All About Mellow Yellow

We are back in Maryland.

It is almost time for the Autumnal Equinox. Perhaps in anticipation, the weather turned much cooler than usual last weekend. It was cold enough that my friend Reynaud made its first appearance of the season. The seasonal numbness and the loss of blood flow to the extremities is something that I do not look forward to. It was cold enough that I had to wear a tracksuit to keep me warm during our Sunday morning walk. It is that time of year when the constantly changing weather forces you to be flexible about your outdoor wear when exercising.

But, if you were to dismiss the temperature as a measure of the change of seasons, you could be convinced that Fall is not here just yet. The trees are still green in the park, and it is not cold enough to slow down the volume of early morning bikers on the trail. Besides, in a day or two, the weather will become warm once again – for a few more days.

But, the yellow flowers – oh my, the fields of yellow flowers!

Something is certainly afoot!

There were different kinds of yellow flowers that dominated the scene during our walk. I suspect that a few of them were from the sunflower family of plants.

The experience was different from when we were in Massachusetts, where the flowers were much more varied in their colors. That kind of a change might visit our neighborhoods during the next few weeks when other wildflowers of the season blossom.

The view will change as the days, and weeks, and the months roll by, and as a cantankerous and dizzying 2020 fades away, in a huff, into the cold and the darkness of winter.

They’ve All Come To Look For America

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,
They’ve all come to look for America
Simon and Garfunkel……………….America

This song was playing in my head as we drove back to Maryland from Massachusetts last weekend – as we headed down the New Jersey Turnpike. Traffic on the roads was normal, not as bad as it can get on a crowded day, but enough to slow you down when you least expected it. You would think that this was a typical day in the USofA at the end of summer. Labor day is over and you get the feeling that autumn is around the corner.People like us are out and about, going about our lives, as if everything were normal.

But these are not really normal times here in the USA. Within a few short days, over 200,000 people would have perished in our country because of COVID-19. Who knows what the numbers will be by election time. About 20% of the global deaths due to the virus are in our country at this time. It is not a record to be proud of. The raw numbers are already much higher than the number of US soldiers killed in the Vietnam war, a war that left its painful mark on the American psyche. How will we remember this particular crisis?

And yet there are those who still believe that this is all a big hoax. No real effort is being made by the authorities, the people in power who know what is actually going on, to correct this mistaken belief. In fact, the misinformed are being encouraged by some to carry on living in their imaginary world. And we all carry on.

Back on the New Jersey Turnpike, at one of the rest stops, there are plenty of cars in the parking lots – but the lots are also not full. Thankfully, the indoor area, where the food court and the restrooms are located, is not completely packed with people – but there are enough of us that we have to keep our eyes peeled in order to maintain physical distancing. Some of us seem to have become somewhat used to performing this particular kind of dance by now. There are also only a few tables and chairs left in the open area of the building for people to dine at. The tables are clean, leading me to believe that they are being more careful in cleaning up after customers. The lines at the eateries for ordering food are long. Our food takes a long time to arrive.

Thankfully, most people are masked. Perhaps it is because New Jersey has already been through the worst of it during the first wave of the coronavirus earlier on, and they know how bad it can get if they are not careful. But the urge also exists to try to carry on as if everything is normal – that there is nothing that is wrong. Yet the virus remains in the air – unseen. We do not know who is carrying it. It could be anywhere.

But, you know, things could have been worse. The virus could have been more virulent. What if it had been able to survive in the open without a host for longer periods of time? What if it actually survived on certain surfaces and under certain conditions for a longer amount of time? What if a higher percentage of the people that caught the virus die? From a very different perspective, what if something like this had happened before we had a robust online system to keep at least some of the systems that maintain our infrastructure still operational, i.e., what if this had happened before we had a well-developed Internet?

These are strange and unique times. And they are not going to end any time soon.

Days in Massachusetts

The Labor Day weekend is generally considered the end of the summer season here in the US. Most schools and colleges begin to open after the summer holidays at this time. The coronavirus has created some uncertainty in this process this year. There is the need to take precautions to protect teachers and students from the virus. The normally crowded environments of the schools do not help in this regard. Schools have to decide whether to include “virtual teaching” in their strategy for dealing with the problem. Some school districts have decided to go completely virtual, some have adopted a hybrid approach, and others have insisted on in-person teaching. There is some experimentation going on. Virtual learning requires additional resources (computers, Internet connectivity, online teaching software tools, etc..) and skills (techniques for teaching and managing online classrooms). On the other side of things, some colleges that decided to open up for in-person learning have already been forced to change direction because of the appearance of COVID-19 on campus. It is a mess any way you look at it.

Meanwhile, we have made our first long-distance trip during the time of the coronavirus to spend time with the family in Massachusetts. We are still here. It is a welcome break from the routine.

It is a beautiful and relaxing view from the fifth floor of the apartment complex on the hill where the kids are setting up home. There was also the added opportunity for us to visit and enjoy the company of my sister and her family, enjoy the labor day grill, take walks in the woods, and even meet Lucy. It is all chill!

Pictures of Widewater

This week marked the first time in a long while that I achieved a particular trifecta of outdoor activities. I walked, ran, and biked for exercise on three separate days of the same week. All of this activity happened earlier in the week. I started out with a run last Sunday around our neighborhood. We hiked along the C&O Canal in the area of Widewater and Great Falls the next day. Then it was time for a break because of volunteer activity (which often involves significant physical exertion). Did a neighborhood walk on Wednesday morning, and then a bike ride on Thursday. But then all of this effort towards building up the exercise routine petered out – rather abruptly – and came to an end! An evening of socialization with friends (socially distanced, of course!), followed up by the impact of the remnants of Hurricane Laura passing through our neighborhood today, finally killed all of the momentum that had been building up. Rain showers are expected, on and off, the rest of this morning.

Here are some pictures of the Widewater area from the hike, and from the bike ride. The canal opens up into a nice open space in this section. (This link provides more information about how this area came to be.)

Until next time….

The Summer Slip Sliding Away

Days, weeks, and months go by in the time of COVID-19. We have our daily routines, including work and volunteering, and the occasional trip to the grocery store. We have to be careful with all of this. There have been no summer trips, no official vacations so far this summer, a big change from our usual annual routines.

It has been cool the last few days. There has been no need to use the air-conditioner. We have kept the windows open – to listen to the birds outside, and watch the deer relax in our backyard.

I have been sitting on the deck the last few evenings. I ask myself why I did not start doing this earlier, in all the years we have lived in this house. The plants, growing in pots on the deck, are yielding produce these days. They are a nice sight to see. These are grape tomatoes.These are bell peppers.The trees that I planted as saplings in the backyard many years ago have survived the deer, and have grown to tower over the backyard, and also provide shade on the deck in the late evenings. One evening, as I sat on the deck, my entertainment was provided by a flock of bluejays on the branches of the cherry tree, with a chickadeeand what appeared to be a juvenile tufted titmouse (I could be wrong)making their appearance once in a while. The bluejays were creating a cacophony as they called out to each other across the backyard.

There were no birds on the trees the next evening. I waited and waited with my camera! I think I might go out to the deck today too, maybe with a beverage in hand in addition to the camera!

The “books” that were on hold for me at the county library finally became available after a couple of weeks of waiting. This is the year I discovered digital books. I read books on my smartphone these days because of necessity. The physical libraries had been closed for a while. Reading a book on the smartphone takes getting used to. Reading actually feels a little different from when reading a physical book. I am still figuring out how to bookmark pages reliably on the different digital readers, or even flipping between pages in a flexible way when I want to refer to something that I read earlier on in the book. I still tend to lose my place in a “book”.

I have been watching a lot of episodes of American Experience recently. It is actually a little depressing to see the various ways in which discrimination and injustice have taken place, and continue to take place, in American society. Many of us are not aware of some of these unsavory sides of the history of the country. We live in the little bubbles that we find ourselves in today and are happy to stay there. Here in the US, the people in power (typically the white man) find it hard give up some of that power. There is the sense of superiority. People in power find it hard to treat people fairly. Systems are rigged against the weak, sometimes even when that reality is recognized. Many times the system can be cruel. This is truer than ever today. But the struggle continues. Politics is in the news with the upcoming elections. The choice is very clear this time.

Thanks to my friend Joe, I have been doing a lot of math puzzles these days. I really enjoy them. This is the last one we tackled.Perhaps you will also find it interesting!

I cannot seem to keep up a good routine when it comes to exercising regularly. Rainy days and laziness mess up the attempts to create a rhythm. And it is so difficult to get back to something that you have even been away from, even for a few weeks. Each time I start running after a break, I have to take it easy with the pace, and wait for my body to adjust. It takes at least a couple of runs. Nothing is routine in that sense. Morning walks still continue. Sunrises begin later and later as summer progresses, and there is now the chill in the morning air. Feels nice.

Here is the song that inspired the title of this blog. One of the things I still regret not having done when I was young was going for this concert in New York City. I was a graduate student at Stonybrook, not too far away, when it happened.

Shirtless and Happy

The title of this blog is not meant to be some kind of a deep philosophical statement about the state of human affairs. Rather, it is a simple and straightforward reference to a short encounter that we had on the towpath while hiking last weekend. The encounter was over in a matter of seconds, but this was the thought stayed with me, a hopelessly hokey phrase – shirtless and happy. It happened towards the end of the walk, when the traffic on the trail was beginning to increase in volume. A group of bikers went by. The last two people in this group were not wearing shirts. This was a somewhat unusual sight on the trail. My eyes locked with the last person in the group. He was a little pudgy in the middle, and the paleness of his skin was notable. And he had a huge smile on his face. He was definitely in a happy frame of mind. Being on the trail on your bike with your friends can do that to you.

We visited Taylor’s Landing last weekend. It is a fair distance away from home, but not as far as some of the other places we have been to recently. Once you get off the main roads, you have to pass through a few residential areas to get to the trail head. You feel like you are in a different world when you see the Trump 2020 signs on the lawns. We are doomed!

There is nothing particularly significant about this section of the trail. It is a few miles south of Dam 4, which we could have walked to if we had wanted. Rather, we walked in the direction of Sharpsburg, MD. Antietam, the site of the bloodiest one-day battle in the Civil War, is also close by. I had thoughts of making it half way to Sharpsburg, to a place called Snyder’s Landing. But I had not looked at my guide book before leaving home. It turned out that Snyder’s Landing was just beyond our reach. We had to turn back before we got there. It was a peaceful enough walk and we got our exercise – under the trees next to a meandering river.

Here are some pictures. The trail head at Taylor’s Landing is in a residential area. The houses here are old. The area used to be known as Mercerville – named after Charles F. Mercer, the first president of the C&O Canal Company.

There is a road that runs for a short distance along the berm of the canal, on the other side of the canal from the towpath, at Taylor’s Landing. The area around the trail itself feels relatively open here because the canal bed is completely free of trees for the short distance that the road runs next to it. There were a few flowering plants to be seen on the other side of the trail, facing the river. I think this one is called a Tall Coneflower.

Beyond the area of the local roads, the trail disappears into the familiar woods. The only flowers that remained in these woods were the Touch Me Nots.

There is only one lock in this section, lock 40,

and one campsite called Horseshoe Bend.

There were not many photo opportunities. Hopefully, the pictures below will suffice.

You had to catch the early morning light at just the right angle to be able to see this spider’s web.These mushrooms on a log of wood next to the trail caught my eye. They look like Trametes versicolor to this untrained eye.

We saw this little fellow sitting on the trail as we were getting closer to the end of the walk. I do not know the difference between frogs and toads, but I did try to investigate. This might be a toad. It did not move even as I came close to it to take its picture.We left it on the trail to continue on its way – wherever it was going. Hopefully it avoided being stepped on or ridden over by a bike.

We stopped at the boat ramp at Taylor’s Landing at the end of our walk for a few minutes.

And that was the end of the day on the canal.

Trying To Focus

Outdoor activity seems to bring out the ability in me to focus, especially when it comes to putting my thoughts together, and also when expressing these thoughts in letters or blogs. Considering that factor, this particular blog might be heading right down the toilet (sorry, I have had the toilet on my mind for a few days!). A stubborn stomach ailment of some kind (I am still assuming that it was not related to the coronavirus) had me grounded for the last several days. I usually recover from such ailments quickly, and I usually have a good sense about the state of the recovery of my digestive system, but this time I was off. Every time I thought I was out of the woods, I had a relapse. But there was a slow and gradual progress through it all. There was a learning process into what worked and what did not in the recovery process. Different kinds of household remedies that were suggested by concerned citizens were also tried. I think I am finally done with all of this. I am keeping my fingers crossed. I feel stronger and hope to resume my outdoor activities within the next day or two.

The disruption of the digestive system only added to the chaos and turmoil caused by all of the other disruptions going on around us. The earliest possible date by which some of these other disturbances could begin to dissipate is probably the time of the elections in November. The only hope is that enough people see and understand the man-made destruction and chaos going on in our country and vote appropriately. Until then we just have to wait and endure – as we descend further and further into the national crapper – the country getting sicker by the day – while the unqualified conman twiddles his thumbs and declares that all is well. Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Did he add fuel to the flames? Was there a Senate in ancient Rome that joined in the orchestra? I know that this is all myth, but it does fit into my theme nicely.

I am slowly reaching a conclusion that we may have reached a possible inflection point in the political and structural health of the country. The person in power has actively challenged all norms, and has destroyed a lot of the governmental structures created for the benefit of our country and society. The question is whether we have let the genie out of the bottle, or if there is a possibility of returning to the way things were earlier. Truth of the matter is that we are what we are as a country largely because of the well defined structures and the norms of our society, including both the good and the bad, and including the bureaucracy and government. Structures work if they are fair, if the people involved are doing their jobs, and if people are not abusing their power. They support a way of life. Unfortunately, the foundations of our infrastructure are now being eroded and chipped at actively and deliberately. Sticks of dynamite have already been lit at the base of the structure. Anything can happen. Damn the consequences!

Life Can Be A Hoot (1/12/2014)

I had sent this as an email to my high school classmates in 2014. The fact that we have been seeing an extraordinary number of owls this year has inspired me to post it to my blog.

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It has warmed up to temperatures around freezing in our part of the world this weekend.  I had just gotten back to Edwards Ferry on the towpath during my run and was considering whether to ditch the camera in the car before continuing on. I was thinking that the cloudy weather would limit the chances of getting good pictures.  I happened upon another photographer hidden in a photographer’s blind trying to take a picture of a yellow bellied sapsucker.  (He was actually trying to attract the bird by using a device sitting on the branch of a tree. The device was playing out the sound that the bird makes.)  This inspired me to continue to carry the camera onward.  Further along on the trail, in the distance, I noticed that a hawk had settled on a branch over the trail.  I pulled my camera with its long lens out of the backpack and started walking towards the bird.  The bird took off as I approached.  The sun broke out from behind the clouds while this was happening, and as I turned my head to the left, in the direction that the hawk had flown off in, the barred owl popped its head out of a hole in the branch of a tree next to the trail and stared at me in an inquiring manner.  The lighting and the distance was perfect.  Since the camera was already in my hand, I managed to pop off a few shots before the bird flew off.

And this is how I got my cheap thrill this morning.  I could not help marveling at the fact that things came together this perfectly for me to have this moment, and it was such a coincidence that this happened not much after I mentioned owls in a previous posting to the group.

The Red Leaf

The leaf dropped out of the sky as we were walking through the green woods. It floated lazily about in the air, carried by the air currents, while steadily making its way down to the floor of the forest. It drifted past my eyes. It was a red leaf, completely out of place in the green woods. I am not sure if this fact even registered in my mind at that moment.

The presence of the dry leaves in the middle of the normally ultra-green summer is not a real surprise. I have seen such leaves in the past. In spite of the humidity in the air, some trees are beginning to lose their leaves. The heat, and the lack of water in the ground, take their toll. If you saw the cherry tree in our backyard at this time, you might even suspect that it was sick.

Instinctively, I reached out for the leaf that was floating past me. It was a whimsical thing that I was doing, without thinking. It was an act of the subconsciousness. I was surprised to find that I had actually made contact with the leaf.

And the leaf had actually also landed in my hand! Some may say that it was meant to be. I was astonished by how red the leaf appeared – redder than I am used to seeing in summer. It was a unique sample. For some reason or the other, I did not feel like letting go of the leaf. It began to occupy my thoughts as we kept walking. The red leaf in the hand actually led to some contemplation. Was it going to come home with me as a reminder of sorts of some obscure encounter with nature – an encounter that was somehow profound in my mind in that moment?

Towards the end of the walk, we decided to take a detour on to a narrow path that led to the river. It seemed a little ridiculous for me to be carrying the leaf over the detour. I was going to be coming back that way. I left the leaf on a bush at the entrance to the detour thinking that I would pick it up on the way back.

That was the last I saw of the leaf. That was the last time I thought about the leaf – until I looked at the pictures I had taken that day on the computer at home late in the evening. I had forgotten the red leaf by then. The red leaf was no longer significant. All that remains in a picture in a blog.

McMahon’s Mill

The last time I came through this section of the trail was during the bike ride of 2016. Here, the towpath runs along a section of the river known as Big Slackwater. The slackwater is a buildup of water formed behind Dam 4, which is just a couple of miles downstream from the mill. It was too difficult to cut a canal through the rocks/cliffs beside the river in this area. Boats used to be transferred from the canal on to the slackwater for a short distance to get past it. The boats were pulled along the river by the mules from a towpath beside the river itself. Because of its location, the trail is highly prone to damage whenever the river floods. This happens with some regularity.

This is a picture of McMahon’s Mill in the morning. The parking lot is next to the mill, behind it.

This is a picture of the section of Big Slackwater just downstream of McMahon’s Mill. West Virginia lies on the right side of the river in the picture, and Maryland to the left. In the distance, you can barely make out the new trail made of concrete that runs on the river bank today on the Maryland side of the river. This section of the trail had been destroyed for a long time because of the actions of the river. It was finally reconstructed in 2012 using modern techniques to withstand damage due to flooding.You can read more about this section of the trail here.

We walked in the upstream direction from McMahon’s Mill. The trail here still runs on the original towpath. You could see that the trail was quite rough in parts because it is regularly impacted by flooding from the river. The authorities have actually marked a detour over the local roads in this area to let you avoid the trail when it is flooded. In the past, before the completion of the reconstructed trail between McMahon’s Mill and Dam 4 in 2012, you also had to take a second detour to continue downstream on the towpath. I rode the narrow roads of this detour during one of my early visits to this area. The detour was not recommended for walkers.

Shortly into our walk, we arrived at a point where the boats used to leave the river and get back on to the canal. Lock 41 was used to transfer the boats into and out of the canal itself. Today, the trail dips just a little bit where the opening from the canal to the river must have been.

Beyond lock 41, the trail began to take a more familiar form.

We saw a lot of pawpaw trees. A few even had fruits on them.

The walk itself was not very remarkable. There was a small amount of traffic on the trail, not as bad as in some other places. There was not much else that was new and noteworthy other than the fact that the entire West Virginia side of the river was completely developed. There were houses and boat ramps everywhere. The width of the slackwater, and probably its depth, made this a good place for water sports.

We did walk a longer distance than usual, hoping to reach the area of a camper/mobile home community near a place called Falling Water. We gave up the attempt with less than a couple of miles to go. Perhaps this can be a challenge for another day.