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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 58 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

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Has Enough Been Given?

Order of the Purple Heart
Photo from the United States Marine Corps

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

In recent months, yet another Middle Eastern crisis erupted when a band of Sunni militants calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- ISIS -- formed themselves an army and began taking back the nation of Iraq.  For a stateless group, they have been shockingly successful.  But they have proven themselves to be singularly sadistic conquerors.  So intractably brutal are they that even al-Qa'ida cut ties with them in February of this year.  ISIS is a hard-line jihadist group with the aim of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, rigidly enforcing Sharia Law.  In the cities they have conquered, civilians have been brutally executed for no other reason than being Shia Muslims or Christians.  This murder has included the beheading of children, according to the United Nations.  What is just as shocking has been their treatment of women, kidnapping, torturing, raping, and killing them.

The United States expended the lives of over 4,000 soldiers removing a dictator from power and turning the country over to it's people.  Included in that effort was the training and equipping of some 65,000 Iraqi soldiers to defend their country, allowing US combat troops to be withdrawn by December 2011.  

ISIS, consisting of an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers should have been overwhelmed by the Iraqis armor, artillery, and soldiers.  But in what anyone in the west would consider an act of cowardly betrayal, the Iraqi Army melted away, the individual soldiers whispering "Insha'Allah", literally, "If Allah wills it" as they ran.

As this news filtered back into this country, I was shocked and saddened, and at the same time angered.  Historically, Americans have bled far more in defense of other countries than for our own.  It's part of our culture and traditions; the way are wired to think and feel.  Our compassion runs deep, which is why we have always volunteered not only our soldiers, but our civilians to go into areas where things were falling apart and try to make things right again.  Usually, the recipient nation shows a certain amount of gratitude for that effort and sacrifice by at least trying to make their country work for the welfare of their people.

But this time, our gift of blood and flesh, of mind and spirit, has been rejected; cast aside by people who have given up self-determination for an incomprehensible kind of fatalism.  I don't know what will happen in the near future.  And to be perfectly honest, I'm having trouble caring.  

The world has changed.  Politics, theology, and ideology have created a situation where it is difficult to put a finger on a map and say with any certainty, "there lies the enemy."  Islamic terror groups are, officially anyway, stateless organizations, not funded by any government or wearing clearly identifiable national uniforms.  They are driven by a violent philosophy which states that there can only be one religion, only one god, and all other religions and their practitioners must either be converted or eradicated.  It is this absolute intolerance which befuddles and infuriates Americans, born and bred under the First Amendment.

America can defeat any military force foolish enough to attack.  But in the case of radical Islam, the enemy is less thing than thought.  There is nothing more difficult or dangerous to fight than an idea.  Ideas don't have boundaries.  They cross borders carried by nothing more substantial than a whisper.  Ideas can't be shot or detained, or imprisoned.  Therefore, there is significant doubt that this is a war that we can win.

The events of the past few years have changed me.  There was a time when I was convinced of America's essential moral goodness and strength.  I felt assured that wherever conflict broke out, US troops could march in, restore order, stop the killing, and then march out leaving behind a calmer, more ordered, and safer society.  

I no longer think in these ways.  

I think it is time for the United States, both her government and her people, come to grips with the realization articulated by President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, "Our power is not infinite.  We have limits."  We have to be able to recognize when a conflict is quite simply not our fight.  We have to understand that there are other governments which should have vested interests in having stable countries on their borders.  And if they are unwilling to step in, then neither should we.  

We should never again commit the life's blood of our young men and women, the future of our own country, without a deep and searching exploration of the question, "Why?"

I was in a shopping mall when I saw one of our wounded warriors.  He was wearing an artificial leg and a green t-shirt, identifying him as a veteran of the 3rd Infantry Division.  He also wore the eyes of a veteran, eyes that have seen things no one should ever see.  I looked at him and my heart grew heavy as I realized that what he had fought for in Iraq was in the process of being lost.  He would spend the rest of his life having lost an important piece of himself only to see that his service had been in vain.

As I looked at him, I asked the question to myself...

"Was the cause worth your sacrifice?"

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

My 500th Post

Copyright © 2014 By Ralph F. Couey

November 3, 2006.  That was the day I went to the Blogger website and officially opened "Race the Sunset" with a post about Ben Rothlesberger's motorcycle accident.  Tonight, some 7 years and 9 months later, I am penning the 500th post on this blog.

Writing was, in my youth, something I avoided with every trick of deception I could muster.  But as I grew older, I realized that in my life's experiences I had acquired a voice, and something to say.  We were living in Somerset, Pennsylvania at the time, a place where winter generally begins in mid-October and doesn't relinquish it's grip until mid-May, with an average of 100 inches of snow hitting the ground in between.  That leaves a lot of long winter evenings in which to explore the inner reaches of the mind and soul.  I began to write in fits and starts, learning a lot about content and how to construct a sentence along the way.  And how to self-edit.  Eventually, I acquired enough confidence to submit some pieces to the local newspaper.  The first thing published was an entire page devoted to the beginning of motorcycle season.  I still have the aluminum print plate, although it's faded quite a bit.  

My foray into becoming a columnist began with a strict ration of one piece per month.  Eventually that increased to once per week.  I remember with great joy and pride the day when the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat editor told me, "You were just too good to keep out of the paper."

A few months later, I began to submit to the other local paper in Somerset.  I was told that due to the close proximity of the two papers that I would have to write separate columns for each.  Now I had gone from writing one piece per month to writing two per week.  In addition, I picked up an occasional column in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and a few other smaller papers in the northeast.  I was having the time of my life. I was an honest-to-God newspaper columnist with a loyal following.  

But the only consistent thing in life is change. My day job, a small federal agency, was shut down, my co-workers scattered to the four winds.  I ended up in Virginia, after cutting my ties to the two Pennsylvania papers.  After all, I reasoned, how could I be a "local columnist" from 200 miles away?  I had, by this time also acquired a bit of an ego with regards to my writing and blithely assumed that I could pick up another columnist slot there.  Things however came crashing down to reality.  My submissions to the many local papers were completely ignored.  In a short period of time, I went from being a columnist to just another free lancer with a dream.

My productivity dropped off accordingly.  Stripped of the requirement to produce two quality columns every week, and consumed with the responsibilities of establishing ourselves in this new place, I found it difficult to write even two or three times a month.  Looking back at those pieces, I can see the struggle taking place.  Rather than seeing flow and pace, I saw words and phrases which were forced and uneven.  

So, why didn't I just give up?  Well, writing is like getting a skin rash.  No matter how hard you try to ignore it, you just feel compelled to scratch.  I still love to write.  I have two books I'd like to finish at some point, but my bread and butter, the short essay, continues to be my brush and palette.

In looking back over the history of this blog, I can see the diversity in my interests.  I actually sat down and made a list of the subjects from which my inspiration has flowed.  There are two subjects, motorcycles and life in general, that lead in the count.  Motorcycling has been my passion for over 20 years and in the early years, posts roared with V-Twin engines and gleamed with paint and chrome, as the countryside flashed by.  Life in general is a catch-all, I know.  But within there are musings about the death of a lawnmower, the collapse of a closet, endless sentences about the interminable nature of a Pennsylvania winter.  But I also wrote about love and friendship, gardening, and a friend's cows which she treated as pets.

The third topic, which I called "Reflections," consists of what I think is the best of what I've done.  As an example, I was out walking on a fine fall day, my favorite time of year, when I passed under an elm tree at the same moment that a passing breeze dislodged a bunch of leaves, which showered down on me.  A quiet gong seemed to go off inside my chest, and I couldn't wait to get home to write about the glories of autumn.

History is another subject that has populated the blog.  Many of those were posts, starting in 2011, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  In those posts, organized by month and year, is a fairly complete chronology of the major, and many of the minor actions which defined that conflict, both on the battlefields and in the congresses.  I've also written pieces in response to domestic and international news events, many regarding the disturbing increase in mass shootings in this country.  

Other subjects include the various aspects of 9/11, mainly columns written about the development of the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania, and effort of which I contributed to in a very minor way.  I wrote about being a Grampa; sports; hiking, the newest of my passions.  Running, my weight loss surgery, the passage of time, entertainment, pets, religion, space, the challenge of writing, and some pieces extolling the country in which I live.  

These pieces cover the gamut of emotions from happy to sad, from questioning to pessimism, birth, and death.

I intend to continue writing here, and I am ever so grateful to those who have stopped by, all 48,090 of you, to spend a couple minutes tasting my cooking.  It's so true that this writing thing is an itch I can't seem to scratch, and as long as I experience that sensation accompanying a fresh idea that demands that I write or watch my head explode, I will continue to make that effort.

Will I ever be a columnist again?  I'd like to think so, but one thing that is required of any writer is that undefeatable sense of optimism that someday, somewhere there will be an editor who will fall in love with my stuff.

I retire in 7 years and I fully intend to spend whatever years I have left after that trying to punch through that wall which stands between a writer and the nirvana of publication.

In the final analysis, it is what I must do.

Hiking, Part 8

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures

Watching the weather forecasts approaching my hiking day gave me some cause for concern.  After a couple of weeks of delightful October-in-July, summer came back.  It was going to sunny and H3 (Hot, Humid, and Hazy) with temps reaching into the low 90's.  I normally don't do well in this kind of weather, but I sucked it up and went ahead.

Today's target was a stretch of the AT (Appalachian Trail) from US 50 southward into two really interesting areas, Sky Meadows State Park and the and the G.R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area.  The designated place to park when tackling this stretch is a parking area which can be accessed via a kinda scary driveway off Blue Ridge Mountain Road.  I touched on this in an earlier post, remarking that the driveway drops off so suddenly that when you first pull off the road, you literally can't see where you're going.  Pulling back out is an adventure because you can't see the traffic coming south until your front end is well out onto the roadway.  Looking for an alternative, I spied, via Google Maps, Liberty Hill Lane, a gravel road that leads off into the woods.  There appeared to be room for one or two cars to park there, and it was in close proximity to where the trail picks up on the south side of the highway.  Arriving there, I found a sufficient space to park my vehicle (in the shade, no less) and was pleased to discover and access path leading to the AT.  I geared up and headed south.

I had about an 850-foot climb to do, but as it was spread out over 2.5 miles, it was a relatively easy ascent, especially after doing South Mountain for the last two weeks.  The first thing I noticed was that there seemed to be something missing.  Oh yeah.  Rocks.  The last two hikes were over rough ground with plenty of large stones in the path.  This stretch, while still possessing some rocks, they were in far less density, leaving a very comfortable dirt path that my abused feet found comforting.  The trail was shaded by the dense forest, but the humidity was already making itself felt by the time I crossed the border into Sky Meadows State Park.  At the top of the climb I popped out of the woods into the lovely meadows that decorate the ridgetops.

At one point, I rounded a low hill and surprised a couple of fawns, still wearing their white spots.  As I came in view, they were frolicking, leaping high into the air as they danced through the meadow.  Then they spotted me.  The one on the left broke for the treeline.  The one on the right, however, launched into a streaking run to my right.  I was awestruck at the incredible grace of the deer as it sped in a large arc to my right before vanishing over the hill.  Unfortunately, it wasn't until then that it occurred to me that I was carrying a camera.  Drat.  Would've made a great video to share.

Once past the meadows, I entered into an area of very dense foliage.  The trail, which was usually quite wide, narrowed down to about the width of two feet, if one was standing at attention.  There were no trees here, so the sun beat down unrelieved by the breeze that had wafted me across the meadows.

There were places where the trail almost disappeared.  Because of the close proximity of the grasses, I was on continual tick patrol, checking my feet and ankles for the little suckers.  The other annoyance were the abundant spider webs strung across the trail.  In places, I had to lead with my trekking poles, waving them around and muttering "Danger!  Danger, Will Robinson!" like the robot from "Lost in Space."  

At about the 3.5-mile mark, I crossed over into the G.R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area.  Consisting of an area of 4,000 acres, the area is rich in deer, turkey, and grouse, and has lakes stocked with trout.  It is a popular place for hunters, hikers, birders, and...flowerers?  Anyway, I couldn't see much from the trail, except for the dense undergrowth, and the occasional forest, but it was a very lovely area, although probably much lovelier when the air's a bit cooler.  It was the increasing heat, aggravated by the loss of the breeze from earlier that convinced me to turn around at the four mile point.  In the undergrowth, the air was incredibly still and buggy.  the sight of the tail of a snake oozing into the ground cover brought me to a halt.  I waited until it was completely gone, and continued on.  I crossed back into Sky Meadows and arrived at the point where the AT meets the Park's North Ridge Trail.  At that junction, someone had decided to build a stout bench.  I took advantage, and sat down for lunch.  

Nearby, there were signs, the same kind you'd see on the highway.

I was surprised to see the distance to Shenandoah National Park was only 21 miles.  But then I remembered that was 21 miles...by foot.

The last three miles to where I'd left the car were downhill and, compared to previous hikes, fairly easy.  There was one point where my confidence got the best of me and my speed, tripping over a rock.  Again, my poles spared me the pain of a fall.  About a quarter mile from the end, I began to hear the roar of traffic on US50, and eventually I popped back out of the forest to where my vehicle was parked, alas, now sitting in the sun.

I encountered a lot more people today, three singles and a couple, all geared up for a multi-day hike.  It is such a pleasure to encounter these folks because everyone is so very friendly, asking how I was doing, if I had enough water, etc.  The couple told me that there were ripe berries in the meadow.  I passed, as I'm not much of a berry man.  There does seem to be a wonderful spirit that accompanies hikers on the AT, particularly the through-hikers who seem to be in need of human contact and conversation.  Part of that, I know, is the experience of hiking.  Being in and around nature, undiluted by traffic or civilization, has a restorative effect on the psyche and soul.  To stand in the forest, serenaded by the delightful sound of birdsong brings a sense of peace I just can't find any other place.

Next week, our youngest daughter, my "Tigger," will be visiting, so I will be spending my Tuesday with her instead of on the trail.  Yet, I am in gleeful anticipation because Autumn, my absolutely favorite time of year, is on the horizon and I am impatiently waiting for those cool, crisp days when the trees paint the hillsides with the glorious art show that is the Fall season.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hiking, Part 7

Jagged edges

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

I've been saving this one for one of those rare days off when I actually had nearly the whole day available to me.  So after I dropped my granddaughter off at day camp, I turned northward and made the 90-minute drive to Gathland State Park near Burkittsville, Maryland.  

The park is named for George Alfred Townsend who was a Civil War press correspondent, one of the youngest to report on the war from the front lines.  He also covered the assassination of President Lincoln, and the subsequent pursuit of the killer, actor John Wilkes Booth.  He was a well-known and prodigious writer, at one point penning some 18,000 words per day.  In a time when inkpens had to be dipped in ink and written on foolscap, this was an amazing level of output.  After the war, he remained one of the most popular of Washington correspondents, having gathered a huge audience.  

When he was 47, he began building an estate on land he purchased in Crampton's Gap, a wind gap cutting through the otherwise contiguous South Mountain.  This land was also the site where the Battle of South Mountain was fought in September 1862.  Among the structures that he had built out the abundant native stone was an arch dedicated to war correspondents who were killed while covering wars.

The Memorial Arch.

What remains of his mansion.

After his death, the land was given to the state for a park, which is known not by Townsend's name, but his pen name, "Gath."

The AT (Appalachian Trail) passes right through this property, descending from the northern part of South Mountain, across the gap, and back up onto the southern ridge.  Last week, I hiked the southern ridge, part of it anyway, from Weverton, north of Harper's Ferry.  It was a brutal climb, and looking at the topo map I saw that the part starting from Gathland was a much gentler ascent, so I decided to give this one a try.

Traffic being what it is, it took me almost two hours to get there.  But upon arrival, I saw the beautiful property, and two parking lots.  I pulled in, geared up, and headed south.

There are two access points for the trail, one being a path that begins right off the upper driveway.  But if you want a bit of a ceremony (and don't mind the rocks) you can pass through an arch that was meant to be part of Townsend's mausoleum, although he didn't use it.   Once on the trail, the climbout is much gentler than it's southern counterpart.  Part of that is because the elevation at the gap is 400 feet higher that the point just off the Potomac River.  But the path is still strewn with rocks.

Once again, my trekking poles stood me in good stead, keeping me from falling as I teetered and tottered over the stones.  Rocks aside, it was an absolutely perfect day, sunny, very low humidity, and temps in the low 70's.  For Virginia/Maryland in late July, this kind of condition falls somewhere between "rare" and "unheard of".  The tree canopy is dense, so there's not a lot of sunshine falling onto the hiker.  But the birds were singing, the breeze was delightful, and I was in my element.

Speaking of rocks, on the path I began to see a lot of quartz rock, both lumps of crystals, and veins running through other rocks.  

I'm no geologist, so I'll leave it to others as to why, but this stuff was scattered all along the ridgetop.  

The terrain meandered up and down, although there weren't any really difficult climbs.  I made decent time, even having to slow for the excessively rocky parts.

About 3 1/4 miles in, I came across a sign...

...at the head of a side trail.  Not having visited on of these shelters, I decided to take a look.

At the end of the trail was a pretty good sized log structure...

...hollowed out on the back side...

It is a sleeping shelter with a loft and the only decoration are firmly-worded signs to clean up afterwards.  There were also a couple of picnic tables and a very primitive privy.  I decided to stop and eat my lunch here.  It was very peaceful, and there was an overlook which won't become visible until late fall.  

After eating, I rejoined the trail and continued on.  My intent was to hike all the way to Weverton Cliff and back, a distance of some 12 miles.  But when I got to a point about 5 1/4 miles, I reached a place where the trail sloped downward through a prodigious rock garden.  I was tired, and I decided to reverse course at that point.  The way back went much quicker.  And my increasing fatigue didn't keep me from enjoying the lovely scenery.

I kept going, pushing an even harder pace, and finally I passed back through the arch, having done 10.56 miles in just under 5 hours.

I wandered around a bit looking at the buildings in the park, but after taking time to stretch, I climbed back in the car and headed home.

This was a hike I've wanted to do since seeing South Mountain on the Topo map.  The south end was a hard climb, and the north end was a long hike, but the tired I felt heading home was manifestly a "good tired."

This was the longest hike I've attempted since I did a 20-miler as part of the qualifications for Eagle Scout when I was a teenager.  All things considered, I did all right.

My next hike I think will involve the section of the AT south of US 50, less than 30 minutes from home.  I don't think I'll do this 2-hour drive again anytime soon.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hiking, Part 6

The Potomac River Near Harper's Ferry from Weverton Cliff

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content

I managed to free up a few hours today and went to a location that has been on my anticipation list.

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia is one of those places where history rises from the dry pages of textbook into dazzling reality.  The town sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and was from its beginnings a busy location for river commerce and industry.  Today, the National Parks Service has preserved the historical part of the town in an interactive historic park.  The town would, by itself, be a very interesting visit, but the view of the two rivers from the point of land where they meet is breathtaking.

The AT (Appalachian Trail) passes through the town, in fact the Conservancy has an office there.  From there, you can trek southwards along the crest of Short Hill Mountain as it meanders towards Shenandoah National Park.  I chose to go northwards today.

I left my vehicle in the Park n' Ride lot near Weverton and was able to jump right on the trail, as it passes right behind the lot.  Having consulted the topo map, I knew I was in for a challenge.  South Mountain begins on the north bank of the Potomac and rises precipitately to nearly 1,200 feet.  The initial climb is a series of switchbacks as the trail ascends about 600 feet in the first half-mile.  It's not just the steep climb that makes this one so challenging.  The path is well strewn with rocks which requires careful consideration as to where to plant one's foot.  Fortunately, I remembered my trekking poles this time.  There were three occasions when I stumbled, slipped, and tripped on the rocks.  Only those poles kept me from executing an epic face-plant.

At about 900 feet elevation, the way began to flatten out, but the rocks were still there.  It seems as if that end of the mountain is slowly falling apart, dumping rocks down the slopes ranging from pocket-sized to house-sized.  I saw several places where the dedicated volunteers had cleared some good sized rock slides from the trail.  This climb took me awhile, about an hour and 15 minutes, but once I got to the 1,200 foot level, the trail became a lovely, soft springy loam that felt really great on the feet.  I encountered two other hikers, both male, who were fully geared up, their packs topped by foam bed pads.  I don't know if they were through hiking or just spending a night or two, but it was nice to see other people out doing the trail.

When you get near the top of the ridge, there is an overlook called Weverton Cliff that provides a lung-sucking panorama of the rivers and the town below.

 Yup.  I clumb it.

The day was very humid, but not extremely hot, so while I shed a couple of gallons of sweat, I never felt dangerously overheated.  I did take the opportunity to try out a couple of new items.  One was a belt-mounted device from the OFF company, which sprayed a fine mist of insect repellent into the air while I was walking.  It seemed to work pretty well.  The bugs would get close to my face, but never touch it, and I survived the day without a single insect bite, and it was a very buggy day.  The other thing was a huge floppy bucket hat that I found at Costco.  Kind of odd-looking, the brim was large and oval shaped, so it gave good coverage of my face and the back of my neck.  Partway uphill though, I had to flip the front brim up, as I found it difficult to see ahead of me.  The other think I liked was how well it kept the sweat out of my eyes.  Ballcaps (my usual choice) do a fairly good job, but this hat, as ugly as it looks was way more effective.  And had I been caught out in the rain, it would have kept my face and eyes clear.  

 Not quite Indiana Jones...

Finally, the clouds parted and the forest began to be dappled in sun and leaves.  I was now on the loamy part of the trail and my pace picked up considerably.  My original intent was to do the round trip from Weverton up to the gap just west of Burkittsville, but I got about three miles along this trail and, alas, it was time to turn around.  Heading back was a bit easier, although I still had to slow down for the rocky part of the trail.  

...and lumpy.

Once I passed the sub trail for the cliff, the way became steep again.  I was oh, so careful going down, and this was when I had two of my near-face plants.  I can't stress enough how important (to me, anyway) these carbon fiber sticks from the Black Diamond company were today.  I've had a few tumbles on other trails, but going down on this trek would have resulted in some serious injuries.  Some of the switchback corners were partially washed out and the loose rocks were responsible for some unwanted cardiac stimulation.  But I managed to get all the way down and finally, footsore and soaking wet, returned to the parking lot.

This was a good example of underestimating the climb.  Having ascended the hills at Sky Meadows, I breezily assumed that this one would not present too much of a challenge.  Not so.  If I ever get a full day to do South Mountain, I need to plan the 13-mile out-and-back a little more carefully.

Humid day, but still a good hike, and another small section of the AT goes in the books.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Redskins in the Crosshairs -- Chiefs Next?

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph Couey
Written content only.

In 1988, the National Football League franchise located in Washington DC won Super Bowl XXII, thumping the Denver Broncos 42-10.  Washington was quarterbacked by Doug Williams, the first African-American QB to not only play in, but win the Big Game.  It was also the first of what would be countless public demonstrations and protests concerning the team's nickname, "Redskins."

The nickname, many believe, is a word born out of racism dating back to the first time white Europeans pushed into the tribal frontier.  The issue is rapidly coming to a head, with the National Patent Office stripping the team of their copyright on the name.  Across the country, two sets of voices are being raised, one which demands that this term be banned from not only the NFL, but all teams in all sports.  The other set of voices contends that in the modern context, the term is much more closely related to the team and not to that group of people who have come to be called "Native Americans."

Football aside, I have a bit of a problem with that term.  Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a native American because human life did not arise here spontaneously as it did in Africa some 200,000 years ago.  Over the millennia continents have drifted, and sea levels have fallen and risen.  This created pathways of migration.  Everyone here on these three continents (North, Central, and South America, respectively) came here from someplace else, mainly across the Bering land bridge beginning about 16,000 years ago, by the latest estimate.  I prefer the term "First Americans."  It is more accurate, plus it retains the honorific of them being the first to take possession of these lands.

 Team owner Dan Snyder has planted his foot firmly in the rich soil of tradition, vowing to never change the team's name.  But protests are gathering momentum and there seems little doubt that at some point in the near future a Waterloo -- or Little Big Horn -- will be reached when irrevocable action will be taken.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

An Island of Unity in a Sea of Discord

Soccer Madness
Americans celebrate in Kansas City's Power & Light District
© Kansas City Star

C 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only.

Every once in awhile, it happens.  We argue, fight, divide ourselves over issues social and political to the point where you think that the whole thing's about to come apart.  The "United" part of the title "United States of America" becomes a dark joke.  The divide widens as people have seemingly lost the will to be one country.

Then, out of that darkness, a chant begins.  One or two voices at first, then more pick it up.  And suddenly, we are all standing shoulder to shoulder; arm in arm, our differences forgotten, shouting "USA!  USA!  USA!

For two weeks, that was us.  America was in the World Cup of Soccer, and winning.  We made it all the way to the round of 16 before losing a heartbreaker to Belgium despite a heroic superhuman effort by goaltender Tim Howard.

But for those two weeks, America was spellbound; entranced.  People gathered in public places all across the country, watching the matches on huge televisions.  Even people who were completely clueless about soccer (you mean we LOST and yet we STILL advance???) were drawn in and caught up.  In Washington, politicians continued to bicker endlessly.  But for two priceless weeks, none of us cared.  Team USA was our passion.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

New Life...And Hope

Copyright 2014 by Ralph Couey

"Babies are such a nice way to start people."
--Don Herold

There are so many wonderful things about the birth of a baby that it's difficult to sort through that blizzard of emotions.  But no matter how many births a person is a part of, somehow that sense of wonder is never lost.

She became our 10th grandchild, counting one given up for adoption and another who, after six difficult months, went to live with God.  It was the latter experience which has taught our entire family the most important lesson about the value and sanctity of life.

Sophie Kim, as her parents have named her, arrived on a hot and humid Friday evening, all 7 pounds and 19 inches of her.  Her appearance was the culmination of a fast-paced series of events, that began with the onset of contractions while she was at the pool with her first two kids.  About 5:00, she called our son, who against all odds was mere minutes from home.  A neighbor came over to watch the two kids, and Robbie and Yukyung jumped in the car -- all right, crawled in the car -- for a risky 35-mile drive to their assigned hospital in Fort Belvoir.  Being Friday, and at the beginning of the tourist season, and in the middle of the DC region rush hour, I did not give them good odds to complete the trip.  But complete it they did, arriving just before 7:00.  Less than an hour later, Sophie emerged into our world.

This morning, my wife and I drove to the hospital, albeit at a more sedate pace, bringing along the first two kids, 7-year-old Diana and 3-year-old Ian.  Once there, their sense of wonder at seeing their new baby sister was something to behold.  Ian's persistent question, "How did the baby come out?" went largely unanswered.  My cryptic response, "The same we she got in there" was far from a ray of light as far as he was concerned.

Cheryl, exercising the Grandma's Privilege, was the first of us to hold the baby.  As I watched, her eyes softened and her face was illuminated by a gentle smile.  She was in her element.  She was born for this moment.

I watched as she explored little Sophie, looking into her face, arms, legs, fingers, and toes, searching for, and finding those distinctive genetic markers identifying her as one of us.  Knowing how important this time was for her, I withheld my impatience until she finally looked up and with a big smile passed her over.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Saturday, Glorious Saturday!*

*Somerset, PA Daily American  April 30, 2010
as "There's Something About Saturdays"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Like people, the days of the week each have their own reputation. Monday is most often the demon of the group, at least until football season, while Friday gets all the glory.

The origin of these names is intertwined with cultures dating back a thousand years. Sunday is “Day of the Sun,” and depending on the culture can be either the first or the last day of the week. Monday derives from “Day of the Moon.” Tuesday comes from Tiw, the Old English god of war. Wednesday, the one with the odd spelling, was named for the god Woden. Interestingly, in Germany this one morphed into Mittwok, or “mid-week.” (In Spanish, it is “miercoles,” for the god Mercury.) Thursday is named for the Old English god Thunor, and also the Norse god Thor. Friday became the day of the goddess Venus (Frige in Old English).

But of all the days of the week, none hold a special place equal to Saturday.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Miles and Milestones

Copyright ©2014 by Ralph F. Couey

Two years ago this month, I woke up one morning and decided that it was time to exercise.  I started walking on the treadmill that day, and in the time since, I've gotten to the point where I'm running 4 to 5 miles four to six days per week.  I long since have forsaken the treadmill for the great outdoors, except on those days when the weather is so bad as to make outside activities dangerous.  The benefits to my health are multitudinous, as the enthusiasm of my cardiologist attests.

The following February, I was out in California for a visit with our oldest daughter and her three boys.  She introduced me to a smart phone app called "Map My Run."  The app, using the GPS feature on the phone, tracks runs (and walks and hikes as well) for distance, time, and pace, uploading to a regular website at the end of each activity.  Also immortalized are maps of the routes I've run, a handy tool as well.

Even after two years of use, I still get surprised by the information stored therein.  Quite by accident, I stumbled on a page showing "lifetime stats."  I was startled to realize that sometime last week, I topped the milestone of 1,000 miles.

Now, I now that's not comprehensive, as there are several months of work that have gone unrecorded because I was laboring in software ignorance.  But it was interesting to realize that in the time since I got the app, I've spent some 245 hours so engaged, roughly the equivalent of a smidgen over 10 complete days.

Getting Slapped in the Face by Real Life

Copyright ©2014 by Ralph F. Couey

You know how it is.

Days get loaded up with the "have-to-dos" endemic to those whose responsibilities seem to squeeze out everything else.  Yes, it's better than sitting at home staring out of a window, wondering if you really could hear grass grow, but in the discharge of those duties, hours and days are lost.

My day job involves an unusual schedule, Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.  I used to not have to be there until 1:00 p.m., but a recent reappraisal of the incoming workflow resulted in the adjustment to the new schedule.  I like getting off earlier, but in the effort to keep my exercise schedule, I'm now on the road in the middle of the morning rush.  Along with several hundred thousand of my closest friends.  As a result, what was a 40 minute commute has become a creeping 90-minute ordeal.

Anyway, my days off run Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, which I am happy about because of two things.  Having Sunday and Monday free means I don't miss any pro football.  Plus, there's just something wonderful about sleeping in on Monday mornings...

My wife (with whom I just shared a 36th anniversary) works a similarly convoluted schedule, but we share Sundays and Mondays off, while I have Tuesdays and she has Thursdays to our respective selves.  Monday, though, becomes Honey Do day.  We run errands, do our shopping, work around the house, and make sure that we share a trip to the local Cineplex for a movie.  Today was no different.  I woke up first, going for a 4-mile run while she slept a little longer.  This was earned rest because she was on call last night and ended up spending 7 hours doing surgery.  I got back from my run, cleaned up, and when she arose, we went ahead and did our movie date, taking in the Disney flick "Maleficent."  I won't bore you with a review of the film.  Afterwards, we made our weekly pilgrimage to our friendly neighborhood CostCo.  We picked up the necessary items, paid for them, and headed for the parking lot.  We were loading our car, when I heard a woman's voice call, "Sir?  Sir?"  This directed towards three men who walked by, whether in ignorance, neglect, or indifference.  I turned towards the voice to see a 50-ish lady in one of those electric shopping carts who was trying to load groceries into her SUV.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Civil War: Events of August 1864

Union General Phil Sheridan was named to command the Army of the Shenandoah on August 1st.

August 3rd saw the start of one of the major naval actions of the Civil War at Mobile Bay.  With the loss of New Orleans and Vicksburg, Mobile Bay was one of the last ports available to the Confederacy.  Indeed, a regular parade of blockade runners had been sortieing out of the Bay bound for friendly ports of supply in the Caribbean.  Admiral David Farragut entered the bay with 18 ships on the 5th, far outnumbering the five representing the CSN.  The Union lost ironclad TECUMSEH to a mine (then called "torpedoes"), part of a large field laid by the South.  Despite the loss of that ship, Farragut pressed forward, gambling that the extended submergence would have rendered the mines inert.  It was here that one of the classic naval phrases was born "Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!"  The balance of the Union fleet entered the Bay successfully, engaging the Confederate ships and also the three heavily defended forts lining the bay.  In short order, the Southern ships were sunk.  The only one left was the ironclad TENNESSEE, which gave a good account for itself, inflicting heavy damage and standing her ground until she was literally pounded into scrap.  Without a fleet to defend them, the forts eventually were forced to surrender on August 23rd.  Shoal water and a lack of ground troops prevented the immediate capture of the city itself, but the loss of one of their last sources of supply followed shortly thereafter by the capture of Atlanta was the first of the final knells that would lead to the death of the Confederacy.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Civil War: Events of July 1864

On July 1st, the United States gets a new Treasury Secretary as William Pitt Fessenden is appointed by President Lincoln and immediately confirmed.  Fessenden, a Senator, replaced Salmon Chase who resigned following the failure of a loan offer to the government to receive any acceptable bids.  Without the ability to borrow money, the entire war effort was in jeopardy.

On that same day, the Senate approved the Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill, which Lincoln subjected to a pocket veto.

In Georgia, Confederate Joe Johnston ordered his forces to fall back from the Kennesaw Mountain position to a new position along the Smyrna Line on July 2nd.  Also on the 2nd, the U.S. Senate granted a charter to the Northern Pacific Railroad.

July 4th saw Johnston retreat again, this time to the Chattahoochee Line.

Newspaper publisher Horace Greeley received a letter on July 5th containing a Confederate proposal for peace negotiations to be held in Canada.  Greeley forwarded the letter to President Lincoln.

On that same day, Confederate General Jubal Early crossed the Potomac River at Harper's Ferry and entered Maryland with his division.  He turned his force eastward towards Washington.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Hiking, Part 5

Crooked Run Valley from Sky Meadows State Park

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Words and images

Today's sojourn took me to Sky Meadows State Park near Delaplane, Virginia.  The Park, located south of the intersection of US 50 and US 17, was established when Paul Mellon, heir to the Mellon banking empire, donated 1,132 acres to the state of Virginia in 1975.  The park was expanded twice, once to encompass the section of the Appalachian Trail nearby, and again when Mellon donated an additional 248 acres.  The park now encompasses 1,862 acres beginning in Crooked Run Valley and ending along a ridge to the west.  The park property also includes an area on the east side of US 17, where you can find the challenging Lost Mountain Trail.  The park is wonderfully diverse in its ecology.  You hike through meadows, forests, and across streams, each section a visual treat.  In addition, the precipitous uplift from east to west provides wonderful views of the surrounding countryside.

I had known of this park for some time, as it lay alongside one of my regular motorcycle ride routes.  I actually rode in there once, but my untrained eye didn't see much of interest.  But since picking up this hiking bug, I look at places like this with an entirely different perspective.

Sky Meadows has about 19 miles of trails and after conferring with the Ranger, I decided on a route which more or less circled the park, including about 2.5 miles of the AT.

It was a hot day with humidity to match.  Thunderstorms were forecast for later in the afternoon, but I figured to be done by then.  My route would take me from the Visitors Center, up the Piedmont Overlook trail, the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail, the AT segment, and the North and South Ridge Trails, ending up on Boston Mill Road back to the start point.  The morning having been taken up with a doctor's appointment, I didn't actually hit the trails until 12:30.  The sun had come out and was definitely open for business, somewhat ameliorated by a persistent north breeze.  I started out on a flat grass-covered section that took me into the woods, onto Boston Mill Road.  A bit further on, a sign directed me onto the Piedmont Overlook trail.  The transition was actually a set of stone stairs, an indicator of what was to come.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Time Out Becomes Time Vanished

The Human Rhinovirus, from University of Wisconsin Virology

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

I hate getting sick.  Not only is it uncomfortable, it's a confounded nuisance, intruding on every aspect of the life I am trying to live.  Another annoying aspect is the impact of age.  It seems the older I get, the longer it takes to recover.  This one started as an incipient cough acquired during our stay in Las Vegas.  Gradually, other symptoms began to pile up, including the usual suspects of sinus trouble, a fever that comes and goes, fatigue, dizziness, green goo in my lungs, and a general fog that rolls into the brain, much like the similar clouds that fill San Francisco Bay, which slows my intellect, makes simple things hard to do, and turns me into something of a vegetable.  If it were possible to admire the rhinovirus, I would have to tip my hat begrudgingly for it's persistence.  I've been carrying this thing for a week now and it shows no signs of being aware that it has manifestly worn out its welcome.  

This condition, of course, renders operation of a motorcycle too dangerous to attempt, and the constant fatigue makes any kind of exercise impossible.  I hiked six miles last Tuesday at Manassas Battlefield on an exquisitely hot day and haven't hiked or ran a step since.  Worst of all, I lost an entire week of work, cutting deeply into my jealously guarded storehouse of sick leave.  I tried to go in one day, but after a few hours of listening to my hacking cough, I was politely told by one of my colleagues to go home.  I understood.  With the multiple scares of various types of flu, we have been told that if we're sick, stay home.  Don't infect the rest of the office.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Sands of Infinity

The Vegas everyone knows...

...And the stark beauty of the desert that I know.

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
pictures and written content,
except for quoted and cited portions.

Life, it seems becomes a series of patterns, some by design, others we just fall into.  For us, one of these patterns has become our trips to Las Vegas.

No, we're not gambling junkies.  The Vegas of today is so much more than slot machines and table games.  Entertainment is the best anywhere.  The hotels themselves, designed around specific themes, are spectacular to see and visit.  For us, there is the additional attraction that my wife's family visit there two to three times per year, and since flying there is way cheaper than flying to Honolulu, the opportunity to be with her family is priceless.  These visits usually occur in May or June, once the vise of tax season is loosened for these accountants, and again in October around her Mom's birthday.  These dates are usually when hotel rates are the least expensive.  The week we were there, rooms at the iconic, if brooding pyramid, the Luxor were going for the bargain basement rate of $58 per night.  But we always stay in Old Las Vegas, known as downtown, a cluster of hotel casinos flanking the now-roofed over Fremont Street.  These are the names that made Las Vegas in the early days.  The Fremont, The Golden Gate, Four Queens, and the Pioneer Club, with the trademark neon cowboy, known as Vegas Vic, mounted over the front doors.  The nice thing is that these hotels are close together, making it easy to walk from one to another.  On the strip, it can take 20 minutes just to walk next door.  At night, the neon blazes, self-explaining Fremont's acquired nickname of "Glitter Gulch."

And there's another reason.  While there this time, I clicked over my 59th birthday.  What that means, other than varicosity and arthritis, is that retirement is fast approaching, and it is important that we choose where to spend what remains of our lives.  The last thing we wanted was to live in a place where we'd sit around and wait to die.  Las Vegas is full of things to do.  We can be active and engaged in a variety of ways.  Plus it puts us closer to our adult children in Denver and L.A.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Hiking, Part 4

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

Today my wishes lost out to various demands, and as a result, I spent a good portion of the day engaged in those duties to which adults are required to perform.  My intent was to head west to the AT segment near Ashby's Gap, but as I didn't get freed up until nearly 1:30, I decided to keep it local.

The Civil War Battle fought only 20 minutes from my home is known by two different names.  In the South, it was known as the first and second Battle(s) of Bull Run, referring to the stream which bisects the site.  The Union referred to it as Manassas, named for the town a few miles to the south.  Today, the battlefield is a well-preserved 4,500-acres of fields, forests, and streams.  There are also hiking trails.

The two major trails cover each side of Virginia Route 234, AKA Sudley Road.  The trail on the east side of that road, the side with the visitors center, is 5.5 miles.  The one on the west side of the road is 6.5 miles.  The trails are mostly easy, although there are a few steep hills to climb.  It is a picturesque place, mostly quiet except for wildlife and the well-muted sound of traffic from VA 234 and US 29.  It is a lovely place in the springtime, when the new growth is all greened up, especially so on a clear, sunny day.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Thinking About a Motorcycle?*

A wedge of Honda Pacifc Coasts
Photo taken by an unnamed IPCRC member

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 3/28/2006

Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Couey

Gas prices have continued their volatile roller-coaster ride, and consumers seem to know instinctively that they could zoom once again, as dramatically as a climbing fighter jet. With that in mind, people are looking at two-wheeled conveyances with a far more speculative eye.

It’s tempting. Even big motorcycles can average better than 30 miles per gallon, while scooters can average better than 60 mpg. Practicality aside, motorcycles are just plain fun to ride.

I’ve ridden the better part of 20 years and well over 250,000 miles, the memories of which still bring plenty of smiles.  Knowing the benefits that riding has accrued to me, I encourage people to entertain the possibility of purchasing a motorcycle or scooter. However, it’s important that folks go into this purchase with their eyes wide open.

If you are a new rider, and even if you have some past experience, the rider safety courses offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation are extremely valuable. Over the space of a few days, you will learn skills that would otherwise take years to acquire on the road.

I will never forget the reaction of one veteran biker. At the end of the course, when he was called up to accept his certificate and card, he said, “I thought this would be a waste of my time. In fact, I learned things here this weekend that the school of experience couldn't teach me in 25 years of riding.”

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Hiking, Part 3

Appalachian Trail

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

This week's sojourn took me to the grandaddy of all the eastern U.S. hikes, the Appalachian Scenic Trail.  This trail, known colloquially as "the A.T." stretches some 2,200 miles from Mount Katahdin in central Maine to Georgia's Springer Mountain in the north-central part of that state.  It started as an idea borne by a forester named Brenton MacKaye in 1921 and publicized by Raymond H. Torrey in the New York Evening Post.  The states along the intended route came onboard and one of the early trail activists, Myron Avery, was the first to "section hike" the trail (doing the entire length in sections, rather than one long hike) in 1936.  The first documented "thru-hike" (doing the trail in one continuous hike) was in 1948 by Earl Shaffer of York, PA.  Shaffer thru-hiked the trail in both directions, becoming the first to accomplish that feat.  By 1971, the trail's course was permanently established.  There is an international Appalachian trail that continues for an additional 1,900 miles into New Brunswick in Canada, although this leg is not officially considered part of the AT.  

Every year, hundreds start the long walk in Georgia in early March and April, usually finishing the trail in Maine by August and September.  The trail was created to be hiked, and as such has shelters along the trail spaced at a day's hiking distance, usually 15 to 20 miles.  

Virginia's part of the AT is about 550 miles long, running from Harper's Ferry to Damascus.  You can access the trail at a number of locations, although convenient places to park your car are a bit difficult to come by.

I ordered two section maps covering northern and central Virginia from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and after perusing both, I identified two places where I could climb aboard.  One is just off Virginia 7 and Blue Ridge Mountain Road near Bluemont, and the other at the south end of that road, just off of US50 as it passes through Ashby Gap, choosing the latter to start my hike today.  After a late start, spending some wonderful hours with my grandson while his Mom ran some errands, I headed west on US50 towards Ashby Gap.  This is one of my regular motorcycle runs, so I anticipated little trouble in locating the parking area off Blue Ridge Mountain Road

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Gathering and the Family Dinner

The Reagan family dinner
Publicity still from CBS Television

Our family dinner
 The Tavern

"You can't forget how important coming together is, whether it be a mom and a son, a dad and a daughter, whether the family be ten people, or twenty people, or a million people.  
Dinnertime is the perfect time for that.  Dinnertime is the perfect time when you can sit down, you can offer thanks to your kids for making you laugh, or to your parents for supporting you, 
or to a god for looking out for you.  
You can just close your eyes, and open them again 
and realize that you have the opportunity every day to change your life, 
or change someone else's.
Dinnertime is a great time to think about that."

--Dillon, age 22
From "Dinnertimes: Stories of American Life, 1912 to 2012

"Sitting down to a meal together draws a line around us.
It encloses us and strengthens the bonds that connect us
with other members of our self-defined clan,
shutting out the rest of the world"
--Miriam Weinstein

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted and cited passages.

This week we had as guests my wife's sister and her two daughters.  It's always a happy time to have family in for a few days, especially since my wife is always so homesick for Hawai'i

Yesterday, at their request, we drove up to Gettysburg and toured the battlefield and the visitor's center.  Today, we slept in a little and after I got back from my run, we drove to the quaint little village of Upperville, Virginia and broke bread at the Hunter's Head Tavern.  This delightful place is ensconced in a converted home, built around 1750.  It has a good-size patio and garden out back, the perfect backdrop to an evening meal.

From the moment we arrived, we chattered happily, sharing memories and anecdotes, those bits and pieces of life that so clearly define a family.  We sat at the table and enjoyed a delicious meal, as the food always is at the HH.  But the best part of the evening was the sheer joy at simply being together.

There were twelve of us altogether seated around the weathered old table sharing stories and gossip, reveling in the tales of travels to Asia and Europe shared by our two nieces.  It was a wonderful time, a precious all-too-fleeting time.