Thursday, June 14, 2018

Wrecked Woods and Wading in Water

After a late Thursday night watching the Capitals win the Stanley Cup in DC I still managed to get up early on Friday to race out the door for a hike. Work had got too demanding and at the last minute I took the day off, desperate for a break from all the salespeople wanting rush jobs done. I needed a breather from their constant clamoring. The weather was supposed to be good until the afternoon on each day over the weekend so I was anxious to get some outside time under my belt. On both Friday and Saturday I was hiking little used trails. Still relatively pristine, there's no damage to the paths from large groups pounding their way to the top. That's why I'm not naming the trails, let these ones remain quiet and peaceful. Let someone else name them and be responsible for their demise, it won't be me. Both hikes were up a mountain and on both days I was totally alone, the only person walking through these vibrantly lush forests. As I approached the tiny parking lot, I had to stop and wait as a mama turkey trotted across in front of me, 9 fluffy chicks scurrying after her. She anxiously looked from them to me until they were all safe together and then they all scrambled up the hill, wings held out wide as they dodged the vegetation, the whole time without emitting a single squeak. Cardinals and bluebirds swooped in front of Stanley and baby bunnies crouched in the grass as we bumped slowly along to the end of the dirt road.
At the first trail I started up the easy incline, noting that immediately as well as a creek gushing furiously down the mountain, the actual trail itself was awash with water, a shallow stream in itself. Again we'd had recent rainstorms and it seemed the mountains were trying to shake off the excess fluid. The sweet scent of honeysuckle filled the air and the warm sun felt comforting, too early yet for it to be anything other than welcomed as morning dew on leaves swept against my arms.
 A few trees were chopped down. With the humidity and heavy rainfall the wood was soaked, and the aroma of fresh timber floated about me, it was like standing in a carpenter's workshop. Among the rocks on the path, the last flowers of the tulip trees were scattered, their colors faded and browned along the edges. The trail followed the creek for about a mile and came to an abrupt stop. I looked all about to see if it branched off through the undergrowth but then I spotted the trail blaze painted on a tree on the opposite bank. I was supposed to cross but I still couldn't see where the path continued. The water was rushing past at a fast rate and I didn't trust myself to jump across the rocks, they were likely slippery. I could wade across but I had no spare socks or boots so continuing the hike would be no fun with soggy feet. I had to turn back but I'll return when the rains have subsided.
I drove to Chester Gap near Front Royal to see how that trail was, the last time I'd hiked this was in the snow. A squirrel and a chipmunk both flashed across in front of me as they hid from view. This was another uphill climb and I gave up after about a mile. Only yesterday or the day before the trail had obviously undergone maintenance. Branches and vegetation that had been hacked from each side now littered the path in front of me, the green leaves limp and dull. There was nothing to photograph on this day, it was a path of debris, and I didn't want to hike what looked like a mutilated trail so a little dejected I turned back towards the car. The path would look better in a week or so I'm sure.
On Saturday I was up even earlier and soon out of the door, looking forward to a better day of hiking. This time I was returning to a trail I'd discovered in July last year. It would be interesting to see the differences from spring to summer.
These were apparent almost immediately as the trail was now a small creek that I had to paddle in uphill. but this didn't last for long and soon I was on drier ground. I was so excited to be outside again that I didn't think about the latter part of the hike and the effects of the recent huge downpours. but for now I walked along the shiny trail, slivers and slices of wet shale gleaming like silver in the sunshine. The canopy overhead kept me cool but the mosquitoes were relentless, as well as no-see-'ems that constantly tried to get close to my eyes. This just made me walk faster but soon I turned uphill and the climb became steeper.
Beautiful mountain laurel flowers were abundant here, white flowers speckled with pink on either side of the trail. I spotted some fresh bear scat and then further along a few upturned boulders and rocks, signs that Bruno had been searching for insects and other morsels of food. I noticed that birds were trilling above me, a welcome happy sound. Usually I'm completely alone on these forest hikes apart from the odd woodpecker, and then as though my thoughts had been broadcast, a deep hollow reverberation emanated from the distance, a hollow tree being bored into.
The air was thick and humid. Perspiration glistened on my arms and legs while rivulets of sweat ran down my face, dripping off my nose and chin. and my calf muscles burned. This was great! I had to use my bug wipes a few times but at least this resulted in them being held at bay while I was walking. But when I stopped for water breaks they zoomed in, whining about my head and very evidently looking for that opportunity to dive in and bite. But I didn't stay still long. The uphill trek seemed never ending and it was with great exuberance that I finally peaked the summit. Walking slowly along a sandy path softened with pine needles, it felt as if I was walking on air after that arduous climb. I searched for the secret path to the overlook and pushed my way through the mountain laurel flowers .
And this was where I sat and ate my lunch, completely alone apart from the birds. Not a single person in sight or earshot, no engines, just bird song, and unfortunately those damn mosquitoes. I sat and swatted, and sat and munched, determined to enjoy this well earned view. I'd climbed 1600ft and it felt like it but from now on most of the hike would be downhill. I really wanted to do some painting from the photos I'd taken on the way up but the incessant whining and buzzing around my head put paid to that. I couldn't relax fully and concentrate, ever conscious of the insects waiting for a lapse in my concentration so they could attack. I noticed the clouds in the distance looking dark and grey, then as on cue a rumble of thunder sounded from not too far away. I needed to get going.
I kept up a brisk pace now I was hiking along a ridge. Coming across a concrete post with trail names on it, I didn't see the one I was looking for, so out came the compass and I chose the path that looked to be heading back towards the car. I was surprised I couldn't remember the route, I'd completely forgotten about needing to take turnings.
The ridge line was a scene of desecration, so many large trees were down, mostly pines, as though a huge wrecking ball had passed through knocking them flat like skittles. The path was completely blocked so I had to clamber over large trunks or negotiate my way around. The recent storms had caused extensive damage up here. It saddened me to see these huge majestic giants that had taken years to grow, looking perfect as they stood proudly on top of their mountain, to now be felled so swiftly. Giant root balls, the essence of the trees' foundations, were bared to the sky, large rocks and boulders held tightly in the webs of tangled fibers. 
And as I worked my way through one tree, immediately ahead would be another, even a cluster, appearing to be desperately trying to hold each other up and remain upright. I couldn't enjoy the smell of the pine, I wished this hadn't happened. As I clambered over the trunks my hands were sticky from the sap, seeming as if they were bleeding. I had to scramble over or under 7 or 8 of these fallen trees, hearing thunder again and realizing the sky had darkened further. The terrain was now looking so different that I recognized nothing and hoped the trail marker I was looking for hadn't been hidden and missed as I climbed this forest obstacle course.
I did find the next concrete post and knew I was on the right trail. Approaching a flooded section of the path, I heard the deep-throated belches of bullfrogs and coming across a pond created under an uprooted tree I spotted 2 huge fat frogs leap into the water with a loud plop. In the murky brackish water were hundreds of tadpoles wriggling back and forth. I passed them and then realized immediately ahead that I had to cross a creek. The stepping stones were submerged, so I jumped and waded, amazed to reach the other side with wet boots but dry feet.
The rest of the trail was downhill, some of it very steep. Rain started falling, drops spattering on the leaves above me but not getting through the dense foliage to dampen me.
There were a few times that I walked downhill in water, a stream rushing down the trail. I spotted a few of these aquilegia like flowers as I slipped past on wet rocks or soggy leaves. Back home I discovered that they are wild columbine flowers. I also saw plenty blue-eyed grass flowers, the vivid blue looking like jewels, bright in the woodland's green. The rain stopped thankfully, but further obstacles were ahead.
Once more the path crossed the now fast moving creek. There was no way I could get across without getting my feet wet so without further ado I splashed down into the water. The wet rocks were very slippery, preventing me from jumping from one to another. I had to wade across. I felt the cold water creep into my boots and actually enjoyed the cooling sensation. But once out of the water and back on the trail it wasn't so pleasant. I didn't want to take my boots off and wring out socks, I assumed that would just encourage abrasion while walking and I would end up with blisters. So I squelched along, evading any steep rocks and trying to ensure my feet stayed as level as possible, as it was uncomfortable feeling my feet moving inside my boots. But I hoped the water would act as a buffer and hopefully keep any skin from chaffing. I thought of the through hikers on the Appalachian Trail and wondered if they carried spare boots or just simply trudged onwards.
And trudge onwards was exactly what I had to do. Before I got to the end of the trail I had to wade across the creek twice more, both times with the water gushing past so fast that I had to hold onto rocks as I worked my way over to the other side. Even trying to assess the depth of the creek was near impossible and a few times I found myself with the water up to my knees. But it did feel deliciously cool and soothing on my sore feet. I suppose it was a bit like wearing a hot water bottle on each foot, but obviously with cold rather than the usual hot liquid inside. I was very relieved to reach the end of the trail and be back on level ground again so my feet could stop sliding within my boots. I still had to walk about quarter of a mile back to Stanley but the thunder clouds had been swept away and the sun was shining. To keep my mind off my feet I stared at this favorite house of mine, perched on a grassy hillside and wished the owner would holler and invite me on to the porch for a cold beer and a dry towel. But despite my wishing nobody moved except me, it seemed as if I was the only person around for miles, squelching along the gravel road and marveling how none of the water was escaping from my boots and leaving wet footprints. I was very glad to get to the car, pour out my boots and wring streams of water from my socks. But the best was driving home barefoot with the AC blasting down on my toes. And later that evening when I checked, no blisters! Joy!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Of Admirable Art and Resplendent Rooms in DC

The rain held off for a few hours on Saturday, and with a metal grey overcast sky hanging low and threatening a deluge at any moment I drove down to DC to meet Nancy. We were touring the Dupont Kalorama district where 4 houses were opening their doors for free this weekend. We armed ourselves with coffee and then set off for the Philips Collection.
The building was beautiful, red brick with shields carved into the walls and soft green window frames. Inside was a different story, stark austere walls with minimum architectural decoration. We wandered from room to room filled with contemporary art, none of which really impressed us, but then we suddenly entered the room of masters. In front of us were paintings from Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso and Monet, among others. I was ecstatic that we could examine these works of art so intimately and took a keen interest in the oils. This was artwork, not the pictures of squares within squares, or blobs of paint that depicted no imagery. Van Gogh's The Large Plane Trees was scrutinized by me intensely. I have been balking at starting to use oil paints and now became engrossed in studying the brush strokes in this painting, the thickness, blending and direction that the paint was laid onto the canvas. The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir took pride of place on one wall with people sitting or standing to quietly admire it. I was amazed at the details, lighting and vivid colors used, which were incredible to view at such close quarters rather than in a photo. We spent most of our time in this gallery enjoying these beautiful paintings and little in the rest of the building that we were allowed to roam around. It was all too twenty-first century for us, neither of us fans of the modern look.
The next stop was Anderson House which is the headquarters of The Society of the Cincinnati, an organization devoted to those who secured the independence of the U.S.
The building was huge and impressive from the outside, with tall columns towering above us and gigantic Gothic lamps hanging overhead. Inside was absolutely gorgeous, I could have spent all day in here admiring everything. The house was a showcase for its owners' belongings picked up from their travels around the world. Larz Anderson was an American diplomat and his wife, Isabel was a benefactress and author of children's books. My neck ached from craning to look up and around at the tall ceilings, decorated intricately with paper mache moldings and gilt paint. Massive marble columns were smooth and pleasantly cool to the touch, marble onthefloor beneath us and even in some ofthe door frames. In every corner and along every wall were the couple's collections, no rhyme or reason to the compilations, just beautiful pieces they had accumulated and wanted to show everyone. I was in my element walking around this building, each room so different and a joy to behold. This is the first home in America that has made me think of the English historical homes I used to love visiting. I read later that the decorations had been largely influenced by English and Italian craftsmen. The wooden pews we saw on first entering had caught my eye, they looked very European. The docent thought they came from the eleventh century. He told us that monks used to spend long hours praying or meditating, which had to be done standing up. The wooden seats would lift behind them and the carvings on each side had downward curves so that the monks could drape their arms over and carry their weight on the wood. The website later told me these were Italian choir stalls. We would hear different explanations from the docents that rarely matched the website, and I always preferred the docent tales.
The huge ballroom was used for lavish parties and functions, the Anderson loved to entertain.
What I wouldn't have given to have attended a banquet in this room. Exquisite tapestries covered the walls, large perfect folds of heavy fabric curtained the windows. The craftsmanship in the floors, ceilings, in fact every part of the interior was beautiful, and even overwhelming in its perfect good taste. Throughout this house I didn't see one ornament or wall or fabric that I thought was tacky or too ostentatious. Everything had been so thoughtfully laid out and decorated that you were simply led from one room to another, pulled by the gorgeous visions ahead that kept enticing you to move forward. I actually instantly disliked one of the docents for referencing some of the collections as 'tchotchkes', a word I loved when I first heard it many years ago, but today thought of as offensive when used in this house. The doorway to the dining room was built at an angle so as guests entered from the hallway they would be looking directly at the wonderful table, laden with the best glass and china with glowing candles. The guests would also see the large portrait of Isabel on the far wall first before they turned their eyes to the portrait of Larz in the other corner.
Halfway up the stairs is this monumental canvas, depicting the 1424 procession of the newly elected doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari, and his wife, the dogaressa Marina, to the ducal palace.
The long hallway from the dining room leading to the drawing rooms, the French drawing room above looking into the English drawing room. I studied that wooden parquet floor,it was perfect, not one slat of wood out of place.
The French drawing room, again beautifully decorated with stunning gilt flourishes on the walls and ceilings, huge gold mirrors and tapestry chairs, the whole room in hues of golds and creams.
I was a little surprised with the English drawing room, the only room which I didn't think was as extravagant as all the others. But it had a pleasant calmness about it, looking out onto a small garden. A huge (and the only garish piece in the house) Tiffany gilded clock sat on a mantle piece but my eye was caught by two horse ornaments on another shelf, two awards given to Isabel for her book publications. The one above was for The Great Sea Horse. They each depicted one of the main characters from the book and had a quote on the front. Note the horse has webbed hooves. Made of brass, apparently she received quite a few and would give them to friends and relatives. This is what the docent told me but later on the website I read that Larz had commissioned it as a Christmas present for Isabel. Again, I liked the docent's story better. I had to touch this one and was promptly but kindly berated. It really was very difficult for me to walk about this glorious house and not be allowed to stroke or touch anything. I was like a kid in a toy shop, I wanted to pick everything up and inspect it. But we were allowed to photograph everything and I wished I'd brought the Sony along, I had thought professional cameras would not be allowed, and my little Canon isn't so imposing.
A last look up the East Stairs before I very reluctantly left. We had met up with Jason and were now walking to the Woodrow Wilson House.
This was the home of the 28th president after he left office. His last public speech was held on the front balcony in 1921, 6 years after the house was built as a gift from Woodrow to his wife, Edith.
There weren't as many rooms open as at the Anderson House and obviously the building was smaller. After coming from that magnificent mansion I had to fight disappointment in not seeing the same elegance and finery but after a while I started to appreciate the coziness of this smaller family home. I was particularly taken with a beautiful chandelier and a pretty window that Jason pointed out, through a doorway that we weren't allowed through, of a zinc kitchen sink with net curtains and a trailing plant that reminded me of my English homes.
The best room in this house was the kitchen, filled with utensils and food packets from the 1920's. Once again I got a telling off because I couldn't stop myself from having a go with an old egg whisk. It was on a table with some other gadgets which I thought we were allowed to try out. It did whisk beautifully, a lovely smooth whirring action, so it was worth the reprimand.
The last house that was open to us on Saturday was Dumbarton House, but since we'd all visited that previously, we decided it was high time to find a belated lunch, so a short time later we were all sitting down and ravenously chowing down on a superb 'Bacon Me Crazy' pizza, with bacon,fried eggs and sun dried tomatoes. Washed down with some very fine craft ales, it was an outstanding end to a most enjoyable house tour. And no rain!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Humid Hike on the Appalachian Trail

I had managed to get home on Saturday just before the thunderstorms rolled in and it looked like Sunday could be the same. So I got up early to hike a trail I'd last hiked in winter. I'd remembered it as an uphill climb which I huffed and puffed up, but today it didn't seem so bad. Losing some weight has helped and my knees felt no aching today.
Someone had painted a pebble with a cheery message, leaving it at the base of a tree, giving everyone who passed a reason to smile. I could hear water pummeling its way over rocks as I neared the bottom of the  valley, crashing and thundering through the forest. The last time I'd been here the waterfall had been less of a force, with thick sheets of ice each side frozen on top with curls and loops of water frozen as it leaped out of the creek down the hill. I climbed up to the top and found a comfy perch on a huge rock. The surrounding trees were mostly tulip trees, their petals had been scattered all over the path on the way up here, like wedding confetti on a carpet.
I pulled out my journal and started sketching. The humidity was eased by the breeze coming from the waterfall, it also kept the mosquitoes away. I had the place completely to myself and relaxed completely as I began working. I was really enjoying the serenity and the calming therapy of drawing and painting. I was so engrossed that I didn't notice two hikers come up behind me. They stopped to chat and withing a couple of minutes beer became the topic of conversation. We swapped favorite brewery destinations and I took a photo of them against the falls. They obviously wanted to enjoy the scenery for themselves so I gave up my seat on the rock and left them to indulge in the beauty of this spot.
The trail was vastly different from my last visit, alive with almost tropical vegetation, bright green shiny new growth surrounding me. I was glad of the canopy overhead, shielding me from the sunshine as I climbed further upwards. All along the ridge were huge tulip trees with the petals creating colorful splashes on the trail before me, reminding me of the breadcrumb trail in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. The rocky path was slippery from so much water, at one point the trail becoming a creek that I had to splash through. I didn't even stop for a breather as I had last time, and despite the humidity trying to sap my energy I continued upwards relishing the energy my lighter body was feeling.
And then there was mud. Lots of it, so deep that I had to simply squelch through. I found myself humming, "Slip sliding away" by Simon and Garfunkel for a while until I decided I should stop, just in case I jinxed myself and took a tumble.
I climbed up a rockier slope and decided to stop again on an outcrop, once more pulling my journal and paints out to capture some of the bramble flowers arching on each side of the trail.
Coming back down I passed some more hikers heading inwards, and hoped they wouldn't go too far before the storms came in again. Back at the car an AT through hiker was resting with a friend who had driven to meet him with replenishments for his backpack. He was thoroughly enjoying a huge slice of watermelon and between mouthfuls told me he'd started 3 months ago in Georgia and reckoned he was halfway through. Just before I left he hoisted his full pack onto his back and set off up the mountain. I wished him well, hoping he'd be able to dry out that evening with the impending bad weather. This year must be an ordeal for the through hikers with the continuous storms we've been having. I drove home, the heavens opening before I climbed the hill to Meadow House and I thought of that poor hiker.
As the thunder crashed across the fields and the rain beat against the patio doors I sat with my paints, nearly finishing a double page spread in my journal. I'm not going to kid myself that these artworks are good but I am pleased that I'm off to a good start. With practice I should hopefully improve and it will be interesting to look back on past entries as I complete my journal, with my sketches hopefully looking better as the year progresses. I'm already wondering how much better my autumnal leaves will look compared to my spring flowers.