunny and warm Louisiana.  His soul departed on a snowy trail, on a cold night in the mountains of the Adirondacks.

I’ve talked to him, about him and prayed for him for four decades.  Our conversations weren’t all one-sided.  I felt his presence.  I felt his answers.  I’ve felt his forgiving words when I find those occasional moments, when the moon is rising and the air is crisp and the snow is five inches deep…just like it was that night in November of 1974.

Once before, many years ago, I stood over his grave.  I remember that day.  It was unbearably hot in the southern sun.  I thought then of how I was so near him in such an opposition of environments…from when we last walked side by side.  Now, I’ve returned with time heavy in my arms and dried wildflowers of the North Country in my hands.  Now, the temperature is at a mid-point…from that night to this day.  It’s 55 degrees.  There are pine cones on the ground…not a flake of snow within five hundred miles.

Yes, I’ve talked to him and relived our friendship when I stop to recall memories, those sweet and terrible memories.  I’ve spoken to a few people about him, but I have never, until now, written a word about my friend.

I’ve waited too long and kept too many recollections lock away in my heart and brain.  I need to share these with you.

We met in a hallway at the college I attended in Louisiana, or perhaps we met at the Pizza Inn where we worked evenings to earn a few extra dollars.  I have never encountered a more curious individual.  He picked my brain for hours about what life in the North was like.  At the Pizza Inn, we were often left with the task of closing for the night.  But, we wouldn’t simply clean-up and lock-up.  No, after the lights were turned off, and before the ovens were shut down for the night, we would make a pizza, the likes of which was never seen on the menu.  We’d lock the front door and find a booth in the back dining area.  And there, by the light of a single candle (we didn’t want to attract the police who would be checking the locks on the doors of the businesses along the avenue), we would drink beer, eat pizza and talk for hours.  We’d argue.  We’d laugh. We discussed the philosophy of life.  We talked about women.  We talked about racism. (He was the farthest thing from a ‘redneck’ I ever encountered in my years in the 1960’s South.)  More than once, when we left for our cars, the eastern skies were getting light.

Time flew for us when we had important matters to ruminate about.

A few years later, after I graduated and moved back to New York State, we kept up our friendship through letters.  We had a chess game in progress for months, sending moves to each other on post cards.  I don’t remember whose turn it was when our game ended so abruptly.

He was curious about life outside of the South so he moved to Binghamton, where I was living.  He got a job.  I moved to Pennsylvania to begin a career of teaching.  He wanted to join me on a hiking trip to the Adirondacks over the Thanksgiving break of 1974.  I said yes.  I wish I hadn’t.

I will place this humble bouquet against the headstone.  My wife will stand at my side.

I will say a prayer for him to a God who I feel has been too quiet for too long.

My private prayer for the dead will start with his name.

I will say: “Hey, Steve.  It’s been a long time.  Sorry I’m so late.”

O, Southern sun, shine warmly here,

O, Southern winds, blow gently here,

Green sod above, lie light, lie light,

Good night , dear heart, good night, good night.

[This is not Steve’s epitaph, but it could and should be.  I found in on a gravestone of a nine-year old boy named Addison Foster, Jr. in the City Cemetery of Natchez, Mississippi]

HandAt Steve's grave

A Last Look At The North Country: A Journey For The Right Hemisphere

Colby

This is a good-bye of sorts.  I drove into Saranac Lake this afternoon to pick up a few last-minute goodies, I see that the recent rains have taken so much of the brilliant foliage that, a few days ago, dazzled your eye against the azure sky.

I heard the word “snow” in a recent conversation.  I drive past Lake Colby and I take a picture.  I stop near a lonely cemetery on a hill and take a picture of Whiteface.  A grey-haired gentleman sporting a pony-tail was gazing through his camera that was set up on a tripod.

“A few minutes ago there was a double rainbow,” he said to me as I pulled my iPhone out of my jacket pocket.  “There might be another soon.”

“Wish I had the time to wait,” I said as I snapped my photo and got back into my car.  The Rolling Stones were in my CD player.  The song was: Wild Horses.

“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away…” sang Mick.

I almost felt sorry to be leaving this place.  This contradictory country with its beautiful, bug-less Autumns and it’s breezy quiet afternoons.  And, its thumb-numbing cold in January with typical temperatures of -28 F.  It’s absolute silence when the snow falls.  It’s loneliness when friends have gone home–away from their summer places.

As I write this at 9:40 pm on October 14, we are packing the final items into our R-pod.  The sky is starry–the afternoon showers are gone.  I can see my breath as I stand in the yard, in the dark, in the chill and quiet of our last night in the North Country.  In the morning, our friends from the other end of the loop of our road, Garondah Road, will see us off as we head south–and away from the coming winter.  Darcy and Judy have helped us with so many things this summer.  We didn’t climb the mountains we said we would, but we biked and hiked in new places.  In a few days, they will begin their 13-hour drive back home in Camp Dennison, Ohio.  Yes, they live in one of the fly over states, but they are fine people anyway.

Our first stop is Jersey City RV Park near Liberty State Park.  Mariam will be attending a few meetings as we pass a week in NYC.  Part of the time we will be ensconced in a hotel just a block from Macy’s.  We’ll have dinner with my son, Brian and his girl friend, Kristin.  Then it’s back to the RV park in Jersey to pick up the r-Pod and head for the sunny south.  Our destination? Fort Myers, Florida.  We will be settled there until the end of the year.  Then, having had my fill of sand, sun, golf and shopping malls, we will work our way along the Gulf Coast to points west.

I will be stopping in my college town in Northeast Louisiana–first to show Mariam where I spent my late teens and then to lay flowers at a grave of someone who was and is very important to me.  It’s been over forty years since I last saw my friend–and that’s a long time to wait to put flowers beside his headstone.

Steve, I’ll be by soon.

Where to after that?  Perhaps as far as Palm Springs–maybe even Death Valley.  But I have chosen to use this time to give my right brain a kick-start.  I’m not going on this trip without coming back without improving something in my creative hemisphere.  I’ve decided to leave my banjo behind because that will require practice and I’m ready to accept the fact that I may never have the ability to make music.  But, I will have plenty of sketch pads, charcoal pencils and some watercolors with me.  I have stated my terms to myself.  I will not try to analyze anything–I will observe and draw and write.  And I will read.  I have a library of books that I’ve planned to read for decades.  Can you believe I haven’t read “David Copperfield” yet?  It’s on my shelf.

I also have a strange destination to aim for.  It’s a town in the middle of the Mojave Desert, at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park.  It’s called Zzyzx.

There is a real story waiting for me there.  I hope you will follow my blogs as I make my way to this odd little place.

Yes, it’s a good-bye of sorts–but we’ll be back.  We’ll be back like the muds of Spring and the mosquitoes of June and the sparkling waters of Rainbow Lake.

Up here in the North Country.

Whiteface

 

Do You Really Want To Go There?

Dark Lane 4 Blog

It’s early Autumn.  The air is crisp.  The broad leaves of the oaks and maples are sharp and bright in the sun.  Against the darker conifers, the reds and yellows are more muted–less distinct and less joyful.

There is a lane.  It seems to possess a faint voice calling for you to follow to wherever it leads.  The fair-haired, blue-eyed woman beside you urges you to take a few steps into the forest.  Her white hand suddenly is gripping your right forearm.  Without words she is telling you to not take another step.

“We don’t know where this path leads,” she says with her eyes.  You brush a red leaf from her soft hair.  You look down the lane again.  Something is urging you to explore–to follow the trail to its end.  On your left, a woman with dark eyes and pale flesh takes your hand.

“Come,” she whispers in your ear.  “We can’t keep them waiting.”

You look to your right.  The fair one has a distressed look as she stares down the lane.  Her hand trembles.

Turning your head, you see your car parked miles away.  How can this be?  You’ve only taken a few steps into the woods.  A breeze picks up a few leaves and stirs them at your feet.  The branches of the trees begin to weave and roll and shudder.

There is a tug at your right arm.

“Let’s go back,” the fair one says.  “I don’t like this.”

“Let’s move on,” your pale lover says.  “It’ll be good.  I’ll see to that.”

You are unable to move.  You stare into the distance and wonder where it will end and how far the walk will be.  Will there be a pool of clear water?  A bower of red and scarlet leaves?  An old farmhouse?  Does the backdoor–the screen door, bang in the wind?  Is the spring rusty?  Are the rooms empty?

Is there a house at all?  If not, why the road?  All roads lead to something in this forest.

You’re frozen with indecision.  You want to go forward and you want to run back to the car.

What about your lovers?  You look from left to right.  There is no one there.  Was anyone ever there?  Are you awake?  Is this a dream?

You look back at your car.  It is not in sight–there is no car.  Looking down, you see there is hardly a path.  It’s all overgrown.

A woman’s voice calls to you.  It’s a song–so very sad.  You’ve heard this lament before.  Nothing good can come of this, you’re thinking.  Nothing good.

It’s never good when you’re alone–in the woods when the sun begins to set.