Hi Merlin. It has been a whole year and I still miss you…
Here’s to you.
2013 ended well. The whole end-of-year holiday season was pretty great, starting with Thanksgiving/Hanukkah with John’s folks up in Kalamazoo, winding down with hosting my parents at our house in Dayton for Christmas, and culminating with a quick New Year’s Day visit from John’s Mom and step-Dad on their way back to Kalamazoo from a dance camp in Berea, KY.
2013 may have ended well, but it had a really rough start. In the first couple of months of 2013 we lost both John’s grandfather, and our 18-year-old cat, Merlin. First John’s grandfather had a bad fall, then Merlin had a stroke and we found out that she had advanced cancer, then John’s grandfather got worse and went into hospice care where he died peacefully, finally, less then a week later we lost Merlin as well. (I still miss her.)
In late March we adopted Vena (Ravenna) from a rescue.
John had his 42nd birthday, which we celebrated by spending a long holiday weekend at Cedar Point, and riding all of the roller-coasters as many times as possible.
We went to Pennsic as usual in late July/early August. Every time we go to Pennsic, it gets better and we have more fun then before. So every Pennsic is the best one yet.
At the end of October we took another long holiday weekend and went camping and Hiking in the Smoky Mountain National Park.
And in between all of these events we just lived life… and life was pretty good. Except for the fact that I didn’t do nearly so well on my 2013 goal list as I have on previous years.
1. Finish the project where I photograph, identify and catalog my collection of china and glassware
Well, I am done with the photography, but I am still working on the identification and classification portions.
2. Recode AQalloys. I haven’t done a thing with Brian and Kevin’s company site since I set it up several years ago, and it could really use an overhaul. Not necessarily a design overhaul, but I really should get in and tinker around under the hood a bit. Modernize the code, make it responsive, stuff like that.
Nope. Not even a little bit. I made some content updates, but that’s it.
3. Design and code work on this site. The perpetual project….
Working on it!
4. Garden 5.0. We got the Burpee Seed Catalog in the mail yesterday, and I got all excited about the different varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and everything else that we can plant in the spring. I think that we will put in an order and try to start the garden from seeds again. (Reserving the right to just chuck it all and go to Home Depot and Loews to get seedlings if the whole “starting everything from seeds” plan goes sideways again.)
This one actually turned out well. We started some things from seeds and filled in some things with seedlings from Home Depot/Lowe’s/Meijer. The only thing that we botched was in spacing out the plants properly, and as the plants got older and bigger it got to be more and more difficult to wiggle in between them to weed and to harvest the produce.
5. Get this house in order. We do a pretty good job with maintenance and upkeep, but there are a couple of repair and upgrade projects that I think that we ought to knock out. The downstairs bathroom needs some work, there are a lot of patches of drywall that need to be patched up (mostly on corners that get knocked into), paint that needs to be re-touched, and other little things of that nature. And there are some bigger projects… for instance, I think that this is the summer where we need to do something (replace? clean? repair?) about the siding.
Well, we did some minor repairs, fixed the bits in the downstairs bathroom that needed it, and did some of the paint-touching-up, but still haven’t patched the dings in the corners or touched the siding. We will be doing more of the same in the coming months.
6. Artwork update. I haven’t refreshed the photos that we have hanging in the house in years. I should replace some of the older photos with more recent ones, and I also need to re-frame some of the paintings from my Grandfather. Maybe I should think about getting a digital picture frame?
Nope! This one fell completely off of the radar.
7. Downsize. This goes along with the perpetual project to weed out the library. Really. We have a lot of stuff. We don’t need all of it, and the closets and storage spaces are bursting. We need to get rid of some of it.
Working on it. The most visible progress is in our library where we managed to get the collection down to 2.5 (out of 5) bookcases. We have taken 15+ file boxes of books to Goodwill, as well as several boxes and bags worth of housewares and clothing. And we have thrown out a heck of a lot more then that. But we still haven’t made much of a dent in our possessions. Where the heck did all of this stuff come from!?
8. Get organized. A subset of the downsizing item, actually. If we have less stuff, then it will be easier to organize logically, store, and then find (and use) when we need it. Do we really need two junk drawers in the kitchen alone? I think not. Lets do something about that.
9. Learn how to cook Indian food, especially curries. John and I both like Indian cuisine, and yet (other then a couple of semi-successful experiments) have not tried making it ourselves. How hard can it be? Other than the really long and intimidating lists of spices that every dish requires, of course…
Well, I did a little bit of Indian cooking, but I did a bit more Asian/Island cooking. So I will call this a draw. In any case, tasty food was cooked and then eaten.
And there you have it.
On the morning that we left the Smoky Mountains, we woke up to, and packed up the campsite in, extremely heavy, dense, fog.
Naturally we had to go all of the way up to Newfound Gap, and then the rest of the way to Clingman’s Dome, to see what we could see.
Driving up, we could see very little. About 20 feet ahead of us and behind us on the road, and almost nothing off to either side. At the top we were deep in a low cloud, and visibility came and went according to how the wind blew. It was beautiful, but not the kind of beauty that could be easily photographed.
It was like the tops of the mountains were islands, and the clouds and fog flowing around and between them were the ocean.
It was also bitterly cold, and the dampness ate into my bones. We had the heater in the car all of the way up to try to compensate.
Eventually we headed down the mountain and started on the drive home.
That is how we think of Gatlinburg,TN. That is how we think of the portion of road that starts in Pigeon Forge and goes straight through “downtown” Gatlinburg and into the main entrance of the Smoky Mountain National Park. Even during what you would think of as a slow time of year, it takes forever to drive because there is so much traffic, and there are so many stop signs, and there are so many pedestrians just wandering across the road whenever and where ever they feel like it. And there are so many tourist traps – Ripley’s Believe It Or Not “museums”, knife stores, candy stores, Tshirt stores, the Smokey Mountain Moonshine Distillery (which to our rather bitter disappointment was more of hillbilly-esque shopfront and less of a working distillery… as far as we could tell anyway) and more. Much more.
The traffic pretty much dropped down to nothing once you passed the sign welcoming you to the park. I am willing to bet that most of the people wandering the streets of Gatlinburg never actually made it further into the park then the ranger station, and those that did go further pretty much stayed within about 20 feet of the road at all times.
On our last evening there, just a day or so before Halloween, we took some time to wander around in Gatlinburg, just a little.
A candy store that had an almost century-old taffy-shaping machine that was still in active use drew us in. We ended up buying a bag of candy. To support the fabulous machine.
We also witnessed some interesting reverse trick-or-treating. There was a parade of people in costumes, in their (varying levels of) vintage mini coopers (which were also decorated for the holiday) who kept circling the downtown blocks, tossing handfuls of candy to the folks on the sidewalks. Man, I really wish that I had been able to get some photos of THAT.
There are a lot of waterfalls in the Smokies, many of which we have hiked to, and all of which are quite lovely. However, if you want to photograph falling water (and especially if you have a tripod so that you can take long exposure shots of falling water) then the hikes that have waterfalls as the end goal (Grotto Falls, Rainbow Falls, Trillium Falls, Ramsey Cascades, etc…) are not always the best ones, since they tend to be very crowded around the falls… lots of people like to hang out there and it gets tiresome waiting for people to clear out of the way so that you can get a shot in.
Especially at Grotto Falls. Everyone wants to have someone take a photo of them standing behind the falls. (Why else would they hike to the falls if they couldn’t go around and stand behind the rushing water and peer out?)
Some parts of the river leading up to Grotto Falls are better then the falls themselves, in my opinion.
You get the best shots when you climb down off of the trail and onto the rocks in the river.
The Chimney Tops trail parallels a good sized river for a while at the lower elevations near the trail-head, and is another really good place to do a lot of long exposure shots of flowing water.
The parking area for the Chimney Tops trail in the Smokies is right near one of my very favorite road signs ever.
This time we got to the trail head nice and early (at about 7:30am) so we were the first car in the parking area. (By the time we got back from the hike, the parking area was completely full and there were lots of cars parked along the sides of the road nearby.)
The Chimney Tops isn’t the longest trail, as it is just over 5 miles roundtrip, but there is a heck of a lot of elevation change packed in those miles. Let’s just say that you start out in a bit of a valley and go up and up and up until you are on the bare rock ridge high above said valley.
It is one of our favorite trails.
The park service has done a lot of work improving this trail since we were here last. The drainage is better, so it is not nearly as slick as it used to be. And in a lot of the “more challenging sections” they have added in steps.
The stairs are not there to coddle you. (Well, okay, they coddle you a little…) You need the stairs. This is a pretty steep section.
You could really tell the parts of the trail that the park service had not yet gotten around to improving.
The views at the top are spectacular, because you are right out on a rock outcropping on the ridge, high above the rest of the world. We have sat on the top before and watched hawks flying below us.
The trail ends on a spire of rock, and to get to the very end of the trail you need to scramble up a fairly steep rock face to the flat section right at the top. The rock was pretty slick that morning, so we didn’t go quite all of the way to the top, and contented ourselves with reaching a nice little seat about 20 feet or so from the summit.
Great views. You are on top of the world.
The first morning in the Smokies we hiked the Alum Cave trail. We got to the trailhead at what we thought was a fairly early hour… at about 8:30am (after a leisurely camp breakfast of hot coffee and cold pastries) and the parking area at the trailhead was already completely full. Completely. We ended up parking about 20 yards away from the parking area at the side of the road, along with the rest of the spillover vehicles.
Granted, a lot of the cars were covered in a thick coat of frost, and had obviously been there overnight. Those folks had undoubtedly started out the previous day for Mount LeConte, which is about a two-day roundtrip hike, with an overnight at up at the top. (There are actually a few primitive cabins at the top of Mount LeConte that you can reserve for overnight trips.)
We have been on this trail before, the first time that we went to the Smokies. That first time, it was a little later in the year and was already cool enough and snowy enough that as we got into the higher elevations on the trail, we made little snowmen and left them at the sides of the trail. There was snow on the trail again this year, but not nearly as much.
The first mile-and-a-half or so of the trail is through pretty thick forest along a good-sized stream. After you pass through Arch Rock, you start to go up in elevation a lot faster, and soon break out of the forest and into some pretty spectacular scenery and mountain views.
On the way down, we encountered a couple with some small kids at Arch Rock, who wanted to know if that “was it”… if they had reached Alum Cave. They were slightly disheartened to be informed that Alum Cave was still a couple of miles away.
Alum Cave isn’t really a cave, so much as it is a bluff… a huge, deep overhang on the trail where the Confederate army mined alum and saltpeter for gunpowder during the Civil War.
If you stay on the trail past Alum Cave, you will continue on several miles further to the Rainbow Falls Trail, and on a little further to the top of Mount LeConte.
It is a beautiful trail in the fall, with the spectacular vistas and the gorgeous leaf color.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a favorite of John and myself. Not least because it is the most easily accessible from Dayton, OH, requiring only (only!) a 6-7 hour drive instead of a day long marathon involving driving, flights, and airport layovers (or a really really long drive).
We have been to the Smokies a couple of times, and always at the tail end of the season, around Halloween, when the park is quieter and there is already snow up at the top on Clingman’s Dome.
This year, I had just made campground reservations for our trip when the government shutdown happened and a whole lot of stuff, including the national parks closed for business. Really closed – as in even the park websites were shut down and off line. We had just started to discuss possible alternate vacation plans (Hocking Hills State Park? Part of the historic bourbon trail down in Kentucky?) when the government reopened, allowing up to take our vacation as planned.
About 1.5 hours into our drive down we hit car troubles… heading down 75 we heard a sudden klunk! and then the engine noise got about 10X louder. Some part of the exhaust system had dropped out. We were obviously still able to drive just fine… but the car was temporarily a rolling noise and environmental violation, and I cringed a little every time we got in it and started it up. (Note: the car is now fixed.)
Driving in to the park through Pigeon Forge And Gatlinburg is always … interesting. Mostly because of the extreme tackiness and hokeyness of just about everything. There is a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” something on just about every corner in Gatlinburg. John and I call this Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg stretch the Honkey Tonk Vegas or Redneck Vegas. It is Vegas without the desert and without the veneer of respectability. It does have shows, though, if you want to think of something like “Lumberjack Fued” as a show.
As soon as we got to the campground and checked in, we did what we have always done – headed up top. To Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome to see the views and maybe catch the sunset. (According to the ranger who checked us in at the campground, the last stretch of road up to the top had been closed that morning because of overnight accumulations of ice and snow)
We have never seen it as crowded up at the top as it was then. Never. We made our way up to the parking area near the top at idling speed and were seriously worried for a little bit that we would not be able to find a spot to park, it was that bad. Either there were a lot of people at the park that weekend taking vacations that had been delayed by the shutdown (a possibility) or there were a lot of people there in whom the shutdown sparked a desire to show their patriotism by visiting a national park (also a possibility). Either way. More people then we have ever seen at the park at the tail end of the fall season.
Up at the top, there is a 1/2 mile trail to a fire tower, where the views are even more impressive. This is probably one of the toughest trails in the park, especially if you have just gotten out of the car after a 6+ hour drive. It may be short, but it is very steep. Hard on your knees, ankles, and just about everything else, especially when the trail is slick with packed snow and some ice. We started on the trail just in time to stand aside so that an ambulance from the Cherokee Nation (other side of the mountains) could come down the trail. Near the top, we found a ranger who was warning people off to the side of the path because of a large patch of black ice that spread several yards down the center of the path. (We guessed that the ambulance had been there, and the ranger was there, because someone had fallen and hurt themselves on the ice.)
In years past, we have had to physically drag ourselves up the ramp, hand-over-hand on the railing, because the ramp was so covered with ice. It wasn’t as bad as that this year, but the trees and other vegetation around the tower had a several-inches-thick coating of packed on snow.
It goes without saying that it was cold up there. I had on a sweater, a fleece over that, a neoprene coat over the fleece, a knit hat, and a scarf, and was still a bit chilly. The wind up at the top never stops blowing, and it just cuts right through you.
By the time we were done with Clingman’s Dome, Newfound Gap, had done some grocery shopping for camp breakfasts and trail lunches, had had dinner, and were (finally) returning to camp it was after dark. We set up the tent by flashlight. Fortunately it was just the small backpacking tent (the old, green, Coleman boyscout tent having gone to the campground in the sky after Pennsic) so it went up pretty quickly and easily.
John and I had some Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock last night because there is something to celebrate.
The abandoned house next door is (we assume) finally sold. As of this point, the house has stood empty for two winters and three summers, and was up to be sold in a sheriff’s auction yesterday at 10am.
The people who used to live there were a perfectly nice older couple. We saw him the most often. Whenever he was out in the yard and we were out in the yard, his two fat, fluffy, little white dogs would run over to say hi, and he would follow them. He complimented us on our garden and our work on the deck, we chatted about gardening and yard work and commiserated about the depredations of the deer and rabbits, and he lent us a post-hole digger one time. Good neighbors. Then he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died fairly shortly after. His widow stayed in the house for a little longer, but the house had been mortgaged to the hilt to support his business (making and selling organic salsa or pasta sauce or something like that) and she was having trouble keeping up, and then the main line to the house broke and that was the last straw, since she couldn’t afford to fix it. (She shared all of this with us when we happened to meet in the yard one early spring day, after the fat little dogs had run over to us to say hi, as usual.) So she just walked away. She took what she wanted, and simply left all of the rest. Trinkets, clothes, pots and pans, holiday decorations… everything. (You can see all of the left-behind debris through the windows, and one time when an adjuster from the bank was over, we rather boldly followed her inside to check things out.) All in all a rather sad story. I occasionally wonder what happened to her, and those two dogs.
Anyway, the house presumably has an owner now. And one day, hopefully soon, we will come home and there will be a dumpster in the driveway so that the new owners can clean it out. It needs cleaning out. And a new roof, a new main line, and significant siding repair. And eventually, either someone will move in, or it will be sold again.
But the important thing is that it is no longer an empty, abandoned, house.
… summer, that is. Hi there, summer is gone, it’s fall, and where did the last three months go anyway?
Work has been very busy. Stuff at home has been very busy. It feels like I haven’t really sat back and relaxed enough to appreciate the summer.
House and garden
The two big trees in our front yard really were hit hard by last year’s drought, so in June John decided to take down all of the dead branches in order to give them as good a chance at recovering as we could give them. “All of the dead branches” turned out to be a lot of branches indeed… both trees lost a significant portion of their canopies, and I am still getting used to the fact that the front yard is much less shaded then it used to be.
The garden did great…is still doing great. The tomatoes are almost done at this point, but I am not going to complain too much, given that we have been pulling 10-15 pounds of tomatoes a week out of the garden since mid-July. The green peppers, banana peppers, jalapeno peppers, and eggplants are still going strong, however. We will probably be getting peppers and eggplants for at least another month. The only thing that we really botched with this year’s garden was the plant spacing. It is really difficult to move around in the garden, as the plants have all grown all over each other.
For John’s birthday weekend (this year was the big 42) we went to Cedar Point for a couple of days. We had been talking idly about wanting to go to Cedar Point for a while, and decided that it was finally time to stop talking about going and actually go.
I can remember staying at the Breakers when my family went to Cedar Point for a vacation when I was little, and John and I stayed there when we went this summer. Being right in the park, it was really convenient, and the early admission for hotel guests was also nice.
Going when we did – right after the 4th of July holiday weekend – was a good call, because the park was not quite as crowded as it might otherwise have been. I think that the longest that we ever waited in a line was maybe 45 minutes, the first time that we went on the Millennium Force. Most of the time we were in line less than 10 minutes. It was great. It was also a touch rainy in the evenings… a couple of quick bursts of rain here and there, but not enough to get us to go back to the hotel. However, the rollercoasters (and a couple of other rides) don’t run when it is raining… they stop wile it is raining and once it stops, they run a test through to make sure that the tracks and brakes are safe, and then resume. So the bursts of rain were great for clearing out the crowds and eliminating the lines in the evenings.
We went on every ride at the park. (Seriously, we had a checklist.) Many of the rides, especially the rollercoasters, we went on multiple times. Okay, we went on all of the rides except the kiddy rides and that one ride that is basically just pretend driving a model-T car around a fixed track.
It was an awesome vacation. Something we should have done a long time ago. Now we need to go to King’s Island (down near Cincinnati) for comparison. And more rollercoasters.
It has been almost seven months since Merlin died, and almost five months since we adopted Vena.
You can tell when Vena is really enjoying being petted, because her eyes roll back a little bit, her nose starts to run, and she starts to drool. It is simultaneously adorable and kind of disgusting. She doesn’t purr very loudly, not like Merlin (Merlin’s purr was like an idling diesel engine) but she loves attention.
She is getting slowly cuddlier, and if I am lounging on the couch reading or watching TV she doesn’t need much encouragement to jump up into my lap. It does take her a little while to calm down and get settled once she is there, though. And god help you if you try to hold a book with one hand and pet her with the other. She doesn’t appreciate the divided attention, and has been known to bite at the book (or tablet or phone) in order to ensure that all attention is on her. Once she is settled, though, she doesn’t mind if you read while she naps on your lap.
She is still a bit wary and shy around John, and won’t stay on my lap if he enters the room of joins me on the couch. It will just take time.