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Entries in Blue Highways (317)


Blue Highways: Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia

Unfolding the Map

The events of the past three weeks, particularly with gun violence in the US, stirred me to write this post as I did.  My intent is to add to the national thought surrounding the recent tragedies, not to stoke antipathy among any readers.  Of course, I have my opinions and I share them with you as a thoughts and reflections for myself.  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) laments the loss of boys' ability to play war.  I lament the loss of boys and girls in Newtown, Connecticut and other places because we as a society can't seem to come to terms with the violence that permeates our culture.  At right is the Virginia state bird, the Northern cardinal.

Book Quote

"Three children raced from under the oaks out over the grass to reenact the battle with guttural gunshots from their boyish throats."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 1

A memorial to Ohio soldiers killed in the Civil War battle at the Spotsylvania Court House. William Least Heat-Moon remarks on the names of some of these men in Blue Highways. Photo by "cowpie21" and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia

As I write this past, the day after Christmas in 2012, the holiday joy has been saddened by recent gun violence that have shaken the nation and could create a sea-change in how Americans perceive and regulate gun ownership in the United States.  Or not.  I will admit that I've only chosen part of LHM's passage to fit this post.  The full quote goes on to lament that in the age of the nuclear weapons, boys who want to play at war will have to find their inspiration elsewhere.

There has been a lot of carnage over the past few weeks: twenty schoolchildren and six school staff killed by a disturbed young person who then turned his gun upon himself, in Newtown, Connecticut; firefighters lured to a fire by a deranged man, who then shot four of them as they got out of their truck and whose note said that he was doing what he loved best - killing people.

It occurs to me that boys have found other ways to inspire themselves to play at war, sometimes with tragic results.  The United States, so prudish about sex, has glorified violence to the extreme.  Movies and television have pushed the extremes of violent depictions.  The cartoon violence that I grew up with has turned into graphic depictions of throats slit, bullet wounds, spurting blood and separated body parts.  A recent study of the James Bond films has determined that seriously violent acts in the long-running series have doubled.  My wife and I recently started watching an HBO series called Game of Thrones, and we see at least three or four extremely violent acts such as beheadings and bludgeonings per episode.

Video games provide kids with another access point to violence.  First-person shooter games such as Call of Duty and Halo are extremely popular.  I am not going to moralize on the games other than to note that there are some, perhaps with addictive personalities, who spend a lot of time on these games where death simply means that one can get back up again and continue shooting or start a new game.

When these cultural influences are mixed with our gun culture in the United States, it can become a very volatile mix.  There has been much written about the interpretation, or what "should" be the interpretation, of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The actual text of the Second Amendment reads: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  Does the right to bear arms as spelled out in the Constitution simply apply to the time when the US did not have a standing army and therefore arming volunteers was key to keeping the fledgling Unites States secure?  Or, did it intend to help the citizens of the United States defend themselves against a potentially tyrannical federal government?  Did the amendment intend to allow people to keep and bear any arms, or can the federal government infringe on some rights and not others.  Unfortunately, the answers to these questions have not been clear and our inability to come to any meaningful answers has had a direct bearing on our culture and our public and contentious moral quandary comes front and center after every new tragedy that involves the procurement and use of weapons hits the media.

I think that at the root of our problem is America's addictive personality.  We may be addicted to violence, and addicted to the tools of violence.  People who are addicted to anything, whether the addiction be to drugs, alcohol, sex, or anything else, gradually increase their tolerance and also become numb to the effects of their addiction.  An addiction over time means that those who are addicted usually want more of what they are addicted to and at the same time, are unaware of the chaos that they bring to those around them.  Often loved ones, family, and friends wring their hands over what to do to help the addicted person, and yet are afraid to confront them, fearing their erratic behavior and possible rage.  It's easier to turn away than deal with the problem, especially if the problem is also partly enabled by the behavior of those who want to help.

As I watch the debate unfold over the latest tragedies, I see addiction.  We have enshrined the right of the purveyors of violence (video games, television, movies) to continue to provide their product in the name of Constitutional free speech.  Some propose that the solution to the problem is to provide more tools of violence, weapons, to everyone or at least well-trained individuals to protect us.  To me, this is similar to a an alcoholic arguing that he or she will be okay if they just get another drink to steady their nerves.  On the other hand, nobody in the United States seems to want to confront the hard problems of addiction and mental illness.  In the 1980s, the government cut funding for services to the mentally ill and since then those who would have previously been in treatment have had to get by on their own.  When our own failings as a society are brought to light, it's often easier to blame our "gun culture" than consider some of the deeper problems we have.

I am not blind with naivete.  I grew up with guns and saw the best and worst of them.  I also grew up with addiction and to this day I'm surprised that, when these two things mingled in my family, nobody got killed.  I still remember insisting to my father that he let me carry the gun when he demanded that we go on an evening deer hunt and stumbled out of our camp and into the hills.  When my father died, the Savage Model 99 rifle, along with a shotgun for hunting quail, stayed in a closet in my mom's house until she decided to give them to a cousin.  I have a twinge of regret that they are gone, but I don't really miss them.  I benefited from having guns in the form of venison meals and quail dinners, but I realized how dangerous they could be in the hands of individuals who, for whatever reason, should not be carrying them.

As we go through another round of debates, I would encourage us to not only debate the proper use and scope of the tools of violence, but also add the deeper roots of our cultural addiction to violence to the conversation.  And I encourage us to remember the martyrs of our societal moral quandary: the Newtown 26, the Rochester firemen, the Columbine dead and wounded, the Aurora dead and wounded, the Tucson dead and wounded and all the others who have been killed in our culture of violence.

Musical Interlude

Robert Earl Keen's version of the song Sonora's Death Row is a great illustration of the tragedy that comes with combining our various forms of addiction.  The rough and wild Old West was a gun culture, and full of all of the temptations of substance and sex money could buy, and it sometimes didn't end well.


If you want to know more about Spotsylvania Courthouse

National Park Service: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania
Spotsylvania County: Spotsylvania Courthouse
Wikipedia: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Wikipedia: Spotsylvania Courthouse

Next up: Cuckoo, Virginia


Blue Highways: Fredericksburg, Virginia

Unfolding the Map

Four wheels, two wheels, or even three wheels?  Which is best?  As a person who utilizes two wheels of the human powered variety for transportation, I envy motorists sometimes.  But, as William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) stops in Fredericksburg for some gas, I look at the the pros and cons of each, at least in my life.  To see where Fredericksburg sits, pedal or accelerate over to the map.

Book Quote

"Vern, in his antique ways, believed that anyone who got behind a steering wheel could rightly be expected to operate the car rather than just steer it; that's why you wee issued an Operator's Permit.  He believed the more work a driver did, the less the car had to do; the less it had to do, the simpler and more reliable and cheaper to repair it would be.  He cursed the increasing complexity of automobile mechanics.  But, as I say, he was a man of the old ways.  He even believed in narrow tires (cheaper and less friction), spoked wheels (less weight), and the streamlined 'Airflow' designs of Chrysler Corporation cars of the mid-thirties - designs Chrysler almost immediately gave up on before proceeding to build the biggest finned hogs of all.  We boys of the fifties loved their brontosaurean bulk.

"Another of Vernon's themes we laughed at was his advocacy of the comparable economy of and safety of three wheels (he drove a motorcycle with a sidecar) for city driving.  He would say to us, 'Two wheels ain't enough, and four's too many. So where does that leave you, boys?'  'Three wheels!' we'd shout back, mocking him.  'No sir, it leaves money in your jeans.'"

Blue Highways: Chapter 10, Part 1

Downtown Fredericksburg. Photo by Ken Lund and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Fredericksburg, Virginia

At the time I am writing this post, it is a winter morning in Albuquerque.  We've had no snow yet, but we've finally gotten to the point where the mornings are very cold, around 17 degrees in the morning just when the sun comes up.

For a person who rides his bike to work, such as myself, it isn't the greatest experience, especially when the wind blows.  On those days I bundle up in layers, but not too many, so that I can be warm enough on the ride.  I put on a hat, or a snood, and after the new year my new balaclava, under my helmet and gloves on my hands to keep my hands from freezing.  No matter what kind of gloves I get, they never seem to keep my hands warm enough and I usually end up with biting cold fingers by the end of the ride.

The ride is only about three miles, and I do it as fast as possible.  While mostly downhill, it is a strenuous workout because I have to do a couple of nice rises in there.  Those mornings, however, when the wind is pushing against me so that exposed areas of my face are frozen and after a few minutes certain parts of my body are retreating rapidly like rabbits into a hole, I really wish I had a car.

The reason I don't have a car are various.  Mostly it has to do with money.  Two cars in our family would increase our costs.  We would pay more for gas, though my wife does most of the driving.  Repairs would double, especially since neither one of us has had great luck with cars so there is usually some huge thing that needs to be fixed every three years or so.  I would also have to pay $450 or so a year for the privilege of having a parking space about a half-mile away from my office, or much more if I wanted to park closer.

I am mostly fine with the arrangement, except, as I wrote, on cold winter mornings and the occasional day when I find myself having to ride to work or home in rain or, even worse, slushy snow.  Another advantage is that I get exercise, especially coming back home where my downhill turns to a steep uphill climb, and by the time I get home my heart is pumping hard.

But there are some disadvantages.  If I'm late, I'm usually really late because I can only go so fast on my bike.  I usually have to leave earlier for things that I need to get to.  Also, my freedom of movement is limited to where I can get on my bike.  I envy my wife's ability to go where she wants, even up to Santa Fe, down to Socorro or over to Gallup if she needs to.  Bike racks on the bus could make my radius a little larger, but one is limited to the bus schedule and places they go.  And the safety factor is also a disadvantage.  While Albuquerque is a relatively bike-friendly city, some drivers here see bikers as a hindrance.  This has not been helped by serious bikers, that train in Albuquerque because of the altitude, who sometimes seem to go out of their way to annoy drivers by riding in packs in the middle of the road.  The clash of bike culture and car culture, and people on both sides who don't understand the rules of the road, means that there are far too many "ghost bikes" along the sides of highways.  There is one at an intersection right next to the university where I work.

My wife and I often joke about getting a motorcycle with a side car.  The joke goes that I could drive the motorcycle, and we could outfit our dog in goggles and she could ride in the sidecar.  But that will never happen because my wife really doesn't want me on a motorcycle.  "Donorcycles" she calls them.  I've thought of getting a scooter at times, but they face the same disadvantages that a motorcycle does, though I think that my wife is worried about me on a motorized two-wheeler on the open road rather than in a city, which I think is probably more dangerous than the open road.

So when it comes to keeping money in my jeans, as LHM quotes from old story of his youth, I'll probably remain on two wheels, ride defensively and hope that I remain safe.  And I'll just suck it up with those cold winter mornings - they give me a reason to look forward to the warmer temperatures of spring when I can shed my layers and ride in shorts and a polo shirt.  And, as we look for a house, we'll just have to look for one within biking distance of my work, which is where we want to be anyway.

Musical Interlude

I debated putting this video on.  Queen's Bicycle Race was the first song that came to mind when I wrote this post.  The video, featuring naked women in a bicycle race at Wimbledon, has been linked with the song so that one can't think of the song without the images.  So, if you are sensitive to mild images of naked women riding bikes, don't watch the video.  And be assured, I'm not advocating naked bike riding nor have I ever ridden a bike naked.  Nobody wants to see that!

If you want to know more about Fredericksburg

City of Fredericksburg (news site of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star)
Greater Fredericksburg Tourism Partnership
University of Mary Washington
Virginia Tourism: Fredericksburg
Wikipedia: Fredericksburg

Next up: Spotsylvania, Virginia


Blue Highways: Osso, Goby and Passapatanzy, Virginia

Unfolding the Map

We pass into Virginia as our trip west to the origin starts to gain momentum.  Today, 12/21/2012, is the predicted date of the Mayan apocalypse.  Even though it has little to do with today's passage, I will consider apocalypse and doomsday, and more.  To find out where we are as the Mayan calendar ends, go here for the map.

Book Quote

"I came into Virginia on state 218, an old route now almost forgotten.  The towns, typically, werre a general store and a few dispersed houses around a crossroads: Osso, Goby, Passapatanzy."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 1

View of farmland near Passapatanzy, Virginia. Photo by R.W. Dawson and hosted at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host site.

Osso, Goby and Passapatanzy, Virginia

Last year, I saw the most depressing movie I can remember seeing in a long time.  Lars von Trier's Melancholia ends with a rogue planet smashing into the Earth, completely annihilating destroying our world.  Just like that, in molten rock and fire, everything is gone and the universe is bereft of human presence.

I bring up apocalypse because today as I write this, 12/21/2012, is the latest in a string of days since the beginning of time that people have been predicting the end of the world.  I think it's instructive that the original meaning of apocalypse is, from the Greek, a "disclosure of knowledge" or "revelation."  Of course, we have since come to identify apocalypse with doomsday scenarios. 

For example, if you go to this page on Wikipedia, you will see a list of of predictions starting with the fear of Romans that the city would be destroyed, through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, and into the modern day.  While most of the predictions are biblical in nature, some are based on astrological predictions such as planetary alignment.  More than a few self-described prophets of doom have revised their predictions at least once when the world didn't end.  And while many predictions were made in earnest, more than a few hoaxes were reported.  My favorite is the Prophet Hen of Leeds, in which a hen laid eggs that had "Christ is coming" written on them.  It was later revealed that the apocalyptic phrase was etched in eggs with corrosive ink and reinserted back into the hen.

In the 20th century, as nuclear weapons were developed and improved, apocalyptic predictions of all-out war, often combined with Christian prophecies of the Second Coming of Christ, became de-rigueur as explanation for the end of existence.  As we moved into the 21st century, religious and nuclear apocalyptic predictions began competing with other explanations involving space aliens, planetary alignment once again, space objects colliding with earth, and terrestrial electronic malfunction.  1999 was forecast to be the year that we met our doom, and when we lived past that, the Y2K computer malfunction was forecast to end civilization as we knew it at midnight when the year 2000 commenced.  When the predicted dire consequences didn't happen, various people predicted a similar number of catastrophes.  Not content with our own predictions, we reached back into history to conjure the latest, Mayan calendar prophecy of doom.  A story I heard recently was that even the remaining Mayans didn't take the prophecy of their ancestors that seriously.

I'm beginning to think that humanity is uncomfortable without some kind of impending doom hanging over its head.  Knowing that we each meet our own personal apocalypse in the form of death at some point in our existence, maybe it's comforting to know that there is the possibility that we can all go together.  We know that eventually there will be an apocalypse when the sun eventually burns through its hydrogen and expands and dies.  If humans have survived and manage to be off the planet by then, we know that the universe will eventually end.  It might rip itself apart, or it might lose all of its energy and die a slow, cold death.  Or, perhaps it will reverse and fall in upon itself, creating a new universe in a titanic explosion.

In my estimation, time itself records the end of the universe.  If we crudely imagine the passage of time to resemble the frames of a movie, every brief moment, second, or fraction of a second constitutes the end of the universe in that instance and the beginning of another at the start of another fraction of time.  No matter how small the interval, each new interval brings something slightly changed and new.  If the interval is large, we notice big changes.  A passage of ten years creates alterations in reality that could easily be interpreted as a universal change in this or that.

We still haven't lost our taste for the predicted worldwide apocalypse, and we tend to mostly ignore the little apocalyptic events that happen to people on a small scale every day.  A death of a friend or loved one, a sudden illness that throws a family into financial chaos, the loss of a business, all can cause conditions resembling apocalypse in the lives of one or a few people.  I think of the Newtown children whose lives were snuffed out by a gunman a week ago, and I imagine that the parents of those children are focused on their own personal apocalyptic tragedies, not some Mayan prediction of the end of the world.

I doubt that LHM was thinking about the literal end of the world when he was driving through Osso, Goby and Passapatanzy, Virginia.  He might have felt, however, that he was at the end of the world and certainly, in the original meaning of the word, his trip in Blue Highways was his apocalypse, often found in quiet, rural and wilderness areas with few people around so that he could reflect and find meaning.

And ultimately, I think that is what the eventual end of humanity will be like.  I don't think we'll go out in a blaze of glory, with missiles or comets or asteroids or rogue planets.  To me, that's not a disclosure of knowledge or a revelation.  I don't think that there will be fire or brimstone, or a glorious Second Coming and celestial battle.

Instead, I picture the eventual end of humanity as a slow progression, but also one in which we've lived out our purpose after having achieved some revelation or some assimilation of important cosmic knowledge.  At that point, our end will consist of no drama, no pyrotechnics, no mess.  Our apocalypse will simply be the last breath of a last someone in a future time in some quiet place with a universal truth now fully understood.  That future someone's last breath will linger for a second on the atmosphere, and then the silence of the universe will fill the space where once were human voices.

Musical Interlude

Tom Lehrer is currently a mathemetician.  But in the 1950s and 60s he had an interesting side line...he played piano and sang humorous songs.  Here is one of his famous ones dealing with apocalypse, We Will All Go Together When We Go.


If you want to know more about Osso, Goby and Passapatanzy

King George County
Wikipedia: Goby
Wikipedia: King George County
Wikipedia: Osso
Wikipedia: Passapatanzy

Next up: Fredericksburg, Virginia


Blue Highways: Burnt Store and Allen's Fresh, Maryland

Unfolding the Map

Our last points of reference in Maryland are so rural that there really isn't any information on them.  The names are quite evocative, especially in the case of Burnt Store, where there probably was once a burnt store.  Have you ever received directions where instead of place names you were given landmarks?  Such directions are fast becoming obsolete in the age of Google Maps and Siri.  If you want to locate Burnt Store or Allens Fresh, I will ask you with a trace of irony to check out the Google map.

Book Quote

"...on through Burnt Store and Allen's Fresh, across the even wider Potomac."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 1

Allens Fresh, Maryland. Photo by RDrayerIII and hosted at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host page.

Burnt Store and Allen's Fresh, Maryland

Stopping and asking for directions is becoming all but lost to American culture.  The advent of Google Maps and Apple Maps, of Siri and Google Android Map Girl, has rendered asking directions meaningless.  Today, you simply enter an address into your iPhone, iPad, Android or any other device of your choice and then sit back and let the voice tell you how far your destination is, when to turn, and that your destination is coming up on the right or the left.

There was a time when giving directions, especially in rural areas, was a work of art.  Where I grew up, people may not have known the proper addresses (I didn't even know the address of the house I grew up in until I was well into adulthood), but that didn't mean they couldn't tell you how to get there.  Directions were much more descriptive and less dependent on street names and road numbers.

How does this relate to Burnt Store and Allen's Fresh?  The names are descriptive names.  Burnt Store most likely got its name because at sometime in the past, a store or a storehouse burned there, though I can't find any corroboration of this.  Most likely for some time afterward, the store or storehouse stood as a landmark, and when people gave directions they probably said "go down past the burnt store and turn right."  Allens Fresh, I'm guessing, refers to the waterway that runs into the Wicomico River right where the highway passes.  I'm assuming, though again I can find no proof of this, that a family by the name of Allen owned a piece of land along this waterway.

The point is, names and landmarks were that which identified important points of reference.  Before Google Maps, before Siri, when one asked directions one got a sequence of landmarks, whether they still actually physically existed or not but had an existential reality, and that's how places were navigated.  The directions one might have been given would be something on the order of "go about one and a half miles until you see a large oak tree in a field on your right.  Turn along the fenceline and follow it up the hill until you reach a little spring that runs under the road.  That's Compey's Spring.  Keep going past that spring for another little piece until you see a burned stump.  Turn left, go over the bridge and around the bend, cross the railroad tracks at Emile's and you'll be there when you see the red barn on the hill."  Notice, no road or street names, just landmarks.

Nowadays, I get upset when I'm driving and I can't read the street signs.  Someone tells me that to get to their house I have to turn left on Amarillo Street, but as I'm driving through the darkness I pass the street because it is obscured by a tree branch, or it's dirty and doesn't reflect the headlights well.  Or, perhaps the street sign isn't even present.  So I drive and drive and only, after I'm a mile past the street and already late, do I realize my mistake.  How much easier might it have been to tell me to turn left at the street just after the Sonic burger joint?

Of course, with Siri and Google Maps, it's supposed to be so much easier now.  And in truth, when they work they are a marvel.  However, occasionally coverage drops, and then you're out of luck until you get coverage again.  Sometimes the application doesn't have the most updated maps or routes, especially in areas with new roads or streets.  There have even been reports of such applications putting people in danger and actually leading them to their death.  A couple traveling through Nevada, a couple in Oregon, an article advising people not to trust their GPS devices in Death Valley.  On a recent trip, when my wife and I were trying to drive in San Francisco, she turned on the GPS to help navigate using Google Maps, and sometimes we were led down the wrong path.  I knew San Francisco pretty well since I used to drive there a bit, but it was still disconcerting to know that I was on the wrong street.

I'm not necessarily an advocate of going back to a pre-Siri, Google Maps existence, but I am aware that GPS and phone navigation apps that use it are yet another way in which we become disconnected with the world around us.  When the navigational apps work, I don't have to pay attention to what's outside of the car.  The app tells me when and where to turn.  I don't have to look for the gnarled and bent tree at the side of the road, or the broken old windmill where I make a right at the fork in the road.  I just listen to the computerized voice tell me what to do.

So, here's a challenge for you, Littourati!  The next time you are tempted to get out the navigational app, stop and ask directions instead, especially if you have some time.  You'll meet someone!  The directions may get you where you need to go.  Or you may get fantastically and hopelessly lost, and have to ask directions from someone else you meet.  You'll pay more attention to your surroundings, and most likely see something interesting that may even demand that you stop and investigate.  You may have an adventure.  The navigational app won't go away unless you lose your phone.  But without it, you may just allow yourself to interact with your world in a way that is becoming more and more rare.

Musical Interlude

A terribly cheesy country song by Billy Currington called Good Directions, with a cheesy fan-made video to match.  See, if you ditch the navigation apps, you just might find your true love!

If you want to know more about Burnt Store and Allen's Fresh...

You are out of luck.  There is nothing I can find of substance on these two hamlets.  I guess you'll just have to go there!

Next up: Osso, Goby, and Passapatanzy, Virginia


Blue Highways: Prince Frederick, Maryland

Unfolding the Map

Just beyond Prince Frederick, the Patuxent River yields up amber and orange colored agates called Patuxent River stones.  They are the state gem of Maryland, and are pictured at right.  The various types of stones in rivers leads me to recall my childhood along a river, and the stones that I found both fascinating, useful, and annoying.  To see where Prince Frederick and the Patuxent River are located, throw a stone at the map and see where it ends up.  Actually, since I control the map, you'll find it ends up here.

Book Quote

"I took Maryland 2 over the hills along the bay, turned west at Prince Frederick, crossed the wide Patuxent River..."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 1

Prince Frederick, Maryland. Photo by PeteU and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Prince Frederick, Maryland

River stones were a big part of my life growing up.  My father owned a piece of unimproved land along a small Northern California river.  My first awareness of river stones was how they hurt when I walked over them in my tender bare feet on the way to our "beach" area at our swimming hole.  All I remember is that if I forgot to wear the "clackers" (the term my mom used for beach footwear), my feet were in for a world of hurt and I would be laughed at for being a baby.  I remember my older male cousins walking across those rocks as if they didn't hurt at all, and them telling me that when I grew up my feet would get tough, but they lied - walking over river rocks still hurts my feet.

Our property was also not just next to a river, but it also had a railroad that ran through it.  The railroad was laid on a 12 foot high bed for the rails and ties, and that bed was made of river rock.  The rocks were little pebbles and then larger stone sized rocks.  Many of the rocks were of the ordinary, gray river rock variety.  (You can tell that I'm not a geologist, because I can't really identify the type of rock).  Some of them were very colorful...pinks, reds, yellows, even some that had a greenish tinge.  When I wasn't throwing them at something, usually the glass insulators on the power lines next to the tracks, or hitting them with sticks like I was in batting practice, I would marvel over the various shapes and colors.

My father also made sure that I got close to river stones.  He was always worried about erosion on the property because the river had a tendency, as rivers do, to eat into the banks.  So one chore that we had was to take river rocks and throw them under the bank.  My father thought that doing so would help stem the erosion.  I don't know if it had any effect at all, but my father thought it did and so we spent a lot of time throwing rocks up against the bank.

It was also along that river that I learned what stones could do.  It was there that someone taught me that flat stones could skip across the water, and I spent many hours learning how to sidearm the disc-like stones I found so that they would skip once, twice, three, four or five times across the water.  With a friend I used buckets to construct whole cities out of sand on some boulders just off our swimming hole, and then we'd use river rocks to launch projectiles and see just how we could destroy our painstakingly constructed buildings.

I'm sure that if I had spent some time learning about stones and geology, I might have found some interesting stones.  I might have found agates, quartzes, maybe even some of the gold which is present in California rivers.  But I never spent any time studying geology so I never knew the story, the history, or any of the geology of those things that I was throwing around.

I guess that is the luxury of being a child.  When the world is your playground, all of the things within it are objects of wonder one minute, and the next minute is a tool, or a projectile or forgotten in the wonder of something else.  That was certainly my world then.  Now, my world is something a little different.  I'm the person who might look up the type of stone that I find on the ground, and think twice before I toss it at something.

I actually look forward now to researching some of the things I find.  When I found out, for instance, that the state gem of Maryland is the Patuxent River stone, I was intrigued enough to look up what that was.  The fact that LHM crossed the Patuxent River just after passing through Prince Frederick also fueled my interest, and because of that I discovered that it is an agate, which is a form of quartz.  Agates are formed by volcanism, specifically by deposits left in lava.  If you cut an agate in half, you'll find that they have layers of lines which indicates the process in which they have been a buildup of deposits in the cavity over time.  They are often used for carving in arts and crafts.

As a child, though, you don't need academics and books to wonder at a stone.  Its color, hardness, and shape can all be a source of intense interest.  I used to wonder, for example, how most river stones in the riverbed got so smooth and round.  I would have believed anything that anyone told me at the time.  If they would have said that some woodland ogre made the stones smooth and round, I would have believed it.  If they had said a pixie had picked the stones she liked and painted them with bright colors, I would have imagined it.  Now I know that river stones have been subjected to constant polishing by water and being tumbled over eons against other stones.  As an adult, I have a different sense of wonder at how that happens over time.  As a child, I would have preferred the pixie and the ogre because that would have made more sense to me, as well as given me something to thrill about and to see out of the corner of my eye in the woods.

What do I think about now when I pick up a river stone, or maybe any stone?  I think about the ageless forces that have moved that stone to where it now sits.  It may have been thrown there yesterday by some kid, like my past self, throwing a rock.  Or, it may have been moved by wind, water or geological upheavals to its current place, where it has sat for a hundred-thousand years.  When I pick up a stone, I realize that if I toss it, or put it back, I am touching something older and more permanent than myself.  I can put it where I want, but it will outlast me, and I am nothing other than one more force that has affected its slow progression over time.  As a child, I wonder at the stone.  As an adult, I wonder at how the stone makes me feel influential and meaningless all at once.

Musical Interlude

Here's a song by Carrie Newcomer called Stones in the River.

Special Musical Interlude

The past weekend before I wrote this post, the news was filled with images of frightened children being led out of their elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.  Twenty children, ages six to seven years old, and six elementary school personnel were shot to death by a young, apparently mentally disturbed man who killed his mother before going on his terror spree at the school.  He then turned the gun on himself.  Here are the names of those killed:

Charlotte Bacon - 6
Daniel Barden - 7
Rachel D'Avino - 29
Olivia Engel - 6
Josephine Gay - 7
Dylan Hockley - 6
Madeleine Hsu - 6
Catherine Hubbard - 6
Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung - 47
Chase Kowalski - 7
Jesse Lewis - 6
Anna Marquez-Greene - 6
James Mattioli - 6
Grace McDonnell - 7
Anne Marie Murphy - 52
Emily Parker - 6
Jack Pinto - 6
Noah Posner - 6
Caroline Previdi - 6
Jessica Rekos - 6
Avielle Richman - 6
Lauren Rousseau - 30
Mary Sherlach - 56
Victoria Soto - 27
Benjamin Wheeler - 6
Allison Wyatt - 6

I wrote above that about how children view the world, and simple wonders such as rocks, trees, rivers, and pretty much everything can be just fascinating to a child.  These children will no more experience those wonders, and the adults who experienced wonder just by teaching and watching them will never help open the minds and hearts of children again.  Please observe a moment for these children, their educators, the killer and his slain mother.  Eric Clapton, on the death of his own child, wrote a beautiful eulogy in the form of a song called Tears in Heaven (below).

If you want to know more about Prince Frederick

Wikipedia: Prince Frederick

Next up: Burnt Store and Allen's Fresh, Maryland