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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 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.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Eternal Mystery of the Human Roller Coaster

“The heart is a strange beast and not ruled by logic.”
-- Maria V. Snyder

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted and cited passages

 Science has made great strides in the past few decades in understanding human physiology and psychology. Diseases that once ravaged continents have been rendered harmless and even eradicated. Mental disorders that once would have condemned a person to a life sentence in an asylum are now treatable, and in some cases curable. But despite all that has been learned, the human being is still an indefatigable mystery.

The realm of emotion is one that continues to challenge understanding. Unlike other manifestations of the human condition, the study of emotion is not limited to a single discipline. Emotions and their attendant affects are being explored in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, endocrinology, medicine, history, sociology, and even art.

This particular musing crept up on me as I pondered our 38th wedding anniversary (thank you.). I like to humorously say to people, “It’s been 38 years and she hasn’t shot me yet, so it must be true love.” But I was thinking back to that moment in which I first laid eyes upon her. It was in a bowling alley. We were both members of a church league, although we hadn’t yet met. I stood up on the approach, taking that necessary look left and right before addressing the lane. As I looked to my right, about 20 lanes away, my eye was caught by a head of long, black, lustrous hair gleaming under the lights. Now this wasn’t the first girl I had ever seen, nor was it my first head of long hair. But in that moment, something in that sight flipped a switch in my heart. A week later, I asked her out and she said accepted, a rare thing for me on the first try. On our date, I hadn’t been with her more than 15 minutes before I knew without a doubt that she was The One.

This is not something unusual. I have heard many people tell of the same kind of moment, the realization when they “knew.”  Perhaps the best, and most humorous (and the most cynical) definition of love came from the movie "Sleepless in Seattle." 

"When you're attracted to someone, it just means that your subconscious
is attracted to their subconscious -- subconsciously. 
So, what we think of as fate is just two neuroses knowing they are a perfect match."

I’ve thought often about the nature of that kind of experience. What was it about her that made her assume a kind of neon glow in my consciousness, brilliantly outshining all others? What happened inside me at that moment that alerted me to the future I had with her? I knew nothing about her, save that long, lustrous hair. Nor can I explain why or how fifteen minutes into our first date, I also knew that she was the only one for me. Nor can I explain why that in the nearly 40 years since that first meeting, I’ve never wavered from that position.

Love is, of course, only one of the whole panoply of emotional states. I went on my proverbial knee to Lord Google, who provided me with an impressive, if partial list.


Alert, excited, joyful, elated, happy, loving, friendly, kind, sympathetic, caring, contented, serene, relaxed, calm


Tense, nervous, fearful, stressed, upset, embarrassed, humiliated, indignant, angry, jealous, envious, sad, shamed, despaired, depressed, bored, fatigued

Sonoma University’s course Philosophy 101 defines emotion as “An affective state of consciousness, often accompanied by physiological changes to be distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness.” While this fancy collection of $50 words might satisfy the academic, I am still left with a question; the question of why.

When we meet someone, whether a social, business, or personal situation, an opinion is formed, called a “first impression.” This impression is based on a number of things, physical appearance, presentation, that initial verbal exchange, and a host of other more less tangible elements. In those initial few moments, we decide whether we like and respect that person. Sales people are drilled endlessly on these moments, for they can make or break an opportunity. We rely on these initial feelings and only occasionally are we forced to change that impression as we get to know them better. There is still a very large mystery as to what happens inside us when we decide to like or dislike someone in that first meeting. When we’re asked to articulate the source of that animosity, many times the only thing we can come up with is “just because.”

Dr. Richard Lazarus, the author of a highly influential theory, describes emotion as a disturbance. There are three stages…

Cognitive appraisal, where the mind assesses a situation and then selects the appropriate emotion.

Physiological changes, started by the mind's selection include such things as increased heart rate and a spike in adrenaline levels.

Action occurs when the person “feels” the emotion and chooses how to react. This could be anything from a spontaneous kiss to throwing a lamp.

It’s easier to understand the mechanical functions of the human body. The heart is a pump. Electrical impulses trigger the convulsion by which blood is pumped throughout the body. Similar impulses cause the muscles to contract enabling us to do things from walking to lifting a spoonful of soup to the mouth. Our lungs are instructed to breathe in and out. These things are all fairly easy to understand. But the mechanism, if it can be called that, of how we feel love, hate, or indifference remains a mystery. The intriguing thing is that when we feel emotion, if affects our entire being. When we’re in love, that elation takes over everything. Even the way we perceive the rest of the world is changed. Conversely, when we are afflicted by anger, it can literally consume us, motivating us to even perform acts of violence. And the presence of deep sadness can bring about the self-initiated termination of life.

The human heart is often spoken of as the seat of emotion, primarily because that seems to be the place where the reaction is most profound. Sadness, for example, brought on by the end of a relationship, or even the death of a loved one can manifest itself in the feeling of pain. Robert Emery and Jim Coan, professors of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in Scientific American (March 1, 2010, “Ask the Brains”) that “activity in a brain region that regulates emotional reactions called the anterior cingulated cortex can trigger a biological cascade” beginning with an overstimulation of the vagus nerve which connects the brainstem, neck, chest, and abdomen resulting in pain and nausea. The precise nature of these biological pathways are unfortunately not well understood. But the identification of that deep pain is familiar to almost every human. 

In Star Wars episode III, there is a scene where Padme Amidala sobs to Anakin Skywalker, “You’re breaking my heart!” which is, I suppose, a much more powerful and evocative statement than “You’re over-stimulating my vagus nerve!”

It is well known that emotions, good and bad, originate in the brain. Beyond that, well, it’s a mystery. We know how emotions make us feel, and what they drive us to do, but clueless as how to exactly quantify or qualify them. Still, emotion is a part of life; it is one of the things which helps to define us as humans. Whatever stage of that roller coaster we are on, at least we know that we are alive.

“The best and most beautiful things cannot be seen or even touched.
 They must be felt with the heart.”
-- Hellen Keller.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Hiking: Part 42

If you can read a topographical map, this will give you a better appreciation for this trail.

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

In the 1930's, the Sierra Club came up with a way to rate the difficulty of hiking trails, which they named the Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS. It breaks down trails into 5 main categories. Class 1 is walking with a low chance of injury, hiking boots a good idea. Class 2 is described as simple scrambling, with occasional use of the hands. Potential danger is low and hiking boots highly recommended. Class 3 means scrambling with increased exposure. Handholds are necessary and Falls could easily be fatal. Class 4 rates out as a trail with simple climbing with exposure. A rope is often used. Natural protection can be easily found. Falls may well be fatal. Classes 5 and 6 are termed "technical", meaning the use of ropes and pitons. I mention this because all of the hikes that I've described in this blog have been Class 3 and below, mostly Class 2's to be honest. Most of the AT hikes I've done involve some steep hills, rocky sometimes unstable surfaces, which is challenge enough for me. 

A couple of weeks ago, one of my wife's friends raved about a hike she and some friends had been on in White Oak Canyon in the Shenandoah National Park. She wanted us to take this hike, mainly because the trail follows a series of waterfalls cascading down the side of the ridge. Looking it up, I saw that White Oak Canyon was one of the most popular hikes, because of the waterfalls and the pools which are popular swimming holes. I also saw that this trail was combined with the Cedar Run Trail, making a roughly 8-mile loop. I also noticed some other things. It was a roughly 2,400 foot ascent in a little less than 3 miles, with Cedar Run on the backside owning a similar slope. Because of the steepness of the both trails, they are rated as a Class 4, a level which I had never attempted. 

But she really wanted to see the waterfalls, so with a great deal of what turned out to be misplaced confidence, we made the 90-minute drive out to the Cedar Run trail head, off Weakley Hollow Road.

We arrived fairly early, around 8:30 a.m. We geared up, checked in at the Ranger hut, and hit the trail. The forecast was for a warm and humid day so we prepared ourselves, packing 5 liters of water with three extra 16-ounce bottles. After crossing the stream on a steel bridge, we wandered through the forest until the feeder trail intersected with the White Oak Canyon trail. Once the serious ascent started, the hiking became strenuous.


It was beautiful despite the effort.  The trail followed the stream, which was running at springtime volume, the sound filling the forest.  The trail was well-populated, being a holiday weekend, and it was plain that everyone was having a great time.  The WOC trail passes three sets of waterfalls, a lovely sight in the forest.
That lady in blue must have been a professional photo bomber.
She tried to get into every photo I took that day.

Yeah.  We were tired.

It was 2.5 miles and a 1,400 foot climb to the third waterfall, and we had to stop and rest.  Having five stents in my heart, I tend to pay close attention to the ticker.  After this difficult climb, I found I was feeling strange.  No chest pain, thankfully, but there was a sense that my heart was tired, in the same way our legs were tired after that steep climb.  We sat down at the main overlook, ostensibly to eat lunch. I, however had no appetite, an astonishing event for yours truly.  We sat there for a good 30 minutes until we had recovered.  I suggested that given our state at that moment that we perhaps should turn around and head back down.  Cheryl wanted to complete the loop, so we pressed on.

The good news was that just ahead was a fire road that connected the WOC with the Cedar Run trail.  The topo map showed that the contour lines were spread much further apart, and I was ready for some easier walking.  While the walking was much easier, the climb continued, ascending about 800 feet over 2.5 miles.  We were now between the streams and the heat and humidity under the tree canopy made itself felt.  We stopped several times to drink water and to rest.  As the fire road approached Skyline Drive, the ridgetop road through the National Park, we picked up the start of the Cedar Run trail.  Just before turning downhill again, I could see the Hawksbill Gap parking area through the trees.

 After a few hundred yards, the trail became steep,  rocky, and in some places wet by the flow of water coming from the hillsides.  This made the footing tricky, and we both had a couple of near-butt plants as our wet boots couldn't hold the traction on the rocks.

There were, according to the trail notes, two stream crossings that had to be negotiated.  We found the first one, which at a distance, seemed pretty peaceful.  Getting closer, however, I could see that the current was swift and the stones which were intended to assist the crossing, were a bit unstable.  I have suffered from some balance issues, related to an inner ear problem, so I was not looking forward to making this crossing.  After teetering on the first two stones, I decided to stress-test the waterproof feature of my Hi Tec boots, and stepped into the water itself.  I figured that the flatter rocky bottom, along with my trekking poles that it would make things easier for me.  But stupidly, I did not take into account the slimy nature of the stream bed.  One bad slip and down I went, face-first into the refreshingly cool water.  I was immediately helped up by a fellow hiker and made my way to the opposite bank, sitting down on a convenient rock.  The water had definitely woken me up, but I realized that my right leg was hurting.  Pulling up my pants leg, I could see that my shin had apparently impacted a rock, and was scraped and swollen.  With Cheryl's help, I cleaned the scrapes, sprayed some anti-bacterial stuff on them and put a large bandage over the top.

I felt foolish.  I has simply gotten too impatient, and forgotten to remove my backpack which would have improved the balance problem.  Suddenly, I looked down.  My $300 Sony digital camera was dripping water.  I took it apart and shook as much water out of it as I could, but I feared (and later proved) that my camera was damaged.  Fortunately, my Note 4 had survived the dunking.

It was becoming a very long day.  This loop trail has an average completion time of 5.5 hours.  But it was already past 6 hours and we were not close to being done.  We try to average 30-minute miles on our hikes but with the steep descent and the muddy and rocky trail surfaces, our pace was only about one mile per hour.  And we were tired.  This was hard work for us, and our muscles and joints were complaining mightily.  It became a simple matter of one step at a time, checking for grip before proceeding.  The second stream crossing was more difficult, and with me now snakebit by the last experience, the crossing took extra time.  The rocks were round and pretty tall, so I found them unnerving.  But I did make it across, dry this time, and on we went.

Physical discomforts aside, it was indeed a beautiful place.  The stream noisily accompanied us through the forest, the trees filtering that wonderful afternoon light.  Finally, we reached the feeder trail leading back to the parking lot.  The surface was now back to that soft, loamy surface, although it seemed an interminable time before we once again crossed the steel bridge and found the parking lot.

So it turned out to be an 8-mile loop for us, and although breathtaking in its beauty, this hike was in fact a bit beyond my capabilities.  Still, we completed the darn thing, and I guess that's saying something.

Like, stick to Class 3 hikes, dude.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Confessions of a Novice Hiker

Copyright © 2016
By Ralph F. Couey

I’m entering my third year as a day hiker, and whilenobody’s ever going to confuse me with Earl Shaffer or even Bill Bryson, I have learned a few things that might be of value to someone who is contemplating spending some time in the woods and on the trail.  These are things an expert may neglect to tell you, mainly because their knowledge is vast and complex.

Hiking is many things.  It’s great exercise, for sure.  But it’s also a way to flee the urban jungle and reconnect with the wilderness.  It is a fine way to challenge one’s self physically, mentally, and emotionally, learning the sometimes hard lesson about false limits.  

Hikers form a broad, loosely defined community, nearly all of them wonderfully nice people who, when encountered on the trail, will treat you with warmth, friendliness, and dignity.  The link all hikers share is the deep affection for what some feel is the vanishing wilderness, and the wonder of nature to be found therein.

Personal Preparation

Hiking can be hard, and requires energy and stamina in abundance.  Therefore, if you’re serious about undertaking a wilderness hike, it’s best to get in at least better shape.  In most locales, there are city parks and recreation areas with winding trails, usually asphalt.  It’s best to start there, and build distance.  You should be able to complete 4 to 5 miles in a reasonable amount of time without feeling like your require a visit to the emergency room.  Once you can do that on those flat courses, find sidewalks in your area that climb hills.  Most wilderness trails don’t have very many flat sections.  You’re either going up a steep hill, or heading down the other side.  This is strenuous aerobic-type work, so you should do what you can to “build your wind.”


Tennis shoes are fine for asphalt trails.  But wilderness trails are a combination of sharp rocks, exposed roots, stream crossings, and muddy patches.  Good footwear is essential.  Get guidance when choosing your footgear.  REI is a great place to start, because the people who sell shoes and boots are real honest-to-God hikers who can give you great advice.  Also, REI will let you bring them back and exchange them.  So if the pair your chose felt great in the store, but caused you all kinds of painful grief on the trail, you can bring them back and exchange them for a different pair.  Once a year, the REI stores will hold a sale where these exchanged boots are available for a reduced price.
Footwear eaten here.

Basically, you need a shoe with a tough sole, waterproofing, and for people like me, ankle support.  The bottoms should have some lugs because there are times when you will need to dig in during climbs or descents.  You can get hiking shoes/boots in low rise, mid-rise (just above the ankle) and full rise (roughly mid-calf).  After a long time spent in contemplation, I chose a pair of Hi-Tec Altitude IV boots.  They’ve done me very well, once they were broken in.  My only complaint was that the tops made my ankle bone hurt.  I solved that by loosening the top laces.

Hiking clothes are important, particularly in areas where heat and humidity can be a problem.  Cotton clothes, like jeans and t-shirts, while comfortable are not good for hiking.  As you sweat (and you WILL sweat) cotton absorbs that moisture and the clothes will become heavier and more burdensome.  Also, that held moisture will abrade skin in tender places, an agony nobody wants.  Googling “hiking clothes” will take you to an abundance of websites (of course REI if you prefer the in-person experience).  Hiking clothes are made of light-weight, but extremely tough materials that don’t absorb sweat, but instead wick it away from your skin.  Stay with long sleeves and long pants, as they will protect your skin from sunburn, and also help with the inevitable thorns and branches along the way.
After some hard work on an Oahu ridge hike.

Woods are buggy places, so it behooves the new hiker to pre-treat your new gear with Permethrin, a repellent which is human friendly yet will definitely fend off the insects, even the stinging kind.  Some hiking clothes come already treated.  Preparing your clothes is easy.  Go outside (or at least to an open garage) and hang the clothes up.  Then spray them according to the instructions, and allow them to dry for an hour or two.  Permethrin is persistent, and will stay on clothes for 20 or 30 launderings, usually an entire summer for most people.

Apply sun screen.  Sunburn will sneak up on you.

Hiking poles, or trekking poles, are a nice addition.  It’s easy to lose your balance while traversing rocky fields or fording streams, and personally, my poles have saved me from some epic face plants.  They’re also useful for probing the far side of rocks and fallen trees before stepping over them, in case there are critters there who might object to you disturbing their siesta.  Nobody likes walking through spider webs, and I use my poles quite often to clear those annoying sticky silk strings which arachnids tend to stretch between trees in hopes of snagging insects.  These come in a variety of brands and types.  Mine are made by a company called Black Diamond and are made out of carbon fiber.  But, you choose what’s right for you.

Hats are useful.  The most common choice of hikers is the so-called bucket hat, or a variation thereof.  Basically, you need one that will help wick away sweat from your head before it drains into your eyes, a mesh crown for ventilation, and a broad enough brim to keep the rain off your face, and the sun off the back of your neck.  These can also be treated with Permethrin.

Worked very well under a tropical sun.

Never go hiking without some kind of identification on your person.  You don’t need a full wallet, which can get sweaty by the way.  Most places that sell wallets also sell small items, just big enough for your driver’s license.  I also carry a piece of paper with my medical information and a short list of emergency contacts.  There are, generally speaking, almost no places to spend money on a trail, but it wouldn’t hurt to tuck a twenty or a credit card in there as well.
Pack n' poles.

When on the trail, I take a backpack, one made by Camelbak with a 3-liter reservoir.  Hiking in the summer, it is imperative that you take water or sports drinks along with you.  Some hikers, more committed than I, will back a water filtration system and take their fluids from a convenient stream. Heat and humidity will sap your strength and if you don’t replace the water and electrolytes you sweat out, you can get into serious medical trouble.  I also carry a first-aid kit, containing band aids, a roll of gauze and medical tape, hydrogen peroxide, antiseptic spray, and a small pair of scissors.  The forest, while beautiful and peaceful, is also a very dirty and germy place, and even a small cut or scrape can be problematic if not treated.  I also carry a roll of duct tape.  Why?  Because when I was a Boy Scout, I once watched someone make a very good splint using that and a couple of stout sticks.

I haven’t made an overnight hike, mainly because I don’t have the time.  But if you plan to spend the night on the trail, check the Internet for authoritative sources on how to prepare.

Choosing Your Trail

Go to Google and type “places to hike in __________” filling in the area where you live.  You’d be surprised, as I was, how many trails you’ll find.  My default choice is the massive Appalachian Trail, which stretches for some 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine, 550 miles of which pass through Virginia.  Within an hour of home are four different places I can go to access the AT, all of which promise a challenge.  If I have time to make a 90-minute trip, Shenandoah National Park is here as well.

Get a trail map.  Never, ever go into the woods without a trail map.  Did I mention getting a trail map?  

For the first few hikes, try to pick a trail that is not too difficult.  Most trails can be seen on Google Maps in the terrain mode, and that will tell you how much up and down awaits you.  As you gain experience and confidence, feel free to challenge yourself.  But always be realistic about your abilities.  Taking on a complex technical trail (requiring the use of ropes and rock-hopping) before you’re ready risks injury.

Day Of

Summer day hikes are best started early in the morning and completed by mid-afternoon.  Even under the canopy of trees, the air can be stifling during the heat of the day.  If you live in a region where afternoon and evening thunderstorms are commonplace, make sure you are off the ridge tops before they begin to fire up.  When you arrive at the trail access, spend a little time stretching your legs.  You’ll thank me for this later.  Now…have fun!

Remember, It’s Not Your Neighborhood

The wilderness is where animals live.  All types, from the cute and cuddly, to the big and dangerous.  Spend some time online learning how to know the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes.  Keep your head on a swivel, so you don’t accidently step on a copperhead snake.  Trust me, they really don’t like that.  Review what poisonous spiders look like.  And leave your iPod at home.  Your ears need to be attuned to the environment around you.

Oh yes.  Bears.

In the Midwest and Eastern U.S., there are black bears in the wilderness areas.  Chances are you will at some point encounter one.  Knowing what to do in advance will save you a lot of grief.

Black bears are surprisingly timid.  If you make enough noise coming up the trail, they will nearly always move away.  If you should encounter one, there are specific actions you need to take.  First of all, stop walking toward the bear.  Do not stare directly at the bear. Begin speaking in a low-toned firm voice as you walk backwards.  Do not turn your back on this animal, for that will trigger the bear’s predator response.  Give the bear space to retreat, and it will.  If the bear should come toward you, make much more noise.  Raise your arms, making you look bigger.  Clack your hiking poles together.  If the bear persists, get your bear spray (also available at REI) out and prepare to spray it at the bear.  This will be enough for most bears, and they will move away.  If all else fails and you find your facing that one bear out of a thousand that just won’t be deterred, prepare to fight for your life.  There was a story posted on the Internet last summer about a man in Pennsylvania who took one of his trekking poles and jammed it down the bear’s throat.  The bear then fled.  The man had some deep cuts, but he survived.

This all sounds very dangerous, but in the entire history of the Commonwealth of Virginia, there have been no, none, zero confirmed cases of a human becoming the victim of an unprovoked bear mauling.  That’s a time span going back about 350 years, so at least here, that history is on your side.

Bears have a very sensitive nose, and if you are wearing sweet-smelling cologne or perfume, they will be attracted to that.  Also, if you carry food with you, make sure it’s sealed inside plastic bags. 

Oh yeah, almost forgot.  Black bears climb trees, so it would behoove you to look up occasionally as you trek along.

Now these are black bears.  Out west, where you are likely to encounter brown bears, your response should be completely different, as they are far more aggressive.  Again, a Google search on what to do in case of a brown bear encounter will be helpful.

Don’t freak out. I’ve made nearly 50 hikes in Virginia and had three encounters.  This is way, way above the average.  But I did as I was taught, and things ended up just fine.  I’ve spoken to many other hikers who have been on these trails for a decade or longer and have never encountered a bear.  It’s very likely that you won’t see one either, so hike vigilantly, but happily.

Leave Some Crumbs

Before you leave home, tell someone who is likely to care about your continued presence in their life where you are going, specifically, and what time you expect to be back.  My communication is usually like this:  “I’m going to be on the Appalachian Trail south of US 50.”  Or, “the Manassas Battlefield, western side.”  Walking on asphalt trails, I can make a mile in 15 to 20 minutes.  Hiking, however, I plan for a 30-minute mile, and estimate accordingly.  If I’m hiking, say, the roller coaster section of the AT between US 50 and Virginia Route 7, that will likely be a pace closer to a 40-minute mile.

When hiking alone, I text my wife just before hitting the trail, and again when I’m off trail and headed home.  Communication with loved ones is very important, since accidents can happen, such as falling and hitting your head on a rock or suffering some other kind of injury that incapacitates you to the point where you can’t walk or crawl out.  If you don’t show up within a reasonable amount of time, at least the authorities know where to start their search.  Don't put complete faith in your cell phone, because there will be places out there where you will have no bars.

Hiking has become a joy for me, and it can be for you as well.  The forest, meadows, and hills are places where I can go and leave the rest of my life behind.  the scenery is beautiful and full of life.  Being out there, connecting with the real, natural world is an experience not to be missed.

Go for a walk in the woods.  It will change you for the better.  As John Muir once wrote, "Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt." 

Yeah.  That Oahu ridge hike.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Sundays and the Vanishing Community

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

Throughout human history, we have been defined by the sense of community.  Early humans wandered as tribes.  Then with the advent of agriculture, the fixed nature of farming created settlements, villages, and eventually towns and cities.  One of the most profound keystones of community were the houses of faith.  The creation of the congregation, parish, and synagogue created a place where people shared a common faith and belief, where the community gathered at least one day per week.  The church became, in effect, the community itself. 

Births, deaths, and everything in between revolved around that building and that community.  Even once life had concluded, many went to their eternal rest in a cemetery in the churchyard.  For centuries, the church provided the framework of people’s lives. 

My memories of early childhood are all rooted in that church community. My father was a minister, so we spent a lot of time there.  We attended Sunday morning and evening, Wednesday nights, and a couple of nights per week some other kind of gathering, usually more social. I had two separate groups of friends; the secular group from school, and the boys and girls I ran with at church.  While I never understood a single sermon, I did understand the warmth, acceptance, and safety that I found when we gathered together.

We carried that through into our adult lives, hauling our sometimes recalcitrant children along on Sunday mornings.  But as they grew into their adult lives, they also grew away from the church. 

Among their generation is a deep distrust of institutions, both religious and political.  Where I found sanctuary, they see only hypocrisy and scandal.  They are all very principled, moral, and upright adults, who have simply decided that the brick-and-mortar church is not for them.

In the context of their lives, I understand that attitude. It still makes me a little sad, but I understand.  While I would like them to be a part of a faith community, I know that this is their lives to lead, their choices to make.  I raised them to be independent thinkers.  Of all the parenting mistakes I made, at least I got that part right.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Dreams...and the Journey

"Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible
to be homesick for a place you've never been to, 
perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground."
--Judith Thurman

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
except cited quotes

My life long I have struggled with a nascent restlessness, a yearning for somewhere else; someplace never clearly defined or envisioned.  Perhaps just to see what lay beyond the horizon.  It never seemed to matter how content or comfortable I was at that particular moment, or what strictures on movement the inevitable responsibilities of life imposed.  Structured vacation tours have never interested me.  What I wanted was just to wander off in whatever direction I happened to be pointed, curious to see what I might find along the way.  I found a kindred spirit in Matsuo Basho, the acknowledged master of Haiku, who lived in the late 17th century.  He once wrote, "The journey itself is my home."  

We are a people driven by destination, the unnatural consequence of life lived in the context of accomplishment.  We are unable to leave anywhere without knowing where we will end up.  The journey is spent fretting about how long it's taking to get there.  Once there, we engage in the purpose of that trip, and when that purpose is fulfilled, we set another destination.  Even at the end of the day, we still speak of "going to bed," as if the mattress was just another place on a map.

While going places and doing things are part of what's required of me, I have tolerated those duties.  But where I am truly fulfilled, where I find my greatest peace is in the simple pleasure of wandering.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Hiking: Parts 39, 40, and 41

Copyright © 2016
By Ralph F. Couey

Winter hikes, generally speaking for me, are spur-of-the-moment events, usually triggered by a restless spirit, a few free hours, and a reflective couple of minutes standing outside, testing the climate.  While winter here in Northern Virginia has been pretty mild, except for that one terrible weekend, my required attention to other areas of life kept me out of the woods and off the trail for many of the weeks this year.

The three hikes detailed here were all taken in February and March, with the last one in the first week of April.  The days were similar, starting out cold and windy, and ending...well, not warm but certainly less frigid.  The first one was an attack on the southern end of the Manassas Battlefield National Park.  The trail begins just south of the historic Sudley church and follows an abandoned railroad cut that slices across the park from northeast to southwest.  It was originally intended to be a part of the Manassas Gap Railroad, with this 35-mile section connecting Gainesville and Alexandria.  This stretch was begun around 1850 and was fully graded when the outbreak of the Civil War required the steel for other purposes.  The railroad eventually went broke, but the grading still remains, and can be seen clearly on Google Maps in the terrain mode.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: 
when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.
 ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870),Great Expectations

The calendar is full of days, weeks, and months.  It is also full of other things like memories and celebrations.  But one of the best things is anticipation.

In most parts of the country, January and February consist of one interminable 60-day month.  The days, while growing longer, are still short.  Winter is in full swing with all its attendant meteorological nastiness.  Finally though, February 28th (or 29th) oozes past and March makes it's appearance.  According to tradition, the month comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.  In between, lie days of far contrast with regards to weather.  The winds will blow cold and ice will form.  Then will come a stretch of days when the air warms, the sun shines, and people begin to hope.  But on the heels of those good days, Old Man Winter will storm back with a vengeance, dumping heavy, wet snow and sending the thermometer plummeting.  Then warmth returns and brings with it either gentle showers or strong thunderstorms.  Sometimes those changes can take place over a matter of hours.  I have come to consider March as "the month that can't make up its mind."

Monday, February 22, 2016

Hiking, Part 38

"I go to the woods to be soothed and healed
and have my senses put in order."
--John Burroughs

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

My heart is still heavy after the death of our beloved dog.  Everywhere I look, I see reminders of his life, and his presence in our lives.  I had to get away for a time.  As I do often when life becomes too much, I went to the woods.

The day was forecasted to be warm -- meaning above freezing -- so having a free day, I packed up my gear and headed out.  I chose a piece of the AT I had yet to trek, the section between Virginia Route 7 and US 50 called "The Roller Coaster."  In this 13-mile stretch, there lie 8 hills, ranging from 400 to 1,100 feet in height and the whole section you're either going up a new hill or going down an old one.  I only had a few hours, so I planned a 3-mile out-and-back.

I parked in the dirt lot thoughtfully provided by VDOT, and after gearing up I hit the trail.  The first section was a subtrail that led from the lot to the AT.  It was only 0.2 miles, but it felt longer.  The trail was at first very boggy from the melting snow and the rain from the previous day, but soon became slick.  The snow, still on the ground, had been pounded into slush that had frozen into ice.  It was slow going through this section.  

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Love, Loss, and Emptiness

"Dogs lives are too short.
Their only fault, really."
--Agnes Sligh Turnbull

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

He came to us by way of that process somewhat cynically referred to as "reverse inheritance." Our oldest daughter had adopted him out of a litter borne by the dog of a friend of hers in July 1999. No one will ever know what passed between them that made this tiny puppy stand out from the rest. But whatever it was, it was special. She named him after a football player from a movie, Tweeder. But soon it became "Tweeter."

Nikki took him to where she was living, a kind of cooperative Haight-Ashbury kind of set-up where they lived for a short period of time. But some of the other humans residing there were angry and cruel in ways that put his safety in jeopardy. So one evening, she came home and asked us to take care of him until her living situation improved. His sweet spirit won our hearts, and what started out as temporary foster care turned into a permanent home.

He was tiny at first. He could fit inside your palm where he would promptly curl up and sleep. As time went on, he grew from a puppy into a dog. He was smart, and Nikki trained him. He knew immediately to go outside when he had to "go." He had infinite patience, it seemed, only wanting to be loved. He shared the house with a parade of four cats and two other dogs, two very large (in comparison) Samoyeds who, more than any, taught him how to be a dog.

He was fun to play with. He loved balls, loved walks, he could from a standing start leap four feet into the air. Loved to ride in the car. And he was funny. Once we visited some friends, taking him with us (at their invitation). Their dog had been partially hit by a car and was still healing from an injured leg. The dog limped around the room garnering all sorts of human attention and sympathy.

Tweeter was watching.

That very evening, he developed a limp when we got home. We took him to the vet who assured us that he wasn't injured. He just wanted the attention.

Smart dog.

When he was 5 years old, upheaval struck. I got my dream job in Pennsylvania and over the next few months, my wife and I got moved, the final phase of that being an epic cross-country trip with a carload of stuff, Tweeter, and two cats. He tolerated the trip a whole lot better than the cats, who yowled incessantly for some 800 miles. We initially lived in a high-rise apartment that didn't allow pets, but in a short meeting with the manager, Tweeter worked his charms, and we got a 6-month stay while we looked for and found a house. While in the apartment, we used to take evening walks around Johnstown and the surrounding neighborhoods. One warm, sultry evening, he bolted into some shrubbery, locating a skunk, who reacted predictably. The pungent smell was heavy and eye-watering. Fortunately, he dodged and only caught a glancing blow. We took him home, smuggled him into the apartment, and after three thorough baths, managed to wash the oil out of his fur. Never a big fan of the tub, he got a little cranky during the third washing.

Everywhere we went, people fell in love with him. He had a joyous personality and a warm and friendly attitude. I think he understood human nature way too well.

In 2011, upheaval again, as the agency I was working for was shuttered and we had to move again, this time to the Washington DC area. In his relaxed, easy going way, he took it all in stride. We lived in an extended stay for a few months while we again looked for a house. When we moved into our new digs, he immediately settled in. About a year later, our son and his family moved in with us, and Tweeter had to learn how to live with small children. He showed great patience, even when toddlers fell on him. But he was getting older. In his younger days, if the roughhousing got too much, he'd just move to another room. Now, he let his feelings be known, snapping at them when they got too rough. The adults understood, and the kids learned a valuable lesson.

When he turned 15, he began to develop cataracts. His joints turned arthritic and, while he still loved his walks, they began to get shorter. In his younger days, it was nothing to take him out for a 5-mile jaunt. Now, even one mile was hard work, his hindquarters swaying weakly. He'd had a heart murmur since birth, and now it began to make itself felt. Getting up and down stairs was hard, and there were times when we had to carry him, as he just couldn't make it by himself. His clouded vision made it difficult for him to get around in the dark, and his hearing was just about gone.

Late last year, he developed a chronic cough. At first we thought he had gotten a rice kernel stuck in his throat. But the cough grew worse, sending him into fits that would cause his whole body to tense up. We took him to the vet, and his diagnosis was grim. Congestive heart failure. He prescribed some medicine, and that seemed to help for a while.

We knew his time was coming to an end. For the last year, we tried to prepare ourselves. He had been with us for nearly 17 years, through a host of adventures, even two plane trips. He was more than just "the dog." He was family. And he was deeply loved.

On Friday, Cheryl came home from work. For the first time ever, he refused to go for a walk. He hadn't eaten his breakfast, and showed no interest in dinner. For the balance of the evening, he stayed by Cheryl's side. Then he began to breathe hard, to pant. Within an hour, all the strength had gone from his body and he was limp and unresponsive. Cheryl has been a nurse for almost 40 years, so she knew.

Our Tweeter was dying.

I got the sad email at work, and got permission to leave early. Upon arrival, I found him in our bed, unconscious, but panting heavily. We stayed with him, waiting for him to pass, but he continued to struggle. At eleven o'clock, he began to yelp. He couldn't breathe, and that frightened him. At that point, we bundled him up and drove to a 24-hour vet clinic just down the highway. The Doctor gently took him from us, gave him a sedative to calm him down, and did an examination. His finding was heartrending. There simply was no more hope. Cheryl and I looked at each other, communicating in the unspoken language of the eyes, the result of 38 years of thinking each others' thoughts. We told the Doctor that it was time for Tweeter to leave us.

The staff was gentle and understanding as we navigated the paperwork necessary. They gave us some time alone with Tweeter, during which we cut some of his fur for our memories. He was relaxed and barely conscious.

The passing was gentle. The first injection was a strong sedative that put him into a deep sleep. Then, after one final questioning glance from the Doctor, and a nod from us, the final injection was made. In less than a minute, he stopped breathing. The Doctor placed his stethoscope on Tweeter's chest, listened, then looked up and said gently, "He's gone."

It was hard. He looked like he had just fallen asleep. We stayed with him for a few more minutes, stroking his fur. He would be cremated and his ashes scattered in a peaceful place in the Virginia countryside.

We drove home in silence. That loving puppy, that funny, joyful little dog, our boon companion for nearly 17 years...was gone from our lives.

The next day, I went into the kitchen as I prepared to leave for work. I happened to look down to his bowls, still filled with food and water. It hit me hard that there would be no more meals taken from those bowls. As that realization hit home, I sagged against the wall and tears filled my eyes as a quivering sob escaped from somewhere deep inside.

In the days since, we have slowly started to gather his things. His food will be donated to the county animal shelter. His toys, what few there were left after three moves, would be disposed of. His sleeping pad...well, I think we'll keep that for awhile.

His passing leaves a hole in our lives. Cheryl has been crying off and on since Friday, and I am consumed by a sad kind of numbness. We will in time get past this. But I doubt we'll ever get over it.

In my life, I've had to say goodbye to my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, a 6-month-old granddaughter, friends...way too many friends. In all that loss, I've learned that the best way to deal with death is to get on with life. In that way, there is meaning for both.

I believe in Heaven. I believe that a peace and joy beyond all understanding awaits us there. I also believe that in Heaven there is a place for all those pets who have given so unselfishly of their love and devotion throughout their lives. And I believe that when my time comes to cross that bridge, waiting on the other side will be my buddy, Tweeter, ready for a romp.

Rudyard Kipling wrote,

Well, the Lord has a dog now, I just sent Him mine,
The old pal so dear to me.
And I smile through my tears on this first day alone,
Knowing they’re in eternity.

Day after day, the whole day through,
Wherever my road inclined,
Four feet said, “Wait, I’m coming with you!”
And trotted along behind.

I have browsed through quotes and poems, trying to find the words to express what I'm feeling these days, frustrated that my own writing skills are not up to the task. We've lost a dog, but it's so much more. How do I know?

Because of the pain in my heart.

I will be grateful for the many years we had together. And for the example of unconditional love that he taught us. But for now, I can only think that when I go to bed tonight, there won't be that warm ball of fur by my feet.

It just hurts.

Teri Harrison wrote this poem, which helps to articulate our sorrow:

You no longer greet me
As I walk through the door.
You’re not there to make me smile
To make me laugh anymore.

Life seems quiet without you,
You were far more than a pet.
You were a family member, a friend,
A loving soul I’ll never forget.

It will take time to heal,
For the silence to go away.
I still listen for you,
And miss you every day.

You were such a great companion,
Constant, loyal and true.
And my heart will always wear,
The pawprints left by you.

--Teri Harrison

Farewell, my loving friend.