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Several times on the trip I had ideas I wanted to develop or at least comment on in this blog. But before the ideas could be defined by words and therefore take form, they would slip back into that mass of neurons from which they had come…neurons which used to be a functioning brain. Two things came together this week and managed to dredge up one of those amorphous thoughts and now I can share what I wanted to.

My daughter called a day or two ago, rejoicing that it was finally warm enough (45 degrees) to walk to the bus stop for her commute into Seattle. This is a young woman who has spent most of her life in coastal California where the rainy season starts in October or November and ends about now and where the temperature rarely falls below the upper 20s. Seattle, to say the least, is different. She isn’t sure what is planted in her yard, she doesn’t know yet the earliest signs of spring, she can’t say whether spring is as late there as it seems to be in other places, and doesn’t know what yard work she might need to be doing. She’s out of place and out of sync with where she lives.

I suggested that Keri get a journal or a notebook or (knowing her) keep a blog about what she sees around her, and even said “there’s a word for what I’m trying to tell you.” Then her bus came. I had just read my blogging friend Karen’s post about improving vocabulary. (If you like words and writing about words, check out her blog here.) So rather than let “that word” slip away, I decided to look it up. That used to be awfully hard to do when you didn’t know what word to look up, but now we have search engines. It took me less than a minute to find my word. With my word came many wonderful examples.

The word I was looking for is phenology. It is the study of appearances. As it is usually used, it means being aware of the appearance of the natural world so that you know when to plant your garden or your crops. I remember learning years ago that the Indians taught the pilgrims to plant corn when oak leaves were the size of squirrel’s ears. For people who lived outdoors most of the time and were intimately aware of their environment, this was good advice. It comes from recognizing that oak trees leaf out later than some of the other trees, usually after the soil has warmed somewhat. Corn planted in cold, damp soil will rot. So it was helpful to have some sign to let you know when to plant the corn.

When we first moved to the coastal community my children know as home, I was as disoriented as she is now. When does the rainy season start? How cold does it get? When can you expect the first frost…the last frost…the end of the rainy season? Because I wanted to raise as much of our food as possible on our half acre and because my only gardening experience was based on Iowa conditions, I kept a journal for a couple of years. I jotted down the temperatures, what was sprouting, what weeds were appearing, what bulbs were coming up…anything I could observe on that half acre of weeds that I was slowly turning into gardens.

Some gardeners, Thomas Jefferson among them, keep such records for years. I was not only a gardener, I was a homemaker, wife, mommy of two young children, volunteer, part-time employee, and all those other things that “stay-at-home” moms do to while away their time. That is to say, I didn’t keep my record for long. But I did keep track long enough to have some idea what I was looking at. Over time, even though I didn’t write down my observations, I learned to recognize those first signs of changing seasons. I saw how wet years or dry years affected what I was seeing. I felt at home in my environment.

If you are in a new environment or if you’ve never really paid attention to the one you’re in, I urge you to take notes, either written or mental, on what is happening right now in this season that is supposed to be spring. Soon you will find a much greater connection to the natural world and who knows? Maybe you’ll discover that there is something besides the end of basketball and the beginning of baseball to define spring!

 

 

 

 

 

February 49, 2013

As I sat through the second snowstorm in the week we’ve been home, I read someone’s explanation. It isn’t spring, it’s the 49th of February. That works for me.

We’ve managed to have snow off the ground long enough for me to see numerous signs of spring. Many bulbs are up, even some daffodils are blooming. But then the snow comes again and it looks like everything is trying to crawl back down. And all I want to do is run…not crawl…to some place warmer. It’s not that I really mind cold weather in winter. But this isn’t winter any more and it needs to go away.

This isn’t just a rant about out-of-season cold, however. You see, we live in a house that was built sometime in the late 1880′s or early 1890′s. That isn’t particularly old for the Shenandoah Valley. It does mean that the house was not insulated and still has only partial insulation. It was built at a time when the hot, humid summers were of more concern than the cold winters. People didn’t expect to be particularly warm in the winter but they could mitigate the heat by having large windows, placed directly across from each other and offering precious little window surface on the south side. Our wood stove heats the three rooms we live in primarily and baseboard heat brings individual rooms to a decent temperature. Every room in the house has doors that close it off from the rest of the house, making it easier to heat those rooms. But one major part of this house never gets warm in the winter.

The central hallway has the stairs to the bedrooms. It is a lovely yellow pine staircase with alternating walnut and chestnut pickets in the banister. There is a baseboard heater there, but with the stairs, the ceiling is way up there and that’s where any heat we might add would go. The hallway temperature has not yet made it above 50 degrees since we’ve been home. That is only a problem when one must use the bathroom which is right around the corner from the cozy den…ain’t nuthin’ cozy about that particular trip! But it’s a heck of a lot better than a trek to the outhouse would be.

So is this a rant about living in an old farmhouse? The very farmhouse I’d wanted for so long? No. It’s a way of articulating my feelings about something I couldn’t quite manage when we visited the Kelso depot in the Mojave Desert. The lady in the bookstore had lived in that tiny community for many years and was telling us how the making of the Mojave Desert National Preserve had affected the people who live there. We had visited that desert many times over the years and had met a handful of the people who call it home. We were aware of the many decades of ranching that existed there. Now much of that is gone. At one time I would have agreed that national parks should be natural…signs of human intrusion should be expunged! Let us commune with nature in our parks!

My conversion began at a place called Josie’s Cabin, in or near Dinosaur National Monument back in the 80′s. Josie Somebody had built a cabin, devised an irrigation system, planted gardens and fruit trees, built a fence across the mouth of a canyon to contain her cattle, and raised chickens, back in the Olden Days. There was a small brochure explaining who she was, when she’d lived there, how many husbands she had outlived, etc. It said what all she had done and I was fascinated, walking around and finding fruit trees that were still partially alive, the remains of an old grape arbor, signs of the irrigation system…the whole works. Another woman came up and complained that the brochure should explain all that stuff. Where were the fruit trees she planted? Where was the irrigation system? She had no idea what she was looking at.

It seems to me that our parks need to preserve not only the natural beauty of the setting, they also need to preserve the way people lived there. (I won’t get into funding issues…this is a “perfect world” I’m talking about!) Already we have a couple of generations of people who have never used an outhouse, cannot imagine a house without central heat or electricity, have no idea how to site a house to take advantage of the sun or the prevailing winds. Irrigation systems are complicated pipes and sprinklers that some specialist comes out and installs. The idea of taking a sharp stick or a jaw bone and digging trenches from where the water is to where you need it is unthinkable.

We need to preserve these things. I hope profoundly that we never need to return to such methods, but we do need to know how it could be done. If nothing else, we need to understand what our ancestors did to make their world better so we could have our turn.

 

 

Oh yeah…such joys.

When we got home, the outside temperature was 37 and inside the house it was 44. We had drained the water pipes so they wouldn’t freeze, had put antifreeze of some sort in the toilet bowls, farmed out all my houseplants, turned off all the heat, arranged for a friend to get our mail from time to time, turned off the phone which took with it the internet connectivity and the cable TV, and left gobs of dog food with our neighbors who periodically adopt our dog so we can travel. Lady, aka Smiley, is a country dog of very questionable parentage with a sweet disposition and a love of running. Cooping her up in either a kennel or the truck for four months was out of the question.

While Larry went to the cellar to turn on the pump and let the air out of the pipes, I carried in a load of kindling and firewood. I used to wonder how people could start a good, blazing fire with one match. If your primary source of heat for a dozen winters is a fire in the woodstove, you learn really fast how to do that most basic of chores. Soon there was a wonderful fire in the stove. The stove was heating up, the heat was actually getting maybe three feet away from the stove, but the walls, curtains, furniture, rugs…EVERYTHING…was 44 degrees and it takes a long time and a lot of fire to warm all that up.

I’m not sure what shade of reddish pink that antifreeze goo was when it went into the toilet bowls but I can assure you it was not a pretty shade of anything 4 months later. Blobs of mold and mildew, dead flies, well…you get it, I’m sure. The dead flies were everywhere…dead flies and dead box elder bugs. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them on all the floors. So vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, dusting, and scrubbing all consumed my first few hours at home.

Monday was our first full day at home and I haven’t worked that hard or that steadily since I was 30-something with little kids around. I didn’t even know I could work that hard any more. Or sleep that well at night!

Much of the day was taken up with reinstating the paper, the mail, the telephone and internet. And shoveling snow off the deck. Sometime during the night, we’d gotten several inches of snow. SNOW??!! There are tulips blooming in Dallas! Daffodils in Tennessee. Crocuses, bluebells, daffodils here? Couldn’t prove it by me…too much snow.

The snow was gone by Tuesday afternoon and so was a goodly portion of the bank account…but the freezer and fridge are now stocked again.

Oh yeah…the freezer and the fridge. We had cleaned most everything out but not all. Apparently we lost power for a while because what was left in the freezer was, by the time we got home, an unholy mess in the bottom of the freezer. So a major part of the work done on Monday was cleaning all that mess AND cleaning out my entire pantry. I like to keep my house tidy and clean, but whatever is behind closed doors doesn’t bother me a whole lot. So to have completely clean refrigerator, freezer, deep freeze (done before we left) and pantry all at the same time is nothing short of miraculous.

There are still a few things to bring in from the trailer and a few things to take out there. I haven’t even made it to my greenhouse yet. I have retrieved a few houseplants from one friend but the majority of them are with my orchid-growing friend who has plenty of room for my odd assortment of stuff.

Most irritating through all of this has been the lack of wifi. Same song, different verse. It took three days to get our basic phone service back which should have restored our DSL. But no, the DSL had an outage in our part of the county which wasn’t resolved until today. Still no connectivity. An hour with a most patient tech support person who seemed genuinely amazed that an old lady would know what a command line is and had already heard of ipconfig finally determined that our DSL modem must have croaked. So this afternoon I took it in and got a replacement.

Now my itty-bitty netbook which I’ve been using on the trip is the only thing that will connect to the router. The desktop, with all the pictures, the beautiful wide screen monitor, and the human-sized keyboard, is sitting right here three inches away from my netbook and is useless to me.

When I get that blessed thing working again, I will figure out how to make a page of pictures to go with the 90-some blogs I’ve posted. Who knows, I may get inspired or go insane and start posting occasional pieces from home. But for now, it is supper time and that doesn’t cook itself, so I must go.

I started this to keep in touch with a few friends while we were gone and I’ve been amazed at the following I’ve picked up. To all of you, friends I’ve known for years and friends I’ve just met, thank you for coming along on the trip. It has truly been an adventure and ever so much fun!

Esther

Last day out…with any luck.

We woke up to a cloudy but mild day in northeast Tennessee and got a fairly early start towards Bristol, along with umpteen zillion other people heading there for a NASCAR race.

The closer we got to Virginia, the closer to drizzle we got. Finally crossing the state line, we could start the countdown. Our exit is at mile 283 and home is five miles or so from there. The traffic thinned out but the drizzle got heavier. Most of the way through Virginia, we were running the wipers, now faster, then slower, then faster again. And the farther north we got, the more the temperature dropped. As predictable as rain for a picnic, the farther north we went, the more truck traffic we picked up. I-81 has, for my money, the worst truck traffic of any interstate. I-80 can be awful, but 81 beats it, for sure.

A few miles south of Staunton (pronounced Stanton) we completed our circle trip. We began this trip last November by going south on 81 till we got to I-64 and took that west to St. Louis. Now we were back to where I-64 and I-81 run together for a few miles. This is home territory, or almost. By the time we were out of Staunton, heading into Harrisonburg, we knew all the exits and were really feeling like we were home. And then it hit.

Without so much as a little flurry, the drizzle became thick, heavy, wet snow.  As soon as that snow hit the windshield, the defroster on the driver’s side decided desert looked better than snow and went on vacation. Since there was no need for the Navigator to navigate, the navigator was driving and Himself was frantically trying to clear a path through the fog and well, we just had way too much fun for about the next 20 miles. Then the snow slowed down, cleared out, the road was dry, and the last several miles home were uneventful. As He-who-would-be-embarrassed if I used his name used to say, HI-YA-LU-YA!

So say we all…Hallelujah…we are home.

 

March 16, 2013

I woke up with a sense of dread and fear. I’ve been gone so long and I missed all those assignments and now it is too late to get them done. I can’t even remember exactly what they were. What will I do? How will I go through life without a college degree?

At 0:dark:30, my brain does not work well. I wake up a little bit at a time. When the rational part of the gray matter kicked in, my only thought was “I’ve had my degree for 40 years! How many more times do I have to have that dream???”

The rest of the day could only get better. We spent most of the day on I-40, one interstate that I don’t really mind too much, at least through Tennessee. We did take US 70 between Nashville and Knoxville a few years ago and found it to be a most scenic, enjoyable route. But we’re headed home and no longer really in the scenic mode.  The two cities definitely had their share of traffic but in between, the traffic is not too bad and the trucks are not as thick as they are on I-81 near home. At some point I mentioned that we could just turn around and go right back to the desert. I-40 would take us back to Barstow, about half way across the Mojave. But for now, it’s taking us home.

The only sign of spring here is the sparkling streams and rivers. A few pastures are greening up but are still wearing their winter green, not the bright green of spring. The oaks and some other tree I don’t know have last year’s dead leaves and not even the willows are leafing out. The maples have a hint of red, which is about as much as their “flowers” will ever show.  Now and again in Texas and Arkansas we saw daffodils blooming in ditches where they’ve been washed from some abandoned home site but here in Tennessee we’ve seen few if any. There was a robin outside our window when we pulled into our campsite this afternoon.

We had planned to camp in Bristol, on the TN-VA border this evening but then a few miles out of Knoxville we saw a highway warning sign announcing extreme congestion umpteen miles ahead in Bristol. We aren’t NASCAR fans but it doesn’t take much brainpower to figure out there had to be a race on at the Bristol Motor Speedway and that’s probably not where we wanted to try to get a campsite on a Saturday night. So we’re in a tiny town at a beautiful campground, far enough off the freeway (oops…gotta quit calling it that…I’m in the east now) to be nice and quiet.

Tomorrow should be easy. It’s maybe 30-40 miles to Bristol, then 283 miles to our exit. Five miles after that we’ll be home. And wouldn’t you know…there’s a winter storm watch for home starting at 4:00 pm tomorrow. A watch is better than a warning, so I’m not going to stress over it.

If the weather is too nasty, we’ll just camp on the driveway. We drained the water pipes before we left, there’s been no heat or fresh air in the house for over four months, and the larder is bare. Even in the trailer we have little left to eat. But we’ll be home!

The library scheduler is glad I’ll be back in time to take somebody else’s place, good friends have said to call as soon as we get in and make a date for dinner, and another friend has a lunch date planned already.

Has the pussy willow tree done its thing yet? Are the weeping willow buds showing color yet? Are the bluebells up? Are the crocuses blooming? The spring was running when we left…is it still?

Tomorrow I’ll have the answers.

March 15, 2013

Today was much like yesterday but started off with greater promise. Larry went to an interpretive walk led by a state park ranger who seemed unable to say “I don’t know” and gave whatever answer sounded good to him. But Larry did learn some things about the history of the park and we decided to get to the other side of the lake and check out the Hot Springs National Park. Naturally, it was one of those “can’t get there from here” kinds of places but with three different maps in front of me, I managed to get us there.

Hot Springs, Arkansas is an old town built around what must be massive hot springs coming out of beautiful rock formations. But the streets are old and narrow and clogged with traffic. Trying to maneuver our rig through town was a bit more of a challenge than we had anticipated. When we finally got to the National Park, we realized it was the hot springs. One whole end of town seems to have become the Park, sometime in recent history.

Even more distressing than the traffic was the lack of diesel availability at the gas stations. This is the first time we have needed fuel and have not been able to find it. And of course, we sadly needed it. No problem, Larry would empty our spare 5-gallon container into the tank and we’d be fine. Except for a few problems:

  • Narrow streets give you nowhere to pull over.
  • When we left town, headed up a steep hill, we found a parking lot but couldn’t find the combination to the lock which keeps the fuel chained to the truck.
  • The combination may have been in a little notebook in the entertainment center. Guess what is covered up by the slideout when we’re on the road?
  • Larry didn’t say what he did to solve the lock problem and I didn’t ask. It took a while and there was a little blue cloud hanging over his head. He got the fuel in the tank. That’s what counts.

Need I add that we did not stick around to see the “National Park”?

We headed east on a combination of highways, sometimes I-40, sometimes US 70. Not that it will do any good for anyone but me, but I’d sure like to teach a certain young lady how to drive on two-lane highways. Honey, if you don’t know how to pass on a two-lane highway, fer the luva Pete, don’t tailgate! Pushing me isn’t going to make me go any faster, especially when I’m already going 10 mph over the speed limit. When I slowed way down and pulled over to the right as far as I could, that was your cue to pass me. The nearest on-coming car was a mile away…a speck in the distance. But noooo….

Yep, now I feel better.

We got through Memphis before the worst of rush hour and got about half way to Nashville to a great RV park in the hills. It is quiet here except for a zillion frogs. The windows are open at 8:30 pm and the pizza they delivered from the camp store was a whole lot better than the mystery meat dinner we were going to have.

These old horses have definitely seen the barn door and there is no stopping us now. Meds are running out, the weekend is upon us, we need to get home.

March 14, 2013

We got around when we got around this morning and pulled out of the RV park near Terrell, TX about 10:15 or so. A friend posted on Facebook yesterday that it was snowing at her house, just a few miles from ours, so we’re not in any great rush to get home. Last year spring came very early and by the time we got home at the end of March, both the redbuds and dogwoods were blooming. We’re starting to see a few redbuds in eastern Texas, so I doubt that Virginia has any blooming yet.

We were camped close…way too close…to I-20 for the past two nights but decided that I-30, just a few miles north, would take us where we wanted to go. Or not. What’s the rush? Why fight with the trucks and the texting idiots who can’t watch the road or their speed and text at the same time? So we took US 80 instead. One discovery we have made and are happy to pass along: most interstates have an older US highway nearby. Often they are divided highways with at least two lanes in each direction. The highways are in excellent repair and well-signed. Most are expected to carry the interstate traffic when there is an accident that closes the interstate. Those of us who live along I-81 know how quickly US 11 gets clogged when the interstate is closed, but we also know that most of the time there is little traffic on 11.

US 80 was all we hoped for…wide, well-maintained, with almost no traffic. It does, like most US highways, go through little towns, but for us that is an advantage, not usually a downside. To know an area, drive its federal or state highways. We decided that a really little town has no Dollar store. A small town has a Dollar General or a Family Dollar. A good sized little town will have both and maybe a couple of fast food franchises. A BIG little town will have a Walmart! But even better are the little mom and pop shops. They may be antique shops (more likely junque shops), donut shops, Uncle Elmer’s alignment shop, or swap shops (usually a couple of notches below junque shops). The poorer the town, the more “stop, shop, & swap” shops, often in old gas stations or a couple of single-wides.

Have you noticed? There aren’t any more little gas stations. We passed lots of them, all long since out of business. One even had its old Kerr-McGee sign out front. Most have carefully removed all signs of whatever brand they used to sell. I saw a funny post card in west Texas that asked “Know how to be a Texas millionaire rancher?” “Start with 2 million!” Maybe it’s that way with gas stations now.

One of my fondest memories as a child in Dallas was the neighborhood grocery store. I think it probably had wooden floors, don’t remember that part for sure. It was maybe three blocks from home, down the “right-a-way”, which meant nothing to me. It was an old streetcar right of way which is now the route of a commuter train, but I’m sure that little store is long gone. By the time we were 5 or 6, every kid in the neighborhood did emergency grocery shopping for their mother. We’d buy a loaf of bread or a quart of milk and maybe some “baloney” for sandwiches. There was a screen door that banged, “pop” bottles in icy cold water deep in the Coke machine, and sno-cones for a nickel or dime. I haven’t seen a store like that in years, not even in museums or historic re-creations. Little towns and big city neighborhoods always had them.

Anyway…eventually 80 went where we didn’t want to so we took some state highways and wound up in Texarkana where we found the last Whataburger we’re likely to see on this trip. We blew it…ordered the burger with fries and a big drink. Yum! Great burgers. A little soup was all we needed for supper.

We’re in a state park in Arkansas tonight, camped beside a lake. It would be great except for the Spring Break kids who insist on sharing their music with everybody, the ancient power plant across the lake, and hordes of Canada geese. The geese had finally settled for the night when somebody or something just woke a bunch of them. I hadn’t realized how obnoxious they can be!

I think this is one of those lakes where the video to the “Redneck Yacht Club” was filmed. If not, it could be. Thank goodness it’s a little too chilly for that much fun yet! We shall survive and tomorrow we’ll be on the road yet again.

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