Tuesday, November 24, 2015
This year, I was lucky enough to have my summer vacation fall on the hottest and most humid week of the summer. I was also lucky enough to be able to book a few days of tent camping that week at a beautiful Maine state park I had never visited before: Lake St. George in Liberty, which is between Belfast and Augusta. I’d tried unsuccessfully to book campsites at Lake St. George on weekends in the past, but it is very popular with a limited number of sites. The best sites fill up further in advance than I typically like to reserve, due to weather worries. (Tenting in the rain is an activity in one of the inner circles of my personal Hell.) It was easier to book a couple of midweek days I found, and I did just that, getting a great spot right on the lake itself. As warm and sticky as the weather was, I didn’t notice it very much because I could literally walk about ten feet and find myself in the clear, cool waters of Lake St. George any time I wanted.
For some reason, I didn't take many photos of my stay at Lake St. George, but here is one of my campsite there.
Lake St. George State Park is on the site of an old farmstead, and there is still a large barn in the center of the park that I believe is from that original farm. It’s not a large park compared to some of Maine’s other state parks, only 358 acres total. When you first drive into the park, you can turn left or right from the ranger station. A right takes you to the camping area, and a left to the public day use area.
The day use area features plenty of parking, a large beautiful beach with a lifeguard on duty in season, a children’s play area, and plenty of picnic areas. It is all handicap-accessible. I’m not sure if there is a boat launch area on the day use side of the park, but I do know there is a public one just up the shoreline a bit, as well as an area in the campground where boats can be launched. Motorized boats are allowed on Lake St. George, but I didn’t find there to be a huge number of them, even at the height of summer. There were plenty of canoes, kayaks and sailboats on the water when I was there, and everyone seemed to co-exist peacefully.
The camping area is basically a large loop, with a smaller loop branching off from it. Only about a half dozen campsites are as directly on the water as mine was, but none of the 38 total sites are more than a moment’s walk to the shoreline. Privacy varies from site to site, but none of the sites are ones I would consider uncomfortable. There is a large, centrally-located shower and restroom building in the middle of the camping area that was keep sparkling clean, though I’ve found that most Maine state parks with camping take very good care of their facilities. Water is available at various places around the campground. There is a free wifi kiosk for campers near the ranger station, though I didn’t make use of it during my stay.
One of the things I like best about Lake St. George is that, if you are a user of Google Earth, you can actually see ground-level photographs of each campsite. There is a link at Lake St. George’s page on the state of Maine website that allows you to do that. It’s not a 360 degree view, but it does give you a good impression of what you are reserving if you’ve never been there previously. I am really hoping more of Maine’s state parks will start including this feature.
If Lake St. George sounds familiar, that may be because it is the location of the 6-acre Birch Island, now known as “Hawaii 2”, that was purchased by the makers of the game Cards Against Humanity and given out in 250,000 square foot plots to their customers during a promotion back in 2014. Wikipedia gives a quick overview of Hawaii 2. If you are one of the owners of Hawaii 2, then Lake St. George State Park would be a great place to stay while exploring your one square foot of real estate. I don’t think camping is allowed on Hawaii 2 itself, and you’d need a mighty small tent for that one square foot if it was.
Other than the difficulty in making reservations, the only downside I found to Lake St. George State Park is the grocery selection at nearby stores. There are a couple of small convenience stores within a few miles, but on the day I went looking for supplies, they didn’t even have milk on hand. They were all sold out. I’m not sure if it was a fluke or not, but I had a real need (there was cereal to be eaten, after all), and wound up driving all the way into Belfast to get some. It was 32 miles, round trip.
One other note: take care not to confuse Lake St. George State Park in Liberty with Lake George Regional Park, which is a lovely park near Canaan, Maine. The two names are often confused, but they are nearly an hour’s drive apart from each other, and the Canaan park does not offer camping.
I stayed at eight state parks this past summer, and Lake St. George State Park was definitely one of the highlights. If you are looking for a camping trip or just a place to dip your toes on a hot day, I’d highly recommend it.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
From almost anywhere you are in Maine, if you drive east without stopping (or southeast from the northern parts of the state), you are going to end up either in Canada or the Atlantic Ocean. But before you do, you are likely to pass by Cobscook Bay State Park on Route 1 in Edmunds Township, Maine. And unless you have pressing business in Calais, an up-to-date passport, or an amphibious vehicle, you might want to consider stopping there. Even if you do have those things, Cobscook Bay is a 888-acre jewel tucked away in deep Downeast Maine that you really should check out.
View from the overlook at Cobscook
Cobscook Bay has its roots in the nearby Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1937 with revenue from the federal Duck Stamp program. Moosehorn had an early champion in President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who spent most of his summers at nearby Campobello Island. In 1964, Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge offered a free, long-term lease to the state of Maine on a large recreational area it had created on some of its land near Whiting Bay. The state legislature voted to accept the lease, management of the parcel was taken over by the state, and Cobscook Bay State Park officially came into being.
I first visited Cobscook Bay State Park in the summer of 2011 and have returned at least once, and usually more than that, each year since then. One thing I wanted while on a day trip Downeast was to find a quiet place by the sea where I could relax and maybe do some reading. Cobscook fit the bill perfectly. It’s large, it’s quiet, and the coastline there has so many inlets and peninsulas that you are almost never more than a stone’s throw from the water. The day-use area occupies the end of a large peninsula and has numerous private areas with covered picnic tables and grills, as well as two open areas for larger gatherings. One of those areas for larger gatherings has a good-sized shelter. The day-use area is also home to the large- and small-group camping sites, which are set apart from other areas, have beautiful water views, shelters, and have nearby water and toilets. While visiting that more wooded side of the park, I have seen quite a lot of wildlife, including sea birds, bald eagles, and deer. Birds are everywhere in the park, and a birdwatcher would be in their element there.
It is worth mentioning that Cobscook Bay is not really a true oceanside park. The bay itself is an estuary with a narrow opening to the Atlantic Ocean. There are plenty of fishing boats motoring past, and the water is definitely salty and tidal, but if you want to see constantly crashing waves and cruise ships on the horizons, this is not the place. Don’t let that deter you however. Cobscook Bay is still very coastal Maine.
There are several areas that make up the campground at Cobscook Bay State Park. You would be hard pressed to find a bad site. Almost all of them are set apart from each other and private, and the majority have water views. A number of them are walk-in sites for tenters only, however, and like most state park campgrounds, there are no electrical or water hookups on the sites. Cobscook has well over 100 campsites, and I have never seen them all filled in the 12+ times I have stayed there. Nonetheless, reservations are a good idea, and easy to make online.
The view from one of the campsites I have had at Cobscook.
If big-time hiking or mountain biking are your things, Cobscook might not be your first choice of destination, though the casual enthusiast such as myself would be quite satisfied. There are several very nice, well-marked trails for hiking, though none of them are very long or would be considered challenging. My favorite hike is a short one up the hill across from the park entrance to an abandoned fire tower. There is also a short but steep hike to a mountain outlook, which is probably the most difficult hike in the park. Both of these have beautiful views through the trees of the surrounding land. The overlook trail is part of a longer nature trail in the park, and there is also a “beach trail” that takes you through the forest to a nearby boat launch and back. The hiking trails are not suited to mountain biking, but I have found that the park roads are perfectly suited for a more casual biker like me.
The fire tower from far away...
...and an extreme close-up.
The massively fluctuating tides, which are among the highest in the world, are one of Cobscook Bay State Park’s unique features. They can change by as much as 24 to 28 feet. At low tide, when regulations allow, park visitors are allowed to dig a bushel of clams for themselves each day. I personally have never done it, but it is a very popular activity with many visitors. You will likely get mud in places you have never had mud before, so be warned.
Low tide at Cobscook
High tide at Cobscook (same spot)
Another popular activity at Cobscook is kayaking. The nooks and crannies of the shoreline make it a great place to explore by kayak, and you can put your boat in directly from your campsite in many cases. I am not a kayaker, but every season I’ve been to Cobscook Bay it seems like more and more of the visitors are in kayakers. I would imagine that the rapidly changing and very steep tides would provide a challenge certain times, so do your research before putting out in the water at Cobscook.
While all my visits have been during the warm weather months, Cobscook Bay State Park is open all year. I can see how it would be a great place to do some cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. They do allow winter camping too if you are into that kind of thing. I love to camp, but in the winter? No thank you.
Cobscook Bay has some quirks that make it stand out. One is the herd of sheep that works keeping the grass trimmed in a large field in the park. They must have a good union, because they seem to take a lot of coffee breaks, but they do seem to get the job done. Another is the very little cemetery on the far side of the sheep field, along the side of the South Edmunds Road, which runs past the park. There is only one grave, that of a military veteran from the Civil War. I suspect that it might have been a small family cemetery,which was fairly common in Maine in olden days, but only the one gravestone has survived. Local veterans groups continue to see that a fresh American flag flies at the grave every year.
Gravestone at Cobscook
There are several places near Cobscook Bay State Park that are fun day trips. My favorite is the town of Lubec, which is about a 20 minute drive away and the easternmost point in the United States. A working fishing village with a budding artistic community, I always find something interesting and new ever time I visit Lubec. If you are lucky, you might see seals bobbing in the channel just off the downtown area. I wrote a blog post extolling the virtues of Lubec a few years back, and you can find it here. Roque Bluffs State Park is about 45 minutes away. If you want a “beach fix”, this is the place. Roque Bluffs has a long, gorgeous beach that is rarely busy, even at the peak of summer. There is also a freshwater pond for fishing and canoeing, and a number of very nice hiking trails. You have to pass through the historic town of Machias to get to Roque Bluffs, one of the area’s retail and service hubs. Machias is home to Fort O’Brien, site of the first naval engagement of the Revolutionary War. It is also home to Helen’s Restaurant, site of excellent pie, among other delicious things. About 30 minutes in the other direction from Cobscook Bay State Park is the city of Calais, the area’s other retail and service hub, and Eastport, which is another fishing town with a thriving artistic community.
A scene from downtown Lubec, Maine
West Quoddy Head, Lubec, Maine
The only negative I can offer about Cobscook Bay State Park is that it can be quite buggy, especially in May and June. (I wrote a two-part blog post about that, here and here.) Blackflies in the spring and mosquitoes in the summer into early fall are going to find you. Some areas of the park are worse than others, with the more wooded areas having the most, but you would be wise to bring insect repellant or other anti-bug measures regardless of when you visit during the warm weather months.
Don’t let the bugs stop you however. Cobscook Bay State Park is probably my favorite of all Maine’s state parks, and is responsible for turning me on to the pastime of tent camping, which has transformed my summers. For more information, visit their website here.
All photographs in this post were taken by me. All rights reserved, etc, etc.
All photographs in this post were taken by me. All rights reserved, etc, etc.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
A sunset view I took from Mount Blue State Park in Weld, Maine.
The first of the Maine state parks I camped at was Cobscook Bay State Park in Edmunds, near Calais, back in 2012. Since then, I have camped at least once in seven others, making it a point to explore new ones with camping facilities if I get a chance during the season. As a way to relive some of the pleasant summer memories, and also to resurrect this blog, which I have been seriously neglecting for some time, I’ve decided to write a series of posts highlighting the state parks I have visited over the past few years, starting with Cobscook Bay. In the weeks to come, I will also be writing about Lamoine State Park in Lamoine, Camden Hills State Park in Camden, Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, Sebago Lake State Park in Naples, Lake St. George State Park in Liberty, Mount Blue State Park in Weld, and Peaks-Kenny State Park in Dover Foxcroft.
A post with my take on Cobscook Bay will be coming soon. (Spoiler alert: I am a huge Cobscook fan.) If you have any experience camping or just visiting at any of the parks I’ve mentioned and would like to share it, I’d welcome your input. My e-mail address is email@example.com. Please include the words “state park” in your subject line, because that account gets rather spammy sometimes.
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
It’s been a long, rough winter in northern Maine, and it’s not over yet. The other day, for the first time this season, I got to do one of my favorite winter recreational activities: snowshoeing. Up until mid-January, there had not been enough decent snow to do it, and since then, there has been one howling snowstorm followed by another, with extremely frigid temperatures and wind chills sandwiched in between them. There have been a few snowshoe-worthy days here and there, but without fail they have come on days when I have been working. When the thermometer read a tropical 25 degrees (‘nice’ is relative) on my most recent day off, I tossed my snowshoes into the back of my car and headed out into the country to my grandparents’ old place.
Much has changed on that property from the days when I spent at least a part of every school vacation there as a child. The forest has encroached on much of the land, most of the outbuildings are now gone, and many familiar landmarks on the property like clotheslines and flower gardens have disappeared over time. The house itself is still inhabited by my cousin, though his housekeeping and landscaping habits are worlds apart from those of my late grandparents. As I trod around the property on my snowshoes, enjoying the exercise and lamenting the effects of the inevitable passage of time, I began to sharpen my focus a bit, and found that there were still some reminders of the days gone by.
For instance, I noticed that a pair of very old and heavy swinging gates were still standing near the rail bed that runs adjacent to the property. The railroad tracks led past my grandparents’ place to the local airport, which was an air base and prisoner of war camp during World War II. The gates had to be manually opened and closed whenever a train passed into or out of the base. I tend to doubt that the gates would have kept an actual train from entering the base, but they probably provided some security that no one would be able to easily drive some other type of vehicle on the tracks into the base without authorization. The rest of the base was ringed with barbed wire fencing, about four feet high, which is not much more than would be used to keep livestock corralled these days. Some of the barbed wire can still be found in the woods there. Securing a military base on home soil meant something very different in the early 1940s compared to today.
By the time my siblings, cousins and I came along in the 60s and 70s, the air base was long defunct and was now functioning as a somewhat sleepy regional airport. The swinging gates near my grandparents’ place no longer served any purpose, but they still stood, leaning a bit with age even then. They still swung however, and that was what mattered to us kids. With great effort against the weight and rust, we would push the gates up to their nearly closed position, and then jump onto them. The gates leaned enough that they would swing back to the open position on their own, providing a pretty cool ride with a very abrupt stop at the end. The challenge of holding on when the gates crashed open against the brush that they normally leaned against was the best part of it all.
The gates were certainly not moving that day I was investigating them on my snowshoes, buried as they were in deep snow. I would be surprised if they would move at all now under any circumstances, age having taken more of a toll on them. That doesn’t mean I won’t at least give it a try once spring comes.
One of the gates in question. There was no swinging on it this day.
Just beyond those gates, a little ways along the rail bed, there is a small tree-covered hillock that seems out of place if you stop and think about it. I recognized it immediately. Underneath all that snow, and probably under quite a bit of brush, I knew there was a thin piece of steel sticking up from the ground. My grandmother and I used to walk by there quite frequently when I was young, and she said that it was the site of a fatal plane crash years before I was born, occurring not long after the air base made the switch to a regional airport. The pilot was killed in the crash, she said, and the remains of the small plane were left there in the woods along the train tracks for some time afterwards. She told me that it wasn’t unusual for people to walk in to see the remains of the plane and take pieces away as souvenirs. My grandmother said she once saw a man carrying out a large piece of what looked like the plane’s tail. In time, railway officials buried the remains of the plane in hopes of discouraging visitors.
By the time I first saw the site in the mid 1970s, the railroad tracks were seldom used, and the trees still growing over the plane’s burial mound today were already taller than a grown man. As a kid, it was quite sobering, thinking that a man had lost his life on that spot, and it still was on that snowy day of my recent visit, so many years later.
At the end of my snowshoeing trek, another memory of the days of my grandparents came upon me, also somewhat unexpectedly. It had been my first snowshoeing adventure of the year, and that meant breaking new trails in deep snow while not being especially physically conditioned to the activity. Quite simply, I was wiped out when I got back to my car. Before I packed everything away to head home, I flopped down on my back in a nearby snowbank to rest and just listen, and was reminded of the sounds of being so far out in the country in mid-winter. I used to do much the same thing when I was staying with my grandparents during the winter time and had spent a long afternoon outside playing in the snow, which I often did.
Mind you, there are not many of sounds out there in mid-winter. The silence is almost total. If you’ve been playing hard, as I was that recent day, the only thing you can hear for a while is the sound of your own heart beating. There are no busy roads nearby, and all the birds have gone south for the winter or are laying low, except for some hardy chickadees. I could hear several of them twittering in the trees nearby, calling to each other in their language. There has always been a large population of chickadees around that property. To my amazement, my grandmother used to be able to hand feed some of them, who were possibly ancestors of the little birds I was listening to now. A breeze came up and blew through the evergreens with a distinctive hiss. There are no leaves on the deciduous trees at all, and the snow has buried anything on the ground that might rustle. The shushing sound of the wind in the pines and spruces remains the defining sound of wintertime for me.
Before I got up out of the snow, a jetliner passed far overhead with a distant rumble. I remember hearing planes high overhead after a long day of playing hard, and wondering where they were going and who was on them. I liked to follow them with my eyes if I could spot them until they were out of sight. A Cold War-era air force bomber and refueling base was located about an hour north of there when I was a kid, so the sound of B-52s and KC-135s flying high overhead was very common then. I watched the jetliner from the other day leaving contrails in its wake until it was gone behind the trees, just as I might have nearly 40 years ago in that very spot.
As I was putting my snowshoeing gear into my car, it occurred to me that none of the things I had been pondering had any monetary value or even meaning of any kind to anyone, except maybe to some of my siblings and cousins. A rusty old gate, a small tree covered hill buried in snow, and the sound of jets high overhead would likely go totally unnoticed by most people who had walked the same path I had just taken. Yet they opened up a floodgate of memories for me that day. I want to try to remind myself that it is never a waste of time to stop and take the time to just look around and listen. You never know the significance that seemingly insignificant things might take on in the future.
Wednesday, February 4, 2015
During the long winter months in Maine, one of the things that keeps my spirits up is the thought of tent camping, one of my favorite warm weather pastimes. It’s a fun and relatively affordable way to experience different parts of this beautiful state, and every summer I do it whenever I can, which is never often enough. Maine is fortunate to have a terrific state park system, many of which are open to camping. There is also no shortage of private campgrounds in every corner of Maine. In my experience, they vary widely in quality, but when you find a good one, and there are many, you’ve usually discovered a real gem.
Not every day of camping is wonderful though. There was one day last summer at a state park campground in southern Maine that stands out as being the very definition of the opposite of wonderful.
It was getaway day, the day when you have to pack everything up into the car and make the long drive back home. That, in and of itself, is a bummer, but when there is a steady rain on the morning of getaway day, it’s even worse. Everything that is not already drenched will soon be during the process of tearing down and packing up. Pine needles, dead leaves, and dirt stick to everything, creating a mess of your equipment and your vehicle. Upon returning home it’s necessary to unpack everything and lay it out to dry or else run the risk of mold and mildew forming. Then you have to shake off off the needles, leaves and dirt, and sometimes wipe things down, before repacking your equipment.
This particular rainy day came after I had typically overdone it physically, having hiked up a mountain that was probably a bit over my head ability-wise. Actually, there was no “probably” about it. It WAS over my head, but I didn’t discover that until I had made it to the summit. Once you’ve made it to the top of a mountain, you don’t really have much choice but to go back down again. My feet were blistered and every muscle in my body was screaming that morning after. Being a light sleeper, the rain woke me very early, around 5:00 a.m., so I figured I would get a jump start on the day with a hot shower, in hopes of loosening up my sore body before loading the car. Campground showers are typically pretty quiet at that early hour, so I didn’t expect any waiting. As is my habit, I tossed my wallet and cellphone into my car and locked it, then headed to the shower with my keys, towel, and toiletry bag.
As anticipated, the showers were quiet. There were no other campers there, at least no human ones.
Daddy Longlegs "Pholcus.phalangioides.6905" by firstname.lastname@example.org. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
What there were plenty of, were daddy longlegs, a type of benign spider that is very common in Maine and most other places. You see them all the time when camping, but never in my life had I seen so many in one place at the same time. It was like something from that 1980s movie Arachnophobia. I’m not sure if the daddy longlegs were attracted to the shower building because the lights left on overnight attracted prey for them like mosquitoes, or because they were seeking shelter from the rains outside. Whatever the reason, they were everywhere: in the sink, on the shower curtain, on the walls, and in the shower stalls themselves. While I am not afraid of spiders, I do draw the line at bathing with them, so I spent the next five minutes or so swatting at as many of them as I could with my sandal. Defeating all of them was a hopeless cause, I soon discovered, so once the shower stall itself was mostly clear, I thought it best to move forward with my showering plans. I was decidedly jumpy by that point, with every slight sensation on my skin causing me to slap at it, thinking it might be a daddy longlegs crawling on me.
Warily, I stepped into the shower and began my routine keeping one eye open for daddy longlegs. I was at about peak soap suds time, just about to rinse off, when I heard the sound of my pants, hanging on a hook just outside the stall, fall to the floor with a splat into a small puddle of water that was coming from my shower. To make matter exponentially worse, my car keys were in one of the pockets, and when they fell, the car alarm button activated. The wail of my horn came blaring across the sleeping campground like Hell’s alarm clock.
Things like that happen from time to time in campgrounds, and I have never failed to curse the name of the people who had awakened me with what I perceived at the time as their stupidity. Only now, I was that guy. I bolted out of the shower in full suds mode and rifled through my soaked pants to find my car keys. Once I got hold of them, I immediately pressed the button to turn off the alarm. It didn’t stop. Apparently, I was on the very edge of the alarm’s reception area. Close enough to activate the alarm, but apparently not close enough to deactivate it. I could hear angry shouts coming from outside. In the distance, a baby started to cry.
Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to wrap a towel around myself as I dashed outside the shower building with keys in hand, which got me just close enough to shut off the alarm. The damage was done, however. It was the height of the summer, and the campground was filled to capacity with now-pissed off campers. Thank goodness it was my getaway day, because I was now branded with a scarlet A for the day. Only in this case, the A stood for “alarm”.
I took my time finishing up my shower and getting dressed. Not only did I have the unhappy task of having to pack all my stuff up in the rain to look forward to, but now I would be doing so under the watch of scornful eyes in every direction. It was a long perp walk back to my site, and the rain was coming down harder than ever. Never before or since have I packed my stuff in such haste. I literally tossed everything into the back of the car without caring about folding, packing, or putting away. I was on the road within ten minutes, soaked to the skin. The rain stopped about half an hour later, so I pulled into a grocery store parking lot and proceeded to set about ordering my gear so at least I would be able to see out the back with the rearview mirror again. I spent the entire afternoon after I got home drying things out and setting them in order again.
I’ve since returned to that campground. I went back about a month later, actually. It’s one of my favorite spots in that part of the state, and I figured that the chances of any of the campers who were there that fateful morning still being there and remembering me and my car would be pretty slim. There were important lessons learned though. First of all, be sure your pants are secure before stepping into the shower stall, and second, remember to bring some Raid and a fly swatter with your soap and towel.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
I always look to the New Year as a time to set new goals for myself. I try not to view them in the tunnel vision many use to view “resolutions”, where they are black and white things that are tossed aside once they are broken. You know what I mean: resolve to stop drinking soda, break down and have a Mountain Dew on January 3rd, and tell yourself “oh well, maybe next year”. It’s too easy to weasel your way out of them if you take that attitude. I try not to even call them resolutions.
How one phrases goals is key to success or failure, I’ve found. For example, I’d like to lose some weight this year, but “lose weight” is a pretty broad (pardon the pun) goal that can be tricky to approach with any kind of effectiveness. Where do you even begin? So instead, this year I want to exercise more than I did in 2014 and eat less sugar than in that year, which are more specific and for me at least, more achievable. They aren’t specific enough to set me up for disappointment, however. Cutting sugar out of my diet entirely would do that, as would a goal such as going for a run five days a week. Less sugar and more exercise can be as little or as much as my circumstances allow at any given time. As long as I am ahead of where I was with those things last year, I am meeting with success. Hopefully, by exercising more and eating less sugar, the weight loss will come as a side benefit.
I do have one specific item related to that more exercise goal however. Last July, I ran my first 5K and came in at just over 42 minutes. Not bad for someone who really didn’t take training and preparation all that seriously, I think. This year, I want to come in under 40 minutes in that event. Whether it’s by a lot or a little, time will tell.
Another goal I have for 2015 is to get back into playing my guitar on a regular basis. Not join a heavy metal band or play Carnegie Hall, just get pick it up and play more often. I’ve played the guitar off and on since I was a teenager, with some lengthy gaps in between. The last time, in the mid 00’s, I made some major strides in my skills and almost reached the point where I was confident enough to play in front of other people. Then I started a new job in a new field, went back to school and started doing a lot more writing, and so back into the carrying case the guitar went.
But now the guitar is back out, dusted off and fitted with a brand new set of strings. I’ve discovered that GarageBand, one of the programs that came loaded on my MacBook Pro has all kinds of toys and tricks to help me hone my guitar skills and extend my interests, and since my guitar is electric, I can plug directly into it. Playing scales and learning chords is a lot more fun when you can give your guitar the same sound as those of Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhodes.
I can almost guarantee that you’ll be reading more posts about my latest journey with the guitar in the weeks and months to come.
This blog is part of another goal I have for 2015: write more than in 2014. I let my writing slip to some extent last year, and posts on this blog are a public and quantifiable way for see that I am indeed writing more. That’s not to say that all my writing has been and will be on this blog. I am knee-deep in revision and editing the first draft of a novel I wrote in partnership with another writer. That project is where a lot of my writing time went in 2014 and where quite a bit will no doubt go this year. I hadn’t been producing much by way of new content though, and that’s where I really want to step things up.
Now to come up with fresh and engaging post topics, which has been my biggest stumbling block in my writing in general lately, and this blog in particular. Your suggestions are very welcome, of course. I’d also welcome your input on my other goals, especially improving my time on the 5K and jacking up my guitar skills, even if it’s just sending me a tweet or an e-mail asking how it’s going.
Thursday, January 8, 2015
I was recently going over my finances for the past twelve months, and noticed that my car took a much larger chunk out of my budget than usual in 2014. The reason is fairly simple: the car, a Hyundai Santa Fe, is a 2007 model year, which means that it has reached the vehicular equivalent of middle age. Just as has happened with me in my own middle age, lots of things have suddenly come up needing some attention. Luckily though, for both me and the car, most of it has been preventative maintenance. I am known as a pretty frugal guy, so one would think that I would be bothered by all the extra cash I laid out on my car last year. If those expenditures were on anything else, say my wardrobe for example, or my lawn and garden equipment, I probably would indeed be a bit irked. The thing is, the primary set of wheels in my life at any given time has always held a rather special place in my heart. I wouldn’t go so far as to say money is no object when it comes to my vehicles, but it is less of an object than it would be for other things.
Big Wheels Rolling
My love affair with things that go started very young. At Christmas when I was almost three I got a low-slung plastic tricycle popularly known in the early 1970s as a Big Wheel. These slick little machines were heavily marketed during children’s television shows as being the pinnacle of cool for the preschool set. In addition to a storage box in which to keep important “stuff”, the big draw for kids like me was a hand brake on one of the rear wheels which effectively allowed the driver to spin out in the most awesome way possible. And yes, it was well and truly awesome. The house where I grew up had a long sloping driveway that was just perfect to barrel down at high speed and then yank up on the hand brake, spinning almost all the way around. The end of the driveway was constantly marked by rings left behind by my spins. I wore out my first Big Wheel toward the end of its first year by overusing the hand brake to the point where it wore through the rear wheel. Such was my love for the Big Wheel, and my parents’ appreciation for it as an outlet for my energy, that I got a replacement the next Christmas. It came with a parental proviso, however: Lay off the hand brake.
This vintage ad sums it all up nicely.
Big Wheel #2 ultimately received even rougher treatment than its predecessor. Not only was I getting bigger, but since I was using the hand brake less, I needed to find another way to get a vehicular thrill, and found it in jumping the Big Wheel off whatever makeshift ramp I could concoct. I rode it as fast as I could off curbs, low steps, or any other slight elevation, lifting up on the front end. It was an attempt to “get air” before “getting air” was even a thing. Heck, this was even before the Dukes of Hazzard. Much like the spinouts, these jumps were well and truly awesome in my mind, even if they were usually only an average of four inches off the ground.
My second Big Wheel died when it broke in half. Yes, you read that right. It broke in half! While I won’t disagree that I played pretty hard with it, it is also worth noting that in those days before video games, DVDs and the like, kids spent MUCH more time outside, at least several hours a day for me and even more in the summers and on weekends. The majority of that time for me was spent on wheels. Big plastic ones. Therefore, some attrition was to be expected. Those things got a whole lot of use before they finally gave up their ghosts. Believe it or not, my parents did actually get me a third Big Wheel, but fortunately for their pocketbook, a market in used ones had emerged locally at yard sales, the toys having been around for a while at that point and kids were outgrowing them. They were able to get my last one at a steep discount.
My third Big Wheel did not meet the same untimely end as my first two, because shortly after I got it, I got my first two-wheeler, which subsequently dominated my attention. My first bike did not arrive with a lot of fanfare. It was not a Christmas or birthday gift. There was no anticipation, and I did not even ask for it. It just kind of happened. One Saturday in the summer before I started kindergarten, my father and I were nosing around in my grandmother’s garage and found the remains of several of my uncles’ old bicycles, which had been sitting in there for ten years or so. It didn’t take my father very long to determine that he had all the parts he would need to assemble one Frankenstein’s monster of a bicycle for me from the remains of the old ones, and later that afternoon I had my first bicycle. The only expenditure on my parents’ part was a couple of dollars at Western Auto for training wheels. I only used the training wheels for little more than 48 hours, however. The bike had a pretty heavy frame compared to most contemporary bikes of that time, and the training wheels were not made for that kind of weight, so they started bending almost immediately. When it was pointed out to me by my friends that I was riding on two wheels anyway, I took the training wheels off by myself.
I had several bicycles after that first one, but that bike my father cobbled together in my grandmother’s garage was the best. It was too big for me when I first got it, but that didn’t keep me off it for a second. A shade of dark metallic green with a white banana seat and huge handlebars, it looked like no other bike on my street. The tires were of an early 60s vintage, very wide and thick, and the frame was virtually military-grade. That bike was solid as a tank, and many neighborhood kids recognized its uniqueness. Sure, it wasn’t as sleek and attractive as some of their newer ones, but it was solid as a rock and remarkably fast. I distinctly remember an older boy named Kevin admiring it and asking me how much I wanted for it, and I replied that it wasn’t for sale. Even though I was just a little kid, I could tell that this ten year old was trying to con me when he offered me a hundred dollars, then a thousand, and then a million. “I’ve really got it at home,” he said, counting on a preschooler’s lack of money sense. I only had to let him have the bike now he said, and he’d come right back with the money. Yeah, right. My final response was that I would only sell it “for the highest number there is”, and then pedaled off, with my suspicion that I had something special on my hands confirmed.
Bicycles were my primary mode of transportation and the symbol of my personal freedom for the next nearly ten years. I always felt naked if I didn’t have my bike within easy reach, and it was always a sad day each year when the first snow came and my bike had to be put away for the winter. It proved to be my parents’ most effective discipline tool in my childhood, as few punishments were worse for me than to have my bike taken away for a day, much less a week or more. Send me to my room. Take away the TV. But leave my bike alone.
My first car came to me before I even got my driver’s license. Living in a rural area, my parents had to do a lot of chauffeuring for my brothers and me, so my being able to get myself around would be a real plus for them. However, they didn’t relish the idea of having to share the family vehicle with another driver, so they encouraged me to start saving for my own car as soon as I laid the subject of driver education classes out on the table. I started working a part time job in the spring of the year I turned 15, and by that August, I had enough saved up for a very used car my father had found and approved. I paid $575 for a rusty, 13 year-old Chevrolet Caprice with nearly 100,000 miles on it. It sat in the driveway taunting me by its presence for the four weeks between when I got it and when I actually passed my driver’s test. Needless to say, by the time I got behind the wheel to drive it by myself for the first time, I had polished and detailed that car to the point where it probably would have glowed in the dark, in spite of the rust. I spent nearly as much on Turtle Wax, Windex, Armor All and paper towels as I did for the car itself.
It looked a lot like this, only less sexy and more rusty.
The Caprice was huge, and even in those days of cheaper gasoline it cost me a fortune to keep it filled. I could fit a lot of my friends in it however, which was a real plus because I was one of the first in my class to get my license and one of the only ones to have his own car. My services as a taxi driver to and from school were in high demand. The car wasn’t very reliable. It was always a roll of the dice as to whether it would start when the temperature dropped below freezing, and it had a habit of stalling in almost any weather. There was a constant blue cloud coming from the exhaust pipe, and the interior smelled like burning oil, which I tried to cover up by using a half dozen cherry-scented air fresheners. For a while toward the end of its life, I actually had to keep the passenger side door closed with a piece of rope. It probably would have never passed inspection again, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Environmental Protection Agency had a warrant out for its arrest. Nonetheless, it was all mine, my ticket to freedom, and I loved it. That Caprice had one of the smoothest rides of any car I’ve ever driven, and was so large that if I had been in an accident, it would have kept me relatively safe compared to the ubiquitous compact cars that were on the road at the time. Plus the radio had great reception and was LOUD! I only had that Caprice for a year before the cost of upkeep got to be too much, and I downsized to a newer, smaller car which had fewer problems and expenses. It just didn’t live up to the standard that the first clunker had set for me, though. I sold the Caprice to a man who wanted to use it for parts. To this day when I smell cherries, I am reminded of the air fresheners I used in that old car and wonder if it is still around, rusting in the woods or in a junkyard somewhere.
I’ve had quite a few cars in the thirty years since I bought that Caprice, all of which came to be central players in my life. My latest is no exception. It’s my chariot, my set of wheels. I travel a lot, and when I am on the road, my car acts as a mobile comfort zone when I am staying in pleasant but strange places surrounded by welcome but unfamiliar things. There’s always a slight sense of satisfaction when I catch sight of my car in a parking lot after having been away from it for an extended period. I don’t think it is so much the car itself that stirs these feelings, as much as what it represents: freedom, opportunity, and the ability to ultimately return to the things that mean the most to me.
A glamour shot of my current chariot, from the manufacturer.