Thanks be to Gravity (9/14/2008)

This is a highly edited version of something I wrote many years ago.  These days, I am also more comfortable with adding pictures and links directly to the narrative.  Ain’t technology da bomb!

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If you take the exit to Keep Tryst Road from US Route 340, (it comes up close to Harpers Ferry, just before you cross the bridge over the Potomac from Maryland into Virginia), and then follow the road all the way to the the bottom of a hill, it ends up next to tracks for the CSX railroad.  At this point the road makes a U-turn and heads back up the hill to rejoin Route 340.  This place next to the railroad tracks is where people park their cars to head out on hikes.  The place is called Weverton.  From this location you can follow the Appalachian trail (or the AT as it is fondly known) up to Weverton Cliffs, or you can cross the tracks and head down to the towpath towards either Brunswick or Harpers Ferry.

Weverton used to be real town many years ago.  Very few people live in the area today. Back then an intrepid developer decided that he could harness the power of the waters of the Potomac for energy in order to develop commerce in this area.  The concept did not work and one of the reasons for failure was the regular flooding of the river.  I have read that you can see the remains of the old town of Weverton if you leave the towpath and head towards the river.  I have not been successful in finding these ruins so far.  Weverton is also a switching yard for the railroad, and the location from which a spur line used to branch off towards Hagerstown.  You can still see the remains of the railroad bridge for this spur line under the bridge for Route 340.

I arrived at Weverton early in the morning before the fog had lifted to do a hike to towards Harpers Ferry and Maryland Heights. My timing for the start of the hike was perfect.  As I walked towards the railroad tracks to cross over to the towpath, I sighted the headlights of the freight train through the fog.  It was heading in my direction. IMG_6132At the point where the path crosses the railroad the tracks curve away from you and as  a result you get a head-on view of the approaching train.  I got a lot of pictures of the train in the fog as it switched tracks and approached rapidly. IMG_6134And before I knew it the engineer was blowing the horn to make sure that I did not step on to the tracks,IMG_6136and the train was rushing by shaking the ground under me.IMG_6137It was moving quite fast and even picking up speed as the freight cars thundered by, with the hundreds of metal wheels screeching like a thousand banshees as the rail cars pushed against the rails and struggled to stay on the tracks as they rounded the curve and accelerated at the same time.IMG_6138I stood by just next to the carriages, which seemed to be much bigger and higher than what I imagined them to be when I had seen them from a distance, and felt a rush.  I was screaming but nobody could hear me.

The objective for this trip was to climb Maryland Heights on the Maryland side of the Potomac river next to Harpers Ferry.  From the lookout point on Maryland Heights one gets a nice view of the town of Harpers Ferry.  This hike turned out  to be an unexpected mental challenge for me.  I began to feel tired even as I started up the steep slope from beside the main road.  Perhaps I was really not in good shape.  The early part of the climb was quite strenuous and the last time I had done this was when family had visited from India, when we had walked halfway up the hill.  I walked up slowly, stopping frequently, and stopping by the meadows along the way to enjoy the sight of the many white butterflies fluttering around.IMG_6174It was a humid morning and pretty soon I was sweating quite profusely.  I did not really feel any pain but I was feeling nervous because this was the first time in a while I had pushed myself in this manner since the big event.  I almost turned back at one point.

But in the end I persevered.  I was going to reach my destination one way or the other, whichever destination it happened to be – the Pearly Gates (being the eternal optimist that I am) or the Scenic Overlook over the river!  I made it to the latter destination feeling a sense of achievement.  I spent some time taking pictures of the river and the valley below.IMG_6175IMG_6176IMG_6192 There was a butterfly sitting in the sun on a rock that did not move even as I approached and took close-up pictures of its eyes!  (There are some wonderful experiences waiting out there for you if you are willing to relax and  pay attention to what is going on around you.)IMG_6199IMG_6206I ran all the way down the hill on my way back to the towpath.  I wanted to sing a song – He’ll be running down the mountain when he comes!  It was a nice outing and I got some pictures of some flowers and creatures that I had not seen before. IMG_6155IMG_6157A woodpecker also obliged me by landing on a tree trunk next to the trail and staying put while I took its picture.IMG_6214I also got some nice pictures of the fog.IMG_6145IMG_6162IMG_6163IMG_6165IMG_6169IMG_6171All in all, another excellent outing to the river!

The Passage of Time (10/5/2009)

Not sure if this fits into the weekly category, but since life is a quest for something or the other, I decided to post this old letter from 2009 with a few pictures I took at that time…

img_1612The leaf dropped out of the tree and was caught by the gentle Autumn breeze as it fell from the sky.   I swung my arm lazily as I ran by, as the leaf drifted across the trail.  Amazingly I made contact and the leaf ended up in my hand.  Alright!, I said to myself. At least that is what I thought I was doing.   But these days I am sometimes not sure if I am speaking to myself, or if I have said something out aloud without realizing it.  But it did not matter in this instance since I was all by myself.   I could behave like an happy two year old without having to worry about somebody looking at me in a strange way because I was not “acting my age”.
img_1602img_1652Perhaps, this is one reason I enjoy being out there on the trail.  I can scream out loud with a sense of wonder every time the heavy locomotives of the freight trains power past me.  I can even sing loudly to myself with only the flowers, the birds, and the occasional curious squirrel hanging around to hear the cacophony.  I can drop the burden of “expected” behavior and be myself.  I can take unplanned diversions from the trails into the unmarked woods if I want.  I can follow the butterfly or dragonfly as it flitters from flower to flower, hoping it settles down long enough at one location without flying away at my approach, so that I can take its picture.  (It does require a lot of patience!)  It is truly a healing process to get away from “civilization”.  Maybe I have a stupid smile on my face when I am out in the woods, and this why the few people I encounter seem to respond to me with a pleasant Good Morning.  Maybe they are all as crazy as I am.

The heat of summer is behind us and the cooler days of Autumn have arrived.  There are the cool and crisp Fall mornings – with the clear and bright blue skies, with the occasional fluffy wisps of clouds floating by – looking like light cotton balls that are being gently pulled apart by some unseen hand in the sky.  There are the cold and gloomy mornings, when the clammy feeling penetrates your jacket, and even your skin, when the heavens are filled with dark ominous clouds that block the sun and scurry across the sky, as if in a hurry, eager to get somewhere.
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The leaves are just beginning drop from the trees and there are already a few spots of reds and yellows in our neighborhood and on the trail.  The Frittilary that I saw in large numbers at the beginning of summer in Black Hill park have long since gone, and so have the somewhat rarer Monarchs.  There is still the occasional Tiger Swallowtail to be seen, but other than a few Skippers, this really seems to be the season for the Sulphurs.
img_1587The unidentified dragonflies and damselflies are still around in smaller numbers, occasionally flying around in pairs as if they were indulging in some sort of mating ritual (perhaps they are!), but they will also disappear as surely as the butterflies and the leaves on the trees.

The various types of ducks that I used to observe at Black Hill have long since gone, and I am looking forward to Spring when I hope to see the somewhat rarer migratory species once again.  The Canada Geese that are supposed to be migratory never left, and they dominate the lake and the river these days.   The cardinals are still around, but the robin will only return in spring.  My good friends, the blue heron, can very frequently be seen in certain sections of the canal fishing.  (Yesterday I saw a whole bunch of cormorants perched on some rocks in the middle of the Potomac near Harpers Ferry.  I was even fortunate to capture the picture of a raptor, perhaps it was an eagle or a osprey, diving into the waters of the Potomac to come up with a fish that it had caught!)
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The last flowers of summer can still be seen in the woods of Black Hill and along the towpath – the purple chicory, some white and purple fleabane, some asters, a few goldenrods, and some others that I still cannot identify.  I wish I had more time!img_1597
img_1649img_1668I cannot wait to experience the vast expanses of the fields of Virginia bluebell on the towpath in Spring.

And thus the days, the seasons, and the years go by, and one finds that one has survived to reach the age of 50!  (Teresa had arranged a great surprise Birthday party!  Thanks to John from arranging his trip from Bangalore so that he could spend the evening with us.)  The times seem to rush by in a hurry, and before I knew it, over 20 years of marriage have gone by and the kids have all grown up.   In just a few years the next generation will be ready to take over the reins from us, and eventually we will also be consigned to the dust.  The cycle of life will continue. I have to remind myself constantly that we need to do our best while we are here, and that we also need to make the best of what we have without being greedy.  In tough times I have to try to remember that I am one of the fortunate ones, and that the present will eventually become the past.  In the short time that we have here on Planet Earth, perhaps we can try to leave our mark by doing something positive for others, and we can also try to leave the world in a better shape than we found it.  Maybe, just maybe, this could be The Meaning of Human Life.

Life goes on.   Keep on Truckin…
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Weekly Photo Challenge: Morning

This is my more conventional submission for the week’s challenge.  Since a majority of my pictures have been taken during my numerous morning outings, I have tons of possible candidates for submission even if I were to eliminate what I would consider “the usual” sunrise pictures.  I have already shared many such pictures. So I tried to be extra careful when picking the ones below.

The picture below tries to capture the mood of a typical morning outing in the woods.  The quiet and the solitude have a healing effect on the mind.

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It is only in the early morning that I can get moody pictures like the ones below through the mist and the fog. (I note that the sun is actually visible in the first two pictures below.)100_2982

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Then, there was this picture that I thought captured a nice mood early in the morning over the waters of the Bay of Islands. I have this feeling of anticipation of what the new day is going to bring, especially to people who are going to use the ferry to start their day.

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Finally there are these pictures taken in the San Francisco Bay area.  The first one is not in black and white.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis last picture (which ought to be viewed in its original size by clicking through) shows the morning cloud cover over San Francisco airport, while the sun, rising in the east (actually south-east), lights up the red and white tower and the departing aircraft .

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Into The Morning

It was still dark when I left home at about 6:30am on Sunday morning to head out for the C&O Canal towpath trail at Brunswick, MD.  The morning star and the crescent moon were still visible above the darkened homes, while a faint glow was beginning to show up in the sky just above the  horizon.

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I was about to get back to doing something that I had not been able to do for over a year.   I was heading out to a distant location on the towpath all by myself for a very early morning run.  And I had not been to Brunswick specifically for a much longer time.  And at this point I was actually missing the experience.  The change from my older weekend routine was made so that others could come out with me for walks in the parks on Sunday mornings. It was all for a good cause and a greater good, and something that I was (and still am) happy to be able to do.

It was 29° Fahrenheit when, following my old habits, I drove out to the nearby Starbucks for a breakfast sandwich and coffee.  Surprisingly, they still served the spinach and egg white sandwich that had been my staple in the past.  I picked up my food and drink and headed back to the car.  It was a familiar routine.

In the distance, from the parking lot, one could see the faint outlines of the sunrise.  The colors were beginning to change on the horizon.  I got into my car and on the road to the highway as the diffused light from the sun began the process of gradually replacing the darkness with light.

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The sun was rising behind me as I headed north and west on Interstate 270 towards Frederick.  I had this strange feeling of familiarity, of going back to to an old place in my mind, and it felt good.   I first stopped at the scenic overlook outside of Frederick to observe the colorful sky over the still shaded valley as the sun attempted to climb above the hills behind me.

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Heading west out of Frederick, I continued to enjoy the experience of the sun rising into the heavens – as it lit up the sides of the houses with a golden light, a light that invited people to wake up and pay homage to a new day. I was lost in a pleasantly blissful state of mind when I made a mistake and took a wrong exit from the highway, and got on the road towards Point of Rocks, another location on the towpath.  Feeling quite unperturbed by this unexpected turn of events, I exited this new road at a random intersection with country road whose name I did not even attempt to read, and then proceeded west along this local byway.  After all, how lost could one get with the Potomac river to one side of me and the original highway that I had been traveling on to the other side.  The winding road took me up a hill from which I got an unexpectedly grand view of a broad valley below me partially lit up the sun.  This was the valley through which the Potomac flowed.  I could see a distant water tower, perhaps at Brunswick, my destination by car; and also a hint of my ultimate destination on the trail,  Harpers Ferry, the place where the Shenandoah river joins the Potomac to become a single flow, cutting though and creating a gap in the ridges of the Appalachian mountain range.  It was an unexpected treat, but I could not stop to take pictures on the narrow road.  Before I knew it the road descended the hill and I had found my way back to the road to Brunswick.

Crossing the railroad tracks at the train station at Brunswick the sun appeared to be struggling to rise above the treeline, but the railroad station was lit up in a weird shade of red.

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A coal train stood in the shadows, waiting for clearance to head onward towards Point of Rocks and perhaps the power generating plant at Dickerson.

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The view of the Potomac from the parking lot at the boat ramp below the bridge across the river was gorgeous.

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I made my way from the parking lot on to the towpath and headed west towards Harper’s Ferry.  The cold and brisk air, and the tall misshapen trunks of the leafless trees reaching for the skies all around me, triggered something in the brain.  I was once again in my happy place.

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Before long I heard the lonesome whistle of a freight train from further out west, probably miles away in the area of Harpers Ferry.  I was quite sure it was headed my way.  Within a few minutes the twin engines of the freight train appeared through the trees on my right as the sun lit up the trees beyond the railroad track.

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The sun began to light up the trail as it rose, while my body began to react to the exercise by building up a sweat in spite of the cold.  The numb feeling in the extremities began to vanish.

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After about 3 miles, the lock house at Weverton appeared to my right, still partially in the shadows.

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As I ran through this section of the trail, I peered through the trees on my left, the side of the trail where the river flowed, searching for the remains of the old town of Weverton  that had been washed away by floods in times past.  I did not see anything remarkable. I then passed through a section of the trail that was still completely shaded by the tall hills that rose across the river in Virginia.  The birds were still waiting for the sunrise.  I eventually broke out into an section of the trail lit up by bright sunshine.  The bridge for the highway across the Potomac appeared in front of me in the distance through the trees.

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Approaching Harper’s Ferry, I noticed that the steeple of St. Peters Catholic church was still in the shadows while other parts of the town were beginning to experience the direct rays of the sun.  The Shenandoah river still lay in the shadows of the hills on one side of the town, while the Potomac flowed on its other side in bright sunlight, reflecting the clear blue of the cloudless sky above it.

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As I turned to head back towards Brunswick, the sun had ascended high enough into the sky to be able to light up the entire area, including the trail.  While it was still cold, and I was occasionally passing people who were all bundled up for protection, I was not feeling any of it.  It was time now for me to focus on the “running” aspect of this outing. I needed to try to put my camera away into the backpack and set a more regular pace for the the trip back.

Having not run this kind of distance in quite a while, I was also beginning to feel the effects of the effort on the system.  My heart indicated that it was still fine with the pace I was setting (which for some reason was becoming faster and faster according to my GPS device), but the muscles in my legs were beginning to complain.  “Dude, we need some more oxygen, and why the heck did you leave the water behind in the car?!”  My tracksuit was soaked in sweat. But I was also getting into a rhythm as my feet beat a tattoo on the towpath. I picked up steam heading east.  I was in the zone!

I huffed and puffed my way back into Brunswick where the coal trail was still waiting to depart.

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The tiredness did not matter at this point as the mind was in a very different place from the sore muscles.  I got into my car and was soon heading back home after my Sunday morning visit to the Church of the C&O Canal.  Alleluia anybody?!

High on the Trail

Scientists used to believe that a runner’s high was due to the release of endorphins into the system, but it was never proved conclusively.  It appears that while there is an uptick of endorphins in the blood after exercise, there is a barrier to these endorphins being absorbed into the brain.  It might turn out that this state of mind is actually caused by the release of chemicals similar to those released into the body when smoking marijuana!  Nothing has been proved conclusively yet, but if humans were more like mice….

http://www.popsci.com/runners-high-looks-lot-like-smoking-weed-in-brain

Far out man!

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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