Back on the stoop

I should probably stop taking my morning coffee out to the front stoop. It’s getting shitty out there. Not only do the neighborhood birds seem to wait for me to appear so they can go on a bombing run, but when I went outside this morning, I almost stepped in what appeared to be cat doo-doo.

I know – my front stoop would SEEM to be the last place for a cat to do its business. Aren’t they more discrete than that?

Anyway, my daughter and I have been back home for several days from a road trip through our home state of West Virginia. I wrote about our travels for West Virginia Living magazine. Here are the links to my posts:


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Heat, humidity and a hike up a mountain

My neighbor across the street has this thing going in which he loves to ask “how I’m liking the weather today?”

He NEVER fails to ask me that question. Each time we run into each other, I can expect him to grin, ask me about the weather and then chuckle to himself when I scowl.

He doesn’t really care what I think. He’s just tweaking me. He already knows how I feel about sweating through a sticky, soupy West Virginia summer – and, just to be clear, IT’S NOT GOOD!

Frankly, I’d rather join our big dog Rodney atop an AC vent and stay there until Labor Day, but circumstances conspire against me.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Nic texted me. He wanted to know if I’d like to join him and another friend of ours on a quick overnight backpacking trip.

Knowing what you now know about my hostility toward heat and humidity, you’d be right to think it a safe bet that I wouldn’t give the matter much thought, that I would flatly refuse and then give Rodney a nudge (he’s a vent hog). But, in this instance, if you had actually made that bet, you would have lost.

I can’t really explain why I went against the odds other than to say the cool air emanating from the vent must have made me temporarily delirious. In any case, I agreed to hike Shockeys Knob, a mountain about a half-hour from my home in Martinsburg, along West Virginia’s border with Virginia.

Last Wednesday, I found myself struggling up the mountain path with Nic and our friend John. Actually, I huffed and puffed more than either of them, but my feeble efforts to keep up aren’t the point. While temperatures weren’t nearly as hot as they were last week and it rained off and on, it was still humid. I was dripping with sweat before we even got halfway up the path.

Did I mention I prefer AC vents even if I have to nudge Rodney to make room?

I do.


But despite the humid, and sometimes rainy weather, that hike was worth it. And not just because we rewarded ourselves with the beer we had iced down and lugged up the mountain in our packs. It was because we had accomplished something, we had met a shared goal, we had been through the crucible and Shockeys Knob was ours.

But despite that sense of satisfaction, I’ve made a promise to myself. The next time my friends want to hike a mountain when it’s humid outside just to share a few beers beside a campfire, I’m going to suggest they come over to my house, instead. I’ve got plenty of AC vents and Rodney doesn’t mind sharing. Plus, the beer will be colder. I’ve got a fridge.

I don’t like humid weather.



A long walk is always worth writing about

I was just finishing my customary morning coffee on the front stoop Thursday when I saw a red flash dash through the air in front of my house. It was a bird, of course. And unlike that blue jay that crapped right in front of me last week, it had some shame. It likely held it until I wasn’t looking.

To use the scientific name (and make myself seem smarter), it was a Cardinalis cardinalis, more commonly known as the northern cardinal.

The cardinal is hardly unique to where I live in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. In fact, it’s quite common across a wide swath of North America. I only mention it here because the sight of it reminded me to write this post.

If you don’t see why a bird as common as a cardinal would prompt me to open my laptop add up these three facts:

(1) The cardinal is the state bird of West Virginia.

(2) West Virginia celebrated its 154th birthday on Tuesday.

(3) We marked the holiday – West Virginia Day – by going for a hike.

A long walk is always worth writing about.

When I rolled out of bed Tuesday morning, I suggested to my wife that instead of spending a lazy morning dodging bird doo-doo on the front stoop, we should celebrate statehood by going for a hike.

Although I suspect she was secretly disappointed about missing a chance to witness firsthand my shitty relationship with birds, she enthusiastically agreed to hit the trail. My wife is always up for a physical challenge, so I suggested we hike Maryland Heights.

Hiking the Heights may seem like an odd thing to do on West Virginia’s birthday. After all, the mountain is in Maryland. But I would argue that Maryland Heights might as well be a part of my home state, especially on June 20th – West Virginia Day.

Maryland Heights towers over historic Harpers Ferry, the West Virginia town at the confluence of the storied Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Harpers Ferry was a key stop for Meriwether Lewis as he prepared for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It’s famous for John Brown’s Raid and it has links to the present day NAACP through the now defunct Storer College. Storer was a historically black school. Frederick Douglass once served as a trustee.

It goes without saying that Harpers Ferry is steeped in Civil War history and as the highest point above the town, Maryland Heights played a key military role. Soldiers like to control the high ground, the better to lob cannonballs down on helpless enemies below.

On the day we hiked the Heights, it seemed to me that West Virginians were storming the mountain. More than once, I heard fellow hikers greet each other with a jaunty “Happy West Virginia Day.” One woman we saw wore a T-shirt with the state’s venerable “Wild, Wonderful” slogan on it. The man hiking with her wore a shirt emblazoned with a giant “304.” “304” is shorthand for West Virginia. It was the state’s only area code until 2009, when we were forced by whoever governs these things to begin using another one as well. I won’t say what the other area code is here. I will never get used to anything other than “304.”

As we were coming down off the mountain, my wife ran into a friend who was hiking with her son. They apparently hauled a state flag up to the overlook to snap a picture with it there.

To use what seems to be a favorite word of one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, the overlook offers a “splendid” view of Harpers Ferry. It makes struggling up the Heights worth it, not to mention that it’s a good place to rest and catch your breath.

All in all, it was, as they say, a good day to be a mountaineer, even if we spent part of it in Maryland.

Only one thing marred our hike. The trailhead could be marked more clearly. Even though we had hiked the mountain with our kids once before, we missed it this time around. I grew frustrated with our failure and got petulant about it. So much so, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that my wife attempted to persuade a bird to poop on my head.

In any case, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other as we made our way up the steep trail burned away any lingering hard feelings.

However, I remain somewhat anxious about bird shit.

Protip: When traveling with kids, don’t forget the charger

I’ve made a small investment in a simple piece of hardware that I hope will keep me from having to perform the classic “frustrated dad maneuver” this weekend – that is, threatening to pull the car over and making the kids walk.

It’s an inexpensive USB car charger.

For 14 bucks, I have a device in hand that will a) keep everyone’s electronics happily humming along and b) distract the kids from bickering for the duration of our quick trip to Atlantic City.

I ran across this potentially life-changing device in the electronics store.

I made our daughter accompany me there against her will this week. She turns 13 this month and is true to form. The last thing she wants is to be seen in public with me, but I thought ahead and offered a bribe.

After embarrassing her by just being present while she got her back-to-school haircut, I floated the promise of ice cream if she’d indulge me before returning home. She’ll do anything for ice cream, even temporarily forgetting that I should only exist when she needs money … for more ice cream.

When we got to the store, I quickly discovered the leap chargers have made since the last time I was in the market for one. Their potential to keep the peace didn’t escape me, either. I snapped up one with two USB ports.

I’m probably coming late to the whole USB car charger thing, but I have an excuse. It’s been several years since I’ve had to buy a charger. I haven’t had to think about one because my wheels are iPhone ready – meaning I can plug my phone into the car’s system and play it through the stereo while it charges.

But I don’t have an iPhone, anymore. I got a new Android this week, and it doesn’t play nice with my car. It’s rendered its iPhone capabilities almost useless.

However, my new charger fixes that. It taps into my car’s juice in the usual way, through the cigarette lighter. And while it works exactly like the chargers I’m used to, it effectively expands by threefold my vehicle’s ability to keep electronic devices ready-to-go. But the real pay-off is its potential to keep our kids from coming to blows over whose turn it is to replenish their batteries.

The kids each have their own port. My daughter can charge her phone and her Kindle on one while her older brother takes the other for not only his phone, but his video game systems. Since my wife still has an iPhone, she can use my car’s iPhone plug.

That just leaves me.

If you’re keeping score at home, it looks like I’m the odd man out.

Despite having the USB charger, I’m still one plug short. It gives me three, but four people are cramming into my car for the trip to Atlantic City.

I could make one of the kids share time with me, but that would just stir up the kind of trouble I’m trying to avoid.

The last thing I want is to be kicked out of my own car.

A Memorial Day Misadventure

Usually, all my wife and I ever get out of our 16-year-old son are short, unintelligible grunts in response to questions about his day. He also grunts complaints that we don’t keep enough snacks around the house and when we require him to be seen in public with us.

Which was why I was surprised this past Memorial Day when he emerged from his basement lair and said in a clear voice, “I really should have gone with you guys.”

My wife and I had just returned from what we had billed as a holiday hike. We had planned to use Memorial Day to stretch our legs, discover more about our region’s Civil War history and, in the process, embarrass our kids by making them come along.

A few nights before the holiday, I announced our intention to scale, as a family, the Maryland Heights Trail, high above Harpers Ferry.

The news was met by our son’s customary grunt.

For those unfamiliar with the language of a teenage boy, it’s hard to tell one grunt from another. But that one was easy. I interpreted it as an expression of displeasure.

At least he didn’t actively try to avoid the hike. He left that to his way more talkative 12-year-old sister, whose desire never to be seen with her parents rivals his in its intensity. The only difference is that while he grunts his objections, she starts talking faster.

“But dad,” she complained like a locomotive belching steam and picking up speed. She went on to quickly explain that she had planned to spend Memorial Day at a friend’s house. They were working on a school project together and it was due later that week.

She kept talking until I acquiesced.

When Memorial Day dawned, it occurred to me that since our daughter wasn’t going, it might be nice to hike Maryland Heights with just my wife for company. With my schedule, we rarely have the opportunity to be by ourselves. I work nights and weekends, the kids are around most of the time, and our needy dog Rodney demands attention at every turn. So when I woke up our son, it was to tell him that we were leaving and would be gone most of the day.

He roused himself just long enough to offer a grunt in reply. I took it to mean he was relieved.

After dropping our daughter off at her friend’s house, my wife and I made our way to the trailhead, across the river from Harpers Ferry. That’s when we discovered that hiking a popular trail on a holiday was not such a good idea.

The small parking area along the narrow road hard at the base of the mountain was frustratingly full. So frustrating that after making several passes in hopes that someone would leave, I simply gave up and suggested we go over to Shepherdstown in search of parking and a far less strenuous stroll along the C&O towpath. But no one wanted to give up their parking space there, either.

All told, we spent about three hours failing to find a place to get out of the car to take a long walk. In that time, I could have commuted to my job in Washington, D.C. and returned home.

To make matters worse, I told my son the truth after he expressed remorse for not going. In hindsight, I should have let him feel guilty.

Because now, I’ve only hardened his conviction about how lame his parents really are.

Our trip to Seneca Rocks – No rest for the out of breath

I didn’t know it at the time, but one of the pictures I took during a family hike at West Virginia’s Seneca Rocks last week pretty much sums up our long slog up the mountain. At least, it pretty much sums up the hike for me.


The picture shows our 16-year-old son starting to take a fairly commanding lead over his mother and sister, who appear to be holding a conversation of some sort. All three are walking along a wooded track with their backs to the camera. All three seem to be moving at a good clip.

I’m nowhere to be seen.

That’s because I possessed the camera and took the picture from behind.

Way behind.

Which begs the question – why was I lagging?

Just to get that shot?

Or was I struggling to keep up?

It depends on whom you ask. My wife would probably tell you that I was getting a little red in the face. In fact, she asked several times on our way up the mountain if I was “okay.”

Personally, I like to think I was leading from the rear. After all, our trip to Seneca Rocks was my idea.


West Virginia’s Seneca Rocks is popular with climbers and rapellers. Also, the 10th Mountain Division trained here during World War 2.

I told my wife about a month ago that I wanted to take the kids to the Rocks over spring break. I figured they could use some fresh air – especially our son, who, if left on his own, would probably figure out a way to somehow become one with the Internet like Johnny Depp does in the new movie “Transcendence.” But instead of hatching an evil plan to destroy the world, our son would likely use his extravagant power to have a pizza delivered to the house every day.

As ideas go, that’s not such a bad one. But even the digitally omnipotent need to flex their muscles every once in a while.

And, flex them he did.

The trail up to the observation platform at Seneca Rocks is a mile-and-a-half. One website I found describes it invitingly as a “pleasant hike along gentle uphill grades and switchbacks.”

For a 16-year-old (and, apparently everyone else) that description rings true. But I’m a newly minted 50-year-old who realized not far up the trail that our teenage son is not the one who needs to get out more – that being dragged around our neighborhood by our giant dog Rodney once in a while was not going to be enough exercise to keep from getting a little dizzy from exertion.

Thankfully, there are plenty of places to stop and rest on the way up. Wooden benches are placed strategically along the trail, and fallen trees and big boulders are handy to lean against as you catch your breath and let the burn in your legs subside.

Not that I ever got to take advantage of any opportunity to rest.

As anyone who has ever had the misfortune of bringing up the rear will tell you, there really is no rest for the weary. I’m just glad I was in charge of the water bottles.

I had them in a fanny pack strapped around what passes for my waist – a happy circumstance that forced my wife and kids to stop and wait for me when they got thirsty. Unfortunately, my joy at each pause in our hike didn’t last long. After they sipped some water and I began settling in for a well-deserved break, our son would turn almost immediately and start back up the trail with my wife and daughter following closely in his wake.

I had no choice but to get moving, again.

I finally got to catch my breath when I stumbled up to the observation platform to join my family. The view is spectacular and well worth the hike up Seneca Rocks, especially if you’re concerned about someone in the family who really ought to get out more.


And, just for the record, I actually led the way for much of the trek down the mountain.

There are times when gravity really is my friend.


The Commute Just Keeps Getting Better and Better

The commute between my home in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle and my job in Washington, D.C., has lately seemed more like a trek for which I could use a Sherpa guide.

And now, more wintry weather is expected just as I’m due back tomorrow morning after a couple of days off.

The Washington Post’s “Capital Weather Gang” characterizes the storm we’re supposed to get this weekend as more of a “nuisance.”

But when you live as far away from your job as I do, a “nuisance” can quickly turn into a major migraine. And, after what I’ve been through on the commute lately, I’m not looking forward to even a hint of inclement weather.

For example, here’s what I-270 looked like from my windshield last Sunday at around midday.

This is a little further along my commute, on I-70 heading west on Maryland’s Braddock Mountain.

It was even tougher getting home Tuesday morning after having worked the overnight. This is I-70W heading up South Mountain. The big rigs were having trouble. Some had to be towed in order to get going again. 

Before you start criticizing, I know I’m not supposed to take pictures, much less tweet, while driving. But I wasn’t really driving. The interstate was more like a parking lot at the time.

And, while I may not end up frozen in my tracks tomorrow, that doesn’t mean I’m not hiring.

Do you know anyone around here who can blaze a trail through a snowstorm as well as a Sherpa?  I’m looking for somebody who can get me down off the mountain and back in one piece.