Sunday, September 30, 2007

The U.P.

Most of today was spent in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, or U.P. if you're relatively local. Some years ago, with the prospects of a hit television series looking grim, casting crews moved on towards California and to what became the O.C. - and to think, it could've been set here and have been about, well, scenery, snow, and...and I guess that's why they moved on. Though the fall colors were patchy in places, in some, and in particular, in the Porcupine Mountains and the Black River Scenic Byway, it was wondrous.

Before any of this, I called upon Copper Falls State Park in Wisconsin. I arrived around 8:30 AM and was greeted to a waived $10 fee (something to do with an arts & crafts sale at Kickpoo Cabin or thereabouts), fresh apple cider, hot coffee and 2 plates of cookies. Just about the time I was ready to retire to the den and read a paper in front of a crackling fire, I recalled my purpose in stopping - waterfalls. There are two large falls in this park: the eponymous Copper Falls (barely viewable from the main trail as adolescent conifers wished to be noticed instead - a ploy they have patiently waited years to execute, laughing at each passing sightseer amidst the breeze that cuts through the gorge) and the far better Brownstone Falls. Breaking all the rules, as I am wont to do, I climbed over the 4.5 ft barrier to get a wooden-fence-free view of Brownstone Falls - to the State of Wisconsin: don't you realize that people come here with cameras and not only that, cameras on tripods to take pictures of this lovely place? If you're worried about kids or people lacking 3-dimensional vision falling into the crevasse, simply put some additional checks in place at the Visitor Center and refuse them service (somehow I don't think this will come to light).

On to the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan. Named after the porcupines native to this area (NOTE: 2 dead porcupines were viewed along the road, both ovular and prickly, local porcupine authorities have notified the families), and in an unfortunate turn of events locally referred to as "the Porkies", these mountains could provide at least 2-3 days worth of entertainment if one wished to hike some of its many trails and really get a feel for the place. It was quite a departure from Central Midwestern "scenery" - and only 8.5 hours away! The Presque Isle Falls were particularly spectacular, with small sets of falls cascading over stair-stepped rocks at various intervals.

From here it was on to the Black River Scenic Byway, a 22 mile round-trip drive which followed the River to its forced conclusion at Lake Superior. Along this road, the fall color was fully observed, along with 6-8 sizable waterfalls that easily warrant future revisits.

The Stats:
Driving Hours: 4.5
Driving Miles: 300

What was Heard:
Stephen Sears' Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam Discs 5-6

Saturday, September 29, 2007

To Hayward, Wisconsin and the Colors of Fall

It was shortly after I arrived home from my eastern travels - which, at this point would really be any time between right now and Sunday evening last - that I was reminded of how much I enjoyed traveling and began to question the last year or so of infrequent indulgence. It is, at the conclusion of such thoughts, that I find myself this evening in Hayward, Wisconsin in preparation for colorful foliage reported to abound in this region.

Joining me this time is my beagle, Buckley. Expertly navigating from the back to the front of the car, over and over again, as if obsessively compelled to discover every route of passage in preparation for, let's say, evacuation for a mobile yet contained natural disaster. During this exercise, I was greeted in split second intervals nervous, high-pitched vocal emissions. The whimpered whines finally died down about an hour north of Des Moines (recollections, perhaps, that the last time we entered a car together he ended up at a boarding kennel; good news Buckley, not this time) and, for the most part, he behaved himself quite nicely.

Tomorrow I presume there shall be more to report as the enchanting Northwoods unfold amidst glacial lakes, rust-colored streams falling over rough-hewn rock face, and, for this brief time, an explosion of color that will inexplicably allow us to forget that winter and the madness that is the holiday season is only a few months away.

The Stats:
Driving Time: 6.5 Hours
Driving Miles: 420+

What was Heard:
Disc 1-4 of Stephen Sears' Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

Sunday, September 23, 2007

On the National Road, Frank Lloyd Wright & the Beginning of the Road Home

I left from Lavale, Maryland at around 7:30 via Highway 40, which is also known as "The National Road". Built from 1815 to 1818, the road was the first surfaced road of significant length (Cumberland, MD to Wheeling, WV) in the United States. The road's "mile markers", which don't actually occur at every mile, are white, obelisk shaped markers made of cast iron (originals) or fiberglass (replacements) that indicate the distance to the next nearest town and the distance to its terminus; Wheeling if you're traveling west (thanks to Christopher Busta-Peck of Baltimore for details on the construction of these markers). My first and only stop along the road was Fort Necessity, the outpost commanded by a 22 year old George Washington for the British in 1754 during the French & Indian war. This was the location of Washington's only surrender, and interestingly, Washington purchased the land years later.

From there it was on to the Laurel Highlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Here, I toured two of Frank Lloyd Wright's homes, Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. I would have to say that I preferred Kentuck Knob as it was a permanent residence as opposed to Fallingwater which was only used by the owners as a "weekend home". Because of this, Kentuck Knob had a much more contained feel, whereas parts of Fallingwater felt large and cold. The costs to build these homes were: Fallingwater, 1939, $155,000 ($2.1 million adjusted for inflation) and Kentuck Knob, 1956, $90,000 ($624,000 adjusted for inflation).

The drive from here to Cleveland was full of realization that I was coming home. Heading west after going east for so long felt strange; at times during the eastward push, I thought I might head for the Atlantic Coast and then...Britain? Germany? But this was not to be. As I drove towards Pittsburgh the Appalachians disappeared; rather, they faded into the rolling landscape - and quite without being given permission to leave the dinner table. The Appalachians are not like the Rockies, which can be seen for miles off even a somewhat clear day; no, they appear to me to be more part of a natural progression - more present, more expected, but at the same time not overtly demanding your full attention. Driving toward Cleveland I thought, for one last time on this voyage, "Oh Appalachia, won't your roads take me home?" Truly, they would; but even after a relatively short time in this land where scenic majesty and formative history converge, it felt like moving toward "home" was moving the wrong direction.

The Stats:
Driving Time: 5 Hours
Driving Miles: 300+

What was Heard:
The Beatles' Abbey Road, White Album (Disc 1), Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band & Love
John Vanderslice's Emerald City
Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga & Gimme Fiction
The Royal Tenenbaums Soundtrack
Andrew Bird's Armchair Apocrypha
The Kinks' Something Else & Village Green Preservation Society

Saturday, September 22, 2007

To Cumberland Via Shenandoah, Old Chapel, Harper's Ferry, & Antietam

I set out from Waynesboro, Virginia just before 8 this morning. Less than 5 minutes later I found myself on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. The drive, running 104 peacefully meandering miles atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, has a posted speed limit of 35, so it is definitely not the route to take if one is in a hurry to reach Front Royal (the northern gateway to the park). For the first hour or so, I had the park to myself and was intrigued each time I would stop at an overlook at the noise of the forest - I am quite positive I heard that tree fall, thus dispelling the myth (yes, it did make a sound). Various birds warming up their vocal chords for what already sounded like a busy day - including one with the distinct warble of Ethel Merman in her prime. Acorns falling from trees, distant rustles of an uncertain origin and the unusual sound of hearing the wind creep up on you from below were just a few of the auditory pleasures afforded. The scenery itself was, naturally, grand. With breathtaking vistas at every turn (one older gentleman had to reach directly for the oxygen after 3 distinctly impressive stops), the staff are required to be CPR certified. Of particular note was the endless supply of turkeys in the park; bobbing their heads as they absentmindedly crossed the road it reminded me that though Benjamin Franklin was a genius of a man, his wish for the turkey to be the national bird (rather than the bold, graceful eagle) was misguided at best.

In between larger stops, I called upon the Old Chapel, whose structure dates from 1790, south of Berryville, Virginia. It was attended but such notables as Lord Fairfax and, as with almost anywhere in Virginia, members of the ever present Byrd family. Here's a thought: it appears that in 18 and 19th Century Virginia it was entirely possible to blindfold yourself and lob a stone in any direction and plausibly hit at least two Byrds.

From here, it was on to Harper's Ferry - a site visited by a number of important people over the last 250 years (Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, Robert E. Lee, etc.). Its location, at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers (where West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland meet - or at least wave to each other from respective river banks) was quite impressive, as was the preserved downtown in which you cannot park (for this, we have the National Park Service, who amongst other duties, realizes that early 19th Century buildings and 21st Century cars make for strange bedfellows).

The final stop for the day was Antietam National Battlefield. Antietam holds the grisly distinction of being the deadliest day in American history, with over 22,000 casualties (over 3,000 of these were deaths). The date was September 17, 1862. To give some idea of the intensity of the fighting and the visual aftermath that was the battle, consider the following quote by Major General John Hooker (Union) regarding a particular area of the battle known as The Cornfield, which is said to have changed hands over 15 times: "...every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the [Confederates] slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before". By this time, the romanticism of war was fully vanquished in the hearts and minds of soldiers and civilians alike. It is truly difficult to stand in these places and imagine, in any real or meaningful way, the destruction that took place only 150 years prior.

I now sit in my room at the Red Roof Inn, located in Lavale, Maryland. The most expensive evening so far (topping out just shy of $80 with tax), I have to say that I am satisfied as I was not expecting the Red Roof to be nearly as classy as this one is. My only complaint is it seems the room directly above mine was rented, without any input from me, to a couple members of the World Wrestling Federation who are either practicing or participating in Smackdown 2007: Red Roof Inn. It is certainly possible that I have this all wrong and it is simply an ongoing drop-height test of Acme anvils; Anvils: 1, My Patience: 0.

The Stats:
Driving Hours: 6
Driving Miles 250+

What was Heard:
Bruce Catton's The Civil War, Discs 4-6
The Beatles' Love

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Falls of Hills Creek, Jefferson, & The Blue Ridge Parkway

The morning started with a drive eastward on Highway 39 in West Virginia. The first stop was the Falls of Hills Creek, a set of 3 falls (creatively named Upper, Middle & Lower - the default naming convention for waterfalls occurring in triplicate) in the Monongahela (nearly the most enjoyable word to say - ever) National Forest. Rising early has its advantages as the sun had yet to creep up on the falls and I was able to shoot some very slow speed photos. I was the only one there and it was wonderful.

From here, the drive wound into Virginia where I called upon a few old churches and then...and then, on to the celebrated Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Though this entire day has really been the highlight of the trip so far, one might say that the visit to Monticello constituted the oft mentioned but rarely seen (outside the world of ice cream sundaes, anyway) "cherry on top". The man had a clock in every room; we would've been fast friends. After gazing upon such interior history as Jefferson's boots, writing desk (with copy machine - 2 pens rigged together so that when the venerable Thomas wrote with one the other would make an exact copy on another sheet of paper), "automatic" doors, artifacts from the Lewis & Clark Expedition and many busts and paintings ranging from Voltaire (bust) to the head of John the Baptist upon a plate (painting), I wandered the grounds for a while, paid my respects at Jefferson's grave and returned via footpath to the parking lot. Following this, I made an obligatory stop at the Monticello Visitor's Center and was surprised to learn (via the "museum" portion of the center) that Jefferson owned a pair of spectacles with green lenses - a fact of which 1/2 of the gift shop staff were not aware (a genial older woman who claimed that I "just made her day" with the passing on of tinted glasses knowledge).

After all of this, I decided to retire to a peaceful, 15 mile drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway which was, of course, worth every minute. In continuation of the retirement theme, I now find myself in the Super 8 hotel of Waynesboro (no elevator, 3rd floor, thank goodness I don't have back problems) looking out of the window in view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, wreathed in the pink haze of sunset with a 1/2 moon watching overhead.

The Stats:

Driving Time: 4 Hours
Driving Miles: 300+

What was Heard:
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack (So good I helped myself to 2nds)
Lots more of Bluegrass Junction on XM

Thursday, September 20, 2007

New Song - Summersville - Recorded 9/19/07

Here's another new one. This was recorded in the hotel around 3 hours ago. It is, evidently, about a couple who are at odds to some degree and the male is leaving from what must be a fairly lengthy period of time off to go back to the mines in the southern parts of West Virginia. As he's getting on the train and will be staying for the season, I would presume this takes place between 1890 and 1920, though I didn't ask. Once again, this one is incomplete but I have an idea of how to finish it.

West Virginia

The goal of today was to make it from Cherokee, NC to Summersville, WV by way of some scenic roads and the New River Gorge (and the eponymous bridge perched loftily above its namesake). The first challenge was to find Hwy 41-N in Beckley, WV. Clearly visible on the map, the road was not mentioned once during my drive through town - though nearly all other roads around it were (these were also plainly visible on the map, excepting 16-N; we'll get to that) and I got to experience 2nd helpings of them all (I believe I got enough of Highway 19 last through to Thanksgiving).

Part of the difficulty was in the existence/non-existence of Highway 16. It had one magic trick; it disappeared (presuming you count reappearance as part of the same trick). Fortunately, I was eventually able to deceive the highway system and without making any wrong turns (as the joke goes, I made only right turns) found the elusive Highway 41-N. I half expected to land upon a thriving colony of Appalachian Mountain Field Mice as some sort of bonus for finding the road, but alas, did not. Once I hit the road, it was as if I had been let in on a little secret. It was just me and the West Virginians and it was grand. They, of course, know that their back yards are beautiful; now I'm a member of the club as well. As I passed the few WV'ers on the road, they each gave me a knowing nod as if to say "You have succeeded, my son".

So, that was today in a nutshell. Presently, I am dissecting a waffle bowl something-or-other from the Dairy Queen next to the hotel. In the picture it looked like much more waffle bowl and a lot less everything else, though, as I watched them prepare it for me, the exact location of the waffled portion became less and less noticeable. So I left with a 1/10th scale replica of Mt. Everest in ice cream (3/4 of which was fed to the indiscriminate hotel sink). I am half tempted to go back and see if the Eiffel Tower could be achieved with any accuracy...

The Stats:

Hours Driven: 6
Miles Driven: 350+

What was Heard:
M. Ward's Post-War
Caribou's Andorra
More Bluegrass Junction on XM
Neil Young's Harvest, After the Goldrush, and Live at Massey Hall

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Oh, Appalachia! - The Song

Presented here on the eve of its recording is "Oh, Appalachia!". Firstly, however, a few notes on my recording process. In general, my first goal in recording is to swiftly lay down tracks to get across an idea. The process, therefore, is not concerned with pristine sound, perfect timing/pitch, or solidified lyrics. Equally, because of my desire to output something quickly (in the sense of recording, quickly generally means 1 minute of song = 1 hour of recording time), songs are rarely in a finished state and are typically short. "Oh, Appalachia!" is no exception. Set to a series of 7 pictures from today's excursions, the intent here is to get some feeling for what is going on (i.e. lots of driving, pretty scenery) while also making a nod to regional music (in this case a bit of a bluegrass feel). So, with that in mind, I present "Oh, Appalachia!".

Onwards to the Smokies...

And so the stay in Louisville came and went swiftly - I got up at 5 and had left by 5:21 heading towards the Cumberland Gap and then down to the Great Smoky Mountains. Today was a significant scenery upgrade over yesterday; from Lexington, KY on the drive was quite pleasant. As for the Cumberland Gap - I spoke to a park ranger with the last name "Davis" who had also descended from Welsh Davies' - we were probably related. The views were quite nice and there were no people to be found at the Pinnacles Overlook (the most popularly visited place in the park).

The drive to the Smoky Mountains was slower, but was worth it. I ventured to Cade's Cove initially (24 miles from the entrance, 48 round trip) which proved to be a good way to spend an hour but unfortunately ended up being a frustrating way to spend 3 hours - the drive becomes 1-way after the 24 miles in (which, in itself, is a monotony of sharp turns and 35mph or less speed zones - this eventually puts one in another type of "zone" wherein the concept of distance traveled gets lost in translation). This, coupled with what must've been an "early out" for regional retirement homes (I sincerely believe the median age in Cade's Cove today was around 70 and this was only because I skewed the stats by .004 of 1 year) the going got slow quickly. It's amazing how fast slow feels when you've been going really slow.

This drive was followed by some hastily purchased magnets at the Visitor's Center (lest my fridge not know of my Eastern travels) and some nibbling on snack mix purchased somewhere back in Tennessee. Then, it was on to Clingman's Dome via a stop to film a bit of the Appalachian Trail and some various overlooks. In all, it was a rushed but spectacular setting (the rushing, of course, was not the fault of the Smokies). I arrived at my hotel, the Econo Lodge - on the Cherokee Indian Reservation and previously named, until 7 years ago, the "Red Skin Lodge". During check-in I decided to attempt to question a local and ended up questioning a sort-of local, an endearing young woman named Katy (by the way, I hope things go well for you in college and regarding a more than passing interest in moving to Montana). This turned into an ongoing front desk associate conversation (I've only had 1 of them before, the first with a man named Wally in South Dakota) that lasted, in intervals, throughout the night. The conversation proved to be nearly as good as the Smokies themselves; proof yet again that sometimes talking to people from the area is always (2 for 2, at least) a good time and filled with interesting anecdotal information that I would not have otherwise come across. Among more interesting topics discussed "The Road to Nowhere" and the "City that Drowned" certainly rank very highly (ask me about these later, as it is far too much to go in to in this format).

In between conversations, I busted out the recording equipment and recorded a new song entitled, you guessed it, "Oh, Appalachia!" which I will be posting here after I post this.

The Stats:
Driving Time: Essentially 12 hours
Driving Miles: 350+

What was Heard:
More on the Civil War
Vince Gill's "Little Brother" from his 4-disc collection released last year (this disc is entirely bluegrass)
Loretta Lynn's "Van Lear Rose"
Bluegrass Junction on XM

Tomorrow - not as much driving, but probably more slow driving (fortunately the slow to scenic ratio should be 1 to 1).

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Road to Louisville

Departing at 2PM instead of 1:30, I made my way to Louisville, KY. Nothing especially eventful occurred during the drive - I did, however, make up for my lost time and arrived at 11:30 EST (a full 30 minutes before expected). As I crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky from Indiana, I noticed, amidst many bright lights and construction workers, a billboard that will hopefully not be an indication of things to come. Here's what it said:

"Saturday: The Real Lord's Day. Changed by the Anti-Christ." If there's anything that has ever made me want to attend church right now it would certainly be this sign... It starts as if to say "Milk: It Does a Body Good" and you're thinking, oh, that's not so bad - you know, perhaps Saturday is the... What? Changed by the Anti-Christ?!? As long as the people responsible for this billboard fodder are in a minority in this area, I think we'll be ok. And with that, it's off to bed - but first - the Stats.

Driving Time - 8.5 Hours
Driving Miles - 600+

What was Heard:
Discs 2-4 of Freakonomics
Discs 1-2 of Bruce Catton's The Civil War
Sufjan Stevens' Illinois and Avalanche (Both discs pertain and were written about the state of Illinois)

Final Destination: East of Louisville, KY (click for map)

Rest up, everyone - I'm up at 5AM to move towards the Great Smoky Mountains.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Music & Video Test

This is an upload test to see how this site will behave when a "video" - i.e. a picture with an embedded .mp3 is uploaded. This will be the format in which music uploads will occur on this page (time permitting as this is somewhat of a slow process) - which will also facilitate a picture or picture slideshow of trip events... By the way, the song clips presented here were recorded by Tim Green and myself last month over various impromptu sessions. They are as follows: Untitled Acoustic Instrumental, Makin' Macon Bacon Shake 'n Bake (for those of you who don't know, just try saying this real fast; you'll get the idea), and The Good Times...

More on the Rare Appalachian Mountain Field Mouse

Truly, very little is known about this particular species of field mouse. A recent Google search returned no results for such a mouse (excepting the single result generated by the existence of this page). But I am convinced that in these next 7 days I will see this mouse and, very near to the 250th Anniversary (September 20, 2007 - mark your calendars!) of its last siting, will produce an essay with an impact to natural science rarely seen since the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

What we do know about the mouse:

1) It was once spotted, but is not suspected to be any longer
2) It resembles the common field mouse in nearly every way (sans spots, possibly every single way)
3) Even in its supposed "extinction" or "disappearance" the vital role it plays in the predator-prey relationship of the Appalachian region has still been sustained - leading many to theorize about its whereabouts
4) Finally, we have the surviving journal entry of one Georges-Louis Leclerc, the 16th Century French naturalist who traveled to the New World to research its plant and animal life, and in his final days in America in 1757, spotted the field mouse. What follows is a translation of this entry from his work "Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière" (which itself translates interestingly to "Natural History: General and Particular"):

"...such a small creature did I discover in the mounts
of the West, picking through the brush as if looking
for items to build a nest. It was at this moment I re-
-alized the nature of this New World was in no way
comparable to that of the Old World. This, one of
the larger species I have spotted in my travels
through this unforgiving land, confirms my theories
about the questionable attributes of this habitat for
plant, animal, and even human life. Yet, many of
these simple people know not what lies beyond
infertile grounds - lo, if they are to survive in the
West it will be only the plants and berries I have
previously described and on this mountain field mouse..."

It was this final siting that also officially set Leclerc's view that the plant and animal life of the New World was greatly inferior to that of the Old. Since this time, the mouse has been almost entirely forgotten; a small, furry, spotted or unspotted memory passed down in the tales of local lore. It will be these people I must seek out if I am to discover the likely whereabouts of the mouse.

A Voyage of Epic Proportions

Tomorrow, at roughly 1:30 PM, I will be setting out for the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern United States. The following reasons constitute the purpose of my voyage:

1) To go where many, and at the very least I, have never been
2) To go somewhere alone and deal with the unique challenges it will present
3) To be struck by inspiration which will hopefully lead to musical invention
4) To seek out, photograph, and document the existence of the rare Appalachian Mountain Field Mouse*

* The Appalachian Mountain Field Mouse presents a scientific quandary much the same as the "Lost City of Atlantis" or the "Loch Ness Monster". Not spotted in the wild since 1757, the Appalachian Mountain Field Mouse's continued (or even initial) existence is paradoxical - what is this field mouse that lives in the mountains? Would it not be, therefore, a mountain mouse? To add greater confusion to the mix, sitings of the mouse before 1757 note that the mouse was, in fact, spotted (i.e. harbored spots upon its fur). The 1757 date, then, adds duality to the meaning of spotted: it has not been spotted since 1757 (visually) and it has also not been spotted since 1757 (black spots, rather like a leopard, upon its fur).