Posts Tagged ‘Musings’

Random observations / recollections / stories…


Southern Speech

My North Georgia grandfather, Frank Byrd, was a bona fide native who lived in the same small town his entire life. And his speech confirmed it. Frank spoke in the same manner, using the same colloquialisms, as virtually all of his contemporaries.

Some years ago, I wrote a post on this blog entitledTalking Georgian,a subject I find fascinating and entertaining.

I was reminded of Frank and his manner of speech recently by the arrival of spring. Everything is waking up – the bugs, the weeds, the grass, the trees, the pollen – and as I watched my dog Jake trying to catch a carpenter bee, I recalled that, to Frank and his friends, a wasp was a waust.

Waust. Rhymes with lost.

The speech characteristics of my Savannah grandfather, the first Walter Smith, were radically different from Frank’s, but equally interesting. Natives of the Savannah/Charleston area (who call themselves Geechees) speak Geechee,” which borrows words and phrases from African slaves, native tribes, and Europeans.

For one thing, Geechees pronounce the letter “R” only at the beginning of words. (People in the region can form the “R” sound perfectly well, but for some reason, choose not to do it.) Take, for example, this phrase:

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.

In Geechee, the phrase would be:

Renduh unto Caesuh the things that aw Caesuh’s, and unto God the things that aw God’s.


A waust.


The Mortuary Business

In the South, most black people and white people attend separate churches and have separate funeral parlors. The old laws that required the separation are gone, but the systems remain in place.

In white society, morticians (undertakers, funeral directors) often are a source of jokes, owing to the services they provide, their stereotypical demeanor, and the prices they charge. Not so in the black community. Most black funeral directors are highly respected and honored.

Are the two images appropriately earned? Probably.

According to Ebony Magazine, the country had about 3,000 black-owned funeral parlors in the 1950s. Today, the number is down to 1,200, which is sad.

Years ago, my then-wife Deanna went into the florist business, with half interest in a small flower shop in Buford. As with most florists, funeral work was a significant part of the business. They dealt regularly with the local funeral parlors, both black and white.

On weekends and holidays, I usually helped out by making deliveries, so I also got a glimpse of how the mortuary business operated behind the scenes.

By and large, the black funeral director (Buford had only one) behaved like, and was treated like, a clergyman.

His two white counterparts, on the other hand, were ordinary guys who had inherited family businesses. Both behaved in a somber, funereal manner, probably because they felt people expected it of them. Around town, they were neither beloved nor especially respected.

One other interesting fact I learned about the funeral homes in Buford in those days: the black-owned mortuary had no refrigeration capability. None. The white-owned parlors made refrigerated storage available as needed.

I often wondered whether that vital service was provided gratis. Probably not.

Mortuary fridge

A modern nine-cadaver unit.


Petty Tyrant

When warm weather arrives, it’s time to take my RV to Mr. Clean Truck Wash in Athens to have the accumulated layers of mildew, pollen, and crud removed. The guys at Mr. Clean will scrub ‘er down and apply a coat of liquid wax for the lowly sum of $30. The workers at Mr. Clean do a thorough job and are a very congenial bunch.

Last year, the boss at Mr. Clean was a stoic black guy who handled the money, but otherwise just sat in a lawn chair and watched.

This year, in addition to the stoic black guy, the management includes a foremen – a plump, gray-haired, middle-aged, scowling white guy who bosses around the young black workers. He is, I regret to say, a jackass and a petty tyrant.

He and one of the crew started by spraying the van within a chemical that loosens dirt. Immediately, the foreman started yelling.

Not straight on, you @#$% moron! Hold the sprayer at an angle!”

The worker’s expression remained blank as he changed the angle of spray. The foreman spat several more curses before he dropped the subject.

Every few minutes, he chewed out one of the workers for a transgression – handing up the wrong brush, leaving a hose underfoot, missing a spot, not controlling the overspray. By the time the job was finished, he had yelled at and cursed out all three workers at least twice each.

Here was a guy, probably battling inner demons, who was taking advantage of his authority, knowing that the workers could do nothing about it. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t.

At one point, one of the young workers came over to the supply bench where I was standing, and I asked, “Is he always like this?” There could be no doubt what I meant.

Oh, yeah. Every day.”

I left $20 in the tip box.

Mr. Clean


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Finding My Niche

Before I retired and became a man of leisure, I was an ordinary working dude. A nine-to-fiver. A white-collar wage slave.

Over the years, I came to know a series of corporate cultures that were every bit as Kafkaesque as the world of Dilbert, but without the humor.

Some of those places — actually, most of those places — were dreadful, borderline dysfunctional organizations. Bureaucracy, politics, and incompetence were constant obstacles. In truth, the organizations were not so much managed as mismanaged, and everyone knew it.

And, oh, how I hated it. The pomposity of the corporate caste system, the norm of inefficiency and waste — everything about it was offensive. I was in a state of constant indignation.

Probably, eventually, I was destined to leave corporate life behind. I had no idea what I might do to make a living, but I wasn’t making peace with the life I was leading.

Then, in 1989, when I took a new job in metro Atlanta, I got a lucky break.

The job was in the advertising department at Lithonia Lighting, a national manufacturer of commercial, industrial, and residential light fixtures.

The position, it turned out, provided a niche that gave me unexpected protection from the worst of the corporate crapola. I was able to do my work in a manner I found acceptable. It was a gift from God.

The details are a bit tedious, but I’ll try to keep it simple.

Lithonia Lighting hired me as the company’s first professional copywriter. The Advertising Department staff included graphic designers and marketing types, but no writers.

I soon learned that, in large part, I was hired to fix a chronic and maddening problem: the higher-ups were tired of being sued, sometimes by their own sales reps, over typos and inaccuracies in the printed material describing the products.

For a long time, the bosses had been reluctant to hire a writer. This was a company of and for engineers — real men — not some useless liberal arts major.

But they finally relented, and there I was, a detail-oriented guy with a knack for writing, grammar, proofreading, and similar skills that the engineers, poor things, clearly lacked.

The inaccuracies in the sales literature were having real consequences. When a contract is signed to supply the light fixtures to populate an office building, a factory, a mall, or whatever, the financial commitment is significant.

And lots of variables are involved — wattage, voltage, light source, lumen output, fixture dimensions, and more. If the products delivered are not precisely as quoted, and don’t perform precisely as promised, the manufacturer (or the manufacturer’s rep) is legally liable.

Lithonia Lighting was capable of manufacturing countless product variations. The technical specifications for all those theoretical products were maintained in a vast set of central files. The files amounted to a blueprint of what could and could not be manufactured.

When the sales reps needed descriptions of specific products to facilitate a deal, the company would refer to the official files and furnish the necessary information to the reps. In effect, documents describing any version of any product were available on demand.

When a product was modified or a new product variation was created, the central files were updated. Thus, theoretically, the sales force always had access to the latest and most accurate information.

In the years before I came along, the central files had been maintained and updated by a succession of employees — product engineers, marketing trainees, sales people, and others.

They were, to be sure, sincere and capable folks in their areas of specialty. But ensuring the accuracy of a huge mass of constantly-changing data was not among their skills. Hence, they decided to try someone like me.

Owing to the scale of the task, I was allowed to hire a few young copywriters fresh out of college. Like most writers, they were naturally detail-oriented and undeterred by what others might see as overwhelming and unmanageable.

And it worked. Within a year or two, we brought discipline to the system and restored the data files to a state of accuracy that was, if not perfect, at least acceptable. The lawsuit problems faded away. The bosses were pleased.

As a result of all this, management tended to stay out of my way. They were happy to let me do my thing, more or less undisturbed.

Because I was important to them in this manner, I was exempt from many of the petty annoyances of corporate life.

When a stupid management fad came along — Six Sigma, Core Competency, Management by Objectives — I wasn’t forced to endure the training sessions as were my peers.

And never once was I assigned to the universally-hated duty of helping to conduct the periodic inventories of the main warehouse, which was the size of the Pentagon.

As time passed, the people changed, and the tools we used and the tasks we performed evolved. But the work remained interesting and fun.

The Advertising Department, an enclave of creative types amid a sea of math and science majors, was never dull.

And I stayed plenty busy. In addition to overseeing the product data, we produced product catalogs, prepared advertising and marketing material, wrote news releases and newsletters, and edited a steady mass of correspondence.

Yes, the place was still a typical large corporation. The bureaucracy was appalling. The mismanagement, at times, was spectacular and stultifying.

But I stayed anyway. For 25 years.

All because I got lucky and found my niche.



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Sometimes, an improbable thing happens, and you are left flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. Such a thing happened to me, very memorably, about 10 years ago.

Back in the 1950s, when my dad was in the Air Force, we lived in Europe for a few years. I attended a high school for U.S. military dependents in Stuttgart, Germany.

Living in a beer-centric country like that, and being a red-blooded teenager, I was an expert on the numerous breweries, biergartens, and gasthauses in the Stuttgart area. I probably knew as much about the local breweries — the products, histories, reputations, and relative merits — as the natives did.

Breweries were, and still are, ubiquitous in Germany. The German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, is home to some 175 breweries. Stuttgart itself has many dozens, the largest and most popular being the Dinkelacker brand. (In German, the word Dinkelacker means wheatfield.)

The improbable part of the story came about one weekend not long before I retired, as I was browsing through a local antique/junk store. On a dusty lower shelf, I discovered three brand-new, unopened 50-packs of bar coasters that advertise — I kid you not — the Dinkelacker brewery of Stuttgart, Germany.

I stared in disbelief at the logo so familiar in my youth. I was stunned, practically a-swoon. The fact that I, Rocky Smith, would find a huge stash of those particular coasters 50 years later on another continent — well, it was highly improbable.

It was absolutely thrilling, as well, and I gleefully purchased the three 50-packs for the princely sum of three dollars.

I’ve been using the coasters freely around the house for the last decade. They hold up really well. Clearly, my remaining stash is a lifetime supply, and then some.


At some point, my thoughts about this unlikely occurrence turned to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Specifically, I was reminded of the “Infinite Improbability Drive,” which, according to the book, allows a starship to go anywhere in the universe instantly. A very convenient plot device.

Engaging the Infinite Improbability Drive, you see, suspends “normality” and means that, in theory, anything is possible. As explained here, however, there’s a catch:

But I digress. The discovery, by me, of those bar coasters in that junk store is a hugely unlikely thing.

Even random chance seems… highly improbable.



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“You do it for the stories,” said my friend Jackie, an author who has published eight books. Jackie was just back from a road trip to Savannah, researching book nine.

“When you stay home, everything is routine,” she declared. “You don’t get good stories that way. To get stories, you need to venture out, go places, do things.”

Well, that isn’t entirely true. Some of my favorite stories on this blog were written after I spent the day babysitting my grandkids.

For example, if you type “intervention” in my search box — there in the upper right corner of your screen — you can read a story I wrote a few months ago about the consequences of kids obsessing over the computer game Minecraft.

But still, Jackie has a valid point. Most memorable stuff happens out there in the world somewhere, away from home, away from the routine.

To wit, if you type “fiasco” in the search box, you can read about my spectacularly ill-fated trip to a remote part of Grand Canyon back in 2001. No trip to Toroweap, no fiasco, no story.

All of which leads me to a special story that is dear to my heart. It came about because in September 1998, I got away from the routine, ventured out, and went on a two-week raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

That 1998 trip wasn’t my first. It was, in fact, my third raft trip down the Colorado and my sixth visit to the Big Ditch. By then, I knew the routine, knew what gear to bring, knew the best rapids and dayhikes, and understood what was expected of the paying customers. Looking back, it was easily the most satisfying of my Grand Canyon raft trips.

Typically, on a non-motorized raft trip, there will be 20 or so paying passengers, four or five rafts, and four or five guides.

One of the guides is designated as Trip Leader — the captain, the head honcho, the boss of things. The TL runs the trip like the coach runs the team, or the boss runs the office, or the mom runs the household.

Keeping the passengers in line rarely is a problem; most, being out of their element, are cooperative. Easily led, like sheep or cows.

On the other hand, river guides can be an unruly, undisciplined bunch, especially out in the wilderness. Wrangling them requires a serious degree of tact and aplomb.

The TL on my 1998 trip was a smart, cheerful, likeable guy in his late 20s. He was tall, lean, tanned, and fit. He was a technically proficient oarsman and fully capable of keeping the passengers happy and the guides under control.

I won’t divulge the TL’s name, as you will understand later. For the purposes of my story, I’ll call him Clark. Clark Kent.

I’ll also mention that the guide in charge of the paddle boat (a smaller raft propelled by passengers and steered by a guide from the stern) was Clark’s girlfriend. Let’s call her Lois. Lois Lane.

After two weeks on the river, you find that you know your trip-mates pretty well. Happily, you have lots of new friends. And, at the end of the trip, someone always volunteers to gather contact information and shares it with the group.

That was how I came to have the address and phone number of Clark Kent and Lois Lane at their home in Flagstaff.

And that was why, on my next trip to Flagstaff in May 1999, I gave them a call, and we got together for lunch.

When I was in Flagstaff again in November 1999, the three of us met for breakfast.

When I was there again in April 2000, we went out to dinner.

for several more years, the pattern was the same: I always saw Clark and Lois when I passed through Flagstaff. They would bring me up to date on the latest river guide news, update me on local environmental concerns, and recommend new restaurants.

Sometimes, Clark would show me the latest photos he had taken on the river. He was an accomplished photographer, and he sold prints online. I own two of his enlargements.

The fact is, Clark and Lois and I lived in different worlds, and we had little in common. But I enjoyed those meetings immensely. And Clark and Lois always seemed genuinely glad to see me.

But things change. At some point, the two of them left Flagstaff, and we lost touch. Later, I read they had moved to Telluride.

Specifically, I learned about Telluride from a news story that identified my buddy Clark Kent as the scion of a fabulously rich American family, heir to a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice.

My guess is, Clark fell in love with the river, took a sabbatical, and got qualified and hired as a guide. He was able to sustain that life for quite a while. He met Lois on the river. Probably, the weight of obligations finally pulled him back into the family business.

No doubt his river guide friends knew who he was. Some probably went easier on him as a result. Some probably did the opposite.

But I had no idea who he really was. To me, he was just Clark Kent, my former TL and friend. Just a nice fellow I got to know on the river.

Thinking back, Clark probably scrutinized me very carefully before deciding to be my friend. Was I genuinely clueless about his identity, or was I some gold-digger, angling for an advantage? His fate surely is to worry about such things constantly. I’m pleased and flattered that he decided to trust me.

Like Jackie said, you do it for the stories.

I have great photos of Clark and Lois from that 1998 river trip, but I won’t show them. Instead, here’s a happy photo of some of the passengers and guides on an earlier trip. That’s me on the left.

River trip 5-94





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Pop-Up Memories

Here’s an interesting exercise: think about a place you lived or visited. What is the first memory about it that pops into your head?

For example, when the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996, I was living in an apartment complex in the metro suburbs. When I think about those apartments, I’m immediately reminded of a neighbor lady who was one of the Olympic torch-bearers. We dated for a while.

Here are some other memories that surface when I think about various places…


Brooklyn, New York — Having a family dinner in my uncle’s third-floor apartment while the luggage was being stolen from our station wagon on the street below.

Flagstaff, Arizona — Being panhandled on a dark side street by a group of inebriated, blissfully happy Navajos.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida — Cruising around the canals on Sunday afternoons aboard my father-in-law’s cabin cruiser, the Seaduce.

Grand Canyon, Arizona — In 1994, walking up to the canyon rim for the first time and being dumbstruck. It was almost a religious experience.

Lake Como, Italy — Peering down from the window of a second-floor hotel room and seeing a Norway rat the size of a housecat looking back up at me.

London, England — Being cornered in a hotel elevator by a creepy old man. I was 15, old enough to dodge the situation.

Munich, Germany — The cavernous, boisterous interior of the Hofbräuhaus during Oktoberfest. I earned my five-liter pin there at age 16.

Panama City Beach, Florida — Coming eyeball to eyeball with a barracuda while snorkeling along the shore in neck-deep water.

Paris, France — Feasting on a chateaubriand steak with sautéed mushrooms at a restaurant on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, then later becoming violently ill.

San Francisco, California — Getting autographs at Fisherman’s Wharf from Guy Madison (Wild Bill Hickok on TV) and Andy Devine (his sidekick Jingles Jones).

Savannah, Georgia — The old Smith family home in the Gordonston neighborhood. The siding (cedar shingles) has been the same turtle green color for 90 years.

Tokyo, Japan — Doing a cannonball off a porch railing into a four-foot-deep snowdrift.


Those being personal recollections, they are significant only to me and a few relatives. To make the exercise work, you have to summon up your own memories.

Well worth the time, I promise.

Fort Lauderdale, 1972: my son Britt posing with his catch in front of the Seaduce.

Fort Lauderdale, 1972: my son Britt posing with his catch in front of the Seaduce.

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The Questions…

1. The domestic guinea pig is a type of “cavy,” a family of small, forest-dwelling South American rodents. In Switzerland, it is illegal to own just one guinea pig. Why?

2. Who introduced French fries to America?

3. The geographic cone snail, a tiny carnivore found in Indo-Pacific reefs, is one of the deadliest critters in the sea. Its venom paralyzes a fish instantly (a crucial adaptation, because otherwise, the fish would swim off and die far away from the slow-moving snail). Why is this snail nicknamed the “cigarette snail”?

4. How many gallons of water does it take, on average, to grow one tomato?

5. In 1936, Maine’s G.W. Bass Company introduced “Weejuns,” a casual, moccasin-like slip-on shoe. In the 1950s, they became known as “penny loafers” when students started a fad of inserting pennies into the slits in the leather vamps.  Why are they called “Weejuns”?

The Answers…

1. Switzerland’s animal welfare laws decree that the guinea pig is a highly social animal that would be lonely without a companion. The law doesn’t cover all cavies, just cute ones.

2. President Thomas Jefferson. He served “potatoes fried in the French manner” at a White House dinner in 1802. The man Jefferson ousted from office, John Adams, accused Jefferson of “putting on airs by serving such novelties.”

3. Because a person stung by its barb will live roughly long enough to smoke a cigarette.

4. 13 gallons. Scientists are working to develop a less thirsty tomato, but aren’t there yet.

5. The shoes were inspired by the hand-sewn leather moccasins worn by Norwegian farmers in Maine. “Weejuns” is an abbreviated form of “Norwegians.”

Guinea pig



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Talking Georgian

Last month, I posted a story about some of my favorite Southern expressions, many of which I heard growing up. These were genuine folksy sayings used by my friends and relatives, not the usual clichés aimed at ridiculing Southern accents.

Writing that story brought to mind a related matter: the often unique ways local people pronounce local place names.

Most place names are pronounced the same way everywhere. I live in the city of Jefferson, county of Jackson, state of Georgia. People across the country pronounce those three names pretty much the same.

But every state and region has a short list of towns, counties, streets, rivers, etc. that the natives pronounce in odd, often counter-intuitive ways. You have to wonder if they do it for sport, to trip up outsiders.

Being a Georgia boy, I’m most familiar with how place names are pronounced here at home. Here is a list of some good ones.


Adel — AY-dell
Albany — ALL-benny
Armuchee — Are-MURR-chee
Atlanta — At-LANN-uh
Berlin — BURR-lun
Boliver — BOWL-uh-ver
Bremen — BREE-mun
Buena Vista — Byoo-na VIS-ta
Cairo — KAY-ro


Cement — SEE-mint
Chamblee — SHAM-blee
Chatham — CHAT-um
Choestoe — Choy-stoy
Cordele — Cor-DEEL
Dacula — Da-CUE-luh
DeKalb — Duh-CAB
Demere — DEM-er-ee
Dubois — DEW-boys
Duluth — DEW-looth


Forsyth — FOUR-syth
Gardi — GUARD-eye
Gough — Guff
Hahira — Hey-HI-ruh
Hoschton — HUSH-ton (rhymes with push)
Houston — HOUSE-ton
Inaha — EYE-nuh-hah


LaFayette — La-FAY-it
Lenox — LEAN-ox
Machen — MATCH-en
Manor — MAY-ner or MAY-nuh
Martinez — Martin-EZ
McDonough — Mc-DONE-uh
Milan — MY-lun
Mobley — MOW-blee
Monroe — MUN-row
Monticello — Monta-SELL-uh
Moran — MORE-un
Mussella — Muze-ELL-uh
Ochlockonee — Oak-LOT-‘ny
Ocoee — Oh-COY
Palmetto — Pal-MET-uh


Pembroke — PEM-brook
Philema — F’LIM-me
Poulan — POE-lun
Redan — REE-dan
Schlatterville — SLAUGHTER-vul
Schley — Sly
Senoia — Suh-NO-ee
Seville — SEE-vul


Siloam — SIGH-lome
Soque — SO-kwee
Statham — STATE-um
Suches — SUCH-iss
Suwanee — SWAN-ee
Taliaferro — TAHL-i-ver (rhymes with Oliver)
Tennille — TEN-ul


Tugalo — TWO-ga-low
Tyrone — TIE-rone
Upatoi — EWE-pa-toy
Villa Rica — Villa-RICK-uh
Vienna — Vie-E-nuh
Warthen — WUR-then
Whitemarsh — WHIT-marsh
Winder — WINE-der
Withlacoochee — Willa-COO-chee


You may have noticed that in the majority of the above, the emphasis is on the first syllable. This is a common trait in Southern speech. It has to do with expending the effort up front, so you can relax and coast to the finish of the word. Thus, North Georgia natives say “DEW-looth” and not “Du-LOOTH.”

Undoubtedly, Georgia has plenty of other place names that belong on the list. I’ll keep an ear to the ground for more.


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Visual Wordplay Redux

A while back, I posted a story entitled Visual Wordplay, about the practice of cleverly enhancing the visual attributes of words.

Included in that post were some wonderful examples from Robert Carola, who, back in the day, wrote the “Word Play” column in Playboy Magazine.

This week, I heard from a reader who ran across more of Carola’s “Word Play” words online and asked if I wanted to see them.

Is the Pope a Catholic? Here’s the new batch of words the reader sent me.







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In December 2005, after Death Valley National Park had cooled off for the year, I drove to California and spent a fascinating four days exploring the place. Memories of that trip still pop into my head from time to time. Apparently, I was impressed.

You probably know the basics about Death Valley, even if you haven’t been there: it’s the hottest, driest, lowest point in North America.

In July 1913, an all-time world record high of 134°F was recorded on the valley floor. In July of the year I was there, the temperature reached 129°F. Best to avoid Julys.

Rainfall-wise, the valley has averaged about two inches per year over the last 30 years. That’s an improvement. The historic yearly average is 1.6 inches.

Altitude-wise, the lowest point in the valley is the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level.

Death Valley got the way it is because of its unique geography; the valley is a long, narrow basin walled in by mountains. On the west side, the Panamint Range blocks storms moving in from the Pacific Ocean. The western slopes get the rainfall, and almost none reaches the valley.


Deprived of moisture, the desert air becomes steadily hotter and drier. The heated air rises, but is trapped by the mountains on both sides. It cools a bit, falls again, and compresses the air below it, heating the air further. You learned that in high school physics, right?

If you look at the daily high and low temperatures in Death Valley over the course of a year, you get an average high of 90°F and an average low of 62°F.

So, Death Valley is a hot, dry, low-lying desert. Those fundamentals, I knew. But when I finally got there, I wasn’t prepared for the diversity.

For one thing, I didn’t expect to find heavily-forested mountains that are snow-capped in winter. Telescope Peak, the tallest mountain in the Panamints, rises 11,049 feet above sea level. Badwater Basin is a mere 15 miles away.

The Park has plenty of other surprises…

A giant salt flat on the floor of the valley covers 200 square miles. The salt has accumulated over thousands of years, washed down out of the mountains by periodic floods. Because the valley is an enclosed basin, the water is trapped in temporary lakes. When they evaporate in the arid climate, another layer of salt is added to the crust.


In the surrounding mountains, countless canyons and dry washes deliver a steady supply of sand to the valley floor. Most is dispersed by the constant wind. But in a few places, sand dunes accumulate. Death Valley has five sets of dunes, the largest standing over 700 feet tall. The sprawling dune field at Mesquite Flat is conveniently located next to the Park’s main road.


Salt isn’t the only mineral buried in the valley floor. In 1881, large-scale borax mining began in Death Valley. The operation at Furnace Creek became famous for using teams of 20 mules to haul double wagons of borax 200 miles over the mountains to the nearest railroad. The site of the old Harmony Borax Works, closed since 1889, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.


One of the most incongruous sights in Death Valley is “Scotty’s Castle,” a Spanish-style mansion built in the 1920s by Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson as a vacation getaway. When construction started, Johnson’s friend Walter Scott, a free-spirited prospector of questionable repute known as “Death Valley Scotty,” told the locals that he was building the mansion himself, using proceeds from a secret gold mine. Amused, Johnson let Scott have his fun, and the name “Scotty’s Castle” stuck. The mansion was turned into a hotel for a while, and now the Park owns it.


Another odd sight: high in the Panamint Range are 10 masonry charcoal kilns, beehive-shaped and 25 feet tall. The kilns were built in 1877 by rich mining expert George Hearst (daddy of rich publisher William Randolph Hearst). The charcoal was used to fuel the smelters at Hearst’s nearby lead and silver mines. When the mines played out, the kilns were abandoned. You can go inside them, but mind the soot.


Death Valley is home to eight ghost towns, most founded by miners or outlaws between the 1870s and the 1920s. The largest of the towns is (was) Rhyolite, located just outside the Park on BLM land. Rhyolite lasted from 1905 until 1916. In its heyday, the town had over 5,000 residents, two churches, and 50 saloons.


The “Bottle House” in Rhyolite was constructed using 30,000 empty beer bottles. Except for the bottles, it’s just an ordinary building. The Bottle House was badly vandalized after Rhyolite was abandoned, but in 1925, Paramount Pictures restored the building as an investment; by then, the place was being used as a movie set.

Rhyolite Bottle House

There’s plenty more to see in Death Valley. Ubehebe Crater (pronounced YOO-bee-HEE-bee) is a volcanic crater, age uncertain, that is 600 feet deep and half a mile across. Ubehebe (a marvelous word that should be spoken with feeling) is a Shoshone word that means “big basket in the rock.”

Elsewhere, tucked away in a remote canyon, is a massive natural bridge. You are not surprised to find such a thing in this rocky, bone-dry country.

However, in another remote canyon is beautiful Darwin Falls, hidden in a fern-covered glen. Totally unexpected.

Then there is “The Racetrack,” where rocks mysteriously slide across a dry lake bed, leaving tell-tale tracks behind them. No one has seen it happen, but the speculation is that after a rain, the surface becomes slippery, and the wind is able to push the rocks slowly along.

And there is “Devil’s Hole,“ a hot water spring inside a limestone cavern, fed by a vast aquifer. The pool is known to be an indicator of seismic activity around the world. Earthquakes as far away as Japan have caused the water in Devil’s Hole to slosh like water in a bathtub.

All of the above is tourist stuff. Anyone can see it, photograph it, write about it, and plenty of people do.

But my trip to Death Valley that year had an added benefit that was private and personal and intimate.

Well, maybe someone else experienced it, but not from my vantage point. Let me explain.

The morning I left Death Valley to start the drive home, I was on the road before dawn. I left early because the motel dining room at Stovepipe Wells didn’t open for another two hours. Hungry and irritated, I drove off in hopes of finding breakfast somewhere else.

What I found was a spectacular sunrise.

I remember it vividly. I had just left the Park and was driving south through Panamint Valley, heading for the little town of Ridgecrest and civilization once again.

For miles, the road was arrow-straight. Beyond my headlights, everything was black. I knew from the absence of headlights and taillights that it was just me and the stars and the desert.

Then slowly, the predawn light began to reveal the landscape. I could make out a few mountain shapes in the distance. I could see faintly the outlines of ocotillo and saguaro cactuses. I became aware of a barely perceptible glow on the horizon, revealing where the sun would rise.

Soon, I came to a place where the highway climbed a small hill. On the right, at the top of the rise, was a large, level pullout. I coasted in and turned off the engine.

For the next 20 minutes, I sat on the hood of my car, waiting for the sunrise, enjoying the solitude, contemplating what a fortunate fellow I am.

When the sunrise came, it was glorious.

The photos I took that morning are among my all-time favorites. A 30” X 40” enlargement of this one has been on my living room wall ever since.



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Da spring has sprung,
Da grass has riz.
I wonder where da boidies is?

I hoid da boids is on da wing,
But dat, you know, is just absoid,
Because da wings is on da boid.

— “Spring in the Bronx” by “Anonymous”


I appreciate the arrival of spring more every year.

Yes, I know — the pollen is awful, and the dandelions are taking over, and those fuzzy things are falling from the oak trees. And suddenly, da grass needs mowing twice a week.

But the days are getting warmer, and I finally get to wear shorts again, and for the last month, turning on either heat or air conditioning has been a rarity.

All the things that looked dead a month ago are popping out green. That row of dinky azaleas I planted last year has popped out in color and looks amazing.

The liriope is putting out bright green shoots. The mums in the planters on my patio survived the winter and are growing again. My fruit trees made it, too.

And the dogwoods. Where I live, dogwoods dominate, and they are in glorious bloom right now.


In every patch of woods, in practically every yard on every block, the dogwood blossoms stand out dramatically — bold patches of white, dotted with occasional pink.

A few days ago, I drove over to Athens to check out a trail assigned to me at Sandy Creek Nature Center. I am a bona fide trail volunteer there. I am obliged to submit regular reports in re the trail’s condition; e.g., Nothing to report or Hey, a tree is down, get out the chainsaw.

The entire time I was on the trail and under the canopy of trees — the entire time — I could smell the sweet, delicate, delightful perfume of springtime.

The dogwood blossoms, the riot of new growth, that wonderful aroma — it was enchanting.

As for da boids, one of dem just made its nest inside my garage — for the third year in a row.

I can understand why da boids are attracted to the garage. The garage is open a good part of the day. It’s covered and protected, and, if the mama boid selects the right spot, such as on a high shelf or inside a box, secluded.

True, I have to close the garage door at times. But if a boid wants to spend the night trapped inside, well, that’s for da boid to decide.

This year, however, they went too far.


Those are my yard shoes. I use them for mowing, weeding, trimming, transplanting, and whatnot.

I keep them in the garage on a shelf (I can’t leave them on the floor because the neighborhood dogs steal them), and I guess they were irresistible to the mother boid.

Apparently, the nest in the left shoe was a trial run. Only the nest in the right shoe had been completed and was in use.

Although it pained me to do it, I removed the nest from my shoe and placed it (the nest, not the shoe) in a bush just outside the garage. To avoid contaminating the nest with human smell, I wore gloves.

I’d like to think the mama boid found her nest, but I doubt it.

I’m sorry, mama, but I need my yard shoes. Better luck next spring.


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