Finding gratitude from on high

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The view from Jefferson Rock of the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.

By Bruce Stambaugh

There are times when a life experience far exceeds our expectations.

I had just such an encounter recently on a junket my wife and I made to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park in extreme eastern West Virginia. This tiny, old town had played a small but important part in our country’s big history.

On a precipice 800 feet above the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, more flowed together for me than two charming waterways. I had previously seen scenic shots of historic Harpers Ferry from this vantage point in Maryland, and had fancied a few of my own. I departed with more than picturesque photos.

The beauty of the bright morning itself was stunning. I basked in the warmth of the morning sunshine looking down on history. The strengthening sun drenched the charming village in a golden wash. It was a map come alive where famous Americans had all made important imprints on our country’s checkered history.

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A Great Blue Heron preened in the morning light at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

The three-mile hike from Harpers Ferry to the overlook was exhilarating. A hint of haze hung above the surface of the churning rivers on the cool morning.

My goal was to arrive at the scenic overlook opposite the town as the day’s sun rose above the Appalachian foothills. I crossed the footbridge, a part of the Appalachian Trail, which paralleled the bridge of the railroad tracks. The tracks split at the town and followed the two majestic rivers, one south, the other west.

Once across the Potomac, its melodious rapids singing all the while, the Appalachian Trail followed the river and the old C & O Canal east. I walked west along the towpath to the trailhead that led up the rocky, forested hillside.

I couldn’t imagine how soldiers, Confederate and Union alike, had muscled heavy artillery up these steep slopes. Massive rock outcroppings protruded everywhere beneath the hardwood forest. The rich greens of mountain laurel and cedars complemented the coloring leaves of the mixed deciduous trees.

I arrived at the overlook in less than an hour. The view, as Thomas Jefferson once declared, “was perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.”

As I sat on the cool rocks I looked down on the spot where John Brown had made his ill-fated raid in 1859. I envisioned Jefferson, George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and all the others who had made their lasting marks there striding along the slanting, narrow streets.

Harpers Ferry was a strategic town in the Civil War since it housed the federal arsenal. Both armies occupied the town intermittently during the war. It was the sight of the largest surrender of United States troops in the Civil War.

Behind me birds of the forest searched for breakfast amid golden, backlit leaves. Carolina Wrens, chickadees, cardinals, robins, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches and Brown Creepers scavenged the forest floor and trees.

A Black Vulture sailed west above the Potomac just off of the cliff. A Red-shouldered Hawk, its black and white striped tail fanned out, glided east. Beneath me a freight train rumbled through the tunnel, across the bridge and whistled past the old station.

I had gone up to the sheer cliff for some pictures. I came down with a renewed spirit of gratitude for all that has transpired and will transpire in my life, in our lives.

Together we have a lot for which to be grateful this Thanksgiving.

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Harpers Ferry, WV from the Maryland Heights overlook.

© Bruce Stambaugh

Minding our Ps and Qs, 21st century style

Williamsburg VA by Bruce Stambaugh
By Bruce Stambaugh

I couldn’t help but sense the irony and wonder in it all. My wife and I were visiting my older brother and his wife near Williamsburg, Virginia.

We all were enjoying a pleasant spring evening on the back porch of their lovely home. My wife was using her iPhone. My sister-in-law toyed with her iPad. My brother and I each were surfing around on our MacBook Pro laptops.

The evening was dark and still, except for the occasional distant rumble of thunder. The only light on the porch was the glow from the screens of our electronic gizmos.

My brother and sister-in-law own a lovely home just minutes away from Colonial Williamsburg. Founded in 1654, Williamsburg played a significant role in the development of our country to say the least.
Williamsburg home by Bruce Stambaugh
We had spent the heart of the day walking the streets of the historic town. If you have never been there, it’s a bucket list kind of place, beautifully restored and maintained with lots to do for children and adults alike.

Williamsburg actor by Bruce StambaughEven though I had visited Williamsburg before, I again thrilled at just the thought of strolling the same streets that a young Thomas Jefferson once did. With so many guides and actors dressed in period attire, it was easy to imagine being back in time.

Plush carriages pulled along by noble teams of horses plied the once muddy streets, now paved for the comfort of the tourists and the convenience of the staff. The night before we had enjoyed a delicious meal in Shields Tavern, where we were careful to mind our Ps and Qs.

That old saying, still heard today, could very well have had Williamsburg roots. In those days, a tavern’s bartender simply kept a chalkboard ledger of what customers consumed. If they drank a pint, a P was lettered under their name. If a quart, then a Q was marked. At evening’s end, the bill was tabulated and the customers properly minded their Ps and Qs by paying their bill. Today it simply means to take care of your own business.
Williamsburg carriage by Bruce Stambaugh
As the four of us sat quietly on the darkened porch, we could have been minding our own Ps and Qs by paying our bills online. With the rumbling thunderstorms growing closer, it seemed a bit surreal using our 21st century technology to check in with the world while sitting in the shadow of a bygone era. The town crier was definitely no longer needed to announce the time.

I thought about other familiar sayings we utter without knowing their origin. We derisively chatter about big wigs without contemplating the phrase’s original meaning. For the record, “big wigs” came from the 17th century society custom of wealthy people wearing expensive wigs made of human hair. The taller the wig, the more aristocratic you were.
Williamsburg hats by Bruce Stambaugh
You could say we went the whole nine yards at Williamsburg. That reference was attributed to a bolt of fabric, which equaled nine yards. Clearly I enjoy linking the past with the present.

As the line of storms hit our area, it rained cats and dogs, but not long. Even well before colonial times, superstitious persons believed cats symbolized the rain and dogs the wind; thus, the saying.

Back on the porch, we powered down for the night, thankful for both the generous hospitality and the opportunity to reconnect with the origins of our democracy. I wondered if somewhere, someplace Thomas Jefferson and Steve Jobs were both smiling.Williamsburg wisteria by Bruce Stambaugh