Friday, December 30, 2016

Striding to Solitude at Sky Meadows

Wednesday was a chilly but bright day so I went for a hike in Sky Meadows Park to work off some of the copious amounts of holiday food and libations that I'd consumed over the past few days. Not that a short walk was going to pay off the debt entirely but it was an effort, non the less. I was a little surprised to see the parking lot full with many families walking about sporting vibrant new outdoor wear that had probably been received as Christmas presents
I took a trail that didn't have any hikers in sight and started off, with long fast strides that soon turned to short stumpy steps with many breaks as the hill climbed upwards. The open slopes dragged brisk breezes across the spiky dry grass, making my eyes water. But I saw a couple ahead that had left the parking lot just ahead of me so I was rather chuffed that I wasn't dragging my feet to much.
The view at the top was beautiful. The Crooked Run Valley lay below, brown fields edged with bare trees that looked like the bristles of paint brushes. Blue ponds glittered in the sunlight and in the distance the Blue Ridge Mountains hugged the horizon. The trail was sheltered now, with no winds beating against me, and I looked up at the remaining climb.
Even though it was chilly up on the ridge, the cold winter sun cast a fairy tale effect on the woodland. On an overcast day, the trails look sombre, grey and brown the only colors, but today it was like a scene straight from 'Twelve Dancing Princesses' by the Brothers Grimm, one of my favorite stories read over and over again as a child. The princesses pass through three magical woodlands, "the woods with the diamond-spangled leaves, the wood with the gold-sprinkled leaves and the wood whose leaves glittered with drops of silver." Today as I walked alone along the path, it was just like the story, the sun so bright that everything around was dazzling and shining. But of course, all good things must come to an end, and my little fairy land was shattered as two burly hiker dudes came crashing round the corner, one of them exclaiming loudly how "up here would be an awesome place to hide a still" as he pointed into the woods.
I had to stop and photograph this deposit. I've come across this a few times on hikes now and have marveled at these declarations of dominance in the woods. I'm pretty sure this is the feculence of a fox, which surprises me as they are usually stealthy shy creatures. Yet obviously when it comes to the matter of number twos they like to be observed as number one. I walked around this poop on a pedestal, leaving it for the next visitor to appreciate, whether it be human or animal.
It was nice to be walking on a flatter surface and then it was downhill, so obviously the inclines had been completed for the day. I thought that I'd been on most of the trails in this park, but while chatting to a couple they showed me one I'd not hiked before so I headed in that direction. If I'm out on my own, I usually like to have the trails to myself, but today that wasn't the case. At various spots along the paths are benches, specially made for the park because they are tall, so you can sit on them and swing your legs. I hadn't been able to enjoy any of these when I came across them as other folks were firmly seated, enjoying the views or stopping for snacks. But I had some great chats with them, one group shared their map with me and told me of the terrain on each of the trails, I took a group photo of one family whose dad would have been excluded from the shot if I hadn't arrived, and another couple with a huge creamy labrador wanted to share their chocolate dusted almonds with me. And they all were enjoying the benches, so I kept going, assuming I'd be taking my break at the end of the hike.
And then I saw one, empty and alone, the sunlight shining down on it like a bright beacon, declaring, "This one's for you Debby!" I bounced over to it and sat smugly in the middle, my legs swinging furiously. What joy! I had no snacks but I thoroughly enjoying sipping my water and listening to the sound of silence as I savored the solitude. No planes or cars, not a cheep or a peep, no voices at all, or even the drumming of a woodpecker. It was lovely to be the only human, but I am always a little disappointed to rarely hear the birdsong. In England, there's a constant chattering and tweeting of bird voices, whether you're in a wood, an open field, your back garden or in town, it's always there. But in these huge American woodlands and forest, it can never be taken for granted that you'll see a bird, and it always saddens me. The sun was warm on my face but after a few minutes the cold air was working its way through my clothing so I continued downhill. Another mile later I was back on the track that led to the parking lot and started plodding up the last hill. And then came the farewell I had been hoping for, a warbling and chirruping, like musical notes, and sitting on branches high above me were two bluebirds.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Polish Parade and Lustrous Lights in Baltimore.

On Friday evening I drove up to Baltimore with Margie where we met Richard and a large group of others to join in the Polish Carol Singing Parade. This is an annual event, which has been held for at least 25 years, where a truck pulls a small trailer in which Polish musicians sit and play their instruments, sing carols, English and Polish, with hundreds of people following, also singing as loudly as possible. Originally in Poland horse drawn carts would rumble around Polish villages with carolers stopping at all the churches. We started at the Polish Home Club, where pamphlets with song words were handed out, and then off we set. Wrapped up warmly and in the midst of a throng of people, we didn't feel the cold.
Folk were dressed up in Christmas outfits and playing their own instruments as they walked behind. A TV crew was there, no doubt showing some footage that evening on the local news, we even saw a Grinch! Richard had brought his big camera and I constantly chastised myself for not bringing the Sony. My little G15 wasn't quick enough. I'd press the shutter button and the camera delayed for a few seconds, taking its sweet time to focus before it clicked, like someone clearing their throat before they speak. It was driving me nuts and I was sure I'd end up with a collection of blurred images or missed shots. But looking over the photos later, some of them turned out OK, and the blurring actually seemed to enhance the moment.
The crowd was huge and we all sang cheerily as we walked, police cars flashing lights and stopping traffic as we passed down cobbled streets and into squares. The Polish outfits were stunning but I worried that the women wouldn't be warm enough. I assumed underneath they had layers of thermals.
We stopped for a moment's quiet reflection at the G "Mike" Amiger Street sign, to honor Mike who had been a highly decorated and much loved police office in Baltimore. You could have heard a pin drop, I was impressed with the respect this officer had earned.
I took a video of the cart as the men sang and played a Polish carol. It was quite difficult keeping up, one minute it rolled nice and slowly, and then would suddenly speed up to get through intersections being held open by police. We also had to let them know that they had a flat tire, which was repaired later at a church stop; they had no intention of stopping the parade.
We stopped at a couple of Polish churches, one we couldn't enter because it was closed, but the Holy Cross, Polish National Church, had its doors wide open and we piled inside. We managed to find seats, and so could sit and admire the interior, feeling the atmosphere in which the Polish worship. All the lanterns were blazing, red poinsettias were bright as they sat on white marble, and the scent of incense hung thickly in the air, predominantly cloves. We sat through prayers and carols, all in Polish, some of us valiantly attempting to follow the Polish words. I failed miserably, unable to pronounce or even follow the strange words. After about 15 minutes we left to continue the parade, with everyone being handed a small bag with a couple of Polish style cookies inside.
Richard and I lost Margie and a guy called Phillip, who had joined us, so he suggested we went to the Polish Home Club which was just down the street. We hoped that by getting there early we'd be able to enjoy a beer and see the interior. But it was not to be, the place was already packed and people were being refused entry. I just managed to catch a glimpse of Polish dancers artwork on the walls before we were herded back outside where we discovered that we'd also lost the parade. So we placated ourselves with a few beers at our starting pub and waited for the others to return.
These were easily the best Christmas outfits I've ever seen, these two women had evidently put a lot of work into their tree outfits, which lit up beautifully.  Note the stars on top of their heads.
We didn't have to wait too long for the others and then decided to visit 34th Street, the most decorated street in Baltimore. I'd never been here before so was very excited as we walked towards the corner. Richard made me close my eyes and then led me into the center of the road before telling me to open wide. The street was incredible, bright and light, like a fairyland. Vibrantly colored bulbs were strung from every conceivable hanging place, across the street, windows, paths, steps and yards.I even tried to stand still and listen, curious if I could hear the hum of electricity. This street must have been visible from outer space. Everybody that walked up and down had their faces transformed into colored masks as they were bathed in the light from so many bulbs. But I couldn't hear any buzzing of power running along wires, although I could hear a loud snoring, and it was a while before I found a toy Santa on a ledge, fast asleep and emitting such loud snores that if he had been real, he would have woken himself up.
Peering into the side windows of the first house we could see a model railway humming through a brightly lit winter wonderland. Phillip and I even peered through the front door window of one house, seeing a family room decorated to the hilt, and wondered if the residents actually used this room. I would love to be sitting in there on Christmas morning.
Each house was decorated in a different theme, with trees and lights, blow up ornaments, and plenty of home made decorations. There were Christmas trees made from car wheel hubs or vinyl records, a Star Wars theme, (but this was a blow up R2D2, Chewbacca and a Darth Vader. Nice but not glittering or shimmering enough to warrant a photo). Mardi Gras decorations with pastel lights, a Tim Burton themed yard and of course, Baltimore's own Natty Boh made an appearance. I particularly loved the pure white Unity house and yard. There were even bicycles and wheels strung up with lights or made into tree shapes.
We finished the evening with dinner and beers before heading back towards DC. I drove home, with lights still softly glinting in my memory, and the sounds of polish carols and laughter still ringing in my ears. What a great way to start Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Antique Oddities and Beautific Brews in Front Royal

Early Saturday morning I was awoken by the tell tale sound of freezing rain, like someone crinkling cellophane, as the frozen droplets hit the roof and landed on brittle leaves under my window. It was rather nice laying there with my huge Batman mug full of steaming tea, Kota and Rosie Lee cuddled up next to me as we lay and savored the coziness of the bedroom. But our idyllic enjoyment wasn't to last for very long, well, not mine anyway. A few juncos and cardinals started hopping into my view, looking very forlorn and unsuccessfully pecking the ground for morsels to eat.
 Unable to stand the guilt I jumped out of bed, pulled on fluffy fleece pants, long boots, wrapped my huge lilac dressing gown round me tight, then tentatively tiptoed outside clutching large bags of seed. It's at times like this that I'm extremely grateful that I don't have close neighbors, I must have looked a sight, but after a couple of minutes I could return indoors and once again thrust my feet deep under the warm bedclothes and enjoy the view out of the window, this time with a satisfied feeling as I watched a small flock of my feathered friends enjoying their warm seed for breakfast, not frozen stale pieces stuck to the ground. One of the older crows had a ring of white feathers around his neck as well as a few white tail feathers. He held his neck to one side and scooped the seed into his beak rather than pecking like his peers. I wondered if he'd suffered an injury that made feeding difficult and resolved to throw out seed frequently through the winter. I wondered if crows helped each other since they stayed together in a flock, and found this interesting link.
I didn't do much on Saturday so was ready for an outing when Margie, Emily and Steve turned up at my house the next day. We had originally planned a hike but with rain and cold featuring largely on the weather forecast we decided to just check out the antique stores in Front Royal, where I would also introduce them to the Beer Museum.
It was dull and overcast when we arrived, rain spatters blowing in our faces, but it wasn't too chilly, in fact, it was quite balmy. Nevertheless, the wind was picking up as we sauntered down the Main Street, dipping into stores to explore cozy cluttered interiors and escape the elements.
One shop seemed to be packing its merchandise up as though it was closing down.It was like a flea market filled with junk and items from the 60's and 70's, some of which appealed, like the hat boxes above, but others made me shudder, such as a black nylon wig, still in its box, marked, 'Stretches. One size fits all." Ugh. I kept my hands in my pockets for the most part. These quirky Christmas trees, reminding me of Dr Seuss,  were outside of an art gallery.
Main Street was almost deserted as we walked down, it was quite strange, and I was glad I had company today. We only saw a couple of people, so I guessed the inhabitants of Front Royal were all  well organized, with Christmas shopping completed, and were spending the afternoon relaxing in cozy homes, in front of blazing fireplaces and with Christmas lights twinkling merrily.
 Further down the road was a store with a few items that induced double takes as I passed them by. Barbie and Ken Star Trek theme? Why did I never see this when I was a kid? A ninja turtle sat on a carousel horse in the window while a chess set with hunting theme pieces, which looked pretty intimidated about the game in progress, sat inside the door. Whoever owned this store had a sense of humor.
Lunch was consumed at Soul Mountain Cafe and Grill, where we all devoured extremely tasty sandwiches. It was only about an hour later when we left but we were shocked to step outside and feel a 20° drop in the temperature. It was cold. We walked around the corner to the Beer Museum, my steps quickening in happy anticipation, then as I leaped up the door, I stopped short. There was a notice on the glass saying. 'Closed for private party" Unbelievable! They had told me to bring my friends on Sunday and now the door was locked. I was nearly inconsolable as I realized that I wouldn't be supping any of that delicious Dark Hollow this afternoon, but then Steve announced that we could head to PaveMint instead, just a few minutes away, and I cheered up promptly. With over 30 beers on tap, the choices were superb and we received exemplary service from our beer expert server. Apparently the bar had been filled to busting earlier on in the afternoon, so obviously that's where the Front Royal residents had been while we were walking Main Street, and then of course, they'd gone home to doze. And that's also what Margie did when we returned to Meadow House. She stretched out on the sofa while I built a fire, and we finished off the afternoon chatting as the daylight slowly faded and the light of the flames flickered and danced off the walls.