A Different Perspective From A Little Old Instrument  

Like many other musicians I know, I have a random collection of instruments I really don’t play. This includes a host of small percussion instruments, shakers, clickers, hand drums, a few kalimbas, a xylophone, a “can-jo” and some electronic music-making devices. Some of these I have purchased, but a great number have been given to me, including an old banjolele and a Loar mandolin.

The banjolele is a U-King, and was probably made in the 1920s or 30s'. It came complete with a heart, some names and the notes of the strings written on the calfskin head. For many years the banjolele hung on the wall or sat in the corner as a conversation piece, until one day I got the notion that I should string it up. Using a short wooden pencil as a bridge and some random (approximately gauged) guitar strings I did just that. I was surprised at how loud the little instrument was and decided that I would take it to a repair shop and have it properly reconditioned.

After a nominal investment, I was entertaining myself sitting around the house flailing away on this thing.

Now as I understand, these instruments were supposed to be vigorously strummed, but that was not the sound that was enchanting me. I was developing an approach that was sort of a hybrid between cross-picking and frailing. Cross-picking is how I play many songs on the guitar and involves using a combination of a flat pick and fingerpicking. Frailing is an old-style banjo technique often used in traditional or traditional-sounding songs. And that was the sound I was going for.

I was thinking about my song, Drake Hollow, and how I wanted it to sound. The story is set pre-Civil War so I wanted an “old-timey” vibe and playing the banjolele with this approach seemed to fit the bill. Before long, and after an upgrade from the original tuners, as the original ones just wouldn’t hold tune, I was experimenting with a number of my other songs.

When Bill Lestock had recorded the New Little Willie Blues, I had invited Mark Olitsky to the session to play old-style banjo, and Mark brought a wonderful musical lick to the song that was just perfect. It didn’t change the character of the piece, but added an authenticity that I didn’t even realize was missing. Mark, by the way, is a renowned old-style banjo player, and I was delighted he could participate in that project.

The story of The New Little Willie Blues, like Drake Hollow, takes place in a bygone era, and I am often looking for a musical technique or approach that helps illuminate that point. I loved what Mark was doing, but it never occurred to me to try to replicate that lick on the guitar, until I was playing around with the banjolele.

After some experimentation, I found that I was replicating, in a simple way, Mr. Olitsky’s banjo part, and feeling pretty good about it. But, as you might suspect, these little instruments have unique tunings, and while I was doing this musical passage correctly, it was in a different key.

One morning as I was practicing, I started singing along and discovered that, in this key, with this little instrument, the song changed once again.  I was motivated to work up a comparable arrangement on the guitar in the banjolele key.

This whole experience reminded me how important it can be to occasionally take the time to look at a situation from a different perspective. Even when things are good, a different view or approach can occasionally lead to a greater understanding, a fresh approach a source of motivation, or maybe just a little joy.

I am glad I got her back into playing shape.  

A Small Salute To Black History Month  

If you have heard me perform “Drake Hollow”, you have probably heard me share the story of how I wrote the song. At the risk of redundancy, let me chronicle that story here as well. 

We happen to live in a very special place. Our house is located alongside a creek that for a hundred years or so, was utilized to supply power to a number of mills. I won’t delve deeply into the remarkable history of the valley in this essay. Right across the creek from our house, there used to be a structure that was originally constructed as a boarding house for the mill workers. Ultimately, it was converted into a residence by Hawley Drake. 

Mr. Drake was an interesting character and a known abolitionist. He offered his residence as a safe house/stopping point for the Underground Railroad. The various Under Ground Railroad routes often follow waterways through Ohio and such was the case here in the valley where I live.

Although there have been 10 or more new houses built on the road since we moved here in 1999, there is still enough open space to sense the connection to the history of the valley. 

A few years back, I was taking an early morning walk and as the dawn was breaking, a fog was hanging over the creek. I stopped on the bridge and looked up the stream. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to slip away under the cover of darkness to begin an overland journey from the Deep South to Canada. 

In a matter of minutes, all of the elements of the song came to me. 

As the song began to evolve, I hoped to someday share it during Black History Month, and I finally made that happen this week. 

A studio version will be on my upcoming record, but I posted the version on YouTube that was recorded at Silver Maple House Concerts in November. 2023 .
 

https://youtu.be/9wRLRiho4nY?
 

I hope you enjoy it

 

A look upstream

Walking Toward The End Of A Project 

A Way To Listen

Most of my recent walking has been occurring on an indoor track this winter. I don't mind, but that setting falls a little short on providing inspiring writing themes. That being said, I find that this type of structured walking provides a perfect opportunity for a very focused listening experience. I often jokingly tell people that I have the attention span of a gnat because  I am easily distracted  

I try to walk three days a week, and as I am working on my fourth solo record, my walking days have provided ample time to review, then review, and re-review arrangements, the final mixes, and the sequence of the songs included in this project.  This requires a great deal of focused, un interrupted listening.

I guess I am a little old school but the song sequence on an album is a really big deal to me. Maybe I grew up in the heyday of the recorded album, when an LP would be put on, played continuously from one song to the next, and often flipped to side two and played from beginning to end. I came to appreciate a good album that would provide a listening experience that flowed from song to song. This flow was  product of the musical key, tempo, and the general feel and continuity of each song from one to the next.. 

In my mind, song selection and song sequence have a great deal to do with how a recording project fits together. The chapters in a novel are a good analogy. A chapter from a book might be able to stand alone as a story, but in totality the collection, and proper sequence of the chapters are essential to create a much greater, comprehensive story. . 

In today's world of digital streaming, the concept of an album has greatly suffered. Since the beginning of recorded music, singles have always dominated the market, and for several decades the 45 RPM record was king, providing a convenient medium for DJs and jukeboxes to play, and for school kids to buy one at a time. But for several decades beginning in the late 60s' albums were a predominate way for many people to enjoy music. In my book, an album has always been the ultimate listening experience. 

I always feel like I get a more personal connection with the artist, and in some instances, the recording engineers and producers when listening to an album.

On today's streaming platforms algorithms automatically group single songs, from multiple artists, based on similarities in listener demographics and preferences. It is very hard for an independent artist to get placement on an algorithm-driven playlist. 

Even when a recorded album of material is purchased and downloaded, listeners create their own playlists and in effect create their own themed albums. This is nothing new, just the process has changed. An argument could be made this first started when a sequence of 45's could be stacked on the spindle of a record player. Maybe this was the first "home made" play list. And this became more sophisticated in the late 70's when it became popular to make cassette mix tapes.

I would argue a playlist doesn't take the place of a selection and sequence of songs mindfully curated by the composer/performer and producer. So I spend a great deal of time thinking about this as I listen to the songs playing from one to the next. Then, I move them around to see if the mood or feel of the collection changes. And I do this until I find what I think is "right". It always makes me happy when someone tells me that they have listened to one of my projects from beginning to end, and I hope they enjoyed the collection as much as the individual songs.      

While I am fretting about the song sequence, I am also listening to the mix and arrangement of each song. That is the volume and blend between all of the instruments and vocals, and, when certain musical parts are added or muted, and how all these components work togehter.

I forward all of my notes to the producer that I am working with, Matin Stansbury who happens to live in the UK. We have an ongoing dialog about each of the songs and the project as a whole. And Martin is not only fun to work with but he is really quite brilliant. Advances in technology has made it possible to transfer large music files with few if any problems. I can record parts, or tracks, here in my studio and send them to Martin with no trouble at all. It's really quite remarkable.   

After the mix is solid and the arrangements are where they should be, the next step is mastering the recordings. That involves some final tonal adjustments and balancing the volume from song to song, but also the volume and tonality of the entire project. And we are getting close to the final mastering stage of the process. 

Once mastering is done, each song will have a digital code registered with BMI, which happens to be my PRO (performing rights organization).

These digital codes enable BMI to keep track of how often these songs may be played on radio or digital streaming platforms. And as you might guess, this is how royalty payments are determined.    

While Martin is finishing the mastering of the project, I will continue to work on the copy for liner notes, DJ "one sheets', and with layout and graphic artist to develop and produce all of the artwork associated with the album. 

While copyrights have been secured for all of the songs included on the album, I will file a copyright for the entire album as a collection. 

If this sounds like a lot of work, I can assure you it is. People will occassionally ask me if I make any money selling albums. For the most part it may be a break even proposition at best, and in reality, it is my local performances that finance my recording projects. 

So the next obvious question is, "Why do I do this?" And there are really several answers to this question. First, it motivates me to formalize the ideas I have for my original tunes, and this improves my live performaces. Secondly there is reward of creating something that is tangible on some level. Something that still exists after the performance is over.  Perhaps most importantly, it is a way of sharing this music that I create and perform. And sometimes, someone will come up to me and share something personal about how much a song means to them, and that makes it all worthwhile. 

See you the trail, (or track)

Steve  

 


 

 

The Faith Of An Artist  

An inspiration from my cousin Jay Madewell.

 

 

I really didn’t know my cousin Jay. Well, actually he was the son of my cousin, so I guess that means he was my second cousin. I never professed to master all the terms of lineage.

Jay was 16 years younger than me, and we never interacted as adults. The only thing I can remember about him was leaving a family event at my parents' house and Jay repeatedly running off the porch into the hedges. I don’t mean running and jumping off of the porch, I mean running full speed off of the porch and falling headlong into the juniper and yew shrubs. I told him he could get hurt and he should stop doing this. He didn’t.

Forty-plus years later I found myself driving to a memorial service for Jay. At fifty-one years old, his death was tragic and I wanted to show some compassion and support for his parents, and siblings. His folks had always been caring and helpful to my parents, and his sister has been close to my daughter. She and I have stayed in touch over the years. Losing my brother a few years ago is still an open wound. I simply wanted to offer a hug.

I knew Jay had been involved with music as a young adult, but I didn’t really appreciate the level of activity and devotion he had focused on performing arts. Reading his obituary and assorted Facebook posts I rapidly gained some insight into his engagement and presence in the southwestern Ohio music community.

The event I was driving to was being hosted at a Dayton music venue as a gathering of friends and family. I didn’t know if his parents would be there because it was being held at a tavern. Some of my family have very strong feelings about alcohol, and I had read that a subsequent service was being planned for a later date at a church.

When I arrived, there were already hundreds of people there, and I was happy to see Jay’s parent were in attendance. I got there just before memorials were shared by two of Jay’s closest friends and I am glad that I got the hear them.

From the time I had heard about his passing, to the instant I was hearing these shared recollections and thoughts, I had come to realize that Jay was indeed an artist and had devoted his life to this calling. He was a drummer, founded several bands, was a music promoter, and a DJ. He had owned a record store in Oxford, Ohio, and was involved with several film projects. He had clearly touched the lives of countless people. I heard stories of his mentorship to friends and protégés, financial help he had provided to artist in need, and the endless emotional support and encouragement he had given to others.

 

No photo description available.

 

People joked about being in Jay’s Lunch Club, a circle of people that Jay would occasionally take to lunch and share his thoughts on things they might consider doing differently, and the Room-mate Club, folks that showed up at his door when they needed a place to stay for a few days or a few months.

I not only heard about his passion, and his pursuit of excellence, but how he could be insistent, and most often, correct in his opinion.

Like most artist, he did things that some folks just couldn’t understand. He had rented a warehouse space that was full of not only his drum kits but dozens of keyboards, vintage amplifiers, and a lot of boutique gear. I supposed that he recognized these were important creative tools irregardless if he ever used them. To me, this collection was indicative of not just being an artist, but also someone who was a student and steward of the art of composing and creating contemporary music. Perhaps he didn’t want these tools to be lost and he was holding them for some future use.

 

May be an image of text

 

Like most artists, he appeared to be eccentric.

Our family at large,  was not very well equipped to support an artistic lifestyle. Both of my parents, as was the case with Jay’s grandparents, had come from very humble beginnings in rural Tennessee. By today’s standards we could say they were born into poverty, and through tireless hard work had found their way to a middle-class existence.

Such a life doesn’t have much room for the perceived luxury or art, and these values are often passed along from generation to generation.

It seems to me that being poor is a condition many people may not be able to escape, and consequently, must accept. But, if by a series of events, good fortune and hard work, one escapes the clutches of poverty, that person never forgets what it was like to be hungry.

Such was the case of my parents, and most of my aunts and uncles. They were consciously aware of the cost of everything, and the ephemeral nature of comfort. In that mindset, there was little room for luxury, as luxury could easily be construed as opulence, and opulence was wasteful. Waste can be a horrible notion for someone who remembers what is was like to be without.

A very important component to the path that led my parents beyond the limitations they were born into was their religious convictions, and for the most part, this was consistent through my father's side of our family. This included Jay’s grandfather. Religious faith was a huge part of our upbringing.  Fundamental religions expect a complete and total commitment. And for a large part, the reward for that commitment is the promise of a life in heaven.

Now the end game in this equation is the notion of eternal life, and by being devote, you could make it through the pearly gates. So from my perspective, this faith is driven by the promise of a personal reward. While at Jay’s gathering I found myself pondering faith in a much different way.

Anything beyond simple household decorations was just not a part of my upbringing. I am comfortable in saying this was surly accurately for my cousins as well.

For the most part, art was simply outside of the world we grew up in. That is not to say members of our family were not artistic, that is not the case at all. I am saying there was little to no understanding of how to support the pursuit of an art form and an artistic lifestyle.

Being an artist, does not allow room for much else. A great deal, if not everything, revolves around this calling.

Analyzing and trying to understand my own upbringing is exactly what made me feel so proud and emotional at Jay’s gathering. It was apparent that Jay was an artist and he had lived as an artist.

I have read numerous interviews and articles with, and about musicians and songwriters. Sometimes when they are asked why they do what they do, the answers range from, “This is my job”. to “I don’t know, it is something I have to do”.

 

No photo description available.

 

I think there is something else at play and that is the unquantifiable, inherent belief that this thing called art may touch the lives of others and may make the world a better place. Maybe by bringing forth an emotion, pain, joy, sadness, or laughter, or creating motivation or hope, or maybe calling attention to good or evil, an artist might make the world a better place. I think this is the unspoken, and maybe un described faith of an artist.

Certainly there are intrinsic rewards associated with being an artist. Emotional rewards associated with the act of creating. Accolades given from people who appreciate the work. Maybe even some financial return on the hours of time and money invested in this pursuit. But when all of the dust settles, there is something else that compels and artist. Maybe it is simply faith.

A faith fuels the deep drive to make and create art that may on some scale, on some level, make the world a better place.

Maybe that is why Jay did what he did.

And looking around at the tremendous gathering of friends and colleagues, it was obvious, Jay’s art and lifestyle had enriched the lives of so many. It certainly enriched mine. I wished I known him.

Shorty's Pro Tip 

Pedestrian Ramblings

Notes from Shorty’s Kitchen

Fall 2023

Shorty's Coffee-Making Protip

I haven’t posted anything in a while from the kitchen. I have friends who post a lot of pictures of food, or themselves holding fish, and some folks playing music. I guess I do that too, but I try to stop myself from being too predictable, or one-dimensional. I mean after all how exciting can it be to see another grip and grin picture of a steelhead or a brown trout? Although I do admit, I have a propensity to post a lot of music shots but that is kinda of business.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. I find that a surprising number of people make comments or inquiries about Shorty’s. More than one person has pm’d me asking for directions, and I guess I added to the confusion by making a couple of posts from Shorty’s Creek Side and Shorty’s Barn Annex. For whatever reason, posts from Shorty’s Kitchen have a bit of a following. I have posted pictures of coffee, food, and kitchen utensils, but rarely “pro tips” which is what this rambling is about.

 

I think it is safe to say that in every relationship there are certain things, or maybe spaces that are unique to one individual. Regardless of the depth of the notion of shared property, almost everyone in a relationship has something that is specific to them. In Shorty’s Kitchen, I am merely a short-order cook, a transient worker,  a “busser’, and maybe, on a good day a sou chief.  I am often entrusted with essential cleaning assignments or held slightly accountable for cleaning up after myself. I rarely, if ever venture into the realm of using power equipment, like the Hobart, or any of the food processing equipment that is found in the kitchen, with two exceptions. The first was an Osterizer blender that I had in college, and yes, its primary function back then was associated with rum beverages. It is remarkable that it still functions, and my grandson Hugh has given me the title of “Smoothie King”. The second is the Braun coffee grinder.

 

As I am the only coffee drinker in the house, I am the only person to consistently use this appliance, and it falls into that category of something that is exclusively mine.  Consequently, the maintenance and care of the Braun coffee grinder is solely my responsibility. Aside from occasionally being unplugged and moved, it is rarely touched by another hand. I have to admit, I never read the owner's manual or instructions that must have come with this unit, and I can’t even recall how it happened to come into my possession. My routine care calls once and a while require the unwrapping and rewrapping of the excess cord in the clever but ineffective storage area at the bottom. I was delighted to realize after several years of use, that the top cover makes a perfect scoop to move coffee from a large container into the “grinding bay”. (I just made that term up, grinding bay!) Other than plugging it in, scooping in coffee, pushing the top down, moving the ground coffee to the Melita, and fiddling with the cord, I haven’t done anything but repeat this process. And it has worked flawlessly, until the other day.

I’m not a coffee fanatic, but I get a little anxious in the morning as I start to make my morning java. I don't want to say excited, but I could easily use that term, so I hope I am setting the stage here to illustrate the dumbfounded state I was in when I tried to push the top down and nothing happened. Of course with all of the clear-witted thinking you would expect from a foggy-brained decaffeinated old man, I tried to push it down several more times, until the reality stuck, I had a problem.

Now, generally speaking, I like a problem, really I do. I kind of enjoy trying to fix things, make stuff go, resolve conflict, all that stuff, until I get overwhelmed with my own inability, bored, distracted, or realize I really don’t care if the problem is resolved or not.

This was a different situation. I needed some coffee, and I was going to focus on the problem at hand, until such point I needed to go buy some coffee.

No big issue here, closer examination revealed that there was this small protuberance on the top of the Braun that fit into a hole on the bottom unit, and when the lid was pushed down, the little protuberance, pushed a recessed on-off button activated the grinder motor. A little scrutiny revealed that after years of use, despite my devotional care and attention to this dependable little appliance, this hole was plugged up with ground coffee.

I don’t recall ever washing or wiping down this thing, so there is a logical explanation for why it wasn’t working.

This was a simple fix. I turned to one of my most dependable tools, a toothpick. I use toothpicks for all kinds of stuff! And sure enough, a toothpick once again, resolved the morning crisis. If you are thinking this was the pro tip, consider the info on the toothpick a bonus, here is the pro tip.

I’ll ask you to recall that the top of the Braun makes the perfect scoop to place coffee in the “grinder bay”, and it being morning, I had filled the bay with coffee beans. If you are ever going to clean the on-off buttonhole in a coffee grinder, filled with a toothpick, you should wear safety glasses, or empty the beans because when you push the toothpick into that hole, you will activate the motor resulting in a spectacular explosion of coffee beans. I mean, a really remarkable, cluster bomb eruption occurs. The other option is before cleaning out the little hole with a toothpick, unplug the appliance.

And that’s all from Shorty.

Feeling Alive… 

Some days I feel alive…

I was listening to some music the other night in the barn and I felt so engaged and moved by what I was hearing. It was so good to be focused and endulging my senses in such a way, and I know it is a privilege to allow myself the time to do this. All things have a price and I suppose I have been reprioritizing how I spend my time for several years now. I often find myself thinking about a prized quote from an old friend who once said about another acquaintance “I think his give-a-shitter is broke.” And I find myself wondering is my “give-a-shitter”  broke?

I don’t think so, but who knows?  

What I do know is there are moments when I feel more a live than I have in years. I am not saying that I haven’t been engaged and productive in the past few decades, oh quite the contrary, I think I was so consumed with what I was doing both in intensity and in quantity that I really wasn’t absorbing much inspiration at all. I was in a high altitude, high performance situation and was constantly moving, but without any significant feeling of personal growth.

It has taken several years to re-adjust and I find moments when I feel more alive than I have felt in years. And what is really interesting, is often these moments are in the confines of the barn or at home, not in some spectacular natural setting, but rather just being where I am. 

Time and age being what it is, I will say that my physical awareness might be classified as pain, ie body aches, stiffness what have you, but I can embrace that. And yes I have to acknowledge that this is a laugh out loud kind of statement, but I suppose being aware of aches and pains are better than being oblivious to my place in the world around me

There is another thing that happens as well. As I find comfort in this new awareness, I am noticing that during my performances I am finding my way to a different zone, a place where I am not escaping or hiding in the music, but rather finding a special place in the moment. It is hard to explain and maybe hard to understand, but somehow it just seems right.  

Now if I can just get motivated to use the string trimmer.
 

 

Brookwood 8/18/2023 

This is an emotional return

In the spring of 2012, I started what would be my last public sector position. I had been hired as the Executive Director for the Metroparks Serving the Toledo Area. The interview and vetting process had taken well over three months and I had spent considerable time studying operational policies, publications, budgets, organizational charts, and property maps. My first 8 months were nothing less than an intense blur of activity and my first week was a whirlwind, but I was both humbled and excited for this new opportunity.

The Friday of that first week, I was touring the parks with Dave Zenk and trying to make as many stops as we could in one day. In my prep work, I had read about a facility referred to as the “Brookwood Cultural Center”, but there was no public space listed in any park literature, and I asked Dave to tell me about this place. He was uncomfortable with the subject and did his best to give me a quick background on the project, and he asked me if I want to go there. And of course, I did. 

 

A property, along with a nice house and outbuilding had been donated to the park system by Virginia Belt, a popular piano instructor. Her family also bequeathed a significant endowment for the maintenance and care of the facility with the condition that the property be used to promote cultural activities. Shortly after the property had been transferred, the park administration changed and the new team had no ownership in the project and evidently had no interest in trying to develop a strategy to use the buildings and grounds in any way. A cultural arts center was seen as something well outside of the mission and services of the Metroparks.

For all intent and purpose, the house had been unused and sitting closed up for over ten years when Dave walked through on our tour that day. It was a musty, moldy mess. Both Dave and I agreed that this was completely unacceptable. He appeared to be embarrassed with the situation and I was simply dumbfounded. 

The next week I ask the staff to pull all of the files on Brookwood and set about reviewing the history of the project, and while this was a great concern, it could not be a top priority. I was recommending that the Park Board pursue a new levy in 6 months and if that passed, the agency would have the financial resources to address Brookwood and a host of other significant capital projects.

 

Long story short, the ten-year levy passed which resulted in an additional 60 million dollars for the agency to invest in park improvements. Brookwood was one of those projects. 

In addition to the physical renovations, there was also the issue of developing a use plan that would be acceptable to the family who donated the property. As I spent time reviewing the project history, I was sure that there was a way to find a way to use the facility and grounds in a manner that would be appealing to representatives of the Belt family. 

Fast forward 11 years and I am thrilled to returning to Brookwood to perform for a capacity crowd. I can assure you that it will be an emotional evening for me.!

Friday, August 18, 8 p.m.

Reservations Required, Tickets are FREE or Pay What You Want

SOLD OUT

While enjoying a remarkable career in the conservation field, Steve maintained an active musical performance schedule. He started performing when he was 13-years-old and he has never stopped.  

He has released three solo projects, Rivers and Trails, Arrow Creek, and most recently, Hometown Blues. This project hit 15 on the FAI folk charts for April 2022.

 

 His songs have been described as subtle musical "arrangements with words that carry substantial weight." Many of his tunes incorporate bits of Ohio history giving his musical stories a tie to place and an organic validity. In addition to performing as a solo artist, Steve has many side projects with other musicians and musical ensembles. John Barile will be joining Steve for the evening. John is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and he is constantly performing across Ohio. This duo was a standout at the 2022 Lake Erie Folk Festival!

Steve Madewell 

 with special guest John Barile

 Brookwood Area*

 Friday, August 18, 7 p.m. 

*Brookwood Area is an intimate listening room experience. Advanced reservations are required. All tickets are complimentary.  

Return From SERFA 23  

The Southeastern Region Folk Alliance  Conference was a great time, basically two and a half days of nonstop music: performances, listening, discussions and networking. This was topped off with an informal killer jam at one of Asheville’s coolest breweries, hosted by a pair of incredibly hardworking music business professionals. We are talking three nights of going full tilt until 3 AM. 

It was great. 

 

I convinced MJ that she should fly down and join me after the conference, which she did. After a 12 hour snafu and a couple of delays, I picked her up at the Asheville airport at after midnight on Monday morning. 

Asheville is a pretty cool hang and, after a leisurely Monday morning recovery, we set out to enjoy some incredible food and some lovely spots in and around the city including: Biscuit Head, Chai Pani, the Trail Head, the Botanical Garden, the Bob Moog and the Folk Art Museums.

When we left town on Wednesday AM we elected to drive several hours on the  Blue Ridge Parkway and loved every minute. I couldn’t help but marvel at the vision to create this remarkable road and the engineering involved in building it. It was just lovely, with incredible scenic vistas and enjoyable visitor centers. 

My plan was to drive the parkway for while before jumping on the interstate and heading up to the New RIver Gorge National Park. We had been rafting on the New River years ago and driven through the area several times since. But I hadn’t been there since the area became a national park.

And this is when the return trip started to get interesting.

After enjoying an array of unbelievable great food in Asheville, I was hoping to find a stellar breakfast place. A quick internet scan led me to this place with great views of the gorge. The food reviews were all over the place, but I was thinking, good view with a basic breakfast was worth the twenty minute drive. 

Well, maybe not.

The drive involved traversing several miles of a paved one and a half lane road with a two foot gravel berm on each side, and the oncoming locals did not slow down a bit to pass by. The restaurant was actually in a lodge, and it did have remarkable views. Unfortunately, they did not have a breakfast menu, but offered a  buffet weaker than what you might at a Comfort Inn. 

We passed, and decided we would go back to a little town where we had seen a Tudor Biscuit World.

I am not going to going into the dissertation on the food, but somehow the experience kinda made me proud to say, I have eaten several times at a Waffle House, but I have only eaten once at a Tudor Biscuit World. 

Think about that for a minute.

After eating, we did a really enjoyable driving tour of the gorge and began to make our way back to the interstate, and wound up driving through a small coal mining town, complete with two “company” stores. They were both closed up and in disrepair, but what a flood of emotion. All of the songs I have heard, or sang over the years that referenced  the company store came trickling back into my mind. I had to stop and get a picture. All I could think about was what a cool music venue that place could be. A great Pa. musician Tom Breiding, has devoted a large effort in researching and recording songs from the coal fields and has promised to send me some stories about this place. He performed at this building. 

 https://tombreiding.com/


 

We continued our way back to the interstate and resumed our 70 mile an hour way back north. 

And the return leg of the trip gets more interesting.

We were approaching the West Virginia/Ohio boarder around lunch time, and I seemed to recall there was a Cracker Barrel at Marietta. After the breakfast experience I wasn’t up for a gamble and that seemed like a safe bet.

Unfortunately, a truck cut me off at the Marietta exit and the next exit only had a Subway. In what turned out to be a less than wise decision, I opted to drive by, thinking surely the next exit would have better options. 

MJ was saying lets just grab something at a McDonalds, when I my priorities shifted from food to gas. I had planned on getting off in Marietta for something to eat and fuel. I suddenly had a sinking realization that Interstate 77 is not at all like Interstate 71. I drive from my house to Dayton dozens of times each year, and I am conditioned to hitting an exit every few miles and nearly every exit has a gas station. 

But the time we hit the next exit, my Honda CRV was telling me I had a driving range of 9 miles. We soon realized that cell service was a little lacking too. When we pulled off the interstate and searched for the nearest gas station, for some reason my results were coming up for Marietta, Georgia. Whoa!

Ultimately, my phone’s GPS got oriented and indicated that there was a gas station 7 miles away. So we set out driving down “Cat something” road. It was a very rural road, and to my horror, we soon drove by a sign that said Road Closed 6 miles ahead. By now, the GPS was indicating that the gas station was 5.5 miles ahead so we were committed to moving along. 

I turned off the AC which boosted the gas mileage, and we hit a really long grade so I let the car coast, so things were looking kinda bright on the “old distance to the gas station vs available gas ratio”.

We were approaching a T intersection and our GPS was indicating that I was going to turn left, and sure enough there was a sign that indicated the road was closed ahead. A reasonable person might assume the road “closed ahead” would refer to the section of the road “ahead”, but no, the our route to the left was missing a bridge. 

Now it just so happened there was a man on a riding mower, cutting the grass at a boarded up house, so I stopped and got out of the car, he shut off his mower, and I asked him if I could buy some gas. 

He looked at me and said, “Gas?” and he titled his head back an laughed. I don’t know if that was for effect or if he really thought that was funny. He looked at me and asked, “Are you out of gas.” And I assured him that I was pretty close. As it turned out, there were several gallons stored in a shed behind the house, which I gladly bought, and with new wind in the sails and a set of verbal instructions we were off to Lowell, Ohio, where there was one gas station and one restaurant. 

As it turned out, the Mexican restaurant didn't open for another couple hours, so it was back to the interstate. I should probably mention that my travel companion had been quite supportive and had not, nor has not to this point said anything like, “What the hell were you thinking?” But she did say, “Your father would be fit to be tied if he was here.” And she was right.

Now you might ask, could things get any more interesting? Why yes they could. 

Having been beaten down by the interstate travel gods, who were probably ticked off because I had driven several hours on the Blue Ridge Park Way the day before, I was now humbled into submission and read to resume the contemporary travel model of stopping at a fast food place for a drive by, grab and go meal.

 Soooo, we pulled off the next exit that had that world renowned chow house McDonalds. I noticed a Wendy’s across the street and asked MJ if she had a culinary preference. McDonalds got the nod. We got out to take the time for a “dining in’ experience. The young lady at the counter was leaning against the wall, staring up and off in the distance, and said, “Our computers are down and we aren’t taking any orders.” I asked what the prognosis was and she said, “We’re just waiting.”

Off to Wendy’s. Thinking maybe this was a sign that we should just stay in the car, we pulled into the line for the Wendy’s drive through, only to be greeted by a young fellow, in a Wendy’s uniform and serving gloves who told us they weren’t taking any orders because the fryers were down and the maintenance guys were there. 

So all we could do was continue north.

Ultimately we did get food, and we did make it home, but what a day of travel. 

I decided a couple months back that my motto for the year would be, “Why be frustrated when you can be amazed.” I think this will serve me well.   


 

Lapel Pins #1 Green E. Groundhog. And, yes, it was just like the sit-com "Park and Recreation"  

The Green E. Groundhog and Litter Prevention Lapel Pin…

 

Quite possibly the first lapel pin I ever received. It is a token from a program funded by a state of Ohio Litter Prevention grant awarded to the Green County Parks and Recreation Department in, I believe 1982. As innocuous as this sounds, this grant program was pretty important to the park system. 

Ronald Regan began his presidency in 1981, and while he couldn’t repeal the budget that had been passed by congress, he refused to sign authorizations to release money for certain federal programs. Ed Dressler was the director of the GCR&P department and he was all about grants.  As a matter of fact, the department was primarily funded by grants. When the president closed the federal cash flow, the park system lost 70% of it’s anticipated operating funds. It seemed the whole country was caught up in a wave of NEO conservatism and the county had adopted an attrition policy, forgoing any new or replacement hires for “non-essential” positions. As it turned out, the fellow who had hired me, John Humston, took a job in another county, and it was unclear if his position was going to be filled. When John left and the first way of budget reductions kicked in, I went from being in a department of two full-time and 4 part-time folks, to being the “Lone Ranger”.    

These were interesting times. 

The funding reductions came in waves, and I got the word in February that I was technically unemployed. Let me explain what I mean by I got the word. I was attending the Cleveland Metroparks Ranger Training Academy, and I was summoned out of class to take a phone call. The assistant director of the park system, Ed Bice, was calling me to let me know that the funding source I was being paid with had also been suspended. I was in a 6-week training program that was 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off, stretching over three months. I was halfway through the second session, staying at a cheap hotel, with the county vehicle. I asked Ed what should I do with the vehicle since I was technically not a county employee. He said to continue going to the classes and we would figure something out. MJ and I and our two daughters, had just moved into a park house, so this added to the uncertainty. 

Long story short, Ed D and Ed B were able to find some money to keep me employed for the remained of the year with another grant program through the Juvenile Court system. Seems that the Federal Justice Department funds were exempt from the President's discretionary control. So for the next 9 months, I supervised teenagers who were one offense away from being incarcerated, while working on park projects.    

That year Ohio had a “bottle bill” on the ballot, that failed. It would have required a deposit on all beverage containers. The fast food, and beverage industry offered an alternative program in their campaign against this issue. They funded a three-year grant program to educate Ohioans on the evil of littering. It was really absurd, but our agency was a wreck and we had some creative people, including a couple of very good grant writers. For three years we received the largest litter prevention and education grant awards in Ohio and we used that money to creatively restaff. I think in total we received over $350,000, in those days, that was a substantial slug of cash, and a heck of a lot of bru-ha about litter.

Some of the programs were so convoluted it was painfully like the TV sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” One of the objectives of the educational program was to declare Greene County a litter awareness area. We had a mascot, Green E Groundhog, a parade float, t-shirts, billboards, special trash cans, activities, and handouts… such as this plastic lapel pin.

Taking A Walk 

 


Taking a walk
I took a short hike today that brought back a flood of memories. Over 30 years ago, I’d walked the same trail, shortly after it had been built. I started working for Lake Metroparks in 1988 and all of the trails, across the entire park system, were abysmal. Girdled Road, Chapin Forest, Indian Point, were all a mess. A horse and rider had actually gotten stuck in the mire at Girdled Road Reservation. 

At that time, the big focus was on building or renovating facilities like Farm Park, Fairport Harbor, Painesville Township Park, Erie Shores, and Penitentiary Glen. These projects were all contracted construction projects, improving and expanding the trail system was up to the Natural Resources Department. This happened to be one of the operations that I was responsible for.

The fellow who supervised this department was John Grantham, and he and I ultimately became really good friends. We certainly shared some major adventures. In addition to being the absolute best park operations person I had ever worked with, he was the best I had ever met. 

Walking this trail this morning reminded me of just what a remarkable person John was.

It was a perfect mid-March day, mid 30’s with lite snow falling. The trailhead meandered through a “hemlock flat”. That is a relatively flat area that is dominated by eastern hemlocks. I recall when the staff and I had laid this trail out, i.e. chose the route. With all of the construction going on across the park system, there had been a public outcry about over-developing the parks. To mitigate this concern, I set up an environmental review process to gather input from representatives of all the staff as well as an interdisciplinary volunteer group of experts we called the natural resource advisory council. This process served the park system well for 10 years or so and was utilized for not only park construction projects but also land acquisition priorities. 


The route we choose had minimal ecological impacts and as opposed to a straight path, it wound through the hemlocks creating a sense of wonder and intrigue. We had received some harsh criticism from trail improvements at Chapin Forest associated with the use of crushed limestone, so with this project to make the trail appear that it had always been there, John came up with the idea to use crushed sandstone from a local quarry.

The end product was and still is a delightful loop trail that provides access to a remarkable “stairway” leading down into a spectacular valley.

The stairway by itself is an incredible piece of work and when I walked on it today, I was amazed to see how well it was holding up after three decades. I was also astounded to think about the physical work involved in building this.

John was a very driven person. He expected hard work and nothing short of excellence from his crews. He was not always popular with his subordinates, but they all respected him immensely. I knew from my own experience that very few people could physically keep up with John. But he was also an amazingly intelligent person who just could know, figure out, or find the best way to accomplish nearly any project.  

I recall on more than one occasion going out to check on the progress of a trail project and telling the crews how much I appreciated their work, and John would later ask me why did I do that. He would tell me he had just jumped on them for taking too long a break or not being as productive as he wanted them to be, and we would laugh about it.

This particular descent was exceptionally challenging and involved the installation of several hundred steps, multiple switchbacks, and sections of retaining walls. All of which was “engineered or designed” on the location, as the project was being built.

It was, and still is somewhat amazing.

I can’t imagine how many people have enjoyed the trail and the incredible views and can’t help but wonder how many took the time to marvel at this project.

John recently passed away and am still in a state of loss and shock, but my, what a wonderful legacy John left. He was involved in designing, building, and/or renovating miles and miles of trail across Lake Metroparks, creating dozens of wetlands and too many habitat restoration projects to keep track of. As a result of his work, he enriched the lives of thousands and thousands of park visitors who simply could not imagine what was involved with building the trail they enjoyed. 

Photos from the Trolley Stop 2021