Writer, marketer, columnist, author, photographer, birder, walker, hiker, husband, father, grandfather, brother, son, township trustee, converted Anabaptist, community activist, my life is crammed with all things people and nature and wonder. My late father gave me this penchant for giving and getting the most out of life, my late mother the courtesy, kindness, and creativity to see the joy in life. They both taught me to cherish the people I am with. I try and fail and try again.
Have you ever intended to photograph one subject and instead captured something entirely different?
That’s what happened to me last evening. I wanted to shoot the full super moon rising over the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. As soon as I left home, I could see there might be a problem. A large rain cloud hovered over the park, right where the moon was calculated to appear.
Hoping the cloud might move on or dissipate, I kept driving. I am so glad I did.
A full moon always rises as the sun sets. In the Shenandoah Valley, the sun sinks below the Allegheny Mountains that mark Virginia/West Virginia state lines to the west. It rises over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east.
As I drove east, the last of the day’s sun rays illuminated the clouds over the national park. The closer I got, the more the clouds transitioned from white to peach to orange.
I arrived at my photo destination in time to capture the moment’s beauty. For me, this easily made up for missing the moonrise.
The group I was with Saturday morning was nearing the end of our fruitful bird walk. We had seen 44 species in about three hours as we strolled around this lovely acreage of rolling wildflower meadows dotted with woodlots.
As we neared the end of our bird walk, this regal-looking Red-headed Woodpecker flew in front of us. It landed on this fence post at least 50-yards away. I was game for a shot anyway.
My hand-held camera captured this compressed scene with my 1,200 mm lens fully extended. The fence posts were actually several feet apart. Clearly, this photo was a long shot in more ways than one.
I stood at the back of the small group of relatives and friends of the deceased man I was about to help bury. It was my first experience covering the ashes of a person laid to rest in our church’s Memory Garden.
The day was hot and sticky, as many have been here in the Shenandoah Valley this summer. Earlier, I had helped the pastor set up the canopy to provide shade for the mourners. The giant pin oak tree in the center of this solemn place also helped scatter the sun’s blistering rays.
After setting up the canopy, I turned to dig the hole that would contain the cremated remains of this distinguished and much-loved man.
The summer heat and humidity spawned frequent scattered afternoon thunderstorms. This made the digging easy compared to the only other cremation hole I had dug before the rains came.
The small garden shovel easily sliced into the dirt. The top layers came out in clumps. When I switched to a hand trowel a foot below the surface, the moist earth crumbled as I tried to make the temporary incursion as close to round as possible.
I placed the clumpy clods on a sheet of transparent plastic between my excavation and the limestone wall that served as a solid privacy barrier to the memorial sanctuary. The garden is meant to be a place of rest and solitude for the living and the dead.
The man’s widow, three sons, and other family members arrived before either the pastor or me, and we were both early. They sat on padded chairs beneath the canopy as the pastor said a brief homily that clearly moved the small group of mourners.
I stood behind them, respectfully observing. After the final prayer, the pastor opened the urn and carefully poured the ashes into the hole.
I walked to the front and stepped onto the raised garden covered with newly planted myrtle sprigs. A few violet blossoms already appeared on the young plants.
I had never done this before and wanted to be as inconspicuous and respectful as possible. Though I didn’t look up, I sensed all eyes were on me.
I took the hand trowel and carefully scattered dirt to cover the powdery remains of this honorable man. I dutifully and diligently refilled the hole as compassionately as possible. I wanted my simple efforts to mirror their love for the husband, father, and grandfather.
When I reached the bigger clods of dirt that had been the first to be removed, I switched to the garden shovel. The hole was soon refilled. Without looking up, I used the hand trowel to softly scrape the remaining marbles of soil onto the top of this man’s resting place. I shook the finite remnants from the plastic as a final ceremonial blessing and quietly returned to my designated spot behind the mourners, tools and plastic in hand.
The pastor dismissed the mourners to the church for a light meal, but no one moved except to wipe away tears. The love for their husband, father, and grandfather hung heavy in the air, though sweetly, silently.
After the family finally retreated to the coolness of the church, I broke up the bigger clods of dirt, hoping they would settle more quickly over this learned man’s final resting place. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I am always looking for new locations to capture sunsets. I accidentally found this spot on a dead end road.
While the sunset wasn’t spectacular, something else caught my attention. The sweet fragrance of growing corn filled my senses. Then I noticed how the soft evening light highlighted the emerging tassels of the cornstalks. The flow of the large cornfield took my eye right back to the Allegheny Mountains and the setting sun.
Weather nut that I am, I check the forecast regularly. Monday looked to be decent weather for hiking. Cooler temperatures in the higher elevations and no rain. That would work out just fine for several reasons.
Our daughter and her husband had left the previous Sunday to take our oldest grandchild to his college orientation in Richmond, Virginia. Of course, the university had nearly four days of activities for the new students and their parents.
That left the middle grandchild, Davis, and our only granddaughter, Maren, to check on. With them both being responsible teenagers, that didn’t require much.
With school out for the summer, Maren loves to help Nana with puzzles, baking, and other hands-on chores. She also mows our lawn. That left Davis and me to find trouble together.
Since we both like to hike, we visited Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia. It’s an hour and a half drive for us. We left mid-morning, but Davis didn’t take long to nod. How he could snooze in all that hilly, twisting driving I was doing, I don’t know. He woke as I slowed to photograph a Ruffed Grouse strutting its stuff on the Forest Service road near the mountain top.
After taking a few snapshots of this often elusive bird, we were soon in the parking lot. Other than a Forest Service employee, we had the place to ourselves. However, we hadn’t even started on the trail when I realized I had forgotten the insect repellent. Fat flies buzzed nearby, but none landed on us the entire time we were there.
Spruce Knob affords beautiful views on a clear day like today. Only a few puffy clouds formed over distant mountain ranges to the west. The air was a pleasant 66 degrees with little humidity and no haze to obscure our views.
We walked the loop trail that leads from the parking lot and back. The scent of the spruce filled the air. Wildflowers and birdsongs were abundant. We basked in both.
I know I slowed Davis down by constantly pausing to photograph wildflowers, birds, and butterflies. Trooper that he is, Davis didn’t complain.
I wanted Davis to enjoy this trip. It was one he was supposed to do at the end of the school year with several students and six teachers. The trip was canceled at the last minute when three teachers came down with Covid-19. In the end, all six were sick.
They were to camp out and visit Spruce Knob, Seneca Rocks, and Dolly Sods. All were in the same geographic area of the old folded mountains and valleys.
So, while Nana and Maren were enjoying each other’s company, and Davis’s brother and parents were occupied with college orientation, Davis and I explored some of the wilds and wonders of West Virginia.
We studied the large piles of giant rocks along the path and at the slope of the mountain, long ago rounded by millenniums of erosion from wind, water, ice, and snow. The teacher in me quizzed Davis about how the rocks got where they did. He graciously played along with my lame attempts.
We saw migrant birds and birds that should be migrants but reside here year-round. Dark-eyed Juncos commonly nest in Canadian provinces. The exception is the Appalachian Mountains.
Because these beautiful ridges hold the same habitat and provide the necessary nutrients, the birds live here and farther up the Appalachian range into New England. Davis wanted to know why the other Junocs migrated when the birds we saw stayed. I hope he seeks a better answer than I gave him.
We enjoyed the views east and west and headed to Seneca Rocks, where we would eat our brown bag lunches. When we arrived at the valley picnic grounds, it was 82 degrees and humid.
From there, we could clearly see the face of the vertical rocks jutting straight up. Eons ago, they had been parallel until the collision of continents forced them to fracture and face the sky.
Unfortunately, no rock climbers could be seen. The day was likely too hot for such strenuous activity.
We gathered our things and headed up. The trailhead started at the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. The bridge that crosses it goes by the same cumbersome name.
Davis was eager to let his long legs glide him up the well-maintained trail. My old weathered ones weren’t so cooperative. The first third of the path is the steepest. We rested according to my needs. Davis never complained or barged ahead.
We passed other hikers on their way down, and other younger hikers passed us on the way up. I noticed some of them didn’t have hiking shoes or water. We later trekked by some of those same hikers, now fatigued. We reached the top more than an hour after we had started.
The trail leads to an overlook platform that provides gorgeous views of the mountain ridge west of German Valley that the river continues to carve out. We rested and talked with other hikers who soon reached the summit.
Going down took half the time. Davis wondered about going on to Dolly Sods up the road a piece. I wisely said we would save that adventure for another outing. We still had that long drive home.
Adventures like these are the reason we moved from Ohio’s Amish country to Virginia. Now, with the birth of our fourth grandchild in Rochester, New York, we have additional opportunities to watch our grandchildren grow.
Our neighbors recently had us over for an evening of card games. When the late evening sun poured through their west window, my attention turned from cards to capturing this beautiful still-life portrait.
My wife and I had never been to Europe before. Happily, we can no longer say that. We most certainly want to return to spend more time in places where we only touched the surface.
Given the state of the world, however, we are not sure when that will be. We do realize that time is running out. That’s my first reflection on our trip.
We should have gone 20 years ago when we were younger, more agile, and had much more energy. But hindsight is so much easier than foresight. I will spend my days thankful for this trip, even if it is the only one we ever make to Europe. I pray that it won’t be.
Europe is far ahead of the U.S. in being “green.” I mean green in every sense of the word. The wide use of solar and wind energy was apparent in cities and countrysides alike. In addition, the importance of preserving farmlands and forests truly impressed me. Cities, towns, and rural villages all seemed well-planned, allowing fertile soils to be used for crops. The farms we saw were pristine. Another green aspect was the extensive use of public transit, especially trains and hiking and biking paths that stretched far into the countryside and mountains. We found flower and vegetable gardens everywhere we went.
We were impressed how clean everything was. Litter was almost non-existent, except for cigarette butts.
We were rather surprised how casual Austria, Germany, and Switzerland were about Covid-19. Before we left, we had been advised that Europe was very strict and that we would need to show our Covid-19 vaccination cards to enter public places with large gatherings. That never happened. Most servers in restaurants didn’t wear masks. We all tested negative before boarding our return flight. However, 10 of our group of 39 tested positive for Covid-19 soon after arriving back in the states. Several took days to finally test negative. Consequently, my wife and I will likely not travel abroad until Covid-19 dies down further.
I was greatly impressed with the infrastructure in Europe. The highways were smooth, well-maintained, well-marked, and easy to navigate. The number of tunnels also caught my attention. They, too, were well-kept and free of fumes. I suspected that tunnels also kept the integrity of the scenic landscape, instead of cutting huge gouges in hillsides and mountainsides, like is too often done in the U.S.
We were surprised to see so little snow on the Alps. We were there in the middle of May. In checking with locals, I understood that snowfall was well below normal last winter.
As humbling and haunting as it was, we were glad for the opportunity to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp. To say that time was a black mark on the human race is an understatement. We hope and pray it never happens again.
People were friendly and patient with us everywhere we went, not counting the Frankfurt Airport. I have always liked visiting new places, and meeting new friends. It was especially nice for a follower of this blog and her husband to graciously show us around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mathildenhohe in Darmstadt, Germany. It was a great way to finish up our whirlwind trip.
Speaking of people, the 39 members of our tour group came from eight different states and one Canadian province. It’s fair to say that most didn’t know one another very well or at all before the trip. But the camaraderie and cooperation were exceptional throughout the trip, especially for the size of the group.
Our bus driver Ivo, and our on-bus guide Sandra were excellent. The group applauded several times when Ivo made it around some very tight corners. Sandra was most helpful in making sure our mostly senior groups had the necessary rest stops. She was 78 herself. Lastly, our tour organizer Ed kept his calm even in the most chaotic situations. His faithful leadership was most appreciated.
My wife and I loved our first taste of Europe. We are also glad to be home safe and sound. I’ll fill you in on future blog posts about what we have been doing post-trip.
Thanks for reading and following along on our European Adventure.
What was supposed to be the last leg of the trip wasn’t.
We woke up to the news that our flight home was canceled. Off to the airport, we went anyhow to rebook. It was chaotic at our airline’s booking counters, to say the least. But with a lot of patience on the part of all of us, it all worked out despite being there several hours.
Lufthansa worked with each group member and allowed us to pick our seats. Three members of our group were six feet eight inches or taller and needed lots of leg room. We were also given vouchers for an excellent hotel, dinner that evening, and breakfast the following day.
We did have to arrange on our own for yet another Covid-19 test since that requirement was still in place when we traveled. That process was equally chaotic. Though it took much too long, we all tested negative again.
Despite the confusion and frustrations of this day, there was a very positive upside for my wife and me. The open evening allowed us to meet some new friends.
Marie-Helene has followed this blog for a few years. She and her husband Oliver lived near Frankfurt and offered to come to say hello. Now that we had an open evening, they took us to a UNESCO World Heritage site, Mathlidenhohe in Darmstadt.
According to the World Heritage Convention, the historic artist colony is at the city’s highest point. The “finger building,” as locals refer to the art nouveau tower, serves as the centerpiece for this most unusual and striking community where much of the architecture is the art.
Our hosts led us on a walking tour of part of the area. We climbed the “finger building” that often serves as a wedding venue. From the building’s pinnacle, we had marvelous views of the city.
The golden dome of the Russian Orthodox Church reflected the evening sun just below the tower. We saw other public and private buildings that made this neighborhood the artistic wonder it is.
Particularly striking was the nearby Waldspirale. It was a sprawling apartment building that spiraled upward into an expansive structure. Erected in the 1990s, it was constructed so that nothing looked level, but everything was. The building even had a green roof where large trees grew. I found it an astounding piece of architecture.
All too soon, we had to return to our hotel in Frankfurt, where we dined with our friendly hosts. We bid them farewell with hugs and words of gratitude for their kind hospitality.
The next day it was off to the airport and a long flight home. The plane left as scheduled this time, and the flight went well. After gathering our luggage, we had a two-and-a-half-hour ride home, and just like that, our European adventure had ended.
Our last full day in Europe was supposed to be one of travel, enjoying a medieval town, and preparing for our flight home early the next day. It didn’t turn out that way.
The plan was to get our required Covid-19 tests before leaving Oberammergau. Unfortunately, a miscommunication occurred, and our 78-year-old tour guide had to scurry around and find testing for our group of 39. She found a mobile testing operation, but there was a problem. Since members of our group were scattered in three hotels, not all the hotels would allow the testers to enter. Fortunately, our hotel was not one of them.
Typical views of Bavarian countryside and a trucker with a sense of humor.
We paid our 40 euros, did the paperwork, got our tests, and waited for our results. In an hour, we learned we were good to go, but others on our tour had to wait and wait for their tests and results. We left close to lunchtime, which put us well behind schedule.
Our excellent bus driver expertly maneuvered us along country roads. We even encountered a closed road with no advanced warning. We had to go several kilometers out of the way on narrow country roads to reach the autobahn.
Sandra, our guide, kept her calm and used her travel wisdom to get us to a proper place for a much-needed lunch break. The highway cut through pristine farmland and along rail lines, biking, and hiking paths. Windmills topped ridge lines, and acres of solar panels occupied areas along the roadway.
We finally arrived at our only tourist objective for the day, Rothenburg, Germany. Rothenburg is the best-preserved medieval town in Europe. The photos show why.
Unfortunately, we ran late since we didn’t leave Oberammergau on time. Consequently, we only had an hour or so to survey the town, and even then, a thunderstorm sent us hustling back to the bus. We didn’t do Rothenburg justice. I could have spent days exploring the old walled city.
From there, it was on to our hotel near the Frankfurt Airport, where we were to depart the following day. As we all know, the best laid plans don’t always work out.