Lancelot, The Spotless Starling And The Blogger


[Spotless Starling. Source: Google search.]

I’m perched on a chimney near the Ashfield House B&B with my friend, Tristram. We’re Spotless Starlings. You can find us on page 303 of Collins Pocket Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe. You might not find us in Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of  America, but we’re in the British edition.

My name is Lancelot. Some other Starlings think my friend and I are named for two of the Knights of the Roundtable, but that’s nonsense. The whole King Arthur thing is vague and not really provable, historically speaking. But, this Blogger that I’ve been watching…he believes. He’s been to the Glastonbury Tor and desperately wants to believe that Arthur is asleep, deep inside the Tor, awaiting the time when England will need him once again.

But, I digress.

Lance, I saw you keeping an eye on the American Blogger while he sat on his little balcony, sipping wine and eating cheese with his wife. What’s the deal?

Well, Tristram, as far as I can make out, he is a bit sore of foot and hurt in the lower back. And don’t even mention the pollen. It’s awful this year here in the Yorkshire Dales. He and his wife both sneeze enough to chase away the Morning Doves.

[Map is by Contour Designs Gloucester. Copyright Ordinance Survey, 2016]

So, Lance, has he gotten out into this awesome countryside yet?

Oh, yes indeed. Come let’s take to the wing and I’ll show you where I’ve spotted them. The first hike was short and hesitant. They walked between the stone walls to the River Wharfe and crossed the footbridge at Linton Falls. He wanted to visit the small country church at the end of the road.

How sentimental.

Yes, Tristram, he is a very melancholy person. Old mossy graveyards attract him. My theory is that he spends too much time thinking of his own mortality…but, hey, I only have a bird brain.

The next day they hiked down to the river and along a path that went beside some of those stone walls that everybody talks about. As I said, he was sore of back and his right foot was causing him grief. He didn’t feel he was going to make the entire 4.5 miles as described in the Short Walks in the Yorkshire Dales so he left his OS map and guide back in his room.

So, Lance, did he make it?

Funny thing happened. The two of them came upon a couple from Australia. They had a map but were unsure if they were going in the right direction. The Blogger once taught Geography so he knew maps. Then they met an older couple coming from the opposite direction.

Oh, don’t go up that way, the woman said. Me husband slipped and slid downhill on his bum. It’s like bloody mountaineeeering.

Soon the four of them, after walking up the steep bit, found themselves in an open and pleasant woods. The Blogger knew then, I could feel it from soaring over their heads, that he wasn’t going to retrace his steps. So, on they went.

Soon they came out of the woods. I could see them again. The wife seemed to find the wettest place to cross two pastures. And, by wet, I mean with recent cow pies.

Before I could find my favorite chimney, they were back in the center of Grassington and sitting at a pub. The couple from Australia joined them. They felt satisfied with completing 3.5 miles. I have good eyesight…the old guy took something called Alleve. It seemed to help.

But, somehow, Tristram, I could read his mind as he tried to photograph me. (I didn’t let it happen.) The old guy with the gray hair, gray beard and sore back wanted to hike again. He wanted to see Coniston Cold, East Marton, Sharp Haw, Winterburn, Ewe Moor, Captain Moor and Old Cote Mill Top.

But he never got there. They left two days later.

So, Lance, where are they now?

How could I know, Tristram? My range isn’t that far. Look it up in the pocket guide. But, I did hear them say one thing said as they were loading their car: the old guy said I wonder how Lichfield will be. Mariam, he said, do you think they will have Starlings waking us up in the morning?

No, it’s a Cathedral City, silly. They only have doves…doves of peace in places like that.

And they did.




56 Years Along The Blue Trail: Then And Now


Like brave mountaineers, we weren’t bothered much by time.

–Gordon Lightfoot

It’s late August in the North Country.  The green of the leaves and shrubs are looking tired.  Some hints of the colors of autumn are emerging from the maples and oaks.  Late summer flowers like Black-Eyed Susans and Ragweed are everywhere.  The quarter moon rises after dark for a brief time before setting in the west.  The recent heat wave has broken, leaving the nights cool and breezy for sleeping.

In the Adirondack Park there is a region a few miles out from Lake Placid that is designated by the DEC as the “High Peaks Wilderness Area”.  I first hefted a pack and took to the trails as a twelve-year-old in 1959.  I’m still hiking these paths today…my pack is newer and my boots are better.  In those days, one could walk for hours and never see anyone else.  Now, the trails are crowded with climbers and people just out for a short time in the forest.

I owned a Sierra Club cup.  It’s wire loop handle of aluminum allowed you to carry it on your belt.  At every stream I’d cross, in those early years of hiking, I would stop and fill the cup with cold clear mountain water.  Soon my urine would change from deep yellow to a clear fluid.  Then, I felt, I was less filled with the toxic substances of normal life.  I was cleansing my body.

Now, I would never do such a thing without fear of getting the dreaded Giardia, resulting in extreme gastric pain, vomiting and diarrhea.  I carry bottled water from the Price Chopper supermarket in Lake Placid.  Price: $1.15 for 16 ounces.


I am on the Van Hovenburg Trail, the main highway to the summit of Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York State.  I’m not intending to go to the top today, I would have had to be on the trail at 6:00 am.  That was a climb I’ve made perhaps twenty-five times.  No, not today.  Today, I was only hiking with my wife and another couple to Marcy Dam.  It’s a 2.3 mile walk that I’ve done in the heat of summer, the chill of autumn with dazzling colors of the leaves against a sky so blue it hurts your eyes.  I’ve been on this trail in the dark, with friends, alone, and on snowshoes in -5° F weather.

This is the Blue Trail.  I’ve been on nearly all the trails of the High Peaks.  The trail markers show you the way.  The Red Trail goes up this mountain.  The Yellow Trail goes up that mountain, and the Blue Trail is now what I follow.

When I was a teenager, I would often be found hiking in these hills.  I was fifteen…sixteen, full of vigor and carried a full Kelty packframe on my strong back.  Usually, I would prefer to let my brother, Chris or my friends hike ahead of me so I could walk in solitude.  I would often sing to myself, only to myself, the popular songs of the day.  Sometimes it was Moody River, sometimes it was Running Bear.  My songs led me to think about our return to Owego.  Hopefully, there would be a dance on the night we arrived home.  I thought of my girlfriend.  I would sing Teen Angel and think the dark thoughts of death and youth.

I don’t remember being tired.

Today, I’m not expecting a high school dance or my girlfriend.  I’m thinking of very different things now.  I think of my older brother, Chris, who first showed me the way to the top of the mountain.  His ashes were scattered in the forest only a few miles from where I’m walking.

In 1962, my legs were strong and the days would never end.  Now, my legs are that of a man who has had back surgery, leg surgery and foot surgery.  I’ll not be dancing tonight.  I’ll be home and sitting with a book on my lap…but, not without irony, still thinking dark thoughts…this time not of youth but of age.

I am carrying my load on 68 year-old legs.  I can feel how the years and miles have damaged my bones, my ankles and my lower back.


But, still I walk, stumbling over the same crazy pattern of tree roots that I tripped on fifty-six years ago.  I’ll cross the same streams, but on different wooden bridges.  Those old planks have long since rotted away.


Even when the bridges are no longer replaced and people stop walking these woods and begin to forget the cloud covered summits, there will always be a way to cross the stream.

I would search for a few large rocks and, taking great care, step from one to another.

Then I would find myself on the other side.  Then I would have to find that old trail again.




These Haunted Mountains That I Love

Many of my blog posts tend toward the melancholy.  The themes have often been about loss, grief, aloneness and death.  That’s the way my mind works.  I stare at the rain.  I walk through the fog.  I wander old and forgotten cemeteries, reading the names, dates and wondering about lives lived a century ago.  It’s not depression (I’ve done that), it’s a sense of what was here once and is now gone forever.  The following post follows the rules my mind sets for me when I sit down at my MAC.

I live in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State.  We moved here over a year ago after buying a house on a lake in 2000.  I’m living a dream…a lifelong dream to be here full-time.  I climbed my first mountain when I was five years old.  That was followed by years of family camping at the State campsites like Golden Beach.  When my family dynamics changed and my three brothers began to grow up and go our separate ways, I headed for the High Peaks and began to summit the Forty-Six.  When my backpacking friends began to lose interest I moved onto wilderness canoeing.  I travelled onto Alaska and worked for the USGS.  I lived on glaciers thousands of years old, but the Adirondacks always called me back.  The smell of the balsam, the sand beaches and the blue-green crystals of the Opalescent River.  No other place was like it.

The protagonist in this tale, you need to know at this point, was not my father as one would expect.  Rather, it was my older brother, Chris.  He showed me the canoe waterways and the routes to Marcy.  He was my mentor and my backwoods guide.  He taught me many things but one briefly spoken comment lives with me to this day and can darken the brightest shimmering sunlight.  “The Adirondacks,” he said, almost off-handedly, “was all about death.”

These days I live the life I thought I always wanted.  At last count, we have a 1920’s antique canoe, two other canoes, five kayaks, snowshoes, X-country skis and four bicycles.  What’s not to be content about?  To be here every day of the year…watch the seasons change and feel the peace.  But amidst all this, something is missing.

These lakes, mountains, streams and trails are harboring a ghost.  They are truly haunted.  I can barely walk out beyond the light of the campfire when I can feel “it” following me.  So, I sit and stare out the window at the rain and nap and lose myself in finding ways to avoid confronting the spirit that can make me weep.

Chris and I stood on many mountaintops in the fog, rain and total darkness.  Once we got lost coming off the back side of Colden and, by all rules of nature, should not have survived the sub-zero night without a flashlight.

He owned an antique guide boat that he bought in the 1950’s somewhere at a camp on the upper reaches of Raquette Lake.  He paid perhaps $50 for it.  My mother thought he was nuts to give his money away on something that was old and disused.  A person could see sunlight through the planking.  It became a family joke as we waited and watched him slowly and lovingly restore the craft at his place underwood the apple tree in our backyard.  It took about twenty-five years since he was only able to work on it during college and graduate school breaks.  The result?  I was with him as we made a slow and easy tour of Long Pond when a camper stopped washing his pans and came down to the shore to have a closer look. (This was years before the Guide Boat Renaissance).  The poor fellow, wiped the drool from his lips and jokingly (?) offered his wife in exchange for the boat.

I sat in the “swells” seat on one trip through Slang Pond when a sudden lightening storm-swept over us.  Chris calmly pulled the boat under some evergreens and held onto a branch while the violent bolts struck around us and the rain water began to deepen at the boats bottom.  All the while, he just grinned at me, enjoying every clap of thunder and drop of cold precipitation.

I was lost with him in the woods at Long Pond.  That would be bad enough but for the fact that it was pitch dark at the time.

I remember sitting at a campfire one evening when we spoke of how we’d like to die.  I said I saw myself, sitting alongside the trail with my water bottle and Kelty pack beside me.  A mountain peak, Haystack perhaps was our goal.  The path rose gently ahead of us but melted into a bright light that was golden and blinding.  It was then, I told Chris, that the legendary DEC ranger, Clint West “Keeper of Marcy’s Door” would wander out of the bright light, take his ranger hat off and wipe his brow.  I calmly watched him stride up to me.  I knew in my mind that he had passed away in 1953.   Clint stopped and said: “There’s a lot of trail work to be done up yonder, Pat.  “Come on,”  he said gently and with serene comfort, “Let’s go.”  I shouldered my pack and went off with him…into the light.  In my story, I remember looking back at Chris and waving a final good-bye.  I looked back at him again and saw a certain sadness creep into eyes.  He waved back and then turned and looked back down the trail we had just hiked.  Chris listened with a smile.  Then he said simply that he’d like to pass on by having a massive coronary while under his guide boat, on a long portage.  Interestingly, that was not how he “walked on.”  Me?  I’m still looking for that light up ahead on the trail.

I can assure you, these few bits are but the surface of a deep pool of memory.  But those stories are for another time.

So, here I am.  Owning all the accoutrements of outdoor adventure and unable to find the peace these mountains once promised me.

I can’t drive a back road, turn a corner on a trail, circle an island for a campsite or stare into the deep cold waters of the lakes without the ghost of Chris standing there, just out of reach. I have trouble looking up at a cumulus-heavy sky and not feel or see him.

Because he’s everywhere, and not just in my imagination but also in the molecules that make the raindrops and silt of the rivers. And, someday far into the future, perhaps a part of him will lodge among those blue-green crystals of the Opalescent River.

                   non semper erit aestas