Mettatsunami Art

While I am still working, I’ve been creating pet portraits for coworkers and am casting the artistic net further out.

I have been painting with watercolors for the last 10 years, and drawing since I could hold a crayon. While I never went to art school, this is where my autistic attention to detail has been a gift. I’d love to share that gift with others.

Below is a sample of portraits I’ve done.

I am offering original 9×12 watercolor portraits of your favorite furry, fluffy, or feathery family members, for $100 US, plus shipping/fees if outside of the US. Please contact me if interested.

Minimalist Challenge

Almost two months ago I watched this YouTube video by a favorite vlogger. Inspired by a movie that sadly I don’t have access to, he put everything he owned in storage. Everything: bed, toiletries, clothes, etc. Each day thereafter, he was allowed to take one thing out of storage each day for the next 30 days, and didn’t allow himself to buy anything either.

Now this guy lives in Japan, and decided his first object out of storage would be a kimono. It seemed to work for him just fine. Here in the US, while my employers accept (and encourage) a little bit of quirkiness, I think my showing up for work in a kimono might go beyond the pale. Same with not having brushed my teeth. I also can’t fit my bed and furniture in storage. So I decided to keep the following:

Bed, linens, and furniture

Basic toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo/conditioner, brush, washcloth and towel.

Clothes for a week at work and jeans and a shirt for the weekend

My electric tea kettle, mug, and coaster

My altar, but I pared this down to a Buddharupa, cloth, and background

Items for work (backpack, pen, pencil, notebook and work computer)

Books on the bookshelf (but I vowed not to pull them out and am currently rethinking them)

And of course, the cats and their toys. They did not sign up for this challenge!

And, although I hate to admit it, my phone, tablet, watch, and charger. I have put my laptop away, and am finding that I may not need it as much these days.

So since I started with all of these items, I waited 30 days before bringing anything else in. And what I found was that I was pretty much ok with those basics. After the 30 days, I did bring in watercolor painting supplies, some files, a cup to hold a pen and pencil and some of the paint brushes, a TENS unit (purchased), a scarf, headlamp, zipper thermometer, and I traded out some warmer weather clothes for cooler weather clothes. But I’m really enjoying having space in my closet, and even less stuff cluttered around. I have found that I need even less than I thought, although I’ve lived with much less for longer while traveling and did just fine.

But books…..Before moving here from the west coast, I had a fair amount of books. Many I let go of, some I put in storage, and some I brought with me. After being here a while, I’ve accumulated a few more. Some cannot be replaced digitally, some I’d rather not replace. But many have been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years and their pages haven’t seen daylight since they were read the first time. Could I sell them or give them to a library, and if I really feel the need to read them again, buy a digital copy? I’ve never been much of a collector, except for books. It’s so easy to think of them as old friends that one can’t turn away from. But what kind of friend insists you stay and then doesn’t talk to you? Why keep a book you may never read again? I don’t have answers just yet.

So anyway, there’s my challenge. Would you do it differently, or at all? If you did the extreme version, what would you bring back first?

Thanks for reading, and as always, be well and peaceful!

I fell in…

I recently came out of retirement to earn some extra cash. Turns out it’s taking more funds than I bargained for to keep three cats in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. So I found a great part-time job helping people affected by Autism and/or intellectual disabilities. I take them out into the community doing activities that they chose, and helping them work on skills that they have chosen. I often get paid for going walking, playing basketball (or trying to), or simply playing card games with my clients. While there are some frustrations, mostly with charting (my nemesis from medical days), it’s quite rewarding emotionally.

One of my clients has about ten songs that he likes to listen to. Over and over and over and over. His favorite is Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. I think he would be content listening to it on repeat for the entire day. After my first week with him, I had to put limits on how many times we listened to it each day, as for days the song would worm its way into my ear and play over and over and over and over in my mind.

Did I mention “Ring of Fire” was one of my least favorite songs?

Not being a great fan of either country or mariachi music, I never cared for it. So when my client would listen to it, disliking arose. I would grit my teeth and think “Ugh. Again? Seriously? I wonder if he’d notice if I hid it from the playlist?”

After about the 50th time of listening to it, something clicked, and I realized that while I don’t think Johnny Cash had any Buddhist leanings, the song speaks plainly of burning with desire. The song points to the desire of a romantic relationship, but it could be the desire of anything.

“I fell into a burning ring of fire, I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher, and it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire”

Compare that with the following from the Buddha’s fire sermon:

“The eye… is burning, forms are burning, eye consciousness is burning, eye contact is burning, the feeling that arises from eye contact, whether pleasant, painful, or neutral, that too is burning. With what is it burning? I declare that it is burning with the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion…”

The Buddha goes on to say the same about the ear/sounds, the nose/smells, the tongue/tastes, the body/felt objects, and the mind/thoughts. As I understand it, it’s that burning feeling when we’re really craving something (like wanting to hear a song again and again), or when we really dislike something (like having to hear that song again and again). It’s a sense of burning either way.

I started thinking about all the things that I get “burned” with. And when I’m being more aware, I can hear the song when I’m in the midst of really wanting (or not wanting) something.

And it burns, burns, burns…

And with that thought pattern, disliking subsided and liking arose. I’m not playing “Ring of Fire” over and over when I’m not with my client, but I’ve found that with a new mindset, hearing it is almost pleasant. And there’s certainly pleasure from seeing the smile on his face when he realizes I’ve hit the replay button.

Smitten With Kittens

“Watch out when you get in your car; there’s a kitten under it” said my stepfather back in July. He’s 87 and his eyesight isn’t the greatest, so I was a bit skeptical.

“Are you sure it wasn’t a groundhog?”

“No, it was definitely a cat of some sort”.

So of course I had to go out and look.

Nope. Definitely not a groundhog.

In fact, there were two kittens, who appeared to be quite scrawny and motherless. I estimated they were about eight weeks old. I waited around and kept checking, but never saw the mother. They looked so tiny. And so HUNGRY.

I’ve always favored dogs, and have had several thus far. I liked other people’s cats, but never was keen on having my own. Besides, I’m allergic to them (I’m allergic to dogs too, but…). I’d been really missing having a dog around, but with elderly folks unstable on their feet and prone to hospital visits, etc., having a dog wasn’t really feasible.

So these two kittens appeared, and what did I do? I fed them, of course. I went out and found kitten food and little tiny bowls, and started feeding them several times a day. They remained outside, and I would come out and play with them. I went all in and even bought cat toys.

Then Mama showed up three days later, and came right up to me and rubbed her face all over my hand and legs. It’s as if she was thanking me for feeding her kittens. So I found adult cat food and started feeding her too. Of course.

The Whole Fam Damily

I asked around the neighborhood to see if anyone was missing a cat. Nope. I checked lost and found sites, the humane society, everyone I could think of. I also checked to see if the local shelters were taking cats and kittens. Nope. Nobody had lost a cat, and nobody wanted any either. You couldn’t give them away. My guess is someone dumped them.

So what to do? Not feeding them seemed cruel. It’s possible they would have survived on their own, I guess, but I wasn’t prepared for the possibility that they would starve to death. So I continued to feed them.

They started as strictly outside cats, then indoors at night, then they became indoor full time. The longer they’ve been here and the more I invested in spaying and neutering, the more I felt I wanted to protect them. Indoor cats live 10-15 years on average. Outdoor cats only about 2-5. While we live in a rural area, it can still be dangerous. There are coyotes and other predators out there, not to mention cars that zoom along our road at high speed.

And so that’s how I’ve ended up with three cats.


Mooji is a sweet little female, with “thumbs” on her front paws. It’s called polydactyly, and while not truly rare, it’s relatively uncommon. Apparently Hemmingway favored and had many polydactyl cats. “Mooji” is the Chinese word for thumbs. She is my morning alarm clock and comes up to me purring and kneading early in the morning. She also loves to snuggle in my lap in the afternoon. While she was the first to approach me and let herself be petted, these days she’s more shy, until it’s snuggle time on her terms.

Being a snuggle bunny

Mowgli is the male kitten, who was more wild and standoffish at first. His fur is a bit longer, and he has more of a wild look. Initially I could only pet him while he was eating, but then after a five day trip, I returned to a cat that would come up to me and seek affection. Now he’s quite affectionate, and loves to come up and pounce on my lap, and then walk back and forth purring and rubbing until he flops down. He is quite the climber and daredevil, much like human teenage boys are.

King Cat: I want to get him a small blonde doll….
Mama Bear: “If I fits, I sits”

Mama Bear is mellow and as attention seeking as a dog, although she’s usually not one to sit on your lap. She tends to favor Mowgli, and still plays with him as if she’s still a kitten. She nearly is, as she’s only about a year old. A teenage mother, so to speak. She remains appreciative and loyal, and loves to watch for birds out the window.

A rare lap moment

So I’ve been having fun playing with the cats. They’ve gone from being barely over a pound to 6-7 pounds in the last four months, and their personalities are becoming more obvious day by day. While I certainly wasn’t looking for any pets, they arrived at just the right time, and have graciously agreed to allow me to be their human minion. I don’t know how having them will work with travel plans, but I’ll figure it out eventually.

Be well and peaceful, dear readers. And even if you’re not into cats, may you know the warmth and joy that comes from having one (or more) on your lap.

Paddle Therapy

Last week I decided to get back out into the water to test a shoulder injury I sustained in January. Gravity left me with a torn rotator cuff and shoulder labrum, and until recently I didn’t think kayaking would even be possible. I’ve been doing physical therapy for a few months now, and facing surgical repair, I decided to give it a try before having surgery. Maybe I could get a few trips in this summer before the surgery and 6 months of rehab happened.

So I visited Quemahoning reservoir in Holsopple, PA. Just a few miles south of Johnstown, Quemahoning is a 900 acre reservoir with a public access area. The name is from the language of the native Delaware tribes, and means something like “a stream issuing from a lick in a pine grove”. There are tent sites, picnic areas, a playground, and cabin rentals. There is also a place to inexpensively rent kayaks, which is what I did. I got an old Pelican, a wide sit-in kayak that reminded me of my first. A veritable tub that’s nearly impossible to tip over. It may not track well, but does the job for a rental.

I planned for an hour’s rental, but ended up doubling that, as the day was beautiful, my shoulder was doing fine, and I was reminded how peaceful paddling out in the middle of a large body of water can be. It was absolutely therapeutic.

Watery toes, no woes

There’s some sort of kids’ camp near the public access area, and camp was in session. So the reservoir wasn’t exactly quiet, but there were some quieter places on the other side, and probably farther away. For the vast amount of water, there were no powerboats. They may be more prevalent on weekends, but I can’t say I missed them.

Quiet shoreline

I’m scheduled for surgery a month from now, so I hope to return here for a longer visit to get in more paddle therapy.

For a serene, few minute video, click here.

Awareness, Acceptance, and ASD

In honor of Autism Awareness Day, I’m writing a piece on Autism. Before you close the tab thinking “I don’t know anyone with Autism”, let me suggest that you most likely do.

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a term for a collection of traits manifested by (per the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-V) “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts… and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”, which affect one throughout one’s life (description in plain English to follow). It’s a state of neurodivergence; meaning that the brain is “wired” differently than the greater (“neurotypical”) population. It can range from those needing a large level of support to those who may need less support, and includes those who fall under the category of Asperger Syndrome*. No matter what the presentation, all need understanding and acceptance.

Why is it called a spectrum? Even though those affected fit into these diagnostic criteria, they can present in a countless variety of ways. Dr. Stephen Shore, an autism researcher who is also on the spectrum says, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with Autism”. Meaning that, simply because someone is autistic, it doesn’t mean that they will act like Ray from Rainman, Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, or even Sam from Atypical. In fact, these stereotyped expectations have led to failures in proper diagnosis for those who are not white and/or cis male. BIPOC individuals are less likely to be diagnosed despite the fact that autism most likely affects them equally, and researchers are also now finding that the autistic male/female gender ratio is lower than the 4:1 ratio that was previously “standard”. Other gendered stereotypes have also created more intense cultural pressure to “fit in” with society, and that pressure may lead many to learn to mask their symptoms, so much so that it becomes difficult to receive a proper diagnosis. In addition, those of any gender with higher intelligence learn to mask their symptoms to the degree that perhaps they appear normal, or perhaps just seem a bit “quirky”. All the while they appear like a swan which seems to effortlessly glide on the surface of the water: yet underneath they’re paddling and struggling with great effort, and it’s exhausting as hell.

So what are some examples (in English instead of medical-ese) of how people on the spectrum are affected? I’ll give some examples for each diagnostic criteria, but they are by no means exhaustive:

Persistent Deficits in Social Communication and Social Interaction This can range from being nonverbal, having limited communication, to hijacking conversations and talking non-stop; missing cues that one’s audience is no longer interested. It can be an awkwardness in initiating and continuing either verbal conversations or forms of written correspondence. It can also include difficulties in regulating the volume or cadence of one’s voice. In the context of non-verbal communication, it can mean missing out on body language cues (leading to an inability to understand others’ intentions), having difficulty making eye contact, to even making too much eye contact with others, and being accused of staring at them. It’s a feeling that everyone else has received instructions on how to interact – and you missed the class. These deficits can obviously create difficulties in developing and maintaining relationships with others.

Restricted, repetitive types of behavior, interests, or activities These include but are not limited to the following four categories, taken from the DSM-V:

Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech – Many people may think of rocking or flapping one’s hands when they think of someone who is autistic, but there are many more examples, and not all of them are so obvious. It could be playing with one’s hair, biting one’s nails, chewing on things, or tapping on things. It can present as fiddling with objects in a repetitive way, or needing to have one’s things placed just so. Speech can include repeating phrases (Think Rainman’s “97X BAM! The FUTURE of rock and roll”), or reusing phrases one has heard in other conversations or movies, in a manner that may or may not quite fit the context of the present conversation.

Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior – This is often manifested as having great difficulty with changes to one’s schedule, or surprises, especially when it is directed from outside one’s choosing. It can also manifest as black and white thinking patterns, needing to always take the same route to a destination, following the same routines, or eating the same food every day. Eating disorders can also be coexistent with autism.

Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus – The stereotype is that of a child who is fascinated by dinosaurs or trains, and can rattle off every known fact about them, but the fixed interest could be types of animals, or celebrities, or quantum physics, and can change throughout one’s life.

Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment – This can manifest itself as extreme sensitivity to odors, fluorescent lights, scratchy clothes, or loud noises, among other things. It can manifest as food sensitivities, in which certain flavors or textures of food are avoided, or having foods touch each other is avoided. Many of these things will affect the general population, but for someone on the spectrum, they can be nearly if not completely intolerable. It can also manifest in the other direction, in which someone may seek sensory stimulation in various categories, such as constantly reaching out to touch or to smell things, surrounding oneself with soft blankets and clothing, or fascination with glittery things.

One of the things the DSM-V does not mention, but is common in ASD, is limitations in executive function; such as planning, organizing, or short-term memory. In the case of those with autism who have higher intelligence, one often hears family members saying “How can someone so smart be so stupid?”. Yet it’s not a matter of stupidity by any means; it’s simply a lack of executive function. It often means that too many varying streams of information get tangled up in the divergent wiring of the autistic brain, and get dropped along the way.

These examples are by no means exhaustive. Autistic traits may cause a person on the spectrum to come across as difficult, aloof, uncaring, or weird. Yet these traits are wired into the brain, just like being left-handed, and are simply expressions of trying to fit into a world which is not geared toward their nature. Many autistics have made great contributions to society, and despite their difficulties, autistics have incredible things to offer; see an article here on famous people who may be/have been on the spectrum. Yet coming forward with one’s autistic status does not always meet with acceptance, and can often meet with ridicule, disbelief (“You don’t look autistic”), or abandonment. As a result, many continue in silence, being constantly misunderstood.

If you’re still reading and interested, thank you. Much of the information I’ve gained has been through video presentations by Dr. Tony Atwood, Sarah Hendrickx, and Paul Micallef, and through The Asperger/Autism Network (AANE).

I’ve also gained knowledge from real life. I’ve always had an unexplained interest in autism, and with more research, discovered I knew people who were on the spectrum. While watching YouTube videos, I found a great deal of similarity with female autistic presenters, and familiarity with many of the defining characteristics of autism. I took a few tests online, results of which suggested that I too, am most likely on the spectrum. Initially I doubted how I could have had a successful career, traveled, and lacked some of the stereotypical characteristics, and still be on the spectrum. I soon learned through my research and the understanding of how differently autism presents, that it was entirely possible, and even probable. Yet instead of being a negative burden, it was actually a great relief to know that there may be a reason why I have struggled with certain things throughout my life.

Seeking an official diagnosis here in the US is quite expensive, ranging from several hundred to nearly two thousand dollars. Because autism was previously assumed to be mostly a male diagnosis, very few clinicians have experience recognizing it when it doesn’t present in the stereotypical way. For me in my mid 50’s, I have wandered through life, often falling, but getting back up again. I am fortunate (and privileged) enough that I don’t need monetary support. As I’m not seeking support, I don’t feel as if I need a label, but for those seeking official support, a diagnosis will be essential for assistance or accommodation. Personally, getting to know others on the spectrum has helped me find a group of people who can empathize with each other, and accept and support each other in their autistic challenges. I’m content with that without seeking an official diagnosis.

While not a path that everyone would choose to follow, for me Buddhist practice has offered the most support of all, even before I knew of this wiring in the brain. Buddhist teachings explain that all of the things which we normally think of as “me” or “mine”… are not. This body (just a rental car, of sorts), this brain, our senses, our thoughts, our mental habits, etc., are all just passing clouds that are not really under our control. This teaching of not-self became even more apparent when I realized I was most likely on the spectrum. I had struggled with many of the examples listed above, and would often blame myself for them; to take them personally. Learning about autism helped me realize that these difficulties were simply a matter of brain wiring, and not to be taken as “me or mine”. Would I chastise myself for having brown hair or two legs? So instead of clinging to the diagnosis, for me it’s become a way to let go. I’m not claiming perfection or even near perfection in that regard, but there’s certainly progress. There’s peace and happiness in that.

If you know someone on the spectrum (and now you know at least one), please realize that when we struggle in a world not geared for neurodivergence, that we are not trying to be aloof, loud, awkward, demanding, or difficult. Long ago, those that were left-handed were made to learn to write with their right hands. Today we know that doing this causes great suffering, and accommodations are made for those who are left-handed. No one is ostracized or disdained for it. My hope is that someday those on the spectrum will find the same acceptance and inclusion.

If you found something of interest, or even familiarity with some of the aspects of autism, the sites listed below are online tests and other sites which might be helpful.

*One final note: Conventionally, the term Asperger’s syndrome is often used to describe autistic individuals without language delay or intellectual impairment (often having above average intelligence). This term was dropped in the current edition of the DSM, although many people continue to identify with the name. Personally, I don’t care to use the term. Hans Asperger, the Austrian psychologist famed for discovering boys with this syndrome in the 1940’s, worked closely with the nazi party and knowingly sent children to their deaths in hospitals which routinely and intentionally killed children with mental illness. I prefer not to glorify someone who could carry out such horrible acts. For more information, read Asperger’s Children, by Edith Shefter.

Other sites:

Autism Quotient Test

Aspie Quiz


Autism Society

Wherein I Discover Why GoPros Are a Thing

The sun rose this morning on a winter wonderland here. Three inches of snow lay glistening on the ground and more continued to fall throughout the morning.

My inner child was jumping for joy.

So after lunch I pulled on layers of clothing (“I CAN’T MOVE MY ARMS NOW!!!”), grabbed my sled (Yes, I am an adult who owns a sled. Don’t judge.), and drove to the sledding hill at Ohiopyle State Park. Apparently nobody else nearby had the time or inclination to go sledding. Go figure. So I had the fresh snow and hill to myself. This later proved to be a good thing.

This is the hill, looking up from the bottom.

Looks like fun, right?

I trudged up the hill, and….

Just click here and watch the video!

Apparently it’s difficult to steer in general, but holding one’s cell phone makes things much more challenging.

And wet.

Sans video, I made it a few times without wiping out, but certainly had fun in the process. Just an hour or so playing around was enough. I came home wet, cold, and content.

Wishing you childlike wonder, simple joys, and laughter.

May the Healing Begin

By not holding to fixed views, the pure hearted one

Having clarity of vision, being freed from all sense desires,

Is not born again into this world.

Karaniya Metta Sutta

Not holding on to fixed views has been more difficult than usual lately with the impending election. No matter where one turns, there is injustice, anger, hatred and ignorance. It’s so easy to fall into an “us versus them” mentality and objectify the other side. To wrap ourselves in a cloak of sensed justice and cover our own eyes to the humanity of those with an opposing view. We rally for the underdogs, yet turn our kindness away from those holding a view we disagree with.

It seems like the United States, and perhaps the world, has reached a heightened level of division. Many of us on the leftward side of politics thought that surely Biden would win by a landslide. And yet, as the polls began, the contenders were neck and neck. A sure win wasn’t so sure.

Which means that nearly half of the country felt that Donald Trump should continue to be president. Why?

I don’t really know, because I have failed to ask in any meaningful way. I believe many others have probably failed in this regard as well. If there is to be any healing to this country, both our leaders and our citizens, are going to have to start asking those questions of the “other side”.

I am by no means saying that these conversations should condone any acts of cruelty, hatred or injustice, but instead to seek out where we have failed in meeting the true needs of others.

I have a dear friend who I know is a Trump supporter, yet I’ve never really asked her why. Part of me fears that I wouldn’t be able to hear her answer without becoming emotionally activated, and getting into an argument. Yet this person is a friend, and I value our friendship above and beyond our respective views. Wouldn’t it be great if we could calmly compare our viewpoints and find our commonality?

I’ve been following Oren Jay Sofer, who incorporates mindfulness with Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. He offers a process of having conversations with others that honors the humanity of both sides. In his book “Say What You Mean”, he describes a three-part process, which I am loosely paraphrasing here in my explanations:

  1. Lead with Presence: Can we pause to be in touch with our emotions and how they feel in the body as we begin the conversation?
  2. Come From Curiosity and Care: Can we put aside our views and truly listen for the needs of the other person as they share their perspective, with empathic acknowledgment of the shared experience of suffering with this other person?
  3. Focus on what matters: Can we identify the needs behind their statements and views?

If you find this approach interesting, please click on the link above to learn more. I am by no means an expert on this type of communication. There have been multiple failures in my previous attempts in this style of communication, yet there have been successes as well, and my hope is that the more I practice this, the better I will become.

So I hope that in the future, I can let go of my fixed view enough to have a conversation with my friend. I hope we all can have a conversation with someone who doesn’t share our views.

There is a quote by W. L. Bateman, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got”. Somehow we need to put our views down for just a moment to have these conversations, to form a bridge, or we will continue to be “born” into a world of division, hatred, and ignorance.

Thanks for reading, and as always, be well and peaceful.


Ajahn Chah, a prominent monk in the Thai Forest tradition of Buddhism, said that “Nature is always teaching us”. I took a walk the other day to enjoy the fall colors unique to the northeast, and was reminded of this quote.

Living in an area with distinct seasons provides a constant reminder of the ‘regularity’ of change: as much as we enjoy any season, it won’t last forever. The greens of summer gradually fade and change to the brilliant hues of fall. These bodies that we inhabit, which society tells us to enjoy only in their “spring” form, become resplendent in their decay as we age. If we hold on to youth, we miss out on the maturity and wisdom that age bestows. This too, passes in nature. Rain which we so desperately need will wash away the leaves from the trees and herald the coming of winter. One of the daily reflections in the Buddhist tradition is to reflect upon the fact that we are of the nature to get sick, grow old, and die. Not to be morbid or to be preoccupied with death, but to be present for the life that is the present. Right now.

Watching the changes in nature also reminds me to take a step back from any issue which the mind brings up, and look at the greater picture. Leaves, like worries, fall to the ground and take their place in the seasons of life.

I ventured in a new direction on my walk, and was rewarded with the discovery of a small waterfall near my home. There are some great big boulders there that will make great meditation spots, and the sound of the water going over and under the rocks is a soothing background.

So for a time in which travel is limited, my gift to you is a beautiful reminder of change. Take a step back, but don’t fall off the rocks!

Resplendent Age
Fallen Worries
Beauty in difference
Fuzzy wuzzy was a moss

For video, click here

Be well and peaceful, dear readers.

Filling the GAP

Less than a mile or two from where I’m living now is a rails-to-trails path called the Greater Allegheny Passage. It’s an old railroad line that now serves as a bike path stretching 150 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD. It connects with a further trail named the C&O Towpath that goes a further 250 miles to Washington DC. Ever since my folks moved out to this area, I’ve enjoyed walking on this trail. The nearby section follows the Casselman river, and is lined with trees and filled with scenic vistas. For years I’ve thought “One of these days, I’d love to bike the entire GAP trail. Finally this summer, I pulled out that “round tuit” and biked the GAP.

I am not a great cyclist. You won’t find me training for the Tour de France anytime in this lifetime. I’ve ridden off and on over the years, but never with any prolonged intensity. The idea of riding 150 miles, even over several days, was something I did not take lightly, and so I did put in hundreds of miles in training this summer, and picked a date in the fall when the weather would hopefully be decent and the leaves would just be starting to turn.

Logistics alone were a challenge. Getting a ride from bike companies from one end to the other was prohibitively expensive for a single traveler. There is a train, but it gets into downtown Pittsburgh at 11PM. No buses available either. So I drove to Cumberland, rented a car one way back to Pittsburgh with my bike aboard, and caught a bus from the airport that took passengers and their bikes to the trail. Whew. Thankfully, I only had a few miles to go for the first day.

The northern terminus of the trail begins at Point State Park, nestled in the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers which create the Ohio river. The trail follows south along the Monongahela through the city through parks and trendy commercial areas, tucked away out of Pittsburgh traffic.

My first stop was Homestead, less than 10 miles from the start. My aim was to keep things relatively simple, so I stayed in a hotel. After putting in over 170 miles of driving, I kept the biking mileage light, and my hotel appeared on the trail before I knew it.

Continuing south the next day, the trail went along roads and followed train tracks past steel mills and other industrial areas. While the factories aren’t exactly scenic, their sheer numbers do give an indication of how Pittsburgh was built. There’s a reason their football team is called the Steelers.

Further along, the trail goes behind Kennywood amusement park. This park began in 1898 and has been giving Pittsburgh residents vertiginous thrills for over 120 years. My grade school days were mostly spent in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and in days long past, towards the end of the school year they would pack us youngsters in buses and let us run amok all over the park. We would spend the day going on all the roller coasters and other rides that our youthful bodies could manage. Kennywood was the essence of summer vacation for us, as much as Otter pops, sparklers, and freshly cut grass.

Moving along from old memories, I followed the trail over old metal bridges into McKeesport, where the Youghiogheny (pronounced yock/i/gainey) river meets the Monongahela. The trail then goes southeast along the “yough” river to Boston. Boston, Pennsylvania, that is. Unlike the big Boston, little Boston is a sweet little town with parks, baseball fields, a welcoming visitor station and an old railroad car on display. There are old mills from earlier times that are no longer running, and one can imagine what the town was like in its heyday.

The trail continues through a wooded path along the river. My stop after 50 miles was in Connellsville, after riding along the river and through sleepy small towns that time forgot. Connellsville was the site of a camp for British General Edward Braddock during the French and Indian war. Included in his troops at the time was the young George Washington. Things didn’t go well for General Braddock, but George Washington fared a little better, I think.

The next morning I headed further through Ohiopyle State Park, a haven for kayakers, river rafters, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The welcoming town has a plethora of restaurants, shops and inns catering to visitors, and the waterfalls in the park are a must-see.

I stopped after nearly 40 miles to rest up for the final day. From Pittsburgh to Connellsville, the trail is pretty flat, but then it picks up steadily in elevation gain past that. While the grade isn’t more than 2%, a bit past Ohiopyle one really starts to notice it. So on the last day, I climbed steadily for 30 miles, past forests and farmlands, over viaducts and bridges upwards toward the Eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of 2,392 feet. By the time I made it I was questioning my sanity in doing this trip, but then the elevation and my mind state changed course. After the divide, there is an elevation drop of over 1500 feet in the course of 23 miles. Not roller coaster worthy, but still fun to do on a bike. I enjoyed riding through the well-lit Big Savage Tunnel, past the Mason-Dixon Line, and all the way into Cumberland. There may have been a few moments in which I did an impersonation of the Geico pig, but there were no witnesses to confirm or deny that event.

If you asked me that day when I had just finished if I would do it again next year, you may have received an icy stare. But now that the body has recovered (or forgotten)… well, I might. But after nearly ten years of saying “someday”, I’m glad I found that round tuit.