On the Rocks at Trough Creek State Park

If you like rocks, you’ll love Pennsylvania.  I swear half of the state is made up of rocks, especially judging from the back (and front, and side) yard of our property in Fulton County.  Some of these rocks are more famous and picaresque than the ones in our yard, however.

Case in point, Trough Creek State Park, home of Balanced Rock.  My husband and I hiked up to this geological phenomenon this past weekend, after a false start.  Clue, if you go:  take a RIGHT after Rainbow Falls, not a left.  The trail map is not very helpful, and there is no sign directing you to said Rock.  Since you can’t see the Rock for the trees, so to speak, you just have to go on faith.

Once you find it, after a steep (and rocky) climb, the Rock does not disappoint.  It is a sizable formation that appears to be teetering precariously over the edge of the cliff, although it has been like that for centuries and presumably will be for centuries more.  As impressive as it is, though, the Rock has not made it to the ten most famous balancing rocks in the world, I am sad to report. Nor does it have a cool legend behind it like this rock in Finland.

We took photos of the rock and then retreated to hike along the Ledge Trail, which connects eventually, after much rock hopping and dodging, to the Rhododendron Trail (lots more rocks, but also huge rhododendrons that must be amazing during the spring bloom) and back over the wobbly suspension bridge near where we entered.  This bridge put me in mind of the Q’eswachaka suspension bridge, a model of which Peruvian participants built at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2016 (though that was a lot cooler).

Even if I make it to Peru and that bridge some day, I don’t think I would muster the courage to walk across it.  So, this Pennsylvania suspension bridge, maybe built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, was the next best thing.  If you fell off this one, you would only tumble into the (rocky) creek below and get scraped up, instead of plunging to certain death in an Andean river gorge.

And, so, to coin a phrase, Trough Creek State Park (and most of the rest of Pennsylvania) Really Rocks.

 

 

Seaside Sojourne 2 (sort of) Colonial Beach edition

The widest parts of the Potomac River are not quite “seaside” but they have that sort of feel, nonetheless.  On a two-day tour through Maryland’s Western Shore (or, as some call it “Southern Maryland”), and the Northern Neck of Virginia, my friend Debi and I experienced a wide variety of sites, tastes, and even smells (fish guts on a public pier and fried food in a divey pub/Tiki Bar for instance).

For brevity purposes, I will concentrate on the Northern Neck portion of our journey.  For those of you who are uninitiated, the NN is the portion of land between the mighty Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers.  This area is billed as, among other things, The Birthplace of the Nation since several founding fathers and other historic personages were born and/or grew up there.

We started our adventures in Colonial Beach.  The first thing we noticed was the mural that we parked near, depicted in the large photo at the top of this blog, which might tip one off to the fact that the town, while still charming in its own way, may have had its heyday at an earlier time period.  Other murals we encountered around town had a vintage feel as well (you can view a slide show of more of them here).  

What does one do in Colonial Beach?  We started out by indulging in some retail therapy at a very nice second hand store.  Then, we walked down and out onto to the town pier, where locals were catching some impressive catfish.  Next, walked along the beach on a pathway that leads to, among other things, the humongous Riverboat on the Potomac, a casino and restaurant which apparently gets around strict Virginia laws against such gambling establishments by being located on the river, which is technically part of Maryland.

When asked about the best crab cakes served in a beachside atmosphere, the proprietor of the second hand store recommended  The Dockside, a couple miles out of town.  Basically, you just follow the road that parallels the water until it ends in a marina and the sprawling restaurant, offering a slightly seedy but cool interior as well as two levels of “outside dining” – steamier but with water views.  There is a little beach and a small performance venue on the grounds, no doubt very popular on weekend evenings, and the de rigueur “tiki” furnishings – thatched huts and Hawaiian style decor.  The crab cakes and hushpuppies were very satisfying (I gave it a good rating on Tripadvisor.).

Our appetites being satiated, we next turned our attention to history.  Which eminent figure’s birthplace to visit?  George Washington seemed too obvious.  James Monroe was also vetoed.  Robert E. Lee…well, who could resist such a controversial and complex personage?  We headed for Stratford Hall, birthplace and boyhood home (till he was little more than a toddler) of REL.  This site did not disappoint.

In addition to the Great House, which has an oddly truncated appearance and layout despite its impressive cadre of brick chimneys, the museum at the visitor’s center and the grounds are worth lingering in.  Unfortunately, we caught the last tour of the day and didn’t have enough time to do the site justice.  But we caught the gist.

I came away feeling sad for Robert E. Lee, a brilliant and conflicted figure.  His father was a poor money manager and they had to leave this idyllic home on the Potomac for less impressive digs when the lad was four years old.  Our tour guide indicated that he seemed to yearn for this home for the rest of his life.  (The stately Lee Custis House now located in Arlington Cemetery was his wife’s family home.)  No denying, he was one of the most prominent Confederates and, of course, one of the statues in his honor was a major catalyst of the recent tragedies in Charlottesville.  But visiting his boyhood home also reminded us that he was a human being with an extremely complex history.

The Northern Neck is worth visiting for all of the above reasons:  crab cakes, scenic views, and historic circumstances that continue to haunt us all.

Sojourn by the Seaside, Ocean City Edition

It just started out as an innocent day trip to Salisbury, Maryland to deliver some maritime books I wanted to donate to the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art... but my friend Lora had other plans.  To be fair, I had requested a cultural experience (mostly of the food variety), but she went for the full package:  a trip to Ocean City.

We started at the Harborside, an OC institution and home of the Crab Club, pictured here.  This is a crab lovers dream, or nightmare perhaps, consisting of a generous crab cake on the bottom and a friend soft shell crab on the top, with the usual club sandwich accompaniments in between. (We opted out of the bacon, though, the better to savor the full crabby flavors.)

We then hit the boardwalk, which was crawling with August humanity.  Our destination was Trimper’s, a historic amusement arcade/park with some amazingly well preserved and somewhat scary features.  (Including the extensive shooting range featured above.)  After touring the sites, both historic and more contemporary, we gathered our quarters and embarked on some skee ball action.

Somehow, even though I have reached a fairly advanced age and have visited a many seasides, I had missed the experience of playing skee ball.   I found that I had no aptitude for the game whatsoever, but it was fun nonetheless.  After spending about two dollars worth of quarters trying to improve, I gave up and donated my meager stock of tickets (which you win for scoring a certain amount of points) to my intern Alison to add to her own so she could cash them in for a cheesy prize.

Crabs, check.  Boardwalk, check.  Skee ball, check.  Beach?  Well, we saw it in the distance, which was good enough.  All in all, an excellent day in OC.

Smithsonian Folklife Festival, #2017Folklife Edition

I’m back from the annual whirl of Smithsonian Folklife Festival planning, execution, and clean-up.  This year was the 50th anniversary of the Festival, and amazingly my 30th anniversary of working on it!  Thirty years of sweat, sometimes blood, and sometimes tears but mostly a connection to one of the most people-centric bonding experiences that was ever invented.  Staff (full time and temporary), interns, volunteers, participants, presenters and of course visitors – all pulling together to communicate across cultures, geographic divides, colors, religions, ages, points of view.

What-all did I do this year?  In the planning phase, I worked with staff from the Circus Arts Conservatory and the University of South Florida to plan the Circus Science family area (read about that in my work blog about this partnership).  This was a huge undertaking, which I know the CAC/USF people appreciated but not sure anyone other than my amazing interns really understood fully… scores of emails, long phone conversations, and drafts of activities and copying, cutting, gathering supplies over hundreds of “people” hours.  It was all worth while in the end, as thousands of “children of all ages” seemed to enjoy the area, and even to learn something!

 

 

 

 

 

I also presented in the Cookhouse foodways area of Circus Science.  I formed a great rapport with Chef Ray Slizewski, who cooked for six years for the Big Apple Circus and has great stories.  During the preparation of everything from pancakes to a cabbage an polish sausage skillet dish, we explored his experiences and had a lot of laughs.

And, then, the Main Attraction – the 50th Anniversary Reunion Weekend!   Tons of previous Festival workers, two days of discussions about the past, present and future of the event, two parties, a lot of running around and keeping people informed and happy.  A fit 30th celebration for me, in my natural Festival element of meeting, greeting, solving problems, laughing, communicating and having a general blast, shared with my colleague Arlene and great helpers who always seem willing to do anything asked of them.

No matter what the Festival, and my involvement in it, becomes in the future, it has been a defining part of my existence for almost half of my lifetime.  I have helped in my own way to shape it, improve it, keep it “up with the times,” use it as a training ground for the next generation, and generally keep it thriving.  And I will as long as I am able to continue to do so.

Long live the Festival, the “best adult summer camp” ever.  Even when it is a “trial by fire” (literally this year, but that’s another story), it is marvelous, miraculous and more than a little magical.

 

Canal Zone: Indianapolis

Indiana, the home of my graduate school days, beckoned me to a conference a couple of weeks ago.  While I spent most of my time there in the late 1970s and mid-80s in Bloomington, I did work, and live, in Indianapolis for the latter part of that time.

The city used to be a dead area after five p.m. in those days, when the office workers abandoned ship for their suburban areas mostly north of town.  You were hard pressed to find a happy hour spot in the immediate downtown.  All that has apparently changed, as have the shopping areas and – most impressive of all for walkers and water buffs – the canal.

I don’t even remember there being a canal when I worked downtown.  Yes, it was there (as it has been since the 1800s), but walking along it was not an option, so it was not on my radar screen.  My friend Peggy and I took a leisurely stroll along this sanitized waterway on a lovely May day.  We stopped into something called the Center for Inquiry and learned rather more than we really wanted to know about secular humanism.  We took selfies at the waterfall created from the lock at the end.  We sipped lemonade at a canalside cafe.

It was hard to imagine this urban oasis as the gritty transportation hub it once was, smelling of mule and sweat and coal.   I am not sure it reaches its goal of creating “an opportunity to engage people of all ages and enabl[ing] them to learn more about Indiana’s past, present and future.”  I don’t have a creative answer for how it might have been differently interpreted or put to use, any more than its sister reinterpreted waterways, from the Baltimore Inner Harbor to Cardiff Bay in Cardiff, Wales.

We can only imagine, through photos, illustrations, artifacts and words, the former conditions of these now pleasant strolls.  So there you have it.

Brunswick Stew Three Ways

Brunswick stew is an amalgamation of vegetables, meat, and other stuff.  And it shall eventually be the subject of this post.

This past weekend, as part of our 27th anniversary celebration, my husband and I ventured westward out toward the Blue Ridges.  On Saturday we visited Staunton, Virginia (looks like “Stawn-ton” but pronounced “Stan-ton” by the natives), home of Mary Baldwin College, the Woodrow Wilson birthplace and library, and Blackfriar’s Shakespeare Theater.  We did not encounter Brunswick stew there.

The concoction was featured on Sunday, when we attended the 2017 Apprenticeship Showcase of the Virginia Folklife Program.  As per usual, one of the finalists of the annual Brunswick stew championship of Virginia, the Proclamation Stew Crew from, of course, Brunswick County, were there stirring their gigantic pot and offering generous helpings for $1.00 a bowl.  Who could resist?

This reminded me not only of the time the crew came to the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival to slave over their hot cauldron for hours, but also a recent and not nearly as satisfying encounter with a so-called Brunswick Stew at a barbecue concession in the Charlotte, NC airport.  It was pretty terrible, consisting I think of all leftover bits of barbecue meat and veg from the sides that did not sell the day before all mashed together.

Which brings me to the final version of “Brunswick Stew” that I once inadvertently concocted during my Camp Randolph cooking days (see earlier post, Lake Effects, Part Three).  The former cook of Camp Randolph apparently used to cook up a full turkey dinner every Sunday (in the middle of the summer!) for the residents.  I compromised at a roast of some sort every Sunday, with turkey being featured every other week.    Still, turkey leftovers were rampant and had to be addressed.

One Friday, I took bits of turkey and mixed them up with the leftover stuffing, some vegetables, and gravy and served it as a sort of, well, stew.  “Marvy Brunswick stew!” declared one of the residents, and I had no idea what he was talking about.

Till years later, when I discovered the authentic Virginia version.  Because, though Georgians also claim the stew was first created there, in my opinion the Virginia version reigns supreme.

 

A Queasy Glimpse Into Infinity

I’ve been suffering from seasonal allergies, something that has never plagued me before.  Yes, this is a thing that can happen, called “late onset allergies.”  Coughing, sneezing, feeling general horrible and tired.  But one must soldier on, especially this time of year when work on our annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival is heating up along with the weather.  After a long day of meetings and emails at work, I go home, try to get enthusiastic about dinner although my taste buds are also off, and crash into bed to watch some Netflix.   Only to face another restless night of intermittent coughing fits.

This week after an all-day meeting outside the office let up early, instead of just high-tailing home to succumb to my sad state earlier than usual (or, heaven forbid, go back to the office for a couple of hours), I ducked into the Hirshhorn Museum to see the latest Smithsonian museum blockbuster “instagram” show, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors.  The majority of spring breakers had been there the week before, so it was relatively quiet.

If you have not heard of this show, it includes a series of small rooms that only two or at the most three people can view at once.  These rooms are full of mirrors and either art work or tiny lanterns and lights, and the effect is supposed to induce seeing yourself reflected into infinity.  I was prepared to be thrilled.  But mostly I was just dizzy, and glad instead of disappointed when my 30 seconds was over. I braved three rooms before giving up.

Perhaps I am not ready for infinity, especially in my current state of allergy-induced lethargy.  The only photo I took was the one above, of one of Kusama’s soft sculpture art installations.  It reflected what my brain has felt like all week, kind of squiggly and squishy and a sickly color of yellow.

Not much of an exhibition review, I know, and I would not discourage anyone from experiencing infinity at this show, which only runs till mid-May and is on the whole very cool.  Just don’t do it if you feel like this sculpture.

Musing on the Museum of Appalachia

A couple of weekends ago, I was visiting my old friends Bobby and Teresa Fulcher in East Tennessee, one of my old stomping grounds and the inspiration for my novel, Seasonal.  Bobby, who had served as my supervisor on the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project in summer of 1980, took me on a marathon nostalgia tour through the highways and byways of my youthful fieldwork days.  This included a tour of the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, TN.

The Museum is a wonderfully eclectic collection of the stuff of life, with leanings toward old-timey, traditional items such as quilts, baskets, wittlings, weavings, and that sort of thing.  It is the brainchild and more or less obsession of John Rice Irwin, who I visited at least once during my summer research to get some leads.  Say what you will about John Rice (and some people have said a lot, not all of it positive), he amassed a collection of artifacts that boggle the mind and cause one to marvel at the unending creativity and skill of East Tennessee folk.  Interpretation is not a strong point, especially if one is looking for the unobjective curatorial view.  But, if you just want to see a whole lot of East Tennessee stuff from people’s barns, attics and hidey-holes, John Rice has assembled it here for your viewing pleasure.

I had interviewed some of the craftspeople and musicians represented, as Bobby pointed out.  Memories were cloudy on some of them, but others brought back fond memories, such as whiling away an afternoon chatting with former coal miner and woodworker Troy Webb and purchasing several of his amazing “water dog” carvings.

One object that captured my imagination was Asa Jackson’s Fabulous Perpetual Motion Machine dating back to the mid-1800s  The Museum allowed a gentleman named Dave Brown to study the wheel and sketch it extensively, resulting in a book, but apparently this has brought us no closer to knowing if the wheel, when in working order, really had the capability of creating perpetual motion.

The wheel for me is a sort of metaphor for the hyperactivity of collecting frenzy that John Rice Irwin himself must have been capable of before becoming too feeble to pursue his life’s work.

This item was not labeled and I still haven’t figured out what it might be. Any ideas??

The result is something that, like the machine, is a curiosity with no clear purpose but with a great wealth of largely untapped and possibly unending potential.  Just what will become of The Museum of Appalachia and its vast collection in the future is unclear.  So, if you find yourself in East Tennessee with several hours of leisure, make a visit while it is still intact.  Be prepared to be amazed.

Spring Hopes Eternal: Visiting L.A. Landmarks While Winter Returns to D.C.

 

March is a quixotic month, offering a false sense of spring only to take it back and slap you with winter again.  It gets even more confusing if you decide to take a trip to Southern California in the middle.  When we left, all systems were go for a plus or minus March 15 peak of the famous Washington, DC Cherry Blossoms, but alas they were nipped, literally, in the bud.  We returned to snow, ice, and biting winds, huddling and shivering at the pick-up lane of Dulles airport and, once finally transported to our parked car, forced to chip ice off the windshield without an ice scraper.

Oh, cruel March.  So, transporting one’s self back to sunny 80s SoCal, if only in one’s mind, is perhaps the way to go.  One highlight of the trip was the splendid Getty Villa.  Thank goodness for eccentric ultra-rich people like J. Paul Getty who get crazy notions like reconstructing an ancient Pompeii estate in which to display his (dubiously attained?) ancient art collection.  On top of a Malibu hillside no less.

Equally philanthropic,  Griffith J. Griffiths (does it get more Welsh than that?) bequeathed L.A. and the world a temple of another sort across town.  Griffith Observatory is a temple to science, more particularly to astronomy.  With a theater named after Leonard Nimoy.  The observatory has lately been featured in the film La La Land, where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance suspended in gravity and reality in the planetarium dome.  Personally, we had fun playing with the Periodic Chart exhibit, and the night sky view is stunning.

Emma and Ryan also visited the Watts Towers, and so did we on this trip.  Simon Rodia, the Italian immigrant builder of this folk art installation made of salvaged materials, was not rich and famous like Getty and Griffiths.  His legacy doesn’t sprawl for acres or add to scientific and artistic discovery.  But, it is nonetheless impressive, and an important part of the L.A. story.

It’s thawing now in D.C., and the cherry blossoms might not be a total loss.  We’ll have to get out and visit sites in our own city.  Meanwhile, the L.A. memories will keep us warm.

 

Sound Memories I: Pop-Pop’s Song

Every now and then, I a little ditty pops into my head.  It is one of the few sound memories I have of my grandfather, Albert James Belanus, Sr., who died when I was about seven years old.  I remember him as a tall, slim Dutchman from Northern New Jersey with a shock of white hair and bushy black eyebrows.  He sometimes ate cold rice with milk and sugar.  He loved Christmas and he and my grandmother spoiled us rotten buying toys with their Christmas Club money.

Anyhow,  he used to sing a little song that I only figured out was a naughty song years and years later, after he was long buried.  I realized then why he got a twinkle in his eye when he sang it. I don’t think my sister remembers it, or maybe this was something between Pop-Pop and me.   It went something like this, in my memory:

A-sol, a-sol, a-soldier boy was he (repeat)

He had two pis- two pistols on his knee (repeat)

There might have been more, but that is all I recall, except for a sort of chorus that sounded to me like “And step, comarade, and step comarade, and step tra-la-la-la.”  Which led me to believe that maybe it was a marching song for actual soldiers, though my grandfather was never a soldier.

It never occurred to me to search for other versions on the internet.  (And I call myself a folklorist?)  But, here it is, and here, along with discussions about its origins and alternative versions.  (I can see now why my grandfather might have edited out some of the additional verses for my little ears.)  Seems as if it might have started as a soldier’s song and then made it’s way to the playground.  Where my grandfather learned it, we will never know.  But, it is so ingrained in my memory that I recall it more than 50 years later.

The power of music, the power of memory, the power of love.