Monday, September 10, 2012


When I was 16 we lived in Illinois and that summer I got to go back to Alabama, my home state, and visit -- with a car! While I was driving between my grandmothers' homes, they live about 100 miles apart, I passed my Great-great-aunt Darthuley's home. She was in her 90s and was working out in her garden. I stopped. I had to stop. She was wearing a faded pink "house dress" and a bright blue bonnet.

She knew who I was as soon as I spoke.  I helped her gather her vegetables and among the bounty, I carried a full basket of peppers into her kitchen. Her stove was on the "screened-in" porch and the big white enameled triple bowled sink was in by the stove.  Out in the yard, on a table made of tin roof sheets, she had about a 1000 drying peppers. As I washed the tomatoes and beans and onions and okra and carrots and turnips and peas and peppers, as I was told to do, I watched though the window as she was scurrying around in the yard closing up the barn and tool shed. She called out,"a cloud's a coming!, Come gather up these peppers so they don't get wet." I ran out with a basket and we gathered them up. As soon as we got on the porch, the sky turned black, hail started pounding the house and barn’s tin roof, and the wind rolled in. The table roof sheets flew across the yard and hit the pump house. "Thumb bolt the door!," she cried and I saw a black funnel across an 80 acre field. It was about 40 ft. wide full of dirt, trees, and stuff. A tractor umbrella was floating around it in a pure tilted spiral.

Clinging to “Aunt Darthuley’s” tiny frail body, I watched in amazement as the tornado whipped behind the field and was gone! The rain came and stopped in short time. The Sun was setting and golden rays pierced the scattered clouds behind the storm and made the just passed east bound storm glow an unforgettable green.

Nothing was hurt too much, a tree fell across her drive and the power went off. We hugged in thankfulness and she pulled me to my knees and whispered a beautiful prayer. I couldn’t leave, we had no phone or power, and we had vegetables to tend to.

She got out candles and found a “coal oil” lantern. I was tasked with the peppers and started to thread the dried ones on an upholstery needle and package string. At some point I interrupted my stringing and went back to the basket of fresh peppers and separated the varieties. It wasn’t long until my eyes started burning!, Oh God!, did they burn. As the pump was off we didn’t have water except a plastic pitcher of cold water in the refrigerator. Aunt Darthuley poured the cold water across my eyes and wet a dish cloth and I covered them the rest of the night. We sat in the dark, me in the double dark, and she told me stories. She told me about growing up with my great-grandmother and about my great-great-grandfather and my great-great-great-grandfather that was in “the War,” the Civil War.

In the morning my eyes still burned but I was able to help my uncle clear the trees and soon I was on my way with a precious terrifying memory.

On her death bed, Aunt Darthuley told that story and laughed and laughed about the eye burning part. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

On being a parent and being an idiot...

I wish I could take it back. I wish I could read a little boy's mind like I've been saying I can. Last night I felt about 2" tall.

Mack is ready to learn to roll his kayak. I think I am ready. Carol and I got him a new kayak for Christmas and he's been excited about being a "real kayaker" and learning to roll ever since. I took him to a local pool with his new boat a couple of weeks ago and he loved it. We did some drills, he learned how to put on a skirt, and he repeatedly demonstrated that he could pull the skirt and escape his boat if he flipped over. I beamed with pride as he paddled around the pool showing comfort and good boat control.

I've taught many to roll a kayak, but teaching Mack to roll... well, it just seemed like an invitation to disaster for the Dad and Son to work on something so technical. Of all the things I can give him, a peaceful interest is paramount. I’d love it if he were to love whitewater as I do. The last thing I want to do is to have him associate whitewater with conflict with his father. I thought I'd seek professional help. I talked to Liquid Adventures and they were great. Mack is a little too young for their Juniors class but they would find him a private instructor. I got an email yesterday that they suggested Ashley Nee, the 2010 Women's National Champion and strong contender for the Olympics. Wow! He's a lucky kid.

I talked to Carol and we're all excited. This is great, it's a bit expensive, but for something so critical and for a lifelong skill it was manageable. We called Mack in to tell him and show him the school and Ms. Nee on the Internet.

Dad: "Mack, here's your new kayaking instructor. She's great, the 2010 Women's Champion and hopefully we'll get to watch her in the Olympics this Summer! Isn't that great?"

Mack: (with obvious disappointment) "Yeah, OK. Can I go back to what I was doing?"

Dad: "Aren't you excited? Look at these photos of her running some hard water....

Mack: (silence)...

Dad: "Aren't you excited? Look at this photos of her running a waterfall. See the kids in the school? ...

Mack: (silence)

Dad: (sternly) Are you that spoiled? This is expensive and most kids would die for a chance like this."

Mack: (silence)...

Dad: "You don't have anything to say?"

Mack: (silence, his head is dropped) ... .... ...

Dad: (after a long period of silence) "Ok, you little ungrateful bastard, go on back to your video game or whatever, I just can't believe that you're that spoiled. Maybe you shouldn't even have lessons."

Mack: (in tears, runs into the other room.)

Mom: "Let me see what's going on." (Carol follows Mack into the other room.)

Mom: (coming back to see me.) "You owe him an apology."

Dad: "For what? We've spoiled him rotten. He's not satisfied with the best? I don't know what else to do for him."

Mom: "You want to know what he said?"

Dad: "I hope he has a story."

Mom: "I asked him if he wasn't excited about learning to roll? Mack replied, "Oh yes, Momma, I really want to be a good kayaker. I know that learning to roll is really important." So I said, “what's wrong?” Mack said, "I thought Daddy was going to teach me.""

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Passing of Passion

I like photos that tell a story. I like writing. I almost never write about my photos. If I have to explain a photo, to me, it's an admission that the photo isn't good. I'm too vain for that. :) For my friends that don't have my intended context for these photos I write:

I've known of Bob Taylor for many years. He was an early pioneer of whitewater. Moreover, for a paddler that roamed NC, AL, TN, GA, he was a WV paddling god. Yet, in a peculiar twist of fate, to me, he was a ghost. In the early paddling world there were two Bob Taylors. Both were outstanding paddlers and many camp fire stories were told of their exploits. The paranormal underpinnings of my context comes from the simple fact that for about five years, I thought there had been only one Bob Taylor. I had seen his name in print. He was killed in a horrible accident on the Gauley River in 1977.

So, when I started hearing about Appomattox River Company in Farmville, VA, I erroneously thought that it was a posthumous business that was carrying on. I actually met Bob in about 1986. I doubt he remembers but a significant amount of that first day’s conversation was a cleansing of my conscience. I harbored significant regrets for assuming someone’s demise in spite of significant evidence to the contrary. And, I have regrets for never knowing someone that will always be woven in the terrors of my mind regarding the Upper Gauley river.

Bob is a dear friend and his family has been a blessing to me. After many river miles and much instruction to me, to see him pass on the passion to Mack was as close to a spiritual moment as I will likely have for a while.

Peace in these Holidays.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Our dog Speed was mentally ill. I won’t go into how we got him or how he left us, another time perhaps, but this story is about why it was hard to see him go.

Right away we could tell Speed had problems. In the house with just the two of us and the cats, Speed was a docile sensitive companion. But stress him and he would turn to stone. He would freeze in whatever position he happened to be in and then he would start to shake. Apply a little comfort and he’d melt back to himself. His stress limit grew over time but it always had a distinct threshold. I learned later that some Brittanys have a hereditary nervous disorder. Speed had it.

About three weeks after we got him, we had a nice snow. It was enough that DC was shut down and my wife had the day off. I went to my office. After I had cleared the walk and steps and got coffee, my wife called and announced that she and Speed were going to cross country ski into town, about 4 miles, and that I would buy her lunch and give them a ride home. There was a festive vibe going in town; my bride and dog ought to be in the middle of it. Or so I thought... 

I got back from court and I started looking for my wife. It wasn’t long before coming over the hill on the side walk was a small cloud of snow that was punctuated with sticks and skis and a rope. I could see 2 blocks away that the dog wasn’t the only one stressed. We didn’t have lunch, I just took them home.

A few days later, on Saturday, the first snow was still the big happening in town. I went in to work and took Speed. I figured it would be a good quiet time to introduce him to the rhythms and smells of the office. I beamed when he went to the rug, turned around a couple of times and laid down. At lunch, I was invited down to the cafe. I took Speed out to my pickup and tied his short leash to my truck. When I got back from lunch, he was gone.

I started looking for him right away. I tracked him to the park a few blocks away but too many children had made snow angels and too many dogs had made tracks. After a couple of hours, I called my wife. We started driving the downtown area and the surrounding neighborhoods. As it turned dark it began to sleet. We were in for an ice storm. We went home.

We’d had the dog three weeks and lost him. About 9:00 when wind started blowing, I got up and went to the truck to go look some more. My wife got in without saying a word. We drove and drove and pulled a few people out of the ditch. By 11:00, it was getting treacherous. If I kept driving, sooner or later I’d wreck. We started home. Speed didn’t know where to go. He had only been ours for a few weeks. He had grown up in a kennel deep in the woods and was never socialized. He was afraid of everyone except my wife and I. He got car sick every time he was in a car. There were a few thousand homes in the area and he didn't have a map. I knew he was out there in the blowing ice dragging a leash.

The highway looped around town and formed a barrier between my office and home. It had few access points and was guarded by a varmit fence. I couldn’t get the image of Speed’s collar or leash hung in that fence out of my mind. I hadn’t driven the by-pass because I didn’t want to find him there. But on that cold slick night we drove north of town and got on the 4 lane. I drove slow and we used our weak flashlights to illuminate the shoulders, fence, and median. We were about the only ones out for the whole loop. I don’t know if we were sad we didn’t find him or glad he wasn’t on the road.

When I got home, I turned the TV on for noise and sat in the dark. I wanted the late movie to drown out the wind but it didn’t. The glow in the room was depressing and the click on the glass door was annoying. I needed to get up and stop whatever was slapping the door in the wind, but I didn’t. And then the slapping stopped and I heard a whimper. I jumped up and there was Speed out on the deck scratching on the door. I yelled for my wife as I slid the door back on the sticking slides. And this frozen dog -- with icicles hanging in all directions, eyes glaring, dragging a leash that had frozen into the shape and size of a club -- came home and into our hearts. I don’t believe in miracles but Speed finding his way home was close.  

Monday, October 10, 2011


My earliest memories of the fall are a jumble of cockleburs, hot chocolate, BB guns, flannel, and hunting dogs. I think that is why the first cold mornings of fall trigger a ripple in my emotional magma. In my prime, I relished fall memories of cold rock in the vertical wilderness and cold splashes in raging rapids. They both remind me that my warmth is a treasure that has to be guarded. Now, when the leaves turn and a cold wind blows, I think of football, tight sweaters, and have an almost insuppressible urge to cuddle.

The cold reminds me that the new becomes old. In past autumns I've thought a lot about the new becoming the old. I’ve come to see that age means nothing without context. Climbing rock has eons of weathering and today’s river has been there many times. I am starting to feel the autumn of age.

This past weekend, I was set to reexplore a quintessential fall day by visiting my parents in NC. They need to see my son. He needs to see them. There is a current of life that passes between.  Just like autumn itself, there is warmth in that energy between the old and the new.

On Sunday, my wife and I took some time. We got up before daylight and went for coffee and a ride in the country. We took our old dog, Trap. In Siler City, there is only one convenience store that has real half and half and soon we emerged with steaming coffee, a couple of donuts, a newspaper, and smiles. The Eastern horizon was a deep purple in subtle contrast to the black skies of the departing night.

We drove into the purple, out to the hills. As I drove, I remembered an old turnout for a logging road that provided perfect framing of the blazing disk that rose and illuminated our world. With the windows rolled down, even cuddled together, the warmth of the sun was a welcomed contrast to the autumn cold. Before we returned to family, we let Trap out to do her business and to chase a deer a little ways down the road. She was puffing as I put her in the back. My wife was beaming as sharing such went beyond words. We drove back to my mother’s home.

We hadn’t been back but a few minutes when Trap showed up at mother’s back door. I had let her roam a bit as I knew that her hunting instincts were just wetted by the deer. Now she was barking and about to wake everyone. I tried to shush her several times. Her bark broke into a soulful howl. I felt sick when I saw the gash. I felt sick not because of the blood, but because I was raising my voice in anger at injured family. I don’t know how she got cut. It wasn’t a blow or a malicious wound. There was no muscle damage or bruising. She may have just stuck her head in some kind of a hole and got hung on something very sharp. We’ll never know. It was a long gash. It was a gash that occurred within 5 minutes of returning home.

Her brown eyes drew me in. She was asking for help with the clear voice of desperation. I called for my wife and we began doing what we could. We wrapped the wound with a towel and held it tight. As we worked on her, I felt her relax. I took that as a vote of confidence and admired her calmness while we fumbled looking for an open animal emergency room.

The strip mall that held the animal hospital was quiet. In a twist, a veterinarian named Dr. Beagle sewed up my Brittany Spaniel. I thanked her for her work while I winced and paid the bill. I paid with pride as I knew that this autumn my family was good and that there was more autumn coming.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I've been known to ramble. It's an affliction. There are no simple subjects and there are no simple answers. I'm one of those people that if you ask a question and I decide to answer, it may take a while. I apologize for that, but it is what it is. 

So, I'm going to ramble.  I hope you enjoy.

A Candle Pot

Untill this year, I had never heard of one. Here's what I learned or think I know after building one and using some on a recent trip...

A candle pot is a candle. It's a large candle. It can be a small campfire.

Grapevine Camp, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

(click photo for full size)
It is homemade and has a unique wick. It has to be homemade as only a fool would make one to sell. These things are fire in a can. The wax is candle wax. The wick is cardboard. 

(click photo for full size)
Here is my ramble that I think will answer the questions you want to ask.

The pot is crucial. Here's the deal... the size of the fire is limited by the surface area of the pot. Accept for the moment that the wick will be able to supply wax to the entire surface of the pot; thus, given the burning characteristics of candle wax, a diameter of about 14" will give you a flame at about the limitation of control-ability. Read that again. Don't use a pot larger than 14" in diameter. (Besides, that would take a lot of wax.) A burning pot is easily extinguished by a deliberate action and a good lid. Read that again. The size of the flame can be regulated by covering portions of the surface with a rock.

Be careful, your pot can become the target of worship. You'll get attached to it, so take some time picking your pot. I used a cookie tin and that actually is almost perfect. The lid can get bent and it feels a little cheensy to receive your labor and worship. The depth of the pot is not that critical. Recently I got a 12" Reviere pot with a lid at a yard sale for a $1. I think I will use that for my next one. I'm going to take the bakelite handles off and attach some sort of wire loop or something that can accept a strap to secure the lid... I'm still thinking on that one... As the pot is a little deep, I'm thinking of filling it with 2 or 3" of sand or cement, before adding cardboard and wax. I may also make a couple of small ones for table candles...

A Couple of Practical Points
The pot only gets hot around the rim. The bottom may get warm, but not hot. Supplemental wax is key. (I'm going to talk about that in a moment. It's a subject I didn't understand before the trip.)

Now, the wick...

When you get your pot, whatever size and shape you choose, you'll need to fill it with cardboard. The orientation of the cardboard and the manner it is packed are the secrets. In sum, cut long strips of cardboard from any corregated box. (I tried to use plain brown cardboard without print or plastic coatings.) Cut the cardboard so the tunnels of the corregaion are vertical in the pot! Wind up your strips tight and pack them in the center of your pot as the space available gets smaller and smaller. The top of the strips need to form a near flat surface that is about a 1/4 to 1/2" below the top of your pot and or bottom of your lid. 

A word about candle wax. 

You want cheap wax and generally that's not available locally. I couldn't find any. There was local wax -- but 10lbs would have been expensive. I may order from the Internet in the future but for the one I made, I scarffed some old Ikea candles we had bought a long time ago for power outages. And that's the point, get your wax from everywhere. Thrift shop candles, friends saving old candle butts, yard sales, and Internet... Get all you can. On trips, don't forget to add your bacon grease.

Using the pot. 

When you burn a candle pot, the wax on the surface will melt and the tip of the cardboard strips will wick liquid wax up to burn. Getting one started the first time is a bit tricky as you'll need to expose a bit of cardboard to start the process. Once a little flicker starts, soon the whole surface of the pot will be on fire. As the candle burns, the wick will burn down to just above the wax surface. If you do not add any wax, the candle pot will burn down over time. As the ash from the cardboard has no where to go, a burned pot will begin to stifle itself unless you cut out some ash or add more wax. There's the beauty. Just add wax. On a trip instead of having a few people bring candle pots have one and have everyone else bring old wax or bulk wax to add to the group candle pot. Just pitch in chunks of wax on a burning candle. One candle could last forever. 

Now, we have this pot full of cardboard, let's fill it up. I did mine on my camp stove. On one one burner, I had a melting pot where I melted all my scraps I could find and those Ikea candles I mentioned. You don't have to boil it, just melt... patience... boiling wax is not a good idea! On another burner I put my pot. The burner was barely cracked -- just enough to keep it warm. AND I didn't light the burner until I did my first pour. That's right, the first pour. First of all, trying to pour a big pot of wax at one time is silly. Second, it won't work. All those vertical tunnels have to burp to fill up and you'll need to do at least two if not three pours to fill a candle pot as the warm wax contracts as it cools. So, do several, if not many, small pours. That will be safer and give you a better pot.

The first lighting of my candle pot.
(click photo for full size)
A couple of things. If you buy wax, it's not a cheap fire. If you let water get in a burnt candle, you'll have to use a ground cloth as it will spit wax as the water boils out. The smoke is pretty dark. I wouldn't want to use it inside. But, for a quick fire where a camp fire is not possible, it's great.  

Look, there's a lot of stupid about making and using a candle pot. Wax burns. 
Be careful!