Tuscarora Trail Journal. Chapter Three: The Shenandoah Campaign (Sections 17-22, Rt. 48/55 to the Appalachian Trail in SNP, April 15-18, 2021)

(Photo: Andrew)

Intro. If this hike was a Coldplay song it would definitely be “The Scientist.” Andrew, Brian, and I said, “Oh, let’s go back to the start,” and reversed direction for our section hike to head southbound (really eastward) along the roughly 69-miles of trail and detours from the West Virginia/Virginia border on Route 48/55 all the way across both prongs of the Shenandoah River to the “start” of the Tuscarora Trail as it meets the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park (SNP).

[For the section hike finale in June, we’ll finish northbound at the “end” where the Tuscarora Trail meets back up with the Appalachian Trail just south of Duncannon, Pennsylvania, completing its (and our) 250-mile journey.]

Our trail this trip traversed some beloved tracts of land: Great North — and Little North — Mountain, the Massanuttens, and the SNP Blue Ridge itself. The Tuscarora Trail also wends across the wide Shenandoah Valley and narrower Page Valley to offer us scenic country roads as a change of pace. And you know what happens to show up in civilized valleys as opposed to rocky ridges? Wineries. Right by the trail . . .

Tuscarora TrailingDay One, April 15 – Rt. 48/55 to the Halfmoon Trail intersection, ~11 miles.

“Going back to the start” had a number of figurative meanings for us this trip. For one, uniting Andrew, Brian, and I put together three of the original DC UL crew, hiking pals for over 11 years. Though this very same weekend our DC UL trail brethren were hiking the 71 mile Massanutten loop the three of us (plus Brett Maguire) started as a tradition in 2010, we were inclined personally to do something a little different. It’s awesome that that tradition lives on but for the three of us, our 24 combined Massanutten hikes were sufficient for the time being. Brian and I plotted a course to continue our Tuscarora section hikes. Andrew had hiked this already a time or two but was still more than happy to join. We met up in SNP Thursday afternoon, left Andrew’s car behind on Skyline Drive, and hopped in mine to drive an hour and a half to the West Virginia border.

By 4:30 p.m. the world slipped away for us as the trail undulated over the beautiful Great North Mountain ridge. We were treated to the scattered white flowers of serviceberry and pinkish petals of redbuds, among others, though high on the ridge at 3,000 feet it was still winter. That changed as we descended into lower elevations to the full, fresh green of spring. The weather was decidedly cool. But it was also dry and held up that way for the duration of our trip — not an easy feat for mid-April. For backpackers prepared for cold nights and days in the 50s, this was as good as it gets.

After about four miles we paused by the PATC’s Gerhard Shelter to chat with a proper Tuscarora Trail “thru hiker,” a big bearded Kentucky gentleman (also named Brian) who eagerly pulled out a little notebook to jot down ideas for his next hike when we regaled him with stories of north-central Pennsylvania and New York’s Northville-Placid Trail. He also gave us a dire report about the rocks of the Pennsylvania sections of the Tuscarora (he was heading southbound and had completed the northern stretch already). I take this as appropriate foreshadowing for our upcoming June hike, though I’d be lying if I said this was the first time I heard about how leg-chewing rocky the PA Tuscarora was rumored to be.

At about mile eight we descended to Waites Run and the Wilson Cove Deer Study Area. Speaking of “back to the start,” this was the parking area for DC UL’s very first ever trip in September 2009. Back then we did a loop that encompassed part of this stretch of the Tuscarora Trail, plus Mill Mountain and Big Schloss. Memories were everywhere throughout this section. If you’re a hiker or backpacker in the mid-Atlantic you too have likely spent a lot of time in this Wardensville, WV/Great North Mountain vicinity.

Our final three miles climbing back up to the ridge along Waites Run and its multiple stream crossings were done in the dark. The three of us chatted and caught up on life. We spread out in the large campsite at the Halfmoon Trail intersection as the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. Brian had camped in this very same site in back to back weekends. He had done a section hike starting at this campsite and heading northbound to Gore with Michael and DC UL the week before. We put a few drops of whiskey in our bellies. It was a chilly night down in the 30s. In my sturdy X-Mid shelter, my head hit my hiking pillow and my body snuggled into my Enlightened Equipment 20-degree synthetic quilt. I smiled. Nothing but trail for the next few days. Our evening jaunt of 11 miles would set us up well for the weekend, though two 25-mile back to back days were next for us.

Tuscarora Trailing: Day Two, April 16 – Halfmoon Trail intersection to Doll Ridge, ~25 miles.

We hit the trail before seven a.m. and thoroughly enjoyed the brisk morning along the ridge. The views at White Rock were breathtaking, as were some of the views of the valley near Fetzer Gap. We met up with a fellow section hiker taking a midday nap (we nicknamed him Napster) and eventually dropped down into the Shenandoah Valley proper for some road walking. Though I wouldn’t want to spend all day traipsing country roads without some proper trail to offset things, a few miles here and there are perfect. Plus, there were goats.

The highlight for this section was actually a long-planned goal: hitting North Mountain Vineyard & Winery. Michael and Jen tipped us off that tasty wine was available near the trail. When we calculated miles on our original route and determined that hiking this section northbound would have us hitting the winery mid-morning before it opened, we opted to change directions for the entire trip to make the winery stop work better. And work better it did. We rolled in around 2:00 p.m., a little later than I had anticipated, received some leftover pizza from a couple who were delighted to share the winery with hikers, and settled into our tasting. We also ordered our own delivered pizza when we found out local provisions stopped at cold cheese and crackers. Brian bought a bottle of (cold) mulled wine to take with us.

Yes, we were full of wine and pizza. But we had a bunch more miles to go on bloated bellies and buzzed heads. Though satiated we kvetched for the rest of the day about it. We also skipped making our actual dinners that night because we were so full. I enjoyed going over I-81 and the Shenandoah River itself on the journey out of Toms Brooks and Mauertown. Eventually we were back on the trail, passing through a gorgeous farm as evening settled in. Just before sunset we found a flat spot at the top of Doll Ridge and settled in for the night. Brian’s spiced wine hit the spot. 25 miles of ridge, valley, and wine adventures in around 12 hours of hiking were in the bag. And we got to do it again the next day — minus the wine.

Tuscarora Trailing: Day Three, Doll Ridge to Shenandoah National Park boundary, ~25 miles.

Another early start had us finishing up the last steep stretch of Doll Ridge and lovely Three Top Mountain before heading into familiar territory for most of the day as we met up with sections of the above-mentioned and oft-hiked Massanutten trail. Unfortunately, the DC UL hikers were all far south of us as we passed through the northern stretch. We caught up with Napster, who we had seen walking BY the winery the day before. He had found a nook among rocks on Three Top Mountain to camp. Andrew ended up far ahead after Brian and I stopped at one of the Elizabeth Furnace picnic tables for a leisurely lunch. I cooked what should have been my dinner from the night before (veggie korma).

The stretch from Elizabeth Furnace to Veach Gap was all double blazed as the Tuscarora and Massanutten trails. Though on my eight circuits of the orange-blazed Massanutten trail it was the blue-blazed Tuscarora that was the interloper for me; this time it was the other way around. Brian and I enjoyed the ridge full of fellow backpackers and the long descent into Veach Gap, eventually catching up with Andrew at Little Crease Shelter just as he was about to give up on us and carry on.

We climbed out of the gap and said goodbye to the Massanutten trail. Thus began our descent on a revolutionary-era road built by General Morgan for General Washington to serve as a worst-case fallback route to Fort Valley against the British. Though Washington wouldn’t have need of it, we were glad it was still around to get us off the steep ridge. I chatted with a few adventure racers on mountain bikes who asked if I knew anything about the area. When it comes to the Massanuttens, I would say I knew its trails pretty damn well. We examined maps together as they plotted how to race along on their merry way. I would end up seeing dozens more of their fellow combatants down in the valley itself as others completed their paddling section.

Our final Page Valley miles were lovely. I decided to pull out some whiskey as I strolled over the south prong of the Shenandoah River. History was everywhere around us, even of the unseemly Confederate kind. The only thing marring the scene was a host of flies swarming the air around us at times. These flies wanted nothing to do with us, however. No bites. Nobody even wanted to land on us. They had other things in mind. Sex. You see, most of these flies were attached to each other (literally) and pulling off the (to us) stunning feat of both fucking and flying. Andrew, a pilot himself, was most impressed.

Our day ended at around mile 25 right inside the border of Shenandoah National Park. We set up camp and out came the whiskey again. I furnished a couple cigars too. We enjoyed the pleasant evening. I even shared my libations with a few suicidal spiders.

Tuscarora Trailing: Day Four, Shenandoah National Park boundary to Hogback Overlook Parking, ~8 miles.

Our final day was only eight miles. But it wasn’t without its challenges. From our campsite to the end of the trail high on the Blue Ridge was a good 2,400 foot climb. Also, entering SNP and its web of trails was . . . a thing. We spread out and when I got to the epic overlook of Overall Run Falls I found Andrew ready to move on after a break. I decided to stick around and wait for Brian. After about 20 minutes soaking in the view I too carried on the trail. SNP was full of day hikers per usual and it was also great to meet up with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail to complete the trip. Andrew and I waited at his car for a bit before looking at each other with a puzzled expression. Where was Brian?

Andrew and I strolled over to Hogback Overlook and got a great view of the entire Massanutten trail loop. It’s one of heck of a ridge. Brian did eventually show up. Turns out hiking the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail for dozens and dozens of miles had acclimated him to following blue. Problem was, in SNP, there’s a lot of blue blazes. Between that and a confusing SNP direction post, he had picked up some mistaken direction bonus miles. But really, all was well and Brian had a good story. For him, he had all but 10 or so miles north of Gore to complete to finish his Tuscarora Trail section hike. Andrew had already completed his. My eventual completion is waiting for me with one final 110-mile go in Pennsylvania.

But for this outing, 69-miles, 12,000 feet of ascent, 10,000 feet of descent, and a winery in the middle, I was just happy to go back to the start of the Tuscarora with Brian and Andrew.

Tuscarora Trail Journal. Chapter Two: Happy Hour in Sleepy Creek (Sections 11-13, Basore’s Ridge Shelter to Hancock, March 26-28, 2021)

Photo: Kyle

Intro. Welcome back to the Tuscarora Trail! Claudio, Kyle, Brian, and I continued our 2021 section hike with 45 miles taking us through the tri-border region of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland and covering sections 11-13 (and a bit of 14) as described in the PATC guidebook. We finished in historic Hancock, Maryland after passing the trail’s official halfway point. For those preparing for their own section or thru-hike, this stretch for us was notable for spending time in scenic Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, evenings at two fine shelters (Shockey’s Knob and Spruce Pine Hollow Shelter), and for some serious country road miles that, with the glaring exception of dodging trucks on shoulder-less River Road, were pretty lovely. We lucked out with some great weather for most of the weekend until a storm rolled through Sunday morning. We also went out of our way to make our own trail magic by hiding some beer in a creek at the halfway point of our 25-mile Saturday. Oh, and unlike many other parts of the Tuscarora Trail we actually saw a number of backpackers and dayhikers out, including some fellow section hikers!

Tuscarora TrailingDay One, March 26 – Basore’s Ridge Shelter to Shockey’s Knob Shelter, ~10 miles.

This trip report really starts with a B double E double R U-N. Brian and I left DC an hour and a half earlier than necessary to snake our way through Sleepy Creek’s jeep roads to cache a twelve-pack of Victory Brewing cans in a little stream at what would be our halfway point the following day. This itself was slightly eventful as strong winds knocked some trees down in our path. One was dragged out of the road by a park ranger in front of us; another we had to jump out to make some space on the road. But by 4:00 p.m. we had made it to Hancock, Maryland to leave my car at a C&O Canal parking lot and hop in Kyle’s car with masks on and windows down to shuttle to our starting point at Basore’s Ridge Shelter — the epic destination for our festival-like final night on the last section hike. We happened upon another group starting their car shuttle. One of the hikers recognized Brian’s DC UL Backpacking t-shirt and introduced himself as Shaf. Turns out the York Outdoor Adventures crew was hiking the same exact stretch going the opposite direction! We looked forward to passing them on the trail.

The three of us hit the road (literally, the trail shared the road for much of this stretch) at 5:15 p.m. and hoped Claudio arrived soon thereafter to catch up with us. Work had delayed his arrival. We spread out per usual and I enjoyed the stroll through Siler, Virginia and out of town. The pavement gradually turned to dirt as hilltop mansions gave way to collapsing abandoned farms. [Also, I love that we split up roughly 15 miles of road walking in two outings by stopping and starting at Basore’s Ridge Shelter. I highly recommend it or you might wear your feet out on asphalt.]

As an aside, I was a little unnerved by the number of confederate flags that adorned several houses on the road. What bothered me most about it was how deeply unsafe many POC backpackers I know would feel at that sight. I left the road as twilight set in and a supermoon brightened the evening sky. It was eerie and perfect. I even howled a bit in my best coyote impression a couple times to make the mood perfect. The high winds from earlier in the day had completely subsided. The woods were quiet, very quiet. I saw something I had never quite noticed before when my headlamp finally came out: diamond-like sparkles on the forest floor. Upon closer inspection, tiny spider eyes. Thousands of them.

I finished the climb up to Shockey’s Knob and greeted Brian and Kyle, who were already set up in the woods nearby the shelter. A shelter fire roared not far from them and giggles filled the night. While the history of shelter-sharing is littered with a few ugly tales, the pair of experienced lady backpackers who had taken up residence at Shockey’s Knob Shelter were more than happy to share some space around their fire and engage in a tale or two about trails and life. We warned them that our loudest and friendliest trail mate was due in anytime, and they could expect a short-shorted Italian-American to make their acquaintance ere the night was over.

The three of us said good night and strolled back to our campsite. Just as we were heading to bed I decided to call out Claudio’s name. It was after 11:00 p.m., but sure enough a happy reply echoed through the night woods. The short-shorted Italian-American had arrived. Turns out, late as he was, he too had a grand evening hiking by himself in the supermoon-lit woods. He also showed off how he managed to survive the road walk at night. It would have made a Reno bordello jealous. We drank a little bit together — I winced in panic and surprise as I struggled to down my bourbon (more on that later) — and shortly thereafter Claudio went over to meet the shelter ladies. Laughter filled the night. Brian and I went to bed, only to find out Claudio and Kyle had lingered until after 1:00 a.m. enjoying the evening.

Tuscarora Trailing: Day Two, March 27 – Shockey’s Knob Shelter to Spruce Pine Hollow Shelter, ~24 miles.

I serenaded us awake at 6:00 a.m. with a loud “It’s okay, we’re Italian!” and hit the trail ahead of the guys. Sunrise was fantastic, particularly perched on some rock formations that looked out over the valley. The air was warm and pleasant. A far cry from a month before when we were nearby in a foot of snow. I enjoyed the pretty spectacular morning, stopped to chat with a solo backpacker who had exclaimed that he hadn’t seen a soul in 24 hours, and then came upon a dilapidated fire tower before descending from the ridge. Half of its platform boards had crashed on the ground. I was surprised it wasn’t somehow roped off or signed against trespassing. It looked completely unsafe to me. I went on my way.

After accidently exploring a very lovely logging road and clearing, I made my way back to the trail and caught up with the guys. I was surprised to find out ALL THREE had decided to climb up the collapsing fire tower — individually, mind you, because we were all spread out by ourselves — and take pictures. I chuckled and wondered what it said about our crew that I was the most cautious of the bunch. We enjoyed the time strolling together and made our way to the campground area of Sleepy Creek. Sure enough, the beer was crisp, cold, and right where we had left it. We divvied up the cans and made our way to the shore of the Sleepy Creek lake for a lunch happy hour. It was perfect in the warm sun. But we still had 12 miles to go for the day, so we hit the trail again with a nice buzz.

The four of us were split up for the most part for the afternoon again. Shortly after the break, I ran into Shaf and the York crew. I was particularly thrilled to meet Kristin and Kevin in-person, two folks who I recognized from Facebook photos from their assistance when I hiked the Mid State Trail. It’s a small, lovely world! We passed the official halfway mark of the complete 250-mile Tuscarora trail. I packed out a beer from happy hour and enjoyed it exploring the Devil’s Nose rocks, which offered really cool boulder scrambling and great views of the creek valley.

We finished the hiking for the day with a few more country road miles and ended at the fantastic Spruce Pine Hollow Shelter. We had started to joke with Claudio earlier in the day that his pack was huge [it wasn’t] and kept the shtick up for the rest of the trip. All of us piled on, much to his chagrin. Brian even snuck a rock in his backpack at one point. Claudio laughed heartily. We dragged a few logs up from the river nearby and had a huge fire roaring before long. Claudio, Kyle, and I slept in the shelter, worried about the expected storm coming in the next morning. Brian bravely hung his hammock in the nearby trees.

Back to my whiskey. The evening before I realized after one brief sip that I had put a liter of bourbon into a recently washed plastic platypus that hadn’t been fully rinsed of soap. The whiskey tasted awful. That didn’t stop me from drinking a fair bit on Friday, grimacing as I forced my swallows. And it certainly didn’t stop me from pranking the guys by pouring everyone a ceremonial shot. Got ’em, I smiled to myself as everyone gagged on the soap-whiskey as you might expect. We set it aside and focused on consuming Claudio’s Irishman whiskey and Kyle’s Woodford Reserve. We figured we would probably be affected enough later to force the soap-whiskey down. But no, it was too awful. I purged the rest of it in an alchemical blaze.

Tuscarora TrailingDay Three, March 28 – Spruce Pine Hollow Shelter to Hancock, Maryland, ~10 miles.

“Get out, get out of here!” screamed Claudio, sometime before dawn. “That was a damn bear,” he said to us. I definitely noticed a large animal running off into the night. Right after, lightning and thunder — and lots of heavy rain — erupted. My guess was the bear was trying to use the shelter similar to what we were doing to avoid the worst of the storm. Poor guy.

Luckily, the rain tapered off — though never completely stopped — for our final 10 miles, most of it expected to be on a variety of country roads. I took off from camp first, per usual, in the hope of getting ahead of the guys on the final day so the faster folks wouldn’t have to wait for my keys when they reached the car.

There were more actual trail miles than we had thought connecting sections of road. They were quite pleasant. But the final five miles were actually kind of rotten and highway-like once we hit River Road. The sad thing is that there was a great ridge right next to us and the Potomac River curling out across the road. But the trail was the road. And the road didn’t have much of a shoulder, let alone a sidewalk. I picked my way by tossed trash and marveled at trains going by with what seemed like hundreds of container-laden train cars. I crossed the bridge over the Potomac alone, wondering where the guys were. They usually caught up to me by now. Brian eventually did meet up with me just as I walked into Hancock. I asked him where the others were and he looked at me in horror. “They’re ahead of me. You haven’t seen them?” Nope, no I had not.

Brian and I enjoyed strolling through Hancock together. I grabbed a tea on the way. Then we changed and hung out at the car for a bit before Claudio and Kyle finally appeared. As you can imagine, they had managed to get off trail at some point. It was a good story, at least. A pit bull in a yard along the trail had taken interest in them and addled a bit by the dog, they had scurried past a turn. A turn, mind you, that Claudio had actually managed to stop and take a picture of before accidently passing by it.

We had a fantastic victory lunch at Buddy Lou’s (mandatory) and happily planned our next section hike of the Tuscarora. As one does. Then we reentered the real world.

Profound Historical Fiction and Riveting Epic Fantasy (Reviewing Robert Jones, Jr.’s The Prophets, and Brandon Sanderson’s Rhythm of War)

January started with a significant reading list. I’ll spend the rest of 2021 trying to even equal the power of the two books I read to start the year. No, these two books don’t share much in common. But each on their own merit is worth a “stop what you’re doing and read” urge. Hear me out.

The Prophets. If it weren’t for my local bookstore, Old Town Books, I might not have purchased this masterpiece let alone immediately opened it upon returning home. But a good bookseller can help you find and even discuss a great book thanks to fantastic book clubs. (And the Old Town Books staff aren’t good — they’re great.) Such was the case here. And this is a tremendous book. I’m curious why it hasn’t received a bit more literary praise than I noticed so far in some of the publications I follow regularly. I’m confident it will — and will grow in importance as a book of its caliber.

The Prophets is a story of slavery and humanity and love and trauma and horror and sexuality and magic and legacy. It is a deep, personal gift to those who identify with what Robert Jones, Jr. offers to his readers. One of the most profound thoughts that came to me as I was reading was how soul-wrenchingly difficult and triggering this book must have been to write. Robert Jones, Jr. brings a cruel — though normal for its time — early 19th century slave-exploiting plantation to life (and death) in exceedingly real and perfect writing. There are two central characters, Samuel and Isaiah, in this story. Their love and connection to a meaning that transcends their setting serves as the keystone of the novel. But there is so much more, from point-of-view chapters representing all people present on the plantation — and I mean ALL people, from slaves to slaveowners to slavedrivers — to continent- and time-leaping parts of the story that bring the novel to a poetic, almost elemental, conclusion.

As I processed and discussed this book, several things came to mind. This is a powerful piece of historical literary fiction, written with the talent and message to be beloved for generations to come. For those who feel a direct sense of personal connection and legacy kinship to the queer love and slavery (and its modern vestiges), I think Robert Jones Jr. has given you something you’ve never experienced or read before. I dearly hope this book makes it to the hands and hearts of all who would be specifically stirred by it. I also stepped into an ongoing “debate” about movies and books depicting suffering Black people — as opposed to movies and books that approach Black Americans in a less visceral, no-less-profound manner. This book is a work of deep suffering. But it is a story that, difficult as it was to read and absorb, was the story of suffering I needed to read. I’m sure I’m not alone. Thank you, Robert Jones, Jr. You gave part of your soul to bring life to these characters and what they meant. They now feel as real as any who walked this earth.

Rhythm of War. My epic fantasy reading friends have listened to me talk nonstop about Brandon Sanderson for years now. There’s a reason for it. He’s the best in the business. And the Stormlight Archive, of which Rhythm of War is book four, is his masterpiece. It’s impossible to write more about it here without simply insisting and steering any potential reader to book one, The Way of Kings. If you read any epic fantasy, or if you’re even vaguely curious about fantasy as a genre, please buy these books and cherish what Brandon Sanderson brings to the table. The Stormlight Archive tomes are huge. You will wish they were even huger. I’ve re-read the first three books — something that I’ve only ever done in the genre with J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen R. Donaldson — and look forward to reading them again. The characters burst with life (literally) and key scenes bring together different dimensions of meaning and excitement (also literally).

What makes Rhythm of War (really, the Stormlight Archive) special? Sanderson puts the epic in epic fantasy through this work with kingdom-breaking, world-changing, universe-altering themes. But he also preserves the intimacy of each character and makes each plot development sing its own symphony. This is War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time plus western and action and philosophy. The key scenes reverberate and come to life as if they were directed by an Oscar-winning director. But here’s the thing: the world of Rhythm of War isn’t like anything you’ve read in other fantasy — it isn’t just a version of earth with different continents. I’d say it’s closer to science fiction in this aspect of its world build, but don’t mistake that for being science fiction. It’s not. Even the technology, so to speak, of this world is more magic than science.

And a little note on Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. Sanderson’s books and series do stand on their own. But many of them also link to each other in ways mostly captured in easter eggs but will eventually grow together for readers who follow the entire journey to future books. This is not daunting and it is not esoteric. It is a critical piece of what Sanderson’s magic is, how it is different across the Cosmere, and how the universe of Sanderson is ultimately understood in meaning and plot. It is absolutely worth any amount of investment. I read the Cosmere books in this order: Mistborn (series), Elantris, Warbreaker, and only then the Stormlight Archive and various works of shorter Cosmere fiction collected in Arcanum Unbounded. This worked for me but I don’t see any reason why not just starting with Way of Kings would take away anything from a reader. Enjoy. 🙂

Tuscarora Trail Journal. Chapter One: My Kingdom for My Snowshoes (Sections 14-16, 48/55 to Basore’s Ridge Shelter, February 13-14, 2021)

Intro. I need another trail section-hike project like I need some new backpacking equipment. Which is to say I absolutely don’t but certainly will take one on anyway. As far as section hikes go, it seems everyone in my backpacking orbit is working on their own Tuscarora Trail version. And why not? At 250 total miles and close proximity to Washington, D.C., with lovely PATC-maintained shelters and traversing some beloved local terrain, more people should be hiking on it, not less. To boot: when we met Mike, a local landowner and PATC volunteer at Basore’s Ridge Shelter to end our trip, he noted only bumping into 4-5 folks a year using his gorgeous shelter! More on Mike later.

It started like it usually does, with a ping from Claudio to go out hiking. He, along with Kyle, were working on a northbound section hike of the Tuscarora Trail. They had in sight about 40 miles going from Dry Gap to Hampshire Road along Great North Mountain and adjoining roads. Why not? I thought. Then we began overthinking things as extreme weather reports filtered in. At one point it looked like we could get hit with a polar vortex blast with lows in the single digits Fahrenheit. Another forecast called for fresh snow piling up over the week. The truth, of course, is that things mellowed out weather-wise as we actually approached our weekend. (Really, we should all remember NOT to check weather until three-days out to spare ourselves overthinking and planning.) But questions remained about snow levels and we opted to shorten to less than 30 miles for our weekend. Ironically, we tossed snowshoes in our cars anyways to be ready. Then we decided to leave said snowshoes in our cars when we started hiking. More on that later.

Tuscarora Trailing: Day One, February 13 – Rt 48/55 to Pinnacle Shelter, ~13 miles. Claudio, Kyle, and I met up at our end point near Basore’s Ridge Shelter bright and early at 7:00 a.m. We put a cooler and luxury items in Kyle’s car and then hopped in Claudio’s truck to drive down to begin our weekend hike. It was snowy and chilly for sure, but none of us thought the snow merited snowshoes. Claudio dropped Kyle and me off at 48/55 to do a few miles he had already hiked. He drove off to get some breakfast and meet up with us in an hour up trail. Kyle and I enjoyed our first miles of winter wonderland on the ridge and didn’t think the few inches of snow were that difficult to traverse. We all met up again at Dry Gap to hike about 10 more miles on Great North Mountain to reach Pinnacle Shelter, our destination for the night. Normally, these are extremely low miles for a group of guys used to 20-mile hiking days. But lord, snow presents a beautiful challenge.

So we tackled the beautiful challenge. Kyle, trail nicknamed Water Dog for his summer water-carrying skills, earned our respect and a new name, Snow Plow, for his gallant effort breaking trail for most of the day. He claims he was just trying to stay warm but we know heroism when we see it. The dude was also pounding this out with a couple broken toes from a recent city bike accident and some spent legs from a week of downhill skiing. We should have brought our snowshoes. Despite not being super high elevation, Great North Mountain certainly retained its snow. Snow levels varied between six and 12 inches. Our feet were very much enclosed in an icebox for the day despite our efforts to stay dry and warm. But it was gorgeous with ice and snow coating the trees and ridge. After a few weeks of grumbling in the DC area about our lack of snow, I was certainly getting my fill.

Shoutout to the PATC for high-quality signs on the trail and blazes good enough to follow despite low foot traffic. Part of this section of the trail is a fairly recent re-route to maximize time on the Devil’s Backbone ridge itself. It was most welcome. Day hikers, we presume, enjoy the scenic out and back to Eagle Rock. We traipsed through snow and Kyle/Snow Plow let me break the final two miles to get to our sanctuary for the night at Pinnacle Shelter. (As a general water note if you’re reading this to plan your own hike: we brought our own and did not expect to hit — or actually encounter — a water source until the spring at Pinnacle Shelter. In fact, water was pretty scarce. But that shouldn’t surprise any Tuscarora Trail veteran.)

Though the Pinnacle Shelter is a gorgeous work of PATC architecture complete with separate eating and fire pavilion, I brought a new NEMO Kunai 2 tent that I bought more for eventual winter use in Canada rather than the mid-Atlantic but wanted to try it out. It was my first normal, double-walled tent in years, and more than twice as heavy as my next heaviest UL shelter, but I was curious. It was comfy but definitely overkill for this outing. We warmed up, built a lovely little fire, and settled in. Since we knew we had supplies waiting for us at the end of our trip, we let loose on our rye whiskey and apple brandy we had packed in and enjoyed some quality cigars. Claudio played around with a new alcohol stove keg can set up. Despite my words of alcohol-stove encouragement, I don’t think he was won over. Eventually we stumbled off to sleep and to do it all again in the morning.

Tuscarora Trailing: Day Two, February 14 – Pinnacle Shelter to Basore’s Ridge Shelter, ~16 miles. In the morning, we slept in a bit later than our normal up-before-dawn style and hit the snowy trail. Claudio took snow plow lead for much of the day and was pretty much hauling ass throughout. The trail was gorgeous, of course, but we could tell that even without the underbrush of spring/summer to obscure the trail, it was tough going. Blazes weren’t always clear in this part, and the combination of picking over snow and boulder fields definitely upped the challenge. We were serenaded by some shooting range booms for a spell too to add to the scene.

The Tuscarora Trail gradually left the ridge near Gore, Virginia. At this point, some of our scenery incorporated some ingeniously placed trailer homesteads and couches. I was super thankful to make a pitstop at the Barclays Run Shelter before meeting up with Claudio and Kyle at Rt. 50. Claudio had stashed some water and beer for a midday pick me up. We needed it, as the trail took us through a water crossing as the final goodbye from the mountain hiking section. We had seven miles of road walking ahead of us to finish our day.

The road walking was kind of great, actually. It was scenic in both natural and man-made ways. It was also out of the snow. It had its own challenges too: there was practically no shoulder as cars raced by. We took care and enjoyed it. Claudio and Kyle chatted with a few locals and donkeys, including meeting Mike, who drove by a couple times in his truck before swinging back over in his Tesla to introduce himself and say he’d come visit us at the shelter later.

Once at Basore’s Ridge Shelter, a scant 1,000 feet from our parked vehicles, we grabbed our luxury items. I had brought a special edition bottle of Tullamore Dew, pastries from Buzz, and a charcuterie platter. Kyle packed in some brown sugar and butter sweet potatoes, and Claudio, in true Tarzan fashion, packed in ribeye steaks, coffee, s’mores, breakfast sandwich fixings, and much more. This was most assuredly not ultralight. Nobody cared. Soon enough, the whir of an engine announced Mike’s arrival with some seasoned firewood and a few beers. Mike is an amazing guy. He had lived in Europe and DC-area Maryland for years before having the good sense to move out to this lovely countryside. He joined forces with the PATC when they acquired the land around Basore’s Ridge to keep it maintained and watched over. We, and countless others, are enormously thankful for these efforts. We hope to see Mike again!

We enjoyed a long evening of pampered comfort around the fire and shelter. The atmospherics of the surrounding mountains and valleys came to life with some of the most distinctive and constant coyote wailing I’ve experienced in years. The local dogs weren’t too happy about it, though. With that, we packed up in the morning after some more feasting and began plotting our return to the Tuscarora. Since Claudio had dropped Kyle and me off separately, I didn’t experience the icy drive up to Dry Gap until I got to drive it myself to get Claudio back to his car. Glad I had 4×4 capability too!

In a final addendum, Claudio hunted me down at a roadside store I had stopped at for gas and tea to hand me a pair of snowshoes he had borrowed from Mike and Jen (my neighbors in Alexandria) to return. We laughed. We had all gone out of our way to bring snowshoes, decided not to actually use them, and lamented their absence as we post-holed through snow much of the weekend. Just another hiking adventure in the mid-Atlantic!

Future Planning Notes: Claudio and Kyle had done the 60-odd miles south of this section before; I would need to knock those miles out soon — and I’m thinking of doing it in a longish section one-shot in April. We figure there’s another 50 miles or so to get through Hancock and then onward to finish the Tuscarora Trail’s Pennsylvania miles in some large section hikes. Can’t wait.

An Inauguration Worth Commemorating

June 2020: From Left: Karan, Kylie, Jen, and Evan

Backpacking seasons come and go. DC UL Backpacking should know. It’s been around for 11 great years. Though I founded the original version of the group as — essentially — a personal backpacking crew for me to ring lead in 2009, it has grown beyond my wildest dreams. I bestowed a name, an ultralight orientation, and a few entrenched trip norms that endure to this day. I did not, however, enshrine a structure that would survive the test of time and change of command. Others did — with aplomb. DC UL turns over a new page in this new year, thanks to their efforts.

I departed abruptly as organizer in July 2011 to, well, focus on a personal backpacking crew. (Then in 2012 I went overseas for three years for work.) That crazy moment prompted the first DC UL transfer of power to Ryan Shauers. Transfer of power is a kind way of putting it. I mic dropped and Ryan scooped it up and began to sing. He continued on as organizer for a spell, and eventually left the DC area and handed over to Michael Martin. I’m not sure exactly how that process went down, but I’m sure it was more efficient than my departure.

Michael ushered in what, to me, seemed like a golden era of DC UL Backpacking. Michael created a set of membership ranks and trip rankings to allow for a diverse set of easy — “Low Mileage” — to hard — “Veteran Member” — trips in which newbie and vetted DC UL members alike sign up and participate at the right level. He also literally wrote the book on backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic. I can’t say enough about the “Veteran Members” of DC UL Backpacking. To a person, it’s a gifted, capable, fun, and responsible crew. I look forward to my backpacking trips with them every month.

At some point, Michael handed the organizer reins over to Jen Adach. Jen not only took DC UL up another notch with trips, social media presence, and major event planning, she brought DC UL into a new epoch touching on diversity and activism in addition to backpacking alone. She also masterfully guided the group through the onslaught and mitigation of COVID-19.

When 2021 rolled around, Jen decided it was time for yet another transfer of power. DC UL’s fifth organizer, Karan Girdhani, has just recently slipped into his new role, rocking and ready to go. I internally brimmed with pride. DC UL Backpacking really did show its strength by turning over periodically to new leadership. Part of this strength, as I noted above, comes from its key members. Few have been more active and important to the group than Karan. I’ve adored my adventures with him over the years. Karan will oversee DC UL’s emergence into the post-COVID era (eventually/hopefully!) and encourage a new flock of members to join the DC UL family. I’ll depart soon for another overseas assignment but I look forward to staying in close touch with the group to join — or lead — a trip here and there.

Cheers to 11 more years of DC UL Backpacking. And good luck, Karan!

March 2011: Many folks – but Michael, Ryan, and Evan in one photo.

Upon this Dharma I Will Build My Church

In ways I have not felt since family church attendance and teenage religiosity, I’ve undertaken some changes to my life and habits of late. This surprised me, to be honest. After a solid 20 years as a set in my thinking go-it-alone atheist/agnostic*, I wasn’t planning for or seeking a change of pace to my habits and sense of community. I would have considered myself healthy, wealthy, and wise doing what I was doing. But here I am, keeping a daily meditation practice; attending weekly group sessions and talks; setting aside time for deeper all-day devotionals and longer retreats; and reading a number of books introducing me to facets of my new practice — that’s right, you get some embedded book reviews too!

(*I couldn’t scientifically disprove the existence of a higher power but I certainly didn’t live or share a worldview in which any such higher power had any vaguely interventionist or personal role in the modern world.*)

So what exactly am I talking about? I have been moved by Buddhist-inspired mindfulness and insight meditation practice — and related activities, words, and fellowship — as a new grounding to my life and thoughts. For much of the past 18 months as meditating and virtual sessions began to proliferate, I wouldn’t have necessarily considered this awakening spiritual or religious in nature. I’m not sure I do now completely either. But there are some key similarities that are worth acknowledging in regard to both the function of spirituality in one’s life and the role of religion too. Whether or not my rational mind is fully willing to admit it, it is indeed something that moves me deeply inside and affects my relationship with the fabric of reality around me in ways that are more than just business as normal. My worldview is changing, growing, and improving as a consequence.

Like all mention of religion and spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof), what I write here will mean different things to each and everyone one of you reading. I’d love to receive any follow up if you feel so moved. There are lots of questions here. What is mindfulness? Is it Buddhism? If so, what kind? Isn’t meditation a practical practice that has nothing to do with religion and spirituality, so why reference Buddhism and include it here as such? You get the gist.

I can say that for me, so far, several things have emerged: 1) Meditation moved from a focused mental tool for breathing and structured time out period to the foundation of a bigger set of ideas and practices; 2) Buddhism is generally the platform upon which much of this is based, and indeed most dharma talks and related books quote from early Pali or Sanskrit Buddhist texts or later Buddhist practices of all schools; 3) Vipassanā insight meditation is the more specific practice I’m delving into at the moment, inspired by the Insight Meditation Society, the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, and practitioners like Sharon Salzberg, whose books (including how-to of meditation Real Happiness, rumination on trusting your own experience Faith, masterwork Lovingkindness, and recently published Real Change, which addresses what it means to be in this world) have been a guiding light this year, and Jonathan Foust, whose weekly guided meditations and dharma talks have meant so much and have us eagerly awaiting Monday nights “together”; 4) Making this practice part of my daily life has enriched my quality of life and sense of community.

As someone steeped in amateur comparative religion and science, I have also explored “secular” writers whom I trust who have experienced similar awakenings, namely Sam Harris, Robert Wright, and Stephen Batchelor. Reading some of their books this year, including Sam Harris’ Waking Up, Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True, and Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, have helped set the stage for my journey. There are so many more people, traditions, and books out there. Advances in evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, and neuroscience have brought us new ways of thinking and feeling about this. About the ways our brains work and why a 2,500 year old practice is bizarrely harmonious with 21st century science. It’s exciting. I look forward to a lifetime of exploration and deepening of what I know and practice, what I think I know and practice, what I don’t know and practice, and what it all means to me. The human mind is an enormously powerful, if uncontrolled, entity. And for better or worse, we’re each stuck with our own brain so we might as well learn to live with it. Mindfully.

I was blessed with a solid religious foundation thanks to a mother who made Sunday church attendance a fact of childhood existence. I was also thankful to have an extended family of Roman Catholics who helped me feel this part of my cultural heritage deeply and led me to attend the College of the Holy Cross despite not being a practicing Catholic myself. I also fervidly went through a wonderful period of evangelical christianity in my late high school years. Heck, I considered making a profession out of it at one point. (My first declared major at Holy Cross was religious studies.) Across the board, the individual Christians who populated my upbringing were fantastic, moral, genuine people. If it weren’t for a logical, educated personal realization that it makes little sense to live as if there is an active higher power in general or a Christian god in specific, I could have seen myself continuing along some version of that tried and true path. But for a solid 20 years, this is how I have lived — and very much still live.

But. (Insight) Meditation, which to me has become both an essential internal practice with my own mind and also external connection (or more to the Buddhist point, emptiness of actual connection) to everything else outside of me, has stepped into a role that I once associated with prayer. Guided group meditation and dharma talks have replaced church services, in terms of hearing from a learned spiritual leader and doing so alongside fellow practitioners (even virtually). Sangha groups — like-minded folks gathering regularly to discuss their practice — have stepped in to substitute the bible studies or fellowships I once partook in. Retreats, ranging from virtual one day sessions to longer, possibly even silent, weeklong versions, are now a part of my life or a part of what I hope to regularly participate in. This little essay itself was inspired by a powerful Saturday I spent this past weekend with Jonathan Foust that allowed me the space to really feel how this all came together for me — and what it means.

To save the best for last, I have been most inspired throughout this journey by my wife, Cheryl. Her years of prior meditation practice and mindfulness introspection informed the foundation that I now share thanks to her. Our journey together has meant the world to me. Our relationship has improved and continues to grow deeper as a direct consequence. And in fact, my first a-ha moment came thanks to her. Cheryl brought me to the Feathered Pipe Ranch in August 2019 for a seven-day yoga retreat. The meditation practices briefly touched on throughout that week by Judith Hanson Lasater and the spiritual energy that infuses that magical Montana place touched me deeply. The importance of that week and its shamanic location still resonates powerfully within me as a personal Rivendell. We hope to return this summer.

Mindfulness is as good a single word or concept as it gets to capture the essence of this all in a concise manner with some degree of mutual understanding. That is thanks to the burgeoning movement that has emerged over the past 50 years into a household and workplace norm. I am careful, however, at this point in my journey to specifically characterize how Buddhism intersects with all of this for me. It most certainly does inform much of this practice, and profoundly at that. I am also very aware that there is some version of cultural appropriation at play here in the United States, even if it is very much encouraged by Buddhist priests and scholars from the various schools and sects, as well as propagated by public practitioners at home in both the East and West. I look forward to learning and exploring more on this in particular. But even as a hybrid version of Buddhism/psychology barely understood by me, it already plays a role similar to that of the Christian practices and activities once important to me. And in that, this is as profound a church as I have yet experienced in this world. It feels amazing to come home to a community of like-minded, moral human beings.

Backpacking 2020: A Review

[What a year! Enjoy a little overview with links to snippets of adventure that wend through 2020 in backpacking trips with DC UL and also solo (and duo). Total mileage for me came out to about 387 trail miles, which is probably just about average for a year spent living in the DC area. I made up for the three dead months with some longer three-day trips in the second half of the year. Here’s to many more in 2021 and beyond!]

January. 30 miles. Backpacking in 2020 started with a project. Technically beginning in December 2019 with our Shenandoah National Park Alpha Trip, my DC UL “Alpha to Omega” series was designed to backpack Shenandoah National Park using Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) rustic cabins as Saturday evening refuges while pushing the miles and exploring some infrequently backpacked trails. Our January 2020 “Gamma” trip was a fantastic way to start the year. Mostly because Claudio showed up to surprise us with a feast at Jones Mountain Cabin. With such an auspicious start, how could backpacking in 2020 go wrong?

February. 0 miles. It went wrong almost from the get-go. For our “Delta” outing planned for February 21-23, COVID-19 was still a distant though looming threat and we were all set to head out. The DC UL crew did indeed explore Hazel Country in Shenandoah as planned. But I was knocked out with a high fever and a week of body aches. I attribute this to the flu and tested negative for COVID antibodies later, mind you. But still. I guess we’ll just chalk this up to dramatic sickness foreshadowing.

March. 0 miles. Right, March. Our “Epsilon” trip was planned for March 13-15. I booked Doyles River Cabin with the PATC. Things began to get weird from there. First, work pulled me into its COVID-19 response team. Our focus was on the worsening pandemic in Europe and I bailed on the trip to help the flood of emergency work coming in over the weekend. Second, Kylie and Karan — who agreed to take over leading the trip — canceled completely as the week descended quickly from normal to chaos. You remember it: the NBA went down first; President Trump declared a national emergency and banned most European travelers from entering the United States; we all realized that there was no escaping COVID-19.

April. 0 miles. My April was spent much like yours, I presume. Hunkered down and masked up. It was the strangest month of my life. Cheryl and I debated food security and toilet paper supplies. Work was a busy torrent but interestingly (and surprisingly) accomplished at home instead of the office. No backpacking, however.

May. 90 miles. Cooped up but excited as spring sprung around me in Alexandria, I planned a [somewhat] solo hike of my beloved 70-mile Massanutten Trail to preserve our spring “Death March” tradition. It was amazing, though unseasonably cold. I also slipped out for a quick Memorial Day weekend trip to Dolly Sods Wilderness, West Virginia (also solo). Though I’m quite the extrovert and count trail camaraderie as one of the main reasons I love backpacking, these solo trips really fulfilled me.

June. 80 miles. Though in hindsight taking a couple months off from group DC UL backpacking isn’t a big deal at all, at the time it certainly felt momentous. Under Jen’s great leadership, DC UL came up with a COVID-19 mitigation plan and started group outings again, albeit with some necessary changes: 1) strict adherence to any and all federal, state, local guidance; 2) no carpooling or car shuttling; everyone drives individually to the trail head and we do loops instead of end-to-end hikes; 3) staying home if there is any chance of prior exposure or symptoms. I led a West Virginia trip out to Trout Run Valley and another to hike a loop we crafted out of some favorite Pennsylvania trails.

July. 70 miles. Claudio and I banded together for an eventful hike of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail that I’ll never forget. This really hammered home that backpacking was absolutely a COVID-19 friendly activity with nominal adaptations. Our UL style always has us in individual shelters anyways — and it certainly is no bother to stay six feet or more from each other in the woods.

August. 2 miles. I ended up taking some time away from the trail to recuperate from some foot pain. Sadly, I had planned a DC UL outing to St. Mary’s Wilderness that I had to hand over to others to lead, though ended up stopping by with Cheryl to join the crew at camp. After a trip to the podiatrist, I was surprised to piece together that all the work from home with bare feet on a hardwood floor over six months had not been kind to my body. Luckily, the fix was supportive house shoes.

September. 75 miles. I ended up back it at as a solo adventurer for the month. This included the 60-mile Loyalsock Trail and the much shorter John P. Saylor Trail. Both memorable. I felt blessed for these trail experiences.

October. 50 miles. A triumphant return with the DC UL crew saw us up in Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon during peak foliage season for Columbus Day weekend. We feasted and hiked and danced.

November. 30 miles. Though I got my hopes up of a return to Pennsylvania to continue hiking the complete network of PA state forest trails, we submitted to COVID-19 inter-state travel restrictions and stayed put in Virginia for a lovely weekend traversing some of the region’s most scenic overlooks.

December. 30 miles. I kept to a buck hunting season tradition and stayed in the protected confines of Shenandoah National Park to end the 2020 backpacking season. In December, the woods rightfully belongs to hunters. We had a pretty terrific time, though our original route had to be tweaked to ensure enough parking spots and to avoid any car shuttles. It was worth it. Just like that, 2020 concluded. It was a long ass year on every level. Three months of zero backpacking was assuredly “rough” — though in no way comparably difficult juxtaposed with the myriad hardships and tragedies of the year. It all reminded me of how damn important this hobby is to my mental, physical, and social health. As an outdoors activity, though, it rebounded better than most to the COVID-19 reality of 2020. Happy trails!

A Year in Trees (And Tree Books)

2020 meant many things to me, not surprisingly or even remotely unique. But 2020 was, in the end, a year of trees; a year in trees. This has been a surprising, enriching tree awakening that began around January 1 and blossomed into a spring of discovery in the neighborhood and the mountain trails I frequent. It has also been a journey through books as I turned over this new leaf. This post is both an exploration of my year in trees and a review of several of the books that were important to my own growth. All puns intended.

We live surrounded by trees. Within a stone’s throw of our apartment building are parks, cemeteries, and streets lined with species both native and imported. Thanks to the Alexandria National Cemetery and surrounding landscaped areas, I can explore 200 year old trees planted by early Alexandrian developers. I can also enjoy the curated trees of the 20-year old Alexandria African-American Heritage Park and the Hoof’s Run banks. But it wasn’t until this year that I began to commune with these trees, identify them, and watch carefully as they go through their annual cycle of rebirth. As a particularly vivid memory, Cheryl and I paused a little after midnight on our walk home after celebrating New Year’s Eve by a regal white pine across the street from our building and declared it “the 2020 Tree” in a hopeful burst of declaration. (For me, my earliest tree memories are running around the white pine-dominated second-growth forests of central Massachusetts. They’re not common in the wild down here for the most part and the 2020 Tree is a human-planted tree in our park.)

Not the 2020 Tree — a colossal willow oak near Alexandria National Cemetery that we view daily from our apartment window.

Identification. With a combination of several terrific tree field guides and a useful app, it was a wondrous year of identification. Why does it mean something to name a tree in order to enhance appreciation of it? It doesn’t, of course. But like an ancient culture spirit or a fantasy novel mystical entity, the naming of an object denotes a power and a purpose with, or indeed, over it. It has been truly invigorating to greet the living world around me by their scientific and commonplace names. I do recommend a combination of books, apps, and internet resources when embarking on a similar journey. It has been this comprehensive and curious approach that has meant the most to me. After using many apps, PictureThis emerged as the hands down most accurate and user friendly. For books, the Sibley Guide to Trees is the most informative and useful, even though it relies on paintings rather than pictures. The National Audubon Society’s Eastern Region Field Guide to Trees is the most comprehensive. I appreciated the winter pictures and bark focus of A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast and the detailed photos of Identifying Trees of the East as other options. Cheryl and I would often spend our spring walks with a book or two in hand, wandering the neighborhood to identify and learn as fresh shoots and buds emerged, like all of us, from a cruel winter of sheltering in place. Despite it all this year, when I think back on 2020 this is one of the things I will most tenderly remember.

Identification Assistant

Books. This year was a year of reading. For me, tv and internet use was dramatically reduced in order to get me away from screens and holding a tangible, former tree in my hands (yes, ironic and potentially hypocritical). Among other categories, I read many books about trees. Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins are both towering works of fiction that every single person should read and relish — whether or not you give a flying fig tree. For different reasons, these two decorated books by a pair of the finest living U.S. writers are worthy literary and historic fiction tomes that illuminate the human and family condition while also telling the story of trees and their exploitation. I am not the same person after reading these books.

With nonfiction, a foursome of books meant the world to me and helped me see the forest and the trees. Robert Moor’s On Trails is not a tree book per se, but a story of man and trails. This unique book is the type of intellectual rumination that will appeal to hikers and naturalists alike. David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen is poetic and educational. Haskell journals about one year in the life of one square meter of old growth forest with remarkable insight. Eric Rutkow’s American Canopy is a very thorough historical work on trees in U.S. history. It is readable and an essential augmentation to the U.S. and natural history you thought you knew. Finally, I just finished reading Zach St. George’s The Journeys of Trees and found it to be such a joy. Also, I was surprised after reading so much about trees this year that this just-released book still found ways to fill in parts of the picture. It is essentially a two-hundred page “New Yorker” type article, with all the long form journalistic prowess that denotes, including a couple main “characters” that weave into and out of each chapter: the Florida torreya and the California sequoia.

As with any awakening (dear lord did 2020 offer more than a few for me personally), this one signified that the world around me would never again be the same. I have always felt pulled in an almost a spiritual sense to trees and forests since childhood. But this was an unlocking of those feelings and an actualization of what they meant to how I experienced the entire world. Yes, I ended up as a monthly supporting Sierra Club member this year but this was about so much more. I am able to hike and backpack with an informed sense of what — and why — the trees are the way they are, and a curiosity surge when I encounter something new. I’m haunted too. I’m no longer able to see cities and woods without noticing what isn’t there. American chestnut. American elm. Most native ash (the ongoing genocide of the 21st century). These add to the list of pines, hemlocks, and old growth from coast to coast that have vanished under the purge of human inflicted manifest destiny and now climate change. The story of our woods is a tale of sadness and murder.

Trees are everywhere: here are some gorgeous red (bald) cypress trees outside the State Department’s D St Entrance.

In what is probably the most 2020 moment of pertinence here, a summer storm led to the falling of a huge dead ash DIRECTLY ON TO THE 2020 TREE. Not only were half the branches ripped off my beloved white pine, but a young yellow (tulip) poplar and sycamore were struck as well. The 2020 Tree, like many but not all of us enduring 2020, will likely survive. But it weathered a close call that was entirely preventable, from the alien invader emerald ash borer beetles that snuck over on Chinese pallets to fell the ash to the lapse in city judgment or budget to fail to safely remove a dead tree that only had one direction to go.

As the holiday season approaches, I can’t help feeling there’s only way to end this, with John Denver and Alfie the Christmas Tree. Be well. Get to know the trees that are already part of your life. You do not know how long they will be here for you. It is very much in every one of us.

The 2020 Tree under attack

Are We Entering a New Progressive Era? (Reviewing Robert Putnam/Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again)

I came across Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again in David Brooks’ October 15 New York Times opinion column “How To Actually Make America Great Again.” It’s worth quoting at length. Here’s what David wrote:

The Upswing,” a remarkable new book by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, puts this situation in stark relief. A careful work of social science, the book looks at American life from about 1870 to today across a range of sectors that are usually analyzed in separate academic silos.

The first important finding is that between the 1870s and the late 1960s a broad range of American social trends improved: Community activism surged, cross party collaboration increased, income inequality fell, social mobility rose, church attendance rose, union membership rose, federal income taxes became more progressive and social spending on the poor rose.

Many of us think that the gains for African-Americans only happened after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but Putnam and Garrett show that the fastest improvements actually happened in the decades before. Black school attendance, income gains, homeownership rates, voter registration rates started rapidly improving in the 1940s and then started slowing in the 1970s and 1980s.

The American century was built during these decades of social progress. And then, around the late 1960s, it all turned south.

The frequency of the word “I” in American books, according to Putnam and Garrett, doubled between 1965 and 2008. The authors are careful not to put it into moralistic terms, but I’d say that, starting in the late 1960s, there was left wing self-centeredness in the social and lifestyle sphere and right wing self-centeredness in the economic sphere, with a lack of support for common-good public policies. But it was socially celebrated self-centeredness all the way across. It was based on a fallacy: If we all do our own thing, everything will work out well for everybody.

As I was reading the book, I was thinking of all the people who work at foundations, nonprofits and all the organizations that try to help people in need and do social repair. I’m sure all these good people at these good places have done good things over the past 50 years, but they have failed to bend these curves. Social conditions got inexorably worse.

That’s because many were operating at the wrong level. They were trying to build programs that would “scale,” but they were swimming against the tide of culture, the pervasive individualistic mentality, and all its social and political effects.

Over the past 50 years, the positive trends have reversed: membership in civic organizations has collapsed, political polarization has worsened, income inequality has widened, social trust has cratered, religious attendance is down, social mobility has decreased, deaths of despair have skyrocketed and on and on.

Putnam and Garrett take the data from diverse spheres and produce different versions of the same chart, which is an inverted U. Until the late 1960s, American life was improving across a range of measures. Since then, it’s a story of decay.

Why did all these different things happen in unison and then suddenly turn around all at once? Maybe economic change drove everything? But no, the timing is off. Economic inequality widened a bit later than most of the other trends. Maybe it was political dysfunction? Nope. That, too, happened a bit later.

The crucial change was in mind-set and culture. As Putnam and Garrett write: “The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From ‘I’ to ‘we’ and back again to ‘I’.”

The Good and the Nitpicking. There’s a lot in this book. In particular, if you love charts you’ll be in heaven. It’s not quite a chart per page but it’s close. Since the authors cover A LOT of ground in relatively few pages, however, those of you who are actual social scientists will probably pull your hair out as they move swiftly and concisely through an enormous amount of material. For everyone else, this gives a fantastic, easy to read college course like overview of 130 years of U.S. trends: economics, politics, society, culture, race, and gender.

Go Read the Upswing. The Upswing focuses on both analytics and also provides a built-in curriculum of reading in its meticulous endnotes and associated bibliography. Go wild if this is your thing. I can see myself coming back to several of the sources quoted. The book looks back more than it looks forward, which is good. It’s not that book. Those are out there. But it is impossible not see the modern context in the rise of the early 20th century Progressive Era, nor disagree with the arc that Putnam and Garrett postulate. Probably best to use their words — with a little help from a Progressive friend:

“Progressivism emerged on the heels of populism and in direct competition with socialism, both of which movements advocated many of the same causes, but fell short of their aims because, among other reasons, they failed to appeal to the full range of American values. By contrast, Progressives managed to fashion slow and steady reforms as an alternative to calls for revolution. Progressive reformers quickly learned that in order to succeed they would have to compromise — to find a way to put private property, personal liberty, and economic growth on more equal footing with communitarian ideals and the protection of the weak and vulnerable, and to work within existing systems to bring about change.” Page 336

“No one party, no one policy or platform, and no one charismatic leader was responsible for bringing about America’s upswing as we entered the twentieth century. It was, instead, the result of countless citizens engaging in their own spheres of influence and coming together to create a vast ferment of criticism and change — a genuine shift from ‘I’ to ‘We.’ For Americans living through the turbulent closing decades of the nineteenth century, such a turnaround was by no means inevitable or even expected. and yet it happened, clearly and steadily.” Page 338

“But as we look to an uncertain future we must keep in mind that what is perhaps the greatest lesson of America’s I-we-I century: as Theodore Roosevelt put it, ‘the fundamental rule of our national life — the rule which underlies all others — is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.'” Page 341

Together.