Category Archives: nature

Growing Up in Athens

In my very first memory, I am sitting in a child seat on the back of one of my parents’ bicycles, reaching out my hand to feel the warm wind pushing between my starfished fingers. It is spring or summer, and the sun is high and golden in the clear blue sky above. The location is Connett Road, the site of my parents’ first home and later the place where I would complete my last two years of enrollment at The Plains Elementary School.

I did not know it then as a toddler, but Connett Road would later come to have a greater significance in my life. After my parents relocated to the southern edge of town, they made that thoroughfare the boundary of the part of town I was allowed to traverse unattended; I could walk or ride my bike to the end of any of the side streets that provided access to Connett, but I was not allowed to cross that larger, more heavily trafficked road myself—not until I was older, anyway, and commuted to and from school each day. I still remember how my hands were difficult to uncurl from their handlebar-gripping position after cold-morning bike rides. I can also vividly recall the rainy days when I would make myself as small as possible under my umbrella, shrinking my world down to the round patch of dryness under its canopy. The inclement weather didn’t bother me, though; I always liked the fresh air and the freedom of moving from place to place under my own power.

Railroad crossing at Eclipse Company Town

It’s probably not surprising, then, that in high school I routinely found myself back on Connett Road—but on foot this time, training for cross country and track races. A visit to Connett usually meant a longer run; on rare occasions we might head up the torturously windy Lemaster hill, or do repeats on the seemingly endless driveway where Lemaster and Connett met. It was more common for us to take a right and head towards Poston Road; in my final years at Athens High, our destination was the then-new Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, which finally offered us a scenic and car-free place to stretch our legs.

By the time I moved away from Athens at the age of 18, I knew every inch of that trail between Athens and Nelsonville; I had covered it not only on foot but also on my beautiful green Giant Iguana bike, built from scratch for me by friends at Cycle Path, and purchased with money saved up from, among other jobs, cleaning dorm rooms at Ohio University. It was worth the effort, though, because I was able to explore both The Plains and Athens like never before. Somewhere near Mile 14 is where I encountered my very first indigo bunting; I immediately turned around and rushed home to consult guidebooks on the identity of this impossibly blue bird.

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Wildlife was, perhaps inevitably, an integral part of my outdoor experience in Athens: The Appalachian foothills are teeming with beautiful and fascinating species, though, ironically, I did not fully appreciate this until I left the area and learned more about its biodiversity during university classes and summer jobs in neighboring Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. Even before that education, though, I knew enough to expect belted kingfishers near the Richland Avenue bridge, great blue herons in the reeds along the Hocking, and American kestrels hunting the fields along Route 50. I knew that box turtles hid in the damp, shady areas of our yard, and that the best place to find garter snakes was out behind my mother’s herb garden. I also learned early that it was a bad idea to walk barefoot underneath the sweet gum and chestnut trees.

There were other unpleasant encounters to be had farther from home, out at Dow Lake. Although I loved visiting Strouds Run on a hot day in order to have a picnic and a refreshing swim, I was very uneasy about water that wasn’t entirely transparent; I have never liked the feeling of unseen fish bumping into my thighs, or slimy aquatic weeds wrapping themselves around my ankles. My best friend and I once dared each other to swim out to the buoys, but turned back in a panic when we reached the thick algal growth floating a few feet from our destination. I was much happier renting a canoe or a kayak and staying well away from the greenery in the water.

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Even better was visiting the lake at night (not technically permissible, by the way), lying on the shore and looking up at the mind-boggling multitude of stars over my head. While watching for meteors one night, a friend and I were awed by the sight of an owl gliding silently overhead, its black silhouette just a shade or two darker than the sky above. If I concentrate very hard, I can vaguely remember when my parents took me to a hill overlooking the shores of the Hocking River in 1986 so that I could look through a chunky portable telescope and catch sight of Halley’s Comet—an astronomical phenomenon that I will be able to see again in 2061, if I am lucky. Years later, with classmates from an Ohio University astronomy class, I drove out to the ridges west of town and was gobsmacked by my first glimpse of Saturn and its rings.

For me, however, the best ridges were The Ridges, which I first visited sometime in the mid-1980’s, when my father drove me over one day after school for a surprise outing. At the time, I had no sense of where or what the ridges were; although I had spent plenty of time at the Dairy Barn and had always been aware of the imposing Athens Lunatic Asylum up on the hill, I was too young to fully realize that the hills we were walking connected these two points. My dad and I hiked all the way to the top of Radar Hill, which, at that time, still featured structures indicating the origins of its name. I know now that our trek wasn’t that long, but it seemed like an epic journey at the time, and quite an adventure—a previously unknown wilderness bathed in warm autumn light, with no other people in sight.

CRK on Radar Hill

I didn’t visit The Ridges again for about 5 years, when it was the destination of one of the first training runs I participated in after joining the Athens Middle School cross country team. When I first began running, I couldn’t even make it from Peden Stadium to the old asylum without stopping for a breather; soon I was able to get to the trailhead, then to the first old water tank, then the second, and finally the top of the hill. I was so proud of that achievement, and it made the view all the more beautiful.

Although my teammates weren’t overly fond of the inclines and rough footing up at The Ridges, I went back often. It was a good place to see red-tailed hawks, vultures, and eastern bluebirds—the last of which being species that I would end up studying as a graduate student. On the final run that I did in Athens before heading off to college, I found my way to the top of Radar Hill at dusk and stood looking out at the rows of hills stretching off into the distance. The nearest were dark, almost black; the others were increasingly paler shades of blue, with the furthest and lightest buried in a layer of summer haze. I suspected it was a sight I would not easily forget, and to this day I can conjure memories of it as though I had only just visited the previous evening.

The Ridges from Radar Hill

Blue, however, is not the color I most associate with Athens. Despite all the copper autumns and white winters I weathered during my time there, it’s the verdant springs and summers that stand out strongest in my mind: the soft grass on the amphitheater outside Scripps Hall; the inviting shade of the College Green on a sweltering summer’s day; the banks of the Hocking River and the heads of the male mallards swimming in the river itself; the trees arching over the bikeway to form a tunnel between the access points at Currier Street in Athens and the Eclipse Company Town in The Plains. When these visions spring to mind, I can almost smell the intoxicating scent of honeysuckle and hear the rhythmic buzz of cicadas.

Hocking River from bike path

I now find myself living not only in a different country, but also on a different continent; a trip home requires a 5-hour train ride, 10 hours of airplane time, and another hour or so of driving. It’s a long way. I live in an undeniably beautiful place, but the aesthetics are very different. This is a seaside town filled with granite houses whose moss- and lichen-covered roofs provide perches for endlessly braying gulls; twice a day the sulfurous smell of coastal mud permeates the air as the tides recede, and the maritime winds set ships’ rigging clanging before seeking out the cracks around our doors and windows. There are no cheerful red Athens bricks underfoot, no Carolina wrens nesting in the flowerpot by the door, or jewel-tone hummingbirds buzzing in to sip sugar-water from the feeder in the window, or wild green woodlands beckoning for exploration. I’ve been here long enough that it has begun to feel like home—yet, at the same time, spending 17 years away from Athens hasn’t removed the feeling that that little part of Ohio is also home. Maybe it always will be, no matter where I actually reside.

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Sometimes I stand on the shore of Cornwall with my feet in the sand and I face westward, my mind traveling down through my legs, under the waves of the ocean, up over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and back down again, to the northeastern shores of North America where my ancestors caught their first sight of the continent, and finally on into the Appalachians. It’s comforting to know that there is an unbroken connection between here and there, no matter the distance or the terrain that must be traversed. Inside me, wherever I go, I carry all the sights and sounds of smells of Athens: the chickadees eating the suet my parents set out, the daffodils growing beside the old farmhouse where I grew up, the grove of evergreens at the base of Radar Hill, the cry of a pileated woodpecker on the shore of Dow Lake. There is no better proof that you can take the girl out of Appalachia, but you can never take Appalachia out of the girl—something for which I will be eternally grateful.

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This essay was submitted to Growing Up In Athens, a project aiming to compile stories from multiple generations of native Athenians.

The Ancestor’s Trail 2014

Long-time readers of the blog may remember that, in 2012, Sasha and I participated in a secular pilgrimage called The Ancestor’s Trail. It is an annual event inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tail. We had to take a hiatus last year because Sasha was out of town and I had transportation issues (one day, I really must get a British driving license). This year, however, we were both able to participate–which was particularly good considering that I had been invited back as a speaker.

Previous iterations of the AT took place in Somerset’s beautiful Quantock Hills. This year’s version was in a new, and very different, location: Epping Forest, which straddles the border between London and Essex. Sasha and I hit some terrible traffic during our drive to the southeast and ended up being trapped in the car for about 8 hours instead of the 5 that we were expecting. After spending all that time sitting down, we were more than ready to stretch our legs on the 12.5-mile Human Trail–the longest of the many walks that cumulatively make up the AT.  This portion of the trail started at the Chingford Station just before 10 AM on the 30th of August.

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The field in which we began our walk. Each footstep along the trail took us away (metaphorically speaking, that is) from the point at which humans became a separate species, and towards the earliest form of life on Earth.
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Because the trail is arranged such that you are metaphorically walking backwards in time towards the first living organism on Earth, the view ahead may show you your own future, but it simultaneously shows you your evolutionary past.

Although we met at the train station, the real starting point of the hike was a field just behind it. There, and at subsequent stops along the route, we paused to think about the evolutionary history that had inspired our journey: the appearance of Homo nearly 6 million years ago, the development of mammals 220 million years ago, the emergence of vertebrates some 500 million years ago, and the origins of life approximately 3.8 billion years ago (to name but a few important evolutionary benchmarks).

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This was one of our first stops of the day; I believe we were still on the primate branch of the family tree at this point.

Although this year’s trail was in much closer proximity to human-disturbed habitats, it still had some stunning scenery. My favorite portion of the trail was the one that took us under the canopy of some beautiful beech trees:

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If you think those trees look a bit manicured, you’re right; Epping Forest is known for its long history of coppicing, pollarding, and other forms of arboreal manipulation.

We also spent a fair amount of time out in more open habitats–especially towards the end of the day. We passed by and through pastures and agricultural fields, all of which were surprisingly calm and quiet given our proximity to the city.

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One of many unused fields we passed during our long walk

One of the big differences between the 2012 and 2014 Ancestor’s Trails was that this one involved the theatrical skills of Ioan Hefin, from Theatr naÓg. Ioan specializes in impersonating/portraying Alfred Russell Wallace, the explorer and naturalist who independently came up with a theory of natural selection very like Darwin’s. Oddly enough, this was the second time that Sasha had seen Ioan perform, having also enjoyed one of his Wallace soliloquies while being inducted to the Linnean Society of London last year.

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He walked the whole 12.5 miles in costume, but not always in character.

My next favorite portion of the trail was the area where we stopped to have lunch. We had just left the Epping Forest behind and transitioned into the open countryside that lay between the forest and the woodlands of the Lee Valley Regional Park where the trail ended. It was obviously a relatively posh area, with quiet country retreats and bridleways for horseback riding. We even passed a very upscale-looking fenced estate.

bridleway
We weren’t the only ones out and about on the trails; we also passed equestrians, joggers, bikers, hikers, and dog-walkers.
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I'm sure is its raison d'être
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I’m sure is its raison d’être.
grassy field
This is my favorite photograph of the day. I love the pale golden color of the grasses, and their wispy texture makes the hills look soft and velvety. (They weren’t; they were actually a bit scratchy.)

If you look at the back right-hand portion of the photograph above, you’ll notice a man in red. That is Jon Bagge, a professional photographer who also attended the trail last year. He returned this year to collect images for Urs Willmann, a journalist who was writing a profile of the trail for the German newspaper Zeit. Jon very kindly shared his photos with those of us who were present on the day, which means that, for once, I can show you the view from the other side of my camera lens.

Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
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Sasha and I discuss…something, while journalist Urs Willmann (behind me in the black t-shirt) interviews a trail participant.
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After a long day of walking, I rest my feet with some of my fellow pilgrims. This image gives you a particularly good view of my Darwin-riding-an-archaeopteryx t-shirt (by Stated Clearly), which I thought was an especially relevant fashion statement given the theme of the day.
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I find something amusing. Or maybe I’m just thinking about how awesome my t-shirt is.

I would be lying if I said that 12.5 miles wasn’t a bit of a trek–even for someone who loves walking and nature as much as I do. I was worried that my back would start to hurt, but actually it was my feet that ultimately betrayed me. Maybe I need new hiking shoes, or maybe I just shouldn’t ambush my body by taking a walk that is three times as far as I would normally go in a single day. I don’t think I’m the only one who began to feel battered; whereas people had been quite talkative and jokey early on in the day, conversations dwindled and became quieter after lunch. More and more hikers simply put their heads down and powered on, grimly determined to make it to the end.

That is not to say, however, that there were no moments of lightheartedness. There was some antelope mimicry, complete with faux antlers and pronking behavior. There was applause and murmurs of appreciation at the clever and amusing speeches that had been written to recognize each of the important branches in the evolutionary tree. There was good-natured chuckling at the obstacles that Nature had thrown in our path (namely mud and pools of standing water, in which I nearly lost my lens cap). We also took the time to appreciate some unexpected artwork that we found along the way:

Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.
Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.

We picked up our last pilgrims fairly close to our final destination–the Cheshunt YHA. They represented our friends the bacteria, about whom one of the hikers had written a clever little ode that recognized the fact that even though some bacteria make us sick, many more keep us healthy and are responsible for a huge proportion of the genes that can be found within our bodies. His witty observations helped revive us and give us the energy we needed to walk the last mile or so to the refreshments and rest that were waiting for us at the hostel. Also aiding our progress was a small brass band making some very cheerful music to accompany our final steps.

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We were coming from the right-hand side of this picture and heading towards the left. Just before crossing over this bridge, I had the good luck of spotting a great crested grebe–my first-ever sighting of the species!

Everyone was obviously feeling a bit peckish by the time we arrived at the hostel. As soon as we entered the building, we flooded into the cafeteria in search of snacks and hot beverages. I only had eyes for the freshly baked donuts, which were amazing. I suspect that my enjoyment was partially aided by the fact that I was in an extreme sugar deficit, but I am also confident that those were superior treats that would have been delicious under any circumstances. And that is why I was forced to eat two.

As I sat consuming my sugar, I discovered why my rain coat, which I’d been wearing tied around my waist, had become so heavy throughout the day:

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A little souvenir from the Trail

Once we’d had a chance to recharge, Sasha and I said our farewells for the evening and made our way back to our B&B. En route, we stumbled across one of the mailboxes that had been repainted  in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics:

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mailbox plaque

I’m not really sure how they chose which mailboxes to paint in honor of each athlete; Laura Trott isn’t from Cheshunt, but from Harlow, which is 11 miles away. But perhaps I’m being nitpicky. (At least it makes more sense than if they’d put her plaque on a mailbox in, say, York.) I felt pretty ridiculous photographing a mailbox, especially since I’d secretly rolled my eyes at a couple of mailbox spotters who were geeking out about some rare pre-Queen-Elizabeth mailbox that we passed during the 2012 Ancestor’s Trail. Ah, irony.

Upon reaching our B&B, I noted that I felt very much the same as I have previously when returning to my campsite after climbing Mount Kenya during the University of Exeter Kenya field course: weary, sore, very much looking forward to a shower, but also quite proud. While recuperating in the comfort of my fluffy bed, I used TripAdvisor to figure out where Sasha and I should go to dinner. We opted for the Coach and Horses, a gastropub with Spanish influences. They started us off with some fresh garlic bread bites, and I immediately knew that we’d chosen wisely.

bread bites
Garlic + butter + bread = happiness on a plate

Neither of our main courses photographed particularly well (I admit that they both kind of look like pet food), but they were both very tasty. I had the albondigas con espinacas, or spiced meatballs with spinach. Sasha opted for the steak stroganoff.

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My meatballs…
Sasha food
…and Sasha’s stroganoff

Given the number of calories we’d burned during the day, it’s probably no surprise that we were both still hungry once our main courses were gone. The only solution to that problem was to order dessert–which came in the form of fruity ice-cream cheesecake. I’d never had a frozen cheesecake before, but I can confirm that it is delectable.

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Our hard-earned (one might even say…just?) desserts

Once we’d licked our plates clean, we headed home for an early night. I, especially, needed my sleep, since I was due to give a lecture to the AT crowd the following morning. I was impressed by the number of folks who showed up despite the travails of the previous day and the fact that many of them had a long commute home. You know you’ve got an eager audience when they agree to show up at 9:30 AM on a weekend.

The first lecture of the morning was delivered by Ryan Walker, a herpetologist who talked about salamanders in recognition of the fact that this was designated the AT’s “Year of the Amphibian”. I was up next, discussing “The Sounds of Love“–aka birdsong. Judith Mank, of University College London, wrapped up the festivities with her discussion of sex determination. All three of us fielded some excellent questions, and the crowd was not only very attentive, but also quite tolerant when I had some technical difficulties. It was exactly the kind of audience that every speaker dreams of.

Of course, that wasn’t really surprising. During my first experience with the Ancestor’s Trail crowd, I had found my fellow pilgrims to be friendly, thoughtful, inquisitive, and insightful; the same was true this year. They are an interesting group of people to spend time with, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to join them in both Quantock Hills and the Epping Forest. Even if Sasha and I don’t find ourselves signed up to give AT lectures in the near future, I hope we still have the chance to participate in the hike–though perhaps with more supportive shoes next time.

Watery Birthday, Part II

There are many summer birthdays in my family, and the the one that we celebrated most recently was my father’s–though the actual holiday is July 15th. I put him on hold this year because I was tired of sending him gifts via Amazon, and instead wanted to treat him to an outing rather than yet another object to stick in a drawer or on a shelf. The trip I had in mind was actually one that we’d taken before–back in the summer of 2007 when I was but a lowly PhD student taking a break from my field season:

Looking contemplative

I’m not sure how or why, but my parents went through a period during which they frequently visited Ohio’s Burr Oak State Park and rented pontoon boats so they could explore the reservoir. After their initial foray, they returned with my dad’s parents, my mom’s parents, and, finally, me, each time packing a picnic lunch to eat while out on the water. They discovered an inlet, which they dubbed Kight Cove, where it was particularly pleasant to drop anchor and float while dining.  Despite the fact that they very much enjoyed their visits to Burr Oak–so much so that they even investigated how much it would cost to purchase their own pontoon boat–they got distracted by other outings and stopped going. I figured it was time to revive the tradition.

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Amazingly, the marina looked pretty much exactly as it did the last time I was there, despite the fact that seven years had elapsed. Because we visited on a weekday, it was nearly deserted, which only added to the peace and calm of the environment–a calm that we momentarily disturbed when we practically crashed the boat while pulling out of our parking space.

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When I say “we,” I actually mean “my dad,” because he was our driver for the day. I suppose it seems a bit wrong to make the Birthday Boy take the wheel, but he’s the one with the most experience and my mom and I only really felt comfortable driving when we were out in the middle of the lake where we were unlikely to bang into anything (obviously we needn’t have worried). It wasn’t until our near-miss at the docks that any of us appreciated the fact that pontoon handling skills might be diminished after seven years of non-use. We eventually made it out onto the water in the end, with the rental office staff assuring us that we couldn’t do anything they hadn’t already seen.

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The park is located about 30 minutes from my parents’ house, just on the edge of Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio. When people tell me that Ohio is flat, boring, and/or filled with nothing but cow pastures and cornfields, this is the portion of the state I tell them they need to see. Here, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, there are rolling hills covered with green trees filled with singing birds. As far as I’m concerned, there are few places that can compete with the seaside–particularly the Cornish seaside–in terms of beauty and restfulness; this area is number one on the list.

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As we drove along, I could hear the voices of many familiar North American birds–Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, American goldfinches, belted kingfishers, and dozens of great blue herons that took flight as they saw us coming. We also passed vast patches of blooming swamp rose-mallow, a beautiful plant in the same family as the hibiscus:

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At the time, I incorrectly (but understandably, I think) identified this as marsh mallow, which is a very similar invasive relative. Despite the inaccuracy of my first ID, it did have the benefit of initiating an interesting investigation into the relationship between the marsh mallow plant and the marshmallow sugary treat. It turns out that ancient Egyptians harvested the plant’s root to make medicines to soothe sore throats. The French created a sugary, meringue-based form of this treatment that gave rise to the modern marshmallow that we all know and love.

We also encountered many fragrant water-lilies–though sadly we didn’t get close enough to test the accuracy of the plant’s name:

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A few years ago, these grew in Burr Oak Reservoir in such abundance that boaters were complaining; the vegetation got caught in propellers and made it impossible to make any headway through the water. An extended period of flooding killed off many of the plants, leaving only small, picturesque patches floating above the shallowest parts of the lake.

In case anyone is interested in the culinary details of our outing, as well as the biological, I should probably mention the goodies we ate when we arrived at Kight Cove (or the spot that we judged to be Kight Cove; seven years’ absence makes it difficult to tell one inlet from another). The main course was Giada de Laurentiis’ penne with beef and arugula–a recipe that was designed specifically for picnics, but which I usually eat warm; I think this was actually the first time I used it for its intended purpose. I also made a modified version of Paula Deen’s fresh fruit salad with poppyseed dressing. The modified bit was the fruit, since the grocery store was fairly depleted when I visited the night before our departure. I followed the dressing instructions very specifically, since that is what makes the salad so special. (The version of the recipe I have includes avocados, raisins, and chopped walnuts–none of which feature in the recipe in the link above, but which are quite tasty additions!) Finally, we had a savory salad made from a recipe whose origins are completely mysterious to me. At some point I typed the ingredients and instructions into a compilation of recipes on my computer, but I have no record of where I got that information; the dish is pretty similar to this one, though the vinaigrette is made with lemon juice rather than vinegar.

As you can imagine, we were all quite full after lunch, and stuck to boating rather than indulging in a bit of swimming–though the water was inviting given how warm it was in the sun. We managed to explore nearly the entire perimeter of the reservoir, which is impressive given how large it is. Much of the shoreline looked quite similar (trees, herons, lilypads…trees, herons, lilypads…), but there is something about being on the water that makes it enjoyable no matter how repetitious the scenery becomes; the breeze on your face and the vibration of the motor put you into a bit of a Zen state.

Dad
My mother calls this the “pharoah pose”

Hopefully that peace of mind–not to mention a full belly, a suntan, and some good memories–was a more valuable gift than a new book or shirt or whatever else I could have ordered for my dad online. Happy birthday to a great guy–may there be many more years, and boat trips, to come!