Ramble On

Friday, December 30, 2011

Bourbon-soaked, Hickory-smoked

Well, here in Geezerville, the one thing we've learned is that practice makes perfect.  Nearly so, that is, if you believe the human condition is holding you back.  With that thought in mind I decided that I might try to do another smoked pork loin for Christmas dinner this year.

Using a 1.5 pound roast from Whole Foods, I considered a complex marinade to start with, but then thought that maybe going with something simple was a better plan.  So once I'd let the meat rise to room temperature, all I did to prepare this was to brush it with olive oil, and season it with salt, pepper and garlic.

Then to seal in the flavor, I seared it in a frying pan - I used as couple of ounces of bourbon here for that step in the process.  I'm not sure that I noticed a strong bourbon flavor later when we were eating...I used Maker's Mark, a blend, instead of a favorite like Elijah Craig or Snob Creek.

After the browning, I moved the loin to the grill, where the coals were already white and ready.  While the grill temp said 450+ degrees, I used an indirect method, hoping I had the loins in an area where the temp was more like 350 or so.  I let them roast unmolested for about 40 minutes, and used the meat thermometer to see how things were going at that point.

The only grill opening I did during this phase was to toss in some hickory chips, which I used this time instead of gathering up some sticks and twigs from around the Hawksbill Cabin property - we've got several hickories back in the wood lot, and I do hope to stockpile from them eventually.

Finally, the meat thermometer read 160, and I moved the loins over to the coal side.  I wanted to get some grill marks on them and bring them up to 165 to finish them.  Once they were done, we served them up with some asparagus, and a mix root vegetable side dish, both of which were prepared in foil packs on the grill.

Three photos below show various stages of cooking, and the finished product.  I'll definitely do this again, maybe doing the finishing touches at around 155 and taking the loin off the grill at 160 - they weren't overdone at 165, but the meat does continue to cook for a few minutes after they come off the grill.  So removing them from the heat a few minutes earlier isn't going to hurt anything.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Chores Inside and Out

For the most part, the weather during this just passed holiday weekend was tremendous out at Hawksbill Cabin.  We did get some rain, but we had several days of sunshine, like yesterday, when I climbed up on the terrace below the pool deck to take this photo looking up at the house.

For a good part of the fall, Mary had been talking about getting the curtains down and laundering them, so on Tuesday, our rainy day, she took this one on.  One of the most challenging parts of this task is the fact that the windows are ten feet high, so you have to get up on a ladder to take them down (and to put them back up) - so I helped a bit on this part of the task.  Then she went into town to take care of other errands while the curtains washed in a coin-op laundrymat.

With the curtains down, new light was shed on the modern bones of our place.  Here are three photos I took during the chore - first, the view from the living room, unobstructed by curtains; and second and third, two views of the house looking from the outside - first the original, main house, and then, the addition.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hitch is Dead

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”
- Philippians 4:8 NKJV

When we had news that Christopher Hitchens had died earlier this month, I was reminded by the articles that his 2007 book, god is not Great, had long been on my reading list. So I quickly went out on iTunes and picked up the audiobook so that I could listen to it on my new Metro commute.

The book opens with the quote above, from Philippians in the New Testament of the Bible. As I heard the words – Hitchens read the book himself for this audio version – I immediately realized the treat that I was in for, as the many descriptions of the man’s work in the obituaries I read shared a common praise of his wit, his intellect, his turn of a phrase, and the irony he could command.

I’ve come to share some points of view with him, although this realization was a long time in the making. I’ve been a fan of Eric Alterman, having read several books, followed his blog, and even had a letter to him posted on MSNBC back in 2003 (my dad also had a letter posted on the Altercation blog in that timeframe).

At that time, Alterman and Hitchens, who had apparently worked together at The Nation, had fallen out with each other…while I am not refreshing my memory with an internet search on this, I seem to recall that it had something to do with a disagreement about whether the Iraq war was justified, with Hitchens coming down in favor and attracting a lot of media attention for, what was for him, a Vanity Fair writer, a surprising position.

At the time, it seemed to me that the emergent Fox News cable channel was exploiting the fear of the post 9-11 era as a way to divide all of us in a time when we should be united in choosing a way forward to confront the new geopolitical situation. Seeing Hitchens on that network from time to time, seemingly arguing for the Fox News point of view (which was essentially a marketing ploy to segment and capture conservative viewers) left a foul taste in my mouth.

So I have to admit that as I picked up god is not Great, I expected that I would find some challenging positions that I did not agree with. But I resolved to read with an open mind.

So, once I made it into chapter four, I came across a summary, a list of three points in the argument that religion poisons everything, more or less transcribed here:

  • “Religion and the churches are manufactured…
  • “Ethics and morality are quite independent of faith and cannot be derived from it…
  • “Religion, because is claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs, is not just amoral, but immoral.”
The book is polemical and, as such, makes a strong argument against not just any single religion, but all religions. True to Hitchens’ style, they are well reasoned arguments and backed up with examples from his research and experience. The force of his argument has the effect of encouraging the reader to look within, to see where these thoughts resonate in one’s own soul – for lack of a better expression.

Most of all, god is not Great is a good read. Hitchens is not at all overbearing as he appeared on those Fox News interviews in the early part of this decade, when he was arguing in favor of the war in Iraq. In fact, he is every bit as well reasoned and well spoken as his reputation makes him out to be. It’s a sad thought that this is a voice and intellect that we have lost, but let’s celebrate his life and legacy as if it were a beautiful daisy emerging from the dust of his grave.

I’m still making my way through the book. But so far, I feel as though I am enjoying a long delayed gourmet meal – and we’ve just sat down, with the palate cleanser arriving to the table.

Here’s an Amazon link to the book:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Love a Tree

See, Mary and I weren't going to have a tree this year.  I started my new job during the first week of December with a road trip, and we thought that our schedules this year just weren't going to allow us this little diversion.

A few years ago our neighbor told us that he had a family property in Wisconsin that he'd managed to keep in agricultural use - growing Christmas trees.  He's what my friend David calls a "weekend warrior" - he runs the farm absentee-style, doing everything during periodic visits.  In his case, that involves week-long trips at various times of the year, culminating with a two-week  trip around Thanksgiving when the trees are harvested and distributed to his various local retail outlets out yonder.

Except that as a favor he brings back about a dozen for the neighbors here on our street.  I figure that this small reserve actually pays for the road trip back and forth, which I have to admit I admire.  As often as not, at this time of year, his trip is made that much more difficult by early winter storms.

So as I mentioned, we weren't getting a tree.  When our neighbor came calling for tree orders, we declined.  When he got back, he found that he had an extra...and he offered us another chance.  Beset by second thoughts, we made room for it - an 8.5 footer, which is esconced in the dining room.  It's shown here behind the dining room table, set for Mary's annual holiday tea for her Wellesley alumni friends.

Yep, we are sure enjoying it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Solar Marines

 The Natural Intelligence column in Outside magazine's December 2011 edition, entitled "Charge!" and written by David Roberts, outlines some successes the Marine Corps has had in adapting solar technology to battle.  I did some further research and this has been a hot topic this year, with many articles available on-line, I've also included a link to an NPR article at the end of this post for easy reference.

Roberts' article begins with the lead paragraph:

"The Solyndra solar debacle has some in Congress arguing that government needs to get out of the renewable-power business.  Don't tell that to the Marine Corps, the bravest new recruit in the clean-energy revolution."

After watching the movie Restrepo this year - and visiting a couple of USMC bases - I've grown attuned to how this tactical force operates:  fast moving and overwhelming force, usually at the expense of having to carry a lot of petroleum-based fuels with them, especially as generator power hungry communications and information gear become more and more essential to the success of their missions. 

The Marines have established the Expeditionary Energy Office to come up with ways to address power needs.  In the Outside article, the example given was India Company 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment's deployment to the Sangin District in Afghanistan's Helmand province.  India 3/5 had four portable modules that fold out in two large solar panels each, all connected to power cells to store the energy overnight.  They also have pack stowable gear that the Marines can carry - only 2.5 pounds each - instead of the 25-35 pounds of batteries they usually have to haul on their backs. 

Another highlight, from the NPR article I linked, also featuring India 3/5, is this: 

"By using solar power and placing an emphasis on energy conservation, Marines and sailors of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment say they cut diesel consumption in their generators from 20 gallons a day to 2.5 gallons a day."

Three more bullets that argue for more solar power rather than less, at least in the case of the Marines:

  • Fewer Supply Convoys — With less need for fuel and batteries, fewer trucks are exposed to possible attacks on the road.
  • Quieter Is Safer — Units that rely on diesel generators to keep equipment running at night could go quiet while running on batteries, making them harder for the enemy to find.
  • Efficiency — The foldable solar blankets are light and don't take up much space. That should help patrols' mobility, and save space for other supplies — like ammunition, as one sergeant says.
This is the kind of development that is going to help build a mass civilian market for these technologies.

Here's a link to the NPR article:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Page County Grown: Stuffed "Festival" Acorn Squash

This year I picked up quite a few of the "Festival" acorn squash from Public House Produce.  It's a winter squash and when I buy it in October, it typically has been cured (David walked me through the process once, it involves a period of constant temperature once it comes off of the vine) and can keep through most of the winter.  We've had squash as late as February.

I tried a stuffed squash recipe last year, just a savory sausage version, which came from the Simply in Season cookbook, Amazon link below, and again - another tip from Public House Produce. I wasn't too thrilled with those results so this time I decided to try the apple and sausage stuffed squash.  I was probably a bit more careful with the cooking and preparation process this time too, and felt like I had good results:  Mary said, "This is good enough for company."

Basically, I baked the squash at 350 for about 45 minutes to soften the flesh.  I also sauteed the sausage, apples, onions (I added celery and carrots, although they weren't in the recipe) until they were soft, cooking them with the sausage after it was browned.  I also tossed in chopped walnuts and golden raisins, and a tablespoon of bread crumbs (the recipe actually called for bread cubes).

Once this was cooked, I stuffed it into the squash and baked at 375 for 20 minutes.  I should have covered the squash but forgot too - it was getting late.  In any case, we enjoyed this very much...I will continue to tweak the recipe as I have two squashes left.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Berlin Airlift Exhibit

Last month, as I was cruising around the Smithsonian Museum of American History, I came across the Berlin Airlift exhibit.  There's a panel in there with a number of readily recognizable, even iconic, images of this event that happened in the early part of the Cold War.

I saw iconic, because when I arrived in Berlin in October 1981 (just occured to me that it has been 30 years!), one of my first impressions during those ever shorter and colder fall days was that the Berlin Airlift was a signature event for the USAF's presence.  It formed such a strong impression that as I walked around for those first few months the memories that I still hold translate many of the buildings and experiences into grainy black and white images.

This exhibit has 15 or so of some of the more well known photographs from the original reporting, along with some maps and a diagram showing how the Airlift worked.  There is some interpretive material that shows what the whole point of the enterprise was:  to feed the blockaded city of about 2 million people. 

In rediscovering the photos I took at the exhibit, I had a moment of nostalgia (as I always do at the mere mention of the city) that has inspired me to make yet another list in my life - the significant events of my nearly five years there.  At some point I'll have that compiled in a way it's suitable for publication here on the blog.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Luray Caverns CX "Cyclo-Cross"

Photo by John "Major" Nelson.
Last weekend saw the Luray Caverns CX cyclo-cross race return to Luray. Unfortunately, Mary and I had some last minute work and alumni things to take care of in the city, otherwise I would have attended as I’d planned. As far as I know, this is the second of these annual races, which are held on the grounds of the Luray Valley Museum at the Caverns.

Last October I had a few minutes to talk about this event with Chris Gould, the promoter and owner of Hawksbill Bicycles in Luray. He told me that this was a European discipline in cycling that originated in Belgium, involving riding on multiple surfaces, such as grass, asphalt, gravel and mud. There are typically various kinds of barriers that require the riders to dismount and carry their bikes.

Photo by John "Major" Nelson
Also attractive about the sport is the fact that the course is usually designed to wind around a central viewing area, so it’s spectator friendly. At Luray there was a beer garden, and Wisteria Vineyards sponsored a wine tasting. This thing sounds like my kind of event and I really regretted not being able to attend.

As I followed the events on Facebook, I saw that there was a drum line duel between Page County High School and Luray High School. How cool is that?

There were 150 competitors in the event, which is one of four cycling events in Page County now. It’s another great example of the kind of active tourism that our beautiful setting can attract. Kudos to Chris and the other organizers and sponsors for bringing something new and exciting to the community!

Note: I have copied photos here from the Luray CX Facebook Page – the photographer is John "Major" Nelson, who documents most Page County Cycling events in his capacity as the official race photographer!
A web link to the Luray Caverns event page is here:  http://luraycaverns.com/PlanyourVisit/Events/tabid/512/Default.aspx

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Video from Kennedy Peak Summit

When Chris and I did the hike up to Kennedy Peak a few weeks back, I thought I might try to make a video from the observation tower.  Here is the result: it's about three minutes long, done off-the-cuff as I talk about the items you can see from the summit.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Return to Massanutten's Kennedy Peak

A couple of weeks back, when Chris came out for a hike, we intended to get out for one of the “75 at 75” hikes. Both of us ended up having some work chores to take care of first thing in the morning, via email, and that put us behind schedule enough that we ditched the plan for a hike in Shenandoah National Park. As a Plan B, we went to Kennedy Peak on the Massanutten Ridge in the George Washington National Forest.

See, during this time of year, Shenandoah National Park closes the entries on Skyline Drive at 5pm, reopening them at 8am, to prevent poaching during deer hunting season. If you expect that you need more than 9 hours for transit to your trailhead and to complete your hike, you run the risk of being locked in the Park. Although there are procedures for letting you out after hours, NPS cannot guarantee how promptly someone will arrive to open the gates for you.

After Chris and I took care of the emails and on-line business matters, we made our stop to check on the pigs, which I posted on last week. Then it was off to GWNF and the Edith Gap trailhead. We arrived at just about noon for the hike.

I used both the Casio Pathfinder and the “Map my Hike” app on my iPhone on this one. I calculated approximately 698 feet of elevation gain over the 5.4 mile course, which took us about three and a half hours. As with most of the GWNF hikes, the route was well marked, actually following the orange-blazed Massanutten loop for most of the distance before merging with the Stephens Trail to the summit of Kennedy Peak.

Back in January, I hiked the Stephens Trail with the AOA guys. I was stunned at the views from the old observation tower at the summit. I’ve posted three photos here of the views, looking in easterly directions to Page Valley: first to the north, in the direction of Rileyville and Bentonville; then due east across the north stretches of Luray to the Blue Ridge and Thornton Gap; and then to the south, towards Stanley and Big Meadows, where Hawksbill Cabin lies along this line.

I have a video to share, a narrated panorama that I took while on the observation tower, and I will post that tomorrow as I conclude the review of this hike.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

...about that Chanticleer

Funny thing, I exchanged messages with my friend David after last week’s post, “Chanticleer in the Morning.” Turns out, they have a new Barred Rock rooster over there at Public House Produce, and they named him Chanticleer.

Among several meanings of the word, Wikipedia has ‘chanticleer” as meaning “any rooster.” So the Thoreau quote included in that last post includes a pretty spectacular imagery:

"I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."

I've just started learning about heritage poultry breeds, so when David told me about the barred rock rooster I dug in a bit to find out more about the breed. From a hatchery website (linked below), I found the picture I included with this post, and the description below:

The Barred Rock is one of the all time popular favorites in this country. Developed in New England in the early 1800's by crossing Dominiques and Black Javas, it has spread to every part of the U.S. and is an ideal American chicken. Prolific layers of brown eggs, the hens are not discouraged by cold weather. Their solid plumpness and yellow skin make a beautiful heavy roasting fowl. Our strain has the narrow, clean barring so desirable in appearance. Their bodies are long, broad, and deep with bred-in strength and vitality. These chickens are often called Plymouth Rocks, but this title correctly belongs to the entire breed, not just the Barred variety. Whatever you call them, you can't beat them for steady, reliable chickens. Baby chicks are dark gray to black with some white patches on head and body.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for Chanticleer next time I’m over. I hear the breed is pretty friendly to people and other animals…but at the same time, I’ve also heard about some ornery ones.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Chanticleer in the Morning

Late in the summer, as I was making a stop by to check on the Yum Yums - they were much smaller back then - I came across a curious construction project under the shelter of the barn over there at Public House Produce.  It was a very interesting little building that reminded me of the pool cabana at Hawksbill Cabin, but since the proprieter was away I didn't have a chance to ask what it was designed for...I thought he might be building a little fruit stand to sit out there by the side of the road and vend his sweet corn from.

In the waning weeks of the Luray Page Farmers Market I finally had a chance to ask about it.  David told me it was the "Huntin' Shack" - a small shelter that would serve as a deer blind once the season finally got started.  Thereafter, I wanted to touch base for construction updates, and there were plenty.

Then last week, when Chris and I stopped by for our Yum Yums progress visit, we encountered David freshly returned from the Huntin' Shack, where he'd had a successful morning hunt.  He was in the middle of butchering a buck, but once he finished the chore he offered to take us for a walk to see the Huntin' Shack in the field.

And so we did.  It looks to be a fairly comfortable perch for a hunter to watch and wait from.  It's got good sight lines, and adequate shelter from the cold wind and rain.  There's a rumor of a heater in there, but I didn't see it when I went inside.

No TV in there either, but there were some good choices of reading materials.  Right on top lay a Thoreau tome, a combined volume with Civil Disobedience and Walden.  As David talked about the shack, and some of the events that had taken place there, it was almost as if I could hear him quoting Thoreau - hey, the shack has its similarities to that little place by the pond!

"I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Yum Yums

On Friday, as Chris and I were preparing to go on our hike, I thought it might be good to take him over to introduce him to the Yum Yums at the Sours' place.  Chris is "co-sponsoring" one of the animals with me.

It was a crisp fall morning and the group wasn't quite up and about yet - they were snoozing gleefully in a tight little nest to stay warm.   The pigs always wake up with a start as we approach, and there was plenty of squealing and hopping around the stall and then out into the barnyard.

David was there and walked out with us, explaining what to expect next month (they are growing fast enough we may move the schedule for harvest up to January), and pointing out which pig belongs to whom. 

Our pig is up to about 200 pounds, maybe 220, he said, and the largest of the group is up to 250-260.  I understand that the target weight on the big girl is 350, and that is the metric that will determine what day is the right one for some "next steps."

"Next steps" in this case means "makin' bacon."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Catching up with...Page County Grown

Page County Grown is having a producers forum tonight at the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce Boardroom.  The meeting starts at 6:30 pm, and is aimed at current and potential members, so call the Chamber at 540-743-3915 if you would like more information.

PCG leadership said this meeting is for "...anyone interested in producing goods locally, whether a backyard farmer or a grower looking for additional markets." 

Jared Burner of Skyline Premium Meats will present on the benefits of buying local, and there will likely be some discussion of the organization's results last year - highlighted by the Farm Tour and Dinner last August. 

I'm just sorry I won't be able to join - Page County Grown is already having an impact on the local ag sector in the county, and I expect that the benefits will only increase in the future!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Best Easy Day Hikes Shenandoah - New Edition

When I posted about our little day hike to Bear Fence Mountain last weekend, among the things I noticed while writing was that the new edition of "Best Easy Day Hikes Shenandoah National Park" has been published.  This book, compiled and written by Bert and Jane Gildart, is the 4th edition, and was published earlier this year.  It updates the 3rd edition that was published in 2006; I have an Amazon link at the end of the post if you'd like to check it out.

When Mary and I bought Hawksbill Cabin in 2007, I figured that since Shenandoah National Park was so close - Hawksbill Mountain looms over the drive into our place, nearby Hawksbill Creek draws its source from a spring near Big Meadows, and we can see Tanners Ridge from our brick terrace - that I should make a point of getting to know the Park best I could.  I used the 3rd edition as a guide, setting a goal to complete all of the hikes in the book, an objective I fulfilled in 2010. 

On first review the major difference is the inclusion of 27 hikes in the 4th edition, as opposed to 26 in the 3rd.  Not only are there additional hikes, but some of the old ones have been deleted or replaced.  A district by district review shows that there are now 6 hikes in the North District, where there were five; there are 15 in the Central District, the same as before; and there are 6 in the South District, the same number as were in the 3rd edition.

The additional hike in the North District is Fort Windham Rocks, a 0.8 mile out-and-back with negligible elevation gain.  In the Central District, a second route to the peak at Mary's Rock has been added: "Mary's Rock  South," a 2.6 mile out-and-back that is shorter and has less elevation gain than the traditional "Mary's Rock North" route.  The entry for Betty's Rock and Crescent Rock has been deleted from the Central District list.  The South District list remains the same.

Generally, I'll be interested to get into the individual hike reviews in more detail to check out the updates.  Our Park is dynamic in that it used to be settled and covered by farms; while the establishment of the Park retains some controversy in the surrounding areas, the inevitable progress of nature's reclamation is one of the features of the experience, and that means that the trails are constantly changing.  Where there was a view in the past, there may be a new forest obscuring it now, for example...or some unusual flora or fauna may have re-established itself somewhere, causing the visitor to focus more on the micro-landscape as opposed to the wonderful views from Skyline Drive.

I have my favorites on this list, and at the same time, if the choice were mine, there are a few I would leave off.  But this guide has been very useful to me during my adventures in the Park, and generally I'm very happy to see that it has been updated.  Once I found out it had finally been published I couldn't wait to get a copy for myself.

Amazon link:

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bear Fence Mountain: An Easy SNP Day Hike

It being Thanksgiving weekend and all, Mary thought it might be fun to take a little walk in the Park.  Since she had never been before, I suggested we might go over to Bear Fence Mountain and explore it a bit. 

This relatively short trail - the Easy Day Hikes book (Amazon link at the end of the post) has it as a 1.2 mile loop with less than 400 feet of elevation gain, showcases the essential geologic history of the Blue Ridge.  The central portion of the hike, and its highlight, is a rock scramble along the ridge pictured here that is about a third of a mile in length. The mountain's summit is about 3,470 feet above sea level.

The trail to the scramble passes through the Park's signature greenstone and sandstone formations, and transitions to Catoctin basalt at the scramble itself. I prefer to take the loop trail for the opportunity it provides to have a good look at the stony layer from below, and then from being up close and personal during the scramble.

Funny thing along the way - after the initial photo above, my iPhone told me it was out of memory and it wouldn't allow any more photos.  I'll get that checked out, but in the meantime we fell back on Mary's good old fashioned RAZR, which is what I used to use for the blog.  These small format photos are taken with that camera.

This absolutely stunning view looking north towards Tanners Ridge and New Market gap was taken from a view point on the AT a couple of hundred yards south of the scramble. 

Full disclosure:  Mary and I didn't do the full rock scramble.  This trail is one of the better visited ones in the Park - there is even a Ranger Program that comes here (one I'd like to join sometime), so there is a lot of traffic on the mountain.  While the challenges of this scramble don't compare to Old Rag due to its length and the lack of significant elevation change, it does give a good preview of the experience you can expect on that landmark, and the transitions through the geologic layers are the same as what you'll see there.

Here are a couple of mountain portraits of your faithful blogger and his loving wife.

 And here is the Amazon link to the Easy Day Hikes book, if you are interested (hey!  Fourth Edition!)

Monday, November 28, 2011

She Brakes for Wisconsin Chickens

Our neighbors own a Christmas Tree farm in Wisconsin, and every year they travel to it for final chores and marketing right about Thanksgiving.  They are there right now, as a matter of fact.

Now, I spent a lot of time hatching some thoughts with these neighbors about the prospect of getting a Page County Grown CSA going here in Alexandria.  There seems to be a consensus (among some of the neighbors, as well as my "farmer friend" in Luray, that a chicken CSA is very feasible.  Still work to do on this account, but that is the set up for the photo.

Saturday afternoon, sitting out on the brick porch for a short while, the iPhone buzzed that I had received a text message from my neighbor.  She sent this iPhone photo, very nice image (she is a professional photographer after all!). 

The message said that they were making good progress on the farm chores, and were wrapping up early for the day since the weather was getting worse.  On the way home, they'd stopped by the neighbor's, who took them in for a look at the henhouse.

The Winter Flock and Other Visitors

Raccoon prints on the brick terrace.
With the change of seasons, I went out and bought a new set up of bird feeders and ten pounds of bird seed.  The old ones had facded and worn out so much I thought it would be a good idea to just replace them, and I've let the old hummingbird feeders hang out for too long.

Our winter flock at Hawksbill Cabin includes a mix of titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers - they are the regulars.  On some mornings, I'll see a bunch of junkos mixing in, and there is a crowd of sparrows off someplace in the woods that will get word of the feeders being refilled, so they'll show up.  Less regularly featured are some cardinals, blue jays, and flickers.

Red berries popular with the cardinals.
As I was taking care of the chore with the feeders, I noticed some paw prints on the deck railing that surrounds our brick terrace.  On closer inspection, these are raccoon prints - we have had a few over on that side of the house closest to the stream; I've seen one once or twice scampering off into the woods as I approached.

But that's not the worst of it...at least these critters were outside.

When we arrived at the cabin Friday, as I was unloading the car and making the last haul into the house, I met Mary out on the brick terrace.  She said, "There is a snake skin on the sink in the kitchen.  Of course, the next step for me was to go in to investigate, and then figure out how to get the reptile back outside.

The first thing I noticed was that this skin was just a piece of a whole shed, and it was brittle and yellowed.  So, not fresh - I've seen them keep a grayish tint for a whole season.  Still I carefully opened every cabinet door and every drawer in the kitchen - no sign of a snake.  What I did find was a mouse nest in one of the lower drawers near the stove.

We pulled that out - it was sitting in a little box that we used to store candles - and proceeded to clean and disinfect everything that the mouse might have scampered over.  We replaced all of the D-con.  And while we did this, we analyzed the construction of the mouse nest we'd found.

Included with the usual materials, such as paper towels and other scrap materials gathered from around the house, were more pieces of snake skin.  I found this very interesting, as the snakes usually hunt the mice...asking around, people gave me varying opinions about this, including the very creative "it's a kind of mojo to keep other snakes away" explanation.

Here's what I figure.  Hawksbill Cabin had been infested with snakes for several years before we bought it.  The elderly fellow who lived there at first wasn't able to keep up with things, and so the termites got out of hand and then the other "pests" moved in.  The folks who bought it from his estate were in over their heads on basic maintenance chores, and so the snakes and termites continued to live amongst them.

It wasn't until we moved there that the wildlife was given notice to move along (for a hint at the extent of our repairs, take a look at the "Big Projects" label).  There was some big time clean up to do along with the repairs. 

Still, there are a couple of nooks and crannies in the house where an old snake skin or two might lay hidden, and that is what I figured happened here.  In the mouse-frenzy associated with building winter quarters, the snake skin was just another material going into the creation of a cozy den. 

We didn't see any other traces over the weekend.  Hopefully Mary is all settled down by now, too.

Friday, November 25, 2011

From the Archives...another "Marilyn Mix"

I was messing around in the basement and found a box of mixed tapes. Included were about a dozen Maxell UD and UR 90 cassettes, still in cellophane wrap.  The great surprise was the discovery of the box for another "Marilyn Mix" - this one dated 2/93...unfortunately, the tape is missing.  Here's the playlist.

Playlist Name:  Marilyn Mix 2/93
Tape:  Maxell UR 90
Noise Reduction: Not Indicated

Side A
Townes Blues - Cowboy Junkies
This is the Sea - Waterboys
Rags - Waterboys
Zimbabwe - Toni Childs
Catch My Fall - Billy Idol
Live for Today - Lords of the New Church
South of the Border - Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
Church of the Poison Mind - Culture Club
Safety Dance - Men Without Hats
Memphis - Joe Jackson
The Stand - The Alarm

Side B
Kill Joy - Mary's Danish
Hippy Shakes - Swingin Blue Jeans
Medicine Bow - Waterboys
Waitin' for the Man - VU
Black Money - The Fall
Promise - Violent Femmes
Message of Love - The Pretenders
Night Boat to Cairo - Madness
Alex Chilton - The Replacements
Happy Boy - The Beat Farmers
Me and the Farmer - House Martins
U Mass - The Pixies
Crazy - Pylon
Bus Stop - The Hollies

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Urban Trout Stream

About mid-October, during the walks that Tessie and I take, I started to notice more and more folks along the banks of Hawksbill Creek, some doing traditional flyfishing and others simply casting along with rod and reel. Then I realized that we'd entered the season where that stream is stocked - from about October 15 through June 15.  The water is not really cold enough for trout for the rest of the year and so it's not stocked then.

(A schedule of stream stocking dates is maintained by the state of Virginia here:  http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/fishing/stock/)

Small fish are nearly always visible in the stream along the Hawksbill Greenway, and some of the murals illustrate the species you can find there, namely sunfish, bass and trout.  On the day I took these photos, apparently the stream had just been stocked, and obviously the leaves were still up - it was early in the fall.  But I saw a number of keepers in the creels.

On a walk a few weeks back Mary and I ran into our friends from Appalachian Outdoors Adventures working over the creek on a Sunday morning.  They weren't having any luck this morning, but Howard broke out his phone to show us a couple of recent catches - big ones, each one easily filling the pan for two people!

I guess it's time to break out my copy of A River Runs Through It again to have a look.  And maybe to be on the lookout for a trout dinner somewhere soon!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tech-Watch Geek: Casio Protrek and Pathfinder

Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite - highest altimeter
reading on my Pathfinder was here: 2,315 meters...
(give or take)
As I was departing Japan last January, I saw a display of Casio “Tech-watches” in Narita Airport. Since they were branded “Protrek” – as opposed to the Pathfinder I wear – I was interested in learning more about them, with the idea of eventually getting a post up here on the blog about my new discovery…unfortunately, I did not save the photo I took in the airport (but I’ll liberally sprinkle in some archived action shots of my Pathfinder!).

What I’ve learned, and I’ll stand corrected if anyone comments with more information, is that the differences between the watches is essentially a marketing issue; namely, there was a copyright in the US on the brand name Protrek so this label was reserved for other markets. The brand for markets where the Protrek copyright was in place became Pathfinder.

Taking a Pathfinder reading in Death Valley -
later that day I recorded the lowest reading
on the Casio of -110 meters.
Now, although my discovery of this brand was recently, in January 2011, apparently the marketing extends back as early as 2008. My experience in Japan had been that the technical features, such as the triple sensor altimeter/barometer/thermometer feature, time and tide info, and even solar charging, were similar, but there was a distinct fashion emphasis on the Protrek line that I don’t associate with the Pathfinder – and that led to a bit of a price point difference, with the Protrek being a little more expensive. Again, this is my impression, glad to post differing views on this one. 

I did a little further research on the differences, and found a YouTube video that demonstrated one of the Protreks – embedded below; there was also a post on the “Poor Man’s Watch Forum” that compared the experience of using the two brands on hunting expeditions (black bear and white tail deer, for the record!) The link to this review is here, and the YouTube embed follows.

Okay, here's another:

Now, I got my Pathfinder (similar to the ad over there in the right column ) as a holiday gift from Mary a few years back. I am delighted with it and use it all the time, especially for altitude readings and a quick check of bearings with the compass. Click the Tech-watch Geek label at the end of the post for reviews of it and other watches with these features.

But the thing that sold me on the Pathfinder was a soldier’s review…the link to the post where I discussed that review is here:

I’m not going to pull punches. I love this watch. Still, I thought with the holidays nearly upon us (“Respect the bird!”) that I might break into a quick survey of the popular Tech-watch brands to see what’s happening with the lines this year. There’ll be a few more posts on the topic…!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bon Appetit!

When Mom and Jeff visited a few weeks ago, besides the quick visit I made over to #OccupyDC, we visited the American History museum downtown. There were two big highlights for me there: the restored American flag exhibit, which I remember from grade school trips to the Smithsonian, but also the exhibit of Julia Child’s kitchen.

I’ve got a couple of photos of it here. Like many people my age, when I think of Julia, the first cultural reference that comes to mind is the classic Dan Ackroyd skit on Saturday Night Live, where he impersonates her and has a bloody accident with a kitchen knife. Then there is the movie from a few years back, Julia and Me, which offered a range of inspirational topics for a blogger and a person who just wants to learn how to cook better.

I do remember two of Julia’s PBS series from late in her career – there was the one with Jacques Pepin, where he practically orbited her in the kitchen preparing French cuisine, then another where she invited celebrities in to cook their own specialties. That’s the one I kept thinking of while I checked out the kitchen exhibit.

Getting to the point, I still have one of my “red birds” from the summer, courtesy of Public House Produce – I just took it out of the freezer in fact, and plan to do Julia Child’s Roast Chicken for dinner tomorrow. Here’s a link:


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Pumpkin Ritual at Valley Star Farm

I can't believe pumpkin season got by without my annual post about our visit to Page County Grown member Valley Star Farm. 

Soon as farmers market season begins to taper off, the folks at Valley Star open their pumpkin patch - it's a fall highlight in the Valley, as far as I'm concerned.

Among the activities are a corn maze, some old fashioned games (duck races, corn hole - bean bag toss, etc.) and hay rides into the pumpkin patch.  Then of course, the pumpkins and other farm products, including honey, for sale, and the display of some goats and a young Holstein calf.

Moving on into the holiday season, one of this farm's main crops is Christmas trees, where you can go out and choose your own. 

Mary and I are still enjoying the honey and other treats we picked up at Valley Star.  Here's a link, by the way, to the "pumpkin tableau" Mary created last year.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Beaver Run in the Fall

As a follow-up to the Fall Romp post earlier today, I wanted to put up some additional images of Beaver Run.  These are part of the stream that passes through our property at the bottom of the hill - the image on the right below is ours, on the left, where the stream flows out into one of the neighbor's lots.

I mentioned in the earlier post that the deer follow the course of the stream from some nearby pastures into the woods to the south of us.  The namesake beavers also generally build their dams over there, although when Mary and I were walking around yesterday we found freshly gnawed stumps.

Having the little stream around is a nice feature of the Hawksbill Cabin.  Especially during the fall, after the leaves have come down, you can hear the water flowing over the cascade here and there in the hollow.

Fall Romp

When the underbrush finally dies off down the hill at Beaver Run, we take the opportunity to go and explore the little stream as soon as we can.  We got to do that this weekend.

Early in the morning I took Tessie down there with me.  Beside the general stimulation of being outside in the woods, she caught wind of many of her favorite critters.  The hollow that surrounds the stream is a deer migration route through the area.

In fact, the environment was such an inspiration for her that she took off on one of those puppy runs - here's a photo of the third pass.  She kept up the full gallop for three passes, maybe 200 yards all totaled; there were three or four new fallen trees, and she vaulted all of those.

We had a good time!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Faces of the Fallen

There are many who'll find better ways of expressing their gratitude to our veterans today than I will, but I wanted to take a moment to honor those who serve, and those who have served, and especially, those who have died while serving.

Appropriately today, the Washington Post included its regularly published Faces of the Fallen feature, the photographs of service members who've made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Today there are only 99 photographs, at times over the past ten years, there have been many more.  Most news of the war moved off the front page as early as 2002, now it's usually in the back half of the A section, which is where this feature can be found today.

Today the section is dominated by 30 people who died when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.  There are no women on the list today, although there often were in the past, but the faces of America are here, Latin American, African American, Asian American, Native American, and those whose ancestors came here from Europe.  The youngest was a teenager, and the oldest was 50.  They hailed from all regions of the United States.

Causes of death - most were combat related; there is at least one heart attack; and there is one that portends another great tragedy of this conflict: found dead in his room...suicide has plagued this generation of veterans, as it has those of previous conflicts.

I cannot pass over this section without pausing to read about each of these veterans and to think of their families. These will not have the opportunity to come home to the quiet and peaceful life we all desire.

And to the others who have served and continue to serve, thank you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Civil War History Moment

It is hard to get away from the topic of the US Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley:  there is a weekly column in our own Page News and Courier newspaper that features some aspect of the action; along the Hawksbill Greeway in Luray there are two markers commemorating nearby battles; and nearby at New Port there is the Catherine Furnace, a supplier of Confederate pig iron during the war.  Those are just a few reminders - they are truly all over, up and down the Valley.

A few months ago a colleague at work told me he'd had a project a few years ago to do market analysis for a museum on the Civil War located in the Valley - I don't recall which one or even where the museum was to be located.  Among the items he referred to during the research stage was a book by Michael G. Mahon, entitled The Shenandoah Valley 1861-1865:  The Destruction of the Granary of the Confederacy. (Amazon link below).

There is plenty of lore about the agricultural wealth of this region - and I was fortunate enough to see the modern status of this reputation during my agribusiness internship this summer.  That experience, coupled with the Civil War anecdote that I heard at Skyline Premium Meats during the Page County Grown farm tour only made me more interested in the topic.

In the anecdote, Mr. Burner shared the story of how the current barn was saved after Sheridan's calvary marched through the Valley in 1864, with the mission to destroy every element of agricultural production that could be useful to the Confederate war effort.  He told us that the men had fled in advance of the cavalry's march and went into hiding in the mountains, with the women and other family members left behind.  In this case, the family offered a "Sunday dinner" to the raiders, who spared the barn in gratitude.

Mahon's book is well researched, drawing from anecdotes like this that he was able to discover in letters and other documentation in various Virginia libraries.  His version of the story contradicts the traditional view of the Valley as the Conferderate breadbasket, based on the argument that while there was a strong agricultural tradition as the war began, by 1864, the years of conflict had taken their toll on the Valley so that there was barely enough food to support the local population.  There are plenty of tables and charts with data that help make the point.

Having read a few books on the impact of World War II on Eastern Europe, I'm not surprised by these findings and find them easy enough to accept.  Still there seems to be some discussion about Mahon's findings, they are disputed in the literature and anecdotally.

I'll close with a short passage from the book, which is actually part of the back cover material:

"Sheridan has been credited with burning out the Valley and denying the Conferderates the use of its resources, and his statements of what he destroyed have been readily accepted as fact and have never truly been challenged.  But on closer examination, it is clear that he grossly magnified - and in numerous instances invented - the figures of what his forces captured or destroyed during the campaign....The prevailing vie of the campaign has been that...Sheridan dispersed his three divisions of cavalry across the width of the Valley with orders to destroy anything that could support the enemy....But the reports of his officers disclose that Sheridan's three divisions of horsement actually spent very little of their time savaging the countryside."

Here's the Amazon link to the book if you would like to check it out:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Revisiting Mary's Rock: An Easy SNP Day Hike

"It's a right nice walk!" - Jesse, our contractor

With my mother and brother in town, we decided to head out to Hawksbill Cabin for part of the weekend.  I'd wanted to get a hike in with my brother, to share with him some of my favorites from Shenandoah National Park. 

Our logistics made it a late start, so choices like Blackrock down in the South District, or Hawksbill and Stonyman, here in the Central, were out.  Those destinations would have taken a painfully long time to get to - still a ton of leaf peepers up in the Park. 

Mary's Rock, with it's proximity to the Thornton Gap entry, seemed perfect, especially since there were two lines of more than 10 cars waiting to get in when we arrived.  An added benefit is my familiarity with the trail, having done it a half dozen times or so - minimal outfitting.

I've reviewed Mary's Rock here a number of times - it's a great hike to an excellent vista.  Depending on the source you are using, it is listed as a 3.7 mile round trip with more than 1,200 feet of elevation; another attraction is that most of the route follows the Appalachian Trail.  A portion of this route hugs the mountain side through two coves, and the trail has been built over masonry shoring walls - it is probably my favorite feature of the AT in the Park so far...I'm still discovering though, so don't hold me to this.

For Jeff, I think this was the highest altitude he'd ever self-propelled himself to.  He told me he was enjoying the views and the fall colors.  And there was still snow up there at altitude along the trail on the north face of the mountain - added bonus!

Check the "easy day hikes" label at the end of this post to find other reviews of Mary's Rock, as well as other easy day hikes in the Park.

A great outing for us.  Mary's Rock is now officially a go-to option for visitors who want to put in a hike while they are staying with us.