Chestertown History, History

The Sultana. The beautiful ship. Sailing on the…great blue wet thing.

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The sun rises over the Bay.  Vibrant hues of pink and red intensify, and I watch as the nation’s largest and most storied bay is illuminated, wave by wave, in resplendent colors.

You have to get a bit poetic, and delve into your vocabulary, for settings like this.

That morning, one of the major tributaries of this great bay was already buzzing with life in the pre-dawn hours.

I was awakened just before the sun began to clamber up into the sky, the dark stillness of night transforming into a subtle blue, though barely illuminated.

Like walking through a house in the dimness, save for the reflected light from a room far down the hallway.

Amidst all this beauty and poetry,  jolted awake on deck when a radio blares out the new draft picks for the Baltimore Orioles and an outboard motor starts roaring, both belonging to a fishing boat racing by.

11665373_1164026036956292_2603883201118270301_nI was, with nine classmates, sleeping in the middle of the Chester River on a tiny schooner, the Sultana.  We’re sailing down into the Chesapeake Bay.

While many people will always recall their first days at college, most do not begin their four-year journey on a recreated 18th-century British sailing ship. It was an odd start, but a good one, beginning the process of washing away high school routines and discovering a bigger world.

The original HMS Sultana was a miniature (fifty-nine foot) two-masted ship, Boston-built in 1767, patrolling up the Atlantic coast as far as Nova Scotia, as a British revenue cutter.  It had the distinction of being the smallest warship in His Majesty’s Fleet.  In the old days, almost all of the original crew deserted.

It’s pretty cramped below-desks, and maybe they got on each other’s nerves.  Or got tired of eating lobscouse and maggoty biscuits.

But we didn’t eat lobscouse, as far as I know.  I keep looking it up, but then forget what the heck it is.

And I did not desert.  I loved this little ship.

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A scurvy lot of scoundrels

Washington College, in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, arranged this freshman experience with the Sultana Foundation.  So there I was, a shy young landlubber from the hinterlands, raised far from salt water, on a wooden ship full of strangers, two thousand square feet of canvas, and a lot of complicated ropes (sheets?) for a week. With the exception of a backup diesel in the hold, it was authentic down to the working swivel-guns.  And it was awesome.

photo from the Washington College website. That’s the Kalmar Nykel on the far left, from Wilmington, a replica of the Dutch ship, that carried over Swedish settlers in the 1600’s. Portside, I meant to say.

The most remarkable memory for me was the first night, sleeping above decks, seeing more stars than I had ever seen, other than in the Adirondacks.  Despite being on the edge of the light pollution from the vast megalopolis across the bay (DC-Baltimore-Philly) we could look up into a fantastic number of stars and shooting stars.

10408511_1019514914740739_3930343943261198002_nSleeping on the decks felt great, and it seemed less humid on the river than ashore in Maryland.  Waking up early, we felt pretty cool even in August.

Half-way through our voyage, we stepped ashore just in time to feel waves.

Generally not an active seismic area, on August 23, 2011, an earthquake rocked Washington D.C., with tremors felt as far north as New England.  The shockwave cracked the Washington Monument, and the chimneys of my college president’s historic home. We were in a van, going on an excursion off the boat for one day, when it struck, and we just assumed the boom was the van backfiring.  Later we learned it was a quake.

The next day, we were back aboard the ship, after a long day of sightseeing, history and culture lessons about the Chesapeake region, and an impromptu lesson on seismology.  But a personal highlight of the little voyage was next, and also happened on land.

We had sailed a bit farther down the widening river, closer and closer to the Bay itself, and had arrived at the rural Maryland equivalent of “Millionaire’s Row.”  Maryland is the richest state in the USA per capita, jammed with millionaires and billionaires, so a long succession of waterfront mansions wasn’t anything noteworthy to the locals.  But when we docked at one, I was pretty excited.  When a kid from a poor, rural, nothing town gets to spend the night at a mansion, it’s kind of a kick.

Well, technically, not actually guests in the mansion.  We kind of went round the backdoor, and slept in the boathouse!  Still very fun – their “boat house” was massive, enough room for two yachts, with a bathroom and a lounge of sorts.  (What Mel Brooks movie had that sign, “Our Bathrooms Are Nicer Than Most People’s Homes“?)

We slept fairly comfortably there and when I awoke, a sartorially-elegant and very dignified man greeted us. I was happy to be able to thank the owner for his hospitality, and told him, I thought his place was lovely.

He laughed, and told me, he was just the butler.

This mansion, or I should say, villa (complete with an actual Roman bath/pool that we enjoyed, pilfered sometime in the last century from somewhere in the Ancient World), belonged to none other than the former owner of RCA, or some such mega-corporation.  (And in case I didn’t come across right, I’m grateful that he let a mob of college kids stay on his estate.) 

So that’s all I wanted to write about that trip – – no typhoons, U-boats, or mermaids to report.  Kind of tame, but not everyone is cut out for “The Perfect Storm.”  And if you think about it, that book wasn’t autobiographical.  Because the crew was all underwater.  If I have to choose, I’d  prefer my writing to be dry instead of posthumous.  But maybe you don’t agree!  

I love history, don’t know if I ever mentioned that.  Claiming that this brief college cruise gave me a deep insight into the Age of Sail would be pretentious and idiotic, but you have to seize upon whatever fragments or experiences you can.  Enjoying the stars, or crammed below-decks when it rained, we perhaps gained a tiny, foggy glimpse of something of the past, that we hadn’t seen before.  That’s all.

What also impresses me about this, is how quickly my own trip seems like Ancient History.  

It really seems like quite a long while ago, and already my memories are jumbled.  I know the chronometer was invented for sailors, roughly about the same time as the original Sultana was launched, but somehow, “being at sea” left me chronologically-confused as to where and when we sailed.  (And before you say anything — the water was brackish, and connected eventually to the Atlantic, so I’m calling it “at sea,” so sue me.)  But I think the memories, however disjointed, will stick with me, and whenever I read a mariner’s tale, or see sails out on the water, I start dreaming of a sea voyage. 

Walter Mitty at the helm

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travel, Uncategorized

The Town in the Mountains

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Two towns in Colorado, linked by an old narrow-gauge railroad, were for me, a discovery of “The West.”

They’re linked by the railroad, and, in my mind, by a really pervasive smell.

I guess everyone knows that our sense of smell is the fastest prompt for our memories — not photos or images, not a snatch of song, not a string tied around your finger.  I should pretend that this Tale of the Western Slope was prompted by immersion in a glass of bourbon and a plaintive tune from the Cowboy Junkies or Merle Haggard, but actually, I was led by my nose, walking by a sulfurous industrial plant in Milwaukee.

“Olfaction,” the fancy way of saying “sense of smell,” in general doesn’t sound like a good thing.  Sounds like a medical condition requiring more roughage in your nasal passages.

And in the case I’m thinking about, this surely isn’t a Remembrance of Things Past, brought on by the scent of almonds and vanilla from exquisite madeleines — the trip I’m remembering today is evoked by a lingering satanic stench of smoke and sulfur, that would not wash out of my clothes.  A truly nasty smell.

One sniff and ol’ Marcel Proust would curl up in a coma.

Or at least, turn up his nose.

And yet, this stink brings to me a really wonderful memory!

I hiked and camped around the Southwest a few years ago with a group from my college, looking at Native American archæological sites, on a route that was rearranged into a zigzag, by all the huge forest fires that year. So I guess the fumes off “Chili Sprinkled With Piñon Ash” might trigger some memories of Chaco Canyon and New Mexico deserts.

actually this isn’t on the Durango line – it was taken in Utah. But good and sooty-looking.

But the area, and smell, that really defined the West for me, was in the Colorado Rockies, around Durango and Silverton.

Durango is a small college town in the southwest corner of the state. We were done camping, and relaxed at the historic, and haunted, Strater Hotel, watching the fires rock the hills around the town.  Durango felt very secure, it’s independent spirit shining through in every local, who cheerfully ignored the fires and gave us friendly greetings.  Summer 2012 Colorado Robbie

 

There were nice places to eat, and we rafted right through the heart of town on a swift-moving little river.

 

The Odor/Memory Link comes into it, when we moved out of town a bit, to Pagosa Springs, soaking in naturally-heated sulfur water, and easing travel-weary bones that had been lying on rocks for a couple of weeks.

The hot springs felt great.  But smelled bad.  The stench of the springs overwhelmed the smoke, and lingered for weeks — all of my clothes continued to reek of sulfur, even after five washings.

So, it was the lingering, pervasive stink of sulfur that, out of the blue, reminded me of good times and the majestic beauty around the little city in the mountains.

Maybe because of the little luxuries we enjoyed after camping — real food, hotel beds, hot mineral springs — Durango just didn’t feel like Out West to me.  There’s a difference between just being in the boonies, and being on a real frontier.

A horse called Banjo. Best side forward, I always say.

Sure, there was a vibe of independent laid-backness, but no sense of The Frontier.  The town did feel isolated, especially when surrounded by forest fires, and the smoke-filled sky was a bit intimidating, but this wasn’t the real deal, it was sort of “The West Lite.” A good way to feign the Western lifestyle like a dude rancher.  Durango was just a brand of cowboy boots they sell at the mall.

Maybe I expected too much because of the name itself, Durango.  Seems like you can’t get more spur-jingling, tobacco-chaw-stained, John Wayne-ish than Durango, the setting for How the West was Won, and a hundred other cowboy epics.

But maybe it was all the westerns and mock-westerns shot up here, A Ticket to TomahawkButch Cassidy and City Slickers, a bandolier-ed Marlon Brando playing Zapata, etc. that have permanently imbued it with the feeling of a two-dimensional stage set.

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So as it turned out, it was up the other end of the Durango-Silverton railroad that made me feel like an intrepid independent frontiersman, on the edge of the Wild West.

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Taking the historic narrow-gauge railway up to Silverton (built to haul gold and silver ore) was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Riding the smoke-billowing old train through the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen was incredible. The route and the train itself were lovely, a step back to a simpler time, when travel was exciting and unpredictable, sometimes luxurious — through the mountains, higher and higher into the heart of the Rockies. Dense forests of pine and fir flanked both sides, with rocky crags and extensions, deep chasms and narrow tracks made the ride into a thrill. I recall watching the train wrap around a curve in the mountain side, with nothing but thousands of feet of rock below us.

As I craned my neck out, branches from the trees clutching the sides of chasms brushed my face, and almost carried away my big-brimmed, dorky-looking hat.  We’d left the forest fires behind, but hot ash from the locomotive would sometimes blow in your face. I didn’t care.

Robbie - Southwest seminar Durango

The view of mountains was interjected with impossibly blue mountain lakes and little streams.  The most magical, picture postcard image came in the form of a mountain stream, cascading under the raised tracks, from one purplish grey mountain top (still capped with snow in late June), with dense pine woods flickering by, partially blocking the view of the mountains on the other side. I was too enraptured to photograph most of it, and the scenic beauty, the day’s warmth, with a nice temperate breeze (although it actually got cold as we rose higher up into the mountains), and the train’s steady gentle rocking lulled me to sleep without realizing it. I was glad someone shook me awake, so I wouldn’t miss the stunning vistas.

At the top of the line, Silverton was not a Durango stage set. It was small. It wasn’t a hip college town. It was just a ramshackle-looking collection of old houses from the long-ago days of the mining boom, and not many people were still hanging on up there.  The little mining town was essentially unchanged from the 1890’s, flanked by some of the largest mountains I have ever seen.  Came back with just a few snapshots – looking at them, the town doesn’t look very striking, or even picturesque, but maybe that’s the point.  It’s just a ramshackle vestige of the past, real, not a duded-up stage set.

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Up here, I found a remnant of the true West. New Mexico may have been the desert experience I was hoping for, but here, this was the West of miners, gunslingers, daredevil railroaders, cowboys. Impossibly beautiful mountains and the small frontier town juxtaposed against it’s backdrop made the West seem alive. For a New York flatlander, from a county whose tallest point is a landfill, I was simply blown away.

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So that’s why the smell of sulfur makes me happy sometimes.

 

Well, he was slouching, too.

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Compost, Election, politics, Uncategorized, Upstate New York

Primary Day in New York. The Politics of Compost.

Politics & Compost  

(Edited) (The compost and I have both cooled down and are now ready)

Two events coincided, back in Old New York.

Both ripe with symbolism, rife with significance, and laden with historical import.

It was Primary Day, and also the day my father, a gardener, turned over his winter compost bins.

The comparison is obvious and inescapable.

It’s a stinky business, but we hope some good will come out of it.

“What a filthy job.” “Could be worse.” “How?” “Could be raining politicians.”

One of the benefits of composting, is that if you do it right, the process of fermentation, decomposition, or whatever all those bacteria and microbes are getting up to, will generate enough heat to cook the weed seeds, and kill them, so the weeds don’t sprout in your garden. I don’t pretend to understand it scientifically – but based on some really memorable stenches in the past, if you aerate it, you get a nice humus-y smell, like a damp woods. If you fail to aerate it, you get a horrible sewage smell.

So you need a little oxygen. Turn things over, mix ’em up, get some fresh air in there.

New Yorkers know the poem “…huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

No, I’m not equating immigrants with discarded banana peels and coffee grounds.  But my father, who endlessly points out that we’re descendants of evicted peasants, takes great joy in his compost, and probably wouldn’t object to the comparison, since he  regards the process of producing rich, healthy compost from scraps and leftovers as almost magical and nearly sacred. The turning of the heap is a major ceremony, usually coming on the lunar calendar right before planting peas by the full moon. Compost is probably as close to a religion as he gets.

Whether decomposing potato peels, or political ferment, it takes some effort.

You need to stir things up.  Aerate it once in a while.

“Anaerobic” means “living without air.”  And in my non-scientific understanding, that’s what produces the really bad smells.  And sometimes fungus, when things are kept in the dark and fed manure, like the old saying about politics or mushrooms.

As long as you keep things stirred up, aerated and in the sunshine once in a while, it doesn’t hurt to add a few layers of animal waste, meaning, a few cow pies get tossed in, if a pasture is close by, to create a really fantastic, steaming pile, like a tiny volcano.

I’m not naming names for this particular analogy of cow manure and rabble-rousing.

But we’re not just poo-flinging monkeys.  We come down out of the trees, and grow things.

Compost is wonderful stuff.  But take it from me, you don’t want to climb around down in the bottom of the compost bin.  Maybe they’re beneficial bacteria and all that, but they’re still slimy lower life forms, and they stink.

Hey, it’s finally spring.  Forget the microbial and political lowlifes.  Time to wash our dirty linen, in public, and if we’re going to shovel some…”organic cow fertilizer,” why not spread it out in the sun, and we’ll grow a few flowers.  Maybe a compost heap is kind of magical, after all.  It gives you faith that with garbage, and a process that sometimes smells to high heaven, we can still end up with something really worthwhile.

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