Thursday, December 06, 2018


I like this old photo because of the contrasts I saw and heard here at this spot. This was taken from near the summit of Sams Knob, one of North Carolina's 6000-foot peaks. I took this image on the way back from an overnight backpacking trip into the Middle Prong Wilderness. The day I passed through headed to my campsite, the large empty meadow below had been packed with dozens of loud hippies walking around, banging on leather drums, blowing on flutes, and generally making a complete nuisance of themselves while camped all over the field and in the verges of the forest. None of them, I was happy to note, were on the top of the mountain where I went to take in the views. I intentionally did not take any photos of the meadow packed with humans, but later I wished that I had, just for the contrast.

On the way back to my truck (parked on the ridge along the road you can see), I returned to the top to take in the view. I can never resist the hike to the top of that mountain. Looking down I could spot no one else (it was a Monday and the multitudes who had filled the meadow on the weekend were gone back to Asheville). Best of all, the place was silent. Completely quiet. I couldn't hear a single human voice, no flutes piping away, and no damned annoying drums. Just the wind and some bird song.

At any rate, I always think of the contrast when I look at this old photo. What a huge difference a couple of days can make.

The meadow devoid of humans and noise.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Superhero Trilogy

I tend not to like most movies that I see. I keep watching them, hoping for a good one. Because now and again I will watch a movie that pleases me. Yes, I do admit that I am sometimes very critical of the form, but there's nothing wrong with that. When I do see a decent film I celebrate it.

One filmmaker whose work I generally despise is M. Night Shyamalan. His movies are--to put it mildly--mostly stupid. I was first talked into going to see his movie "The Sixth Sense". I concluded that it was insipid and predictable. It wasn't without a good performance from Bruce Willis, and that was the only thing that kept me from walking out on it.

In addition, I have seen (or tried to watch) a host of his other films. Either out of boredom or at the request of friends who actually do enjoy his movies. They were pretty much all complete failures for me, except for one movie.

"Unbreakable". That was the only movie from Shyamalan that I have seen which I quite enjoyed. Yes, it is a silly superhero movie. But he plucked out most of the goofy ideas of the superhero theme and--as much as was possible--turned it all into something almost realistic. For the first time in my life I watched a filmmaker actually create a superhuman project that really was (to quote the silly meme from the 1980s) "not just for children anymore".

He removed the idea of spandex costumes. He dispensed with secret identities, headquarters, allies, and other such fantasies. One of the things I rather did like about the film is that the superhero in the movie doesn't even realize that he is such until someone tweaks it out of him. And then it becomes an inner conflict of whether the protagonist is, in fact, superhuman, or just mentally disturbed. In addition, the powers that the hero has are almost believable. Not quite, but just enough for me to be able to enjoy the movie as something approaching logic--tremendous strength, a high level of immunity from physical damage, and a measure of telepathy that is so vague it even confuses the hero. Yeah, I could dig it.

Also, it didn't hurt that it starred Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, two actors whose work I sometimes enjoy. Both of them tend to deliver questionable performances from time to time, but now and again they will also surprise me with particularly convincing portrayals.

It was because of "Unbreakable" that I relented and tried to watch a string of his other movies which were absolutely awful and made me wonder if the writer/director is a moron (and also how anyone would continue to give him the vast amounts of cash it requires to make a major film these days). These later movies were so awful that the very mention of his name ended up filling me with a sense of disgust.

I never did see "Split", his movie about a man who is besieged by multiple personalities. Because I had already seen or tried to watch "Signs", "The Village", "The Happening", and "After Earth". I turned all of those off because they were so horrid in every way I could mention. The man was, I had to admit, a manufacturer of shit.

Except for that one movie, "Unbreakable".

Later I read that he is doing a sequel to "Unbreakable", and that his previous movie "Split" is actually part of his superhero trilogy. Therefore, I will go to see "Glass", his new movie, the final film in his trilogy. I'll also rent "Split" to see if it's his usual awful material. Maybe he'll surprise me.

Or maybe I'll have been suckered again. I'll let you know.

Bruce Willis as the unbreakable superhero, here trying to use his confusing ability of extra-sensory powers.

James McAvoy as the monstrous "Beast". (I wonder what kind of a deal they had to work with Marvel Comics/Disney for the use of that hame.)

Samuel L. Jackson as the dapper evil genius, Mr. Glass.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Brief Review of Standing Indian Campground.

Standing Indian is among our favorite National Forest campgrounds. It's a Nantahala National Forest facility located near Franklin, North Carolina. It's located near the NC/GA/SC border. Within a short drive is the Highlands area (packed with more waterfalls than you can imagine), the Blue Wall plunging down into the South Carolina Piedmont, and the spine of high mountains leading up from Georgia toward the Great Smoky Mountains.

For natural beauty the area is very hard to match. The mountain slopes are clothed in dense hardwood forests. There are many summits that crack the 5,000-foot mark. Streams and waterfalls can be found very close to the campground, and the Appalachian Trail winds its way over Standing Indian Mountain which looms over the vicinity and lends its name to the campground.

Oh. And there are normally lots and lots of bears here. The bear population in this area is about as dense as it gets.

The campground itself is very large and consists of four loops. Our favorite loop (#1) hugs the main creek and offers a number of creekside campsites. Our favorite site (#13) was unavailable so we stayed at site #16. This proved to be a bit of a mistake when a front moved through (the remnants of a Gulf hurricane) and dumped extremely heavy rain on us ceaselessly for more than 48 hours. The creek swelled beyond its banks and part of our campsite was inundated with water.

This was after the rains let up a bit and the lake that formed beside our campsite (flooding the picnic table) subsided .

Much as with our last camping trip, this one had us sidelined due to the inclement weather. My favorite pastime when I go camping is to hike to mountain summits and to hidden waterfalls. This was denied me on this trip because of the storm. Well, the next time we go we know to avoid campsite #16 if heavy rain is in the forecast.

Each loop at Standing Indian provides a bathhouse with flush toilets, sinks, and separate hot showers. The bath facilities are quite nice and there seem to be enough of them to avoid having to stand in line to use the showers. Of course we weren't there in high season, so this might not be the case when every site is occupied by a family.

The creek just across from our campsite. Its rushing waters would have lulled us to sleep if the pounding rain on the roof of our trailer hadn't done the same. The day after I took this photo the creek (Kimsey Creek?) was a good four feet deeper than in this photo and the banks were underwater.

There are no water or electric hookups at the campsites, but this isn't a problem due to the campground bath facilities. And if you have a travel trailer (as we do), then you generally don't actually need water and electric at the site. We carried our generator along and ran that when we needed, and our onboard water tank was full.

Since I couldn't hike as I wished, we ended up taking some long drives to see nearby sites that didn't require clear skies. One day we drove the Wayah Road which is lined with waterfalls and cascades. We skipped the drive to the shoulder of Standing Indian Mountain where we could have had a short hike to the summit. There is also a road to the top of Wayah Bald (another nearby mile-high peak), but we passed that one up because of the pea soup we knew would greet us at the end of the road and the top of the mountain.

An impressive cascade along Wayah Road.

Another day we took the hour-long drive over to Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While there we saw the restored elk herds and took advantage of that to take over one hundred photos of the enormous deer, returned to the South after about two hundred years absence.

Our trip was dampened a bit by the terrible weather, but as I like to say, even in crappy weather the forest beats the city any time. We relaxed a lot, sat and observed the trees, did some reading, and generally took it easy. Which is what a vacation is for.

Yay! The elk have returned to the Smokies!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Elk

When I was a kid back in the 70s learning how to backpack and venturing into the forests on multi-day trips I would read of the animals who used to inhabit the Great Smoky Mountains before the arrival of the European colonizers. All sorts of animals who survived the Pleistocene extinction event were still present there, many of them through the 1700s and into the 1800s.

And I used to wonder what it would be like to hike through the Smokies and encounter things like timber wolves and fishers, bison and elk, mountain lions and beaver. From time to time I would hear some people talk of reintroducing some of these creatures into the Park, but I never heard any concrete plans to do so.

However, eventually, the Park Service did create and implement an action that resulted in the reintroduction of elk. They chose Cataloochee Valley to be the initial site for this and began to bring in and acclimatize the big deer. I will never forget the first time I drove into Cataloochee hoping to spot some elk and doing exactly that, seeing a couple of big bulls at the edge of the forest and the field, standing there on the verge where I was able to snap a few grainy photos with my first digital camera back in 2005.

I still enjoy going to Cataloochee to spot the elk. It remains the best place to see them, as the core of the burgeoning herds still call it home. I speak to people who encounter them in other parts of the Park, so they are spreading out. Eventually, I hope they begin to move out in all directions as the population increases and that they will spread into other parts of the southern Appalachians--perhaps even to my home state of Georgia. That would be something to see.

In meantime, it would be nice to see the return of some of the other great animals missing from the ecological web of the southern Appalachians. The fisher has been successfully reintroduced to West Virginia. Maybe they could naturally return to the Smokies.  Perhaps mountain lions could come back to the southeast. While it would be great to see bison also come back, the facts on the ground there would make it difficult. The Park is surrounded by suburban sprawl and I doubt that local people would agree with having to deal with such a large animal parading through neighborhoods and onto streets and lawns. But it would be grand.

This guy was in charge. He had a couple of scars on his right flank, probably from past duels.

A couple of cows.

Whenever I see elk herds or whitetail deer herds in the Park, I also see flocks of wild turkey.

On the move.

The bull was concentrating on courting this particular cow. I suppose she was the one most open to mating.

The herd here was large. Dozens of elk, mainly cows.

The big bull tolerated a couple of young spike bucks in the field. Not sure why, unless he didn't look upon them as anything approaching a threat.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Sweet Story

I have said it before, but to me it always bears repeating--many animals feel compassion. In fact, I am convinced that lots of animals have the same depth and range of emotions that humans feel.

This past week Carole and I camped at Standing Indian Campground. We both really enjoy that place and were keen on returning since the last time we tried it was closed and gated due to a government shutdown. So we reserved site #16 and commenced to setting up camp.

One thing that we had purchased for our camping trips is a picnic shelter called Clam Quick-Set Shelter. We'd heard lots of good things about these contraptions and all of the positive commentary are true, as far as we're concerned.

Our Quick-Set Clam Shelter 

So, we set it up and within about half an hour we noticed that a small bird (a junco?) had come in through the door and was trapped inside. We tried to get it to fly out by having Carole hold the net door open and with me trying to coax the tiny bird out that way. But she was having none of that and insisted on trying to fly through the netting at the back of the shelter.

The little trapped bird.
When I realized that the little bird wasn't going to go out the way it came in I decided to try to catch it in my hands and carry it out. This was surprisingly easy to do since she (he?) was exhausted. I carefully cupped the little critter in my paws and carried her out.

Now, here's the cool part. As I opened my hands to free the bird I noticed that a small flock was waiting on the other side of the shelter, lingering there in the hope that their panicked companion/family member would somehow escape. As she took wing, so did the assembled flock; and they all flew off together.

Fragile cargo.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Addressing the Pipe Dream

No. We can't terraform Mars. We can't even keep our own planet livable. Why the hell do idiots think we can make a hostile environment accepting of our limitations? It's bullcrap. Total bullcrap. Mars is utterly inimical to life. It is cold almost beyond comprehension. It is magnitudes more arid than the most inhospitable desert on Earth. The soil is toxic. That's right--the freaking soil is poisonous. Mars also has only 1% of our atmospheric pressure, and it has no magnetic field to protect life from solar and cosmic radiation. The idea of creating a comfortable and inviting environment on a cold, arid, dead, poisonous, inhospitable chunk of barren rock is fantasy. Not science-fiction, but fantasy.
Hell...we can't even get there. The nations who could try are so impoverished from feeding their wealth to the privileged elite that there are no funds to even develop and initiate a system by which we could send humans to Mars.
The whole scheme is worse than a drug-induced hallucination.

Mars. Where it's so cold that CO2 freezes into a solid. Yeah...people are going to live there.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Opportunity Missed

When I was a younger man I went out of my way three times to meet Ray Bradbury. I won't belabor the obvious again, but it was Bradbury's magic touch of poetic emotion that took me on journeys to hear him speak and to share a few words with him.

But, on one of those occasions (in 1986) I was surprised to find that another guest at the writers gathering was L. Sprague deCamp. As with Bradbury's fiction, I had grown up reading the stories of deCamp. In fact, his stories probably influenced me more than those of Bradbury. He was--to my way of thinking, these days--a finer and more accomplished author than Bradbury.

But, although I had many a chance that long weekend, I never once talked with deCamp and only went to hear him speak a single time, and that one on a panel with Bradbury in attendance. And, of course, the fans showered the lovable Ray with questions and attention, and barely paid deCamp any mind whatsoever. So he had only a slice of opportunity to speak and to impart his accumulated years of authorial wisdom.

One thing that I remember about him in that panel is that he was dressed like some kind of European out to explore Africa (this was in super-hot and humid Atlanta, after all). He was wearing khaki shorts and shirt and even had (at least this is how I remember it) a pith helmet. In my now forty-year-old memories, deCamp was a small man, and his wife accompanied him everywhere. Whenever I saw him, there she was. Catherine Crook was an amazing woman and writer herself. I later found out that he only survived her by six months in the year 2000 when they both died at the age of 92.

There are many stories by Bradbury that entranced me as a kid. But I can say the same of deCamp, even if only a few of his yarns come to the fore of my aging brain. It was mainly his greater body of work that left a stamp on the gray matter, rather than many individual tales.

But two of his short works that I read as a child are foremost in my mind and I think of them often, even when I'm not writing. They are "The Gnarly Man", and "Living Fossil". The first deals with the immortality of a Neanderthal and the deceit of modern humans; and the latter with human extinction and the rise of a species of South American monkey that rules the planet. I cannot stress to people how important these stories have been to me over the years. They are both based on themes that have always fascinated me and which influence my thinking practically, scientifically, politically, and philosophically. And neither of them seems to have any overt reason for existing on any of those points, except peripherally. And therein lies the mark of a truly talented author.

I have replayed my near-encounter with deCamp for decades. Of course I wish that I had spoken to him, if only to tell him that his stories and novels meant a great deal to me. That would have been enough. But, of course, I did not do that. I was there to meet the treacly Ray Bradbury, and that is what I did.

One thing that remains stuck in my mind is that during the panel--after the fans had ignored him for long minutes--deCamp finally got a chance to get a word in and he referred to Bradbury as his "competitor". At the time I thought that was a poor choice of term and that he probably meant "colleague". These days, I know better. He meant what he said. And these days I am sad because in just straight terms of drooling, vacuous puppy love, Bradbury won that sad competition.

Of course I also realize that deCamp wasn't a contestant in that kind of race. All he wanted to do was produce fine work. Let the gawkers have their hero-worship. I'll just stand aside and admire L. Sprague deCamp.

L. Sprague deCamp and Catherine Crook.