Goodbye, Cape Cod, Till Next Time: A Happy Place Story

Part One

Man oh man, time has been in overdrive from my perspective over the last 19 days, all of which I’ve spent on Cape Cod. That’s what happens when you’re having fun. And when your days are filled in a fascinating yet relaxing sort of way. Cape Cod, my home away from home, I’ll miss you badly when my wife Sandy and I are back in our permanent residence in the Philadelphia burbs. Ah, tears are already welling up in my eyes. Where’s the f*cking box of Kleenex?

I’m typing these words on the 21st of October, one day before we hit the road and bid a heartfelt adieu to The Cape. We have every intention of returning next year, and hopefully the cards will play out that way. After all, we’re Cape Cod addicts. Since 1998 we’ve vacationed here almost annually. Cape Cod has become a major part of our story.

It was a no-brainer, then, that I’d pen a second essay about our 2019 Cape Cod sojourn (click here if you’d like to read the first). But when I told Sandy what this piece would be about, she perceptively commented that I’d touched upon that theme any number of times before in this publication. Her implication was: Did I really need to go down that path again? Well, hell yes. I’m used to repeating myself. I mean, there are only so many directions in which my mind turns, and the number of them ain’t all that high. I’d have to start dosing myself with LSD and/or mescaline regularly to expand my way of seeing things. And although doing so is a tempting idea, I’m pretty sure that such behavior is not recommended by the American Medical Association for one whose brain is in the eighth decade of its existence.

Question: So, what’s the theme, Neil?

Answer: On Cape Cod I’m as happy, content and at ease as I could ever hope to be. Cape Cod is my happy place. (Am I really heading home on the 22nd? Where’s the f*cking box of Kleenex?)

Now, in the Philadelphia region I’m decently happy, content and at ease. But its high degree of vehicular congestion is a bold reality that jars my delicate constitution. Which is why I now and then need to decompress significantly. I do that, primarily, on Cape Cod, where my blood pressure heads south thanks to The Cape’s natural beauty, innate mellowness and relatively low ranking on the vehicular overpopulation chart.

What’s more, Cape Cod boasts more than enough museums, art galleries, cinemas, music venues and restaurants to satisfy this ol’ boy’s cravings. Sandy and I probably would move to Cape Cod if it were anywhere near as studded with medical facilities and physicians as is greater Philadelphia. But it isn’t. Not by a longshot. Shit.

Part Two

Cut to the 23rd day of October. Indeed, we have returned to our abode in the Philly suburbs. And I’ve taken up position at my trusty keyboard to bring this essay to its conclusion. Let’s return to the 21st, a day during which Sandy and I let nature embrace us, something that is part of our agenda regularly on Cape Cod.

More than anything, it’s nature that makes Cape Cod my happy place. I never can get enough of the woodlands, marshes, ponds, ocean and bay waters, and sands. On the 21st we encountered a majority of the aforementioned.

Baker’s Pond

I’d never given ponds a second thought until I became an honorary Cape Codder. Now I love ’em. But somehow we hadn’t bathed in any pond’s elegance during this most recent trip before the final day. Off we went to Baker’s Pond, about three miles from our rented house in the town of Orleans. I believe we’d been there once before, years ago, but I’m not sure. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Baker’s Pond, surrounded by quiet woods, is beautiful.

Baker’s Pond

It was a clear, autumnal early afternoon. Trees and other flora were in the midst of switching their colors. As I knew would happen, I could feel my blood pressure, already nicely low, drop a few more points. We gazed at Baker’s Pond from several vantage points as we moseyed along trails that brought us to about 10 feet from its edges. The water’s surface danced slowly, courtesy of a light wind. Ponds, in settings such as this, seem perfect to me. They appear to be in a state of calm fulfillment. They want for nothing more.

Nauset Light Beach
Nauset Light Beach

I, however, did want something more. And I got it later that afternoon at both Nauset Light Beach and at Nauset Beach, both of which are part of the lengthy Atlantic Ocean coastline on Cape Cod’s eastern side. If I had to pick the one aspect of Cape Cod that pleases me above all others, it would be this coastline. Being a government–protected area, it contains no boardwalks, no vendors. And, in autumn, not all that many people. The layout is basic and, to my mind, stark: ocean waters, beach sands, sand cliffs that back the beach along much of its length, and open skies. The coastline’s purity and vastness never fail to capture me. When I’m there, and if almost nobody else is around, I often feel as though I’m on another planet.

Nauset Beach

Sandy watched the ocean from the Nauset Light Beach parking lot, not joining me on the beach itself because of high winds. But two hours later, at Nauset Beach, which is about four miles south of Nauset Light Beach, she trod the sands with me, putting up with the winds because she knew that this was her final chance to be at the ocean during the trip. We looked for a stick on the beach, and found one. With it I wrote our names and the date in the sand. We’ve been doing this for a number of years at the ends of Cape Cod vacations. Taking a photo of the inscriptions was a requirement, needless to say. The picture would remind us of the good times we’d had once again on Cape Cod. Cape Cod, of course, is not solely my happy place. It’s Sandy’s too.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Thanks very much.)

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Three Sunsets In A Row: A Cape Cod Story

As I begin to compose this opus on October 9, my wife Sandy and I are into day six of our annual Cape Cod pilgrimage. More likely than not we’ll have returned to our suburban- Philadelphia abode before I complete the piece. That’s because I’m on The Cape (a 65-mile-long peninsula in Massachusetts, USA) to indulge in fun and games and to immerse myself in natural beauty. Ergo, writing sessions are nowhere near the front burner.

We love Cape Cod, as I’ve noted in a bunch of essays since launching this publication four and a half years ago, and so far the trip has been absolutely A-OK. We’ve filled many of our waking hours with activities that bring us pleasure and joy. To name a few: walking along Atlantic Ocean and Cape Cod Bay coastlines; moseying around sweet villages; flying our trusty kite; chowing down each night in good, dependable restaurants; grooving hard to rock and blues bands; playing a round of miniature golf; going on a whale watch voyage in the Atlantic Ocean. Holy shit, I’m a fortunate f*cker, aren’t I? And I’d unhesitatingly call Sandy a fortunate f*cker too, except that she’d be very displeased with my language if I did.

Probably I’ll focus a bit more on some of the above pursuits in a future story or two. But the rest of this piece will be about a different subject, one that warms the hearts of much of humanity. Yes, somewhere in the vicinity of 80,000,000 articles already have been written about sunsets, but that won’t stop me. I’m a follower, not an innovator, so I ain’t too proud to squeeze yet another sunset story into the mega-humungous pile!

Is there anything about this sunset story to set it apart? Don’t bet your life on it. But it does have something going for it. You see, before this trip Sandy and I never witnessed more than two consecutive sunsets. But we improved on that by catching sunsets on the 5th, 6th and 7th of October, a personal record that we may never top. This wasn’t by grand design. Instead, things just casually fell into place. Not otherwise engaged on each of those nights at around 6:00 PM, we wisely chose to watch our friend the Sun make its way to the horizon, and we stuck around for a while longer because, as everyone knows, sunsets frequently become better after the Sun has disappeared. Then we headed off to dinner, feeling better ourselves.

Rock Harbor (Orleans, Cape Cod)
Rock Harbor (Orleans, Cape Cod)

The sunsets that we caught had different personalities from one another. The first, a gauzy cloth of yellow and orange in a cloudless sky, was the brightest, even though the colors didn’t cascade all over the heavens. The colors would have done so, I thought, if a nice amount of clouds, with their reflective and refractive powers, had been present.

Corn Hill Beach (Truro, Cape Cod)
Corn Hill Beach (Truro, Cape Cod)

But what do I really know about clouds? There were plenty of them, airy and tufted, the next night. The sunset remained muted nonetheless, with simple bands of orange and yellow that didn’t radiate into other regions of the skies. Clouds! I think they thumbed their noses at me that night just for spite.

Mayo Beach (Wellfleet, Cape Cod)
Mayo Beach (Wellfleet, Cape Cod)

And the third sunset was the least colorful of all. In fact, only hints of yellow were visible through a very dense cloud cover. But that was all right with me. It was a different form of sunset, a subdued one in greys, yet beautiful. And a lonely kite surfer was a good addition to the scene.

The sunsets took place over Cape Cod Bay, which abuts Cape Cod’s northern side. For sunset number one we took our positions at Rock Harbor, in Orleans. For the second we stood on the sands of Corn Hill Beach, in Truro. And for the third we gazed from Mayo Beach, in Wellfleet. I tell you, each of those locations is magnificent. The unfussy layout of all the pieces (sky, waters, sands, grasses) is as fine as you ever could wish to see. Hell, sunsets are the icing on an already-astonishing cake.

So, here’s the thing. At home in my suburban/urban region, there are not a lot of expanses where you can engage with nature properly. Overdevelopment has seen to that. And sunsets? Well, good luck viewing them over the houses and office buildings and other structures. That’s why, when at home, sunsets are rarely anything I think about. Out of sight, out of mind, you know?

But on Cape Cod? Man, when I first came here, in 1998, my nature-loving component swelled in size and slapped me awake. While on the Cape I make it a point to walk on sands or in forests or marshlands every day, weather permitting. And though Sandy and I don’t seek out sunsets compulsively — too much of a good thing would dampen the glory — we never want to end a Cape vacation without having scratched “watch one or more sunsets” off our to-do list. Sunsets are there for the taking, after all, beautiful performances for which the tickets are free.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Gracias.)

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Up Is Where It’s At: Philadelphia’s Elevated Parks

Central Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.

As loyal readers of this publication know, I have a propensity to mention that not only am I getting old, I strongly dislike getting old. I mean, what’s to like? I’m at the point where even if I were to live another 25 years, an unlikely occurrence that would take me deep into my 90s, the end sure as shit is still a whole lot closer than the beginning. Depressing, man, depressing.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I get a kick out of wandering around in search of that which is new to me. I tend to believe that a steady diet of fresh experiences possibly has the ability to hold back Father F*cking Time. In any event, encountering the new sure helps to keep your brain cells firing, to bring at least the semblance of a smile to your face, and to make most days decently bright. And so, off I went recently to a couple of places that I’d never visited before and was more than curious to investigate.

The Rail Park

I live not far from Philadelphia and head into that interesting city, which contains an almost endless supply of things to do, three or more times each month. On August 8, I decided that I’d go there to check out The Rail Park, which began as an idea in the early 2000s and became a reality when its first, and to-date only, section opened in 2018. Three more sections are on the drawing board. (If plans for the creation of those sections interest you, then feel free to click here to learn about them.)

Luckily I did a bit of googling before leaving the house, otherwise I’d not have known that another elevated park, Cira Green, occupies space in Philadelphia. As far as I know, The Rail Park and Cira Green are Philly’s only places with greenery that are up in the open air.

Close to central Philadelphia’s Chinatown section, The Rail Park was created by a partnership of forward-thinking area residents and governmental and private entities, and is built on what were abandoned, elevated Reading Railroad tracks. Those tracks once brought freight and passengers into and out of The City Of Brotherly Love. They were last used for those purposes in 1984.

And Cira Green? Well, unlike The Rail Park it’s not under city government’s oversight. It’s an entirely private enterprise, but everyone is welcome there. Its home is the roof of a parking garage that sits between two modern towers. (The two towers, the parking garage and Cira Green collectively are known as Cira Centre South.) Cira Green opened three years before The Rail Park did and rubs shoulders with The University Of Pennsylvania and with Drexel University in the enormous part of town known as West Philadelphia.

Cira Green

I took in Cira Green first. I rode the parking garage elevator to the 11th floor and then walked up a staircase that leads to the roof. Voila! Cira Green spread out before my eyes, one and a quarter acres of walkways, terraced lawns, shrub and flower beds, and a sprinkling of trees. There’s a burger and beer joint on the grounds too, and a big tent where organized events are held. Lawn chairs and chaise lounges were scattered around.

Central Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.

Cira Green is a solid piece of work, and dozens of people were there enjoying the sunny day. But it ain’t knock-your-socks-off beautiful. If it were on ground level it would be considered fairly pedestrian. But it’s not on ground level. One hundred and fifty or more feet above the streets, it provides a motherlode of fab views. Damn right I didn’t plop my ass into a chair or chaise lounge. What I did was walk all over the place, checking out those views.

West Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.
Cira Green. Reflections too.

Skyscraper-loaded central Philadelphia, across the murky Schuylkill River, gave me a buzz, as did West Philadelphia’s kaleidoscopic patterns, dominated by tans, browns and greys. But what I also couldn’t keep my eyes off of were the reflections in the facades of the two giant buildings flanking Cira Green. A person, such as I, could get lost in those reflections.

One public transit ride later, not to mention blocks and blocks of walking, I found the stairs that lead to The Rail Park. The park is in a gritty neighborhood that goes by various names, including Callowhill. Much of Callowhill went up in the 1800s. The area has an industrial look, which figures, because many factories once produced goods there. A few still do. Others have been converted to residential use. Parking lots are part of the landscape too, as is a dense array, too dizzying for me to digest, of other structures. The Rail Park was needed. It’s the only park in Callowhill, the only green refuge.

That’s The Rail Park up there.
The Rail Park

I liked The Rail Park. A mere 20 or thereabouts feet above street level, it doesn’t command the types of views that Cira Green does. But that was alright with me. As I walked back and forth along the park’s quarter of a mile length of planks and gravel paths, I looked here and I looked there, admiring the otherworldliness of the electric company substation very near the park and enjoying the neighborhood’s overall no-nonsense ambience.

The Rail Park
The Rail Park

The park’s plantings are pretty. The oversized swings struck me as a delightful touch. Basically, The Rail Park, at least during the moments I spent within it, was very welcoming. I felt comfortable and at home. If I lived in its vicinity I’d head over there now and then, book in hand, and find a comfortable perch on which to read.

One guy was doing exactly that. One young lady walked her dog. Two couples huddled, exchanging sweet nothings or something of that order. And a few folks of various ages, including an old guy, one of my peers, relaxed on the swings. Yeah, I definitely liked The Rail Park. I hope that Callowhill’s and Chinatown’s residents have come to embrace it, or will.

In closing, I tip my metaphorical hat to Philadelphia, a city that always has inspired me. Without Philadelphia, this website would be hurting for content. For real.

(As I almost always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Gracias.)

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The Flowers In My Neighborhood Weren’t Wilting, But I Was: A Walking Story

It’s been hotter than hell — well, maybe not quite that hot, but hot enough — in the Philadelphia region, where I live, during much of July. And it’s been similarly hot in countless other portions of Planet Earth. You don’t need me to tell you that global warming has had a strong grip on our orb’s metaphorical balls for many years now, and that the situation is only getting worse.

Anyway, the heat was especially nasty in my area on the 21st and 22nd of July, days during which the highs came this close to hitting the fabled 100°F (38°C) mark, ultimately falling a degree or two short. The humidity was impressive too. Nice weather, no? Like countless millions around the globe, though, I had little to complain about. That’s because I stayed inside my air-conditioned home most of the time. Sure, air conditioning is made possible largely by the burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels, thus contributing significantly to the global warming crisis. But what’s a guy to do? Turn off the A/C and melt like a Popsicle? Shit, my balls, which aren’t metaphorical, wouldn’t appreciate becoming liquified.

That unfortunate possibility notwithstanding, at 11:45 AM on the 22nd I decided to throw caution to the wind by launching myself into the elements. I’d had enough of being an indoors wuss. The time had arrived to become an outdoors wuss! I smeared sunscreen lotion all over my wrinkled, age-spotted face and then drank about 20 ounces of water to up my hydration level. Those important tasks accomplished, at noon I stepped outside with one main idea in mind: I was going to walk on many blocks of my suburban neighborhood in search of pretty flowers. The many flowering trees and azalea bushes in my hood all had dropped their blossoms well over a month ago, but whatever other flowers were around (and I knew that there wouldn’t be a whole lot) would have little chance to escape my eagle eye. Off I went. The walk turned out to be a pretty good one, two miles in length and one hour in duration.

My wife and I moved to our abode 14 years ago. And somewhere in the middle of those years I came to realize that there ain’t an amazing quantity of summertime flowers on the two hundred or more properties surrounding us. There’s no explanation for this. It’s just one of those things. I mean, all of the residents keep their lawns and shrubbery trimmed nicely, so it’s not that they don’t care about appearances. But the zing factor from flowers could be far, far better. The color that dominates is green. Green lawns. Green tree leaves. Green bushes. These two photos show my neighborhood’s typical summertime looks:

Yet, of course, there are exceptions. And I dug them. Here and there were excellent flower beds. And here and there were A-OK flowering bushes, including Rose Of Sharon shrubs. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Rose Of Sharon, there having been several of them on the front and back lawns of the house I grew up in decades ago. And they grow brilliantly in my current backyard. Theirs are the only flowers to make an appearance on my property this time of year. I’m glad that a previous owner of my house planted those bushes because I, one of the world’s most inept and lazy gardeners, wouldn’t have taken that step.

Rose Of Sharon shrub in my backyard. This is the only photo taken on my property.

If there’s one flower for which I have an even softer spot than Rose Of Sharon blossoms, it’s the sunflower. Is that because Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings elevated it to iconic status? Maybe. Or is it because of the neat, trim house, in Manhattan’s quaint West Village enclave, that I walked past sometime in the 1970s? Lofty sunflowers grew in front of that small structure, contrasting magnificently with its white exterior. It’s possible that flowers never had made an impression on me like those did. And maybe none have since then. After all, here I am, all these years later, remembering them most fondly. And writing about them.

Yes, I encountered sunflowers on my neighborhood trek the other day. I was two blocks from my house, heading home and sweating like crazy. Despite all the water I drank before leaving home, my lips were unpleasantly dry. I was wilting. Lo and behold, at a corner property I saw them, a long row of sunflowers grinning at me. I stopped to say hello. I took their picture. And I’m going to go back and look at them again after I finish writing this essay. The world needs a lot of things. Peace, compassion and tolerance, for instance. And vastly more sunflowers would be very good too.

Sunflowers

In closing, it should be noted that the blazing Sun and extreme temperature kept things uneventful and quiet in the hood during my walk. The streets were almost empty of people. I saw but one human other than myself. Few cars passed me. And for the first time ever on my strolls in my town, not only did I not encounter any dogs, I didn’t hear barking from inside or outside their houses either. Not until I was about to enter my home at 1:00 PM, that is, when the distinctive yaps of a next-door neighbor’s pet escaped through closed doors and windows. Inside my house I stepped. I checked my balls. They seemed not much the worse for wear. Hallelujah!

(Please don’t be bashful about adding your comments or about sharing this story. As always, I thank you.)

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An Evening On The Deck In The Burbs

Photo taken on July 9, 2019 at 8:26 PM, five minutes before the Sun set.

On Tuesday evening of last week a simple notion swam into my mind. When it made its presence felt I immediately became comfortable with it. And minutes later I answered its call. To wit, I gathered together a bottle of beer, a glass mug, a bottle opener, a box of Cheez-It crackers and a portable radio. Then I opened one of the two doors that lead to the deck attached to the rear of my house and stepped onto that planked structure with the just-mentioned items in hand. Atop the outdoor table I placed them. And upon one of the chairs surrounding the table I deposited my bony, lazy ass. I like the deck a lot, but for reasons associated with a mild-to-medium case of stupidity I don’t relax on it as often as I should. Tuesday evening of last week was only the second or third time I took advantage of the deck since outdoor-sitting weather arrived in April.

The trees on my lot and on surrounding properties have grown madly since my wife Sandy and I took ownership of our suburban-Philadelphia home in 2005. Back then you could see the Sun dip below the horizon from the deck, because our wooden friends were of manageable size. But that was then and now is now. On the night in question I stepped outside at 8:20 PM, eleven minutes before the big ball of fire was scheduled to bid adieu to the Philadelphia region. Not only did trees block out the horizon and the Sun from my perch, they did the same to much of the sky. Ergo, there wasn’t a whole lot of sunset to be seen.

But I didn’t let those realities bother me, as I was in a relaxed mood, a mood that inched closer to the “highly contented” end of the spectrum during the hour and 40 minutes I spent on the deck. And why not? That’s what drinking beer, munching on Cheez-Its and listening to music on the radio will do to you. As will nonchalantly paying a decent amount of attention to what’s going on around you as the sky gradually makes its way from plenty bright to awfully dark. The bottom line is that, after a while, I found myself lost in the evening’s slow flow, a gentle state of affairs the likes of which happen to me only every now and then.

8:48 PM
8:56 PM

Fifteen minutes or so after sunset I admired the pale pink and purple hues in the western part of the sky not obscured by leafy branches or by houses, including mine. And I took note of birds chirping and of insects’ buzzes and clicks. The insects continued to harmonize once dusk began to take hold, but the birds stopped their chatter at that point and hit the sack. And it was impossible not to steal glances at the Moon, which was a few rungs above eye level in the southern sky. It glowed proudly in the clear heavens both before and after darkness arrived, and noticeably moved westward during my stay outside.

Motorcycle roars, somewhere in the distance, filled the air on several occasions while I sat. Central air conditioner systems hummed in unison. I heard the tooting of a train passing through my little town, and the sirens of two or more police vehicles. You know, the man-made sounds seemed as natural as those of the birds and insects, even the jarring ones that usually bug the hell out of me. Yeah man, I was in a mellow groove.

9:28 PM

Music kept me company mighty finely, as I’d known it would. I heard 20 songs or thereabouts on the radio, and they all fit snugly into the evening. One of them especially pleased me, partly because it came over the airwaves (via WRDV, a station in a town close to mine) when darkness was comfortably settling in. That’s the time of day when dreaminess becomes part of the picture.

I’d never heard of Theola Kilgore (born 1925, died 2005) before. I don’t know why, because she had a strong career in the soul and gospel music worlds. Nor had I heard her recording or any other recording of This Is My Prayer, which came out in 1963 and is such a good love song. The late Ed Townsend, a singer and songwriter who fully penned “For Your Love” and co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye, composed Prayer. I sighed happily when Theola began to sing. I knew that I was in good hands. Her pleading, honest vocals can shake you to your knees.

At about the time that Theola Kilgore was entering my heart, a quarter past nine o’clock, I couldn’t help but notice that fireflies were starting to kick their show into high gear. Tiny lights flashed to my left, to my right, in front of me, everywhere. The performance was wonderful, and was the main focus of my attention until I headed back into the house at ten after ten.

Is it possible to photograph fireflies? With high-end cameras in the hands of knowledgeable photographers I have no doubt that it is. But with an iPhone in the hands of an amateur? Well, I tried, snapping shot after shot, hoping that one or two little light bursts would appear at the moment that my finger pressed the camera button. I’m not going to bet my life on it, but I believe that one of my attempts might have paid off. It’s hard to say, of course, whether those pinpricks are from fireflies or are artificial lighting, peeking through dense foliage, from a house behind mine. But I’ve got my money on the former. Here’s the photo. The dots are firefly lights, right? Right?

Fireflies? (Photo taken at 9:47 PM)

(Please don’t be bashful about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias.)

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A Trip To Scotland, Part Three: Nature Time!

Ah yes, the big moment has arrived, by which I mean that the third and final episode of my wife Sandy’s and my recent doings in Scotland is now alive in cyberspace. And maybe it’s not only alive, but kicking too. If so, protect your private parts, boys and girls! You can’t be too careful these days.

Part One of the Scottish trilogy mentioned the beauty of Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, and that of the enormous tract of lands and waters known as the Scottish Highlands. I am now going to devote some hundreds of words to those green areas, both of which impressed us mightily.

Let’s begin with the Gardens, which are, I suppose, one-zillionth the size of the Highlands and certainly not as spectacular. Nevertheless, they sure as hell are more than lovely. We spent only an hour in the Gardens, yet I consider them to be a highlight of the trip.

Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens

Princes Street Gardens sit smack dab in the middle of central Edinburgh, dividing Edinburgh’s Old Town section from its New Town. The Gardens are in two swaths, the western one being larger than the eastern and more impressive because of the views that it commands. Combined, the east and the west segments total about half a mile in length. Which is not a whole lot. I mean, you could walk from one end to the other of Princes Street Gardens in no time if you wanted to. It would be a mistake to hurry, however, to not stop and smell the roses, because the Gardens are alluring and welcoming. They are a testament to inspired horticultural design and maintenance.

Princes Street Gardens
Ross Theatre in Princes Street Gardens. Edinburgh Castle looms above.

But the Gardens are not merely an urban oasis. They have healing powers too. I can attest to that because, often a fine example of disgruntlement and unease, I felt a sense of calm within my veins while I explored the Gardens. All of the flora there struck me as just right in terms of looks and placement . . . the flowers, the lawns, the trees and shrubbery. I was at home. As if that wasn’t enough, my jaw dropped when, while walking in the middle of the west segment, I looked southward and saw, looming nearby and powerfully, the Edinburgh Castle complex atop a rugged hill. What a view! Singular and unforgettable. You don’t get stunned like that in an urban park every day, you dig? I’m positive that I never had before.

The bus, in Edinburgh, that soon would take us to the Scottish Highlands

A few days after our submersion into nature at Princes Street Gardens, Sandy and I boarded the Wild & Sexy yellow tour bus, in Edinburgh, that was destined to take us on a long but whirlwind journey into a portion of the Scottish Highlands. Wild & Sexy, which is anything but, took off at 8:00 AM, arriving back in Edinburgh 12 hours later. In all, it and its 40 or so passengers traveled about 350 miles that day.

Ideally we’d have rented a car and spent at least four days in the Highlands. They deserve that much attention, so vast an area do they encompass, so worthy of intensive exploration are their landscapes, waterways and villages. But alas, neither of us dared to take the potential risks of driving on what for us is the wrong side of the road. A bus tour, then, squashed into one day, was our best option.

Am I glad we went? Definitely. But did I enjoy being on a bus for half a day? Not so much. And did I get a kick out of the flood of snide remarks tossed out by the asshole, seated behind me, to his travel mate? Nah. The f*cking guy was very annoying.

Crianlarich, in Highlands. Photo taken through bus window.
Bridge Of Orchy, in Highlands. Photo taken from bus window.

Now, the Highlands, a storied territory that abounds with tales and memories of Scottish clans and of long-ago rebellions against English rule, aren’t exactly around the corner from Edinburgh. So, it was two hours before we reached their lower boundaries. Mountains began to appear, mountains that became more and more amazing to my eyes the closer we got to them. Their bold shapes and vivid colorations, exaggerated by the bright Sun, were something else. To say nothing of the meadows, pastures and forests that intermingle with the mountains. And of the sheep, horses and cows that sat or wandered in some of the pastures. Though we encountered the Highlands mostly through bus windows, they didn’t disappoint.

Glen Coe, in Highlands. Photo taken from solid ground.
Spean Bridge, in Highlands. Photo taken from solid ground.

“If you think that this scenery is something, wait until we get to Glen Coe. It’s 10 times better there,” our bus driver, Charlie, said over the vehicle’s public address system as we passed through the Bridge Of Orchy area. I don’t know about 10 times better, but the mountains and lands in Glen Coe are special. I’d have liked to stride into the grasses leading up to the mountains and then do some climbing. But there was no time for that since the bus, on a tight schedule, parked for only 20 minutes at Glen Coe. Guided tours have their place, but ones such as ours are limiting and frustrating. The few stops that they make tend to be brief, which results in a pretty superficial experience. Of course, before signing up for the tour I knew that such would be the case. “Yo, genius, not everything in life is perfect. DUH!” I just reminded myself again for good measure.

Loch Ness

Two hours later the bus parked in Fort Augustus, a touristy Highlands town near the southern end of famed Loch Ness. There the bus stayed put for more than a bit, for the one and only time. Sandy and I had purchased tickets for a 50-minute boat ride on the loch (a loch is a lake, by the way), so aboard the boat we hopped. Somewhere in the vicinity of 150 other individuals hopped aboard with us. Somehow, despite the crowd sharing space with me, I managed to position myself on the open-air deck at the rear of the vessel. From the deck I admired the pines and other trees that adorn the sides of Loch Ness, and the hills upon which the trees grow. I watched, with fascination, the strong wake of the boat. And I couldn’t get enough of the wind that caressed my wrinkled visage, smoothing out a few of the deepest creases. Thank you, Highlands, for the magical facial. I haven’t looked this good in years!

After the boat docked, back to the bus we went. A bunch of hours later we were once again in Edinburgh, our nature-saturated day drawing to a close. And now, I’m obliged to say, my Scottish trilogy also is about to reach its conclusion. Everything, as we know, must end.

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Azaleas! Rocky!

As I’ve known for many decades, I can be a very dumb shit, and I proved that in the story I published on April 18. That opus is a recount of the walk I took in Jenkintown, a suburban town near Philadelphia, during which I gorged myself on springtime’s greenery and flowering trees and bushes. The middle of the piece contains the following sentences: But where the hell were the azaleas? I saw only three. Maybe somewhere in Jenkintown were a bunch of “Azalea Bushes Are Not Welcome In This Community” legal notices.

Yo, Neil, listen up! The three azaleas in flower that you saw were not the only azaleas in Jenkintown. There are undoubtedly plenty of azaleas in Jenkintown, but most of them had not blossomed yet. That’s because azaleas come in many varieties and do not necessarily bloom at the same time! The ones you saw, with purple flowers, were the only ones that had so far.

Yeah, I know that. But it had slipped my mind during my April stroll. Nobody ever has or ever will mistake me for a botany whiz kid.

Anyway, a couple of days after launching the story into cyberspace, I awoke from my azalean slumber, realizing the error of my ways. And since then I’ve had azaleas on my mind. Hey, why not? Azaleas, when in flower, are beautiful. And within the last two weeks I noticed that scads of them in the Philadelphia burbs, where I live, had opened their wings. The time had arrived for me to investigate the azalea situation in a pretty big way, something that, as far as I could remember, I never had done.

It was only a natural, therefore, that visiting Philadelphia’s Azalea Garden would strike me as the appropriate thing to do. I mean, come on, it’s called the Azalea Garden! And so, on the 1st of May, a cool and cloudy day, I boarded a train that transported me to the City Of Brotherly Love. But a few minutes before I climbed aboard, I snapped a photo in my neighborhood. The picture is of enormous and awe-inspiring azalea bushes that adorn the front lawn of my friend Joyce’s house. Regale your eyes:

Joyce’s azaleas.

I hadn’t been to the Azalea Garden in 15 or 20 years. I had no idea what condition it would be in or how many azaleas it nowadays contains, but I guessed that all would be well. And it was. The AG is a sweet, four-acre park near the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, a few blocks outside the hustle and bustle of downtown Philly. Azaleas were plentiful and in bloom. White, pink, red, yellow and orange azalea blossoms looked smashing amidst the park’s greenery. Especially the white ones, of which there were thousands. I’m sure I’ve never seen so many white azalea petals in my life. They alone were worth the trip.

I took my time in the park, covering all of its grounds. I said hello to the azaleas. I sat on a bench for a while and ate the sandwich I’d brought from home. And I took lots of photos.

And then nature called. Not one to ignore natural processes, up a hill I strode to the art museum, of which, luckily, I’m a member. That’s because members get in for free. Otherwise, for the pleasure of using the facilities I’d have had to pay the $18 museum admission fee required of seniors. I’m here to tell you that everything came out very artistically! Monet and Picasso would have been proud of me.

There’s not much more to this story. Well, I suppose I could drag it out for another 1,000 words, actually, but I’m not going to. Old f*ckers like me get tired easily, you know. But I will add one more non-azalea anecdote. You see, on the way back to the area where I would catch a bus to take me to the train station, I passed the Rocky statue. It’s a two-ton, bronze replica of Rocky Balboa, the cinematic boxer, and originally was featured in the Rocky III movie, which came out in 1982.

Amazingly, the statue has found success in real life. Sylvester Stallone, who portrayed Rocky, donated it to the city when filming for Rocky III was completed. It used to stand outside a Philadelphia sports stadium, but since 2006 has occupied a niche near the famous art museum steps that Rocky ran up in the movies.

There were lots of people around the statue the other day. Lots. Almost as many as I saw in the museum while heading to and from the can. I’d never known that the Rocky statue is an immense tourist attraction, one of the biggest in the city. Ditto for the Rocky steps. Hell, just about everybody loves a hard-working, decent guy, and that’s what Rocky personifies.

Nature lovers and boxing fans, that’s a wrap. Any day filled with blooming azaleas and with Rocky is a good day. I went home satisfied and content.

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Spring Indeed Has Sprung

The morning of April 13, a Saturday, was drizzly and grey. But the weather forecasters swore up and down that by early afternoon the Sun would be smiling broadly upon us. Damned if they weren’t right. It was, I decided, a good afternoon in which to take action.

Scads of flowering trees had burst into bloom during the previous few days. And because this annual seasonal display doesn’t last all that long, and because I’m the sort of guy who likes to commune with nature every now and then, I figured I better get hopping if I wanted a good look at the show. So, at 2:30 PM I drove to Jenkintown, a town near mine in the Philadelphia burbs. After parking on a tree-infused residential block, I spent 75 minutes imbibing a healthy amount of spring 2019.

Why Jenkintown? Well, it’s an attractive and tidy place. And I know its layout well. What’s more, I have ties to Jenkintown. It’s where my barber does a magnificent job of styling the five strands of hair that remain on the crown of my head. It’s where my wife Sandy and I go out to dinner fairly often. And, most important, it’s where she and I bought our wedding rings. Yeah, Sandy likely would have threatened to knee me in the balls if I hadn’t included most important in that last sentence. But that has nothing to do with why I wrote those words!

Jenkintown was, as expected, peaceful and calm while I trod upon many of its blocks. I saw people of all ages outdoors taking advantage of the warm, comfortable conditions. Some sat on their porches. Others puttered in their yards. One eight or nine year old bounced somewhat proficiently on a pogo stick. And two little kids streaked wildly on their scooters, up and down a sidewalk, as their father kept an eye on them. It was a nice day.

And I heard birds, a lot of birds, though I didn’t see any of them except for a few that were zooming real high in the sky. I don’t know much about them, but I’m not a total nitwit when it comes to our avian friends. I proved that to myself by recognizing the caw, caw, caw of a crow a few minutes into my walk.

And what about vegetation? For one thing, Jenkintown was looking a lot greener than it had in months. Most deciduous trees were not yet in leaf, but a few were, and they were beautiful. What’s more, much shrubbery had traded drab greens for sprightlier shades of that color.

One of the few azalea bushes that I saw.

Forsythia bushes, which had opened in my region in late March, rocked their yellows throughout the town. Ground-level flowers were starting to pop up all over the place. But where the hell were the azaleas? I saw only three. Maybe somewhere in Jenkintown were a bunch of “Azalea Bushes Are Not Welcome In This Community” legal notices.

And then there were the flowering trees, the main subjects that I had left my house to examine and to write about. Jenkintown doesn’t boast incredible numbers of them, but there were more than enough. I stopped to admire most that I crossed paths with.

Magnolia petals on the ground.

When it comes to flowering trees, magnolia, pear and cherry are the varieties in favor in Jenkintown. Their petals abounded, flaunting pinks, whites and pale greens. On one property I saw a powerful reminder, though, that the show’s days are numbered, because the lawn and sidewalk there were blanketed with magnolia petals. Before long, similar scenarios will be playing out all over town.

Is this a magnolia tree?

As my stroll was coming to a close I passed a house on whose lawn a young tree grew. It was scrawny but in flower, displaying a color I’m positive I’d never seen before on tree petals. Yellow. A soft, milky yellow. As with birds, my knowledge about plant life ain’t much to write home about. That’s why, a short while ago, I turned to Google for enlightenment. I’m now offering the possibility that what I was looking at is a member of the magnolia family, though I sure as shit wouldn’t bet my life on that. Some of my readers are wise in the ways of flora, and I’m hoping that they will set me straight.

The time to go home arrived. I’d more than met my minimum daily requirement of nature. Therefore, into my car I eased. And you know what? It was hot as hell inside the mighty machine, 10 degrees hotter than it was outside. That’s what happens when you forget to leave a window cracked. Within seconds sweat began pooling on my forehead. Plenty of it. And of course the sweat headed downward, saying a nasty hello to my nose, lips and chin, and reminding me that summer is on the horizon. I hadn’t thought about summer in a long time. I’m not a fan of that season. F*ck summer heat. F*ck summer sweat. I prefer spring.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. Gracias.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window. All photos were taken on April 13, 2019 in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, USA.)

Seeing Green: A Philadelphia Story

Last Saturday, one day prior to St. Patrick’s Day, I was itching to stretch my legs. The skies were clear, the temperature tolerable, and my schedule was open. A walk was in order. Where, though? My ultra-hilly suburban neighborhood? Nah. I’d made the rounds there on foot a few days earlier, huffing and puffing my ass off as I scaled the slopes. Yo, there’s a limit to the number of hills this old boy is going to attempt to conquer during any given week, you dig?

Anyway, I was in the mood for some liveliness. And because my area is not blessed with lively as its middle name, I decided to do what I’ve done a ton of times before: Board a train in my little town and allow it to transport me to the mostly flat City Of Brotherly Love. I stepped into the choo-choo at about 10:40 AM and arrived in central Philadelphia’s Jefferson Station 50 minutes later.

I was equipped with the semblance of a game plan. I would wander, as is my wont, but with a notion that St Patrick’s Day had put into my head. Namely, I would look for the color green, in all of its various shades. Not just the green clothes worn by St. Paddy celebrants (Philadelphia starts to celebrate way before the actual day arrives), but wherever green might be. Aboard the train, I couldn’t guess how much or how little green I would find.

Well, I wasn’t surprised when some partially-green-clad 20-somethings entered my field of vision a few minutes after the train pulled in. They soon were to begin, no doubt, an adventure focused upon getting truly shit-faced. Ah, it’s good to be young. And shit-faced. I snapped their photo as they were leaving the station. And then I exited too. I looked all around. Green, where are you? I saw none at all, except on the street signs at 10th and Filbert Streets just outside the station. I walked another block. Green? Nada, but for the 9th and Filbert signs. Just about every street sign in Philadelphia is predominantly green, by the way. So, hold your head up high, green! Where would we be without street signs, after all? Lost, man, lost! Even more lost than we, by nature, already are.

St. Patrick’s Day celebrants waiting to enter a tavern in Philadelphia’s Old City section

I spent most of my time in the Old City part of town, where titans such as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson lived and helped orchestrate the creation of The United States. Many structures from the 1700s still remain there. As in most of Philadelphia, the main colors in Old City are in the tan, brown and brick-red families. Earth colors. I knew that, but hadn’t thought about it in a good while.

Treewalk

Now, there’s a lot to be said for an earth-toned palette. It brings a sense of calm, a sense of permanence, both of which you won’t find me arguing against. Still, there’s also a lot to be said for explosions of zesty color. They’re exciting and invigorating, and all my life I’ve given them two enthusiastic thumbs up. Luckily, Philadelphia is home to several thousand man-made examples of such. Meaning, eye-popping murals that have been painted on sides of buildings throughout much of the city over the last few decades, often through the efforts of the city government-supported Mural Arts Philadelphia organization. During my march along Market Street into the heart of Old City I passed one of them, Treewalk. Lush and verdant, the mural slapped me upside my frequently unobservant head.

“Hey, you with the foot-long jowls! How come you never noticed me and my shades of green before?” it asked while it slapped. If I hadn’t been in a good mood I’d have retaliated. Created by Paul Santoleri on an otherwise unremarkable office building, Treewalk faces a courtyard, not Market Street. That’s why it’s easy for passersby on Market to not see it. In any case, this swath of leafy art has got what it takes.

Bladen’s Court

Okay, so what about real trees and shrubbery? Well, the deciduous trees of Philadelphia won’t be in leaf till mid-April at the earliest. And the fauna that remain green year-round ain’t voluminous on the blocks I trod upon. One small rhododendron bush kind of wowed me, though. Bursting with green brightness, that afternoon it was the star of Bladen’s Court, an Old City niche containing a few mid-1700s brick houses.

What else did I notice when it comes to green? Sidewalk kiosks into which you deposit your parking fees when you park on Philadelphia’s streets are green. Ta da! And I liked the rugged looks of a green door on North 2nd Street. And of Brownie’s bar, whose green façade and awning rock its side of its block. Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot of green to be found. Or, for that matter, of any other bright color.

After racking up a few miles of sidewalk-pounding, I strolled back to Jefferson Station where I had 45 minutes to kill till my train arrived. In the waiting area I twiddled my thumbs, unobtrusively scratched my balls and yawned. Those fruitful activities took up 30 minutes. That’s when I was inspired to take a close look at the tile mosaics that decorate the walls overlooking the train tracks, one mosaic per side. Down the stairs I went to the train tunnel.

The mosaics are twins, but not identical. One is pure abstraction. The other, though plenty abstract, contains recognizable shapes: trees, grasses, sky. And each mosaic is not only incredibly long — hundreds of feet — but very beautiful. They are among my favorite pieces of public art in Philadelphia, yet they seem to be taken for granted. Information about them is scanty, though it’s possible that they are by David Beck and Verlin Miller, and probably date from 1984.

Part of the tree-filled mosaic
Another part of the tree-filled mosaic

I looked with pleasure at the pure-abstraction work, and then went to the opposite side of the tunnel. There I really took my time investigating the tree-filled mosaic, because its greens couldn’t be ignored. I let them, and the other colors, wash over me. I’d received a smaller dose of green than I’d have liked during the previous two hours, but now that was more than made up for. It was the perfect ending to my green quest.

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Walking Around While Looking At Things . . . It’s What I Do!

What you’re now reading is another of my walking around while looking at things stories, this time an examination of my escapades last week on the day after Valentine’s Day. I’ve written scads of such stories since inaugurating this website in 2015. Hell, they probably account for one-third of my output. And why is that? Well, because walking around while looking at things is one of the activities I most like to do. It’s part of my fabric. Has been for decades. But I didn’t consciously realize that until the recaps of my mini-adventures started flowing naturally and happily from my keyboard four years ago. Yeah, writing sometimes teaches you about yourself. Learning is good!

Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania

The 15th of February began in a cloud-covered, uncertain fashion in the Philadelphia suburbs where I reside. However, all signs, as indicated on the all-knowing weather.com, pointed towards bright skies and warm temps in a handful of hours. Itching to stretch my legs and to feel the Sun upon my wrinkled, age-spotted visage, I gathered my iPhone, a water bottle and a packet of trail mix, and jumped into my car when it became apparent that the weather prediction was correct. Eight miles later, at a few minutes past noon, I parked across from the public library in Ambler, Pennsylvania. The game was on! Another edition of walking around while looking at things was about to start.

For sure, in my neck of the woods there aren’t a whole lot of towns worth walking around in, including my own. That’s because most are uninviting, not looking like towns at all. What they do look like are hodgepodge collections of strip malls, large shopping centers, office buildings and residential sections. Eh!

Butler Avenue

Ambler, however, is a different story. It boasts a long, traditional main drag, Butler Avenue, that is filled with old and not-so-old structures containing eateries, non-food-related businesses of all manner, an art house cinema (Ambler Theater) and a stage theater (Act II Playhouse). And there are streets of interest that run perpendicular to Butler Avenue, including the misnamed Main Street, which decidedly is secondary to Butler. Whatever, much of Ambler, whose history dates back to the early 1700s, looks like a true village. The town, by the way, is named after Mary Johnson Ambler, a civic leader during the mid-1800s.

Bar on Main Street
Tattoo parlor on Butler Avenue

Now, my walk around Ambler wasn’t a walk for the ages. It was on the mild side, on the casual side. But a good walk it was, about three miles in length and nicely invigorating. Meandering from here to there as instinct and whimsy called, I enjoyed the hell out of the unseasonably warm temperature (58°F/14°C) and soft blue heavens, as I kept my eyes open for interesting sights, including good-looking women. Hey, it’s every girl’s dream to have a wrinkled, age-spotted geezer looking her over, right? Don’t answer that!

Houses on Main Street
Church door on Lindenwold Avenue

And, of course, I took photos of that which seemed worth documenting, such as street scenes, sharp buildings and signs, and the most interesting door that I could find in town. It belongs to Calvary United Methodist Church.

Ambler Boiler House, on Maple Street

Did I stumble upon anything I hadn’t expected to run across? Indeed I did. Near the town’s railroad tracks I saw a huge, smokestacked old building, now known as Ambler Boiler House. It’s an office building, but once was a power plant for the asbestos products factories that, for about 100 years, had been Ambler’s industrial core. Due to health concerns and governmental regulations though, asbestos, a carcinogen, eventually went out of favor, as well it should have. As a result, almost needless to say, Ambler’s fortunes fell swiftly, reaching a low point in the late 1980s when the remaining segment of its asbestos industry went kaput. That low point didn’t budge for many years.

Act II Playhouse, on Butler Avenue
Ambler Theater, on Butler Avenue

These days, though, Ambler is a lively place. Its revival can be pegged to the birth of the Act II Playhouse in 1998 and to the rebirth of the Ambler Theater in 2003, and to the restaurants that opened in their wake. My wife and I have been to Ambler probably about 150 times during the 21st century. And that’s mostly because of the cinema and the eateries. Many a night we’ve caught a movie and stuck around for dinner.

Ours is a world full of problems. Humans are skilled at creating problems, whether intentionally or not. In Ambler the main problem is the mountains of asbestos waste materials that were dumped in the southern end of town over many decades. The federal government has dealt with, and is still dealing with the situation. The asbestos is contained, supposedly, and poses no immediate threat, supposedly. But who really knows? (You can read a very good article about the situation by clicking here).

The Pizza Box, on Butler Avenue

Me, I become trembly and irritable when thinking about or confronted with problems too much. That’s one of the reasons why I favor walking around while looking at things. And it’s also one of the reasons why I enjoy sitting in pizzerias, where I can ingest my favorite food while letting my mind wander. Speaking of which, two-thirds of the way into my stroll through Ambler, I noticed The Pizza Box, a cute-as-a-pin establishment that I’d never paid attention to before. Inside I went, and was glad that I did, because the two slices of traditional pizza that I ate were very good. They helped ease my worried mind over the next half hour, as I further poked around Ambler before walking back to my car.

The above paragraph would have been a good one with which to end this essay. However, during the day that followed my mighty stroll it dawned on me that I, an ambler, had ambled in Ambler. And that many amblers amble in Ambler every day. It would have been oh so wrong of me not to point this out. Thanks for reading. Goodbye till next time!

(As I always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Thanks.)

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