Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Three): Rains, Trains and Snowmobiles

I managed to swing a couple of trips into the woods on the bike this weekend, after my first accident-infested foray last week, though monsoon season has left many of my normal haunts squishy and stinky messes at this point. Still, I slogged through the mire to visit one of the cooler spots within the two-and-a-half mile radius surrounding my house: the place where trains go to die in the woods. I also sought out, and found, an old friend (well, if you can consider the carcass of a snowmobile to be a friend, anyway), and I checked up on Indie Albany headquarters to see if it’s still sinking into the flotsam that washes up around it. (Answer: yes, it is). Finally, I went to get an updated photo of Miss Indie Albany (our mascot, at right), and received quite a surprise when I returned to her road-side home. Oh, the drama!

As always, click on the photo below to see this week’s photos with narrative text, or click here to just get the slideshow. Trains in the Woods kick ass, just for the record.

The height of railroad luxury . . . IN MY WOODS!!!

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Exercise as Objective

On Wednesday, I finally got Trusty Steed out of his shed and made my first wheeled foray of the season into the woods. Hooray!

Soon thereafter, though, I had my first flat tire, broken spokes, and embarrassing slow-motion fall of the season. D’oh! But that was okay, as I just replaced the tube, wiped off most of the dirt and blood, pulled the dangling spokes off the rear wheel, put the bike back into the creek I was following, and kept on riding.Vroom!

Trusty Steed, down three rear spokes on Wednesday.

One of the reasons that I enjoy bike riding in the woods so much is that it forces me to concentrate completely on what I’m doing at all times, lest I end up poleaxed by a branch, or ass-over-elbows-over-handlebars down a scree, or flayed by brambles and stickers as I roar through a bush, not realizing that it is armed and dangerous. I am getting great exercise, while focusing on nothing beyond the act of exercise and how it fits within the dangerous (but beautiful, in its own way) environment around me.

Compare and contrast this to the ways that most of us exercise when we are at the gym, where we use books, magazines, iPods and televisions to distract us from the act of exercise and the environment around us. We recognize that exercise is important, but we partake of it in such less-than-optimal surroundings that it only becomes tolerable if we are able to project ourselves, at least mentally, into other, more pleasant spaces.

I’m always particularly aware of this dichotomy around this time of year, after six months of heavy gym work through the winter and mud seasons. Biking (or hiking) in the woods feels liberating, and I don’t have to distract myself from the drudgery of maintaining cardiovascular health.

Golf is similarly good for me at this time of year, even though I am as bad at that game as I am good at Creek Riding. But no matter how poorly I play, what’s not to like about a sport where I ride around in a little cart with an attractive blond lady wearing cute outfits, while drinking beer and hitting things with sticks? That’s like 14-year-old boy heaven, right?

As with all things, though, these feelings will eventually succumb to the cycles of the seasons. Come November, after a month’s worth of golfing under cold, gray skies, or a few weeks’ worth of slogging through wet, fallen leaves in the middle of a brown and barren wood, I’ll actually reach a point where I will enjoy putting the iPod back on and picking up the Kindle and hitting the indoor track, or the weight machines, or the elliptical, or the heavy bag, as the spirit moves me.

It will be warm and dry, and I’ll be able to work up a good sweat while things freeze outside, and I’ll be able to turn off my brain and not worry about hitting trees or slicing balls, and that will be enough . . . for awhile.

Academia (After the Apocalypse)

My office is located near the heart of the University’s at Albany’s Uptown Campus, a formidable, formal architectural edifice designed by the great Edward Durell Stone. The Uptown Campus is an awesomely scaled, integrated, fully actualized feat of architectural vision, and as such, tends to inspire strong love or hate reactions from those who visit, live, teach, work or study in it.

From a professional standpoint, this campus is challenging to me and my staff, as it is often very difficult to create the sorts of soft, comfortable, community-oriented dining and shopping spaces that we might desire within the austere and regimented order of Stone’s concrete and glass vision. But on a personal basis, I’ve grown quite fond of the Uptown Campus over the years, and I explore it with the same sorts of curiosity that I bring to my suburban woods explorations, never letting a nagging “I wonder where that trail (or corridor) goes” question go unresolved for very long.

As my woods explorations have been largely curtailed of late by this year’s perpetual monsoon, I have spent more time than usual walking the decks of (and tunnels beneath) the Uptown Campus. During the summertime, when most of the faculty and students are not here, such ambles about become somewhat surreal, as the vastness of Stone’s vision, without other human beings to give it scale, evokes some great, fallen city-state of the future, rendered sterile by an apocalyptic agent, with me as the final observer of its slow and crumbling return to the rocks and soil from which it was cast.

I can’t always decide whether I’m a zombie vampire or a time traveler or a doomed astronaut in this scenario, but under the low gray skies of spring this year, that sense of weird isolation becomes ever more palpable to me when I’m out and about. For those who aren’t on campus now, or for those who have never seen the University at Albany, here are some representative shots from recent walkabouts . . .

The Hall of the Mountain Grill

World of Tiers

Electric Tepee

Silver Machines

The Iron Dream

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25 Years Ago Today

May 21, 1986 ranks right up there with June 24, 1989 (my wedding day) and March 8, 1991 (the birthday of my only child) in the pantheon of my most memorable dates. It was all the more remarkable to me at the time, since during my entire four years at the Naval Academy, it was never anywhere near certain, or even probable at some points, that I would actually manage to graduate and receive my commission. My persnickety anti-authoritarian tendencies and numerous bad habits made me something less than the ideal midshipman, shall we say.

But, surprise surprise, that amazing day came, and that amazing day went, and I’ve got a photo and a diploma and a commission to prove that it happened, though the experience still seems surreal to me, a quarter-century later.

As it turns out, I’ve spent a good chunk of my post-Naval Academy time serving in a variety of class leadership positions, including Class President for five years, and I’m currently the reunion coordinator for our 25th anniversary homecoming in October. Just goes to show that you can’t judge an old book by its early edition covers.

On the 25th anniversary of our graduation and commissioning into the armed services, I also pause to honor the 26 members of our class who are no longer with us, including one of my plebe year room-mates, one of the 9/11 victims in the Pentagon, and one of the casualties in the war in Iraq that followed. I salute them and the others for their service, and extend all affection and respect to their families. They are missed and remembered.

Having been involved in class communications for so many years, it’s been a delight to see the ways that my brothers and sisters in the class of ’86 have made their marks over the years, in the armed services, in the corporate world, in the nonprofit sector, in their home communities, in government and beyond. We have Admirals and Generals among our ranks, along with CEOs, ministers, doctors, elected officials, pilots, entrepreneurs, lawyers, financial managers, writers and representatives in dozens and dozens of other fields of professional and volunteer endeavor.

While I was pretty surly for most of my four years in Annapolis, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that there’s no other institution that could have had the long-term positive impact on my life that the Naval Academy did, and the personal bonds forged there are still strong and vibrant and important, all these years later.

It’s been an incredible quarter century for us, I think. Here’s looking forward to the next one.

On Socialized Education

In such economically tough and politically charged times as these, imagine the hue and cry that would erupt if the Federal government enacted a program where every tax-paying citizen in the land was levied a fee, so that a very small number of young people could receive a 100% free education at one of the Nation’s most elite colleges, including tuition, room, board, healthcare costs and a clothing allowance. The taxpayers would have no direct say in who received such an educational opportunity, with that decision being left instead to incumbent members of Congress and unelected representatives of several Executive agencies, each of whom would receive an annual number of chits to dispense as they wished to students they found worthy. Some of the chits might be used to send underprivileged young people to the free college, perhaps using racial quotas to create an ethnically diverse student body. Other chits might be used to reward the children of high-powered campaign donors.

Now, let’s take this scenario even further into the realm of the politically offensive. Imagine if, upon graduating from this hypothetical elite college, the selected few students would be guaranteed immediate employment via appointments to management positions within large, national organizations, supervising men and women who may be twice or three times their age, and who have spent their entire professional careers within their organization. The chosen ones would have their salaries, room, board and healthcare costs paid and guaranteed for a minimum of five years, all on the taxpayers’ dime, because the Government would declare it to be in the best interest of everyone in the Nation to have these selected few elites educated and employed at Federal expense. And if these entitled few managed to perform even adequately in their taxpayer subsidized jobs, they could continue to rise up the management ladder for twenty years, at which point they would be able to retire with full pensions and lifetime healthcare benefits, all on the Government’s tab, happily living off other taxpayers’ sweat equity for the remaining 40 or so years of their naturally forecasted lifespans.

Would you consider that to be a “socialized” education and job-subsidy program of the most heinous variety? Would it make your hackles rise to ponder such an unjust reallocation of the taxpayers’ hard-earned incomes to support such a parasitic elite? Would you curse the government that dreamed up such an entitlement program? Would you support candidates who would pledge to rescind such programs as soon as they were elected?

This is more than an academic question to me, since the hypothetical scenario described above is actually exactly how I received my own college education at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis a quarter-century ago. It’s the model under which Navy, West Point and the Air Force Academy operated long before I entered the service, and continue to operate all these years since I left it. And I don’t consider that to be “socialism” in the way that word is widely bandied about today. I see it, instead, as a function of policy decisions made by our duly elected officials, under the rule of law, to consider the education of the Nation’s military officer corps to be of benefit to the Nation as a whole, and a recognition that it could not effectively be paid for individually by all of its participants.

I trained in airplanes, submarines, tanks, helicopters and surface ships during my time at Annapolis. I couldn’t have afforded any of them without taxpayer subsidy, nor could anybody else. If the Nation benefited from me (and others) having the chance to undergo that training, then the citizens of the Nation can and should reasonably be expected to pay for it, one way or the other. That’s not “socialism” to me. That’s a tangible manifestation of the basic social contract that is required when we, as a people, assent to have an organized government lead us under the rule of law. In order to consent to be governed as a group, we must cede some individual rights and resources to the government, or else we really have no government, and are, instead, merely a collection of individuals who happen to live together, lawlessly, in the same geographic space. In such circumstances, might generally makes right, and the weak suffer and perish. View any number of failed states around the world today (e.g. Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, etc.) for a demonstration of where that approach gets you.

Much of the burning political debate today hinges on how far the social contract that binds us should extend. Let’s consider hot-button item number one: healthcare. In the same way that I couldn’t afford my own airplanes and ships, most citizens in the United States today also couldn’t afford their own dialysis machines, electroencephalograms, heart-lung machines, prosthetic limbs or magnetic resonance imaging machines. The questions before us, ultimately, are whether the taxpayers who don’t need such equipment, and the physical and human infrastructure that supports it, have an obligation to contribute to those costs as part of the Nation’s social contract, and, if they do, in what way should those costs be collected and allocated? Those are tough questions, sure, but they are answerable through open-minded debate, discussion and dialog, and with a reasonable recognition that the answers achieved will not please all of the Nation’s citizens.

So injecting the fraught word “socialism” over and over again in the midst of such dialog isn’t really helpful, ultimately, just as claiming an infallible position based on spurious research isn’t helpful, and dismissing people who disagree with you as having “drunk the Kool Aid” isn’t helpful. As I have written before, for my own small part, and in my own small way, I would encourage people to embrace our better angels as we wrestle through such divisive times as these, and seek conversation over confrontation, and reasoned language over inflammatory sloganeering and veiled insults.

That’s an approach I learned as a result of my “socialized” education. Thank you all for paying for it.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Two): Creeks, Gorges, Towers

When I was a little kid, in the days before GPS and Google Earth and Mapquest and the like, if I found a creek in the woods, and I wanted to know where it came from, or where it went, I had no choice but to follow its course as far as I could, upstream and down, to see what I might find. No matter where the creek led, or what I found when I got there, the trek itself was reward enough, and I have always regarded Creek Walking as one of my favorite summer pastimes. (Marcia will attest to the fact that it’s dangerous to take an unplanned hike with me, since I’m more apt to lead us on a muddy off-trail “adventure” than I am to enjoy a pleasant stroll down a well-manicured trail).

I can remember Creek Walking from my earliest years with my father, racing sticks down Rock Creek in Albemarle, North Carolina or the streams that cut through Naval Ammunition Depot Earle, New Jersey, winding between that military base’s seemingly endless lines of explosive-packed bunkers. When we moved to Dale City and then Lake Ridge, Virginia, I was of an age where I could organize expeditions on my own, and I remember many great days spent carrying canteens and rations into the woods to follow creeks as far as we could get, while still making it home for dinner on time.

When I moved to Latham in the early ’90s, one of the first things that drew me into the woods here was the profusion of visible creeks within a couple of miles of my house. I suspect that most folks never notice these creeks, but I’m highly attuned to culverts under roadways, and marshy roadside basins that must drain somewhere, and I saw plenty of things that intrigued me as I drove or walked or biked the highways and byways around my neighborhood.

Once I actually started following the creeks, I found things that exceeded my wildest woodland expectations, as there’s a stunning series of beautiful, deep, winding gorges between Latham and Watervliet that offer reward after reward as you work your way downstream toward the Hudson. Some of those rewards are natural, and some of them of man-made, with one of the most prominent of the latter category being the drainage tower, in the middle of a deep woods flood-control basin.

I did a Creek Walk this weekend, including a visit to the tower. I was stunned to see how much it appeared to have shrunk since the last time I was down there, as bits of flotsam and jetsam have washed down the gorges and piled up ever higher around its base. See for yourself:

Watervliet woods drainage basis tower, 2005.

Same Tower, 2011, eight feet shorter, at least.

It took me about three hours to travel maybe three miles, as the crow flies, though I suspect I actually walked closer to six miles with all of the meandering. Some of that time was spent walking on the creek banks, but much of it was spent actually walking in the creek itself. I also had to do several scrambles on all fours up a variety of scary screes and slopes, bits of slate and shale crumbling beneath me as I climbed. There were spots in the gorges where I suspect that had misfortune fallen upon me, it would have been a long, long time before anybody found my remains, unless a heavy rain carried them down into the drainage basin around the Tower. The sense of isolation is always awesome in those areas, even though I was never more than maybe half a mile from the developed areas around me.

That’s the best part about the woods: you can lose yourself in them, in both the scary and the wonderful senses of that phrase.

Here’s the photo documentary of this weekend’s walk, including creeks, gorges, towers and a woodtruck. Click on the photo below to get the version with the accompanying narrative text, or click here just to see the slideshow.

How much wood would a woodtruck truck if a woodtruck could truck wood?

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.