By Dawn’s Early Light

I found this when I checked the potential for a lovely sunrise at 6:30 this morning. With sunrise still 45 minutes away, these clouds should have been turning all shades of pink, orange, and red at this stage.

Instead, the low clouds set a foreboding mood, as if denying the sun its daily duty. Then I noticed the crescent moon in the photo’s upper right-hand corner. And the phrase, “By dawn’s early light,” came to mind.

For citizens of the United States, those words should mean something. They are in the opening line of our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The lyrics come from a poem, “In Defence of Fort McHenry,” written on September 14, 1814, by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812.

I wondered how this sky compared to the one that inspired Key’s patriotic poem. Unlike the scene Key painted, thankfully, no bombs were bursting in the air here in Fernandina Beach, Florida, this morning.

But the mood of this photo, with the splinter of a waning January moon peeking between the clouds, also inspired me. I hope it does the same for you.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2023

Private Moments in a Public Space

Spanish moss and the Live Oak leaves glistened in the afternoon, son.

I’ve never been a beach kind of guy. I prefer the fields, hills, and forests. When we winter in Fernandina Beach, Florida, on Amelia Island, I head to Egans Creek Greenway for peace of mind. That’s a bit ironic since our rented condo is on the beach facing the Atlantic Ocean.

I enjoy watching dolphins swim by and the many birds of prey, shorebirds, and other avian species plying the ocean waters. I also delight in the lovely sunrises, though they have been few and far between this year. I’m not complaining. We’ve had plenty of clear blue skies and above-average temperatures in the two weeks we have been here.

The warmth and fair weather have allowed me to spend enjoyable hours on the Egans Creek Greenway. The Greenway is a preserved wildlife area sandwiched between two busy east-west roadways, including the northernmost section of Florida’s noted A1A Coastal Highway. It’s my sacred place, though it is hardly quiet.

Egans Creek Greenway is a place to discover all of nature’s wonders. Visitors can find alligators, Ospreys, butterflies, river otters, and much more in, on, and among the waters, marshes, and greenery. Opened at the turn of the millennium in 2000, the Greenway is an undeveloped park for conservation and passive recreational use.

Egans Creek runs north through the far northeastern section of this barrier island. Housing developments and commercial buildings like hotels constantly push at the edges, even though the area is designated a preserve. The Greenway is managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which has its headquarters adjacent at the north end of the marsh.

The Greenway consists of over 300 acres of protected lands, which include slivers of marine woodlands, wetland bushes, and a sizeable briny marsh. Trails for walking, running, biking, and birding wind throughout the Greenway. Maps are available at the Greenway’s entrances, and benches are dotted along the grass-covered paths.

A path in Egans Creek Greenway.

In the dozen years we have been coming here, I have found the Greenway my place to relax, explore, and rest. Its location forces me to focus on what is right in front of me and always watch for surprises. Last year a Northern Harrier swooped low across the marsh. Roseate Spoonbills make rare appearances.

I especially enjoy the creativity it affords me if I only take the time to see it. The stark contrasts of crimson buds of red maple trees against the shiny green leaves of Live Oaks create a festive feel. Or the orange and black of a lone Monarch butterfly settling on a barren stalk keeps me mentally alert and spiritually alive.

Please click on the photos to enlarge them.

An added enjoyment is meeting new people on the Greenway. Some stop to talk or inquire about what I am seeing. Others just run or bike right on by. Rowdy teenagers occasionally pitch a stick at a sunbathing alligator or spook birds with their boisterous talk.

Nevertheless, these experiences allow me to tune out the human-induced noises that permeate our lives. In the case of the Greenway, commercial jetliners approaching Jacksonville International Airport 30 minutes away buzz overhead. So do smaller planes taking off and landing from the local airport two miles southeast of the Greenway. And then there are the military helicopters flying up and down the beach from Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville.

Sirens wail away, responding to the next emergency. Trucks, motorcycles, and cars hum along the adjacent streets. Train engine horns from tracks along the riverfront invade the Greenway’s peace and tranquility.

Despite those acoustic interferences, I still find the Greenway a respite, a private sanctuary in a very public place. I accept that I cannot change those annoyances. I can concentrate on solitude and enjoyment in whatever I find each time I walk the Greenway.

Egans Creek.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2023

Celebrating a Big Birthday

Sunset as viewed from Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park.

When you have a big birthday, you celebrate it in a big way. At age 75, however, it’s best to do so gradually.

That’s not usually how I approach things. Given the circumstance, going slow and steady was the formula I needed and certainly enjoyed. Pacing myself proved to be the best alternative to enjoying each moment.

My oldest grandson gave us an early jump on my birthday. He was home from college for Thanksgiving, so we ate at a local restaurant on Thanksgiving eve. The family time around a chef-prepared meal allowed everyone to enjoy the evening together.

Celebrating my birthday with the family well before the big day.

My birthday extravaganza continued. My dear wife secretly arranged an overnight stay in a neat bed and breakfast less than an hour away the next weekend.

On the way there, we drove southeast across country roads that wound through Civil War battlegrounds fought on land still farmed in rural Shenandoah Valley. To the east, the Blue Ridge Mountains rose majestically, guiding us onward. Farther to the west, the Allegheny Mountains marked the state line between Virginia and West Virginia. The ancient mountains east and west provide an innate sense of security.

We made sure we stopped at Milmont Greenhouses in Stuarts Draft. They always display colorful poinsettias and other lovely flowers for the holidays. We selected a few small pink and white poinsettias for our daughter and headed for our bed and breakfast. We met our gracious hostess, who showed us our spacious and comfy second-floor suite. We had a great view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Poinsettias galore at Milmont Greenhouses, Stuarts Draft, Virginia.

My wife also had scoped out the town’s eateries and made reservations at the top-rated spot. Since we had plenty of time, I suggested we take a short ride to Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and hope for an inspiring sunset despite the mostly cloudy day.

There were a few west-facing overlooks not far from the park’s southern entrance. We found the second one more favorable than the first and kept watch there.

As often happens over the mountains, the clouds thickened as daylight waned. Still, we noticed a break in the clouds just above the farthest mountain range.

The brief burst of orange.

The wind picked up just as the sun briefly broke through. From the overlook, we saw first-hand how the Blue Ridge Mountains earned their folklore name. A series of blue ridges led right to the setting sun’s soft orange glow. I snapped a couple of shots before darkness overtook us.

More than satisfied, we headed south but soon had to stop for a doe and her yearling to cross in front of us. Their brown coats naturally blended in with the dormant roadside vegetation.

Blending in.

Despite the minor delay, we arrived at the downtown restaurant right on time. Our delicious meals and our friendly waitress, who knew how to care for her customers, made for a splendid outing.

When we arrived back at the bed and breakfast, our host’s husband entertained us with the history of the old brick mansion. He then cranked up the beautiful player piano with a few Christmas tunes. He talked a lot but said very little. I preferred the piano.

At this point, I must confess that spreading out my birthday celebration was advantageous to my health. For unknown reasons, my blood pressure had significantly risen in recent weeks. Following my doctor’s orders, I took things easy. It was all I could do anyhow. This day had been good for me, though. My evening blood pressure reading was the lowest it had been in weeks.

In the morning, our hosts provided a scrumptious meal of shirred eggs and bacon, and they even had gluten-free fruit-infused bread for me. It was an excellent way to start the new day.

We said goodbye and drove into town to the P. Buckley Moss gallery. Since Waynesboro was ringing in the holidays this particular Saturday, the famous artist greeted patrons for part of the day. We arrived shortly after the store opened and had a friendly chat with Ms. Moss. She even signed the Christmas tree ornament we purchased that she had painted. The artistry depicted a winter scene only a few miles from our home, the historic Silver Lake Mill.

P. Buckley Moss.

We caught lunch just down the street, and it was time to head home. With the sun shining brightly through low broken clouds, I had to stop and take a few scenic photos. We spent the rest of the day watching football and basketball and enjoying the birds at the feeders.

I awoke much too early Sunday morning. I could tell I would have to take it easy on my birthday. My blood pressure had spiked again.

Many friends on social media expressed their best wishes for me on my big day while we attended church. I greatly appreciated all of their kind thoughts. They came from former students and teachers, friends and family, and people I have never met. That’s how social media is supposed to work.

After an uplifting worship service, we went to our daughter’s home, which is just up the hill from the church. We dropped off the poinsettias and popped two casseroles into the oven. I enjoyed some quiet time with our grand dog, Millie. We visited with our daughter and her family and then drove to a friend’s house for one of the small groups to which we belong. Neva had baked my favorite cake, an upside-down pineapple cake. I blew out the lone candle, and we enjoyed the carry-in food and genuine fellowship until mid-afternoon.

We wound down my big day quietly, watching more sports and fixer-upper TV shows. Just as we settled in for the night, our son sent a text that made my birthday complete. Our six-month-old grandson had his first solid bowel movement.

I couldn’t think of a better way to end my progressive 75th birthday celebration.

Teddy, our grandson.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Happy Thanksgiving!

The last Thursday in November in the United States is proclaimed Thanksgiving Day. Tomorrow, my wife and I will gather at our daughter’s house with her and her family. Our son-in-law’s family will join us to celebrate the day, too.

We will have all of the usual Thanksgiving meal trimmings: roasted turkey and dressing, homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and an assortment of homemade pies. It will be scrumptious.

We are grateful for this bounteous meal and warm home where we will feast. But more importantly, we will be most grateful to share it with family. Loving family relations can never be taken for granted.

We will also remember those who have passed on and those who aren’t as fortunate. Gratitude must come with the recognition, responsibility, and desire to help the least, the last, and the lost.

Happy Thanksgiving!

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

The Fork in the Road

The late Yogi Berra, the Baseball Hall of Fame catcher, famously told Joe Garagiola, another former Major League Baseball catcher, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Well, here’s a fork in the road. Right or left?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

A Day With My Grandson

Grandson Davis enjoyed the view from the overlook deck at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia.

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.

Male Ruffed Grouse.

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.

Grandson Teddy was born on May 14.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Our European Adventure – Day 10

Waldspirale, Darmstadt, Germany.

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.

An advertising mural at the airport.
Reality at the airport

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 new friends Oliver and Marie-Helene.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Our European Adventure – Day 9

Rothenburg, Germany, is the best-preserved Medieval town in Europe.

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.

Inside the Rothenburg’s wall.
Outside the wall.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Our European Adventure – Day 8

Frescos and gardens were a common occurrence in Oberammergau, Germany.

As we neared the end of our tour of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, we finally had a good part of a day free. We chose to walk the streets of the beautifully adorned buildings of Oberammergau, Germany.

According to the tour company, the day’s highlight would be the Passion Play, held every 10 years since its inception in 1634. Even before seeing the lengthy play, my wife and I found marvels of our own.

After a hearty breakfast in our quaint hotel, we strolled around the picturesque village admiring the architecture, many frescos, lovely gardens, and personable town folks. The blue sky and warm weather made it even more enjoyable.

In Bavaria, it’s common for shopkeepers and farmers alike to live in the same building as their businesses and animals. The shops in Oberammergau were no exception.

The homes are tidy and most designed around the pride of being located where they were, at the base of the Alps. They decorated their buildings with themed frescoes and flowers, potted and planted.

Their gardens were as lovely as they were productive. Artistic patterns of hedges surrounded flower and vegetable gardens while many roofs donned solar panels. These were more examples of how green Europe is.

St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Church was as beautiful as any others we had seen on the trip. The graves in the cemetery surrounding the old church were well-maintained and decorated with flowers to remember lost loved ones.

Even though our seats were reserved, we were advised to arrive an hour ahead of the 2:30 p.m. start time. Long lines had already formed as we passed through security.

The Oberammergau Passion Play began when villagers prayed that if no more people in the village died from the plague, they would perform a play of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, now known as Holy Week. Their prayers were answered, and they kept their promise. The 2020 play was canceled because of the pandemic and rescheduled for May into October this year.

Of course, the play is in German, but English booklets are provided to follow the dialogue as long as there is light. The original text has been revised over the years, and with the addition of the poignant musical score, the play is performed more as an oratory.

The Oberammergau auditorium and two of the young actors who also worked at a restaurant during the dinner break.

Most of the actors and vocalists are local residents. Their performance and singing were equally outstanding. Since no video or cameras were permitted, I didn’t take any photos during the five-hour play.

That’s right, five hours! The play is broken into two parts. The first two and a half hours are presented in the afternoon with a three-hour break for dinner. The play began again at 8 p.m. and ran until 10:30 p.m.

Our tour company arranged for meals between acts at a restaurant close to the Oberammergau Playhouse. Ironically, the man who played Pilot owns the restaurant where we ate. His son, who plays John, also is part owner. He actually worked between the two acts that evening. We were impressed with their acting and their hospitality.

It had been another inspiring yet long day for us senior citizens. We couldn’t imagine what the next couple of days would bring.

The morning view from our hotel room.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Our European Adventure – Day 7

A rural Catholic church near Neuschwanstein, Germany.

Our seventh day of sightseeing started on a somber note. A short drive from Munich is the World War II concentration camp of Dachau. It was a last-minute addition to our itinerary.

As sobering and humbling as our visit was there, I am glad we stopped. Everyone must visit at least one of these sights where the worst imaginable human behavior occurred to innocent people.

The entrance to Dachau.

It wasn’t easy to experience where these unfortunate folks had walked, slept, were tortured, and killed. But it’s a walk that we all should make. We cannot forget what brutal fascism did to millions of people.

We saw the reconstructed barracks, the crude toilet facilities, showers, and the furnaces. We saw where thousands were lined up and shot to death in a ditch designed to channel the blood away from the corpses.

Reading about the Holocaust is one thing. Observing its horrors first-hand is something else altogether. Such atrocities must never happen again. And yet, they have, and they are, perhaps in not the exact numbers, but global peoples are suffering at the hands of tyrants even today.

Dachau is a stark, loathsome place, full of the horrible treatment of human-to-human history. Only a few of the barracks that housed the prisoners were reconstructed. The officers’ quarters remain today, serving as a museum to the dark deeds done there.

I was surprised to learn that Jews were not the only group of people persecuted during the 12 years Dachau existed. Any individuals and congregations of people who did not follow the Nazi line were imprisoned at Dachau, located just a short distance from Munich, where the Nazi regime had its headquarters.

More Jehovah Witnesses per capita were murdered at Dachau than any other religion. Even prisoners of war from other countries were detained there.

The various memorials to those who died and suffered at Dachau.

Different memorials have been constructed to honor those who died and suffered there. The monument to the Russians who died there is actually built outside the camp’s parameters. So infuriated were the Russians at the atrocities they brought soil from Russia on which the memorial is built.

We left there in a somber mood. That changed as we drove on the Romantic Road to where it turns off to Hohenschwangau in southwest Bavaria, Germany. There, Mad King Ludwig built the Neuschwanstein Castle, so unique and dreamy that Disney used it as the model for their theme park castles.

On the way into the village, we stopped at a rural church surrounded by hayfields and croplands. In fact, farmers were cutting and raking hay as we disembarked the bus. Of course, we had to explore the church before heading to Hohenschwangau.

We could only view the castle from afar, but Ludwig had built another less opulent one overlooking the village. It’s appropriately named Hohenschwangau Castle.

It was on to a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Church of Wies, designed in the late 1740s. Ornate couldn’t begin to describe the beauty we saw. Designed by Dominikus Zimmerman, the work is a masterpiece of Bavarian Rocco.

I wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough to fully appreciate what I was seeing. I just know it was magnificent. One fact I do know. Though the ceiling looks domelike, it is actually flat.

Our final destination for the day was Oberammergau, where we had just enough time to check in at our hotel, have dinner, and walk around the inviting town. The next morning we would discover just how lovely the town and its people were.

The walkway to the memorials at Dachau. It clearly had been a day of juxtaposition and contemplation.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

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