Concord, Mass., to Westborough, Mass.

Carol had some business that kept her out until almost midnight, so we got a late start this morning. It was a perfect New England morning: warm but not hot, a pleasant breeze, blue skies. We decided to take a walk at Walden Pond before we took care of a few last things at Dad’s condo. So we drove to Walden Pond.

The parking lot was almost full when we arrived. Everyone else was headed towards Walden Pond, but I convinced Carol to walk towards Goose Pond first. We went down the bluff to where the pond should be, but instead of water we found a grassy plain; Goose Pond was completely dry. Dying water lilies, still touched with green here and there, in the two low points of the pond bed showed that there had been water not too long ago. Killdeer called from the grass in the pond bed, and a Red-tailed Hawk screamed overhead. We picked a few huckleberries, but they were seedy and dry. “They haven’t had enough rain,” Carol said.


Above: A trail around Goose Pond; you can see the open grass in the bright sunlight beyond the trees.

After an hour or so, we headed to Walden Pond. Carol stopped to talk to a J., a park employee with a Ph.D. in biology who had studied the invertebrates of Massachusetts beaches. Now she’s a park interpreter who not only knows a lot about biology, but also is well-read in the secondary literature of Thoreau. Carol wanted to know how the wastewater from the new visitor’s center, currently under construction, would be handled. J. told us that it would be pumped over to the site of the former trailer park, because a study found that groundwater from the trailer park site did not flow into Walden Pond. I found the research online: John A. Coman and Paul J. Friesz, “Geohydrology and Limnology of Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts” (U.S. Geodetic Survey, c. 1999). Skimming over this paper, I learned that:

“…Walden Pond is a flow-through lake. Ground water flows into Walden Pond along the eastern perimeter and lake water flows into the aquifer along the western perimeter. The Walden Pond contributing area includes Goose Pond, also a flow-through pond, and its ground-water contributing area. Approximately 6 percent of the inflow [into Walden Pond] from ground water is derived from Goose Pond. Lake-derived ground water from Walden Pond discharges into the Sudbury and Concord Rivers or to wetlands and streams draining into these rivers.” (p. 55)

Given the state of Goose Pond, it was not surprising that when we got down to Walden Pond, the water level there was quite low. Last time I was at the pond, the water was high enough that there were places where it was difficult to walk along the water’s edge, because the water came right up to the bushes. Today there were sandy beaches at least twenty feet wide all around the pond.

Walden Pond is not an isolated place, and there were swimmers and sunbathers dotted all around the perimeter of the pond. I used to walk around Walden in the fall and spring, so it seemed to me as though there were lots of people at the pond today, but Carol thought it seemed empty. From a historical perspective, Carol was closer to the truth than I: “The Concord Herald newspaper reported on September 5, 1935, that summer Sunday afternoon crowds reached 25,000 at Walden Pond and that total summer attendance was 485,000” (Colman and Friesz, p. 52). And really, all I had to do was think back to when I was a child, when the town of Concord offered swimming lessons at Walden; I remember hordes of children walking down the bluff from the school buses. By the standards of the past, there weren’t many people at Walden Pond this morning.


We walked around the pond. Once we got away from the sandy shores of the pond, we saw far fewer people: a woman showing two children the site of Henry Thoreau’s cabin; a runner who was too obviously pleased with the condition of his body; an man with wild gray hair, a wide-eyed expression, and a walking stick (I thought to myself, perhaps unfairly: he must be a Thoreau fan); and two women off in the distance wearing brightly-colored knee-length dresses. The rest of the people were in or within thirty feet of the water.

We left Walden Pond, took care of one or two things at the condo, and drove to Westborough, the first leg of our drive home.

Concord, Mass.

My sisters and I, and Carol too, have gotten tired of cleaning out Dad’s condo. We’re almost done, but this morning there were still a few things that needed to be done. My younger sister has the flu, and Carol had to drive down to visit her storeroom on Cape Cod. My older sister and I worked for a while, and then we decided to rent a canoe and spend an hour or so on the river.

It was a picture-perfect day, with blue skies and puffy white clouds, and everything looking fresh and green after yesterday’s rain. Both of us had our cameras along, and we stopped every now and then to take photographs. “This is just what Dad would have done,” we said to each other; Dad loved cameras, and he photographed everything.


I brought along Dad’s favorite fishing rod, and the one of his tackle boxes that I kept. My older sister taunted me, saying I was a fish torturer, until I reminded her that the last time she and I went canoeing on the river, which was probably ten years ago, she caught more fish than I did. And I found out why this was Dad’s favorite rod; it was easy to cast with, a pleasure to use.


But it was the middle of the day, the worst time of the day to go fishing. Once, when we were gliding under a bridge, a little sunfish tugged at the line, but I helped it throw the hook and it quickly swam away. My sister and I agreed that this was something Dad would have approved of; sometimes he went fishing to catch fish, and sometimes he went fishing just to go fishing.

After an hour, we ended the Dad Memorial Fishing and Photography Expedition, wishing our younger sister could have been with us. We went back to work on the condo, and before we knew it we had done everything that we could do.

The condo will go on the market this week.

West Concord, Mass.

I was working away at the little things that need to be done before we sell dad’s condo, when Carol said something about a Great Blue Heron sitting near the Assabet River. I stopped what I was doing and looked out the window, and sure enough, there it was. Carol said that it had been sitting there for a long time. I got my camera to take a photograph, while saying my photo wouldn’t be much good because you’d need a powerful zoom lens to make the heron appear as anything more than a little speck. Take it anyway, Carol said, you can always give it to the realtor to show what the view is like from the condo.

Assabet River, West Concord, Mass.

Washington, D.C., to West Concord, Mass.

Sometimes, when you’re driving along one of the highways of the Washington-to-Boston megalopolis, you look around and it feels like there’s nothing there but paved highways.


Obviously there’s more to the Great American Megalopolis than highways. On this trip, just a few minutes from the highway, I saw the well-loved green chair and ottoman in a porch where Russell sat next to L.E.W. Smith’s Twelve Poems Reconsidered and looked out at the birds in his garden. Also just a few minutes from the highway, I saw the small garden at E’s house where she picked a squash which she cubed and cooked and mixed with pasta and ricotta cheese.

As we drove along, I thought about the welded steel sculptures made by David Smith that I had seen at the National Gallery. Eight foot high circles on bases that look like feet, with appendages welded on that look like arms, these painted sculptures feel like they’re almost animate, as if they’re going to move at any moment, like some kind of large fanciful animals.

David Smith sculptures, East Wing, National Gallery, US

Actually, maybe they’re more like representations of mid-twentieth century North American deities. Maybe highway signs, also made of brightly painted metal, are close cousins to these sculptures, pragmatic deities that are also akin to ancient Greek cairns in which the god Hermes hid to guide passers-by. Maybe this was what Frank Stella was getting at in his book Working Space. This became a confused train of thought, and I know I dozed off because when Carol said, “Should we stop here for lunch?” I snapped awake.

After lunch, Carol wanted me to read aloud. I finished a book that she had been reading aloud the last time we were driving, The Egyptian News by Scott Steedman, a children’s book with ancient Egyptian “news stories” like an investigative report into Tutankahmen’s death (“Boy King Murdered?”) and an interview with an embalmer. At a rest stop, we bought a copy of the New York Times, and I read aloud the front page news, and several other articles including the very entertaining story about Donald Trump explaining to a crowd how the graphic accompanying his social media post against Hillary Clinton was not anti-Semitic, and how he was mad at his staff for removing it from the Web. I read some chapters from the novel we’ve been reading aloud off and on during this whole trip. My voice finally gave out about thirty minutes before we arrived in West Concord, Massachusetts.

Alexandria, Va., to Washington, D.C.

We left Alexandria and drove up to Washington, D.C., in time to have lunch with my old friend Rabbi Michael and his wife Lawyer Julie.

Michael and I hadn’t seen each other in almost a decade, and now his children are no longer children; two of them are older than I was when I met Michael. I was in the first few weeks of college, feeling a little bit adrift, when the fellow in front of me in the dinner line started talking to me about science fiction. Next thing I knew, he got me to go to Washington, D.C., to participate in a political rally in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) on the law of the Capitol building. That was my first trip to Washington, as well as the furthest south and the furthest west I’d ever been in my life. I guess it is not entirely surprising that two geeky, politically committed teenagers wound up as middle-aged progressive clergy committed to peace and social justice.

Capitol Hill Books

After lunch, Carol and I wandered over to the Capitol Hill Bookstore, a maze of books on shelves and books in stacks on the floor. The woman sitting at the front desk was listening to audio of the Congressional hearings on gun control. After dinner, my friend E took us over to East City Bookshop, a new bookstore near Capitol Hill. E pointed out the substantial number of books on politics and political figures, and said something to the effect that you’re just going to find more politics in a D.C. bookstore.

Carol and I went for a walk this morning while it was still relatively cool (that is, under ninety degrees). We came across this “Little Library” — not an official Little Free Library, or at least it is not listed on the official Web site — which Carol wanted to examine more closely because it has a green roof.

Little Library with green roof

We walked as far as the Capitol building, where a political rally was in progress. About 75 people in bright orange t-shirts stood on the rear steps of the Capitol building in the hot sun. Perhaps a hundred people stood directly in front of them in the hot sun, and another couple of hundred stood further back in the shade. We could hear the amplified voice of a woman telling about how her son was permanently disabled by stray gunfire. Several of the people in the shade held signs that said “Disarm Hate.”

I am glad that we still have the right to freely assemble in the United States — more or less, with significant restrictions on public assemblies, and generally with a significant police presence. But I’ve changed my mind about protest politics since the days I protested on the lawn of the Capitol building for the Equal Rights Amendment; protest politics is easier and more exciting than face-to-face door-to-door political organizing, but I now believe protest politics simply polarizes opposition while it’s the face-to-face one-on-one conversations that actually work best.

Gun control rally, Capitol, DC

From a pragmatic standpoint, I suppose protest politics might work, a little, if you can get some media coverage. Carol and I saw several young protestors, dressed in bright pink shirts and signs, talking with a television news cameraman; their signs read “Ban Assault Weapons Now.” Perhaps they will get a five-second slot on the evening TV news. Perhaps someone will watch that five seconds on TV, and change their mind about gun control. But I doubt it….

Gun control rally, Capitol, DC

Marion, Va., to Alexandria, Va.

Carol found us a hotel in Marion, Virginia, of a better quality than we have been staying at: this hotel provided breakfast; and the breakfast was not just microwaved eggs (“eggs-in-a-bag”) and cold cereal and stale bagels, it was eggs and waffles cooked for you by a pleasant young woman in a small restaurant open to the public. This is high luxury for us, so we settled in to enjoy it.

At the table next to ours sat a man and woman who were somewhat older than us. She was one of those forthright Southern women in upper middle age who are polite and unafraid to say what they think about the world. These women remind me of my mother, for there is a type of New England woman who become equally forthright in upper middle age, with much the same polite-but-firm manner.

When I got to breakfast, she and Carol were having a lively conversation about fracking, while the woman’s husband sat between them, mostly listening. This forthright Southern woman did not like fracking. What you learn in Real Estate 101, she said, is that you own your property, but these fracking companies can come in and do what they want on your property and there’s nothing you can do about it. Carol said that out where we live, some counties were organizing to ban fracking, but our new friend told us that in many eastern states, the state government has said that counties and municipalities cannot ban fracking. She said she had been taught that ours is a government of the people and by the people, but not when it comes to fracking. She was funny and articulate, and clearly very angry. The companies that engage in fracking, and the elected representatives that kowtow to those companies, had better watch out: it is not wise to anger women like this. They may appear to be polite older ladies, but they do not forget, they do not forgive, and they do not give up.

Most of the rest of the day involved driving in the rain, with too many cars on the road, and too many drivers who had abandoned all common sense once it started to rain. The less said about this part of the day the better.

It was raining when we arrived in Aleaxandria, Virginia, where we are staying with an old friend of Carol’s, someone she knew in college, and his wife. He is a principled and very knowledgeable Republican who used to work for the Congressional Quarterly, and I always enjoy look forward to hearing his views on politics. But none of us wanted to talk about politics very much. None of us like Donald Trump very much though we all agree that he speaks some truths, particularly about the effects of globalization and free trade agreements on average workers. And none of us felt that Hillary Clinton is particularly trustworthy, though aside from that she might make a capable administrator.

We went out to dinner, and on the drive back we saw the fireworks display through the rain and mist. Our host remarked that today is the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Only ten years to the 250th….

Asheville, N.C., to Marion, Va.

After driving through the wide open spaces of the West, and the back roads of the South, Asheville felt like a big city. What felt like hordes of people strolled the sidewalks of the downtown this morning: young white guys with blonde dreadlocks, young white women in tank tops with elaborate tattoos on their muscular arms, trim gray-haired men (both white and black) in pastel-colored polyester-cotton blend polo shirts, three generations of a South Asian family with two little boys running around and getting into mischief, a young white guy with a long beard wearing schlubby shorts talking to a nattily dressed young black man with a guitar over his shoulder, two aging white hippies solemnly singing protest songs outside a bookstore, two young people sitting on the curb singing ecstatically at the tops of their lungs while one of them whanged at a guitar, a white mom talking with adult respect to her teenaged mixed-race daughters, a man who looked like he lived on the street sitting on a low wall and staring intently at something across the street, a small group of slightly overweight white guys in plaid shirts, two well-dressed attractive young women, one white and one black, laughing and talking to each other and ignoring young men, a family sitting in a restaurant all of whom shared the same face: blank and almost sullen in repose but as soon as they started talking animated and lit from within with humor and warmth. I heard plenty of Southern drawls, but also New York accents, midwestern accents, Appalachian twang, and more. I think I encountered more diversity of race and socio-economic status in one hour than we’ve encountered since we left the Bay Area. It left me feeling a little breathless.

Carol went off to Weaverville to meet with her co-author. I walked over to see the Thomas Wolfe Memorial: a wood framed clapboarded house, immaculately maintained with bright yellow paint and tasteful signage, on a tiny lot, surrounded by high rise apartment buildings on two sides, and a modern interpretation center behind it: the epitome of Asheville, I thought, the museumification of the past and the gentrification and corporatization of the present. At least in Asheville they museumify the past; in Silicon Valley, they forget the past in the hunger for the ideal future that everyone is betting is just around the corner. I took several photos of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, but it was closed so I didn’t go in.

Thomas Wolfe Memorial

I walked a little further and there was the Buncombe County Court House, an imposing building some fifteen or more stories high. Judging by the size of the courthouse, Buncombe County must be a county of some importance.

Buncombe County Courthouse

I wanted to do some writing and research today, so I kept walking until I found a cafe with wifi. There are lots of cafes in Asheville; the city is full of Cultural Creatives, and Cultural Creatives like their cafes. I walked past a number cafes in the busy downtown, but some of them didn’t have wifi, two were devoted to chocolate and so could not be taken seriously, and some of them didn’t have any open tables. Finally I cam to the Pennycup Cafe, which had open tables, fast free wifi, and really good coffee. I spent three blissful hours writing until it was time for Carol to pick me up.

Pennycup Coffee, Asheville

We drove north towards Marion, Virginia. Carol pulled over into a rest area to use the bathroom. I put on my shoes and stumbled out of the car, tired and a little cranky, following her towards the bathrooms. Right in front of the bathrooms, she was engaged in animated conversation with a talkative woman in a bright blue shirt. The woman asked me if I were a college professor, and I said no, just a youth pastor. She walked around me, noticed the ponytail, nodded (doesn’t every male youth pastor have either a pony tail or a beard?), then told us all about how she was excited because God had led her to a house up in West Virginia which she and her husband had just bought, after thinking they would stay living where they were now forever. Then she dived into a discussion of religion. Her nephew was a youth pastor, and did I know so-and-so on something-or-other radio? And when I said I did not, she said, How could I be a youth pastor and not know about so-and-so? (I didn’t tell her that after twenty years in the business I don’t waste time on high-profile self-proclaimed experts on youth ministry, unless they are actually directly engaged in face-to-face youth ministry themselves right now, which none of the high-profile ones are.) Carol had to explain that I was a Unitarian Universalist; no, not a Moonie, a Unitarian; then I had to explain what that was; she seemed to approve of the idea of universal salvation.

I really did have to go to the bathroom, and when I came out, she was still talking to Carol, in her sweet Southern mountains accent. She and Carol were talking politics. Carol wanted to know who she was going to vote for; she said Ben Carson. Carol asked, What about Hillary Clinton? She said, in more politely colorful terms than I can put it here, that Hillary Clinton should be in jail. She went further and said — and in this I think she is accurate — that Donald Trump isn’t running for president. Well, he isn’t, is he? He is just putting on a big show, and we’re all enjoying it. “Ben Carson is still on the ballot in West Virginia,” she said, adamant that she will vote for him.

There was much more in the conversation than I can report here. We got in the car, and she was still talking, her husband quietly trying to get her to get back into their car so they could continue driving. As we drove off, Carol remarked that talking to her was refreshing: she had a unique way of seeing things, and of expressing herself. I agreed with Carol; but the women an the bright blue shirt left me feeling a little breathless, just as downtown Asheville had done.

Fort Payne, Ala., to Asheville, N.C.

De Soto State Park proved to be a disappointment: no water in the water falls, hikes that were hot and buggy, and loud people driving around the campground at 1:30 in the morning. We decided to leave; the park staff were nice enough to give us a refund for the second night, and we changed motel reservations so we will have only a six hour drive on July 4, instead of an 8 hour drive.

On our way out of the park, we stopped to see DeSoto Falls, which had just a trickle of water plunging down into the limestone canyon.

DeSoto Falls

An older man and woman, perhaps in their seventies, were standing next to us looking at the falls. We all agreed that it would be more impressive if there were more water. The woman was focused on taking photos of the falls, and of the swimmers in the pool far below, but the man was willing to talk. When he had been a Boy Scout, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, his troop hiked all the way up the canyon to the falls, a four- or five-day trek. Some of the adult leaders stayed on the rim of the canyon, and using ropes dropped supplies down to the troop. Carol exclaimed that that was a really good Boy Scout troop, and I said, that’s the trip of a lifetime. Yes, he said, memories that lasted his whole life.

Carol wanted to go to the Sacred Harp singing in Henegar. We drove down off Lookout Mountain, where the park is, into the valley, and then drove up Sand Mountain, where Henagar is. We found Liberty Baptist Church, and I left Carol to sing and eat lunch. She urged me to join her, but after the death of my father two months ago, and my mother’s twin sister a month ago, somehow I didn’t want to sing much of anything.

Instead, I drove around and looked at all the small roadside churches that you find in that part of Alabama. In less than an hour, I drove past a dozen churches — Several different varieties of Baptist, Methodist, Holiness, and a couple that I couldn’t tell what kind of church they were from the name. I lived most of my life in New England, where the churches are most often in town centers or villages. But in this part of the world, most of the churches are out in the middle of nowhere, sometimes at crossroads and sometimes just along an empty stretch of road. I stopped to admire the Happy Home Missionary Baptist Church, a neat and tidy brick building at the intersection of U.S. Highway 40 and County Road 162 in Jackson County. One of the signs out front read: LIFE IS FRAGILE HANDLE WITH PRAYER, and a smaller sign read: Celebrate Recovery Mondays at 7:30 PM.

Happy Home Missionary Baptist Church

If you’re a tourist, you’re supposed to admire the old, weathered, broken-down and picturesque church buildings that are no longer used as churches, like Dean’s Chapel down the road from Happy Home Church; I admit to being a bad tourist, because I passed Dean’s Chapel by, spending my time looking at Happy Home Church and imagining how it is used and who keeps it so neat and who drives the two twelve-person vans in the parking lot.

When we got into North Carolina, the scenery grew more dramatic, to the point of being awe-inspiring. Mountains do that: they inspire awe. Mountains in western North America are twice as high, and much craggier, but the Appalachians inspire just as much awe, and maybe even more. To think that huge glaciers ground over the tops of these mountains during the last Ice Age! And the trees that clothe their sides, and the narrow winding roads that adorn them, give you a sense of how big they are in relation to humans, and the blue haze of the humid eastern atmosphere gives a sense of distance, and you get a visceral sense of just how much bigger these things are than puny human beings.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: We were winding along the interstate highway through the foothills of the Appalachians, and I was reading aloud to Carol — Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a sardonic satire of Western cultural imperialism unfortunately marred by unconscious racism — when she suddenly exclaimed, “An ostrich!” Two ostriches rode in a makeshift ostrich-hauling trailer. The trailer lurched and swayed, and the ostriches looked very uncomfortable, shuffling about trying to keep their balance. As we passed the trailer, I could see a baleful, worried eye looking out over the side of the trailer towards the mountains.

Ostrich in trailer on I-40

We stopped to eat dinner at a Thai restaurant just off the interstate in Knoxville. The evening was pleasantly warm, so we asked to sit outdoors to eat. There wasn’t much of a view: a scraggly tree, some rooftops going down the hill in front of us, a huge parking lot off to the left. I heard something that sounded like a huge crow with asthma, and Carol pointed and said, “Look!” A Great Blue Heron flew low over the rooftops in front of us, making its croaking call, flying over the parking lot to the left and into the distance. What was a heron doing here? Carol wanted to know. I hemmed and hawed and said, Well there’s a river that flows through town, maybe it was flying to or from the river; but a primitive part of me thought it was an augury, a good omen.