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Crocus Pocus

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Spring has an undeniable magic: a warm breath of wind on what should be a chilly morning; a thread of scent, spicy and sweet–winter honeysuckle, perhaps–that’s gone before you’re sure it was there; buds that swell into being seemingly overnight.

Spring, much like hope, springs eternal

All this magical blooming and bursting and bubbling up of new life has side effects, of course: every swathe of green grass (more violently green in those patches that the dog favored last fall) sprouts a bumper crop of bodies–singles, couples, families–intent on exposing winter-white and waxen limbs to the rays of the young sun while lolling on bright quilts and tartan throws (that icon of spontaneous picnickery plucked from the trunk of the family truckster). These ground covers are regarded as talismans imbued with miraculous powers to protect the lollers from the simultaneous dangers of rampant sunburn, grass allergies, and rising damp that precedes a a sore throat and sniffles by about 24 hours after having engaged in the perilous practice of casting off clothing (a.k.a. “spring-fling”) too early in the season.

(With apologies to poet William Stevenson, “Back and side go bare, go bare, both foot and hand go cold…”)

In a nutshell? Enjoy the magic of spring from the safety of your socks, shoes, and sweaters–at least until the frost melts and the oak leaves are as big as squirrels’ ears, phenologically speaking. Or, in post-modern terms, plant your non-genetically modified heirloom ‘taters when the girls at the schoolbus stop shed their Uggs for flip-flops…

Terminal

Before I continue “North to Alaska,” I thought I’d add this post to the mix:

Terminal is a piece of short fiction I wrote several years ago. It was inspired by a wintertime visit to Mt. Pisgah…and the thought of how quickly things can change from delightful to…terminal.

(Terminal was published in the October 2006 issue of WNC Woman.)

Terminal

That last bottle of water was definitely a mistake…

Cotton batting clouds the color of baby aspirin wallow up and over each other on Pisgah’s folded shoulders; the frosted, foiled top of the mountain is the intricate dream of a celestial glass-blower.  Spangled, stiff-fingered pines—chandeliers of afternoon light—are interrupted where last summer’s sumac thrusts rusty arms up toward the sky.  All that dazzling-silver world, but no sound.  No nothing.

No sound, that is, except the hiss of hot pee punching a hole in cold snow.  I crouch, legs trembling as they sustain the necessary hover-mode to keep me from splattering my boots or jeans.  Hands folded into my armpits for warmth, leaning forward for better balance—again I regret the decision to down that final bottle of water before beginning this hike.  It’s a lot easier to access the bathroom when it’s in the same room with you instead of the edge of a cliff.  Who made up that eight-glasses-every-day rule, anyway?     

 When the leaves are gone and there’s nothing to soften the bones of the mountain, the narrow ridge rising in front of me seems inadequate to buttress Pisgah’s towering bulk.  It makes me think of—

–a waiter I saw once, expertly balancing a tiered wedding cake of sparkles and beaded crystal lace as he negotiated a path to the bridal table.  I’ll never see another wedding cake without the image of this mountain in the back of my mind. 

 Late day sunlight knifes through a gap near the top of the mountain.  Somewhere far off, some kind of bird chee-chee-chees to another; nature’s version of a pager.  It reminds me that there is still a world where time is not money, not product, not anything but time.  I tug at my jeans, fingers clumsy in the cold. 

I haven’t had to pee in the snow in what—years?—but the view from this position is worth the ventilation.   

I remembered, though, to scrunch my mittens out of harm’s way in the pockets of my coat, just like I used to do when I was a kid. 

Tomorrow, it’s back to the blah of public and private porcelain for another year until I earn two more weeks of freedom.  I wish I could take a piece of this back with me.  No, a peace of this.  That’s what I really mean.

My truck is less than a quarter of a mile from here.  I would have driven all the way to the trailhead, but I couldn’t get past the locked gates that separate the state’s narrow access road from the Parkway.  A quarter of a mile is pretty far in weather like this, when the rangers probably don’t even patrol more than once a week, just to check for storm damage and rockslides.  I’m glad it’s all mostly downhill to the place I’m staying, too, in case the truck takes a notion not to start.  

As the day fades and the light dwindles down to dull grape and pewter ashes, the slush on top of the pavement will start to ice up again.  Time to head back before it gets any harder to keep my footing on the increasingly uneasy surface beneath my boots.    

With its matte surface like a blacksnake’s hide, the road clings to the mountain, reversing its direction each time it wraps Pisgah in another loop.  This whole section of the Parkway from Cherokee to Shining Rock is still closed for bad weather—they get a lot more snow at this elevation than they do back in town. 

I guess it was maybe not smart to come up here by myself, without telling anybody where I was headed.  You never know.  There were those girls up at the Buck Springs Overlook a couple of years ago—they never caught whoever did that—

A shower of icy fireworks shivers down, disturbed by a movement in the branches arching over my head.  In one smooth sweep of dark wings above pale breast, a hawk launches itself into the empty space below me, banking side to side, held steady by the same wind that whistles through the gap between my jacket and jeans.  The hawk eyes me, a stranger in its kingdom, still standing spraddled above the evidence of my trespass.

My pants are no longer at half-mast, but the zipper defies my fumbling attempt to grip the flat, narrow pull and finish the job.  My fingers slip, shredding the skin over one knuckle.  Try again. 

There—at last it’s up!  Now to work the button closed and get my backside off the backside of this mountain before I start hearing sinister footsteps crunching up behind me—at least I won’t pee in my pants if I hear somebody coming and have to make a run for it.  How much more skittish you get when you’re in danger of being caught with your pants down!

 I must be out of shape, my legs are that stiff, I’m—

Caught on something?  Boot-lace snagged in last year’s matted underbrush?  What the—

The hawk veers away with a single, startled shriek.  Echoes my own, left behind in a frozen balloon drifting through empty air. 

Blink, blink again, try to open my eyes.  There is a sort of sound, after all.  A throbbing beat that I feel in my whole face; it matches what I guess must be my heart, still pumping underneath what is now the snagged, ripped ruin of my jacket.

Can I turn my head, even a little?  Blue blur pressed against my cheek?  So my hat is still with me—that’s good.  I let go of a breath I didn’t known I was holding.  Steam puffs up and a slow flood of something warm crawls over my upper lip, settles into the depressions on each side of my nose. 

“Uck,” I say out loud, disgusted by the mess clinging to my lip.  One numb hand goes up to paw at it—where are my mittens?  Birthday present; don’t want to lose them.  My fingers come away red and shiny, coated with a bloody bungee snot-line that stretches, snaps back cold against my face.  Double uck.  Hot copper taste blooms in my throat, drips backward.

If I turn my head the other way, I can see part of the gouged, wallowed track I left as I tail-over-teakettled down the slope.  The snow was a cushion, maybe, between the rocks and stones and stobs, but my jacket is still bleeding chunks of its lining through snagged rips and peeled-back flaps.      

The hawk swims in rippled rings of sky above my head.  Can it see me here, a footnote at the end of a blank page?  Can anybody see me here, fallen all the way to the bottom of the world?

Get organized, take inventory—that’s important. 

Hat?  Good.  No mittens?  Bad.  Jacket structure compromised?  Also bad.  As in not good.  As in, this is really not good.  Nose?   Like an overripe tomato, trembling, ready to burst its fragile skin in a minute.  More not-good. 

So—not-good currently outranks good.  Where’s the escape key to get back to good?  Problem is, command option is non-functioning.  Hands too cold; don’t want to work. 

I’d reboot… if I could feel my feet.

Surely there’ll be someone soon—a flash of warm plaid in the spaces between the trees or a bit of face showing between beard and balaklava as someone bends over me.  Surely I’ll feel bare hands, still warm from gloves, checking for a pulse against the underneath of my chin.  Not a ranger—I don’t expect that much—but someone that could call a ranger.  Please, someone?  

I’ll never go peeing again.  I promise.  The hawk knows what happened—surely it will tell somebody.  It just circles slow.  Circles slow; a toy bird on a tether, gliding in widening circles. 

Control, ALT, Delete.  System is not responding.  Wait twenty seconds.

Seconds tick by.  Ringing in my ears—no, in my pocket?  Doesn’t matter.  I’m not available; please leave any messages after the tone.   

Program has performed an illegal operation. 

Terminal error results in system shut-down.  

Falling for Fall

September Saturday post turned into word art!

September Saturday post turned into word art, courtesy of http://www.wordle.net!

 

My office computer was updated this week, and as I poked around in different files, trying to find *something* to delete (I’m a certified text-hoarder who never deletes a word or a thought; just files it away for another time!), I ran across this little description that I wrote for a long-ago newsletter:

 

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In Western North Carolina, Autumn doesn’t arrive in a blaze of glory; it comes quietly, overnight, with an unexpected drop in temperature.  Mornings that were heavy and still with the last hot breath of summer give way to jackets at the school bus stop and rusty red apples peeking through the last of the leaves.

 

The mountains, swathed in the blue-green of long summer days, began to slip into something more comfortable against the chill in the air.  Threads of color—copper, scarlet, rosy gold—weave in and out until the hills are blanketed in a soft glow that reaches all the way up to the sky. 

 

Autumn smells like wood smoke; like the mixed-up county fair flavor of cotton candy and corndogs; like sweaters stored in cedar chests.  It’s time to bid farewell to the beach and the lake and bare feet; to welcome, instead, the comfort of flannel sheets and hot soup and the silvery spangles of a first frost.  The sun is still hot at midday, but already leaning away toward the shorter, colder days to come.

 

The bottom line?  Look for Autumn when you least expect it.  Like every other season in this region, it has tricks up its sleeves and it likes to show off its true colors.  Fortunately, those colors are usually breath-taking, so enjoy every minute of it!

 

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I don’t remember if this actually appeared in the newsletter or not, but I liked it and thought I’d include it here. It’s still true, and it’s coming true right at this moment all around me!

Misty, Moisty Morning

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It’s a misty, moisty morning near Asheville, with a soft, low sky that looks ready to weep at any moment.  Reminds me of the following Mother Goose rhyme:

One misty moisty morning,
    When cloudy was the weather,
I chanced to meet an old man,
    Clothed all in leather.
He began to compliment
    And I began to grin.
How do you do? And how do you do?
    And how do you do again?

The rhyme, in turn, reminds me of the Charles Addams cartoon that I associate with it–a little kid on a foggy sidewalk next to a cemetery, and he’s stopped to chat with a skinny spooky* in an old-fashioned leather raincoat.  Both are smiling as if to say they’re pleased to have met at such a moment in such weather.

If you’re not familiar with Charles Addams, his cartoons appeared in The New Yorker and other stylish magazines from the 1930’s until his death in the 80’s. He is best known, perhaps, for creating “The Addams Family” characters (parents Gomez and Morticia and their children Pugsley and Wednesday; Grandma and Uncle Fester; Lurch the butler) in cartoon form. He was associated with the 1960’s era sitcom based on his characters, but the original cartoons–witty, elegant, macabre, and fiendishly clever–bore only a surface resemblance to the show (light comedy with an emphasis on screwy slapstick).

In any case, that’s the kind of morning it is, and Addams’ illustrations of classic Mother Goose nursery rhymes ought not be missed, unless you prefer the more traditional versions featuring apple-cheeked children and kindly old ladies in spectacles. If so, avoid Addams’ take on “Wee Willie Winkie” or you’ll have nightmares for a week.

*Credit where credit is due: referring to a skeleton as a “skinny spooky” came from the Scooby-Doo episode entitled “A Tiki Scare Is No Fair”. After encountering a freaky tiki and becoming separated from the rest of the gang, Shaggy and Scooby are poking around in the jungle and stumble across an old cargo plane with a mechanized skeleton rigged up to frighten people away. Zoicks! It works!

The Weather Outside Is…

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I have heard fantastic rumors about places that have predictable weather. Places where whatever the local meteorologist says is true. Friends in San Diego say it’s usually sunny, in the 70’s, and the marine layer rolls in every afternoon. Oh.

Friends on the Outer Banks tell me they believe their weather man. Sunny? Check. Stormy? Check. They can plan their day–and their wardrobe–on the weathery swirls and dots they see behind the smiling man or woman who points them out on the map.

This has never happened in Western North Carolina. It’s spring now, but it’s really “dogwood winter,” which is an old term that refers to spells of warm weather in late spring when the dogwoods (and everything else) flower out, then the cold comes back and freezes their buds off. (Sidebar: we can probably also look forward to a “blackberry winter” in early summer: the blackberries bloom, then we potentially lose them to the cold.) 

“Snain” fell from the sky yesterday–a lumpy mix of snow and rain that always manages to sneak down the  back of your neck because you’ve given up wearing a scarf since it’s technically spring. There’s a freeze warning in effect for the next couple of nights, and the Hendersonville apple crop is probably shivering right down to its roots.

This puts me in mind of two odd memories: the first is an old Donald Duck comic book, in which Donald wanted to raise a crop of prize apples for the Duckburg Fair. Unfortunately, his apple tree was just across the fence from his lucky, lazy cousin Gladstone Gander’s tree, so everything Donald did benefited Gladstone. Donald finally got so mad he threatened to “chop down the apple tree, make a boat, and sail away to Madagascar!” That phrase has become part of the shorthand in which my family speaks, and means that you’re so frustrated you’re out of control.  

Second odd memory: Dr. Seuss’ “Bartholomew and the Oobleck”, in which the King of Did wanted something different to come down from the sky (he was tired of rain and snow, etc.). He set his magicians to workon the project, and they invented oobleck for him:

“Won’t look like rain. Won’t look like snow. Won’t look like fog. That’s all we know.

We just can’t tell you any more. We’ve never made oobleck before.

We go now to our secret cave on Mystic Mountain Neeka-tave. There, all night long, we’ll work for you.  And you’ll have oobleck when we’re through!”

Much more exciting than the “snain” I saw, but far less perilous, even if you’re not a Perilous Poozer of Pampelmousse Pass…

Thanks, Donald Duck and Dr. Seuss, for brightening a snainy day in Asheville!

Local Snow…

If you don’t understand the phenomenon of snow in the South, you’re not indigenous to the land below the Mason-Dixon line…

Here are a few facts:

In the Asheville area (and we’ll keep it local; I can’t speak for everybody), a dusting of snow means you can still see the grass through it. A real snow = no visible grass; probably 3-4″ accumulation. Beyond that is cause for major excitement. 

Why do schools close and people assault the milk/white bread/hamburger meat* aisles? Because everyone in the mountains knows that A) most snow that falls here turns to ice and B) why not take advantage of a guilt-free day out of the office? I, for one, find it charming that we can justify staying home for snow–why pressure yourself and risk an accident when no one else (except non-locals) will be in the office that day? Be grateful for the miracle of snow and the ability to burn a sick/emergency leave day and just enjoy…

 Now, if you think Ashevillains can’t drive in the snow, you’re wrong. If it was just snow, we’d suck it up and go to work. Snow in this area, however, is actually ice-in-disguise, and nobody drives well on ice, regardless of the size/weight/knobby tires of your mammoth SUV. Our roads are narrower than the norm, which means a slip on ice can send you into the ditch or into another car. Our secondary roads** are curvy and “banked” and most of them don’t get scraped or salted, and it’s hard to keep a vehicle between the ditches when you’re operating on a slick, tilted surface.

Anyway, the point is: if it snows in Asheville, enjoy the postcard prettiness by looking out the window with a cup of hot chocolate near at hand. Don’t put said cocoa in your travel mug and run amok on the roads…stay home and visit friends on Facebook. I’ve come to realize that the work will still be there tomorrow.

*Milk/white bread/hamburger meat (or MWBHM) Alert: Whatever you fling into your buggy before a snow (beer and Twinkies, et al), it’s always classified as milk, white bread, and hamburger meat. Heaven knows what you’ll make with that combo, but it’s a time-honored tradition to label it thusly.

**Some of our primary roads, too. Try to drive the “Richard Petty Bridge” (I-40 East or West near the Ridgecrest Exit) at interstate speed when it’s icy…see you in the funny papers!