Tuesday, April 30, 2019

O is for Oxford

O is for Oxford and "oh dear. I never made it." It's the last day of the challenge and I'm still out there lost on the open road. At least Oxford is a good place to lie down and never get up. When you lie on the grass of the water meadows and rise to see the Oxford skyline, you can be forgiven for imagining you are in a netherworld where anything is possible. The Dreaming Spires are certainly evocative.

It occurs to me now that it has always been sunny when I have visited Oxford. Still, the skyline is out of reach. On one occasion, I saw some people from the north of England. They watched students playing croquet on one of the lawns of the ornate colleges and muttered something about "posh people" in their broad vowels. Oxford is as distant as it ever was for many of us.

In Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy wrote of Christminster, an ancient university that Jude yearned to study at to better himself. Christminster was loosely based on Oxford. In the end, the "New Jerusalem" the stonemason idolized remained steeped in privilege and was out of his reach.

Clearly, there is something magical and inspiring in the air of Oxford. Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Caroll, wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland here in the 19th Century. He was a scholar and teacher at Christ Church, the most prestigious of colleges. The college's refectory was used in the Harry Potter movies.

In the 20th Century, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were both on the faculty at Oxford University at the same time. Lewis' relationship with Joy Davidman, an American who died of cancer, formed the basis of the movie Shadowlands. It's vintage Anthony Hopkins, reprising his self-effacing persona in Remains of the Day before he started eating people's faces.

It's probably not surprising that Oxford spawns so many fantasies. It's an ancient and cloistered place, far removed from the outside world. It's the sunny opening of Brideshead and the jolly japes with Aloysius, the teddy bear. It's long day punting on the river and the morning bells that ring across the misty fields from the tower of Magdalen College. it's a place that flatters and shimmers in a fragile dawn sun and disappears when we reach out to touch it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

N is for New York City

Nobody forgets the first time they see the New York skyline. I first saw it on a trip to the Big Apple in the 1990s.

As we trundled through the drabness of Queens, we turned a corner and the tall towers appeared. The Empire State Building pierced the afternoon sky like a giant syringe. New York was both intoxicating and frightening.

About half a dozen of us visited New York. My life was falling apart at this stage. We were mostly journalists and we drank too hard in as many places as we can. We stood on chairs in the White Horse, the famous Greenwich Village pub where Dylan Thomas had his last orders shortly before his death.

Mark wore a "Friends" T-shirt but we were anything but friends. The hate simmered down the long boulevards of Manhattan and across the Brooklyn Bridge. In the end, I struck out on my own. My only real friend was my copy of  Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. 

I found the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. It's a fascinating place which relives the hard lives of the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Poles and others who scraped a living n the Big Apple in the early 20th Century. This put my first world angst about marital breakdown and the like into perspective.

Later on, I took the elevator up the World Trade Center and felt sick and dizzy looking down at the roofs of buildings far below. I never imagined that a few years later people would be jumping to avoid the flames in the stricken structure. We still don't imagine. We know the details but we can't put ourselves there.

We are prisoners in our own puny frames. Our trails and tribulations can be utterly consuming but they are nothing compared to the bigger picture. So why can it be so hard to see the world from the point of view of others?

Almost two decades later, I visited New York with my kids. The Empire State Building no longer looked like a large syringe but the Chrysler Building was as silver and serene as ever. The World Trade Center is replaced by the giant Freedom Tower. The sky over the tall buildings was a timeless azure from Liberty State Park in Jersey City. The ghosts had not gone entirely but they were hidden well, in dark alley in Chinatown or in the shadows of Central Park as the sun goes down.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

M is for Mesa Verde

This is a repost but Mesa Verde is the kind of place that lives on in the imagination long after you leave the canyons.

Walking the Petroglyph Trail reminded me of the microscopic nature of our world. One man is a small speck in the great gorges out west and not even a pinprick in the vastness of the Cosmos.

In this borderless wilderness, we are all destined to wander companionless like Shelley's moon for much of our micro existences. The ancient people recognized as much when they carved the petroglyphs in Mesa Verde in the rocks that were once part of an ancient sea.

There is sad beauty to this park that shimmers in the afternoon sunlight. You feel it when you view the empty windows of the cliff buildings and imagine the world of the ancient people.

Being in the desert fulfilled a dream from long ago when the swing would point west and I would close my eyes in the setting sun and think of cowboys, stream trains and cacti crowding the skyline. The old cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in Colorado live on in my imagination now. I think of the faraway world of the ancient people and the words of Willa Cather from The Song of the Lark.

"From the ancient dwelling there came always a dignified, unobtrusive sadness; now stronger, now fainter - like the aromatic smell which the dwarf cedars gave out in the sun - but always present, a part of the air one breathed. At night when Thea dreamed about the anyon - or in the early morning when she hurried toward it, anticipating it - her conception of it was of yellow rocks baking in the sunlight the swallows, the cedar smell, and that peculiar sadness - a voice out of the past, not very loud, that went on saying a few simple things to the solitude eternally."

You can view the full post about Mesa Verde here.

Friday, April 19, 2019

L is for London

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" - Samuel Johnson

London is one of the world's greatest cities and you never really run out of things to do here. Still, living in London can wear you down, The days were long and started and ended with a mile long walk to the tube station. London is a place where you work hard and play hard. After work, it's straight down the pub, back on the Tube and doing the same thing the next day.

Rather than being one great mass, London is a collection of small villages. Admittedly, the mile-upon-mile of brick in the East End could be depressing. After too long in London, you want to escape to the countryside but it seems to take forever to get back to the city.

I was fascinated by London but never swept away by its beauty like in Paris. Today when I go back it's as a tourist. I take pictures of red phone boxes, I check out galleries. I probably end up flaked out on a bench at the National Art Gallery No. I don's ask the locals if they've met the Queen. I'm not quite so American yet. I get tired in London but I'm not tired of the city.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

K is for Kent

My first visit to Kent was the bleakest introduction possible to one of England's most fascinated counties. I struggled with some nefarious illness, smallpox or cholera - actually tonsilitis I think. I recalled the taste of dried beans in my mouth. I tried to convey this to my parents but they didn't get it. On the third day, I thought I was better. I walked weakly along the seafront of Margate with my father to the grey sands and a chill enveloped me.

It's strange to think my parents ended up in Kent so many years after that early family holiday and now my father is more likely to be the one walking gingerly in the cold wind like a five-year-old with tonsilitis.

There's a lot more to Kent than Margate but for some reason, that holiday was suffocated by the British summer. Even the famous white cliffs of Dover were shuttered and grey and my parents declared themselves disappointed with Dover Castle. I'm not sure how anyone can be disappointed with Dover Castle but such is life.

Kent is a rich tapestry. There are prehistoric ruins and the stump of the last lighthouse that was abandoned by the Romans before the barbarians arrived from Germany. In the dark days of the 1940s, the white cliffs became a symbol of the last outpost of civilization in Europe.

There is far too much to Kent to describe in these lines. It stretched from the ragged ends of London to the sweeping North Downs, the marshes and coasts and the magnificence of Canterbury and its great cathedral. Then there is Rochester and its gaunt castle.

Still, it took me many years from the taste of beans in my mouth and the gloomy guesthouse with its mirky wallpaper somewhere in the 1970s for me to warm to Kent.

Monday, April 15, 2019

J is for Jockey's Ridge

It's not always easy to keep going. On days we are trapped in a cage of our own making. Those carefree days when we could soar and fly a kite are relegated to a half-forgotten past. I was always fascinated with sand dunes and flying kites high across the wispy marram grass. The most beautiful place I remembered from childhood was the island of Lindisfarne and coming upon a pristine and undiscovered wilderness of dunes beyond the ruined abbey.

The shore at Lindisfarne seemed little changed since the Vikings came ashore here. In the long years past I have dreamed of the place half a dozen times.

Jockey's Ridge in North Carolina, the highest sand dune in the eastern United States took me back. I have climbed the dunes with the kids a few times and flown kites into the high blue. These miles of sand like strung out from sea to shining sea, in this case, the Atlantic and the Albemarle Sound.

I wonder sometimes why we head to the sea for solace. Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy because people have done it for years? Do the waves and the calls of the gulls lull us back to childhood? It's hard to know but there is something about the feel of the end of those sun-kissed days that puts it all in perspective. It's tempting to let go and to drift where the current takes us.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

I is for Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight is a county in Virginia and an island in England. I'm a bigger fan of the British version here. The Isle of Wight is like the country in microcosm. There's a Medieval castle, A National Trust home, the white cliffs of the Needles, gently crumbling seaside towns and a pretty thatched village. The Isle of Wight has Smithfield and that's about it.

 Our memories fade to sepia but I still recall the bright bands of the sand at Alum Bay back at home as we spooned them into glass vessels. I assume the chair lift down to the beach is now an overhyped and overpriced tourist attraction but the beach was empty in those days.

Even Blackgang Chine, the UK's oldest amusement park on the Isle of Wight seemed tranquil back in the day, although I'm sure it was not. Today a 'saver' ticket costs 74 GPB. I'm not quite sure what the saving is. If you are disabled and over 60 you can get in for 20 GBP. given that Blackgang Chine is perched on the edge of a cliff this seems like a risky undertaking when you can check out garden gnomes outside people's homes.

At least it's free to get into Windsor Castle Park in Smithfield and there are some pretty views across the marshes. In fact, once I Smithfield Station I found myself geographically confused and imagined myself in Suffolk, England. The slow meandering rivers and the way the gentle light plays on the reed beds reminds me of long afternoons on the estuaries of Eastern England. Suffolk, Virginia is nearby too. I'm not sure why the settlers couldn't be more original in their choice of names.

Friday, April 12, 2019

H is for Hollywood Cemetery

Uh oh - I am falling further behind in the A to Z Challenge by the day. I have a recurring dream like this. I'm back at school and the teacher is demanding four decades of French homework. This is a stressful dream. The challenge is hard reality.

What can I say about Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery? It's steeped in time and tradition. It's the resting place of Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, not to mention the southern upstart Jeff Davis. It's breathtakingly beautiful and creepy in equal measure ... as boneyards tend to be.

In 1866, 20,000 people attended the First Confederate Memorial Day here. The fault line as wide as the James River is more insidious now. But it's still here.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

G is for Gulf of Maine

The sunrise on Cadillac Mountain was something to behold. This was a special moment as we were going to get engaged but the moment was somewhat ruined by the other 347 people on the mountain.

Had we expected splendid isolation? No, but we had gone to the trouble of getting out of our freezing tent at 4.30 a.m. We hoped for a bit of alone time.

As we waited for the sun to rise over the sea of clouds blanketing the Gulf of Maine, a fast-talking lady in front of us pulled up her stretch pants. Her bottom protested at such a sudden movement so early. Then she pulled a selfie stick out of her bag. It was going to be a long day.

Don't get me wrong. We are not the romantic types. We get more excited about cheese, tacos, more cheese and, when in Maine, lobster rolls. than mushy lurve stuff.

It's not always easy to find isolation in Acadia National Park. Unfortunately, lots of other people get all misty-eyed at this beautiful landscape of mountains and sea.

We headed to Jordan Pond, another popular visitor trap. Fortunately, the restaurant was yet to open and we found some solitude to do the proposing thing by the clear silver waters.

It wasn't awfully formal. The ring could wait. I put my hand in my pocket and found the gift that keeps giving - a voucher for $5 off tacos in Bar Habor.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

F is for First Landing

First Landing State Park was once called Seashore State Park. Its name was changed to reflect the first landing in the new world made by members of the Virginia Company of London in 1607. The settlers didn't stay here long. They headed up what is today the James River to make a  permanent settlement at Jamestown, grow tobacco and generally eat each other.

For anyone who has braved the endless suburbia and crass commercialism of Virginia Beach, it's a surprise to find this unspoiled wilderness on its northern fringes. I feel the name Seashore sounds more evocative than First Landing but this remains a diverse 2,888-acre place where a short trip down the trails will take you away from the crowds.

I find First Landing therapeutic and packed with vibrant memories at the same time. It's a big enough and wild enough place to lose yourself without having to drive for miles to the mountains. It's an enchanting tapestry of cypress swamps, dunes, inland lagoons and quiet beaches on an inland sound. It's also exotic in places. First Landing is the most northerly place to find the Spanish moss the lines the streets of the old south.

My favorite place is on the Osprey Trail which weaves by a series of secluded beaches on the sound. In recent months, the rainbow swamps of First Landing gained something of a cult following on Instagram. I'm hoping this doesn't have the same impact on the park as the valley in Californa that was mobbed by tourists as soon as a carper of pretty orange poppies appeared.

The social media age has become increasingly rapacious. As soon as we see a beautiful picture, we want a piece of it. Before we know it, the beauty has been swallowed by the maddening crowd. Let's just say one or two other folks had found the cherry blossoms in D.C. before we got there on Saturday.

Lost by the Sea

 A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I nev...