Summer Storms and Stories

Summer storms can come up on you quite quickly and silently in our part of the world.  This one had been threatening us the whole day.  Although the air temperatures had been very reasonable, it had also been quite humid, and the clouds floating overhead looked distantly menacing.  The air was unstable!

It was later in the evening that I noticed that it was turning unexpectedly dark in the house. I slid open the blinds in the living room to notice that the sun had finally given up its struggle to penetrate the clouds, and that the sky had turned ominously dark. It was now filled with low black malevolent clouds swiftly scurrying across its expanse to some unknown destination. It had not started raining just yet.   It was a camera moment.  I found myself standing on the furniture on the deck taking pictures of the drama unfolding in the skies.  I can never get tired of this spectacle.  Can you see what I saw?  There are stories to be told behind these pictures!

HAIR ON FIRE
HAIR ON FIRE
THE TEDDY BEAR
THE TEDDY BEAR
THE SCARY FLYING BOY
THE SCARY FLYING BOY
THE FURIES
THE FURIES

A Holy Place

I am trying to find a way to describe the experience I have when I head out on my run on a late afternoon and enter the woods behind the elementary school near my home. It is difficult to find the words to express what happens to my state of mind at this point.  I enter the trail into the woods from relatively open space next to the school and the next thing I know is that I am in a space that leaves me transformed in mind and spirit. All of a sudden I find myself surrounded by the tall trees that form a green canopy; trees that let the sunlight filter in through in random spots to light up random leaves on random trees and plants, and random spots on the forest floor; trees that also provide a deep cooling shade that envelopes you.  All of a sudden one feels at peace, and at the same time both relaxed and energized.

Being an engineer by training, my thoughts have been turning analytical at this point in time.  A unique aspect of this experience is that my mind is impacted in the same manner regardless of how many times I repeat the routine.  Why is this remarkable, you ask?  It is notable to me because my general observation is that experiences tend to be more exciting when you go through them for the first time, but if you repeat them often enough, the novelty wears off. Even though you might continue to enjoy the experience, things feel a little bit different from that first time, and some of what you continue to do becomes part of a habit.  As a rather extreme example of the sentiment I am trying to express, one could pose the following question.  If you saw the Grand Canyon every day, would you feel the same sense of wonder after many years as you did on the first day.  Not to say that the sense of awe would go away, but I am sure that some of the emotional impact of the experience would tend to change over time, wouldn’t it.

This particular running experience I am talking about is most certainly not as grand as seeing the Grand Canyon, but it is more about the feeling you get when you are transported instantly into different state of mind every single time, even though you are repeating the routine frequently.  When it happens you forget about everything else instantly, and you are struck by a sense of wonder, maybe even ecstasy, that is hard to define.  And it is achieved without the benefit of external chemical stimulants.:-)  As a runner who explores a lot of spaces and always enjoys doing what I do, I have to say that there is something different going on in the head in this particular instance. Is it the endorphins on steroids, figuratively speaking?

As you can see, I have been pondering how one would characterize this kind of experience for some time.  I have also been thinking about the possibility of people having a somewhat similar experience in a different setting.  The only thing that came to mind is the state of mind of some people who enter a place of worship.  People enter a different place in their minds. Perhaps it is also possible to also get transported to this state of mind if one were to meditate.  I looked around on the Internet for the definition of a Holy place.  The most relevant description that I came across in this particular context was that a place becomes holy when it is specially linked to God.  If one continued along this thread of thought, you could perhaps get caught up in a contemplation of the nature of God, and your conclusion, if you had one, would of course depend on your point of view.  But I think that that particular thought process would be beside the point in this particular instance.  This is primarily about the state of mind that one tends to experience.  Perhaps I am in a Holy place when I run along these trails and have the experience I am describing.

I have a similar experience when running in a different part of the woods further along in this loop that I cover regularly, when the nature of my surroundings changes from that of the trees that are plentiful in this area to a vision of thin and tall evergreens all around me, a scene that is less common in these parts.  The mind is indeed transformed by the physical process that leads to the visual change, and perhaps it is that the process that is important to note in this context.

Having thought about this often enough, I decided to do an experiment to find out if it would be possible to capture the feeling that I have so far tried to express in words in pictures.  I carried my camera bag during one of my runs and made a game attempt at capturing the story with the camera.  Needless to say, pictures do not necessarily tell the tale, just as words themselves do not quite get to the heart of the matter.

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Here’s Lookin’ at You

I have taken a lot of pictures of birds over a long period of time and it is nearly always a challenge.  Most of the time the birds notice that you are around, and for some reason or another they do not like to have the wide barrel of a zoom lens pointed at them.  Their response is usually one of wariness, and some birds are more skittish than others in this regard.  So taking a picture of of a bird requires a lot of quiet, a little bit of stealth, an absence of any kind of abrupt movement, an infinite patience, and a good zoom lens.  You take your chances and sometimes you are successful.

Since most birds I encounter have eyes on the sides of their head, they can see you even when they are not facing you.   You do realize that the bird is looking at you, most often because the bird will in all likelihood react to your presence in some way.  It does not seem unnatural to you that the bird has not turned its head towards you.  I am guessing that there is no depth to the image of you that the bird is processing internally in this scenario.

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But there are also some occasions when the bird will actually look at you, or try to look at you, straight on.  It will either turn its head towards you or it will seat itself in a position facing you.  I wonder if the bird is getting a better stereo vision from this position, and whether there is something that induces the bird to face you from a certain angle or the other depending on the circumstances.

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Finally, there are the birds whose eyes are in front of their head.  I think they may have no choice but to face you when they want to look at you.

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I imagine that these types of behaviors of different kinds of birds are a result of evolution and of changes that have taken place over a long period of time.  It would be great to understand why certain species developed in certain ways and how it might all be related to their survival in some form or the other.  Fascinating stuff!  Too much to learn in too little time!

A Study in Visual Perspectives

I had the opportunity to hike the Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire recently.  The 8.8 mile trail that we tackled started in the Lafayette Place parking lot in the Franconia Notch.  It took us up from the valley to the ridge and the mountain tops and back in a loop.  If you do this loop in a counter-clockwise direction, you climb up to the ridge using the aptly named Falling Waters trail.  You break out of the forest near the end of this trail at Little Haystack Mountain.  You then take the Appalachian Trail (AT) along the ridge for a while, proceeding to Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette.  This part of the hike is completely above the tree level and feels very different from the climb and the descent which are through the woods.  At Mt. Lafayette, you descend the mountain to the Greenleaf Hut following the Greenleaf Hut trail.  At this point one takes the Old Bridle Path trail back to the parking lot.

This is an amazing hike.  It is quite challenging with the steep slopes and the rough terrain, and it takes a good part of the day to complete the hike.  You have to be well prepared,  and the hiking conditions also change with the seasons.  We did encounter a little bit of snow on the trail even in May.  If the weather is bad, and I have heard that it can turn bad in a hurry even on a good day, you will be completely exposed to the elements as you walk along the ridge.

I took at lot of pictures during the hike, but the ones I have been coming back to look at most often on my computer are the ones taken along the ridge.  Because it is quite open out there above the treeline, you get a good lesson on visual perspectives.  I have pictures of certain sections of the trail taken at different times and from different distances.  When you look at something from a certain distance you get a certain picture in your mind of how the terrain might be and of the distances you will be covering, but as you get closer you may realize that the picture did not accurately represent reality.  Often times, you do not even realize the size of what you are up against until to get close to the object.  Here are a series of pictures focusing on the slope leading up to the top of Mt. Lafayette.  (In viewing these pictures I found that I could use the size of the patch of snow on the side of Mt. Lafayette as a reference of some sort.)

The first three pictures were taken from Mt. Lincoln by zooming in with the camera.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next three pictures were most likely taken from the small crest in the ridge closest to Mt. Lafayette. You can see this crest in the first and second pictures in the series of the three pictures above.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn both of these series of three pictures, I think it is the size of the people that could give you a better perspective of what you are dealing with.

Here are a couple of pictures that I think help with providing a better perspective of the vastness of the space that one is dealing with, especially because people are present in the pictures.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first picture below may make you think you are actually walking along a narrow edge for this section of the trail, but the picture below it clarifies that the edge is really not that narrow after all.  In fact, as you walk along the ridge you do not get the sense of this being a risky endeavor, a perspective that could prove to be incorrect and quite dangerous on a windy day.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen you get up to the ridge at Little Haystack and look north along the trail you see Mt. Lincoln in front of you.   Mt. Lafayette is hidden behind Mt. Lincoln even though it is the taller of the two mountains.  If you were unfamiliar with the territory you would not know which mountain you were looking at and heading towards.  Some people may not realize until they get to the top of Mt. Lincoln that there was still more ground to be covered to get to the last stop along the ridge.  It is all a matter of the visual perspective.  Here is a picture that provides a little bit of that perspective.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think it is actually quite difficult for a person who is only looking at pictures to truly grasp what one is dealing with in reality.  You will appreciate the real challenge you are up against only while you are in that space.   You might try to capture the nature of that space with a series of pictures, but that is not the same thing as being in that space.

Here is a picture of the Franconia Ridge taken on the way down the mountain. (Click through to see the picture in its full size.)  At this point we still had a long way to go to get back to the parking lot from where we had started the hike. The Old Bridle Path trail from the Greenleaf hut descends along the ridges of the hills to the left of the picture.  The three peaks that dominate the picture are Mt. Lafayette (5249 ft), Mt. Lincoln (5089 ft), and Little Haystack (4760 ft). We walked the ridge from Little Haystack to Lafayette, a distance of about 1.7 miles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you are interested in viewing more pictures of the hike, follow this link.

The Butterfly that came to Lunch

It was the second day of our visit to the Great Smoky Mountains. We had just completed a hike that turned out to be more strenuous than expected. The hike had started at the old and abandoned town of Elkmont, and we had followed The Little River trail upstream to its intersection with the Huskey Gap Trail. On our way back we decided to take the detour via The Cucumber Gap Trail to make our walk a “loop”. This trail turned out to have some unexpected challenges. There was a steady climb during the first part of the trail that did not seem to end, and we had to also deal with a somewhat challenging crossing of the Husky Branch stream along the way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn any case, we arrived back at Elkmont a little later than expected experiencing some hunger pangs, both due to the nature of the workout that we had gotten that morning, and because we had completed the hike somewhat later than originally expected. It was well past lunch time. In spite of the urge to gobble up some food immediately, we decided to find a place on the road to Cades Cove, beside the river, for lunch.  It was a beautiful day and the crowds had yet to arrive in large volumes in this part of the park. We easily found a place beside the road to park our car, and then step down to the river side to have our lunch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe orange Eastern Comma butterfly caught my eye immediately as I navigated the slope from the road to the river.  Butterflies had been rare up to this point during the trip and this one was also colorful. (It made sense that butterflies were scarce since it was still early in Spring.) As the others climbed down to the rocks to a spot beside the river to enjoy their lunch, I paused. I got some pictures as the butterfly flitted around and paused for an instant or two to rest on some surface or other. I followed its flight carefully.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEventually the butterfly got attracted by the track suit I was wearing. Perhaps it was the color and sheen of the fabric. It parked itself on my blue pants while I attempted, unsuccessfully, to try to take its picture. I even changed lenses, but I was having difficulty focusing on the butterfly at this short distance while zooming in on it.  The butterfly hung around on my track suit through all my attempts at picture-taking. It would take flight every once in a while, but then it would return to me.

I finally gave up and climbed down the rocks to join the others who were enjoying their lunch and grabbed a sandwich for myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe butterfly followed me to lunch.

As I savored my tuna salad sandwich (that tasted quite delicious especially after the extensive activities of the morning), the butterfly settled on one of the backpacks that we were carrying.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt kept us company through lunch, and may have even returned to my track suit once or twice to take a look at something or the other.

We enjoyed our lunch on the banks of the Little River in peace, to the unending, calming, roar of the waters slamming on to the rocks, surrounded by the beauty of nature, and with the little butterfly hanging out with us.  I wished the moment could go on forever…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we were relaxing and enjoying ourselves, I observed a little bird flying from tree to tree on the other side of the river, stopping occasionally to take a look at the people beside the river.  Wonder what was going on in its little brain?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI explored the area where we were relaxing for a little while looking for other things to photograph.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then it was time to leave the beautiful spot and the butterfly that came to lunch.