December 28, 2008

Coffeshop review- Cafe Nola

So, it's officially winter and I'm continuing my cold-weather trend of finding places to hang out, read, write, drink tea, and eat. I've recently added a fourth favorite to my repertoire-- Cafe Nola, in Frederick, MD. Nola has its roots in the defunct Downtime Cafe, which was located across the street. You literally walked down about four steps into the tiny, cramped basement of one of the historic townhouses on Patrick St. The tea assortment was fairly small, but eclectic and good. And the sandwiches on the equally small food menu were terrific, which is saying something because I'm not a sandwich fan. Unkempt and artsy, punky and funky, Downtime felt cozy to me. I didn't go there often, but often enough that I was seriously bummed when the place closed.

Seems the owners had a new concept in mind. Before long, Cafe Nola opened on the other side of Patrick in what was once a lunch counter/diner and has since been hard to keep occupied. Word was that Nola was being billed as a "coffeehouse/bar/kitchen". Before even seeing the place, visions of wanna-be-hip yuppies began dancing in my head. Sure enough, the first time I walked in, the sofa in the corner had been taken over by a 30-ish guy with a laptop and a toddler who was lolling all over the coffee table and floor. Yet there was also a dude with a mohawk and a black trench coat at one of the front window tables. After being ignored at the front counter for several minutes, I finally ordered a Battling Bamboo tea to go and left with a less than stellar first impression.

Now, while Frederick has a generous handful of very good restaurants, those places are just that: somewhere to be seated and served, dine, pay, and go. Places where one can feel comfortable just hanging out with a book and a meal have been few and generally haven't lasted long. Downtime Cafe was one of those few.

So there I was, feeling unmoored and bereft of a nearby hangout. There's just not always time to drive as far as Shepherdstown or Baltimore so, somewhat grudgingly, I went back to Nola. The tea was still the same good assortment, but the meal was mediocre. A third visit was just as poor, but the funky espresso cup collection and the same punky staff as at Downtime caused the atmosphere to begin growing on me.

Finally, on my fourth visit, I discovered Nola nirvana: the Grilled Cheesy sandwich, consisting of provolone, tomato, pesto and, optionally, prosciutto, grilled on focaccia. The combination of greasy, gooey cheese and the place being empty enough for me to read and eat in peace finally clicked and I left feeling content.

I've since been back a few more times for that sandwich and have discovered that their chef also does some pretty fantastic things with pumpkins and a soup pot. I've begun exploring more of the tea menu, as well-- while Battling Bamboo is still the first choice when I'm under the weather, I've found that Gypsy Love makes for a smooth, mellow compliment to a meal. The last test was Sunday brunch, for which I headed up to Frederick today. Veggies in Bed (tomato, basil, mozzarella and asparagus grilled on open-faced focaccia) seriously gives the Grilled Cheesy a run for its money, though the thicker focaccia required a steak knife to cut into.

So I've gone from turning my nose up at Nola to being totally won over by the place. Moral of the story: Always be willing to revise your first impressions, especially where food is concerned.

December 25, 2008

Christmas kittehs

Cats are such elegant, dignified, beautiful creatures. But give them a bit of discarded Christmas wrapping paper, and they turn into three-eyed goofballs...

Click image for more

December 17, 2008

Disturbed by Dexter

A lot of folks these days are into the Showtime series Dexter. Since I'm too cheap to spring for anything more than basic cable, I've been missing the boat. But a recent review of the season 3 finale (Spoiler Alert: don't click that link if you're a fan and haven't yet seen the episode) intrigued me more than anything else I'd heard yet, so I hit the video store today and rented the first disc of the first season. Now, after watching those four episodes back-to-back, I'm disturbed.

It's not the show itself, really, though both the premise and all of the assorted severed limbs that pop up on camera are unsettling, as I'm sure was the intent. No, the idea of the show, of a character like Dexter, is right up my alley. I've always been drawn to the macabre and morbid. As a kid, one of my favorite tv shows was The Addams Family. In high school, I delighted in memorizing and reciting Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies to anyone who would listen. I read Victorian-era ghost stories to relax, and can't pass an old cemetery without making plans to return and photograph it. Even my father confirms all of this: To this day, any reference to the movie Beetlejuice causes him to point at me and proclaim of Winona Ryder's character "That's you!"

So Dexter, the show itself, doesn't bother me. What popped into my head as I turned off the dvd player was: Why on earth is this show so popular? What has changed in our society to make a fairly graphic, somewhat violent television show about a serial killing forensic analyst not only accepted, but lauded? As television goes, Dexter's got a lot going for it-- witty and compelling writing, tension in both plot and character, and a great cast of actors. And for any fan of the much-missed HBO series Six Feet Under, the fact that it stars Michael C. Hall as the title character isn't the only thing it has in common with Alan Ball's great work. All of those factors definitely merit the acclaim the show's received.

Yet its popularity still bugs me. Where I was once glanced askance at for being "weird", I'm finding that "weird" is the In Thing these days. Goth is cool, skulls as decorative items are hip, and Dexter is a hit. And the idea that it's suddenly popular to be a weirdo like me leaves me, well, honestly... a bit freaked out.

November 29, 2008

How to ride a bike forever

This has been a hard year for me and the bike. Sadly, I've fallen out of love with it and only occasionally glance at where it leans against the wall on one side of the "sunroom" in my apartment. The downtube and fork are crusted with dried mud from a few wet late-summer/early-fall rides, and the spokes are probably collecting cat hair from the kittehs rubbing against the wheels. A fellow blogger recently wrote about the development of his own bike love affair. Mine's unfortunately taken a different course. So what happened? What caused my nearly obsessive, addictive two-wheeled adoration to fade?

I've always had a bike, ever since the first tricycle Santa left under the Christmas tree four decades ago. As I outgrew one, my folks would make another one magically appear. Back then, there was no thought involved in riding, it was just something you did, either with the neighborhood kids or alone. As I hit adolescence, the bike took me farther. I somehow discovered that we lived near something called a "bike path" (the 45-mile long W&OD Trail, to be specific) and suddenly I was off, riding my bike to the comic book shop, to 7-11 for Slurpees, or just to explore. There was never any thought of how fast or far I was going, and having to get off and push the bike up that last incredibly steep hill on the way home was just something all the kids did and the idea of being humiliated by not being able to pedal up it never crossed my mind.

When I grew up enough to move out and live on my own, whatever bike I happened to own at the time went with me. It was casual riding, just around the neighborhood (and still to 7-11 for Slurpees) to learn my way around the new digs. Sidewalk, road, school ball-field, it was all fair game for my wheels. Then, as happened in my teen years, I discovered a nearby trail: the C&O Canal towpath. I had to drive to get to it, so I scrimped from a few paychecks and shelled out for a bike rack on the car, then began loading the bike up to explore the sections of the C&O closest to home. This was like discovering Nirvana. I quickly developed an appreciation for the car-free atmosphere and the gorgeous natural surroundings, the peace and the solitude (though there were more than a few bumpy rides that left my hooty-hoo wishing I'd take the bike back to the sidewalk).
I was blissfully happy on the C&O for years, zooming or cruising along on my cheap little Schwinn Frontier as the mood struck me.

But as time went on, I began to think about my riding. The milepost markers on the C&O made it possible to keep track of how far I was going. And, by keeping track of my miles and the time I was out, I was able to begin estimating how fast I rode. But I seemed to have a limit to both mileage and speed, and it didn't take long before the craving to increase one or the other, or both, grabbed hold of me. The first bit of advice I was given was to get a bike computer and watch my cadence in order to pace myself for longer rides. Done. Worked for a while, but then the insidious craving for a new bike began to creep up on me. I think I talked to salespeople at a total of three shops, and ended up buying the first bike I test rode (the guys in that shop were the only ones smart enough to actually get the bike down and tell me to go ride it, and I fell for it).

The difference was amazing. The computer showed that I was immediately riding faster, and the carbon fork on the bike smoothed out a significant amount of the towpath bumpiness that had left my hooty-hoo so frequently disgruntled. Within a few rides, I was clocking twice the mileage per ride. Is there a second level to Nirvana? If so, I'd found it.

Then I discovered the forums at Team The forums attact a tremendously wide variety of female cyclists, from comfort-beast cruisers to custom carbon racers and everything in between. I could relate to the women who rode at a more relaxed pace (though I'll admit I was a bit perturbed to discover that I qualified as a slow rider) and I could learn from the very experienced roadies and mtb'ers in the bunch. A handful of us in the DC area even began meeting to ride together, and these ladies soon tempted me off of my beloved towpath onto hilly country roads and gentle singletrack. They've challenged and inspired me, and we've had a lot of fun together.

So what happened this year?

There've been a couple of things, I think. First and most obvious to me is that I had a handful of bad rides this year. Some were just a case of unpleasant circumstances (crappy weather, etc), but others were more serious and indicated a possible medical condition that I need to have checked out. After so many years of riding the pancake-flat C&O and similar paved bike trails, beginning to ride hills has been a hellatious challenge for me. I had more than one ride this summer that left me gasping at the top of a comparatively small hill, light-headed and in a cold sweat, feeling that I would pass out if I stood upright and with my heart erratically pounding as if it would beat its way out of my ribcage. Heatstroke? Perhaps, but the symptoms made me paranoid that I've developed a heart condition. (And of course I'm procrastinating in getting to the doctor about this. Denial's become stronger than the urge to ride.)

There's also, though, been that issue of thinking about my rides. That desire to go farther and faster, and to try to conquer the hills, led to logging every ride at Once upon a time, a good ride was one on which I'd just plain had fun, and the endorphins from just pedaling were more than enough. Suddenly, a ride wasn't good unless I'd accomplished something. I had to either maintain a smooth pedal stroke at a high cadence, or I had to maintain a high (for me) speed for the entire ride, or I had to reach a farther distance than I had before, or I had to get up a certain hill without stopping three times on the way. I had to when I rode.

I think this has all been in the back of my mind for a while. I'd gotten to the point this summer that I was flipping the bike computer around the handlebar so I couldn't see it while I rode. And days would go by before I'd log rides at bikejournal. I started thinking more about just riding the bike to do nearby errands and such. Finally, in October, I leaned the bike against the wall and ignored it. Then, this morning, posted this:

Eureka. That makes me want to ride, though it's a damned shame that the folks at urbanvelo couldn't have posted it before temps in the DC area dove into the 40-ish degree range (that is one obstacle to riding I doubt I'll ever overcome). But I'm inspired to do things differently next year. Whether it means removing my bike computer or just not logging into bikejournal, whether I ride 40 miles on the C&O or just up the street to the 7-11, I want to get back to riding just for the sake of riding. Whatever it takes, just so that it's once more "joyous and simple".

November 27, 2008

Giving thanks for foxes

I took advantage of all the other folks sleeping in on this cold Thanksgiving morning to get out for a hike and had a few encounters along the way. Not with any of the hunters whose pickup trucks were parked along the road (I had a blaze-orange vest along just in case), but with a few of those critters that they might have liked to get in their sights This isn't the first time I've seen a fox along this particular trail, but it is the first time I've seen so many in one ramble.

I ran into the first one a ways down where the trail skirts close to the creek that it follows. The fox seemed to be looking in my direction when I spotted it, but then it turned its head away and stared off into the grass. After a moment, it began trotting away from me down the trail. I stayed back, only taking a few steps forward to keep it in sight as it passed an old tree stump. It stopped again near a curve in the trail, then did one of those hops that foxes do that seem to take it straight up in the air and forward at the same time. Whatever it was pouncing on must have gotten away, though, because it lifted its head and trotted off around the curve. I moved as quickly and quietly as I could until it was visible again, heading off of the trail and up a small hill. It passed through a patch of sunlight at one point and its fur blazed orange against the muted gold of the dried grass around it. I watched until it was gone, then put my hands in my pockets and ambled on.

This particular section of trail runs 2.5 miles from one road crossing to the next which, if you do the math, makes for five miles round-trip. Due to the time constraint of a Thanksgiving dinner commitment, I figured I'd just hike an estimated 2 miles down the creek then head back to get ready. Before I'd gotten quite that far, though, my turnaround point was decided abruptly for me when I spotted another fox lying along the trail about 20 feet ahead. I moved a few steps closer and could see that the fur running from its head down to its shoulder, where the rusty orange of its back turns into white under its neck and belly, was still fluffy and looked soft enough to touch, though its stillness implied an uninviting hardness. Strangely, the one thing I couldn't see was its tail. A fox's tail is generally almost as long as its body and often almost as big around, as well. The leaves on the ground weren't deep enough to hide something that full and furry. I tried not to dwell on ideas as to where it might have gone and instead spent few moments soberly contemplating the impermanence of
beautiful things. Then it was time again to amble on.

On the way back, I saw a third fox. This one had seen me first, and was already streaking away. It stopped and watched me as I continued along, then took off again as the trail curved and I headed towards it. I also saw a few deer scattered along the way, including one young buck splashing his way across the creek. At one point, I wondered whether I should have spent this time in the woods pondering those things for which I'm thankful, but decided that was b.s. There've been a whole lotta days recently that I've felt grateful for the people in my life and the things that I have, so what really makes this day more significant than any other? I'm a firm believer in being thankful every day, even those on which you feel like life sucks and the world is coming to an end. But as the hike concluded, my thoughts followed suit and settled on one thing for which I am exceedingly grateful: That there are still little pockets of nature tucked in amongst the sprawling suburbs that comprise this over-developed portion of the east coast. Yes, on this day, I am thankful for that.

November 26, 2008

November 17, 2008

Whatever you do...

Do not click on this link.

And if you do click, don't blame me for whatever hours of your life you lose. I warned you.

November 15, 2008

So sick, but oh, so funny

I love PostSecrets and I love lolcats. And now, I can have both (though only through archives, unless someone revives the concept)...

November 13, 2008

Terror Behind the Walls, 2008-- Updated 2008.11.13

It's taken a while to find time to blog coherently about the Terror Behind the Walls (henceforth referred to as TBtW) Halloween event at Eastern State Penitentiary. October into November is always such a busy time, so hopefully I can conjure up enough memory of that night to give a clear impression of it...

The crowd is so huge that it's best to park at the satellite lot and take the Ghost Bus. It's a short trip, during which one of the event ghouls lays out the ground rules (#1- The ghouls are not allowed to touch you, and you are not allowed to touch them!) and, if time permits, tells one of the many spooky tales about the Pen. Leo and I bought tickets for one of the earlier entries, around 8:00-8:30pm, and got there just in time to hand over our waivers and stroll in.

Click on any photo to see the entire series...

The first step inside those massive walls can give you shivers. The place has a palpable presence merely from the combination of the architecture and its state of decay. Knowing little of its history detracts nothing from the atmosphere, but does make you want to learn more of its secrets. Add to that the spookiness of Halloween and the uncertainty of what to expect from TBtW, and you've got yourself one nifty little case of excited jitters. My buddy Leo was certain that she'd be totally freaked over the whole thing. Partially because of that, and partially because I was just so fascinated by the place, I was determined to not be spooked by the actors, oops, I mean ghouls. From the moment we entered Intake, my attention was split between trying to see as much as I could of the prison itself through the dark and the fog machines, and whipping out snappy comebacks to the threats of the ghouls who repeatedly got in our faces. Leo and I ended up at the tail-end of our group, behind a girl who screamed at everything. The ghouls had a ball with her and mostly left us alone as a result. I still felt, though, that it was happening too quickly, that I wasn't able to see or, more importantly, feel enough of the building. It's a very disorienting experience, but that's really part of the fun.

My interior photos unfortunately don't capture any of the freaky chaos of the actual TBtW event. Those same elements that contributed to the atmosphere were too much for a little point'n'shoot camera, so I snapped a few shots of the prison museum and some closed-off cell blocks that we passed. The shots do give some impression of the creepiness of the place, but nowhere near as much as standing in the dark in front of a 5' tall metal door, peering through into a shadowy pile of fallen plaster and upended, broken furniture, wondering what you mi
ght see and hoping that you'll see nothing.

Beyond the fun and the admittedly morbid fascination, the most overriding feeling I came away with was an intense desire to go back for one of the daytime tours, in particular the audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi. The small, three room museum that we passed through on our way out hinted at an absolutely fascinating history.

Eastern State was the first prison in the world to house inmates in solitary confinement. No communal dining area or recreation area, just each to his own little white-washed cell with its tiny metal door, and each with a King James Bible. The Pen was a place of silence, intending to inspire the criminals it housed to a state of penitence, hence the term "penitentiary". Visiting in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville proclaimed, "Can there be a combination more powerful than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude... through religion to hope?". A mere ten years later, Charles Dickens expressed a very different view: "I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers." It's the conflict between those opposing opinions that creates the poignancy that emanates from those decrepit walls.

October 29, 2008

Getting into the mood...

I've mentioned before that Halloween's a holiday I look forward to immensely, so the time has come to get into the proper frame of mind. To that end, I'm:

* Currently re-reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

* Sitting down tonight with a big glass of apple cider and a bowl of popcorn to watch The Cell

* Spending Halloween evening in Shepherdstown for dinner, shadowing trick'or'treaters, then wandering through at least one of the four historic cemeteries in town.

* Heading up to Philly on Saturday to experience Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary with my buddy, Leo. According to the Travel Channel, this is one of the premier Halloween events in the county and I am quite psyched.

So, what are you doing for All Hallow's Eve?

October 25, 2008

Another day at the museum: The BMA, 10/25/08

Rainy day today, so I hit the Baltimore Museum of Art again. Since "a picture's worth a thousand words", I'll throw up a bunch before I toss out much in the way of my own words... (Be forewarned, this is a long'un)

The Visitation

Four-panel folding screen depicting the effects of the phases of the moon by Dario Cecchi, 1948

One of the coolest watches I've ever seen: Skull-form watch, ca1637-1658, French, steel

Head of Medusa door knocker, Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, ca1861-1929

Assorted landscapes, in oil (Jacob Van Ruisdael, Dutch, ca1628-1682)...

...and lithotint (James Durfield Harding, English, ca1854)...

...and crayon lithograph (Richard Parkes Bonington, English, ca1824)

One of the current special exhibits features the artist Franz West. The description of his work was, for me, more compelling than most of the actual pieces. As I wandered through the exhibit, I found myself repeating "what the fuck...?" over and over.

But then I got to the focal point of the exhibit, a work entitled "das Ich und das Es" (The Ego and The Id), which was designed and built specifically for the room within the BMA in which it was displayed. Note: Photography is not allowed in BMA special exhibits, so I nicked this shot from the museum's page about West.

This piece definitely intrigued me. The scale just isn't evident in this small image. And it's actually thought-provoking. From the description: "...the Latin term "ego" [das Ich]... means "the I". The task of the ego is to find a balance between primitive drives and reality. The term "Id" (inner desire) is a Latinized derivation of das Es, and translates into English as "It". The id is dominated by the pleasure principle." But which is which? Is ego's balance reflected in the uniform, soothing pink loops and id's chaotic drives in the riot of multiple colors? Or is it the reverse, ego finding its balance in a melding of colors, and id focused on throbbing pink pleasure? West apparently hasn't specified.

Moving on to the moderns: Man Pointing (Alberto Giocometti, bronze, 1947)...

...and There is No Finished World (Andre Masson, 1942)

The Three Rings, Henry Moore, red soraya marble, ca1966 (Both times I've seen this piece, I've wanted to put my hands all over it)

Modern, abstract art has always been a mystery to me, something that my visits to the BMA are helping me learn to appreciate. This piece is a prime example. To my uncomprehending eye, it's just a bunch of black smudges on a bright green background. Apparently, there's much more to it:

Metaphysical, huh? Who'da guessed?

And finally, The Baptism of Christ, by Louis Comfort Tiffany, ca1890-1899

After the museum closed, I headed over to the Papermoon Diner to fill my grumbling belly. The place is a riot, in more ways than one. It was hard to concentrate on the book I was reading, with so much stuff to look at around me. But the Eggs Benedict with ham and avocado were freaking fantastic.

Stopped for gas on the way through the city. As I got out of the car, a guy approached and asked if he could pump my gas. I'm probably a sucker, but after only minimal hesitation I said ok. He launched into a story about having just arrived from eight years out in Cumberland. Interesting coincidence, as I'd just vacationed out that way. His time there was apparently no vacation, as he'd just been released from prison and was only given a bus ticket as far as Baltimore. He was trying to raise enough cash to get some dinner (real food, not the prison "suey" he'd been living on) and a bus ticket to Glen Burnie and his grandmother's house. After the tank was filled, I gave him $5 and drove off wondering if I'd been swindled. Meh. There are worse things than being ripped off for $5. And if the guy was genuine, I wish I'd given him more.

Today was one more day in my love affair with Baltimore, a city that is terribly unappreciated. Following my tendency to associate music with places, I've come to identify Baltimore with the same elements I love about Maynard James Keenan and Tool, specifially their masterpiece album Aenima. Like that album, Baltimore contains some things that are beautiful, some things that are humorous and quirky, and some that are seamy, edgy and dirty. And all of those elements are shoved tight up against each other, often within the same song or neighborhood. It makes for a whole that is incredibly stimulating, if you take the time to really listen and look.


Something has to change.
Undeniable dilemma.
Boredom's not a burden
Anyone should bear.

Constant over stimulation numbs me
and I wouldn't have
It any other way.

It's not enough.
I need more.
Nothing seems to satisfy.
I don't want it.
I just need it.
To feel, to breathe, to know I'm alive.

Finger deep within the borderline.
Show me that you love me and that we belong together.
Relax, turn around and take my hand.

I can help you change
Tired moments into pleasure.
Say the word and we'll be
Well upon our way.

Blend and balance
Pain and comfort
Deep within you
Till you will not have me any other way.

It's not enough.
I need more.
Nothing seems to satisfy.
I don't want it.
I just need it.
To feel, to breathe, to know I'm alive.

Knuckle deep inside the borderline.
This may hurt a little but it's something you'll get used to.
Relax. Slip away.

Something kinda sad about
the way that things have come to be.
Desensitized to everything.
What became of subtlety?

How can it mean anything to me
If I really don't feel anything at all?

I'll keep digging till
I feel something.

Elbow deep inside the borderline.
Show me that you love me and that we belong together.
Shoulder deep within the borderline.
Relax. Turn around and take my hand.

October 19, 2008

Woke up on the wrong side of the bed today...

As I was typing out the details of this year's annual pilgrimage and the dukkha that accompanied it, I kept trying to think of an appropriate theme song. I have no idea why this one didn't occur to me. Leave it to Incubus to sum up exactly what I was feeling, and with a sense of humor no less.


On my way home,
police car pulled me over.

After they left, I puttered out of gas.
'Triple-A' came, but my card was expired.
I had to walk home, but of course, it rained half the time.
I tried to get some shut-eye, but I was abducted.
They put cold things in my butt.
They sampled a bit of my D.N.A.
They left me on top of my sheets.
I dreamt I went potty, then woke up drenched in me.

Yeterday sucked hardest ever...
I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today
A little bit less than nothing would go my way

Woke up to toss my soiled sheets.
The hallway was dark and I stubbed my big toe.
It was then that I sensed the irony, burning me...
I heard a voice say
"Come sail aboard S.S. Nepenthe!"

I suppose I'm to blame...
I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today
A little bit less than nothing would go my way

Thank goodness for bathtubs and suds...

I suppose I'm to blame for getting pulled over.
I guess I'm the culprit for running out of gas.

Let's assume I'm the guy who didn't pay 'Triple-A'.
In actuality, I let the Zetas probe me.
Yesterday was all my fault,
I let negativity get the better of me.
Thank goodness for bathtubs and suds.
They temporarily set free this quandary.

I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today
A little bit less than nothing would go my way

October 16, 2008

The annual pilgrimage, 2008

Got back last night from this year's trip out to Cumberland, MD, which is something I look forward to all year long. The fact that I have such high expectations for the trip created issues this year and gave me a whole lotta thinking to do. Lessons in dukkha and attachment are, of course, never easy.

I wrote last year about the indulgent way that I always begin the pilgrimage-- a massage at The Bath House in Berkeley Springs, WV, and the scrumptious (cheesy word but, damn, it's appropriate in this case) snow crab legs at the Texas Grillhouse in LaVale, MD. Added a slight twist this year in having a hot stone massage for the first time. I honestly don't know how I've lived this long without the sublime feeling of hot river stones slipped between my toes. First time I've ever blissed out enough to fall asleep during a massage.

So far, so good. Things started out just as wonderfully relaxing as usual. Monday began well, also. It was chilly overnight, and morning revealed a thick mist rising along the Potomac River and Tom's Creek between town and the surrounding mountains.

The day's plan was to drive over to Garrett County and ride a trail that runs between Herrington Manor and Swallow Falls state parks. I headed out fairly early to explore a new road before breakfast, and ended up driving all the way to Keyser, WV. I was hungry by the time I got there and began the hunt for any place besides McD's or Burger King at which to chow down. Passed a sign for The Candlewyck Inn that included the words "fine dining" and pulled in to check it out. Turns out they don't serve breakfast on weekdays, but that didn't stop the owner from offering to cook something for me. I ended up with a wonderful veggie omelet and home fries, and a pleasant conversation about the perils of small-town restaurant ownership. He also tipped me off to a shortcut from Keyser to my intended destination and within less than an hour I was passing through Oakland, MD, on my way to Herrington Manor to get my ass kicked.

I have no mountain biking skills to speak of, and I ride a rigid cyclocross bike. But a few very fun rides through the kiddy roller coaster that is the main trail at Rosaryville State Park made me confident enough to tackle this trail that is rated as "beginner". A guy working in the park office also confirmed that there was "one short rocky section", but that the rest was pretty easy. That "one short rocky section" that he pointed out on the map apparently grew significantly before I hit the trail. It was rocky from the freaking get-go, and I'm talking rocks ranging in size from dinner rolls to full loaves of bread. I bucked and bounced for two miles before deciding I was risking busting either my fork or my head, then turned around and hike-a-biked it through the worst sections on the way back. But I wasn't ready to give up just yet, so I loaded the bike back on top of the car and headed to the other end of the trail at Swallow Falls to see if perhaps that was the easy part.

It started out being fairly lovely, much smoother, swooping through hardwood forest and then descending quickly into hemlock groves. But then, rocks. And not only rocks. Big, freaking, tangled hemlock roots. This ride was nothing if not a lesson in why bicycle suspension was invented. If I'd had a bike properly designed for this type of trail, with full-on double suspension, I could have had a major blast. As it is, I think my cervical and thoracic vertebrae have fused into one great big hunk of bone, the thoravical. My chiropractor's got his work cut out for him at our next appointment.

The trail heads up through those tree roots on the left

The best section of all (again, the trail's on the left)

After another roughly two miles of torture I gave it up for good, again walking the bike through the most stone-choked sections. It was frustrating to quit with so few miles under my wheels, but I have to admit I'm fairly proud that I handled the bike so well on the portions I did ride. I was able to remain relaxed enough to let the wheels bounce over the rocks without bucking me off, and I picked up some decent speed on the smooth sections. Certainly a worthwhile experience, despite the discomfort.

And then things took a turn. This year's pilgrimage is notable in that it's the first time in eleven years that I chose to spend part of it with people I know. The ladies with whom I ride had planned a five day thru-ride of the C&O Canal. When the idea first came up months ago, it sounded like it could be lots of fun. For a variety of reasons, though, I decided against it. But I planned my trip for the same week with the intention of joining them for one of the most interesting sections of the towpath, the Paw Paw Tunnel. As a result, this particular pilgrimage ended up less time- and care-free than usual. Having to plan and schedule and interact with others added a hectic element and made the time spent with them turn into the focus of the trip, when it should have been just one enjoyable portion of the whole. Leading up to this day, I questioned a few times why I'd made this decision. I was sure that it would be fun and would further develop my friendships with these women, but it's counter to the purpose of the pilgrimage.

The plan had been for a pleasant mid-day ride with my buddies, 25 miles or so at an easy pace that would serve as a recovery from the beating the day before, with the fun of Paw Paw Tunnel as the centerpiece, and ending up having a lovely dinner by myself in Cumberland.

It turned into me riding alone down to (during which time I snapped the pics above) and through the tunnel, meeting my friends on the way back, then exerting myself pretty damned close to my physical limit, driving 60 miles that I hadn't planned on, and not getting back to the hotel and a shower until after 9:00pm. Dinner was with the gang at Bill's Place in Little Orleans, but consisted of a surprisingly good $3 bowl of lima bean soup.

This unexpected deviation from the usual course of pilgrimage events left me ping-ponging between concern and compassion on one hand, and resentment on the other. The bitterness I felt (am still somewhat feeling) over what happened is certainly not very Buddhist of me. But I wasn't able to obtain the peace of mind and quiet reflection that I so look forward to during this annual trip. The time I spend alone out there is time in which my mind can empty of all the responsibilities and issues and neuroses (my own, mostly) that I find to be part and parcel of every human relationship in my life. It allows the same freedom I experience when I escape to the woods, or onto the bike, or cruising country roads in the car, but for an extended period of time that creates a deeper rejuvenation and euphoria.

The fourth day out there, my last, didn't serve to improve the situation. The morning began not with curling mists rising in front of the mountains, but with totally grey, overcast skies. After breakfast at a favorite coffee shop up in Frostburg, I decided to just head home. Along the way, I was pulled over by a cop for doing 83 in a 65. Despite ending up with a warning instead of points and a fine, this was like insult (deserved, I know) added to injury.

I could have considered all of this some perverse "reward" for yesterday's good deed, but it wasn't. It was just weather patterns and not paying enough attention for radar traps. And yesterday's strained afternoon and evening were just a case of doing what needed to be done in response to an unexpected situation. The events and atmosphere that we find ourselves dealing with are not rewards or punishments. Nor are they good or bad luck. They are just what is. What creates the difficulty is how we classify and respond to them. My first response (after attempts to squelch my resentment) was to wonder how expectation fits into a Buddhist lifestyle. What the hell is the trick to looking forward to something with pleasant anticipation, without forming an attachment to the resultant expectations?

The conclusion I came to is that it's a matter of control. My desire for escape from schedules and responsibility, my craving for the freedom I feel during those escapes, isn't freedom at all. It's an attempt at control. Doing what I want to do when I want to do it, being impulsive or indulgent as I see fit, is just control in a different form. It feels like freedom, but isn't it really just enslavement to a need to feel that I'm calling the shots, instead of squeezing my life into the jigsaw puzzle of work, commuting, home ownership, family, and friendships? And it's my disinclination to give up that control that caused resentment to override the concern I felt for my friend. That's one of the hardest things about following the Buddhist path-- having to relinquish all sense of control and deal with things as they are, learning to want something yet being able to live with not getting it, developing the ability to gracefully flow with the alternatingly pleasant or painful stream of life. It's kind of like riding tricky singletrack. Ya gotta let go and relax enough to let the bike pick its own line through the rocks and enjoy the ride despite any bruises you end up with.

And that's enough of the philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Despite the lesson learned, I headed out today for one of those temporary escapes and cruised the back roads of West Va up to Shaharazade's. Lunch was great and the drive was great, but by far the brightest spot so far this week has been one brief moment this afternoon when I drove past the spot of the burned-down trailer (described here and, later, here). I had noticed on a similar drive several weeks ago that a new trailer had been installed on the lot. Today, as I was coming around the curve leading up to it, I noticed a basketball lying on the ground next to the basketball hoop that's been standing in the same spot along the road ever since I first saw the place. And, strolling across the yard, the same tow-headed kid I'd managed to avoid running down almost a year ago. The sun gleaming off his blond hair and the hand he raised in a wave gave me the biggest smile I've had on my face in many days. If I didn't know better, I'd almost consider it a reward.