Friday, October 30, 2009

Your adventurous suggestions

Since my GAP story was published, I've been getting a lot of emails with recommendations for places to hike, bike and write about in the coming year. Thanks -- and keep the recommendations rolling in. (please: no biting flies, deserts, succulents, crocodiles, vampire bats, etc.)

Indie Bookstores Unite in NYC

This looks like a great event; wish I could be there in person.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Slide show: Great Allegheny Passage, plus Maynard Sembower

Here are some beautiful photos that give you a good sense of the GAP. This ran with the Times piece on Friday. Also, I was saddened to hear about the recent passing of Mr. Maynard Sembower, the Mayor of the GAP. I feel very lucky to have met him and conversed with him (all too briefly)in Rockwood, PA., about the trail during my recent trek. He was 100 years old.

Hiking with umbrellas? Bleccch!

I have just returned from a practice hike in which I tried to avoid sunscreen and protect myself from the heat by hiking with a large umbrella (or parasol.) I've read so much hype about this that I wanted to give it a try myself. Alas, the umbrella strategy was problematic. Perhaps I was hemmed in by my desire to see where I was going. Often, the umbrella blocked my view. Because of this, I was hiking blind most of the time, crashing into many foreign objects( bushes, rocks, trees, bees and so forth). For another, I could never figure out how to keep all of myself out of the sun's searing rays; at any give time, my ankle, neck or calves were getting barbecued from above. And finally, hiking with an umbrella looks silly, especially if your parasol is huge and pink with ugly racing stripes.

More later, but for now I would have to say "thumbs down on umbrella-hiking excursions.''

Thursday, October 22, 2009

New York Times Escapes: My journey on the Great Allegheny Passage

Here is my latest adventure, this one on two wheels. My travels took me through a beautiful section of Maryland and Pennsylvania. By the way, this was a sort of homecoming for me; I used to live in Glen Echo, MD., close to the towpath.
Right now (Friday morning) this is the fifth most emailed story on the NYT site.

(The passage's many bridges took us over countless river and creek crossings such as the one shown in the watercolor painting above.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Travels in Pennsylvania and Maryland

My story about my East Coast adventure (using a mode of transportation that I don't use very often) will be published this week.

Strangely enough, this particular trip required a lot of physical exertion but absolutely no hiking at all!

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Lorrie Moore, A Gate At the Stairs. Tragic, surprising and strange. The slow-food-restaurant-from-hell scene was an added bonus. Rick Wartzman: Obscene in the Extreme. Thought-provoking book about the banning and burning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which turns 70 this year. I reread Grapes this month to mark the anniversary. Philip Roth. The Humbling and Indignation. I admire Roth's epics, such as American Pastoral, but lately he's been writing these pitiless little books that hit very hard. The Humbling is about a once-great actor on the skids, and the unexpected romance which might put him back in business or put him out of commission for good. I won't spoil the ending but if you've read Roth, you know he can be merciless with his main characters. Also by Roth: Indignation is about the price some people pay for flouting conventions. And it has the scariest panty-raid scene ever written. Speaking of Roth, Bob Morris's new memoir, Assisted Loving, reads like a light-hearted comedic twist on Patrimony. Tracy Kidder, Strength In What Remains is his best yet. This goes beyond "immersive'' creative nonfiction and (to steal a phrase from the William Finnegan blurb, right on the back of the book) turns into a work of "sympathetic imagination.'' Zeitoun. Dave Eggers. A fast-moving tale about a man who resists fleeing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina movies in. The fate of this would-be Good Samaritan will set your teeth on edge. (The author's POV and outrage are very strong in this book, even though he avoids the "I'' and rarely announces his opinion.)

Monday, October 05, 2009

Wish list for next year's HSBG fest...

Another great festival has come and gone, but it's never too early to start planning for the next one.

Here is my wish list for HSBG 2010.

Little Village reunion (with John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner)

John Fogerty, solo acoustic.

Lucinda Williams with her band.

Wild card singer-songwriter choice: Paul Weller.

Iris Dement.

Greg Brown.

This is just a starting point. Feel free to send in if you have suggestions.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Cactuseaters RSS feeder

Apparently it's been up and running for a while.
Here it is:

Hardly Strictly day two: strong winds, high spirits

Strong winds knocked off Steve Martin's hat and toppled an upright bass belonging to one of Steve Earle's Bluegrass Dukes. "Snuggle up!'' Earle commanded as he took to the stage, sporting his new Hagrid look. The show was dramatic, owing in part to the lightning-fast bluegrass music, and in part to the scary heritage tree (a Monterey cypress) directly behind the stage, thrashing its branches and threatening to fall on the performers.

The wind did all it could to blow the performers off the stage, but their fingers flew and they would not be distracted. Earle peppered the show with provocative comments. After criticizing Obama for making a reference to clean coal -- "coal has blood on its hands,'' Earle said -- he launched into two coal-related Earle classics : Harlan Man and The Mountain. Before launching into "My Uncle,'' an up-tempo draft-dodging anthem, he said, "This is written by Gram Parsons before he died and Chris Hillman before he became a Republican."

At one point, he apparently lost sensation in his fingers.

"That's OK,'' he shouted. "I don't need no stinkin' fingers.''

I shuttled back and forth from Earle's show to Robert Earl Keen's raucous concert nearby, which included some great rave-ups of "I'm Coming Home'' and "White Room'' by Cream. The crowd included some seriously rowdy folks, along with a guy dressed in a robot suit with a sign saying "POWERED BY HUGS." The robot couldn't get anyone to hug him as far as I could see; I hope he had some kind of auxiliary power source.

By the way, I hear (from a family representative) that Nick Lowe was in great form, and that Dar Williams more than held her own at a songwriter's hootenanny featuring Earle, Allison Moorer and Tom Morello.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Dancing the chicken dance to John Prine: first day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

You should have seen it: a crowd of people two football fields long, swilling Heineken Light, Dos Equis, Liberty Ale and Ravenswood Lodi Zinfandel, throwing beach balls around, clogging and contra-dancing to John Prine. I could have sworn this was Santa Cruz when I saw an irrepressible guy in his 50s near the front, leaping up, shaking his shirtsleeves, waving his elbows and doing the chicken dance to "Grandpa Was a Carpenter.'' Dude looked just like Edward Abbey. There was some weird stuff too, of course; some guy about 100 feet from the stage took out a violin and started sawing away on it right in the middle of "Angel from Montgomery.'' Prine, as usual, put on a perfect performance; he pulled out "Crooked Piece of Time,'' which I'd never heard live before, and he was positively glowing when Lyle Lovett -- next in line on the Banjo Stage -- invited him up there so they could perform a cover of "Loretta,'' a Townes Van Zandt song. Between sets, there was a funny moment up front when some angry soul passed around a sign reading WHEN YOU STAND CLOSE TO THE FRONT, YOU BLOCK THE VIEW FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE. PLEASE!! SIT DOWN.'' A group of revellers, close to the stage, added their own message to the sign: "WE LOVE YOU. IT's GOING TO BE OK. BREATHE!!!! -- and passed it back.

It goes without saying that Lyle Lovett killed. His show was jazzy and funny, with furious pacing. Picture thousands of people singing "To the Lord let the praises be; time for dinner so let's go eat.''
And so we did.

Today: Dar Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle and more.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

the "Hardly Strictly" Dilemma: Planning your weekend at the ultimate free festival

You are faced with some hard choices this weekend if you're coming to San Francisco for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, probably the greatest free music festival in the nation, especially if you like that KPIG-style Americana as much as I do. It's kind of like the legendary Fat Fry, but bigger and with no admission charge.

Friday is easy. The great John Prine will be playing at 415 p.m. that day on the Banjo Stage, and if you've never seen him in concert (I've seen him eight times) then you would be crazy to miss this. (who knows how many times he'll be back on the festival circuit...) And you don't have to budge from your spot when the concert is over; Lyle Lovett -- complete with his "Large Band'' -- will be playing the same stage at 545 p.m.

Saturday will test your loyalties and force you to make painful choices. For one thing, Robert Earl Keen is playing the Rooster Stage and Steve Earle is playing the Banjo Stage -- at the same freaking time. Earle and Keen will both play, respectively, at 6:45 p.m. This is a tough one for me. I guess I'll have to flip a coin. Fortunately, if you are a Robert Earl Keen fan, you can still catch a glimpse of Steve Earle on the Rooster Stage at 345 p.m., when he will be part of an amazing-sounding Songwriter's Circle featuring Tom Morello, Dar Williams & Allison Moorer.

See you out there in Golden Gate Park. And please don't talk during the performance. (That kind of thing drives me crazy.)