Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Saving Sunflowers

Throughout Friday evening and night we had a terrible storm. Lashing winds with torrential rain and even a tornado, which touched down, speeding along Rte 55, ripping off branches from trees and dumping them along the roadside. Our power went out a few times and eventually I gave up, going to bed with a battery lamp, and lay reading until I nodded off.
The next morning I bounced out of bed, happy that the gales had swept elsewhere and left the hill in silence. The rain had also departed, and the sun was dodging between clouds trying to shine down as they slowly crawled across the sky and disappeared. I opened the front door to let Kota and Rosie Lee out for some fresh air, they were tired of having been cooped up for over 24 hours, desperate to explore around the house, oblivious of how wet their legs were getting from the long grass. I looked out and nearly burst into tears as my eyes fell upon the tragic scene before me. My beloved sunflowers, no longer proud and erect, were now lying flat on the ground, faces downwards like fallen soldiers.
This was my glorious wall of blooms only a couple of days before the storm.
And here they were, stretched out upon the ground, having been defeated by the night's storm.
I was distraught and didn't know what to do first. I did cancel my bike ride with Steve and Marc and then had to see what nearby stores would be open this early in the morning. It was after 7am and I needed supplies fast. Luckily the Co-op Farm Store in Marshall opened at 7:30am so I hurtled over there. Within 30 minutes I was back home with four 4ft metal posts and a large ball of green garden twine.
The next 3 hours were hard hot work. I tried hammering the posts into the ground but they would only go down about 5" so then I had to stack heavy rocks against the base of each post, leaning them in towards the building so they would hopefully hold the weight of the plants. The sunflowers were far heavier than I'd expected and I initially tried to pick up one at a time while pulling the twine taught against them as I made my way along the wall. That didn't work, once they all toppled towards me and nearly fell down, and then on the second attempt the twine broke and I had to start from square one again.
I stood, perspiration dripping from my nose and tears pricking at my eyes, and thought hard. This wasn't going to beat me, although another pair of hands would have been wonderful. I would have to stand them up one or two at a time. So I tied twine around one plant as I walked it upright and then kept it standing tall by tying off on the post. And then on to the next plant.
I worked my way slowly along the wall, focusing on one thick stem at a time. Each stalk was also protected from the twine by small patches of a t-shirt that I had cut up as bandages, and then loosely tied on the stalks. This protected them from the twine cutting in, although those sunflowers are pretty rough themselves. the stalks and the leaves are very abrasive, I had a few cuts on my arms and hands by the time I was finished and a large rash on my wrist.
I continued to work along the wall, hammering in posts, stacking boulders and cutting lengths of twine and t-shirt. By the time I was done I was almost completely drenched. The sun was beating down, increasing the humidity levels to nearly 100%, my shirt and capris were soaked. But my precious golden flowers were saved. It had taken me most of the morning but they were finally standing up straight again, albeit looking a little bedraggled and forlorn. I had been amazed that I'd only lost 3 small plants, their stalks had been snapped by the winds, but the rest had been yanked from the ground, then toppled, exposing a shallow root ball that I was able to shove back into the earth and press down with my boots. I guess those shallow roots saved the stalks from snapping.
A thorough watering just to make sure their roots would grip the soil again was the last task of Operation Saving Sunflowers. A few heads had been broken off but nearly all were intact. When I'd finished replanting them their bright yellow petals had been drooping down over their faces but by the end of the afternoon they were lifting upwards again, and it looked pretty certain that they would survive their ordeal.
This photo is from my spare bedroom. It makes me feel warm inside seeing my 'natural screen' looking healthy again. The flowers and leaves had lost their limp look and were looking strong once more. I've loved watching them climb up past the windows, reminding me of Jack and the Beanstalk, and although they likely won't gain any more height, I'm so grateful that they're still going to keep blooming for the rest of the season.
I took some more photos 4 days after I'd set the giant plants up against the wall again. Still not as upright as they'd originally been but there haven't been any more casualties. The few heads that didn't survive have already become food for some of the wildlife around the house, small spaces in the circular heads where the seeds once were. But the other flowers are recovering and enjoying the sunshine, the bumblebees buzzing from one golden globe to the next. 'Buzziness' as usual at the front of Meadow House.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sky High at Spruce Knob

At noon on Friday, I left work and met Emily, Rob and Margie at Meadow House to embark on a camping weekend in West Virginia. We took 2 cars, originally hoping to get everything in one, but realizing that would be quite impossible. With all the things that couldn't be left behind stacked up high on the back seats and in the trunks, there was barely room for 2 people in each vehicle. but we still needed to cram more stuff in and stopped at Strasburg to load up with food and more beer.
It was a beautiful scenic drive to WV, bright and sunny with blue skies and barely a cloud until we got close to Spruce Knob, where we were camping. Suddenly the sky pulled a heavy grey blanket of clouds across the horizon and the winds whipped about the car. I saw 2 forks of lightning spit towards the ground and the heavens opened. Torrential rain beat against the windscreen and in front of us, a police car stopped twice to move fallen tree boughs from the road. Then thankfully, it eased off, and we turned up onto a narrow, partially unpaved, road that, after 10 miles, arrived at the top of the mountain.
 We were camping in a remote camp, so there was no electricity and no bathrooms, only chemical toilets and a water tap. But our site was pretty, without neighbors, and although a tad muddy, we got to setting up camp.
The tents went up fast and before long we had chairs out and beers cracked. Then dinner was made over a fire while Rob launched into sawing up extra wood. A Small Eyed Sphinx Moth kept us company all evening, sitting on the 5 gallon plastic water tank. We wondered if he was attracted to the condensation on the container as well as the light shining through it from the lanterns.
We sat and enjoyed the fire late into the night. I had only drank a couple of beers since Margie and I were rock climbing the following day, and I was a bag of nerves so had no intention of having the slightest of hangovers the next morning. I was also wanting to get a good night's sleep yet just as we were starting to pack up, the rain started. We managed, or Rob managed, to get everything covered in record time and we all dove into our tents as the rain fell down. It pittered and pattered, then splitted and splattered, then hammered down quite hard on our thin flysheets. I had hoped the sound would send me to sleep but instead I lay there wondering if my tent would collapse or start flooding. I tossed and turned, unable to get to sleep, one, because of my hard 'bed', the foam mattress I'd purchased for the weekend which was serving no purpose whatsoever, and two, I was fretting about and dreading the morning's event. I drifted in and out of sleep, trying to turn over when my hips or back hurt, but not finding much solace. Eventually, it was light and I crawled out into our soggy site, aching and feeling like I'd only had a 10 minute nap.
I stretched and looked about. I was very impressed at how Rob had so quickly and efficiently waterproofed everything. All our chairs had been turned upside down and a tarp laid over the table. I wasn't understanding why he'd put 2 branches across the fire pit, it wouldn't blow away, but he told me later that he'd hoped the fire might burn through them and create some more firewood that wouldn't require so much chopping. But the fire had stood no chance through that storm, it was soon doused. Margie's tent was on the other side of our camp site and I was thankful when she emerged soon after me. We had plenty of time before we had to be at the climb center and so we went for breakfast in a small diner at the bottom of the mountain. I needed plenty of caffeine. But that tale is for another blog.
Afterwards, we were unable to contact Emily and Rob, there was no cell phone signal, so we decided to explore an abandoned school that we'd seen locally. It had been closed for a few years, judging by the dates on magazines lying around, and seemed to be used as some sort of storage space.
The roof was leaking, the floors in the gym and hallways were sodden. Old furniture was piled up in rooms and was possibly once organized, but vandals had been in, throwing stuff about and leaving a few token empty beer cans and bottles. There was also a pervading smell of mold, we didn't stay long.
 Back at camp we met with the others, who'd been on a hike, and set to preparing dinner. We had all expended a fair amount of energy and were ready for a feast. The late afternoon was cool and sunny, as if autumn was attempting an early start. With plenty of daylight left, we started a fire and opened the coolers for food and very welcome beers.
Emily and Rob prepared kebabs while Margie and I cut some more firewood. It was hard work and we only managed 2 logs each. but we had plenty to keep us going through the night and also for breakfast. It was so relaxing, to later sit in front of the flames and unwind after our busy days. We still had no immediate neighbors and when conversation lulled, we all just stared contentedly into the flames, the crackling and spitting of the fire being the only sound. It was wonderfully therapeutic and I fervently hoped I was tired enough to get some sleep that night.
Margie got some practice in before we all headed to our sleeping bags, the fire sending dancing shadows against the side of my tent.
The next morning I emerged with another stiff back which gradually loosened up as we spent the next couple of hours having a leisurely breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausage, then slowly packing up camp. We had to be out by 11am but managed to drive away about 11:30. We descended a short way down the mountain to Spruce Knob Lake, the highest lake in WV. Man made in 1953, on its opening day the banks were filled with people and their fishing rods. Today there were only a few people, either fishing, kayaking or walking around the 1 mile perimeter, like us.
This whole mountain has beautiful vegetation. There are so many varieties, with different conifers, deciduous trees, mosses and lichens, wild flowers and grasses, and even because of the recent rainfall, numerous fungi. We even saw a couple of the Ghost Bells plant that I'd first come across on a hike a couple of weeks ago. We saw a water snake and plenty of butterflies and bees, there was little or no pollution up here, the air was fresh, crisp and sweet. I would be happy to live here, the scenery was untainted and so varied that a whole day could be spent exploring this small area. From meadow flowers, to springy marsh grasses or thick pine needles under spruce canopies, everywhere you looked there was something interesting to look at. This is a little piece of heaven, and luckily, due to its remoteness, not heavily frequented. And only campers are allowed to put boats on the water.
We left the lake to drive to the top of the mountain, the highest point in WV at 4861 feet. Up here, the beautiful red spruce trees dominated the landscape, with huge slabs of 300 million year old Pottsville sandstone rock and boulders beneath them. The climate here is similar to Newfoundland with the plant life similar to Canada's. The views were amazing, a 360 degree panorama of tree covered mountains, with barely any human activity in evidence, just a few small houses with a pocket sized patch cleared to grassland for a few cattle.
Lichens clung to the rock faces in the exposed areas, while under the shade of the branches, thick springy mosses carpeted the woodland floor, the sharp rocks softened to rounded hillocks under their emerald mantle. Small trails weaved through the woods opening up to vast vistas where a bench would be placed to sit on or a rugged expanse of rocks could be clambered over. We saw a couple of small rabbits hopping through the undergrowth, yet I'm sure this place was alive with small creatures, likely hiding in the many tunnels and holes we spied amongst the mossy boulders.
Rob climbed aloft on a huge boulder in the distance and posed for a photo while Margie worked her way towards him over the rocky pavement. Neither of them realized that their conversations carried to where Emily and I stood on our vantage point, and we laughed as we heard a commotion behind the rocks with Rob trying to hoist Margie up on to the largest boulder while she complained loudly. Margie then appeared on the smaller boulder in front, throwing her arms wide, as Rob had done earlier, and told him, "They don't know I'm not on the big rock!". Oh, yes we do Margie, we laughed. She had no idea we had heard her every word!
We left Spruce Knob and drove down the mountain towards Seneca. Rob had spied a store there, named Yokum's, named like him but with a different spelling, and he wanted a photo.
We nosed around the store. I was tempted to buy the Road Kill Grill seasoning but settled instead for a banana pudding ice cream, which was the best banana flavored ice cream I'd ever had. I smirked greedily with my 2 scoops when Emily lamented that she wanted more after finishing her 1 scoop, and quickly scuttled past in case she wanted to share mine. Rob posed for his photo, and then Margie and I left Emily and Rob to head back home. We'd had plenty of activity on our weekend and as we drove back towards Meadow House, with Seneca Rocks catching the late afternoon sun behind us, I was already looking forward to a soft comfy mattress and a good night's sleep.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Road of Iron leads the Faint of Heart

A few weeks ago Margie had sent the gang an e-mail to see if we'd join her climbing on Via Ferrata, 2 vertical rock fins in WV. I'd studied the photos and taken a few days to decide, not really totally into this idea, but eventually agreed to climb with her, thinking, if I didn't do it now, then I never would. Everyone else declined. And as the weekend drew closer I fretted over the decision I'd made, chewing my fingers down and hoping an avalanche would reduce the mountain to a pile of rubble. But there was no escape. The weekend arrived and with the weather forecast looking perfect for outdoor activities, sunny with no humidity, I realized my end had come.
I'd always, and to some extent still am, a reckless and fearless person, always a thrill seeker, loving adventure and fast rides. Having ridden my motorcycles kneeling on the seat with arms outstretched, or hammering around corners at 70mph, my foot pegs throwing up sparks, or running to be the first on the tallest roller coaster, and then riding with arms in the air, or sitting in the front of a bi-plane while it corkscrewed to the ground, or fought blazing fires as a firefighter with flames licking up my legs, I've always relished and looked forward to these kind of events. But today was different. I've noticed as I've got older that my tolerance of heights has diminished considerably, and I never really enjoyed that rock climbing course many years ago, so why the hell had I agreed to this? I still don't have the answer except for maybe I saw Margie's offer as a little bit of a dare, or maybe I didn't want to regret not having done it after the event had passed.
But none of that mattered now. The terrifying moment had arrived, there was no backing out, unless I wanted to look a complete dork, so with my back and shoulders killing me from my night in the tent, and my eyelids only held open by sheer terror because I'd had virtually no sleep the night before, we drove away from the camp to look for coffee. We found a dear little diner at the bottom of the mountain, with a sign on the counter top, stating, "We do not have wi-fi...Talk to each other, pretend it's 1995." But I didn't want to talk, I wanted to try and lose myself in QVC shopping or a football game, anything to stop me thinking about my impending doom. I did want lots of coffee and was actually amazed that I tucked away an omelette and home fries. I sure hoped they'd stay down...
We arrived at the center and I lapsed into silence as we waited for the terror to begin. Then we were shown how to tug on harnesses with huge carabina clips and finally our helmet. I looked at the other 9 people in our group. They were all youngsters, none over 30, Margie and I were the oldest by far. We all introduced ourselves and I was amazed to find out that Megan was also celebrating her birthday on Monday, although she was a lot younger than me. We then left the center and instead of getting taken to our starting point in a van or bus, we had to hike uphill half a mile, (but it felt like 5), to the rock face.
And there it was, the Wall of Terror. Steep, formidable, and very high. Tom, one of our instructors, told us the 'do's and don'ts', ensuring we were fully aware of all the safety factors, because we could die! He didn't say that, but I knew it was what he meant. And off he went, slowly climbing up, showing us how to tackle the wall. A couple went in front of me, working their way up, also slowly, and then it was my turn. I took a deep breath and reached for the first rung, and then the next. On the fourth rung, I couldn't advance. The rung I needed to get my foot on was OK, I could just about reach that but I couldn't reach the rung for my left hand and there was nowhere to put my right hand. I was trembling all over, even my tummy inside. "I'm stuck." I whimpered feebly. Callan, our other instructor below, gave me encouraging words, convincing me that my reaction was normal and I could do it. I really didn't want to look like the world's biggest pussy and have to climb back down again, so I lunged for the rung and pulled myself up.
Despite feeling weak from my fear I managed to keep going, just focusing on the next rung and keeping my carabinas firmly clipped onto the steel cable that ran along the whole ascent. We had to keep clipping off and on, the cable was in lengths of 4ft or more, and we had to ensure one carabina was clipped to the cable before we unclipped the other. Focusing on this routine of ensuring that I was safely attached to the wall at all times helped to calm my nerves and I was amazed to realize that I was actually enjoying myself!
Up and up we ascended, and every so often I looked down at Margie to make sure she was behind me. We were progressing really well, the others behind her weren't even in sight. I was feeling quite pleased with myself and treated myself to a brief break to take a photo of the view. It was stunning and I didn't feel giddy in the slightest.
There was one moment when scuttling sideways on a narrow ledge of about 3", my fingers trying to find finger holds above me, when I heard Tom ahead of me cracking jokes and I giggled. But then I panicked, realizing I needed to have all my attention on the wall and not on him. Fear swept through me again as I looked down and realized how high up we were, and I thought, "What the hell am I doing here!" But I stared at the wall and regained control, concentrating on my next step and I was soon OK again. I met Tom perched on a ledge, guiding us around an outcrop, where the corner was so tight it was difficult to see where the rungs were. I was fine as I swung round and gripped tightly, suddenly finding myself having to lean back and hold all my weight with my arms as I was under an overhang.
But I worked my way through, feeling victorious once I put my feet down on a wider ledge and waited for Margie to arrive. And then looking ahead I could see the bridge. I knew we'd have a break once everyone had reached that plateau.
We all found a rock on sit on and supped a well earned drink. This was also the time for us to eat lunch but I was too euphoric for food. I had achieved something I had honestly doubted I could, and was on top of the world. Literally! I didn't ache or feel sore, or even feel worn out. I wanted to keep going. After about 10 minutes it was time to cross the bridge. This for me, was going to be the best part, the fun in our event. I was looking forward to it, and the photos I would take as I crossed.
Matt was the first to approach the bridge, and extremely slowly he made his way across. Gabe approached but he faltered. After just a short way onto the bridge, he turned back, resolutely refusing to cross. This was the second part of the ascent where people could leave the climb if they felt it was too much, and he chose to leave. Callan told us that about 50 percent of folk don't make the crossing. Megan then stood on the bridge and also faltered before turning back. And then it was my turn. 
I stood on the first narrow plank and then the second. Suddenly I felt my insides turn to ice and thought I was going to vomit and also burst into tears. I couldn't do it. I quickly backtracked and fled to my rock, sitting down quickly. For the first time in my life, I was unable to make myself do something. I felt incredibly weak, mentally and physically, but I couldn't go across that thing. The planks were so thin and narrow, so far apart, that I hadn't felt safe, even though I knew it had to be. I wasn't going to finish the ascent and that upset me. I had been so sure of completing this mission but I just couldn't move forward. Megan had another go at crossing but then returned, so the three of us had to climb and hike up to a trail where we would be picked up and taken back down to the center.
I took one last photo of the view and turned away, feeling like a complete failure. On the bus Megan berated herself and felt that after a couple of hours she'd want to try the crossing again. Not me. I knew I was beat, and that feeling lasted for a few days. Only then did I think that maybe I could have another go, but I just wondered if that was because my memory had softened over time. Gabe felt the same as me, he wasn't wanting to have another go that day, and likely not any other day either. I felt resigned but also disappointed, even a little shocked that my body had betrayed me like that. I've done some things in my life that people had said I was nuts to do and not once felt as sick or weak as I had on that bridge. I was feeling very sorry for myself but was delighted when Megan suggested getting beers to drink while we waited for the other to complete their climb. I readily agreed and we later sat on the porch of the climb center, supping our ales and relating our experience.
We'd passed this big rattler on the way back down, and I was glad to have something interesting to distract me from my sorrow, even though we weren't allowed to get near. I had really been hoping to hear that rattle...
Via Ferrata is Italian for 'iron road' referring to the metal rungs, posts and cables that are followed throughout the climb. This route was only laid less than 20 years ago. The center's full history and more information can be found here.
And while writing this, I ponder. Maybe I should have given that bridge another go....