About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Friday, September 15, 2017

Seek


"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more."
—Lord Byron, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage"

Copyright © 2017
By Ralph F. Couey

There are many natural wonders, all of which strike a responsive chord of some kind.  Some speak to us in peaceful serenity.  Others inspire awe, the proverbial “wow.”  Fields of flowers, vivid and joyful in their colors.  A snow-capped mountain rising from the plains below, and the reverse view of the limitless land seen from high above.  Sometimes it is the majestic power of a thunderstorm, or the yellows and reds of a sunset sky.  Maybe its just a quiet afternoon beside the still waters of a lake.
We need those moments.  We need those wonders.  We need to be awed.

Life is often a chaotic mess racing at breakneck speed as the days click past like posts along a country road.  Have-to-do’s and gotta-be-there’s make us frantic; being late or missing them entirely fills us with frustration and sometimes anger.  The only time things slow down are those few moments at night between laying down and drifting off to a fitful sleep.  Even then, our minds are full of thoughts of what lies in wait for us tomorrow.

We do this to ourselves, it seems, with a great deal of glee.  Sometimes we boast to others just how busy we are, forgetting that this is not supposed to be a competition.  Even vacations, which are supposed to be those times when we do relax, are filled, morning to midnight, with activities to the point that when we return home, we are tired all over again.

Here then is the eternal mystery, life lived at such a pace that we reach the destination without any knowledge of the journey.

Life is not about destinations.  These things we call destinations are in reality little more than way points.  When we reach one, we are immediately thinking about the next one.  What we should be doing is to stop, look around, and take stock of where we are, and where we’ve come from.  The midpoint of any journey is when things are happening.  We learn, and put those lessons into practice.  We succeed, and we fail, we laugh and we cry.  Through it all, we are moving.  The starting and ending points are pauses, moments of stasis.  Nothing happens because either we haven’t started, or we’re already done.  Thus that space in between is where that thing we call “life” happens.

We fly through our lives caught up in the frenetic pace set by the “have to dos” and “gotta be theres” that populate and drive our days.  But in every one of those days, there will be a moment; a colorful sunrise; a beautiful blue sky; in the midst of a gloomy, rainy afternoon, a beautiful rainbow.  Perhaps a quick glance reveals beams of sunlight among the trees.  Coming home late, perhaps a glance above reveals the beauty and mystery of the universe. 

Those moments when they occur, need to be noticed; they need to be felt.  After all, nature is best seen by the heart.  It is her way of whispering to us, a reminder that her greatest works are there for us whenever we are ready to view them.  It is so important to take that time, embrace those moments because they can ease our stresses, and even heal our pain. 

To spend such moments is a gift; to actually seek them out is perhaps the result of an unheard but deeply felt cry of pain from within the deepest parts of ourselves.  There, removed from other people, the strain of the constant load we all carry, and just away from all the noise and tumult we are freed.  We seem to be alone, but we actually are anything but.  Surrounded and embraced thus, it is us, nature, and God.

Seek out the natural creation.  Empty your mind and fill your soul. 

Find yourself.

Monday, September 11, 2017

9/11/2017: Just Another Day?

Photo Copyright © 2011 
by Ralph F. Couey

Copyright ©2017
by Ralph F. Couey

"Time moves in one direction;
Memory in another."
--William Gibson

16 years ago, the calm beauty of a Tuesday morning was shattered by news reports that defied belief.  Somehow, terrorists had taken control of four airliners and were flying them into buildings.  First one tower of the World Trade Center, then the other tower, then the Pentagon across the Potomac from the nation's capitol.  The fourth plane, probably targeting the U.S. Capitol building, was forced down over rural Pennsylvania when the surviving passengers and crew took the first offensive act of the Global War on Terror.  Thousands died that day, along with the destruction of landmarks symbolic of America's government, military, and economy.  There exists a persistent assertion that there may have been as many as four other teams whose attacks never occurred, mainly due to the exigencies of the U.S. air transportation system. Their flights were delayed until the FAA shut down the skies over America, thus they never got off the ground.

The attacks changed history. They changed America.  They changed us.  From that day on, time was divided into two periods:  pre-9/11, and post-9/11.  Every year since, Americans have commemorated the attacks with solemn ceremonies across the country, most usually involving the tolling of bells as the names of those who died that day are read.  At first, a lot of attention was paid, not only through attendance, but watching on television, since all the networks, cable and others, carried the ceremonies live.  It was a rare moment of unity shared by a people who have found themselves increasingly polarized.

Then there came a moment when the open wound of that experience closed.  The scar remained however, something we would all gently touch every September 11th.  As time has put increasing distance between that day and today, we have become less attentive to the anniversary.  Solemn ceremonies are still held, but fewer people attend.  The networks no longer air them live, choosing to briefly summarize them in a short slot between political news stories.  Flags are still half-staffed, but when people see that, there is that moment of confusion, and then the "Oh....yeah."  It leads me to the question, is 9/11 becoming just another day?

The Gibson quote with which I opened this post says a lot about human nature.  One of the most familiar adages, "Time heals all wounds," has become so familiar that the original author has become almost lost to history.  The earliest iteration seems to be the Greek dramatist Menander who coined the similar "Time is the healer of all necessary evils" some time around 320 BCE.  It is more accurate perhaps to opine that the wound never really closes.  Over time, we just get used to the pain.  

Also at work is the impact of human generations.  Now entering the high schools across the country are the first wave of those for whom 9/11 is history instead of memory.  It will never be as personal for them as it was for us who watched as those horrific events unfolded before our eyes, in living color.  For them to know...to feel what that day was like, they have to be taught by the rest of us.  And to be honest there seems to be more interest in teaching them the evils of whatever political side their parents and educators aren't on than about that moment when our differences dissolved and we all stood as one.  That kinda makes sense.  For those of us who were awake and aware on that day, we really needed those commemorations; it was a part of our healing, a shared catharsis.  For the young, they don't feel that they need ceremonies for an event for which they have no personal involvement.

Time has put distance between now and then, and therefore, the urgency and heartache we felt has lessened.  It is probable that in time, September 11th will become like December 7th; just another day.  There is a kind of sadness in that realization.  But it is also important to remember that the enemies who perpetrated those attacks, and would like nothing better than to repeat them, 9/11 is day of celebration.  And perhaps, just perhaps, when they see that it just doesn't matter that much to us they may realize that while they scared us, wounded us, and for a time, united us in a righteous anger, they see that the attacks didn't really change us.  We still live our lives free to determine our own personal destiny.  If we have dreams, and the will and stamina to make them happen, there's no grim Jihadi standing in our way.  Our economy not only recovered, but managed to survive an even nastier shock imposed by the banking terrorists in 2008.  Terrorism, or even the threat of terrorist attacks, doesn't dominate the news, or our discussions around the water cooler or over the back fence.  Yes, getting on an airliner is still a ripe old pain in the ass, but it is something we are used to now, kind of like a limp we've had for so long we are no longer consciously aware of it.  

However, I wonder about the people who lost friends and loved ones that day, who parted with that perfunctory wave or quick peck on the lips, not knowing that it would be the last moment together.  Do they still wake up on September 11th feeling sadness and a sense of loss?  Do they still weep on this day over the memories?  As mundane as it has become for us, will they ever really truly know peace?

As time continues to pass, the memory of 9/11 will become even more faded and indistinct.  There might come a year when no ceremonies are held, no bells toll, no names are read and the most horrific day of this generation becomes just a minor footnote in a college history course.  I think it means for us to decide just how important the events of 2001 are, and how much we feel the need to remember.  

The honest answer to those ruminations will, I think, say more about us than we will ever want to admit.  But for now, we will remember the attacks.  We will remember the names.  We will remember the countless acts of courage and sacrifice by those who tried to help.  It is a duty, I think, for us to remember.  

And a solemn promise to the ages that whatever happens, we will never forget.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Seeing the Sun, Knowing the Universe

©KSNT News

© Copyright 2017 
by Ralph F. Couey

Wildfires are a way of life in the western U.S.  Every summer, the rains stop, the heat starts, and the land dries to a matchstick volatility.  At that point, it only takes a spark from a small campfire, a large spark from a lightning bolt, or in one case, radiant heat from a parked SUV's catalytic converter to get blaze going.  This year has been no different with acreage burning in just about every western state except Washington.  

Here in Denver, a freakish meteorological condition involving the jet stream has funneled smoke from fires burning not just in Colorado, but from California, Montana, and Oregon into and over the Mile High City.  The sky, normally a clear and vivid blue now resembles 1964 Los Angeles.  Folks with respiratory ailments have been forced indoors with air conditioners running on days when frankly, they weren't needed temperature wise.  This has affected not only the visibility, but the usual Chamber of Commerce views of the Rockies have been completely obscured.  At night the moon rises, the smoke cloaking it in an ominous blood-red lens.  It is s altogether annoying, if not unsettling.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The California Republic -- Dream vs. Reality


Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

Californians -- both citizen and government -- have long boasted how economically self-sufficient their state has become, to the point where some firmly believe that California could survive quite nicely on its own, outside the United States.  That rhetoric has increased in volume since the last election.  Californians, overwhelmingly liberal Democrat in political viewpoint, are utterly unwilling to contemplate being a part of a country that had the temerity to elect a Republican, especially Donald J. Trump for whom most consider the term "buffoon" to be too high a compliment.

There have always been secession movements in this country, although most (outside the Civil War) involve splitting states, not leaving the Union.  Western Maryland, for example, is politically the photographic negative of the eastern half of the state, where the liberals in Baltimore and Annapolis run the whole state through their leftist lens.  For a few decades, there was a movement to separate northern from southern California.  But to this point in history, the only state to split apart was Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War, dividing into Confederate Virginia and Union West Virginia.

But things have become more complex since 1863.  The interweaving strands of economy and culture are far more dense today.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The End

                             The vicious cold of Bastogne          The sweltering heat of Peleliu

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Coue

"To our good and loyal subjects:  
After pondering deeply the general trends of the world 
and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, 
we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation 
by resorting to an extraordinary measure.
We have ordered our Government to communicate 
to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union 
that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration.
We charge you, Our loyal subjects, to carry out faithfully, Our will."
--Hirohito, Emperor of Japan
August 15, 1945

August 15, 1945 was an oppressively hot day in Washington, DC.  The high reached 91 degrees with the humidity of 74%.  But the heat was mostly ignored as bits and pieces of  scintillating news swirled around America's shrine city.  Finally at noon, it was announced that Emperor Hirohito had told the Japanese people that his government had accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.  Although the word "surrender" was carefully avoided, the meaning was clear.  The war was finally over.

Germany had surrendered three months earlier, but even during the wild celebrations that followed, the harsh reality was never far from anyone's mind that The War was still not over.  Soldiers in Europe had begun to prepare for the grim transfer to the Pacific Theater for what seemed to be the inevitable invasion of the home islands of Japan.  It would have been a horrible fight.  Conservative estimates pegged Allied losses at roughly one million soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen.  Since the defending Japanese forces would have included old men, women and many adolescent children armed with little more than sharp sticks, Japan's losses likely would have topped 20 million people.  With the high post-war birth rate, it is possible to extrapolate that as many as 100 million people are alive today because their grandparents and great-grandparents weren't killed in that assault.

There is also the consideration of Soviet involvement.  With Japan's society decimated and most of their homeland reduced to rubble, it would have been fairly easy for Russian troops to invade and occupy the northern islands. As documents show, this was in fact the plan of the Soviet leadership.  Japan, instead of the economic and industrial powerhouse it became, would have been reduced to another divided Cold War battleground, like Korea and Vietnam.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Signs of the Times of Yore


Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

Memory is a funny thing.  Snippets from the past can lie dormant in the brain for decades until one day, quite by accident, a word, a picture, even a sound can unlock that storage and unleash a wave of sweet nostalgia.  It sneaks up on you and quite without warning transports you back to a time long ago, and almost long forgotten.

I don't have a FaceBook account myself.  I prefer to piggyback on my wife's account, mainly because it seems like too much work to set up my own.  One of the groups I (we) follow is one called "Growing up in Independence, MO."  This week, one of the members posted some pictures from the 1960's one of which was of the Mugs Up root beer stand.  Seeing the place was the key that unlocked that musty storage locker in my head.  We had a similar place much closer, a real classic of the drive-in era, called "Dog n' Suds."

I've lived a lot of places, but Independence was where I've spent the most time, especially my formative years.  We moved there from Los Angeles in 1960 not too long after the building containing my Dad's office burned to the ground.  We spent the first two years in a rental house before buying a new home on Mark Avenue.  Being six at the time of our move, and eight when we got the new place, I hadn't really been old enough to have been vested in Southern California.  I do remember how hot and muggy our new home town was, compounded by the lack of air conditioning, which my Dad considered an extravagance until he finally had central air installed a few years later after the onslaught of Missouri summers conquered his fiscal stubbornness.

There were those oppressive summer evenings when we would be sitting in the living room watching TV with electric fans whirring away until Dad would decide that we needed some relief.  We'd pile into the car (which was also non-air conditioned) and drive for about 10 minutes or so before pulling into a slot under the garish yellow lights which always seemed to attract a multitude of flying insects.  A teenager would come out and take our orders, and return a few minutes later with several iced glass mugs holding that treat of treats, the Black Cow.  This was, of course, the same root beer float we could have made at home, but going out, as rare as we did that, made it special.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Giving Our Best to America





Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey


"America was not built on fear.
America was built on courage, on imagination, 
and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand."
--Harry S. Truman


Every summer, Americans take a day off in July.  Businesses and government offices are closed, people flock to the grocers and the warehouse stores and lay in supplies from a case of burgers to tents, sleeping bags, and the other accoutrements of camping.  But whatever we do during the day, as the sun goes down through that universally warm and humid atmosphere, we gather in places great and small and wait with great anticipation for the night sky to explode in that cacophony of bright lights and booming sounds that are fireworks.

As far as I can tell, this custom was born on the long night of September 14, 1814.  British gunboats, in an attempt to take Baltimore harbor, shelled the keystone of that harbor's defense, Ft. McHenry for 27 hours.  When dawn broke on September 15, a huge American flag fluttered above the fort, stating without equivocation that it was still in American hands.

Out in the harbor on a truce ship, an American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, witnessed the bombardment and that breathless moment when the site of the Stars and Stripes pierced the fog and smoke.  Inspired, Key wrote the first words of a poem which would eventually become our national anthem.  Since then, on the evening of July 4th, skies across our country have been lit up with fantastic displays, emulating that long bombardment.  The thing I find most remarkable is that during that time, we all sit together without enmity and celebrate being Americans.

That transient moment of unity is, like so many other things, a facade.  As soon as the fireworks stop and the lights come up, we will go back to just being us.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Sonora, and its Siren Call

Giant Saguaro Cactus,
The symbol of the Sonora Desert

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

Since coming here with my Dad in my youth, I have long had an affection for the desert southwest.  To me, it has always been a land without limits; a wide open sky surrounded by a horizon that seems to go on forever.  The land is  mostly flat, but dotted by mountains that seem to spring up suddenly from the desert floor, some of which have been sculpted over the centuries into strange and inscrutable shapes.

It's tempting to call this land "empty." There are none of the thick hardwood forests of the northeast, or the streams and rivers of the midwest.  Birdsong, the joyous soundtrack of any woodland hike, won't be found here in abundance.  In my hikes thus far, the only birds I've heard have been the squawking cry of the huge Chihuahuan Raven and the somber, sad plaint of the mourning dove.  But the land teems with life.  You have to know where to look.



Twenty to Forty million years ago, the Sonora Desert was a hotbed of volcanic activity.  The land holds that memory in the form of several giant caldera and signs of lava flows.  Then the drift of continental plates began to stretch and pull the region apart.  The crust crumbled into the the sudden uplifted mountains and hills that remain today.  Mountains bordering what is now the desert, uplifted high enough to cut off the flow of moisture from the Pacific Ocean.  The land dried out and plantlife over time adapted to the new climate. The air sinks into the desert basin, compressing and heating.  Unrelieved by moisture, the heat in this region can reach into the 120-degree range, as it did last week.  But nature is adaptive, and in the hot sands, plants such as the Giant Saguaro and the Organ Pipe cacti flourish.  Sagebrush (not related to the herb sage in any way) also covers the ground.  Rather than being empty, the land is full of animal life.  Coyotes, chipmunks, jackrabbits, javelina, rattlesnakes, Gila Monsters all live in the desert.  In addition the smaller critters, seemingly dozens of types of flies, spiders (especially the black widow and tarantula), scorpions reside here as well.  The large number of venomous creatures will demand close attention of the terrain by human hikers.

This is a harsh land, not for those of weak constitutions.  The heat during the summer months, and the epic thunderstorms and flash floods that occur during the July monsoon pose dangers to people.  The land doesn't absorb much moisture, so when it rains, just about all the water becomes runoff.  Dry gullies can become raging torrents.  Streets and roads can become flooded in a matter of minutes.  Early settlers understood this, and the descriptive names like Skull Valley, Rough Rock, Tombstone, and Bitter Springs tell a history of their own.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Wild, Wild West of Cinema


Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

I grew up watching the west.  Not so much the actual place, although I did travel there with my father several times.  No, this was the west that was shown to me through the magic of films and television.  It was a land of cruel, if antiseptic violence, but a place where heroes could be found, and where right almost always triumphed.

It was not a day for the faint of heart.  The temperatures were well into triple digits, and some 6 visitors had already been taken away for medical treatment by the time we arrived.  After being cautioned to "water up frequently" by our guide, Sheriff Jack, we headed through the gates and into the past.



In 1939, Columbia Studios needed a set for their upcoming movie "Arizona."  Not finding a suitable location in Southern California, they traveled to Tucson, Arizona.  Already a place where several films had been done, the flat desert, relieved by the sudden uplift of isolated mountains, and decorated by sage brush and giant Saguaro cacti was a filmmaker's delight.  The company decided on a site just west of the Tucson Mountains off a winding dirt road which had serviced camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a tuberculosis preventorium.  In a month, the company sunk a well, built a power plant, and constructed an exact replica of Tucson, circa 1862.  When filming was completed in June, the movie folks packed up and went back to Hollywood, leaving the set to become a ghost town.  Then, in 1946, the Junior Chamber of Commerce opened the set on weekends, setting up some concessions, and put on some recreations.  Some people did come, braving the 10 miles of twisting, dusty dirt road to arrive 100 years in the past.  During their tenancy, the JayCees made some rough repairs to the building and managed to sub-lease the set for the production of 22 movies.  Each production added new buildings and renovated old ones, according to their needs.

In 1959, a Kansas City promoter and entrepreneur name Robert Shelton assumed the lease and turned what was called "Old Tucson" into a tourist destination.  The dusty streets were lined with restaurants and stores, and Shelton added realistic gunfight shows.  Old Tucson in short order became the most visited tourist site in Arizona, after the Grand Canyon.  Shelton was a born salesman, and that talent, plus his contacts in Hollywood, brought the filming of some 112 movies, 48 TV shows, and also a lot of commercials.  Another set town, named "Mescal," a remote set 30 miles out into the trackless desert was also built.  While Old Tucson remains open to the public, Mescal is only accessible by special invitation.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Rock of Aging



Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey


Past a certain age in life, the number of obligations begin to shrink in number, creating, or I should say, recreating moments of spontaneity.  Such a thing happened Sunday when, quite by accident, we discovered that Chicago and the Doobie Brothers, two rock bands who had largely shaped my adolescence, were in Phoenix for a one-night show.  It was so spontaneous that I bought the tickets on my phone standing in the parking lot. 

For teenagers and young adults, music, as much as any other thing, provides not only entertainment, but a soundtrack through which our lives are expressed.  I turned twelve in 1967, which meant that my brain was filled with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, and yes, Elvis.  As the decade turned over into the 70’s, the music took a much harder edge.  The Beatles were now four separate acts.  The Stones, Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the Grateful Dead.  Pop now achieved its divorce from rock n’ roll with the Jacksons, Elton John, Neil Diamond, and the Supremes.  Folk emerged from the Village coffee houses and we heard Gordon Lightfoot, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Simon & Garfunkle, and Joni Mitchell.  Motown surged with muscular authority with James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Gladys and the Pips, and Wilson Pickett.  American radio stations blasted listeners with all those formats, a kind of electronic cross-culturalism.

I had several favorite acts, and a ton of favorite songs.  But around 1970, two bands emerged for me. 
In 1969 San Jose, California, survivors of a band called Moby Grape formed a new group that would eventually evolve into the Doobie Brothers.  By 1972, they were charting nationally. Their unique sound pushed through the background noise and captured my attention.  I remember when Cheryl was pregnant with our son, I would put a Doobies record on and place the headphones on her belly, hoping to entertain that developing fetus.  Oddly, after he was born, he never liked either band.
About that same time, another band came out of Chicago, originally called “The Big Thing” and “Chicago Transit Authority” until threatened legal action by that city’s mass transit bureaucracy force a shortening of the name to simply “Chicago.”  They were a rock band with horns, a trombone, sax, and trumpet, that brought a bright, brassy sound to the radio.  I was a brass player, so naturally they appealed to me.  Those two bands were at the top of my charts from adolescence through almost early middle age.  I had gone to see Chicago when they were touring with the Beach Boys round 1975, but hadn’t been back since.  I had never seen the Doobies on stage.  So it was with great anticipation that we entered Ak Chin Pavilion that evening.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

In the Presence of the Past

The Ruins at Casa Grande

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

"The ascendance over men's minds of the ruins of the stupendous past,
the past of history, legend, and myth, 
at once factual and fantastic, is half-mystical in basis.
The intoxication is not the romantic melancholy 
engendered by broken towers and moldered stones.
It is the soaring of the imagination into the high empyrean
where huge episodes are tangled with myths and dreams;
it is the stunning impact of world history on its amazed heirs."
--Rose Macaulay

I have my life long been fascinated by the past.  Whether a stack of newspapers from World War II America or a stunning Mayan temple in Mexico, history speaks to me in a way nothing else does.  Today was our first completely free day since coming to Arizona and we set out early to do some exploring.  Our first stop was a set of ruins, the last remnants of a culture of native Americans that thrived for about 1,150 years before fading from history around 1400 CE. 

The site is located outside of Coolidge, Arizona, about 20 miles from the city of Casa Grande.  It consists of the remains of what are likely residential structures surrounding a massive structure that the Spaniards called "Casa Grande," or Big House.

The civilization responsible for this impressive construction were the last of the hunter-gatherers that settled in the Gila River Valley around 300 CE.  Their specialty was agriculture, an amazing undertaking in the Sonoran Desert.  To bring water to their crops, they hand-dug some 220 miles of canals.  The culture, originally called "Hohokam" and now referred to as "Ancestral Sonoran Desert Peoples," thrived for over 1,100 years before fading away around 1400.  The cause for the collapse and dispersion vary -- some say a breakdown of civil authority or internal or external conflict.  But the likeliest explanation is that they were victims of their own success.  At their height, some 2,000 souls lived in the communities along the canals.  It is highly possible that the population increased beyond the land's ability to support.  This is partially supported by the thought that the civilization Balkanized -- broke into smaller groups.  It is surmised that this culture were the forebears of the Pima and Tohono O'odham cultures.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Where We Are, Who We Are, What We Are

From Pinterest.com

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

Every part of the country – heck, every part of the world has its particular charms and curses.  These are things like weather, geography, traffic, etc…  More often than not, they are the things that a particular area is best known for, or reputed to be.  Those elements even have a way of shaping the people who live there.  The northeast and mountain west have their long and blizzardy winters.  The southeast has hurricanes, and they along with the rest of the south and much of the Midwest are burdened with impossibly hot and humid summers, and tornados to boot. California has earthquakes, and under a National Park in Montana and Wyoming there lies slumbering a super volcano that, if awoken, would likely end civilization as we know it.

Each of those regional challenges creates a bit of a swagger among those who have to face them, although that doesn’t necessarily make them completely tough.  I’ve known several New Englanders who on one hand brag about surviving a winter nor’easter, only to wilt completely on what passes for a reasonably normal summers day in Phoenix or Las Vegas.

Still, we like to think that living in proximity to nature’s examples of bad temper does make us stronger in some ways, even speciously.  Coloradans like to think that the privilege of staring up at those snow-capped peaks every day makes them naturally superior to ordinary mortals.  Hawaiians feel the same way about “their” ocean.  I grew up in Missouri, which is not really known for much.  But I’ll never forget the reaction of a visitor from Korea on a drive from St. Louis to Liberal, Kansas.  She was struck speechless as we spent hour upon hour driving through productive farmland, crops stretching to the horizon, so different from her native land.  At one point she whispered, “No wonder you Americans can feed the world.”  But despite my momentary bump of national pride, I reminded myself that Americans don’t know what it’s like to live within range of 20,000 artillery guns owned by a leader whose rationality is suspect.

Friday, June 02, 2017

The Dream, and Living It


Appalachian Trail, Virginia

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

It's early.  The night has just given way to a grey, overcast dawn.  It had been raining when we arrived the night before, not a heavy downpour, but that kind of steady, patient fall that always seems to murmur, "Relax. I'm gonna be here awhile."

We had come east from Colorado to spend a few days with family, the part of which we left behind when that heavy steel door marked "retirement" closed behind me with that heavy, hollow boom of finality.  My wife is what is called a travel nurse, a contractor working 13-week assignments before moving on to the next one.  The stay is Colorado is done.  Now, we will head for a town south of Phoenix to endure the brutal heat of an Arizona summer.  We don't know what experiences lie in wait, though admittedly, that is part of the adventure.

My life long, I've always been anchored by the idea of "home."  In my case, a structure wherein resided my family; where I could relax and be myself.  Where I felt safe. It was a place to leave, and a place to which to return, a place I could say I was from.  But within me has always been a restless streak; a strange desire to live on the road, going where my whims directed, staying only as long as I wanted to, and hitting the road again.  It's a life that has fascinated me; to drift along from place to place, the only direction given by the capricious winds.  In my mind's eye, we did this on the back of a horse, or a motorcycle, loping along through plain, prairie, and desert.  That romantic tableau only somewhat altered to the comforts of an SUV, the wilderness trails swapped for highway asphalt.

Despite this wild urging, my life has always been framed by a safe predictability.  While the long-term future remained ever fuzzy, the short-term view seemed to provide a clear path and a life anchored by a career, a home, bills -- the dragging anchor of obligation.  While stultifyingly mundane, that structure gave me a sense of security to those passing moments we all know as the "now."  The environment in which we now find ourselves is completely different.  A lot of hard work and sacrifice has eliminated almost all of our debt.  We now enjoy that wonderful sense of freedom of not being weighed down, or even smothered, being forced to delay or even abandon dreams to the steel cage of revolving payments.  In that process, we've learned how to say "no" to ourselves, trying to limit our possessions to what can fit in the back of the vehicle.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Where Dawn's Early Light Illuminated a Nation


Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

The morning rain had given way to a light mist and a warm, palpable humidity, an unfamiliar sensation after bone-dry Colorado.  Leaving the glass and steel towers of downtown Baltimore behind, we carefully drove between two brick pillars that separated the rough industrial infrastructure of the port from the red brick and deep green grass of the grounds of Fort McHenry.  

The War of 1812 is probably, along with Korea, the least known and understood of America's historical conflicts.  The seeds of war were sown at first in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.  On June 22, 1807, the British warship HMS Leopard encountered and hailed the American frigate USS Chesapeake in the waters off Norfolk, Virginia.  A British officer boarded and presented Captain James Barron with a warrant for British deserters.  Captain Barron refused the warrant and sent the officer back to the Leopard.  The situation quickly escalated when Leopard opened fire on the Chesapeake. The American ship had just put to sea prepared for a long voyage and her decks were cluttered with freight, and her guns unloaded.  In response to the barrage, Chesapeake managed only one return shot.  With his ship damaged and dead and wounded among his crew, Captain Barron struck his colors and surrendered.  The British removed four crewmen from the Chesapeake, one of whom was eventually hanged.  Captain Barron, upon his return to port, was court-martialed.  

The news was received in America with indignation and fury.  The systematic impressment of American merchant sailors, many in US territorial waters by the British added fuel to the growing fire.  Also, the British were materially supporting the effort of a coalition of Native American tribes to control what was then called  the Northwest Territories (modern-day Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota), which resulted in numerous clashes along the disputed border.  Adding to all this was the persistent clamor among American politicians for annexation of British Canada and Spanish Florida.  While this was all a big deal in the U.S., Britain was largely unaware of the deteriorating situation in her former colonies, being neck-deep in yet another continental war with France.  So it was with a great deal of surprise when on June 18, 1812, President James Madison asked congress for a declaration of war.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Where I Want to Live


Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

I want to live in a place where people wake up with the promise that as long as they draw breath, they can make a difference, if not in the whole world, at least their corner of it.

I want to live in a place where friending someone is done over a back fence or a cup of coffee, and not over an artificial electronic network.

I want to live in a place where a conversation consists of more than 140 characters.

I want to live in a place where a smartphone or tablet is a tool, not a way of life.

I want to live in a place where the television is reserved for those times when the weather is too inclement to go visit the neighbors.

I want to live in a place where people watch out for each other, rather than investigate each other.

I want to live in a place where people know their neighborhood, and their neighbors, better than the back of their hand.

I want to live in a place where government knows that the people are their bosses -- not the other way around.

I want to live in a place where people know, and kids learn that the decision to solve one's own problems is the hallmark of being an adult.

I want to live in a place where people know that the most common source of one's difficulties is not government or society, but that familiar face in the mirror.

I want to live in a place where people realize that no matter how fervent their views, there exists the possibility that they may be wrong.

I want to live in a place where debate is a respectful, meaningful process and not a weapon of war.

I want to live in a place where people are kind to each other, for no other reason than "just because."

I want to live in a place where differing opinions don't automatically mean we should hate each other.

I want to live in a place where people are grateful for what they have, not envious of what they lack.

I want to live in a place where people can sing the national anthem loudly and proudly without one shred of self-consciousness or judgement.

I want to live in a place where people prove their discipleship, not by words, but by their everyday actions.  Especially when they think no one's looking.

I want to live in a place where people recognize that a diverse community is a human community.

I want to live in a place where wealth is an opportunity to give back, and poverty is not an invitation to give up.

I want to live in a place where people know that politicians and pundits, if not held accountable for the truth by their own followers, will lie with ease and without conscience.

I want to live in a place where people do the hard, time-consuming job of research to form their own opinions, rather than mindlessly parrot the statements of their leaders.

I want to live in a place where people respect each other's journey, and don't judge the destination.

I know in my heart that somewhere, such a place exists.

Which is why I wait with great anticipation for interstellar travel.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Another Birthday...

Yeah, I feel like this sometimes...

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

A few days from today, the anniversary date of my arrival in this world will arrive.  This has always provoked a time of deep thought about where I am, where I've been, and most importantly, where I'm going.  I think that's a common thing among adults, especially as those years begin to pile up.  

I've discovered that there are three phases of attitude towards birthdays:

(1) Celebration
(2) Denial
(3) Acceptance

These phases are tied to whatever age we find ourselves.  The Celebration phase is strictly for the young.  At that point, we are happy that for at least one day, it's all about us.  We get gifts, a sugary treat (or several), and a measure of indulgence from others.  We get excited and happy, and it's usually a day to be remembered, at least until the next one rolls around.

I see this phase lasting up until about the early 30's.  By then, we begin to notice the subtle signs of age creeping up.  A slight loss of energy.  Maybe we don't have the stamina we used to have.  Getting out of bed in the mornings becomes a bit more of a chore.  And where we used to burn the midnight oil with relative impunity, now it's much harder to stay up late, and especially wake up the next morning.  It's no coincidence that this is when most of us are neck deep in raising children and pursuing our careers.  As a result, we have very little time that really belongs to us alone.  Also, we begin to sense the passage of time.  We can see the years behind us, and are beginning to realize that the years yet to come will not be the carefree devil-may-care ones that we might have wanted them to be.

This is when the Denial phase begins to ooze into our thinking.  We know that we are getting older, and we don't want to get older.  As we move into our 40's this becomes especially acute.  We begin to review our life, and seeing only missed opportunities, or chances that we didn't take that we should have.  Our conversations with ourselves more and more start with the words "If only..."  Into our mid and late 40's is when our little birds begin to flee the nest, and we discover that the thing which consumed almost every minute of 20 or 25 years of life is suddenly gone.  Those times of fun and chaos are gone, and we are left with a silent, empty house, and a phone that now never rings often enough.  If we have done our jobs as parents, then we have bequeathed to the world fully-formed adults, capable of standing on their own two feet, and making their own way through life without subsidy from us or the government.  But in that success we also mourn the idea that suddenly we aren't needed anymore.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The Search for "Home"

Oakwood Homes, Inc.

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

One of the major steps in a relocation is finding a place to live.  Our situation is more than a little fluid, since I'm retired and Cheryl is a Travel Nurse, working a series of 13-week contracts in a variety of locations.  

Part of the adventure of being a Travel Nurse, or Traveller, is the excitement of going to a completely different place for each new assignment.  Since we haven't really decided where to live yet, that's an important opportunity. Visiting someplace for a few days doesn't really provide the best perspective. Living there for a period of time, however, gives you a chance to "try it on for size."  You not only see the front parlor of the community, but also the dirty basement, allowing you to make an informed decision.

For us, the list of possibilities is long and varied, driven by factors such as economics, proximity to grandkids, and available activities.  Included on our roster are places like Las Vegas, Denver or Colorado Springs, Kansas City, Amarillo or Lubbock, Seattle, Honolulu, Phoenix, and Provo, Utah.  Yes, their all decidedly on the western side of the country. We had our fill of the east after 12 years of high costs and ridiculous traffic and now yearn for more agreeable surroundings.  Each place on the list has its own set of charms and flaws, and some are more affordable than others.  But the most important factor is that indescribable and unquantifiable sense of "home."

Home is not so much a place as a feeling.  It embodies all the positives of safety, privacy, comfort, and sense of ownership (even a rental).  And family.  For so many, "home" is a place of memories.

I've lived in a lot of places, but there have only been one or two that met that nebulous definition.  On the road for so much of my life, when people ask me where home is, I simply reply, "Wherever the motorcycle's parked."

In the four months that we've been in Colorado, it has begun to grow on us.  The hardest part was acclimating to the altitude after living at sea level.  When we first got here, going up a flight of stairs was exhausting.  Now, we're finding it much easier to get around without wheezing and whoofing.  Lately, we've begun to explore the possibility of settling here.  The drawback, something that lies at the very heart of our considerations, is cost.  Denver and its surrounding areas have been defined as a "hot market" for real estate.  That's never good news for buyers.  The houses are uniformly expensive and selling rapidly, even though hundreds more are being built every month.  And prices continue to rise.  In January, we looked at a particular new home, but couldn't pull the trigger.  Last week, we discovered that same home had increased some $40,000 in price since then.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Altitude and Attitude

Aurora Reservoir Trail, Arapahoe County, Colorado

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

It's been about four months since we quit Northern Virginia for Colorado, embarking on the latest chapter of our life.  The first month here was rough for me.  I was trying to get used to the idea that I had no job to go to while mourning the end of my career.  I finally decided that I could no longer sit around feeling sorry for myself and turning my back firmly on the past, began to look resolutely towards the future.

There were a few things that I embraced towards that change in perspective.  One was my grandchildren.  They are fascinating little people, and a joy to be around.  Having pulled myself out of my funk, I really began to enjoy being with them.  Another thing was the completion of my first novel, Tales of Barely, Missouri, (available on Amazon Kindle for $2.99).  This was, as I noted in my last post, a real turning point for me.  I had proven to myself that there was something I could accomplish outside of my former life.  The early reviews are very good, and I hope that those who decide to spend the money find as much enjoyment reading the book as I had in the writing thereof.

The third thing was a continuation of the activity I had been doing back east, walking and hiking.  

Here in suburban Denver, every community it seems has a plethora of trails for walking/running/biking, most multiple miles in length. Some, like the Smoky Hill and the Piney Creek harken back to the time when this area was all open prairie, and those trails were the immigrant highways by which thousands traveled westward.  My only beef was the term "trails," which as an experienced hiker I took to mean dirt paths.  Alas, practicality has prevailed and these "trails" are actually concrete sidewalks. For dirt trails, one has to go westward into the foothills of the Rockies.

One of the things I learned very quickly was the significant difference in the oxygen content of the atmosphere here in the Mile High City versus the coastal Appalachians of Virginia.  There, I hiked roughly 200 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Virginia.  The highest ridge I had to climb topped out at about 3,500 feet.  Just walking on a sidewalk along Colfax Avenue here in Denver puts you about 2,000 feet higher up.  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

My First Book, and the World Created Therein


Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

"Writing a story about a place 
calls that world into existence."
--Alan McCluskey

About six years ago while crawling through the impossible traffic that inundates the Washington DC metro area, I allowed my mind to wander a bit.  In that short-lived ramble, an idea came to me as a sort of a formless, nascent presence.  Over the next few months, I allowed that idea to toss about my mind, kind of like a sock in a dryer.  Eventually, the idea took a more substantial form from which a myriad of possibilities sprung.  About nine months later, I sat down at my computer and began to give life to those possibilities.  Five years hence, that promising genesis has grown into that most difficult of enterprises:  My first book.

This past week, after two months of invaluable therapy provided by my editor, the incomparable Dr. Gayle Herde, this long-awaited accomplishment went live on Amazon Kindle, under the title "Tales of Barely, Missouri."

In my late professional life, a big part of my job as an intelligence analyst was taking a simple idea and shepherding it from birth through analysis to completion.  It always felt like an accomplishment, particularly since the subject matter was always excruciatingly difficult.  But this was different.  This was personal.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Last Real Team

Eric Hosmer's mad...no, insane dash home
and what was the penultimate moment of the 2015 World Series.
© 2015 Newsday

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only.

It was magic.  There's no other way to describe that moment on a cool November night in New York City when Wade Davis blew a third strike past the buckling knees of the Mets' Wilmer Flores.  The Royals, after coming so close the year before, and coming so far from the previous 30 years, had been crowned baseball's World Champions.

To say that the win produced a cascade of celebration would be to labor in understatement.  While Kansas City rocked in joyous emotions, it was remarkable to observe that this midwestern metropolis wasn't the only place where the cheers could be heard.  This team, marked by such pluck, courage, and unity, had earned a following across the nation, and across the world.  Everyone remembers the Korean superfan and Seoul-mate Sungwoo Lee who expressed such a deep long distance ardor, that he was actually flown to Kansas City for a visit.  That summer, my wife and I were in France, and during that whole visit, my Royals cap inspired a host of smiles and spontaneous conversation from Parisians.  

It isn't hard to discover why that team was so popular.  Their youth, unity, that never-say-die attitude were all elements to that wide acclaim.  But I think the thing that really got to people was that these guys were having fun!  Baseball was still a game to them, and behind those infectious grins everyone could see the 9-year-old that still lived within.

2016 was a disappointment, but understandable.  Any team in any sport that parks five all-stars on the disabled list for extended periods of time is going to suffer.  But that passion never left them.  Alex Gordon's wrist certainly bothered him more than that titular Sgt. Rock would ever admit.  And close to the end of the season, it was painful to watch Lorenzo Cain try to swing a bat with one hand.  But through the swarm of injuries, that desire, that love of the game never wavered.  Even though they missed the playoffs, to Royals Nation, they were still our champions.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Challenge of the Final Frontier



NASA, Apollo 8

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

Curiosity.  Wonder.  That persistent desire to know the unknown, to answer the unanswerable.  It is a fundamental part of our human makeup, whether a scientist or explorer, or any of the rest of us taking a stroll around a new neighborhood, visiting a new store, or shopping center;  perhaps vacationing to somewhere we've never been. However the desire manifests itself, it is a link, perhaps even a bond that connects people across culture, nation, and ideology.

From the first stirrings of conscience, humans have ever looked to the skies in wonder.  At first, the sky and its myriad points of light was populated with figures risen from imagination; omnipotent, angry creatures with unimaginable power who required unquestioned fealty and sacrifice in hopes of staving off their destructive revenge. Eventually, science replaced gods with objects, stars, galaxies, clouds of gas and dust, and now we know with certainty, other planets.

We don't yet know if there is life out there, although some of the exoplanets offer tantalizing possibilities.  Our current limitations of physics and the human lifespan keep them at a frustrating arm's length.

A host of galaxies from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, Hubble Space Telescope

But perhaps that is not such a bad thing.  As a species, we insist on being at war with each other, whether the weapons are words or bullets.  Until we learn how to get along with each other, we have no business bothering anybody else. The stark reality is our refusal to let go of these conflicts means there is no common voice for the people of planet Earth.  Who among the contentious nations, cultures, or religions truly speaks for humanity?

Monday, March 06, 2017

"The Big Short" and The Curse of Earned Cynicism

The U.S. housing market in 2008.
(US Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Energy)



Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only

Movies come out by the dozens every year, some good, most so-so, some which were not worth the effort.  But once in a while, a film is released that touches a nerve, opens some eyes, and changes the way the world is viewed.

For me, such was The Big Short, the cinematic treatment of Michael Lewis' book of the same name which recounted the factors leading up to the devastation of the U.S. housing market in 2008.  

Investment banking, in fact Wall Street in general is something of an esoteric field, rife with its own language purposefully designed to keep from the rest of us what is truly going on with the markets, and our money.  The story is one of shocking incompetence, willful blindness, collusion, and an absolute contempt for the welfare of the public at large.  If you haven't seen it, you should, if you have any kind of institutional retirement account.  Especially if you were one of the faceless millions who were financially raped in 2008.

I'll try to briefly summarize, but it is a complex subject and for full understanding, you need to read Lewis' book and then see the movie, several times.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Finding Passion in Words of Freedom

From Monticello.org

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

Of the many things we Americans take for granted, at the top, or close to it, are what are called the founding documents, those incredible collections of wisdom that established our country, and to a large extent, have defined us as a people.  Not to date myself unnecessarily, but when I was in elementary and what used to be called junior high school, I was required -- required -- to read and study the three main documents, the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights.  Before graduating high school, I had to take, and pass a civics test which covered among other things, those three documents.  The whole point of that exercise was to ensure that when I became age-eligible to vote, I fully understood how my government worked, and also the principles upon which it was built.

That kind of comprehensive learning is apparently not done in public schools today, which puzzles and saddens me.

Documents of any kind are at their root collections of words formed into sentences and arranged into paragraphs.  The end game is to communicate a specific message to the reader.  But words on a page do not by themselves communicate the emotion out of which such messages are crafted.  The second greatest speech ever given on U.S. soil, after the Gettysburg Address, was given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial on a hot and steamy August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC.  Known as "I Have a Dream," it was a powerful cry from a people who, despite being citizens, had been systematically oppressed by the white majority.  Even a study of the text impresses the reader with its message.  But the most powerful element was Dr. King himself.  Drawing on his passion and the shared dreams of the tens of thousands gathered, he turned a speech into an epic tone poem.  The combination of the strength of those words and the power of his delivery created a riveting, and for America, a life-changing moment in our history.  Even today, I can't read that speech without hearing Dr. King in my head.

Such words and moments are borne out of the times in which they are crafted.  It was the same for the the crafters of our founding documents.  These were people who also felt repression; who also yearned for the freedom to determine their own destiny.  There is power in those words as well.  The problem is for the modern citizen, those statements are framed in a somewhat antiquated form of expression which, while clear and distinct at that time, tends to make understanding their full import today somewhat difficult.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Building Something New From the Rubble of the Past

Ultra Deep Field Image from the Hubble Space Telescope
NASA/JPL 2014

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

I often find myself in idle contemplation of the universe.  Looking up on a clear night, I can see about 10,000 stars, each one demonstrating to me the finite and the infinite that lies beyond our tiny planet.  I think this is one of the common experiences of all humans, to look and wonder.

My interest has inspired an ongoing quest for knowledge about what lies Out There, and that knowledge has continually fed my imagination.  But in the contemplation of that universe, I have also been able to frame answers to some of my more earth-bound concerns.

The universe has no fixed reference point.  Everything is in motion, and the only accurate thing we can measure is how far we are from a certain object, and how fast we are approaching or receding.  For people whose life is a constant measure of movement to or from a point in space or time, this is truly a difficult thing to understand.  For example, in the time it takes for earth to complete one orbit of the sun, the solar system, which is also in motion, has traveled about 24 billion miles through space.  When we take two weeks off from work and do the "stay-cation," we actually have traveled some 910 million miles.  Too bad we can't get frequent flyer credits for that.

But the universe, and all the objects within, is not in a static condition.  It's not just that stars and galaxies are in motion, they are constantly changing.  With an inexpensive telescope, one can point it at the constellation of Orion the Hunter and see in the "sword" portion of that group a place that glows in molecular gases.  


Within the dark cloud of the well-known Horsehead Nebula, gas and dust is being compressed and heated.  Eventually, stars will form here.  If you had the patience, and the lifespan, to watch this cloud, you would be witness to stellar creation.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hiking, Part 43




Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures

Today, in our fifth week as Coloradans, we took to the trails to take our first hike since moving here in January.  For the last three weeks, I had been industriously walking the concrete paths (I won't call it a trail unless it consists of dirt, rocks, and roots) around the southern part of Aurora.  I have been working my way up in distance, and am now doing 8 miles at a stretch.  The point of that being to get my lungs and legs ready to tackle the trails that course through the front range foothills, and eventually, the Rockies themselves.

The biggest challenge has been adjusting to the altitude.  I have to keep reminding myself that the tallest peaks I climbed in Virginia are still 2,000 feet lower than the feet of the mountains we see here.  We have been asking people how long it takes to get acclimated, and get answers ranging from three months to three years.  And I believe that.  Even the simple act of climbing stairs still leaves us a bit breathless.  Where the strain shows is in tackling inclines.  Walking on flat ground is not terribly taxing, but let that path start to ascend, and immediately the lungs begin to work desperately hard to pull what little breathable oxygen exists in this huge sky.

Today was Cheryl's day off, and we decided to attempt our first dirt hike.  Our daughter recommended the William F. Hayden Green Mountain Park, a 2,400 acre expanse on the western edge of the Denver 'burb of Lakewood.  When you get out of the car, you're standing at about 6,050 feet altitude.  The summit at the top of the park is 6,800 feet.  On the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, a 750-foot ascent is just part of the hike.  The highest peak I attempted there was Hogback Mountain at just under 3,500 feet.  I remember that day, and how tired and sore I was at the end of that particular trek.  So, by that measure, a mere 750 feet should pose no problems, right?